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Cracker Squire

THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

U.S. Cooperated Secretly with Syrian Kurds in Battle Against Islamic State - Kobani Became too Symbolically Important to Lose

From The Wall Street Journal:

In public, the Obama administration argued for weeks that Kobani wasn’t strategically vital to the air campaign against Islamic State extremists. Behind the scenes, however, top officials concluded the Syrian city had become too symbolically important to lose and they raced to save it.

As the U.S. role rapidly evolved, U.S. and Syrian Kurdish commanders began to coordinate air and ground operations far more closely than previously disclosed. A Syrian Kurdish general in a joint operations center in northern Iraq delivered daily battlefield intelligence reports to U.S. military planners, and helped spot targets for airstrikes on Islamic State positions.

The change in thinking over the fate of one city, described by U.S., Kurdish, Turkish and Syrian opposition officials, shows how dramatically U.S. war aims are shifting. After Islamic State made Kobani a test of its ability to defy U.S. air power, Washington intervened more forcefully than it had initially intended to try to stem the group’s momentum.

In doing so, the U.S. crossed a Rubicon that could herald a more hands-on role in other towns and cities under siege by Islamic State at a time when some U.S. lawmakers question the direction of American strategy and warn of mission creep.

“This is a war of flags. And Kobani was the next place Islamic State wanted to plant its flag,” a senior U.S. official said. “Kobani became strategic.”

The U.S. now is relying on two separate, stateless Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria as ground forces to back up its air campaign against the extremists.

This has strained U.S. relations with another strategically important ally, Turkey. The U.S. has conferred newfound legitimacy on the Syrian Kurdish militia fighting in Kobani, which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in neighboring Turkey. The U.S. and Turkey both list the PKK as a terrorist group.

Washington’s decision to send in supplies by air to fighters loyal to the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD, followed a U.S. assessment that the Syrian Kurdish defenders would run out of ammunition in as little as three days.

Companies Try to Escape Health Law’s Penalties - Some Employers Seek to Shift Employees to Medicaid; Others Plan to Offer ‘Skinny’ Benefit Plans

From The Wall Street Journal:

With companies set to face fines next year for not complying with the new mandate to offer health insurance, some are pursuing strategies like enrolling employees in Medicaid to avoid penalties and hold down costs.

The health law’s penalties, which can amount to about $2,000 per employee, were supposed to start this year, but the Obama administration delayed them until 2015, when they take effect for firms that employ at least 100 people.

Another idea gaining ground with employers is offering bare-bones, or “skinny,” health plans that cover preventive care but exclude major benefits like hospital coverage. These low-cost plans differ from the now-illegal “mini-med” plans that capped benefits. Though skinny plans offer a narrow range of benefits, they don’t limit payouts.

Making such plans available allows employers to avoid the approximately $2,000-per-employee penalty for not offering coverage to at least 70% of their full-timers. And workers who sign up won’t face the law’s penalties for individuals lacking insurance.

Since skinny plans don’t meet the federal standard of covering 60% of the cost of medical care, they can still leave an employer vulnerable to a different fine—about $3,000 for each worker who opts out and instead gets a federally subsidized plan through an insurance exchange. Employees can’t get subsidies if their employer offers insurance that meets the law’s standards for coverage and affordability.

Major insurers such as UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Cigna Corp. are marketing skinny plans. Cigna said it offers such plans alongside richer alternatives and with “transparent and clear communication to ensure customers fully understand their health-care coverage choices.” The insurer said companies have shown growing interest in the plans, but relatively few have adopted them.

UnitedHealth said it works with clients to identify plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act and “meet their needs.”

Other vendors say interest in skinny plans is brisk. “It’s just crazy how many we’re writing,” said Jeff McPeters, a principal owner at Group & Pension Administrators Inc.

Federal officials have said most large employers already offer coverage that meets the law’s requirements. The companies worried about penalties are largely in industries with significant low-wage workforces, such as restaurants, nursing homes and hospitality. Previously, many of these companies didn’t offer coverage to hourly workers or had mini-med plans.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gridlock Could Prove Costly at Polls - Voters May Take Out Frustration Over Lack of Compromise in Washington

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

In talking with people about the dysfunction in Washington in recent years, one simple question almost inevitably arose: What will it take to end the gridlock? The succinct answer has been equally simple: When voters start punishing rather than rewarding politicians for perpetuating gridlock, behavior will change.
Now it’s possible to add this tantalizing thought: Perhaps this will be the year when that at least starts to change.

Until now, the simple fact is that Americans have complained a lot about gridlock, while essentially voting over and over again to continue it. Politicians who have blocked compromises in Washington have been rewarded consistently at the polls by partisans of both sides. Meanwhile, those who broke party orthodoxy found themselves savaged from within in vicious primary-election fights that have left some lying dead at the side of the road.

Politicians are only human, so they got the message: Voters say they want people to “come together” in Washington, but in truth they punish those who try to do that while rewarding those who eschew compromise.

So why think this year is any different? One big hint comes in a question deep inside the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why Democrats are sounding like Republicans on Ebola and the GOP is moving into overdrive

From The Washington Post:

Democrats are beginning to sound more like Republicans when they talk about Ebola. And Republicans are moving into overdrive with their criticism of the government's handling of the deadly virus.

