Sunday, September 27, 2015

Forget Iran: The GOP Goes Nuclear

Francis comes in, John Boehner bows out. There is a certain symmetry to some world events and this is one of those moments.

Here we have a Pope who is speaking forcefully and eloquently about how the issues of the day are having, and will continue to have, an effect on how people live, work and survive in the world and all the right wing can do is reject his message as an ill-conceived interference into the political realm. Stay away from climate change and gay rights, they say, and for heaven's sake, stop talking about immigration. Yet Francis has stayed on message in a way that would make House Speaker John Boehner proud.


Well, former House Speaker John Boehner, that is. Or at least he will be at the end of October. Poor John tried his best to reign in a fractious caucus of elected government officials who detest government and want it flushed down the sink, or at least shut down so it can't do any more damage to the country. Like pay out Social Security benefits. Or Medicare. Medicaid. Or keep the national parks open. Get people passports. Inspect our food. Defend the country. Provide funds for the less fortunate. Health care. Investigate crimes. It's terrible, this United States government we have today.

It's funny how conservatives have been saying for years that we need to base our actions on religious values and that we have lost our way morally under the weight of godless liberal social policies over the past 70 years. Yet here comes an infallible Pope who can be ignored at will because he has the temerity to say that the United States needs to do more, not less. Take in more Syrian refugees. Care more for the poor. Stop demonizing Muslims. Care for the environment and the globe.

When you put the right wing's agenda together with the rejection of Francis's message and stir in the fact that the next Speaker of the House is likely to be an even more conservative Republican than John Boehner, then you will get a party that simply doesn't like anything. And how do you run and win on that?

Mark this week down as the one that will eventually define the presidential election for the GOP. They have been saying no for far too long and the no backbenchers are about to get a more sympathetic ear for them to yell into. The elites are fighting to rid the field of Donald Trump, and he'll go eventually, but he won't go quietly or without tearing down enough of the other contenders to make their jobs more difficult. And the new House leadership is likely to allow some of the less savory bills that Boehner was able to squash to get out of the caucus room and onto the floor.

Pope Francis is actually leading the way for conservatives to re-engage in a balanced conversation. He's no liberal by any stretch of the imagination. But he is a humanist and he understands that if we don't take care of everyone, than we really don't take care of anyone.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 20, 2015


That's really all you need to know about Carly Fiorina's chances of becoming either the Republican nominee or president of this great country. She's an accomplished woman with plenty of money and a great speaking style, but when it came to getting votes, she couldn't win, even in the great Republican year of 2010.

Fiorina lost to Barbara Boxer in the 2010 California Senate race by 52%-42%. We will have a woman as United States President, but it won't be Carly Fiorina. When your best line has nothing to do with policy, but is instead a necessary rebuttal to Trump calling you ugly, then you will get press, but not solid voter support. And when your other policy proposal concerns building up the Sixth Fleet and spending huge amounts of money on defense rather than actually speaking to Vladimir Putin, then you have nothing more to say about responsible foreign policy. And those comments about the Planned Parenthood videos? All anybody has to do is watch them to know how utterly wrong Firoina was.

I am still of the opinion that we have a long way to go on the Republican side before we get a sense as to which one of the candidates will be the nominee. Each of them will get their day in the media spotlight and each one will be found wanting in some way. Donald Trump will not win. Ben Carson will not win. Carly Fiorina will not win.


Chris Christie is getting some nice press about his performance in the debate, especially his opening statement, which was the longest he got to speak. He still has plenty of money, so perhaps he will get the media's attention next, although the press is still not done with Jeb! and Marco Rubio.

If the debate was any guide, then the Democrats will still have the upper hand entering the general election campaign late next spring. The Republicans are still talking nonsense about how hard they'll come down on immigration, how they'll shut off money to the main source of women's health care in many states (Planned Parenthood), how they'll carve up the Constitution to preserve a religious right that's found nowhere in the document, and how they won't meet with world leaders until they do what we want them to do.

