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Month: July, 2016

Top five takeaways from the Democratic National Convention

Democratic National Convention: Day Four

5.  The Democratic Party is now the patriotic party that believes in, and wants to make available for all, the American dream.

By contrast, the Republican National Convention was “Darkness at Noon.” And I mean the reference to Arthur Koestler’s novel about Soviet totalitarianism as an absolute rebuke to Donald “I alone can fix it” Trump. President Obama said it best last night:

“Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”

Trump does not believe in the democratic social contract, but in the Hobbesian “nasty, brutish and short” authoritarian one – which is wholly un-American.

4.  Trump’s economic agenda is based on a lie.

He cannot bring back Rust Belt, blue collar manufacturing jobs by starting a trade war with high tariff barriers; deporting undocumented immigrants who are a significant portion of our productive workforce; and abandoning our international alliances that have protected capital markets on the American model. That’s a prescription for recession, not a sustained recovery.

The lost manufacturing jobs of the 20th Century are gone and not coming back (due not only to globalism but to technology).   Instead, it is Hillary’s job to explain that the Democratic agenda is to encourage the new, good paying jobs of the 21st Century that come from skilled labor, information and green technology and high education.

She made a pretty good start during his acceptance speech tonight, saying:

“In my first 100 days, we will work with both parties to pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II. Jobs in manufacturing, clean energy, technology and innovation, small business, and infrastructure.

“If we invest in infrastructure now, we’ll not only create jobs today, but lay the foundation for the jobs of the future. And we will transform the way we prepare our young people for those jobs.”

That’s good economic policy and a winning political message!

3.  Hillary Clinton is the only one believable as the commander-in-chief of the United States military.

She stands in the shoes of all post-war American presidents who built, sustained and expanded our NATO alliance. That alliance not only defends democracy, but protects free markets worldwide.

Donald Trump once criticized President Obama for too openly telegraphing our future moves in the Middle East so that our enemies could anticipate and blunt them.

Yet it was Trump this week who telegraphed abandonment of the mutual-defense pact with our allies, making the Baltic states vulnerable to non-theoretical Russian aggression. And then after inviting Vladimir Putin to hack Hillary’s e-mail and interfere with our election, Trump suggested that we recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Why not just offer up Poland and East Germany to boot? In a sense, Trump is retreating to pre-World War II traditional, Republican isolationism. That head-in-sand approach didn’t work then; and it is very dangerous now.

2.  The Muslim ban is idiotic – and unconstitutional.

Khizr Khan gave one of the most emotional speeches of the night as a kind of eulogy to his fallen son.  Capt. Humayun Khan was one of numerous American Muslims serving in the American military who sacrificed their lives in Iraq.   Removing a pocket-sized copy of the constitution from his suit jacket, the senior Mr. Khan spoke these words:

“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law.”

“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.

“You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

That’s powerful stuff!

1.  Democrats have a deeper bench and legitimate A-list stars.

But who needs Hollywood celebrities when you’ve got Michelle, Bill and Barack? Cory Booker gave a great, uplifting speech Monday night that would otherwise have been a standout in any other gathering. Hillary’s acceptance speech wasn’t as soaring as President Obama’s from the night before, but it was authentic to who she is: a deeply caring, very smart, wonky and undeterrable lady poised to be our first female President of the United States.

Brexit victory and Trump’s candidacy show that history is cycling backward

Originally published June 24, 2016

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Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote an article in the National Interest entitled, “The End of History?” He postulated that the prediction of the German 19th Century philosopher, Hagel, had come to fruition: that liberal democracy had proven itself the ultimate victor in the contest of ideas and the form of government.

Brexit and Donald Trump are proving Dr. Fukayama distressingly wrong – or at least, premature.

The slight majority of voters in the United Kingdom have now voted to tear themselves from the European Union – leading to renewed calls for Scotland to secede to be followed out the door by Northern Ireland and even Gibraltar.

The British pound is down over 10%, to a 35 year low and the Dow is likely to open down 700 points in the morning.

The “Leave” folks in Britain have much in common with the Trumpistas: they have been the economic losers in globalization and the information economy, fear immigrants to want to isolate themselves from the big, scary world. They even have Trump-like xenophobic leaders showing the way in the personages of the self-described “radical,” Nigel Farage, and the truth-challenged, former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. And here’s the even scarier link to the American election: the “Remain” vote had appeared to be eking out a narrow win in pre-vote and then in exit polling.

So was the polling off – or were voters just embarrassed to tell pollsters their deep down secret that they intended to cast their ballots to break with Europe? In the United States, in the face of negative polling Donald Trump has claimed that he will benefit from a “reverse Tom Bradley” effect – namely, that he polls worse than his actual standing.

The Brexit vote is a warning to Americans, and particularly diehard fans of Bernie Sanders: if supporters of liberal democracy don’t get out and vote this November, we could wake up on November 9th in the same position as the British are this morning: dazed, confused and seeing the end of their way of life.

