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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Putin’s Year of Defiance and Miscalculation - Kremlin Misjudged Bite of Sanctions, Then Oil Plunged

From The Wall Street Journal:

As Western governments seethed last spring over Russia’s takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin told advisers that the world eventually would accept the audacious move. The Kremlin was confident the economic costs of Western sanctions, though substantial, would be tolerable for the world’s ninth-largest economy.

For much of the year, the Russian president’s gamble seemed to pay off. “His forecasts have come true,” Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister and longtime Putin adviser, said in May. “A lot of people have come to terms with Crimea now, at least informally.”

Mr. Putin also seemed confident, according to people who spoke to him at the time, that the deep ties he had nurtured for years with major trade partners like Germany would limit the fallout.

Those calculations turned out to be dead wrong. Broader sanctions choked off Russia’s access to Western capital and technology, tipping the economy toward recession. Then came a second blow that neither Western governments nor Russia could have anticipated: The price of oil—the lifeblood of Russia’s economy—plunged 40% since midsummer, magnifying the effect of sanctions and sending the ruble into a tailspin. The slide turned into a full-on currency crisis on Tuesday as the ruble dropped as much as 20% against the dollar.

As the problems intensify, Mr. Putin’s miscalculations have restricted his options. After largely ignoring the economic costs of the conflict for most of the year, freezing out liberal aides who tried to warn of the impact, he has begun trying recently to win back the confidence of business and revive the economy, people close to the process say. Mr. Putin is expected to be questioned about the ruble crisis during his annual news conference on Thursday.

The Ukraine conflict has produced the deepest breach between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. A notable casualty has been Mr. Putin’s relationship with Angela Merkel , who emerged as Europe’s most powerful leader in large part because of Germany’s relative economic strength.

As recently as a year ago, the German chancellor was one of Mr. Putin’s most reliable Western partners, offsetting more anti-Moscow voices such as the U.S. and Poland. Now, she is keeping the rest of Europe in line behind sanctions and warning of the danger she says Mr. Putin poses to security across the continent.

“We are suddenly confronted with a conflict that goes, so to speak, to the core of our values,” Ms. Merkel said in Sydney, Australia, in November. “Old thinking in terms of spheres of influence, in which international law is trampled upon, cannot be allowed to assert itself.”

Mr. Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine seems to have softened in recent weeks as state-run pollsters in Russia report growing alarm over the falling ruble and rising prices. “Whenever they start to feel danger in their bones—we saw it in [the financial crisis of] 2008—they start looking for the liberals to help,” a senior Russian legislator said of the hard-liners in Mr. Putin’s inner circle.

The Kremlin declined to comment for this article.

With Mr. Putin’s government warning that significant relief from sanctions could be more than a year away, there is little chance of avoiding surging inflation and further declines in the ruble. This week’s currency crisis has increased the urgency, making a steep recession next year all but inevitable.

The Kremlin appears to have written off hope of rapprochement with the Obama administration, which has pressed the European Union to back strong sanctions. And patching things up with Ms. Merkel doesn’t look any easier.

“Russia has become unpredictable, which is the biggest threat to partnership,” said Gernot Erler, the German government’s coordinator for Eastern European affairs. “We don’t know at all what Russia’s goals are.”

A year ago, it looked as though German relations with Moscow were warming. The revelations of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden helped turn public opinion against Washington in privacy-sensitive Germany. Last December, Ms. Merkel formed a new government with the Social Democrats, historically a party friendly to Russia. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the EU may have underestimated Ukraine’s economic and “historic emotional” ties to Russia.

Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula in March. In the early weeks of the crisis, Ms. Merkel remained cautious about tough sanctions, fearing they might prevent a way out for Moscow.
The first round of sanctions mainly affected officials and businessmen with ties to Mr. Putin. Opening a meeting with aides after they were announced, Mr. Putin didn’t even mention the possible economic impact, calling instead for faster growth. But after state-television cameras were ushered out, officials expressed concern.

Mr. Kudrin, the former finance minister and longtime Putin ally who attended, said that even if the sanctions were limited just to individuals, they still would hit growth hard. Wider sanctions on state banks—they would come in the summer—would be much more painful, he warned, fueling capital flight, sapping investment and bruising the ruble.

At the time, the government was expecting the economy to grow and inflation to remain under control. Mr. Kudrin estimated at the time that the Ukraine crisis cut about one percentage point off GDP growth—about what the government spent on the Sochi Olympics. Over two to three years, the bill might rise to $200 billion—“not catastrophic,” as he put it later.

His warning didn’t dissuade Mr. Putin and the rest of the leadership from confronting the West. “They all understood everything,” Mr. Kudrin recalled later. “They’re ready to pay that price.”

When additional sanctions came during the spring, some government officials began to recognize that the informal effect—chilling business activity—was more painful than expected. But their appeals to Mr. Putin were largely ignored, according to people close to the discussions.

“There was a sense that foreign policy was the priority and that it could be conducted without doing much harm to the economy,” said one Kremlin adviser.

As the ground fighting in Ukraine worsened over the summer, Germany’s resolve to take on the Kremlin stiffened. The U.S. had been pressing the Europeans to do so for months. Some German officials were concerned that earlier sanctions hadn’t been tough enough.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin held lengthy, often combative phone calls, according to German officials familiar with the conversations.

Western intelligence suggested Russia was supplying the separatists with weapons and appeared to be coordinating their operations. Mr. Putin said he had nothing to do with it, and told Ms. Merkel that Ukraine was the kind of place where abandoned tanks could be found on farms, according to one official familiar with the discussions.

Ms. Merkel’s office had the German spy agency, the BND, draw up biographies of rebel leaders, most of whom hailed from Russia. Over the phone, Ms. Merkel repeatedly confronted Mr. Putin with evidence that the rebel leaders had ties to Russian intelligence, according to German officials. Mr. Putin, who rarely raised his voice during the discussions, denied he had any influence over the rebels. At important points, he would shift from Russian—which Ms. Merkel learned growing up in Communist East Germany—to German, which Mr. Putin speaks well.

German diplomats thought the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard, might open a path to calming the conflict. But Mr. Putin publicly denied the rebels had shot down the plane, repeating theories broadcast by Russian television that the Ukrainians were responsible.

He told Ms. Merkel over the phone that his own plane was in the air over Europe at the time and that the shootdown may have been an assassination attempt. “I could have been a victim, too,” he said, according to one person knowledgeable about the call.

The first round of sanctions mainly affected officials and businessmen with ties to Mr. Putin. Opening a meeting with aides after they were announced, Mr. Putin didn’t even mention the possible economic impact, calling instead for faster growth. But after state-television cameras were ushered out, officials expressed concern.

Mr. Kudrin, the former finance minister and longtime Putin ally who attended, said that even if the sanctions were limited just to individuals, they still would hit growth hard. Wider sanctions on state banks—they would come in the summer—would be much more painful, he warned, fueling capital flight, sapping investment and bruising the ruble.

At the time, the government was expecting the economy to grow and inflation to remain under control. Mr. Kudrin estimated at the time that the Ukraine crisis cut about one percentage point off GDP growth—about what the government spent on the Sochi Olympics. Over two to three years, the bill might rise to $200 billion—“not catastrophic,” as he put it later.

His warning didn’t dissuade Mr. Putin and the rest of the leadership from confronting the West. “They all understood everything,” Mr. Kudrin recalled later. “They’re ready to pay that price.”

When additional sanctions came during the spring, some government officials began to recognize that the informal effect—chilling business activity—was more painful than expected. But their appeals to Mr. Putin were largely ignored, according to people close to the discussions.

“There was a sense that foreign policy was the priority and that it could be conducted without doing much harm to the economy,” said one Kremlin adviser.

As the ground fighting in Ukraine worsened over the summer, Germany’s resolve to take on the Kremlin stiffened. The U.S. had been pressing the Europeans to do so for months. Some German officials were concerned that earlier sanctions hadn’t been tough enough.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin held lengthy, often combative phone calls, according to German officials familiar with the conversations.

Western intelligence suggested Russia was supplying the separatists with weapons and appeared to be coordinating their operations. Mr. Putin said he had nothing to do with it, and told Ms. Merkel that Ukraine was the kind of place where abandoned tanks could be found on farms, according to one official familiar with the discussions.

