Friday Talking Points -- No Magic Phrases

Before we begin, we should mention that this week's talking points section consists of a few extended excerpts from President Obama's recent speech on fighting the Islamic State. What he had to say was important, and it counters several insidious talking points that have been used against him in the past, so we felt it was worth taking over this week's talking points. Just to warn everyone up front.

Because these excerpts are longish, we're going to once again have to punt on announcing the winners of our "what playground taunt should we call Donald Trump?" contest once again. Our apologies, and we swear we'll get to it next week (granted, that's what we said last week, but this time we really mean it).

We're also going to have to review the week's news in lighting fashion for an intro, because this column's already approaching Brobdingnagian lengths. Well, maybe not, but it sure is fun to run "Brobdingnagian" through the old spell-checker, and we have to find our amusements where we will in this job. Ahem. Enough meandering, let's just get on with it, shall we?

Of course, the tragic news from Orlando dominated the week's media, as once again someone with easy access to military-style weaponry takes dozens of lives. According to Donald Trump and John McCain, this is all Barack Obama's fault (of course). Personally, we think if you want to go back and point fingers, you'd have to include George W. Bush's inability to get an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep American troops there (Obama was merely following Bush's signed agreement, something McCain and all other Republicans seem to always conveniently forget), and we would even trace the real blame back to L. Paul Bremer's infamous first order of his stewardship of Iraq, which disbanded the Iraqi army and led directly to all the Sunni insurgencies since. Put plainly, if de-Ba'athifying the army had never happened, then the Islamic State would never have happened. Which John McCain (at the very least) should well know.

Newt Gingrich had another one of his patented horribly bad ideas, but we already explained why earlier in the week, so we'll just note it and move on. Thankfully, nobody else has picked up on the idea of resurrecting HUAAC.

The C.I.A. released some chilling documents detailing the torture it performed on prisoners (which included such phrases as "hung by the arms from the ceiling for almost a month" as well as one prisoner's statement: "Doctors told me that I nearly died four times"). To its credit, the Washington Post ran an article about the new documents using a headline which included the clear and unequivocal phrase "C.I.A. Torture."

Speaking of the Post, Donald Trump has now banned them from covering his rallies. In normal times, this would be shocking, but it's pretty much par for the Trump course, these days.

Some Republicans are still dreaming about dethroning Trump at their convention. Aren't they adorable, when they're asleep and dreaming such lovely dreams? Awww....

Speaking of adorable, Little Marco Rubio has now apparently decided that he does want to stay in the Senate, after all. Since he was so vocal about how he'd never do such a thing (tweet from last month: "I have only said like 10000 times I will be a private citizen in January"), it won't be very hard for Democrats to put together a few ads to remind voters of Rubio's disdain for his current job.

A fanatic in Britain killed a member of Parliament while shouting an extreme right-wing slogan, and now it seems he was inspired by American neo-Nazi groups. This immediately brought a promise from Republicans to root out such domestic support of international terrorism... oh, wait, that didn't actually happen, did it?

And finally, a nice comparison of two states, and the results of their experiments -- on the left and right -- as to how budgeting and tax policy really works in the real world (as opposed to "in conservative economists' fantasies"). In California, taxes were raised on millionaires. In Kansas, taxes were raised on the poor and slashed for the wealthy. How'd all that work out?

California's economy grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, tying it with Oregon for the fastest state growth of the year. That was up from 3.1 percent growth for the Golden State in 2014, which was near the top of the national pack.

The Kansas economy, on the other hand, grew 0.2 percent in 2015. That's down from 1.2 percent in 2014, and below neighboring states such as Nebraska (2.1 percent) and Missouri (1.2 percent). Kansas ended the year with two consecutive quarters of negative growth -- a shrinking economy. By a common definition of the term, the state entered 2016 in recession.

The article also points out Kansas is on the brink of a big credit downgrade "indicating there is a chance the state cannot pay its bills." Proof positive that trickle-down does not work (and indeed has never worked), and that raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy does not kill the economy one tiny little bit.

OK, that's enough of a wrap-up, let's move right along to the awards portion of our show.

 

We have two winners for this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, both for impressive feats of political theater.

The first goes to Representative Gwen Moore from Wisconsin. Because of Republican attempts to force welfare recipients to undergo drug testing (to prove their worthiness), Moore successfully flipped this debate on its head with her own proposal: welfare drug testing for rich people. From the story:

Moore's bill would require a drug test for any tax filer who claims itemized deductions worth more than $150,000. So a wealthy guy who wants to write off massive amounts of mortgage interest would have to prove he's not on drugs.

If taxpayers with more than $150,000 in deductions didn't want to submit to a drug test, they could just use the standard deduction instead -- meaning they'd pay a whole bunch more in taxes. This would only affect families which had roughly three times the average American family's income in deductions alone, so it wouldn't affect many folks out there. And if the sacred principle is that government helping people out financially requires drug testing, then why not?

Moore explained further what led her to make the proposal:

Moore told The Guardian her most direct inspiration for the proposal, which is unlikely to become law, came from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who unveiled his poverty policy agenda last week at a drug and alcohol treatment center in southeast Washington.

"When he stood in front of a drug treatment center and rolled out his anti-poverty initiative, pushing this narrative that poor people are drug addicts, that was the last straw," Moore said.

We've always been a big believer that the way to point out Republican hypocrisy is in the most scathingly ironic method possible, because that's really the only way to get anyone talking about the inherent contradictions in conservative ideology. If drug testing is going to be required for government benefits, why wouldn't we test those who are receiving the highest dollar amounts of such benefits? Brilliant!

While our first MIDOTW salutes a bill that is likely never going to become law, we also have to salute a senator who pushed as hard as he could to move towards actually passing meaningful legislation. Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut led the ninth-longest filibuster in American history this week, to force the Republican-led Senate to allow votes on two gun control bills from Democrats. Newtown is in Connecticut, making this a very personal subject for Murphy.

Murphy lasted until two in the morning, or almost 15 straight hours. In the end, he won -- he got Mitch McConnell to agree to bring up the Democratic bills, possibly as early as Monday. That is pretty downright impressive, seeing as how filibusters rarely actually achieve their goals.

Now, this doesn't mean that either bill is going to pass. The first would ban people on the official watchlist of suspected terrorists from buying guns. Given the existence of such watchlists, it seems a reasonable thing to do -- why should someone who is not allowed on a plane be allowed to buy a semi-automatic weapon? We have our doubts about the constitutionality of such lists in the first place (discussed earlier in the week) ourselves, but if we're going to have such a list it certainly isn't all that big a step to refusing them permission to buy weaponry.

The second would require background checks for all gun purchases, even those taking place online or at gun shows. This concept is overwhelmingly supported by the American public, but the National Rifle Association has so far been successful at blocking the idea.

As I said, even though Murphy secured a vote for these two measures, neither is likely to pass, making his filibuster an act of political theater. But again, we love a good bit of political theater, especially when it is even partially effective in moving the public debate at large.

Republicans have a crafty way to avoid paying a political price on the first measure -- they've got their own proposal which seems to ban suspected terrorists from buying guns, but it is in fact so weak that nobody would likely ever be denied as a result (current stats show that people on these watchlists are already successful at buying guns nine times out of ten, it bears mentioning). This way, Republicans can counter Democratic political ads about "voting to allow suspected terrorists to buy guns," by saying in response: "I voted for the Republican version, which protected innocent Americans' Second Amendment rights." As we said, crafty.

But perhaps the tide is very slowly turning. During and immediately after the filibuster, there was actually some talk across the aisle of creating a bipartisan bill on the watchlist problem. These talks quickly broke down, and did not result in any meaningful compromise. But they took place -- which is more than has happened in the past. So maybe there's hope, although likely not before an intervening election.

Gun control may not be as toxic politically as it was in the past for Democrats, with every passing massacre Americans are forced to witness. This week -- whether legislatively successful or not -- Senator Chris Murphy moved that debate forward in a big way. By (literally) standing his ground for 15 hours, he at least forced a Senate vote on two gun control measures that never would have seen the light of day otherwise. That is incredibly impressive, which is why he also is a winner this week of the coveted MIDOTW award.

[Congratulate Representative Gwen Moore on her House contact page, and Senator Chris Murphy on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]

 

Sadly, we have to hand this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to Senator Bernie Sanders.

On Tuesday, the final primary (Washington D.C.) of the 2016 season happened. Bernie lost it, by an overwhelming margin. He met that day with Hillary Clinton, which was reminiscent of her face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama a few days after the final 2008 primary. But Clinton emerged from that meeting eight years ago and started working on her concession speech, which she gave four days after the primary season closed. This was her famous "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" speech, in case anyone's forgotten.

Bernie, on the other hand, met with Clinton for 90 minutes and then gave an online speech of his own two days later. He hit all the high points of his agenda during this speech, but fell short in one big respect:

Bernie Sanders profusely thanked his supporters. He said he looked forward to working with Hillary Clinton to advance key issues. And he urged like-minded followers to run for state and local offices so they can continue the "political revolution" he began.

In short, during his 23-minute speech live-streamed across the country, Sanders sounded very much like a candidate prepared to drop out of the Democratic presidential race. But the senator from Vermont pulled up short Thursday night, neither conceding the party's nomination nor endorsing Clinton in the general election.

"The major political task that together we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly," Sanders said of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. "And I personally intend to begin my role in that process in a very short period of time."

But "defeating Trump cannot be our only goal," Sanders cautioned, speaking from his home town of Burlington, Vt.

We find this disappointing.

Bernie is trying to walk a tightrope here, between not being called a "sellout" by his supporters, and not looking like a spoiler to everyone else. He's stopped talking about winning over the superdelegates and wresting the nomination from Clinton at the convention. He knows this isn't going to happen. He is trying to exert as much influence as he can over the party platform and the future of the party as a whole, and we do understand that.

But the choice has now become a binary one. Either vote for Clinton in November, or run the risk Donald Trump will actually be president. Those are the only two choices left. Voting third party or writing in Bernie's name may make some of his followers feel better, but depending on how close that voter's state is, it could run the risk of President Trump. There's no other way to see it now.

This year, especially, we have seen some awfully artful language from Republicans on the subject of the precise definition of the word "endorsement." They've had to dance over these metaphoric hot coals already. So there are examples for Bernie to follow to offer even a half-hearted endorsement of Clinton: "I cannot let Donald Trump become president and thus even though I do not fully endorse her agenda I will be voting for Secretary Clinton in November."

That's all Bernie needed to say in his video speech. But, for once, Bernie is the one resorting to lawyerly hair-splitting language: "I personally intend to begin my role in that process in a very short period of time." What the heck is that supposed to mean? Bernie's role -- whether he likes it or not -- in the process of the Democratic nomination is now to fight for inclusion of his ideas in the platform, but also to support the only viable candidate who can defeat Trump in the fall.

Bernie already got an extra week. It was crystal clear after the California and New Jersey primaries that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination by every measure. D.C. voted a week later, which gave Bernie some time to adjust to this reality. Then he met one-on-one with Clinton for a long discussion. The fact that he still can't bring himself to offer even a half-hearted endorsement of Clinton now, though, is disappointing. The choice for Bernie now is: work to get Hillary Clinton elected, or run the risk of President Trump. So far, he has not made up his mind, which -- even though we agreed with almost everything Bernie had to say in his video speech -- is disappointing. So much as it pains us to say it, Bernie was our MDDOTW award-winner this week.

[Contact Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

 

Volume 396 (6/17/16)

We started today intending to point out one important thing Obama said this week, but when we read the full transcript, we decided to just do away with the talking points altogether to focus on a few excerpts from the speech. If this disappoints you and you still crave some anti-Trump talking points, you could always check out what his fellow Republicans have been saying -- just in the past week, mind you -- about Trump's reaction to the Orlando shooting. Some of them are as snarky as anything we could dream up, so that should satisfy anyone looking for our usual fare here.

President Obama actually gave two short speeches this week which merited attention. The first is the one we're focusing on, where he addressed the press corps right after a previously-scheduled meeting on the Islamic State situation. But later in the week, Obama spoke again after meeting with the victims' families down in Florida, where he further expressed his frustration at the lack of political will on gun control and the fact that he has had to be "mourner-in-chief" far too many times. This speech was also well worth reading, but we're concentrating on the earlier one instead.

Obama began by accurately portraying the state of the fight against the Islamic State (which he calls "ISIL") -- something usually missing in media reports on the fighting. The past year has truly been a turning point in the fight, at least against the "Caliphate" they've proclaimed for themselves on the ground in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Islamic State has lost roughly half the ground it used to hold, and has lost all its battles. Anbar province is almost completely clear of the Islamic State, as Iraqi forces have retaken city after city. The only area left to clear is a border crossing and a few surrounding towns. That's a major accomplishment, seeing as how a little over a year ago the Islamic State was essentially on the doorstep of Baghdad and held almost the entire province. Mosul -- the biggest battle of the war, most likely -- remains to be cleared in the north, but Iraq has so far seen steady progress without a single reversal of fortune.

Syria hasn't been as much of a success story, but even there some incremental progress is being made by the various groups fighting the Islamic State (while also fighting each other, which certainly doesn't help). Here is Obama's overview of all the recent progress, from the official transcript:

At the outset, I want to reiterate our objective in this fight. Our mission is to destroy ISIL. Since I last updated the American people on our campaign two months ago, we've seen that this continues to be a difficult fight -- but we are making significant progress. Over the past two months, I've authorized a series of steps to ratchet up our fight against ISIL: additional U.S. personnel, including Special Forces, in Syria to assist local forces battling ISIL there; additional advisors to work more closely with Iraqi security forces, and additional assets, including attack helicopters; and additional support for local forces in northern Iraq. Our aircraft continue to launch from the USS Harry Truman, now in the Mediterranean. Our B-52 bombers are hitting ISIL with precision strikes. Targets are being identified and hit even more quickly -- so far, 13,000 airstrikes. This campaign at this stage is firing on all cylinders.

And as a result, ISIL is under more pressure than ever before. ISIL continues to lose key leaders. This includes Salman Abd Shahib, a senior military leader in Mosul; Abu Sa'ad al-Sudani, who plotted external attacks; Shakir Wahayb, ISIL's military leader in Iraq's Anbar province; and Maher al-Bilawi, the top ISIL commander in Fallujah. So far, we've taken out more than 120 top ISIL leaders and commanders. And our message is clear: If you target America and our allies, you will not be safe. You will never be safe.

ISIL continues to lose ground in Iraq. In the past two months, local forces in Iraq, with coalition support, have liberated the western town of Rutbah and have also pushed up the Euphrates River Valley, liberating the strategic town of Hit and breaking the ISIL siege of Haditha. Iraqi forces have surrounded Fallujah and begun to move into the city. Meanwhile, in the north, Iraqi forces continue to push up the Tigris River Valley, making gains around Makhmour, and now preparing to tighten the noose around ISIL in Mosul. All told, ISIL has now lost nearly half of the populated territory that it once controlled in Iraq -- and it will lose more.

ISIL continues to lose ground in Syria as well. Assisted by our Special Operations Forces, a coalition of local forces is now pressuring the key town of Manbij, which means the noose is tightening around ISIL in Raqqa as well. In short, our coalition continues to be on offense. ISIL is on defense. And it's now been a full year since ISIL has been able to mount a major successful offensive operation in either Syria or Iraq.

All of these points are almost never brought up during the coverage of the presidential race (or in any other context) in the mainstream media. The fight is slow, but the good guys have been winning for a while now. You'd think that would be news.

Obama then spoke of how the Islamic State's finances have also been targeted, and made a plea for obstructionist Republicans to put America's national security over their petty partisanship in the Senate:

In continuing to push on this front, I want to mention that it is critical for our friends in the Senate to confirm Adam Szubin, my nominee for Under Secretary of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Adam has served in Democratic and Republican administrations. Everyone agrees he's eminently qualified. He has been working on these kinds of issues for years. It's now been more than a year since I nominated him -- more than 420 days -- and he still has not been given a full vote. There is no good reason for it. It is inexcusable. So it's time for the Senate to do its job, put our national security first, and have a vote on Adam Szubin that can lead our financial fight against ISIL and help keep our country safe.

