Lame Duck or Prizefighter?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonIn the months leading up to the U.S. midterm elections President Obama seemed to be sitting on the sidelines. Supports looked in vain for any sign of movement on a host of pressing issues including immigration, the XL pipeline, climate change, net neutrality, tax reform and economic policy.

The president recognized the massive wall of opposition from his Republican critics that awaited any action he might pursue on those issues. And so, he waited it out. He held off taking action on these matters until after the midterm elections were over so that Democratic candidates would not get caught in the cross fire.

But now Obama seems to be coming out of his corner – not defeated, but invigorated, saying in effect, “Bring it on.”

Obama - lame duckTonight Obama will inform the nation of his immigration policy to be implemented by executive order. Astonishingly, the major networks have refused to broadcast it – shouldn’t the “liberal” media be jumping at the chance to grant him this exposure? Instead, people will get selected “sound bites” broadcast later on – reflecting someone else’s take on his address.

Impeach ObamaI am sure Obama’s Republican critics will immediately start howling about Obama’s executive orders, demanding his impeachment – even though Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush instituted similar immigration changes by executive order during their administrations. (What? You mean the conservative media isn’t reporting this?)

According to the analysis I have read, Obama has full constitutional authority over deportations and how they shall be carried out. A recent article in the New Republic by Erwin Cherminsky, the Dean of Law at the University of California and Sam Kleiner, a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project, state,

One thing is clear: The president has the constitutional authority to decide to not proceed with deportations. It has always been within the president’s discretion to decide whether to have the Department of Justice enforce a particular law.

They explain,

A president may choose to not enforce particular laws when deciding how to allocate scarce resources or based on his view of the best public policy. Few object, for example, when the Department of Justice does not prosecute those who possess small amounts of marijuana, even though they violated the federal Controlled Substance Act. There are countless federal laws that go unenforced. In 1800, then congressman and later Chief Justice John Marshall stated, the president may “direct that the criminal be prosecuted no further” because it is “the exercise of an indubitable and constitutional power.”

They note that, “The president’s broad prosecutorial discretion has been repeatedly recognized by the courts.” Furthermore,

This prosecutorial discretion is even greater in immigration because the treatment of foreign citizens is inextricably intertwined with the nation’s foreign affairs, an area especially under the president’s control.

In fact, they report that

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981[P]residents of both parties have tailored immigration policy to their own goals. In 1987, the Reagan administration took executive action to limit deportations for 200,000 Nicaraguan exiles, even those who had been turned down for asylum. Similarly, President George H.W. Bush in 1990 limited deportations of Chinese students and in 1991 kept hundreds of Kuwait citizens from being deported. President Bill Clinton regularly used his power of prosecutorial discretion to limit deportations; in 1993 he gave 18-month extensions to Salvadoran residents, in 1997 he limited deportations for Haitians, and in 1998 he limited deportations to Central American counties that had been devastated by hurricanes.

220px-George-W-BushPresident George W. Bush also took major steps to limit deportations on humanitarian grounds. In 2001, he limited deportation of Salvadorian citizens at the request of the Salvadorian president who said that their remittances were a key part of their nation’s economy. The Bush administration embraced prosecutorial discretion and ordered the consideration of factors such as whether a mom was nursing a child or whether an undocumented person was a U.S. military veteran in making the determination on whether to order a deportation.

Obama’s conservative opponents will no doubt howl in protest and will dire utter threats over Obama’s actions. They will seek to mobilize their base and bring in a flurry of donations to help “take Obama down.”

But they will lose in the end. And the Latino community will remember who it was that attacked them and who defended them when the next election rolls around.

Obama boxing poseTo use a boxing metaphor, the bell has rung on “Round 1” in the post-election battle. Both parties are moving to the center of the ring poised to do battle, and the sparring has begun. It should be interesting to see who flails in the wind and who ends up landing the decisive blow.

Photo credit: AP

7 Takeaways from the U.S. Midterm Elections

Americans votingThe 2014 U.S. mid-term elections are being portrayed as a huge win for Republicans and a stinging defeat for Barack Obama and the Democrats. But closer analysis shows other significant factors at play that helped determine the outcome of this election.

  1. House Gains

It is an established fact that the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in the mid-term elections. In the last 19 mid-term elections (since 1938) the president’s party has lost an average of 4 seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House. At the last report, the Democrats have lost 12 seats in the House with 7 still undecided. That is a fairly small number.

GerrymanderingOf course, the Republicans already had a sizeable majority in the House so there were not too many additional contested seats for them to pick up. Thanks to extensive gerrymandering after the 2010 elections, 85% of the seats in the House were considered to be “safe” for Republicans.

In the 2012 election gerrymandering meant that although Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than republican candidates in the House elections, the Democrats secured only 201 seats compared to the 234 seats that went to Republicans.

Prior to the mid-term election, Lee Fang, a political researcher for Moyers and Company, forecast that

As the results from this year roll in, we see a similar dynamic [to 2012]. Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the GOP.

  1. Senate Gains

The real contest, of course was for control of the Senate. If one looks the map of Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle one immediately notices that the seats are heavily concentrated in the American Midwest and the South – traditionally very conservative areas of the country.

Absent from this mix are many of the Pacific and Western and the Northeastern states which tend to be more liberal. In other words, the majority of Senate seats to be decided on were predisposed to go to Republicans regardless of the candidates involved.

Senate election mapSo far the Republicans have picked up 7 seats, with 2 more still to be decided. The Louisiana run-off is almost sure to go the Republican candidate, so let’s call it a gain of 8 for sure. How does this compare to other years?

For the president’s party the loss was as just great as that for Bill Clinton in 1994 and for Ronald Reagan in 1986, but it still pales in comparison to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s loss of 13 Senate seats in 1958 and Harry Truman’s loss on 11 seats in 1946.

The expected wave of Republican victories has been touted as a tsunami by some political pundits. It was certainly a victory wave. But a major tsunami? Hardly. Both parties have undergone more sweeping changes in other years.

  1. Lower Voter turnout

midtermTurnoutIt is an established fact that voter turnout is much lower in midterm elections than in presidential elections – as much as 10 to 15 percent lower. In recent midterm elections less that 40 percent of the eligible population has voted. [Steven S. Smith, The American Congress, Cambridge University Press (2013), p. 86.] This year it was only about 36 percent.

Of those who voted, 70% were white Americans who, more than any other demographic group, tend to vote Republican. Since 2010 many Republican-held states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that have been shown to disproportionally exclude poor, black and Hispanic voters. [See the very informative interactive posting from PBS’s Frontline website: Why Doesn’t Everyone Have a Voter ID?] Members of these are groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Did these voter restrictions affect the election results? The data is still being analyzed, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice the number of voters impacted by these new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for the senate and state governors in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida.

  1. Lower voter motivation

Supporters cheer as U.S. President Obama speaks during a campaign event in Columbus, OhioIn both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections Obama received his strongest support from young people, women, blacks and Hispanics. Those demographic groups were noticeably absent from this year’s mid-term election.

Many have speculated that this was because of disappointment with President Obama’s performance over the past 6 years. There is certainly some truth to this.

Obama has not been able to get legislation passed through Congress to lessen the burden of student debt or raise the minimum wage, which affects many younger wage earners. He has been noticeably slow to speak out on women’s reproductive rights and equal pay issues for women. He has been remarkably silent on issues of racism, consistently trying to avoid “the race card.” And he has backed off sweeping immigration reform, an issue that is of great concern to Hispanic voters.

The president knows that if he presses for movement in any of these areas Republicans will attack him without mercy, and the entire Democratic Party will suffer as a result. So he has tried to steer a moderate (non-offensive) very “presidential” course. But it has not saved him or his party.

Obama a disaserThe campaign ads in his election cycle have attacked Obama at every turn, accusing him, not of being ineffective or weak as a president, but of being dangerous, dictatorial, and un-American. He has been vilified along with every one of his early accomplishments – especially the Affordable Care Act.

Anything connected with Obama has become poisoned, and Democratic candidates in this election cycle knew it. They were forced to distance themselves from him. In close contests they sent the message that they didn’t want him around. Once again negative campaigning proved to be more effective than any positive message could ever hope to be.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It brought out the conservative base of voters who felt they had to stop Obama and his agenda at all costs, and it put the Democratic candidates on the defensive.

  1. Biased Reporting

Press-conference.-TV-cameras.-July-9-2014The Republican attack machine effectively defined the message in this election cycle, and the Democrats were unable to get traction with any message of their own. In an article on The Hill, Democratic strategist Doug Thornell is quoted as complaining,

“Over the last year Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class, and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or has been drowned out by outside events” [most recently by ISIS and the ebola scare].

That started me thinking. Why didn’t the Democrats’ message find traction with American voters? Polls have shown that the top issues among all voters are (in decreasing order): Jobs, health care, the budget deficit, education, domestic security, and immigration.

The perennial Republican favourites of abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control don’t even make the list. So why weren’t Democratic candidates able to rally voter support on these priorities? Why didn’t their message get through?

ISIS ebola disappearThe answer, I believe, lies in how much media coverage was given to positive assessments of these issues and how much coverage was given to negative coverage or to other issues instead (neglecting these issues completely).

Conservatives repeatedly claim that there is a “liberal bias” in the media. But if the national media really does have a liberal bias, the airwaves should have been filled with this positive message favouring the administration and the Democratic candidates.

I’m not talking about campaign ads here. I’m talking about real news coverage. But I strongly suspect that this was not the dominant message. I suspect that one didn’t have to search very hard to find an outpouring of negative assessments of Obama’s policies and the core issues identified in the Democratic platform. That pretty much squelches claims of the media’s “liberal” bias.

  1. Opposition to Obama

Finally, the following question needs to be asked: Were these mid-term elections really about voting for Republican candidates or voting against Obama?

In Canada we have seen our Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper skilfully destroy two successive opposition leaders by quickly establishing a negative narrative that defined them in the media and that they were never able to get out from under. It destroyed their leadership ability and the electorate’s confidence in them, and ultimately it destroyed both their political careers.

ObamaScareRepublicans have been doing this from day one with Obama. They have denounced everything he has attempted to do, they have obstructed his agenda at every turn, they have made it nearly impossible to get anything done, and then have criticized him for not accomplishing anything.

Republicans have aggressively defined the narrative about Obama and he has not been able to shake it. Even his fellow Democrats had to run from it in their most recent campaigns. Their tactic succeeded.

It has been widely reported in the media that Obama’s approval rating has now “plummeted” and “plunged to new lows.” Yet when one averages all the various polls one finds that his overall approval rate fell from 42.6% on January 1, 2014 to (wait for it) 42% on October 30, 2014. That’s 0.6% – hardly a precipitous decline.

Obama’s lowest approval rating was 39%. This, by the way, is still higher than the lowest rating of any president since John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan once hit 35% and George W. Bush once hit just 19%. Nevertheless, the narrative has become firmly established, and many Americans believe that Obama is more unpopular than any previous president.

  1. A Cautious Warning for Conservatives

Narratives, once established become hard to shake. But here is another narrative for the Republicans to consider as they prepare to lead the House and the Senate for the next two years.

According to a Rasmussen Reports national survey published on October 28, 2014 only 8% of likely U.S. voters thought that Congress was doing a good or excellent job, while 62% rated Congress’ performance as poor. A separate Ramsussen poll published on August 27, 2014, showed that John Boehner remains Congress’ most unpopular leader. Those perceptions will be hard to shake.

Do-nothing CongressAre we to expect that this (until now) “do-nothing” obstructionist Congress will actually decide to start governing constructively? It seems to me very unlikely that the Republican majority of both houses of Congress will try to reach a compromise with Obama to get their legislation passed into law. Instead I expect they will seize their newfound majority to pass a host of legislation that they know Obama will not approve of just to see him veto it. And, of course, they will loudly criticize him for doing so.

Until now harry Reid has acted as a “shield” for Obama in keeping unpopular legislation from passing through the Senate, thus deflecting attention away from the president himself. Now Obama will be much more exposed. I expect the Republicans to make the most of it. Conservative House members will certainly be clamouring to see new versions of the stalled bills they had previously approved now pass through the Senate.

What is going to be Republican members’ highest priority – to work with Obama in getting legislation passed, or to finally “take Obama down”? I suspect the latter.

Here is a short list of what we might see happen in the next session of Congress:

  • The Tea Party will flex its muscles once again. House members will renew their demands that Obamacare be repealed and/or defunded. They can’t afford to abandon this tactic, as to do so would enrage their conservative base and expose them to being ‘primaried’ out of the next election
  • Impeachment proceedings will begin against Obama on some contrived charge (abusing his executive powers, perhaps). There will be no legal case for these charges, but Republicans have trumpeted this cause enough that they will be unable to back away from it. Their reputations are at stake.
  • Factions will emerge challenging the leadership of both John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Both will survive, but it will leave the party membership fractured.
  • Certain prominent members (Ted Cruz and others) will push their own agendas as they seek to increase their profiles in preparation for a run for the President’s office in 2016. This may conflict with the agendas of the House and Senate leaders causing additional tensions.

113 Congress1The perception of serious dysfunction in Congress is likely to continue over the next two years. Blame can fall in either of two ways. If Obama gets blamed for “obstinacy” and “obstructionism” – well, he is on his way out anyway and the Democrats will get to promote a fresh face and a different approach. But if the sitting members of Congress are the ones judged to be obstinate and obstructive, they will be the ones facing an angry electorate in 2016.

The 2016 election will not be nearly as easy for the Republicans to win. That large voter base that stayed home from this year’s election will be out again to vote for a new president. And Republicans are not likely to gain any more traction with younger voters, women, and racial minorities that they did last time.

The Senate seats in play this time were disproportionately from conservative states. Next time the West Coast and New England States will favour Democratic wins. And so far polls show Hillary Clinton still leading any potential Republican nominee by double digits.

The significant gains in the 2014 election were sweet for the Republicans, but they will no doubt be quite short-lived.

Credits: Courtney Collins, The Associated Press, Postmedia News; Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters; Dan Wasserman, Tribune Media Services

6 Takeaways from Eric Cantor’s Primary Defeat

CantorIn a stunning upset, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party backed opponent in Virginia’s primary elections on Tuesday. Cantor was the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and broadly expected to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House. He was one of the Republican Party’s celebrated “Young Guns” who were expected to rejuvenate the party, and had rapidly risen through the party ranks since his election to the House in 2001.

Cantor’s seat was generally regarded as safe, yet he was defeated by Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor from a small college in his district who had spent only $200,000 on his campaign. Cantor, on the other hand, had poured over $ 5 million into his own campaign. Yet Cantor lost by a whopping 11% on election night (44.5% to 55.5%).

So what does it all mean? Here are 6 takeaways from the election primary:

1. Impact of low voter turnout

Low voter turnout can dramatically skew election results. Over 220,000 people voted in this district’s 2012 election, but only about 65,000 bothered to vote in this year’s Republican primary. Cantor’s own internal poll showed him leading his opponent by 34 points just 2 weeks ago. But as Ezra Klein noted soon after the election results were announced,

“Republicans” are not the same as “Republican primary voters.” … It’s possible and even likely that the vast majority of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th District liked Cantor just fine. But primaries only count the people who come out to vote.

2. Appealing to the base

Cantor handily won over his opponents in previous elections, but redistricting in 2010 made his suburban Richmond district much more conservative by adding in other rural areas that he didn’t previously represent. Maintaining support in Richmond alone was no longer enough. This time around, his opponent successfully appealed to the strongly conservative rural Christian base in his district. He painted Cantor as a Washington insider who spent more time greasing the wheels of Congress than representing his home district.

As David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, notes,

Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

3. Defining your opponent

Dave BratIn his campaign against Cantor, Dave Brat capitalized on conservative opposition to immigration reform. He labeled Cantor as “The number one Republican supporter of [immigration] amnesty” even though Cantor, along with other House Republicans, had only cautiously supported a negotiated compromise on immigration.

Brat was also quite savvy in his use of the media. He received support from conservative radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin who helped to spread his charges against Cantor and also received extensive online coverage from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. In the closing days of the campaign Cantor tried to tack back against support for immigration reform, but it was too late.

4. Taking the populist “high road”

Brat presented himself as a populist candidate and labeled Cantor as a politician who was more committed to Wall Street than Main Street. Brat claimed,

“I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”

Cantor, who in his leadership position in the House has served on the House’s Financial Services, International Relations and Ways and Means Committees and was a major fundraiser for the Republican party, could not shake the accusation that he was an establishment insider who cared more about party issues than those of his home constituents. The tactic worked.

5. Adjustments to House leadership

Earlier today Eric Cantor announced that he will be stepping down as House Majority Leader at the end of July. Within hours of his defeat, Republican House members had already begun jockeying to fill his place. The leading candidate to replace him as Majority Leader is Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). the third highest ranking member of the House. He is being challenged by Pete Sessions (R-TX) the chairman of the House Rules Committee and a former GOP campaign chief. Others have their eye on McCarthy’s position and are lining up to take his place it if becomes vacant.

One may expect House Republicans to be somewhat preoccupied for the next while as they frantically work behind the scenes to reposition themselves within the political hierarchy. They may have little inclination or energy to address other matters as they do so.

6. Redefining the playing field

Some are saying that Cantor’s defeat at the hands of an unknown populist Tea Party candidate sends a strong message to other Republicans seeking reelection this fall. They had better watch their backs.

As Katherine Miller of Buzzfeed notes,

Every Republican who wants to keep his or her seat … will likely study the results of Tuesday’s election.

The Tea Party, which a few weeks ago seemed to be loosing out to more establishment candidates in the primaries, is feeling itself empowered by Tuesday’s election results. This fundamentally changes the political ground game. Will Republican candidates find it necessary to tack to the right to keep the support of their conservative base (as Cantor tried unsuccessfully to do)? And will Democrats attempt to benefit from undecided voters (some 40% of the electorate) who prefer more centrist policies?

It is shaping up to be an interesting fall race.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

The Plot to Take America Hostage

End of the Hostage Drama

House voteAmerica and the world are breathing a collective sign of relief now that the United States has narrowly averted what could have become a cataclysmic financial catastrophe. The very day that the government was due to run out of money, the US Senate passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling. By late evening the deeply divided House of Representatives had passed the bill as well, and President Obama signed it into law shortly after midnight.

If America had defaulted on its debt obligations US credit ratings would have tumbled, interest rates would have soared, the US dollar would have fallen, banking credit would have frozen up, banks would have refused to issue new loans, businesses would have cut expansion and laid off workers, homeowners would have seen their mortgage rates soar, and consumer purchases would have dropped off drastically. In short, both the American and global economies would have been thrown into a severe depression exceeding even that of the 2008 financial meltdown.

Now that the crisis has been averted, it is possible to look back and piece together the sequence of events that that led up to this near disaster. It began when Congress was unable to pass a necessary Continuing Resolution [CR] to authorize expenditures for the new fiscal year. With no approved discretionary funding, all non-essential government services were forced to shut down on October 1.

obamacare-tea-party-rally-sept-2013Both houses of Congress worked to promote their own versions of a CR to keep the government functioning. But as I reported in an earlier blog, it soon became obvious that the government shutdown was not really about funding the government. It was solely about the funding of the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as “Obamacare). As stated in that blog,

The facts speak for themselves: Before the shutdown, the House passed a CR to fund government operations and attached an amendment to defund Obamacare. Then the Senate stripped off the defunding provision and passed the CR without any further changes. The House submitted the same CR to the Senate with an amendment to delay Obamacare for a year. Again the Senate stripped off the amendment and passed the straight CR. Both Houses have passed the identical CR twice; they only disagree about Obamacare.

This legislative stand-off continued for another two weeks until a much larger issue came to the fore: the debt ceiling. The United States has an odd funding arrangement in which Congress must first approve expenditures for the coming year (pass a budget or, failing that, a Continuing Resolution to continue making appropriations). Then later it must pass a second resolution enabling the government to actually pay for the bills that have been incurred. This becomes important if the government is running a deficit, and paying its bills in full would add to the national debt.

Historically, this second vote has been a straight housekeeping measure. But in recent years it has become a political weapon used by opposition parties to try and force the government to accept new policy changes in return for the authority to pay its bills.

Furloughed federal workers join a rally with Congressional Progressive Caucus to demand a vote to end the government shutdown, outside the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonThe past week Republicans in both houses of Congress tried to use the debt ceiling as a weapon to force the President to drop Obamacare. The President replied that he was not going to negotiate with “hostage takers,” and that Congress had a responsibility to pay for the bills it had already incurred.

If Congress wanted to debate new funding measures, the President was open to that. But the Affordable Care Act was the law, passed by an act of Congress in 2010, upheld by the Supreme Court, and fought over in the 2012 presidential election – receiving the broadest referendum possible. The Republicans has lost that election. The President received a sizeable majority, and the signature piece of legislation from his first term of office – the Affordable Care Act – was thereby reaffirmed.

But a strongly organized opposition refused to concede the issue. Led by Tea Party Republicans in both the House and Senate, they took the country to the brink of default in insisting that Obamacare be sacrificed in exchange for America remaining financially solvent.

gallup1

Polls showed public opinion solidly turning against the Republicans over this maneuver. Seasoned Republicans in the Senate, fearful of their own ability to be re-elected, opened last-minute negotiations with Democrats to resolve the issue. They put together a bi-partisan proposal that was passed on the morning of the final day that the government remained solvent. The bill had more difficulty getting through the House with its Republican majority, but late in the evening it too was passed. The Senate vote was 81-18 in favor, while the House vote was 285-144.

Those Behind the Plot

Most of the media coverage of this crisis focused on the members of Congress and their actions. But behind the scenes there were other actors orchestrating the drama as it unfolded. As The New York Times reported in a major article on October 5, the federal budget crisis was many months in the planning.

Edwin_Meese IIIShortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. …

Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed  “blueprint to defunding Obamacare” signed by Mr. Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups.

It articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government.

You can view the “Blueprint to Defunding Obamacare” here.

Signatories to the Blueprint include Edwin Meese III (former Attorney General to Ronald Reagan), Chris Chocola (President, Club for Growth), Jenny Beth Martin (Co-founder, Tea Party Patriots), Matt Kibbe (President, FreedomWorks), Mike Needham (CEO, Heritage Action for America), and David Bossie (President, Citizens United).

The Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action for America all aggressively got behind the effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. The Times article also reports that

The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort. A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight.

The Bill Moyers website contains an interactive page profiling 10 of the main actors operating behind the scenes in this effort to nullify the Affordable Care Act as well as 9 of their willing agents (and one target) in Congress.  It is well worth a visit.

Members of Congress were faced with a highly orchestrated campaign led by powerful political back-room figures and financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Their tactics were aggressive. Their influence was extensive. And their pressure tactics were powerful.

More importantly, their ambition was seemingly without bounds – even to the point of taking America to the brink of economic collapse in pursuit of their single-minded goal.

When such powerful people seek to manipulate Congress, control its legislature, overturn its laws, and impose their will on the country, we are in a very dangerous situation. This orchestrated effort comes very close to amounting to an attempted coup. And if America had defaulted on its debts due to their influence, they would arguably have been guilty of no less a crime than treason.

Democracy is a fragile thing. Perpetual vigilance is required to defend it. Otherwise, powerful interests will not hesitate to subvert it, manipulate it, and control it to suit their own purposes.

America averted a catastrophe at the very last moment this past week. But it must not let down its guard. It must remain vigilant against all those who threaten it – especially those who threaten it from within.

Image credits: CSPAN; Reuters

Hostage Negotiations

The shutdown of government services in the United States is now well into its second week due to a continuing impasse between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If the two parties cannot come together within the next seven days to raise the debt ceiling, America will face a catastrophic default on its national debt. So far, there has been little movement toward a resolution. Both sides have dug in their heels, and the public is getting worried.

Obama-GalesburgLast Friday President Obama clearly stated that he would not negotiate with Republicans to end the budget standoff “with a gun held to the head of the American people.”  He made a similar statement on Wednesday in a meeting with House Democrats saying he was willing to negotiate with Republicans but “not with a gun at my head.”

20100629_johnboehner_250x375Republican House Speaker John Boehner has pounced on these statements repeatedly stating to the media simply that Obama “will not negotiate.”

On Wednesday the President tried to clarify his position by opening an hour-long press conference with the following extended statement:

This morning I had a chance to speak with Speaker Boehner. And I told him what I’ve been saying publicly, that I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important. But I also told him that having such a conversation, talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.

Hours later, Boehner held his own news conference where he stated,

What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.

In a nutshell, the situation boils down to this:

Obama: “Drop the gun, and we’ll talk.”

Boehner: “I’m not lowering my weapon.”

swat3_sI have been thinking quite a bit in recent days about this “hostage” metaphor. If we were describing a similar hostage incident on our city streets, the police would have been summoned long ago, professional negotiators would be talking down the perpetrator, and the SWAT team would be in place to take lethal action if needed. Unfortunately, in American politics, there is no outside authority to intervene. There is no such police force, and there is no SWAT team.

De-escalating the Crisis

But there is the art of negotiation. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin observes the basic rule used by every SWAT team in hostage situations: “You might not give the hostage taker what he wants, but you start talking and may give him something to prevent him from doing great damage.”

Many people have called on President Obama to “throw Boehner a bone” of some kind to keep negotiations from breaking off completely. Perhaps this is that Obama was doing in his news conference when he announced,

I am happy to talk with [Boehner] and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important.

And it appears that the Republicans have taken hold of this offer. Many commentators have noted how

The GOP argument has shifted over the last week or so from seeking to roll back the president’s healthcare reform law in the fiscal showdown to seeking broader changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.

Many long-time Republican members of the House have been looking for a suitable exit strategy. John Boehner had originally tried to steer the Republican members of the House away from a confrontation over Obamacare, preferring to use the debt ceiling fight to push for further spending cuts. But he was overruled by the Tea Party caucus who insisted on following the strategy laid out by their de facto leader, Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted CruzCruz has since been strongly castigated by other Republican members for overreaching his position and making grand promises that he could not keep. Rep. Peter King [R-NY] stated that he can “never forgive Ted Cruz,” and other Republicans have even circulated negative talking points against Cruz to prominent media personalities.

Others have expressed their disappointment with John Boehner who caved to the Tea party demands, demonstrating that even he finds himself being held hostage to Tea Party tactics.

cartoon Obama calls Boehner

Many Republican House members have expressed their frustration with having been pressured to join the Tea Party’s all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare. Charlie Dent [R-Pa] for one has gone on record as saying that strategy championed by Ted Cruz and a host of Tea Party congressmen has “failed miserably.”

But Tea Party members – and their outside funders and agitators – are not willing to back down. Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report states that

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told reporters Tuesday morning that grassroots conservatives will accept neither a pivot away from the issue in an effort to resolve the deadlock nor a short-term reopening of the government that doesn’t defund the law.

Finding an Exit Strategy

Is there any way out of this morass? Can House Republicans rally around a strategy that will enable them to emerge from this standoff with a win of some sort? Enter Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, who suddenly stepped forward this week to chart a new course for the House Republicans. Ryan had been keeping a low profile throughout the entire Obamacare standoff and subsequent government shutdown, letting others take center stage instead.

Paul-ryan2Then the day after President Obama announced that he would be willing to agree to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if it were a “clean” extension (that is, without other conditions), Ryan stepped forward with a detailed plan reported in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal saying “We’re ready to negotiate.”

Interestingly, his proposals do not mention Obamacare at all, focusing instead on “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlements and tax code.” Today, Ryan headed to the White House for a meeting with the President along with 17 other Republican House members.

Many non-Tea Party Republican House members greeted Ryan’s entry into the fray with relief. “There’s nobody in the caucus that commands the respect that Paul does,” said one House Republican. Rep. Bill Nuizenga [R-MI] is quoted as saying, “The moderates trust him, they might not always like what he has to say but they trust him.”

The Tea Party and their  backers, on the other hand, are outraged. Tom Kludt at Talking Points Memo points out that

Right-wing groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, and RedState.com immediately lashed out at Ryan for failing to include the death of Obamacare in his demands in exchange for not intentionally crashing the global economy.

They were joined by Amanda Carpenter, spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large at the right-wing Breitbart.com, and a long list of others.

But the popular base the Tea Party once enjoyed is now waning. As Fox News contributor Leslie Marshall noted in a strongly worded essay on Wednesday,

The Tea Party’s influence and following among the American population has plunged to the lowest point since it’s inception. Less than one in four Americans now back the Tea Party, according to a recent Gallup poll. And in that same poll, those who hate the Tea Party and oppose its tactics have greatly risen in number.

She continues,

If you break down the numbers, it’s perplexing why any Republican would forge ahead with the tea party’s shutdown. First: poll after poll shows the American people do not want this shutdown. Further, they do not want this shutdown over Obamacare. The polls also show Americans dislike a government shutdown more than they dislike Obamacare. Polls show the American people blame Republicans; even other Republicans!

The solution, in her view, is for the Republican Party to completely disassociate itself from the Tea Party and vice versa. “If you call yourself a party,” she says, then “become a party.”

It is time for the Republicans to reexamine what their party stands for.  They are fast losing credibility with the public over this self-imposed budgetary crisis and the extreme unproductive positions taken so far. If they do not change course they, like the Tea Party they are currently beholding to, will speak only for a radical ostracized minority. Conservatism has a place in American politics. Radicalism does not.

In the late 1960s the Democrats followed an idealistic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who advocated progressive policy positions that the American public could not broadly endorse. The Party appeared to have capitulated to a radicalized core, and people abandoned it in droves. It took a lot of soul-searching, but eventually the Democrats reinvented themselves, under a more moderate banner of Clinton economics.

Republicans need to learn from that example. It may be a painful process – severing limbs (or removing cancerous growths) always is. But if the Party is to survive, it must be done.

There is more than one hostage in this drama.

 

Credits: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images; AP;  Senate TV/AP; Wasserman/Tribune Content Agency; Gage Skidmore/Flickr

 

5 Tough Questions about Attacking Syria

What should be done about Syria? That is the main political issue facing the U.S. Congress and the American people this week. Its answer will have implications for the entire international community.

Obama-GalesburgBack in August of 2012 President Obama stated before the White House Press Corps,

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [that] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. … That would change my calculations significantly.

That line has now been crossed with confirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Saraqeb last month coupled with claims by the President that “well over 1000 people were murdered.” Barack Obama has called for limited military action against Syria, and the world nervously waits to see what form that action will take.

136614_600Obama’s options are limited, and some very difficult questions must be faced. The most pressing questions, in my view, are the following:

1)   Should the U.S. take action with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons?

The simple answer is “Yes … in principle.” The United States, along with 137 nations is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” as well as “the use of bacteriological methods of warfare.” All of these nations are bound by a common pledge to condemn the use of chemical weapons during warfare.

There is, however, one very big problem. The Geneva Protocol does not state the kind of response to be made upon violation of the agreement, nor does it state who can authorize that response. As the Washington Post’sFact Checker” column noted last week,

Such treaties generally do not have mechanisms for enforcement. As far as we know, no nation has ever attacked another to punish it for the use of chemical weapons, so Obama’s request is unprecedented.

2)   Can the U.S. take action unilaterally against Syria?

hans_blixAgain, the answer is Yes … but with a few caveats. Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq from 2000–2003, offered this cautionary warning to the U.S. in an interview just last week:

They talk about enforcing a norm, the ban on the use of chemical weapons. … [But] I don’t think the world community has appointed the U.S. or the U.K. or anybody else to be the policeman to police these norms. It’s the [U.N.] Security Council that is the world’s policeman. … And the [U.N.] Charter forbids member states to use the force or threat to use the force against others unless they are acting in self-defense against an armed aggression or the have the authorization of the Security Council.

Hans Blix acknowledges that the Security Council had been “a rather poor policeman.” President Obama made specific reference to this fact in announcing his intent to take independent action against Syria, saying

I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

Nevertheless, unless the United States is able to convince the world community that in attacking Syria it is acting in its own self-defence, it will be violating the U.N. Charter. This in itself will not be enough to raise international condemnation, but it will have practical consequences. As Blix cautioned in his interview,

if U.S. goes alone here and not adheres to the standards of the charter, it will weaken the U.S. It will isolate the U.S. in the world.

3)   Must the President have the approval of Congress to take action against Syria?

The answer in this instance is Yes … and No. Article One, Section eight of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress hall have power to … declare war.” As a recent article in qPolitics states,

A simple reading of this could lead one to the conclusion that the President should not have the right to begin military action without congressional approval, even if there is no formal declaration of war. From this perspective, military intervention in Syria would need to be approved by Congress.

Yet the article goes on to note that the United States has fought numerous wars, battles, and skirmishes over the years. Only five of these were “declared” wars (the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars). Other “undeclared” wars have also received congressional authorization, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In addition, “there have been over 100 military actions throughout our history that did not have specific approval from Congress.” [emphasis added] To sum up, in America’s history

military action has been undertaken under all three of these circumstances, i.e. declared wars, congressionally approved wars and wars based on Presidential or executive branch initiative.

Which category would military action against Syria most likely fit under? The author offers this observation:

In today’s context, we could see that if the President wanted to employ the military to rescue American hostages seized overseas, he should not have to go to Congress to get authorization. He would need to be able to act quickly, maintain an element of surprise, and be free to act. On the other hand, involving the country in a major war would certainly require congressional approval. In the long run, Congress would need to pay the bills. War is too important to fight without the support of the people.

Actually, the issue need not even be debated in this instance. Although President Obama claims that he has the right to take military action against Syria with or without the approval of Congress, has nevertheless decided to ask Congress for its approval. In his address on August 31, Obama stated,

I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

4)   What are the objectives in mounting a strike against Syria?

On this question the answer is not at all clear. Is a military strike primarily intended to deliver a message of moral condemnation against the Syrian regime? Is it intended to send a warning to other bodies (such as Iran and Hezbollah) of what will happen if they ever use chemical weapons themselves? Is it intended to punish Assad’s government and support the rebel movement in Syria? Is it intended to so cripple the Assad regime that will lead to its downfall?

How extensive would such a strike be? Would it target government offices? Would it target Assad’s own residence? Would it target military installations alone, or airports, communications structures, and other Syrian infrastructure? These are all unknown. If the action is too limited, it may be regarded as only a slap on the wrist and ineffectual. If it is too extensive, America may be viewed as an aggressor by other powers.

At this point it is quite difficult to gauge what would be the most appropriate level of action and how it would be perceived by others. (See the recent article in Foreign Policy)

5)   What are the potential consequences?

The answer to this is almost impossible to gauge. If Congress fails to approve President Obama’s request, he will no doubt appear weak, and American foreign policy may be perceived as ineffectual. It may even encourage the Assad regime and other powers to believe they can use chemical weapons with impunity in future conflicts. However, if Congress should approve military strike against Syria, the consequences could be far worse.

Ezra Klein in The Washington Post recently enumerated “10 things that could go very wrong if we attack Syria.” Briefly put,

1. American strikes could result in heavy civilian casualties. Even when aimed at designated military targets, intelligence can be faulty, missiles can go off course, and civilians will inevitably be caught in the blast.

2. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians. If the strikes weaken the Assad regime, it may step up its efforts to regain the upper hand, resulting in many more casualties.

3. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians with chemical weapons. Rather than admitting defeat, Assad could double down on his attacks in an act of defiance against America.

4. The attacks may be limited and Assad easily survives them. If the attacks are not damaging enough, Assad could emerge as a defiant “hero” with even greater strength.

5. American intervention could topple Assad, and Syria would become America’s problem. Klein cites the “Pottery Barn Rule” – “you break it, you buy it” – from the Iraq war.

6. There could be reprisals. The Syrian army, or sympathizers like Hezbolah, could decide to exact revenge by launching terrorist attacks against American interests elsewhere in the world.

7. Assad could fall and the chemical weapons end up in the wrong hands. Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons is kept hidden. If his regime collapses, the opposition wouldn’t know where these weapons are. But his top loyalists would, and the weapons would soon appear on the black market.

8. The Assad regime could fall only to be replaced by chaos. Once they are in a position to do so, the rebels will almost certainly exact revenge against those in the Assad regime, and there could be much further bloodshed as rival factions begin jockeying for control.

9. Assad could fall only to be replaced by something worse. What if the Al Nusra Front, which claims allegiance to al Qaeda, wins the resulting power struggle, or has a major role in the coalition? What then?

10. How extensively will the strikes escalate the conflict? This final point is not stated as a “could be” scenario. Further escalation in the Syrian conflict is a certainty. Klein states,

Almost everything that could go wrong points towards the same ultimate response: Escalation. That could mean more bombing, or actual ground troops, or some combination. But the key fear behind intervening in Syria is that even constrained missions can unexpectedly break free of their limits.

America still remembers how direct American involvement in the Vietnam conflict led step by step to an intractable long-term military commitment that saw thousands of Americans losing their lives. More recently, they remember how America’s engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not lead to any quick resolutions, became difficult to withdraw from, and ended up costing far too many American lives. War has a habit of getting messy, spilling over into new conflicts, and creating even greater regional instability.

Americans are weary of the adventurism of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They are hesitant to commit to new protracted military engagements. And for good reason. The consequences may be hard to foresee, but they are very real and costly.

Cartoon credit: Star Tribune

Obama’s New Economic Plan – Part 2

Obama Chattanooga-2On Tuesday President Obama delivered his first major follow-up address on job creation since unfolding his new economic plan for America in Galesburg, Illinois the previous week.  [See my previous post on that speech.]

Obama spoke this time in Chattanooga, Tennessee at an Amazon.com Inc. mega-warehouse, where he praised the company for its initiatives in job creation. The site was a somewhat controversial choice since Amazon has previously been cited for abusive working conditions in its warehouses.

Much of the President’s speech repeated the same themes and language found in his earlier address in Galesburg, and we may expect more of the same as he brings his message to the other stops on his multi-city tour. But he did use the occasion to expand on the first of the five main cornerstones of middle-class security outlined at Galesburg, that of having a good job with decent wages and benefits. He also provided additional details on how he expects to get his job plan approved by Congress. And with a bit of additional research I have been able to piece together some of the maneuvering in the background that underlies his proposals.

Obama had previously announced a series of major employment initiatives in his February State of the Union address. He promised at that time that creating these jobs would not add to the deficit – that expenses incurred in creating these jobs would be offset by other revenues so there would be no net cost to individual taxpayers. The problem has been that Republicans in Congress have been adamantly opposed to approving any additional expenditures, even if they would be offset by other means.

Now the President believes he has found a way around this impasse. He stated on Tuesday,

I came here to offer a framework that might help break through some of the political logjam in Washington and try to get Congress to start moving.

He is even talking once again about a “Grand Bargain.” He is attempting to combine measures that he knows Republicans support with those he knows Democrats will support to achieve legislation that can receive broad enough bi-partisan backing to be approved by Congress.

In his address the President said,

I don’t want to go through the same old arguments where I propose an idea and the Republicans just say, no, because it’s my idea. So I’m going to try offering something that serious people in both parties should be able to support: a deal that simplifies the tax code for our businesses and creates good jobs with good wages for middle-class folks who work at those businesses.

Obama is resurrecting his plan outlined during the 2012 Presidential campaign to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to no more than 28 percent through revisions to the tax code. Republicans are generally in favour of this reduction in tax rates, although they are far from agreement on other revisions to the tax code. Obama seems to be hoping that his proposal will encourage them to get moving on tax code restructuring – something that politicians on both sides of the aisle have been calling for. But there is still a problem. Republicans have insisted that all gains in revenue from closing tax loopholes must be reabsorbed in a lower overall tax rate. Changes to the tax code must not be used to provide any increased revenue.

The Obama administration has also called for the “repatriation” of earnings by U.S. companies that are currently being kept overseas and out of the reach of the IRS. Any recovery of taxes on this estimated $1.5 to $2 trillion in off-shore earnings would amount to a sizeable one-time windfall for the U.S. government. Measures to repatriate and tax these earnings (even at a substantially reduced rate) have broad support in Congress.

In 2004 the U.S. granted a “repatriation holiday” to corporations that returned earnings held overseas, and the business community has been lobbying for another complete tax holiday as the condition for repatriating their earnings once again. But there is considerable resistance in Congress to granting these corporations complete tax immunity on these amounts.

Ezra Klein notes, both the White House and House Republicans have settled on a compromise solution that would impose

a small, one-time fee on all deferred foreign earnings. This isn’t a tax cut for money corporations bring back. It’s a levy on all the money they have sitting overseas, and they pay it whether they bring it back or not. After paying the fee, that money is free and clear so far as the taxman is concerned.

The details of this one-time fee still have to be negotiated, but the President is proposing to use this money to fund a jobs program providing broad employment opportunities in the repair of roads and bridges, in education at community colleges, and in creating new industrial centeres for manufacturing.

Obama’s jobs creation proposal consists of linking these two measures: The president will support a Republican plan for revenue neutral changes to the tax code (eliminating tax loopholes and using the gains to lower corporate tax rates) if they will agree to let him take the additional revenue received from a separate one-time fee on corporate foreign earnings and apply them to his job creation program.

Here’s the bottom line: I’m willing to work with Republicans on reforming our corporate tax code, as long as we use the money from transitioning to a simpler tax system for a significant investment in creating middle-class jobs. That’s the deal.

As MoneyNews reports,

The White House hopes the idea will gain some traction in Congress because Republicans want corporate tax reform and Democrats want spending for infrastructure, so this offers something for both sides.

We should note that Democrats have until now been opposed to the revenue neutral model of reforming the tax code, and want to apply the additional revenues resulting from these tax changes to funding enhanced employment and social programs. They do not want to see this increased revenue disappear again into other tax cuts.

So President Obama met with the Democratic caucus on Wednesday, explaining his proposals to them, and they have now rallied to announce their solid support for his jobs initiative.

The timing of this move has been carefully planned. This Friday Congress goes into summer recess, and both Republicans and Democrats will be returning to their home ridings to meet with their constituents. Democratic members of Congress will be promoting their strong support for the President’s jobs initiative and talking about their own “Make it in America” employment strategy. They will have a positive, hopeful message to bring to their constituents.

And what message will the Republicans be bringing to their constituents? What they have to report on so far is largely a negative campaign: nearly 40 attempts to repeat Obamacare, threats to shut down the government this fall by refusing to pay for current expenditures; the continuation of the sequester which the independent Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost the American economy 750,000 jobs this year and 900,000 fewer jobs next year? That may please their hard-core supporters, but it will not play well before a larger audience.

As the Congress prepares to go on summer recess, President Obama is putting the Republicans on the defensive. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Photo credit: Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel