Posted on February 23, 2017 in Countdown

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Lost in Town Hall Translation

This week's Congressional recess has officially turned in to a big, long playback loop of heated town hall exchanges between (mostly) Republican members of Congress and unpaid activists (almost entirely) about the future of health insurance. Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Tom Cotton (R-AK), and House Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R, UT-3) are just a few of the Republican party leaders whose uncomfortable town halls are being painfully broadcast across the mainstream media. But where is this all heading? While there is a definite chance that the passion and persistence of these events may well impact how legislators make policy - it has a lot of work to do if it’s going to translate into a winning 2018 Senate strategy for Democrats. There is a chance though. To regain control of the Senate, Democrats need to flip at least 3 seats. But of the 34 Senate seats up for election in 2018 (23 Democrats, 2 Independents, 9 Republicans), it’s the Democrats who are fighting to hold on in states that Trump handily won last year. Moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) are all in tossup, two-way races against challenges from Republicans and likely challenges from a progressive left primary opponent. Democrats will be hard pressed to hold all three of these seats. There's only three Republican seats that are even considered in play at all, and they all lean heavily Republican - Sens. Cruz (R-TX), Flake (R-AZ), and Heller (R-NV). Can town halls be impactful on these three critical states? Definitely. To date, Senator Flake has refused to host a town hall, Sen. Cruz has similarly refused, and Heller has angered activists by saying he will only hold a town hall if there is "no booing." The missing Senators haven't slowed down the protests - but their calculation (so far) to skip out of public events and trust that they still have majority support in their state might further fire up their opponents. As always, the Democratic tossups and the most beatable Republicans will each come down to voter turnout. While there is definitely boo'ing in democracy, there will also be votes.

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The White House's Global Alarm

People who care about American foreign policy are grasping for any hint of normalcy. President Trump's appointment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Advisor gave even the most worried analysts hope that the President was coming around to stability and tradition (it really shouldn't). A quick recap of the week in foreign affairs: Vice President Mike Pence went to Europe to basically take back everything Trump has ever said about the U.S.'s commitment to our European allies. It did not assuage European concerns, it just created confusion and undermined the Vice President's authority because he was so far off afield from what the President has been saying. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was notably absent from the European confab, as he was absent from all the recent heads of state meetings the Administration has held (Japan PM Abe, Israeli PM Netanyahu, Canadian President Trudeau, etc). Sec. Tillerson was tapped to go down to Mexico along with Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly to mend fences (and build walls) with President Peña Nieto after a pretty alarming diplomatic diss in January. Meanwhile, the campaign to take east Mosul from ISIS is making great progress but costing American lives. A new round of peace talks between Syrian rebels and the Syrian regime are getting underway in Geneva while U.S. aid to Syrian rebels has been stopped., Afghanistan is facing dire times, and famine has been declared in South Sudan. While many are trying to comfort themselves with the few glimmers of hope for normalcy on the U.S. foreign policy front, there's too many fires for one National Security Advisor to put out.

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This Shouldn't Be Difficult: Anti-Semitism is Wrong

Where to start? We are still dumbfounded as to why the President of the United States - which is home to approximately 5.3 million American Jews - would repeatedly equivocate (one timetwo timesthree times) when asked to specifically denounce anti-Semitism. His omission of any clear condemnation of anti-Jewish hate speech and crimes is more than just a repugnant misstep. It actually is anti-Semitic and it is breeding more anti-Semitism, just look at the St. Louis cemetery hate crime. And while the President dodged the issue, the factual problem of increasing anti-Semitism in the U.S. was allowed to be opportunistically and wrongly conflated with activism on college campuses for Palestine [we want to be clear: anti-Semitism is real, criticizing Israeli policy is not by itself anti-Semitic]. The President's lack of leadership plays a dangerous game of denying that anti-Semitism exists and is a problem, which then breeds fear and anger among American Jews while emboldening the unsavory parts of Trump's white nationalist base that are in the business of promoting anti-Semitism. When the President finally made a comment on the manner following the St. Louis obscenity, it was seriously lacking substantive leadership, vision and empathy. His words ring empty because of the month he spent dancing around the issue uncomfortably and confusingly. It's an easy issue. Be clear, Mr. President.

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This Shouldn't Be Difficult: Islamophobia is Equally Wrong

It took a month to get the President to denounce anti-Semitism, but he has yet to denounce the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that his White House is also at fault for promulgating. We aren't hopeful that the President or any of his cronies will correct the record any time soon. Unlike anti-Semitism that the White House seemingly hoped to just side step, the same White House is actively looking (and already has) installed unapologetically anti-Muslim policies. Which is not a shock to anyone who watched the campaign and/or is familiar with the White House inner circle of white supremacy and anti-Muslim bigotry.  From Stephen Bannon, to Dr. Sebastian Gorka, to Trump himself - we are not surprised to be staring down the increasing criminalization, marginalization, exclusion, and surveillance of Arab Americans and American Muslims. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been asked twice now to condemn the rise in anti-Muslim hate, and twice he has refused. Spicer's response to this request just two days ago is instructive. When asked to simply condemn it, he pivoted to the President's desire to fight "radical Islamic terrorism." But the White House can't side step this for too long, their plans for a Muslim Ban 2.0 and their plan to repurpose Countering Violent Extremism will put the Administration's anti-Islam, anti-Arab agenda squarely in the eye of the storm. Again, this should be easy. 

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...And So Is Racism, Xenophobia, and Homophobia

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia weren't the only scourges of bigotry that took center stage in White House policy this week. The Department of Homeland Security stepped up its aggressive efforts to deport mass numbers of undocumented immigrants - which is just another way the Trump administration is stoking xenophobia and creating a climate of fear in vulnerable communities of color. It is hard to believe - or stomach - that in schools across the country, teachers are having to ask parents who they want their child to go home with in the event they're deported quickly and unexpectedly. Some students and parents fear this scenario - in which a child is dropped off at school by his/her parents and then never picked up - that it is having a drastic impact on attendance in some areas. How is this helping our national security and future prosperity? But that's not the only White House policy that is having a major impact on the life of school kids this week - last night's announcement that the Department of Education is withdrawing its guidance that protects transgender kids is a leading contender for the most devastating act of the White House week. It's cruel and a really bad sign of things to come from a Department of Education and a broader White House determined to roll back social justice values that demand equal treatment and protection for all Americans. None of these policies make America great. It was a bad week for all of us, because we are one nation.