Sunday, November 30, 2014

2016 Starts in 2015

Yes, I know that we just had a round of midterm elections and not every race from early in the month has been settled. Yes, I know the new Congress has not even been seated. Yes, I know the first NFL coach has yet to be fired so far this season. None of that matters because we're now on to the 2016 presidential election season.

At least I let you digest from Thanksgiving. Time to limber up and get your long-distance political mojo going. It's going to be a long campaign.

President Obama has done his level best to maintain his relevance, and I am firmly on the side of any chief executive who can hold onto the media cycle well into their sixth year. We'll see if he can do that. The Republicans are livid because they thought they actually won the elections and figured that Obama would cave in to their demands to deport all undocumented immigrants, give subsidies to the coal industry, and call for more heavy-handed police tactics in areas where the officers are mostly white and the population is mostly African-American or Hispanic. Just as he expected, after winning reelection in 2012, that the GOP would cave in on taxes and entitlement reform and immigration. So I guess we're all even.

As for actual legislation, I don't think that much will pass through the House, Senate and White House. It looks like congressional lawsuits against the executive on health care and the environment will have to suffice as the democratic process for the time being, and I doubt that a disaster, such as a collapsed bridge or more  extreme weather, will get the parties together.

And you know what that means, don't you? More time for politics, polling, breathless cable news pronouncements, pundit speculation and, of course, Twitter and Facebook explosions on race, women, the minimum wage, the war on coal and privacy.

This is just a friendly warning. I'm not going to prognosticate just yet. We have a holiday season to get through and I don't want to deter anyone from shopping or saving the economy. But the election is coming and it's best that we prepare.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Thirty Years An Educator

Thirty years ago today, I walked into York Preparatory School on New York's Upper East Side for my first day as a high school history teacher. I had no formal training as a teacher except for my degree in History from Syracuse University. I had been working in advertising for a Madison Avenue firm that no longer exists using the other major I completed at Syracuse, in Telecommunications Management from the Newhouse School of Public Communications. I liked the work, liked the atmosphere, liked the potential for advancement and economic gain.

And yet.

From the time I was about 15 or 16, I had thought about teaching and knew that I could be successful at it, but I didn't pursue it for all of the logical reasons: low pay, lack of societal respect, and low pay. I loved history, and obviously still do, and had fun taking courses. I went into acting and stand-up comedy, worked in television in New Jersey and advertising in New York. The turn to teaching came, as many great things in life, by happenstance.

I had a friend from college who was a teacher and she told me there was an opening at the private school where she taught, and she also said that you didn't need a teaching certificate to teach in private schools. I called and was able to schedule an interview. Turns out the headmaster went to graduate school with my father. He was a nice guy. The head of the history department wanted someone with more experience. I figured I had come to the end of the string.

Four months later, a different headmaster called me and said he'd gotten my name from this other headmaster, who happened to be his brother-in-law. It turned out that one of the teachers wasn't working out and was I interested in teaching? I interviewed. The headmaster was a very nice guy, and so was the department chair. We talked history for an hour. They hired me.

I wore a three piece suit with Allen Edmonds wing tips on the first day. Reported at 8:00, while my first class wasn't until 11:30. During that crucial three hour stretch, I received my teaching degree from the Ronald P. Klein School of Teacher Preparedness. Ron was a fellow history teacher and over the four years I was at York Prep we became very good friends. They were probably the most productive hours in teacher training I've ever spent. He told me to focus on classroom management and to engage the students at every turn. He said to be respectful, but not to smile before January. He said to make students think and write, write, write. It was terrific advice. I still follow it, except maybe for the smiling part.

But the best part was that I loved it, as I thought I would. Loved being with the students studying history. Loved the energy and inquisitiveness that most of the students exhibited. Loved the atmosphere. Loved the schedule. Loved it.

And I still do. Yes, I have written over the years about how teachers aren't as respected in American society as they need to be, and I don't see that changing any time soon. And yes, pay increases are not keeping up with the cost of living in New Jersey, and many teachers are actually taking home less pay despite some salary increases because they are paying more for their health and pension benefits.

Oh, and then there is the constant, cyclical adoption of trendy educational ideas that are supposed to guarantee student success in the classroom and in life. Back-to-basic education, Whole Language instruction, Reading in Context, Cooperative Education, Differentiation, Phonics, New Math, Self-Esteem, Learning Clusters, and now Common Core Standards. I've missed many, but they're all fads including the new teacher evaluation system in many of the states. These too will be replaced soon because they don't do what they promise to do, and that's to improve both teacher and student performance.

