southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Falling For Fall…Again!

There was a time, surely in the not too distant past, when the Fall months represented a magical time in my mind’s eye. I can remember a time when I was smitten as a kitten for Fall. She might well have been my first love. Certainly, she was my favorite of the four seasons.

Fall meant a reprieve from the harsh, unrelenting summer sun; indeed, a time when the sun itself transitions from foe to friend. Instead of crossing the street simply to ensure a walk in the shade, folks take pains to be exposed to the sunshine – walking with their heads tilted skyward as if smelling a batch of freshly baked cookies.

In fact, as I write these very words, I am happily drenched in a sea of sunlight, not a cloud to be found in the morning sky. It is September 19th, and these are not the piercing, penetrating beams of July and August from which we seek to escape (if not on a beach). This sun has mellowed; it is inviting and docile; its strength not what it once was, only weeks before.

The Autumnal Equinox is still a few days away, but for all intents and purposes, at least here in the Northeast, it is Fall. There is a crispness, dryness and coolness to the air, one that can be tasted with each breath. Even in New York City, it feels clean.

So, why, then, with all its apparent beauty, do I give Fall such a hard time? The short, yet unsatisfying, answer is that Fall, for me, is the gateway to Winter – that bleak and ruthless segment of the Gregorian calendar when time all but stands still. True, the vibrant colors of the metamorphic Autumn leaves put on quite a spectacular show. But it is also true that those same leaves are changing colors precisely because they are dying.

Perhaps it is this stark dichotomy of images painted on the landscape of my mind that so unnerves me about Fall. Or, perhaps, it could be the incongruity of clashing emotions between the natural, inherent beauty of Fall and the cold ugliness and depravity of Winter. Mother Nature’s ultimate paradox.

What’s worse still, Fall is callously and intentionally hiding something behind her mask of alluring landscapes and pleasant, sun-splashed days. She is hiding what is to come, what is tucked neatly around the corner, never saying a word. Whatever it is, it clearly presents an unyielding barrier to my fully embracing Fall and all she clearly has to give. Each year as summer fades, this inescapable reality haunts my very being and begs a simple question: why? Why, for me, has Autumn become Winter’s fall guy?

As we quickly approach the advent of this next Fall, I have made a pact with myself to dig for an answer to this confounding question from deep within my own psyche. Doing so has been at once a revelation and a source of discomfort. It is disconcerting to realize that my holding a grudge against Fall for Winter’s transgressions is illogical at best, and vindictive at worst. It is tantamount to loathing recess in grade school due to its being immediately followed by math class. On a much larger – and darker – scale, it is akin to one being unable to enjoy life while being dogged by the knowledge that it will ultimately end in death.

I have long been drawn to, and influenced by, the American Transcendentalists – Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, among others – who celebrated individualism with its inherent self-wisdom, and the life-long, perpetual search to better oneself. For the Transcendentalists, nature and the soul were inextricably linked – bound by the comfort and divinity found in the rhythms and ever-changing seasons of the natural world. What would Emerson – who entitled his most renowned essay “Nature” – say about my loathing of Fall? And what of my soul?

It is settled then. This Fall will see me accept her with open arms, taking in all her beauty and enjoying all her splendor – all this despite the darkness which lies at the end of her tunnel. I will no longer hold Fall culpable for its close proximity to Winter, through no fault of her own. I will – like the rational, enlightened (dare I say Transcendentalist?) thinker that I am – disassociate Fall from Winter, one from the other. It is the least I can do for an old love.

It is said that all good things must come to an end. If true, then Fall is only held hostage to, as we all are, the natural order of things. Thus, she should not be held in contempt for simply adhering to this universal truth. And like any true love, Fall will show up again, every so often, just when you most need her. It is September 19th, and Fall is indeed on her way. This go around, I am eagerly awaiting her arrival. I think I am falling for Fall again!

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September 19, 2015 Posted by | Autumn, Fall, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Seasons, Transcendentalism, Walt Whitman | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Football Giveth and Taketh Away

Football is back. That very short, three-word phrase has seemingly lifted the collective mood of a nation which would otherwise be lamenting the suddenly sliding stock market or the summer so quickly drawing to a close. With football, the various trials and tribulations of everyday life somehow seem more manageable; the work week passes more quickly; Donald Trump seems less grating; strangers flash smiles more readily (even here in New York); folks on the street walk with more pep and purpose; and life, generally, gives off an air that anything is possible, all goals are attainable. I would say that it is Christmas in August, but with football having surpassed Santa Claus in popularity, I will summon my best Ronald Reagan and proclaim it to be morning again in America. I, too, share my fellow Americans’ gridiron giddiness. Unfortunately, however, mine has been tempered somewhat over the past week. What football giveth, football can also taketh away.

Injuries in sports – football in particular – are as much a part of the game as fundamentals, talent, strategy and execution. Though the likelihood of sustaining catastrophic injuries can be greatly reduced through training and preparation, they cannot be eradicated or even avoided. The unpredictable nature of injuries make them difficult to prepare for and, consequently, difficult to overcome. Injuries are often the X factor that mark the fine line between success and failure, between a season which exceeds expectations and one which falls short. This disconcerting truth has fans of all shades holding their collective breath from the start of training camp through the final down of the season.

Regrettably, last Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers lost their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a torn ACL effectively ending his season before it began. The Panthers were practicing with the Miami Dolphins in anticipation of their upcoming pre-season game on Saturday night. The freakish injury occurred during one-on-one drills in which Kelvin ran about 10 yards against Miami safety Reshad Jones before planting in an attempt to cut right.   Sadly, there would be no cut. And things certainly were far from right. Without any contact between the two players, Benjamin would immediately crumple to the ground, let out a shriek and cradle his left knee in agony. A knee that was no longer stable. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the mental state of the entire team and its fan base.

With his huge frame, massive catch radius and soft hands, Benjamin is quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target. Who can blame him? At 6’5,” 245 pounds and possessing an astonishing 83 inch wing span, Benjamin, who was entering his sophomore campaign, is already on the verge of becoming an elite wide receiver in the league. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to overstate his loss. As is our times, the news traveled swiftly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Chris McClain, a prominent radio personality back home in Charlotte, tweeted sullenly, “My wife and kids are about to find me weeping when they get back from their road trip. They will think I missed them, but it’s the KB injury.” Personally, my phone blew up with largely incomprehensible texts from friends which ranged from resignation to depression to cataclysmic. Amplifying the magnitude of the development, my sister – a marginal football fan at best – texted the news by attaching a message from Benjamin himself through his Instagram account.

Overwhelmed by this barrage of e-messages providing the melancholy news, I could not help but fall into a brief gulf of depression. My mind was flooded by doomsday scenarios, and this obvious and haunting question: had the quickly approaching season, for which I was so excited, instantaneously been lost to one bum left knee? Could it really be possible that – on an otherwise sparkling day in Spartanburg, South Carolina – the turf monster at Wofford College claimed a knee, and with it the hopes of a season? In short order, however, my generally optimistic and hopeful outlook began to take hold. What good could come of this bad situation, I wondered. What opportunities will present themselves in the face of such adversity?

Losing a key component of the football team to a season-ending injury does not necessarily provide the death knell for the season. Indeed, to the contrary, what seems at the time to be a devastating blow can bring about unintended, yet positive, consequences. Often, a team will use a devastating event to “rally around” one another, and, on occasion, such an event can propel a team to higher heights than might have originally been possible. In sports, like life, the prospects of playing for something bigger than oneself can provide the foundation by which something special can be built.

It is the classic cliché: when the football gods hand you lemons, make lemonade. If Benjamin being sidelined the entire year is the lemons, then his replacement – or committee of replacements – might just be the sweet lemonade. Football is rife with comparable examples. The most glaring one is the now legally-strapped Tom Brady. The sixth round draft pick received his NFL shot when starting QB Drew Bledsoe went down to injury. The rest, as they say, is history. Interestingly, as fate would have it, Brady lost the 2008 season to a knee injury, and his replacement, Matt Cassel, ran with the newfound starting job all the way to the bank. The Patriots used the franchise tag on Cassel the following year to the tune of $14 million – the largest one-year contract for an offensive player in NFL history. Kurt Warner became the gun-slinging leader of “The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis only after Trent Green tore his ACL in a pre-season game. Warner would become League MVP on two occasions while leading the Rams to two Super Bowls. These examples are but a scant few; the list runneth over.

