Archive for May, 2010

Big Day for Democrats

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The final votes hadn’t even been counted last night when CNN’s GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos was already attempting to throw cold water on Democrat Mark Critz’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th District.

The win means very little, Castellanos argued, given that Critz campaigned against Obama’s health care bill.

Talk about some desperate spin.

First off, Critz isn’t exactly anti-health care reform. While he says there are shortcomings in the recently-passed bill, he wants to fix them, rather than repeal the bill and start over. Much to the consternation of Republicans. Read more here.

The election to replace Democratic icon John Murtha in Pennsylvania was the only head-to-head race yesterday. It’s a district that McCain carried over Obama. As the Washington Post notes, it’s the archetypical swing district, a “must win” for Republicans hoping to win back the House in the fall:

The [National Republican Congressional Committee] has spent $958,897 — one tenth of their cash on hand — and nine (9) shady outside groups have spent more than $445,000 to defeat Democrat Mark Critz. Republican Committee Chairman Michael Steele guaranteed victory for Republican Tim Burns.

PA-12 is the only district in the country that Senator Kerry won and President Obama lost. According to non-partisan political independent analysts, PA-12 is exactly the type of district that House Republicans need to win this cycle.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s independent analyst Charlie Cook:

Republicans have no excuse to lose this race. The fundamentals of this district, including voters’ attitudes towards Obama and Pelosi, are awful for Democrats.

And here’s National Journal’s Amy Walters:

If [Republicans] can’t win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall?

Republicans predicting a GOP tidal wave in the midterm elections have in fact now lost the last two special Congressional elections, in Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.

Critz won, as the LA Times reports, not just by presenting himself as an outsider, but by focusing on creating jobs, jobs, jobs, and on stopping the out-sourcing of American jobs. His opponent, Republican Tim Burns, lost because he tried to nationalize the election — to make it an anti-Pelosi vote — instead of focusing on the district’s woes. (Read more from Politico, which asks this morning: “Where’s the wave?”)

Meanwhile, also in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak outflanked Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter from the left. Sestak, a consistently reliable liberal who among other things favors gun control (Specter tried to make an issue of Sestak’s support for an assault weapons ban), won, as E.J. Dionne notes this morning, by knitting together an impressive left-right coalition.

To get a sense of Sestak’s sweep, consider that he carried all but three of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. He carried Obama strongholds – he got 63 percent in Lancaster County, for example – but also swept through smaller counties in the central and western parts of the state that had supported Clinton.

My cousin Nate, who works for the Sestak campaign, believed Sestak could upend Specter, a three-decade titan of the Senate, back when Sestak was down 20-points in the polls. “We’re gonna do it!” Nate texted me yesterday, as he worked in and around Philadelphia to get out the vote. Kudos to Nate — and all those who worked hard to elect Sestak.

There is much hard work ahead for Democrats, who surely have uphill battles across the country with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. But let’s also learn something from Pennsylvania 12, and from Nate’s commitment and irreducible optimism: we can win, in the fall, even in places where our opponents guarantee we can’t; our message and values still resonate.

There’s only one thing left now to do. In the immortal words of Philadelphia heroine Adrian Balboa: Win.

Obama’s Answer to Iran

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

That didn’t take long.

One day after Iran announced a nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil — a transparent stalling effort designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear program — the Obama administration has announced its own deal with the other major powers, including Russia and China, to go ahead with tough new sanctions.

It’s a draft plan. But, still, for those of use who care about Israel and Middle East stability, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today is nothing short of huge.

As the negotiations on the draft resolution were in their final hours on Monday evening, a senior administration official said that one of the most critical sections of the proposed sanctions were modeled on a resolution passed last year against North Korea, after its second nuclear test. That resolution authorized all nations to search cargo ships heading into or out of the country for suspected weapons, nuclear technology or other cargo prohibited by previous United Nations resolutions …

Other elements of the sanctions resolution are aimed at Iranian financial institutions, including those that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps is responsible for overseeing the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. But it has also played a central role in suppressing protests against the government, and the Obama administration is betting that the organization is now despised by a large enough portion of the Iranian public that the sanctions may be welcomed by part of Iranian society. That is a big bet, however, because the corps also runs large elements of the country’s infrastructure, including its airports.

The deal, struck with the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Russia, China, and the U.K.) plus Germany, is the Obama administration’s answer to Iran’s not-so-subtle high stakes gamesmanship.

Mrs. Clinton said the new offer [with Turkey and Brazil] would still leave Iran “in clear violation of its international obligations” because it “is continually amassing newly enriched uranium.” She also criticized what she called the “amorphous timeline for the removal” of the low enriched uranium. Reading the terms, she said, “that could take months of further negotiation and that is just not acceptable to us and to our partners.”

To those critics who say that sanctions will not hurt or deter Iran, I would ask: Why, then, is Iran going to such great lengths to undermine them?

As the Times reports:

Iran has been working mightily to ward off new sanctions, sending its foreign minister to the capitals of countries sitting on the Security Council to make the case that the sanctions amount to an American conspiracy to deprive Iran of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Maybe you saw this photo of a Ahmadinejad in today’s Times, raising the V for victory sign after inking the deal with Brazil and Turkey. If Obama and Clinton succeed in getting these sanctions through the United Nations, it will be the end of Ahmadinejad’s smirking.

Question Answered

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Earlier in the week, I blogged about the one question Elena Kagan needed to answer: What battle did she wage with her rabbi before her bat mitzvah?

The New York Times had disclosed that there had been a brouhaha “over some aspect of the ceremony,” without explaining what, precisely, had been at issue.

Well, thanks to the New York Jewish Week for asking — and answering – that question.

It seems that Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee had the moxie to stand on principle — even at the tender age of 12.

This issue was this: Kagan wanted a bat mitzvah; the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, where her family belonged, did not have bat mitvot for girls.

Kagan went to her rabbi and told him she wanted to recite the Haftorah, just like the boys, and moreover, she wanted her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning — just like the boys.

Her rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, told the Jewish Week that such a request was unprecedented.

To his credit, though, the rabbi worked with her. She could have the ceremony on a Friday night, he said; and instead of reading a traditional Haftorah, she could chant, in Hebrew a section from the Book of Ruth.

“I was very proud of her,” [Riskin] said. “She did very well. After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. … She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment.”

It couldn’t have been easy, in 1973, for a 12-year-old girl to stand up to her Orthodox rabbi for what she thought was right. At an age when most of us are more preoccupied with the bar/bat mitzvah after-party, Kagan not only spoke truth to power, but she forged a compromise that blazed a new path for all the girls who came after her.

Not to make of this long-ago incident than it deserves. But with abortion rights being chiseled away (women in some states will soon be forced to look at ultrasounds, and have the fetus described, before having abortions — even in cases of rape or incest) and immigrants being targeted through the law (did anyone see that Arizona just restricted ethnic studies classes, on the grounds that they promote “ethnic chauvinism”?), Kagan’s moral fearlessness could be a bold corrective.

My Question for Elena Kagan

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Elena Kagan, newly nominated by President Obama for the Supreme Court, will surely be peppered with questions by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Something tells me, though, that at no point will Kagan be asked the most critical question.

As the Times reports this morning:

The young Ms. Kagan was independent and strong-willed. Mr. [Bill] Lubic [her father's law partner of 20 years] recalls her bat mitzvah — or bas mitzvah, as it was then called — in a conservative synagogue, where Elena clashed with the rabbi over some aspect of the ceremony.

“She had strong opinions about what a bas mitzvah should be like, which didn’t parallel the wishes of the rabbi,” he said. “But they finally worked it out. She negotiated with the rabbi and came to a conclusion that satisfied everybody.”

I know that Supreme Court nominees are famously tight-lipped. But Americans — and most especially Jewish Americans — must know. Solicitor General Kagan: What battle did you wage with your rabbi at your bat mitzvah?

Did it have to do with Jewish gender roles? A disagreement about the interpretation of the HafTorah? A question about who could sit with the bat mitzvah girl on the bimah?

Let others debate whether Kagan is an activist judge (though it would hard to be more activist than Scalia, Roberts, et. al), or whether she is too progressive (her senior thesis at Princeton was about Socialism in New York City! She clerked for Thurgood Marshall!) … we need to know, Ms. Kagan: what prompted you, as a 13-year-old girl, to take on your rabbi, and how did you get him to cave?

I’ve got a hunch that this liberal Jewish woman — who has taken great pains in her career to reach out to conservatives, including Scalia – is exactly what’s needed on the increasingly conservative Roberts court.

Obama Edits Out Jesus

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Symbols matter.

Remember President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany, 25 years ago this month? Where he laid a wreath at the grave site of 2,000 German soldiers, including 49 Nazi troops?

The Jewish community was outraged, of course.

Well, President Obama has made a subtle, symbolic gesture in the other direction, showing truly uncommon sensitivity to the Jewish community.

Thanks to the New Jersey Jewish News for this story, which reports that President Obama removed the standard phrase “in the year of our Lord” from a proclamation welcoming May as Jewish Heritage Month.

As the newspaper reports, previous similar proclomations — by Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton — all included the standard line affixed at the end, pegging the missive’s date to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Past proclamations including the phrase included one by Clinton mourning the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 4, 1995) and another marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (March 21, 2002).

But Obama, in praising Jews for their unique contributions to American culture, took the extra step of taking it out this time.

Surely, this won’t sit well with the purists. I imagine the our-country-is-a-Christian-nation crowd will not be pleased. It may seem like a small thing, but it shows political courage.

The Jewish community should be more outspoken in acknowledging this, and in voicing appreciation.