It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

There it was – a full day without political commercials. Wasn’t it lovely? No 30-second snippets of vitriol, tightly engineered messages of hate and innuendo. Mostly lies, no matter which side of the aisle you come down on.

I approve this message even though in the past I’ve been part of the creative teams who drew up and executed these political “hits.” Find out the candidate’s vulnerability, based on public opinion surveys, then hammer, hammer, hammer. None of it’s real, except for the real impact it can have in persuading otherwise rational people that, yes, so-and-so really is a liar/cheat/incompetent fool. Or, conversely, so-and-so really is a great person, a savior of the people.

Or a real beast …

OK. That’s not real, except for the “Mao” part.

The remarkable thing this year is that there may have come a point of diminishing returns. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing more than a billion dollars in misleading TV ads, mostly from a gang of billionaires led by the Koch brothers, voters apparently were able to tune them out.

How else can we explain the screaming ineffectiveness of the waves of last-minute TV spots? The marketers’ mantra is if you say something enough – particularly if you use engaging images and comforting voices – then people will come to believe it, no matter how improbable. So over and over and over again we got the same messages – particularly the ones about Obama not measuring up to the job, he tried but failed, we need a change.

No doubt that was the message that tested best. We even got it from women sitting at their kitchen tables, without the Harry and Louise dialogue but still with that personable “at home” quality. “My family just can’t take another four years.”

Well, they will. And we don’t have to listen to you again for at least another two years.

There is some relief, then, that the shrill political barkers are gone. But the adverse impact of Citizens United will be with us for many years – until we can get rid of a couple of those business-oriented justices and put the issue to a new judiciary test.

It was interesting to see that Republicans this year avoided challenging California’s requirement that the political shell groups identify their donors – apparently concerned that the billionaire sponsors of the right-wing claptrap would have to drop their masks. Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in the Citizens United decision, clearly stated that unbridled political spending should not be done in secret.

While we wait for the right moment to challenge Citizens United and remove the scourge of big money from our politics, it’s worth noting that we had at least one positive effect of the ruling: It allowed unions to spend money to talk with nonmembers about candidates and issues during the campaign. Thus, while unions were unable to match the firepower of big corporate sponsors in the ad wars, they were able to take their message door-to-door.

That’s the strength the labor movement always has had in politics – people. Even though union membership is on a 40-year slide – from 35 percent of the workforce in 1970 to less than 12 percent today, and less than 7 percent in the private sector – union participation in politics remains high.

Nearly 22 percent of all voters this year identified themselves as being from union households (union members and their families), a number that has been remarkable consistent even as the number of union members has dwindled. Nearly 60 percent of those voters cast their ballots for Obama and other Democratic candidates, also consistent with previous elections.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – three crucial swing states – union participation was higher and more pro-Obama, lending credence to claims by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka that the labor movement was instrumental in delivering the election to the president, and key Democrats running in those states. In those states, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, 70 percent in Ohio.

The automobile industry bailout also helped Obama in Ohio and other states in the Midwest, particularly after Mitt Romney’s people ran ads claiming that Chrysler was planning to ship Jeep production overseas, taking those jobs with them. Chrysler was so incensed by the claim that it gave its union workers Election Day off to go vote their pocketbooks.

While unions have always been able to turn out their numbers – generally voting for candidates they endorse – the difference this year, because of Citizens United, is that they could also work to turn out nonmembers. They used phone-banking and door-knocking to reach these voters, working through their community affiliate Working America, which now has 3 million members.

In the last five days of the campaign, unions and community allies knocked on 800,000 doors in Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO said, with more than 10 million door-knocks and phone calls nationwide.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who spent the last month of the campaign crisscrossing the swing states, credited the activists who poured their heart and soul into the campaign, reaching out to tell their stories about why we need to give President Obama another four years to finish the job. “That’s what cuts through the noise of all those negative ads,” she said.

As we recover from the bitter campaign and ponder the years ahead, don’t expect the earnest sounds of kumbaya to continue. The sense of renewed hope will get a quick reality check as we head into a lame duck session of Congress, always an adventure. There is a “fiscal cliff” on the horizon, as you may have heard.

In fact, labor is already developing plans to fight tax cuts for the wealthy and efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. House Speaker John Boehner may be smiling and cooing right now, but he has designs on the shape of any “compromise” to resolve the debt issue.

So the fight between two competing visions for our nation goes on. But it will occur much more quietly for a while, which is a relief and a danger. Don’t stop paying attention.

Make Your Vote Count

The Obama campaign just sent me another video, a 30-second TV ad they want to get around to all those erstwhile Democrats who are not engaged, or who have lost their enthusiasm for a candidate, now the president, who failed to live up to their expectations. It’s worth repeating:

Twelve years ago, George W. Bush became president by virtue of a 537-vote margin in Florida. Putting aside the likelihood of fraud, the razor-thin margin suggests that every vote does count in a close election. And when we look at how the Republicans have tried to stack the deck this year by making it more difficult for minorities and seniors to vote, your individual vote becomes even more important.

Believe me, I know: I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. My friends still hold it against me, as if my single vote in Virginia was critical to Al Gore’s defeat by 537 votes in Florida. Yes, Nader attracted 97,000 votes in Florida, running a campaign that insisted there was little difference between the two parties, because they both worshiped at the altar of corporate largesse.

Even today, there is a ring of truth to that claim. Still, we have learned after eight excruciating years with George W. Bush at the helm that there is a big difference in how leaders of the two parties ACT under the sponsorship of corporations. Gore may have been a bore, but he was not a whore. (Perhaps THAT bumper sticker would have worked.)

Romney is much more dangerous than Bush. He is bought and paid for by the oil and gas industries, leverage buyout artists and financial speculators. He made a fortune selling out workers and communities all across the country. He’s in the business of picking winners and losers. And his wealthy allies always win.

Ralph Nader is the opposite. He was a champion of consumers before consumer rights became fashionable and a hero through many generations, beginning when I was a kid. He challenged Detroit’s auto leviathans; “unsafe at any speed” defined not only Corvair, but many cars. Besides being a thorn in George Romney’s paw, he inspired a nationwide consumer crusade in communities and on campuses.

He was earnest and he was true. GM and the FBI spent millions looking into his background; he was bulletproof. In 2000, he ran as the standard-bearer of the Green Party, and was the darling of the California Nurses Association, my client at the time. We helped organize Nader events in D.C., which I covered for REVOLUTION, an international magazine for Registered Nurses. Nader was matter of fact: Yes, I don’t have a prayer, but we can make a statement, he said. Why pick between Tweedledee and Tweedledum?

But he has taken merciless hits for his decision to run for president in 2000, possibly costing Al Gore the opportunity to lead our nation in great challenges – through 9/11 and the morass of two wars. Would Gore have gone after Saddam Hussein on a trumped-up charge of harboring weapons of mass destruction? Not a chance. He would have found legitimate grounds to take him out, or more likely force him to change his posture, and saved thousands of American lives.

Nader represented radical change to me. If the parties are indeed hewing to the same line, then we need a radical departure from the status quo. Only if we allow the pendulum to swing fully toward the right wing, to its extreme, will we create the groundswell for real change, a countervailing power back to the left. We won’t get there incrementally.

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There are socioeconomic theories that underlie this view – from Hegelian dialectics, developed from Plato, to the Chinese notion of Chaos. The two Chinese characters for chaos, Wei Ji, mean “danger” and “opportunity” consecutively. Or in the I-Ching, a single character, chun, stands for danger and opportunity, chaos. I have that character on the wall in my office, a reminder not to get too comfortable. “CHAOS: Where Great Dreams Begin” is the legend. Perhaps it was time for chaos to work its magic.

Voting for Ralph Nader was symbolically important to me then. Al Gore had done little to win my support, except by comparison. Nader denied he was siphoning votes — saying he was energizing disenfranchised voters. “If he can’t beat the bumbling Texas governor with that terrible record, he ought to go back to Tennessee,” Nader said. Instead, we suffered under the bumbling Texas governor for eight years.

Gore went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for sounding the alarm about climate change, not to mention an Oscar for his remarkable documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Obama also won the Nobel Peace Prize – based more on promise than actual accomplishments. He has not yet earned respect for his presidency, but I believe the promise is still there.

Obama could still be a great president. I give him the benefit of the doubt. Considering the alternative, George W. Bush on steroids, I’m not going to waste my vote this year.

Weathering Nature’s Fury

So, we begin Keeping Time with the critical story of our times, the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But first breaking news – insofar as it can break in this space – Hurricane Sandy’s historic siege of a huge swath of Yankee territory, from the Jersey shore to Long Island and New York City harbors, and beyond. Devastation everywhere.

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The roller coaster at Seaside Heights, N.J., sits in the drink. (Photo by Brian Thompson via WISH-TV).

The shocking images of the wrecked Jersey Shore and flooded sections of Staten Island, Long Island and even lower Manhattan are reminiscent of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, except the victims are mostly white. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate as it runs roughshod over human gatherings. Even our great cities are reduced to splinters and shards in the face of Mother’s angry smack-down

Is she mad? Maybe.

The powerful undercurrent of this event is the specter of climate change. It is scientific fact that humans are emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, contributing to a measured warming of our planet. If we are causing this through our careless actions, then we can control it through careful actions.

But Mitt Romney has other ideas, which he delivers with a populist and Clintonesque biting of the lower lip:

It’s convenient to deny climate change when powerful forces vested in fossil fuels finance your campaign. That’s my take on Mitt Romney’s studied denial of climate change – at least in this reiteration of Mitt Romney. He was for action against climate change before he mocked it.

Hurricane Sandy offered a distinct lesson in the dangers of climate change. This late-season hurricane turned into a “Frankenstorm” because the Atlantic Ocean waters are 5 degrees warmer than usual, inviting stronger storms further north. Warmer water means more evaporation, or rain. And the higher sea level means a higher storm surge.

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On a tour of the Jersey Shore damage with Gov. Chris Christie, President Obama assured victims that the federal government would help. (Reuters photo)

The lesson wasn’t lost on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed Obama on Thursday as the candidate most likely to do something about the coming cataclysm. That’s faint praise considering the circumstances, and Mitt Romney’s positions. But Obama quickly sprang into action, moving the National Guard to deliver emergency gas supplies.

For all the federal efforts, people helping people has defined the relief effort, including the benefit concert Friday with Springsteen, Billy Joel and other artists who owe their creative soul to New York and the Jersey Shore. Plus those thousand utility linemen who rolled up the East Coast – and flew in from points west – to restore power as quickly as possible.

Emergency personnel worked around the clock to put out fires, literally. Nurses carried 19 newborn infants down nine flights of stairs, manually operating the respirators. Hundreds of patients were rescued from powerless hospitals. Human calamities bring out the best in people, who pull together in the toughest of times.

So it was heartening to see Obama on the Jersey shore, hugging victims and talking with Gov. Christie, suddenly an Obama fan. It was a stark contrast to George W. Bush, who simply flew over New Orleans to check out the Katrina damage.

Here’s your legacy, “W,” courtesy of “Treme,” the best show on television:

Katrina was a Category 3 storm at landfall, far more powerful than Sandy, which never got past a Category 1 hurricane. And the $100 billion cost to recover from Katrina included special remission for the Crescent City, which sits below sea level and must be protected by a series of levees. The recovery from Sandy is expected to cost half that amount, with far fewer fatalities than the 1,000 souls who perished in Katrina.

Still, America must meet the challenge of Mother Nature on a rampage. Yes, we must rebuild our infrastructure, and yield some ground, pushing back developments. The storm surge that hit New York will be stronger and higher next time because the ocean is rising, and storms are becoming fiercer.

But we also must act to slow the pace of climate change. I say that as a friend of coal, and of coal miners and the families who have a vested interest in the continuation of the industry – the survival of their communities. There is much to say about this, and we will revisit it later in this blog. In any case, we cannot abandon coal immediately, completely. We must develop a plan to wean ourselves off what has been an essential energy resource as we build up others. Our nation has many critical choices before us, and we should study them carefully.

But, as Sandy played out last week, I was reminded of nearly 30 years ago when the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorial crew rode out Hurricane Gloria in the newsroom. As we waited breathlessly overnight, it sprinted right past us, churning up the East Coast, finally easing into New England. While we feared the worst, the path of the storm – much like Sandy’s – suggested we would be largely spared the wrath of Gloria.

As with Sandy, we were on the “left side” of the storm, at the end of the circulation after the wind blew down from over land.. Cold rain, wind and misery, but not much of a hurricane. Another safe passage. We did get T-shirts out of the deal in Norfolk, though – marked on the front with a route of Hurricane Gloria and the legend: “I spent the night with Gloria.”

Important lesson: Stay left if you can.