Saturday, May 1, 2010

Understanding the Tea Party Movement

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 29, 2010

On April 15, the Tea Party movement held Tax Day demonstrations across the country. Tax day was the culmination of a nationwide tour over the past several weeks and an opportunity for this loosely organized but narrowly focused group of conservatives to protest taxation. Modest crowds gathered in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, and around 10,000 gathered on the national Mall in Washington, D.C. There is much emphasis, among the faithful supporters of the movement, on patriotism and historical context. Make no mistake, however, this ain’t your founders’ Tea Party.

Timed to coincide with the April 15 events was the release of several surveys, including one by the New York Times and CBS News. These polls were designed to offer some insight into the demographics and the motivation of Tea Partiers. Since those who consider themselves supporters of the movement comprise about 18 percent of the nation’s population, it seems worthwhile to study the group’s concerns and intentions in order to gauge the impact the group might have on politics and policy.

Let me just say first that I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to take a relatively small sample of people, conduct a survey and publish the results as a definitive identity of the group. Less effective still is to take that definition and apply it to every single participant at the level of the individual. Just as the polling data compiled and the conclusions imposed on the anti-war protesters in the United States during George W. Bush’s reign did not define me as a member (and facilitator) of a group called Peaceful Gatherings, I don’t believe that every Tea Partier is a cookie cutter impression that matches the Times/CBS News poll’s determinations. I wouldn’t want to flatly apply a stereotype to any group and expect any given member of that group to live up (or stoop) to that stereotype. Instead, I would prefer to look at the actions and words of individuals and perhaps make judgments about why they might seek to associate themselves with that particular group. There is a value to that when it comes to understanding the popularity and impact of the Tea Parties.

The findings of the Times/CBS News poll were not exactly surprising to those either on the right or on the left. A conservative group, they primarily vote Republican. The vast majority disapprove of Barack Obama’s performance (84% of the movement compared with 33% nationwide). The majority have an unfavorable view of the government as a whole, with 96% disapproving of Congress’s performance. They are also largely better off financially than the general population, which may explain why the majority don’t approve of health care reform or want the government to spend money on job creation. Half of those polled criticize the administration for its focus on helping the poor.

While over 80 percent are optimistic about their own economic situation the vast majority are pessimistic about the economy as a whole. This is an interesting disparity and may be difficult to understand. It certainly makes the intensity of the anger expressed about the way government is handling the problems of the financial industry and the economy harder to comprehend.

It is also interesting to see the apparent disregard for the plight of the poor. Much has been made lately of the fact that nearly half of Americans pay no taxes. Lost in this debate is the reason for that fact. The growing wealth gap has accounted for the increasing number of poor who do not earn enough to pay income taxes. Those who talk of turning back the nation to the 1950s (an era for which many claim nostalgia) should bear in mind that the salary of the average corporate CEO in the 50s represented a 20:1 ratio with the average laborer. The current ratio of compensation is nearly 1,000:1. This out-of-control wealth gap is the cause for the situation of which many Tea Partiers complain. Organizer Jeff McQueen told an interviewer, he is part of the “50 percent stuck paying for the other 50 percent.” He expressed his dissatisfaction with the way that the country had changed since the 50s and 60s. It is interesting that his rage seemed to be leveled at the current administration since the state of the economy has been evolving through a disproportionate favoring of corporate America over the common citizen for decades.

While I don’t think the fact that nine in 10 Tea Partiers are white means that they are racists, I think the fact that many (over a quarter) believe that the administration favors blacks over whites implies a racial element is at play. That 25 percent of respondents would vocalize a concern that there is a racial imbalance in a time when political correctness makes most wary of declaring racial bias is telling. I firmly believe that there is a component of racism in the “Birther” movement. And Birthers have aligned themselves with the movement, with 30 percent of Tea Partiers convinced that Obama was not born in this country.

I think that the rage that is evident among the movement is based not on the fact that a black man has been elected president but on the fact that there is a liberal in the White House. However, nearly every time I acknowledge that Tea Partiers are angry about the 2008 election I get accused of calling someone a racist. In reality, my comment is based on the individuals I know who have voiced their support of the movement because they see the country shifting to the left and are angry about that.

A friend of mine has become very active in the Tea Parties and has even achieved a leadership position in the region. He has always expressed his conservative views. However, since the election in 2008 he has become incensed about liberalism and how he sees it as a negative impact on the direction of the country. While I hesitate to paint people with a broad brush, the views expressed by my friend echo many of the views of those who speak out at Tea Party events or express their views through chants or signs. I see the commonality of attitudes as a result of conservative media personalities and punditry. While many organizations that help to mobilize the Tea Partiers publicly discourage followers from expressing partisan politics, the talking points disseminated from their websites tend to echo the Republican base.

