Friday Talking Points -- Bernie Sanders Shows Democrats What 'Family Values' Should Mean

Trade deals are one subject (one of the very few left) which do not break down on party line. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are split over the issue, so it's not a repeat of the usual partisan battle lines. But it is a clear defeat for Obama, who lobbied hard to very little effect.
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We begin with a story which is just ripe for mixing a few metaphors: The Iowa Republican Party just announced today that they are cancelling the Iowa Straw Poll.

The metaphors can immediately get twisted, since "the final straw which broke the camel's back" doesn't really work -- it'd have to be "the final straw which broke the elephant's back," of course! Then there's always the classic anti-war spin on things: "What if they gave a straw poll and nobody showed up?" And finally, the most delicious piece of irony: Michele Bachmann will go down in history as the winner of the final Iowa Straw Poll, held back in 2012. Remember the reign of President Bachmann? Me neither.

The Iowa Straw Poll had already outlasted whatever usefulness it may or may not ever have had, even back in 2012. It's not some centuries-old tradition, as the first one was held in 1979. Its core reason for being has always been to transfer money from all the Republican presidential campaigns directly into the coffers of the state Republican Party organization. The entire "poll" was nothing but a sham where the candidates tried to outdo each other in nakedly buying votes. So we certainly are joining in the chorus saying "good riddance" to this mockery of democracy.

Other late-breaking Friday news: House Democrats have (for now) derailed President Obama's trade agenda. Why that "for now" is in there is complicated and involves parliamentary moves on multiple bills, but the basic upshot is that Obama lost an important vote, 302 to 126. That's a pretty hefty margin, although the core fast-track bill did barely pass, 219 to 211. Trade deals are one subject (one of the very few left) which do not break down on party line. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are split over the issue, so it's not a repeat of the usual partisan battle lines. But it is a clear defeat for Obama, who lobbied hard to very little effect.

Eventually, the subject will become a ripe one in the presidential contest -- for both parties -- but for now many major candidates have been able to ignore it. We'll see what happens on both the Republican and Democratic sides in the next few weeks. The trade issue isn't dead -- what the House did today is not going to be the final vote by far -- so this issue, as the pundits say, still "has legs."

An interesting thing is happening down in Louisiana, home state of presidential aspirant Bobby Jindal. The Republicans in the state (led by Governor Jindal) have slashed taxes in an orgy of conservative ideological lawmaking. The inevitable result of this "trickle-down" nonsense is, of course, that the state now has a $1.6 billion budget deficit. The problem could be fixed by raising taxes, but pretty much every Republican in the state government has bowed down to the godhood of Grover Norquist, and his holy "we will never raise taxes ever" pledge. What to do? Increase the stupidity, that's what!

George H. W. Bush famously called Reagan's trickle-down plans "voodoo economics," which is an entirely fitting description of what Louisiana Republicans are trying to do right now. First, the state will create a new "fee" for all college students. In the Norquistian religion, "fees" are somehow not the same as "taxes." But here's where the truly stupid part begins: these fees are then refunded back to the students as a state tax credit. This credit is then signed over to the college, to pay the fee. The state charges a fee, then gives the same amount to students to pay the fee, so the state winds up in exactly the same fiscal position as if this idiotic scheme hadn't happened. Peter pays Paul, who puts the payment back in Peter's pocket (say that three times fast, I dare you). Zero sum, right? Well, not precisely. Because in the Norquistian theology, while the "fee" doesn't count as a "tax," the "tax credit" does somehow count as "lowering taxes" -- which the lawmakers can then use to offset the real taxes they need to raise. In the gospel according to Norquist (hallowed be his name), this all somehow magically protects all the Republicans from ever having broken the "no new taxes" pledge, through the divine intervention of the fee/tax credit scheme.

Well, hey, any religion always looks hilarious to outsiders, as Robert A. Heinlein actually pointed out a long time ago ("One man's religion is another man's belly laugh").

This isn't exactly an isolated incident, either, since there are many Republican-led states who joined in the tax-slashing orgy a few years back, and are now painfully confronting the fact that they have no choice now but to raise taxes to solve their budget shortfalls. The moral of the story, as always: Republican voodoo trickle-down math never adds up. Ever. Oh, and also, if Bobby Jindal is looking for a big fat example of why Republicans are known as (in his words) "the party of stupid," he need look no further than his own ridiculous bookkeeping.

