Monday, November 30, 2015

Learning from the Lion of the Senate

As someone who calls themselves a pragmatic progressive, I have always been fascinated with the strategies employed by Senator Ted Kennedy. And so, it is with great interest that I read Frances Lee's review of the book Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon. As members of Kennedy's domestic policy team, Littlefield and Nexon had an inside look at the strategies he deployed for dealing with Congress during the height of the Gingrich revolution (1995-1996).

Here is how Lee describes the dilemma.
A minority party in Congress always faces the strategic dilemma of whether to prioritize accommodation or confrontation. Politics and policy frequently trade off against one another in these circumstances. Members of a minority party can often exercise limited legislative influence by participating in the majority’s efforts and trading their support for policy concessions. But in so doing, the minority party loses the ability to clearly define issues for voters in subsequent elections. Littlefield and Nexon detail how Kennedy navigated this dilemma, both as a question of overall party strategy and on an issue-by-issue basis. 
Kennedy's first task was to rally dispirited Democrats following the 1995 election.
Kennedy’s view was that Democrats had to rally energetically around the party’s traditional priorities: health care, education, jobs, and wages...Kennedy’s view, Littlefield and Nexon write, was that “passivity usually doesn’t work in politics. The party setting the agenda, bringing energy and vitality to the contest, clear in its convictions, beats the party that is confused, sullen, reactive, defensive, incoherent, and accommodating.”
Next came the challenge of navigating the dilemma described above on an issue-by-issue basis. One the one hand...
Kennedy’s strategy of what the authors call “across-the-board resistance to Republican extremism” worked for purposes of both campaigning and policy. Drawing lines in the sand helped to revitalize a demoralized Democratic Party. At the same time, Democrats also had sufficient institutional power to block the Republican legislative drive via the presidential veto and the Senate filibuster. These conflicts helped set the stage for Democratic success in the 1996 elections.
On the other hand, Kennedy negotiated wins on raising the minimum wage (by rallying public support) and health care reforms - which were the result of working closely with Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.

In terms of how this might/might not be informative for Democrats dealing with being in the minority today, Lee points out two big ways that things are different now: (1) the fact that there are no Nancy Kassebaums in the Republican Party today, and (2) the fact that the Republicans are now post-policy.
A majority party that has no positive agenda has much less motive to negotiate, and its leaders have much less capacity to do so. A minority that is able to block has negotiating leverage only when the majority has legislation it hopes to enact in the first place.
After reading this review, it is tempting to not only miss Senator Kennedy’s presence in Congress but to also and bemoan the current state of affairs. So I’m going to leave you with this reminder of what he said to us the last time he addressed the country: “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

"As the Soviet Union Was to Communism, So ISIL is to Jihadism"

The Republican meme about ISIL these days is that, if you don't call them by the right name, you won't be able to defeat them. Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro suggest that there is something more significant that we need to understand about ISIL in order to defeat them.
Is it a tremendously well-resourced terrorist group that controls substantial territory, which it uses to plan attacks, vet operatives and manage a complex financial network? Or is it a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks?
They go on to provide evidence that the latter is a better description of ISIL and that is why President Obama's containment strategy makes sense.
We’re fighting a failed state in the making, one that will implode if merely contained, and will collapse even faster under coordinated economic and military pressure from its neighbors.
But then they go on to describe an additional benefit to containment by drawing a comparison with the president most idolized by Republicans.
In weighing whether to attack or contain the group, there’s one other consideration that hasn’t yet received enough attention: The ideological benefits of allowing it to collapse by itself. No one uses communism to rally rebels anymore (save for a few small groups in India); the collapse of communist states in the 1990s demonstrated to everyone how ineffective the ideology was at running a modern economy. As Ronald Reagan correctly saw, allowing communism to collapse of its inherent contradictions would discredit it forever.

As the Soviet Union was to communism, so ISIL is to jihadism: the purest articulation of a noxious ideology of governance, which incidentally has little connection to Islam. If we allow it to fail, then it will be clearly a failure of ISIL as an idea. The same is not true of a military defeat at the hands of Western forces. Given its deep structural weaknesses and its symbolic value in the global war of ideas, our best strategy is almost surely one based on containment, allowing the group’s motivating ideology to destroy the group from the inside—and thus more rapidly find its proper place in the dustbin of history.
For some of us, that might be giving President Reagan more credit than he deserves. We can argue over the application of the analogy, but I have to admit that it is a rather genius move by Berman and Shapiro to state, "as the Soviet Union was to communism, so ISIL is to jihadism." There is a lot of wisdom in linking the two. The war hawks have always relied on fear-mongering to promote both military build-up and foreign interventions. Thus, they simply replaced the fear of communism with the fear of terrorism. But if ISIL is to jihadism what the Soviet Union was to communism, then it makes sense that the best strategy is to promote the failure of the idea via the failure of the state.

I don't expect the war hawks to grasp the wisdom of that strategy. But it is incumbent on the rest of us to be able to understand and articulate the alternative to their escalations - which only feed into the stated goals of ISIL.

Building Momentum for a Climate Agreement in Paris

President Obama is in Paris today for the opening of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. We've been here before - most notably in Kyoto in 1992 and Copenhagen in 2009. While both of those meetings were important milestones, they failed to produce the kind of global agreement that many are hoping will finally happen in Paris. So it is helpful to look at what has changed this time around.

The Kyoto Treaty was rejected in the U.S. Senate by Republicans, most notably because "developing countries" like China and India were not included. Negotiations in Copenhagen were mired in confusion and disarray, primarily over disagreements between industrialized nations and developing countries.

Perhaps the biggest difference this time around is that rather than attempting a "top-down" agreement on goals that everyone must meet, a "bottom-up" approach has been implemented, with each country being asked to submit their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).

In order to prepare the way for a more productive outcome in Paris, the Obama administration has taken several major steps:

1. By allocating $80 billion of the initial stimulus package for clean energy projects, the United States joined other industrialized countries in the effort to make sustainable energy more affordable - something that will make investment more feasible for smaller developing countries.

2. Efforts to curb emissions in the United States included agreements with the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency and new regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Those efforts led to the President's Clean Power Plan (our INDC), with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

3. Ahead of the Paris conference, the U.S. announced agreements with China, India and Brazil on joint efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Those agreements are basically each country's INDC.

4. As Coral Davenport reported almost two years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry has made the achievement of a climate pact a priority in the State Department.
Shortly after Mr. Kerry was sworn in last February, he issued a directive that all meetings between senior American diplomats and top foreign officials include a discussion of climate change. He put top climate policy specialists on his State Department personal staff. And he is pursuing smaller climate deals in forums like the Group of 20, the countries that make up the world’s largest economies.
The results of these and other efforts all over the globe are that more than 150 countries representing 90% of global emissions have already announced climate targets in preparation for the Paris conference. As Tim McDonnell notes, these commitments combined with those of businesses and local governments mean that "it's safe to say that the Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we have the opportunity to see how far that success can go."

As we watch the developments at this conference over the next two weeks, I am reminded of how President Obama defined what success will look like:
For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, "This is serious" — that will be a success.

I'm less concerned about the precise number, because let's stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it's still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker...

...the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, "We're going to do this." Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I'm confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.
As we can see, getting "everybody locked in" is something the Obama administration has been working on for years.

Friday, November 27, 2015

It's Black Friday and Religious Zealots Have No Place to Shop

On this Black Friday, apparently members of the religious right are running into a problem. After having joined the bandwagon of turning Christmas into a commercialized shopping extravaganza, Linda Harvey says that they're running out of places to spend their money that are content to discriminate against LGBT people.

Of course she warns people to stay away from the usual suspects like Macy's for allowing a transexual to use a woman's dressing room and Target for selling gay pride t-shirts. But oh my, she now has to add that conservative bastion known as Wal-Mart to the list for opposing "religious freedom" bills in Arkansas and Indiana.

But my very favorite is her problem with Mattel.
If you’re thinking toys, avoid Mattel. They just created “Moschino Barbie” with an ad featuring a tragically feminized little boy who plays with Barbies, a wicked accommodation to the current gender-destructive culture.
Little boys playing with Barbies? What is the world coming to? For our "gender-destructive culture," Harvey has a totally hyperbolized name..."Satan's Office Party."

Here's a thought. What if these religious zealots actually DID run out of places to shop and had to spend some time thinking about what the whole Christmas season was originally about?
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Trump-Mania?

David Frum took up the cause of proposing yet another plan for how "the establishment" can bring down Donald Trump. His suggestion is that the driving force behind Trump-mania is immigration, and so they should call out Trump for hiring undocumented workers and flip-flopping on the issue. I personally don't think that will work any better than all the other ideas that have either been tried or discussed so far.

But in the course of setting that up, he buried the kicker.
Now the same party leaders who insisted that Sarah Palin could do the job of president, if need be, want to persuade the rank-and-file that Trump can’t? Good luck with that.
Boom! That is essentially what Martin said the other day. They took this genie out of the bottle and now they can't figure out how to get it back in.

As a reminder, the religious right were no fans of John McCain in 2008 after he took them on in the 2000 primary against George W. Bush. Mike Huckabee was their man. So McCain flipped the conventional wisdom and ran as a centrist during the primary and then had to make up some ground with the far right to prepare for the general election. Hence, he brought us Sarah Palin.

When Republicans lost that race to Barack Obama, they tapped into all the energy Palin had stirred up in their base in an attempt to delegitimize the election and fuel their obstruction. Those are the same flames Donald Trump is exploiting today.

Recently Greg Sargent expressed his skepticism that any of the attacks currently being planned or implemented against Trump will have an effect on his supporters. To demonstrate how right he is about that, take a look at this post one of them wrote on Medium this week. Obviously the writer has heard about the reports that some members of the GOP establishment are planning to launch a coordinated attack against Trump.
You truly Mr. GOP whatever, underestimated the voter here. In voter, I am speaking of the TRUMP VOTER . The one who knows the games, the drills, and will never vote for any other GOP candidate no matter what you do. I, myself will vote for Micky Mouse before I vote for any other than Trump!

You have just ruined the club you call a party. You are a private entity and it is now obvious what you all do. So puppet controllers for the puppet masters. Go to ….your elections on your own. I am done with you and America wants Trump and we will vote for Donald Trump either third party or on your lousy ticket. You, however, are done. Broken, and over. You have had your last party, enjoy it!
Her commenters obviously agree. Here's just the first one:
I knew the GOP wasn’t to be trusted, they hate Trump, they can’t control him because he is his own man. I know I am not the only one that will vote for him and no one else, whether he runs GOP or 3rd Party. He has the vision, the intelligence and the guts to do what is right for America and its people, he owes no one and he will make the tough decisions. He’s not interested in being PC he’s interested in saving this Nation. The GOP should be ashamed, they should be backing Trump all the way, but that would be against everything they believe in….their own self interests. Go Trump will be heard loud and clear across the land and this will backfire on you establishment GOP’rs!!!!!
Nothing anyone says about Trump is going to change these people's mind. Attacks on him only reinforce what they already believe - which is that the Republican Party has abandoned them and is terminally broken. The Grand Old Party created an insurgency that is now turning on them. That's what Trump-mania is coming down to.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Thanksgiving Song

There is an awful lot of music associated with the Christmas holiday. But when it comes to Thanksgiving…not so much. If you’re anything like me, the one song you grew up singing on this holiday was “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.” But until this week, I never knew anything about the origins of that song.

It comes from a poem written in 1844 by a woman named Lydia Marie Child.
Child herself had an unhappy youth: her mother was ill and remote, and her father was a strict and irascible Calvinist who was alarmed by her interest in books.

When Child was 12, her mother died, and she was sent to live in her sister’s home in the interior of Maine. There, she was free to fashion an education for herself: she found tutors at Bowdoin College, mentors at a public library, and friends among the local Indian tribes, who’d been violently uprooted from their land.

At 19, Child returned to Boston to live and study with her brother, who had graduated from Harvard and was a liberal Unitarian minister. A few years later, in 1824, she scandalized the city with her first book, Hobomok, a novel about an upper-class white woman who falls in love with and marries an Indian chief.

Over the next several decades, Child published many more provocative books, including The First Settlers of New-England (1829), an account of the atrocities committed by the Puritans against the Indians during the 17th century; An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), the first major study of slavery in the United States; and The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act: An Appeal to the Legislators of Massachusetts (1860).

Though Child’s political writing made her a celebrity, it didn’t make her much money. Luckily, she also had a knack for creating children’s literature with broad commercial appeal. “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day” was part of a popular collection of poems and stories she wrote for eight- and nine-year-olds; the verses were later set to music.
So if you happen to hear her song today, take a bit of courage from someone who fought against the white male patriarchy of her day…decades ahead of her time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Inspiring Americans

Yesterday the White House hosted a star-studded cast of recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Included on the list were some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment: Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Itzhak Perlman, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor. Also receiving the honor were some who had made their name in politics, like Lee Hamilton, Barbara Mikulski and the amazing Shirley Chisholm.

But it is often the people who many of us have never heard of before that are the most inspiring. Like Billy Frank, Jr.

Born on a Nisqually reservation in Washington state, the Native American activist resisted state fishing regulations in the 1960s and early '70s, arguing that the imposed laws violated 19th-century treaties signed between the U.S. and Native Americans. Frank was arrested numerous times, and his argument was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in the mid-'70s.

In the decades after, he continued to help lead efforts for Native Americans' rights and environmental conservation in the Pacific Northwest — efforts for which he was recognized with the Albert Schweitzer Award and the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement.
And Katherine Johnson.

A research mathematician for NASA in its earliest years, Johnson worked on projects such as calculations for interplanetary trajectories. Her calculations were behind the space flight of Alan Shepard — a first for America — and the Earth Resources Satellite.

"Early on, when they said they wanted [Shepard's] capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start," Johnson told NASA's news service in 2008. "I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte."

Throughout her career with NASA, Johnson helped pave a path for African-American women in the space program. She is 97.
But perhaps the most poignant, given what is happening in this country right now, was the inclusion of Minoru Yasui.

At the height of World War II, the U.S. government forcibly placed more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps and pursued other discriminatory policies such as race-based curfews — out of fear that the Japanese-American population could prove a threat.

Minoru Yasui, then a recent law school graduate, violated the curfew in order to get his case heard in court. "I walked these two or three or four times, as I recall that evening, trying to get arrested," Yasui said — and finally, he had to walk down to the local police department to turn himself in.

That's when his case began. As NPR's Michel Martin reports:

"Ultimately, the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Yasui lost. Despite that, he continued to work on civil rights cases throughout his life on behalf of Native Americans, Latin Americans, wherever he found injustice. Minoru Yasui died in 1986, too soon to witness a victory he had sought for decades when the U.S. granted reparations to interned Japanese-American families in 1988."
This is a reminder that history tends to fondly remember those who refused to cower in fear - but had the courage to stand up for what is right when fear takes hold.

What's Up With Millennials?

The millennial generation is a nightmare for Republicans. They are more diverse, more urban, more college-educated, more tolerant and more liberal than their predecessors. The result is that in 2008 and 2012, they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. In 2016, this generational cohort is predicted to make up 38% of the electorate. So it should come as no surprise that the topic of millennials has been addressed recently by two conservative writers: Carl Wagner at Real Clear Politics and Donald Devine at The American Conservative.

Before taking a look at what these two writers have to say about millennials, it is important to keep in mind that conservatives often cling to the idea that we all get more conservative with age. As the old saying goes:
Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
But the trouble with that assumption is that research has proven that it is a myth. Here's what Wagner has to say about that:
Over the past 100 years generations have tended to vote, for most of their lives, for the party on which they cut their political teeth. The “Greatest Generation” came of age during the FDR presidency and voted the Democratic nominee in every election (except the Eisenhower/Stevenson campaigns) for the next three decades. Same with the boomers, who came of voting age en masse in 1972. Nixon won them overwhelmingly and they voted for every Republican presidential candidate until 1992.
Wagner's whole premise is that the GOP is in big trouble if they don't do something different.
If Republicans don’t change their tune and their tactics, the “wall” Donald Trump says he wants to build won’t be on the U.S.-Mexican border, it will be between the Republican Party and victory in 2016 - and for decades to come.
Devine takes a different approach. He tries to argue that millennials aren't as liberal as they've been made out to be. He makes the case that they don't favor bigger government if it means paying higher taxes. But here are the two arguments that I found fascinating. First of all:
Millennials reported closer relationships with their families and were much more supportive of a responsibility to care for elderly parents than earlier generations. These do not seem to be wildly leftist views.
And secondly:
Pew found fewer millennials considered themselves religious, patriotic, or environmentalist than any earlier generation. Still, 86 percent said that they believed in God, although with less certainty than older Americans, and only 11 percent said they did not believe at all.
What Devine has done is fall for another myth - that liberals don't believe in God and family simply because those are the spheres where the whole idea of "freedom" comes into play for them (as opposed to conservatives, who actually want to expand the government's reach into decisions about religion and family).

On a purely anecdotal level, what I noticed about millennials from spending a lot of time working with them in my previous profession is that they don't trust big institutions. That doesn't bode well for liberals, but is understandable in light of the government's failures going all the way back to Vietnam and Nixon up until the Iraq War and the Great Recession. They've also witnessed the corruption in large religious and nonprofit institutions.

But what I also noticed is that millennials have a great deal of trust in themselves...and this very old (by millennial's standards) quote from Margaret Mead:

The Politics of Fear

Jeff Greenfield has written an article that sparked a lot of thought for me titled: Getting the Politics of Fear Right. He acknowledges that following the Paris attacks, Donald Trump "went on a fear-mongering bender." But then, he finds President Obama's response to be problematic as well.
Meanwhile President Obama has tacked sharply in the other direction, playing down the public's anxiety, defiantly continuing to downgrade the possibility of an attack on the U.S. and the capabilities of Islamic State...Obama's dismissiveness is no doubt one reason for Trump’s popularity; clearly many voters believe our current crop of leaders—starting with the president—have been too inattentive to their fears.
This is not an uncommon critique of President Obama. Way back in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Maureen Dowd led a chorus of people complaining about the fact that the President didn't seem to feel our panic.
President Spock’s behavior is illogical.

Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.
So this is nothing new. But it does make me think about what it is we want in a leader. I was reminded of a powerful diary written years ago by a blogger named Hamden Rice about the leadership of Martin Luther King. The parallels with our current situation eventually break down, but Rice pointed out that King emerged to lead African Americans during a time that they were experiencing the terrorism of Jim Crow.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus...

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
And what was King's response to that terror?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.
One has to wonder if folks like Greenfield and Dowd had been around back then, would they have complained that MLK was too inattentive to their fears?

When it comes to the current threat of terrorism, President Obama plays a very different role in this country than the one Dr. Martin Luther King did all those decades ago. But interestingly enough, today his message sounded pretty similar.
What happened in Paris is truly horrific. I understand that people worry that something similar could happen here. I want you to know that we will continue to do everything in our power to defend our nation...

But it’s not just our security professionals who will defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups. As Americans, we all have a role to play in how we respond to threats. Groups like ISIL cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so they try to terrorize us at home -- against soft targets, against civilians, against innocent people. Even as we’re vigilant, we cannot, and we will not, succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us -- for that’s how terrorists win. We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives.
In thinking all this through, I came to the conclusion that - for me - that is exactly the kind of leadership I think this country needs to combat the politics of fear.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Race

We're all getting a little wary of predicting how this 2016 Republican primary race is going to turn out. The big question is: will things revert to the historical precedents political scientists have documented over the years? Or are we in a whole new territory this time around? The only way to answer that question is to wait and see - which drives those of us who are political junkies a bit nuts.

But the chart above from Huffington Post's Pollster captures the state of the race right now. If, instead of trying to predict where this thing is going to go, we focus on what we can learn from where things are right now, I see trajectories for these five candidates as follows:

* Donald Trump is holding steady
* Ben Carson is going down
* Marco Rubio is re-gaining the ground he lost over the summer
* Ted Cruz is going up
* Jeb Bush continues his slow descent

If, as Cruz recently suggested, we take a look at the different "lanes" available to the candidates, we can say the following with some clarity:

1. In the insurgent lane, Trump is beating Carson
2. In the establishment lane, Rubio is beating Bush

So where does that leave Cruz? If the Quinnipiac poll from Iowa today is any indication, as Carson is dropping, Cruz is picking up his supporters. That could mean that the insurgent lane becomes a contest between Trump and Cruz. Will the truce between the two of them survive if that happens?

Steve Benen went on record today saying that this development brings on the "shake-up" many have been waiting for in this race - which also presents a difficult question for establishment Republicans.
If this continues, and Cruz supplants Carson in the top tier, the nature of the race will fundamentally change.

There’s quite a bit of time left on the clock, but it’s now quite easy to imagine Cruz winning Iowa and Trump winning New Hampshire. It creates an interesting question for Republican insiders to kick around: the GOP establishment hates Cruz, but should we assume that it hates Trump more?
What I've noticed is that while Trump is soaking up most of the oxygen in the press with his outlandish statements, the punditry is increasingly talking about the rise of Ted Cruz. As an example, Andrew Romano at Yahoo Politics writes: Ted Cruz Has Always Had a Master Plan. Now it Could Win Him the White House.

Anyone who says they know how all of this will end is probably fooling themselves. But it seems to me that it is increasingly going to come down to a battle between Trump, Rubio and Cruz.

The Public Nature of Health

Whenever people talk about a public advocacy campaign to change behavior, the anti-smoking initiative of the 1980's and 1990's is the standard to which all others aspire. That's because it was spectacularly successful. As Shannon Brownlee writes in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly:
The result has been a dramatic reduction in rates of smoking over the last twenty years. In 1981, 33 percent of Americans were smokers. By 2011, it was down to 19 percent. Today, actors in movies are no longer wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, and smoking is far less acceptable as a habit. More importantly, deaths from lung cancer have been declining since the 1980s, a triumph of public health.
Brownlee recounts that success in her review of the book Saving Gotham: A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives by Tom Farley, MD. It is the story of how Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Public Health Department not only won battles against the tobacco companies, but also the restaurant industry before ultimately losing a fight with the American Beverage Association.
During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, smoking was banned from New York City restaurants and bars; cigarette displays were banned from stores; trans fats were banned from foods; and calorie counts were mandated on the menus in all fast food restaurants. The only campaign the mayor and the department lost was a regulation that would have reduced soda consumption.
I remember all the mocking New York City took from conservatives for their attempt to ban over-sized sodas. Brownlee writes that loss off to the lobbyists from the beverage industry. But I think there was probably more to it than that. There was a strong scientific basis for smoking bans based on the dangers of second-hand smoke. And publishing calorie counts on menus is simply a matter of providing useful information. But telling Americans what size of soda they can buy was probably a bridge too far. As Brownlee points out, Bloomberg Philanthropies chose a different approach in Mexico City - a sugar tax - which was much more successful.

In the end though, there is an argument to be made about the public nature of health.
These are the battles of public health of the future: the environment around us that breeds chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, emphysema, and a host of other modern plagues. Conservatives like to argue that regulations like smoking bans, soda taxes, and calorie labels are an infringement on our rights as individuals—to smoke, to drink, to eat whatever we please, and by extension to be as unhealthy as we like. It’s an argument that makes ill health entirely a matter of individual responsibility, even as the costs of individual behavior are born collectively. We all pay for the nation’s rising rates of obesity, diabetes, lung disease, and asthma in the form of medical bills and a loss of human capital.
I encourage you to read First We Take Manhattan to get the whole scoop.

Reminding Voters What Works

There has been a lot of pontificating about why (mostly white) Americans these days are so angry and distrustful of government. The latest to wade into those waters was Alec MacGillis with his much-discussed article titled: Who Turned My Blue State Red?

It is important to make the distinction between being distrustful of politics and being distrustful of government programs. All of us are angry at the former, sometimes for different reasons. But it is the Republicans who decided that their best play against a Democratic president was to completely abandon their responsibility to govern. I would simply remind you that when touting the idea of a "permanent Republican majority" back in 2003, Grover Norquist was asked what that meant for when a Democrat won the White House. His response was, "We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” We've seen that plan in action now for 7 years. And yes, it is infuriating.

But the distrust and anger Americans feel about government programs is a bit more difficult to understand. The roots of it are complex. That is why, when reviewing Stanley Greenberg's book for the print edition of the Washington Monthly, I noted that " it would be important to know whether white working-class voters think that no government programs work, or whether their concerns are limited to certain areas."

A report just published by the Pew Research Center titled, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, helps us unpack a lot of that. Here is the headline graphic:

Notice that in all areas except space exploration, a majority of the American public supports the government playing a major role. And when asked about whether or not the government is doing a good job in each of those areas (rather than the more general question about overall trust in government), the ratings are relatively high. Of course there are some differences on how Democrats and Republicans rate government performance in these areas. Here's what Pew found.

The optimist in me wants to make sure that we all notice how similarly Democrats and Republicans view the government's performance in areas like responding to natural disasters (an amazing finding that demonstrates how far the Obama administration has come since Bush's handling of Katrina), setting workplace standards, ensuring safe food and medicine, protecting the environment, maintaining infrastructure and ensuring access to quality education. The partisan divide starts to show up around keeping the country safe from terrorism, ensuring access to health care, strengthening the economy and managing the immigration system. It should surprise none of us that those four issues are the ones that are front and center in our electoral processes right now.

But given that the Democrats are the party committed to good government, perhaps it would be a good strategy for candidates to remind voters that they generally approve of the job the government is doing on things like responding to natural disasters, setting workplace standards and ensuring safe food and medicine. When Republicans talk about cutting budgets and getting rid of regulations, those are exactly the kinds of government functions that would be damaged.

One of my great frustrations with liberals is that they tend to not be very good at touting their successes. I am reminded of what Marilynne Robinson said recently during her conversation with President Obama.
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.
Changing that doesn't mean ignoring the challenges we face. It just means that every now and then it might be a good idea to remind voters of what's working.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Where I Come From

I wrote this to formally introduce myself to the readers at Washington Monthly's blog Political Animal. Even though some readers here will have heard parts of this story, I don't think I've ever put it all together here.

The literal answer to the question, "Where do you come from, Nancy?" is that I've lived in Minnesota for the last 30 years. But that represents a stability that I didn't experience during the first 30 years of my life. Home base for my family has always been north east Texas (in the Congressional District that is currently represented by Louie Gohmert - if that gives you some idea of the culture). But beyond that, I've lived in Peru, South America, Oregon, Florida, Colorado and Southern California - with a year in England during college.

But the more figurative answer to the question that might help you understand my writing and view of politics has to do with two of the major developments in my life. I graduated from college with a degree in teaching. But early on that trajectory was altered and I began my career working with troubled youth. That led me to get a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in the early 1980's when the principles the "hard sciences" had discovered about the systemic nature of the ecosphere were being applied to human behavior. After spending five years as a family therapist in a shelter for runaway youth, I went on to apply that systemic thinking to the broader community in my role as the executive director of a nonprofit organization whose mission was to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system.

My fascination with politics is simply another manifestation of my interest in human behavior, especially the social nature of how we interact with one another. The study of politics, like therapy, is an effort to understand how we change - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Much as I approached my understanding of therapy from a systemic viewpoint, I bring those same assumptions to my understanding of politics. Here is a description of how general systems theory changes the nature of inquiry:
General systems theory was originally proposed by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1928. Since Descartes, the "scientific method" had progressed under two related assumptions. A system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analyzed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system. Von Bertalanffy proposed that both assumptions were wrong. On the contrary, a system is characterized by the interactions of its components and the nonlinearity of those interactions.
Family systems theory got away from the idea of identifying and treating individual pathology and instead looked at how dysfunction was actually embedded in the family system. It also took heed of the notion that any individual change would disrupt the system, sometimes in ways that created further dysfunction. That is the "big picture" look that I bring to an understanding of our political system.

The other major development in my life that explains where I come from is that I was raised in a very conservative fundamentalist Christian family and community. In early adulthood I began a journey to examine what I had been taught because it conflicted so strongly with my own experience in the world. Back in 2006 Sara Robinson wrote a powerful series of essays about people leaving authoritarian systems. She captured my experience far better than I could.
We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.
I often joke about being a slow learner. That process of "sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it" actually took me over 20 years. Along the way I learned to embrace cognitive dissonance as the prelude to questions that deserve to be asked. I grew uncomfortable with conventional wisdom and people who embraced the kind of certitude I heard from ideologues. But most of all, I learned to trust the process I went through and what I tapped into along the way. Anyone who has taken such a journey, no matter why it was launched, discovers a great treasure.

There in this place, where your arms unfold
Here at last, you see your ancient face
Now you know. Now you know.

So...that's where I come from. But enough about me. I am very excited to get on with this new adventure here at Political Animal. And I'm grateful to all of you for giving me this opportunity!

Appealing to the Republican Id

According to Beth Reinhard and Janet Hook, establishment Republicans are preparing to mount yet another attempt to bring down the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The Republican establishment, increasingly alarmed by the enduring strength of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, is ratcheting up efforts to knock him out of the race, including the first attempt to unite donors from rival camps into a single anti-Trump force.
The challenge becomes: what's the message?
One possible ad would link Mr. Trump’s views and style to his celebrity foe, Rosie O’Donnell, in hopes of provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump, according to the memo.

Other possible tactics include fake pro-Trump ads that show him supporting socialized medicine, seizing property through eminent domain and taking other positions that stray from GOP orthodoxy; using a Trump impersonator to show him insulting people; and attacking his business record in “stark, nasty terms.”
I could save these folks a lot of money by suggesting that's not going to work. His supporters are clearly not going to stand up to defend Rosie O'Donnell and they sure don't care about any GOP orthodoxy.

Of course, the approach Marco Rubio tried this week to out-Trump "the Donald" carries a bit more punch. After the front-runner talked about shutting down mosques in response to the attacks in Paris, Rubio simply upped the ante.
It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down anyplace — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — anyplace where radicals are being inspired.
That is a perfect example of what the candidacy of Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party. During this primary, none of them dare call him out for these kinds of fascist remarks because the entire edifice has been built on ramping up the fear. Anything short of where Trump takes things will be viewed by voters as part and parcel of Obama's appeasement tactics.

In an article about the recent rise of the candidacy of Ted Cruz, Benjy Sarlin captured the Texas Senator's approach to all this.
...Cruz has done more than just avoid criticizing Trump – he has used the real estate mogul as market research to nail down the often unpredictable id of the populist right and then shifted his own positions and rhetoric accordingly.
That's what this Republican primary is all about right now...finding a way to appeal to "the often unpredictable id" of their base. When a party spends 7 years fanning the flames of fear and opposition rather than actually governing, what else would you expect?

President Obama's Containment Strategy Against ISIS

This morning CBS is reporting that only 23% of Americans think President Obama has "a clear plan for dealing with ISIS." Let's first of all put that kind of question in perspective. Since when does a Commander-in-Chief publicly broadcast his plan for defeating an enemy? I'll grant you that, following the Paris attacks, it is probably time for the President to update the American public on his overall vision for dealing with ISIS. But I can also guarantee you that when/if he does, it will simply be dismissed by those on the right as weak tea. So I doubt it would change the conversation much.

But President Obama does have a plan. It involves understanding ISIS. From the beginning, we knew that they had a very different approach than al Qaeda. Here's how Graeme Wood described it:
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
That's why, just before the attacks in Paris, President Obama said that our initial goal was to "contain" them and that we were seeing some success in doing that. In a fascinating article in Frontline, Katie Worth talked to several experts to understand why that is important. Here is how Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained the end game of containment:
Its [U.S.] containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.

“ISIS gets a lot of its money by taking the wealth of the places it captures, and we’ve held them back from any major conquests in the last months, so right now they’re squeezing blood from a stone, economically speaking,” said Berger. “That’s not something they can do indefinitely, so if they reach a tipping point, we could see ISIS collapse in a very short amount of time. The problem is we don’t really know how long that will take to happen, and a lot of bad things can happen between now and then.”
Notice the part about allowing ISIS to fail due to its own internal problems rather than as a result of the actions of a "foreign oppressor." That is also why, as we're hearing reported primarily in right wing media lately, the bombing campaign against ISIS has been tedious in its attempts to avoid civilian casualties.
When asked to address Royce’s statement, a Pentagon official defended the Obama administration’s policy and said that the military is furiously working to prevent civilian casualties.

“The bottom line is that we will not stoop to the level of our enemy and put civilians more in harm’s way than absolutely necessary,” the official told the Washington Free Beacon, explaining that the military often conducts flights “and don’t strike anything.”
This strategy takes into account the ultimate aim of ISIS as described by Harleen Gambhir.
The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”...Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.
Initially ISIS used the brutal murders of Western hostages to incite the kind of reaction that they hoped would lead to an apocalyptic war. But as Worth reports, they are now not only struggling economically due to containment, they no longer have hostages with which to exploit the West.

The experts Worth talked to basically agree with people like Zack Beauchamp and Robert Pape that the success of this containment strategy is why we are now seeing ISIS shift their focus to attacks like the ones we've seen recently against the Russian airliner as well as in Beirut and Paris. Due to the fear-mongering about Syrian refugees and Muslims in general by Republicans and our media, this new strategy seems to be working pretty well so far.

In addition to that, talk about "bombing the shit out of ISIS" or sending a U.S. led ground force against them carries its own consequences that also haven't been thought through very well.
And a second issue is if you went in with force and took their territory away from them, you’re freeing up tens of thousands of fighters who are currently involved in policing the Islamic State, securing its borders, running checkpoints — all those guys are free to do terrorism then, if they don’t get killed in the attack,” Berger said.
This is why, amidst all the noise we're hearing lately, it is important for us to continue to call on our leaders to be smart on terrorism. The experts are telling us that ISIS is in the midst of changing tactics due to the success of President Obama's containment strategy. If we've learned nothing else from the Paris attacks, it is that a similar incident in the U.S. would be extremely toxic, given our current political climate. The best way to prevent that from happening poses an interesting dilemma for liberals because it likely depends on gathering good intelligence. The President says we can do that while still protecting our civil liberties here at home. We all have a lot riding on him being right about that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It Runs in the (Bush) Family

After listening to Dubya for 8 years, there's no doubt that this is - in fact - his brother.
“It’s like the crabs in the, you know, whatever —the crabs in the boiling water,” Mr. Bush tried.

“Frogs,” an audience member shouted out, helpfully.

“The frogs,” Mr. Bush continued. “You think it’s warm, and it feels pretty good and then it feels like you’re in a whirlpool—you know, a Jacuzzi or something.”

He concluded with a morbid twist: “And then you’re dead. That’s how this works.”

Why the Focus is on Refugees After the Paris Attacks

As serious as the situation is, I've actually found it odd that the focus of our conversation in this country following the attacks in Paris is all about Syrian refugees. Sure...there are the occasional digs at President Obama for not being "tough enough" on ISIS. But that kind of talk is not necessarily front and center right now.

The are a couple of reasons why we're not hearing Republicans talk about what we should be doing about ISIS. Some of them tried to make a big deal about the fact that France bombed ISIS in Raqqa two days after the attacks. Here's a typical response:
That kind of statement demonstrates Erickson's ignorance of the fact that over the last 15 months, the U.S. has carried out 6,353 airstrikes against ISIS. Here's how that looks on a per day basis in graph form:

According to both Zack Beauchamp and Robert Pape, it is this air campaign combined with advancements by local ground troops that has "contained" ISIS in Iraq and Syria - possibly leading them to start seeking out targets overseas.
Why were restaurants, a stadium, and a concert hall in a Western capital “accurately chosen?”

The answer can be found in Syria and Iraq. There, since September 2014, ISIS has lost significant territory and faces the near-term prospect of losing to a multiprong offensive by the international coalition that could decisively cripple the terrorist group. With these daunting prospects, ISIS is lashing out, much like a cornered animal, and the Paris attacks are part of this.
Beyond all that, Kevin Drum did an excellent job the other day of rounding up the various proposals of Republican presidential hopefuls about what we should be doing to defeat ISIS. As it turns out, they're not very different from what President Obama is currently doing or what Hillary Clinton proposes to do. Even in his speech at the Citadel being touted as a call for U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS , Jeb Bush was noticeably vague.
“The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force,” Mr. Bush told an audience of cadets at the storied military college. “Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts in the air — and on the ground.”

“The United States — in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners — will need to increase our presence on the ground,” he added.
What Republicans need in a situation like this is something that creates a lot of daylight between themselves and Democrats, while also ramping up the fear. Since they don't really have any ideas about how to deal with ISIS that fit that bill, they've stirred up a hornets nest with talk about Syrian refugees as the vehicle by which ISIS will infiltrate the U.S. Never mind that it is all talk that has no basis in actual fact. So far, it seems to be working.

Carson's Top Foreign Policy Advisor: Duane Clarridge

During the last Republican debate, Ben Carson threw out a line about the Chinese being involved in Syria. Later, when questioned on MSNBC, his spokesperson Armstrong Williams insisted that the information came from their intelligence briefings. My response was that perhaps it would be important to know who Dr. Carson was relying on for those briefings. Trip Gabriel reports that his top advisor on terrorism and national security is a man with a pretty colorful past and present - Duane Clarridge.

Here is how Gabriel describes Mr. Clarridge:
He was a longtime C.I.A. officer, serving undercover in India, Turkey, Italy and other countries. During the Reagan administration, he helped found the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and ran the C.I.A.’s Latin American division.
Running Reagan's CIA Division in Latin American means supporting the brutal dictatorships of people like Roberto D'Aubuisson in El Salvador and Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala. It also means being intimately involved with the School of the Americas where Latin American dictators sent their military personnel to be trained in anti-communist counterinsurgency tactics - like kidnapping and torture. As Greg Grandin wrote back in 2007:
In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.
Most assuredly, it means that Clarridge was involved in Reagan's attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua by supporting the Contras - to the point of secretly selling arms to Iran in order to raise funds for them once Congress had prohibited such support via the Boland Amendment. As a result of that involvement, Clarridge was indicted for lying to Congress, but was eventually pardoned by President George HW Bush.

Apparently, Clarridge now runs his own private CIA.
Duane R. Clarridge parted company with the Central Intelligence Agency more than two decades ago, but from poolside at his home near San Diego, he still runs a network of spies.

Over the past two years, he has fielded operatives in the mountains of Pakistan and the desert badlands of Afghanistan. Since the United States military cut off his funding in May, he has relied on like-minded private donors to pay his agents to continue gathering information about militant fighters, Taliban leaders and the secrets of Kabul’s ruling class...

His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials...They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver L. North, a compatriot from the Iran-contra days and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of military thrillers and a frequent guest of Glenn Beck.
This, my friends, is the man who is a top advisor on national security to one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Now...if all that isn't bad enough, Clarridge had a few choice things to say about his current mentee - Ben Carson.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”
A potential presidential nominee who requires weekly briefings on foreign policy to "make him smart" is troubling. But knowing that the person on the other side of those briefings is a man like Duane Clarridge is seriously disturbing. But it explains a lot - like why Carson would dismiss adherence to the Geneva Conventions against torture as nothing more than political correctness.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A New Gig

In case you haven't heard yet, this morning Paul Glastris (editor in chief at the Washington Monthly) announced that Ed Kilgore will be leaving his position at the Political Animal to begin a new job at New York magazine. Congrats to Ed!

Here's what comes next:
We’ll be handing over the reins of Political Animal to a rising star in the blogging world, a wonderful writer who’s been contributing on weekends and filling in for Ed for a while: Nancy LeTourneau. Joining her will be another shrewd political observer who’s also been writing great stuff for us: Martin Longman.
I'm already getting some ribbing from my friends who are saying: "Rising your age????" It's all in fun. But it's also a reminder that it's never too late to take a shot at doing what you love. For me, that's meant writing about politics. Initially it was just a hobby. And now look what's happening!

In case you are wondering what will happen to this blog, I haven't completely decided yet. But until further notice, I'll keep posting here. I have eight years of wonderful memories associated with this place - and a lot of you to thank for that.

Smart on Terrorism

During the Democratic debate on Saturday night, John Dickerson asked each candidate respond to the Republican talking-point about whether or not they were prepared to call ISIS "radical Islamists." It is a ridiculous point to make - as if the right words were somehow determinative in an extremely complex situation. But when he got push-back from both Sanders and Clinton, Dickerson attempted to make the argument about why using the right words matters. Here's what he said:
The critique is that the softness of language betrays a softness of approach. So if this language - if you don't call it by what it is, how can your approach be effective to the cause.
That is a ridiculous argument on it's face. But what struck me was the use of the word "softness." Where have we heard that word before? It immediately took me back to the 1980's and 1990's when the big critique of Democrats was that they were "soft on crime." That is exactly what got us in this mess with mass incarceration in the first place. But it was a valuable tool for Republicans to use as a wedge against Democrats - who too often took the fear-bait and jumped into the fray in order to prove that they were "tough on crime."

I would hope that we learned a lesson from all that. Because once again, the Republicans are attempting to fear-monger us into making stupid moves in order to avoid being labeled "soft on terrorism." So it's time for Democrats to get out ahead of this kind of fear-mongering. I'd suggest they do something similar to what former Attorney General Eric Holder did to combat the "soft on crime" message...he initiated a Smart on Crime initiative. When it comes to terrorism, we'd don't need the bellicose chest-thumping we're hearing from Republicans, we need leadership that is smart on terrorism.

That is exactly what is happening in the picture above of a meeting between Obama and Putin at the G20 gathering in Turkey. It followed an announcement of real progress on the talks in Vienna about the civil war in Syria that concluded just as the attack on Paris happened.
The plan presented by the two appeared to draw heavily on a recently circulated Russian initiative. With just two weeks elapsed since the Syria talks first convened, it could mark a significant advance, if successful.

It sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between President Bashar Assad's government and opposition groups. Lavrov said the Syrian government already had put forward its representatives, with the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to begin immediate work on determining who should sit at the table as part of the opposition team.

Within six months, the negotiations between the Syrian sides are to establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian" transitional government that would set a schedule for drafting a new constitution and holding a free and fair U.N.-supervised election within 18 months, according to a joint statement released by the United Nations on behalf of the 19 parties to the talks.
The attacks in Paris have made all of this work much more urgent...hence the unscheduled 30 minute meeting Sunday between Obama and Putin.

In order to defeat ISIS, the various factions fueling the civil war in Syria need to come together to resolve that conflict. On one side are Russia and Iran - who both support President Assad. On the other are various Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, who insist that Assad be removed. Playing off that conflict is ISIS in exactly the same way they were fueled in Iraq by the anti-Sunni crackdowns from former Prime Minster al-Maliki. Dealing with those factions is the first step in uniting the world to ensure the ultimate defeat of ISIS.

I am reminded of what President Obama said to Matt Yglesias about all of this back in February.
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them...

And so, I think the real challenge for the country not just during my presidency but in future presidencies is recognizing that leading does not always mean occupying. That the temptation to think that there's a quick fix to these problems is usually a temptation to be resisted. And that American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we're the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don't have. But that way there's some burden-sharing and there's some ownership for outcomes. 
That's what it means to be smart on terrorism.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

When Good Politics is Also Good Public Policy: Clinton's Plan for Coal Communities

With the presidential election about a year away, every move by candidates is assessed first and foremost for it's potential impact on electoral politics. With people like Sen. Mitch McConnell accusing President Obama and Democrats of waging a "war on coal," the politics of committing to clean energy can have a negative impact on support from coal communities. That is why Hillary Clinton's announcement today of a $30 billion plan to aid those communities is good politics.

But we should note that this plan is also good public policy. The introduction captures our current situation.
From Central Appalachia to the Powder River Basin, coal communities were an engine of US economic growth for more than a century. Coal powered the industrial revolution, the 20th century expansion of the middle class, and supplied as much as half of US electricity for decades. The hard-working Americans who mine, move, and generate power from coal put their own health and safety at risk to keep our factories running and deliver the affordable and reliable electricity we take for granted.

But today we are in the midst of a global energy transition. The shale revolution, low-cost renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, and pressing concerns about the impact of coal combustion on public health and the global climate are reducing coal demand both in the US and around the world. Coal now accounts for only one third of US power generation, with domestic consumption falling by 25% over the past ten years...

Building a 21st century clean energy economy in the United States will create new jobs and industries, deliver important health benefits, and reduce carbon pollution. But we can’t ignore the impact this transition is already having on mining communities, or the threat it poses to the healthcare and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families. 
Clinton's plan goes on to lay out a comprehensive agenda, outlining steps to secure pensions, shore up schools hit by lost local government tax revenue, retrain workers and expedite permitting for renewable energy projects.

This goes to the heart of what we should expect from good government. The fact that energy production is transitioning away from coal is a good thing for all of us that value a healthy planet. But we should not be content to allow the negative results of that transition fall only on our fellow citizens who have depended on this dying industry for their livelihood. It is our responsibility as a country to step in and help them with the transition - much as we rally around those communities who have been impacted by natural disasters.

We'll hear a lot about how this plan is designed to help Clinton shore up votes in Appalachian coal country. The fact that it is good politics was confirmed by this response from the RNC:
“Hillary Clinton is Public Enemy No. 1 for coal miners and their communities because she wholeheartedly supports President Obama’s EPA agenda that is crippling their way of life," RNC spokesman Michael Short. "If Hillary Clinton were truly on the side of coal country, she would stand up to extreme anti-energy environmentalists that run the Democrat Party instead of embracing their agenda that is killing jobs and driving up costs.”
In other words...they got nothin'. That's because in this case, good politics is also good public policy.

Another Train Wreck for McConnell

You might remember that back in early 2010 Senate Democrats used a rule called budget reconciliation to by-pass a Republican filibuster and tweak their version of the Affordable Care Act to make it consistent with the one in the House. As a result, Republicans had a bit of a hissy fit, making the dubious claim that a simple majority vote in the Senate signaled the end of democracy as we know it.

In a move that should break all of our irony meters, Senate Republicans will soon attempt to use that same budget reconciliation rule in an attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act with a simple majority vote on a bill that has already passed the House. And we wonder why the practice of politics gets a bad name.

But hold onto your hats. This one is running into some trouble because, even with 54 Republicans in the Senate, McConnell is going to have trouble rounding up the 51 votes he needs.

The first problem comes from the Senate's version of insurgents - Cruz, Rubio and Lee - who say that simply throwing a monkey wrench into Obamacare is not enough.
“On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of ObamaCare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal ObamaCare and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk,” the three senators said.
The House version of the bill also contains provisions that defund Planned Parenthood - which is a problem for some Republican Senators representing more moderate states.
But if the Planned Parenthood provision is in the final bill — Senate Republican aides say no final decisions have been made — a handful of votes from the moderate wing could also break away. They include Murkowski, and Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine.
And now a third front of opposition has opened up.
“I am very concerned about the 160,000 people who had Medicaid expansion in my state. I have difficulty with that being included,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia...

Sen. John Hoeven (R), who represents North Dakota, where an estimated 19,000 people gained access to Medicaid after Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple decided to broaden the program, said he was unsure about repealing the expansion.

“I respect the decision of our legislator and our governor on Medicaid expansion,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R) of Montana, which has a Democratic governor. “I’m one who respects their rights and voices.”
Wow, Republicans revolting against the elimination of the Medicaid expansion. Imagine that!

But when you risk losing Republicans from red states like West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana, just imagine what that means to incumbents running for re-election in places like Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Mitch McConnell proved himself to be a master at corralling Republicans into line to obstruct everything the Democratic majority tried to do for six years. But the job of getting them together to actually pass legislation has proven to be a much more difficult task. The fact that this particular effort will simply result in a presidential veto - even if successful - shouldn't be lost on anyone. It is increasingly looking like another train wreck for McConnell.

The Business of Media and Politics

After the last GOP presidential debate, the Fox Business Network is determined to gloat about how much more accommodating they were to the candidates than CNBC. But there is a much deeper story about the relationship between television media and political campaigns than that kind of one-upmanship reveals. Michael Wolff captured that pretty well with a story titled: GOP Candidates are Hollywood's Unlikely New Divas.
At some point, politics crossed over from being a civic obligation of television news to television news' central business. The dutiful and high-minded became incredibly profitable, complicating the responsibilities and attitudes of journalists (and their managers), most recently in NBC's exclusion from the Republican debate cycle over complaints about CNBC's "gotcha"-style questioning.

News was once the loss leader of TV, and politics was the loss leader of news, the slog you waded through before crime, disaster, human interest, weather and sports. Two things changed that status.
The first thing Wolff points to that changed things is the flood of television advertising money from political campaigns - which is estimated to be as much as $5 billion in 2016, "making politics the single biggest local television advertising category." If not for revenue from political campaigns (and major sporting events), the entire television industry might be collapsing in this age of new media.

The second factor that Wolff identifies is where the Fox Business Network failed to produce.
While news organizations see themselves as information seekers and reasonable moderators, their additional, and financially advantageous, role is to be disruptors. That media-led upheaval arguably has helped (or given hope to) every candidate save for Jeb Bush. But it also is a con­venient bete noire by which nearly every candidate can gain an additional edge. It's the double advantage of disruption: to benefit from it, and benefit from criticizing it — causing a further disruption...

It is almost impossible not to see everybody as a pawn in a larger game — or in someone else's game. For TV news, this campaign is an unimaginable gift, one that, if conflict is maintained, will keep giving. For GOP candidates, the more volatile the season, the more everyone, save for the person at the top, benefits. For politicians, a no-argument issue that resonates with everybody, and that also produces more media attention, is to blame the media for, well, anything and everything.
For weeks after the CNBC debate, both the GOP candidates and media outlets were able to exploit the "disruption" caused by the complaints that were generated. Right now, everyone is busy patting each other on the back over how well they did...boring!

If Republican voters wanted an adult conversation about the issues, Donald Trump's candidacy would have been toast a long time ago. And, of course, it was his inflammatory statements that fueled the biggest audience for presidential debates we've ever seen. Similarly, the recent questions raised about Ben Carson's story have produced eye-catching stories for the media. While Carson embraces the role of victim in all that, he also brags about how the conflict has sharply increased donations to his campaign. Disruption is what sells - for both the media and the candidates.

That's why Wolff ends his article by saying that this campaign may be the first to highlight the co-dependence between these GOP candidates and the media..."each holding the other up, while bringing the other down."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Costs of Continual Warfare

Debate about the civil liberties issues raised initially by the Bush/Cheney "war on terror" and subsequently during Obama's presidency has been raging for years now. My position has been that the best way to resolve them was to end what has come to be the "indefinite war." I was encouraged along those lines by some of the things I heard from President Obama. For example, this is what he said when he visited Afghanistan in 2012:
My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda...

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.
The President got even more specific in a speech he gave about counterterrorism in 2013.
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.
But with the rise of ISIS and the administration's response, any real movement in the direction of ending "continual warfare" has been been halted. The next president will inherit this war. We know that any Republican who is running will merely ramp it up. Hillary Clinton is - if anything - a bit more hawkish than President Obama. And while Bernie Sanders has promised to end the NSA's metadata program, he has been clear that he will continue drone strikes against terrorists.

It is in light of this reality that the book by Charlie Savage titled Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency sheds some important light. He has published an adaptation from the book at Politico where he highlights the difference between the way Bush/Cheney and Obama approached these issues.

The distinction Savage draws is that the backdrop for Bush/Cheney was their experience as CEO's and the Obama administration was staffed by lawyers.
That contrast spilled over into the way each administration handled matters of national security. Especially in its first term, the Bush administration relied on a handful of lawyers who embraced an idiosyncratic view of the Constitution by which the president, as commander in chief, was free to disregard statutory and treaty constraints—an interpretation that foreclosed much need to engage with the legal weeds of any particular issue. By contrast, the Obama legal team—many of whom had sharply criticized the Bush administration’s theory of executive power as an overreach—shied away from invoking claims of commander-in-chief power. Seeking to show that the United States could fight a war against Al Qaeda within a recognizable framework of domestic and international law, they designed an NSC decision-making process that vetted every issue through an elite interagency lawyers group. As a result, even if the law did not dictate every policy decision—taking its place as one factor alongside others, like military, diplomatic and political concerns—it shaped and disciplined how they thought about problems.
I'm sure the Obama administration has ensured that their counterterrorism activities are on sound legal footing. But that doesn't mean the discussion ends there. It is now up to us to examine the effects Madison referred to about a nation engaged in "continual warfare."

To have that conversation, we need to approach it the way President Obama described: "based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom." We all know that it is not possible to have that kind of discussion with Republicans these days. And so now, during the primary, would be the opportune time to put it on the table with our Democratic candidates. So far, it has been missing from the debates. I'd like to see that changed.

When it comes to the presidential race, are polls all that matter?

A little more than five months from the 2024 presidential election,  conventional wisdom  suggests that  Biden is losing . But according to ...