Ms. Merkel’s office had the German spy agency, the BND, draw up biographies of rebel leaders, most of whom hailed from Russia. Over the phone, Ms. Merkel repeatedly confronted Mr. Putin with evidence that the rebel leaders had ties to Russian intelligence, according to German officials. Mr. Putin, who rarely raised his voice during the discussions, denied he had any influence over the rebels. At important points, he would shift from Russian—which Ms. Merkel learned growing up in Communist East Germany—to German, which Mr. Putin speaks well.

German diplomats thought the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard, might open a path to calming the conflict. But Mr. Putin publicly denied the rebels had shot down the plane, repeating theories broadcast by Russian television that the Ukrainians were responsible.

He told Ms. Merkel over the phone that his own plane was in the air over Europe at the time and that the shootdown may have been an assassination attempt. “I could have been a victim, too,” he said, according to one person knowledgeable about the call.

German officials analyzed Mr. Putin’s flight path and didn’t buy the contention, according to one person familiar with the effort.

Convinced that Mr. Putin wasn’t pushing the rebels to stop fighting, Ms. Merkel corralled the other 27 European Union member states to follow the U.S. and back the first sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy. They amounted to a body blow to Russia, whose largest banks and companies depended on Western financing and technology.

The Kremlin responded with sanctions of its own against food imports from the West, hitting some European farmers hard.

Inside Russia, pro-market advisers who had warned about too much confrontation with the West, including Mr. Kudrin, found themselves largely frozen out, according to people close to them. Mr. Kudrin lamented publicly that he rarely was consulted by the Kremlin anymore and that business was alarmed by Moscow’s anti-Western turn.

A tight circle of mostly hard-line advisers, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov, had become Mr. Putin’s closest confidantes, according to Kremlin insiders and diplomats.

In early September, even though pro-Russian rebels had just signed a cease-fire agreement with Ukraine, Ms. Merkel pushed for a second round of economic sanctions. Ms. Merkel and other Western leaders said Russia was doing little to carry out the terms of the cease-fire agreement, including preventing weapons and fighters from crossing the Russian border into eastern Ukraine.

In early October, German Gref, chief executive of Russia’s state-run Sberbank and the pro-market author of Mr. Putin’s economic programs, lashed out in public at an October conference where the president was to speak.

Warning that defying “the laws of economic development” would bring Russia to collapse as it did the Soviet Union, Mr. Gref ridiculed government policies for replacing sanctioned products with domestic ones. “You cannot motivate people through the Gulag, like in the Soviet Union,” he said to nervous applause.

Mr. Putin shrugged off the comments when asked about them later. The government still was expecting Europe to lift sanctions by the middle of 2015 and for oil prices to recover to $100 a barrel, Russian officials said at the time.

Within weeks, an additional plunge in oil prices forced the Kremlin to reassess its plans.

After spending $30 billion in October in an unsuccessful effort to slow the ruble’s slide, the central bank announced in early November it would let the Russian currency float freely to save its reserves. Hard-line advisers in the Kremlin, including economic aide Sergei Glaziev, had called for fixing the rate and restricting access to foreign currency. But Mr. Putin rejected that advice as risking even more economic disruption. The central bank’s move triggered a slide in the currency.

“In late November and early December, the authorities realized there would be a crisis,” said one Kremlin adviser. Just before Mr. Putin’s state-of-the-nation address on Dec. 4, the Economy Ministry revised its forecast. Russia would get no relief from low oil prices or sanctions in 2015, the new forecast said, which would drive the country into recession.

After other officials criticized the outlook as too gloomy, it quickly disappeared from the ministry’s website.

In his speech, Mr. Putin announced steps to improve the business climate. But he also warned that the Kremlin knew who the “speculators” were who were selling the ruble, which did little to reassure investors or offset market fears.

Tensions exploded this week. The currency plunge left Russians racing to convert their savings out of rubles. An emergency rate hike by the central bank did little to stop the selling.

Frictions surfaced between liberals and hard-liners. Mr. Kudrin took to Twitter to say the market plunge was the result not just of sanctions and low oil prices but “also a lack of confidence in the government’s economic measures.” He criticized a bailout deal for the state oil company, prompting the company’s CEO to denounce him as a “provocateur.”

Amid the deepening crisis, Western diplomats have reported hints of softening in the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, though they say it is too early to declare a shift. Late Tuesday, Mr. Putin joined a conference call with Ms. Merkel, French President François Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to discuss new talks to stabilize the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.

But after a year of diplomatic wrangling, German officials say they have little reason to believe the Kremlin’s policies will change quickly.

The Germans say that continuing to talk to the Kremlin is important for affording Mr. Putin a way out of the crisis. Some German diplomats worry that with the Russian economy deteriorating, Mr. Putin may be tempted to escalate the conflict in Ukraine to distract his countrymen from problems at home.

In November, Ms. Merkel met with Mr. Putin at the Hilton hotel in Brisbane, Australia, talking and sipping wine for more than three hours as their aides waited outside the room. Ms. Merkel hoped that confronting him in a more relaxed format could lead to progress. It didn’t.

Just over a day later, Ms. Merkel delivered some of her angriest remarks of the crisis.

“We can no longer simply hold speeches at memorial events,” Ms. Merkel said, referring to the many commemorations of World War I, World War II and the Cold War held in Europe this year. “Now we have to somehow show what we have learned from all this.”

Vladimir Putin, The Imperialist - Russia’s increasingly isolated President is on a mission to restore his country’s lost empire


Simon Shuster writes in TIME:

Right off the throne room in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the official residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, is a long corridor known as the Malachite foyer, where the walls are adorned with the portraits of Russian kings and conquerors. Yuri the Long-Armed, the warrior prince credited with founding Moscow in the 12th century, hangs across from Peter the Great, who had expanded the Russian empire to Europe’s Baltic Sea by the time he died in 1725. What they all had in common was a thirst for expansion, which over the years has made Russia the largest country in the world. And at least by that measure, Putin in 2014 has already earned his own portrait.

His decision in March to invade and then annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine marked the first growth of Russia’s dominions since the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the West remembers that event as a victory for freedom, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe to Putin and many of his compatriots. “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and awoke in another,” Putin said in a speech at the Kremlin palace in March. Overnight, it seemed, Russia was transformed from a superpower into a corrupt petrostate, a fallen empire that Sergey Brin, the Russian émigré turned Google co-founder, once derided as “Nigeria with snow.”

Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who tried to reform his country only to dismantle it in 1991, still broods over the loss. “Russia was simply pushed aside, pushed out of politics, made to feel like some kind of backwater,” he tells TIME in the Moscow office where he once received American dignitaries as equals if not exactly friends. “In everything it was America calling the shots!” But with the conquest of Crimea, a derelict peninsula about the size of Massachusetts, Putin at last restored a scrap of Russia’s honor, says Gorbachev, by “acting on his own,” unbound by the constraints of U.S. supremacy and the table manners of international law.

The vast majority of Russians would nod along. Putin’s approval ratings have skyrocketed since the annexation of Crimea, reaching a peak of 88% in October. Not since 2008, when Putin last defied the West by sending Russian tanks into neighboring Georgia, has he enjoyed such popularity at home. Not during the oil-fueled boom of his first two terms as President, from 2000 to 2008, when the economy grew by an average of 7% per year, nor during the multibillion-dollar spectacle of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that Putin hosted at the start of this year. For the gift of Crimea—a depressed region expected to cost Russia more than $18 billion over the next six years to develop—Russians seemed ready to deify Putin. Local critics fell silent, while thousands of supporters waited hours in Red Square to buy Putin souvenirs, like a T-shirt of him lounging on a beach, the caption declaring, crimea.

That name, redolent with the history of Europe’s 19th century wars, has become a byword in Russia for national revival, a taste of the imperial glory that a generation of Russians have long hungered for. “It had been extremely painful,” says Lev Gudkov, a prominent Russian sociologist. “Only with the annexation of Crimea did people start to feel that our great-power status was restored.” For the first time since the Soviet collapse, he says, “the sense of frustration and humiliation dissipated.”

The Empire Strikes Back

The 62-year-old Putin has savored that validation. The son of a factory worker and a former military man from the slums of St. Petersburg—then called Leningrad—he spent the last years of the Soviet Union as a KGB agent trying to preserve the agency’s authority in the East German city of Dresden. The fall of the Berlin Wall came to him not as a liberation but as a threat—in 1989 a crowd of German protesters gathered outside his office to demand the ouster of the Soviet-backed regime. As the mob threatened to storm the building, Putin burned the KGB’s files and sent frantic requests for orders from his bosses in the capital. “Moscow is silent,” Putin later recalled in his official biography.

By the time he rose through the post-Soviet wreckage to become President in 2000, Putin had dedicated himself to rebuilding Russia’s lost authority. But his attempts this year to tighten Moscow’s grip on Ukraine came at a heavy price for Russia and the world. A passenger plane flying over the war zone in eastern Ukraine was blasted out of the sky on July 17, almost certainly by the ill-trained militias that Russia has been using to fight its battles. Nearly 300 people were killed, dozens of them children, as Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disintegrated over territory that Russia effectively controls through its proxies. Putin blamed the Ukrainian government for the disaster, but the callous treatment of the dead—most of them Europeans—cost him many of the few friends he had left.
 
Already expelled from the G-8 club of wealthy nations in March after the annexation of Crimea, Putin was further ostracized at the G-20 summit held in November in Australia, which lost 38 of its citizens on Flight MH17. Capturing the prevailing Western attitude at the international summit, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in greeting Putin, “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be the only one willing to hear Putin out. She came on the first evening of the summit to the Hilton Brisbane, where the Kremlin entourage was staying, and spent the following six hours in closed-door talks with Putin over Ukraine. The next day, Putin left the conference early, before its final declaration was announced, while Merkel delivered a speech predicting a drawn-out confrontation with Moscow. “Russia flouted international law,” she said. “After the horrors of two world wars and the end of the Cold War, this calls the entire European peaceful order into question.”
 

The Germans, the centrist pragmatists of Europe, stood on principle, issuing a rebuke that helped seal Russia’s political isolation just as a sharp drop in the price of oil weakened the country’s most valuable asset. Inflation in Russia has spiked as a result. The ruble has lost 40% of its value against the dollar since the start of the year, forcing Russians to cut back on Western goods and foreign travel. Next year the government expects a recession to take hold.

The value of Russian government debt is approaching the level of junk bonds, and in early December, Putin was forced to cancel one of his legacy projects, the South Stream natural gas pipeline into Europe, whose construction contracts he had enjoyed negotiating personally. “If Europe doesn’t want to do this, well, then it means this won’t be done,” Putin said, referring to pressure from E.U. regulators. “We will steer the flow of our energy resources to other regions of the world.”
 
So, was Putin’s taste of empire worth the cost to Russian prosperity? For those who carry the grudges of Russian history, it was. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, America became a monopoly,” says Alexander Voloshin, a Kremlin insider who served as Putin’s chief of staff from 2000 to 2003. “They felt they had the right to punish and to praise, to give the carrot and smack with the stick,” he tells TIME. “There was no competition.”
 
The Global Alternative

Russia now seeks to position itself as an alternative to the Western model of liberal democracy—and it’s had some success. Right-wing politicians in France and the U.K., not to mention Central and Eastern Europe, are not shy about declaring their admiration for Putin. The ultraconservative government of Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, has announced its intention to develop as an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia, cracking down harshly on civil society. It is a model that may seem old-fashioned—the Russian President claims not to use a cell phone and has called the Internet a “CIA project”—but his appeal is broad and growing for the many around the world who feel left out of the 21st century. “Putin doesn’t want to play within the system anymore,” says Michael McFaul, whose term as U.S. ambassador to Russia ended in February. “He wants to challenge it now. He wants to prod. He wants to build relationships with others against that system, with the Chinese, Turks, maybe India. That is a longer-term challenge.”

Putin will face challenges of his own as the West begins to rally against his aggressiveness and Russia’s economy falters. When TIME named Putin Person of the Year in 2007, we wrote that the President had offered his subjects a “grand bargain—of freedom for security.” Russians sick of the chaos of the post-Soviet 1990s eagerly accepted Putin’s bargain then, but they may feel differently as the chill of economic recession and international isolation sets in. Make no mistake, though: Russians also remember that their country once dominated a sixth of the earth’s landmass and stood as a global player second to none. That is the role Putin seeks to regain—and he seems prepared for the consequences. “Let’s not forget the lessons of history,” he said in a speech at the end of October. “A change in the world order—and this is the magnitude of events we are witnessing today—usually comes with a global war, a global confrontation or at least a chain of intense local conflicts.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

House Passes $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill Ahead of Midnight Deadline - “In the end, there were a lot of things in the bill that were really good for the people I represent.”

From The Wall Street Journal:

Meanwhile, in a rare clash with one of its closest allies, the White House backed the bill opposed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) but embraced by top Senate Democrats.

The day’s mayhem aligned President Barack Obama , Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid with the same goal—passing a longer-term spending bill—in the face of opposition from critics as varied as liberal Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and conservative GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“In the end, there were a lot of things in the bill that were really good for the people I represent,” said Rep. Ron Barber (D., Ariz.), citing continued support for the A-10 aircraft, which the White House had proposed retiring.

On the spending bill, the White House didn’t win over another traditional ally, Hispanic Democrats, some of whom opposed the bill because it only funds the Homeland Security Department through February.

Meanwhile, Republicans also faced defections from conservatives who wanted their leaders to use the must-pass spending bill to try to block implementation of Mr. Obama’s immigration plan this year, before it takes effect.

“Voters were loud and clear that they wanted Republicans to act boldly against the president’s unlawful unilateral actions. This legislation failed to stop this unconstitutional encroachment,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), who voted against the bill.
______________

From The Washington Post:

Pelosi’s outrage was shared by a majority of Democrats, who were also infuriated by several policy changes tucked inside the omnibus agreement released late Tuesday.

When they saw the text Wednesday morning, rank-and-file Democrats lashed out at provisions undoing a signature piece of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul and allowing banks to more easily trade the investments known as derivatives. The financial overhaul enacted in
2010 ranks among the biggest domestic achievements of the Obama presidency and the formerly Democratic-controlled Congress.

Another controversial part of the bill would permit a wealthy couple to give three times the current donation limits to the national political parties.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spending Bill Is Packed With Perks - One Man's Pork is another Man's Bacon - PTL

From The Wall Street Journal:

[There are ]special provisions tucked inside a 1,600-page spending bill being considered by Congress.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Georgia) secured language designed to ensure that a project to expand the Savannah Harbor would go forward.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Vladimir Putin is talking tough—but the falling oil price is making Russia weak.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Vladimir Putin is talking tough—but the falling oil price is making Russia weak.

The Russian president has promised to bolster his country’s banks with public money. He has taken potshots at the speculators he blames for the ruble’s collapse. For investors, one worry is the risks to European banks through their lending to Russian clients and the oil industry in general. Thankfully, the exposures mostly look manageable.

Russia is falling into recession. Fighting that with fiscal measures is tough because the government gets half its revenues from oil and gas taxes. In November, an oil price of $98 a barrel was needed to balance the budget, according to Fitch. Brent crude has since plunged to less than $70.

Last month’s decision to let the ruble float freely eases some strain. Its drop implies the budget-balancing oil price has dropped to about $82.50. But a slowing economy also means more reliance on oil receipts. The true break-even price might be nearer to $85.

Illegal immigrants could receive Social Security, Medicare under Obama action

From The Washington Post:

Under President Obama’s new program to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, many of those affected will be eligible to receive Social Security, Medicare and a wide array of other federal benefits, a White House official said Tuesday.

In his speech Thursday night, the president touted his plan as a means of bringing accountability to a broken immigration system, under which 11 million or more people are estimated to be living in this country illegally.

“We’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve with been in America more than five years. If you have children who are American citizens or [legal] residents. If you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation,” he said. “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

For those who work, that includes payroll taxes, also known as FICA taxes, because they are collected under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act.

The tax payments are usually split between employer and employee and include 12.4 percent collected to pay for Social Security, as well as 2.9 percent to pay for Medicare.

Federal law says that people who pay the taxes and are deemed “lawfully present in the United States” can collect benefits under those programs when they become eligible. They may also receive survivor and disability benefits.

“If they pay in, they can draw,” White House spokesman Shawn Turner said by e-mail.

Turner noted, however, that the estimated 5 million immigrants granted protection from deportation will not be eligible for other federal benefits such as student financial aid, food stamps or housing subsidies. Nor are they eligible to purchase health insurance through the federal health-care exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans said Tuesday that they were surprised that illegal immigrants covered by the president’s executive action would be in line to someday receive benefits under Social Security and Medicare, which are the cornerstones of government-provided economic security for elderly Americans.

“First with Obamacare we were told we should pass it and then read it to find out what was in it,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said by e-mail. “Now Obama overreached and acted unilaterally on immigration, which should have been vetted and authorized by Congress, and we’re finding out there’s more to the story than Obama and the Democrats originally told Americans.”

