A Race to Repair the Nation

MORE THAN A MILLION PEOPLE ON THE NATIONAL MALL, the Obama memorabilia open-air market at Farragut Square, cheers, tears, newspapers grabbed off newsstands the day after the inauguration. As I —left D.C.’s Union Station for New York at 6 a.m., a man standing in line ahead of me at the newsstand purchased ten copies of the Washington Post. Four hours later at Penn Station, an Amtrak conductor announced that we had arrived eight minutes early and wished everyone a “happy Obama day.” In the city, a woman who runs a newsstand on 42nd Street told me, “Times all gone,” but offered to sell me her copy—”not for regular price.”

Now, weeks later, any clear-eyed, objective journalist ought to be asking when the deification of President Barack Obama will end.

But what a start! Consider the first ten days.

On his first day in office, President Obama suspended the military tribunals by which internees at Guantánamo were to be “tried.” Writing about former Guantánamo internee Murat Kurnaz—an innocent man I interviewed three years ago in Bremen, Germany— Federal District Judge Helen Hens Green described the “fundamental unfairness” of the Guantánamo trials. A prudent judicial understatement.

The trials are only suspended. Don’t look for them to resume in the same form under an Obama administration. Clandestine overseas prisons operated by the CIA will also be shuttered. And prisoners in U.S. custody will no longer be tortured. To ensure that everything is covered, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

On the Friday following the inauguration, the president lifted the gag rule that has barred international family planning organizations that receive U.S. funding from counseling women about abortion. The George W. Bush rule was a vestige of the Reagan administration. Obama also ordered that the government resume funding the United Nations Population Fund.

As he closed out his first week in office, the president drew up orders instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider granting California and seventeen other states the authority to regulate auto tailpipe emissions—regulation that could considerably reduce emissions that cause global warming. In 2007, George W. Bush’s EPA Administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, ignored his scientific staff’s recommendations and did the president’s bidding, blocking the stringent tailpipe standards that the states wanted to impose. Look for states to start imposing standards on exhaust systems.

FAIR PAY FAIR PLAY—The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act provides workers more time to file suit after they discover that their employers didn’t pay them an equal wage. Ledbetter had worked for Goodyear for nineteen years when she was tipped off that men doing the same job she was doing earned far more than she did. She won a $360,000 judgment, which was overturned by a 5-4 decision of the Bush Supreme Court—because she’d waited too long to sue. (She had no grounds to sue until she learned that she had been cheated by her employer.)

Bush appointee Samuel A. Alito cast the deciding vote on the Ledbetter decision. An angry Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read a rare oral dissent from the bench, saying she hoped the Congress would repair the harm the Court had done to workers. It did. A Ledbetter bill was passed by the House last year but was killed by Senate Republicans.

During the campaign, Obama promised to stand up for Lilly Ledbetter and all women who are underpaid by their employers. The current Congress passed a new Ledbetter bill. A week after he danced with Ledbetter at an inaugural ball, Barack Obama delivered on his campaign promise. “This one is for Lilly,” the president said as he handed a presidential signing pen to Lilly Ledbetter. The Lilly Ledbetter bill was the first piece of legislation he signed.

I was covering the Texas Legislature when I first reported on George W. Bush using his executive authority as governor to deny low-cost medical health coverage to children of the working poor. Bush’s attempt to muscle 300,000 kids off the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was too extreme even for Texas, and was beaten back by Pete Laney, a principled public servant who at the time was the speaker of the Texas House. As president of the United States, Bush got another whack at the piñata and twice used his veto power to ensure that children of the working poor were denied government-funded, low-cost health insurance.

When the current Congress convened, the House passed a new SCHIP bill, by a 289-130 vote. Forty Republicans voted with the Democratic majority. The Senate followed, voting 66-32 to fund the program (via a tax on tobacco) and to extend health care to an additional eleven million children. Senators had to defeat an amendment by Mel Martinez (R-FL) that would have reinstated the policy that gagged health care workers at women’s clinics outside the U.S. They also defeated an amendment by Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that would have extended SCHIP coverage to unborn fetuses. As this issue of the Spectator goes to press, the Senate’s version of SCHIP is headed back to the House for reconciliation, then on to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

On January 30, ten days out from his inauguration, President Obama invited labor leaders into the White House, where he announced the signing of three executive orders that begin the process of restoring workers’ rights dismantled by the Bush-Cheney administration. (“Welcome back to the White House,” Vice President Joe Biden said to leaders of organized labor.) The first executive order denies federal funding to contractors who “try to influence the formation of unions.” A second order requires federal contractors to inform employees of workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The third order requires federal contractors to hire qualified workers employed by their predecessors when federal contracts change hands. Joe Biden’s backhanded swipe at his own predecessors was delivered on Dick Cheney’s sixty-eighth birthday.

We don’t have space here to discuss all that was accomplished in Obama’s First Ten Days. And we recognize that there will be disappointments and disagreements. Already, I agree with Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, who was furious when Obama pulled birth control funding from the stimulus bill. I also wonder why cabinet appointees who earn far more than most Americans don’t pay their taxes.

However, ending torture, closing Guantánamo, defending women’s reproductive rights, extending paycheck rights to working women, acting on global warming, restoring workplace protections for employees of federal contractors—all in ten days. I can’t recall an elected official who has delivered so much, so immediately, to so many.

Have a happy Obama day.

MINORITY REPORT—This was a tough moment for “The Party of Lincoln”—the trope required of every speaker who stepped onto the dais in the main ballroom of the Capitol Hilton during the last week of January. Outside, bleachers were still standing along the inauguration parade route on Pennsylvania Ave. The viewing stand remained in place on the White House lawn. Obama T-shirts, hats, coffee cups, buttons, and action figures were on sale in shops and on street corners in the District. Tourists continued to snap photos, arms draped around life-sized Barack Obama cardboard cutouts standing in the city’s stores and restaurants. And Republicans had retreated to a hotel ballroom three blocks north of the White House, to confront their status as a white, regional party rejected by ethnic minorities.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reminded Republican National Committee (RNC) members (at the 2009 “Republican for a Reason” winter meeting) how bad things are. He said he was elected to the Senate the year Ronald Reagan carried forty-nine of fifty states and Republican senators held seats in every region of the country. “Today, you can walk from Canada to Mexico or Maine to Arizona,” McConnell said, “without ever leaving a state with a Democratic governor. Not a single Republican senator represents the tens of millions of Americans on the West Coast. On the East Coast, you can drive from North Carolina to New Hampshire without touching a single state in between that has a Republican in the U.S. Senate.”

McConnell said the party had lost thirteen Senate seats and fifty-one House seats in the last two elections and attracted 4 percent of African-American voters in 2008. The party’s future, he said, depends on its ability to attract minority voters.

This was not your typical Republican gathering. It was dominated by a contest for the RNC chairmanship, which, from the beginning, had the feel of a skin game—in this case a six-man race dominated by two white Southerners who had offended African Americans, and two African Americans whom many Republican delegates hope will attract black voters to an almost all-white party.

The two African-American candidates were both anomalies and stars. Kenneth Blackwell was co-chair of George Bush’s 2004 campaign in Ohio and the secretary of state who oversaw the election there. Michael Steele is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

Putting a black face on a white party played like political theater-of-the-absurd.

Even before the convention began, Republicans were embarrassed by Chip Saltzman—who mercifully withdrew from the race the night before the vote. In December the former Tennessee party chair had mailed CDs of an offensive and sophomoric parody, “Barack the Magic Negro,” to his Christmas list. Right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh gave the “Magic Negro” story additional legs by playing the song on his radio program. Saltzman was damaged goods before he arrived. No one seemed too broken up to see him go.

Kentuckian Mike Duncan—the incumbent chair and the brains behind the “Republican for a Reason” slogan—stayed in the race for three ballots. Duncan had served in the Bush administration, was installed as chairman by George Bush, and in December had organized a nationwide e-mail thank-you for George and Laura Bush. His “winds of change” withdrawal speech drew the longest and loudest standing ovation of the day.

A third Southern candidate, Katon Dawson, stayed in the race for RNC chair until the last vote was cast—unapologetic about his membership in a “whites only” country club. The story was first reported by a South Carolina daily, the State, in November. Dawson’s response that he had spent the previous six months trying to change the country club’s deed restrictions seemed like a stretch, in part because he had been a club member for twelve years. He resigned, but apartheid golf is not a problem in South Carolina, where Dawson is the state party chair.

As hard as they tried, party leaders couldn’t move their sons of Dixie off center stage to get it right with minority voters. It required six ballots dragged across the entire final day of the convention to winnow out the white chaff and make Michael Steele the party’s first African-American national chairman.

Steele began his political career in Prince George’s County on the eastern edge of the District of Columbia, where two-thirds of the population is black. He served as director of GOPAC, the political action committee founded by Newt Gingrich, and as lieutenant governor of Maryland was the first African American to win a statewide race there. (He lost a Senate race in 2006 to Democrat Ben Cardin.) Tall, elegant, and engaging, Steele is one of the party’s few minority stars. (Here’s a quick test. Name three prominent African Americans in the Republican Party.)

There’s more to Steele’s backstory. Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo revived news reports of Steele’s 2006 Senate campaign, which recruited (and in one instance refused to pay) homeless men to hand out campaign literature, some of which dishonestly described Steele as a Democrat. On the first day of the 2009 RNC convention, Steele told Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank on background that as a Republican running for the Senate while George W. Bush was president, he felt as if he wore a scarlet letter on his chest. (“It’s an impediment,” Steele said. “It’s a hurdle I have to overcome. I’ve got an R here, a scarlet letter.”) Although Milbank, when he printed the quote, honored Steele’s request for anonymity, Steele admitted to ABC News that he was the unnamed Senate candidate Milbank had cited. In an attempt to take the edge off the story, Steele referred to George Bush as “my homeboy.”

In the end, the chairmanship was handed to Steele by Kenneth Blackwell. Blackwell, though far more conservative than Steele, pulled out of the race for the party chairmanship and endorsed him. Social conservatives, who assumed Blackwell would remain neutral or endorse Dawson, were angry. “Katon Dawson is far more conservative,” said an activist who had been flogging Dawson on his website but asked that his name not be used. “In the end, you stick with your values. This makes it look like race was the deciding factor.”

I asked Blackwell, who earlier in the day had said he “abhors racial politics,” why he urged his supporters to vote for Steele rather than Dawson. “Since the sixties, Michael and I have disagreed without being disagreeable on a number of issues,” Blackwell said. “But we agree on 80 percent of the issues that most Republicans agree on. Ronald Reagan said ‘someone who agrees with me 80 percent of the time is my friend.’ So I had no problem supporting Michael.”

Blackwell had agreed with Dawson on 100 percent of the issues that most Republicans agree on. Yet it’s safe to assume that Blackwell’s “a little more than kin, a little less than kind” decision to endorse Steele was informed by the party’s desperate need to attract minority voters—or perish.

There were perhaps thirty or forty African Americans wearing RNC badges, while five (by my count) African Americans were seated on the floor among the 165 voting delegates. Many of the black faces in the ballroom were young RNC staffers, volunteers, or guests of the party. One middle-aged African-American woman who didn’t have credentials to get into the ballroom complained to a security staffer. “You are pushing every black face you can find out onto that floor and you won’t let me in?” she said. “Don’t you know I was a Bush appointee? This whole process is offensive.”

As Blackwell withdrew from the race, he defined the dilemma confronting his party. “Sometimes the only way to win an election is to change the composition of the electorate.”

That’s a longer and far less likely process. The RNC changed its chairmanship, dominating the news cycle on a Friday when the Congress had adjourned and House Republicans were on a closed retreat in Virginia—a vision quest for a strategy that might work in the Brave New World ushered in by the election of Barack Obama.

CORRECTION—In the February 1 issue, we incorrectly stated the amount of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The correct amount is $700 billion, not $750 billion.