The growing popularity of the Tea Party movement and its impact on the political landscape may be exaggerated but that it will be felt in November is undeniable. That its motivation and instigation appears to be driven by anger and rage is troubling.

If You Can’t Beat It, Paint It

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 29, 2010

There is an old saying in the military that goes something like: “If it doesn’t move, paint it.” Unfortunately, there is a version of that same philosophy being demonstrated within the liberal portion of the mainstream media and the leadership of the Democratic party. It goes something like this: “If you can’t beat the message, paint the messenger.”

For a good example of this policy, you need look no further than my fellow columnist’s paint job he just applied to the Tea Party movement. It seems ironic to me that the people who, at first, tried to ignore the movement as irrelevant now seem to think this coalition of engaged citizens has some irresistible power over the political machinery of this nation.

In fact, the reaction from the left toward the Tea Partiers has been a classic example of the method used when dealing with any group that disagrees with the liberal agenda. They followed the same process against the Moral Majority in the early 80’s. The first step of the process is to ignore the followers and hope they just go away, if that doesn’t work and they start to grow in numbers the next step is to laugh at them, similar to the way a playground bully will poke fun at anyone who makes her or him feel uncomfortable. If the movement grows past the joke stage, the only thing left to do is to paint it with a broad brush, disregarding the fact that any movement, like any church, civic group, organization and even any family, consists of many individuals with many different motives and passions.

My brother spends many words in his column telling us about a survey done by that beacon of “objective and accurate” journalism, The New York Times. Within the bowels of that survey, he discovered many so-called facts about the respondents. I will say here that I applaud Keith for his disclaimer that he is reluctant to draw stereotypes from a survey, however, I believe he devoted the remainder of his diatribe to doing just that.

I believe that Keith – and the New York Times – would have been better served by logging onto the many websites of the various Tea Party organizations in our state and/or the Tea Party Nation website to get the information about the issues that have driven them to action.

Apparently it is easier to just paint the movement as rich, privileged, uncompassionate, lily-white, anti-government, Obama-birther malcontents rather than give it the due diligence of covering it as an issue. If these NYT “reporters” and Keith had taken the time to investigate the websites or – perish the thought – actually attend a Tea Party meeting, they would have likely discovered the following facts – rather than just delivering a jaundiced “straw man” argument.

First of all, they would have discovered that most of the anger is directed equally among the trio of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, which should have put to rest the notion that it is all “race-driven”. Speaking of the race card, now that Keith has subtly played it one paragraph while denying it the next, I will state here that, as far as I am concerned, Obama is bi-racial and his policies are detrimental to Americans of every color and race as he spends us deeper and deeper into a deficit that all American children will have to pay.

They would also have discovered that, while the majority of Tea Party members may have come from the Republican Party member base, it does not follow that they approve of all Republican politicians. In fact, a quick study of most Tea Party sites will show more anger at the RINO’s (Republican-In-Name-Only) that have sat back and done nothing to thwart the liberal agenda of the aforementioned trio, and/or have even added their names to harmful legislation.

In conclusion, let me say here that I do not get too excited by published surveys and polling numbers. I find it to be sloppy journalism and, for the most part, irrelevant to the issue under discussion. Even though it seems that every news hour contains at least one reference to the “latest poll numbers” and daily tracking data, I tend to ignore that part of the report for some of the reasons stated above. In other words, surveys are only as good as the questions they ask and the number of respondents interviewed.

I challenge my fellow columnist and any industrious, objective reporter from the Times (if such a species exists) to do more than just publish survey results. I challenge them to put down the paintbrush, close the joke book, and truly investigate the issues under discussion.

What is Definition of “Responsible Speech”?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 15, 2010

When our founding fathers met during those late summer days of 1787 to construct the document that would guide the growth and maturity of our infant nation, they were very careful to follow some stringent guidelines. They admitted the task before them would be difficult and heretofore unaccomplished by any other group of human engineers. They realized they were drawing a map of uncharted territory. The idea that a government could exist with its powers granted not by its military subjugation of a people or by its monarchical lineage, but solely by the consent of its governed populace was truly a unique and foreign idea.

The beauty of the preamble to that document, and the efficient use of powerful verbiage in the Amendments that were added two years later in December of 1791, show us that the men who met in those days were divinely guided and assisted in that endeavor. I think all of us will agree that our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are unequaled among any other civilization’s charters of organization.

It is therefore troubling to me when I hear our chief executive say that the free speech of two of our citizens is “troublesome” to him. I speak, of course of the response by President Obama to a question put to him during a recent interview on CBS. When asked about the current climate of discontent that seems (to the mainstream press, anyway) to be unprecedented and without cause, Obama replied with the proper nouns of two of the most vocal and well-paid critics he has. He mentioned Rush Limbaugh, a very successful and well-compensated radio talk show host who is enjoying the revenues generated by several willing advertisers, and a cable TV personality by the name of Glenn Beck, who also shares in the comfortable lifestyle due to the advertisers who willingly add their signature to the checks that go to keep his show on the air.

Now, we all know that Mr. Obama is not the first president who has had his critics. In fact, our first president, who, by the way, happened to be the first white president, had his critics also. He had several people who published unsavory things about him and some who stood on the street corners of Philadelphia and mocked his capabilities and questioned his decisions, yet he added his name to the very document that guaranteed those people would not have that free speech denied.

Today, we see and hear many people who agree with Obama that people like Limbaugh and Beck are “troublesome”. They like to cite the difference between free speech and responsible speech. As we were all taught in civics class, we have the right to talk about anything we want but we have certain responsibilities that we must adhere to. For example, I can speak about the dangers of fire and tell you how to be careful with woodstoves and fireplaces and in doing so, I would use the word “fire” in several ways and in several contexts, but if I shouted the word “fire!” in a crowded theater in which only one door was available for exit and no fire existed, obviously I would be held liable for the injuries and/or deaths that occurred. That would definitely be “troublesome” speech and would be beyond the realms of responsible speech.

However, if I spoke about political subjects and if my political views caused people to become stimulated to the point of action, would I be crossing the line between responsible and irresponsible speech? In other words, if political speech is coupled with emotional catch words and phrases that spark a response in the listeners, much like the shouted “fire!”, am I still being responsible?

Some critics of Limbaugh and Beck think that they have overstepped that boundary and therefore their speech must be somehow regulated or at least stifled. My contention with that argument is that any regulation of their speech would be a regulation of all manners of speech and any stifling of Limbaugh would be a stifling of us all.

In other words, I am no fan of Keith Olbermann and I find many of his rants and diatribes to be “troublesome” to me. For example, when he paints the entire Tea Party movement as a racist enterprise he is casting aspersions upon me and many people I respect, yet I have no desire to see him stifled, his dismal ratings should work to stifle him soon enough.

To those who think that the rhetoric of Limbaugh is “troublesome” I would encourage them to take the few minutes to search out the speeches of men like Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and others who spoke with great passion and emotion, and yes even some derisive and insulting comments, about the former King of England. They are the men who knew that all liberties were granted by a beneficent Creator and if one is squelched then none are safe.

I would also say, find an audience and speak out. Put your rhetoric up against theirs in the free market and see to whom the listeners turn and to whom the advertisers pay. Oh yeah, I forgot, you already tried that, it was called Air America.

Free Speech vs. Responsibility

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 15, 2010

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
-The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Those are powerful words and words for which I am always grateful. I owe every word I ever submitted to the editors of the Broader View Weekly to a single paragraph that provides for a broad range of liberty. It is because of the foresight of the crafters of the Bill of Rights that my brother Gordon and I are able to raise our distinct voices in protest – not just in hushed tones or personal e-mails but loudly and for public distribution.

So I cherish the freedom of speech and would never seek to inhibit or regulate it. I don’t believe that President Barack Obama would either, any more than I believe President George W. Bush sought to limit free speech when he said, of the Dixie Chicks, “…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out…” (or when his former press secretary Ari Fleischer said, of the press after 9/11, that they should “watch what they say”).

However, there are certain personalities who see every criticism of their opinions, influence or tactics as either a return to the Fairness Doctrine (which sought to balance the broadcast of opposing views) or a desire to limit the free speech of a chosen few through some sort of targeted attack. Even before Obama took office, Limbaugh used his radio talk show to ramp up fury over his speculation that the administration would bring back the Fairness Doctrine; in fact, that it was at the top of Obama’s agenda. As recently as last week, Glenn Beck claimed, in his own radio show, that the administration had targeted him in a coordinated attack as an enemy of the president. Beck claims that people close to the White House have called for a boycott of his television show and that the president himself is trying to silence him.

Of course, this is all part of the personae of these two personalities: one moment they claim to be inconsequential to public, the next they are so self important that they can barely contain themselves. They claim to be the only purveyors of the truth and feign paranoia that the “liberal” media and the government are trying to shut them up. This contradictory self-image may be part of the ego necessary to spend three hours each day on talk radio, but it also serves a certain tactical role. Faithful listeners begin to think they are privy to a rare source of information (which they perceive to be factual and accurate). They also begin to relate to the hosts in a way that is endearing. The fate of the radio personality becomes entwined with the fates of the listeners, and not just implicitly. Last week, Beck told his listeners that the administration had come for him and, in no uncertain terms, that they were coming “for you”.

Fear and rage are a big part of the package for Beck, Limbaugh, and their ilk (such as Sean Hannity and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly). Every perceived threat is exaggerated. On, March 22, after the House of Representatives passed the health care bill, Rush opened his show with the words “Today America is hanging by a thread. Today, freedom is under attack.” Glenn Beck’s constant assertions that he has never seen such abuses or overreaching has built a following that parallels the Tea Party movement. Beck uses his show to whip his “9/12” minions into a frenzy and draw them to his website and events.

None of the major players in talk radio are subtle about where rage and fear should be focused. Limbaugh talks about the evil liberals and continually claims they are liars bent on the destruction of America and her way of life. Beck demonizes progressives and attaches a religious component that amounts to righteous indignation. They each provide specific targets of collective anger. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are blamed for many of the nation’s troubles, but the prime enemy of conservatism is President Obama. Sean Hannity refers to him as the “Anointed One” implying that he was illegitimately elected (apparently because the press couldn’t stop fawning over him). Rush Limbaugh affects a sneering, whining, and mocking tone every time he mentions the president. Glenn Beck describes him as pure evil.

The First Amendment guarantees these men the right to voice their opinions, however critical, of the president. In his column, Gordon implies that Obama sees those voices as so “troublesome” that their rights should be suspended. I think the implication is wrong, but I find the intensity and nature of the discourse “troubling”.

The arena of public opinion is currently a tinderbox of anger. The hurting economy, jobless rates and other hardships leave Americans searching for answers and leave many looking for scapegoats. If talk radio is effective at anything it is providing scapegoats. Hosts like Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity are providing fuel to the growing flames of discontent.

It is difficult to deny the influence and power that these men wield. But with great power comes great responsibility, and that these radio personalities attempt to deny that responsibility is troubling as well. In light of recent vandalism and threats of violence by the Tea Party crowd, many conservatives are trying to distance themselves. It is interesting to hear these folks try to maintain a level of fear and rage that keeps the faithful tuned in, while trying to appear conscientious.

Not all conservatives have taken the same tack. Bill Bennett, whose views I don’t share, responded to an audience member who criticized him for not hating Obama enough by quoting former President Richard Nixon (also no hero of mine). In his farewell speech, Nixon said “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Instead of exacerbating the turmoil, Bennett turned a lens of reason on the situation and encouraged his audience to do the same.

We should treasure the freedoms we share and respect the rights of others. But when it comes to our freedom of speech we should bear in mind the power of words and use them responsibly.

State Budget Issues

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 1, 2010

States all across the nation are struggling with budget shortfalls. New York is far from unique in experiencing its own budget gaps as the governor and legislature approach their deadline. Most people are familiar with the problems facing states such as California, and the drastic steps being taken to resolve their own deficits. Therefore, it is little surprise that Governor David Paterson, the State Assembly and State Senate find themselves in similar waters.

While both legislative houses have passed emergency bills to keep the state government operating, as of this writing, differences of opinion and strategy are likely to prevent legislators from presenting a budget by the April 1 deadline.

One would hope that our representatives in the state legislature would put aside politics and focus on doing their best to serve the people of New York. Unfortunately, the work of the people is being impeded by the personal interests of those in Albany.

The obvious requirement of balancing a budget plagued by deficit is to increase revenue while reducing expenditure. The governor’s office and the houses of legislature have presented various plans to address budget issues.

Paterson has infamously proposed increasing revenue by raising taxes on cigarettes and imposing taxes on soft drinks. These measures, which lopsidedly affect lower income New Yorkers, unfairly target a group of people by their lifestyle. They also fall short of closing the gaps in the budget.

Cuts proposed by the governor’s office and the legislature to state programs and aid also threaten New York’s neediest by limiting or denying funding to school districts and other vital programs. Regardless of the outcome of negotiation, billions of dollars will be eliminated from programs and New Yorkers will suffer. Meanwhile, those who can least afford it will be further squeezed to make up the difference between revenue and expenditure.

And while we the people of New York are sacrificing, those in government in Albany are sharing in that sacrifice as well, right? Well, as it turns out, not so much.

Reports in the last couple of weeks have shown that even though the economy is depressed, and even though a pay freeze has been instituted in Albany, staffs in the legislature have been increased and raises have been awarded. Popular convention among fiscal conservatives would insist that the bulk of the increases would be at the hands of the tax-and-spend Democratic party. However, the majority of the $7.4 million these increases will cost New Yorkers, is being claimed by Republicans in the State Senate. Of course Democrats have had their hands out for these payoffs as well.

That this opportunism is a bi-partisan effort is small comfort. That it represents a lack of responsibility among those making decisions that affect us all is troubling.

Balancing the state budget, or at least presenting a realistic budget that meets needs while limiting its negative impact on the public, is a monumental task. This process and the negotiations that are part of it, require difficult choices and compromise. These things are certain.

I am concerned, not by the failure to meet deadlines in a timely manner, but by the things I see in the proposals coming from the governor’s office, the senate and the assembly. I am not fully qualified to offer solutions to state budget shortfalls. However, I believe that any such decisions should be made with the needs of and circumstances of the citizens of the state. Unfortunately, I see a governor acting with little regard to public opinion and of the real-world consequences of his decisions. I see a legislature too self-absorbed to look beyond personal gain to the business of helping those they represent.

As the formation of proposals and the budgeting process go forward I invite New Yorkers to keep an eye on the process and the provisions that are still evolving. There is still time to get involved. Our representatives in Albany are still working on the deals that will impact our lives. We should communicate to them our will. That remains our responsibility as the key component of a democratic system.

Signs of Spring

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 1, 2010

When you see the familiar glint of a red-bellied Robin flying low over a green lawn, or the south end of a northbound V of Canada Geese honking high in the sky, or the whitish-yellow blossom of a Daffodil blooming along a sidewalk, you know that Spring has finally arrived in upstate New York. These sights invariably bring a sudden feeling of warmth and joy to the winter-weary heart of New Yorkers. However, there is another annual sight we witness each April that does not bring such feelings of warmth and joy.

I speak, of course, of the annual New York State Budget showdown. It starts brewing in mid-January and it percolates slowly through the chilly days of February before it starts to really boil over in late March; and by April 1 (otherwise known as April Fool’s Day – for good reason) we can be assured that our governor and our legislators will be still be miles apart from a settlement and emergency appropriations will be called for and approved in the nick of time to avoid closing schools and government offices.

Each year we are told that certain services will be jeopardized if taxes are not raised and each year we mutely accept new fees, fines and revenue enhancers imposed upon us and our businesses. Then we wonder why we see the “For Sale” signs appear in the lawns and in the shop windows of homes and businesses as more people pack their belongings and head for other states where a more favorable environment exists for families and corporations.

The current situation in Albany is not that much different from previous years; it seems that the problem persists from administration to administration with only the names changing. This year, however, there is a proposal on the table from our Lieutenant Governor, Richard Ravitch. In his simple five-step plan, modeled after a similar program that was used in the 1970’s to bring New York City back from the brink of bankruptcy, Ravitch proposes several ideas that, on the face, seem practical and efficacious.

Ravitch’s proposal includes a five-year plan in which the state commits to paying down its structural gap and gives the governor the power to make across-the-board reductions should those gaps continue to exist. It also calls for an adoption of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, in which revenues are accounted when they are “earned” rather than when the money actually arrives in Albany. The plan calls for borrowing within limits determined by an independent financial review board.

I sense many problems may result by this “fix”. One of which is the idea that we can borrow our way out of this dilemma. If we try that in our home budgets we soon come to realize that, unless we change our spending and/or increase our income, the problem will just pop up again when the credit card bills come to our mailbox.

I believe the same principles used to restore financial solvency to our personal budgets can be applied to our state. In other words, we need to change our spending habits.

I know that the principle known as NIMBY – or Not In MY Back Yard – is a very real challenge for those who know that certain industrial or governmental facilities are necessary for the public good, yet they are just as sure they do not want the construction in their backyards. The companion principle in regards to the budget could be called NMSI – Not My Special Interest – in which the electorate recognizes that the budget needs to be cut, but the cuts should not come from the area that serves my special interest. These special interests have their lobbyists strolling the halls of Albany making as much noise as they can to prove that their special interests are, indeed, special and more special than the others that are making just as much noise.

I propose that we look more closely at what we expect from our government and what we could expect from private enterprise. For example, the proposed idea to close state parks and recreation centers has been met with outcry from those who take advantage of these facilities. Perhaps we need to evaluate the idea that the state should be involved in the ownership of these parks to begin with. I contend that private enterprise can and does serve the public as well as state-run departments. Accountability from the market place is usually much more efficient than accountability from the election process.

In conclusion, we can expect to see this same sign of Spring next year and the year after, unless and until we are willing to make radical changes in the process.

Are You Feeling “Tickled” by Massa?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 18, 2010

As the smoking contrail of Eric Massa’s political career slowly and mercifully fades from the national skyline, the residents of New York’s 29th District can ask themselves some key questions. I will not recount the details of the accusations against him or the rambling of his varied responses to those accusations other than to say that I do not think I have ever witnessed a “tickle fight” between a grown man and a group of subordinates.

The first question that needs to be answered is, of course, a serious inquiry about how we are going to replace our former representative. Obviously, a special election must be held as soon as possible and, as Steuben County officials have already stated, the expenses for this election will be carried by local municipalities. As of this writing, the Democrats, taken by surprise, have yet to name a candidate. As if we needed any further proof of Massa’s self-centered way of thinking, this is another example of someone acting with total disregard for the consequences of his actions upon others.

Another question for the voters, and not just for those in this district, is whether there are any men or women out there who are immune to the pathogens that seem to infect anyone exposed to political power.

I understand that a certain personality type is necessary for anyone who chooses to venture into the political arena. First of all, one must possess an above average opinion of her or his own abilities and capabilities. This confidence may not be a detriment in itself, as a tolerable level of self-confidence is a positive attribute in a healthy self-image. However, as with most wild beasts, self confidence – if overfed by fawning press coverage, generous donors and the ever-present clingers that seem to follow and attach themselves to those in authority – will turn fat and sassy.

What we saw as we watched Massa’s embarrassing performances on Glen Beck and Larry King was the picture of a man who embodied the narcissism and megalomania that is the final stage of poisoned self-confidence. I cringed when I saw him pull the well-traveled and pre-arranged prop of his x-ray film to bolster his claim that he was indeed suffering from a lingering cancer. I cringed again when I heard Beck reference the fact that Massa’s wife was observing this whole debacle from a nearby seat.

I realize there may be some truth to Massa’s claim that Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer had an interest in seeing Massa’s beady-eyed visage removed from the picture of the Democrat side of the House of Representatives. I do not doubt the validity of the story that intimidation and pressure exists within the halls and …um…shower stalls of our Capitol. However, I also believe Massa’s repeated and boisterous tales of the bawdy elements of that part of the story were designed to take our mental vision apparatus from focusing on the image of a randy, hypersexual (and possibly bisexual), older man preying upon the bodies of younger subordinates.

Another question that comes to mind is whether we should have seen something within Massa that could have alerted us to this possibility. We all know of his utterly arrogant statement that he will gladly and quickly vote against the wishes of at least 80% of his constituents if he believed it was better for us. We all heard his obsessive references to his service in the U.S. Navy, as if we needed (or perhaps he needed) assurance that he was all man. Now, I am certainly not qualified to do a long-distance (or even an intimate) psychological evaluation of our former representative, but I am qualified to say that certain personality traits do present themselves as ready hosts for the parasitic elements that eat away at the soul.

So, what do we do now as Massa slinks away to some distant cave? Well, first of all, we should say a solemn and sincere prayer for him and his wife. For him to find the courage to seek her forgiveness and for her to gain the courage to go on in this new and uncomfortable world he has constructed for her and his children.

Obviously, we should also be more diligent in vetting the next candidate before we entrust her or him with our vote. But beyond that, we should also realize the old adage that: “Power always corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is still holding true, and we can expect to see corruption as long as we have money and politics so tightly entwined.

In conclusion, we can and should feel a little unease when we realize that Massa has “tickled” (in more than one way) all of his constituents with his actions. But, even with that realization, we need to see the person behind the man and allow some much needed privacy for him and his family as they try to deal with the failures of their father and husband.

More Questions than Answers

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 18, 2010

When the story of former Congressman Eric Massa’s political demise began to evolve I was gripped by dismay. I also felt a great deal of confusion, which I assumed would fade as I had an opportunity to read more than just an article’s headline. It took over 24 hours for my schedule to allow me to look into the matter, and by that time I was finding more questions than answers. On Friday, March 5, when Massa’s announcement changed from “I will not run” to “I hereby resign”, my confusion had grown to a troubling level.

Many readers will know I have been supportive of the former congressman. I interviewed him on the day he headed to Washington for swearing in. I attended fundraisers and two of the Town Meetings he held in the district last summer. I had shaken his hand and had casual conversations at public events. I participated in several of his press conference calls during his short time of service. Perhaps this accessibility – something I have never enjoyed with any other public official – had colored my opinion of Massa, but there was something more that won him my vote and caused me to endorse him to friends and relatives, if not always to Broader View readers.

In conversation and oration, Massa spoke candidly about the political climate in Washington. I believed he saw the all-too-powerful influence corporate lobbies exerted. I believed he understood the obstacles the current campaign financing system presented and how it produced politicians beholden to special interests, regardless of their stated commitments. I believed that he understood the dangers of party politics and how it interferes with meaningful legislation.

So I was saddened to hear that someone determined to address those issues was giving up his fight to make a difference. I was also puzzled that a cancer scare and an ethics investigation would trump Massa’s obligation to serve his constituency.

As I was preparing to write this week’s column I tried to resist the easy assumptions that make great sound bite fodder. It is easy to glom on to allegations (and Massa’s own admissions) of physical contact, and make commentary on his “randy” inappropriate behavior. It is easy to point to this latest ethics investigation as an example of the corruption within one party or compare it to similar infractions within another. It is easy to describe the impact of the resignation on the political football game and the current battle over healthcare reform.

It is harder, but more meaningful to focus on the real questions Massa’s situation brings to the table.

My brother Gordon alluded to one question with his commentary about the former congressman’s potential “bisexuality”. Massa was asked at least twice in recent interviews if he was gay. His refusal to answer in one case was more troubling than his better answer that he wasn’t but it wouldn’t matter if he was. Only Massa knows the true answer to the question, but if it’s a “yes” it points to a social environment that breeds certain forms of misconduct. The military’s don’t ask/don’t tell policies and social pressures that force homosexual men and women into heterosexual unions based on lies, does not excuse the manipulation of power for sexual gratification. However, examples of abuse in political and religious realms do betray a climate of corruption possibly resulting from unrealistic social strictures and accepted norms.

I cannot definitively answer the question of whether Massa was pressured by the White House to resign. Similar claims by New York Governor David Paterson of his own experiences, and a recorded conversation between Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then-candidate Massa, lead me to believe that a conversation similar to the alleged shower scene probably took place.

The problem of the perpetual election and hardball party politics is very disturbing to me. The exercise of our democracy is continually thwarted by a power struggle that is not only counterproductive but is damaging to the operation of our government. The current two-party system is driven by a need to maintain or win dominance in the political arena that outweighs the real issues with which most Americans are concerned. This atmosphere creates intimidators like Emanuel and entangles party leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a snare of hypocrisy.

I agree with Gordon that the fate of the 29th District’s representation remains a question. The vacant seat requires a special election and the quest for someone to fill that seat requires a thorough vetting process. However, Gordon’s assertion that the election take place without delay implies that the position should be simply awarded to GOP candidate and former Corning Mayor Tom Reed. Reed is the only formally announced candidate and the only one that has a moderate level of familiarity among voters (not to mention a cache of funds), since he has already been campaigning for months. Democrats need to work quickly to present a viable nominee, but given the current congressional hornet’s nest one shouldn’t put expectations so high on one person.

The amount of media coverage afforded to Massa and the amount spent on the recent special election in Massachusetts begs other questions: Do we focus too closely in our system of democracy on one person’s impact? Did the country expect too much from the promise of change and President Obama’s audacity of hope? Did the Tea Party movement hang too many ambitions on the neck of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown? Do we put too much faith in the campaign slogans and banners waved in every individual local and national election? Do we fail to see that our job as citizens of the U.S. is not over once we have cast our vote?

We should honestly ask ourselves these and other questions. But we should also strive to send a message to our elected officials that the current political system is broken. Our executive and legislative branches are no longer effectively serving the American citizenry. Unless we institute real reform in the political process it won’t matter who we elect to represent the 29th District of New York.

Forum or Spectacle?

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 4, 2010

On Thursday, February 25, President Obama hosted a bi-partisan Health Care Summit at Blair House with Congressional representatives of both parties. To be honest, it was partly a political spectacle, televised as a forum for both sides to showcase their arguments about the current proposal to reform the health care system.

It might have been an opportunity for candid discussion of real issues, with solutions being offered and considered. It might have been a fruitful exchange of ideas and innovative answers to the dilemma everyone agrees the current system presents. However, politics, as usual, got in the way.

I’m not excusing the president from his contribution to the game playing. The public nature of the summit represented an attempt to control the message and not just a gesture of transparency that (contrary to the opinion of many on the right) has been a focus of this administration. Bringing cameras into the arena of discussion, while risky in a bi-partisan setting, provides a megaphone to the administration at a time when the opposition is striving effectively to drown out Obama’s message.

The White House and the Democrats weren’t the only ones playing to the camera. Republicans came prepared with talking points, theatrics and visual aids (like stacks of alligator-clipped paper to represent the lengthy health care legislation). For instance, Senator John McCain found opportunity to continue the jabs he tossed out during the 2008 Presidential campaign and call attention to an unpopular potential use of the reconciliation process by Democrats to pass reform. While McCain may have opposed the use of the Nuclear Option during the Bush administration when the GOP held power, it seems interesting to hear many of his colleagues, who threatened its use to ram through Supreme Court nominees, criticize the same tactics now.

McCain also saw fit to portray the lead-up to the current iteration of House and Senate bills as “unsavory deal-making,” even though both bills were crafted in bi-partisan committees and contain hundreds of GOP-authored amendments.

Democrats may have sounded silly insisting there was common ground and agreement across party lines while Republicans spent much of the time arguing that none existed. This despite the fact that all in attendance seemed to agree that reform was required; that costs needed to be controlled, that larger pools of coverage would reduce premiums (among other commonalities), and that many differences amounted to semantics.

Talking points were in generous supply during the six-hour-plus sessions. House Republican leader John Boehner called the proposed reforms a “dangerous experiment.” Some Republicans spun Congressional Budget Office figures to argue against reforms, while others marginalized the same reports to support their own cases. Both parties stuck to the same lines as before the summit, which left little room for useful compromise.

There were highlights and glimpses of hope. When Senator John Barrasso made the statement that those with catastrophic insurance coverage (in which those covered pay out-of-pocket expense for most services) make better consumers of health care services, Obama asked if he thought Congress should have only catastrophic coverage. When Barrasso replied he did, the president asked if he would feel the same if he made $40,000 instead of $176,000 a year.

There were other times during the day that Democrats refocused the discussion on the health care problems faced by those in greatest need. Senator Tom Harkin told of an Iowa farmer struggling with sky-rocketing insurance premiums. Several other members of Congress described situations where coverage was dropped and where treatment was denied. These are issues that are often buried in the political rhetoric that characterizes the health care debate.

Unfortunately, the proposed legislation – with its concessions to corporate demands and those of insurers and the pharmaceutical industry – falls short of addressing many of the issues of those in greatest need. If the GOP’s requests to start the process over and go back to the drawing board would yield solutions to real health care problems, I would support it. However, I am convinced this ploy would merely be a stall tactic to prevent any real change from happening while the Democrats are in power (although ten years of Republican dominance failed to bring any needed reform).

Perhaps, some day, politics will take a back seat to policy and the American people can truthfully boast about our health care system (instead of making baseless claims about its quality). However, it will require us to stop cheerleading our chosen party members and instead hold our representatives’ feet to the fire.

The Beat Goes On…

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 4, 2010

The Health Care Summit was intended to be an opportunity for the sunlight of sincere discussion to break through the partisan fog that has enveloped our nation’s capital for the past year. Sadly, we did not see any rays of sunshine breaking through. One encouraging aspect of the event was that it enabled Obama to finally fulfill one of his campaign promises. He had repeatedly promised us that his administration would be marked by transparency and his actions at the summit finally revealed some of the inner workings of his mindset.

It became crystal clear to anyone who has a small knowledge of the subtle syllables of body language that Obama, Reid, Pelosi and the other Democrat leaders really had no intention of incorporating any of the ideas of the Republicans into their partisan bill, nor did they intend to eliminate any of the objectionable items.

Before I address the utter disdain and elitist condescension exhibited by the Democrats toward the Republicans in attendance, and the American people who overwhelmingly disapprove of this bill and the process being used to push it through, I feel I must address some misstatements by my fellow columnist.

Keith mentions McCain’s indictment of the Democrat’s “unsavory deal-making” as bogus because “both bills were crafted in bipartisan committees and contain hundreds of Republican amendments.” I am sure that even Keith knows that is not true. The final draft contains less than twenty Republican amendments and the last three weeks of the construction were done completely by Democrats behind closed and locked doors. The deals to which McCain referred, and Scott Brown campaigned against, were all thrown together during that Christmas Eve corruption of American politics.

Further on Keith swallows the bait thrown down by the Democrats for the hungry lapdogs in the media when he states that the “many differences amounted to semantics”. I understand that is an attempt to paint the opposition as petty and just… well, oppositional. The truth is that both parties agreed that there is a need for reform and sad stories exist out there; costs are increasing and the burden of covering millions of uninsured should be lifted. The difference of opinion in how this should be done is one of philosophy not of linguistics.

The need for reform was never denied by the Republicans, no matter how often the media and the Democrats try to repeat the mantra that they are “the party of NO!” The sad fact is that the Democrats came to the process with majority rule in both houses and in the executive office, and they assumed the role of oligarchs rather than the role of public servants. This became obvious through the summer as they shut up those at town hall meetings and slithered together in back room deal-making.
The philosophical differences between the parties became very clear when the Republicans offered market-driven solutions and the Democrats responded with a call for increased regulation and legislation. Therein lies the source for all the partisan fog.

It seems to me that not only are the Democrats determined to go forward without a look to the constructive ideas of the minority party, they are also determined to turn a blind eye to the wishes of the majority of the American people. A CNN poll released the morning of the summit paralleled a similar poll by Fox News in which over 65% of the people polled agreed with the Republicans that this 2,700 page bill should be shredded and a new, truly bipartisan legislation should be crafted.

Obama senses the changing wind, and realizing that if the process were to start over, that a bill would not be finalized before the November elections; and if that were the case, he would most likely be dealing with a red majority in both houses. Therefore, he and the Democrats are going forward, despite the will of the people, the rules of congress, and the decent guidelines of political discourse.