Illegal immigrants who register and meet the requirements set out by Obama will be allowed to remain in the United States without fear of deportation for three years at a time. Theoretically, his action could be overturned by future presidents, but withdrawing such arrangements would be difficult politically.

Social Security benefits are based on how much individuals earned during their working careers. This year, more than 59 million people are being paid about $863 billion through the program, with average monthly checks of $1,294 for retirees, $1,146 for disabled workers and $1,244 for survivors.

It is unclear what effect adding millions of immigrants to the Social Security and Medicare systems would have on the two programs, said Robert Shapiro, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton and now runs an economic consulting firm.

In the short run, he said, it could help the programs’ balance sheets because so many immigrants are still young and would not be drawing benefits.

“The great thing about immigrants, with respect to entitlements, is you get the young worker and you don’t get the young person’s parents,” Shapiro said.

But over the longer haul, he added, they are likely to draw more out of the system than they contribute — as is the case with nearly every Medicare recipient and with many Social Security recipients who worked low-paying jobs.

Obama, looking to mend fences with Congress, is reaching out. To Democrats. - Now he needs to rely on both houses to sustain a veto. - These guys don’t focus on building a lot of relationships.

From The Washington Post:

President Obama and his closest aides have determined that their best chance of success in the next two years will depend on improved relationships on Capitol Hill, but their behind-the-scenes efforts are more focused on Obama’s own party rather than the Republicans who are about to take full charge of Congress in January.

Obama’s attention on congressional Democrats, allies whom he once regarded as needing little attention, marks a shift in his view on how to deal with Congress. The president now sees his path to success as running through Hill Democrats, a group that has been disenchanted by the treatment it has received from the White House over the years.

The remedial work has included frequent calls to Democratic leaders since the midterm elections and comes as Republicans prepare to take control of both chambers for the first time since Obama took office. While the president and GOP leaders have pledged to seek common ground, Obama’s use of executive action to alter immigration enforcement procedures and other steps have already angered Republicans, making significant legislative accomplishments more difficult.

And White House officials are looking to Hill Democrats as a defense against Republican efforts to undo key elements of Obama’s legislative legacy, including the Affordable Care Act, his immigration action and climate policy.

The president’s ability to sustain the vetoes he is likely to issue will depend on whether he is able to mend relations with congressional Democrats — many of whom blame the president for the party’s large midterm losses — and persuade Republican legislators to work with him in a way that has eluded the two parties for the past six years.

On Wednesday, the outreach effort began publicly as Obama hosted Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who will lead the Senate starting in January — in the Oval Office. It was the first time the two have met one on one for an extended period in more than four years. The most recent small gathering they had was with Vice President Biden, nearly 3 1/2 years ago.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart called the session “a good meeting” but did not release additional details.

By contrast, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been in near-constant communication with the White House since the midterm elections. He received back-to-back calls from Obama on Nov. 24 and 25, the first to discuss the administration’s handling of sanctions against Iran amid ongoing negotiations over that nation’s nuclear program, and the second to confer on the two men’s shared opposition to a pending proposal extending a series of federal tax breaks.

“In the past couple of months, I’ve seen heightened outreach,” Hoyer said in an interview Tuesday. “To some degree, we become even more relevant than we were before. Now he needs to rely on both houses to sustain a veto.”

Those are not the only calls Hoyer has received from the White House recently. Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough — who paid a visit to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday — called Hoyer on Nov. 13 to discuss an effort by lawmakers to force federal approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and on Nov. 25 to talk about tax policy. The White House legislative-affairs staff also called him Nov. 6 to discuss immigration policy, a day after Obama called him at home in the evening to discuss immigration and ongoing efforts to counter the Islamic State.

Hoyer, who was also part of a group of Democratic leaders who had dinner with the president last month in advance of his immigration announcement, said those discussions have allowed him to have an impact on issues such as how the administration is working to fund its military strategy in Iraq and Syria.

“I do believe I was part of the conversation that has hopefully focused us all on accomplishing the president’s objectives,” he said.

Outreach efforts
 
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), another White House ally, said there have been “substantial improvements” in the president’s legislative outreach, in large part because Obama’s director of legislative affairs, Katie Beirne Fallon, has revived an operation that had been moribund for an extended period.

“Just speaking as a Democratic senator, that was not a problem-free area,” Casey said, adding that he had this advice for the White House a few months ago: “My main suggestion is they needed to have more ‘What do you think?’ meetings instead of ‘Here’s what we’re doing’ meetings.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, got McDonough to meet with about a dozen members of the bipartisan group in late May. Crowley said the group pushed for more of a focus on India. “Obviously, there has been a tremendous enhancement in that relationship,” he said.

The White House has dramatically stepped up its use of perks for lawmakers in the past year. At the president’s request, his staff is making more room for members on Air Force One (eight lawmakers flew with him to Las Vegas for his immigration event there last month), and he now gives a shout-out to nearly all lawmakers who attend his public speeches. This year his staff issued more than 4,270 invitations to come to the White House, travel with the president or attend his events, almost double the number handed out in 2012, and it is letting lawmakers use the President’s Box at the Kennedy Center more often.

Democrats are far more willing than Republicans to accept these overtures, White House aides said, though 30 new members of Congress — most from the GOP — and their families took a tour of the East Wing on Nov. 14. It ended with McDonough providing a personal tour of the Oval Office.

On the Republican side, much of the outreach has come from Cabinet members and other senior administration officials. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell hosted a November breakfast for the top Republicans and Democrats on committees that oversee her agency.

They agreed to hold such a gathering “every quarter,” according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who attended. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy called Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is slated to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next month, a couple of weeks ago to wish him a happy birthday.

And the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, talks so regularly with Inhofe that the senator alerted Shah to an orphanage in Liberia that was running low on food because of the Ebola epidemic. Shah was able to get a local rice miller the United States had supported to make a delivery.

Lasting damage
 
Recent history has produced some skeptics about the chances for success with members of either party.

Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who is retiring after 12 terms, said that with the exception of two House members from the Chicago area, “no member has indicated they can just call the White House” and talk to the president, the way many did under President Bill Clinton.

“I don’t think they’re going to improve,” Moran said of congressional relations. “He hasn’t been willing or able to do things with members that they could take credit for with their constituents, and part of that is because of his opposition to earmarks.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will chair the House Ways and Means Committee next year and plays a key role on issues such as corporate tax policy and immigration, said he talks to McDonough and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew “occasionally, not frequently. These guys don’t focus on building a lot of relationships.”

Obama’s decision to move ahead on immigration, Ryan added, “just sliced months off the political capital” they had left to spend.

On Wednesday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters the administration’s threat to veto the tax-break extensions derailed the deal Republicans and Democrats were drafting.

“The president’s been there now for six years — he should not exhibit that kind of inexperience,” he said. “And I’m one of the guys who likes the president, but he’s been tremendously disappointing to me.”

Still, several Republicans said they believed deals with the president are possible next year, on issues including infrastructure spending and possibly tax reform.

“He’s showing all the things he can do without Congress, and that’s not encouraging. But he’s got a Congress that’s committed to working on serious issues,” Alexander said. “If he wants to come along and lead the band, he’s welcome to do it.”

On Wednesday, the president promised again to try.

“So the good news, despite the fact that obviously the midterm elections did not turn out exactly as I had hoped, is that there remains enormous areas of potential bipartisan action and progress,” he said at the Business Roundtable’s D.C. headquarters.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Obama’s order has touched off a new battle, and many wonder what will happen after he leaves

From The Washington Post:

President Obama’s decision to lift the threat of deportation from nearly 4 million illegal immigrants, arguably his most aggressive use of executive power, has deeply divided the nation.

The first immigration law — the Naturalization Act of 1790 — was one that set a racist standard. It offered citizenship to any “free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years,” provided he was “a person of good character.”

So conflicted have been the country’s views on the question that in 1886, the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor to welcome your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, mobs rioted in Seattle and forced more than half the city’s 350 Chinese residents onto a ship to San Francisco.

The last overhaul of the immigration system was seeded by President Ronald Reagan, who said in a 1984 debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though some time back, they may have entered illegally.”

But that leniency, it is now widely agreed, amounted to an invitation for more to come. There were 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants in this country when the 1986 law was passed. Now, that number is estimated at upwards of 11 million.

The unilateral action of a president — which can be undone by his successor — will not do much to settle the debate about immigration, and indeed, seems certain in the short term to inflame it.

