Friday Talking Points -- A Knee-Jerk Week

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) during a town hall
U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) during a town hall meeting at Taylor's University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Obama urged young people in predominantly Muslim Malaysia on Friday to reject the “terrible vision” that drove the Paris attacks, offering an alternative vision in which traditional cultures coexist with a diverse modern world. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

It's been a knee-jerk week in politics, and with the news of another terrorist attack (this one in Mali), the forecast is for more knees to be jerking hard next week, too.

Republicans, of course, do the whole fear thing very well. Democrats cannot hope to ever stoke the public's fear as effectively as Republicans. This is a well-known fact, but this week it was on display more than usual, because there are still 14 Republicans running for their party's presidential nomination. So what we witnessed was a race to the bottom, as each candidate tried to top the lunacy emanating from all the other campaigns.

As usual, the focus has been on a problem which doesn't exist yet, which is much easier to demagogue than all those pesky problems which do exist. This time, the imaginary problem is terrorists sneaking into America as Syrian refugees. Again, there is zero evidence that this is happening, and the idea is frankly ludicrous. In the first place, the Paris terrorists were all European. Europeans can enter America freely, most of them without visas, as tourists. This takes precisely no time and no effort on the part of the person entering America. The ridiculousness was summed up best in a Facebook post by Darren Cunningham, who is "an expert on the Middle East who works with a think tank in Washington." [We should also mention that we saw this story in a Washington Post article, to give credit where it is due.] Cunningham writes, pretending to get inside the minds of ISIS:

"Hmm, we want to attack the United States. I know! Let's go in as refugees! First, we have to hope that the UN High Commission for Refugees or another official entity places us in that lucky 1% that's eligible for resettlement, which will take 4-10 months to determine. Then we'll hopefully be referred to the Resettlement Support Center and pass that extensive background check and in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to further security clearance processes from the Consular Lookout and Support System and potentially the Security Advisory Opinion. If all of these bodies say we're clear and then we pass the medical screening, are matched with a sponsor agency, and then pass an additional security check to see if anything new has developed, then we might be admitted! It will only take us at lowest a year and a half, but probably two years or maybe even three. It's probably the toughest way to come in to the US -- pretty much every other way is easier -- but we must do this refugee route!" -- ISIS, apparently.

But none of that stopped the knees from jerking. Because knee-jerkism ignores facts. How else to explain why Republicans are now the champions of brotherhood with France? Remember all that "Freedom fries" nonsense and dumping French wine in the gutters? They don't, apparently.

It was hard to pick the most jaw-dropping bit of idiocy this week, because there was such a bumper crop of it. David Vitter, who is running for governor in Louisiana, might just get the prize for demagoguery, since he's running far behind and the election is tomorrow. He tried campaigning on the fear of Syrian refugees, momentarily forgetting that his own wife is general counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, "the organization hosting most of the 14 Syrian refugees who have landed in Louisiana since January 2015." Vitter failed to mention this in his demagoguery, preferring instead to warn: "We can't allow Obama to turn Louisiana into a dangerous refugee zone." Get that -- "Obama," not "my wife." And Vitter's just running for governor, not president.

The supposedly-reasonable John Kasich, whom centrist journalists love to dream about (he's this year's Jon Huntsman, in other words), came up with his own jaw-droppingly stupid idea. See, the problem of the Islamic State could be solved by setting up some sort of "Radio Free Christianity" which would "beam messages around the world about what it means to have a Western ethic, to be a part of a Christian-Judeo society." He'd create a new federal agency (an astonishing thing for a Republican to propose, right there) which would have a "clear mandate to promote core Judeo-Christian, Western values that we and our friends and allies share." Yeah, that's the ticket! Let's just try to convert all of the Middle East to Judeo-Christian values! That'll surely stop all the fighting in Syria and elsewhere! And he's supposed to be the sane and reasonable one in the Republican pack. Sheesh.

The United States Army is doing its bit on this front, too. It recently had to hastily take down a sign for a "Warrior Training Center" that had, as its logo, a Christian Crusader knight. How this got approved in the first place is disturbing, but at least they took it down. After it appeared in a newspaper and some people noticed, but still....

Down in Texas, one Republican lawmaker warns that we shouldn't let in terrorists to his state, because it is so easy for them to buy guns there. He actually brings up a good point, the fact that over 2,000 people on the terrorist watch list have purchased guns in America in the last ten years. The answer to this lunacy? Well, we certainly can't change any gun laws, like the ones that allow suspected terrorists to buy any gun they wish! 'Cause that'd be un-Amurrican!

There was also plenty of looney-tunes quotes from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest of the clown parade that is the Republican presidential race, but frankly, there's just too much of it to even try to list, so we're throwing in the towel and just punting. If you'd like to see any of this stuff, we would direct you to the entire rest of the Internet. Only one of these caught our eye, when CNN asked Ted Cruz what he would have thought if his father had been refused entry because Americans were wetting their pants over Cuban immigrants. Which is still a valid issue, as 2,000 Cubans are trying to enter America through the Mexican border right now. Even if the media has largely been ignoring it. As they've also been ignoring the fact that more Mexicans are now leaving America than are coming in. Facts are so inconvenient to a story line, aren't they?

This is not an abstract thing -- Americans pretty much always wet their pants in fear over the dastardly immigrant, infiltrating America to destroy us from within. Here are a few examples from Huffington Post, including a truly frightening (in many ways) cartoon from 1942 showing smiling Japanese being issued bundles of TNT, to wreak havoc on America's West Coast. It was drawn by Dr. Seuss. Americans have always been good at knee-jerkism, stretching all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s. 'Twas always thus, in other words.

Of course, Republicans are gleefully stoking fears of Syrian immigrants because they basically have no clue what to do about the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It's a lot easier to fearmonger than it is to come up with a war plan. Far better to just spout bromides and clichés, or to just blather incoherently about what you'd do as president, as Ben Carson did this week.

Plenty of other things went on this week, from a Democratic presidential debate (with only three people on the stage!) to Congress voting to approve racial discrimination in car loans (more on this in a moment). What else? Salt Lake City elected a gay mayor, Sarah Palin's apparently OK with legalized marijuana in her state ("absolutely no big deal"), and a state representative seat in Mississippi will be determined by two candidates drawing straws, after a perfect tie in the voting.

And finally, a story to warm everyone's heart: Bobby Jindal dropped out of the presidential race. No, wait, it gets better! Jindal's kids -- even though he didn't win -- will be getting their own dog after all! Jindal promised them a dog in the bizarre hidden video of his kids he used to launch his campaign -- but only if he won. Now, he seems ready to give in and just say yes to a new doggie. So there was some good news this week from the Republican campaign trail after all.


President Obama's been doing his best to stem the tide of xenophobia this week, with many "this is not who we as Americans are" statements, so we're going to give him an Honorable Mention for being the adult in the room, as usual.

Hillary Clinton gave an interesting speech which laid out what she'd do about the war against the Islamic State (I wrote about this yesterday in more detail). She did leave a few details out, and her plan is pretty optimistic about what can be done on the diplomatic front with the other players in the region, but still we have to salute her for actually putting some cards on the table on the foreign policy front. Bernie Sanders also spoke about what he'd do, war-wise, but the Bernie speech everyone's talking about was on the subject of socialism in American history (more on this in the talking points). Both candidates deserve Honorable Mentions for, again, showing America what a serious candidate for the office of president should sound like.

The Senate Democrats seem to be using an interesting strategy on the whole "let's close our borders to Syrian refugees" thing, after the House passed its bill. Senate Democrats want to focus instead on the visa waiver program that actually could be a threat if terrorists decided to exploit it. They're also trying to focus on those 2,000 guns bought by people on the terrorism watch list, so it'll be interesting to see this strategy play out in the next few weeks.

But our winner of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is John Bel Edwards -- and we truly hope we're not jinxing him in any way by this premature award. Edwards is the Democrat running against David Vitter for the Louisiana governor's office, and all the polling seems to indicate he'll win handily in tomorrow's election. The polling could be wrong, of course, as Louisiana Republicans are pretty good at getting out the vote, but even to have come this far is pretty impressive for any Pelican State Democrat. There are currently zero Democrats in statewide office in Baton Rouge, after all.

Edwards is a Blue Dog Democrat, and is pro-gun and pro-life. He had a military career and has family ties to Louisiana that reach back many generations. The rest of his politics are pretty standard Democratic stuff. But what's most impressive about Edwards is that he went after his opponent David Vitter so brutally and so effectively. Edwards dredged up Vitter's notorious prostitution (and diaper-wearing) scandal, and put an even more damning spin on it by running an ad that pointed out David Vitter had missed a vote on a veterans' bill to take a call from the "D.C. Madam." Edwards ran the ad during the LSU-Alabama football game.

That's some pretty bare-knuckle campaigning. But Vitter entirely deserved such treatment. Vitter thought he'd skate into office easily, but the abject failure of Bobby Jindal (who has destroyed Louisiana's budget in fealty to Grover Norquist) made that a much harder proposition than it should have been in this red state. With Jindal's popularity in the deep freeze, Vitter was hobbled from the start.

Edwards campaign didn't shy away from attacking his opponents' glaring weakness. There aren't many current politicians with such disturbing scandals in their past (mostly because voters tend not to reward such people with re-election), so these tactics might not work for many other Democrats out there. But when your opponent's a true sleazebag, calling it out can do wonders for your campaign, even in a deep red state.

We wish Edwards the best of luck tomorrow night. We'll be watching the returns come in ourselves. Because nabbing a governor's seat from Republicans has been a rare event in recent years, so we do hope this will end in victory for Edwards, as we award him the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[We do not, as a rule, provide contact information for candidates' websites, so you'll have to search John Bel Edwards on your own, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


There were quite a few House Democrats worthy of consideration for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, starting with the ones who voted with the Republicans on the "let's add some more layers of bureaucracy to Syrian refugees" bill.

What disappointed us far more than getting swept up in the knee-jerkism, however, were the 88 Democrats (check the list to see if your representative is on it) who voted to continue what can only be described as legal racial discrimination against buyers of automobiles. Black and brown customers get charged a higher interest rate, and that's apparently fine with these Democrats. The whole story is a shameful one of putting auto dealers' and banks' profits above equal treatment for all races. I mean, getting caught up in knee-jerkism is one thing, but this is a cold and calculated vote in favor of legal racial discrimination -- a far more disturbing thing, at least to us.

But even with all that going on, we have to look beyond Washington and national politicians this week. Our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week is the mayor of the Virginia town of Roanoke, a name rich in the history of immigrants arriving on American shores (and then disappearing, never to be heard from again). Maybe that's what happened -- the "Lost Colony" became the "First Internment Camp," or something. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, here.

Mayor David Bowers jumped into the frenzy of knees jerking this week, offering up his opinion that all assistance to Syrian refugees should cease:

...until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, or at the very least until regarded as under control by U.S. authorities, and normalcy is restored. I'm reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS is now just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

Wow. Japanese internment camps being cited favorably, by a Democrat, in the year 2015. That's pretty stunning. Jaw-droppingly stunning, in fact.

Bowers did finally apologize, after being amazed that people actually paid attention to what he said about concentration camps being a good thing. People like Representative Mike Honda and Star Trek icon George Takei -- who both spent some time in the Japanese internment camps themselves, a long time ago.

But this is the type of statement that an apology is never going to erase. So while it's rare that we reach all the way down the ranks of politicians to the mayoral level for our awards, due to the shocking historical ignorance displayed, we hereby award David Bowers this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Roanoke Mayor David Bowers on his official contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 370 (11/20/15)

Before we begin, one program note is in order. Thanksgiving is next week, which means that we'll be taking next Friday off. This column will return the following week, on December 4th. Hope everyone has a happy turkey day!

We have rather a mixed lot this week, with a few taken directly from politicians. Since one aspect of getting together with one's family for the holidays is putting up with your conservative drunk uncle, it's best to be prepared with a few talking points of your own.


   Obama's biggest lesson

This is something a lot of us have been saying for a long time now (since his first year in office, actually), so it's good to see the president is self-reflective enough to have learned his lesson. How, we all wondered at the time, could the greatest Democratic orator of the age have such an enormous problem with communicating his own agenda, after he was elected? From an interview in GQ magazine, here is Obama on the hardest lesson he learned as president:

You can't separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you're doing what you're doing. And that's particularly true now in this new communications era. [In Obama's first few years in office] a certain arrogance crept in, in the sense of thinking as long as we get the policy ready, we didn't have to sell it.


   To quote Douglas Adams: "Don't panic!"

This is the main talking point of the week, as it is every single week something like this happens.

"Why are Republicans so quick to panic over fears of scenarios that have not yet happened? Whether its a mosque in New York City or a bunch of children from Central America or the threat of Ebola, the first thing Republicans do is completely freak out. They're always the first to wet their pants in stark fear over things that competent professionals are already dealing with. How do they get so easily distracted? When radicalized Europeans attack Paris, they fear not other radicalized Europeans coming here to attack us, but instead refugees who -- unlike tourists -- must wait years before ever setting foot on American soil. Instead of soberly analyzing a perceived problem in the hopes of finding a solution before disaster strikes, Republicans routinely leap to conclusions that are simply not supported by any evidence, and start demagoguing and fearmongering about complete distractions from solving the real problem. Why are they such cowards? Why is their first reaction always to panic about problems that don't exist? It's a mystery to me."


   2,000 guns sold

This is the best example to use.

"After 9/11, politicians were awfully quick to restrict Americans' civil liberties. The USA PATRIOT Act flew through Congress, as I recall. But the one civil liberty that Republicans refused to even address was the ownership of firearms. 'Maybe we should do something so terrorists who sneak into America can't get guns,' Democrats proposed, but the answer was a flat: 'Nope, we're not gonna do that,' from the Republicans. Well, in the past ten years two thousand guns were bought by people on the official government terrorist watch list. Doesn't that concern Republicans even a tiny little bit? Don't you think this is a bigger danger than some three-year-old Syrian who is going to have to wait two or three years to become an official refugee? This is what I mean about Republicans getting distracted from real, tangible, and downright dangerous loopholes in America's laws -- loopholes that have allowed thousands of guns to get in the hands of suspected terrorists."


   Convert the heathens!

This one is just the essence of stupidity, really. Remember, too: he's supposed to be the sane Republican running.

"Republican presidential candidate John Kasich -- a supposed moderate -- had his own brilliant idea for how to win the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern terrorists. He's going to create a new Department of Judeo-Christian Propaganda, and beam Judeo-Christian messages into the conflict zone. Boy! What a great idea! Let's try to convert the heathens! I'm surprised someone hasn't come up with such a brilliant idea before -- to travel to the Holy Land and either convert or kill everyone there. You could even come up with a snappy title for the program, something along the lines of 'The American Crusade' -- because that'll be the ticket to solving the religious conflicts in the Middle East! And this is from the moderate Republican candidate, mind you."


   Someone might want to tell Trump

Not that Trump pays any attention to reality, but still....

"Has anyone asked Donald Trump about the new numbers of Mexican immigrants? For the five years starting when Barack Obama took office -- 2009 to 2014 -- the net number of immigrants from Mexico was lower than zero. In fact, 140,000 more Mexicans returned to Mexico than immigrated to this country. There's a reason why the phrase '11 million illegal immigrants' has been used for so long, in fact -- because it is not going up. If it had been, it would have morphed over time to '13 million... 14 million...' and beyond. It hasn't. Because no matter how much Trump likes to talk about his beautiful wall, he's largely trying to solve a problem that doesn't even really exist anymore. More Mexicans are going home than coming here. Someone should really mention this to Donald, don't you think?"


   A history lesson from Bernie

Bernie Sanders schooled a whole lot of people on what "socialist" means and has meant in American politics during a very impressive speech. He helpfully pointed out what socialism is and what it is not -- and the way the term has been used by demagogues of the past. Here's one key passage, where Bernie discusses Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

Almost everything [FDR] proposed was called "socialist." Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was "socialist." The concept of the "minimum wage" was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as "socialist." Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as "socialist." Yet these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.


   And, sadly, they have

When life imitates satire, you know something's wrong. The following is from a satirical "point/counterpoint" editorial from The Onion, a fake news outlet. It was published under the title "This War Will Destabilize The Entire Mideast Region And Set Off A Global Shockwave Of Anti-Americanism vs. No It Won't," back in March of 2003, when we were marching off to war in Iraq. It has proved, sadly, quite prophetic:

If you thought Osama bin Laden was bad, just wait until the countless children who become orphaned by U.S. bombs in the coming weeks are all grown up. Do you think they will forget what country dropped the bombs that killed their parents? In 10 or 15 years, we will look back fondly on the days when there were only a few thousand Middle Easterners dedicated to destroying the U.S. and willing to die for the fundamentalist cause. From this war, a million bin Ladens will bloom.


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