Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why lame-duck Congress will approve Obama's arms treaty

By DeWayne Wickham

Despite the public claims that it won’t happen, there’s a very good chance the Senate will approve the nuclear arms treaty during its lame-duck session.

Democrats want it done because President Obama believes America’s national security hinges on getting the agreement he struck with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ratified. Enough Republicans ultimately will vote for it because the quid pro quo Sen. Jon Kyl, RAriz., is squeezing out of the White House is a financial deal he can’t get once the newly elected Tea Party Republicans take office in January.

Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate to ratify the treaty. Democrats currently control 59 and will need the support of eight Republicans to approve the treaty during the lame-duck session. But in the next Congress, the math becomes more difficult when the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinks to 53.

As the GOP whip, Kyl is responsible for mustering Republicans to vote for or against actions that come before the Senate. For much of Obama’s time in the White House, GOP senators have mostly said “no” to anything the president has wanted, a recalcitrance that has helped brand Republicans “the party of ‘no.’ ” But as Obama presses senators to ratify the nuclear arms treaty, Kyl appears to be angling to give the president what he wants in return for something the senator craves.

“I think there is no chance that a treaty can be completed in the lame-duck session,” Kyl told MSNBC shortly after Obama hosted a bipartisan gathering of high-profile supporters of the new strategic arms limitation treaty.

The agreement would cut by nearly one-third the numbers of long-range nuclear warheads Russia and the U.S. can have. It also would permit each country to inspect the other’s nuclear arsenal to ensure compliance.

Kyl is withholding his support — and that of many of the Republican senators he commands — because he wants the Obama administration to guarantee that at least $185 billion will be spent over the next 10 years on modernizing what will remain of America’s nuclear arsenal along with the submarines, bombers and missiles that are used to deliver them.

This surge in spending is a nuclear earmark, the kind of federal spending increase that will be hard to broker when Tea Partiers such as Kentucky senator-elect Rand Paul join the next Congress. “I think we need to have more discussion on it, but it doesn’t sound like I’m probably going to be in favor of that,” Paul said of the nuclear arms treaty during an appearance on ABC’s This Week With Christiane Amanpour shortly after the midterm elections.

Like other Tea Party Republicans who helped the GOP win control of the House and sharply reduce the size of the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, Paul is determined to cut the federal budget, including military spending. While national defense is important, “there’s still waste in the military budget,” which has to be smaller, he said.

Tea Party opposition to earmarks has already forced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans to support a two-year ban on the funding of senators’ pet projects.

So, if Kyl is going to get the huge spending increase he wants in the nation’s nuclear weapons program, he’ll have to cut a deal to ratify the nuclear arms treaty during the lame-duck session, or risk having Tea Party Republicans scuttle such an agreement in the new Congress.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Left unfixed, problems of black males will hurt all Americans

By DeWayne Wickham

As I read the Council of the Great City Schools report on the problems of black males in urban schools, my mind raced back to a day in the fall of 2006 when I took my then-13-year-old daughter to her piano lesson.

Arriving early, we stopped at a Friendly’s restaurant to get ice cream. When the young black male who waited on us said the cones cost $3.32, I handed him a $5 bill. But as he tried to input this payment, his cash register malfunctioned and wouldn’t tell him the correct change.

The young man’s eyes glistened as he mumbled barely audible sounds of his struggle to manually compute the difference. Then, as customers in line behind us began to voice their frustration, my daughter threw him a lifeline. “You owe us $1.68,” she said softly.

Outside the store she asked quizzically: “What school does he go to? He’s a lot older than I am, and he couldn’t figure that out.” He could have gone to just about any school.

“Black males continue to perform lower than their peers throughout the country on almost every indicator,” the Washington-based Council of the Great Schools, which represents the nation’s 66 largest urban public school systems, said in a recent report.

While much of the news coverage of the council’s gut-wrenching report has focused on the failure of nearly all fourth- and eighth-grade black males to read and do math at proficiency levels, less attention has been paid to its conclusion that educational improvements alone won’t fix this problem. What’s needed, the council said, is a “concerted national effort to improve the education, social and employment outcomes of African-American males.”

If you think that’s just a warmed-over pitch for more funding of a liberal agenda, you’re being shortsighted. In 13 years, minorities will be a majority of this nation’s children younger than 18. In just 29 years, most working-age Americans will be black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. This nation will be hard-pressed to remain the world’s leading economy if a sizeable — and growing — share of its potential workforce is slipping through the gaping holes in our education system.

“It has not become apparent to America yet that we are all in this boat together. In the past it was easier for people to think if something happened in that part of the boat occupied by blacks, it wouldn’t impact the whole ship,” Nat Irvin, a futurist at the University of Louisville, said of the council’s report.

“If people think the nation can continue to do well economically in about 30 years when minorities become the largest population group,” and nothing is done to address the black male education problem, “they’re kidding themselves,” he said.

A comprehensive plan is needed — one that recognizes the connection between the social and economic environment from which these underachieving students come and the educational setting into which they are sent.

The council wants a White House conference to address this crisis. People need to recognize this is a problem that can’t be solved with generalized education reform. It demands a targeted effort to help black males.

If the nation continues this neglect, underachieving black males will produce enough dead weight to sink the American ship of state.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obama should fight GOP, not cave in to it

By DeWayne Wickham

“Don’t wave a white flag, hoist the battle flag.”

That’s what Barack Obama should do in the wake of the drubbing Democrats got in the midterm congressional election. The president should ignore all the hand-wringing advice he’s getting from people who say he must move to the political center after Republican victories gave the GOP control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

Republicans won by making a hard turn to the right. They excited their base with nearly two years of legislative guerrilla tactics that frustrated the efforts of Democrats to get much done in Congress. They were buoyed by the Tea Party movement, whose call for spending cuts and smaller government resonated with middle-of-the-road voters who saw Congress’ Democratic majority as ineffective.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that Democrats should surrender to the right wing. It is that they should put up a better fight to move their agenda.
Instead of giving in to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $32 million on issue ads that demonized him — and stigmatized congressional Democrats who didn’t distance themselves from the president. Obama should urge wealthy supporters to create a fund from anonymous donors, much like the one the chamber amassed, to challenge GOP dogma.

Rather than kowtow to Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who said the GOP’s top priority should be to keep Obama from being re-elected, the president should put the Kentucky senator in his crosshairs. McConnell will have his hands full trying to keep newly elected Tea Party senators from undermining his leadership. Democrats should do everything they can to pour fuel on that simmering fire.

Of course there are those who would argue that if Democrats follow this course of action, Congress won’t get much done over the next two years. But that appears to be what McConnell has in mind anyway. Scuttling the Democrat’s’ legislative agenda will be a major of part of McConnell’s campaign to unseat Obama in 2012.

To win a second term, Obama must begin now to reinvigorate his base. He has to show voters who put him in the Oval Office that he’ll fight Republicans, not appease them. Moving to the center won’t do that. The political center is pipe dream, a swamp into which the GOP hopes to trap Democrats as it moves farther further to the right. On Election Day, those voters who claim to occupy the middle ground of American politics cast their lot with leftist Democrats or right-wing Republicans, not some centrist political party.

They align themselves with the party they believe has the best ideas and the ability to get something done. Over the past two years, Democrats wasted the victories they scored in 2008 with infighting and a penchant for retreating when Republicans attacked. So while the GOP rallied their its base, Democrats disappointed theirs.

The election results show that “no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to set — in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges,” Obama said at his post-election press news conference.

He’s wrong. What the election results show is that voters will reward a party that fights tenaciously for what it believes — especially when the opposition waffles in the face of such a challenge and appears to reach for a white flag.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our democracy is threatened by low voter participation

By DeWayne Wickham

ORLANDO — Three days before Election Day, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson sent out an e-mail urging his supporters to place over 50,000 calls the next day to help him stave off defeat. With polls showing Grayson trailing his Republican opponent in the closing days of the campaign, the first-term Democrat was beating the bushes for votes.

Saying his backers had made 50,000 calls a week earlier, Grayson wrote: “Tomorrow, we’re going to top that.” But the great test for Grayson and Daniel Webster, his Republican challenger, was not how many people their campaign workers talked to, but rather how many of them they could get to actually vote.

In the 2008 presidential election that swept Barack Obama into the White House, just 63 percent of Americans who were eligible to vote cast ballots, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

And get this: 2008 was a good year. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1960 when a greater percentage of Americans of voting age – 64.8 percent – took part in a presidential election. Voter turnout in midterm elections, Gans told me, is usually a lot lower.

Despite the seismic shift in the political landscape that pundits predicted the midterm election would bring, Gans held out little hope for a corresponding increase in political participation in the world’s greatest democracy. That’s because one in four Americans hasn’t registered to vote, and more than a third of citizens who are eligible to vote have failed to do so in every presidential election since 1920.

When you dissect the numbers, as Gans does with great precision, it’s easy to understand why he worries about the balkanization of America’s body politic. “It suggests that as voter participation declines our politics becomes increasingly the providence of the interested and the zealous,” he said.

Gans worries about the fraying of the bonds that link this nation’s governed to our government. I worry that government will increasingly derive its powers not from “the consent of the governed,” but from the apathy and quiescence of non-voters. I worry that government by the fringe is fast replacing the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that Abraham Lincoln spoke of so eloquently in his Gettysburg Address.

I fear that as voter participation dwindles, America’s democracy will give way to a government that’s controlled by those who shout the loudest, are the most intimidating or angriest members of society. It’ll become the providence of the winners of an ideological tug-of-war that has little to do with democracy and a lot to do with uncompromising people wanting to have their way.

Sadly, there is no middle ground among American voters. There are just avowed liberals and conservatives and the so-called independents, who waver between these two poles until they pick sides on Election Day.

The outcome of this year’s midterm election, like that of the 2008 presidential contest, will produce short-term gain. But the warring between political parties that follows chips away at the underpinnings of our democracy — an erosion that threatens its collapse.

Greater voter participation can keep our democracy from imploding. It’ll bring more diversity — ideological, racial and cultural — to the voting booth. And it can force the extremes of the left and right to put the good of the nation ahead of their selfish quest for political gain.