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"THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP" HOST: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN PANEL: RICH LOWRY, NATIONAL REVIEW; ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK; MONICA CROWLEY, SYNDICATED RADIO COMMENTATOR; CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE BROADCAST: WEEKEND OF SEPTEMBER 5-6, 2009

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DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: NAACP Journey.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Because of their efforts, I began the journey that has led me to be here tonight as the 44th president of the United States of America.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: The 20th century civil rights journey began with the birth of the NAACP in 1909, and that journey led to the first black president in American history, as the black president himself observed in a salute to the NAACP's 100th anniversary. But the president also sounded a note of realism.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) Even as we celebrate the remarkable achievements of the past 100 years, we know that too many barriers still remain. DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Obama then listed some of the barriers: First, unemployment.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African-Americans are out of work more than just about anybody else.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: The national unemployment rate is 9.5 percent; for blacks, 15 percent.

Second, prison.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We know that even as we imprison more people of all races than any nation in the world, an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a prison.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: One in 100 Americans are behind bars; for blacks, one in 15.

Third, HIV/AIDS.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We know that even as the scourge of HIV/AIDS devastates nations abroad, particularly in Africa, it is devastating the African-American community here at home with disproportionate force.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: With 12 percent of the population, African- Americans make up 64 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases.

Question: Obama's yardstick for racial equality is not equality of opportunity. It is equality of results. He's measuring the lack of equality by the disparity in results. Is this how equality or inequality should be measured? Rich Lowry.

MR. LOWRY: That is a good question, John. I would make a distinction. I don't think it's a very good measure of what formal legal opportunities exist in a country, because the legal obstacles to black progress have all been eliminated.

As Obama said in that speech, institutional racism is on the decline in America and has been for a long time. But we do see real practical obstacles to black progress. If you're a black kid in America, there are real obstacles to getting ahead, and those are family breakdown, disorderly urban environments, and rotten schools.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, and there are some things that government can do about that, and I think you're seeing that play out in the policies that this administration is undertaking; a huge commitment to public schools, for example. But I think the message that he is basically delivering is that there are all these hardships. There are a lot of inequalities at the beginning of life, inequalities that exist in black communities, but that race is not an excuse and that you need to press onward. And he presents himself as an example of someone who has overcome some obstacles in his own life. And so I think that's the message that he wants to get across, that you can do it despite having been dealt a hand that's not as great as somebody else's.

MS. CROWLEY: And this is why his speech that day to the NAACP was so powerful, because that speech was only a speech that a black president could give. This is -- he's got enormous capital when he speaks to the African-American community. I read through that speech. I listened to it a couple of times. It was tremendous.

His message was right on target, especially when he talked about education and when he talked about personal responsibility. He also had a terrific line in there -- actually, a couple of lines -- directed directly to black men, saying, "Stop abandoning your families. Take personal responsibility. We need you in the household," for the reasons that Rich laid out.

On education, though, I would say that Eleanor is right about public schools. But it would be nice to see President Obama step up and really support vouchers for inner cities, for minorities. There are a lot of minority parents -- actually, a majority of minority parents want vouchers to send their kids to better schools. That's something that Obama and the Democrats have really resisted.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, President Obama says that these disparities, real as they are, need not dictate the African-American destiny.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We've got to say to our children, yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. But that's not a reason to get bad grades. That's not a reason to cut class. That's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: So is President Obama echoing the prominent black intellectual, Shelby Steele?

SHELBY STEELE: (From audio tape.) Racism is pretty much subdued today as a force that in any way constricts the lives of black people. Racism no longer prevents us from pursuing or even reaching our dreams.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: So, on a racial equality-inequality scale, do Obama and Steele hold the same opinion? I ask you, Clarence. MR. PAGE: Thank you. And let me say that it's delightful to see how much agreement the panel has here. This is truly the age of Obama. Let's see if we can keep that going.

I think Obama has come halfway to Shelby Steele. What is interesting here is Shelby Steele really feels like racism is no longer that important of a force in black life, and certainly compared to the kind of pathologies and problems that we've talked about already. Obama thinks it still is, but that doesn't have to be the great barrier in your life. The most powerful line to me was, "Your destiny is in your hands."

What was interesting to me, John, you know, the statistics you cited earlier or quoted earlier there were not much different from what George Bush said when he spoke to the NAACP a couple of years ago. These are problems. They are problems that call for a variety of prescriptions, and we've talked about some of them here.

What was interesting to me was, in Obama's whole speech, he never mentioned the word racism. He talked about race; never mentioned racism. And he also didn't talk about his Civil Right Division, which is what the NAACP's primary mission has been under Julian Bond, the chairman, and Ben Jealous, current president. They've said that "We are a social-justice, not a social-service organization." But the part that we all remember the most were the social-service parts of Obama's speech. It was interesting to me. In that sense, I think he's halfway between Shelby Steele and the NAACP.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, where do we stand on this? There is equality of opportunity but there's not equality of results.

MR. PAGE: That's true. That's true. But we're moving toward it. You know, I mean --

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Would you say --

MR. PAGE: -- a lot of -- sorry?

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: You said just a moment ago there's been very little progress over the last several years.

MR. PAGE: The last several years. You know, we -- in the civil rights era in the '60s, the black poverty rate was over 60 percent. In the early '90s, it was down to 24 percent. But you know what? It has stayed there since about 1994. DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, what's wrong? What's wrong?

MR. PAGE: It hasn't (cracked ?) beyond that.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why has it --

MR. PAGE: Some of the things -- well, you know, we're talking about the people who are the most in need of both outside help --

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean, the distance was so far that had to be traveled.

MR. PAGE: Well, yeah. Well, we're talking about the poorest of the poor and the most disenfranchised, the most separated from mainstream society. I'm one of those black folks who supports vouchers. I support anything if it will work to help our kids. Every kid learns differently. And I don't think that vouchers should be shoved aside. It's not the great panacea for everything. But it's the teachers' unions, let's face it, that have kept progress from happening in the black communities.

MR. LOWRY: I would say, John, if you wanted to come up with one word for what's wrong, the question you're asking of Clarence, it's illegitimacy. There's a 71 percent illegitimacy rate in the black community, and that is a scandal. It's terrible for those single mothers and for those children who have to -- you know, they just have a steep uphill climb in a way intact families --

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, those numbers are pretty high in the white community too.

MR. PAGE: Yeah, and rising.

MS. CLIFT: Yes. And I think a lot of it in the black community has to do with job opportunities. And young black men -- I mean, the figures of how many of them are in jail or in the grip of the justice system, it's a terrifying number. And so early intervention -- and again, the difference between Shelby Steele --

MR. LOWRY: As Barack Obama says --

MS. CLIFT: -- probably and Barack Obama --

MR. LOWRY: -- fathers who are there and involved --

MS. CLIFT: -- the difference between Shelby Steele and Barack Obama is that Obama probably believes in a much more forceful intervention of government --

MR. LOWRY: Well, certainly.

MS. CLIFT: -- to try to get at these problems. MR. PAGE: Too many of those fathers are in jail; let's face it.

MS. CROWLEY: But after --

MR. PAGE: You know, when you've got this high of an incarceration rate -- I mean, it's a cyclical argument. I think we need to talk about, you know, how do you break that cycle? And there are conservative arguments and liberal arguments. I think Obama is trying to blend the two.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: The problem of lingering effects.

MR. PAGE: Yeah, lingering effects of past racism, certainly. I think we can all agree on that. The question is, how important is racism today? I think it's like angels dancing on the head of a pin. It's a combination of outside help and personal responsibility that is needed.

MS. CROWLEY: Oh, absolutely. I agree with Clarence on this. When you look at polling, though, you will see that a majority of Americans now believe that affirmative action as a public policy has essentially run its course and that Barack Obama said, "Listen, I'm a testament to all of the progress that we've made." And I think that people now want to see more equality of opportunity rather than this kind of government intervention, as Eleanor pointed out, which we've had for decades and has run its course.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Has America achieved the ideal of a color-blind society yet? Yes or no.

MR. LOWRY: No, there's still racism and we still have government policies on a whole lot of levels that are based on race and race preferences.

MS. CLIFT: The millennial generation, people born 1982 and after, are really color-blind. And 40 percent of them fall into what we would call diversity. And so I do think, as you go down the generational chain, that we are getting more color-blind. But we're a long way from there.

MS. CROWLEY: Yeah, I agree with that. We're not there yet. But I think one of the great achievements of having President Obama in office -- and I rarely agree with him on anything -- but one of the great achievements is that you don't see his race. You see the American president. And you debate his policies, but race, when it comes to him, doesn't come into it. And I think that's enormous progress.

MR. PAGE: Good points. But before we all sound like Stephen Colbert, however, the fact is that we do see race and we do profile. We all do. I mean, one African-American friend of mine, for example, was recounting how, during the Washington, D.C. sniper crisis, remember, when most people were presuming it was a white male, it turned out to be a black adult and a black teenager. And he said, "It's a good thing I didn't run into those guys, because my own profiling would have given me comfort I shouldn't have had around two guys who might blow me away."

I mean, this is something -- it cuts both ways. We do see race. I think our difficulty in talking about it results in these racial eruptions like the Henry Louis "Skip" Gates controversy and the Sotomayor hearings, et cetera, et cetera.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think we've reached a color-blind society.

MR. PAGE: I agree.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think the politics of victimization are there and I think the politics of identity are also there.

Issue Two: The Gospel According to Marx.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) Over the past two decades we've seen, time and again, cycles of precipitous booms and busts.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's not just the last two decades, Mr. President. Try 16 decades. That's when this man, Karl Heinrich Marx, wrote his "Communist Manifesto." Marx saw capitalism as initially thriving, the ideal mechanism for economic growth, comfort and security. But that flowering contains the seeds of its own cataclysmic destruction.

Quote: "The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe, paving the way for more extensive and exhaustive crises," unquote.

Creative destruction is what makes capitalism so dynamic, says Marx. But it is also its ruin. That leads to global communism. Karl Marx can explain how a U.S. housing bubble, funded by easy credit, grew and grew, then burst and ultimately brought down the world economy. So says Leo Panitch in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Capitalism is (hyperconsumerism ?) in character and in expression. Slightly paraphrasing Panitch, consumer demand, and hence prosperity, in recent years has depended more and more on credit cards and mortgage debt. This leveraged and volatile global financial system contributed to overall growth, but it also produced a series of inevitable financial bubbles.

If he were alive today, Marx would not look to pinpoint exactly when or how the current crisis would end; rather, he would note that such crises are part and parcel of capitalism's continued very existence.

Question: Did Karl Marx foresee our 21st century crisis of capitalism? I ask you, Eleanor. MS. CLIFT: Well, first of all, the image of the bourgeoisie trampling all over the globe -- I mean, I don't quite equate that with corporations. But, you know, I don't really see the connection here, because Karl Marx predicted that communism would -- communism -- capitalism would fail because it doesn't serve the needs of the people.

Capitalism does not always serve the needs of the people, and that was certainly driven home to us during this whole economic meltdown, but it has not failed. I mean, we are recreating it in a somewhat kinder, gentler way. But I don't see Karl Marx as being the great voice here predicting anything.

MR. LOWRY: Admirably moderate position, Eleanor. (Laughter.)

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have other thoughts?

MS. CLIFT: What's the liberal position? I don't know. I'll take it. (Laughs.)

MR. LOWRY: America was always a scandal to the Marxists, John, because the theory was, as capitalism became more and more advanced -- and America always had the most advanced form of capitalism -- you're supposed to have this dispossessed proletariat created, and they would revolt.

What happened to the proletariat in America? Well, there never really was one, but it got richer and it became the middle class. And, of course, there have always been booms and busts in capitalism, but that's not a particularly unique or new insight.

MS. CROWLEY: To paraphrase Winston Churchill in his comment about democracy, capitalism is the worst form of economics except for all of the others. (Laughter.)

Look, capitalism -- we've gone through these booms and busts. We had the Great Depression. We've had epic recessions, like in the late 1970s, early 1980s. We're in this right now. We survive. We recover. Sometimes it takes longer than at other points. But we always come back.

And, look, capitalism has raised more people out of poverty across the world, not just in the United States, than any other economic system on the face of the earth. And that's why you're seeing formerly communist economic systems like China going capitalist. This is why India is prospering. And also, this is why a lot of these developing countries don't want to go down the road of climate-change regulations, because they're 30 or 40 years behind the developed world in terms of economic development, and they want to get to where we are. MR. PAGE: Good point. I think, though, it was Norman Thomas who said that socialism would save capitalism. (Laughs.) And I think we're seeing that repeatedly through American history, especially in the industrial age, that when we get into a crisis, like in the Depression or in the current circumstances of the country, you see more and more people calling for government solutions and calling for infusions of government money in order to strengthen safety nets. So I suspect that's what we're going to see happen. This country was founded as a commercial enterprise. It's the American way. Marx didn't take culture or psychology into account.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question --

MR. PAGE: (Inaudible.)

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- to nail this down: Is Marxism about to -- is it about to undergo a revival? Yes or no. Rich.

MR. LOWRY: Well, everything that's happening on Capitol Hill aside, no.

MS. CROWLEY: (Laughs.)

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Unless the Republicans fasten on it as their new updated message -- instead of accusing the Obama administration of socialism, they say it's a revival of Marxism; otherwise, no. (Laughter.)

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Monica.

MS. CROWLEY: There are a few Marxists floating around the United States, maybe on Capitol Hill --

MR. PAGE: On college campuses.

MS. CROWLEY: -- and on college campuses. But, no, Marxism is dead.

MR. PAGE: It's a lovely academic exercise and (thought ?) experiment. But, no, Marxism doesn't work.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue Three: Atheists Unite.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Non-believers? Yes, non-believers. They were saluted by President Obama in his inaugural address, alongside Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus. So religionists alongside non- religionists. Why is that? The answer: Atheism is on the rise. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that respondents who said they were atheistic, agnostic, or opted for, quote-unquote, "no preference" have doubled in percentage since 1990. They are now 15 percent of the population.

With this public profile now comes the belief, for many atheists, that they need to organize, ready to move into the mainstream and away from being an isolated group. Non-believers have started to build a sense of community. An increasing number of groups have been formed in the last year to organize meetings between local-area atheists. Many atheists have also grown interested in bringing rituals into atheism; for example, de-baptism, a renunciation of a previous baptism.

And just as religious groups moved into politics, so now atheists are moving into politics. They are actively seeking a reversal of the Bush years, when evangelicals ruled the roost.

Atheists now want to rule the roost. What about atheists in Congress? Only one House member, Representative Pete Stark of California, openly rejects the existence of God. No senator does. But the Secular Coalition for America, the SCA, a major atheist and humanist lobbying group, says that up to 20 members of the Congress -- that's the Senate and the House -- may be closet atheists.

Do you think a sizable percentage of Obama's constituency is atheistic? I ask you, Clarence.

MR. PAGE: I have no idea how sizable it would be for conservatives or for liberals. You'll find them on both sides. What intrigues me, though, John, is atheists coming out of the closet in recent years -- bestselling books showing up and much more open dialogue. Traditionally, Americans -- 85 percent say they believe in God, but about half of them actually show up at churches or synagogues.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think time is on the atheists' side?

MR. PAGE: I think the Internet is on their side. That's my theory. I think the Internet has helped atheists feel less disconnected from other atheists, and now they're only getting more bold.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that they're locked up in the closet?

MR. PAGE: Well, they don't have to be in the closet so much anymore. They can come out more.

MS. CLIFT: I think we overdosed on the born-again Bush years, and I think people are more comfortable now saying that they're not really religious. But I don't think it's an advantage in politics and I don't think you're going to see the numbers of atheists suddenly crowd out organized religion.

MS. CROWLEY: Because we're still very, very heavily a Judeo- Christian nation, and over 90 percent of Americans say that they do believe in a higher authority.

MR. PAGE: Whether they go to church or not. (Laughs.) MR. LOWRY: The fact is, John, they've gone back; they've done the count. Barack Obama is invoking Jesus Christ at a greater rate than George W. Bush did.

MR. PAGE: Pays off, doesn't it? (Laughs.)

MR. LOWRY: Saying non-believers -- I think they always should be included when you're making grand speeches like that. But I wouldn't make too much of it.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about the Buddhists? Why didn't he mention the Buddhists or the Wiccans?

Issue Four: Do Tell.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: (From videotape.) It's been 15 years since we put on "Don't ask, don't tell," which was a policy that became a law. I think it is time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: U.S. policy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces is commonly known as "Don't ask, don't tell." This means the government will not inquire into the sex life of its military unless the sex life is displayed. The policy has been a hot-button issue in the military since its enactment 16 years ago under President Bill Clinton.

The official military policy toward sexual conduct is, quote, "The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct," unquote. Conduct is defined as, one, a homosexual act; two, an admission that a soldier is homosexual or bisexual; or, three, a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender. So if no action that is openly homosexual is taken, no consequences will occur. But in the last 16 years, 12,000 members of the armed forces have been discharged for homosexuality. President Obama opposes the policy.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I believe "Don't ask, don't tell" doesn't contribute to our national security. (Applause.) In fact, I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: But no change has occurred. Nathaniel Frank, author of "Unfriendly Fire," wants White House action. "What's concerning me now is they don't even seem to have a plan. They seem defensive."

Question: Why hasn't President Obama taken action to change the policy regarding gays in the military? I ask you, Eleanor Clift.

MS. CLIFT: He's got enough to deal with, and it's controversial. And his position is basically if the Congress changes the law -- and it is a law -- he will then sign it. And on Capitol Hill, Congressman Patrick Murphy, who is a Pennsylvania representative -- he's an Iraq war veteran; he's straight; he's a good Catholic boy, former altar boy -- and he is basically leading the effort to get enough co-signers to overturn this law. So it'll happen at some point here.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you remember Bill Clinton's experience with this?

MR. PAGE: Oh, yeah.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, I remember --

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you remember how he got bogged down?

MS. CLIFT: -- Colin Powell was an opponent of lifting the ban on gays. Senator Sam Nunn, who was then the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, crawled around on an aircraft carrier to demonstrate what tight quarters it was. So Bill Clinton, who had dodged the draft, came in to try to change this, and he was opposed by General Powell and Sam Nunn and the military establishment. It was a political disaster.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, and it tied him down for such a long time.

MR. LOWRY: Obama obviously remembers that, and he's doing the prudent thing. One, when we're in the middle of two ground wars, why would you impose this experiment on the military? And two, when his foremost priority is nationalizing as much of the economy as he can, he doesn't want to get involved in a hot-button cultural issue unnecessarily.

MR. PAGE: He is getting a lot of pressure from the left, especially from gay activists, who point out that Harry Truman didn't wait for Congress. He signed an executive order to desegregate the military racially. Obama could do the same now. But you're right; it would require some political capital for him to do it. I think it would be easier if Colin Powell were president now, and he seems to be so inclined. It would be easier for him just to declare that ban dropped.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Was there a referendum in California dealing with this subject?

MR. PAGE: A referendum in the state?

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

MR. PAGE: Perhaps there wasn't. I'm not --

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: My recollection is that the --

MR. PAGE: -- (inaudible) -- members of the National Guard, you're talking about. DR. MCLAUGHLIN: You can speak to this -- the African-American community was very negative on features of the referendum.

MR. PAGE: You're talking about gay marriage, the gay marriage proposition.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm talking about the world of homosexuality. Do you think that blacks are somewhat homophobic?

MR. PAGE: No more than other populations. It's just black and Latino voters were not really courted and campaigned to, if that's a proper use of the verb, out in California.

They're trying to get it back on the ballot, and they're going to do a better job --

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, if they are inclined that way, then the president is not going to get -- any politician is not going to pick up any votes from the black community on modifying this gay --

MR. PAGE: It hasn't hurt Obama or any other black politician who has taken the position.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: But he hasn't done anything with it.

MR. PAGE: I don't think that's going to matter as far as black voters are concerned.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: And if the Congress gets involved, with all of the other problems we have in the society today, particularly the economy and global warming and the rest of it --

MR. PAGE: And those are higher priorities at the moment.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- then the Democrats have to worry, it seems to me, even more about next year's elections. Would you say that? If they get bogged down on some question like this.

MS. CLIFT: They're not going to get bogged down. As I said, Congressman Murphy, Iraq war veteran, straight guy, is heading up the effort. If they don't have the votes in the House, they won't proceed.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think they're going to go near it.

MS. CLIFT: This is going to disappear, because attitudes have changed in this country dramatically.

MS. CROWLEY: I don't think they're going to go anywhere near this until after the 2010 elections. They don't want this controversial social hot potato on their plate. There's too much going on. And remember, there's still a lot of resistance to this in the military and in a lot of conservative districts. And you asked about African-Americans. Look, they're not going anywhere. They support Obama by, like, 95 percent. But they are socially a lot more conservative. DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions. Rich.

MR. LOWRY: Republicans win the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey this year, setting up a big 2010.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are the Democrats worried?

MR. LOWRY: They should be.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: The number of atheists have doubled in the last 15 years, and now 15 percent of the population declared atheist. I predict that they'll reach 20 percent in the next five years, but I don't think they're going to go above that.

DR. MCLAUGHLIN: By the end of the year, Japan will lay the groundwork for the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Twitter away. Bye-bye.

END.