Summertime Lowdown: A picnic basket of absurdities, oddities, and some sweet positives

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Presidential candidates, goofy governors, Fox TV, the Kochs, sex, etc…

It’s frightening to watch the Texas legislature in action, but it can also be entertaining–in the same way a freak show draws a crowd. You’ll see act after act of small-mindedness, pettifoggery, inanity, venality, corruption, clownishness, ideological pandering, self- delusion, self-aggrandizement, and outright stupidity. This is the legislative normal, and we thought we’d seen it all. But this year… oh my!

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A Democratic state senator tells me that he’s been left absolutely whopperjawed by the bullgoose goofiness of the Republican majority now in charge. The lege, he says, has zoomed beyond its everyday insanity into the twilight zone, propelled by tea party extremists and overreaching corporate hirelings. Even GOP members who used to be quasi-moderate have been sucked into the vortex. The senator reports that on various wacky bills, some of these once-sane Republicans have come up to confide in him that they know the vote they’re about to cast is completely nuts, but, hey, they’re going to go with it anyway.

Yee-haw! We’re Texas: Nuts R Us!

Unfortunately, we’re not alone. From Maine to Arizona, Florida to Wisconsin, Republican governors and legislators have hurled themselves into a boiling pot of right-wing ideological madness this year, openly defying the people’s will and deliberately stiffing the public good. All across the country, far-right politicos are drastically cutting back on the workaday majority, willfully killing their states’ claim for either greatness or goodness. Instead of moving forward, they’re racing backwards, each vying to get lower than Mississippi.

Then there’s the godawful GOP majority in the US House, the timorous Democrats in the US Senate, the risk-averse, corporate-hugging White House, the perfidious Supremes, Big Oil’s insatiable greed, the Koch brothers’ Save-the-Poor-Billionaires crusade… and so much more. All of this, of course, is horrible. Yet much of it is so ludicrous that laughing at it might be the sanest way of confronting it and ultimately the most effective way of defeating it.


“The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”
— Walter Bagehot, 19th century British journalist and essayist.

In the last several issues of the Lowdown, we’ve expounded on many outrages that are relentlessly pounding America these days, but people can absorb only so much outrage. So, in this start-of- summer issue, we want to give you a small break by going with a lighter touch on some of the political and economic absurdities around us. Also, let’s not forget that even in the midst of a season of madness, many uplifting progressive advances are being made in our country, and we’ll celebrate a couple of them with you this month.

Changing channels

Worried by the unstoppable power of right-wing talk shows that have huge, ever-growing audiences? Well, chill.

It hasn’t received much notice by the mass media, but the masses are drifting from the Becks, Hannitys, and Limbaughs. Their listenership/viewership was never as big as the right made it seem–for example, in a nation of 310 million people, Bill O’Reilly (the top dog among cable TV’s right-wing growlers) peaked at about three million viewers. For a bit of perspective on that number, “Deadliest Catch” the cable show about Alaskan crab fishing crews, draws some five million viewers.

In the past year, the Big Mouth himself, Rush Limbaugh, has lost a third of his radio audience. Likewise, Sean Hannity’s radio listenership has dropped by 28 percent since last fall, and Glenn Beck has lost entire markets for his radio broadcasts.

Fox TV is also slipping, with Hannity, O’Reilly, and Van Susteren suffering significant decreases–and the weepy and weird Beck is not only losing audience and sponsors, but even his Fox show.

Meanwhile, Jon Stewart’s openly progressive “Daily Show,” which spoofs the news, has enjoyed a 19 percent increase in its audience this year.

How to vote… Or else

The Koch boys, Charles and David, are nothing if not helpful. With altruistic hearts, the billionaire industrialists are using their vast wealth and power for the philanthropic purpose of helping convert America into a rich corporate plutocracy.

In April, ThinkProgress uncovered a handy how-to-vote packet that had been sent from Koch headquarters last October to the 50,000 Americans working for the conglomerate. “For the first time ever,” it proudly proclaimed, “we are mailing [several] helpful items to the home addresses of every US employee.”

Hmmm, thought many recipients of the missive, the boss knows where I live. What’s up with this?

‘Your vote. Or else!’ was the clear implication. Sent just before last November’s elections, the packet included a letter from Koch’s president, pointedly telling the underlings that “we have a lot at stake in the upcoming election.” Enclosed was a message from Charlie himself on the necessity of voting for candidates who support “economic freedom”–freedom for corporations like Koch Industries, that is.

And who, exactly, might those candidates be? No need to guess. The Kochs (always striving to be helpful) attached a sheet bearing the slogan “Elect to Prosper.” It listed for each employee the names of the national and state candidates in their area for whom they should vote. No pressure–just an innocent bit of voter education from the guys who sign your paycheck.

A high-flying governor

Chris Christie is a load, isn’t he? The first-term New Jersey governor has made a big impression on several GOP funders by his heavy-handed enthu-siasm for coming down hard on ‘little folks’ in his state, while simultaneously reducing the taxes that corporations and fat cats pay. Using New Jersey’s budget deficit as his excuse, he has slashed programs that benefit the middle class and the poor and has taken great joy in bashing, firing, and dis-empowering schoolteachers and other public employees.

Wowed by a governor who so unabashedly throws his weight around on their behalf, some Republican donors around the country are now begging Christie to run for president. But they’ve chosen the wrong verb. The governor–who weighs more than a prize-winning hog at the state fair–doesn’t do any running. Not much walking, either.

Up until May 31, Christie was a political unknown to voters outside of New Jersey. But on that day, the corpulent politico cannon-balled into the national public consciousness by commandeering a $12.5 million state police helicopter to transport him 80 miles from the statehouse to watch his son play in a high school baseball game. By (literally) taking taxpayers for a ride while piously preaching budget austerity and demanding sacrifice from New Jersey’s Joe Schmoes, the guv made news from coast to coast.

Less publicized, however, was the fact that His Honorableness took yet another ride on the taxpayer’s back that evening. Once his chopper landed next to the ballfield, he didn’t simply walk to his seat like a common citizen. Instead, Christie was met at the helicopter by a state limo that had been dispatched to haul him 300 feet to the bleachers. Then, during the fifth inning, the game was suspended while he and his body- guards up and left, again taking the limo the 300 feet to the helicopter, which lifted him away.

What was so important that he would leave his son’s game early and use state vehicles and staff to move him from A to B to C? He had a political meeting 70 miles away in Princeton with some Republican fatcats from Iowa to discuss the possibility of taking Christie and his austerity schtick national. Imagine the outraged scorn that this governor would heap on a group of teachers if they dared to requisition a school district car to drive to a political meeting.

The randiest of all

Wisconsin is a crucial battleground in the corporate-funded class war on America’s middle class–but in the midst of the strife there, a real-life soap opera is playing out. In the starring role is a little-known state senator named Randy Hopper, who’s been an enthusiastic henchman in Gov. Scott Walker’s all-out assault on worker rights. But now he’s become a household name in Wisconsin, for his sordid story has been providing weeks of bawdy entertainment for people all across the state.

Hopper, a Fond du Lac Republican, is one of six of the governor’s anti-worker senate sidekicks who now face recall elections by the folks back home. He’s especially vulnerable, for he barely squeaked into office in 2008, winning by only 163 votes out of 84,000 cast. A March poll showed that voters in his district favor his recall by 11 points.

It’s gone downhill for Randy since then. His wife Alysia has revealed that the 45-year-old father of two has been having an affair with a 25-year-old legislative aide, has moved out of their home, and has left the district to live with his mistress in Madison. Alysia is so pained by his callous treatment of her and the children that, reportedly, she signed the recall petition against him. Ouch. Now known as “Randy (Bed) Hopper” in his district, his situation has recently gotten even stickier. It turns out that Valerie, his young lady-love, was handed a plum of a government job by Governor Walker. Hired as a communications specialist in the department of regulation, she’s being paid $11,000 more than her predecessor –a curious splurge by a governor who is wildly slashing the pay of other state employees. Curiouser yet, Valerie never applied for the job and was chosen over other candidates considered more qualified.

A favor from the governor for his buddy Hopper? Asked directly if he had arranged for Valerie to be hired, Randy demurred: “I want to keep my involvement in anything as a private matter.” Unable to get away with that lame dodge, Hopper now “remembers” that he had nothing to do with the sudden surge in Valerie’s job fortunes. Nothing at all.

Meanwhile, rude questions have been raised about whether Hopper actually lives in his district, as required by law. He retorted that he has an apartment in Fond du Lac, but he wouldn’t give the address, saying he feared physical harm from his constituents. Later, the Capital Times newspaper found that he has established a district residence, but it’s not an apartment–it’s a $600,000 house owned by an executive of the media corporation Hopper owns.

The Saga of Randy rolls on. In a show of truly bad judgment, his recall campaign opened a storefront office in Oshkosh that is indiscreetly located right next door to an adult book and toy shop called Pure Pleasure.

Stay tuned. Randy’s recall vote will be held on July 12.


One of the deep fears of the far-out religious right is that by tolerating homosexuality, our society will next degenerate into man-on-dog sex. Luckily for them, assorted state legislators have been at work this year to save America from this depravity by introducing bills that ban bestiality.

Naturally, Florida’s lege is out front on this pressing issue, having passed “An act relating to sexual activities involving animals.” Specifically, the learned solons of the state voted to add S.828.126 to Florida’s statutes, “prohibiting knowing sexual conduct or sexual contact with an animal.”

High fives all around for shutting that door. But wait… aren’t humans animals? Well, gosh, yes we are. Florida outlawed sex!

The good news is that the no-animal-sex statute does include an exception for certain “accepted animal husbandry and veterinary medical practices.” So humans can still “do it” with each other–if they get permission from their vet.

Learning gubernatorial humility

Having won Ohio’s governorship last November by a scant two-point margin, former Republican congressman and Fox TV personality John Kasich has approached office with admirable humility, promising proper respect for the nearly one-half of Ohioans who voted against him.

Ha! Just kidding!

Far from humble, this character sips his own bathwater and calls it champagne. First thing he did in office was to go for the throats of working families, garroting them with S.B. 5, the most vicious law in the country (so far) for stripping collective bargaining rights from public employees.

Apparently, Kasich actually thought that killing worker rights would be popular. Wrong. A strong grassroots campaign immediately sprang up across Ohio to repeal S.B. 5, and 55 percent of the people say they’ll vote for the repeal, while just a third say they’d let Kasich’s law stand. Worse for the puffed up governor, the majority of Ohioans don’t want to leave him standing–in a clear show of buyer’s remorse, a voter survey in May showed that if Kasich faced a do-over of last year’s election, he would lose by a humbling 25-point margin.

Anyone can run for president

Good grief–Rick Santorum for president? Most voters don’t know this ex-senator from Pennsylvania, but believe me: when you’ve got Santorum, you don’t need satire. For example, in the June 6 announcement of his candidacy for the GOP nomination, he blasted Obama for the 2008 collapse of our economy. Never mind that Bush was in charge then, not Obama. It’s the thought that counts.

But, ready or not, here he comes, declaring that he has “the courage to fight for freedom… the courage to fight for America.” Really, Rick? Where was that courage when you could’ve signed up and actually fought for America–like in the Army? He ducked that opportunity, instead fighting to win a seat for himself in Congress, where he built a solid record of silliness:

  • In 2001, he tried mightily to pass his “Santorum Amendment” to make the teaching of “intelligent design” a federal requirement in all public schools.
  • In 2002, he offered the scholarly insight that the Catholic clergy’s emerging sex abuse scandal was not the result of sick priests, but of a sick liberal culture: “It is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism lies at the center of the storm.”
  • In 2005, he tried to prohibit the National Weather Service from issuing storm warnings to the public if a private corporation like AccuWeather performs the same service–for a fee, of course. Guess which corporation just happens to be based in Pennsylvania?
  • 2006 was a busy year–first, he was in the forefront of the right wing’s despicable, big-government intrusion into the Terri Schiavo tragedy. Then, in June, he excitedly announced that he’d uncovered the existence of WMD’s in Iraq: “We have found stockpiles,” he crowed. No less than the Bush White House, however, popped his PR balloon, reporting that the expired casings “discovered” by Rick were not WMD’s, but old duds buried in the 1990s.
  • Finally, in 2006, he lost his re-election bid by 18 points, the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator in state history. In addition to all of the above, it seems that voters reacted badly to the embarrassing revelation late in the campaign that Santorum and family were not actually living in Pennsylvania, having decamped some years earlier to Virginia.

But forget all that, says Rick now, “I’m ready to lead.”

Regulation works

Remember the anguished wailing by airline giants last year when Obama put some real restrictions on their outrageous practice of stranding passengers on the tarmac for five, 10, or more hours? For years, those corporations had engaged in outright passenger abuse, cavalierly ignoring the rising anger of their own customers.

Congress did nothing, so the transportation department seized the initiative, setting fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for flights stranded more than three hours. “The sky is falling,” shrieked industry executives and lobbyists! “We’ll be forced to cancel massive numbers of flights,” they threatened. “Chaos will ensue, billions will be lost.”

Only, none of that has happened. Because Obama’s regulation has real bite, the airlines simply had to change their arrogant practice of holding us fliers captive, and they’ve been able to do it with none of the dire consequences they screamed about. Since the fines have been in place, there’ve been only 16 tarmac strandings of more than three hours, compared with 664 a year earlier.

See? Regulation really can work. Rather than just continuing to do business as usual, airline executives have had to acclimate to a firm rule (i.e., stop punishing the people who buy your tickets), thus stimulating some corporate creativity and efficiency to deliver better service. Obama should try this more often.

Tim Pawlenty, R.I.P.

When you’re an obscure governor running for president of the USA as a virtual unknown, you need to count on the home folks to testify to your worthiness and the viability of your candidacy.

Unfortunately for Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, his presidential ambitions did not get much of an endorsement from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. When he launched his national bid in May, the St. Paul paper devoted a mere five paragraphs to the story, burying it on page 6A. Not good. But in case T-Paw, as he’s known, missed the message, 6A happened to be the obituary page! Yes, Pawlenty’s announcement ran side-by-side with obits for about a half dozen other locals being buried.

Raining on Rick’s parade

Rick “Supercuts” Perry, the exquisitely coiffed governor of the Lone Star state, finally took some action to deal with the Biblical- level drought that literally has been baking Texas for nearly a year: He issued an official proclamation to stop it.

Take that, Mother Nature!

But it wasn’t just any old procla-mation, it was a gubernatorial call to prayer. To your knees, Texas! You can’t make up better stuff than this. After four dandy “whereas” clauses, Perry formally proclaimed the weekend of April 22-24 as “Days of Prayer for Rain.”

But, no go. The three days passed, and not a drop. Maybe God was out that weekend. Or perhaps He just doesn’t cotton to big-haired political pretenders trying to ride His coattails for personal gain.

Then, lo and behold, Barack Obama arrived. Three weeks after Perry’s failed prayerfest, Obama swept into Austin for an overnight stop-over. And guess what? The next morning, we got a sweet, soaking, three-inch rainfall.

Vermont: First in the nation

“We have a problem, we need to solve it.”

This comment by House Speaker Shap Smith of Vermont reflects a no-nonsense, hands-on, can-do attitude you rarely find in legislatures these days. Instead, when most so-called leaders are confronted with a problem, they tend to say, “we need to cover it up,” or “let’s turn this thing into a political football.” But Smith and a big majority of his Vermont colleagues refused to play games with one of the biggest issues confronting them and the people of every state: affordable health care for all.

They knew that the current high-cost, low-quality, you’re-on-your-own system is literally killing people, even as it is draining the budgets of governments and businesses. Costs of health care in Vermont have doubled in the last decade to roughly $5 billion a year and continue to go up by $1 million a day–even as 47,000 Vermonters have no coverage and many others only have D.G.S. health insurance: Don’t Get Sick.

Angry about this, Vermonters have long been organizing a strong grassroots coalition for universal care, educating both the public and politicians on the issue and solutions. This effort has been sparked by Dr. Deb Richter, who was so appalled by the callous bureaucracy and greed of insurance corporations that she moved her family and medical practice to Vermont in 1999 specifically to build the coalition. She has traveled tirelessly, giving hundreds of talks to every kind of group, from churches to chambers of commerce.

Dr. Richter has a gift for speaking in pragmatic, non-ideological terms that reach a breadth of audiences. For example, viewing health care as an essential public service, rather than as a commodity to be sold and rationed by crass profiteers, she compares it to the fire department–“something people don’t want to use, but want in place, just in case.” As for people who say they don’t see why they should pay for Joe’s hospitalization, she points out that “Joe’s in the bed you’re going to be in tomorrow. That’s why we have to have health care as a public good.”

This year, Vermont’s grassroots effort culminated in H.202–a bill to establish an insurance policy clearinghouse (called an “exchange”) with the authority to set up a single-payer style health care system, called Green Mountain Care. Such exchanges by the way, were authorized by a provision that Sen. Kent Conrad quietly included in Obama’s health insurance overhaul last year, allowing states to create their own single-payer systems.

The bill faced the usual opposition from special interests and know-nothings–one statehouse Republican decried the very idea of universal coverage for all as the “keystone in the arch of socialism.” But he was hooted down, and with stout public support, Green Mountain Care passed the state House 92-49 in March and the state Senate, 21-9 in April. On May 26, Governor Pete Shumlin, who had made this issue central to his campaign last year, signed H.202, making Vermont first in the nation to go to the core of necessary reform by enacting a single-payer law. Gov Shumlin then handed his signing pen to Dr. Richter, calling her “the backbone” of the grassroots movement that produced this important advance for the common good.

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