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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.

Top 10 takeaways from CNBC Republican debate

Originally published October 29, 2015

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Republican candidates for president met in Boulder, Colorado Wednesday night for their third debate. CNBC hosted the debate and was a stand-in for the “lame stream media” – becoming a punching bag for most of the candidates when asked tough questions. In watching the pre-debate roundtable hosted by CNBC’s conservative Larry Kudlow, however, one would have thought that the cable network’s sister station was Fox News, not MSNBC.

Here are my top ten takeaways.

1. Even the so-called adults in the room have childish answers on the economy.

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, takes the opening question of the night to reprise his recent attack on the craziness of the primary electorate “picking someone who cannot do this job” – knocking Donald Trump for talking about “splitting families” in deporting 11 million people; Dr. Ben Carson for wanting to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid leaving seniors “out in the cold;” and Jeb! Bush, and frankly the rest of the field, for “tax schemes that don’t add up” and leaving us in a “deeper hole.” Yet, when asked explain his own economic proposals, Kasich says that he wants to make entitlements into block grants for the states to run and pass a Balance Budget Amendment. In other words, Kasich would impose the kind of austerity that accelerated the Great Depression and to encase that one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy (which is rarely, if ever, appropriate) in the Constitution. This does not inspire confidence.

2. Dr. Carson over-studied for the debate.

His head is full of facts and figures that he tries to spit out to show his newfound policy chops. But in attempting to discuss the federal deficit, Carson takes a pregnant pause and almost has a Rick Perry “oops” moment. He also misses an easy opportunity to oppose price controls on medicine, which Chris Christie cleans up for him. Carson is much better with his big, thematic responses stemming from his faith and storied career. At least he doesn’t take the bait on a question about gay rights and compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality as he has in the past. He takes the high road, saying “Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation. . . .” Is the doctor mellowing – or just on hiatus until he makes his next outlandish comparison to Nazism or slavery?

3. The Summer of Trump gives way to the Fall.

Despite falling poll numbers, Trump still stand at center-podium, for now. But it becomes clear that Trump hasn’t even read the anemic policy papers on his own website. When asked about his criticism of Mark Zuckerberg for to his desire to increase the number of H1B visas to allow more highly educated graduates to stay in the U.S., Trump demurs.

“I was not at all critical of [Zuckerberg]. I was not at all. In fact, frankly, he’s complaining about the fact that we’re losing some of the most talented people. They go to Harvard. They go to Yale. They go to Princeton. They come from another country and they’re immediately sent out. I am all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley.”

Yet, Trump’s online policy paper on immigration says the opposite: “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities.” As Trump might say, how are the governors and senators on that stage losing to this guy? Trump’s most memorable lines of the night are naturally about himself: inside baseball on how he dictated the terms and format of the CNBC debate.

4. Republicans talk “income inequality,” but say nothing.

Given the growth of the economy under President Obama, Republicans are missing a big talking point. That doesn’t stop the debaters from decrying the increase in income inequality under this Administration. But their solutions are worse than the disease! Rand Paul and Ted Cruz want to audit the Federal Reserve and put us back on the gold standard; and Mike Huckabee pushes deregulation; Carly Fiorina wants to abolish the minimum wage; and Kasich wants his balanced budget – all of which will increase income inequality. Indeed, what they all fail to understand is that the reason income inequality has increased is because other than the fiscal stimulus in Obama’s 2009 American Recovery Act, we have been living under Republican control of Congress since the party took back the House in the 2010 midterms. As a result, the only federal institution capable of keeping the economy afloat has been the Fed with its monetary stimulus known as quantitative easing. The problem with monetary stimulus is that it flows through and enriches Wall Street, the very ones who caused the Great Recession. Senator Cruz decries “QE1, QE2, QE3, QE-infinity.” But he also opposes the kind of infrastructure spending and any other kind of jobs program that would shore up the missing demand in the economy and grow the middle class.

5. Christie talks climate changes, but says nothing.

Christie is shamed for his position that “climate change is undeniable [and] that human activity contributes to it.” He quickly disavows the Democratic solution of a carbon tax (despite Republican orthodoxy that you tax it, you shrink it). He then lamely explains his solution was to invest in all energies, renewable and dirty (oil and gas) alike. Say what, Mr. Straight-talker?

6. Trump and Huckabee are economic populists and out of step with today’s Republican party. Trump’s version of industrial policy is protectionism. He wants to impose tariffs and other trade barriers to bring manufacturing back to the United States. Huckabee battles Christie, Jeb! Bush and Paul who all want to means test Social Security. Carson wants to abolish, I mean, privatize it. Huckabee also has his own version of an industrial policy aimed at federal funding to find cures for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Finally, Uncle Sugar is making some sense.

7. ObamaCare is no longer a Republican rallying cry.

The ACA is invoked only twice during the entire debate – once by Carly Fiorina in passing and once by Ted Cruz in his closing statement. And even then, Cruz’s reference to ObamaCare is in the past tense, trumpeting how he previously led the uprising to, unsuccessfully, stop the law. Nothing about repealing it in the future. Moving on.

8. Rubio is polished, and Jeb!’ has awful timing.

Marco Rubio’s best lines are defensive – responding to pointed questions about his inability to manage his own household finances and missing votes in the Senate. After Rubio smoothly turns around a question about his meager voting record into a big applause line in criticizing the liberal media that dared ask, Bush repeats the charge and asks Rubio to resign from the Senate. It makes him look small, out-of-step and like the Man – upset that his employees are coming in late to work and taking too many days off. Very establishment of Jeb! And rehearsed. In fact, almost all of Bush’s lines seem pre-planned and not particularly responsive to the questions posed by the moderators. Even if Rubio’s lines are also rehearsed, they are delivered convincingly. Rubio is polished, but some folks at home must wonder how many times a week he has to shave.

9. Trump want to get rid of Super-PACS.

Great idea, but that’s only because he’s a billionaire who can self-fund his campaign. When asked about the legality of anonymous donors, Trump has called for transparency, but never endorsed a law requiring disclosure. The topic at tonight’s debate allows Rubio to get in another dig at the mainstream media, calling it the ultimate Democratic super-PAC. The line serves double duty. It gets huge applause and avoids a substantive response to the question.

10. Fiorina says everything in stac-ca-to.

Whether it’s about Planned Parenthood in the second debate (“Watch a fully formed fetus on the table. Its heart beating. Its legs kicking.”) or taxes, minimum wage or big government in the third debate (“[T]his big powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big. The powerful. The wealthy. And the well-connected .”), Fiorina’s distinctive speaking style makes all her points sound the same. Oh, that’s because they are all the same small-government/low-tax pablum. The professional politicians, except Jeb!, have a good night in Boulder. Can’t wait for the next debate! Not sure if Jeb! will be there.

Top 10 take-aways from the first Democratic debate

Originally published October 14, 2015

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The Democratic contenders for president met last night in Las Vegas for their first debate. It was sponsored by CNN and hosted by Anderson Cooper. There was a nice contrast with the Republicans right at start with all participants holding their hands over their hearts as Sheryl Crow sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” In contrast, at the first Republican debate, Donald Trump refused even to pledge allegiance to support the eventual Republican nominee, unless it is he himself – epitomizing a party in decline and at war with itself.

Here are my top 10 take-aways from the evening:

  1. The age of Reagan is over, and liberalism is no longer a dirty word.

    Hillary Clinton is a self-professed progressive. Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. He wants to lead a revolution against big corporations, big banks and Wall Street. Clinton only went as far as endorsing Dodd-Frank, not Glass–Steagall. But both support small business and entrepreneurship. Sanders wants us to be like Denmark; Clinton wants to reform American capitalism and keep it from running amok.

  2. There were no personal attacks.

    To the contrary, Sanders came to Clinton’s defense early on, saying to loud applause, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Hillary shook his hand and put “Email-gate” behind her. After Lincoln Chafee made another comment on the email controversy, Clinton declined the opportunity to respond. Nothing more need be said.

  3. It was a big night for women.

    At the Republican debate, Trump had to explain his demeaning treatment of women. At the Democratic debate, Hillary repeatedly referred to herself as a daughter, granddaughter, a grandmother and, well, a woman – in fact, the only woman running who may become the first female President of the United States. (It certainly won’t be Carly Fiorina, who couldn’t run H.P. and couldn’t beat Barbara Boxer in a wave-Republican year.)

  4. Martin O’Malley is running for president. . . in 2020.

    He’s young, polished, accomplished and just needs more national exposure. I can see him in the next Democratic cabinet. Jim Webb seemed to be running for Secretary of Defense. Not sure what Lincoln Chaffee was running for.

  5. There were two former Republicans on the debate stage in Vegas (Webb and Chaffee).

    They claimed that the Republican party deserted them, so they switched parties. That used to be said of the Democratic party. No more. It feels like “Big Mo” and demographics are with the Democrats this election cycle.

  6. Clinton attacked Sanders from the left one very hot issue: guns.

    Bernie voted against the Brady Bill. And he supported exempting gun manufacturers from liability, while Hillary did not. Bernie may have gotten a D- rating from the NRA, but Hillary got an F. A race to the bottom won by the lady! (They both beat Webb’s A rating, making him look like a fish out of water.)

  7. The Iraq War vote is losing its saliency as an issue in the Democratic primary.

    Yes, Hillary voted to authorize war, but Obama, who famously opposed the war, validated her overall judgment by selecting her to serve as his Secretary of State.

  8. Everyone wants to run for Obama’s third term.

    Hillary also wants to run for a Clinton third term, updating Bill’s winning campaign slogan about “working hard and playing by the rules,” calling for a “new New Deal” and saying, “My mission as president will be to raise incomes for hard-working middle-class families and to make sure that we get back to the basic bargain I was raised with: If you work hard and you do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead.” That had a nice and familiar ring to it.

  9. The Democrats were split on Edward Snowden.

    Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders said he would have to serve jail time if he comes home. Oddly, the former Republicans, Chaffee and Webb, would cut him more slack, pointing to Fourth Amendment concerns with mass collection of metadata that he brought to light.

  10. Finally, there was no dumb-talk.

    No one on stage came out against evolution or doubted the science behind climate change. All strongly support clean energy, except again for Webb, the former Senator from Big Coal. It looked like a bright and energetic group of candidates last night.

Speaker Boehner should form a national unity government with Democrats

Originally published October 10, 2015

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The collapse of House Republicans this week is the logical result their party’s governing philosophy – or the lack of it. In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan told the nation, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Conservatives took that maxim to heart. So that some twenty years later, Grover Norquist, a Reaganite advocate of low taxes, could proudly proclaim, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

By the time that John Boehner became House Speaker and began presiding over the least productive Congress ever, it made sense for him to claim, with a straight orange face,

“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

The problem with a governing philosophy of “repeal” (especially with control of only one branch of government) is that it leads to government shutdowns, credit defaults and downgrades and “careening from crisis to crisis,” as Hillary Clinton once described it. What President Obama said is indisputably true:

“This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth.”

Yet Madison designed the People’s House as the branch of government most responsive to public opinion. And the Taliban wing of the Republican Party, also known alternatively as the Tea Party or Freedom Caucus, is nothing, if not responsive to the loudest wingnut yelling from the back row of its members’ town hall meetings in their gerrymandered districts back home.

Boehner has come to rely on the true “silent majority” in his caucus: namely, those Republicans who vote “no” but hope for “yes.” How else to explain his repeated flouting of the so-called Hastert Rule under which a Speaker only brings to the floor for a vote a bill that commands the majority of the Republican majority?

Boehner has been forced to break the Hastert Rule repeatedly in the last two and a half years to win support for must-pass legislation. He’s relied on Nancy Pelosi to bring the votes of her virtually unified Democratic caucus to pass key bills opposed by the Republican majority, including

  • the fiscal cliff bill (passed by 191 Democrats and 85 Republicans)
  • Hurricane Sandy relief (192 Democrats and 41 Republicans in favor)
  • extension of the Violence Against Women Act (all 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans voting “yea”)
  • raising the debt ceiling in 2013 after the Republicans shut down the government trying to abolish Obamacare (198 Democrats and 87 Republicans in favor)
  • the “clean” the debt ceiling bill in 2014 (untethered to the Keystone Pipeline or increasing
  • the military budget (193 Democrats and a mere 28 Republicans saying yes)
  • the “clean” bill funding the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 (without rescission of President Obama’s executive orders on deferred action for undocumented immigrants) (193 Democrats and 28 Republicans)
  • and most recently on September 30, 2015, the “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood) (186 Democrats and 91 Republicans)

As Denny Hastert, in happier days, predicted himself about repeated violations of his eponymous rule,

“Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when you start cutting deals where you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you’re not in power anymore.”

Boehner’s “clean” C.R. last month was his eighth (and perhaps last) violation of the Hastert Rule. Before suffering a vote of “no confidence” led by the Freedom Caucus, he quit, explaining, “It’s become clear to me this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”

But now his handpicked successor, Kevin McCarthy, has withdrawn his name from consideration because he could not get enough votes from his own party. The hard right, however, lacks sufficient numbers to elect its own Speaker. But without its support, the regular right can’t get to a majority of the House either — leaving Boehner in the Speaker’s chair until he can be replaced.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, indeed!

Neither Paul Ryan nor anybody else foolish enough to take the Speaker’s gavel under current circumstances is the answer – because to gain the necessary support of the Freedom Caucus, he or she would need to promise a new government shutdown or national credit breach.

The solution is obvious. Boehner should assemble what in any other country would be considered a government of national unity. He planned to resign his seat in Congress and retire anyway. That means he doesn’t ever have to stand for reelection in a Republican primary again and has nothing to lose. He might as well leave on his own terms as a patriot, perhaps even a political hero! He can become the speaker he always hoped to be.

He could lead a coalition of the center right and the center left. It’s the same de facto governing majority of legislators that he’s relied on in the past to bypass the Tea Party rejectionists. Such a unity government could rule until the next election, when all bets are off. But in the meantime, it would keep the government open, pay the bills the government has already incurred without default and maybe give us something to be proud of: cooperation and common sense by our leaders. No, not you, Donald Trump.

Trump’s new immigration plan would require a constitutional amendment

Originally published August 15, 2015

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Donald Trump released a short policy paper on immigration this morning, reiterating his improbable plan to build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it. In interviews today Trump has also stated that all undocumented immigrants “have to go.” But his new policy paper is silent on the subject of such mass deportation of these 11 million people – except to say that the return of all “criminal aliens” is “[m]andatory.”

It is interesting to note that in his first, and only, position paper released to date, Trump, a billionaire real estate developer who brags about paying-off politicians, focuses exclusively on the least powerful and most insecure among us – those living and working here in the shadows without legal documentation.

Buried in Trumps’ policy paper is a shocking call to “[e]nd birthright citizenship.” Not surprisingly, there’s not much substance to this plank, except for him to say that “ ‘no sane country’ would give automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.” By that definition, the United States is not sane because the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution has required for almost 150 years that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” be considered “citizens of the United States.”

Passed in aftermath of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment aimed to end the disenfranchisement of freed slaves and ensure citizenship for all those born in this country without regard the status of their parents. One of the purposes of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was to overrule noxious ruling by the antebellum Supreme Court in Dred Scott in 1857, which prohibited both freed slaves and their descendants from ever becoming citizens.

Citizenship at birth means that if you’re born here, you’re a U.S. citizen. This is a type of American exceptionalism that distinguishes us from, say, Germany, which until recently bestowed citizenship only on those whose parents were German citizens or of “German ethnic origin.” American has never had, and does not now need, an ethnic purity test. Indeed, U.S. immigration law is based upon English common law that “a person’s status was vested at birth, and based upon place of birth.” In Latin, the concept is called jus soli.

Some conservatives have argued as of late that the Citizenship Clause’s requirement that those born here be “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States excludes the American-born children of undocumented immigrants from citizenship. But this is a fanciful argument that has no basis in law.

All first year law students learn that the first and oldest basis for the exercise of personal jurisdiction is physical presence in the forum state.

In drafting the Fourteenth Amendment, those in Congress believed that the amendment conferred citizenship at the time of birth. The jurisdictional exception to citizenship was meant to address the the children of diplomats and the Native American population on reservations, who until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 were not considered to be either American citizens or under U.S. jurisdiction.

And while the Supreme Court has not directly addressed this new-fangled argument that American-born children of immigrants are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, its past rulings favor birthright citizenship without exception for the parents’ immigrant status.

  • In the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases, the Supreme Court stated in dictum that “the phrase ‘subject to its jurisdiction’ was intended to exclude from its operation children of ministers, consuls, and citizens or subjects of foreign States born within the United States.”
  • In 1898, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark directly ruled that a person born here of immigrant parents is an American citizen, at the time of his birth, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment – despite the fact that his parents were subjects of a foreign power at the time (though not in an official of diplomatic capacity). Skeptics point out that Mr. Kim’s parents were noted to be carrying on business in San Francisco and had “permanent domicil and residence in the United States.” The significance of these noted fact is that Mr. Kim’s parents were not diplomats. But neither were they legal residents. Indeed, under the Chinese Exclusion Act then in effect, they likely had the equivalent status of today’s undocumented immigrants.
  • And in the 1980’s, two Supreme Court cases, Plyer v. Doe (1982) and INS v. Rios-Pineda (1985) have noted the Citizenship Clause confers citizenship on those “born in the United States,” even if their parents are “resident aliens whose entry was unlawful” or even were illegally smuggled here.

A top appellate litigator has noted that any effort to abolish birthright citizenship other than by constitutional amendment to the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment would lead to Dred Scott II in the federal courts.

This means that appointments to the Supreme Court by the next president will be key to any constitutional re-interpretation of the Citizenship Clause, along with many other hot-button federal issues. No sane county would make Donald Trump that president.

Fuzzy math on the ObamaCare uninsured rate

Originally published on August 16, 2015

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Republican talking points on the plummeting rate of those Americans lacking insurance are off, by a large factor. Since the passage of ObamaCare, Republicans have claimed everything from it having no or little impact on the rate of the uninsured — to the heath care law actually increasing those without insurance. Earlier this week on Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released its annual National Health Interview Survey, with key findings including:

  • The overall uninsured rate has dropped into the single digits – to 9.2% – for the first time, ever;
  • Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2013, over 16 million Americans have gained health insurance; and
  • The decrease in the uninsured rate is greatest in those states that expanded Medicaid coverage (down 8%) compared with those that did not (down only 6%)

Republicans, however, seem not to have gotten the memo. When former Republican Senator Judd Gregg appeared on Chris Hayes’ show, All In, in June, he and the host had a not-so-civil disagreement on the amount by which those lacking insurance had decreased. Hayes took exception to Senator Gregg’s assertion that under ObamaCare, “uninsured folks didn`t get picked up in any significant numbers.”

Hayes pressed the senator on polling data (from Gallup, not Pew as Hayes initially recalled) showing that the uninsured rate for those ages 18 and older had dropped by over 6% (from 18% in the third quarter of 2013 just before the ACA’s individual mandate and Medicaid expansion kicked in – to 11.9% in the first quarter of 2015). (For those of all ages, the drop in uninsured was 5.2% according to the CDC.)

Undeterred, Gregg gave a seemingly authoritative statistic, asserting without attribution that the total number of uninsured had only decreased by 4 million total individuals (from 44 to 40 million). Gregg blithely stated that his numbers were roughly in line with the percentage drop cited by Hayes in the polling. He snidely told Hayes,

“I wish you would get your numbers right. Your numbers [and your ability to understand them] are worse than Obama`s.”

Snap!

The problem, of course, for Gregg’s math is that he was calculating a percentage drop only among those who were originally uninsured – whereas the Gallup (and also CDC) percentages were based upon the population as a whole. So in real numbers, with a population of between 315 and 320 million between 2013 and 2015, the uninsured of all ages dropped from more than 45 million in 2013 to under 30 million in the first quarter of 2015 – that is to say, more than 5% of the population as a whole or 16 million people.

Senator Gregg is not alone among Republicans arguing that the ACA has netted few newly insured individuals. A current Republican House member recently gave a press interview, saying, “I’m not sure that’s true that more people are covered [under ObamaCare].”

Naturally, the Senator from the Tea Party, Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, went furthest, fatuously claiming that the Affordable Care Act “has caused millions of people to lose their insurance.” Curiously, one day following Cruz’s slander against the ACA, he personally signed up his family for coverage under it. We call that chutzpah!

But what really takes chutzpah is for Senator Gregg to claim that only 4 million individuals newly gained insurance under the ACA – when the real number is 16 million, meaning he was off by 400%.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is said to have famously remarked, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Senator Gregg’s “statistics” would, at best, appear to be fuzzy math, and, at worst, to qualify for one of Disraeli’s other categories.

Iran nuclear deal eliminates existential threat to Israel

Originally published July 15, 2015

On my last day visiting Israel three years ago, our tour group met with a national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Sheldon Schulman. And his talk was more than sobering. It was downright frightening – and depressing about the future existence of the Jewish state. He joked about how all national security briefings those days had become meetings about Iran (which was “topic one” in all political conversation in Israel).

Netanyahu’s advisor then grimly recounted a nightmare scenario that would result if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb.

“Mr. Schulman related to us that starting this September, all Israeli schoolchildren in Grade 5 and above will receive training on how to survive a nuclear attack – including on how to care for younger siblings should their parents be separate or killed. Mr. Shulman told us that Iran has constructed models of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to test the correct height at which to explode a bomb over those cites for maximum impact. In Mr. Shulman’s view, once Tehran gets the bomb, it will make good on its threats to use it against Israel.”

He went on to explain that Israel could not wait to see if it would survive a first strike from Iran because its command and control facilities in such a small country might be tested beyond capacity. In other words, traditional deterrence (“mutual assured destruction”) that kept the peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War would not work between Israel and Iran. So once Netanyahu’s red-line on Iran’s nuclear program had been crossed, which was coming soon, Israel would be forced to take preemptive military action – especially because he believed that Obama’s red-line was Iran actually launching nuclear missiles against Israel (which in retrospect seems ridiculous).

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Now that the Obama Administration and the other P5 +1 countries have negotiated an agreement that will freeze and roll-back Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu is now playing a bait and switch. He and his aides are no longer emphasizing a potential Iranian bomb as an existential threat to Israel, which had been the sole focus of their previous concerns. Instead, the threat has now shifted to a non-nuclear Iran unbridled by international sanctions throwing its weight around the Middle East with better-financed conventional armaments. And how could Obama have signed off on the nuclear deal without linkage to the Iranian conventional threat?

But this is where a conversation that our tour group had with an Israeli kibbutz leader comes back into memory. Unlike the Netanyahu aide, the kibbutz leader was more concerned about Israel’s inability to fight back against Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah guerillas located across the border in Lebanon, if their principals in Tehran are armed with nuclear weapons.

I’m guessing that even the more practical kibbutz leader is unhappy with the pending Iran nuclear deal because he’d be unhappy about sanctions relief.

But Israel has been fighting a conventional war against Iran and its Arab neighbors since its founding – and doing pretty well at it. Yes, the lifting of sanctions against Iran does pose a problem and may have an effect on the regional balance of power. It increases the conventional threat to Israel and may cause a non-nuclear arms build-up among the Gulf Arabs to counter Iran. But it won’t cause a nuclear arms race among the Gulf Arabs. And most importantly, it will eliminate the threat to Israel’s very existence that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have constituted.

President Obama addressed the sanctions issue at his press conference Wednesday, saying:

“Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.

“Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.

“They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.

“So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.

“Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.

“Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.”

The bottom line is that Iran is not going to stop being Iran because of this accord, and regime transformation was always going to be beyond the scope the negotiations. Remember, China and especially Russia have no interest in including non-nuclear issues in the negotiations, and their participation in the sanctions regime was critical to its effectiveness – which sanctions regime unravels internationally once Iran agrees to resolve the nuclear issue irrespective of whether the U.S. signs off on the agreement.

There certainly is hope that the present agreement with Iran will be an inflection point, leading to at least a détente with the Islamic Republic – maybe even an entente if engagement, commerce and diplomatic relations follow. “Iranians are generally believed to be one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East,” according to the RAND Institute as corroborated by Pew Research Center surveys of global attitudes toward the United States. (52% of Iranians view America favorably, whereas the Egyptians with a positive view barely break double digits.) Ironically, it may be this potential for a geopolitical realignment that has the Israelis and Gulf states most worried. But any such realignment would have to include a rapprochement, with them, too, for the Persians to rejoin the community of nations that respects the rule of law and other countries’ sovereignty.

The bottom line is that we do not need to go to war with another Muslim country to disarm it, and that was the alternative to the present agreement with Iran. We avoid war, and Israel avoids being subject to an existential threat of nuclear annihilation from an Iranian bomb, which is now under wraps. That’s a good tradeoff, historic even.

To the chagrin of conservatives, ObamaCare ruling is a model of restraint

Originally published June 26, 2015

46f753911dba79449670532283a05d90The federal judiciary is supposed to be the “least dangerous” branch of government owing to its limited powers. It has no standing army or purse strings. Its powers emanate from its great interpretive ability to “say what the law is.”

The Warren Court gained a reputation as being “activist” because, according to critics, it went beyond interpreting the law to creating it out of whole cloth – thus usurping the legislative function.

Judicial restraint can fairly be said to include the Court’s adherence to the Constitution in interpreting rights, deference to Congress in reviewing legislation and respect for the Court’s own prior rulings making precedent.

Chief Justice John Robert’s majority opinion upholding ObamaCare subsidies in King v. Burwell complies with all three of these tenets of judicial restraint – though you wouldn’t know it from his detractors on the right. Roberts read the statute as a whole and interpreted it according to what it was designed by Congress to do: “improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.” Sounds like what a judicial umpire would, and should, do.

For his efforts, Roberts earned the scorn of Republicans. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee echoed timeworn conservative complaints, bemoaning “unelected” judges “circumvent[ing] Congress” and “legislat[ing] from the bench.” “[J]udicial tyranny,” he declared on twitter!

No one let Huckabee know that the old clichés of the right during the Warren Era don’t really fit the new conservative jurisprudence.

In his column with the only mildly hyperbolic title, “John Roberts helps overthrow the Constitution,” George F. Will is at least honest about the new conservative complaint against John Roberts. He’s too judicially modest!

George Will bemoans the Court’s “vast deference to the purposes of the political branches.”

“Thursday’s decision demonstrates how easily, indeed inevitably, judicial deference becomes judicial dereliction, with anticonstitutional consequences. . . . The Roberts Doctrine facilitates what has been for a century progressivism’s central objective, the overthrow of the Constitution’s architecture. The separation of powers impedes progressivism by preventing government from wielding uninhibited power.”

When did it become the Supreme Court’s function to stop the government from effectively governing for its own sake?

George Will can’t decide if he’s more upset that Roberts has deferred to the executive or to the legislative branch in cleaning up the inartfully drafted portions of the Affordable Care Act so that they function as designed. He forgets that King v. Burwell presented a simple question of statutory interpretation, not of constitutional powers (that was already decided in favor of the ACA last term).

The right’s real objection is that Roberts is not a conservative activist – in the model of say, Antonin Scalia. Republicans wanted the Supreme Court to do judicially what they failed to do politically — repeal ObamaCare. That is not the job of a modest judiciary in line with its constitutional dictates.