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Veep Debate: Ready to Rumble?

Chris Weigant   |   October 10, 2012    8:49 PM ET

With just four short weeks to go until the election, the 2012 race for the White House has tightened up considerably. Romney's performance in the first presidential debate has given him a solid boost, for now, and Obama is slipping in a number of very key states. Romney has still not "sealed the deal" by any stretch of the imagination, but then again, neither has Obama -- even though a week ago, that's where it looked like he was heading.

Barring an unforeseen "October Surprise" of some sort, we've got three big political events remaining. The vice-presidential debate happens tomorrow night, and there are still two presidential debates on the calendar. Days before the election, one more monthly unemployment number will be released, but the impact this will have may be minor, since history shows that the closer any political event is to voting day, the less impact it tends to have (for better or for worse).

Before tomorrow night, we'll be hearing a whole lot of "vice-presidential debates haven't ever mattered," mostly uttered by the same people who told us, a week ago, that "presidential debates rarely change anything." Since these nattering nabobs of negativism (to use a famous vice-presidential phrase) were wrong before, one has to at least consider that they may be wrong again. Tomorrow's debate may matter a great deal to the voters. The first presidential debate was watched by a jaw-dropping record number of viewers (upwards of 70 million), and it's all anyone's been talking about since in the political world (even the Big Bird stories were tied in to the debate). So perhaps quite a few folks will tune in tomorrow night as well, and perhaps Joe Biden and Paul Ryan may prove to move public opinion this time around.

Handicapping Biden and Ryan is almost impossible. Both men have solid records in one sense, and are on shaky ground in another. Starting with Ryan, he is a very good speaker in contentious question-and-answer settings. The proof of this is his many, many appearances on cable news shows before being named Mitt Romney's running mate. Ryan is always sure of himself, and always has a bevy of numbers to toss in the air. He's a fast-talker, too. Not in the pejorative sense (make your own mind up about that), but in the literal sense -- he speaks so quickly he can uncork a whole lot of ideas in a very short space of time. The quickness of his verbiage actually reaches the extremely high bar set by the fictional characters on the West Wing television show (who were always rushing through hallways, talking a mile a minute, it seemed). Crucially for Ryan, he has the ability of taking very complex concepts, seeing them through his own ideological lens, and presenting the result as the most eminently reasonable way of looking at things. Bill Clinton had the same magic touch.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has had actual debating experience. He's good in debates in an entirely different way. He not only presents his facts, but does so with emotion -- a key ingredient missing from Obama's last debate. Joe also has plenty of real-world political experience both in foreign policy and in the ways of Washington. He's been around the block quite a few times, to put it another way. Also in his favor in debate settings, Biden has a wonderful way of pointing out when the other side is just flat-out being ridiculous. He even had to tone this down in the last debate he took part in, so as not to appear to be "beating up" on Sarah Palin too much. This time, he'll have no such restraint. Finally, Biden relates to his audience well, especially those further down the economic scale. Again, like Clinton, he has the shining ability to feel people's pain.

Both participants have negatives, too. Ryan has never been on a national debate stage, for instance. I would bet this isn't going to be much of an impediment, though, because of all that time he's spent on cable television practicing the modern debating style rather than the formal, traditional style. Look for Ryan to attempt to talk all over the moderator and over Biden, because that's what plays well on cable. It'll appear aggressive, and the only question is whether it'll appear too aggressive to viewers at home. Since almost nobody said Romney appeared too aggressive last week, Ryan will probably feel pretty unconstrained here. Ryan's other big drawback -- one that seems to be coming to light more often -- is that he is pretty short-tempered with people who disagree with him and question his pronouncements. Look for Biden to really try to get under Ryan's skin, in the hopes that Ryan will fly off the handle in some unguarded moment. The last big drawback Ryan's got is the handcuffs the Romney team has placed upon him. Paul Ryan has a few budget bills to his name, but he's only the number two guy on the ticket, and has had to squelch a lot of his own bright ideas because Romney won't fully back them. He's had to say things like "but that's my budget plan you're talking about, not Mitt Romney's," and this could be a big handicap tomorrow night. If Biden hammers Ryan on Ryan's own budget, Ryan will be reduced to using this line over and over again, which may come off as rather weak.

Joe Biden's negatives are... well, tune in to just about any late night comedy show to see. Sigh. Joe Biden has (like it or not) been cast as the comic relief in the Obama administration. Joe occasionally says things inelegantly, to put it nicely. To put it not-so-nicely, the entire punditary world will be on high "gaffe alert" tomorrow night, just salivating over the possibility that Biden will say something they can cut down to a five-second laugh line. Biden's other problem is that at times he can seem almost too emotional. He gets so caught up in being indignant that what he is actually talking about tends to get lost. Paul Ryan will doubtlessly be looking to exploit both of these perceived weaknesses tomorrow night. Biden can also slip into a slightly-annoying speaking trait, where he gets rather repetitive of certain words and phrases (notably, starting his answers with "Look..."). Now, I realize that me saying this of Biden is entering pot/kettle territory ( to speak... to put it another way... one might say... in other words... etc., etc.), but the real question is whether the voters tune such things out or not.

Tomorrow night's debate should prove to be a fascinating one. It may get downright brutal at times. Both Ryan and Biden are fully capable of going for the jugular, and the Obama team knows it is in a slump. Joe Biden has relished the traditional campaign role of "attack dog" so far this year, and Paul Ryan is equally capable of baring his teeth and getting in the fray as well. Both men will be trying mightily to provoke the other to the point of saying something they really shouldn't, which should certainly make for some interesting television. Biden is more experienced at this sort of thing, and he's got a lot of real world experience to draw upon, although there likely will be no opening for a "You're no Jack Kennedy" type of line for Biden to showcase Ryan's inexperience. Ryan's a lot better than Dan Quayle ever was, in other words.

Tomorrow will be an important night. In normal times, of course, "veep" debates aren't that big a deal. After last week's presidential debate -- and Romney's subsequent surge in the polls -- this time around the stakes are a lot higher than normal. Viewership may set a record (although likely not as high as the record set last Wednesday). Of course, this is how the media loves to frame these events, but this time it may actually be true. The media also loves underdogs, and at this point, the Obama/Biden team occupies this role.

The only thing I'd bet on in both the lead-up and aftermath of tomorrow night's debate is that the media focus will be on feistiness and snarkiness. Look for endless boxing ring metaphors to be deployed. The veep debate coverage will be downright pugilistic in nature this year:

"Who will be the creep and who will put us to sleep? Will Republicans sweep or will Democrats reap? Will one campaign be thrown on the trash heap? Tune in Thursday... Thursday... Thursday! It's the 2012 Battle For Veep! Let's get ready to RU-UMM-MMM-BLE!!!"


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Vive le Bill (Clinton)

Layla Demay   |   October 2, 2012    1:53 PM ET

Oh Mon Dieu. Bill, mon président!

While Bill Clinton was the uncontested winner of the Democratic National Convention and its aftermath, many thought, if only he could be president again.

Think no more: Bill Clinton, being the genius that he is, has found the solution.

And I support this message.

Bill Clinton can, and should be president of France!

Earlier this week, he explained to Piers Morgan on CNN that he could become president of France, because Arkansas where he was born, was once part of French Louisiana, and as such, Bill is eligible to receive French citizenship, the (almost) only requirement to run for higher office in France.

It is so thrilling to know that Bill wants to lead my country. Vive le Bill. Vive la France.

Unfortunately, while it used to be true, this whole Arkansas-Louisiana-France connection no longer works. But there are many other simple ways to gain French citizenship. So let me volunteer to marry Bill.

As spouse of a French citizen, he could immediately apply for citizenship. You might argue that the process would take a long time. No problem. The next French election is five years away anyway. By then, I can guarantee that under my training, Bill would be fluent in the French language (another requirement) and mores. French political lingo is full of English words anyway and impeachment and term limit are not among them.

Bill would have to own a home in France, which sounds only a sensible thing to own whether you are planning your retirement or launching your next political gig. He would not even have to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

As French president, he would know how to charm Angela Merkel into embracing a European stimulus package. He would (finally) pass healthcare reform. Who better than him to bring France onto the path of a three-trillion surplus? And trust me, the Socialist party is so much further to the left than he is, that no one would even think of calling him a Socialist! Sign me on!

The French have always liked Bill Clinton's personality, lifestyle and values. When he came under fire during his presidency, France felt outraged at this invasion of privacy.

But since he left the presidency, Bill Clinton has changed. Bill has cleaned up his act. No more excess. No more ravenous appetite. And the French don't like that.

We have traditions in France. We expect our politicians to be bon vivants. And Bill no longer is.

He used to eat burgers and steak and chicken enchiladas. According to CNN, "At one campaign stop in New Hampshire, he reportedly bought a dozen doughnuts and was working his way through the box until an aide stopped him."

Today, Bill is a vegan and France simply can't relate. As my friend Guillemette Faure, a French correspondent who covers French and American politics, noted, "You can't rule France if you don't eat dairy."

President Charles de Gaulle once said: "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?"

So Bill, let me tell you: If you want to be president of France, you'd have to eat them all!

"Is He One of Us?" The Only Real Issue in the Debates

Blake Fleetwood   |   October 1, 2012    4:48 PM ET

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful... They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are...
- "The Rich Boy" (1926), F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not all rich politicians fail the "Is He One of Us?" test. Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt all convinced us that they had our interests at heart. But in the end, they had to become traitors to their class to prove it.

Mitt Romney is not made this way. He is a Republican. He thinks that we should all get rich, and as nice a notion as that is, it's magical thinking.

In the good old days, when political bosses picked candidates who had the best chance of winning, the central question they thought the voters would ask was:

Is He One of Us?

More and more, the 2012 presidential campaign has turned from a referendum on economic issues -- have Obama's policies worked? -- to a question of comparative trust.

It's not that we want candidates who are just like us, but we ask: Do they really know us? Will they take care of us? Will they fight for us?

Voters don't really care about other issues. Most issues are boring.

Voters have a "what's in it for me?" mindset.

Am I going to get a job? Am I going to keep my job? Will the stock market go up? Will my pensions hold up in the future? Can I afford medical care? Will my kids be able to get job? Who will protect my country best?

And the candidate who can convince voters that he cares, that he is one of them, is the one who will get their votes. The candidate who can tell voters a clear story of what they are going to get and how it's going to help them, is the one who will win.

Presidential candidates -- and all politicians -- are salesman. The number one rule of any car salesman? The customer is always right.

Does he really care about us? Will he take care of us?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts -- personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot, even if it's trivial. Will Romney be able to seize the moment? Fifty million viewers will be watching and 200 million will hear about it from Jon Stewart and the rest of the media and social networks.

As Romney has stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, he seems to have, again and again, lost sight of the critical answers that he has to deliver to win.

One example is the choice of Paul Ryan, which has backfired with loyal senior citizens -- who were once the Republican's most reliable supporters -- and who are now deserting the party over fears of Medicare cutbacks and Social Security.

Another instance of Romney's tone deafness are his "inartful" comments about not caring about the 47 percent of Americans who get money from the government. Lots of people, it turns out.

Neither candidate is really a good debater. Despite Obama's vaunted oratory skill, in debates the president rambles and becomes professorial. Romney seems uncomfortable in his own skin and, when pressed, tends to rely on statistics to make his points. He needs to be more visceral. Think: "I feel your pain."

His staff has been prepping him with a series of zingers and one liners. But can he deliver them without being stiff and stilted?

Neither candidate is a good storyteller, as Bill Clinton was in his speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, when he enthusiastically articulated a better path forward.

In fact, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are elitists.

Obama surely cringes when he is reminded that in front of wealthy donors in 2008, he commented on the folks in Pennsylvania, who cling to guns and Bibles as "crutches" because they cannot cope with the global economy.

But Obama transcended that difficult question -- "Is he one of us?" -- with middle-class white voters. He brought back the auto industry and saved millions of jobs for middle-class workers. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Obama needs more fluency with the kind of sound bites that will resonate with ordinary voters. Overall, he has a good hand going into the first debate. Political pundits say he will try to run out the clock and take no risks, which was his strategy in the 2008 McCain debates. But the race may be too close for such complacent tactics. It's Obama's debate to lose, but he has to keep reminding himself to connect to people.

If the debates -- and the election -- turn into a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, he will lose. If the question becomes which of the two candidates has the best answers for the future, Obama will win. Obama will tie our economic woes to the Republicans, and ask, "Why in the world should we give back control of the country to the very people who got us into this mess in the first place?"

Unless Romney makes a credible, detailed case as to why his policies would be different from those of President Bush, he is going to have an uphill struggle. It is not going to be enough to just attack Obama.

Romney has to play offense. His past debate performances against Ted Kennedy (1994), John McCain (2008), and at the Republican primaries (2012) have not been very sure-footed. He should try to goad Obama into such mean-spirited gaffes as "You're likable enough, Hillary," which Obama uttered in the 2008 primary debates.

In the past, Republicans have managed to win presidential elections by sticking an elitist, far-left image on Democratic candidates: Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry all went down this way.

For the next six weeks, the Republicans are going to cram this elitist perception of Obama down the throats of the voters. They will try to "define" the Democratic nominee, just as they defined Kerry as an elitist windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.

Of course, most Americans already know who they are going to vote for by start of the debates (and many will have already voted), but there still remains the possibility to reset the dynamic for the 6 percent who haven't really made up their minds.

Write to:

The Obama and Romney Debates Do Matter

Earl Ofari Hutchinson   |   September 28, 2012   10:16 AM ET

The conventional wisdom is that debates are virtually meaningless. Countless studies, surveys and polls have tracked presidential debates and their impact on voters over more than five decades. They looked at the gaffes, the routine ducks and dodges, the gestures, and the physical appearance of the candidates. The Nixon and Kennedy debate in 1960 showed a disheveled and nervous Nixon. In the 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford uttered the colossal gaffe, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." In the 1980 debate, Reagan zinged Carter with the classic question to the audience," "Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago'?" In the 1988 debate with Bush Sr., Michael Dukakis horribly fumbled a question about the death penalty. In the 1992 debate against Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch. In the 2000 debate with George W. Bush, Al Gore sighed and rolled his eyes impatiently and exasperatedly.

Their fumbling performances barely nudged their poll numbers down. Though, in a close race the bump up for the debate winner can be huge. But it usually doesn't last. The proof of that is Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. He beat the pants off Bush II on the issue of foreign policy in their 2004 debate. Kerry got an instant poll bump-up. Yet Kerry still lost. The reason for the problematic importance of presidential debates is not hard to find. No matter how ineffectual, or just plain bad, a Republican presidential contender, the overwhelming majority of Republicans will still dutifully pull the lever for him. Likewise, no matter how ineffectual or just plain bad, a Democratic presidential contender is, the majority of Democrats will dutifully pull the lever for him. The hard balkanization of American voters along party lines was glaring apparent in 2008. Despite the endless warning that Obama might be done in by racism, namely that hordes of white Democrats would not vote for a black candidate, it never happened. Obama got more white votes than Gore or Kerry, and a crushing majority of the vote of white Democrats.

By the time of presidential debates most voters have already heard enough and seen enough of both candidates. They have long since made up their minds who they'll pick. They don't generally flip to the other side on a whim or based on something that they heard from the other candidate that suddenly touched a nerve.

It will be the same this time around. Obama and Romney are well prepped, rehearsed, and skilled, and won't stray from their talking points. Republicans will claim victory for Romney. Democrats will claim victory for Obama. It will be tantamount to an NFL game with a tie score after one overtime period. It goes down in the books as a tie. The Romney versus Obama debate will be the same.

Still, the debates do matter. More Americans will be watching the candidates at one time than at any other time during the campaign. They can't totally slip and slide for an hour or so around every thorny issue and talk in vague and sound bite generalities on the issues. They'll have to be at least marginally specific on how they'll deal with policy issues and problems. This will give some glimpse of what they're likely to say and do if they wind up in the Oval Office on these issues. Americans will also get a rare chance to see the candidates show a flash or two of emotion in answering the scripted questions. This in itself is the rarest or rarities in the age of the dumbing-down gossip, mayhem, sports, and celebrity chitchat that passes for news and information and is spoon-fed daily to American audiences.

The jousts that Obama and Romney will engage in and the barbs they will toss at with each other will tell much about which candidate is the niftiest and nimblest on their feet with a pointed response or rebuttal to an attack. Americans want presidents to be able to think on their feet and respond thoughtfully and swiftly to a crisis. They regard this as firm leadership. This instantly tags an administration as a resounding success or a dismal failure. Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton had the gift to respond or at least were perceived to respond effectively and quickly to demanding situations. Their administrations are given high marks by historians. Nixon, Carter, and Bush Sr. were seen as sorely lacking in that area and their administrations are downgraded accordingly.

Then there are the events and issues that define the candidate and that give them an edge with the public before the debates. Dukakis's death penalty answer and Ford's Soviet Union gaffe didn't sink either of them in their poll numbers after their debate. But it did reinforce the notion among Democrats and Republicans that their man was the best choice for the job. This gave them even more incentive to get to the polls to punch the ticket that they had already decided to punch for them.

Romney needs a big and impressive win in the debates to claw back into the race. But as the history of presidential debates show the chance is that whatever bump up he gets from that won't last. When the dust settles, the Obama and Romney debates will do little to change the minds of most voters. They will simply further convince Obama's backers that their guy is the right choice for the White House. They will do the same for Romney's backer. Their debate will still be great political theater, though.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.

JULIE PACE   |   September 28, 2012    8:14 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton will be back on the campaign trail on behalf of President Barack Obama.

Obama's campaign says the former president will hold an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, the day of the first presidential debate. Obama and Republican Mitt Romney debate two more times in October.

  |   September 26, 2012    3:43 PM ET

UNITED NATIONS -- Former President Bill Clinton and other world leaders are announcing that prices for long-acting contraception will be halved for 27 million women in the developing world through a new partnership.

"This is a very big deal, and it will play itself out over and over again in the lives of citizens who will be safe, who will have healthier families and who will live longer lives," Clinton said at the U.N. Wednesday, flanked by the leaders of Norway and Nigeria.

Mr. President, You Are Abetting Murder in Honduras

Andy Thayer   |   September 25, 2012   10:39 AM ET

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Dear President Obama:

Put simply, your support of the coup regime in Honduras is killing people. During a recent fact-finding tour of Honduras organized by the Chicago-based La Voz de los de Abajo, I was part of a delegation that spoke to dozens of people in several areas of the country who had lost friends, colleagues and loved ones due to the violence of Honduran government forces whom you support, and the private death squads associated with them.

The murder rate in Honduras now leads the world. Depending on how you count it, it is the second or third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over and over again, the stories we heard were very similar. The government doesn't respect its own laws, the judges are bought and sold by the few who can afford them, and all this is done to increase the power and wealth of that country's one percent. And your administration makes it worse by supporting this with guns and more guns.

Besides the many witnesses we interviewed, last Thursday afternoon we personally witnessed a small taste of what the Honduran people routinely endure.

While speaking with witnesses to a combined police/military/private security assault in the city of Tocoa on September 9th that killed an elderly man, Mr. Hector Navarro, we were threatened by five gunmen guarding property claimed by one Miguel Facusse, the country's wealthiest person and largest landowner. Nine of us on the La Voz delegation, plus Mr. Heriberto Aleman of The Permanent Human Rights Observatory of the Aguan, witnessed what followed.

Even though we were clearly not on the land claimed by Mr. Facusse, the masked gunmen threatened our lives. One guard said, "This is your last warning," and then fired a rifle at the ground in our direction from about 25 yards away. From that distance, most of us are visibly not Honduran citizens. I videotaped the incident and others took still photographs. The video and some of the still pictures of the incident are available at here and here.

Shortly after the incident, we visited the Tocoa police headquarters and made a report. There, one of the police officials who took the complaint was a Mr. Wilfredo Bautista, who is in charge of investigating murders in the Aguan Valley. He told three of our delegation, "even we [the police] can't go into that plantation; there [sic] are very bad people. We can't investigate because we can't go there; we might get killed."

There are three important take-aways from this incident:

1) Were not most of us visibly Anglo North Americans, chances are good that some of us would now be severely injured, if not dead. That most people in the country aren't privileged by our skin color goes a long way to explain why so many Hondurans are dying. The thugs we encountered may fear the repercussions of injuring or killing Americans, but clearly feel no threat of justice from their own government, and Mr. Bautista's statement simply confirms that.

2) It is absolutely unconscionable that your administration continues to spend a single dime on arms for the Honduran police and military. As Honduran military spending increased two and a half fold between 2005 and 2010, the murder rate in the country skyrocketed. During our visit there with local human rights experts, social justice activists and campesinos -- many who had lost loved ones to assassinations by the government and the wealthy -- they uniformly implored us to stop U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police.

When I asked an Afro-Honduran activist if she holds the United States partially responsible for the violence and other lawlessness by the Honduran government and its allies, she said "Yes, because the guns come from the United States. Honduras don't manufacture guns, we have machetes. Guns - they come from the United States." You must cut off all funding to the brutal government and its allies here immediately.


3) If you care about the violence against the Honduran people, then you also must take immediate action against Mr. Miguel Facusse and his hired thugs. Our delegation spoke with several people who have lost family members due to his associates' violence over the past three years.

He is by any definition a terrorist, and should be treated as such. Indeed, one of the cables exposed by Wikileaks indicates that former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens has evidence that Facusse is a major narco trafficker. All U.S. bank accounts and properties of Mr. Facusse and his businesses should be frozen immediately. He should be banned from traveling to the United States.

I write this message as an open letter to you for a very simple reason. I am not so naïve as to think that you are ignorant as to what your policies do. As a former constitutional law scholar at the University of Chicago, your studied contempt for civil rights, as demonstrated by your full-court press to defend indefinite imprisonment with trial, is only exceeded by your contempt for the many lives lost as a result of your alliances with thugs like Mr. Facusse and the Honduran government.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Thayer
Chicago, IL


Andy Thayer is a Chicago-based anti-war activist and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, and is producing a short film about Honduran LGBT activists. An earlier article he wrote about the Honduran delegation can be found here. He can be reached at

Constructing Central America's Newest 'Death Squad Democracy'

Andy Thayer   |   September 20, 2012   12:44 PM ET

My first day in Honduras last week was also my first in a truly "Third World" country, though from what I've seen, portions of Russia and the Appalachians could give it a run for the money. Of the nine people on our delegation, I'm easily the least traveled in this part of the world, having never gone farther south than New Orleans. Plus I'm monolingual.

That said, I've done my best to read up before getting here, have had ready access to good translations, plus a surprising number of the campesinos are bilingual. Last night I spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation near Progresso. He looked to be in his seventies and had been deported a few years ago. A few days earlier we spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation, who had badly burned his foot while working in Florida. He told us that his boss told him he couldn't work anymore and then he was deported. One can't escape the impression that migrant workers are disposable people to the U.S., to be employed when young and healthy, then dumped back on impoverished countries when they're no longer useful.

Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western hemisphere. After Mexico, it is the largest source of migrants from Central America to the United States. Due to the frequent attacks on migrants, a road from Tegucigalpa to the Olancho in the north has been dubbed the "Highway of death." And then they have to traverse Guatemala and Mexico, where Central American migrants are particular marks for thieves, kidnappers and drug lords hoping to use them as mules, followed by the deadly desert crossing at the U.S. border. One of our delegation, Lois Martin, reported that thus far this year there have been close to 200 bodies found in the Tucson border patrol sector alone.

With all the death and violence facing them if they migrate north, one might wonder why people might choose to leave Honduras. The frequency that you see people here wearing clothing in the patriotic colors, blue and white, with little Honduran flags adorning them, rivals the displays at U.S. party conventions. In practically every conversation where the issue came up, people insisted that they don't want to leave, but often had no choice.

The violence at home has truly gone off the charts since the 2009 U.S.-supported coup. As many have noted, Honduras is now the murder capital of the world -- 86 per 100,000 people, a rate nearly five times Mexico's.

Some of the Honduran government's attempts to reign in the violence are laughable in their stupidity, and in this are reminiscent of Chicago's -- last summer, some aldermen proposed removing nets from basketball hoops as a remedy for the city's gang violence. In Honduras, to address a spate of murders by pairs of men riding motorcycles to bump off their targets, a few months ago the government passed a law banning pairs of men riding motorcycles. The response? The murders went co-ed, with male/female pairs doing the dirty work.

Of course, the "solution" treats a symptom and not any of the causes. Many of these are purely political murders, bumping off those who don't take kindly to their elected president being deported at gunpoint. Many more combine the social and the political, people who are struggling for land or workers' rights, victims of the rich who feel emboldened by the coup regime to use state power and the myriad of private armed guards to bump off people whom they find to be inconvenient.

And then there's the violence of passion and of dire poverty, encouraged by the extreme violence of the state. As contributor Laura Carlsen put it, "The impunity with which common criminals, powerful transnational interests, and elements of the state violate the most basic principles of society with government complicity or indifference derives from the fact that the government itself is erected on the violation of those principles. The crisis in human rights and violence -- as deep as it is -- is but a symptom of a greater evil. When the 2009 coup was allowed to conserve power and seal itself off from prosecution, it immediately undermined governance, rule of law, and the social compact. Honduras' constitutional crisis has now become a prolonged social and political crisis."

And we'd be remiss if we left the Honduran government's mentor out of this. As Mariam Herrera, an Afro-Honduran woman told me yesterday, "The politics of this country are shitty. The laws are shitty, and everybody violates them. Half the Congress violates the laws." Do you hold the United States responsible for part of that? "Yes, because the guns come from the United States. Honduras don't manufacture guns, we have machetes. Guns - they come from the United States."

Today we will attempt to visit the scene of a shooting of two campesinos by the employees of Miguel Facusse, the largest landowner and one of the wealthiest men in the Honduras. Herman Alejandro Maldonado was killed and Ivis Ortega was gravely wounded. They were working on the plantation (finca) of Panama, in the Aguan valley of northern Honduras. This brings the number of murdered compesinos in the Aguan Valley to 79 since the U.S.-supported coup in June 2009.

With the government and the rich deeply unpopular in most quarters and yet apparently committed to holding power regardless of human cost, all activists here fear that the violence will escalate in the run up to primary elections this November, and national elections in November 2013. If we are not going to complicit in this, it is essential that North American activists loudly demand that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cease their "human rights" blather, and stop arming Honduras's death squad government.

NB An hour ago we learned that Ivis Ortega died of his wounds.


Andy Thayer is part of a Sept 6-16 solidarity delegation organized by La Voz de los de Abajo. He is producing a short film about Honduran LGBT activists. He can be reached at

To Walk It Back or Double Down, That is the Question.

Bill Santiago   |   September 20, 2012    9:48 AM ET

When politicians or other public figures get in hot water over something they said, they have a choice. Either they can walk it back or they can double down. I used to get confused about which was which. But I think I have a handle on it now.

Walking it back is a form of back pedaling in response to push back that behooves you to back down, although you really don't want to entirely take it back. Doubling down is a refusal to back down, whatever the backlash, even unto a smack down, in hopes that your critics will back off on the double.

Those are your only two options, apparently, when there's a surge of people getting their panties in a wad over your latest sound bite. At least that's the impression I get from the chatter blowing up today's punditsphere.

Presently, it's Mitt Romney's turn. After a trouncing in headlines such as the New York Daily News' "Mitt Hits the Fan," over his tacit dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders, he's making the damage control rounds. As we listen to what he has to say about what he said, let's remember that the visible squirming is typical when walking back or doubling down on secretly videotaped remarks.

If a comment backfires, generating public outcry, protest or ridicule, whoever made it may feel chastised enough to cede a little ground, but prefer to save as much face as possible. In which case, they can try taking the offending remark for a leisurely stroll, escorting it as discreetly as possible, sometimes on tippy toe, back in the direction from whence it came.

"Ryan Walks Back Exaggerated Marathon Time." "Obama Walks Back Claim That Economy is 'Doing Fine.'" "Mitt Romney Walks Back London Olympics Comment." "Bloomberg Walks Back Comment That Police Should Threaten Strike After Aurora." "Why Didn't Team Obama Walk Back Joe Biden's 'Back in Chains' Remark?" "Carney Starts Walking Back Claim That Anti-Islam Video Inspired Riots."

On the other hand, if the comment sparks outrage, but whoever made it isn't feeling particularly conciliatory (either out of conviction or stupidity), they can defiantly up the ante on the original statement, by issuing a full-throated: Yeah, I said it.

"Obama Doubles Down on 'You Didn't Build It.'" "Mitt Romney Doubles Down on His Decision to Politicize Diplomat Deaths." "White House Doubles Down: Obamacare Not a Tax." "Allen West Doubles Down on Obama's 'Crap Sandwhich.'" "Rush Limbaugh Doubles Down on 'Slut' Claim." "Trump Doubles Down on Birther Nonsense." "Clint Eastwood Doubles Down on Empty Chair."

Of course, no one ever actually announces, "Hey, on second thought, I am going to walk that back." Or, "You know what? I am going to double down, baby!" The media, abounding in able referees, decides whether you've walked or doubled, depending on how you deal with the commotion.

If you stand by what you said, or declare it even more emphatically, it's considered a double down. But if you downplay your remark, without making a retraction, admitting a mistake or God forbid apologizing, that's a textbook walk back. A full mea culpa, or unequivocal "my bad," could be considered an extreme walk back, but the whole idea of walking it back is to avoid walking back that far.

Yes, some will try to walk it back and double down simultaneously, admitting fault with the rhetoric but not the gist, or the details but not the plan, or the policy but not the spelling. And it's not unheard of for someone to only pretend to walk it back, when actually just doubling back to walk it forward on the down low.

Here's the really fun part. You don't only walk back comments when you get caught lying, or when private remarks about what you actually think get leaked. Nor do you only double down because you meant what you said, and or know the facts back you up.

It's perfectly common to walk back something that's absolutely true, or that you openly stated you believe and still do, if you nevertheless change your mind about having said it. "Cheney Walks Back Remark About Palin Pick Being 'A Mistake.'" And certainly you can double down on something that you know is totally bogus, if you're the type of person that doesn't let facts get in the way. "Palin Doubles Down on Paul Revere History Lesson."

Whether to double down or walk it back can be a tricky question. Obviously, you don't double down after saying that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy. But if you only walk it back to "forcible rape," you better keep on walking. In fact, if you're up for re-election, you might want to double down on walking it back.

Which, by the way, is much easier than walking it back after you've doubled down. Bill Clinton had an awful time walking it back after he doubled down on the claim that he "never had sex with that woman." So much so that he practically got walked back out of the White House.

Yet in his resurrection speech at the Democratic National Convention, he deftly exploited the current "walk it back," "double down" mania, doubling down on Obama by warning voters not to "double down on trickle down." The speech effectively walked back years of Clinton's previous Obama digs, if only to double down on Hillary's prospects in 2016.

Probably no one was more jealous of that masterful walk back than Rev. Jesse Jackson. Things have been a little testy between Jackson and Obama, ever since the reverend, not realizing his mic was live during a Fox News appearance, said that he would like to cut then Senator Obama's "nuts off."

Castration threats are nearly impossible to walk back. And for all the good his apology did, Jackson might as well have doubled down on his gonadular gaffe. That would take real balls (I know you saw that coming). But if you want to make history, sometimes you have to man up when circumstances double dog dare you to double down.

To be sure, history is rife with examples of its principle characters defending, downplaying or disavowing what they said. While my two new favorite buzz phrases are currently trending in our 24-7, news-spin-repeat cycles, they could have easily applied throughout the ages.

"Moses Doubles Down on 'Let My People Go.'" "Galileo Walks Back Claim That Earth Orbits Sun." "Marie Antoinette Doubles Down on 'Let Them Eat Cake.'" "Columbus Walks Back on Discovering 'India.'" "P.T. Barnum Doubles Down on 'Sucker Born Every Minute.'"

I like to keep that kind of historical perspective in mind. It helps me remember that it makes no difference what anybody says today. What really matters is whether they will walk it back or double down tomorrow.

Bill Santiago, resident comedian on CNN Saturday Mornings with Randi Kaye, has also appeared on Comedy Central and Showtime. He's written for The New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, and his latest one man show, "My Fellow Republicans," premieres Oct, 25, and 26 at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA. Checkout his new website here.

What Is Bill Clinton Like in Person?

Quora   |   September 18, 2012    8:37 PM ET

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Mark Hughes, screenwriter and Forbes blogger

I met Clinton several times (about four, I think), first as a civilian before he was president and later while working on his first presidential campaign.

The best way I can describe him to you is this: When you are talking to him, you feel like he doesn't care about anything or anybody else around but you. He makes you feel like the most important person in the room, an assessment I've heard many people make about him and it's absolutely true. He seems utterly genuinely friendly and will remember you if he's ever met you before. I am critical of many things Clinton has done and said, but I have to admit that if I'm watching him speak I will find myself nodding and often even smiling and admiring him -- however much it frustrates me when it happens, haha!

Clinton will look you in the eye and make you feel like he's confiding in you without any bulls**t; he seems so confident in what he's saying without seeming smug or seeming to KNOW he's the smartest guy you've probably ever talked to. It's as if he's telling you something you already knew or felt somehow, but that you just didn't realize you knew it or felt it. You will feel like he really does understand you, and that you really understand him.

Clinton makes you believe him, and believe in him. Even his enemies in politics, like Newt Gingrich for example, would regularly find themselves taken in by him and persuaded. Because he made them feel special, he made them feel that he understood them and cared deeply about what they felt and wanted, and he made them feel that what he wanted and what they wanted were the same thing. This last aspect of his personality is the most amazing -- he can convince you to go along with what he wants, while making you feel it was really what you wanted all along.

I was twenty two years old during the first Clinton presidential campaign. I'd never thought a politician would ever seem to truly so strongly represent what I hoped for and believed in for this country. When he won on election night and came out to give his victory speech, I was there in real life in a huge crowd. Even with my pass, I couldn't get close to the area at the front of the stage, so huge was the crowd of supporters. When he ended his speech and that damn song started to play for the millionth time, I felt more alive and hopeful than I'd ever felt about this country before or probably since, I had tears in my eyes, and a man in front of me turned and high-fived me, which turned into us grasping hands together and pumping them in joy and victory (this moment is in fact caught on camera at the end of the documentary film The War Room, which I find extremely cool). And those feelings were just from seeing him on TV or reading his speeches -- my feelings came from having met the man, previously when he wasn't running for president, and I just like him and felt he was amazingly friendly and charismatic, and later when he was a candidate who looked me and many others in the eye and told us he was running for all of us, and that his victory would be all of us winning.

What Bill Clinton is like is, when he says that to you, you believe it in your heart. It took years for me to become jaded and disappointed by many things about him, and to eventually quit the Democratic Party. But the power of his personality, of his intellect, and of his strong desire to be liked and to relate to other people is undeniable. Whatever policy concerns and anger I had about him regarding certain issues, to this day if he's speaking about issues or at an event etc, he has that same ability to make me smile and nod as he's talking, and I still feel that desire to believe in him, however frustrating it might be.

I should probably be very honest here and admit that however much I talk about complaints regarding Clinton and disappointment etc, I've also come to realize as I've gotten older and seen more in politics, that he was probably the best and most qualified president we've had in the second half of the twentieth Century, and whatever misgivings I have -- and I do have many -- I'd likely vote for him if he could run for office again, because of his ability to manage a nation better than any of the other options out there who have any remote chance of taking office. He is the most capable person to be president, particularly as conditions in this country continue to decline for so many people.

More questions on Government Leaders and Politicians:

It Wasn't Just a Movie -- U.S. Ambassador to Libya Killed

Peter Van Buren   |   September 12, 2012    1:55 PM ET

It wasn't just a movie.

It was less than a year ago that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was videotaped gleefully laughing at the brutal death of then-Libyan leader Gaddafi. "We came, we saw, he died!" giggled the Secretary of State like a drunk school girl on the sidelines of a national television interview.

It was, in large part, the military intervention of the US that brought about Gaddafi's death and the "liberation" of Libya. Gaddafi was evil. He had people tortured and had opponents killed. He was a dictator. The common wisdom on the Internet, and inside the State Department, is that while "unfortunate," a guy like Gaddafi had it coming. The same logic applied to the US' gunning down of bin Laden and our drone killings of any number of terrorist celebs, including several American citizens in Yemen.

With the tragic news that US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and several other Americans were killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, one wonders if Hillary is still laughing.

It appears that the Ambassador was in Benghazi for the ribbon-cutting for an "American Corner." An American Corner is, in State's own words, a "friendly, accessible space, open to the public, which provides current and reliable information about the United States through bilingual book and magazine collections, films and documentaries, poster exhibitions, and guides for research on the United States." Ironic of course that Ambassador Stevens and his people died in what was nothing more than a propaganda gesture, a Corner that says happy things about America so that Libyans will love us. As if books and magazine could erase a policy of violence and killing by the US across the Middle East.

I mean no disrespect to the dead, and mourn with their loved ones. A few years ago it was my family stationed abroad at an American Consulate, so I know too well the tight feeling in my gut wondering what will happen, will someone die today simply because of where they work. Making light over the death of anyone is disgraceful.

America's actions abroad, particularly when we kill people because we do not like what they say or do, have consequences that are long and often tragic. Secondary, tertiary effects. I hate killing. I am not justifying any killing nor am I gleeful over Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues' deaths.

I am instead offended by US leaders who find happiness in the death of others for political reasons, and then seem shocked and surprised when it is visited on our own. Drone strikes call forth retaliatory terror acts. Terror acts beget more drone strikes. Eye for an eye. Live by the sword.

It is not about a movie. The anti-Islam movie was just today's trigger in Libya, was just the most recent spark to a smoldering flame. Behind the easy, casual "oh, it was our free speech that angered them" we seem to forget what filmmaker James Spione knows, that the invasions of multiple Muslim countries, the killing and wounding of hundreds of thousands of civilians to "free them," the displacement of millions more as refugees, the escalating drone attacks, the torture and rendition, Guantanamo itself as a symbol of all that is wrong with our policies, the propping up of corrupt regimes in Bahrain, Saudi and until we changed political directions, Libya and Syria, the relentless horrific violence unleashed year after year after year by America's military. Let's at least be honest about the miasma of hatred we've created that is the true context for this horrible incident.

Indeed, the US rendered human beings into Qaddafi's Libya for torture just a few years ago. Some of those who were rendered and tortured under US sponsorship now hold key leadership and political positions in the Libyan government.

It wasn't just a movie.

America needs a policy in the Middle East that is not based on killing if we ever want the killing to stop.

  |   September 10, 2012   12:55 PM ET

* Bill Clinton's philanthropic summit in NY Sept. 23-25

* Obama, Romney to address separate sessions on final day

* Nigerian, Mexican, Rwandan presidents also due to attend

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK, Sept 10 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are expected to set aside their political differences later this month to speak at Bill Clinton's eighth annual philanthropic summit.

Obama and Romney were invited earlier this summer to attend the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a summit official said, well before Clinton's Democratic National Convention speech last week where he gave a rousing endorsement of Obama and a detailed attack on the Republican presidential candidate.

Obama and Romney will address separate sessions on Sept. 25, the final day of the three-day summit in New York City that brings together heads of state, business leaders, humanitarians and celebrities to make commitments to tackle the world's woes.

It was not known what topics they planned to speak about.

"I'm grateful that President Obama and Governor Romney are taking time to join leaders from all parts of society who choose to address our greatest global challenges through the Clinton Global Initiative," Clinton said in a statement on Monday.

"CGI is built on the spirit of non-partisan, cross-sector collaborations that drive action and I'm proud that, since we began in 2005, CGI members have made more than 2,100 commitments that are already improving the lives of 400 million people all over the world," he said.

Clinton, who this week is due to campaign for Obama in the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio, gave point-by-point criticism of Romney and his vice presidential running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, during a prime-time address to the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Relishing being back in the political spotlight, Clinton said Obama should not be blamed for the poor economy he inherited in 2009 and has set the foundations for strong growth - if voters will give him more time and re-elect him on Nov. 6.

But campaigning is expected to be set aside for the Clinton Global Initiative. A summit official said the philanthropic summit was traditionally a non-partisan event.

"The president of the United States, G20 heads of state and U.S. presidential nominees of both parties have always been invited," the official said.

"Senator Obama and Senator McCain both addressed the CGI annual meeting in September of 2008," he said, referring to 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"The invitations to President Obama and Governor Romney for the 2012 annual meeting were extended earlier this summer, prior to the conventions," the official said.

Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - who lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama in 2008 - is also slated to appear at the Clinton Global Initiative, along with her Republican predecessor at the State Department, Condoleezza Rice.

The world's richest man, Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, Spain's King Juan Carlos and Jordan's Queen Rania are also due to attend.

The idea for the summit came from Clinton's frustration while president from 1993 to 2001 at attending conferences that prompted no action. So far the Clinton Global Initiative says it has produced more than 2,100 pledges valued at nearly $70 billion.

The full agenda for the summit can be seen at (Editing by Eric Beech)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

A Tale of Two Conventions

David Coates   |   September 8, 2012    9:28 AM ET

Charles Dickens came to mind again this week -p his opening to A Tale of Two Cities -- his intriguing contrast between "the best of times....the worst of times...the age of wisdom...the age of foolishness." His cities were London and Paris. Ours were Tampa and Charlotte, but the contrasts remain the same. As we vote in November we need to decide. Tampa? Charlotte? Which offers us "the season of Light," which "the season of Darkness?"

Maybe the conventions can offer us a clue because they were so very different -- different on honesty, different on compassion and equality, different on economic growth and social justice, different on civil rights. Different -- so making it easier to choose -- different, so making it even clearer than it was before, just how vital it is for America's long-term future that Democrats, and not Republicans, win in November.


The first convention, the one held in Tampa, was marked by an all-pervasive lack of respect for the present occupant of the White House and for the truth about his record in office. There was Clint Eastwood and the empty chair. There was Paul Ryan and the Medicare cuts, the failure of Bowles-Simpson and the closure of the Janesville GM plant. There was Mitt Romney on the support Republicans supposedly gave the Obama presidency at its outset, on the "apology tour," and on the throwing of Israel under the bus. There was the persistent subterranean soft birtherism of the Party's repeated claim that only Republicans understood and valued American exceptionalism. (Barack Obama certainly did not. How could he, since he supposedly "just doesn't get it." ) Republican speakers struggled in Tampa to hold together two intrinsically incompatible claims; that America is still the greatest country on the face of the earth, and yet is currently so scarred by un-American levels of unemployment, poverty and indebtedness to China that it requires new leadership at the top. The only way that Republicans could square that circle was to blame the president (and the president alone) for all our contemporary economic difficulties, even though in truth the unemployment, poverty and indebtedness with which we now struggle -- as Republicans well know -- was a legacy from the presidency of George W. Bush. The Obama Administration did not create the crisis. They inherited it. Because they did, and because Republicans cannot afford to admit that they did, systematic lying had to become central to the presentation of the Republican case in Tampa. For the underlying truth here is that the policies now being proposed by Romney and by Ryan are the very ones that created our present economic difficulties when pursued by George W. Bush. But no self-respecting Republican dare admit that. After all, "elect us and we will make things worse" will hardly be a winning slogan for Republicans in November. Lying is so much more preferable to truth, when the truth could be so costly in votes.

Now compare that to the underlying accuracy of the message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte. Unlike the Republicans in Tampa, the Democrats were not selling a policy package that was basically fraudulent. On the contrary and convention hyperbole apart, they had an honest story to tell, one indeed that they told endlessly. It was a story of difficult conditions inherited and of best efforts made to address those conditions -- and of those best efforts being made in spite of unprecedented degrees of Republican resistance. "Facts are facts," as Martin O'Malley put it. "No President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression inherited a worse economy, bigger job losses or deeper problems from his predecessor." Or as President Clinton had it, Barack Obama "inherited a deeply damaged economy." "He started with a much weaker economy than I did." "He put a floor under the crash. He began the long hard road to recovery." He "laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy." Indeed the case for Obama's record was put far better by Clinton than by Obama himself. "No president," Clinton said, "no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years." And particularly could not have done it in the political conditions to which Clinton also properly drew attention. "Maybe," he said, "just because I grew up in a different time... though I often disagreed with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats." It wasn't just honesty that was available in greater volume in Charlotte than in Tampa. It was also civility and the toleration of difference.


Why? Well perhaps because the Tampa convention was attended by a Republican party-base that seemed uniquely low on diversity, high on anger, and short on the compassionate conservatism that more liberal Republicans like Jeb Bush still so enthusiastically espouse. When Mitt Romney, in his acceptance address, spoke of his capacity to create a united America that "will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need," the audience in Tampa largely forgot to clap. When earlier Jeb Bush spoke of every child in America having an equal opportunity regardless of their ethnic background, that same audience was largely silent. But when both men spoke of school choice, the hall became immediately ecstatic. For "choice" encapsulates the escape route theory of poverty resolution. It is Republican code for breaking from poverty by leaving the poor behind. You don't solve poverty. You just shake it off yourself, leaving it for others to endure; and you measure your own success by your distance from the rest. Speaker after speaker at Tampa provided us with personal stories to that effect. Nowhere in those Republican narratives was there any concession to the way in which market competition produces losers as well as winners; or to the resulting inequality of resources experienced by the children of both the winners and the losers, as they -- the children -- begin their own market-based competitive struggle to realize the American Dream. So committed were the speakers in Tampa to a politics that privileged equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes that they entirely failed to grasp the extent to which the "outcomes" produced by the unbridled pursuit of "opportunity" in the years since Ronald Reagan abandoned the war on poverty are now so unequal that only public policy to level the playing field can make the competition in any way fair for the next generation of Americans.

Now compare that to the basic message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte -- to and from a convention audience which was visibly more diverse in its composition than that in Tampa, and arguably also less angry, more hopeful, much higher on genuine compassion. True, the content of last Tuesday's keynote speech paralleled in many ways the personal success stories rolled out in Tampa, but it did so with one key additional element. That although Texas (Julian Castro is the mayor of San Antonio) "may be the one place where people still actually have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them," even so, Democrats "also recognize there are some things we can't do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow." "We all celebrate individual success," Castro said, "but the question is, how do we multiply that success?" Not, according to Michelle Obama, "when you've worked hard and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, by then "slam[ming] it shut behind you." No, "you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed." Instead of leaving the poor behind, the responsibility of middle-class and super-rich Americans alike was and is to address the problem of poverty head-on. We cannot afford, Deval Patrick told the Democratic crowd, to leave the children of the poor "on their own to deal with their poverty: with ill-prepared young parents, maybe who speak English as a second language; with underfunded schools; with neighborhood crime and blight; with no access to nutritious food and no place for mom to cash a paycheck; with a job market that needs skills they don't have; with no way to pay for college." Why? Because those children, he said, are yours and mine too -- and among them are "future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, engineers, laborers and civic leaders we desperately need. For this country to rise, they must rise." As the party platform put it, "we must make ending poverty a national priority:" not least by raising the minimum wage and by fighting "for equal pay for equal work, a strong labor movement, and access to a world-class education for every child."


The way the Republicans tell it, we have so much federal debt now because Big Government has mushroomed in Washington D.C. And because we have, the best way to restore prosperity to the American middle class -- cutting unemployment and poverty quickly and effectively -- is to reduce the size of government, take the regulatory burden off business (especially off small businesses), lower taxes on everyone (including the super-rich) and let private-sector job creators get on with the thing they do best: taking risks and making profits. The Tampa story was one of a uniquely American individualism and entrepreneurial spirit blocked by a Democratic Administration's enthusiasm for European-style welfare capitalism or -- in more extreme cases -- for Cuban-style totalitarianism. Lost from that narrative was any concession to the fact that federal debt mushroomed after 2008 only because the private sector had already gone into crisis. Lost was any concession that the economy was well on its way to recession before Barack Obama took office, and was heading towards recession primarily because of the excesses of an inadequately regulated private financial sector. Missing from the Tampa narrative too was any recognition that the most successful American economic sectors -- from armament production and finance, through big agriculture, big energy and "Big Pharma" -- are the sectors closest to government and most dependent on federal aid. The Republicans in Tampa kept claiming that "we built it," entirely missing in the process the extent to which both President Obama was right (when he said the "building" relied on publicly provided infrastructure as well as on private initiative ) and that earlier Elizabeth Warren had been right: companies rely on more than the highly-paid person in the top office. They rely too on the quality and commitment of their other stakeholders: not least the people who work diligently to make and sell the products/services the company generates; and the consumers whose income (if rising fast enough) enable those products to be sold, so making profit-taking possible. There was a time when both Republicans and senior business leaders knew that, but visibly those days have now gone.

Compare that to the view of the relationship between public policy and private gain in the basic message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte. "This Republican narrative - this alternative universe," President Clinton called it, "says that every one of us... who amounts to anything, we're all completely self-made.... As Bob Strauss used to say...e very politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. But as Strauss then admitted, it ain't so. We Democrats think the country works better with... business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We believe that 'we're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than 'you're on your own.'" "In times like this," as Deval Patrick earlier put it, Democrats "believe that government has a role to play, not in solving every problem in everybody's life, but in helping people help themselves to the American Dream." "We don't think government can solve all our problems," the President told the convention in the midst of his acceptance speech, but also "we don't think that government is the source of all our problems" On the contrary, public spending has a vital role to play in the upgrading of social capital, one reason presumably why the Democratic Party platform is currently replete with proposals for public investment in "clean energy, manufacturing... research, and a network of manufacturing hubs;" and in "roads, bridges, rail and public transport systems, airports, ports, and sewers - all" presented as "critical to economic growth."


The speakers in Tampa were also united in one other general set of assertions: a shared view that market-generated outcomes are everywhere preferable, that state-designed outcomes are everywhere inferior, and that strong market-generated outcomes are never the product of previous sound public policy. The starkest example of that myopia was the speech by Condoleezza Rice, her celebration of her own life as the quintessential story of the American Dream. She told the story as one that took her from the racially-segregated south of her childhood to the color-blind senior positions of the American state; but she told it without once mentioning the civil rights struggles that had won the legislative change which alone had made her personal story possible. Nor did she even genuflect to, let alone condemn, that wing of the current Republican Party that is prepared to undo that legislation on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. Add to that too Ann Romney's remarkable opening tribute to the struggles of working mothers, including single mothers -- a tribute worthy of any Democratic Party convention -- but one made in Tampa without any recognition that easing those struggles requires a set of public policies entirely at variance to those now being proposed by a uniquely misogynistic Republican Party. (Given the disproportionate presence of woman among the poor and the old in America, you don't help single mothers by cutting welfare, or retirees by making Medicare a voucher program.) And her husband then capped it all by accusing those of us who favor a degree of progressive taxation of setting Americans against one another: entirely failing to recognize that it is the existing level of class-based, race-based and gender-based inequality that divides Americans one from another, and that sensitively deployed progressive taxation is a highly effective way of bringing us all closer together in a genuine sharing of our collective wealth.

Compare that to the message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte. Against a Republican platform opposed to trade unions, opposed to abortion even after incest or rape, and opposed to any repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Democratic Party platform asserted its commitment to a wide set of civil rights. The comparison between the two platforms is illuminating. "Through Obamacare," according to the Republican platform, "the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life." We "support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children" This, in a section of the Republican program insisting that "marriage, the union of one man and one woman, must be upheld as the national standard," and following one welcoming the spread of right-to-work legislation and proposing the "enactment of a National Right-to-Work law." The Democratic Party platform could not be more different. "Democrats believe that the right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental American value; every American should have a voice on the job and the chance to negotiate for a fair day's pay after a hard day's work." "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay." "Abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor and her clergy: there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way." And this: the Democratic Party unambiguously "supports marriage equality and...the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples."


So don't let anybody tell you that these parties are the same, or that now is the time for third-party voting. The parties are not the same, and the choice could not be starker. For progressives, the domestic record of the Obama Administration in its first term has been, and remains, a mixture of some things done well and many things done badly: particularly things done badly on home foreclosures, and on poverty programs. But however unsatisfactory the Obama first-term ledger may look when measured against the grandest of progressive hopes in 2008, its center of gravity is still way to the left of anything that the Republicans are offering. So all the important stuff still to be done -- like saving the legacy of the New Deal, setting the path towards renewed middle-class prosperity, having some chance of alleviating poverty on any significant scale, and meeting the civil rights of oppressed minorities and an entire gender -- all this requires that we campaign for and vote for Democrats in November: campaign for Democrats in earnest and vote for Democrats in volume. Whatever else we need in this country right now, we certainly need Barack Obama back in the White House and liberal Democrats back in control of both Houses of Congress -- and we have just two months left to make sure that they are.

The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities also contain another contrast: one between "the spring of hope" and the "winter of despair." As November 6th approaches, it is time once more to pick a season. We need to pick wisely and we need to pick well.

First posted, with fully notes than is possible here, at

The Old Dawg Still Can Hunt

Robert L. Borosage   |   September 6, 2012    8:05 AM ET

The old dawg can still hunt. At the top of his game, gaining energy from the crowd, Bill Clinton, the "old country boy from Arkansas," tore it up last night in Charlotte. Political junkies, pundits of all stripes and Democratic activists were agog, watching the maestro at work. Fox News talking heads were reduced to muttering that maybe voters got tired and changed the channel.

Clinton set out the frame (kudos to progressive economist Jared Bernstein): the choice between "you are on your own" or "we are in this together." And then he made the case for what Obama had accomplished -- and a crushing indictment of the poisons Romney Ryan are peddling.

Clinton treats his audience as adults, willing to entertain and inform. He pays them the respect of laying out policy arguments. And then delights them with his humor, his animation, his blarney.

He made the points -- repeatedly urging Americans to "listen to this" -- that too often are ignored. That Democratic presidents produce more jobs than Republicans and that modern Republican presidents "tripled the debt" in the twelve years before Clinton took office and doubled in the eight years after he left.

He went after Republicans not simply for abandoning the middle class but for traducing the poor. Perhaps the most telling point in his speech was his explanation that Republicans would reduce Medicaid by one-third -- hurting poor kids, seniors in need of nursing homes and the disabled. The middle class had a stake in the prospects of the poor. Here he was teaching Democrats how to argue this case.

He took the Romney/Ryan mendacities -- Obama made things worse, is cutting Medicare and gutting welfare reform -- and forged them into a club to pummel them with.

But note the contrast between Clinton's address and the powerful speech by Elizabeth Warren that preceded it. Warren reprised many of the same themes about investing in our future -- but she didn't stop there. She let Americans know what the problem was: that the system was rigged against them. That rich and entrenched interests -- "Wall Street CEOs strutting in the halls of Congress" after we bailed them out -- rigged the game for their own benefit. They pushed through the tax breaks and deregulation -- much of it during the Clinton years when Goldman Sachs' Bob Rubin drove US economic policy. They cleaned up and the middle class took it on the chin. Reviving the American Dream takes more than the right policy, it requires taking back Washington and cleaning out the stables.

For all of Clinton's mastery, progressives can't go back to the Clinton economy. That economy was built on the bubble. Clinton championed the deregulation of Wall Street that opened up the financial wilding that eventually drove the economy over the cliff. He pushed through the corporate trade policies -- NAFTA, China's admission to the WTO -- that contributed to our record trade deficits, the off shoring of jobs abroad, the hollowing out of American manufacture. His New Democrats argued that equal opportunity was all that mattered, not equality of outcomes. And then they helped usher in an era in which the wealthiest 1% captured most of the rewards of growth, while working families lost ground. And even last night, Clinton essentially signed Obama onto a version of the Simpson-Bowles agenda which promises debilitating cuts in domestic programs, cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in return for "tax reform" that lowers rates on the top for the wealthy and corporations. That's a grand bargain even the old dawg can't sell.

Obama's challenge has always been that he had to build a new foundation for the economy. There is no return to an old economy built on bubbles and debt, on Wall Street gambling and feckless corporate trade policies. The inequality of wealth and income has translated into a money-drenched politics where the rules are rigged.

If this economy is to work for working people once more, workers have to be empowered, skewed CEO compensation deals have to be fixed, global trade imbalances must be corrected, vital investments have to be made in education and training, in children and in the sinews of a 21st economy -- from roads to cutting edge broadband to a smart grid and renewable energy. And that requires progressive tax reform that starts with raising rates on the top, not lowering them, taxing financial speculation, not unleashing it.

As Clinton showed, the case for Obama over Romney/Ryan is clear. We can't "double down on trickle down." But to rebuild the American dream, to revive the middle class, we better make certain that Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are elected to spearhead a new generation of progressive reform. And we'll need to build a powerful people's movement able to challenge the money politics that now dominate Washington.