Shields and Brooks and on Hagel


From the PBS Newshour:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn you both to running the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Mark, steps down this week. He’s the third secretary of defense in the Obama administration to be leaving the position. They are now looking for a fourth. What does this say, does Chuck Hagel’s experience say about the administration, say about him?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, I should acknowledge right up front I’m a sympathizer, supporter of Chuck Hagel, and have been for a long time, admired his own service both to the country politically and publicly and volunteered in the military to serve as heroically as he did in Vietnam.

But, Judy, when you’re looking for your fourth secretary of defense in less than six years, which is what this administration is doing, and the previous two, Hagel’s two predecessors, both went public with charges of micromanagement from the White House, that — Bob Gates, a reasonable man, said it drove him crazy.

When — when Leon Panetta said it’s leading to an exclusion of other voices, just a limitation, that the president is sort of surrounded by this clique of very hyper, uber loyalists, but with very few other people, that the Cabinet is excluded, I think it’s a comment on a situation that is serious to the president.

And I really…

JUDY WOODRUFF: A situation that…

MARK SHIELDS: A situation that he is in a bubble that is very, very narrowed, that they’re trying to run everything out of the White House.

And I think this is a — I think it’s a problem that they had that Gates complained of it, that Panetta complained of it. And it didn’t change under Chuck Hagel. And they can fault Chuck Hagel. The president praises him and then immediately the White House staffs starts sniping that he wasn’t up to the job, he didn’t have the substance, he wasn’t proactive, whatever the hell that means.

So, they immediately accuse the president of dissembling — their — their loyalists are suggesting the president was being disingenuous when he praised the president and — the secretary as an exemplary defense secretary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, each administration over the last 30 years probably has concentrated more and more power in the White House. For a long time, most of the other Cabinet secretary jobs have been neutered. But it used to be, you had the big three, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and the surgeon general, had some independent authority.

Under this administration, I think even the big three have been severely weakened, none more seriously than Chuck Hagel. There are people who follow this who say he underperformed in certain roles, especially the outside roles.

But it’s certainly true that he wasn’t consulted in all sorts of policies concerning the Defense Department, that decisions were made in the White House both here and abroad and then he was told about them later. And he tried to be a good soldier. And so if you are going to hire somebody to be a good soldier, you can’t really fault them for not being proactive, because you’re not giving them anything to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do we look for the next secretary of defense to be somebody who very close — already in close with the White House, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, ironically, the next secretary of defense is probably Chuck Hagel.
I mean, we have had two — Jack Reed, senator from Rhode Island, rejected it 30 microseconds after he was floated. Michele Flournoy, the former deputy secretary of defense, said she wasn’t interested. So, I don’t know who is going to be and then confirmed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick thought, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. They’re having trouble, because who wants to be a weak person with only two years left?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Democratic Rifts Surface in Wake of Midterm Election Defeat - Leaders Dispute Wisdom of Health-Care Overhaul, Delaying Move on Immigration

From The Wall Street Journal:

Long-muted tensions within the Democratic Party over policy and strategy are beginning to surface publicly, a sign of leaders looking beyond President Barack Obama ’s tenure in the aftermath of the party’s midterm election defeat.

A prominent example came this week, when Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), a member of the Senate leadership, gave a rare public rebuke to Mr. Obama over the centerpiece of his presidency: the health-care overhaul of 2010. Mr. Schumer said the party should have focused on helping a broader swath of the middle class than the uninsured, whom he called “a small percentage of the electorate.’’

On the same day, the White House surprised Democratic leaders in the Senate by threatening to veto a tax package negotiated by both parties. The White House said the deal would help “well-connected corporations while neglecting working families.’’

The twin developments were among fissures within the party that, at their broadest level, show Democrats at odds over what economic message to present to voters ahead of the 2016 presidential race. Worried that they lacked a compelling position in the midterms, Democrats are split over whether to advance a centrist message or a more populist economic argument that casts everyday families as victims of overly powerful corporations and benighted government policies.

“You’re going to get a fight within the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), as the progressive wing of the party splits from centrists, who fear that liberal economic policy proposals are unpalatable to most voters. “There is a substantial disagreement coming up.”

Democratic infighting has largely been out of public view for the last half-dozen years. Since Mr. Obama took office, Republicans have been the ones dealing with rifts. A conservative Tea Party wing clashed with mainstream Republicans in primary contests this year, jockeying for sway over the party’s ideological compass. That debate remains unsettled and is likely to play out in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Now, it is the Democrats who are looking increasingly fractious. Unusual as it was to see Mr. Schumer part ways with Mr. Obama on policy, it was even more extraordinary for him to target the Affordable Care Act, a law so tied to the Obama legacy.

Democrats, Mr. Schumer said, “blew the opportunity the American people gave them” by focusing “on the wrong problem—health care.” Key provisions of the health law, he said, affected relatively few voters. Instead, the party should have pressed for programs that would have raised wages and helped more of the middle class, he said.

Mr. Schumer’s comments drew angry responses from Obama loyalists. They said Mr. Obama had promised to break from a politics-as-usual attitude in Washington, while echoing the president’s argument that making health care more widely available boosted many Americans’ economic security.

David Axelrod, a top strategist in both of Mr. Obama’s presidential races, said: “If your calculus is solely how to win elections, and that is your abiding principle, it leads you to Sen. Schumer’s position. But that’s precisely why big, difficult problems often don’t get addressed in Washington, and why people have become so cynical about that town and its politics.”

Through a spokesman, Mr. Schumer declined to comment.

The intraparty fight has touched on other elements of policy and strategy since it erupted soon after this month’s elections, which stripped Democrats of their Senate majority. David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), publicly blamed Mr. Obama for Democratic losses. He said the president wouldn’t transfer millions of dollars in party funds to help save imperiled Democrats, and he told the Washington Post that “the president’s approval rating is barely 40%.… What else more is there to say?”

As is the case with Mr. Schumer, Mr. Krone’s comments were an unusual breach of protocol. It is rare for Democrats at senior levels to publicly criticize other Democrats—and rarer still for a legislative aide to chide a president from his own party. Mr. Reid’s office declined to make Mr. Krone available for an interview.

Addressing Mr. Krone’s comments, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this month that Messrs. Obama and Reid had “struck up a genuine friendship when the two men served together in the United States Senate, and that relationship has only been strengthened during the president’s time in the White House.”

Mr. Krone’s boss is having his own troubles with the White House. Sen. Reid is backing the tax-cut bill that drew a veto threat from Mr. Obama, because it doesn’t include a proposal backed by liberals to make enhanced tax credits for the working poor permanent, alongside tax breaks for businesses.
Adding to the deepening divide between Messrs. Reid and Obama is that the deal included a measure that would benefit Mr. Reid’s home state as the Nevada Democrat readies himself for a likely 2016 re-election bid. A presidential veto wouldn’t help his cause.

Tensions have also emerged between House and Senate Democrats. One flashpoint was immigration. Some House Democrats believe it was a mistake for Mr. Obama to wait until after the midterm elections to take executive action limiting deportations, a delay that the president agreed to at the behest of Senate Democratic leaders trying to protect vulnerable incumbents, such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The delay didn’t stop Mr. Pryor and other Senate Democrats from losing.

One senior House Democratic aide said many House Democrats believe the delay hurt Hispanic turnout, contributing to the defeat of Reps. Pete Gallegos of Texas and Joe Garcia in Florida.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” this aide said, “but there was all this effort to avoid anything Mark Pryor might be asked about. All that effort was for nothing. Clearly, that strategy failed.”

Part of the reason for Democratic feuding is Mr. Obama’s declining popularity as he enters the final quarter of his presidency. Various Democrats hope to emerge as the new center of gravity in the party.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears the logical choice, given that she is likely to run for president in 2016, and polls show her comfortably leading the field of potential Democratic rivals in the primaries. Yet for many liberals, it isn’t Mrs. Clinton who stokes the most passion, but the first-term senator from Massachusetts, populist firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

“She is someone who voters see as authentic and inspiring, as opposed to someone who is trying to play it safe and take no risks,” said Erica Sagrans, a former Obama campaign aide who is trying to entice Ms. Warren to run for president.

Mr. Schumer may also have designs on a more influential role in the party. He has long been seen as someone with an eye on the leadership spot now held by Mr. Reid. Some Democrats saw his speech as an effort to lay a course for the party that might position him for a spot higher in the party hierarchy.

In a sign of the emerging struggle over which direction to take the party, Senate Democrats met for four hours behind closed doors earlier this month to hash out what went wrong in the midterm elections and how they would operate next year, when they will be in the minority. Mr. Reid was reappointed Democratic leader, but a handful of moderate Democrats voted against him.