The sharpened rhetoric, strategists say, suggests Democrats fear President Obama's response to Ebola in the United States could become a political liability in the midterm election and Republicans see an opportunity to tie increasing concerns about the disease to the public's broader worries about Obama's leadership.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

I don't know whether this is inclusive enough or not: Iraq Parliament Approves Defense and Interior Ministers - Move Ends Political Deadlock in Baghdad at a Time When Nation is Under Siege by Radical Insurgency

From The Wall Street Journal:

BAGHDAD—Iraq’s parliament approved Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ’s nominees for two critical security posts in his government on Saturday, ending a more-than monthlong deadlock over who will lead the defense and interior ministries at a time when the nation is under siege by a radical insurgency.

While the political wrangling in parliament over the appointees appeared to be over, it wasn't immediately clear how the ministers would be received by a country deeply fractured along sectarian lines.

The delay in naming the ministers had raised questions over the prime minister’s ability to rise above the sectarian squabbling in parliament and push through candidates that would foster a more inclusive political environment, after years of Shiite domination that is largely seen as a major factor in the rise of Islamic State.

On Saturday, the parliament approved and swore in Mr. Abadi’s latest nominees. His choice for interior minister, which administers the country’s police force, went to Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite lawmaker with the controversial Badr Corps.

For defense minister, Mr. Abadi chose Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni parliamentarian from Mosul, a city that became a symbol of the Iraqi military’s failure to anticipate and stop Islamic State’s incursion in June.

Both men were approved after a long period of political debate over influence in the new administration.

Looking for a Democratic upset? The race for school superintendent has possibilities: Valarie Wilson is a former president of the Georgia School Boards Association

From the AJC's Political Insider:

[Valorie] Wilson, an African-American, is a former president of the Georgia School Boards Association, and a former member of the Decatur city school board.

[Michael] Thurmond comes at the school superintendent’s race not as a number-cruncher, but as a political historian. In 1998, by winning election as labor commissioner, Thurmond became the first African-American in Georgia to win a statewide election to an open office. There has not been another since.

Wilson could become the second – and a rallying point for African-Americans who are being asked to back white Democrats for governor and U.S. Senate. “This race is not important just in a racial sense, it’s important strategically,” Thurmond said.

He sees another parallel. Like other lesser statewide races, the contest for state school superintendent is a cash-starved affair. As of Sept. 30, Wilson had raised a total of $147,414. Woods had raised $42,720.

Wilson has . . . a network of Georgia school board members across the state. “Unless you come to the table with some sort of organization, you can’t survive. That’s how you beat the down-ballot drop off,” he said.

Holder Decision on Benghazi Case Reverberates

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Hours after learning that the United States ambassador to Libya and three others had been killed in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, senior American officials held a secure videoconference call to discuss how to proceed in investigating the attack.
 
The prosecutor on the call for the Justice Department was Zainab N. Ahmad, one of the department’s most respected national security lawyers. In less than a decade in the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, Ms. Ahmad had successfully overseen several high-profile prosecutions, working alongside the New York-based F.B.I. agents who were going to take the lead in investigating Benghazi.
 
But as Ms. Ahmad began to build the case with the agents, other prosecutors in the Justice Department began quietly lobbying Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to take it over. Neil H. MacBride, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which covers Northern Virginia, called a senior F.B.I. official in Washington to strategize about how they could land the case.
 
And the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., sent a series of messages to Mr. Holder’s deputies, arguing that his office — which is perceived to have a lower standing in the department’s hierarchy than the ones in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Northern Virginia — was due for one of the big cases.
 
Less than 24 hours after the attack in Libya — and 21 months before the apprehension of a suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala — Mr. Holder assigned the case to Mr. Machen’s office. The move was a surprise because nearly all major national security cases since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks had been steered to the United States attorneys’ offices in New York and Brooklyn, which have the most seasoned prosecutors in the country, and Northern Virginia, which is known for its government-leaning judges and jury pools.
 
But in this case, the decision to give the case to Mr. Machen’s office has left lingering concerns among some senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials who worry that it was a mistake to entrust such a politically charged prosecution to an office with less experience than others in trying terrorists.
On Monday, Mr. Khattala, who will most likely go on trial this year or in early 2015, will make his first court appearance since his arraignment in June, and those doubts have not dissipated.
 
“This is not how it should have been done,” said one law enforcement official, who like others critical of the decision spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fareed Zakaria: Obama needs to dial back his Syria strategy

Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post:

From the start, President Obama’s Syria policy has foundered because of a gap between words and deeds. And he’s done it again. Having declared that the aim of U.S. policy is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, Obama now finds himself pressured to escalate military action in Syria. This is a path destined for failure. In fact, the administration should abandon its lofty rhetoric and make clear that it is focused on a strategy against the Islamic State that is actually achievable: containment.

