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Cracker Squire


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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, June 29, 2011

Administration’s legal adviser continues assertion that airstrikes and other military measures do not amount to hostilities.

From The New York Times:

A resolution authorizing American intervention in Libya was approved on Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hours after members skeptically grilled the administration’s legal adviser over his assertion that airstrikes and other military measures did not amount to hostilities.

The resolution, approved 14 to 5, would allow President Obama to continue for one year the involvement of United States military forces in the NATO-led operation in Libya; it now heads to the full Senate. A similar measure failed in the House last week, underscoring that even in a divided government, the Senate remains a more interventionist body while the House is increasingly dubious about foreign ventures and their cost.

For weeks, tensions have escalated between members of Congress and the Obama administration over the president’s decision not to seek Congressional authorization for the mission in Libya. The Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution stipulates that presidents must terminate unauthorized deployments into what the law calls hostilities 60 days after notifying Congress that they have begun.

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat, said, “When you have an operation that goes on for months, costs billions of dollars, where the United States is providing two-thirds of the troops, even under the NATO fig leaf, where they’re dropping bombs that are killing people, where you’re paying your troops offshore combat pay and there are areas of prospective escalation — something I’ve been trying to get a clear answer from with this administration for several weeks now, and that is the possibility of a ground presence in some form or another, once the Qaddafi regime expires — I would say that’s hostilities.”

A Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, went further, accusing the administration of “sticking a stick in the eye of Congress” and saying it had done “a great disservice to our country.”

[Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina] said in an interview after the vote that he based his [no vote] on the cost of the American operations in Libya, which are expected to reach $1 billion this fiscal year, and the lack of the administration’s earlier involvement with Congress.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peggy Noonan: GOP voters on the ground don't want to pick anyone the moderate Democrat down the block wouldn't support.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The GOP field is sorting itself out, which is to be expected. What's surprising is that so are Republican voters. The early rise of Mitt Romney, the second-place showing of Jon Huntsman (behind Ron Paul) at the recent Republican Leadership Conference, and a Gallup poll last week saying 50% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican favor the candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama, suggests GOP voters on the ground don't want to pick anyone the moderate Democrat down the block wouldn't support.

It's still early, but that makes it even more interesting. It's at this point in a presidential race that obstreperous and passionate movements and candidacies would normally be rising. It's later and with time that a certain soberness, a certain inherent moderation normally take hold. But Republicans at the moment seem prematurely settled, even as they watch, judge and figure out whom to support.

Mitch Daniels was knocked for calling for a social issues truce some months ago, but only because he put a name on what is happening anyway. There is an informal truce on social issues in the GOP, but no one likes hearing potential leaders mention it, because then the other leaders have to take a side. But almost everyone in the party is focused now on economic issues, in part because a strong economy fosters everything else, including American compassion.

Tom Friedman: It Has to Start With Them - Our options in Afghanistan are: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small. I vote for early and small.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

WHEN President Obama announced his decision to surge more troops into Afghanistan in 2009, I argued that it could succeed if three things happened: Pakistan became a different country, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan became a different man and we succeeded at doing exactly what we claim not to be doing, that is nation-building in Afghanistan. None of that has happened, which is why I still believe our options in Afghanistan are: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small. I vote for early and small.

My wariness about Afghanistan comes from asking these three questions: When does the Middle East make you happy? How did the cold war end? What would Ronald Reagan do? Let’s look at all three.

When did the Middle East make us happiest in the last few decades? That’s easy: 1) when Anwar el-Sadat made his breakthrough visit to Jerusalem; 2) when the Sunni uprising in Iraq against the pro-Al Qaeda forces turned the tide there; 3) when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was routed in 2001 by Afghan rebels, backed only by U.S. air power and a few hundred U.S. special forces; 4) when Israelis and Palestinians drafted a secret peace accord in Oslo; 5) when the Green Revolution happened in Iran; 6) when the Cedar Revolution erupted in Lebanon; 7) when the democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Egypt emerged; 8) when Israel unilaterally withdrew from South Lebanon and Gaza.

And what do they all have in common? America had nothing to do with almost all of them. They were self-propelled by the people themselves; we did not see them coming; and most of them didn’t cost us a dime.

And what does that tell you? The most important truth about the Middle East: It only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them. If it doesn’t start with them, if they don’t have ownership of a new peace initiative, a battle or a struggle for good governance, no amount of U.S. troops kick-starting, cajoling or doling out money can make it work. And if it does start with them, they really don’t need or want us around for very long.

When people own an initiative — as the original Afghan coalition that toppled the Taliban government did, as the Egyptians in Tahrir Square did, as the Egyptian and Israeli peacemakers did — they will be self-propelled and U.S. help can be an effective multiplier. When they don’t want to own it — in Afghanistan’s case, decent governance — or when they think we want some outcome more than they do, they will be happy to hold our coats, shake us down and sell us the same carpet over and over.

As for how the cold war ended, that’s easy. It ended when the two governments — the Soviet Union and Maoist China, which provided the funding and ideology propelling our enemies — collapsed. China had a peaceful internal transformation from Maoist Communism to capitalism, and the Soviet Union had a messy move from Marxism to capitalism. End of cold war.

Since then, we have increasingly found ourselves at war with another global movement: radical jihadist Islam. It is fed by money and ideology coming out of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. The attack of 9/11 was basically a joint operation by Saudi and Pakistani nationals. The Marine and American Embassy bombings in Lebanon were believed to have been the work of Iranian agents. Yet we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, because Saudi Arabia had oil, Pakistan had nukes and Iran was too big. We hoped that this war-by-bank-shot would lead to changes in all three countries. So far, it has not.

Until we break the combination of mosque, money and power in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which fuel jihadism, all we’re doing in Afghanistan is fighting the symptoms. The true engines propelling radical jihadist violence will still be in place. But that break requires, for starters, a new U.S. energy policy. Oh, well.

George Will pointed out that Senator John McCain, a hawk on Libya and Afghanistan, asked last Sunday, “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?” with the clear implication that Reagan would never leave wars like Libya or Afghanistan unfinished. I actually know the answer to that question. I was there.

On Feb. 25, 1984, I stood on the tarmac at the Beirut airport and watched as a parade of Marine amphibious vehicles drove right down the runway, then veered off and crossed the white sand beach, slipped into the Mediterranean and motored out of Lebanon to their mother ship.

