The Best and Worst of 2015

Progressive Policy & Politics

Presidents and Presidential Candidates

Best: Barack Obama

Barack Obama had one of the best second-term years of any President in living memory.

Recall that the central worry about Obama, both as a candidate and as a President, was that he would fail to make the tough decisions necessary to drive America forward. Recall further that, like every other modern President in their seventh year, Obama has been dogged by an aggressive opposition party in Congress. Against that backdrop, Obama’s profiles in courage include:

  • Standing up to the speech police. In a direct rebuke of one of his core constituencies, Obama scolded as “coddled” those liberal college students who opposed conservative speakers, or topics that might cause offense to women or people of color. Obama’s words directly challenged the accelerating spread of illiberal speech codes across college campuses.
  • Global climate leadership. While the specifics of global climate change remain controversial, the broad outlines are clear to almost all scientists and rational observers: manmade emissions pose enormous risks. In Paris, Obama’s leadership helped 196 nations sign a deal that gives humanity a fighting chance to address those risks. How many leaders in history have successfully orchestrated deals that significant?
  • Standing up to teachers unions. When Arne Duncan decided to resign as Education Secretary, Obama appointed as his successor John King, a lifetime educator committed to maintaining and extending Duncan’s reforms. In doing so, he directly repudiated pressure from the teachers unions, one of the wealthiest interest groups in the Democratic Party.
  • Standing up to nativists. America was built from people who struggled to come here, from the Bering land bridge sixteen thousand years ago, to the Pilgrims in the 1600s, through waves of other ethnicities whose economic and cultural vitality helped make our nation great. Periodically, xenophobic movements have risen up against immigrants, threatening our strength and our values, but brave patriots have always stood up for our ideals. In this context, in 2015 Obama stood on the side of American optimism and courage. As described in The Atlantic, Obama
met the nativist hysteria sparked by the attacks in Paris with an impassioned, enraged rhetorical barrage on behalf of the admission of Syrian refugees. He’s done so even though polls show that a clear majority of Americans now oppose admitting any Syrians. And even though, last Thursday, 47 House Democrats broke with him to help overwhelmingly pass a bill that would make admission of Syrian refugees virtually impossible. Nonetheless, Obama has been unyielding.
  • Standing up to Netanyahu. For decades, Israel and America had a close partnership based upon a balance between toughness and diplomacy. The deepest US-Israeli ties came when strong Israeli leaders used their political capital to push for peace, as with Yitzhak Rabin prior to his assassination by a right-wing Israeli in 1995. America’s greatest presidents have consistently used tough love to push Israel toward negotiated peace, as when Ronald Reagan told Prime Minister Menachim Begin in 1982 that US-Israeli relations were at stake due to Israeli shelling of Lebanese positions in 1982. Obama acted in Reagan’s tradition when he backed a negotiated settlement with Iran to reduce its nuclear capability, despite hardline opposition from Likud politician and current Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Obama’s stance required political courage, despite the fact that retired Jewish lawmakers, some Israeli advocacy groups, and many Israeli generals supported the settlement, because one of the most powerful lobbying groups in America, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) decided to ally itself with Netanhayu. AIPAC launched a national bipartisan campaign to oppose the deal with Iran. Obama stayed firm, and won. If the deal’s supporters are correct, Obama substantially increased the prospects for regional and global peace and prosperity by making a gutsy political call.
  • Standing up to big labor. Obama also faced down a well-financed global campaign by labor unions and their environmental allies — again, core Obama constituencies — in pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade agreement that promises to promote United States industries and global prosperity. Republican and business interest groups have given him little support or credit, while Democratic groups have attacked him, yet Obama enters January 2016 with a strong chance of congressional approval for this historic agreement.

Worst: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have advocated many terrible ideas in their hunger for the presidency. To highlight only two of the most anti-American:

  • Amend the Constitution to allow state-sponsored bigotry. Back when Ted Cruz was languishing in the polls, he took to the editorial pages to attack the Constitution’s structure of an independent judiciary. You read that right: one of the contenders for the GOP nomination argued that we should amend the Constitution to eliminate an appointed judiciary. Ted Cruz, who claims to be a libertarian and lover of the Constitution, changed his mind when he learned that the Constitution protected the rights of gay people.
  • Engage in ethnic cleansing. Donald Trump has suggested that America should compel Muslims to register with a federal database and carry ID cards and bar Muslims from immigrating to the country. In addition to handing a public relations victory to ISIS and trampling American values, this idea is terrifying to America’s military.

America’s Judiciary

Best: Obergefell v. Hodges

This year, the United States became the fifteenth country in the world to protect the right of homosexual couples to marry. For the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

For those who love liberty and those who love America, it is great to see our nation join enlightened nations including England, Ireland, Sweden, Mexico, and a dozen others in sanctifying marriage for all citizens. As an added bonus, the Obergefell decision triggered a tantrum from Justice Antonin Scalia that will forever diminish his credibility as a jurist.

Worst: The aquittal of Chicago police officer Dante Servin

Rekia Boyd alive; Boyd dying; Servin; Porter

On Monday, April 20, Cook County Judge Dennis Porter acquitted Chicago police officer Dante Servin of all charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed 22-year old woman, Rekia Boyd, who had been walking with some friends near Servin’s home. In a year that saw over 1000 civilians killed by police, including the especially egregious cases of Laquan McDonald, Corey Jones, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Grey, and Walter Scott, a decision about Boyd’s death 3 years ago might seem unremarkable. But unlike most such cases, Officer Sevin was actually charged with a crime. At trial, it became clear that Servin intentionally shot at Boyd due to an altercation about noise. The judge nonetheless acquitted Servin — in a decision that University of Illinois faculty said “doesn’t make any sense at all” and violated basic precepts of criminal law. Precisely because of the national movement against police killings catalyzed by civil rights leaders such as St. Louis’ Deray McKesson, and what columnist Marilyn Rhames has written about police brutality in Chicago, Judge Porter’s decision was a reckless missed opportunity in 2015 to introduce accountability to the police forces of Chicago.

Congress Best and Worst

Best: the REDEEM Act

America’s prison system is an expensive, violent, ineffective national embarrassment. We imprison more people than any other nation, and more people than even a few decades ago despite flat crime rates. We do so at exorbitant costs (tens of billions of dollars per year) that crowd out other important services. Despite our investment, roughly three quarters of released inmates are re-arrested within 5 years.

Finally, leaders from both parties have started to introduce serious legislation to address this problem. This year, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rand Paul of Kentucky have jointly pushed legislation that would direct children away from the adult criminal justice system; limit solitary confinement; and create a path for released inmates to seal their records and obtain benefits. By helping inmates find a path to non-criminal jobs and lives, this legislation is an important step aware from our dangerous carceral state.

Worst: Benghazi investigations

A certain amount of political theater is inevitable at the fringes of Congress. For example, congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Robert Wexler voted to impeach President George W. Bush over alleged incompetence and malfeasance relating to the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and climate change. That said, neutral scholars have documented that fringe behavior has become the norm for the Republican Party in Congress. For context, it is worth quoting a 2012 book on Congress by respected and bipartisan congressional scholars Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings, who wrote:

[The] Republican Party [in Congress] has become … unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.

The year 2015 included many examples of this fact-free, scorched-earth behavior, but few can match the symbolic heft of the congressional investigations into the 2012 deaths of four Americans in terrorist attacks on American compounds in Benghazi, Libya.

While these deaths were tragic, that doesn’t explain why the Republican Party convened eight independent committees to investigate Benghazi. The eight Benghazi committees represent more than the combined total of committees convened to investigate the 2001 9/11 attacks (2,977 Americans killed); the 2000 attack against the USS Cole (17 Americans killed); the 1998 US Embassy bombings (12 Americans killed); the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing (19 Americans killed); and 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing (168 Americans killed). Those five attacks on Americans, killing 3,193 Americans, somehow merited a total six congressional investigations, while the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi merited eight investigations (costing millions of taxpayer dollars of course). Why?

Everyone in Washington, D.C., from congressional staffers of both parties to the politicians themselves in private conversations, knew the committees were designed to attack Hillary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State during the 2012 attacks and whose personal favorability among the American public hovered above 60% for most of her time in that role. Recently, three independent credible Republicans have publicly acknowledged that the purpose of these investigations was to attack Clinton in light of her now-declared campaign for the Presidency: former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Congressman Richard Hanna, and former Benghazi staffer Bradley Podliska. In a final, 11-hour hearing in October, Clinton largely dispatched the remaining Republican questions to the satisfaction of most observers, but the House GOP got what they wanted: they motivated their base, raised campaign funds, and recent polls show Clinton’s favorability ratings as low as 38%, down from highs of 66%.

For misusing public funds and abusing the public trust to taint a future election, the Benghazi committees earn the “Worst of Congress” award for 2015.

Journalism Best and Worst

Best: Megyn Kelly challenging Trump’s misogyny

Megyn Kelly doesn’t make many “best of” lists among progressives, but she earned a profile in courage on August 6 when, as a Presidential debate moderator, she asked Donald Trump to explain his history of misogynist comments. Kelly gets special credit for doing so while working for Fox News, which did not want a war with Trump. Additionally, Kelly did so against a GOP frontrunner who is well known to be a bully, as he demonstrated both during the debate and afterwards, when he accused Kelly of lying and of … menstruating. Not only has Kelly responded to Trump’s outlandish accusations with reserve, she’s also agreed to engage him again on January 28th in the runup to the Iowa caucuses four days later. In 2015, Kelly was a hero of American journalism.

Worst: Media portrayal of police violence against black citizens

The murderer on the left (with the flag and uniform); the victim on the right, unsmiling

In the horrible aftermath of Rolling Stone magazine’s 2014 debacle “A Rape on Campus,” journalists pledged better coverage of stories of abuse and violence. Unfortunately, police crimes against black civilians have provided many such opportunities.

This screen capture of CNN, above and to the left, shows their visual choices for depicting Ray Tensing (the officer shown smiling, in uniform, in front of a flag) who shot and killed the unarmed Samuel DuBose (the man shown unsmiling in a mugshot-style pose on the right). This was from July, but is typical.

Another example came earlier in the year, in the breaking coverage of the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina. The April 6 edition of the Charleston Post and Courie led with a high-resolution photo of the murderer, Officer Thomas Slager, smiling in front of an American flag, before writing that “the former Coast Guardsman” “felt threatened … when the driver he had stopped … tried to overpower him and take his Taser.” The article continued that “Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force” and that “Slager announced [to other police] within seconds why he had fired.” The article then spends several paragraphs explaining why a prior complaint about Slager’s excessive use of force had been dismissed, and giving Slager’s full explanation for what happened. By contrast, the biography of the victim Walter Scott appeared at the end of the article, noting a 1987 arrest for assault and battery, a 1991 conviction for possession of a handgun, and more-recent charges for driving violations and contempt. Unlike with Slager’s prior record, the article includes no exculpatory information about those prior charges.

As we now know, a bystander named Feidin Santana video-recorded Slager shooting Scott repeatedly in the back, and then walking over and planting the taser as evidence in full view of another officer. Santana initially feared for his own life, but decided to come forward with the video once he saw the mendacious police reports.

Based on the patterns, it seems clear that if the video had not surfaced, Slager would have gone free and Scott’s family would not only be mourning their loss, but defending their deceased loved one against suspicion that he’d earned his own death by attacking a cop.

Yet the Washington Post, later that same month, published an article about the death of Freddie Grey giving serious credence to the later-rebutted idea that Freddie Gray deliberately injured himself while in police custody.

In the wake of increasing evidence about police homicides, as well as police assaults such as those committed by Daniel Holtzclaw (a serial rapist of black women who used his uniform to coerce submission and silence), journalists have had ample reminders to question the biographies and stories of both victims and police, and to present them comparably in cases of civilian deaths at police hands.

As described by the Columbia Journalism Review,

Any mass shooting or instance of police brutality is a difficult situation for national journalists parachuting in. Despite their frequency, however, media coverage hasn’t seemed to improve over time. The mistakes are basic: misidentifying suspects; adhering too closely to one side’s account of events; unfairly describing the backgrounds of those involved; misreportingviolence by protesters in events’ aftermath; and many more. The onus is on journalists to ensure that national attention doesn’t overwhelm their better editorial judgment. Unfortunately for all of us, we’ll no doubt get another chance.

States

Best Governors: Jerry Brown & Gina Raimondo

When Jerry Brown was elected governor in 2010, many claimed that California had been the worst-run state in the country for many years, was perhaps ungovernable, and perhaps the Greece of America. After an easy re-election, Brown entered 2015 with California’s economy, fiscal management, and optimism restored. He used that political capital in 2015 to push reforms of public retiree health benefits (he had previously negotiated pension reforms). He also used his capital to enact automatic voter registration; mandate vaccination for children; legalize euthanasia; keep the skies open for drones; manage the state’s terrible drought; and work with his predecessor Arnold Schwartzenegger to assist in Paris with the global climate change negotiations. Together, these achievements further stabilize California’s finances, extend the voting franchise, reduce the risks of deadly illnesses; and empower individuals.

Gina Raimondo has been Rhode Island’s Governor for less than a year, of a state consistently described by Governance Magazine as the worst-governed state in New England and one of the worst-governed in the country. The same age as GOP rising stars Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Raimondo has actually built a track record of executive success. Raimondo was profiled in a Fortune Magazine article asking how Rhode Island “suddenly became a case study in good government.” In June, the state of Rhode Island settled with the unions over reforms to restore solvency to the state’s pension plans, an effort that Raimondo led in 2011 when she was Treasurer. This year, she also championed a plan to stabilize the state’s finances by reforming its Medicaid program, which is projected to save about $70 million this year alone (a lot in a small state like Rhode Island) without slashing eligibility. Pivoting to growth, the state House passed a budget, featuring her jobs-and-investment provisions, on a 75–0 vote.

Worst: Sam Brownback & Jay Nixon

In polls of Kansans, Sam Brownback’s recent approval ratings have been numbers such as 18% and 26%, making him the least popular governor in the country. If Brownback’s dismal ratings were the result of courageous decisions that would generate long-term benefits for Kansas, that would be one thing. In Brownback’s case, however, he simply slashed the state’s revenue base under the theory that such cuts would attract and stimulate job creation. When the state economy performed poorly, he was put in the awkward position of being forced to reverse course and raise rates to stave off fiscal crisis. Raising tax rates in a soft economy is always bad news for citizens, but it’s even worse when it results from predictable and predicted mismanagement by the state’s governor.

In September, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon caved to the powerful teachers unions in his state by vetoing a popular bipartisan bill that would have given students and parents more choices in schools. His veto was not overriden. As I wrote at the time:

Nixon’s craven actions represent the worst of the Democratic Party, harkening back to its century-ago roots as the party that put the financial priorities of powerful constituents above freedom for African Americans. Nixon has dealt yet another affront to the African American citizens who have given generations of their lives to Missouri, with little in return.

Cities

Best: Eric Garcetti

Running a mega-city is exceptionally challenging. The three largest cities in the United States are managed by Rahm Emanuel (Chicago), Bill de Blasio (New York), and Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles). Emanuel is fighting for his political life, while de Blasio has seen his approval ratings steadily decline, as he reversed many effective Bloomberg-era policies, such as choosing to heavily fund the teacher cartel and attack charter schools, while backing the taxi cartel against upstarts such as Uber.

By contrast, Garcetti has gotten his hands dirty fixing city government, and it’s working. Although Garcetti has a stylish reputation, in practice he has been all about getting into the weeds of city government basics and fixing things. Bond rating agencies have improved LA’s rating, making it cheaper to borrow money, and have specifically cited the City’s improved management approach. Along similar lines, unemployment has fallen rapidly under Garcetti, from 8% to 5.9% in the last year alone. The Mayor has also taken the lead in pushing police body cameras and earthquake safety retrofitting, both of which help make the city more resilient. The Mayor also pushed for a $15 minimum wage, buying the (persuasive) arguments of economists that at that level, the productivity and economic gains outweigh the losses. In so doing, he helped ensure that the wealth he’s helping to create in Los Angeles is shared by all Angelenos.

Worst: David Bowers

The Democratic Mayor of Roanoke, the biggest city in southwest Virginia, urged his city to stop providing any services to Syrian refugees. He approvingly invoked the World War II precedent of America putting Japanese Americans into internment camps. In this, Mayor David Bowers managed to offend his state’s governor and two senators (all from his party), his state senator (also a Democrat), and even the opposition Republican Party in the state, as well as Japanese Americans, Syrians, and any Americans who take our values seriously. Thus, he gets our worst-of-2015 award.

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