In a concession to the party’s liberal wing, members also created a new leadership post—for Ms. Warren.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pilgrims and the Roots of the American Thanksgiving - English settlers of the 17th century were a diverse lot, and they became Americans despite themselves


Malcolm Gaskill writes in The Wall Street Journal:

In the fall of 1621, 50 English men and women and 90 Native Americans gathered at New Plymouth in Massachusetts. The colonists had arrived a year earlier on a leaky wine ship, the Mayflower, and built a hillside settlement overlooking the ocean, little more than a few wooden huts in a stockade. The first winter had been terrible: Half their number had perished from malnutrition and disease. They had struggled to farm the land, were poorly supplied from England and relied on their Indian hosts for expertise and food.

But in the end, they did it. According to Edward Winslow, who had buried his wife that March, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor.” The Pilgrims, as they would later be known, celebrated for three days—an event immortalized in American history as the first Thanksgiving.

The story has been heavily mythologized, and the numerous depictions of it that have come down to us are mostly patriotic romances, full of errors about the dress, technology and general atmosphere of the day. What we most tend to overlook in the Thanksgiving tale, however, is the wider context of settlement. English colonists—350,000 of them in the 17th century—were a diverse lot, and more English than you might imagine. Having left the Old World for the New, they clung to their old identities and tried to preserve them. In this, they failed, and yet from that failure, a new national character was born—the primary traits of which are still visible in Americans today.

The first colonists actually arrived more than a decade before the Mayflower, establishing themselves on the steamy river plantations of Virginia and the rocky coasts of Maine. The northern colony failed within a year. The Virginia settlements fared better, and thousands of young, mostly male apprentices poured into the tobacco fields to toil alongside growing numbers of enslaved Africans. A similar pattern developed in the other Chesapeake colony, Maryland. In the 1630s, successive waves of Puritan ships reached Massachusetts, their passengers settling in Boston and its satellite communities.

After this great migration came the “great reshuffle.” Settlers relocated to Rhode Island, New Hampshire and the lush plains of the Connecticut Valley, which in turn attracted newcomers from England. Meanwhile, the French settled in Canada and the Dutch in present-day New York. By 1660, there were 58,000 colonists in New England and the Chesapeake, compared with 3,000 in New France and 5,000 in Dutch New Netherland. Most English migrants—190,000 of them—went to the West Indies, where slave-owning planters specialized in sugar production and sustained New England by importing its food crops.

Virginia began life in 1607, at a quasi-military outpost called Jamestown. Captain John Smith, its leader and savior, described “pleasant plain hills and fertile valleys, one prettily crossing another…a plain wilderness as God first made it.” But this was no Eden. Appalling conditions—hostile natives, polluted water and rampant disease—were made worse by infighting and political chaos.

Unable to grow enough food, the colonists faced starvation by the winter of 1609. They ate vermin and leather—even the starch from their collars. “Nothing was spared to maintain life,” recalled George Percy, “and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.” Nine out of 10 died, and the survivors and their often clueless replacements still had to find exports like timber, furs and pitch to pay their way. In the end, a farmer named John Rolfe cracked the problem with a new strain of sweet tobacco. A year later, there were wooden vending machines for tobacco in London alehouses. Virginia was in business.

Colonists always needed more land, but they had to tread carefully. Rolfe married an Indian princess named Pocahontas, which delighted the Virginia Company. The union meant ethnic peace in America and made for good propaganda at home. Renamed Rebecca Rolfe, she was received at the royal court in London, where, Smith noted, those clamoring to meet her “had seen many English ladies worse favored, proportioned and behaviored.”

Pocahontas’s death as she prepared to return home, probably from tuberculosis, destabilized relations with her people, and a dark cloud passed over Virginia. In 1622, a native uprising killed 347 colonists—a third of all English people in America. Even those who had come over to spread the gospel hardened their hearts. Now the English would take what they wanted. “Our hands, which before were tied with gentleness and fair usage,” remarked the Virginia Company secretary, “are now set at liberty.”

A year later, Virginia was still in a bad way. A youth named Richard Frethorne begged his parents to bring him home. “You would be grieved if you did know as much as I do,” he sobbed, “when people cry out day and night—Oh! That they were in England.” A few months later, he was dead.

By this time, 600 miles to the north, Plymouth had been established. Prospective adventurers had learned from colonists there, and from the disasters at Jamestown, the importance of building colonies on firm foundations of family, authority, law, trade and a division of labor. Jamestown had underestimated the importance of women, whose work was invaluable and who allowed a colony to grow. So when the Puritan John Winthrop assembled his first fleet to sail to Massachusetts in 1630, the emphasis was on relocating households, even whole communities.

The first passenger ashore at Boston was a 9-year-old girl, who later remembered a land “very uneven, abounding in small hollows and swamps, and covered with blueberry and other bushes.” The migrants, ravaged by scurvy, were forced to shelter in burrows that they dug into the riverbank, where they ate fish and dried peas. From that modest start, however, they not only survived but thrived.

Gradually, across the eastern seaboard, colonies assumed their own forms and flavors. Massachusetts was repressive and, to England, seemed disloyal. Connecticut was tolerant, Rhode Island even more so. Maryland welcomed Catholics, which scandalized the ultra-Protestant Puritans. Maine seemed godless and ungoverned: One report alleged that Kennebec fishermen believed that “as many men may share in a woman as they do in a boat.”

There was variety even among the 102 passengers of the Mayflower, half of whom were “strangers” of dubious piety and morality. The Pilgrims were united by the religious community that they had formed in Leiden, Holland. The rest, who came from all over England, had little in common. Regional identities were strong, and there was little love lost between East Anglians and West Countrymen. And that was just one ship.

Life in the early colonies was unbelievably hard. Most colonies failed, and even in the promising ones, thousands of settlers died. Of the 10,000 people transported to Virginia after 1607, only a fifth were still alive in 1622. Many, in remote plantations dotted along the eastern seaboard, simply disappeared. Communications were poor and loneliness endemic. Wolves were a persistent menace, although colonists learned to kill them with fishhooks wrapped in fat.

Even when food was plentiful, it was monotonous: Settlers mostly ate cornbread and vegetable stew. Imported beer soured, and domestic brews were impossible without malt. At first, there were no shops, and Winthrop’s migrants were advised to take everything with them, including window glass.

New England’s soil was stony and hard to plow; crops were ruined by floods and droughts and caterpillars. The ice and snow exceeded anything experienced in England. There were few doctors, and remedies ranged from the bizarre to the dangerous. A Maine man who sucked an infection from his wife’s breast lost his teeth from the arsenic that had been previously applied.

The greatest trial was conflict with Native Americans. In the 1670s, New England was almost wiped off the map by what was, in proportion, the most devastating war in American history. Townships were overrun, their inhabitants killed or spirited away. Twelve settlements were destroyed, and 2,000 colonists died, including one-in-10 able-bodied men.

In February 1676, Thomas Eames, a farmer at Framingham, itemized his losses: a house, a barn, grain, tools and, at the top of the list, “a wife and nine children.” That same month, Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife at Lancaster, Mass., was seized during an Indian raid and endured three months of privation in freezing conditions. She ate “filthy trash” with her captors, whom she called “barbarous creatures.” Such terrifying experiences make it hard to understand why anyone stayed in America.

But then why had anyone come in the first place? Their reasons were manifold. The Pilgrims wanted to worship freely outside the Church of England. Others wanted to reform English religion. Most Virginians simply wanted to find land where they could make a living.

All of the colonists were trying to recreate a better version of the Old World rather than inventing something new. In society and economy, politics and religion, England was changing, many felt for the worse, and nostalgia for a golden age of faith—based on scripture, healthy social relations and charity among neighbors—was a powerful incentive to emigrate.

Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” speech, beloved of modern presidential speechwriters, was more of a reactionary manifesto than a radical one. It spoke of values that had decayed in English life to be resurrected across the Atlantic. This was revolution 17th-century style: a return to the status quo ante.

So the colonists set about building English houses, mixing arable farmland with pasture, approximating English meals and wearing their warm woolens, regardless of the weather. They behaved, so far as possible, as if nothing had changed. They imposed familiar hierarchies, enforced English laws and appointed magistrates and constables.

Wherever they went, they anglicized Indian place-names. Dozens of English towns and villages—Dorchester, Ipswich, Springfield—were reborn in America: Boston had been, and still is, a small Lincolnshire port. Long Island became “Yorkshire,” split into three parts or “ridings,” just like the English county.

America was the child, conceived and raised in the image of the parent—an extension of England, not its replacement. Writing in 1697, John Higginson, a minister at Salem, Mass., desired only “that the Little Daughter of New England in America may bow down herself to her Mother England.”

In the end, however, pretending to be in England, like turning expectantly to a lost golden age, was futile. Many succumbed to homesickness. One woman faked an inheritance that, she said, had to be collected in person, just so that her husband would let her go home. Some returned for good—one in five New Englanders by 1640.

Nor were the English alone in America. The varied character of their colonies was due not just to the pressures of landscape and ecology but to tense relations with Native Americans and European neighbors.

Failing to retain a recognizably English identity caused anxiety and disappointment. But from failure emerged something truly striking, a spirit that resonates in America across the centuries. Colonial character was driven by a creative tension between lofty ideals and mundane desires. Trying to remain the same, it turned out, demanded a constant effort of industry and reinvention.

The liberties that many migrants felt were being abused at home, by royal contempt for the rights of freeborn Englishmen, ended up being defended in America through the bondage of others—both indentured servants and slaves—and the disinheritance and dispersal of Native Americans. And for all their inward-looking community spirit, the fortunes of many New England communities depended on their expansion. The Puritan idea of a “sufficiency”—having just enough land to be comfortable—was compromised by commercial greed and voracious land grabs.

American religion also evolved in a surprising way. In Philadelphia—“the city of brotherly love”—and other economic centers, Christian virtues were extolled in an expanding world of litigiousness and competition. The secularism in civil government propagated in Rhode Island has its legacy today in the constitutional separation of church and state, but this coexists with an intense religiosity in politics that the Pilgrim fathers would have recognized and admired.

Still, for all their diversity and contradictions, English migrants to America tended to conform to a single recognizable type: the intrepid, resilient, undaunted pioneer. In every colony, similar challenges were met with the same determination and optimism.

Here we might return to Plymouth in 1621 and to the true story of the first Thanksgiving, which is richer and more edifying than the familiar holiday version. When the Pilgrim William Bradford said, “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had…being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty,” he was bearing witness to the fact that, in their first crucial year, they had barely survived.

The Pilgrims were not typical settlers in the new land, but they still exemplify the extraordinary imagination and belief, fortitude and courage, shown by colonists across early America—qualities shared today by all manner of Americans, regardless of their ancestry.

Dr. Gaskill is professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans,” published this month by Basic Books.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

White House seeks a stronger hand at Pentagon to manage crises

From The Washington Post:

President Obama tapped Chuck Hagel as defense secretary because he wanted someone who would quietly implement the administration’s policy, avoid controversy and promote no big, sweeping ideas.

Hagel was forced to resign Monday for being exactly that defense secretary.

Hagel didn’t make big mistakes. Nor had he lost the confidence of the uniformed military. But he often seemed lost or overly deferential to his generals in top-level White House strategy meetings, especially those focused on the battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, senior administration officials said.

“I could never tell what his opinion was on anything,” said a senior administration official involved in national security policy. “He’d never speak. . . . The key comment, the insightful approach — that never came out of him.”

His departure isn’t likely to lead to big changes in Iraq and Syria, where the president recently doubled the number of U.S. military advisers, or in Afghanistan, where Obama seems committed to ending the war. Nor is it likely to lead to warmer relations with Congress, as happened when Donald H. Rumsfeld was fired as defense secretary by President George W. Bush in 2006 and replaced by Robert M. Gates, who was widely hailed as his polar opposite.

“No one is going to be hailed to be the anti-Hagel,” said Douglas Ollivant, a retired Army officer and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “No one hates Hagel.”

Hagel’s replacement, meanwhile, will also have to grapple with a hands-on White House that has, at times, infuriated his predecessors and the Pentagon brass with its management style.

“There is teeth-gnashing over micromanagement,” a senior defense official said. “Relations have not been great.”

White House officials regularly call commanders in Afghanistan to gauge their thinking on the progress of the war and their future troop needs. Those calls were a particular source of irritation to Gates, who said he tried to squelch them during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In a speech this month at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, he recalled being shocked to discover that a direct telephone line to the White House had been installed in the Afghanistan headquarters of the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

“I had them tear it out while I was standing there,” Gates said. “And I told the commanders, ‘You get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me.’ ”

Since then, the calls to field commanders have resumed, defense officials said.

Changing World Shrank Hagel’s Appeal to Obama - With Obama Now Considering Re-entering Mideast Conflicts, Defense Secretary Was the Odd Man Out

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Chuck Hagel was chosen to be the defense secretary who could help his boss, President Barack Obama , complete the exit from Middle East wars. It was his misfortune to arrive just when the president instead needed to consider re-entering conflicts in that tortured region.
That, as much as anything, explains why the fit was never quite right, and why he will be exiting his job prematurely.

The arc of Mr. Hagel’s tenure at the Pentagon serves as a kind of metaphor for Mr. Obama’s second term, at least on the national-security front. The second term was to be marked by the final and complete exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a decidedly un-George-Bush-like resistance to the constant temptation to jump back into Middle East conflicts.

Mr. Hagel was, on paper at least, ideally positioned to help oversee that new phase. He is a Republican with military credentials—decorated Vietnam War veteran, extensive work in the Senate on national-security issues—who from the beginning shared the president’s deep skepticism about the Iraq war. And he seemed to agree on the desirability of an extraction from Afghanistan.

His tenure got off to a famously bad start when many of his former GOP Senate colleagues opposed his nomination, in some cases because his antiwar sentiments were brandished a little too clearly for their tastes, in other cases because of suspicions that his aversion to Middle East conflicts was an extension of antipathy toward Israel. His confirmation hearings were bad enough that they prevented him from ever winning the confidence of the small and tight circle of White House advisers around Mr. Obama.

Still, he was confirmed in early 2013, at the outset of the second Obama term, and circumstances seemed aligned to allow him to focus on two important items at which he, in fact, proved adept. The first was pivoting security strategy toward Asia. The second was overseeing a reduction in the Pentagon budget that could be accomplished without tearing too many holes in the defense structure, and with the endorsement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was far from certain.

But soon two threats began to rise steadily: the turmoil of the civil war in Syria and the parallel growth of the Islamic State militant army.

The Syrian mess led to a fateful stretch in late summer of 2013 when the president very publicly pledged to attack Syria because of President Bashar al-Assad ’s use of chemical weapons, then hesitated amid congressional opposition, then ultimately decided against a military strike. There was little sign Mr. Hagel was deeply involved in what in retrospect may prove to be the most important military decision of the second term—though he was honest enough later to admit the administration hadn’t handled it well.

That was followed this year by the surge of Islamic State fighters, first in Syria and then in Iraq. In Syria, the moderate Free Syrian Army the U.S. had been supporting, fitfully, in the civil war there was in danger of being swamped by the more radical Islamic State. And in Iraq, the gains the U.S. had made over a decade of struggle were being reversed in rapid order.

Mr. Hagel’s antiwar profile seemed less useful when the administration increasingly was turning back to a war footing. The administration badly needed a public spokesman to deflect the charges, from Capitol Hill and elsewhere, that it had no clear strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war and was falling behind the curve in the fight against Islamic State. But the White House never really trusted Mr. Hagel to be a reliable public spokesman.

Ultimately, Mr. Hagel found himself caught between military leaders in the Pentagon, increasingly unhappy at the administration’s reluctance to allow them to do more to protect gains in Iraq, and a president loath to rush back in. He vented about the lack of a clear policy for dealing with Syria—one that would allow defeat of both Mr. Assad and Islamic State—in a memo to the White House a few weeks ago. Yet he found himself without the full confidence of any side.

Inevitably, politics also intruded, especially after this month’s brutal midterm election for Mr. Obama’s Democrats. “Democrats feel vulnerable on national security,” says one Democratic national-security strategist. “Part of this is that Obama needs to turn around and show he has a serious national-security team.” Someone needed to be a sacrificial offering.

The administration has begun seeking more outside counsel on how to handle its security challenges. Vice President Joe Biden , among others, has been reaching out for advice.

Officials now realize they need a better plan, not just for fighting Islamic State but for addressing the deep-seated problems in Syria and Iraq that have given it an opening. As it happens, that isn’t the task for which Chuck Hagel was hired.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Farmers Urge Congress to Legalize Agriculture Workers - Obama Move Will Help Only a Fraction of the Undocumented Immigrants Toiling on Nation’s Fields, Farmers Say

From The Wall Street Journal:

For four years, Fred Leitz has seen vegetables and fruits on his 600-acre family farm go unpicked. For even longer, he has been urging Congress to pass an immigration overhaul that solves the labor shortage.

“We’ve gotten nowhere,” said the fourth-generation Michigan grower, who visits Washington four or five times a year.

President Barack Obama took executive action Friday to temporarily legalize millions of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, though the program doesn’t specifically address agriculture. Under the plan, an estimated 250,000 farm workers likely would be eligible for relief from deportation and for work permits, the United Farmworkers Union said. That is a fraction of total number of undocumented workers toiling in U.S. fields, say farmers, who hope that Mr. Obama’s decision to take unilateral action will propel Congress to achieve a legislative solution that addresses agriculture workforce needs.

“Our concern is they are so busy pointing fingers at each other they won’t get down to business,” said Ed Schoen, a New York dairy farmer and board member of the Dairy Farmers of America, which represents a third of U.S. dairy farmers.

“Hopefully, this motivates them to come together to work on a fix to the broken immigration laws,” said Ralph Broetje, a Washington state apple grower who employs more than 2,000 workers, the vast majority of them immigrants.

More than half of all field workers are undocumented, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and many farmer groups estimate the share to be higher than 70%.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, an association that represents hundreds of farmers in California and Arizona, said that “preventing the implementation of executive actions alone is not enough,” referring to GOP threats to scuttle Mr. Obama’s plan. “These actions by the president should also serve as a catalyst for Congress to lead,” he said, adding that U.S. agriculture is in jeopardy.

Frustration is running so high that farmers like Mr. Leitz say they have started to withhold contributions from Republicans in elections. “I’m not giving any more to guys who haven’t helped us,” said the farmer, who describes his politics as “very conservative.”

Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, said, “I am personally aware of farmers and small-business people who would normally support Republicans but have ceased political contributions generally, out of frustration over Congress’ inability to find common ground and solve the problem.”

Ideally, farmers say, a congressional fix would legalize undocumented field workers and encourage them to stay in agriculture, as well as include provisions to ensure a steady flow of seasonal workers who could enter and leave the country with relative ease.

Most growers shun the current guest-worker program, known as H-2A, which they say involves multiple steps and a variety of federal agencies that make it expensive, bureaucratic and inefficient.

Farm workers who benefited from the last legalization program, an amnesty in 1986, represent just 10% of today’s field workers, and many of them are aging. The average age of farm workers overall is about 37 years old, according to government data, up from 31 in 2000.

All told, the shrinking supply of workers has led farm wages to rise across the country. Mark Gilson, a nurseryman in Perry, Ohio, says that he still has had trouble finding enough workers for three years. Brenda Alford, a potato farmer in Pasco, Wash., said that a few years ago her family had to “plow out” 500 acres of asparagus. “The labor shortage hasn’t gotten any better,” she said.

The president’s plan drew criticism for failing to put in place any measures to discourage an exodus from agriculture among immigrants who benefit from relief. As the oil industry booms and construction recovers, those fields are likely to compete for the same workers, farmers say.

“The way Obama went about this is going to further devastate agriculture. We are going to lose labor,” said Steve Scaroni, a labor contractor who operates in Salinas, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz.

Some farmers are also concerned they could be legally obligated to fire newly protected workers under the Obama plan, if they admit they lied about their immigration status to secure their jobs, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Conservative expert on immigration law to pursue suit against executive action

From The Washington Post:

[Kris] Kobach, a 48-year-old lawyer and the person many conservatives have anointed to defeat it. For a decade, he has led the legal effort to strengthen the country’s immigration laws and toughen their enforcement.

But he is also Kansas’s secretary of state . . . Governors have been texting his cellphone and Senate staffers have been sending e-mails, and everyone is asking Kobach a version of the same question:
 
Can he beat this?

He has devoted his career to an immigration fight he always believed would be incremental. First he sued states for offering in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. Then he wrote tough immigration enforcement laws for Arizona and Alabama. Then he counseled Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on the legality of using the National Guard to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. He has been playing the long game, hoping to build a consensus case against amnesty over the course of his career, but now, listening on the phone, it sounds to him as if Obama is saying the case is over and the ruling is in. If so, his life’s work is unraveling, and a last stand will have to come now.

“Unbelievable,” he says, listening to Obama explain the basics of his plan to defer action for up to 4 million illegal immigrants, and when Obama says he will no longer deport people who have “played by the rules,” he begins writing notes.

“Illegal means not playing by rules,” he writes.

“Huh?” he writes when Obama explains his reasons for acting alone. “You have NO AUTHORITY!”

“A huge thing just happened tonight in the history of this country,” he announces to the group, and then he explains the details. “Imperial, executive amnesty,” he says. “The sacrificial shredding of our Constitution.”
People are enraged. They ask about the possibilities of impeachment or arresting the president for treason, and Kobach shakes his head. “Then what can we do?” one man asks.

Kobach says he has spent the last week considering that question, and he can think of only two options. “Congress could vote to defund parts of the government,” he says, but his friends in Congress tell him that is unlikely. The other option is a lawsuit filed by states and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents against the federal government. “That one’s on me,” he says. He tells the group he has already begun drafting a suit as the lead attorney, with plans to file it in early December. Texas is interested in being a plaintiff. So are a few other states.

“Either we win this way or we lose big,” Kobach says. “If that happens, all of these illegal aliens will be eligible to feed at the trough filled by hardworking American people.”

That’s how he considers himself: as a man of absolutes, of order. His four daughters are home­schooled. His hair is always gelled and styled. He keeps an oversize dictionary open on a stand by his desk and an antique map collection on the walls. He went from being a champion high school debater, to graduating summa cum laude in his class at Harvard, to rowing for Oxford, to editing the Yale Law Journal.

“I believe in rules and fairness,” he says, and those are among the reasons he says he was attracted to immigration law in the first place. In what other kind of law was the legal conclusion so obvious? “Illegal alien,” he says. “We can argue it a million ways, but really, what more is there to say?”

He received a White House fellowship a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, and after the terrorist attacks he advised then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on immigration issues. He returned home to Kansas City, Kan., a few years later to take a job as a professor of constitutional law, just as Kansas passed a statute giving illegal immigrants eligibility for in-state college tuition. Kobach filed a lawsuit on behalf of out-of-state students who also wanted to pay in-state rates, and then he filed similar suits in two other states. There were only a few dozen conservative experts on immigration law — and fewer still who had spent time working inside the White House — and his caseload spread quickly across nearly a dozen states. He filed motions to prevent illegal immigrants from renting apartments in Pennsylvania, from committing voter fraud in Kansas and from taking jobs without work authorization in Arizona and Alabama. Some of the motions have been successful, some have lost and some are ongoing. He helped presidential nominee Mitt Romney formulate his immigration positions. He co-wrote 16 state laws and became one of the country’s most divisive politicians before ever being elected to state office.

“What bothers me most is the constitutionality of this,” he tells one Republican lawmaker over the phone, the day after Obama’s announcement. Kobach is working on the lawsuit, 40 or 50 pages already written. “We have a clear violation here of Article 2, Section 3,” he says.

“We are moving ahead quickly,” he tells another lawmaker. “We just have to sign the affidavits and gather the facts.”

The key to his lawsuit is finding the right plaintiffs, he says, so he has spent the last weeks compiling a list of more than a dozen ICE agents who he says are eager to file suit. They were hired and trained to enforce the country’s immigration laws, and now, he says, they believe that the president is essentially asking them to break those laws. Kobach also wants at least one state to be a plaintiff, likely Texas and possibly others. States are “lining up to sue this time,” he says. He could file one lawsuit on behalf of several states, which he thinks might have the best chance of reaching the Supreme Court. Or he could file individual lawsuits, one for each state, and force the issue into several federal court districts.

Either way, his chances hinge on the same issue that has plagued many of his previous immigration cases: He will have to prove the plaintiffs have standing to sue by showing they have suffered credible, personal injury because of Obama’s executive action. He thinks Texas, with an estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants, might be his best chance. “The numbers there are good for us,” he says. “Illegal-alien households with kids consume a lot of resources: K-through-12 education, food stamps, earned income tax — these things add up.”

He will likely have a few supporting attorneys with him on the case, but on this day in his Topeka office, he is managing the lawsuit alone. The questions come by e-mail from prospective plaintiffs, governor’s offices and think tanks in Washington: Who will pay the legal fees for the case? In which district will he file? How early in December? Are the plaintiffs ready to withstand the scrutiny of a case that is likely to unfold over two or three grueling years?