After a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. military personnel, Reagan realized that he was in the middle of a civil war, with an undefined objective and an elusive enemy, whose defeat was not worth the sacrifice. So he cut his losses and just walked away. He was warned of dire consequences; after all, this was the middle of the cold war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. We would look weak. But Reagan thought we would get weak by staying. As Reagan deftly put it at the time: “We are not bugging out. We are moving to deploy into a more defensive position.”

Eight years later, the Soviet Union was in the dustbin of history, America was ascendant and Lebanon, God love the place, was still trying to sort itself out — without us.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

‘Protect local school money — don’t let it be taken away by the state.’

Jim Galloway writes in the AJC's Political Insider:

For the last couple years, the focus has been on transportation as the public policy issue likely to dominate the 2012 political season.

But the Georgia Supreme Court may have changed that with its recent decision that declared the state’s involvement in the establishment of public charter schools was unconstitutional.

Specifically, the court said the state had no business depriving local school systems of nearly $8 million in funding in order to establish alternative schools in their midst.

The only way to overturn the 4-3 decision is through a constitutional amendment that would be presented statewide to voters in November 2012. All the ingredients for a knockdown, drag-out fight are there:

– School choice is a foundational tenet of current Republican philosophy. Depending on the GOP nominee for president, turning out core voters could be a concern. The charter school issue might provide a tempting, second reason to flock to the polls.

– The private foundations that have underwritten the charter school movement in Georgia are also likely to finance a substantial campaign to restore the legal status of 16 charter schools and the 15,000 students they serve.

– Georgia’s 180 public school systems and hundreds of local PTA chapters are just as likely to fight any effort they think might siphon off funding for the other 1.6 million students in Georgia public schools.

– Three state Supreme Court members will be up for re-election at the same time. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice Hugh Thompson were among the four who declared the Georgia Charter School Commission constitutionally invalid. So there will be an opportunity to put real-life faces to an otherwise dry and complicated issue. (Note to oddsmakers: Hunstein decimated her well-funded opponent in 2006.)

But the charter school matter is far from a slam-dunk. To be placed on a general election ballot, a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds passages by both chambers of the General Assembly.

The effort will be spearheaded in the House by Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, who noted that the measure to establish the Georgia Charter School Commission in 2008 passed her chamber with 120 of 180 votes.

But Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, the chairman of the Senate education committee, thinks much arm-twisting will be required. “Once you get out of the metro [Atlanta] area, your two largest employers are your school systems and your hospitals. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure,” Millar said.

Millar and Jones concede that the topic of vouchers will have to be avoided at all costs.

The Senate, thrown into disarray by a GOP leadership squabble, is where the measure could most easily be blocked. “I strongly believe in local school systems having control of the schools they pay for,” said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Tucker.

Yet, according to some, getting a constitutional amendment out of the Legislature would be the easy part.

B.J. Van Gundy, a member of the now-mothballed Georgia Charter Schools Commission and a longtime Republican activist, is already scouting for money to use in next year’s campaign.

Much of the cash would have to go toward explaining exactly what a Georgia charter school is — a public school that isn’t bound by the usual rules or regulations. In return, it is held responsible for producing higher results. Set forth in a charter.

“It is always a challenge, even with intelligent people who understand things like school choice — they don’t understand charter schools,” Van Gundy said. Worse, because presidential elections attract the highest number of voters — nearly 4 million in 2008 — that message would have to reach a very large statewide audience.

That’s expensive. And meanwhile, Van Gundy said, the argument from the other side is simpler. And cheap. “The local school districts can all put out signs that say ‘Protect local school money — don’t let it be taken away by the state,’” he said.

Perhaps with that dynamic in mind, some Republicans have begun to recast the implications of the state Supreme Court’s decision — among them Jones, the No. 2 ranking member of the House.

“To me there is a much broader issue,” she said, pointing to the court’s declaration that local school systems have “exclusive” control over education.

“The Supreme Court reinterpreted the partnership between the state and school boards in educating Georgia students. Essentially, the court eliminated the state’s ability to protect its brand,” Jones said.

Can the state remove dysfunctional school board members now? Set classroom sizes? Punish systems riddled with cheating administrators?

“Can parents, can taxpayers, hold the state accountable for education paid for with tax dollars? I believe the state Supreme Court has said no,” she said.

The speaker pro tem said she didn’t know what a constitutional response to the Supreme Court decision might look like, but she’s hoping for a non-controversial, bipartisan approach like that used to address reductions in the HOPE scholarship.

“There are many types of schools that, over time, will not fit neatly into attendance zones,” Jones said. To think otherwise, she added, is “akin to tethering Georgians to landline telephones.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Plan to Ease Way for Unions - Every action is accompanied by a reaction of equal magnitude but opposite direction.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The National Labor Relations Board Tuesday proposed the most sweeping changes to the federal rules governing union organizing elections since 1947, giving a boost to unions that have long called for the agency to give employers less time to fight representation votes.

The rules governing organizing are the focus of a power struggle between unions and employers after decades of declining union membership. Only 6.9% of private sector workers belonged to unions in 2010, and just 11.9% of all U.S. workers, according to the Labor Department. In 1983, unions represented 20.1% of all workers.

This is another not so cleverly disguised effort to restrict the ability of employers to express their views during an election campaign," said Randy Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits.

Unions failed during the years when Democrats had control of Congress to win passage of a remake of union organizing rules known as the Employee Free Choice Act. Since Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, union leaders have stepped up pressure on the Obama administration to use its rule-making powers to achieve some of the same goals as the EFCA.

Even with more favorable rules, unions could face challenges winning contested elections at a time when even union officials say many workers are more concerned about their own job security. Unions have tried and failed for years to organize workers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and the U.S. operations of big foreign-owned auto makers, among others.

The NLRB's Democratic majority has the votes to adopt the rules.

Republican lawmakers were already attacking the NLRB for its decision in April to accuse aircraft giant Boeing Co. of illegally building a 787 Dreamliner production line at a new nonunion plant in South Carolina, a state where unions are weak, instead of in Washington state where union employees are already building such planes.

The power struggle between employers and unions promises to be a factor in the 2012 elections. Unions were significant contributors to President Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign and played a crucial role in drumming up votes for him and congressional Democrats.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Afghanistan: We are spending money we don't have for aims we cannot even articulate.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

[Afghanistan] has gone on almost 10 years. It is America's longest war. We have been there longer than the Soviets were. No one in a position of authority credibly or coherently explains the path to victory, or even what victory would look like. Are we losing young men so that a year from now we can commence 10 years of peace talks with the Taliban? Toward what end? What will we be asking for, that they be nice?