Speaking of presidential candidates, let's check in on how everyone's doing with the public. Seems that pretty much all the Democrats do better in "favorable" polling than almost all the Republicans, but the Washington Post wasn't satisfied with just real-world examples, so they tossed in a few ringers -- fictional "bad guy" characters. The results are pretty damn funny, we have to say.

The only two real people who don't have negative ratings (calculated as favorable percentage minus unfavorable percentage) are Bernie Sanders (at plus-1) and Marco Rubio (at exactly even). Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both at minus-4 points. But the fictional characters do much better -- the "Terminator" gets a whopping plus-19 rating, and both Darth Vader and the shark from Jaws pull around 10 percent. The only baddie with a negative rating is Voldemort, from the Harry Potter franchise, who gets around negative-12. But the really funny thing is who Voldemort beats out for favorability with the public: Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum. At the very bottom of this list are two others with unfavorable ratings in entirely different ballparks than anyone else: Chris Christie at a stunning negative-26, and Donald Trump with an absolutely jaw-dropping (or maybe "yuge," as he would say) rating of minus-56.

Moving right along from the ridiculous to the sublime, Lindsey Graham made some news when he stated that, since he is single, he'd be open to having "rotating first ladies" in the White House, should he become president. He could have more than one, is what we assume he's saying. This was mildly amusing, but then Senator Mark Kirk got caught on a live microphone talking about it, and it got a whole lot funnier. Kirk, who even before this gaffe was considered the most-vulnerable Republican senator in the 2016 election, said the following: "I've been joking with Lindsey. Did you see that? He's going to have a rotating first lady. He's a bro with no ho." Anyone want to bet that quip is going to appear in some political ads soon? Heh.

Let's see, what else? The Koch brothers are apparently trying to just flat-out become the Republican Party themselves, much to the annoyance of the Republican National Committee. Republican-on-Republican spats are always such fun to watch, aren't they?

And we guess we'll wrap up with a short marijuana news update. There's good news this week, and then there's news that sounds bad but is actually a lot better than what it could have been. Let's start with that last one first. The House of Representatives attached a measure to a budget bill which would prevent legal sales of marijuana to occur in the District of Columbia for two years. That sounds bad, but it actually is good news because of what the House didn't do -- directly attack the voter-passed initiative which legalized recreational marijuana in Washington D.C. The House could have tried to overturn the new law, but declined to make this attempt. Which is why it represents at least a partial victory for marijuana advocates. This measure, rather stupidly, means continuing the black market in weed rather than allowing sales to be properly taxed -- leaving a whole lot of money out of the District's coffers. But then nobody ever said the War On Weed was supposed to make sense, right?

And finally, the Senate began acting on what the House already passed, a measure which flat-out forbids the Justice Department (which includes the D.E.A.) from spending one thin dime on cracking down on medical marijuana in states which have legalized it. The vote, in the Senate Appropriations Committee, was a healthy 22 to 8. The times, they are indeed a-changin'.

All Democrats against Obama's trade deal were pretty impressive today, so we're going to hand out our first Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to Nancy Pelosi, who reportedly led the charge.

Whether you agree with Obama or agree with Pelosi on trade, you have to admit that Minority Leader Pelosi still wields quite a bit of influence within her party's caucus. For this reason alone, Pelosi deserves her MIDOTW award.

But we've got to also hand out another Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week statuette this week as well. Senator Bernie Sanders was in the news this week for schooling a National Public Radio reporter, who had read on some unspecified online list a lie about Sanders and then repeated it to his face: "Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel." Sanders replied forcefully that this was "nonsense," and reporter Diane Rehm had to eventually admit that she had fallen down in the fact-checking department in a major way. Bernie really should be in the news for the fact that his rallies are pulling in much bigger crowds than anyone expected, but the media is largely ignoring this story, of course.

But none of that is why Sanders is getting his ninth MIDOTW this week. But since we're going to explain why in great detail in the talking points section, we'll just provide Bernie's official contact information here, and get to the actual reason he won (his new presidential platform) a bit later.

[Congratulate House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on her official contact page, and Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]

It's rare, but every so often the winner of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week describes in his or her own words precisely how awful his behavior truly was. This week's winner, Gordon Fox, is one of these rare cases.

Fox was formerly the speaker of the Rhode Island house of representatives. He abused this position to enrich himself, and pled guilty this March to bribery, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return. The bribery was a $50,000 payoff from a Providence restaurant, and he further siphoned over $100,000 from his campaign accounts for personal use. Fox was sentenced this week to three years in prison.

The extraordinary thing, though, was what he had to say about it. In a political world filled with non-apology "apologies," it's rare when someone speaks so bluntly about their own misdeeds. From the Huffington Post news article, here is what Fox had to say for himself:

After tearfully declaring himself a disgrace, former Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison for corruption, saying he had been driven by greed, a desire to keep up with the Joneses and "just plain stupidity."

. . .

Crying, Fox apologized to his family, friends and to the state when he addressed the court. He described himself as a "lawbreaker, a disappointment and a disgrace, quite frankly."

"I accept full responsibility for my actions. No excuses, no justifications," the Democrat said. "I committed illegal acts and I'm very sorry for it."

. . .

"People put a lot of faith in me," he said. "I terribly destroyed that."

. . .

As bills mounted, Fox said, and "it became very easy to push a button" and transfer money from his campaign account. It wasn't one $100,000 transfer, Fox said, "it was bit by bit by bit by bit."

While we certainly can't admire the actions Fox took to get himself into this mess, we can and do admire his actions after he was caught. He pled guilty, he admitted his crimes, and he didn't try to offer any excuses for his behavior. Instead, he (quite correctly) labeled himself a disgrace.

His corruption certainly earns him this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, but his owning up to his crimes and his unqualified apology (at the very least) have to be applauded. We certainly hope future dirty politicians will learn from Fox, when caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

[Gordon Fox stepped down from his public office the day after the cops raided his office, so he is now a private citizen. Our longstanding policy is not to provide contact information on people who are out of public life.]

Volume 350 (6/12/15)

Have we really written 350 of these things? Wow. And yet, so far, no offers of enormous piles of money to syndicate the column have materialized. Oh, well, such is life. Heh.

Last week, we turned over the talking points to Hillary Clinton. Oh, we should also mention here in passing that last week's column only appeared on, due to scheduling pressures beyond our control -- so if you missed it, go check it out now. But since we spotlighted Hillary last week, this week we are doing the same thing for Bernie Sanders. We can easily do so because Senator Sanders absolutely knocked it out of the park this week, with his announcement of his own "Family Values Agenda." This is brilliant on many levels, in fact. In the first place, it is a direct attack on the Republican Party's use of the "family values" term. Bernie very successfully takes this term back and shows what it should mean for all Democrats. In the second place, pretty much all of the items on this list would be wildly popular with the public, if they ever got the chance to hear these proposals. And lastly, Bernie is laying down a clear marker with actual legislation to back it up, and by doing so he successfully challenges all other presidential candidates (especially from his own party) to either agree with him or explain why they don't.

As I said, Bernie knocked it out of the park. And the statement he released when announcing this agenda was also a stellar performance, both in terms of pure politics and in terms of crafting talking points. Which is why we're reproducing most of it below, as our talking points this week. They're so clearly written that we didn't even need to write introductions to each excerpt.

For those interested in reading more, Politics USA has a good overview article, or you can download [PDF] both the Family Values Agenda fact sheet (which provides more facts and figures to back up his policy ideas) and the full text of Bernie's announcement.

Real family values, instead of attacks on the family

When my Republican colleagues talk about "family values," what they usually mean is opposition to a woman's right to choose, opposition to contraception, opposition to gay rights. Let me today give a somewhat different perspective on family values -- on real family values.

When a mother has a baby and is unable to spend time with that child during the first weeks and months of that baby's life, and is forced back to work because of a lack of money, that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for. When a wife is diagnosed with cancer and a husband cannot get time off of work to take care of her, that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for. When a mother is forced to send her sick child to school because she cannot afford to stay home with her that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for. When a husband, wife, and kids, during the course of an entire year, are unable to spend any time together on vacation -- that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for.

What about American exceptionalism?

The United States of America is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers some form of paid family leave, paid sick time or paid vacation time. In other words, when it comes to basic workplace protections and family benefits, workers in every other major industrialized country in the world get a better deal than workers in the United States. That is wrong. That is a travesty. And that has got to change.

Last place is no place for America. It is time to join the rest of the industrialized world by showing the people of this country that we are not just a nation that talks about family values but that we are a nation that is prepared to live up to these ideals by making sure that workers in this country have access to paid family leave, paid sick time and paid vacations just like workers in every other wealthy country on earth.

Mother and child reunion

What kind of family value is it when you tell a woman who has just had a baby that she can't spend time with that child, but that she has to go back to work? That is not a family value. That is an insult to every mother, father and baby in this country and that has got to change.

The reality is that the Family and Medical Leave Act that was signed into law in 1993 is totally inadequate. Today, nearly 8 out of 10 workers in this country who are eligible to take time off under this law cannot do so because they could not afford it (according to the Department of Labor). Even worse, 40 percent of American workers are not even eligible to receive this unpaid leave because they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees.

In my view, every worker in America should be guaranteed at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave -- and that is why I am supporting the FAMILY Act introduced by Senator Gillibrand. The FAMILY Act would guarantee employees 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to take care of a baby; to help a family member who is diagnosed with cancer or has some other serious medical condition; or to take care of themselves if they become seriously ill. And just like Social Security retirement and disability, it is an insurance program that workers would pay into, at a price of about one cup of coffee a week.

Paid sick leave

In my view, it is absurd that low wage workers in McDonald's who get sick are forced to work because they cannot afford to miss work. Not only is this bad for the workers who are sick, it is also a public health issue.

That is why I am supporting the Healthy Families Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, which guarantees seven days of paid sick leave to American workers. This bill would benefit 43 million Americans who don't already have access to paid sick leave, and it would create a permanent floor in workplaces where employers already provide some paid sick leave.

Paid vacations

When we are talking about a collapsing middle class, we're talking about millions of Americans working longer hours for lower wages. We're talking about millions of Americans who are overworked, underpaid, and under enormous stress.

One hundred years ago workers in this country took to the streets demanding a 40-hour workweek. And here we are 100 years later, living in the most technologically advanced economy in human history, and we still don't have 40-hour workweek! In fact, 85% of working men and 66% of working women are working more than 40 hours a week. What we have are millions of people, working incredible hours -- some with two or three jobs -- just trying to care for themselves and their families. Americans now work, by far, the longest hours of any major country on earth -137 hours a year more hours than workers in Japan, 260 hours more than the British and 499 hours more than French workers.

That is why I am introducing legislation today to require employers to provide at least 10 days of paid vacation to workers in this country. This is already done in almost every country in the world, and it is one more way to demonstrate our commitment to Family Values.

Two weeks off

What we are talking about is a proposal to allow workers to take two weeks of paid leave so that they can rest and recuperate, travel the country, visit loved ones or simply spend time at home, bonding with their families.

This is not something that would just benefit workers and their families but also their employers and even society as a whole. Studies show that 9 in 10 Americans report that their happiest memories come from vacations. And while companies like Virgin Group and Netflix have adopted generous paid vacation policies, aimed at boosting productivity and worker loyalty, nearly 1 in 4 workers gets no paid vacation time. Research shows that vacations reduce stress, strengthen family relationships, increase productivity and even prevent illness.

A standard benefiting a great nation

There is no reason we should not do this. There is no reason that American workers should be denied a benefit that workers in every other advanced economy already enjoy. Again, when you compare the United States to other rich countries in Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, you discover that we are the only one in the group that doesn't require employers to provide at least 10 days of paid vacation time. We are every bit as prosperous as they are, and the reason we are so prosperous is because the men and women of this country work so hard.

I am not asking for the most generous vacation policy in the world -- nothing like what they get in France, Austria or Belgium -- but I am going to push for a standard befitting a great nation that takes seriously its commitment to Family Values.

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