14 Things I Learned in 2014
As 2015 begins, there is much to be optimistic about for the new year. The American economy is really starting to take off. The private sector has created new jobs for a record 57 months, driving down the unemployment rate and finally beginning to put upward pressure on wages. Plummeting global energy costs are putting money in consumers' pockets while putting Russia, Iran, Venezuela and other not-so-friendly petro-states in a serious bind. And while the Islamic State has suffered reversals in Iraq, the spread of the Ebola virus is being slowed in West Africa. It's no wonder President Obama's approval numbers are up.
That said, I'm still processing many of the hard-earned lessons from 2014. Many things conservatives assured me of did not come to pass. At the same, many inconvenient truths emerged which no doubt left many right-wingers feeling "mugged by reality."
Here, then, are 14 things I learned in 2014.
1. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" sounded better in the original German. The Senate torture report confirmed our worst fears about the treatment of terror detainees authorized by the Bush Administration and carried out the CIA. Waterboarding, "walling," sleep deprivation and "rectal hydration" are now part of the lexicon. (As long you don't call the practices by their names, Americans seem just fine with torture.) Despite these violations of U.S. and international law, no one was prosecuted for mandating or perpetrating these crimes. As it turns out, the Nazis had a term--"Verschärfte Vernehmung"--which not coincidentally translates as "enhanced interrogation techniques." Of course, many of Hitler's practitioners were tried and executed at Nuremburg. In the U.S., the torture architects are regulars on Fox News.
2. The "Red State Model" is dead. In 2013, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore praised "the Red State path to prosperity." Slashing regulations, encouraging full-throttle energy exploration and, most of all, cutting taxes, they insisted, was the "Red State Model" for economic success. Their poster child was Sam Brownback, the Kansas Governor whose "Midwest renaissance rooted in the Reagan model" by early 2014 had Yahoo News describing him as "the possible GOP presidential contender no one's talking about." Alas, it didn't turn out that way. Tax-cutting Republicans governors like Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Brownback are instead facing catastrophic revenue shortfalls and imposing draconian cuts to public services, all while lagging America's overall economic performance. Making matters worse, plunging prices for oil and natural gas are already leading to layoffs and draining state coffers , especially in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana.
3. Heavily armed white men are "patriots." I had always thought that people who owed Uncle Sam hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and fees were criminal parasites. But in 2014, rancher Cliven Bundy, supported by the likes of Nevada GOP Senator Dean Heller, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Fox News host Sean Hannity, tried to disabuse me of that notion. When federal marshals tried to collect the $1 million he owed in grazing fees, Bundy and his well-armed militia allies declared they would fight to the death to protect his right to food stamps for cows. While Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid (and the FBI) called Bundy's ilk "domestic terrorists," his GOP counterpart Dean Heller called them "patriots." As it turned out, one of those "patriots" was "overheard boasting that he had two agent[s] in his gun sight and could 'take them down.'" Days later, two others murdered two police officers in Las Vegas. (In August, federal agents in New Hampshire were not able to sell the home of convicted tax cheats Ed and Elaine Brown, another pair of supposed "freedom fighters," because buyers feared the property was booby-trapped.)
4. Unarmed black men are "thugs." While openly carrying an assault rifle, endlessly repeating "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots" or threatening federal officials makes you a right-wing hero, apparently being an unarmed African-American makes you a clear and present danger. Commit a minor offense, like Michael Brown or Eric Garner, and you could end up dead. Or carry a toy gun in a public park or a Walmart store, and you could be killed for EWB--existing while black. And if you march to mourn and seek justice for John Crawford or Tamir Rice, you are, as Laura Ingraham explained, part of a "lynch mob."
I have to say, I didn't see this coming. After all, in 2013, National Gun Appreciation Day founder Larry Ward declared, "I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country's founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history." Rush Limbaugh told me so, too:
"If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?"
Who knew good guys wear white hoodies? Imagine what would happen if the #JusticeForAll protesters borrowed the Tea Party signs which read, "We came unarmed--this time."
5. 2-1=3. I'm not an economist, but I can read simple charts. So, I assumed that the past four decades of data inescapably disproving the Republican claim that "tax cuts pay for themselves" was a sufficient debunking for pretty much everyone. After all, not a single one of the economists surveyed about the Laffer Curve agreed that "a cut in federal income tax rates in the US right now would raise taxable income enough so that the annual total tax revenue would be higher within five years than without the tax cut." Yet I was wrong. Since basic math shows that steeps tax cuts for the wealthy produce only oceans of red ink and record levels of income inequality, Congressional Republicans are simply changing how math works. Under their new plan to force the nonpartisan CBO to use "dynamic scoring" for all budget legislation, the Congressional Budget Office must take into account the "macroeconomic feedback" of much faster growth to magically produce more tax revenue. But what former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett derided as "a smokescreen to incorporate phony-baloney factors into revenue estimates to justify unlimited tax cutting," incoming House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) called something else.
6. ISIS? Bush built that. As Islamic State fighters took their campaign across the Syrian border, Republican politicians and right-wing pundits declared, "Obama lost Iraq." As it turns out, two key figures whose opinions should matter--George W. Bush and ISIS capo Abu Ahmed--disagree with that assessment.
In an interview in The Guardian, one of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's top lieutenants explained how the dangerous combination of Saddam loyalists, disenchanted Sunni tribal militiamen and foreign Al Qaeda fighters came to join forces under the black flag. "If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now," Abu Ahmed recently explained, adding "we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred meters away from the entire al-Qaeda leadership."
President Bush, who ignited a sectarian powder-keg when he toppled Saddam Hussein and installed Shiite partisan Nouri al-Maliki in his place, echoed that point. When ABC's Martha Raddatz pointed out in December 2008 that there had been no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, Bush agreed:
"Yeah, that's right. So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they're going to take a stand. Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand."
Now, six months after it swept across much of northwestern Iraq, the Islamic State is faltering. As Republican Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) recently said of President Obama's approach, "This strategy is working."
7. We didn't need Newt for $2.50 gas or Mitt for 6 percent unemployment. During the 2012 presidential campaign, short-lived GOP front-runner New Gingrich promised me he would lower gas prices below $2.50 a gallon. The eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney went further, warning that if Barack Obama was reelected, "you're going to see chronic high unemployment continue four years or longer." Instead, he pledged, President Romney would lower the jobless rate to 6 percent by the end of his first term.
As it turned out, President Obama blew past those milestones in half the time his Republican foes had touted. (While gas prices rise and fall based on supply and demand in the international market, it turned out it was Obama and not George W. Bush who got OPEC to "open the spigots.)
8. Obama Didn't "Make the Economy Worse." Throughout the 2012 campaign, Romney and his GOP amen corner also insisted President Obama "made the economy worse." Speaker John Boehner has kept up the chant since, denouncing Obama's "job-killing tax increases" and "job-crushing" health care reform law.
But in 2014, I was shocked--SHOCKED!--to learn that the GOP claims weren't true. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf explained that the overwhelming consensus of economists agreed that Obama's $800 billion stimulus program was a success, at its peak adding as many as 3.3 million jobs and boosting GDP by as much as 4.1 percent. (No wonder Republicans want to fire him.) Former McCain economic adviser Mark Zandi concluded that the federal government had prevented "Great Depression 2.0." As we learned in October, when it comes to cutting unemployment, spurring investment and driving economic growth, Barack Obama is out-Reaganing Reagan at the same point in his presidency.
9. The market has voted and Obamacare won. From the beginning, Republican opponents of Obamacare warned that the Affordable Care Act was a "government takeover of health care." They charged that "Obamacare will destroy the private-insurance market" in order to "make a single-payer, i.e. socialized medicine, system inevitable."
But as Stephen Colbert might have put it, instead the market has voted and Obamacare won. Virtually every constituency in the health care eco-system has come out ahead. In 2014, as many as 25 million Americans acquired insurance through the ACA's expanded Medicaid program, subsidies to buy private plans through exchanges, extension of coverage to young adults and other incentives. And it's not just consumers who are happy. The private insurance carriers are enjoying rising profits, stock prices and new customers, and are entering new markets even as Uncle Sam caps their "medical loss ratio." Hospitals--at least in those states which wisely chose to accept the federal expansion of Medicaid--have seen their bottom lines improve as their costs of caring for the uninsured plummet. Meanwhile, rejectionist red state governors in states like Tennessee and Texas are reconsidering their decisions after the success of Kentucky and Arkansas in dramatically reducing the ranks of the uninsured. And back in the nation's capital, the debt-reducing Obamacare is coming in under budget even as health cost growth has slowed to its lowest level this century.
10. For Obama, a rose by another name smells sweeter. A clear lesson Barack Obama should have learned in 2014 is this: if Republicans put your name on a policy, Americans' support for it will plummet. This is especially the case on health care. As polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed, the more Americans learn about Obamacare, the more they like it. (That even extends to the consistently unpopular individual mandate.) Nationwide, people react more positively to the "Affordable Care Act" than "Obamacare," despite the fact that they are one and the same. In states like Kentucky and Arkansas, what's in a name (Obamacare versus "Kynect") can produce a 20 percent swing in public approval. Of course, when over 40 percent of respondents still wrongly believe in mythical "death panels," Obamacare has a huge mountain to climb under any name.
The Obama name blame game extends to other areas of public policy, too. Conservatives gloated when a recent survey of American military personnel showed President Obama's approval rating plunging. Yet at the same time, the majority support of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the expansion of women's combat roles and a harder line on sexual assault within the ranks is growing quickly. (Seventy percent of them also oppose sending U.S. forces to fight ISIS in Iraq.) And why a majority of Americans don't seem particularly concerned when President Obama rightly declares "we tortured some folks," their attitudes change when they hear the specifics of supposed "interrogation techniques" like waterboarding and sexual humiliation.
11. When it comes to religious freedom, some religions are more equal than others. In this year's Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court decided that privately-held companies are people, too. And in the face of precedent and the clear intent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the religious views of the owners trump the rights of their employees to federal regulations governing health insurance coverage and access to birth control.
But in 2014, we also learned that some religions are more equal than others. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Roberts Court ruled that sectarian Christian prayers used to open a town council meeting did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion. Meanwhile, in Minnesota and Georgia, municipalities tried to prevent Muslim organizations from using space in commercially-zoned areas to hold prayer services. In the face of the First Amendment and the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), St. Anthony and Kennesaw initially refused provide the same accommodation they previously provided to Christian groups. (In December, both towns backed down, one in the face of a Justice Department lawsuit, the other to public opinion.)
12. The Equal Protection Clause apparently doesn't apply to women. The Affordable Care Act does not mandate insurers cover vasectomies for men. But if a dude goes to get one anywhere in America, he doesn't face the prospect of urologists who refuse to perform them, protesters blocking access to a procedure they consider a "mortal sin" or facilities not deemed equal to hospital standards.
But if a woman chooses to undergo another, completely legal medical procedure--abortion--the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause apparently does not apply. In state after state, clinics are being closed for not meeting certain facilities standards. Doctors are prohibited from performing abortions if they lack hospital admitting privileges nearby. Telemedicine to provide remote medication abortions is being banned. Trampling further of physicians' free speech rights, doctors may be required to perform unnecessary and invasive ultrasound procedures, inform women of mythical links to breast cancer and even more mythical "post-abortion syndrome" and prevented from telling their patients about fetal infirmities that could influence a decision to have an abortion. State law and religious doctrine can also enable hospitals, clinics and doctors to refuse life-saving treatment to women in crisis.
Apparently, 42 years after Roe v. Wade and 23 years after the Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an "undue burden" on access to health care is no problem. For American women, that is.
13. Sanctions on Cuba are good. Sanctions on South Africa were bad. Recognizing that the rationale for the U.S. embargo against Cuba--the Cold War threat from the Soviet Union--disappeared decades ago, most Americans are just fine with President Obama's reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the government in Havana. Still, the usual suspects among the assortment Cuban-American irredentists, aging anti-Communist crackpots and knee-jerk, Cro-Magnon conservatives are apoplectic.
Some of them, like National Review editor Rich Lowry, offered a novel defense for their continued, anachronistic hard line against the Castro regime.
If Cuba were a racist apartheid-style system rather than a Communist dictatorship, no one would be so eager to do business with it.
Sadly for Lowry's comical attempt at revisionist history, there was no shortage of conservatives "eager to do business" with apartheid South Africa. Among them were the National Review and President Ronald Reagan.
14. Prosecuting President Bush's torture team is "criminalizing politics," but Obama's executive action on immigration requires impeachment. As the National Journal has documented, virtually every president since FDR has availed himself of deferred action to enable millions of Mexicans, Europeans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Haitians and countless other nationalities to remain in the United States without fear of deportation. Among them was President Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly used his executive authority and "prosecutorial discretion" to prioritize immigration enforcement, just as President Obama seeks to do now. But for this and other supposed acts of lawlessness, Congressional Republicans are variously suing Obama, threatening to block his executive and judicial nominees and even calling for impeachment.
As it turns out, President Reagan didn't just offer Barack Obama a precedent for executive action on immigration. Reagan also signed the UN Convention Against Torture, which among other things required future presidents to prosecute those ordering or perpetrating acts of torture. As he explained in his 1988 signing statement:
The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.
By refusing to prosecute the Bush torture team over its regime of detainee torture, President Obama is not faithfully executing the laws of the land. But had he done so as required by U.S. and international, right-wingers charged that Obama would be guilty of something else.