What will guarantee education excellence is to have excellent teachers in the classrooms. So far we've done a good job of that, but we need to do more to ensure that the next generation of teachers is more widely respected, paid according to their societal worth and make sure phony politicians have as little to do with what happens in schools as possible.

I consider myself lucky to be able to say that I still enjoy getting up at 5:30am to teach history. Still enjoy being in the classroom interacting with students. Still enjoy the give-and-take of academic discourse. Still enjoy the positive comments I receive about the work I've done.

Have a great day, and Happy Thanksgiving.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest   

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Let the Underestimation Begin...Again

We've seen so many patterns develop over the course or Barack Obama's presidency, from the rise of the Tea Party and their attendant obstinacy and insistence that the president is an illegal alien who's usurped the office and ruled illegally, to foreign leaders who see Obama as weak and unable to guarantee that efforts to change world events will pass muster in the US Congress, to liberals who are disturbed that he hasn't closed Guantanamo and continues to try and negotiate or compromise with a Republican party that will not do either, and then will turn around and accuse him of not negotiating or compromising. (That was all one sentence. Breathe.)

But now both right and left will make their third, and final, mistake, when it comes to the Obama presidency: underestimating him.

The GOP has made underestimating the president, and overestimating its own power and influence, an industry worthy of investment by the one-percent. They didn't think he'd be able to get things done in his first two years, then they thought that health reform was dead when Scott Brown was elected Senator. They then believed that they could stall his agenda long enough to stall the economy, then defeat him in 2012. Finally, they thought that the results of the elections two weeks ago would mean the effective end of his term, and that he would suddenly respect their power so much that he will now support the XL pipeline, slash taxes to the wealthy, militarize the southern border, and convince two Supreme Court justices to resign so he could appoint both Koch brothers to the bench.

So what does the president do? Signs a major climate agreement with China. Signs a trade agreement with China. Talks about sending more military reinforcements to Syria. And this week he will sign executive orders that will give up to 5 million immigrants the ability to obtain Social Security cards, driver's licenses and the peace of mind to know that families with illegal or undocumented parents will not be broken up. Meanwhile, people who try to cross the border will be stopped and deported, and not one immigrant will get legal status or citizenship, despite the GOP's interpretation.

Looks like this lame duck is roaring like a lion and stalking like a tiger.

Let the final underestimation begin.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Left Lost. It's Temporary. Move On.

Democratic hand-wringing continues over last week's election results, but really, I don't understand the angst. The party ran a message-less campaign, didn't allow it's most valuable asset, the president, to defend his record, ran away from its soul  and against better GOP candidates, and was fighting ages-old historical tides that pointed to losses as far back as the spring. The polls were way off in terms of victory margins and many Democrats practiced what Republicans perfected in 2012: fiddling with the numbers until they said what they wanted them to say.

I, for one, am not surprised at the outcome, nor am I devastated by the turn of power in the Senate and the loss of more House seats. This was going to happen. The point now is to figure out how to regroup for 2016.

The Republicans made great strides in their technology and that helped them this fall. They also ran candidates who were slightly less conservative than the Tea Party folk who stuck large shoes in their mouths in 2010 and 2014. And their voters showed up at the polls. How can you beat that?

Voter turnout for this election was abysmal in many states, so the real issue for me is how to get more people to become engaged in the political process. People who vote are more likely to be active in their communities and to care more about issues. Young people came out in better numbers in 2008 and 2012, but they stayed home this year. It's up to all of us to try and get them, and other constituencies, to vote in all elections.

There is some talk about younger people not supporting Democrats as they did in the past, but mostly because these youngsters believe that the culture wars are over and the Republicans lost. That means they can vote for GOP candidates based on their free-market values. We'll see how long that lasts, especially if the Republicans continue to deny climate change and support anti-choice legislation.

As for the president, he is clearly moving at his own pace, and the climate deal with China, along with his promised executive orders on immigration are the latest signs that he's not going to back down. This clearly bothers Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, but I think they're bothered simply because Barack Obama is president. Anything he does just produces bonus disgust.

Reason enough for me to feel better.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Post-Modern Mortem

The days after elections are so much fun. Sort of like the day after Thanksgiving when the turkey and fixin's get a chance to mature and mellow and the remembrance of a holiday is still fresh in the memory.

