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"The Party of Life" and the Death Penalty

When Brian Williams brought up Rick Perry’s unusually high record of executions while governor of Texas, he clearly thought he was making a critical point against the Republican presidential candidate. The crowd at Perry’s first debate as a candidate for president, however, cheered openly and with abandon when Perry’s death penalty record was mentioned.
This glorification of the death penalty by the Tea Party is, frankly, disturbing. For a political group that- in Perry’s own words- is the “party of life,” its positive attitude towards killing inmates feels strange and contradictory, not to mention incredibly detached. The US is one of the few developed nations who still executes its prisoners, and this is not something to be proud of. Our company on the list of countries that still engage in capital punishment includes Iran, North Korea, and Yemen; in Europe, for example, ninety-two percent of the UN member-states have abolished the death penalty.
There is, of course, the Constitutional argument, that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, that it is not properly regulated or controlled and, therefore, can lead to incredible pain on the part of the prisoner.
Frankly, it is doubtful that the Constitutional argument would resonate with the Tea Party and Republican constituents who cheered at the debate, since they probably have little concern about the well being of a prisoner suffering what they so clearly consider to be a just punishment. Perhaps, then, these proponents of capital punishment will respond to an argument about the justness of the death penalty; after all, Perry said their support for his use of state executions is based in what he considers to be their affinity for justice.
Seven years ago in Texas, while Perry was governor, a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was sentenced to the death penalty and executed for committing an act of arson, which led to a non-accidental death of his children. In 2009, Texas ordered an investigation of new evidence and changed testimony that had been discovered and could clear him of all charges. Many scientists and investigators who reviewed the case found that the evidence against Willingham was not sufficient; however, Perry removed the chair of the investigation at the last minute and placed one who was more favorable to the governor. The new chair dismissed the investigation.
In 2009, over 3,000 men and women were on death row, and Texas alone had over 300 inmates waiting to be executed. Many of them were convicted before DNA evidence was customary to introduce by police or prosecutors.
It is abominable that the United States is so unconcerned with confirming evidence in death row cases. And as the American social right reminded the rest of the country two weeks ago, it is generally disinterested with the lack of fairness or justice in the punishment, let alone the cruelty of it. Still, these are the very same voters who complain about how America is viewed on the international stage today. Considering the huge majority of developed, leading nations that have taken actions to end capital punishment as compared to America’s cavalier attitude towards it, banning the death penalty could be a major route to reestablishing America’s place in the world.
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The Debt

Even though Republicans got most of what they wanted in the debt-ceiling deal, including a long-term deficit reduction plan, the debt is not going away, either as a problem or a talking point. And it's true: the debt is a big problem. A mammoth one, in fact. However, if the House and Senate let the debt become the biggest issue of this and next term, they will be throwing away any tentative, stumbling progress the US economy has made and will send a message to the more than nine percent of Americans who are unemployed that they do not matter.
After all, the debt is a long-term problem; it has been around for decades and will be around for decades. Any serious solution to the deficit will be a big one and will involve years worth of budget-reassessment and will probably include cuts into the big three: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as well as gigantic, damaging cuts into non-defense discretionary spending.
Now, though, is the worst time to make damaging cuts into non-defense discretionary spending, which includes education, infrastructure, job creation, and many other crucial government programs that are both the base of the US job creating ability and its "win the future" programs that make up most of President Obama's docket. These programs have already been cut to the bone through the debt-ceiling deal as well as from other budget cuts that were passed in this Congress, and cutting them any more would be devastating. There are school districts in America that will start up school in September with its students going to only four days of classes, and American students need to be in school more days, not less. Rabid debt-cutters always remind the US public that the deficit is putting a burdon on America's children, which is, generally, true. But that is not as big as a burden for American children as the one of school budget cuts. American children are mis- and under-prepared for a world economy, less educated then their foreign peers, and barely reaching standards that are dwarfed by those of Europe and Asia.
And then there is the matter of unemployment, the real problem in America, not the debt or budget deficits. When over nine percent of job-seeking Americans are unemployed, it is the responsibility of Congress to invest in job-creating measures. And it's not that hard; Congress has the power to fund desperately-needed projects for infrastructure or research or scientific development and to re-saturate the budgets of school districts. That's how jobs are created by the government. Some argue that it should be businesses creating jobs in America. Well, that's fine; they can. But in order for businesses to have any kind of incentive to move their job-creating factories and other means of production (after all, America is supposed to be a production-based economy) back to the US, Congress has to impose taxes on goods created out of the United States, even if the companies that make those goods are based in America. Otherwise, the jobs that left America will not return and nine-percent unemployment will become the norm while blooming overseas markets capitalise on low minimum wages and workers rights to attract the companies that once fueled US employment.
These are the important economic issues in America; these are the ones that need the imminent attention of Congress. While the debt is a problem and does require a long-term conversation on how to reduce it, the paramount issue is the jobs crisis America is facing and the elimination of non-defense discretionary spending that could have helped America "win the future."
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"War on Terror" and Bin Laden

“And a war will be won,” concluded CIA Director Leon Panetta’s email to the CIA last Monday, following the capture and deadly shooting of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda and a man considered by some to be the most dangerous extremist of the 21st century, The raid on Bin Laden’s million-dollar compound in Pakistan by US forces concluded the longest and most expensive manhunt of all time.
Panetta’s email mirrored the language of President Obama and other top national security officials, all of whom focused on the idea that America can and will win the so-called “war on terror.” Some even said that American troops will not leave Afghanistan or Pakistan until Al-Qaeda is eliminated.
Simply, that is not going to happen. Unless American troops are willing to spend decades more fighting the terrorist network and its affiliates across the world, Al-Qaeda as an organization is not going anywhere.
And the “war on terror” is even more of a problem. Firstly, a war against terror can never be won; terror will always exist. No matter how many terrorists US forces track down and kill, terror will still be there.
Secondly, since the Obama Administration and the American intelligence groups have created a war that is, simply, impossible to win, they have essentially doomed themselves politically. Sure, it was the Bush Administration that started both the war and its nickname, but the Obama Administration is trying to end military engagement in the Middle East. And while US forces may leave Afghanistan and they have nearly entirely left Iraq, this does not equate to winning a war on terror.
Finally, in addition to the impossibility of winning a “war on terror,” internationally, the phrasing may unintentionally have an unwanted effect upon tto whom the words are directed. Joseph Nye Jr, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, noted that “[w]hen British MI-5 interrogated arrested terrorists, they found that the words “war on terror” were heard as “war against Islam” and that helped terrorist recruiters.”
Beyond our allies or enemy’s feelings internationally, and even beyond our own countries opinion, using the phrase “the war on terror” allows the American Government to make an excuse. An excuse for still being in Iraq, an excuse for weak Afghanistan policy, but mostly an excuse to house long-term detainees at Guantanamo Bay and perform possibly illegal interrogation techniques upon them. If by eliminating “the war on terror” from our national vocabulary, we eliminate on more facade for the government to hide behind when dealing with detainees, it needs to go.
The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the United States is a triumph for the Obama administration. It makes the administration seem more legitimate on foreign policy, and it is an enormous gain for national security. However, his death does not signify the end of the war on terror. It may weaken Al-Queada’s operational ability, but even if his death meant the end of Al-Quaeda, it still would not mean the end of the war on terror. Simply, a war on terror cannot be won, since terror will always exist.
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Big Bird: An Endangered Species

In the midst of unimaginable crisis in Japan and Libya, as well as extended protests across the Midwest, it is possible that the conservative Congressional leadership thinks that Americans are not paying attention, and they are probably right. So while the American people are preoccupied by much more terrifying problems, Congress has gone on an attack of its own, taking a lesson from all of the gun rights advocates and hunting down Big Bird.
The end of publicly funded television and radio programing could be devastating for Americans. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic, but it is not. Programs like National Public Radio (NPR), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are not the entertainment-based, liberal subsidies that the conservatives in Congress like to pretend they are. In fact, they provide vital services to all Americans.
PBS offers unique programing for young children through PBS Kids. Programs like Sesame Street, Arthur, and Cyberchase provide educational television for preschoolers and elementary school students. Where else could this sort of early-education television be found? The fact is, no other network does for children what PBS does. Families that cannot afford early education may find some substitute in the math and reading-centric shows PBS carries. No show on Disney or Nickelodeon or any other kid's channel provides such educational benefit.
And NPR, too, provides a valuable service to Americans. In a radio format, NPR is able to truly break down news and make it understandable to average people, while also delivering world and local news as well as giving a voice to issues that media that has to pay for itself cannot afford to cover. Cutting NPR funding means cutting easy access to news and information to thousands of people. NPR remains one of the most comprehensive and investigative journalistic outlets in the United States. Beyond losing news access, cutting NPR funding means eliminating one of the only truly journalistically responsible news organizations in the country.
Cutting funding to federally funded broadcasting companies is one of those political choices that has no real benefits and serious ramifications. In a world without PBS and NPR, low-income children are at an even further disadvantage than they are now; the achievement gap grows beyond recognition; good journalism is punished in favor of weakly constructed political fights; Americans lose trusted news. How is this worth cheap political points?
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Not Quite an Anti-Poverty Campaign

The Republican leadership- both in DC and nationally- has never really championed the war on poverty. Now, however, the GOP is engaging in a series of legislative actions that directly undermine the very federal programs that help support the poorest Americans.
For example, new Speaker John Boehner wants to cut funds for Social Security and Medicare. He has already defunded Planned Parenthood. Governors across America including, most notably, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are attempting to cripple unions, especially public employee unions. The House has already campaigned to end the 2009 health care reforms that are vital to America's working families.
Working class Americans rely on these programs and have, for some, for more than 80 years. Ending these funds could be devastating to thousands of families.
If there's anything the government is supposed to do, it is help Americans who cannot support themselves. Yet, the House Republicans are trying to defund this very basic function of government in America.
And with that as the goal, these actions are not at all unexpected. There have been month-long rumblings about shutting down the federal government from seemingly mainstream conservatives. Ending these vital programs is only a first step towards that end.
Beyond that, its is clear that the GOP's targets are social programs (see: Planned Parenthood, Medicare), not economic excess. Look at Wisconsin's anti-union politics. Considering that the unions have already conceded the financial points of Walker's plan, how would the economy benefit from ending collective bargaining or strikes? Republicans across the country were elected on a platform of economic recovery. It is time for them to deliver on that platform and leave social programs alone.
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DOMA, The Challenges Ahead

For the record, President Obama's decision to stop enforcing section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court is a huge deal. What is perhaps an even bigger deal is the rationale behind the Obama decision: he, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, chose to end the court enforcement of section 3 of DOMA because they believe it to be unconstitutional. This administration's decision sets an interesting precedent, should DOMA ever be challenged in court. In the meanwhile, however, Obama has effectively suspended section 3 of the policy by eliminating the only viable means of prosecuting it.
DOMA was enacted in 1996 as a major piece of the big push for the conservative social agenda during the Clinton administration. As a definer of federal marriage law, DOMA attempts to legally end any national campaign for marriage equality by defining marriage as, in section 3, an institution exclusively between a man and a woman.
Over the past year, President Obama has proved himself to be a powerful if lethargic LGBT ally, and what the Obama administration did last week took a lot of political courage. After all, with the upcoming presidential election and an increasingly socially conservative right, many presidents would have simply put it off. However, simply dropping the court defense of DOMA is not enough, as it can still act as a court defense for those who attempt to hinder equality.
President Obama must find the political courage to go further than he has. If he truly believes DOMA to be unconstitutional, then he should challenge it in court, not simply abandon his defense of it.
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This is Not Egypt

Perhaps the Republican Wisconsin State Senator misspoke when he compared Madison to Cairo. For, after all, however misguided Governor Walker may be, he is not former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; he is no undemocratic, corrupted dictator. No United States governor is. And rallying in opposition to union rule changes, however drastic, is not the equivalent of protesting for democracy. This does not, however, mean that the Wisconsin protesters' cause is any less important or serious.
Why do Republicans demonize unions, especially teachers' unions? It's not as though teachers are overpaid. Besides which, the Wisconsin teacher's unions have already agreed to the financial compromise Governor Walker offered. Now, he holds out on one issue- collective bargaining. A union's main role is to act as a singular representative for a group of people and to bargain with management to maintain or improve the people's rights. What use is a union without collective bargaining?
And this structural attack on unions in Wisconsin is not only confusing (the economic benefits of ending collective bargaining are negligible) but also dangerous. Governor Walker plans to create a condition where workers' rights can be slashed and teachers' paychecks can be shrunk for the benefit of a conservative social agenda against unions, not an economic one.

[Photo Credit: AP/Huffington Post]
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