Fortunately, the Panthers do possess viable options to fill the size thirteen shoes left empty by Kelvin Benjamin. In April’s draft, Dave Gettleman, the Panthers’ General Manager, traded away two later draft picks to move up in the second round to select Devin Funchess from the University of Michigan. Much like Benjamin, Funchess is a big target who has drawn praise from Head Coach Riverboat Ron Rivera for his sponge-like ability to soak up the intricacies and subtleties of the Panthers’ offensive playbook. This is supplemental to his obvious physical abilities. While it is certainly a big ask for a rookie to lead the receiving corps (as Benjamin did the year previous), I would tag Funchess as the prime candidate to emerge as manager of this lemonade stand.

In addition to the towering Funchess, the Panthers are fortunate to have two burners on the roster. Ted Ginn, Jr. was reacquired via free agency this off-season after spending one season in the desert with Arizona. Two years ago, in the oasis of Carolina, Ginn collaborated with Cam Newton to enjoy his best year as a professional. Can the familiar surroundings and good vibes from that partnership be enough to propel Ginn to another stellar season in the Queen City? With increased opportunity due to Benjamin’s injury, I am hopeful that blue skies are in the offing for Ginn. Corey Brown, the artist formerly known as “Philly,” closed fast last year to post an outstanding rookie campaign with the Panthers. If Brown’s development continues at its speedy pace, he certainly qualifies as a legitimate option to contribute significantly to the lemonade operation.

There is something to be said for steady, dependable and experienced. Twelve-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery provides all these things, and more. Full disclosure: Jerricho holds a special place in my heart for I was an underperforming student at NC State when he was teaming up with Philip Rivers to set numerous offensive production records at NCSU while seemingly catching every ball thrown his way. He had soft hands made of Velcro back then in Raleigh, and those hands have not hardened with time. In his first year with the Panthers, Cotchery anchored the receiving corps by providing the stability necessary to allow Kelvin Benjamin, as a rookie, to shine on the opposite side. Additionally, Cotchery proved priceless to the development of the younger receivers by liberally and generously passing along his wealth of football knowledge. Now with Benjamin out, Jerricho will need to transform from teacher to producer, sensei to warrior. Is this the year that old becomes new again?

Charlotte native Jarrett Boykin signed a free agent contract in the off-season to play for his hometown team. Boykin had a few solid seasons with the Green Bay Packers, highlighted by his 2013 effort in which he produced 49 receptions for 681 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The Panthers desperately need Boykin to rekindle that magic, jump start his flagging career, and return to that type of solid production. If he does, he, too, will be a valuable member of the lemonade squad. Of course, the Panthers reserve the right to look externally for potential employees to add to the lemonade team through free agency or a trade. Not surprisingly, the rumor mill is already aflutter with prospective additions from the available labor pool.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the receiver position is ably led by Wide Receivers Coach Ricky Proehl – an outstanding player in his own right, and the best in the business as a position coach. In the past few years, Coach Proehl has done more with less than any other position group on the team. Lest we forget, it was only one year ago that the Panthers entered training camp having lost both their starting wide receivers – the venerable Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell – to free agency. Smith is arguably the best player to ever don a Panthers uniform. Panic, no doubt, was in the air. With this as the backdrop, Proehl molded a patchwork bunch of receivers into a very respectable group who had a nice year under the circumstances – a year in which the Panthers won the NFC South. In Ricky We Trust, as the very capable CEO and leader of our fair lemonade stand. That thought, I think, is very refreshing.

Football is back; although, a game which counts in the standings has yet to be played. It is that magical time of year when – against all evidence to the contrary – optimism reigns supreme and hope springs eternal among fandom. “This is our year, I can feel it,” echoes resolutely in living rooms across the country. In an instant, however, this heady optimism can fade to consternation, or worse, with the news of a season-ending injury to a key player. Given recent events, I know this all too well. But football is the ultimate team sport, even sporting three distinct teams within a team. The beauty of the structure of football is that there are multiple ways to compensate for the failings of one player, one position group, or even one unit. With a little creativity and innovation, the Carolina Panthers can overcome the absence of their best wide receiver for the 2015 season. The true marvel will be seeing just how they go about doing it. Football giveth, it taketh away…but might it give back once more? Along with the rest of Panther Nation, I eagerly await the answer.

August 25, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Corey Brown, Devin Funchess, Jarrett Boykin, Jerricho Cotchery, Kelvin Benjamin, National Football League, NFL, Ricky Proehl, Ron Rivera, Ted Ginn Jr. | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fox News Debate: A Presidential Prize Fight

Modern American political debates are too often like heavy weight prize fights; you buy the pay-per-view package and the fight is over before the burgers are off the grill. That is to say, they are underwhelming, disappointing and anti-climactic. More times than not, they most closely parallel Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 in which Seattle was a mile high ahead of Denver by halftime, and the only thing left to see was Bruno Mars. Surely a Republican presidential debate, hosted by Fox News, with ten surly men crammed onto a stage, would be headed for this same dubious fate. This night, I surmised, was on a one-way fast train for the dustbin of history. Turn out the lights; the party’s over before it starts.

First things first: allow me to make an admission by writing the following phrase which might signal the apocalypse. Fox News produced an organized, engaging, effective and substantive debate which I did not think was possible given the format and Fox’s widely held reputation as being the mouthpiece of the Republican Party. I figured there was no chance that the obnoxious, pernicious pre-debate build up would ultimately be matched by the debate itself. I have not been so wrong since I argued that reigning MVP Steph Curry was too small to be an effective NBA guard. This thing was Holyfield/Tyson good, sans the ear biting (though Rand Paul came close). The three moderators, led by Megyn Kelly, were tough, confident and direct. They demonstrated complete control of the action when, given the sheer numbers and egos involved, the debate could have easily and quickly devolved into utter chaos. Captivated, I watched the debate from start to finish, instantly doubling my previous time spent viewing Fox News combined. Much to my pleasant surprise, I had time for wings, popcorn and dessert (Haagen-Dazs’ rocky road).

The main draw for the debate was the cantankerous and unfiltered Donald Trump; as such, with some regret and revulsion, I will start there. Bluntly, I think Trump damaged himself beyond repair. To his great credit, Mr. Trump stuck to his stylistic guns, spewing invective and vitriol at everyone from Megyn Kelly and Rosie O’Donnell, to his fellow debaters, to President Obama and Hillary Clinton. His vast array of verbal jabs were as impressive as they were numerous. What was not impressive was his display of vocabulary as his use of the word “stupid” would have made for an ideal drinking game. Uninspiring, too, was Trump’s grasp of the issues. Trump’s great hope is that his caustic tongue somehow overshadows his dearth of policy knowledge. Unlike the campaign trail where slick-tongued personal attacks suffice, the debate stage does Trump no favors in this regard. Perhaps inevitably, he was exposed, left naked to engage meekly in the policy discussions with which he was surrounded.

Ted Cruz’s flickering star has quickly faded into a black hole coinciding with the recent rising fortunes of Donald Trump. There is only enough oxygen in the room for one ornery, hyperbole-prone braggart, leaving Mr. Cruz gasping for air. On this night, he was memorable for being truly forgettable. Until his rather amusing and crafty closing statement, so, too, was Dr. Ben Carson. I kept hoping someone on the stage would pinch Dr. Carson to ensure that he was awake, or at least alive. When he did speak, agonizingly slowly and droningly, he displayed a clear lack of breadth and depth on the issues which should summarily disqualify the good doctor from contention. As for Mike Huckabee, where does one start? Considering some of the filth and non-sense that comes out of his mouth, it is often difficult to remember that he is a man of faith, and one who was once interesting, charming and likable. Now, I can’t imagine enough voters putting their faith in Huckabee to keep his flailing, desperate campaign alive. File him squarely in the category of “also ran….again….why.”

Given their rather comical verbal duel, I will lump Chris Christie and Rand Paul together. If you watched the debate, you will fondly remember the lively exchange between Christie and Paul concerning national security, the federal eavesdropping program, and more generally the collection of personal data. While I thought both scored points with their respective bases, Governor Christie served up several devastating body blows by reminding folks that he was a federal prosecutor on September 11, 2001 charged with prosecuting many of the terrorists involved. Though combative, Mr. Paul came off as defensive, naïve and probably too dovish for much of the Republican primary electorate. Responding to Paul’s assertion that the data should be collected by obtaining a warrant issued by a judge pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, Governor Christie delivered the technical knockout with this little dandy, “Listen senator, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that.” Score the round for Christie; while Paul is most likely down for the count.

Jeb Bush, or Jeb (as he’s called in Florida), did fine. Unlike several observers, I do not think Jeb was badly hurt by his pedestrian debate performance. It is true that he seemed nervous, uneven and tepid, particularly early in the debate. But I did not expect Bush to be overly assertive and aggressive; it is not his style. I appreciate his composure, cool under fire, and respect for his fellow candidates. Further, I admire that he has not taken the bait to move to the right on immigration, becoming more divisive and ugly in the mold of Trump, Cruz and Huckabee. More than these three, certainly, he looks and feels presidential. Jeb lives to fight another day.

Now to the man who enjoyed the home field advantage: John Kasich. I did not find the governor to be particularly articulate and he did fumble around a bit; but despite this, he communicated his message better than the rest. He used engaging hand gestures, an endearing smile and a folksy delivery to reach out to, and pull in, the audience.   He displayed an impressive grasp of the issues due to his extensive experience in various political offices. But, more than that, Mr. Kasich was able to portray an empathy, warmth and understanding for those with opposing viewpoints and those less fortunate. He came across as a leader; a viable option for president. Above all, he connected. And, lest we forget, his father was a mailman. Skillfully exploiting his Buckeye State advantage, I believe John Kasich had the second best night of all the candidates.

Marco. Rubio. Marco. Rubio. I would peg Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the overall winner of the first Republican debate. In contrast to Trump, Cruz and Huckabee, the baby-faced Rubio was congenial, pleasant and polite while still deftly hammering home his points. The silent assassin, I will dub him going forward. While Trump uses demagoguery to shout loudly and incoherently about immigration, Rubio displayed an impressive command of the facts and actually provided evidence. Responding to Trump, Mr. Rubio explained, “Let me set the record straight on a couple of things. The first is, the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico. They’re coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority. I also believe we need a fence. The problem is if El Chapo builds a tunnel under the fence, we have to be able to deal with that, too. And that’s why you need an e-verify system and you need an entry-exit tracking system and all sorts of other things to prevent illegal immigration.”

Marco Rubio has an intriguing and compelling personal story, which he cleverly used to his advantage. Smartly setting his sights on the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, Mr. Rubio scolded, “If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she—how is she gonna lecture me—how is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” Not yet finished with Clinton, Rubio landed a solid right hook when he quipped that while the Republicans have fielded several strong candidates for president, the Democrats can’t find one. Given his Hispanic background, personal story, fresh face, cross-over appeal, composed demeanor, and obvious intelligence and firm grasp of the issues, I contend that the Democrats, and Ms. Clinton, ought to fear a Marco Rubio candidacy more than any other. Following Thursday’s debate, that truth has become all the more evident. Marco with the KO.

It will be fascinating to see the post-debate polling in the coming days, but my conjecture is that Donald Trump’s support will fall precipitously. As John Kasich said during the debate, Donald Trump has tapped into a frustrated and disillusioned artery of the American electorate. For this, he should be commended. Unfortunately for Trump, he was always going to falter once the debates commenced and folks started to pay real attention. Despite the vein he tapped, Americans, at the end of the day, expect their president to be, well, presidential. In the end, Americans do not like, or support, angry presidential candidates. Call Howard Dean for more information; Mr. Trump can give you his cell phone number.

Conversely, I strongly suspect that Governor Kasich will have helped himself in the eyes of the public following the debate. Needless to say, I feel as though Marco Rubio has vaulted himself squarely into contention, and I expect upcoming polls to reflect just that. I did not forget Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, though it is difficult to remember a moment in which he shined. For this, I imagine that he will begin to fade away just in time for the start of the Green Bay Packers season.

Throughout life, so often our lofty expectations are rudely met with cold disappointment. Given this, it is truly a gift when just the opposite comes to pass. Fox News and the Republican candidates for president gave us such a moment on Thursday night. A muddied picture has become clearer; a crowded race has seemed to thin. Perhaps it wasn’t Lincoln-Douglas, but it was as good as it could have been.  Following the debate, I never could have imagined that this would become the water cooler question: Where were you on Thursday night when the clock tolled nine, the lights came up at Quicken Loans Arena, and Cleveland rocked? I had a front row seat for the fight, chicken wings and all.

August 8, 2015 Posted by | 2016 Presidential Election, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, First Republican Presidential Debate, Fox News Debate, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Obama Presidency: The Case for the “T” Word

The older I get the more time seems to get away. What are now distant events still jostle around in my mind as recent memories. Time flies, as they say. I don’t know that it matters much whether one is having fun. Somehow, though, a two-term presidency can seem like an eternity, and not just for the loyal opposition. For me, Bush’s 8 years in office were interminable, but so, too, have been Obama’s 6 1/2. The modern president – thanks to the modern media – is one with whom we have daily contact. Like sand at the beach or morning fog in San Francisco, the president is virtually unavoidable.

Each president enjoys euphoric highs and experiences devastating lows; celebrates uplifting successes and suffers crushing defeat; and inevitably surfs the wave of fluctuating popularity, varying in degree dependent upon who is occupying the office. Obama’s presidency has proven no exception. At the time of this writing, however, President Obama resides at the crest of his popularity wave as a result of several recent high profile policy victories and Supreme Court decisions. Given the late stage of his presidency and considering his significant accomplishments, I feel compelled to explore the sacrosanct question: has the Obama presidency moved into the realm of the transformational?

The “T” word would have been unthinkable perhaps only months ago. Even many of my Democratic friends have lamented what in their view has been a weak presidency – one characterized by broken campaign promises, a feckless foreign policy that has seen America shrink from the world stage, an unwillingness to fight for domestic priorities, and, bluntly, a lack of the “change” we envisioned. To this, my simple reply is that the evidence does not support the claims. President Obama has fought for, and largely achieved, the policy priorities for which he campaigned.

Upon arriving in office, President Obama faced a financial and economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the president was able to shepherd a comprehensive fiscal stimulus package totaling approximately $800 billion to passage. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) directly invested in infrastructure, education, the health and energy sectors, provided federal tax incentives, and expanded unemployment benefits and other social welfare programs. While I would have preferred additional stimulus to address such a catastrophic downturn, the president squeezed as much blood from that Congressional turnip as was humanly possible.

The road to recovery from the Great Recession was long, uneven and often painful. Without the ARRA, though, the road might be one we still travel. Instead, an unemployment rate that ballooned to over 10% during the height of the recession has been trimmed to an impressive 5.3%. The economy is in the midst of 64 straight weeks of private sector job growth, adding a total of 12.8 million jobs during that span. The economy is expanding at its fastest rate in over a decade, which has helped slice the deficit by two-thirds since 2009. What’s more, the Dow is chugging smoothly along at around 18,000, roughly double the number when Obama took office. While wages are stagnant and there is undoubtedly more work to do, it would be difficult to reasonably make the argument that we are worse off than we were 4 (or 6 ½, in this case) years ago.

The crowning achievement of President Obama’s first term – and perhaps the measure by which history will most acutely judge him – was the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Every Democratic president since Harry S. Truman and his Fair Deal has attempted to pass universal health care. Famously, the Clinton Administration – led by first lady Hillary Clinton – made health care reform a chief policy initiative of its first term. Not only would that effort crash and burn, it paved the way for an electoral thrashing at the hands of the Republicans in the 1994 mid-terms. My point here is that passing health care reform is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for a “weak” president. Adhering to his campaign promises, President Obama faced these headwinds head on and passed a universal health care bill without one single, solitary, stinking Republican vote in either the House or Senate. Weak, it is clear, he was not.

Even for advocates of the health care law, myself included, the performance of the policy has drastically exceeded expectations. In March 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the average number of uninsured during the period from January to September 2014 was reduced by 11.4 million compared to the average in 2010. In April 2015, Gallup concluded that the percentage of adults who were uninsured dropped from 18% in the third quarter of 2013 to 11.4% in the second quarter of 2015. The two primary goals of the health care law were to increase access and lower costs. Irrefutably, the number of uninsured persons has been greatly reduced, checking goal box #1. To put the icing on this legislative cake, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the estimated cost of the health care law is $142 billion, or 11 percent, less than originally predicted due primarily, and notably, to health insurance premiums rising more slowly. Thus, satisfying stated goal #2.

Significantly, the ACA has stood up to the scrutiny of the Land’s highest court. On June 28, 2012, deciding National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA’s individual mandate as an exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Since the ruling, the law and its implementation have continued to face challenges in Congress and federal courts, and from some state governments, conservative advocacy groups, labor unions, and small business organizations. Just last month, in the case King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court provided the Obama administration, and the law, with a huge boost by affirming that the law’s federal subsidies to help individuals pay for health insurance are available in all states, not just in those which have set up state exchanges. Consequently, it is now highly likely that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, like it or not. Given the tumultuous history of health care reform in this country, that fact cannot be overstated as a prize achievement of the Obama years.

The foreign policy arena is where the president has garnered the most consternation from within his own party. As previously noted, there is a perception that the Obama Administration is feckless in foreign affairs, and has consequently caused the United States to lose critical standing and respect around the world. In addition to much of the progressive media, I have heard this sentiment anecdotally from several of my Democratic friends. I must admit that I am baffled by these criticisms. Did these folks pay any attention whatsoever to the 2008 campaign for president? If so, how are reasonable people surprised that an Obama Administration would pursue a more conciliatory foreign policy, one based on faith in diplomacy as the most rational way to resolve differences? The same folks who yearned for “change” and shouted in unison “yes we can” in 2008 are inexplicably skeptical, or downright dismissive, of the change that followed.

Let’s start with the most recent foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal. For years, Iran has been a rogue state, a pariah on the international stage. Iran has long been racing toward nuclear proliferation, promotes and thrives on regional instability, and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Our policy of stiff and debilitating sanctions did not produce the intended results of altering Iran’s belligerent behavior. Indeed, it only seemed to exacerbate it. What it did do, on the other hand, was continue the vicious cycle of impoverishing its people. Then-candidate Obama made clear that a President Obama would be open to engaging the Iranians in direct talks to foster better understanding, increase trust and, ultimately, bring about a better reality for all involved – a policy proposal that was heretofore unfathomable. Clearly, the Obama Administration has done just that, culminated in the nuclear deal announced last week by the United States and its 5 world partners. Why, then, do so many supporters of the president seem so astonished by the deal?

It is important to note that neither the Republicans, nor anyone else, have proposed a viable alternative to this deal. Our skilled negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, were able to garner a great deal from the Iranians. The agreement delays Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons for at least 10 years; it requires Tehran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, disables the Arak facility from producing weapons-grade plutonium, reduces the number of centrifuges by two thirds, converts the Fordow facility into a research center, and allows for unprecedented intrusive inspections. Sure, Iran might cheat; perhaps they are likely to do so. But if they do, we will know, and we will have the time to act. That is more than we can now say. To me, this deal is infinitely superior to the status quo, which so many were willing to accept.

In other ways, I think the president has employed a robust and aggressive, yet measured, approach to national security. The dismantling of Al Qaeda and its leadership has been a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama years. In addition to bin Laden, the leadership around the world has been decimated by strategic special operations missions and unmanned drone strikes. Mr. Obama avoided a boots on the ground war with Syria – opting instead for an agreement with the Assad regime, brokered by Russia, which saw the Syrian government destroy their vast chemical weapons stockpiles. Much to the dismay of the neoconservatives, Mr. Obama decided against ground support during the Libyan Civil War of 2011, instead supporting the opposition from the air, ultimately allowing for the capture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi. The president is displaying the same calculated restraint with respect to ISIS, the latest threat to United States interests around the world. While the hawks and neocons would prefer ground troops to combat ISIS, the Obama Administration is aggressively and systematically dismantling their capabilities in what promises to be a difficult and protracted fight.

Yet another watershed victory for the Obama Administration came just recently in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – the sweeping trade and investment pact negotiated between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim nations. Congressional Democrats, led by high profile Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were vehemently and loudly opposed to this trade deal and proved to be a formidable thorn in Obama’s side. I am sure that some of the opposition is based on principle. I am guessing, however, that much of the opposition can be chalked up to politics back home as opposed to sound policy. In effect, trading prudent policy for votes (pun intended).

Admirably, Democratic politicians are keenly attuned to the American worker who have arguably been hurt by past trade deals. But it is no secret that those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, having been forever lost to technological advancements. These politicians are also rightly concerned with labor and environmental standards. And for me, that is the key point. It is wholly preferable for America to be writing these trade rules instead of the Chinese, which is who would have filled the void in our absence. It is also critical that we, as opposed to the Chinese, establish the rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Additionally, my fellow liberals, another little secret: this trade deal will significantly improve the living standards of the poor in these Asian countries, Vietnam in particular. Isn’t this a worthy byproduct of the deal?

The president also catches significant grief from supporters concerning social issues, or his purported lack of attention and progress on these issues. Again, I don’t see it. During his administration, President Obama has ordered his Department of Defense to eliminate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” effectively bringing from the shadows countless LGBT Americans who honorably serve their country. Further, the president ordered his Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) when it appeared before the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor in 2013. And, of course, the Obama Administration was outspoken, and indeed filed an amicus brief, in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in every state in connection with the recently decided case, Obergefell v. Hodges. On this particular issue, it is hard to imagine an administration doing more, or being a stronger and more vocal advocate and champion.

It is important to note that, outside of the TPP trade deal, President Obama has been faced with united, unrelenting, unprecedented and often nasty Republican opposition and obstruction. Compromise was thrown out the window seemingly on inauguration day, January 2009. Famously, now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell callously and counterproductively pledged to make Obama a one term president. Failing that, the new strategy has been to prevent Obama from securing any policy victories of note. That is what makes the recent accomplishments all the more stunning and impressive. Due largely to Republican intransigence, Mr. Obama has been unable to accomplish much more in the areas of gun control (not for a lack of effort), comprehensive immigration reform (executive orders notwithstanding) and climate control. With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress for Obama’s final push, these important issues, sadly, will have to be left to his successor.

Mr. Obama, as both a candidate and president, has been cautious to wade too deeply into American race relations. However, when he has spoken, he has done so with an eloquence, humanity and intelligence that has left a profound and lasting impact. From hosting the famous “beer summit” at the White House to bury the proverbial hatchet between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley, to the powerful speech addressing the firestorm surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Philadelphia, to the moving eulogy delivered for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney following the Charleston massacre in which the president led the congregation in Amazing Grace, President Obama has been at his most magnificent, unguarded and pure as a man, a leader, and a president. For this alone, his legacy will inarguably endure.

I will leave the way in which President Obama is viewed by posterity to the history books. Father time must work his magic several times over before we truly know how Obama performed as president. Fifty years hence, will Obamacare be viewed in the same positive light as Medicare and Social Security are now? Or will it have long since been dismantled? Will Obama and Iran be favorably compared to Reagan and the collapse of the Soviet Union or will the Iran nuclear deal be seen as the Great Appeasement in the mold of Hitler’s Germany? These questions will be long in the making, and neither I, nor anyone else, know the answers. But if the dominoes fall in President Obama’s favor, and I believe they are lined up to do just that, historians will write that he was not just a great president, but a transformational one.

July 25, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Climate Change, Democratic Party, Gun Control, Iran Nuclear Deal, Obamacare, President Obama, Race Relations, Republican Party, TPP Trade Deal | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charleston, the Confederate Flag & Guns

Growing up in North Carolina, a stone’s throw away from the South Carolina border, I have been profoundly affected by last week’s heartbreaking events in Charleston. Of course, one need not be familiar with the geographical location of the tragedy to have been acutely touched by it. Indeed, the entire country has been deeply moved by the senseless slaughter of nine of our fellow citizens as they worshipped together at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   Once again, we as a nation are left grieving for lives lost much too soon, and in a manner much too horrific, to fully and rationally comprehend.

This unthinkable act of barbarism has sparked outrage from every corner of the country – from the citizenry to our political leadership, irrespective of political and ideological stripe. Of course, this heinous crime did not occur in a vacuum; we now know that it was one motivated solely on the basis of race. The church, one of the oldest black congregations in the United States, was targeted as a result of its being historically associated with the civil rights movement, and its parishioners being principally African American. The confessed killer, Dylann Roof, is a young, Caucasian male whose repulsive manifesto clearly indicates that he possesses a hatred and abhorrence toward the black race so vile that he deemed it necessary to foster a race war in this country.

Remarkably and hearteningly, just the opposite seems to be happening. The victims’ families have lovingly and graciously (yet unfathomably, to my mind) forgiven Dylann’s wayward soul for savagely executing their loved ones. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, flanked by the state’s two Republican Senators, publicly called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Indeed, much of the public discourse following the shooting has revolved around this much maligned and rightly ridiculed symbol still used in parts of the deep South. Let me be clear: I am delighted to see this debate materialize, and seemingly moving toward a broad consensus that this divisive symbol should be removed from public grounds. I support such a move unequivocally and wholeheartedly.

I am, however, dismayed and concerned that the discussion surrounding the Confederate flag has largely dwarfed and muted any substantive debate with respect to gun control in this country. As divisive and painful as the Confederate flag certainly is, it did not brutally end the lives of the nine prayerful souls in that church. It did not massacre the defenseless children in Newtown, CT, Columbine High School, Blacksburg, VA, the unsuspecting theatre-goers in Aurora, or the countless victims on the streets of Chicago and throughout America on a daily basis. The flag is a symbol; the gun is the murder weapon. The former hurts feelings; the latter shatters lives. Shouldn’t this fact at the very least render gun control worthy of debate, just as the Confederate flag is and should be?

In a nod to full disclosure, I readily admit that I have never held, let alone fired, a gun in my life; and, frankly, I do not understand the fascination with them. Notwithstanding this fact, I grew up in the South, and have countless family members and friends who engage in legal hunting of various types throughout the year. While I do not quite understand the “sport” or engage in it myself, I adamantly support and respect the right of others to do so. I am certainly familiar enough with hunting to know that one does not need an automatic or semi-automatic weapon to kill a deer. A shotgun or rifle will do just fine. To the contrary, the weapons of choice for the oft-occurring mass murders – including Newton, Columbine, Blacksburg, Aurora and Charleston – are almost exclusively automatic or semi-automatic firearms. Banning such lethal weapons would not impinge on any Americans ability or right to legally hunt. This seems like an awfully good place to start.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the divergent interpretations thereof, poses a significant hurdle in the fight to reign in gun violence. It is difficult to overcome the entrenched conviction held by gun advocates that the Founding Fathers granted, by way of the 2nd Amendment, the individual right to keep and bear arms. Many Constitutional scholars and historians disagree vehemently with the view that it was the Framers’ intent for each American to possess the right to keep and bear arms for personal protection. Given the historical context within which the Framers were writing, it is most reasonable to conclude that the intent was to enshrine a state’s right to maintain and train formal militia units which could provide protection against an oppressive federal government. England, of course, was barely in the rear view mirror at the time of writing. Moreover, I am not sure how else to logically interpret the “well-regulated militia” clause other than to mean the right to bear arms should only be given to these organized groups.

But even if it were their intention contemporaneously, it is highly implausible that they would have foreseen firearms capable of mass murder within the span of a few seconds, and, if so, would have sought to protect them. Much like the Founders, as brilliant as they irrefutably were, did not, in 1787, envision Americans flags being planted on the moon, the politics of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, an African American president, a woman on the ten dollar bill, iPhones replacing lighters at concerts, or endless selfies being annoyingly posted to Twitter and Facebook. Things change; our world evolves. Its inhabitants, ideally, evolve along with the changing world around them. And I believe that the genius of the Constitution, as a living document, is that it has the capability and flexibility to likewise evolve with societal changes. Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion released just yesterday in Obergefell v. Hodges, alludes to this understanding of the Constitution: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times…The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” Of course, Kennedy is writing in support of the Constitution’s granting a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry, but I would contend that his general point is applicable to our interpretation of the Second Amendment as well.

Accordingly, considering the current reality in which we live – one riddled with ubiquitous and widespread gun violence, it is beyond doubtful that the Framers would have sought to protect the individual right to bear semi- and automatic weapons within the framework of the US Constitution. To be blunt, this notion seems preposterous. Furthermore, given the undisputed brilliance of our Founders, it seems to me that they would have, if such was their intention, simply included in the Amendment the phrase “for the defense of themselves,” as was eloquently pointed out by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Why would such a clarifying phrase have been so clumsily omitted if it were the original intent?

Whatever the Framers’ intention, surely they would have expected our current leadership to possess the intelligence, independence and intestinal fortitude to adapt to our present reality. Surely they would not look kindly as politicians stick their collective heads in the sand, and hide behind an amendment written over 220 years ago – when slavery was legal, women could not vote and the Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy. Surely they would expect us, the people of this country, to engage in meaningful and reasonable debate to solve what is now clearly an epidemic, just as we seek to cure the maladies of cancer and poverty. Surely they would encourage us to act aggressively and expeditiously to remedy this stain on our culture. And, surely, for God’s sake, they would expect us to have the guts to stand up and confront the National Rifle Association, and its ferocious lobby.

The NRA argues, somehow seriously, that the solution to the gun violence epidemic is more guns. Really: a gun problem requires more guns? It is hard for me to fathom a more delusional and irrational solution. A doctor would not prescribe ice cream to someone fighting obesity, or cigarettes to a person suffering from emphysema. In their ideal world, all of us would be armed to the hilt in an effort to counteract the possibility (or certitude) of a deranged, gun-wielding psycho opening fire in the public square. If the NRA – and their allies – have their way, the new reality would be our constant intermingling with folks toting their guns to our schools, the grocery store, movie theaters, ball parks, churches, and any other public arena. This solution is one driven by paranoia and fear instead of addressing the problem. It is a resignation that the problem cannot be solved, so we might as well be prepared for the next, imminent tragedy lurking around every corner. It is reactionary, and speaks to the worst attributes of our nature. Is that the America in which we want to live and raise our children?

Ben Carson, a Republican presidential candidate, recently opined, “The heart of the matter is not guns, the heart of the matter is the heart.” Clever line and fair point; one I will cede. Obviously, it does, in fact, require a depraved, crazy and/or mentally ill person to use a gun for evil purposes. But I think it is safe to say that America does not have a monopoly on crazy people. I am guessing all countries have their fair share. All countries do not, however, suffer from consistent and pervasive gun violence.  Sadly, we stand alone in the civilized world in that dubious regard – as a country which tolerates such incomprehensible madness. My question is a simple one: for what? To this, Charleston deserves an answer.

June 27, 2015 Posted by | AME Church, Ben Carson, Charleston, Charleston Shooting, Confederate Flag, Gun Control, President Obama, South Carolina | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Premature Evaluation: The Absurdity of Grading the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft has metamorphosed over the years from a non-descript off-season occurrence, to the marquee event connecting the end of one season to the start of the next, to what is today a stand-alone phenomenon which garners prime-time television coverage for much of the draft’s three days. Just as one exuberant team hoists the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions, the fans of the other 31 teams, and indeed the teams themselves, are looking ahead to who might be available in the upcoming draft to summarily transcend their team to that same lofty position. In fact, the unfortunate fans of those truly underperforming teams (I’m looking at you, Cleveland) often begin contemplating the next draft as early as a few games into the current season. In this way, the NFL Draft serves as a perpetual renaissance of sorts – always providing renewed hope and promise for the next year.

Undoubtedly, the draft is an important tool that each team utilizes to replenish talent and build an organization under its own philosophy. Historically, there is a direct and overwhelming correlation between those teams that draft successfully and the ones which perform consistently well on the field. Accordingly, each NFL team employs an extensive scouting infrastructure whose only job is devoted to those 3 days in April when teams select their new players. NFL scouts get paid solely to study college football players 365 days a year, both on the field and off, to determine who might fit their team’s needs, schemes and culture. The significant dollars that NFL teams spend on scouting highlights just how important the draft process is viewed by each franchise.

The rise of the NFL Draft as a truly important event in American sports, and the hoopla which surrounds it, has produced all sorts of entertainment and economic benefits for so many involved. There is, however, one regrettable byproduct of all this good fortune – that is the out-sized voice given to the copious draft analysts and experts (both terms I use loosely herein) who render grades on the 32 teams for their annual performances. These folks are like pervasive and unwanted grass weeds, springing to life the same time every year, ruining an otherwise perfect lawn. Before, during and immediately following the draft, Mel Kiper, the most notable and recognizable of all weeds, blasts his pearls of draft wisdom into the megaphone known as ESPN to opine as to each team’s competence in a particular draft. Kiper, though, is not alone; he is joined by countless other “experts” who insist on grading each team’s draft stock.

I, for one, find this annual ritual of the talking heads to be the height of hyperbole and, frankly, an exercise in futility. There is a gross absurdity to placing instantaneous judgment on such an inexact science, like that of the NFL Draft. Sure, these players are scrutinized and scoured until every nook and cranny of their lives, and bodies, are explored, dissected and understood. Admittedly, there are “measurables” that provide useful comparisons between and among the athletes, e.g., a player’s performance on the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 3 cone drill tests. Although, sports writers, and rational observers alike, question whether these tests have any real relationship with future NFL performance. Empirical research conducted by Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, John W. Michel, and Kevin J. Williams (2011) found that these various tests provide limited insight into a prospect’s future success in the NFL.

In addition to these tests, of course, there are reams and reams of tape from the collegiate games in which a targeted player participated. This vast collection of data, it seems to me, is far more valuable in the evaluation process. In fact, the Lyons et al. (2011) study suggests that a prospect’s past performance in college is a far better indicator of future NFL performance as compared to the aforementioned physical ability tests.  But even collegiate performance is not a precise, error-free predictor of professional success.  One glaring issue relates to the level of competition that each prospect encounters, which can vary greatly throughout the college football landscape.  What’s more, many college programs utilize offensive and defensive schemes that do not translate well to pro-style strategies and philosophies.  The point here being that comparing and evaluating athletes through analysis of game film, or in-person, presents its own set of unique challenges.

The fundamental problem with all of these evaluative techniques, in my view, is that they do not possess the capacity to measure intangible assets – including an individual’s leadership abilities, competitive drive, work ethic, capacity to accept and understand coaching, likelihood of remaining healthy, ability to work and blend with teammates, and, in most cases, proclivity to adapt to sudden wealth and acclaim. I would argue that this litany of non-measurable characteristics play a more consistently vital role in a collegiate football player’s transitioning into a successful one at the professional level.

There are boundless examples of players faring far better than their draft position would indicate, and vice versa. Famously, Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round, the 199th pick overall, in the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots. To date, Brady has won 4 Super Bowls, 3 Super Bowl MVP awards, 2 league MVP awards, 10 Pro Bowl appearances, and 1 scandal (in which he is presently starring). He is also married to Gisele Bundchen.

Sitting squarely on the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Leaf. Leaf was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in 1998 by the San Diego Chargers after a spectacular collegiate career at Washington State University, culminating in his being a finalist for the Heisman Award following his junior year. Leaf’s professional career is best, if generously, characterized by poor play, bad behavior and injuries, which led several publications to finger him as the #1 “draft bust” in NFL history. Adding insult to injury, Leaf spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony burglary and drug possession charges, and he is not married to Gisele Bundchen. While these are the two most famous, or infamous, examples, the list runs aplenty. Tellingly, 20 of the 44 players who actually saw playing time in the last Super Bowl were drafted in Rounds 4 – 7, the later rounds.

I would submit that there is general agreement that it typically takes 3 years on average to accurately determine whether a particular team had a prosperous draft three years prior. Consequently, it seems to me that attaching a grade to a draft class immediately following that year’s selections is a fool’s errand – premature at best, and irresponsible at worst. It would be tantamount to buying, or disparaging, a work of art after seeing only a few strokes on the canvas. A food critic surely would not grade a dish before the chef had added and blended all the necessary ingredients. A farmer would not judge the productivity of a cucumber plant while still a seed, before having been exposed to the benefits of water and sunlight. Mercifully returning to sports analogies, race car drivers engage in qualifying sessions whereby each driver attempts to set the fastest lap and improve his (or her) pole position – the position in which they will commence the race. Pole position, however, has proven to be a terrible indicator as to how each car will ultimately finish on race day.

The accusation might be levied, by the cynics among you (including most of my football-loving friends), that I am venting in this “pet peeve” column largely due to my Carolina Panthers being roundly panned for their 2015 draft class. Indeed, most pundits felt as though we “reached” in the first round (25th pick) by drafting Shaq Thompson, a versatile linebacker from the University of Washington, especially given our current strength and depth at the linebacker position. We did not address need, and did not select the best player available, they say. A double negative, or something like that. In the second round, we traded away our 3rd and 6th round picks to the St. Louis Rams to move up 16 spots to draft a behemoth wide receiver from Michigan, Devin Funchess. While receiver was a position of need, we gave up far too much in terms of additional picks for the enigmatic Funchess, they say.

I have no way of knowing whether Shaq (though the name alone should count for something) or Devin will be Pro Bowl caliber NFL players. What I do know is that they will not succeed, fail or fall somewhere in between as a result of what the experts had to say on draft day. The universal truth concerning sports, and the primary reason we love them, is that they are unpredictable, much like the weather. And draft prognosticators, like their weather counterparts, seem to be right about half the time. Despite this, oddly, we still follow the news every day to hear the weather forecast, and we tune to ESPN every April eagerly awaiting Kiper’s draft predictions. What did Einstein say – fool me once, shame on you….?

I fully understand that we live in the age of instant information and gratification. Patience might still be a virtue, but not one to which we strive, particularly as it relates to our sports teams. But a draft class can only be truly judged through the lens of experience, i.e., what happens between the lines every Sunday. Patience, then, is required; it is not optional. I suppose I subscribe to the John Locke theory of player evaluation. Essentially, each player enters the NFL – like humans enter this world – with their very own tabula rasa, a blank slate. Not knowing what will be written on that slate is what keeps things interesting, and the experts guessing…and prematurely grading.

May 15, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Devin Funchess, ESPN, Mel Kiper, NFL, NFL Draft, Ryan Leaf, Shaq Thompson, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hillary Rodham Clinton – La Reine Soleil

Hillary Clinton confirmed last week what breathing folks have known since she lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in spectacularly stunning fashion: she is running for president again in 2016. High drama, this was not. It did not approach the theatrics surrounding another prominent decision – The Decision – Lebron James’ 2010 made-for-television pronouncement that he was bolting his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the greener (and far warmer) pastures of Miami. To the contrary, the pre-recorded video formally announcing Clinton’s candidacy was notable for its humility and for being remarkably understated, lacking the flair and bravado of her ’08 leap of faith (and certainly that of Lebron’s). The more subdued, and less entitled, approach this time around is ultimately wise, in my view. As was the now famous choice to lunch at Chipotle – particularly the bold move to add guacamole to her chicken burrito bowl (at extra cost, no less) – which must be popular with voters, and many non-voters, given the frustratingly long lines at every store I’ve frequented circa lunch or dinner time.

In this campaign, Hillary – first name sufficing – wields the proverbial double-edged sword: name recognition. Unlike most other candidates, Hillary Clinton does not need an introduction to the American people. We know her, and intimately. We watched as she transformed the role of first lady, for better or worse, during the presidency of her husband. We continued to watch as she represented New Yorkers, a newly-minted resident of the state herself, as their junior senator for 8 years in the United States Congress. We came along for the often bumpy ride as she joined, perhaps surprisingly, President Obama’s “Team of Rivals” cabinet – leading the State Department, and presenting the face of American foreign policy to the world, during the president’s first term. Grass, it’s safe to say, does not grow under Mrs. Clinton’s pumps-clad feet.

I write this column to neither proclaim my support for Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy nor deny it. It is far too early for that, despite the ridiculously premature endorsements she, and others, have already received. I do, however, write in support of her running – whatever the outcome. On its face, this is not a particularly controversial position to take. Since Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy, however, I have read and heard copious commentary lamenting the fact that there could be, God forbid, another Clinton in the White House. Putting an exclamation point on the hyperbole, one commentator even suggested that we must be living in 18th century France or some other European-style monarchy. As if Hillary is a modern day Louis XIV – our very own la reine soleil.

What comes next, I presume, will be more controversial. It is this: I believe the American people will, or won’t, elect Hillary Clinton the next president of the United States irrespective of the fact that her husband previously served in the same capacity. Further, I submit that Bill’s being president – not Bill himself – will effectively play no vital role in Hillary’s effort to do the same. Let me be clear: Bill Clinton’s acute political acumen, general intelligence and unique ability to communicate policy in layman’s terms – he was, after all, dubbed the Secretary of Explaining Stuff during President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 – will be an invaluable asset for Hillary. However, if Hillary Clinton is hauling her vast pant-suit collection to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017, it will be at the behest of the American electorate. There will have been no coronation. Her surname will not have been relevant. She will have earned the right to live there, and decorate accordingly, on her own merits.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are, obviously, two different people. Though married, I am certain that there are policy differences which exist between them, often dramatically so. My own observations are that Hillary, for example, is more hawkish from a foreign policy standpoint. Moreover, Hillary seems more comfortable addressing foreign policy issues, while Bill seems far more knowledgeable about – and interested in – the nuances and intricacies of economic policy. ’08 Hillary competed with then-Senator Obama in the primary to determine which candidate was more virulently anti-trade, even though President Clinton famously (or infamously, depending upon your point of view) signed NAFTA. Some political observers view Hillary as more ideological, Bill more pragmatic.  The list, I’m sure, goes on.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so, this same election will see yet another Bush run for the presidency as well. I feel the same way concerning Jeb’s campaign for president as I do Hillary’s. Jeb should not suffer, or gain, from the previous presidencies of his father and brother. Simply put, he is not them. In a recent interview with Politico, George W. Bush candidly surmised that he would pose an obstacle to Jeb’s candidacy. While likely true, he should not be. What is to say that Jeb Bush would not be a far better president than his brother? Or far worse, for that matter?

As Governor of Florida, Jeb was well-known to be intensely interested and involved in the minutia of policymaking. He took great pains to understand the nuances of policy about which he had to make decisions. Nuanced is not a term with which his brother would likely be mistaken. Further, Jeb is widely considered to be more intellectual and serious-minded relative to his brother. Undoubtedly, Jeb’s life experiences are divergent from that of George’s, and certainly those of his father’s. Consequently, it could very well be that his worldview is different as well.

Most Americans identify (read: stigmatize) George W. Bush with his 2003 decision to invade Iraq based largely on the erroneous conclusion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But who is to say that Jeb, considering the same objective facts, would have come to the same conclusion? Accordingly, this should not be held as an electoral albatross around Jeb’s neck. Admittedly, I have long been a big fan of Bill Clinton, but this truth would never form the basis for my supporting his wife for president. Nor should the inverse be true. Likewise, I am hopeful that George Bush supporters (junior or senior) do not plan to vote for Jeb based on that reason alone. Or vice versa.

Furthermore, I plainly reject the notion of “two for one” concerning a Hillary Clinton presidency. I do not believe that a First Man Bill Clinton will act as a quasi co-president, nor should he. That being said, I am not naïve enough to believe that Bill would have no influence on a Hillary presidency. Of course, to some degree, he would. Just as George W. and/or George H. W. might have some influence on a Jeb presidency. The effect, though, would be miniscule as compared to the advisers they hire and with which they associate.

In my view, then, instead of fretting over the prospects of another Clinton or Bush occupying the White House, it would be far more useful to focus on Hillary, Jeb, their associates, their advisers, their policies, their qualifications and their experiences. Oh, and their challengers. There is a nasty little rumor that there might be other candidates who dare to join the race – carelessly and rudely jeopardizing our bid for an American monarchy. And our very own la reine soleil.

April 24, 2015 Posted by | 2016 Presidential Election, Bill Clinton, Democratic Party, Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dean Smith, Basketball & Me

Growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, I could hardly help but become a life-long and ardent fan of the game of basketball. ACC basketball, in particular, was etched into my soul long before I was even aware. My childhood pictures bear the proof – me dressed from head to toe by mom in Tar Heels garb, presumably against my will. From a national perspective, North Carolina – along with Kentucky and Indiana – is known in large measure due to its sustained excellence in the sport. In addition to UNC – Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, Davidson and Charlotte have all enjoyed varying degrees of success on the national level.

When I became old enough to make my own fashion decisions, basketball-related attire did not fade from, and indeed still dominated, my wardrobe. After being introduced to most sports by my father, I quickly gravitated to basketball as my true love. Being a baseball man, this might have dismayed my dad to a certain extent; but, if so, he never let on. Many a night, we would shoot hoops in our paved driveway long after the Carolina blue skies had faded to dark. Supper, often times, would have to wait, despite mom’s objections. Put simply, I was hooked, and over time, wasn’t half bad. In fact, in our neighborhood, I respectfully (but not so humbly) submit that my jump shot was the purest of them all.

To further amplify the significance of ACC basketball in North Carolina, I can remember my teachers in school being permitted to tune the TV to the ACC Tournament on the Friday that it began. (In those days, before conference expansion, the tournament did not begin in earnest until Friday.) That same day, I would race home from school to watch the afternoon and night games with my dad. The weekend of the ACC Tournament – serving as the capstone to the conference season and a precursor to the Big Dance – was always a magical one, win or lose. That weekend has produced highlights from some of the sport’s most prominent names – including Michael Jordan, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Tim Duncan, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, to name a scant few.

To me, however, ACC basketball always revolved around one central figure: Dean Smith. From very early on, I remember being awestruck by the professional way in which he marched his troops into battle. There always seemed to be such order and formality. The sense of purpose was palpable. Churchillian, no doubt. Watching Coach Smith lead his team in a game was like watching a great conductor direct his orchestra. Precision. Composure. Incredible power, yet supreme control. Coach Smith’s teams seemed to be just that – a team – moving together as if on a string, of which Smith was the master puppeteer. But above all this, there was a grace, humility and poignancy to his leadership that seemed to command the utmost respect from his players.

Coach Smith’s accomplishments speak for themselves – 879 victories, 17 ACC Regular Season Championships, 13 ACC Tournament Championships, 11 Final Fours, 2 National Championships. But this was simply basketball – a game, after all. Much later in life, I would learn that Dean Smith was an even taller figure in the game of life. Most of the stories are well known and documented, because Smith was unafraid, and unapologetic, to publicly serve as an agent for social change. Smith helped Howard Lee, a black graduate student, purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Interestingly, Lee would be elected Mayor of Chapel Hill three years later, and go on to become a NC Senator. In the late 1960’s, a difficult time in the South to be sure, Smith promoted desegregation by recruiting the first black athlete, Charlie Scott, to UNC, and would later take his black players to lunch at white-only establishments.

Smith was so adamantly against the death penalty that he made frequent trips to North Carolina death row, often befriending the inmates. Occasionally, he would take his teams to visit these hardened folks as well. Famously, it was reported that he got into a heated discussion with then-Governor Jim Hunt – otherwise a friend and political ally – in connection with his decision to deny a stay of the execution of a particular death row inmate. Smith argued, allegedly rather loudly, that not only was Governor Hunt a murderer, but so too was Smith himself, by association as a citizen of the State.

Publicly and bravely, Smith fought against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War when such a position was politically untenable. My guess is that these very public examples represent only a small fraction of Smith’s efforts to influence social policy, many of which were surreptitious and away from the spotlight. And though Smith’s positions were not always popular – and they often weren’t – they were, in his view, the right thing to do. Principled, above all else.

Coach Smith’s quick wit, extraordinary recall and elephantine memory are legendary; his fierce loyalty unequivocal and unquestioned. Since his death last week, the glowing tributes from former players – each seemingly with their own anecdote – paint the same picture of a man who cared deeply about each individual he came across, their lives and their livelihood, long after the ball stopped bouncing and the glare of the gym lights dimmed. By all accounts, this fatherly concern and care was delivered in equal parts whether the recipient was a family member, friend, former player, manager, ball boy, janitor, or someone Smith simply met on the street. And for this, Smith enjoyed, in return, the unbending loyalty from his former players, colleagues, and mere acquaintances. Listening to and reading the various stories this past week, it struck me that the deep feelings for Smith seemed to surpass loyalty and fondness; it was sheer reverence.

I certainly do not mean to speak of Dean Smith as if he were a deity. He, after all, would be the first to acknowledge that he was far from perfect. But for a boy, a basketball fan, growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, he was pretty darn close.

February 13, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The South Shall Rise Again – If We Fight For It

In contrast to many of my friends and colleagues, I was far from disconsolate immediately following the elections earlier this month. There is no shame, I figured, in losing an election from time to time, and, quite often, outside forces – macroeconomic factors, events in foreign countries, unforeseen domestic occurrences, etc. – can render a political party helpless at a particular point in history. Furthermore, it is well documented that the party of the sitting president most often loses seats in Congress in off-year elections, especially in the sixth year of a presidency. Unlike some, maybe most, I did not view the Republican wave as either a repudiation of Democratic principles or wholesale approval of Republican ones.

After all, where minimum wage increases were on the ballot (a Democratic policy priority), each referendum passed with flying colors. What’s more, it was four conservative states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – joining Illinois in supporting wage hikes while at the same time largely supporting Republicans for office in those same states. Put simply (and forgiving the schizophrenia), the elections were more a measure of the national political climate than policy preferences.

The more I delved into the results, however, the more unsettling the picture became. Let’s start with my home state: North Carolina. Admittedly, it was difficult to watch Sen. Kay Hagan lose her seat, but I was somewhat heartened that North Carolina provided such a close race despite the toxic political environment for Democrats, and despite watching other Democrats lose far worse in other states (often bluer ones).  Unfortunately, however, the “heartened” part of me quickly dampened in the knowledge that someone in the mold of Thom Tillis remains electable in North Carolina.

I am not necessarily convinced that Kay Hagan has been a particularly effective freshman senator, but I do know that Thom Tillis is unapologetically regressive (not conservative), in the worst sense of the word, and was not, in my view, a viable alternative.  It was certainly a tough pill to swallow for those who participated in the various “Moral Monday” demonstrations specifically, but also for other North Carolinians who more generally lamented the way in which Tillis steered North Carolina back in time as Speaker of the North Carolina legislature.

Head due south from North Carolina down I-85, and the picture only grows bleaker.  In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is dying a slow and painful death, which has led many national observers to suggest that the Democrats give up on the South entirely. The statistics are stunning and unavoidable. According to the Associated Press, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.” In Mississippi in the 2012 election, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.  Separating ourselves into homogenous voting blocs is terrible for democracy, but even worse for the country. What does it say about our sameness as Americans?

Most cynics point to race as being the predominant factor contributing to this political phenomenon. There is some statistical evidence to support this contention. In March, Gallup reported, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.” While acknowledging that race is a factor for some, I do not believe that it is the deciding factor for most. Though white, Hillary Clinton will not be winning any of these Deep South states, including Arkansas, in 2016. If recent trends hold, however, Ms. Clinton will do very well in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota – where Mr. Obama won quite handily in both 2008 and 2012. So what is the problem?

I believe the Democrats’ problems in the Deep South stem primarily from a lack of, or ineffective, communication and effort. Much like the Republican Party largely writes off the non-white vote, the Democratic Party has given up on Southern whites. They do so at their own political peril. Can the Democrats continue to win the White House without support in the Deep South? Obviously, yes; they have done so the past two elections (excluding, of course, North Carolina and Virginia from the Deep South), and by fairly healthy margins. But electoral politics shouldn’t be the sole driver of who a political party tries to reach.

Based on my experience, I would contend that Southern whites’ aversion to the Democratic Party is less about race and more about culture. I believe southern voters are uncomfortable being associated politically with voters in the Northeast and on the West Coast, whom they view as elitist and quacky. This might sound trite to some, but having grown up in the South, I can attest to the stigma that folks in these parts of the country possess in the eyes of southerners. Moreover, southerners feel as though Democrats, and liberals generally, talk down to them as somehow being inferior. Having spent the past 7 years in the North, I can attest that they are often right to feel this way.

The truth is, folks in the South care about the exact same issues as folks throughout America – the Northeast and West Coast included. They need a good (and fair) paying job, affordable healthcare, good schools for their kids to attend, and, yes, government to be there when adversity strikes. Traditionally, Democrats win on these kitchen table issues. We can win again, in the South, if we can articulate these values in a clear, coherent and persuasive way. But even more importantly, we must show the persistence, perseverance and, candidly, the care to take the fight to the people in the Deep South.

Finally, returning to the suggestion, as some national observers have espoused, that Democrats not waste their time and energies attracting white voters in the South. Perhaps I am biased, or even blinded, by my southern roots, but I emphatically contend that white voters in the South are worth the fight. These are decent, smart, hard-working people (not just my family and friends!) who are fully capable of being persuaded by a transformative message, if it resonates. The damage done is considerable, but not insurmountable. The odds are great, but the cause worthy. The South shall rise again – if we fight for it. And there ain’t nothing wrong with some BBQ and iced tea for our troubles along the way.

November 21, 2014 Posted by | 2014 Elections, Democratic Party, Obama, Politics, South | , , , | 1 Comment

The Day Mitt Romney Lost The Election

On Monday, September 17th, 2012, Mitt Romney’s electoral prospects spiralled from grim to non-existent.  For this was the day that Romney lost the 2012 presidential election.  A video shot at a private donor fundraising event surfaced surreptitiously in which Romney explains to those present that approximately half of all Americans will not consider voting for him due to their reliance on government handouts.  President Obama, according to Romney, has all of these folks locked in the proverbial bag.  The problems with these ridiculous statements are copious; however, I will focus on the two most egregious.  First, Romney’s assertions are utterly and completely false from a factual standpoint.  Secondly, from a political one, his statements (or misstatements) are as inarticulate and, well, stupid as any that could possibly spill from a presidential candidate’s mouth. 

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Mitt Romney told the room full of donors.  “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

While these statements are factually inaccurate (which I will explore below), I can imagine a scenario in which Romney is able to convince himself, and others, that they are true.  Imagine you’re Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee:  For the past year you’ve been unable to grab a clear lead in the polls against someone you view as incompetent and who has been unable to get unemployment below 8 percent or reach a reasonable debt-reduction deal with Congress.  Which would you prefer to believe?  That you’re not good enough, not smart enough and doggone it, people just don’t like you?  Or that the incumbent Democrat has effectively bought off half the country with food stamps and free health care?

What Romney said next, however, is harder to explain.

“These are people who pay no income tax,” he continued, “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

For starters, let’s disregard the completely asinine myth that 47 percent of Americans are tax-evading moochers.  Of the 46 percent (not 47%) of Americans who were expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60 percent of them were working and contributing payroll taxes — which means they paid a higher effective tax rate on their income than did Romney — and an additional 20 percent were elderly.  So more than 80 percent were either working or past retirement age.  Allow me to borrow a recent phrase from Bill Clinton, Romney’s contentions don’t pass the “arithmetic” test.  But, of course, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

In my view, however, the comments winning the dubious award for “most damaging of the day” were as follows: “My job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Oh no he didn’t!  Romney gone wild!  When Romney said this, he didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors.  Far worse, he confirmed the worst suspicions that voters possess about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.  Not to mention that he suffers from the chronic and deteriorating condition known as “foot in mouth disease.”  Put the two together and you can hear the grand dame herself, Ann Richards, quipping “Poor Mitt, he can’t help it.  He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

The hidden paradox here is that having less money means you have to take more responsibility for your life.  You can’t pay people to watch your kids, clean your house, or build your family a car elevator.  You can’t necessarily afford a car at all or a washing machine or a home in a good school district.  That’s what money buys you—goods and services that make your life easier.

That’s what money has bought Romney, too.  He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom.  As we say in the South, “God bless him!”  No one begrudges Romney his wealth.  That’s the dream.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill.  The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives.  They’re drowning in it.

So this begs the question: Why do the poor around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich?

The underlying answer, in part, is this: The poor consume an enormous amount of their mental energy just scraping by.  They’re not dumber, lazier or more interested in being dependent upon the government.  Put simply, they’re just cognitively exhausted.

As economist Jed Friedman wrote in an online post for the World Bank, “The repeated trade-offs confronting the poor in daily decision making — i.e. ‘should I purchase a bit more food or a bit more fertilizer?’ — occupy cognitive resources that would instead lay fallow for the wealthy when confronted with the same decision.  The rich can afford both a bit more food and a bit more fertilizer, no decision is necessary.”

The point here isn’t that Romney is unfamiliar with cutting-edge work in cognitive psychology.  It’s that he misses even the intuitive message of this work, the part most of us know without reading any studies—it’s really, really hard (and not much fun) to be poor.  That’s because the poorer you are, the more personal responsibility you have to take.

Romney, evidently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve really had it hard.  “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a former auto executive and governor told the room full of donors—apparently with a straight face.  “Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.”  These are either the words of a man blind to his own privilege or who will say anything to get elected.  Either way, it ain’t pretty.

Now let’s turn to the reasons that Romney’s ill-fated diatribe will also prove to be political suicide.  Many of those voters housed within Romney’s 47% are seniors and veterans—two constituencies who have been reliably Republican in recent elections.  The truth is many of these folks have absolutely no intention of voting for President Obama at all.

One major reason for the growth of the federal government in recent years has been that entitlement spending per beneficiary has increased, and so has the number of beneficiaries as baby boomers have retired.  Yet senior citizens — who benefit from federal programs, on average, far more than younger people — have become more Republican over that same period.  Seniors actually voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008 by a slightly higher margin than they did for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

In the 2010 midterm elections, their Republican margin increased even more, to a whopping 21 points.  And in the latest Rasmussen poll, Romney still leads President Obama among seniors by 19 points.  But in light of Romney’s recent comments stating his belief that 47% of Americans are stigmatized by their dependence upon government, how many seniors will he lose?  My guess is that the hemorrhage among seniors will be significant, particularly in crucial battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.

As the conservative commentator, William Kristol, wrote in the Weekly Standard: “It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters — especially, of course, seniors (who might well believe they are entitled to heath care, a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they’re not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan.  So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.”

Ouch, lambasted by Billy Kristol.  That’s like Obama getting slapped down by Oprah in the New York Times editorial page.

Mitt Romney’s hopes of becoming president have become precipitiously dimmer following each gaffe throughout the summer and into the fall.  However, on Monday, September 17th, his presidential aspirations became officially defunct.   My mom used to tell me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.  I think my mom would advise Romney that if he didn’t have something reasonable and well thought out to say, say nothing at all.  Of course, if followed, that advice would make for an awfully quiet campaign.  I don’t think I’m going out on a flimsy limb here when I say: Stick a fork in ole Mitt, he’s done.

September 20, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, 47 percent, Mitt Romney, Obama, Republican Party | , , , | 1 Comment