Hint to Democrats looking for attack ads against sitting Republican senators: here's a dandy issue for an ad! Political inactivity has consequences, for us all. Obama seems almost eager to get into the fray of the campaign himself these days, and his approval rating just keeps going up, so we're looking forward to hearing more of this sort of thing in the weeks ahead.

But the real reason we decided to highlight this speech so heavily was when Obama started talking about a favorite bugaboo of Republicans everywhere, most recently regurgitated by Donald Trump: the "magic phrase" Obama refuses to use. Last year I wrote about this bizarre GOP concept:

There's an ongoing debate about the phrase "Islamic terrorism" (or "radical Islam" or similar phrasings), where conservatives insist that if politicians (specifically President Obama) would merely use the correct phrase to describe things, it will somehow bestow magical benefits. "Did you hear President Obama today?" the jihadists would incredulously say to each other, "He actually used the term 'radical Islamists' to describe us! We must have won the battle of ideas, so there's just no point in fighting on anymore. Here's my AK-47, I'm going back to my home village to grow olives." Although ridiculous, this is precisely what some Republicans seem to believe.

Finally, this week, Obama addressed this argument head-on and destroyed it once and for all. He absolutely knocked it out of the park. We thought it was a shame that when Obama's remarks were reported on television news, they were always cut to a single short soundbite or two. Because Obama eloquently buried this ridiculousness forever, and he deserves credit for the breathtaking way he did so. So here is what Obama had to say, in full, to finish this week's talking points section.

And let me make a final point. For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase "radical Islam." That's the key, they tell us -- we can't beat ISIL unless we call them "radical Islamists." What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction. Since before I was president, I've been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism. As president, I have repeatedly called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world's great religions.

There has not been a moment in my seven-and-a-half years as president where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn't use the label "radical Islam." Not once has an advisor of mine said: "Man, if we really use that phrase, we're going to turn this whole thing around." Not once. So if someone seriously thinks that we don't know who we're fighting, if there's anyone out there who thinks we're confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we've taken off the battlefield.

If the implication is that those of us up here and the thousands of people around the country and around the world who are working to defeat ISIL aren't taking the fight seriously, that would come as a surprise to those who have spent these last seven-and-a-half years dismantling al Qaeda in the FATA [the tribal areas of Pakistan], for example -- including the men and women in uniform who put their lives at risk and the Special Forces that I ordered to get bin Laden and are now on the ground in Iraq and in Syria. They know full well who the enemy is. So do the intelligence and law enforcement officers who spend countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans, including politicians who tweet and appear on cable news shows. They know who the nature of the enemy is.

So there's no magic to the phrase "radical Islam." It's a political talking point; it's not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism. Groups like ISIL and al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people; that they speak for Islam. That's their propaganda. That's how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion -- then we're doing the terrorists' work for them.

Now, up until this point, this argument about labels has mostly just been partisan rhetoric. And, sadly, we've all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship, even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their jobs, from sacrificing and working really hard to protect the American people.

But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We're starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we're fighting, where this can lead us. We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America. We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests that entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer -- they were all U.S. citizens.

Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith? We've heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that's not the America we want. It doesn't reflect our democratic ideals. It won't make us more safe; it will make us less safe -- fueling ISIL's notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like no matter what they do, they're going to be under suspicion and under attack. It makes Muslim-Americans feel like their government is betraying them. It betrays the very values America stands for.

We've gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear -- and we came to regret it. We've seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens. And it has been a shameful part of our history.

This is a country founded on basic freedoms, including freedom of religion. We don't have religious tests here. Our Founders, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights are clear about that. And if we ever abandon those values, we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world, but we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect -- the pluralism and the openness, our rule of law, our civil liberties -- the very things that make this country great; the very things that make us exceptional. And then the terrorists would have won. And we cannot let that happen. I will not let that happen.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com

All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank