In Year Two, no more Mr. Nice Biden, please

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the omicron surge and COVID-19 relief efforts during a speech at the White House on Dec. 21, 2021. (Screenshot)

Republicans would roll over Democrats if they were in charge. Why the constant olive branches?

About halfway through his marathon news conference last week, President Joe Biden finally asked the only question in Washington that’s worth asking. With congressional Republicans standing in the way of the Democrats’ every initiative, including voting rights (which should be as bipartisan as it gets), what do they actually support?

“What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for,” Biden fumed.

The short answer, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? Not much of anything really.

“That is a very good question,” McConnell told reporters when he was asked about the GOP’s priorities if it retakes control of Congress after this fall’s midterm elections. “And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

It’s bad enough that Biden already has to deal with such double-agents as U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Trying to play nice with a congressional GOP, where a preponderance of its members don’t recognize his legitimacy and still bend the knee to the authoritarian-in-exile in Florida, is just compounding the torture.

So after 12 months of getting batted from one side of Capitol Hill to the other by McConnell (who did exactly the same thing to Biden’s old boss, Barack Obama), the 46th president appears, at long last, to have realized that there’s no point in trying to do his old job or negotiate with people who refuse to negotiate.

“And one of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me — speaking of polling — is the public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president senator.’ They want me to be the president and let senators be senators,” Biden said, according to the Washington Post, when he was asked about reaching out to Republicans to fix the Electoral Count Act.

“And so, if I’ve made — and I’ve made many mistakes, I’m sure. If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. But I think that role as president is — is a different role,” he said.

Okay, so it’s not exactly, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but it’s a start. Read more

About the GOP’s historical amnesia on voting rights

President Joe Biden speaks in Atlanta on Tuesday. Photo: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

If you get into an argument with a Republican about the GOP’s lamentable support for voting rights and its fractured relationship with Black Americans, it won’t be long before your rhetorical sparring partner bellows “Robert Byrd” at you and declares the argument over.

The logic here, if it even can be called that, is that because Byrd, the wizened former U.S. senator from West Virginia who has been dead for more than a decade, was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, then Democrats cannot be true supporters of civil rights and Black Americans. This political original sin is further compounded, they will tell you, by the fact that such southern Democrats as the late Arkansas Gov. Orval Fabus led the charge against school desegregation in the late 1950s.

This analysis leaves out the fact that Byrd had a well-documented change of heart later in life, and that the so-called “southern strategy” Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater employed in the 1960s lured racist whites into the Republican fold, where they have remained ever since.

A half-century later, a Trumpified Republican Party that’s left the legacy of Abraham Lincoln far behind, is still flipping Democrats the Byrd as it stands steadfastly in the way of the voting rights legislation that’s now slowly and tortuously making its way through Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to hold a vote on two bills, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, ahead of Monday’s nationwide Martin Luther King Day holiday. To do that, Democrats will have to reach an internal consensus as they debate whether to change the Senate rules to lift the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.

With some Democrats opposing the rules change, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with President Joe Biden, are pushing hard for it. The Senate is divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.

In a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden laid out the historic stakes of failing to pass nationwide voting protections as Republican-controlled legislatures across the country, including Pennsylvania, have moved to restrict access to the polls.

“I think the threat to our democracy is so great that we must find a way to pass this voting rights bill,” Biden said. “Debate them, vote, let the majority prevail and if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster.”

This week, Republicans opposing the bill made, as Vice News reports, a preposterous argument against the two bills, claiming that because so many voters turned out in 2020, that there’s no problem with access to the polls, and the protections embedded in the legislation aren’t necessary. Read more

At Williamsburg, a reminder of what we’ve gained, and could yet lose

A plaque along the walking bridge at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. (Photo by John L. Micek)

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. An appropriately picturesque walking bridge connects the Visitors’ Center at Colonial Williamsburg to the meticulously recreated historic site about a mile away. And every step along it is a step backward into our tangled, jumbled, and often painful history as a nation.

At regularly spaced intervals, plaques set into the concrete remind you that, in the not-too-distant past, there was no television, long-distance travel was onerous and difficult, that, until 1920, women were denied the right to vote; that, until 1865, you knew someone who owned another human being, and that, in 1776, you were still subject to the whims of a king an ocean away.

The return trip across the bridge, as you might expect, is a voyage to where we are now: With religion becoming a matter of personal choice, rather than state mandate. The embryonic United States expanded westward, but at a terrible cost to the native peoples who already occupied the land. President Abraham Lincoln lifted the chains of bondage for millions, but so much work still remained. Public education became an option for all. By the 1930s, Social Security and other programs provided a safety net to those who needed it the most. In the 1950s, a woman named Rosa Parks stood up for what was right by sitting down.

As I walked that bridge for the first time a few days ago, I was struck by the notion that the simple poetry of those bronze plaques reflected the arc of the nation — always moving forward, even if sometimes bumptiously, expanding the rights of our fellow citizens, even if that progress was irregular and always long overdue. To come to Williamsburg is to be reminded of the optimism of the American experiment, and to remember that the work of creating a more perfect union is always ongoing.

And then as I walked some more along the bridge and into the historic area, it occurred to me that, for the first time in my lifetime, there are forces afoot, real and palpable, that are working to turn back the clock on all those hard-won gains, because, it seems, those behind it are afraid of the future, or they don’t wish to surrender their prerogatives to a country that is becoming ever more diverse and pluralistic.

That battle has unspooled in public school classrooms, waged by people who misguidedly want to preserve a very specific version of our national story, one that prioritizes white and privileged voices over those who have been marginalized for too long. But to do that is to defy the reality of history. It’s impossible to tell the full American story without including the voices of its native people, the enslaved and formerly enslaved, upon whose backs the country was painfully brought to life.

That battle has unspooled in our courtrooms, before a U.S. Supreme Court that, as now seems apparent, is perfectly ready to strip bodily autonomy from fully 50 percent of the population. And in the doing of it, turn back the clock a half-century, to a horrifying era where people who can get pregnant went to deadly lengths to assert control over their own futures.

As those brass plaques along the bridge make clear, we were once a nation that celebrated science. One particularly makes note of Thomas Edison helping to bring the nation out of darkness in 1879, by building his first light bulb. Nearly a century-and-a-half on, the president of the United State pleaded with the American people this week to follow basic science and get vaccinated against a virus that has so far killed more than 800,000 of their fellow citizens.

We see it in attacks on voting rights and the legitimacy of our elections.

In Washington, though he lacks the votes to change the filibuster, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he planned to take up a voting rights bill during the first week of January, the New York Times reported. Schumer also threatened rules changes if the chamber’s Republicans continued their resistance. But, as the Times noted, it’s hard to say how far Schumer might go given that two of his fellow Democrats, U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, remain opposed to such changes.

Meanwhile, the myth of the stolen election, and the rise of the far-right, which is extending its reach into local offices with oversight of elections, continues unabated. And a former president continues to spread the fiction that he won the 2020 election, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Worse, he’s been abetted by many of his fellow Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District.

The destructive effect of this sustained attack on the underpinnings of our republic isn’t academic. One expert in foreign civil wars is warning that the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” Indeed, things have deteriorated so badly over the last five years that the country no longer technically qualifies as a democracy, according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, citing research by University of California at San Diego political science professor Barbara F. Walter, who serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force.

Instead, the country is now an “anocracy,” which puts it somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state, according to Walter.

It sounds cliché to say it, but we’re at a tipping point as a nation. And as we head into a new year, with a contentious campaign season ahead, every choice we make as a country in the 12 months to come will reverberate into history.

There’s a final plaque set into the concrete on the return leg to the Visitors’ Center. The question it asks is as simple as it is towering in the challenge it poses: “What difference will you make?”

The answer has never been more important.

John L. Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

Four more children dead, and a nation shrugs. Is enough finally enough now?

Illustration: Getty Images

Lawmakers who refuse to act should be required to personally explain their inaction to the families of the dead. It is hard to see any other way for that cold-hearted resistance to crumble

Families in Michigan will set an empty place at the table this holiday season in the wake of the mass shooting at Oxford High School in southeast Michigan that left four children dead and seven more injured.

The deaths at Oxford this week came a little more than two weeks before the ninth anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead, and officially marked the start of our national acceptance of sacrificing innocents on the false altar of gun rights.

After every one of these shootings, we ask ourselves: How could this happen again? When the actual question we should be asking ourselves is why doesn’t this happen with more horrifying frequency than it already does? And it is our national shame that we have become as accepting of it as we have.

And after a lull during the pandemic, school shootings are once again on the rise, the New York Times reported, citing reporting by Education Week. There have been 28 school shootings resulting in injury and death so far this year, with 20 reported since Aug. 1.

*The teenaged shooter in the Michigan case, his name won’t be printed here, has been charged as an adult on multiple counts that include terrorism and first-degree murder. On Friday, prosecutors charged the accused shooter’s parents with involuntary manslaughter, alleging they were criminally negligent, “and contributed to a dangerous situation that resulted in the deaths” of the four teens, CNN reported. The accused shooter’s father bought the weapon allegedly used in the rampage on Black Friday, according to published reports.

It may be some time before we know how the 15-year-old accused shooter obtained the 9mm Sig Sauer SP2022 semi-automatic his father purchased on Black Friday, as the Post observed.

It may take equally as long to learn why he allegedly went on a homicidal spree that saw him shoot people “at close range, oftentimes toward the head or chest,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told CNN’s New Day program, according to The Guardian.

“It’s just absolutely cold-hearted, murderous,” Bouchard said, according to the Post.

But as a trio of public health experts wrote earlier this week, gun sales have shot up during the pandemic, often landing in homes with teenage children. Combine that prevalence with lax storage practices, and it creates the perfect storm of circumstances under which these tragedies can unfold.

“One clear action that parents can take to help reduce the likelihood of future tragic school shootings and to keep their teens safe is to ensure any firearms present in the home are secured safely, locked up and unloaded, and out of reach of teens,” Patrick Carter and Marc A. Zimmerman, of the University of Michigan, and Rebeccah Sokol, of Detroit-based Wayne State University, wrote in an analysis this week published by The Conversation.

Making sure that happens requires both legislative action and increased vigilance by gun owners. Read more

Republicans are the clowns in the debt ceiling circus. The act isn’t funny anymore

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s way past political cliche, but that old “Popeye” comic strip where J. Wellington Wimpy promises to pay a short-order cook tomorrow for a hamburger he plans to eat today, is still the best way to describe Republican intransigence this week over a vote to extend the nation’s debt ceiling that’s soared past cartoonish farce.

In case you missed it, on Monday, Republicans in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate voted to block the approval of new borrowing intended to pay for old debt that they’re complicit in racking up.

While entirely unsurprising, the GOP’s united front on the debt ceiling is the most transparent kind of political cynicism.

As Bloomberg reports, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his fellow Republicans are pressing Senate Democrats to use the fast-track process known as reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling without GOP votes. That’s the same process the Democrats want to use to bypass the GOP to pass the Democratic Biden administration’s sprawling domestic agenda.

With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50, and a midterm election looming, Republicans want to make Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, of New York, and his fellow Democrats look as bad as possible as they look to recapture control of the 100-member chamber.

“There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible,” McConnell said Tuesday as another attempt to raise the debt ceiling flopped, CBS News reported.

But, and this is an important but, the inescapable reality here is that McConnell and the GOP are responsible for the spending that’s led to the current standoff, and they’re working as hard as they can to evade responsibility for it. That’s some galactic dissonance for a party that’s tried to portray itself as a champion of fiscal responsibility.

And even that doesn’t hold up under even casual scrutiny.

These are the same Republicans, after all, who voted for the former Trump administration’s deficit-exploding tax cut for the wealthy. And they are the same Republicans who voted for a two-year extension of the debt ceiling in 2019, according to Politico. And that monster bill boosted federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars.

There are real world consequences here that also bear repeating: The bill that the GOP currently opposes also would authorize billions of dollars in aid for parts of the country hit by extreme weather, and keep the federal government operating past Thursday, Policy Watch Washington Reporter Laura Olson wrote earlier this week. A shutdown would stop the flow of government assistance when so many Americans desperately need it.

After Monday’s failed vote, Schumer correctly blamed Republicans, accusing them of “playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States,” Olson reported.

“The Republican Party has solidified itself as the party of default, and it will be the American people who pay the price,” Schumer added.

Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, columnist Greg Sargent noted that Democrats could use the budget reconciliation process to get rid of the debt limit, first imposed during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson as a way to fund the nation’s entrance into World War I. Back then, the debt ceiling was capped at a relatively quaint $15 billion, according to NPR.

There’s a certain beauty to that plan. But it would require Democrats to do something they are supernaturally bad at doing: Actually using the power that comes with controlling the White House and both chambers of the legislative branch, and playing the kind of hardball it takes to get stuff done.

You can say this much for the Republicans. They might not run the White House or the U.S House, but they routinely roll right over Democrats as if they do.

The Democrats should get rid of both the debt ceiling and the filibuster — thus ending the paralysis in an already broken U.S. Senate — and do the work the voters elected them to do. You can bet Republicans would do the same if they were in charge.

It’s time to take the wheels off the GOP’s clown car before it runs the nation permanently into the ditch.

John Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.