Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Florida's justice evading governor treats welfare mothers like criminals

By DeWayne Wickham
During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Rick Scott – who many think is a criminal who evaded justice – promised to keep drug abuse lawbreakers off of Florida’s welfare rolls.

Scott, who on the stump called for drug testing of welfare applicants with Elmer Gantry-like fervor and credibility, got his way earlier this year when the state’s GOP-dominated legislature passed a law requiring such examinations.

“Studies show that people on welfare are using (illegal) drugs much higher than the population,” the Florida governor said on CNN shortly before the law took effect in July. While there are also studies that dispute Scott’s contention, his push for drug testing has inspired copy-cat efforts in a growing number of states.

It has also hit an unexpected snag.

So far, just 2% of Florida’s welfare applicants have tested positive for illegal drug use, 2% failed to complete the application process and 96% were found to be drug free. While every applicant is required to pay for their drug test, the state must reimburse those who pass.

Even so, Scott — who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times during a 2000 civil suit brought against him and Columbia/HCA, the troubled company he led — has shown no misgivings about treating poor Floridians like criminals. That’s what happens when ideology overtakes good sense.

Scott’s drug testing program, like those being pushed in other states, is part of a right-wing effort to reduce the size and role of government. It is a fishing expedition to find a reason to cut the welfare rolls. It's premised on little more than just a hunch that women with children who are destitute enough to ask a state for temporary cash assistance are more inclined than others to abuse drugs.

The Florida law offer’s poor mothers with needy children no “Fifth Amendment” opportunity to avoid being tested for illegal drug use. And it gives those who are found to be drug users no chance to enter a drug treatment program to keep from being denied the financial assistance they need for their children. So, in essence, Florida’s law punishes children for the sins of their parent.

Scott says his law is meant to prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money. But he makes no allowance for the fate of those needy children to whom it denies welfare assistance.

Drug testing that is not based on reasonable suspicion smacks of an unconstitutional search, the kind of government intrusion upon an individual’s rights that conservatives usually rail against.

But Scott’s assault on welfare mothers plays to an ever bigger right-wing obsession: that big government is the playground of left-wing radicals – and a crutch for shiftless people. Scott rode this position to victory in the governor’s race in the Sunshine State, which will be a key battleground in next year’s presidential election.

By treating mothers who apply for welfare benefits as a criminal class who must disprove a suspicion of drug abuse before obtaining badly-needed support, Scott panders to the soft bigotry of class warfare.

And he becomes an integral part of the rot that is eating away at this nation’s body politics.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Voters should make Rick Perry "inconsequential"

By DeWayne Wickham

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the day he entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination that he’d “work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can,” did he mean he wants the presidency to be as powerless as the job he now holds?

When Perry lobbed this pot shot at President Obama: “You can’t win the future by selling America off to foreign creditors,” was he thinking of his own failed attempt to use foreign investments and tolls to finance a controversial $175 billion road project in the Lone Star State?

When he said at the end of this speech that “the people are not subjects of the government,” government “is subject to the people,” was Perry channeling the rage of the Texas farmers who successfully fought off his effort to seize their land to build that 4,000-mile Trans-Texas Corridor?

The newest addition to the long list of Republican presidential wannabes, Perry is the longest serving chief executive of Texas, a state in which the lieutenant governor and House Speaker, arguably, have more control over the economy than does the governor. This unusual distribution of power is the product of a state constitution that was written in the wake of the Reconstruction period when governors, often chosen by the federal government, ran Texas and other former Confederate states with a heavy hand.

If he wins the presidency, Perry wants us to believe, he’ll strip that office of some of its power. Don’t believe it. Perry wants us to think that if he ends up in the Oval Office he’ll usher in an era of smaller government. That’s probably not going to happen.

What’s more likely is that he’ll roll back those federal government roles he objects to and expand federal authority in areas that will advance his personal right-wing rights agenda.

How might he do this?

In his 2010 book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, Perry abandons the “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution many Republican cling to by arguing for an amendment that strips federal judges of their lifetime appointments. He also wants to tip the constitutional balance of power in favor of Congress by tweaking the Constitution to give federal lawmakers the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

If you think this makes Perry a champion of those who want to bring the reins of power closer to this nation’s people consider this: the tough talking Texas governor wants to repeal the constitutional amendment that made it possible for voters of every state to elect their U.S. senators. Until the 17th amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures.

And remember, it was Perry who wanted to use his state’s power of eminent domain to take land from Texas farmers to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. Also, in an act that many right-wing advocates of individual rights saw as political blasphemy, Perry issued an executive order in 2007 mandating that all sixth-graders in the state to get vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus), which is a sexually transmitted disease.

While he seeks to portray himself as a Tea Party devotee, Perry is more of a have-it-my-way conservative who’s committed to nothing so compelling as his own mixed messages on the role of government in people’s lives – and nothing more worrisome than the degree to which a Perry presidency would be consequential to the life of this nation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Obama should say to Bachmann: "Bring it on!"

By DeWayne Wickham

Michele Bachmann’s win in the straw poll of Republican Party faithfuls in Iowa — the first voter test of the 2012 presidential campaign — had to be good news to a White House battered by a downturn in the economy and an uptick in war casualties.

The Minnesota congresswoman’s victory in the nonbinding contest, which historically has not been a major factor in picking the GOP nominee, increases the possibility that she will be her party’s standard-bearer, given the Tea Party’s muscle flexing in this political season. Bachmann is leader of that kamikaze wing of Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Although the Tea Party’s approval rating has been in a steady decline, it still holds great sway over the GOP. The no-compromise stance that it forced on congressional Republicans during the debt limit debate has pushed the Tea Party onto the tundra of American politics, a position from which Bachmann cannot mount a successful assault on Obama’s presidency.

If the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the GOP propels Bachmann to the party’s presidential nomination, something many pundits think is still a long shot, Bachmann will be soundly defeated in the general election and drag other Republicans down to defeat, as well. In such a campaign, voters will be constantly reminded that Bachmann opposed raising the debt ceiling at a time when many Democrats and Republicans said doing so would court economic catastrophe.

“It was very important (to me) that we not raise the debt ceiling. The worst thing that you can do is continue to borrow money and spend money that we don’t have,” Bachmann said during a televised debate. While Bachmann endears herself to the Tea Party crowd with talk like that, she mortally wounds her chances of ever being more than a footnote of presidential election history.

A former Jimmy Carter Democrat, Bachmann is an unwavering social conservative whose faceoff with Obama would energize black voters, whose support for the president has waned. This drop is probably spurred by the nation’s high black unemployment rate (nearly double that of whites) and the failure of the president’s communications team to get the word out about the things he’s doing to better the lives of disadvantaged blacks for fear of a white backlash.

Black rage over Bachmann’s assertion in January that the founding fathers ended slavery — which they didn’t — would help get disillusioned blacks back into the Obama fold and to the polls on Election Day.
So, too, would another Bachmann faux pas.
In a mindless attempt to win over right-wingers in Iowa, Bachmann signed a Marriage Vow document that suggested black children were better off when they were born into slavery “and raised by (a) mother and father in a two-parent household” than are black children who were born after Obama took office.

Both the premise and accuracy of that claim were debunked in Wilma Dunaway’s 2005 book, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. But even if there were more intact black families during slavery, it takes a callous disregard for the brutalities of that “peculiar institution” to believe that life for blacks was somehow better then than it is now.

While all of this has made Bachmann a Tea Party favorite, it won’t win her enough support beyond the trench lines of that right-wing clique — surely not enough to defeat Obama. And that’s got to have Democrats rooting for her to become the GOP standard-bearer.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Obama can turn around falling poll numbers: tout education record

PHILADELPHIA — Russlynn Ali came here to the National Association of Black Journalists convention to talk about the black-white achievement gap in public education, but what she had to say could also help close the achievement gap that worries Barack Obama's key supporters.

Ali has spent most of her professional life on the front line of the struggle to improve educational opportunities — and results — for poor and minority schoolchildren. As the top civil rights enforcer in the U.S. Department of Education, she's the cop on the block when it comes to making sure state and local school districts don't violate anti-discrimination rules.

In the little more than two years she has been on this beat— once patrolled less effectively by Clarence Thomas — Ali has amassed an impressive record.

"We have launched more investigations than ever before. Much broader, bigger investigations" into whether school officials are unfairly disciplining black kids and shoving them "into the cradle-to-prison pipeline instead of the cradle-to-career pipeline," she told me.

By that she means the Obama administration is robustly challenging school systems that deny black and Hispanic high school students access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses that would improve their chances for college admission. It's also questioning disciplinary practices that treat black students more harshly than whites for similar offenses.

In fact, the Obama administration has launched more than 70 Title VI investigations (for race, color and national origin discrimination) in a little over two years, according to Education Department data. That's more than the Bush administration did in the prior eight years. And while it has stepped up probes in this long-neglected area, the department has not wavered in its pursuit of sex and disability discrimination cases, Ali said.

This impressive performance is something Obama's communications team has failed to trumpet. The biggest hurdle for the president to overcome en route to a second term isn't the Tea Party-led Republican scorched-earth attempt to unseat him; it's the erosion of support for him among members of his political base.

Obama won the presidency with the overwhelming support of black voters (95%), the strong backing of Hispanics (67%) and a sizable minority of whites (43%). Surprisingly, despite the withering right-wing attacks on his policies, his religion and birthright, Obama's approval rating among whites is just 4 percentage points lower than the white vote he received in 2008.

But the falloff of support among blacks and Hispanics has been much steeper. Obama's approval rating among blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) is significantly lower than the vote percentage these groups gave him in 2008. Much of this decline, I suspect, is due to the failure of his administration to tout the good things it has done for them for fear of a white backlash.

This silence — especially in the area of education, where the potential results can improve the lives of millions of blacks and Hispanics — has produced a loss of confidence among this vital core of Obama's political base.

Ali's aggressive efforts to close the achievement gap and combat discrimination in the nation's schools ought to help reverse this downslide. But that won't happen if the president's image managers don't get over their fear of touting the good things his administration is doing for this long-suffering, educationally disadvantaged part of the coalition that put him in office.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Republicans' disrepect for Obama is palpable

By DeWayne Wickham

What should be clear to the whole world watching the debt-ceiling battle is that the Republicans are far more intent on taking the president's scalp than balancing the nation's books. They had ample opportunities to do the latter during the eight years of George W. Bush.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader with the greatest cunning and sharpest knife, signaled his party's true purpose last year when he proclaimed: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." It was not to undo the health care legislation Obama signed into law, or to block another debt limit increase. Even then, two years out from the next presidential election, the Alabama-born senator said the top goal of GOP lawmakers to oust Obama.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been especially relentless in the debt-ceiling fight. He attacked this first African-American president with a palpable disrespect not only for Obama personally, but also for his esteemed office.

Following what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Cantor's "childish" display during a meeting with Obama, the House majority leader complained that the president had cut short the meeting and stormed out of the room. "He shoved back and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow' and walked out," Cantor snidely told reporters— as though the president needs his permission to end a White House gathering.

That encounter might have reminded Obama of the open letter Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and abolitionist who became one of this nation's first black diplomats, wrote to his slave master.
It would be "a privilege" to show you "how mankind ought to treat each other," Douglass told the man who had badly mistreated him. "I am your fellow man, but not your slave."

Douglass' words might have prompted another reflection when, during a critical point in the debt negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, contemptuously waited more than half a day to return a call from the president.

Or, Obama might have heard Douglass' words ringing in his ears after acting House Speaker Steve LaTourette of Ohio had to warn his GOP colleagues during a heated debt-reduction debate on the House floor to stop making disparaging remarks about Obama.

This total lack of respect is downright contemptible — if not unpatriotic. Such contempt, I'm convinced, is rooted in something other than political differences. In their actions you might not see the overt actions of 1960s racist southern governors Ross Barnett or George Wallace. But the presence of Jim Crow, Jr. — a more subtle form of racism — is there.

Douglass viewed such behavior as "an outrage upon the soul." In this present case it is the soul of our nation, which still struggles to get beyond the awful ripple effects of its haunting history of human bondage.

McConnell, Boehner and Cantor are the vanguard of a political force of a dying era — one that looks more like the nation's past than its future.

Obama is the second president of this millennium, but the first chief executive of the America of new possibilities — a multiracial, multicultural nation whose emergence the old order is working mightily to forestall in its desperate attack on his presidency.