Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Halloween on East 91st

The New York City air has turned crisp, chilled by autumn's embrace.  Fallen leaves coat sidewalks and planters along the city streets and avenues.  An occasional wind gust stirs them into action, briefly making them reddish and brownish blurs in search of a new temporary home.  While people shuffle through unswept piles of leaves, the children frolic in them.

But on the city's Upper East Side, at the intersection of Park Avenue and East 91st Street, something very unusual has caught everyone's attention.  Giant spiders are affixed to the side of an apartment building -- perhaps waiting to pounce on some innocent victim. Since the arachnids suddenly appeared overnight a few days ago, those who walk by do so with extreme caution! 

The spiders were the first sign that Halloween is upon us.

Perhaps no city block takes Halloween more seriously than East 91st Street. On that magical day people from all over the region descend on this two-block stretch lined by beautiful limestone townhouses and apartment buildings.  The famous Brick Church is located across Park Avenue from the spider building. 

Typically beginning in the late afternoon, thousands of costumed kids crowd the sidewalks in search of candy treats.  They come from the Bronx, Harlem and Queens.  A few come from New Jersey and even Long Island.  Some arrive by subway, and others are bused to the neighborhood.  

Kids are dressed as superheroes and villains.  There are several Buzz Lightyears and numerous Disney characters.  Some trick-or-treaters wear sophisticated and intricate costumes, while others might wear a colorful tee-shirt or goofy hat. And, just when you think you've seen everything, a group of parents will wander by in full costume.  This can very very weird!

The neighborhood has seen some very famous trick-or-treaters in past years.  They include Alec Baldwin and his then preteen daughter, Ireland.  Woody Allen, who once lived in the hood, and family once joined in the fun, although he never looks like he is having fun.  Former New York Met Al Leiter brought his kids by one year.  Other trick-or-treaters include some of the most powerful young bankers and lawyers in the nation.  

As the evening wears on, more and more houses display "Out of Candy" signs.  Some residents run to the corner to buy more sweets, bringing their total expense for candy to well over $1,000!  

As evening turns into night, the flurry of actively subsides.  A quiet calm settles onto the neighborhood.  The temperature cools and the leaves, now mixed with candy wrappers, are still.  Soon the spiders, skeletons, vampires, ghosts and goblins will all go into hibernation for the next eleven months.  And thousands of kids will have a lifelong memory.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fix the Glitches

The government shutdown was a misguided and senseless tactic that cost American taxpayers at least $24 billion and damaged the Republican brand.  But the error-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has given the GOP a way to change the conversation.

Senator Ted Cruz's reckless strategy to defund Obamacare was never going to succeed.  But he knew that.  However, the ambitious Cruz saw it as tremendous opportunity to galvanize Tea Party members behind his leadership.   And, while moderate Republicans call his maneuvers a "fool's errand," there is no question Cruz has now won the loyal support of many on the right.

Yet many Republicans are shaking their heads in frustration because the Cruz shutdown has taken attention away from Obamacare's problems.  "The fiasco of rollout has been obscured because of this internecine strife that's been going on in the Republican Party," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said Sunday on CNN.  "Keep up the fight against Obamacare, but don't shut down the government and have so much collateral damage to innocent Americans."

However, out of the GOP wreckage will quickly emerge an all out attack against the problem-plagued launch of Obamacare.  On CBS's Face the Nation Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Obamacare,  "The worst piece of legislation passed in the last half century...we need to get rid of it." He claimed that even if one can get on the site, they will find fewer choices and higher costs.

Democrats recognize that the faulty rollout is an issue ripe for exploitation.   Last week on MSNBC, Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called it, "Excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department of Health and Human Services." On ABC's This Week, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the problems "unacceptable."  She added, "This has to be fixed, but what doesn't have to be fixed is the fact the tens of millions of more people will have access to affordable healthcare, quality healthcare.  That no longer having a preexisting medical condition will bar you from getting affordable care." 

The White House and HHS have had years to prepare for the launch of Obamacare.  All along they have said that Republicans oppose it because Americans will fall in love with it once it is available.  But now the architects of President Obama's signature legislative achievement are vulnerable to attack and relentless scrutiny from Congressional Committees.  Republicans would like nothing more than to turn Obamacare against Democrats in the 2014-midterm elections.

Already Republican Chairmen Fred Upton, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has announced he will investigate.  "It is well past time for the administration to be straight and transparent with the American people," he said in a statement last week.  For instance, how many millions of dollars were spent to design the error plagued software?  Whose fault is it that the program has failed?

President Obama is expected to address the health care glitches on Monday.  While making health care accessible for all remains a worthy goal, and millions of people have already tried to learn more about the offerings, the problems must be quickly remedied.  If the president fails to make that happen, Obamacare may damage his ability to achieve any further legislative successes.

Mr. Obama has already stated his intention to pivot onto the difficult and complex issue of immigration reform.  He has also indicated he is interested in achieving a budget deal with Republicans that will include infrastructure, tax and entitlement reform.   But the problems with Obamacare will weaken his position.

Republicans are mindful of the words once spoken by the president's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What Hath Cruz Wrought?

With very little time remaining until the U.S. government technically goes into default on its debt, Senate Republicans and Democrats struggle to reach a short-term solution that would end the partial government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. Of course, both parties say they are fighting for the American people, yet the American people are the biggest losers no matter the outcome of this latest skirmish. 

How ridiculous was it that Texas Senator Ted Cruz decided to lead an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, in exchange for keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling. Senator Cruz knew full well that the Senate would not take the matter up, and the president would not go along with overturning his signature achievement. Even leading Republicans in both houses acknowledge it was the wrong strategy.

Now, in the height of hypocrisy, Senator Cruz joined his close friend, Utah Senator Mike Lee, and several Republicans Sunday to protest the government closing of the World War II Memorial in Washington. A small crowd gathered at the barriers chanted, "Tear down these walls." Senator Cruz said that the Obama administration was using veterans as pawns. What phony outrage! Cruz and Lee are the architects of the shutdown.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53 percent of the public blames Republicans, while 31 percent blame President Barack Obama. The poll shows that Republicans are getting more blame this year than they did when the government last shutdown in 1995-96. And the poll shows Cruz with a 14 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable rating. Surprisingly, the poll shows that while the government debate has gone on, Obamacare has gotten more popular, although it is still under water overall.

Utah's Senator Mike Lee has been a loyal and ardent supporter of his close friend Ted Cruz. He has received warm praise from his colleague for being a great leader and public servant. Lee even helped fill in during Cruz's fake filibuster on the Senate floor last month. But even Lee should be privately asking himself, what hath Cruz wrought? 

Senator Lee's favorable/unfavorable rating has taken a big hit according to a Brigham University poll released last week. A majority of the respondents now view Lee unfavorably, a twenty point swing since June. And a poll from Utah's Deseret News revealed that most of the state's voters don't believe that interrupting government functions to stop Obamacare is a good idea. 

A recent report estimates that the shutdown is hurting Utah 14th worst when compared to the other states and the District of Columbia. In fact, the report, by WalletHub, found, "States won by the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election could be hit disproportionately hard by a prolonged government shutdown, as 15 such Red States ranked in the top 25 in the study's overall 'at-risk' rankings." 

So it is no wonder Lee is losing support. Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, told Time Magazine, "Utahans expect effectiveness and efficiency and results out of their government, not ideological tantrums." But Washington has devolved into nothing but ideological tantrums and trust in government is at an all-time low. 

From its very inception the Tea Party's goal has been to blow the federal government up. Close the place down. Default on the debt. Whatever it takes to get federal deficits under control, including "starving the beast." Tea Party Congressmen are all from gerrymandered districts that are 100% safe. They do not have to worry about what is best for America, and most Americans. Meanwhile, the House leadership fears the Tea Party.

Only in Washington would the very people who caused the government shutdown, and possibly a catastrophic government default, demonstrate against the shutdown. Confused? Well there is no better practitioner of perception deception than Senator Ted Cruz. 

One citizen at the WWII Memorial perhaps spoke for most Americans, "This is ridiculous. This is not just and fair. It's just not fair."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Power of Faith

St. Thomas More Catholic Church, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, serves some of New York's most prominent families.  But these well-connected and widely traveled parishioners were moved to tears at Sunday's 12:30pm mass.  

Father Linus Nangwele, who is a visiting priest while studying at the United Nations, celebrated the mass.  The gospel reading was about the power of faith.  Following that reading, Father Nangwele asked everyone what time is was.  When he received a response, he then asked for everyone to indulge him for ten minutes. 

He began his sermon with the story of Margaret.  Forty years ago she lived in a small rural village in Ghana with her four-year-old son.  She worked on a farm outside of town, but always left her son behind so he could play with friends.  One day, while playing with his friends, the boy suddenly collapsed to the ground.  He had stopped breathing, and his stomach had become bloated.  The villagers, who were called to the scene, pronounced the boy dead.

Now there were no mortuaries or funeral homes in rural Ghana, so the dead were buried within 24 hours.  But Margaret was off working on a farm, so someone was dispatched to get her.  When Margaret arrived and saw her son's body she broke down.  The villagers informed her that they would bury her boy the next day.  But Margaret refused to go along with tradition.  She had to know what happened to her son.

Margaret created a sling out of the fabric she was wearing, wrapped it around her son and slung his body over her back.  Carrying her son and a rosary, Margaret walked 25 miles to the nearest hospital.  When she arrived late at night she explained to the nurse what had happened.  The nurse looked at the boy and then told Margaret she would have to leave and go bury her son.

By Margaret refused to leave.  She made such a scene that it attracted a doctor's attention.  She explained to the doctor that she couldn't believe what had happened to her boy and demanded that he perform an autopsy to determine the cause.   The doctor agreed to do so.  As he worked for several hours on the boy, Margaret sat outside the door saying her rosary.

When the doctor emerged from the operating room he told Margaret that her son was alive.  But, he cautioned, it would take a long time for the boy to fully recover.  So Margaret stayed with her son for two years as he slowly recovered.  When the boy was discharged from the hospital, Margaret took her son back to their village.  Only many villagers refused to believe that the boy was alive.  Instead, they thought he was a ghost.  

The St. Thomas More parishioners hung on every word as the priest continued his story, explaining that the boy ended up going to school, then on to college, then he entered the seminary, and was ordained a priest in 2000.  Father Nangwele then paused briefly, and said; "So today that boy stands before you."  

A collective gasp rolled across the pews, then murmurs as people spoke to their neighbor of their surprise.  Then the parishioners gave Father Linus a warm round of applause, something that rarely happens during this portion of a mass.  But Father Nangwele had more for the gathering.  

"What do the letters in the word faith stand for", he asked.  He answered himself: "Forward An Issue To Heaven."  He said his mother, who never gave up on her boy, had strong faith.  Father Nangwele then asked what the letters in the word "push" mean.  He responded, "Pray Until Something Happens."  Of course, his mother never stopped praying.  As he finished his sermon, the priest paused again, and said, "My name is Linus, L I N U S."  He then smiled, nodded and returned to the altar to continue the mass

Father Linus has occasionally told this story in his sermons to explain his calling to priesthood.  He came to the United States in 2005, and has lived in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale while pursuing advanced degrees in theology and conflict analysis and resolution.  His English is fluent, although he has an accent, and his smile in infectious.  

After the mass was over, a huge line of parishioners waited to shake Father Linus's hand and thank him for his incredibly moving personal story.  In ten short minutes he had given them a powerful reason to have faith.

Friday, October 4, 2013

GOP Shutdown Politics

"This isn't a damn game!" House Speaker John Boehner said Friday at a news conference on the budget stalemate that has led to the government shutdown.  Really Mr. Speaker?  The government shutdown is, in fact, a direct result of political gamesmanship by the Republicans. 

Let's start with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Narcissus of Capitol Hill.  No one loves Senator Ted Cruz more than, well, Ted Cruz.  And it is no wonder.  This man holds himself in the highest esteem, walks with swagger, and drips with ambition.   Throughout his lifetime, all of his actions, associations and alliances have been undertaken solely for the advancement of Ted Cruz. 

He is clearly far smarter than your average Tea-Party Congressmen, so he is leading them around by their noses on his little ego trip.  And they love it because they each get to fulfill their lifelong dream of destroying the federal government, which they believe is at the root of all this country's problems.  They are elected from gerrymandered districts that are filled with white hyper-conservative citizens who can be mobilized at the drop of an anti-Obama epithet.   

Meanwhile, Cruz has the admiring backing of Fox News and conservative radio talk show hosts, who are promulgating lies and distortions about the shutdown to rally their rabid Republican base.  The more outlandish the criticism on these right-wing outlets, the more the audience loves it.  (Just don't try to take their federal benefits away!)

Tea-Party Republicans are downright giddy that they have forced the federal government to shut down.  "We’re very excited," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mn). "It's exactly what we wanted, and we got it."   Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Ks) observed, "America's been a little astonished by us doing the right thing in the last few days here in the House."  

Nonetheless, the wiser Republican leadership has been flummoxed to by the negative public perception of the party as a result of the Cruz-driven strategy to shut the government down unless the Affordable Care Law, or Obamacare, is defunded.  Word of dissension in the party ranks has only added to the party's image problems.  Leaders have been scrambling to change the optics, to shift blame to President Obama and the Democrats. 

So it was particularly noteworthy when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul, both Kentucky Republicans, were caught in an embarrassing conversation on the senate floor by a Kentucky TV station.   They were talking about messaging strategy; neither man wanted the government shutdown.

Paul approached McConnell on the floor following his CNN interview.  McConnell began by warning Paul he was "wired up here."  But that didn't stop Paul, who was eager to share a powerful revelation that had come to him.  "I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're (Republicans) willing to compromise.  'We're willing to negotiate.'  I think... I don't think they (Democrats) poll tested we won't negotiate.  I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again," Paul said.
McConnell responded, "Yeah, I do too and I, and I just came back from that two hour meeting with them and that, and that was basically the same view privately as it was publicly."  McConnell was apparently referring to the meeting between President Obama and the Congressional leadership.
Paul added, "I think if we keep saying 'We wanted to defund it (Obamacare).  We fought for that and that we're willing to compromise on this', I think they can't, we're gonna, I think... well I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this I think."  So neither Congressmen wants the shutdown, but they are now both think they will "win" this debate by shifting blame to the Democrats, whose position they can summarize as "they don't want to negotiate" on the budget or debt ceiling.  

This, of course, assumes that most Americans won't understand that that Democrats have already agreed to huge cuts, basically continuing the "sequester" levels that have already been disruptive to government agencies and services.  Or that Democrats have consistently said they will negotiate after a budget bill is passed and the debt ceiling is raised; or that Democrats have said they are willing to make some adjustments in the Affordable Care Act.  

Meanwhile, Republicans have consistently said they will never agree to a new budget, or to raise the debt ceiling, unless Obamacare is defunded. The lower house has voted 42 times along party lines to defund Obamacare.   Republicans have wasted precious time and valuable taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate a law that was passed by congress, signed by the president, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that President Obama was reelected on.

Instead of passing even a short-term budget, so 800,000 federal employees can go back to work, and services can be restored to the poor and needy of all ages, Republicans have focused on winning the battle in the court of public opinion.  Instead of agreeing not to let this country's credit rating be destroyed, which will be devastating for the global economy, Republicans are trying to win the perception game.

Speaker Boehner, your protestations about this not being a game are empty because of the actions of you and your party.  All American can see the games Republicans are playing.  It is time for you to do the right thing for the country -- bring the senate-approved budget to the floor for a vote.  

And don't forget what happened to Narcissus.