And they have other problems. The Republican Party elites reduced the number of debates and made many states winner-take-all when it comes to primaries in the hope that a nominee would emerge early enough in the process to begin running against the Democrat and to raise gobs of money. Now they're looking at a scenario where the nominee will be pulled farther to the right than Mitt Romney was four years ago and the prospect that Donald Trump will win some of those states where the winner takes the whole delegate bundle and becomes a power broker at the convention. The Citizens United case opened up the money spigot and one of the nastier effects, at least for the GOP, is that now even some of the fringe candidates will have enough cash to cause a great deal of mischief.

Now comes word that Vice President Biden will be entering the Democratic race ahead of the October 13 debate. This will give him the opportunity to gauge his support and will also give him an out if he feels that his emotions and his family will not support a long run. Hillary Clinton's campaign should be worried about Biden because they are at a vulnerable stage with all of the talk about lost momentum due to the e-mail problems she's had. Bernie Sanders will also get the loud applause at the debate because he'll give the base what Hillary probably can't if she wants to move to the center in the general campaign. Biden can pick and choose which Obama policies he wants to continue supporting and Hillary will be in the position where she'll need to distance herself from some of his programs. It's shaping up to be a fun night.

The presidential campaign seems like it's been dragging on forever, but we are still in its early stages as primary voters try each candidate on for size before they settle on the one they believe can win.

As presidents Giuliani, Dean and Cain used to say...

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Don't You Know How Bad Things Are?

When political movements move beyond their useful stage and devolve into extremism, ad hominem attacks, conspiracy theories and exaggerated accounts of wrongdoing, then those movements are in their dying days.

Thus it is with the conservative Republican movement.

While the right-wing wave has been swelling and crashing since 2012, this year's presidential mash-up is a textbook, laboratory, peer-reviewed example of the party's continued descent. Don't get me wrong; there will still be a Republican Party, and a strong, rational one is vital to our political system. It will just look very different by 2020.

Each of the candidates left in the race, after Rick Perry's shocking! (not really) exit last week, is painting the United States as a declining, morally bankrupt, ineffectual, soft country. They are blaming President Obama for all of the country's ills, although they do have a particular section of real estate in Hell reserved for the Supreme Court justices who affirmed marriage equality and upheld the Affordable Care Act.


And they're saying that the country is lawless and unsafe because our law enforcement officials are now hesitant to act because they don't want their body camera videos to end up on YouTube. You can see the frustration and anger in the candidates' faces and feel their campaign rage at every turn.

And all of this is occurring amidst an improving economy, a rising stock market (for the most part), declining unemployment numbers, improved consumer protections and a health care landscape that is taking care of many more people at a more affordable price. Do we have work to do? You bet, but part of the problem is the GOP itself. They continue to protect the coal industry by using the phrase "clean coal" in a way that probably has George Carlin contemplating the deliciousness of the contradictions while spinning in his grave, they continue to deny the practical effects of global warming and its origins in man-made pollutants, they criticize Obama's foreign policies with no discernible platform of their own except to defeat terrorism, and they just can't come to grips with the fact that they've lost the marriage equality argument.


The problem, of course, as they see it, is Barack Obama. Like Bill Clinton, the conservative right wing doesn't really see Obama as a legitimate president. That's why you have the arguments over his birth certificate and whether he's a Muslim or whether he created the high gas prices in 2009 and the low gas prices now. And whether he's secretly in league with the Iranians and that's why the agreement was so soft on them, or is the real reason because he hates Israel.

These dark conspiracies, which are given full lighting by the conservative press remind me of the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, but instead of choosing one of those to believe, you'd have to believe all of them. That would make Dealey Plaza awash in Cubans, mobsters, American military personnel, Communist spies and lovers who were jilted by women who had affairs with the president. The problem now is that the right wing believes that all of the accusations against Obama are true.

And did I mention race? I know, I know; that's bad form, especially given recent contemporary race relations in our country. Forget I even mentioned it.

This week Republican debate will feature all of the candidates telling us how terrible the state of the country is and how their angry, knee-jerk responses will make it sunnier and better. All we need to do is build the wall, police it, chuck out the undocumented, lower taxes, allow religious exemptions for whatever we happen to not agree with, destroy all of the unions, and tell women that they have to carry every pregnancy to term no matter what the circumstances. That's the ticket to a happier, Reaganesque revival, right?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Iran Deal Will Survive

Foreign affairs used to be the one area where the country supported the president to show the world that, although we might have messy domestic issues, the United States was indeed united when confronting the world.

Oh how things have changed.

I support the Iran deal for three basic reasons:

1. I assume that Iran already has a nuclear weapon or are very close to developing one. If there's one thing that we should have learned by now, it's that scientific knowledge cannot be stopped. If Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon or two at this point, they will in a few years. The key is what they are willing to do with them and what the rest of the world is willing to do about them. My firm belief is...nothing on both accounts. The Iranian government likes to talk tough about how they're going to destroy the Great Satan and Israel, but that's just jawboning from a regime whose clock is ticking. Because the other truth of the matter is that Israel has between 80 and 100 nuclear weapons and Iran knows that they will be turned to dust if they throw one or two weapons towards Jerusalem. That's not likely to happen. Nuclear weapons have still only been used once in the world and rational governments know that they simply will not get away with their wanton use. Despite media reports and overblown hype from the left and the right, Iran's government, and most importantly its people, want to live in the world. So even if they get more weapons within fifteen years, it's important to remember that...

2. Capitalism destroys religion and always has. Think about it. The Catholic Church reached the zenith of its power on the eve of the First Crusade in 1095. It's been downhill from there. And the reasons for its continued decline, and the decline of most western religions, is capitalism and trade and money and banking and the secular pursuit of tangible, materialistic objects that make our economic system hum. So let's throw open the Iranian economy to the rapacious pursuit of stuff and let that do our dirty work for us. The religious leaders in Iran will try to invoke laws that attempt to limit western influence in the country as it tries to hold on to the revolutionary ideals under which it was founded, but that won't work. Iran has a long history of capitalism and western ideals and it has a middle class that is modern and enthusiastic to join the capitalist system. Yes, economic sanctions are taking their toll on the country, but they are also inhibiting the fertile, educated minds of the very people we want to engage in trade and business.

You want a model? Look at what's happening in China. The Communist government said that it would give its citizens the power to get rich if the citizens accepted the power of the intrusive, repressive state. That's all well and good, but what happens when the money stops flowing? We're seeing that now. The Communists can't control a capitalist economy for very long and neither can a religious one. The Saudis are finding that out now as the price of oil is devastating their balance sheets. The money they earn goes into the same type of repressive religious state that the mullahs in Iran want to keep. Both states will find it extremely difficult to maintain this. There was a reason that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi; there was intense governmental repression against any opposition and Al Qaeda exploited that. In Iran, the radicalism will not come from the religious as it did in the 1979 revolution. It will come from the capitalists and they will win.

This then brings us to reason number...

3. Fifteen years is a very long time. Time does seem to be flying, but think back to the world of 15 years ago. It was 2000. A Clinton was president. The Internet bubble was underway. Boris Yeltsin was drinking his way out of the Kremlin. There was a presidential election between two very boring white guys. You get the point. The world was very different. Fifteen years from now...well, who knows? But fifteen years of Iran being watched by the US, Russia, China and western European countries will have some effect on their development. Putin will likely be gone and so might the hardliners in Beijing, both of whom support Tehran. The nuclear deal puts eyes on the Iranians and allows for inspections and testing that will likely turn something up that the regime, if it lasts that long, will not be able to finesse.

The deal will now go through, either as an Obama veto or, if 3 more Democrats support the deal, as a filibustered footnote to the summer of 2015. So let's get this out of the way and focus on North Korea and Pakistan, which are the real, irrational threats to the world today.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest     

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Great Teachers Make Great Schools

Another school year. It's my 32nd as a teacher and I can still say that I love what I'm doing and believe that I am contributing to the betterment of society. I just wish that at some point before I go to the Great Faculty Room in the Sky, you know, the one where the microwave works, the carpet doesn't smell and the walls aren't made of cinder block, I could feel that society's attitudes about my work would improve and that the United States would value education as much as it does entertainment, sports and the stock market.

The public's attitudes on education are on display in this year's new PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools, and the results are encouraging. Most Americans do not think that standardized tests should be used to evaluate teachers and indeed say that there are too many of these high-stakes tests being administered to children. Most people surveyed also don't like the Common Core Education Standards, both because they are tied to the tests and because most people don't think that comparing American students' scores with other countries is a worthy endeavor.  But more important is the finding that most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say that it's important that the public schools are adequately funded. 

Which brings us to how important teachers are to the success of the system. You would think that this would be a given and, for the most part, parents in local communities support efforts to bring in excellent teachers and to keep them in their schools. When schools are not fully funded, though, the system begins to break down. In most parts of the American economy, consumers understand that you get what you pay for and that sometimes you need to economize and think short term because of family limitations, emergencies, or good old American low wages.

In education, though, the argument get mangled a bit. Much of the (incorrect) literature suggests that more money doesn't necessarily translate into better schools. Politicians and a segment of the public like to lean on the idea that teachers don't go into teaching for the money, using that argument for keeping pay low relative to teachers' experience and education. They also say that they want the best and brightest to go into teaching,

The insulting thing about this argument is the assumption that the best and brightest are not in teaching to begin with and that we need to attract them to the field. That's wrong. Most of America's teachers are smart, engaging, sharp, inquisitive, analytical and effective at what they do. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job to do well and the expectation is that you will do well with each and every one of that year's students. You want the best and brightest? You're getting them. It's now time to make sure that they get the resources and financial recognition they've earned. Other countries do it; it's time we did it too.

What would help is untying education money from property taxes and finding a more secure, and less intrusive, funding source. My idea is for the Congress to impose a 1% tax on all corporate earnings and a 1% income tax increase on the top earners and earmark it specifically for education. After all, who benefits the most economically from America's great schools? American businesses, that's who, so it makes sense for the corporate sector to pay more for their lifeblood. This would take the pressure off of middle and working class Americans who struggle with high property taxes and a system of funding that tilts towards the wealthy communities that can support higher valuations.

As we know, poverty is the main cause of educational inequality in this country. If we don't address it, then we will never solve the problems associated with fewer educational opportunities, fewer students going on to higher education and the wage gap that accompanies it.

What we also really need is for the best and brightest to go into politics and to be part of the solution, not the problem. Most of the Republican candidates favor vouchers, which the Gallup poll shows is not enthusiastically shared by the general public. Governors Christie and Walker are proudly running on their efforts to minimize teacher input regarding educational reforms and are blaming teachers for the economic problems in their states. Neither of them have said anything remotely positive about teaching and, at least in New Jersey, morale among the teachers is abysmally low.

Not that the Obama administration is shying away from standardized tests and No Child Left Behind. Although a major Democratic constituency favors lessening the impact of tests, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with the president's support, is still doggedly applying the law to the public schools. And supporting Charter Schools.

So what to do? Involve the teachers. Use their expertise. Include them in decision making at the local, state and national levels. Leverage their knowledge. It seems so simple, but for the better part of 20 years, teachers have been methodically excluded from the major educational decisions of the day. This simply doesn't happen in other industries. Exclude doctors from health care decisions? Attorneys from legal reviews? Never. But somehow the not best and less bright politicians have decided that they know best when it comes to the schools and that teachers are shills for the National Education Association and are not to be trusted. It's a terrible situation and is threatening to get worse.

Meanwhile, the nation's teachers will continue to do their level best to educate all children across the country.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest