Giving Exercise A Black Eye

What in the world happened to Harry Reid?

The Senate’s Minority Leader didn’t appear on Capitol Hill for the opening of the new Congress because he was staying at home on doctor’s orders.  He did release a video, however, that showed that he had suffered extensive facial trauma.   A spokesman said Reid had  sustained broken ribs, broken facial bones, and a concussion; Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who met with Reid, said the injuries Reid suffered were like those of a passenger who went face first through the windshield in a car accident.  Yikes!

A statement released by Reid’s office said he was exercising at home when a piece of equipment that he was using to exercise broke.  The New York Times reports that Reid was using a rubber exercise band that snapped, hit him, and caused him to fall.  It makes you wonder precisely what the circumstances of the injury were and whether Senator Reid had been properly instructed on how, and where, to use such a band.  Resistance bands typically are used to try to increase the strength of specific muscles as part of a rehabilitation program, and aren’t viewed as highly dangerous potential projectiles.

After seeing the aftermath of Senator’s Reid’s incident, I think I’ll just stick to walking.

Outsmarting Themselves

One of the more unappealing qualities of our political classes is the vicious, cover-your-ass mentality that you see from so many politicians and their anonymous staffers.  No one wants to get tagged with a failure.  Everyone wants to be seen as the smartest, savviest guy in the room, too.  So they leak, and back-stab, and give not-for-attribution quotes.

We saw that ugly side of the inside-the-Beltway mentality again this week, in a terrific piece in the Washington Post about how the Republicans swept to victory on Tuesday.  David Krone, current Senate Majority Leader’s chief of staff, basically laid the blame for the loss of control of the Senate at the feet of President Obama and his staff.  The President wouldn’t do enough to raise money for vulnerable Senate Democrats, he said, and in the meantime those Democrats were getting dragged down by an increasingly unpopular President who was increasingly seen as mishandling and mismanaging serious problems, like the healthcare.gov website and VA health care.

Of course, the Post piece doesn’t note that Harry Reid’s own strategy made it impossible for the vulnerable Democrats to separate themselves from the President, because Reid consistently refused to allow bills to come to the Senate floor for debate.  As a result, Democratic Senators weren’t permitted to offer amendments or articulate positions that differed from those of the President on controversial issues, and the vast majority of votes taken were of the party-line variety, such as to confirm judicial nominees.  That approach allowed Republicans to launch devastating TV ads noting that the vulnerable Democrats voted with President Obama 97, 98, or 99 percent of the time — percentages that wouldn’t have been so outlandishly high if Reid had actually allowed the legislative process to work as intended.  The “smartest guys in the room” outsmarted themselves.

If only Harry Reid and the other Beltway brainiacs had stopped trying to micromanage the messy political process, Democratic Senators might have avoided a near-total wipeout.  I hope that the Republican Senate leadership learns a lesson from this, loosens the spigots on legislation, and starts debating, amending, and voting on bills to send to the President.  Otherwise, the Republicans, too, might be needing to engage in a little CYA come 2016.

The First Amendment, Revisited

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission has provoked a lot of critical comment. Much of the criticism has been directed at the majority opinion, which struck down aggregate limits restricting how much money a donor may contribute to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees.

In McCutcheon, the Court held, by a 5-4 vote, that the limits violate the First Amendment and rejected arguments that the limits could be justified by a governmental interest in preventing either political corruption or the appearance of such corruption. Critics argue that the decision will lead to a political process dominated by wealthy oligarchs who shovel money to their preferred candidates and causes and thereby control American public policy. That’s the position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example.

The dissenting opinion in McCutcheon is at least as interesting as the majority ruling, however. In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by three other Justices, articulated a concept of “collective speech” and asserted that “the First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.” It’s not entirely clear what Justice Breyer means by “collective speech,” but he obviously believes that the interest in “collective speech” can override individual First Amendment expression.

Over the years, the meaning and scope of the First Amendment has been shaped by a series of Supreme Court decisions. The jurisprudence has long since moved past the concept that “speech” is limited to the spoken or written word; it is well established that acts — like burning a draft card or wearing a protest t-shirt — are protected. Contributing money to a political candidate whom you agree with, or to a cause that you support, is similarly a protected act of speech.

Will McCutcheon open a new frontier in the evolution of the First Amendment, and if so should we be more concerned about the concepts underlying the majority opinion or the dissent? Floyd Abrams, a lion of the First Amendment bar who has been involved in many cases addressing free speech issues, has posted an interesting article that argues that the conceptual underpinnings of the dissent are “deeply disquieting.” Abrams notes that the concept of protecting “collective speech” seems to be inconsistent with prior Supreme Court decisions and is a slippery notion that could allow the government to restrict the amount of speech about which candidate or cause to support — a result that seems inconsistent with the First Amendment rather than in furtherance of it.

The First Amendment is the first item in the Bill of Rights. That context indicates that it is intended to protect individual rights, not “collective speech.” When a First Amendment issue arises, I tend to support the notion of more speech rather than less — with the decisions about what to say, and when, left to individuals, not to the government or to some vague notion of what furthers the “collective” good.

Offhand Ultimatums

The issue of the United States’ response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has been on the front burner for weeks now.  After fruitless efforts to build an international coalition, followed by vows to go it alone, then by a decision to seek congressional approval, it seems late in the game for a new proposal.  But that’s what happened yesterday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to a question at a news conference, said Syria could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control — whatever that means.  The Obama Administration said Kerry’s response was a “rhetorical argument” that wasn’t meant to make a diplomatic overture, but that was how it was treated.  Russia, Syria, and others in the international community immediately expressed support for the idea, as did congressional Democrats who don’t want to vote on whether to authorize the President to use military force.  By the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate vote on the issue would, in fact, be delayed.  And when President Obama last night sat for interviews in a TV blitz designed to build support for a limited strike, he was responding to the news, rather than making it.  In view of the reaction to Kerry’s comment,  the President said he would put plans for a military strike on hold if Syria put its weapons stockpile under international control — although he expressed skepticism it would happen.  Of course, the obvious question is:  if the President is skeptical, why would the Secretary of State make the proposal in the first place?

Tonight the President is supposed to make a speech to the American people about the Syrian issue.  Perhaps he will take the opportunity to explain his Administration’s confusing approach to the issue, with the American position seemingly swaying in the wind created every time John Kerry speaks.

The President and his supporters profess to be mystified by why Americans aren’t supporting their policy on Syria, whatever it is.  It’s not that Americans aren’t sickened by the use of chemical weapons.  Instead, it’s that this Administration has little credibility when it says that America needs to act, alone if necessary, to address the situation.  We don’t understand why this should be our job, and we simply don’t credit the Administration’s increasingly outlandish promises — like Secretary Kerry’s statement yesterday that the military effort needed to “degrade” the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities would be “unbelievably small.”   We also see what has happened in Libya and Egypt and don’t believe that some kind of thread-the-needle air strike can “degrade” chemical weapons capabilities without creating more chaos in an already chaotic region.  The credibility gap isn’t helped by the Administration’s shifting positions and heedless issuance of offhand ultimatums that apparently weren’t intended to be ultimatums in the first place.

Hey Harry, Mitt Paid Taxes!

Today Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax returns.  They show that the Republican nominee earned more than $13.5 million — mostly from investments — and paid $1.9 million in taxes.  He has his wife also gave generously to charities.

In addition, Romney also released a summary of his taxes going back to 1990.  The summary reported that, during the period from 1990 to 2009, the Romneys paid taxes every year, with an average annual effective federal tax rate of 20.2 percent.  Romney has now provided information about 23 years of tax returns, including releasing the tax returns themselves for 2010 and 2011.

Let’s not forget that the abominable Harry Reid claimed back in August that an anonymous source had told him that Mitt Romney had not paid taxes for 10 years.  It was appalling that the Senate Majority Leader would rely on an unnamed source to launch such serious and slanderous accusations, which have now been shown to be false.  Do you think there is any chance that Harry Reid will apologize to Mitt Romney for making such reckless and unfounded accusations?  That’s what any decent person would do.  Unfortunately, any person of character would never have made the unsupported accusations in the first place, so I wouldn’t bet on old Harry doing the decent thing.  Instead, he’ll just endure another blow to whatever shreds of credibility he might still possess.

I hope Romney’s release of his tax returns takes that silly issue off the table, and lets the candidates and the American public focus on the big issues in the race — like who is better equipped to get our economy going, and how we can get people back to work and bring this unending recession to a long-overdue end.

Harry Reid Is An Embarrassment

One reason many of us are troubled about the future of our country is that we don’t seem to have many capable, credible people in positions of authority.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a good example.

Lately Reid has been claiming that an unnamed person, or persons, have told him that Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years.  Never mind that Romney has released returns for the last two years that show he paid substantial sums in taxes.  Never mind that those returns reflect financial affairs that make it highly unlikely that Romney had zero tax liability in prior years — so unlikely that the Washington Post gave Reid four “Pinocchios” for his dubious claim.  And never mind that Reid himself has not released his own tax returns, arguing that he provides sufficient financial information through congressional disclosure processes.  Reid sees no double standard or unfairness in any of this, and says the burden is on Romney to disprove Reid’s allegation.

We should all be deeply troubled by Reid’s recklessness.  Making public charges based solely on alleged anonymous information, refusing to disclose its source, and then putting the burden on the accused to disprove the unsubstantiated allegations sounds like McCarthyism or the tactics employed in the Soviet Union.  No American should be treated so unfairly, and the fact that Mitt Romney is a presidential candidate for the opposing party doesn’t relieve Reid of his obligation to act with decency and propriety.

Harry Reid has been an ineffective leader of the Senate during a time when that body has been even more inert than normal.  He is a Lilliputian figure in the history of this country, but his latest stunts are revealing disturbing things about his character.  If he wants to pursue the issue of Mitt Romney’s taxes, he should disclose his sources by name, state precisely what they told him, and let everyone judge the credibility of that information.  If he doesn’t want to do so, he should do us all a favor and shut up.

Spinning A Special Election

Republican Bob Turner prevailed over Democrat David Weprin in yesterday’s special election to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of scandal-plagued Congressman Anthony Weiner.  The result, in a district in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs of New York City, takes what had been a safe Democratic seat for decades and turns it over to the Republicans.

It’s only one seat of 435 in the House of Representatives, of course, and simply adds to an already existing Republican majority in that chamber.  The question, however, is whether the outcome reflects broader shifts in the views of American voters — and already the spin game seeking to influence the answer to that question has begun.  Republicans say the vote is a referendum on President Obama and his economic policies and note that Turner urged voters to send a message to the President.  Democrats say the race was decided by unique local issues — like a large presence of conservative Orthodox Jews who are angry with President Obama’s position on Israel — and add that Weprin was just an inept candidate.  As a result, they argue, the result is no reflection whatsoever on voters’ opinions of President Obama.

The spin game is an effort to control the message to the gullible schmucks like us, the great unwashed who make up the general electorate.  The real group to watch is the Democrats now in Congress, who are fully capable of separating spin from reality.  They may look at the results of NY-9 and see a race where national Democratic committees spent more than $500,000 in a futile effort to save a supposedly safe seat seat and where all of the get-out-the-vote machinery was activated — and the Democrat still lost.  If those Democrats currently serving see President Obama as an albatross who will lead them and their party to disaster in November 2012, they may stop following that lead, no matter what congressional Democratic leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi say.

Professional politicians tend to be very protective of their own political skins.  If we see more Democrats who are up for election in 2012 peeling away from President Obama in the weeks and months to come — in connection with the President’s current jobs bill, for example — their actions will send a more profound message than the silly political spin game ever could.