America is now full of veterans of Afghanistan, and while many will agree with the original mission, or the current mission as they understand it, it is certain that at the American dinner table the cost, complexity and confusion of the effort are being discussed. And the killing of Osama bin Laden provided a psychic endpoint to the drama. The day we went into Afghanistan, we were trying to find him and kill him. Six weeks ago, we found him and killed him. All wars run on a great rush of feeling, of fervor. That feeling and fervor have on an essential level been satisfied.

But there's something else, probably the most important fact of all.

We are as a nation, on paper, almost bankrupt. Or bankrupt, depending on how you judge. Among the Republican candidates for president, there is a growing awareness that America does not have a foreign policy unless we have the money to pay for it. We do not have an army unless we can fund it. We do not have diplomacy and a diplomatic structure without money. We do not have alliances and friendships sealed by aid without money. We do not go forward and impress the nations with our values, might and leadership without money.

We cannot lead, or even be an example, without money. And we are out of it. Therefore, reordering our financial life and seeing to our financial strength is the single most constructive thing we can do to create and maintain a sound U.S. foreign policy. If we want to be safe in the world, we must be sturdy at home.

That is why those inclined to take an unfriendly or competitive view toward us increasingly see us as a paper tiger. Because they hold our paper.

The problem with Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter, is not only that after 10 years our efforts have turned out to be—polite word—inconclusive. We are spending money we don't have for aims we cannot even articulate.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Amen Robert Gates, Amen indeed: “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”

From The New York Times:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, as he prepared to depart the government for the second time, said in an interview on Friday that the human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had made him far more wary about unleashing the might of the American armed forces.

“When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars,” Mr. Gates said. “And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities.”

“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Mr. Gates said. “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”

Most recently, he expressed major reservations about American intervention in Libya.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Top Lawyers Lost to Obama in Libya War Policy Debate

From The New York Times:

President Obama rejected the views of top lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department when he decided that he had the legal authority to continue American military participation in the air war in Libya without Congressional authorization, according to officials familiar with internal administration deliberations.

Presidents have the legal authority to override the legal conclusions of the Office of Legal Counsel and to act in a manner that is contrary to its advice, but it is extraordinarily rare for that to happen. Under normal circumstances, the office’s interpretation of the law is legally binding on the executive branch.

Tet 2.0? - The Tet Offensive, the series of attacks by North Vietnam in 1968 that failed to win the war but became a propaganda defeat for the U.S.

Are the Taliban are emulating the Tet Offensive, the series of attacks by North Vietnam in 1968 that failed to win the war but became a propaganda defeat for the U.S.?

From The Wall Street Journal:

North Vietnamese army documents show that Hanoi wasn't looking for a propaganda victory when, on Jan. 31, 1968, it began a series of attacks on over 100 targets across South Vietnam. Instead, officials sought to spark a popular uprising against the South's government, said Mark Moyar, a Vietnam War historian who has advised commanders in Afghanistan.

No such thing happened, and most attacks were repelled. But fierce combat in the South Vietnamese city of Hue, lasting for weeks, and an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon prompted the news media to portray the offensive as a major U.S. setback. Many Americans were convinced that North Vietnam was stronger than U.S. officials had admitted.

Since then, the Tet Offensive has become part of the scar tissue of the American military.

U.S. concerns about Tet-like attacks in Afghanistan come as the domestic political debate appears vulnerable to a Tet-like public reaction. President Barack Obama is facing calls from the left and the right to speed the drawdown of U.S. troops. Many in the military want to give forces more time to consolidate recent gains.

If Taliban attacks make the war effort appear to be failing, pressure to pull U.S. forces out more rapidly could grow. Military officers hope that by talking about their fears of Tet 2.0, they can inoculate the American public by showing that high-profile attacks aren't likely to turn the tide of the war. Officers believe the insurgents' spring offensive has had limited military impact.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My man James Baker on How to Deal With the Debt Limit - The White House and Congress should agree to a hard cap on spending.

From The Wall Street Journal:

If the United States does not address its looming debt crisis, the cost of servicing the national debt will spiral out of control. The annual interest bill, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report, will increase four-fold to $916 billion by 2020. This year, we will spend 70% less on debt payments than we do on defense. In nine short years, we are expected to spend 8% more.

Washington so far has been unable or unwilling to make the tough choices required to put us on the road toward fiscal sanity. And it is unlikely that a grand bargain will emerge prior to the 2012 election. Nonetheless, our country can still take three short-term steps to bolster confidence in the bond markets and prevent a rise in interest rates that will damage our fragile recovery.

Step No. 1 is to raise the debt limit in a way that generates confidence in the markets. That means including a restraint on spending.

To accomplish this, the debt limit should be increased by an amount sufficient to service the U.S. debt for six months, provided that the proceeds from the increase are used to service debt obligations. Doing this would eliminate the argument that a U.S. default will end Western civilization as we know it. And we should also increase the debt limit by an additional amount sufficient to cover the federal government's anticipated borrowing needs for the next six months. But we must do so only if the administration and Congress agree to a cap on total spending that will be enforced by sequestering spending from specific programs or by cuts across the board—and only if, in addition, agreed-upon amounts and types of projected spending are eliminated. Special care here should be taken not to agree to waivers, exceptions or exemptions that could be used to defeat the purpose of the cap, sequester or across-the-board cuts.

We'll have to repeat the process twice a year until a comprehensive budget fix is reached. The caps should aim at achieving a historical ratio of spending to GDP of 20.6%. The debt-limit increase should not exceed the six-month period, because it is only when the debt limit has to be increased that Congress will be forced to muster the political will to enact enforceable spending restraint.

Of course, the best way to permanently reduce spending would be to enact a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution requiring a supermajority in both houses of Congress to run an annual deficit, raise tax rates, or increase the debt ceiling. Unfortunately, the chances of enacting such a constitutional amendment are slim.

Step No. 2 is to take a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook in 1986 and restructure our convoluted tax code by reducing loopholes and lowering marginal rates. Business responded when the Reagan administration and a Democratic House overhauled the tax system this way. It would respond again today if given the chance. But, as in 1986, any changes in 2011 must be revenue-neutral so as to avoid turning the discussions on tax reform into a heated debate over aggregate levels of taxes and expenditures. Otherwise, with a divided government, the effort will fail.

Step No. 3 is for Congress and the White House to fully embrace free trade. With the dollar at low levels, consumers in other countries have an appetite for products with a "Made in the USA" label. To encourage them, we should give more than lip service to the currently pending free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. The White House should stop stalling after two and a half years of inaction and send them up to Congress for a vote.

In the long run, much more will be needed to correct America's fiscal woes. We must solve long-term funding shortfalls in entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And at some point we will have to start thinking about ways to raise revenue. But as President Reagan taught us, the very best way to do that is by increasing economic activity with pro-growth economic policies—lower tax rates, less regulation and more free trade.

With the Federal Reserve ending its purchase of bonds later this month, the Treasury must rely even more on China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and other countries to invest in our securities. The cost of these borrowings will ultimately increase if the U.S. is not seen to be dealing with its fiscal problems. We must demonstrate to the American people as well as the world that our leaders are doing so.

PTL: Key Seniors Association - AARP - Pivots on Benefit Cut

John Rother, AARP's policy chief, engineered the change in position.
From The Wall Street Journal:

AARP, the powerful lobbying group for older Americans, is dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, a move that could rock Washington's debate over how to revamp the nation's entitlement programs.

The decision, which AARP hasn't discussed publicly, came after a wrenching debate inside the organization. In 2005, the last time Social Security was debated, AARP led the effort to kill President George W. Bush's plan for partial privatization. AARP now has concluded that change is inevitable, and it wants to be at the table to try to minimize the pain.

AARP runs the risk of alienating both its liberal allies, who have vowed to fight any benefit cuts, and its 37 million members, many of whom are deeply opposed to such a move.

To win them over, AARP is preparing coast-to-coast town-hall meetings to explain the problem and the possible solutions.

In an early sign of its new approach, AARP declined to join a coalition of about 300 unions, women's groups and liberal advocacy organizations created to fight Social Security benefit cuts.

There are limits to how far AARP is willing to go. The group will accept cuts, but won't champion them, and it is particularly leery of certain concepts such as eliminating benefits for wealthier recipients.

It wants tax increases to fill most of the program's financial hole, and it insists that a deal must be crafted apart from broader deficit-reduction negotiations.

AARP recently launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to fight against making Medicare and Social Security cuts part of the broader debt talks now under way. That has reinforced the impression among many in Washington that the group is opposed to dealing on Social Security at all.

AARP is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, with a big budget for TV advertising and decades of experience mobilizing its large and diverse membership to lobby their members of Congress. Last year, it had $1.4 billion in revenue, nearly half of which came from royalties on AARP-branded health-care and financial products.

In Washington, the group is best known for its influence on Social Security and Medicare, but it also has weighed in on transportation issues that affect older drivers, housing for low-income seniors and Congress's recent financial-regulatory overhaul.

Social Security, which was created in 1935, is facing a demographic challenge as the baby-boom generation retires with fewer younger workers to support it. The program's actuaries say that by 2036, the program will have exhausted its reserves and will only be able to pay 77% of promised benefits. Between now and 2036, the government, which has spent the money held in reserve, will have to borrow to meet those obligations.

Conservative and liberal experts alike believe the program can be put on a solid financial footing for 75 years, which is the standard for solvency, if lawmakers implement fairly modest changes to collect more taxes and pay fewer benefits.

Republican opposition to tax increases and Democratic opposition to benefit cuts have stymied action.

"AARP swings a lot of weight with them," said Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, another member of the president's deficit commission.

AARP's move was engineered by Mr. Rother, 64 years old, who has been at the center of every Social Security debate in the past three decades.

AARP is steadfast in its opposition to tackling Social Security as part of a grand budget deal—the kind currently being discussed by a group of lawmakers led by Vice President Joe Biden—saying Social Security didn't cause the current deficit and shouldn't be used to fix the problem. An AARP news release last month urged seniors to lobby their members of Congress against "political deals that cut their hard-earned benefits."

It is also determined that any deal should be bipartisan, a stance influenced by backlash to the group's support for Mr. Obama's health-care law. AARP's endorsement made a big difference in Democrats' ability to secure passage, given that the bill included a half-trillion dollars in cuts to Medicare, the federal health-care plan for seniors.

The group lost about 300,000 members as a result and came under attack from some Republicans who accused AARP of supporting the law because the group, which helps sell insurance products, benefited financially.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pundit Under Protest

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

I’ll be writing a lot about the presidential election over the next 16 months, but at the outset I would just like to remark that I’m opining on this whole campaign under protest. I’m registering a protest because for someone of my Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective, the two parties contesting this election are unusually pathetic. Their programs are unusually unimaginative. Their policies are unusually incommensurate to the problem at hand.

This election is about how to avert national decline. All other issues flow from that anxiety.

The election is happening during a downturn in the economic cycle, but the core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed — unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.

The number of business start-ups per capita has been falling steadily for the past three decades. Workers’ share of national income has been declining since 1983. Male wages have been stagnant for about 40 years. The American working class — those without a college degree — is being decimated, economically and socially. In 1960, for example, 83 percent of those in the working class were married. Now only 48 percent are.

Voters are certainly aware of the scope of the challenges before them. Their pessimism and anxiety does not just reflect the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but is deeper and more pervasive. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Large majorities think the country is on the wrong track, and have for years. Large pluralities believe their children will have fewer opportunities than they do.

Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid.

The Republican growth agenda — tax cuts and nothing else — is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible. Gigantic tax cuts — if they were affordable — might boost overall growth, but they would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis.

Republican politicians don’t design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signaling devices — as ways to reassure the base that they are 100 percent orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012.

As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing. They acknowledge huge problems like wage stagnation and then offer... light rail! Solar panels! It was telling that the Democrats offered no budget this year, even though they are supposedly running the country. That’s because they too are trapped in a bygone era.

Mentally, they are living in the era of affluence, but, actually, they are living in the era of austerity. They still have these grand spending ideas, but there is no longer any money to pay for them and there won’t be for decades. Democrats dream New Deal dreams, propose nothing and try to win elections by making sure nobody ever touches Medicare.

Covering this upcoming election is like covering a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change.

If there were a Hamiltonian Party, it would be offering a multifaceted reinvigoration agenda. It would grab growth ideas from all spots on the political spectrum and blend them together. Its program would be based on the essential political logic: If you want to get anything passed, you have to offer an intertwined package that smashes the Big Government vs. Small Government orthodoxies and gives everybody something they want.

This reinvigoration package would have four baskets. There would be an entitlement reform package designed to redistribute money from health care and the elderly toward innovation and the young. Unless we get health care inflation under control by replacing the perverse fee-for-service incentive structure, there will be no money for anything else.

There would be a targeted working-class basket: early childhood education, technical education, community colleges, an infrastructure bank, asset distribution to help people start businesses, a new wave industrial policy if need be — anything that might give the working class a leg up.

There would be a political corruption basket. The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

There would also be a pro-business basket: lower corporate rates, a sane visa policy for skilled immigrants, a sane patent and permitting system, more money for research.

The Hamiltonian agenda would be pro-market, in its place, and pro-government, in its place. In 2012, on the other hand, we’re going to see another clash of the same old categories. I’ll be covering it, but I protest.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sen. Tom Coburn: “I’m not for tax increases, but I don’t think this is a tax increase. This is stupidity at its height.”

From The Washington Post:

The anti-tax pledge signed by 95 percent of congressional Republicans faces a key test Tuesday, when the Senate is scheduled to vote on a plan to repeal billions of dollars in annual tax credits for ethanol blenders — a move the pledge defines as a tax increase.

The ethanol credit is widely condemned by Republicans as bad economic policy, and Coburn derides it as spending through the tax code. But a vote to kill it would represent a significant break with more than two decades of GOP tax orthodoxy, which prohibits increasing revenue by any means other than economic growth.

Coburn has argued that Republicans must abandon that orthodoxy to forge a compromise with Democrats on a viable plan to rein in the spiraling national debt.

“I’m not for tax increases, but I don’t think this is a tax increase. This is stupidity at its height,” Coburn said in an interview Friday. “If you vote to give the richest oil companies in this country $3 billion between now and the end of December, then you don’t get it. You are absolutely confused about what the problems are in this country.”

Ethanol subsidies have become a flash point in political debate in recent months, with a broad coalition of environmentalists, livestock producers and consumer groups opposing government subsidies for the industry. Up to 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop is diverted to make an alternative fuel that is blended with gasoline. The tax credit does not go to farmers but to fuel blenders, including major oil companies.

In a post-Soviet world, there is growing resentment in Washington about NATO effectively paying for the defense of wealthy European nations.

From The New York Times:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sharply criticized NATO nations on Friday for what he said were shortages of military spending and political will, warning of “a dim if not dismal future” and “irrelevance” for the alliance unless more member nations contributed weapons, money and personnel.

In his final policy speech before he steps down, Mr. Gates issued a dire and unusually direct warning that the United States, the traditional leader and patron of the alliance, was exhausted by a decade of war and its own mounting budget deficits and simply might not see NATO as worth supporting any longer.

“The blunt reality,” Mr. Gates said, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

The United States accounts for about three-quarters of total military spending by all NATO countries, and it has in the past taken the lead in military operations and provided the bulk of the weapons and matériel. But in a post-Soviet world, there is growing resentment in Washington about NATO effectively paying for the defense of wealthy European nations.

“The Europeans enjoy generous social welfare programs in part because the United States subsidizes their defense spending,” said Andrew M. Exum of the Center for a New American Security, a military research organization, who was an Army infantry officer in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004.

Europeans argue that they are spending blood and treasure to support Washington in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, far from Europe, and they are eager to draw down their forces there. NATO, some argue, would be best served, since Russia is no longer judged to be an adversary, as an alliance with more limited goals like defending Europe against other kinds of threats, like piracy, cyberattacks or natural disasters.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Good, very good. Take advantage of the situation: U.S. Is Intensifying a Secret Campaign of Yemen Airstrikes

From The New York Times:

The Obama administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen, exploiting a growing power vacuum in the country to strike at militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, according to American officials.

The acceleration of the American campaign in recent weeks comes amid a violent conflict in Yemen that has left the government in Sana, a United States ally, struggling to cling to power. Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to Al Qaeda in the south have been pulled back to the capital, and American officials see the strikes as one of the few options to keep the militants from consolidating power.

On Friday, American jets killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen. According to witnesses, four civilians were also killed in the airstrike. Weeks earlier, drone aircraft fired missiles aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who the United States government has tried to kill for more than a year. Mr. Awlaki survived.

The recent operations come after a nearly year-long pause in American airstrikes, which were halted amid concerns that poor intelligence had led to bungled missions and civilian deaths that were undercutting the goals of the secret campaign.

Officials in Washington said that the American and Saudi spy services had been receiving more information — from electronic eavesdropping and informants — about the possible locations of militants. But, they added, the outbreak of the wider conflict in Yemen created a new risk: that one faction might feed information to the Americans that could trigger air strikes against a rival group.

Trouble Seen in Afghan Aid Effort - The Cracker Squre and Senate Question Long-Term Benefits of Spending; A Grain Delivery Goes Awry.

Make no mistake about it; pay modest attention to what you hear; the Russians came and left; the Anericans came and its time we left. Infrastructure needs to be made in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, West Virginia, etc. So let it be written, please so let it be done. It is time to spend $10 Billion a month in U.S. and better yet, not spend it for now.

From The Wall Street Joural:

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned the benefit of billions of dollars worth of development aid pumped into Afghanistan, in a report issued Wednesday that called for an overhaul to the effort.

The report said evidence is limited that development helps stabilize territory—a key tenet of the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy. "Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government's ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity," the report concluded.

A recent British effort in the village of Tor Ghai to deliver some foreign aid—bags of fertilizer and seed intended to convince farmers to abandon their opium crops—highlighted the potential problems. Rival tribes moved to snatch some of the shipment, as did suspected Taliban, and the farmers made clear that opium yields better profits.

"Development leads to security when development issues, like poverty, are the cause of conflict. The causes of conflict in Afghanistan are more complex, such as tribal and ethnic friction," said Andrew Wilder, an expert in Afghan reconstruction at the nonpartisan United States Institute for Peace.

In the last ten years, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department have spent around $18.8 billion in aid in Afghanistan. Foreign donors spent around $35 billion from 2002 to 2008—double the country's 2009-10 gross domestic product, according to Afghan government figures.

The U.S. already has a development-aid footprint in Afghanistan. In 1946 the U.S. began a major project to recreate the Tennessee Valley Authority in Helmand province, creating an irrigation system and building a city that was once dubbed "the New York of Afghanistan." But when Communists took over the country in 1979, the U.S. advisers were evicted; the projects ended and infrastructure slowly decayed.

Now, roads, schools, wells and hospitals are sprouting across the country again. American money has, among other things, helped to fix up more than 1,118 miles of roads, construct or repair 680 schools and increase access to clean drinking water for 54,000 people, according to the USAID.

In the coalition's counter-insurgency strategy, troops secure an area and aid follows to develop services and infrastructure intended to boost confidence in local institutions and give locals something to protect from the Taliban.

In Tor Ghai, the scene that unfolded when grain trucks rolled in indicated that the area remained unsettled.

Tribal divisions quickly erupted as people from neighbouring villages arrived to take advantage. "There is enough seed for everyone," Jim Hagerty, a civilian development expert working with the British military, assured village residents.

To sate demand, Mr. Hagerty ordered in more grain.

As he brought in the new grain, the driver hired to transport it threw down a bag to a friend, Mr. Hagerty said, in a scene which on a small scale underscored the sort of corruption that is dogging Afghanistan nationally. Earlier, one local elder took his allocation further down the road to sell on privately.

There is also rampant local suspicion about how the aid programs work. A study by Stuart Gordon, an expert in Afghan development at think tank Chatham House, showed that many in Helmand saw aid benefiting only specific tribes and propping up existing elites. The corruption this can encourage has often delegitimized the very government it is supposed to boost confidence in, said Mr. Wilder.

Developers hope crops such as wheat and alfalfa will replace opium in villages across Afghanistan. A local farmer, Naimatulnah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, took a shipment of seed—but said he would plant it alongside his opium, having already planted the year's crop. Opium is more lucrative and easier to sell, he said.

Meanwhile, the Afghan army plucked from the crowd two men who Afghan and British soldiers suspected of being Taliban. Locals hid their faces from the men, or muttered to each other in cowed tones, illustrating how the Taliban still casts a fearful shadow here.

The Senate Committee, in the report Wednesday, worried that Western presence has distorted an economy that could "suffer a severe economic depression" when coalition troops cease combat operations by the end of 2014. It calculates that some 80% of USAID funds are going to "short term stabilization programs."

USAID said that it is working on longer term projects that provide "foundational investments" in economic growth, infrastructure, such as in mining, and human capital.

Wherever the British go, they are besieged by aid requests. On a recent patrol in a village here, locals asked for wells, bridges and roads. An old man asked what the British were going to do about his eye condition.

Some locals believe foreign aid won't cease. "The British, they are here for the next 20 years," says Tor Afizullah, an 18-year-old from the area. He says his village has seen increased security and his farming family has benefited from U.K.-financed repairs to U.S.-built irrigation.

But the U.K., like the rest of the coalition, wants to cease combat operations by the end of 2014—though it hopes to continue longterm development plans.

The British say their efforts are having an effect. On patrol, Corp. Steven Japp, of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, testifies to the effect on locals. "At first they wouldn't speak (to soldiers) but since the projects began they talk a lot," he said.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Many immigrants leaving Georgia behind

From the AJC:

Signed into law last month, House Bill 87 authorizes police to investigate the immigration status of suspects under certain conditions and arrest illegal immigrants and take them to jail. It also punishes people who knowingly harbor or transport illegal immigrants while committing another crime or use fake identification to get a job in Georgia.

Supporters of the law say the exodus of illegal immigrants shows it is working, though they said the tough economy could also be a factor. The state needed to pass the law, they said, because the federal government has failed to secure the nation’s borders, allowing illegal immigrants to stream into Georgia.

A recent estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia at 425,000, the seventh-highest among the states.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

David Brooks writes: Where Wisdom Live (on Medicare)

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

Sometimes life presents you with a basic philosophical choice. Americans are going to have to confront a giant one over the next several years.

It starts in the wonky world of Medicare. As presently constructed, Medicare is based on an open-ended fee-for-service system. The government pays providers each time they deliver a service. The more services they provide, the more money they get.

The fee-for-service system is incredibly popular. Recipients don’t have to think about the costs of their treatment, and they get lots of free money. The average 56-year-old couple pays about $140,000 into the Medicare system over a lifetime and receives about $430,000 in benefits back. The program is also completely unaffordable. Medicare has unfinanced liabilities of more than $30 trillion. The Medicare trustees say the program is about a decade from insolvency.

Some Democrats simply want to do nothing as Medicare careens toward bankruptcy. Last Sunday on “Face the Nation,” for example, Nancy Pelosi said, “I could never support any arrangement that reduced benefits for Medicare.”

Fortunately, more responsible Democrats are looking for ways to save the system. This is where the philosophical issues come in. They involve questions like: Who should make the crucial decisions? Where does wisdom reside?

Democrats tend to be skeptical that dispersed consumers can get enough information to make smart decisions. Health care is phenomenally complicated. Providers have much more information than consumers. Insurance companies are rapacious and are not in the business of optimizing care.

Given these limitations, Democrats generally seek to concentrate decision-making and cost-control power in the hands of centralized experts. Under the Obama health care law, a team of 15 officials will be created to discover best practices and come up with cost-cutting measures. There will also be a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in Washington to organize medical innovation. Centralized officials will decide how to set national reimbursement rates.

Republicans at their best are skeptical about top-down decision-making. They are skeptical that centralized experts can accurately predict costs. In 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee projected that Medicare would cost $12 billion by 1990. It actually cost $110 billion. They are skeptical that centralized experts can predict human behavior accurately enough to socially engineer new programs. Medicare’s chief actuary predicted that 400,000 people would sign up for the new health care law’s high-risk pools. In fact, only 18,000 have.

They are skeptical that political authorities can, in the long run, resist pressure to hand out free goodies. They are also skeptical that planners can control the unintended effects of their decisions.

Republicans point out that Medicare has tried to control costs centrally for decades with terrible results. They argue that a decentralized process of trial and error will work better, as long as the underlying incentives are right. They suggest replacing the fee-for-service with a premium support system. Seniors would select from a menu of insurance plans. Their consumer choices would drive a continual, bottom-up process of innovation. Providers could use local knowledge to meet specific circumstances.

Representative Paul Ryan’s Republican plan is controversial because of the amount of public money he would dedicate to his premium support plan, but the basic architecture of the plan has been around for decades. In less rigidly ideological times, many Democrats supported variations of this basic approach.

Advocates, like Alain Enthoven of Stanford, point out that competition-based plans have improved outcomes in many places. Such plans cover employees of the University of California and state employees in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. They also note that the Medicare prescription drug benefit also uses a competition model. Consumers have been adept at negotiating a complex marketplace, and costs are 41 percent below expectations.

The fact is, there is no dispositive empirical proof about which method is best — the centralized technocratic one or the decentralized market-based one. Politicians wave studies, but they’re really just reflecting their overall worldviews. Democrats have much greater faith in centralized expertise. Republicans (at least the most honest among them) believe that the world is too complicated, knowledge is too imperfect. They have much greater faith in the decentralized discovery process of the market.

I’d only add two things. This basic debate will define the identities of the two parties for decades. In the age of the Internet and open-source technology, the Democrats are mad to define themselves as the party of top-down centralized planning. Moreover, if 15 Washington-based experts really can save a system as vast as Medicare through a process of top-down control, then this will be the only realm of human endeavor where that sort of engineering actually works.

If there is a federal will, there is a federal way - Immigration Program Is Rejected by Third State

From The New York Times:

Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has decided the state will not participate in a fingerprint-sharing program that is central to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement strategy, dealing a new political blow to a program that has met rising resistance nationwide.

Massachusetts is the third state to pull out of the program, called Secure Communities, after Gov. Pat Quinn canceled it in Illinois in May and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo suspended New York’s participation last week. All three are Democrats from states with large immigrant populations, and they are close allies of President Obama, including on immigration issues.

The governors’ actions seem to set up a confrontation with immigration authorities, who maintain that the program is mandatory.

Sarah Palin Not Backing Down on Paul Revere

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Atlanta judge no stranger to immigration challenges

From the AJC:

The judge assigned to hear the challenge to Georgia's strict new immigration law was once active in state Democratic politics -- and, after joining the federal bench, rejected a lawsuit seeking to overturn a state law that prohibits illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, 60, was nominated to the Atlanta court by President Bill Clinton.

Thrash obtained his law degree from Harvard University and entered private practice following two years as a Fulton County prosecutor.

On the bench, Thrash is all business. Lawyers who appear before him applaud him for being deliberative and open-minded.

In 2001, Thrash was assigned a lawsuit challenging Georgia's law that restricts illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. The suit maintained illegal immigrants were denied equal protection because the law interfered with their right to interstate travel.

Thrash said the suit’s argument applied “the remarkable assumption that an illegal alien has the same fundamental rights as a citizen or lawful resident alien.” Because an illegal immigrant is subject to immediate arrest and deportation, Thrash said, “it strains all bounds of logic and reason to say such a person has a fundamental right of interstate travel.”

Thrash dismissed the challenge. The state, he said, "has a legitimate interest in not allowing its governmental machinery to be a facilitator in the concealment of illegal aliens."

Unbelievable - Sarah Palin describes Paul Revere's ride. Truly amazing.

Alabama has passed a sweeping bill to crack down on illegal immigrants that both supporters and opponents call the toughest of its kind in the country

From The New York Times:

Alabama has passed a sweeping bill to crack down on illegal immigrants that both supporters and opponents call the toughest of its kind in the country, going well beyond a law Arizona passed last year that caused a furor there.

Alabama’s bill goes beyond Arizona’s. It bars illegal immigrants from enrolling in any public college after high school. It obliges public schools to determine the immigration status of all students, requiring parents of foreign-born students to report the immigration status of their children.

The bill, known as H.B. 56, also makes it a crime to knowingly rent housing to an illegal immigrant. It bars businesses from taking tax deductions on wages paid to unauthorized immigrants.

“This is a jobs-creation bill for Americans,” said Representative Micky Hammon, a Republican who was a chief sponsor of the bill. “We really want to prevent illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and to prevent those who are here from putting down roots,” he said.

In May, Georgia adopted a tough enforcement law, which civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to stop. Proponents of state immigration enforcement laws won a major victory last week when the Supreme Court upheld a 2007 law in Arizona imposing penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

The bill requires all Alabama employers to use a federal system, E-Verify, to confirm the legal status of all workers. The measure also makes it a state crime for an immigrant to fail to carry a document proving legal status, and makes it a crime for anyone to transport an illegal immigrant.

Obama and the Debt Crisis - To lead us out of it, he will need to learn some new political skills.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The debate in Washington is serious as a heart attack: whether the United States should raise its debt ceiling so it can borrow more money to stay afloat. The statutory ceiling on our national debt—our legal borrowing limit—is $14.3 trillion. That limit was reached, according to the Treasury Department, on May 16. Treasury says it can make do until early August, when the ceiling must be raised by $2.4 trillion.

Congressional Republicans have made their stand clear: They will agree to raise the limit only if it is accompanied by spending cuts or reforms.

The Democrats want to raise the ceiling, period.

The Republicans are being hard-line because of the base, and the base is hard-line for two reasons. First, we are in an unprecedented debt crisis. Second, the past 40 years have taught them that if dramatic action is not taken to stanch spending, Congress will spend more. Something is needed to shock the system.

If Republicans can get the White House to cut where the money is—Medicare—then Medicare, and all controversy over the Ryan plan, will be taken off the table as an issue in the 2012 election. This would not be good for Democrats. Democrats in turn would likely make some cuts in spending if Republicans agree to some tax increases. But that would take a great Republican issue off the table.

This week the House voted 318-97 against raising the ceiling without cutting. The president and a group of House Republicans met this week to talk about the apparent impasse. There is a chance they won't come to any agreement by August.

If no agreement is reached, what happens? Nobody knows, because it's never happened before. But economists warn: The dollar could crash, interest rates spike, equity markets melt. Foreign investors would lose confidence that America is worth risking their money and that Washington is able to face and handle a crisis.

Princeton economist Alan Blinder has noted in these pages that the bills for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense and interest on the national debt amount to about two-thirds of all federal outlays. "At some point [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner could wind up brooding over horrible questions like these: Do we stop issuing checks for Social Security benefits, or for soldiers' pay, or for interest payments to the Chinese government?"

All of this sounds fairly catastrophic, especially considering this week's evidence that America's economic recovery is stalled. Housing prices are down, job creation weak, manufacturing growth slowed, factory activity down. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 280 points on Wednesday.

So this would seem to be a bad time to be playing chicken.

Democrats think if push comes to shove and an agreement is not reached, public opinion will go against the Republicans. This may be true. Republicans think if agreement is not reached, responsibility will redound on the president. They may be true too.

But again, this isn't a good time to play Let's Find Out.

Democrats are right that the debt ceiling must be raised. Republicans are right that the decision to raise the debt ceiling must be accompanied by reforms or cuts to spending that equal or exceed the amount of the raise, $2.4 trillion. Here's why.

Default is unthinkable. We are the United States of America, and we pay our bills.

Raising the ceiling without attempting to control spending is a depressing and wearying thought. It will avert crisis, yes, but there would be no gain in it beyond that. It would demonstrate to the world that we are not capable of taking necessary steps to dig our way out of the spending mess. It would mean things just continue as they are.

But cutting and reforming—showing we can make tough decisions in a crisis—will reassure the world, and our creditors. It will increase faith in the United States, and increase an American sense of well being: "We can do this, we can make it better." It would be very good to leave the world saying, "My God, the Americans are still competent."

Washington should forget taxes for now—fight that out later. The polls are all over the place, and no feasible amount of new revenue is going to make a difference. Cutting is what matters. And the president could play it so that he doesn't lose. A crisis would have been averted—on his watch. He could claim to have been conciliatory, looking out for the national interest. The left won't like it, but the center will. And he will have shown he can work closely and in good faith with Republicans, who control the House.

On that, a word. Talks on the debt ceiling will no doubt continue, but there is an Obama problem there, and it's always gotten in the way. He really dislikes the other side, and can't fake it. This is peculiar in a politician, the not faking it. But he doesn't bother to show warmth and high regard. And so appeals to patriotism—"Come on guys, we have to save this thing"—ring hollow from him. In this he is the un-Clinton. Bill Clinton understood why conservatives think what they think because he was raised in the South. He was surrounded by them, and he wasn't by nature an ideologue.

He absorbed not the biases of his region but of his generation and his education (Ivy League). He had ambition: Liberalism was rising and he'd rise with it. And on the signal issues of his youth, Vietnam and race, he thought the Democrats of the 1970s were right. But that didn't mean he didn't understand and feel some sympathy for conservatives, and as a political practitioner he had a certain sympathy for the predicaments of his fellow pols. That's why he could play ball with Newt Gingrich and the class of 1994: because he didn't quite hate everything they stood for. He had a saving ambivalence.

Barack Obama is different, not a political practitioner, really, but something else, and not a warm-blooded animal but a cool, chill character, a fish who sits deep in the tank and stares, stilly, at the other fish.

He doesn't know how to confuse his foes with "outreach," with phone calls, jokes, affection. He doesn't leave them saying, as Reagan did, "I just can't help it, I like the guy." And because he can't confuse them or reach them they more readily coalesce around their own explanation of him: socialist, destroyer.

This isn't good, and has had an impact on the president's contacts with Republicans. And it's added an edge to an emerging campaign theme among them. Two years ago I wrote of Clare Booth Luce's observation that all presidents have a sentence: "He fought to hold the union together and end slavery." "He brought America through economic collapse and a world war." You didn't have to be told it was Lincoln, or FDR. I said that Mr. Obama didn't understand his sentence. But Republicans now think they know it.

Four words: He made it worse.

Obama inherited financial collapse, deficits and debt. He inherited a broken political culture. These things weren't his fault. But through his decisions, he made them all worse.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles: The Gang of Six is our best shot. Pray for the Gang of Six.

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles write in The Washington Post:

There has been much speculation about the “demise” of the Gang of Six — the only truly bipartisan effort to reduce our national debt sufficiently and keep us on a sustainable path — since Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) decided to take a break from the group’s discussions. But reports of the group’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The other five — Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — continue to meet, and Coburn has made it clear that he has not left the group but, rather, is on a “sabbatical.”

The gang continues to work together, because Americans desperately need them to. Policymakers in both parties recognize this and have continued to encourage the gang to push forward, recognizing that it offers the last, best hope for a comprehensive bipartisan deficit reduction agreement in this Congress. Last week, Crapo mentioned that a large number of the calls he receives every day are from people telling him “don’t quit, don’t quit, because we’re counting on you.”

To be sure, we are encouraged by the positive tone of the bipartisan negotiations being led by Vice President Biden. Those discussions have the potential to produce an agreement on a substantial down payment on deficit reduction. We expect that they will include a number of the recommendations of the president’s fiscal commission, which we chaired, and they can surely benefit from the work of the Gang of Six as well.

But even under the most optimistic scenario, it seems unlikely that those discussions will yield savings large enough to truly stabilize our debt, let alone make the structural reforms to our entitlement programs and tax code that we so desperately need. In short, the discussions could produce a significant step forward but will not be enough to get us to the promised land. As Chambliss has explained, that group is mostly focused on the debt-ceiling vote, while the gang has “always been more focused on the long-term issues, because [the Biden group is] not going to solve the $14 trillion debt.” Indeed, the senators have been meeting for months to develop legislation to implement and potentially improve upon our commission’s $4 trillion plan to bring the debt under control. Their discussions have been guided by the same spirit of compromise and shared sacrifice that led to the success of the commission.

We understand that what the Gang of Six is working on is obviously no one’s first choice. Both House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and President Obama have presented plans — and those plans have certainly pushed the debate forward. But as the budget votes last week proved — producing a soapbox for heated rhetoric but no progress — those proposals are not going to cut it. Both plans have come under intense criticism from the opposing party, and it is clear that neither can earn the type of broad bipartisan support necessary to enact and sustain a credible fiscal plan.

Meanwhile, we simply cannot afford gridlock and delay as each party stubbornly holds out for its ideal solution.

The truth is, there is no perfect plan — we all know that. We also know that the only way this works is through a bipartisan effort where everyone prods their own sacred cows into the cattle chute, and everyone gives up something they like to protect the country they love.

The remaining members of the Gang of Six have said they will go forward with their proposal if there is support for it among their colleagues. Many rank-and-file senators have said they share the nation’s frustration with gridlock and expressed support in concept for a comprehensive plan. This is exactly why a bipartisan group of 64 senators wrote to President Obama urging action on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan, and it is why members of that group must now stand up and do what’s right. The time for action is now.

Members of both parties and both houses must publicly support the work of the Gang of Six. This is the time for heroes. The country is ready for leaders in Washington to put politics aside, pull together — not apart — put national interest ahead of political interests and put the next generation over the next election.

Pray for the Gang of Six.

The writers were co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.