Our Republic survived Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and two Bushes, and it would have survived John McCain and Mitt Romney. It won’t survive Donald Trump. He does not understand democracy, has no appreciation of the Constitution and has authoritarian impulses that are on display for all to see. We are potentially watching the crumbling of a Weimar America, with democrats (and Democrats) squabbling among themselves while the fascist are on the rise.

It can’t happen here? Well, look what just happened in the United Kingdom.

Hillary Clinton is not the most natural politician, as she has acknowledged. And she is surrounded by fake scandals and untrue allegations which take longer to debunk than for Fox News to repeat. But she is a very smart, capable and genuinely caring person who is well-suited to guide our country and lead the free world in a positive direction.

Americans face a binary choice this election (it’s either Hillary and incremental progress or Donald and precipitous decline, strife and dislocation), and we dare not follow the British example and reverse history.

Ninth Circuit keeps Second Amendment home alone

Originally published June 11, 2016

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On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Peruta v. County of San Diego upheld California’s restrictive conceal-carry regulation of firearms. In doing so, the appellate court explicitly ruled that the Second Amendment does not even apply to concealed weapons that are carried in public. Curiously, the court took no position on whether one may openly carry a gun in public – because the issue was not before the court.

The Supreme Court in its landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision only went so far as finding an individual, constitutional right to possess a gun in one’s home for self-defense. There has been debate ever since as to whether Heller would be extended outside the home to public spaces. Heller’s author, the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, conceded in his majority decision that reasonable gun regulations were still possible. And in 2014, the High Court in Drake v. Jerejian rejected review of a New Jersey law that placed severe restrictions on both the open and concealed carrying of handguns in public.

Up until this week, a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit in Peruta had been one of only two federal appellate courts since Heller that had found a Second Amendment right to use a firearm in public – which decision was vacated by the full court that reconsidered the case and came to the opposite conclusion. The Ninth Circuit is now in accord with the Second, Third, Fourth and Tenth Circuits that have ruled similarly. And the discordant Seventh Circuit case, Moore v Madigan, that had earlier struck down a conceal-carry law in Illinois was never appealed to the Supreme Court after the state changed its permitting requirements to comply with the court’s decision.

Peruta was brought by gun-rights advocates to challenge California’s conceal-carry law. For an applicant to receive a permit in California to carry a concealed handgun in public, the local sheriff has to find “good cause” based upon a prescribed set of criteria – such as personal defense where there are documented threats or business owners or employees in high-risk professions. When the San Diego sheriff disagreed that Mr. Peruta had shown sufficient justification for such a conceal-carry permit, Peruta sued to challenge the law – and either invalidate or change it to mandate that the sheriff shall have no discretion but “shall issue” the permit upon request. A three judge panel of the normally liberal Ninth Circuit agreed with Peruta and placed California’s concealed weapons law in jeopardy based upon the Second Amendment.

But not so fast.

In its en banc review, the Ninth Circuit conducted an exhaustive review of the original meaning of laws regulating the right to keep and bear arms leading up to passage of the Second Amendment. In other words, the court used “originalist” rules of constitution interpretation championed by Justice Scalia and “engage[d] in the same historical inquiry as Heller. . . .” And it found a plethora of laws dating well back to Edwardian England through colonial and 18th and 19th century America absolutely forbidding the carrying of concealed weapons in public. Thus, the court’s conclusion that the Second Amendment does not extend to conceal-carry restrictions.

As the court put it,

“Based on the overwhelming consensus of historical sources, we conclude that the protection of the Second Amendment — whatever the scope of that protection may be — simply does not extend to the carrying of concealed firearms in public by members of the general public.”

The Ninth Circuit did not opine on whether the Second Amendment provides protection for open carrying of weapons – which could lead to an anomalous result: if one is going to pack heat in public, one might only receive constitutional protection when carrying openly. A more satisfying ruling might have noted that Heller only found an individual right to bear arms in personal defense inside, but not outside, of one’s house.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris played a key role in intervening in the Peruta case to request en banc review of the entire Ninth Circuit when the San Diego sheriff declined to do so.

Given its denial of certiorari in Drake in 2014, while Justice Scalia was still very much alive and active, the Supreme Court seemed to evince hesitancy about wading back into Second Amendment jurisprudence. Now the High Court is down one justice and split ideologically four to four. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine whether the Supremes would even want to review Peruta and if so, how they would resolve it short of a tie – which, by the way, would affirm this week’s Ninth Circuit’s ruling. So as of today, the scope of the Second Amendment remains restricted to the home.

With Trump’s rise, conservatives lose Republican Party

First published May 30, 2016

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Conservatives instinctively know that Donald J. Trump is not one of them and vow to oppose his candidacy now that he has won the GOP nomination. George. F. Will called Trump “the most anti-conservative presidential aspirant in their party’s history” and urged all right-thinking Republicans to “keep him out of the White House. “ The National Review dedicated an entire issue to essays from conservative luminaries with the common theme of being “Against Trump.” What conservatives fail to recognize, however, is that Trump’s very success proves that conservatism itself lacks a constituency.

Conservatism in the modern area was a political philosophy created to justify low taxes and decreased regulation on big business – leading to the accumulation and perpetuation of great wealth among the very few. In order to sell that ideology, conservative philosophers, including Irving Kristol, Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, linked laissez-faire economics to notions of “liberty” and general prosperity. And they created a false narrative to attract middle class voters who aspired to improve their station: that they, too, will benefit from low taxation when they become rich.

Ronald Reagan perfected the conservative appeal to white, middle income earners, conflating big government with inefficiency and social welfare programs with minority cheats who game the system and become dependent on it. The use of racial politics was obvious. But make no mistake. Republicans in the 1980’s stigmatized government programs because they didn’t want to be taxed to pay for them. They just hid their true agenda behind dog whistles and the dogma of trickle-down economics, even as the Laffer curve bent in the wrong direction.

To broaden the conservative base into a true ruling coalition, religious traditionalists and anti-communists were added. Jerry Falwell infused the GOP with evangelical, mostly Southern Christian theology – although the Moral Majority, as the saying went, proved to be neither. That national security hawks came to be associated with the Republican Party was a fluke of history. Every U.S. administration since Harry S Truman has been anti-communist. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, however, the Democratic party became less interventionist and more concerned with domestic inequities – which gave the Republicans an opening to attract those interested in a more assertive foreign and military policy.

Reagan made liberalism a dirty word and Kristol, the senior, railed against what he dismissively characterized as the “new class” of Democrats: “scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on. . . .”

Since Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections, it appears that this so-called “new class” has done a better job of attracting voters than the plutocratic class. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama proved to be good stewards of the economy and the nation. Indeed, when Trump and his supporters presently attack Bill Clinton for his actions in the 1990’s, Hillary Clinton responds with an apt question:

“[W]hen you criticize the ’90s, what do they criticize? The peace, or the prosperity?”

The conservative coalition of the Reagan years has now broken apart, with Trump wielding the final axe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, anti-communists scattered. Social conservatives lost the national debate on abortion and marriage equality, and their preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, lost badly in the primaries. Even the new pope, Francis, instructs the faithful to refocus their efforts on social justice and away from social judgment. Now with Trump championing the white working class, conservatives have lost their final broad constituency for laissez-faire economics.

Rich candidates for the presidency who have succeeded have always done so as traitors to their class: think Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. That is the one thing that Trump has in common with them. He gained much currency for his vow to use his billions to self-fund his campaign – immune from the corruption of money in politics. He promises to use his negotiating prowess on behalf of the little guy who agrees with him that the system is “rigged.” And unlike Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump does not contend that the government is corrupt per se, just that it is run by “incompetent people,” i.e., not him. Once Trump is in charge, he promises to buttress, not cut, Social Security and Medicare, impose huge trade tariffs and consider higher taxes on upper income-earners (or at least higher taxes than his original economic plan contemplated). Oh, and round up and kick out 11 million undocumented immigrants.

This all sounds very expensive to the plutocrats – leading even Charles Koch to proclaim that it was “possible” that Hillary Clinton would be preferable to Donald Trump.

On foreign policy, Trump is an isolationist; on trade policy, a protectionist; and on social policy, a secularist. If these count as Republican positions, they are pre-Reagan, pre-Barry Goldwater and certainly not conservative. But they are winning positions for Trump.

Like a virus, Trump may have infected the Republican primary electorate, but conservatives were the ones that lowered its immunities – by embracing an anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-modern ideology in service of personal economic gain. When you strip high-minded conservatism from the Republican base, you’re left with xenophobic nationalists in search of an economic populist like the Donald. Conservatives just never realized that the voters they counted on would become anti-capitalist as well. The well-to-do will survive this coming election, but conservatism may not fare as well

2020: Trump’s America

Originally published April 4, 2016

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Donald J. Trump’s first presidential term had started with such promise. He had ascended to the highest office in the land based upon his business acumen and as a man of the people. A billionaire populist, he would use his negotiating skill on behalf of the general citizenry. The American public, as he had convinced it during the campaign, was tired losing and being governed by “stupid people.”

Trump took office in January 2017, following 83 consecutive months of job growth and an increase of over 13 million private sector jobs under the outgoing Obama Administration. He inherited a growing economy and shrinking budget deficits.

So what happened?

Don’t tax but spend

Trump made good on his promise to maintain popular middle class entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), but also on his promise to cut taxes for everyone. This translated into a miniscule tax cut for lower income earners, but huge one for those in the upper income brackets. As accurately predicted by the Tax Policy Center, the highest-income 0.1 percent of taxpayers got an average tax cut of more than $1.3 million while middle-income households only received an average tax cut of $2,700. Although he campaigned like a would-be traitor to his class, the Donald’s tax plan oddly benefited himself and his children the most. And without any offsetting spending cuts, deficits have spiraled – taking the deficit that was down to 2.4% of GPD in President Obama’s last year in office back to the almost double digits not seen since the recession that Obama inherited.

Tariffs and trade

The incoming Trump Administration also made good on the candidate’s campaign promise to hike tariffs on our trading partners by 45%. The resulting trade war caught the new president off guard. He was also surprised to find that Americans were none too pleased by what amounted to a huge tax on their consumer goods – and by the resulting return of high inflation to a country where millennials had grown up expecting no inflation and close to zero interest rates. But Fed Chairman Carl Icahn had no choice but to hike the federal funds rate to tamp down on runaway inflation.

Income inequality

After depleting government revenue and ballooning the deficit, Trump had no money left for government spending on investments that actually pay dividends in economic development, like public infrastructure, public education and research and development. He, of course, worked with Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street. The predicable results: pre-ObamaCare levels of uninsured returned, as did banks that were too big to fail. Wall Street was unleashed, and income inequality soared.

Banning abortion

The Donald has always said that he cherishes women and has lived up to his election promise to protect them from their right to choose. Instead, he gave that choice to the Supreme Court justice he selected to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia.

During a 24 hour period in the campaign, Trump had gotten a little tripped by taking wildly inconsistent positions on abortion – from punishing a woman for having an abortion, to calling Roe v. Wade settled law that should not be changed, to finally saying he would appoint judges to overturn it.

But by sub-contracting out to the Heritage Foundation the job of vetting judges for the high court, Trump was able to recreate the 5-4 conservative majority that had reigned since the Reagan years. With the retirement of Anthony Kennedy and his replacement by Andrew Napolitano of Fox News, abortion is now technically legal but practically inaccessible for most women. Separate is once again equal. And all gays who married have received a government-mandated divorce when the franchise was recently withdrawn by court decree. Trump explained that he was merely swapping one individual mandate for another.

Making America great again

In his first week in office, President Trump decided to renegotiate that “disastrous” nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranians responded by kicking out the IAEA inspectors and restarting their nuclear program that had been mothballed under Obama’s international agreement. War is imminent. But with the demise of NATO, at least the United States can count on the now nuclear-armed Saudis, South Koreans and Japanese to maintain the peace in the east.

The big, beautiful wall

Trump finally built that dang wall on the Mexican border, and one on the Canadian border for good measure. Combined they block both undocumented immigrants returning to the South and emigrants fleeing to the North. His glowing historical references to Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” FDR’s Japanese internment and East Germany’s Berlin Wall now make prefect sense.

Four more years

After defying odds in capturing the White House in 2016, Donald Trump reaches the end of his first term facing a more diverse, unemployed and angry electorate. Four years ago, he loved the “poorly uneducated” and they returned the favor. Will those with a functioning brain now take their country back?

Scalia’s passing may end conservative domination of the Supreme Court

Originally published February 13, 2016

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With the passing today of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court is set for major changes. For one, the 79 year old justice will likely be replaced by one several decades his junior – thus, starting the process of rebalancing the High Court for a generation. Second, if President Obama, or his possible Democratic successor, picks Scalia’s replacement, it would be the first time since the administration of Lyndon Johnson that the Supreme Court might enjoy an outright liberal majority.

In his seven years in office, President Obama has had the opportunity to name only two justices – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – but those appointments replaced two retiring liberals – David Souter and John Paul Stevens, respectively – maintaining the ideological status quo on the Court. And that status quo was quite conservative.

Before retiring, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that since 1971, every one of the justices appointed to the Court was more conservative than the justice who was replaced. Indeed, we can credit (or blame) the two Bush presidencies for the current conservative majority. George H.W. Bush’s replacement of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall with arch conservative Clarence Thomas – followed by George W. Bush’s replacement of moderate Sandra Day O’Connor with Samuel Alito (known as “Scalito”) cemented a 31-year march rightward.

It is a mark of how conservative the Court has become that the few major liberal victories in the current era of the Roberts court – most especially on gay rights – have depended on the swing vote of Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative with libertarian leanings, or in the case of ObamaCare, of Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative with pragmatic leanings.

Scalia came of age during, and in contradistinction to, the grand era of the Warren court, which desegregated the public schools (Brown v. Board of Education), modernized criminal justice (Miranda v. Arizona and Gideon v. Wainwright) and established a right of privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut, which formed the intellectual foundation for abortion rights in the later case of Roe v. Wade). Justice Scalia was among the loudest voices in his generation for the conservative jurisprudence of originalism. Originalism is a theory of constitutional interpretation that seeks to divine the original meaning of the Constitution from the text itself or where unclear, from what the public would have understood those words to mean at the time of ratification. This means the Constitution was frozen in meaning as of 1789 (at its original ratification), 1791 (for the Bill of Rights) and between 1865 and 1870 (for the Civil War Amendments).

Or as Scalia famously, and infinitely more colorfully, explained in a 2013 book promotion tour,

“[The Constitution is] not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”

Conceptually, Scalia meant his originalism to be a constraint on the Court’s ability to interpret the Constitution. His jurisprudence developed to serve as a brake on what he perceived as Warren era excesses and to roll back the New Deal era that gave expanded powers to the federal government under modern views of the Commerce and Due Process Clauses. Fundamentally, Scalia’s originalism was a frontal attack on the principle of judicial review established by our first Chief Justice, John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, which permits the Supreme Court to make final, binding precedent for the nation and “say what the law is.” Judicial review is based on the English common law system of justice that formed the very basis of the Framer’s understanding of the words they used in drafting the Constitution. And judicial review is a system of justice that respects judicial precedent but allows each generation of jurists add to the common law as is required to modernize the spirit of the laws and apply them to current conditions.

Justice Scalia will be remembered for his blistering dissents, in which he stood athwart the Court’s historic application of the principles of the Equal Protection to gays and lesbians in invalidating anti-sodomy laws and establishing marriage equality – because no such rights would have been recognized almost 150 years ago at the time of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. But ironically, Justice Scalia will also be most remembered for his majority decision in District of Columbia v. Heller that ignored originalism and found, for the first time, an individual right to bear arms in the text of the Second Amendment that only expressly provides such a right to “well regulated” state militias.

The immediate impact of his death will be felt most significantly in the balance of the current Supreme Court term. His absence now deprives conservatives of a majority in what otherwise might have been 5-4 decisions decimating public employee unions, abrogating “one man, one vote” in Congressional redistricting (to the detriment of Democrats for the foreseeable future) and restricting the scope of the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act.

Just last week, a majority of the Court, including Scalia, issued an almost unprecedented stay of the EPA’s new regulations to curb emission from coal-fired power plants – which court action many believe will undermine the recent Paris Agreement to tackle climate change on a global basis. The case now goes back to the Court of Appeals, where two of the three judges on the panel hearing the case are Democratic appointments. If they expedite the case and rule in favor of the Administration, the Supreme Court now lacks a fifth vote to overrule them. And a 4-4 tie affirms the lower court ruling.

President Obama spoke to the nation this evening, saying that he will fulfill his constitutional duty to nominate a replacement justice. Senate Republicans are vowing to block a vote on any such replacement until the next president takes office. It is odd that the passing of Scalia, who vociferously advocated but did not always practice judicial restraint, now frames the current presidential election.

Democratic Charleston debate choice: Revolution or evolution?

Originally published January 18, 2016

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The Democrats met tonight for their last presidential debate before the primary voting starts early next month in Iowa and New Hampshire. They touched on several hot button topics facing Democratic voters – from heath care and Wall Street reform to taxes and gun safety. And the biggest difference between the two frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, was on the direction and speed of change they each embraced. Sanders wanted what he calls a “political revolution;” Clinton more like an evolution building on what Barack Obama has already started and achieved.

The Affordable Care Act best exemplified the difference between their two approaches. Bernie, the Democratic Socialist, naturally wants a socialist solution for health care: single payer health insurance through Medicare for all. This solution, however, stands in stark contrast to what President Obama did to get major health care reform passed. The president made a realistic calculation at the beginning of his first term and decided to co-opt the major stakeholders in the health care industry, including private insurers, to make them a part of the solution. ObamaCare gave private insurance companies more customers by mandating individual coverage, but in exchange, did away with pre-existing conditions as a reason for those insurers to deny anyone coverage or charge them a higher premium.

At the debate, Hillary noted that when Congress took up passage of the ACA, Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and still could not get enough votes for the public option, which would have allowed people to buy into Medicare.

She continued, saying:

“So what I’m saying is really simple, this has been the fight of the Democratic Party for decades. We have the Affordable Care Act. Let’s make it work.”

In other words, Bernie, the revolutionary, wants to wholly reimagine health care and start over; while Hillary, the pragmatist, wants to build on what has already been achieved at great cost as a vehicle to move toward universal coverage. Sander’s position feels better in the abstract, but Clinton’s actually provides coverage for people in the real world.

A nice pivot would have been a contrast with the Republicans. The single biggest impediment at present to near-universal coverage is the maddening refusal of Republican governors to accept Medicaid expansion under the ACA for the benefit of their lower income citizens. I’m sure that was the point Martin O’Malley wanted to make as the moderators cut to a commercial break!

The same dynamic between Sanders and Clinton played out on taxes and Wall Street reform. Bernie wants to break up the big banks and raise taxes, mostly on the rich but also on the middle class, to fund health, education, childcare and infrastructure spending. Hillary would regulate shadow banking and build upon the Dodd-Frank financial regulations signed into law by President Obama. But she channeled her husband’s New Democrat bona fides, in promising no new taxes for middle-income earners. Again, revolutionary versus evolutionary.

The exception was gun safety. It’s the one topic on which Clinton has gotten to Sanders’ left and made him pay. The debate took place in a venue literally down the block from the “Mother” Emanuel AME Church where the shooting massacre of worshipers took place last year. Hillary identified the litany of gun safety reforms against which Bernie voted in Congress, including the Brady Bill and the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allowed the gunman – who should have been blocked because of his criminal background – to acquire his firearm before a background check could be completed. Sanders really had no good answer. On this issue, Hillary was the revolutionary.

In place of closing statements, moderator. Lester Holt. asked the candidates if there was anything they wanted to add that they hadn’t gotten a chance to say. Sanders reprised his campaign theme of taking the country back from the control of wealthy campaign contributors. Clinton injected a new hot topic: the lead contamination of the drinking water in Flint caused by the malfeasance of the Governor of Michigan looking to save money. She noted that poisoning occurred in a “population which is poor in many ways and majority African American” and wondered whether government action would have come more quickly in a rich suburb. Since the debate was co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Clinton needs to keep the Obama coalition together to win, she finished strong – for an incrementalist.

Trump and Sanders agree on regime change in the Middle East: don’t do it

Originally published December 20, 2015

Last week at the Republican presidential debate in Nevada, we saw a big divide on the continued policy of regime change in the Mideast, especially as to overthrowing Bashar Assad in Syria and putting American ground troops, so-called “boots on the ground,” in defeating the Islamic State. The establishment candidates (Jeb! Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) all were in favor, and the outsiders (Donald Trump and Rand Paul) were opposed.

Now tonight at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, a somewhat similar dividing line on regime change has emerged as to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, insider versus outsider.

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Sanders, the Democratic Socialist, and Trump, the nativist Republican, agree: defeat ISIS first and worry about Assad later, if ever. America is not the world’s policeman and take care of direct threats to U.S. national security first before the world’s problems. Their view is that the vacuum created by unseating Arab strongmen has been filled by the chaos of Islamist terrorists. Hillary (like Chris Christie at the Republican debate) presented a competing narrative of ISIS’ rise, namely as the byproduct of the oppressive Assad dictatorship.

In terms of military policy going forward, Clinton’s position splits the difference between the Republican establishment and the outsiders. While she agreed with the Obama Administration’s policy of using U.S. special operations to buck up the Kurds, Iraqis and Turks fighting ISIS, she firmly opposed American boots on the ground. As she said, “[ISIS] want[s] American troops back in the Middle East. They want American soldiers on the ground fighting them, giving them many more targets, and giving them a great recruiting opportunity.” But she also said that the eventual removal of Assad is an important element in the grand policy of attracting anti-ISIS, Sunni Arab allies, who will be the ground troops to our air support. They are primarily animated by their hatred off the Alawite regime in Damascus and only secondarily motivated to put an end to the competing Sunni Caliphate.

In a break with the president she once served, Hillary was one of the first national politicians to propose an American no-fly zone over Syria to shield Syrian civilians from the atrocities of ruling regime and help stem what has become one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time in the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of refugees. But she didn’t go all neocon like the Republican establishment at their debate. Christie wanted to use a no-fly zone to shoot down Russian planes and Kasich to punch Putin “in the nose.” Instead, Clinton was able to buttress her position with this week’s diplomatic news at the United Nations and between the U.S. in Russia in moving toward a coordinated policy toward ISIS and Syria – meaning that Washington had foregone regime change in the immediate term in order to put the Islamic State first and foremost in everybody’s crosshairs.

At tonight’s debate, Bernie Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton for being “ too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.” Bernie was really trying to score points against Hillary more on her past positions on Iraq and Libya than on her present policy on Syria. Hillary returned fire not only against Bernie (pointing out that he voted in the Senate to overthrow Gaddafi), but also against Donald Trump, whom she might face in the general election, saying, “Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions.” Clinton is proving to be the one who gives the complex answers to those complex questions.

A mini-controversy erupted, however, over Clinton’s statement that:

“. . . we also need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don’t fall on receptive ears. He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”

Commentators immediately pointed out that there was no evidence of any such ISIS videos. Clinton’s statement, although not precise, appeared to be prospective, in other words, that Trump’s words could be used in ISIS recruiting videos, not that they already have been. We’ll see how the Clinton campaign responds, but on the bigger picture of regime change, the lines between the insiders, outsiders and Clinton have been drawn.

Republican candidates debate regime change in Las Vegas

Originally published December 16, 2015

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Personal insults continued to fly at tonight’s Republican presidential debate between the candidates – not surprisingly with Donald Trump in the vortex of most of them. But there was also a substantive fault line on foreign policy between those that favored (and defended) a George W. Bush-style policy of regime change in the Middle East versus those who did not. We already knew that the former president’s brother, Jeb!, still stands by the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Tonight’s debate, however, saw Marco Rubio and John Kasich make forceful, if not convincing, arguments in favor of extending that foreign policy to Syria in ousting Bashar Assad and putting thousands of American boots on the ground to rout ISIS.

Rand Paul reclaimed the libertarian mantel of his father, Ron Paul, in making the strongest ideological case against “chaos through regime change.” His argument was that the American regime-change policies under both Bush and Obama in Iraq, Libya, unsuccessfully in Egypt and haltingly in Syria has created the vacuum in which the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood thrive. He described himself as a foreign policy “realist” – as opposed to the “utopian” neo-conservatives represented by Bush, Rubio and Kasich.

Trump was a fellow traveler with Rand Paul on non-intervention, saying that the $3, $4 or $5 billion (he couldn’t decide which) we spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “wasted” and could have been better spent at home on roads and bridges. That was too much for Carly Fiorina, who said Trump sounded like Obama – which is only because she’s incapable of thinking outside the box, which love him or hate him, is Trump’s specialty with his toxic blend of economic populism, ethnic xenophobia and nationalism.

Ted Cruz, as he has on immigration policy, straddled the stage. He did not want to associate himself with the Rand/Ron Paul libertarian, non-interventionist position, (too isolationist), but he also didn’t want to fall into the neocon idealist camp of Rubio, who will likely be his biggest competitor for the nomination when and if Trump falters. So Cruz took the hawkish interventionist position of “America First”: Middle East dictators were okay; don’t topple Assad; but carpet-bomb ISIS. When asked at the top of the debate whether he was advocating the mass indiscriminate slaughter of the “hundreds of thousands of civilians” by “leveling the ISIS capital of Raqqa,” Cruz stepped back from the precipice. He said he would be targeting ISIS with “overwhelming air power.” In other words, he has no idea what he’d do, but it would be better and stronger than Obama.

Ben Carson had the best metaphors of the night. As a brain surgeon he had to tell patents hard truths, just like he would counsel the nation on foreign policy. As to Middle East dictators, he analogized to a plane losing altitude and putting on your oxygen mask first before helping your neighbor put on his. In other words, this is what counts as hawkish realism in conservative circles today.

Chris Christie thought he could use to his advantage the recent terrorist shooting in San Bernardino and the bomb threat that closed the Los Angeles Unified School District on the very day of the debate. Christie positioned himself as the 9/11 candidate, ready to defend the nation like he defended New Jersey after being appointed as U.S. Attorney on September 10, 2001 (which date of appointment is in dispute, but never mind). To the extent he described a policy, Christie sided with the neocons, favoring a no-fly zone over Syria. He said he would even risk war with Russia by shooting down any of Putin’s planes violating that zone. This appeared aimed at establishing his tough-guy cred, as opposed to a serious policy choice. As Christie elaborated, “See, maybe because I’m from New Jersey, I just have this kind of plain language hang-up.” The problem is that every time he brought up New Jersey, I thought Bridgegate.

It was odd when Trump went off-script, as he is want to do, and said nuclear proliferation was the biggest foreign policy threat facing the United States. (Perhaps his mind has focused on an earlier question about North Korea’s recent claim of possessing a hydrogen bomb.) Then Cruz outdid Trump citing a “nuclear Iran” as our greatest national security threat – apparently forgetting that Obama’s recent deal has already taken Iranian nuclear weapons off the table for the foreseeable future. Rubio even blamed Obama’s détente with Iran for causing the Sunnis to bow out in the fight against ISIS. Christie “agree[d] with Marco” on that line of thought.

Indeed, the big take-away from tonight’s debate seemed to be that in opposing President Obama’s strategy of engagement with Iran, the neocon Republicans (Rubio, Kasich and to a certain extent Bush, Christie and Fiorina) would like to put the American thumb on the scale in favor of the Sunni Gulf Arab regimes in opposition to the Shia ones in Iran and Syria. Maybe they’re just voicing the concerns of big oil. Or maybe they’re hopeless interventionists. But they bring to mind Menachem Begin’s quip when asked about Israel’s position on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s: “I wish both sides success.” Or as a realist might wish, a balance of power status quo.

The funny thing about foreign policy is that it is completely unpredictable. Woodrow Wilson ran for office as an academic with immense domestic policy credentials, once even remarking that “[i]t would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Then came World War I. George W. Bush campaigned for president on a “kinder and gentler” foreign policy. Then came the Iraq War. Even President Obama won the White House, or at least the Democratic nomination, largely as a result of his opposition to the war in Iraq and on a promise to bring the troops home from the Middle East, to where he has now had to send them back. But to the extent that philosophy portends policy, tonight’s debate was a real one on regime change. And as he has done on economic, trade and immigration policy, Donald Trump is scrambling the post-World War II Republican foreign policy of hawkish interventionism — and is pulling the party back to its pre-war isolationism, with a dash of unilateral muscular bravado.

Top 7 takeaways from the second Democratic presidential debate

Originally published November 15, 2015

0557d334ad1187ab8d3c199c9e745c58The three remaining Democratic contenders for their party’s presidential nomination met for their second debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa this evening – a mere 24 hours following the horrific ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris. Appropriately the debate started with a moment of silence for those killed and injured in France, which foreign policy event also framed the first number of questions of the debate. Domestic and especially economic policy questions soon followed, and from the beginning it was quite clear that the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, had to defend her positions against attacks against her by both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Here are my top 7 takeaways from the verbal sparring.

1.  Hillary was the only one playing both a long and short game.

She had to say enough to seal the Democratic nomination without compromising her ability to win against the Republican nominee in November. She has no intention – like Jeb! Bush – of losing the primary in order to win the general. She took some hits from the left – with Sander’s trying to fashion her as the senator from Wall Street in both economic policy and receipt of campaign contributions. But Democrats have much more nuanced differences in policy than do the Republicans, so Clinton has moved just far enough left to blunt Sanders without losing her general electability. While Sanders and O’Malley favor a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Hillary was okay at $12 with annual cost of living increases. Bernie wants free college tuition; Hillary wants college to be debt free. And while O’Malley and Sanders want to reinstitute the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act and break up the big banks, Clinton said she was open to it but had a more comprehensive plan to deal with all banks, not just the big ones. And she was able to site some big liberals, like economics Nobelaureate Paul Krugman and ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, who agree that her plan is tougher on the industry as a whole by buttressing the Obama era Dodd-Frank regulations (on capital requirements and derivatives) and cracking down on “shadow banks” like Lehman Brothers. And when Bernie tried to embarrass her with contributions from Wall Street, Hillary was able to say to loud applause that 60% of her contributions were from women – a non sequitur, but an effective one for someone running to be the first female president.

2.  Republicans won’t be able to criticize Hillary for not labeling terrorism as emanating from radical Islamists

This is a common rightwing critique of President Obama, who does not wish to play into al Qaeda and ISIS’s desire to frame the conflict as a “religious war” or tar all Muslims with terrorism. The president calls them “violent extremists.” In her opening statement, however, Clinton said that our prayers for France are not enough and called for “root[ing] out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS. . . .” If that weren’t clear enough, she went on to explain that we are not at war with “all Muslims,” but with “Islamists who clearly are also jihadists.” Take that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio!

3.  The era of big government has not quite returned

Sanders and O’Malley explained that they would pay for their new spending proposals with some new, higher taxes. For O’Malley, that means taxing capital gains at the same, higher rate at which earned income is taxed. For Sanders, that means an increase in the income tax rate (only promising the top marginal rate would not exceed the 90% rate under Eisenhower). “I’m not a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” said Sanders to laughter. Clinton was having none of this talk of raising taxes. She echoed that other Clinton – Bill – saying, “I have made very clear that hardworking, middle class families need a raise, not a tax increase.” A shout-out to Donald Trump would have been perfect at this point, given that he claimed wages were too high and need to be lowered at the last Republican debate.

4.  Clinton made up for her admittedly wrong vote in favor of the Iraq war by showing her command of foreign policy.

While Sanders again gave Clinton a pass on her Benghazi e-mails, he didn’t on her Iraq war vote – indeed tying the unintended consequences of regime change to the very problems we are now seeing with ISIS in the region. A good and timely point. Hillary deflected the attack by saying that each country “needs to be looked at individually and analyzed” and then presenting tutorial on Iraq, Syria, Russia, Hezbollah, Egypt, Jordan and the Sunni-Shia divide. She was, after all, the secretary of state and can speak fluently on all issues foreign – even if she didn’t enunciate a broad ideological doctrine. If the political zeitgeist does turn more hawkish following the Paris attacks, Hillary can remind the electorate, as she did this evening, that she differed from Obama on Syria by her early support for arming the moderate rebels (and could also have pointed to her proposal for a no-fly zone over the country). O’Malley and Clinton got into a semantic difference when she said the fight to defeat ISIS needs our Arab and Kurdish allies and American leadership but “cannot be an American fight.” He begged to differ, saying it “actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies.” O’Malley probably phrased it better, but they were pretty much saying the same thing.

5.  CBS News, which hosted the debate, has high production values

John Dickerson, who recently took over as the moderator of “Face the Nation” also moderated tonight’s debate. His questions, and those of the panel of journalists, were sharp, relevant and almost all on policy – with the exception of those “damn” e-mails that were asked about in one late round. The set looked good. And the camera angels and movement were dramatic. I need to tune into CBS on Sunday mornings more often.

6.  O’Malley continued to position himself as next in line

He’s an incredibly attractive and polished candidate. Like Marco Rubio on the Republican side, O’Malley gives crisp, well-organized answers, but unlike Rubio his policy prescriptions actually make sense. His resume as the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore is impressive. And he did a good job of trumpeting his executive accomplishments in Maryland, from criminal justice reform to tax and spending reform. He also had one of the best lines of the night he contrasted the Democratic debate with that “immigrant bashing carnival barker” Donald Trump. O’Malley’s the one to watch in 2020 if Hillary loses this time around.

7.  Twitter gave the candidates instant feedback

As the debate ended, John Dickerson cut live to an offstage correspondent monitoring Twitter. Interest spiked for Clinton’s comments about 60% of her contributors being women; for Sanders with the Eisenhower tax rates; and for O’Malley with his Trump putdown. When the camera came back live to the candidates, they all seemed happy with the Twitter results. Trump naturally responded immediately on Twitter, calling O’Malley a “clown,” which tweet will likely be worn as a badge of honor.