Monthly Archives: October 2013

Gansler, Cardin, Obamacare and More

Odds and Ends

By Barry Rascovar

October 31 — THESE ARE THE the times that try Doug Gansler’s soul. Has anyone ever had a bumpier stretch in recent Maryland political history?

The attorney general has been mocked, frequently, on national TV programs for his lame explanation of his appearance at, and hands-off attitude toward, a raucous high school graduation beach blowout this summer.

That followed his argumentative responses to State Police complaints that Gansler is a reckless, back-seat driver oblivious to traffic laws and speeding tickets.

Well, here’s some good news: Gansler’s lack of identity with most Maryland voters (72 percent either didn’t recognize his name or were neutral toward him in the latest Gonzales poll) is a thing of the past.

EVERYONE knows Doug Gansler today.

Jay Leno jokes about him. Local radio talk shows conducted saturation bombing. The story’s gone international.

Gansler explaining himself

Gansler explaining himself

Of course this means Gansler’s negatives have soared, too. Only four percent in the Gonzales poll said they had an unfavorable impression of Gansler. That number is sure to skyrocket.

Here’s the really good news for Maryland’s twice-elected attorney general: Believe it or not, we are still eight long months from the Democratic primary. That’s a couple of lifetimes in politics.

If Gansler can regain his equilibrium and develop a cogent and sensible response to his recent gaffes, we may yet have a closely contested election for governor next year.

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IT WON’T BE easy, though, for Gansler to put this controversy behind him. The media is in a feeding frenzy.

 It’s “get Gansler” time.

The Baltimore Sun delivered a hatchet job on Sunday that sought to compare Gansler’s moments of poor judgment with criminality by other elected officials.

In its print edition, the front-page headline read, “Weathering a political storm.” It was an even-handed account of how officials recover from political gaffes. But the comparisons made in the article, and especially the photos placed next to the front-page text, equated the attorney general’s modest mishaps to far more serious misdeeds that sent Marvin Mandel, Marion Barry and Dale Anderson to prison and Bill Clinton to the brink of impeachment.

Since when is failure to break up a high school graduation beach party a criminal offense?

How does violating traffic laws equate with Mandel’s criminal corruption conviction, Barry’s drug conviction or Anderson’s jail time for corrupt activities while in office?

None of them ever ran for higher office after their scandals, as Gansler is now doing. That’s another unfair comparison.

Clinton’s sex scandal does raise troubling character issues, but comparing that national moment of political angst to Gansler’s situation is ludicrous — and laughable.

Still, the damage has been done.

Just to rub it in, Sunday Sun editors also ran a 1,400-word critique on the way visual television imagery is responsible for Gansler’s pounding.

It was an interesting but way-too-long essay. And, of course, the editors couldn’t resist re-running that condemnatory photo of Gansler at the teen beach party. Another Sun “gotcha” moment.

Lost in the editors’ haste to pile on was The Sun’s October 24 editorial on the Gansler brouhaha — a measured, carefully nuanced analysis about difficult choices parents have to make while raising teenagers. It was a far cry from the tabloid journalism the newspaper’s editors presented to its readers on Sunday.

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QUICK QUIZ: Who is leading the race for Maryland attorney general?

According to the latest Gonzales poll, the winner, by a mile, is that old, reliable favorite — “Undecided”.

Gonzales Polling CompanyThe results show that few voters even know who’s running for A.G.

The only reason Del. Jon Cardin polled 25 percent was due to his well-known uncle, the U.S. Senator from Maryland. Still, “Undecided” beat Jon Cardin in the poll by nearly 2-to-1.

It’s a good thing the office in question isn’t much more than a glorified law firm serving state agencies.

Voters aren’t likely to learn a lot about the candidates running for attorney general by the June 24 primary. It’s not a pressing matter for them. Besides, the gubernatorial candidates will dominate media attention and saturate the state with commercials.

Thus voters could end up picking an attorney general based on “the name’s the same” or the candidate who appears on the most local endorsement tickets.

It’s unlikely the outcome will be decided by deep voter knowledge of the A.G. candidates.

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AN INSURANCE FRIEND reminds me that all the buzz about the number of Obamacare sign-ups since October 1 is highly misleading and meaningless.

As anyone in the insurance game will tell you, a new client doesn’t count until that individual writes a check to cover the first month’s invoice.

This won’t occur until close to the sign-up deadlines under the Affordable Care Act — late December and late March.

Until then, ignore the sign-up propaganda emanating from the White House, the State House and Republicans saboteurs. Two months from now we’ll know a lot more about the success or failure of this dreadfully managed rollout.

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ISN’T IT IRONIC that no one is protesting as Baltimore City is about to spend at least $83 million on “smart” meters to help the city accurately bill residents for water usage?

When BGE and PEPCO sought to install similar “smart” meters to measure precise, real-time electric use, alarmist groups protested before the Public Service Commission about alleged health hazards from the meters’ wireless signals.

Smart Meter Protest in California

Smart Meter Protest in California

Those strident protests persuaded the PSC — despite the lack of scientific evidence — to impose needless smart-meter restraints on the utilities that will cost tens of millions of dollars.

As the Tea Party and smart-meter protesters have learned, it pays to yell at the top of your lungs.

Baltimore City officials are getting off lucky.

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MD State Deficit—Half a Billion and Counting

By Barry Rascovar

October 27, 2013 — WHEN LEGISLATORS FINISHED the 2013 General Assembly session in April, they patted themselves on the back for putting the state on a glide path to wipe out Maryland’s long-running structural deficit in the next budget.

Think again.

That deep, dark fiscal hole has returned big-time.

This month’s fiscal prediction by the Department of Legislative Services projects a structural imbalance by next June 30 of over half a billion dollars with nearly as much red ink the following year.

It’s a stunning turnaround.

More Bad News To Come

Even worse, that projection came before carnage from the Republican-instigated federal government shutdown was fully factored into the equation.

It’s now almost certain December’s revenue update will show a dip in holiday spending (and tax collections) as Marylanders cut back on purchases due to worries over a second federal closure and a weak economic recovery.cropped-Maryland-seal.jpg

Economic uncertainty and the prospects of another train wreck in Washington will keep businesses from hiring or expanding. Federal contractors are especially vulnerable and will continue to lay off workers and hunker down.

Maryland is so heavily dependent on federal employment that another prolonged political stand-off could send the state budget into free-fall.

While much of Maryland’s dilemma is due to lingering effects from the Great Recession and a dysfunctional Congress, the main culprits are Gov. Martin O’Malley and Democratic leaders in the legislature.

Spending vs. Revenue Imbalance

Time and again they have resisted unpopular but necessary steps to rein in social spending. O’Malley, in particular, was determined this year to ramp up aid to colleges ($157 million), K-12 schooling ($187 million), health care ($138 million and Medicaid ($243 million) in spite of continuing weaknesses in Maryland’s economy.

Why hasn’t Maryland’s structural deficit disappeared? To quote the state’s fiscal gurus from last April, it’s simple: “ongoing spending exceeds ongoing revenue by $172 million.”

MD State Budget

MD State Budget

That $172 million gap between what Annapolis pays out and takes in is expected to balloon to a $307 million hole next year – and that’s not accounting for more bad news before the budget is released on the third Wednesday in January.

One of the key drivers is eminently fixable – but not by this governor and not in an election year.

Debt service on Maryland’s general obligation bonds is soaring.

This requires some explanation.

How It Works

Up until 2013, the state’s modest property tax (11.2 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value) raised enough money to cover debt service payments to bondholders.

But because the state keeps issuing more bonds each year, the amount needed to cover interest and principal is rising 6 percent annually – despite ultra-low interest rates.

Unfortunately, property tax revenue is flat. It no longer covers rising debt expense, and will fall $300 million short of the goal next year.

Why? Because the Great Recession sent housing prices plummeting. Today, Maryland’s taxable property base is $43 billion lower than at its peak.

No rebound will occur anytime soon, either, because of Maryland’s phased-in and capped system of re-assessing property values.

Thus, O’Malley has to find $259 million in his January general fund budget just to cover debt service. That puts a huge crimp in his plans to make his final social spending plan especially generous.

A Partial Solution

There’s an easy way to remedy the situation: Raise the state property tax rate a penny or two. That would restore the rate to its 2006 level.

Such a move would cut in half Maryland’s general fund shortfall next year and restore the original intent of the state property tax – to pay all bond expenses.

Unless O’Malley acts, the situation will grow considerably worse. By 2017, the next governor will be diverting $531 million in state general funds to pay the state’s bond debt.

No Action Likely

O’Malley isn’t worried, though, about the next governor’s fiscal dilemma. He’s trying to burnish his reputation as he runs for national office. The last thing he wants in his final year is another rise in taxes.

So the property tax collection shortfall will continue – even though a small hike would barely be felt by homeowners ($30 or $60 on a $300,000 home).

It’s another example of elected officials failing to confront festering problems. They opt for the easy and politically comfortable way out instead.

No wonder American democracy is in such a mess.

No one in authority wants to make the tough decisions and fix what’s broken.

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Montgomery Co.’s ‘Living Wage’ for Elected Leaders

October 24, 2013

By Barry Rascovar

IT IS TOUGH being an elected official in Maryland’s largest and most sophisticated jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Citizens there are demanding. They expected lawmakers will be super-vigilant, attentive to their needs and eagerly schedule long and long-winded public hearings on just about any bill that comes before the County Council.

But the job is rewarding, perhaps too rewarding.

Montgomery County seal

Montgomery County seal

More than any Maryland council, these solons engage in intense micro-management of government on a virtual full-time basis.

They can do this because they get a “living wage” that is the envy of other local Maryland lawmakers: $104,000 a year, which will rise over the next four years to $136,000.

That future pay level is more than the attorney general and state comptroller are paid right now. It’s more than council members in other Maryland jurisdictions receive.

In populous Baltimore County, council members take home $54,000 a year and in Baltimore city with its immense urban challenges council members are paid less than $53,000.

Apparently Montgomery’s councilmen and women are twice as good as those legislators. Or Montgomery has twice as many problems to handle.

Or they are overpaid.

Blame It On High-Cost Washington

Granted, Prince George’s County Council members also are overpaid, coming in at $102,000 a year. Council members in both Washington-area jurisdictions blame the six-figure salaries on the region’s high cost of living.

Some Montgomery solons complain that what they are paid isn’t enough to raise a young family. One councilwoman indicated serving the public merits high pay.

That’s how they justify an 8.6 percent pay hike in year one of the next Montgomery County Council’s term, 6.5 percent increases in years two and three and a further 6 percent raise in year four?

Compare that with the 3.25 percent cost of living raise given county government workers there for each of the next two years.

Apparently council members consider themselves twice as important as others in county government.

Even the Montgomery County Executive got dissed. The next executive will receive a 5.5 percent raise, to $190,000, which won’t increase for another four years. That amounts to a puny 1.125 percent annual raise over the next term.

A Council Member’s Life

There’s no question council members work exceptionally hard. It comes with election to the job.

But in every jurisdiction council members put in extremely long hours. Most of them juggle this public service with an occupation. It keeps them grounded in reality.

That’s what makes the Maryland General Assembly so effective in passing legislation while not protruding into the governor’s domain of running state government.

Delegates and senators are, by design, part-time lawmakers. They remain very much in touch with constituents nine months of the year and very much full-time lawmakers during the high-intensity, 90-day General Assembly session.

For their service, which is enormously important to the state’s well-being, each state legislator receives $43,500 a year. Lawmakers didn’t vote to raise their pay during the recession, either.

The mindset is different in the Washington suburbs, especially in Montgomery, where council pay could reach ridiculous levels in a few more terms — even though there’s scant indication the Montgomery council’s work is any better than council accomplishments in other Maryland jurisdictions.

It’s a nice deal, if you can get it — a powerful public service job with a six-figure income, courtesy of taxpayers who don’t have a say in setting these sky-high salaries.

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Gansler, Craig Stumble in MD Governor’s Race

Red-Light Runner vs. Environment-Killer

By Barry Rascovar

October 20, 2013 — EARLY STUMBLES IN Maryland governor’s race are expected. Sometimes, though, those slips have lasting consequences. Already, both Attorney General Doug Gansler and Harford County Executive David Craig have shot themselves in their political feet — wounds that might prove fatal.

Gansler’s trip-ups could be symptoms of a larger problem.

When the story broke that he’d been acting like an impatient cowboy in his state-owned car — sirens blaring, charging through red lights and far exceeding the speed limit — he lashed out at the Maryland State Police and accused the governor of leaking news about critical State Police incident reports to help Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Gov. Martin O’Malley had kept this an internal matter for two years until John Wagner of the Washington Post made a public information request for documents that show how Gansler’s hyper-active personality extended to ordering troopers to ignore traffic and safety laws simply because he was in a hurry.

The reports — by at least seven different troopers — are highly unflattering.

Gansler needed to apologize, promise to end his back-seat driving commands and move on.

Instead, he launched a PR effort to downplay and discredit the State Police documents. Bad move.

Then he blamed Brown and O’Malley for planting the story for political purposes. Second bad move.

Next, he partially apologized only to go on TV and blast “henchmen” in the State Police for trying to destroy him politically. Terrible move.

Unprecedented Response

It set off a volcanic reaction within the State Police and an unprecedented 500-word broadside denying Gansler’s assertions and strongly defending the troopers for doing their jobs. The statement vociferously rejected Gansler insinuations the Maryland State Police had entered the gubernatorial political fray.

Gansler repeatedly mishandled his responses.

He allowed the controversy to overshadow his selection of Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County as his running mate. Moreover, it left the strong impression he may not be ready for prime time as governor.

Doug Gansler is a fast-talking, quick-paced lawyer who got in trouble. and was reprimanded in 2003, by the state’s highest court for mouthing off inappropriately about court rulings he didn’t like while Montgomery County state’s attorney.

He’s an aggressive campaigner (and an aggressive lacrosse player, too) who appears equally aggressive on the highway — and in his public comments.

That may not be the sort of person voters want in the governor’s mansion.

Would he run political red lights as chief executive, trample on protocol and offend legislators to get his way?

Would he act impetuously on important issues instead of following the rules of the road in the State House?

O’Malley’s Role Questioned

Gansler may be right that O’Malley and his minions leaked word of the State Police reports — though it is more likely a veteran reporter like Wagner got word of Gansler’s misbehavior from an angry state trooper or a Brown ally with State Police connections.

More curious is the lengthy State Police statement criticizing Gansler. The name of Marcus Brown, the State Police superintendent and an O’Malley appointee, appears nowhere on this document. The superintendent was conspicuously missing from this food fight.

It’s also next to impossible to release such a harsh statement without first gaining approval from the governor. The timing of the release — right before Gansler’s event introducing Ivey as his running mate — is equally suspect.

In public, O’Malley kept above the fray, simply praising the state troopers and the leader of the executive protection unit for providing quality security.

Gansler sees all this as more evidence of “dirty politics” and “dirty tricks” similar to an earlier episode where a video suddenly surfaced showing Gansler dismissing Brown as a do-nothing lieutenant governor.

But without concrete evidence to support his claims, Gansler is left with egg on his face yet again.

He’s gotten into a pitched battle he can’t win. The longer he continues to deny and denounce, the longer and deeper the damage.

There’s plenty of time for his wounds to heal. But there’s also a chance these self-inflicted injuries could fester if Gansler isn’t careful.

Turning to the GOP Race

David Craig’s early mistakes could be equally serious.

He’s got a dual problem: Winning a Republican primary against far more conservative  candidates in an era of successful Tea Party challenges in GOP primaries across the country, and then presenting a moderate face in the general election.

Swing hard right in June, march toward the center in November.

Harford Co. Exec. David Craig

Harford Co. Executive David Craig

Craig is seeking to out-conservative his primary foes but he may already have created such a right-wing image that he’s killed his general election chances.

He’s been the favorite to win the primary. But the growing influence of Tea Party activists and ideological purists may have made him leery of being viewed as a soft-spoken moderate conservative.

So he has strayed farther and farther to the right in his statements, especially on the environment.

To date, Craig has called for eliminating state-mandated charges on impermeable surfaces (the so-called “rain tax”); repealing one of the key environmental statutes protecting the Chesapeake Bay, the Critical Areas Law; wiping out a law banning increases in stormwater runoff, and abolishing a law setting limits on farm fertilizer and waste runoffs.

He’s also called for tighter time limits on those receiving food stamps and other benefits. And late last week he said the state should defy the federal government and ignore Washington’s Common Core standards for raising education performance in public schools.

In one-on-one conversations, Craig sounds a lot more reasonable and moderate. He’s not abandoning the Chesapeake Bay, he says. He simply wants programs that are effective in cleaning up this vital estuary. He comes across as a pragmatist, which has defined much of his public career.

The trouble is that in issuing harsh right-wing statements on environmental, health and education issues, Craig cannot retract them after the June primary.

Democratic Response

No Democratic or independent voter who cares about the environment is going to forget that Craig called for abolishing the pivotal Critical Areas Law. To them, that’s equivalent to trashing the Chesapeake Bay.

Democratic politicians will tar Craig for being an anti-environmentalist. He’ll be portrayed as an antiquarian seeking to erase a half-century of progressive legislation in Maryland.

None of what Craig proposes is realistic. A heavily Democratic legislature wouldn’t tolerate the notions he is advancing. He’s seriously harmed his electability.

The irony is that we still don’t know the strength of Tea Party politics in Maryland GOP primaries. It could be loud but localized. If that’s the case, Craig is needlessly pandering to the absolutists while losing any chance of pulling off a November miracle.

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Ben Carson’s Split Personality

Brilliant Surgeon, Wacko Political Views

By Barry Rascovar

October 14, 2013 — As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Ben Carson was spectacular. His extraordinary eye-hand coordination and three-dimensional skills led to the world’s first separation of twins joined at the head — a 22-hour procedure requiring an expert Johns Hopkins surgical team of 70.

As a philanthropist, he and his wife are exemplary leaders in awarding scholarships to deserving youths who strive to be the best, regardless of economic or societal circumstances.

But as a novice political commentator, Ben Carson is displaying a less admirable side.

Dr. Ben Carson

Dr. Ben Carson

The first glimmer of this surfaced over the winter when he embarrassed President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual, non-partisan event designed to be spiritually uplifting. Instead, Carson delivered a gloomy speech about “moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility” directed at the man sitting by his side.

For this deed, he became an instant hero to far-right conservatives. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal urged him to run for president.

Another outburst critical of same-sex marriages sparked a protest movement last spring among students at the place that had put him on a pedestal — the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This uproar grew so fierce Carson stepped down as commencement speaker to avoid a nasty scene for himself and the university that had nurtured his rise to super-star status.

Conservative Media Commentator

Now that he is a retired neurosurgeon, Carson has embarked on a new career as a right-wing talking head for Fox News, the Tea Party station.

On his first day, he equated President Obama to Vladimir Lenin and equated the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) to communism.

He inaccurately attributed to Lenin the line that “socialized medicine is the keystone of the arch to the socialist state. . . . because it gives you control of the people.” (As far as the Library of Congress can glean from its research, it’s a made-up quote.)

In another outburst, he claimed to be a victim of the Internal Revenue Service’s witch hunt against right-wingers because he’s been tagged for a tax audit this year. He offered no further evidence.

Then on Friday he called Obamacare “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. It is slavery, in a way. It is making us all subservient to the government. . . . It [is] about control.”

Yes, Carson wins the prize for “wacko comments of the week.”

He wins in a landslide.

Defining Socialized Medicine

Is Obamacare socialized medicine, as Carson insists?

Not really.

Socialized medicine implies a nation’s health-care system is fully controlled and paid for by the government.

That’s the way it worked in the old Soviet Union:

  • All doctors, nurses and medical staff were state employees working in state hospitals and health facilities.
  • Private medical services were illegal.
  • The Soviet government dictated the number of doctors, the number of surgeries and the amount of medicine dispersed.

Cuba has a similar system today.

Other countries have a far more modest, and less dictatorial, form of universal health care run by the government — Britain, Finland, Spain, Israel and Canada.

Obamacare is a weak sister next to those socialized programs.

Examining Obamacare

If Carson wants an example of socialized medicine in this country, he shouldn’t point to Obamacare but to the military medical systems, the Veterans Administration, the Tricare government program for military families, Medicare and Medicaid.

None of those U.S. programs allows private insurers to sign up millions of Americans for health care coverage. Obamacare does.

Obamacare lets individuals choose their own private insurance plans from a wide array of options. People are free to choose their own doctors, too.

Individuals who already have health insurance don’t have to change.

Government subsidies support a big chunk of Obamacare, but the choice is still in the hands of individuals as to how much of their own money they want to spend on health care.

There’s no opt-out provision in other nations’ health care programs. Under Obamacare, anyone determined to go without health care can do so, but there’s an annual fee involved.

That hardly constitutes “socialized medicine” and it hardly amounts to oppressive government control and enslavement.

The U.S. vs. The Industrialized World

If universal health care coverage is so mendacious, why is it that every industrialized country in the world has some form of it, except the United States?

Are all those countries marching in lock-step to the drumbeat of Comrade Lenin’s ideology?

Are the VA and U.S. military health systems part of a grand communist conspiracy?

Obamacare is a modified version of Medicare, which has been around for nearly 50 years without limiting individual freedoms for seniors.

Today’s Medicare supplements function much the way Obamacare works: The government qualifies private health plans, which then vie with one another to win enough applicants to make a big profit.

Sad Transformation

That’s good old American competition at work, though the rules of the game are written by our elected representatives in Washington.

In Carson’s eyes, though, this is the second coming of an Orwellian, Leninist society.

It’s sad to see Carson transform himself from a much-admired recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom into a right-wing, apocalyptic voice.

Even worse, he has abandoned the scientific method that guided his earlier career. That time-honored approach demands rock-solid, well-tested proof before sweeping assertions and hypotheses are accepted as fact.

Ben Carson has forsaken the scientific method for political pontificating.

It’s a great loss for society and for those who once held this philanthropist and man of medicine in such high esteem.

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Obamacare: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Troubled Start But Strong Finish Likely

By Barry Rascovar

October 7, 2013–Let’s agree Obamacare’s sign-up period is off to a dreadful start. That Uncle Sam and most states botched the IT implementation phase is obvious. They get an “F” in computer science.

Is anyone surprised? How many times in the past has government screwed up technology initiation?

Flawed computer systems that crash often, can’t deliver on their lofty promises and cost billions to patch up are all too common on massive government IT projects (Exhibit One being the IRS).

Maryland’s botched IT approach to health care sign-ups seems especially ripe for criticism.MD Health Connection

That’s the bad news.

The Good News

On a positive note, this isn’t a dash but a long-distance race. There’s plenty of time to overcome the IT glitches. You’ve got till Dec. 15 to sign up for a health plan to gain coverage starting Jan. 1 and a full six months to get coverage starting later in 2014.

Early hang-ups on such a massive and complex undertaking had to be anticipated. Once computer snags and slowdowns are remedied, it will be interesting to see how enrollment turns out.

In states like Maryland, where the political establishment is a gung-ho backer of Obamacare, there’s a strong likelihood of broad acceptance. In states under Republican control, where leaders have made Obamacare the political Satan, enrollment may not be strong.

Indeed, this country could become a two-tier nation on health coverage split between the haves (states where most obtain health insurance) and the have-nots (states actively impeding efforts to give poor people and America’s underclass health coverage).

The Ugly

What’s playing out is, unfortunately, oddly familiar. An affluent, white, conservative ruling class primarily in Southern, Border and Southwestern states wants to re-create the United States in that image — even though they don’t have the votes to do it.

This also was the situation when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and we know what came shortly afterwards.

This time, it is the Tea Party vowing to blow up the federal government to get its way.

The movement’s bitter hatred of the nation’s first black president sounds eerily similar to the vicious personal insults directed at Lincoln. There are strong overtones of racism and classism in the movement’s rhetoric and objectives.

Those with money and power in Tea Party states seek to deny those lacking money and power the right to receive health care, citizenship and the vote. It is a cynical, hedonistic movement pandering to the desires of narrow-minded, well-off folks who have no wish to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Who Wins?

In Maryland, you can spot overtures along these lines from political officials in Frederick and Carroll counties and from the First District’s ultra-conservative congressman, Andy Harris.

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris

MD 1st District Rep. Andy Harris

The plight of poor folks and minorities really doesn’t count for those politicians. They are pandering to the Tea Party crowd.

In rural parts of the Free State there’s a strong conservative tone to politics. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.

But the vast bulk  of the state’s population lies in Central Maryland, where liberal Democrats have a near-monopoly on public offices and public opinion.

So we know which side is going to win this argument in Democratic Maryland.

What’s less certain is the ultimate outcome in Tea Party states with fast-growing minority populations, such as North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Next month’s governor’s election in the Old Dominion could give an indication as to which side is gaining the upper hand.

The Fate of Obamacare

Meanwhile, the dreadful stand-off in Washington continues with no end in sight. Republican hardliners don’t have an exit strategy.

One thing seems likely: Obamacare will remain on the books once the dust settles. Time is on the side of the president. As more and more citizens gain affordable health insurance, the Tea Party’s extreme arguments could bear less and less relationship to reality.

In the long run — a decade from now — Obamacare might prove unaffordable and unworkable as Republicans are predicting. Or it might be as ubiquitous and accepted as Social Security and Medicare. But that’s for another generation to debate.

The current leaders in Washington find themselves locked in a pointless and damaging food fight that in a few weeks could do great harm to the country and its economic stability.

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Time for Coalition Government in Washington

It Works Everywhere Else — Why Not Here?

By Barry Rascovar

October 2, 2013 — Coalition politics.

In Germany, it’s the norm. In Switzerland, “the Magic Formula” prevailed for 50 years.

It’s a common vehicle for governing in most other European nations as well as Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Ukraine, Ireland and Britain.

Why not coalition government in the United States?

Wikipedia defines it this way:

“A coalition government is a cabinet of a parliamentary government in which several political parties cooperate, reducing the dominance of any one party within that coalition. The usual reason given for this arrangement is that no party on its own can achieve a majority in the parliament. A coalition government might also be created in a time of national difficulty or crisis. . . to give a government the high degree of perceived political legitimacy, or collective identity it desires while also playing a role in diminishing internal political strife.”

Gridlock in Washington

This might be the best, and possibly the only, way to resolve what is fast becoming an unresolvable impasse in the nation’s capital.

Republicans and Democrats are in gridlock. One controls the House, the other the Senate and White House. They can’t agree on a budget or almost anything else. They can’t even keep the government open.

House Speaker John Boehner caved in to the far right wing of his party and demanded capitulation from President Obama on healthcare reform in exchange for funding the government for another six weeks.

House Speaker John Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner

What ransom demands come after that is anyone’s guess.

All this plays out with a looming Oct. 17 deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Reneging on U.S. IOUs could cause a financial meltdown. Yet it may happen.

There doesn’t seem to be an exit strategy. Government workers, meanwhile, have become pawns moved about the game board by each side.

Given this near-hopeless situation, it could be time to consider an American-style coalition government. Less ideologically extreme Republicans could strike an accord with pragmatic Democrats to form a ruling majority in the House of Representatives.

Boehner would remain speaker but without the Tea Party support that has turned him into an empty vessel as a leader. Instead, he’d stay in power with support from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Each side would have to give a little and each side would have to put practicalities ahead of partisan warfare. They’d have to agree on a list of measures to jointly promote, such as immigration reform, and which measures to consign to the junk pile, such as the current effort to jettison Obamacare.

With Congress’ approval rating at 10 percent — and that’s before the government shutdown — the best way to win back public favor is to show you can actually solve problems in this country.

The Tea Party types want to dramatically shrink government and re-shape it in their conservative-libertarian image. Compromise is not in their dictionary.

Their problem is that they don’t have anywhere near the votes to run things. But they do have sufficient numbers to put Boehner’s speakership in jeopardy. He lacks the backbone to take on these absolutists and discipline them.

The House Speaker is fast running out of options.

A  Stark Choice

Democrats repeatedly have made it clear they aren’t going to yield to Republicans on the president’s bedrock achievement. There’s no room for negotiations.

Letting the federal government shut its doors isn’t a long-term answer for Republicans, either. Nor is refusal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

Either step contains severe economic consequences for the United States. It could spark a second Great Recession.

So if Boehner wants to salvage his reputation, make it job secure, avoid endangering congressional Republicans in next year’s election and avert an economic meltdown, he should consider a Grand Coalition.

It works in most other democracies when the two major parties are at loggerheads. There’s no better time than now to try it out.

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