Escalation in Syria cannot meet American objectives and is almost certain to produce chaos and unintended consequences. The central reality is that Washington has no serious local partners on the ground. It is important to understand that the Free Syrian Army doesn’t actually exist. A Congressional Research Service report points out that the name does not refer to any “organized command and control structure with national reach.” The director of national intelligence has testified that the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime is composed of 1,500 separate militias. We call a bunch of these militias — which are anti-Assad and also anti-Islamist (we hope) — the Free Syrian Army.

Scholar Joshua Landis — whose blog Syria Comment is an essential source — estimates that the Assad regime controls about half of Syrian territory, though much more of the population. The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. Landis writes that, according to opposition leaders, Washington is supporting about 75 of these groups.

A U.S. strategy of escalating airstrikes in Syria — even if coupled with ground forces — would wish that the weakest and most disorganized forces in the country somehow become the strongest, first defeating the Islamic State, then the Assad regime, all while fighting off Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan. The chance that all this will happen is remote. Far more likely, heavy bombings in Syria will produce chaos and instability on the ground, further destroying Syria and promoting the free-for-all in which jihadi groups thrive.

Critics are sure this policy would have been easy three years ago, when the opposition to Assad was more secular and democratic. This is a fantasy. It’s true that the demonstrations against the Assad regime in the initial months seemed to be carried out by more secular and liberal people. This was also true in Libya and Egypt. But over time, more organized, passionate and religious forces triumphed. This is a familiar pattern in revolutions — including the French, Russian and Iranian. They are begun by liberals and taken over by radicals.
 
For any strategy to work in Syria, it needs both a military and a political component. The military element is weak. The political one is nonexistent.

The crucial, underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that they view as hostile, apostate regimes. That revolt, in turn, has been fueled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, each supporting its own favorite Sunni groups, which has only added to the complexity. On the other side, Iran has supported the Shiite and Alawite regimes, ensuring that this sectarian struggle is also regional.

The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in those two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer in Syria. It tried in Iraq, but despite 170,000 troops, tens of billions of dollars and David Petraeus’s skillful leadership, the deals Petraeus brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had left. This is not a part of the world where power-sharing and pluralism have worked — with the exception of Lebanon, and that happened after a bloody 15-year civil war in which one out of every 20 people in the country was slaughtered.

The only strategy against the Islamic State that has any chance of working is containment — bolstering the neighbors (who are threatened far more than the United States) that are willing to fight militarily and politically. They include, most importantly, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf states. The greatest challenge is to get the Iraqi government to make serious concessions to Sunnis so that they are recruited into the fight, something that has not happened so far. All of this should be coupled with counterterrorism, which means strikes at key Islamic State targets, as well as measures to track foreign fighters, stop their movements, intercept their funds, and protect the neighbors and the West from a jihadi infiltration spilling over.

The Obama administration is pursuing many elements of this strategy. It should be forthright about its objectives and abandon its grander rhetoric, which is setting itself up for escalation and failure.

U.S.-backed Plan for Iraqi National Guard Falters - Lawmakers Say Rival Sects Can’t Agree on the Force

From The Wall Street Journal:

BAGHDAD—A U.S.-backed plan to bring Iraq’s fractured sectarian tribal forces fighting Islamic State under the supervision of the central government is in danger of being abandoned, lawmakers said.

Momentum has swung against the proposal to create a national guard that would encompass local forces in Iraq’s provinces as rival political blocs expressed reservations over who would be allowed into the new service and how funding would be allocated.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Iraqi Leader Struggles to Fill Two Top Security Posts in Cabinet - Plans to Nominate Candidate from Shiite Militia as Interior Minister

From The Wall Street Journal:

BAGHDAD—Iraq’s prime minister is set to nominate a candidate from an Iranian-backed Shiite militia as interior minister, according to an adviser, a choice that risks stoking sectarian tensions at the heart of the country’s current crisis.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is poised to concede to pressure from the Badr Corps to appoint one of its own to the post, said his adviser Ghassan al-Husseini and a Badr Corps lawmaker. Sunnis despise the Badr organization, alleging it committed abuses during the height of sectarian warfare in 2005-2007.

Mr. Abadi, a Shiite, took office in August, promising to form an inclusive government to help stem the political estrangement of the Sunni minority that has fueled the success of Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

But two months into his tenure, his pledge is faltering under the weight of the same sectarian divisions that have plagued the nation since the 2003 American invasion.

The prime minister has failed to fulfill a promise he made when he took office in August to fill the two top security posts in his cabinet—the interior and defense ministers—within a week.

“Abadi is going through a real crisis to the degree that he cannot even reach the minimum of requirements needed for the right security ministers,” said Talal al-Zobaee, a Sunni lawmaker. “Security ministers should be a technocrats, not related to any political party.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tom Friedman notes: It is easy to see how ISIS spread.

From The New York Times:

It is easy to see how ISIS spread. Think about the life of a 50-year-old Iraqi Sunni male from Mosul. He first got drafted to fight in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. Then he had to fight in the Persian Gulf war I after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then he lived under a decade of U.N. sanctions that broke Iraq’s middle class. Then he had to endure the years of chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, which ended with a corrupt, brutal, pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad led by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that did all it could to keep Sunnis poor and powerless. This was the fractured political ecosystem in which ISIS found fertile ground.

