The weird thing about the PPP poll

The new PPP numbers are out in Texas, and they are bad for Wendy Davis. Not only has she not moved the needle against Greg Abbott, but her negatives have shot up at a time when Abbott was getting sustained bad press. What gives?

Before I went on Fox 7 last night, I looked inside the numbers and found a strange and startling result. Apparently 27% of Obama voters in Texas don’t know who Wendy Davis is. This makes no sense to use, since everyone we know knows who she is. But this helps explain why Davis faired so poorly in the border counties in the primary. It wasn’t that they were voting against her on abortion as Republicans claim, but that they were voting for the Hispanic name over the Anglo name of the unknown candidate.

That isn’t great for Davis, who needs to do a lot of work in the Valley. But it’s better than everyone hating her.

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Blood Moon Risin’

blood moon

The Blood Moon on Monday night might have brought on the apocalypse, because a rash of stupidity in politics seems to have infected this great land of ours. When you have one major political party winning the argument against evolution, brainless is the new black. But if Republicans define dumb down any more, soon they’ll have to apply for drilling rights.

How low can they go? Mike Huckabee (R-Fox News) turned a legitimate gripe about airport security into this bon mot: “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.”

Well, sure. The similarities are obvious. For example, political dissidents in North Korea are sentenced to three generations in a prison camp, meaning their families, their children’s families, and their grandchildren have to live out their lives in prison as punishment. Huckabee makes a good living enjoying his First Amendment rights on TV and is the 2016 Republican frontrunner for president. The similarities are inescapable, kind of like North Korea.

Lately, it’s been hard to get Republicans to admit that racism exists these days. Now it’s hard to get them to admit it existed in the past. At a town hall, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-And a bottle of rum) told a black constituent that ending segregation was unconstitutional. On a Christian radio show, Jim DeMint, the ex-senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, claimed that government played no role in ending slavery. It was “the conscience of the American people” and not, for example, the Union Army that won the war.

The stupid, it burns, and the rash is spreading. The minimum wage last rose in 2009 to $7.25 an hour. Congress isn’t going to do anything, so Oklahoma stepped in , and Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill banning minimum wage increases. Supporters of the law said that raising the minimum wage could hurt economic development. Opponents of the law pointed out that this was Oklahoma and asked, “What economic development?”

If you look at the words conservatives use to describe the “War on Women,” it’s clear someone bought a new thesaurus at the He-Man Woman Haters Club: deceptive, fraudulent, phony, blather. Except there’s always another story about goofy Republicans who thought new ways to punish women for having lady parts.

In Missouri, a lawmaker is demanding that women seeking abortions undergo invasive ultrasound procedures to give them the shocking news of their pregnancies. But to State Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger (R-you kidding me), this is really very simple. Getting an abortion is like buying a car.

“I have to look at it, get information about it, maybe drive it, you know, a lot of different things. Check prices,” he said. “There’s lots of things that I do putting into a decision. Whether that’s a car, whether that’s a house, whether that’s any major decision that I put in my life. Even carpeting.”

Actually, he’s not far off. People hate getting lied to at a high-pressure used car dealership, which is remarkably similar to what goes on at a crisis pregnancy center.

But that’s nothing compared to what they’ve got going on in South Carolina, where a legislative committee expanded the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law to allow women to shoot people to defend “unborn children.” It seemed to have occurred to no one that a woman’s self-defense might have been sufficient cause for deadly force. Kudos to South Carolina for hitting the trifecta: guns, abortion, and race.

Some Christians see the Blood Moon as a sign of End Times. “There’s a sense in the world that things are changing and God is trying to communicate with us in a supernatural way,” said Texas pastor John Hagee, whose sermon series “Blood Moon Prophesies” predicted a “world-shaking event” in the Middle East between now and October 2015.

Turns out, a Blood Moon is just a lunar eclipse in which the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon. They happen frequently. The next one is in October. The Blood Moon isn’t End Times. Unfortunately, neither is the Republican Party. It looks like we’re stuck with each other.

On Apr. 16, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Perry’s problems serious enough for Botsford

abbott-perryThere are some lawyers you keep on retainer to keep you out of trouble. There are some lawyers you hire to make sure matters don’t become trouble. And there are some lawyers, such as David L. Botsford, whom you hire when you’ve got trouble.

Rick Perry hired Botsford.

Long story short, he told the Travis County District Attorney to resign lest he cut her budget, which includes jurisdiction over official corruption in Texas. At the time, the Public Integrity Unit was investigating the Perry administration. Whether Perry’s threat constituted official corruption has been the subject of an investigation by a special prosecutor who recently said he was “very concerned” about Perry’s actions. Today, a grand jury is being impaneled to investigate this matter.

botsfordThat “very concerned” comment caused much ink to spill in Texas, but it’s Perry’s hiring of Botsford that is the real sign that this investigation is getting serious. According to The Austin American-Statesman, Botsford is the guy you call when you’ve run out of most of your life lines. Here’s a partial list of his clients:

  • Hussein Ali “Mike” Yassine, an Austin nightclub owner now serving time in federal prison for money laundering.

  • Wendell Loy Nielsen, a lieutenant of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs’. Nielsen was convicted of bigamy in 2012 in connection with underage marriages at the sect’s West Texas ranch.

  • Michael Angelo’s Gourmet Food Co. in the 2003 death of a worker who was killed in a meat processing machine. The company settled the case without criminal charges being filed.

  • San Antonio businessman Allen Blackthorne, who was sentenced to two life prison terms in 2000 for arranging the murder of his ex-wife while she was home with her toddler quadruplets in Sarasota, Fla.

  • Death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. Tucker, a born-again Christian, challenged the legality of Texas’ clemency process but was executed in 1998.

Botsford and I found ourselves on the same side on one high-profile corruption case involving a Democratic donor who had hired me for crisis communications. He was added to the legal team to head up the appeals process after some of the top criminal defense attorneys in Texas failed to prevent what I still feel was a politically motivated prosecution. He is a serious man you only hire for serious times. Whatever Perry says publicly about this investigation, hiring Botsford proves that he is taking it seriously.

Daily Caller gets math wrong in attacking Wendy Davis

Been off the teevee for a couple weeks as I dealt with a hellish cold, but last night I was back to explain to my friend Rob Johnson, a Republican consultant and Rick Perry’s former presidential campaign manager, why The Daily Caller‘s equal pay attack on Wendy Davis was a load of crap:

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“You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you”

When it comes to explaining the GOP’s Hispanic problem, you can’t do much better than former House Republican Leader Dick Armey. “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you,” he said. Some Republicans think their problem is simply not asking for the votes, but by obstructing immigration reform, insulting Latinos, and calling for cuts to the programs Hispanics support, Republicans aren’t going to the prom any time soon.

This isn’t news to Republican leaders, who, in the “autopsy” of the 2012 election in which they got 27% of the Hispanic vote, laid out a map back to George W. Bush’s high-water mark of 44%. Bush did so well because he spoke well of Hispanics, calling immigrants “Americans by choice” and saying, “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande and a hungry mother is going to try to feed her child.”

By welcoming immigrants to our country, he made Hispanic feel welcome in his party, but this is not his Republican Party, noted the GOP roadmap:

“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

It’s not complicated, but since the GOP released their roadmap in Mar. 2013 Republicans can’t get it right.

No sooner did the GOP release the report than Don Young reminisced about the “wetbacks” picking tomatoes on his dad’s farm. Louie Gohmert, a congressman who merely needs to be quoted to be mocked, said Al-Qaeda was training terrorists “to come in and act like Hispanic [sic] when they are radical Islamists.” And Steve King passed an amendment to deport foreign-born children brought here by their parents. Every Texas Republican voted for the King amendment except Pete Sessions, who sat on his hands.

Republicans have gone from George W. Bush welcoming immigrants to state Sen. Dan Patrick calling immigration an “illegal invasion.” Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and the Republican congressmen who represent them have successfully obstructed comprehensive immigration reform.

All hope is not lost. At the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library last week, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour expressed optimism that Speaker John Boehner could pass comprehensive immigration reform. “There’s clearly a path to success,” he said.

But now another Bush, this time George P., says Republicans don’t need to support immigration to woo Hispanics.

“We don’t have to change our positions and our ideas as conservatives and Republicans to win the Hispanic vote,” George P. Bush told CNN. “We need to change our tactics. And I believe that as Republicans it’s incumbent not only on the party and also elected officials and aspiring political candidates to spend time in the Hispanic community.”

Pobrecito. George P. is lucky. He’s not only rich, good-looking, and from a famously pro-Hispanic family, but he’s also Hispanic. Everyone is happy to see him. He’s the John Hamm of Texas Republicans, finding nothing but open doors and happy faces everywhere he goes. But being famous, good-looking, and Hispanic is not an option available to most Republican candidates, especially when you consider their voters.

But let’s assume we are George P. Bush, here to save the Republican Party from itself with Hispanic voters. Let’s pretend Republican partisans have stopped making Hispanics feel unwelcome in this country, let alone the party, and congress passed immigration reform.

Even in this fantasyland, Hispanics will vote for Democrats as long as Republicans are the party of limited government. Poll after poll shows that big majorities of Hispanics favor a bigger government that provides well-funded schools and access to health insurance. Democrats don’t have to fake liking that music.

Expecting George P. Bush to rehabilitate the GOP with Hispanics is like thinking Julian Lennon will start a band as famous as his dad’s. Until the Republican Party decides to stop insulting Hispanics and start giving them what they want, Democrats are happy to dance with them that brung us. Another Texan said that, but he was smart enough not to serve in congress.

On Apr. 14, 2014, The Austin American-Statesman published this column.

If education is a civil right, who are the good guys?

testing cartoonAt the Civil Rights Summit celebrating the Civil Rights Act’s 50th birthday, everyone agreed that equal opportunity to education was a civil right. If that’s true, then who are today’s Freedom Riders and who is standing in the schoolhouse door? Education reformers see themselves as modern-day civil rights heroes, but the real continuation of non-violent protest can be found in the parents and students in the grassroots opt out movement that is refusing to take standardized tests.

In this fight, the power is almost all on the side of those who assume you can make a pig heavier by weighing it a lot, to put it in terms LBJ would have liked. And without any sense of shame or embarrassment, those who created this testing culture see themselves as his descendents.

“On the issue of education, we’re dealing with the meaning of America, and the extent of its promise, and in this cause the passion and energy of Lyndon Baines Johnson still guides us forward,” said George W. Bush in his speech at the LBJ Presidential Library.

Bush started it with No Child Left Behind, but Barack Obama’s Race to the Top is no better. Education Sec. Arne Duncan called Common Core “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.”

One of the problems with this policy discussion is that the pro-testing crowd can’t understand how anyone could be against using tests to measure learning.

“It’s hard to imagine anything so basic could be so controversial,” said Bush. “I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning, and for the sake of America’s children, that is something we cannot allow.”

Public education advocates don’t oppose high-stakes testing because they want to go back to the way things were in the ‘70s. They’re against over-testing because it’s not working. Under No Child Left Behind, our students have lost ground to the rest of the world.

Even Sandy Kress, the architect of No Child Left Behind who now lobbies for Pearson, thinks there’s a problem.

“You’ve got drilling and benchmark testing every six weeks,” Kress said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of overtesting in a lot of places. It’s just awful, and it draws really negative reactions from parents, teachers and communities. Tests weren’t intended to be treated that way.”

But the answer from the pro-testing crowd is always “standardized testing now, standardized testing tomorrow, standardized testing forever.” To folks like Bush, Duncan, and Kress, there is nothing wrong with testing that cannot be solved with “better and more rigorous standardized tests.” The problem with testing is never the tests.

That’s why a surprising number of parents and students have chosen non-violent resistance as a last resort. If you want to find the people integrating lunch counters these days, check out the folks refusing to take the tests, or “opting out” as a form of protest.

Opting out is in. In New York State, at least 33,000 students skipped the Common Core tests in protest. In Seattle, 600 high school students opted out a year after their teachers refused to administer en masse. Some schools in California have seen nearly 90% of students opt out.

No one should compare students opting out of standardized tests to students risking their lives on the Freedom Rides, but it’s definitely non-violent protest. Parents who decide to opt their children out face pressure and threats from school administrators. Some schools forbid students who opted out from reading during the tests, forcing them to sit silently and stare at walls for four hours.

A Denver high school kept a student from returning to class after skipping the morning tests. In Utah, a teacher was fired for letting students know they had the right to opt out. In New York, a 13-year-old was suspended for telling her classmates the same thing.

The opt out movement is part of the Education Spring revolt taking place nationwide against the testing culture. In another 50 years, we might hold another summit to honor this new civil rights movement. But if that happens, the heroes we celebrate then probably won’t be the ones who are creating the problem now.

On Apr. 14, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Why are Republicans playing the victim on civil rights?

A1029-11ARepublicans used to be the bullies, but now they can’t stop whining about how everyone’s picking on them. They’ve volunteered for the losing side on every single civil rights fight facing America and seem happy to whine about their woeful circumstances. When did the Republicans decide playing the victim was a good idea?

This week three ex-presidents are joining Barack Obama in Austin at the LBJ presidential library to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Beyond focusing on the struggles of the struggle for racial equality, the Civil Rights Summit featured panels on immigration, gay rights, social justice, and feminism. On all of these issues, Republicans find themselves cast as the bad guys in the ongoing American struggle to form a more perfect union.

“How could they not?” asked former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke in favor of immigration reform at the Civil Rights Summit. “The media’s already said, decided and said, if this [immigration reform] doesn’t pass it’ll be the Republicans’ fault. Most Republicans would not take that point of view, but they think, well, the media wants to blame it on us. What’s new?”

Being on the wrong side of history has created a strange sense of aggrieved victimhood among Republican candidates and rank-and-file voters. The Republican platform has become a symphony of dog whistles, but Republicans think the real problem is the angry snarling of the attack dogs. In his much-discussed New York Magazine cover story, Jonathan Chait wrote, “This is the only context in which they [Republicans] appear able to understand racism.”

December 21, 2013Republicans’ vision is so clouded that they can only identify their heroes after they’ve been martyred. Conservatives didn’t make Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson their poster boy until A&E suspended his show when he made anti-gay remarks in GQ. Republican politicians didn’t bring bags of Chic-fil-A to photo ops until until liberals boycotted the restaurant, again over anti-gay remarks.

Not long ago, conservatives were not just offensive but on the offensive. In 1988, Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton’s ad was less a dog whistle than an air raid siren warning white voters that Michael Dukakis was letting black rapists out of prison. In 2004, 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. And as recently as 2011, Alabama passed the toughest anti-immigration bill in the country, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants in schools, the workplace, and in rental housing.

But now conservatives are playing defense. It took years to turn the tide for blacks, women, and Hispanics, but attitudes about gays and lesbians flipped in an instant. In 2010, Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A year ago June, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and now same-sex couples can get married in 17 states. America got religion on gay rights in a hurry, making it unique among the civil rights struggles.

“One of the things that is different is how fast we have moved and how far we have moved so quickly,” said marriage equality attorney David Boies at the Civil Rights Summit, who noted it took a decade after Brown v. Board of Education to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Atwater apologized on his deathbed in 1991 for using racial prejudice to inflame voters, but present-day conservatives make a virtue of finding themselves on the wrong side of history. They flaunt their victimhood to rally their troops to yet another lost cause. These conservatives would sooner cast themselves as heroic victims than apologize for resorting to bigotry.

Republicans believe so deeply in their own victimhood that the world only makes sense in the reflection of a fun house mirror. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed anti-gay legislation, Rush Limbaugh said she was “being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona and elsewhere.” When you’re afraid of gay bullies, you’ve already lost.

When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he said that the South was lost to Republicans. The Democrats may have lost the South, but by seeing themselves as the victims of every single civil rights battle the country—and not the last defense of discrimination—the Republican Party has lost its mind. But even bullies need a hug every now and then.

On Apr. 9, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Teaching writing wrong

exceptionalismIf you have a seventh grader, then you know that he or she just got done taking a standardized test for writing. The good news is that our country’s education policy recognizes that writing is a necessary skill in the information era. The bad news is that because of the way we administer and grade the writing standardized tests, we’d have a better idea of whether our kids can write if we looked at their texts.

The problem is not that we expect our children to learn to write essays. The problem is that we expect these essays to come in a standard format that lends itself to mass-scale scoring and apples-to-apples comparisons. So to really make sure our children never learn to write well, Pearson looked to the one place no one would look to for clear, helpful writing—the legal profession.

In Texas and in the 17 states in which Pearson—the world’s largest testing company—designed the Common Core tests, students took a writing test on a page filled almost entirely by a rectangular box filled with 26 lines. At the bottom of the page was the warning, “Students may not write outside the box.” You might think 26 lines is an arbitrary limit to place on a student’s thoughts until you realize that each page of a legal pleading is also 26 lines.

These are not the five-paragraph essays we learned with the introduction, three supporting points, and conclusion. Our children—mine included—are being taught that good writing is filling in the box and using all 26 lines.

My seventh-grader took the writing test this week and had to write three essays. One of his prompts was “What are the benefits of laughter?” When he told me what he wrote, he said that he organized his points like a real essay, but he didn’t indent the paragraphs because his teacher told him not to. His essay was a solid block of words.

The problem wasn’t the teacher. Besides being handsome and funny, my seventh-grader is in an honors program. The fault lies with the graders Pearson hires to evaluate the millions of essays written by 13-year-olds every year. You would like to think that for the hundreds of millions of tax dollars we pay them every year that Pearson would hire retired teachers, laid-off journalists, or starving graduate students. You would probably also like to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Todd Farley knows better. He wrote a funny insider memoir called “Making the Grades:  My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.” Because states needed millions of essays graded on unrealistic deadlines, corners were cut. They hired graders off Craig’s List. They hired raging drunks, burnouts, and folks who spoke English—badly—as a second language.

In the blur to meet deadlines, essays that used all 26 lines got the better scores, and teachers learned to game the system. When state officials learned what was happening, they passed regulations to ensure that trained professionals had sufficient time to fairly evaluate student essays. And then the Chicago Cubs won the Super Bowl and the Republican Party demanded Obama’s face be carved into Mount Rushmore.

What actually happened is that Pearson, which remains largely unregulated despite effectively running education in our country, programmed machines to grade essays. They promise this will be even cheaper than hiring human morons, and we’ll get the results more quickly.

In 2012, an MIT professor found that an electronic grader designed by the Education Testing Service is just another video game with hidden cheats. Longer essays with bigger words got better grades than succinct, well-argued essays. Worse yet, the computers could not discern truth and assumed any fact was correct. Your child could fill up 26 lines about Obama’s Kenyan birthplace and get a good score. We’re training children to write like lawyers for Fox News.

One of the benefits of laughter is that it helps you accept what the testing industry is doing to our education system, but the joke’s on us. We want to make our children “college and career ready,” but all they’re learning to do is game the system. Great. More lawyers.