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Why Obama Won: The Empathy Factor

During this election season, my young daughters posed many questions that were difficult to answer.  What’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans? Do politicians tell the truth?  How do you decide which candidate to vote for?

I tried to give them meaningful answers that didn’t oversimplify the issues at stake, but after a while, I resorted to shorthand. Democrats care about the poor. Republicans care about themselves.  All politicians stretch the truth, but some do so more than others. Support the candidate who shares your values.

Following President Barack Obama’s reelection to a second term, pundits have put forward various theories for why he won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, and why Gov. Mitt Romney lost.

We have heard that the president prevailed because he had a better ground game, that his staff and volunteers were more effective at getting out the vote than the governor. Some emphasize that he had the advantage of the incumbency and that he benefitted from Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie’s praise for the president’s response to the storm.

Others say that it was Romney’s election to lose, that he failed either because his policies were too conservative, turning off swing voters, or not conservative enough, failing to convince the right that he would protect their interests. Still others contend that the GOP and its funders — big banks, corporations and individuals like Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and Karl Rove —miscalculated by assuming that citizen’s votes could be readily purchased through misleading campaign ads or effectively suppressed through state-level ballot directives.

While there is some degree of truth to all these theories, the most compelling data is largely overlooked. Exit polling tells us that people who want a candidate who "cares about people like me" voted overwhelmingly for Obama — more than 80 percent. Further, 68 percent of those who say that Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy was important to them voted for the president. And 75 percent of those who view health care as the most important issue facing the country voted for him.

The demographics of those who voted for the president are revealing: the majority of people under age 40, especially single women and mothers; 93 percent of African-Americans; 73 percent of Latinos; 60 percent of those with an annual income of $50,000 or less; 71 percent of those who believe that the U.S. economy favors the wealthy; and the majority of those whose biggest problems are the housing market (63 percent) or unemployment (54 percent). Further, despite reports to the contrary, the percentage of youth, African-Americans and Latinos who went to the polls was up from 2008.

When voters chose President Obama, what were we motivated by?  For each of us it was different, but collectively we knew what we didn’t want: a government that would repeal health care reform, end Medicare, cut food stamps, or give a 20 percent tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. We didn’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade, veto the Dream Act, pass a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, or let the auto industry go bankrupt. And we didn’t want to return our foreign policy to the architects of the Iraq War.

What is the common denominator, the central thread running through these policy choices? It’s not just compassion, defined as a sympathetic awareness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it; it’s empathy — the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.

In other words, empathy is not merely feeling sorry for those who are less fortunate and wanting to help them, but it’s being able to put oneself in another’s shoes and to imagine what they are experiencing. When asked in 2007 what he’d look for in a Supreme Court nominee, Senator Obama said the following:

"You know, Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart -- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenage mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges."

In many ways, Gov. Romney's fate was sealed when he privately told supporters that he didn't worry about the 47 percent who are “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."  In the first debate, the president missed his chance to seal the deal when he failed not only to reference this admission but to condemn it.

On Election Day, Gov. Romney drew his strongest support from white men, particularly those older than 40. He carried 66 percent of those who view the deficit as the most important issue facing the country and 66 percent of those who say taxes are their biggest economic problem. He had the support of 73 percent of those who believe that undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be deported and 74 percent of those who believe that the policies of the Obama administration favor the poor. Of those who believe that abortion should always be illegal, 79 percent voted for Romney.

The white male leaders and self-appointed spokesmen of the GOP not only made wildly inaccurate predictions about Romney’s chances in the weeks and months leading up to the election, but they refused to face reality when the results came in, causing a 90-minute delay before the governor conceded.

Yet again, this was a function of the Republican Party’s failure to be empathic. They could not imagine why those at the margins — women, people of color, gays and lesbians, young people and immigrants — would not care foremost about taxes or about protecting their own wealth. They could not understand why women would object to outlawing abortion or why anyone would support government programs for children or the poor. They could not believe that despite the long lines, ID requirements and other tactics to impede voting that the most marginalized would make it a priority to cast a ballot.

As I entered my 10-year-old’s room the morning after the election, she asked who won. “Obama,” I told her.  It was a question I was more than happy to answer.

Republican Debates Light on Questions About Children’s Issues, Report Finds

To date, the Republican presidential candidates have fought their way through 20 debates, collectively fielding 1,037 questions across a broad range of topics. But a new report by Voices for America’s Children shows only a tiny percentage of questions—fewer than 2 percent—focused on child policy issues such as education, child health or child poverty.

“While children represent 24 percent of the population and 100 percent of our future,” Bill Bentley, president and CEO of Voices for America’s Children, said in a press release, “questions about their future constituted less than 2 percent of all questions raised in those debates. America’s more than 74 million children can’t vote, but they should be heard, especially in a time of widespread hardship for families.”

The report notes the candidates themselves were more likely to raise children’s issues in their responses than the moderators were in their questions.

Only 17 questions addressing education, child health, welfare and poverty were asked of the candidates. None were asked about child protection, early childhood and children with disabilities.

National security, foreign policy and defense were the most popular issues, leading to 205 questions or 19.8 percent. Close behind were questions about the candidates’ electability and qualifications, resulting in 187 questions; and jobs, unemployment and the economy accounting for 186 questions.

The report is an update of a study done earlier in the campaign that only covered up to November 2011.

You can read the full report here.

Food is Fundamental, Only Don’t Ask Newt Gingrich

On January 21 Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Primary. But he did it, in part, by using racist rhetoric, characterizing President Obama as "the best food stamp president in American history." Since then, he has continued to drive this distortion hoping it will somehow resonate with voters. It's not likely to work, because most Americans understand that food is fundamental. Presidents do not put people onto the food stamp rolls. People, predominately people with children to feed, become eligible for food stamps.

The food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, is a critical safety net for families living in poverty. SNAP eligibility rules require that participants be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Recent studies show that 49 percent of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households. In total, 76 percent of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent go to households with senior citizens.

Newt Gingrich’s attempt to paint Obama as the president who oversaw the largest increase of SNAP participation is inaccurate. It was President Bush, not President Obama who has that distinction.  This stands to reason, as it was during President Bush’s administration that our country’s economy plummeted.  Newt Gingrich’ race-baiting tactic is repugnant, of course, and he is just flat-out wrong.  As Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) so eloquently voiced on the floor of The U.S. House recently, “Hunger is color-blind. Of recipients whose race we know, 22 percent of SNAP recipients are African-American. And 34 percent are white. Hunger knows no race, or religion, or age or political party.”

Hunger in America is real.  Programs such as SNAP, WIC, free- and reduced- school lunches, and summer feeding programs exists because there is a need.  These are not fraud-ridden systems somehow sucking the life out of our budgets as some politicians would like you to believe.  According to a recent USDA analysis, SNAP reached a payment accuracy of 96.19 percent in 2012 (the highest ever achieved by the program).  Trafficking rates — the number of benefits exchanged for cash — are at 1 percent, according to 2008 statistics, the most recent available. There is always room for improvement, but the integrity of the SNAP program is solid.

As evidenced by no subsequent primary wins, America is not buying Newt Gingrich’s assault on children, families, disabled, or our senior citizens.

In a recent NPR interview, correspondent David Welna spoke to Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama, and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. Per capita, Sessions' Alabama is one of the top food stamp recipients in the nation; so is Louisiana.  Sen. Sessions said, “I think it's a policy of the administration, just get money out of the door to try to stimulate the economy, and not look closely at who's getting it and why they're getting it.”  Sen. Mary Landrieu said, “It is blaming the victim, and it's making a mockery of some of the most important, I think, social safety net programs in the country.”  Welna asked about government freeloaders?  Sen. Landrieu responded by suggesting Congress should “take away the special tax loopholes for the rich."

Candidate Gingrich would never advocate for that. Take away tax loopholes for the wealthy? Blasphemous indeed. Hungry children, being hungry, families living from paycheck to paycheck, having a language barrier that limits your ability to navigate our system, being part of the working poor, struggling to find a job, or experiencing financial fear, all these are beyond the realm of reality for Newt Gingrich.

No, he can more easily identify with his patrons such as Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who donated 5 million dollars to Gingrich through a super PAC. Then his wife Miriam, quickly followed with a 6 million dollar donation. This was just before the South Carolina primary and we know who won the South Carolina primary.

A Minnesota School District’s Struggle over Bullying and Gay Rights

In a front page story, the New York Times explores the problem of bullying and a controversial school policy concerning sexual orientation in a school district in suburban Minneapolis.

The piece details a long struggle between advocates for homosexual students and Christian conservatives over how sexual orientation should be taught in schools. It also reports on a lawsuit filed against the Anoka-Hennepin School District claiming, in part, that district policy requiring teachers to be “neutral” on the question of sexual orientation has helped to bring about a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students and therefore increasing the number of incidents of bullying.

The suit was brought on behalf of the students by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. News of the suit comes after reports that the Department of Justice is in the midst of a civil rights investigation of on-going harassment of gay and lesbian students in the the district of some 38,000.

The issue has been further heightened in the district because eight students have committed suicide in the past two years.  Both sides are in disagreement, however, over whether bullying and the sexual identity of the students had anything to do with their deaths.

The Times story also points out that this area north of Minneapolis is solidly in Michele Bachmann’s congressional district. Mrs. Bachmann, a Republican candidate for president, has not made any statements about the suicides or the district’s policy over sexual orientation. She has in the past, however, expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs, according to the paper.

Texas Under Rick Perry Makes Strides in Juvenile Justice Reform, say Advocates

Under Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ juvenile justice system has seen a dramatic transformation from a system plagued by a sexual abuse scandal to one of the most progressive systems in the nation, say long-time advocates in the state. Texas, one of the country’s most conservative states, succeeded in reforming the system by finding a common goal for both the left and the right, even if they took different paths to get there.

“In Texas,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, “we have been lucky to have a very conservative organization,” the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), “advocate for many of the same juvenile justice reforms that organizations like [progressive] Texas Appleseed advocate for.”

A combination of factors led to the bipartisan reforms in a rare confluence of fiscal conservatism and the more liberal focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

Just six years ago, the Texas Youth Council (TYC), which oversees the state’s youth detention facilities, was facing hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse and neglect by facility administrators, employees and correctional officers. Gov. Perry placed the TYC into a conservatorship just over a month after the first reports of abuse were published by The Texas Observer.

Soon, the Texas Legislature was closing detention facilities and moving funds for juvenile justice back to the local communities while focusing on rehabilitative programs. In the six years since the TYC was rocked by scandal, the number of juveniles in TYC custody has dropped from 5,000 to 1,400, according to The Houston Chronicle, all while the overall juvenile crime rate in Texas has fallen.

Texas is also facing a $27 billion shortfall for its biennial budget. This gap has forced lawmakers to make dramatic and difficult cuts across the budget. In the juvenile justice system that meant the closing of more youth detention facilities, placing more of the burden on local communities to find solutions most of which centered on rehabilitation.

Mark Levin is a director of the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF, the conservative think tank advocating strongly for juvenile justice reform in Texas. According to Fowler, Levin has been instrumental in “changing the way conservatives think about policy surrounding criminal justice and juvenile justice initiatives.”

“And it’s based on sound fiscal policy,” Fowler said.

However, she added, Levin and TPPF’s focus is on how policy impacts kids, but only to the extent that it makes communities safer. Levin is now taking his “reasoned approach” to juvenile justice with TPPF’s “Right on Crime” intiative.

In May, legislation was passed that would combine the TYC with the other half of the Texas juvenile justice system, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. The new combined agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Commission (TJJC) is tasked with maximizing community-based programs. Three more detention facilities will be closed as part of that legislation. The new program costs less per child and, because of it’s community focus, is better at rehabilitation. Once again, the right can claim a victory for fiscal responsibility but the left can justifiably claim a victory for rehabilitation.

“It got so much support because it makes so damn much sense," Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, told the Houston Chronicle.

With Gov. Perry recently announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, many are looking back at Perry’s 10-year record as governor. With the Texas juvenile justice system taking large strides how much credit should Gov. Perry be given?

Gov. Perry “was not an obstacle to juvenile justice reform,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a group advocating for reform across all areas of criminal justice.

“The proof of his commitment will be in is appointment to the board [of the TJJC],” Yanez-Correa said.

Fowler, of Texas Appleseed, said, “I think he’s made a big difference to the extent that he has allowed himself to be persuaded. That, to me, indicates that he is slightly pragmatic in his response to some policy initiatives and he can be persuaded to do something that is a little bit different than what Republicans were talking about 10 years ago.”

Texas’ juvenile justice system is getting national attention with Gov. Perry’s presidential run and Levin’s conservative “Right on Crime” program. Only time will tell if other states will follow suit and join the right and left in juvenile justice reform.