Barack Obama, disappointer in chief

From The Washington Post:


 
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to several secretaries of state. He is the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President” (Palgrave MacMillan), from which this essay is adapted.
 
All presidents disappoint. It comes with the job, the unreasonable expectations Americans have for their presidents, and the inherent conflict and disconnect between campaigning (promising people all they can have) and governing (explaining to people why they won’t get it).

So Barack Obama isn’t the first president to fail to meet expectations — and he won’t be the last. But he has come to embody something else, too: the risks and travails of reaching for greatness in the presidency without the crisis, character and capacity necessary to achieve it.

“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” the new president declared in his 2009 inaugural address to a 1.8 million-strong crowd on the Mall. “. . . What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

From pledging an Earth-moving transformation, Obama has been reduced to hitting singles and getting his lonely paragraph right . After drawing early comparisons to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy all rolled into one, Obama has fallen so low that journalists wonder whether Jimmy Carter is not a more appropriate parallel.
 

Plenty of explanations have been offered: Republicans have been unwilling to work with him, or the president hasn’t reached out to them. The stimulus was too small, or it was far too big. Health-care reform was a historic achievement, or it was a terrible overreach. The president has tried to be too bipartisan, even post-partisan, or he has not been partisan enough.

Time is needed to judge the Obama presidency on its merits and in comparison to other occupants of the Oval Office. Some, like Paul Krugman, have already concluded that Obama is already “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” But however historians and the public ultimately rate Obama, the greatness that he sought — and that was expected of him — will probably not be his. As early as 2011, in an extraordinary comment to “60 Minutes,” Obama believed otherwise: “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history.”

He has certainly not been a failed president. But neither is Obama likely to be judged a great or iconic one. Unlike FDR, JFK or even LBJ, there will not be a BHO.

Certainly, Obama inherited a unique set of circumstances, as all presidents do, and his were scarier than most. But neither the crises he has faced nor the system in which he has operated have been wholly untethered from his predecessors’ problems and experiences. The challenges of the post-FDR presidency have plagued Obama, too: intractable problems, intensifying political polarization, mistrust of government, an intrusive and ubiquitous news media. This president’s fate has been the same as that of many recent predecessors — the job is just too big and expectations just too high.

The undeniable greatness of presidents such as George Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt requires three elements: a crisis that severely threatens the nation for a sustained period, setting the stage for historic change; the capacity to extract from such a crisis some long-term transformative changes through political smarts, persuasion and dealmaking with Congress; and the character needed for effective leadership.

Obama’s crisis — a complex recession emerging from the financial and housing sectors — was sufficiently severe that he could not break it easily or quickly, but not so catastrophically encumbering that it enabled him to tame the politics in Washington as Lincoln or FDR had done. Indeed, it is only a nation-encumbering crisis, hot and relentless, that opens the door to undeniable presidential greatness. “If Lincoln had lived in a time of peace,” Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, “no one would have known his name.”

As for Obama’s governing capacity, the president did not so much miss his FDR/LBJ moment as misread it. Most of the public wanted a way out of the terrible recession and the long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Americans also hoped for renewed confidence in their president and faith in their government’s competence. But the public didn’t seek a reformulation of the social contract. And Obama has had neither the partisan dominance that comes with huge congressional majorities, like those enjoyed by FDR and LBJ, nor the working bipartisanship with the Republicans to bring it about. The Affordable Care Act of 2010, his signature legislative achievement, will be Obama’s legacy, and in the years to come it may be seen as a moral and economic victory. But there are simply too many complexities and uncertainties to call it transformative now.
 
Finally, on character, Obama has had a Jekyll and Hyde problem. Part pragmatist, part believer, but always capable of seeing all sides of an argument, the president has seemed too often at war with himself on how ambitious he wants to be, whether on climate change, tax reform or the size of the stimulus. And that personal conflict has made it too hard for him to make peace with his public. By nature, Obama is not a partisan, a populist or a revolutionary. Instead, he finds his comfort zone in conciliation and accommodation, and in the empirical world of rational policy analysis. Those can be useful qualities in many circumstances, but they won’t make you a transformative president.

Obama cannot claim the persona of Kennedy, who captured the nation’s imagination; nor the mantle of Ronald Reagan, who as Obama himself has admitted , changed the trajectory of the country.

Obama more likely has been closest to Bill Clinton, a comparison that historian David Greenberg took note of a year into his presidency. Both men were elected with similar numbers in the electoral college, though not in the popular vote. Both faced strong opposition from Republicans who imagined the president to be far more radical than he was, and both concentrated on the economy. In one respect, Obama has been Clinton Plus — he has succeeded in health care and avoided personal scandal. But in another way, he has been Clinton Minus — he is not nearly as likable or as good a politician. Nor is he likely to leave office with as high an approval rating or as strong an economy.

Obama certainly wants to do big things; behind his detached demeanor is the combustible drive of a man who seeks greatness. That is no transgression: He saw a nation in great peril and has sought to transform it, while battling the nastiest economic crisis since the 1930s and waging wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against terrorism.

But that kind of ambition requires a leader to see the world clearly as it is before trying to refashion it the way he wants it to be. Not reading the terrain accurately, failing to assess whether his administration had the muscle to negotiate it, and missing what the public expected and wanted can lead to unhappy consequences.

Whatever your judgment of Obama’s policies, there is a vast gap between the expectations he set for himself and his supporters and the realities of his presidency. Obama reached for greatness but has disappointed many of those who voted for him once or even twice because they so badly wanted to believe; those who thought he would end partisanship and change Washington when he could not; those who believed he could transform the country and America’s foreign policy, too, when he did not; and those who believed he would somehow become the Kennedy-like president of their dreams.

During Obama’s first term, the New York Times’ David Brooks wrote that to be an Obama supporter was “to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.” And indeed, his supporters have misread him: a gradualist who has espoused major transformation; a post-partisan conciliator operating in an intensely partisan environment in which he has never been comfortable.

Ultimately, Obama could not be the savior his supporters hoped he would be. “I am like a Rorschach test,” he said during the 2008 campaign. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.” That may be true. And being a Rorschach president can get you reelected and can gain you some notable accomplishments as well. But it cannot earn you the stamp of presidential greatness. In Obama’s case, the times, his capacity, his character and the public’s expectations would not allow it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Georgia has clearly become less white in the last four years.

From The New York Times:

Georgia has clearly become less white in the last four years.

According to data from the Georgia secretary of state, the 2010 electorate was 66.3 percent white and 28.2 percent black. Since then, the white share of registered voters has fallen, to 58 percent from 62.6 percent. White voters turn out at somewhat higher rates than other voters in midterm elections, so we should expect the white share of the actual vote to be a little higher. Combining the data on registered voters with census data on the voter-eligible population, I expect the 2014 electorate to be about 64.2 percent white and 28.8 percent black. (Ms. Nunn is expected to win at least 90 percent of the black vote.)

You can take 'em to the trough, but you can't make 'em drink: If they don't care, it might be getting close to the time for bringing the forces back to the USA

From The Washington Post:

Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group.

A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.

The Obama administration had expressed hope that Sunni Arab powers in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, would persuade the Anbar tribes to turn against the Islamic State and join Iraqi government forces­ or participate in a locally based national guard.

But although Maliki left office early last month, there has been little indication that Arab influence, if indeed it is being used, has had much of an effect. At the same time, Sunni tribesmen have said they feel threatened by the Shiite militias that are participating in Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State.

In talks this week with retired U.S. Gen. John Allen, the administration’s coordinator of the international coalition against the Islamic State, tribal leaders said that “they will not confront the Islamic State while Shiite militias exist in Sunni areas,” tribal chief Samil al-Muhammadi told the Saudi-owned London newspaper Al-Hayat.

Wave of Immigrants to U.S. Resurges - Asians Drive Migrant Growth, but Mexicans Rebound

From The Wall Street Journal:

A strengthening U.S. economy has spurred the largest pickup in immigration since before the recession, driven by Asian newcomers and a gain in Hispanic arrivals.

The number of foreign-born people in the U.S. grew by 523,400 last year, according to the Census Bureau. That beat the previous year’s net gain of roughly 446,800 and is the biggest official jump since 2006. The numbers don’t distinguish between authorized and unauthorized immigrants.

Asian immigrants, including Chinese students and highly skilled workers from India, fueled many of the gains.

Demand among U.S. employers for visas for skilled foreign workers—the so-called H-1B visas dominated by Indian workers—has rebounded. Businesses reached the federal cap on applications in less than a week this year; in 2012, it took three months, and in 2011, eight months, to fill all the slots.

Pew estimates there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. as of March 2013, compared to 11.2 million in 2012, an increase that isn’t statistically significant.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Why is the President trying to finish off Blue Dog Democrats in the mid-term elections. I can't understand his advisors or lack thereof: Obama Weighs Options to Close Guantanamo - Any Move to Override Congressional Ban on Bringing Detainees to U.S. Would Spark Fight

From The Wall Street Journal:

The White House is drafting options that would allow President Barack Obama to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by overriding a congressional ban on bringing detainees to the U.S., senior administration officials said.

Such a move would be the latest and potentially most dramatic use of executive power by the president in his second term. It would likely provoke a sharp reaction from lawmakers, who have repeatedly barred the transfer of detainees to the U.S.

The discussions underscore the president’s determination to follow through on an early campaign promise before he leaves the White House, officials said, despite the formidable domestic and international obstacles in the way.

Administration officials say Mr. Obama strongly prefers a legislative solution over going around Congress. At the same time, a senior administration official said Mr. Obama is “unwavering in his commitment” to closing the prison—which currently has 149 inmates detained in connection with the nation’s post-9/11 war on terrorism—and wants to have all potential options available on an issue he sees as part of his legacy.

The White House has sought to make executive actions a centerpiece of its policy agenda, in areas including the minimum wage, antidiscrimination rules and, potentially, immigration. House Republicans, in response, are seeking to sue Mr. Obama, saying he overstepped his legal authority in bypassing Congress.

Unilateral action “would ignite a political firestorm, even if it’s the best resolution for the Guantanamo problem,” said American University law professor Stephen Vladeck. Republicans are sure to oppose it, while Democrats could be split, he said.

White House officials have concluded Mr. Obama likely has two options for closing Guantanamo, should Congress extend the restrictions, which it could do after the midterm elections.

He could veto the annual bill setting military policy, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, in which the ban on transferring detainees to the U.S. is written. While the veto wouldn’t directly affect military funding, such a high-stakes confrontation with Congress carries significant political risks.

A second option would be for Mr. Obama to sign the bill while declaring restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners an infringement of his powers as commander in chief, as he has done previously. Presidents of both parties have used such signing statements to clarify their understanding of legislative measures or put Congress on notice that they wouldn’t comply with provisions they consider infringements of executive power.

The core obstacle standing in the White House’s way is Congress’s move in 2010 to ban the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. That legislation was passed after the administration sparked a backlash when it proposed relocating detainees to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill.

The administration hopes to tamp down controversy by reducing the inmate population by at least half through quickly transferring Guantanamo detainees cleared for release.

On Thursday, Estonia, which Mr. Obama visited last month, announced it would accept one detainee. Officials said additional transfers are in the works.

“We are very pleased with the support from our friends and allies, and we are very grateful to them,” said Clifford Sloan, the State Department envoy for Guantanamo closure.

Nonetheless, administration officials say the detention center can’t be closed without sending at least some of the remaining inmates to the U.S. mainland.

Mr. Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union address that “this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” The president now expects to miss that deadline, administration officials say, a departure from earlier this summer when White House aides were still saying it was possible.

Mr. Obama’s decision in May to exchange Guantanamo detainees for an American prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, without the required 30-day advance congressional notice drew a backlash on the Hill. The start of a U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State militant group has similarly overshadowed any appetite for a repeal of the ban.

A Gallup poll released in June said 29% of Americans support closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and transferring detainees to U.S. prisons, while 66% oppose the idea.

Most of the nearly 800 men held at Guantanamo since it opened in 2002 were released during the George W. Bush administration. Of the 149 who remain, 79 have been approved for transfer by national-security officials but remain because of political or diplomatic obstacles in repatriating them.

Another 37 have been designated for continued detention without trial. These are men considered too dangerous to release, yet against whom the government lacks usable evidence. A further 23 have been referred for prosecution by military commission, where 10 detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks, are in pretrial hearings.

Officials, who declined to say where detainees might be housed if taken to the mainland, said the U.S. has ample space in its prisons for several dozen high-security prisoners. The administration has reviewed several facilities that could house the remaining detainees, with the military brig at Charleston, S.C., considered the most likely.

Since winning re-election, Mr. Obama has made several moves designed to speed the prison’s closure. He named envoys at the State and Defense Departments to help secure the transfer of detainees to foreign countries. He lifted the administration’s moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen, which counts 58 nationals among those cleared for transfer.

Part of the administration’s strategy for reducing political opposition to lifting the ban on transferring detainees is to whittle the number in Guantanamo to the point where the cost of maintaining the installation is unpalatable. The annual cost per inmate is $2.7 million, in contrast with $78,000 at a supermax prison on the mainland, officials say.

“As the number becomes smaller at Guantanamo, the case for domestic transfers…becomes that much stronger,” a senior administration official said.

Prisoner transfers to foreign countries have slowed this year. A transfer of six Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Uruguay is tied up in that country’s Oct. 26 presidential elections. The current president has agreed to accept the detainees, while his opponent has said he wouldn’t.

Before the swap that led to Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, the administration completed the transfer of 12 detainees, a senior administration official said. No detainees have been transferred since.

The U.S. requires countries to meet certain criteria before allowing them to accept detainees. Countries, for instance, must provide the U.S. with assurances that the detainees won’t return to the battlefield and will be treated humanely. Many of the countries willing to take detainees are European, including France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Latvia and Slovakia. But there are a growing number in South and Latin America.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Why Loss of Senate Would Carry Silver Linings for Obama - Republican-Controlled Congress Might Find It Easier to Compromise

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:
 
Republicans like their odds on taking control of the Senate in these midterm elections. “The tea leaves are clear: It is going to be a very good Republican cycle,” declares GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
 
The Senate is the big prize in this fall’s voting, of course, and losing the chamber to Republicans, giving them full control of Congress, would represent a terrible outcome for the Democratic Party.
 
Oddly, though, it might not be such a bad outcome for one particular Democrat: President Barack Obama.
                                         
How can that be? A look back shows that eras of evenly divided power—Congress fully controlled by one party, the presidency by the other—have turned out to be among the most productive. And if you are a president yearning for elusive legislative achievements in the final two years of your term, anything that makes Washington more productive would be welcome, even if attaining some of that productivity required trimming your ideological sails.
 
When power is evenly split in Washington, both parties have to temper their policies. They can worry less about fully satisfying their ideological bases. When they have to compromise, it’s easier to say, “Hey, we had no choice. We have to put up with the other side.”
 
When the two parties have an equal share of power, they also have an equal share of responsibility for what does and doesn’t get done—and have to worry about taking the blame in the even more important 2016 election if things don’t get done. For Mr. Obama, in particular, full GOP control of Congress might well shift Republicans’ focus from stopping him to making things happen.
 
Mr. Obama also could deal more with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (assuming he wins his own tight re-election contest), who has shown that he can deliver on a deal, and less with House Speaker John Boehner, who has had a lot of trouble delivering his rambunctious House Republicans.
 
Meantime, the preoccupation of the House itself—already under Republican control and almost certain to remain comfortably so—likely would shift in some measure from dueling with the president to finding common ground with fellow Republicans in the Senate.
 
By no means should this suggest an outbreak of goodness and light with a switch of control in the Senate. Fights between Congress and the White House would erupt, brinkmanship would ensue, vetoes would be issued.
 
Moreover, if they have only narrow control of an unruly Senate, Republicans might not be able to control events at all. And maybe both sides would decide to merely posture in the run-up to 2016, or that they are better off delaying big decisions in hopes they get full control of both branches of government in that looming election.
 
Perhaps the biggest downside risk for the president would lie in the fact that, with the Senate majority, Republicans would have greater control of that chamber’s investigative machinery.
 
Still, substantive achievement can and does emerge from tension. To see how, merely look at the presidency of Bill Clinton, which Democrats remember fondly. Some of Mr. Clinton’s most notable achievements—a balanced budget, a welfare overhaul, badly needed changes to telecommunications law, a revamping of tax rates—took place when the Senate was in Republican hands.
 
Yes, Mr. Clinton was impeached by the Republican House along the way. But it was the Republican-controlled Senate that declined to convict him on those articles of impeachment—a step that cleared the way for a productive stretch run for the Clinton presidency.
 
In a new era of divided government, the most intriguing possibilities would lie in two areas: overhaul of the immigration system and a revamping of the tax code, at least the corporate tax. Both are badly needed. A clear majority in both parties readily acknowledges that.
 
What the two sides don’t agree on is how, precisely, to do those things. Democrats want a comprehensive immigration overhaul with a path to citizenship for illegal residents; Republicans want a piecemeal approach with no certain path to citizenship. Republicans want a revenue-neutral revision of the tax code; Democrats want one that adds revenue.
 
It’s a stalemate now on both fronts. But if the imperative to compromise were higher, because circumstances made it so, maybe the middle ground wouldn’t prove so elusive.
 
For Senate Democrats, loss of control would be a disaster. It would mean loss of committee chairmanships, loss of the ability to control the agenda, loss of some perks of power. For the Democratic president, it’s just possible there could be worse things.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Medicare

From The New York Times:
 
The Medicare open enrollment season, which runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7, gives individuals a chance to rethink it all and reassess whether their plan still fits their needs.
 
While no broad-based changes are expected, there could be meaningful shifts within individual plans. Maybe your Part D prescription plan will no longer pay for one of your drugs, or you started a new one. Perhaps your Medicare Advantage plan dropped your favorite doctor (or worse, a cancer treatment center) from network.
 
A REFRESHER COURSE Before delving into the details, here is a quick primer on original Medicare: Part A covers hospital and skilled nursing facility stays, as well as some home health visits and hospice care. Part B covers preventive care, doctor visits and outpatient services. Premiums, for most retirees, were $104.90 a month last year and are projected to be the same in 2015.
Deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance (that is when you pay for a percentage of medical services) can be burdensome since there is no out-of-pocket ceiling, experts said. That is one of the reasons most people buy supplemental coverage, known as Medigap, to cover out-of-pocket costs on Parts A and B. People lucky enough to have retiree employer coverage rely on that instead.
Medicare Part D, which is offered only through private insurers, covers drugs. The average monthly premium for such plans is estimated at $32 in 2015, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
 
Alternatively, you can just buy a Medicare Advantage plan from a private insurer, also referred to as Part C. It can serve as a one-stop shop because it covers Parts A, B and often a drug plan — and sometimes throws in extras like dental and vision coverage. Monthly premiums for Advantage plans are estimated to rise to $33.90, a $2.94 increase, in 2015, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (You pay that in addition to the Part B premium).
 
ORIGINAL OR ADVANTAGE? Some consumer advocates favor using traditional Medicare with a supplemental plan, largely because it is more predictable and you are free to see any doctor who accepts Medicare.
 
Medigap, with 10 plan levels that are labeled with letters from A to N, is federally standardized coverage, which means coverage must be exactly the same across insurers. For instance, the option known as Plan F will pay for your Part A and Part B deductibles. “This is one area, once you decide on the level of coverage you want, where you can go for the lowest price because you know Plan F will be exactly like any other Plan F,” said Jocelyne Watrous, advocate at the for the Center for Medicare Advocacy.
 
Depending on the plan, the total cost of your premiums could come close to your final out-of-pocket cost for the year. In Connecticut, for instance, one of the most comprehensive Medigap policies is called Plan F. It costs an individual about $218 a month, or $2,622 annually. “But that’s it,” Ms. Watrous said. “You will pay that premium and it will cover all of your co-payments and deductibles.”
 
If you are contemplating switching from Medicare Advantage back to original Medicare — and you want to buy a supplemental policy — that is something you may want to do while you are younger and healthier. Later on, coverage may become more expensive or you can be denied altogether. With some exceptions, individuals are guaranteed coverage only if they buy it during a special period six months after their 65th birthday. During that time, insurers cannot refuse to sell you a policy because of a pre-existing condition or other medical issue, nor can they charge you more.
 
Outside of that safe period, you aren’t guaranteed coverage under federal law, though many states, including New York, extend greater protections. It is important to ask your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP agency, for more details. After you buy a Medigap policy, it generally cannot be canceled because you are old or sick.
 
ADVANTAGE Nearly 16 million people, or 30 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan. Most people are attracted by the plans’ enticingly low and sometimes zero premiums and, for certain services, low co-payments. Some even offer limited dental or vision coverage, advocates said.
 
The drawback of Advantage plans are their limited networks of providers. Doctors can drop out midyear. And consumers are responsible for all cost-sharing, which can be unpredictable. Those are capped at an out-of-pocket limit for in-network services of $6,700 in 2015, although the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommends a limit of $3,400, according to Kaiser.
 
But it is difficult to calculate how fast you might reach those ceilings. “The cost-sharing requirements are often harder to compare because it requires consumers to anticipate what their health care needs might be,” said Tricia Neuman, director of the Medicare policy program at Kaiser. “Some advisers suggest considering what services you would need if you were sick and take a careful look at potential costs under various plans.”
 
People who travel frequently or who spend a significant chunk of time in another state also need to ensure that they will be covered. “Snowbirds need to consider whether the networks and coverage extends to two places,” said Nicole Duritz, vice president for health, education and outreach at AARP.
 
If you are already enrolled, the “annual notice of change” sent to plan enrollees will detail changes in coverage, costs and networks. But if you are dissatisfied with your Advantage plan for any reason, you can unenroll from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14 and switch to original Medicare.
 
DRUGS Even if you are happy with your Part D coverage, don’t assume it will remain exactly the same. Lists of covered drugs often change or the company may insert new restrictions, limiting quantities or requiring you to try another drug first.
 
Go to the Medicare website’s Plan Finder, where you can enter your drugs, the dosage and frequency, as well as where you like to buy them. It will then show you what the plans cover and your total estimated costs for the year. “The plans are so complicated and there is so much variation and the only way to really compare is to use the Plan Finder,” Ms. Watrous said.
 
Don’t shop on price alone. “The best and cheapest plan for you is the one that covers your drugs the best,” said Mr. Baker, who advised calling the plan, or even your doctor or pharmacist, who has a lot of interaction with the different plans.
 
RESOURCES Besides local SHIP agencies, advocates suggest that people check out the latest Medicare & You booklet, which all 54 million enrollees should have received in the mail by now. It’s remarkably clear. To talk to someone live, call 1-800-Medicare. Whatever you do, Mr. Baker advised, “Don’t renew blindly.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

This could backfire; at this time, fairly or unfairly, many Americans are on edge with Muslims: U.S. to greatly expand resettlement for Syrian refugees

From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration will greatly increase the number of Syrian refugees approved for permanent resettlement in the United States next year but has opted against a separate refugee program to serve victims of that intractable civil war, administration officials said Tuesday.

The State Department is reviewing more than 4,000 applications from Syrian refugees seeking permanent homes in the United States next year or beyond, up from dozens considered for resettlement this year and last, officials said. The expansion reflects determinations by the United Nations refugee agency and the United States that tens of thousands of refugees living outside Syria are unlikely to ever be able to return.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Many Missteps in Assessment of ISIS Threat

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.
 
But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”
 
The White House denies that, but the threat certainly has its attention now as American warplanes pound the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State in hopes of reversing its lightning-swift seizing of territory in Iraq and Syria. Still, even as bombs fall from the sky thousands of miles away, the question of how it failed to anticipate the rise of a militant force that in the space of a few months has redrawn the map of the Middle East resonates inside and outside the Obama administration.
 
President Obama fueled the debate in an interview broadcast over the weekend when he said that intelligence agencies had underestimated the peril posed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Mr. Obama accurately quoted James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, acknowledging that he and his analysts did not foresee the stunning success of Islamic State forces or the catastrophic collapse of the Iraqi Army.
 
But by pointing to the agencies without mentioning any misjudgments of his own, Mr. Obama left intelligence officials bristling about being made into scapegoats and critics complaining that he was trying to avoid responsibility.
 
“This was not an intelligence community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” said Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
 
A spokesman denied on Monday that Mr. Obama was blaming intelligence agencies in his interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS News. “That is not what the president’s intent was,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “What the president was trying to make clear” was “how difficult it is to predict the will of security forces that are based in another country to fight.”
 
Mr. Earnest added that “the president’s commander in chief and he’s the one who takes responsibility” for ensuring the national security based on the information provided by intelligence analysts. “And the president continues to have the highest degree of confidence in our intelligence community to continue to provide that advice,” he said.
 
The Islamic State was born out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was crippled by the time Mr. Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. The civil war that erupted in neighboring Syria pitting President Bashar al-Assad against a variety of rebel organizations provided a haven for the Qaeda affiliate to reconstitute itself with an influx of foreign fighters.