Well, at least it's like that for the Republicans. They get a chance to gloat and tell the country just how much they're loved and how the voters want them to change the tenor and direction of the debate in Washington and how the war on women didn't work and Hispanics are more interested in the economy than immigration and that the president is not relevant any more and other things that, take a breath please, just aren't true.

Democrats did a terrific job with those rose-tinted political spectacles on their noses hoping that the poll numbers were under-counting the young and African-American and female voters who were poised to spring out of their homes and rescue the party one final time before Obama takes his techno-laden GOTV effort back to... well, wherever he's going come January 20, 2017.

What this election will be remembered for is that the South went all Republican, completing a 150 year flip from solidly Democratic and segregationist to solidly Republican and conservative. We can talk all we want about how diverse the country is becoming; the South is having none of it, even in Georgia where the left left its heart in the not very capable hands of the descendants of Carters and Nunns. What, none of the Mondales or McGoverns wanted to run? And who's up next? A Clinton? We might need to rethink this one.

This election will also be remembered for how ordinary it turned out to be. The unpopular president's party took a beating in his sixth year. Yawn.

The Republicans had better candidates who mentioned rape not once and found that they could win more votes than the Democrats who ran Usain Bolt-like from Obama. Yawn, roll over.

The right finally learned how to use the new media and mobile landscape to close the techno gap that the Democrats owned for two election cycles. Bound to happen. Yawn, toll over, hit the snooze button.

We also got the day-after sermons from the pulpit about how Boehner, McConnell and Obama will now learn to work with one another for the good of the country and find common ground on the major issues that concern Americans in their daily lives. And they said all of these things with straight faces.

What will really happen is that the Republicans will take out their pent-up frustrations with Harry Reid with laser-like precision, using their slim majority to pass as many bills as they can using reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes, rather than submitting legislation that could be filibustered. There will be no climate change regulations or carbon taxes, but we will get the XL Pipeline. There will be no immigration bill with a path to at least being able to stay in the country, but we will get a bigger, thicker, more secure fence in Arizona and New Mexico, ensuring that fruit prices will skyrocket because it will be rotting on the vines and in the fields for lack of pickers. We might even get some modifications to the ACA, but just enough to mess the law up for those who need it most. And we won't get any judicial nominees through the Senate. Period.

The country will muddle through for the next two years with the economy continuing its slow $8.25 per hour recovery, states will continue to lead on marriage equality and legalization of marijuana, lower gas prices will help squeezed households, and technology will wow us anew with its ability to make us more productive and efficient.

Big change, though will need to wait.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Election Season: Was It Good For You?

I am willing to concede that the Republicans will most likely win enough seats in Tuesday's Senate elections to take control of the chamber and... and... deny the heck out of President Obama's judicial appointments for the next two years. Other than that, a GOP-run, Mitch McConnell-led august debating chamber will do little more. They can try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash taxes to deserving millionaires, vote to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, fund more coal-fired power plants, rail against unions and decry the evil intentions of those who would dare to support the Common Core Curriculum standards, and all it will get them is... nothing.

And two years from now, when the Obama coalition comes back to the polls, the GOP will most likely lose their majority and, by the by, the presidential election for the third straight time.

This means that next Tuesday will need to be a mass right-wing orgasm, followed by a mass right-wing cigarette, whose afterglow shudders will need to reverberate until 2020.

Consider the landscape. Most Republicans are locked into very close races in states that Obama lost in 2012. Couple that with the fact that Obama's approval numbers are in Bush-Nixon territory and you have a scenario where the opposition party should be cleaning up. Now here comes the threesome: Despite being ahead in the polls, most of these Republicans aren't attracting newer Obama voters to their campaigns. They're actually struggling with the voters who should be most enthusiastic about a GOP takeover of the Senate. But it's not happening. The fact that the Tea Party is staying fairly quiet through this cycle also tells you a great deal about enthusiasm on and for the right.

If more Obama voters, the young, the female, the Hispanic, the African-American, come out to vote on Tuesday than are currently projected, then these elections will get very interesting. I don't see that happening but it does bode well for the Democrats' future because those voters will come out in 2016.

And as bad as losing the Senate might be for the left, the fact that the GOP is not running on repealing the ACA and is even giving a bit of credence to the idea that we might need to address this climate issue, tells us that the American people want action. This should put pressure on the GOP Congress because now they will be responsible for actually doing something other than saying no.

It is true that the country is in an especially sour mood over a lot of issues that we'll need to address over the next two years, but Ebola will go away and the economy will continue to improve. More people will have health insurance. And perhaps the parties will begin to work together again.

Ever the optimist.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest