Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola Travel Ban Would Put Blood On GOP's Hands

The Huffington Post, 10-17-14

How would President Mitt Romney respond to the global Ebola threat? Or President Ted Cruz? Dropping the hypotheticals, what about House Speaker John Boehner, who is not just the current highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. government, but second in the line of presidential succession?

All three GOP leaders and many other Republicans are parroting Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump's call for the United States to fight Ebola by banning incoming flights from West Africa. This ill-thought out, half-baked idea would encourage people who might be infected with the deadly disease to circumvent the ban by traveling to other countries first. Just as Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., traveled from Liberia to Belgium before flying into Dallas two weeks prior to his death.

Potentially infected travelers could then enter the United States without being properly screened or quarantined at domestic airports. Which in turn could exponentially increase the number of U.S. Ebola cases.

This preference for demagoguery over common sense is one of the many reasons American voters rejected Republican presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012. And why a Republican takeover of the Senate in this year's midterms could make it harder for the U.S. to contain the current Ebola outbreak.

Campaigning for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown in New Hampshire this week, Mitt Romney said, "I haven't been briefed on all the reasons not to close down the flights, but my own reaction is we probably ought to close down the border with nations that have extensive Ebola spreading and that means not bringing flights in from that part of Africa." Maybe Romney skipped the briefing and instead read Trump's recent tweet on the subject, when he called President Obama either "stupid" or "arrogant" for not instituting a ban. Which was only Trump's latest idiotic pronouncement on Ebola.

Unless travel was banned from every country that has not itself banned travel from Ebola-affected countries, a West African travel ban would encourage people who are potentially infected with Ebola and trying to reach the U.S. to do so via connecting flights.

Unfortunately, public health officials haven't stressed this point enough. When CDC Director Tom Frieden was questioned on October 2 about the government's Ebola response, he primarily talked about how a travel ban would affect the flow of health workers travelling from the U.S. to help stop the outbreak. "The approach of isolating a country is going to make it harder to get help into that country," Frieden said. "It's going to make it harder to get people to respond because they're not going to want to come out. They're not going to be able to come out if they go in."

This reasoning makes perfect sense, yet doesn't drive home how a travel ban wouldn't work and could actually lead to increased U.S. Ebola cases if infected travelers arrive in the U.S. from other countries. When summoned before a House panel earlier this week, on October 16, Frieden finally made the argument clear. "We won't be able to check (individuals) for fever when they arrive. When they arrive, we wouldn't be able to impose quarantine," he said.

But his words fell on deaf ears. Top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee responded with a letter to President Obama calling surprise...a travel ban. "We have listened with interest to the arguments articulated by officials within the Administration in opposition to a ban on travel from affected countries," said committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and border subcommittee head Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. "Unfortunately, such arguments seem to have little, if any, merit."

In their haste to exploit public fears over Ebola and whip up anti-Obama sentiment for the midterms, right-wing Republicans and commentators have been competing to see who can come up with the craziest theory to explain why the Obama Administration hasn't yet followed their brilliant travel ban advice.

Writing in the tycoon-funded Fiscal Times, Fox News columnist Liz Peek (whose CEO husband's firm received $2.3 billion in taxpayer bailout funds through the TARP program in 2009) blamed Obama's supposed "ambition to be a hero to Africa" and alleged jealousy over George W. Bush's approval ratings on that continent for why there was no ban in place.

Louisiana Governor and probable 2016 GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal was one of the first GOP officials to call for a ban. In an October 3 statement, he pontificated, "The Obama administration keeps saying they won't shut down flights. They instead say we should listen to 'the experts.' In fact, they said it would be counterproductive to stop these flights. That statement defies logic. How exactly would stopping the entry of people potentially carrying the Ebola virus be counterproductive?"

Rush Limbaugh, as always, outdid them all, by claiming it was either "political correctness" on the part of the Administration, or that Administration officials secretly want Ebola to spread in the United States, as payback for America's involvement in slavery.

How despicable. Limbaugh commands an immense public platform, able to reach more than ten million listeners directly through his national radio show. Donald Trump is a celebrity, a public figure whose pronouncements are reported by media around the country. And yet, at a time when our world faces a global health crisis like the current Ebola outbreak, instead of helping disseminate vital facts to the public, right-wing idiots like these spread lies and disinformation.

To President Obama's credit, he has sent U.S. military personnel to lead the international effort to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A similar military-led disaster response effort was mobilized in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. But according to the right-wing echo chamber, this is all part of Obama's plan to infect our troops with Ebola. The reality, as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins recently stated, is that an Ebola vaccine would likely have already been developed if not for the past decade's worth of largely GOP-imposed budget cuts.

We might still be able to shut this outbreak down more quickly if conservative pundits and GOP officials would devote even a fraction of the time they've spent spreading Ebola panic to letting people know they can do something immediately to help. Modeled after this year's enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the players on Sierra Leone's national soccer team, Michael Lahoud, has created the Kick Ebola In The Butt Challenge. It's an innovative way to encourage donations to groups like Doctors Without Borders who are sending badly needed medical professionals to West Africa, in order to deal with the crisis at its source. This is the kind of response that could harness social media to direct charitable resources where they can help the most.

If the Administration caves into the nonsensical GOP demands for a travel ban, the blood of future U.S. Ebola casualties will be on the hands of all the Republicans and their right-wing media enablers who have whipped up Ebola hysteria in a blatant attempt to influence the midterm elections. Shame on them.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Absentee Senator Pat Roberts Survives, But Bruised by Tea Party in Kansas Primary

The Huffington Post, 8-6-14

On Tuesday night, the Tea Party lost its last, best chance to knock off an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator this year. By a margin of 48-41 percent, three-term Kansas Senator Pat Roberts prevailed over Milton Wolf, a radiologist and first-time candidate who was mostly known for being Barack Obama's conservative second cousin.

Milton Wolf confronts Pat Roberts on July 30

Roberts appeared vulnerable earlier this year after questions were raised about his residency in Kansas, similar to what helped defeat veteran Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) two years ago. The New York Times reported in February that Roberts was renting space from a supporter in order to maintain his voter registration in Kansas, an address where neighbors hadn't seen him in years. He compounded his problems with a verbal slip last month, when he admitted in a radio interview that he returns to Kansas "every time I have an opponent."

Home of Pat Roberts' supporters in Kansas where he is registered to vote

And Wolf was extreme enough to be a credible Tea Party standard bearer. While parlaying his family ties and far right wing views into frequent guest spots on Fox News and a column for the Washington Times, over the past few years Wolf repeatedly compared Obama and liberal Democrats to Hitler and the Nazis. He insisted "(Sarah) Palin indeed was right...death panels are all too real," about supposed secret provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

According to Wolf, the Act's requirement that people who choose not to buy health insurance be modestly fined (since by doing so, they risk burdening society with future emergency health care costs) was reminiscent of "Stalin's iron-fisted gulags." And he pledged to replace the ACA with his own "PatientCare" initiative, which would effectively destroy Medicaid by block-granting it to the states and changing it to a "premium-support plan" that would generously "afford the needy the ability to purchase their own private insurance."

These nut-job ideas helped him attract the support of Tea Party groups including former S.C. Senator Jim DeMin's Senate Conservatives Fund (now led by defeated Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli), who spent $580,000 backing Wolf; Fight for Tomorrow; the Madison Action Fund; and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, who paid for a last-minute ad falsely accusing Roberts of improperly "taking a special exemption from ObamaCare."

But Roberts hit back hard and early, helped by his far superior campaign war chest. He refused to debate Wolf, which a week before the primary led to a memorable confrontation between the two when Wolf ambushed the Senator on the street prior to a campaign event.

Roberts' ads attacked Wolf over revelations that he had posted gunshot victims' X-rays to Facebook in 2010, accompanied by snarky, joking comments that Wolf was eventually forced to admit were "insensitive." And highlighted other missteps like Wolf's failure to vote regularly in local or state elections.

Except for an ad questioning Wolf's conservative credentials with an out-of-context clip of him saying he wanted to see Barack Obama succeed, Roberts refused to argue over policies, instead making the primary a referendum on Wolf's personal character. It was the same playbook that worked for other incumbent Senators who successfully fended off Tea Party challengers this cycle, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who beat back a well-funded campaign by businessman Matt Bevin. And Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), whose defeated opponent is still challenging Cochran's 7,667-vote runoff win on June 24 in their ugly primary fight.

Wolf was a flawed candidate, but he held Roberts to under 50% of the vote. His failed primary challenge effectively made the case to many Kansas voters that Roberts has been in Washington for too long. Roberts first went to D.C. in the 1960's as a congressional aide, was elected to the House in 1980, and moved up to the Senate in 1996.

Recent polls have shown a closer-than-expected race between Roberts and his Democratic opponent in the fall. Chad Taylor is the sitting District Attorney of Shawnee County, the county that includes Topeka, the capitol of Kansas. The telegenic, 40-year old Taylor was first elected in 2008, and re-elected in 2012 after facing no opposition. He won his own primary Tuesday night by a margin of 53-47%, beating a former U.S. Senate candidate with statewide name recognition. Taylor was endorsed by the Kansas City Star, who called his candidacy "impressive," listed his priorities as "growing jobs and the economy," and said he "promises pragmatic, bipartisan work."

Taylor has won accolades for eliminating his office's backlog of over 4,000 cases that he inherited from his predecessor. He made national headlines in 2011, when to draw attention to budget cuts, his office stopped prosecuting domestic violence cases, calling on the city of Topeka to provide funding. In a surprise response that was widely criticized, Topeka actually repealed its ordinance outlawing domestic abuse, which led Taylor to announce that his office would resume prosecuting such cases.

Last month, one SurveyUSA poll showed Taylor within five points of Roberts. This caused Steve Kraske, political correspondent for the Kansas City Star, to declare "something...dramatic is going on in Kansas politics," and said it "may be the closest a Democrat has been to a sitting Republican senator since Herbert Hoover bade farewell to the White House."

Roberts is also facing other headwinds. Kansas is experiencing a Brownback backlash, after current Republican Governor Sam Brownback swung the state hard to the right once being elected in 2010. Brownback, a staunch religious conservative and longtime Koch brothers ally, formerly served beside Roberts in the U.S. Senate, and ran for President in 2008, dropping out before the primaries began. While in the Senate, Brownback co-sponsored the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005, which would have forbidden courts from ruling on matters involving church/state issues, and stated that judges who did hear such cases would be subject to impeachment and prosecution.

As Governor, Brownback has pushed through drastic cuts to state education spending. He declared that life begins "at fertizilation," and signed five anti-abortion bills, including a May, 2011 law that forbids insurance companies to offer health care coverage for abortions except to save a woman's life, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He also blew a hole in the state's budget by slashing the top income tax rates in Kansas. In response, last April the state's debt rating was downgraded by Moody's Investor Service.

All year, polls have shown a tight race between Brownback and his current challenger, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis. Unhappiness with Brownback's term has led nearly 100 Republican current and former officeholders from Kansas to endorse Davis.

In his classic 2004 book What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank explored the rise of anti-elitist conservatism, and how the radical right had managed to hijack populism in our country's heartland. It detailed how long before the Tea Party came to national prominence, the state's far-right conservatives were waging war with moderates for control of the Republican Party. Ten years later, extreme right-wing craziness and heartless social policies may have finally gone too far even for a bastion of red state America like Kansas.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

War Weary Public Rejects Attacking Syria

The Huffington Post, OpEdNews, 9-12-13

Twelve years after 9/11, Americans are sick of war. In poll after poll, majorities say the war in Iraq was a mistake and our troops should come home as soon as possible from Afghanistan. According to a CNN poll released yesterday, seven out of 10 said "they didn't see how a strike on Syria would serve the national interest," and three-quarters said the U.S. shouldn't be the world's police force.

Gallup polling conducted Sept. 3-4 found only 36% of Americans supported U.S. military action against Syria, far lower than the 59% who favored war with Iraq in February, 2003, or the 82% who rallied behind invading Afghanistan in October, 2001. In Gallup pollster Andrew Dugan's words, "currently...much of the nation would rather sit this one out."

President Obama's ill-conceived push for an immediate military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons (in its brazen August 21 attack on opposition-controlled areas that the U.S. determined killed as many as 1,429 civilians) ran up against this buzzsaw of public opinion. And he found few allies abroad who were willing to go along with the plan. When the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to join the United States in military action, Obama was forced to slow down.

Seeking political cover, but also recognizing the public's growing anti-war sentiment, the President announced he would ask for Congressional approval authorizing a "limited, proportional" use of force. He explicitly ruled out putting American "boots on the ground." The initial resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved stated this "does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations." Even Sen. John McCain, a fervent supporter of bombing Syria, said Obama would be impeached if he deployed troops there.

And then, members of Congress got slammed with a tsunami of citizens saying "Hell, No" to any new war adventure in Syria. From red states to blue states, conservatives and liberals found common cause in opposition to a military strike. "Ninety-five percent of my constituents have indicated to me in emails and phone calls that they do not want to see the United States getting involved in a bloody and complicated civil war in Syria - and that certainly has some influence on me," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). "My phone calls, emails, and faxes are running 96% no," said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). "I've never encountered an issue where you had 96% agreement...our phones are ringing off the wall." Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) claimed calls to his office opposing an attack on Syria outnumbered those supporting it by 753-10.

From the beginning, it was highly probable that the President would lose a vote on Syria in the Republican-controlled House. This week, it became clear he could also lose the Senate. So it was a lucky break for Obama, and all of us, that an off-the-cuff comment by Secretary of State Kerry was seized on by the Russians as a potential way to defuse the crisis. Is Russia acting in its own self-interest by trying to head off an attack on its ally, trading partner and weapons client? Without a doubt. Is Syria prepared to willingly hand over all its chemical weapons stocks to international inspectors? Probably not. But the Global War on Terror (brought to us by Bush & Co.) has consumed more than enough U.S. blood and treasure in the past twelve years for every American to welcome any delay in the march towards more war.

In recent days, some commentators like Washington Post syndicated columnist Robert J. Samuelson have pooh-poohed the concept of war weariness. He reminds us that according to the Congressional Budget Office, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost a combined $1.4 trillion from 2001-2012, but rationalizes that this sum "pales next to all federal spending," $33.3 trillion during the same period.

How many schools could we have built in the U.S. for $1.4 trillion? How many affordable housing developments? How many vacant factories could have been rehabbed and repurposed into start-up incubators for small businesses? What kinds of public transportation projects could we have invested those resources towards? Our nation's infrastructure has been crumbling for decades, and instead of fixing it we've been shoveling cash into the furnaces of the war machine.

To those who would slam Obama for bowing to public pressure on Syria, it's worth remembering that when George W. Bush was in the White House, public opinion didn't count for squat. Our entire nation was strapped into a car with a drunk driver at the wheel, convinced The Decider knew best. And if John McCain, Mitt Romney, or God forbid, President Palin were currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the chances of any of them slowing down a rush to war would be pretty slim.

America never saw the peace dividend that was supposed to come with the end of the Cold War. Instead, George H.W. Bush sent us back to war for oil, and we spent the next decade propping up desert dictatorships to keep the black gold flowing. These policies allowed the military-industrial complex to stay humming, stoked anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, and created fertile ground for extremists like Osama bin Laden to recruit a generation of jihadists to fight us. Which led to another decade of conflict. We can be thankful that twelve years after the horrific events of 9/11, the American public has grown tired of endless war, and is finally daring to imagine a different world.


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