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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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Obama Charts a New Route to Re-election

From The New York Times:

With his support among blue-collar white voters far weaker than among white-collar independents, President Obama is charting an alternative course to re-election should he be unable to win Ohio and other industrial states traditionally essential to Democratic presidential victories.

Without conceding ground anywhere, Mr. Obama is fighting hard for Southern and Rocky Mountain states he won in 2008, and some he did not, in calculating how to assemble the necessary 270 electoral votes. He is seeking to prove that those victories on formerly Republican turf were not flukes but the start of a trend that will make Democrats competitive there for years.

“There are a lot of ways for us to get to 270, and it’s not just the traditional map,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. “That’s why we’re laying the groundwork across the country to compete on the widest possible playing field next year.”

While Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have slid across the board as unemployment remains high, what buoys Democrats are the changing demographics of formerly Republican states like Colorado, where Democrats won a close Senate race in 2010, as well as Virginia and North Carolina.

With growing cities and suburbs, they are populated by increasing numbers of educated and higher-income independents, young voters, Hispanics and African-Americans, many of them alienated by Republicans’ Tea Party agenda.

“The biggest challenge” for Republicans, said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, “is that they have to deal with what I would call the Obama electorate. And the Obama electorate is not the electorate that we have seen in America since I started working on presidential campaigns in 1980.”

Even so, Mr. Devine and other Democrats do not expect an easy race.

For Republicans, the reality of those changing demographics tempers their heightened hopes for beating Mr. Obama.

Terry Nelson, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, John McCain and, this year, the former candidate Tim Pawlenty, said he was “pretty optimistic” for 2012, partly because Mr. Obama’s support among lower-income, less-educated white voters, never high, has dropped enough that Republicans see good prospects for winning industrial-belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But, Mr. Nelson acknowledged: “The country is changing. In every election cycle, every year, every day, this country becomes more ethnically diverse. And that has an impact on the kind of coalition that you need to put together to win.” He added, “The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008.”

Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado together have more than double the number of Ohio’s votes in the Electoral College — 37 versus 18. And Obama advisers say that the same demographic factors at play in those states are also present in states Mr. Obama lost in 2008 — like Arizona (whose senior senator, Mr. McCain, was his rival) and Georgia.

Except for Indiana, a long shot, Obama advisers say the president will be favored or competitive everywhere he won before, including Ohio. But polls underscore how tough a task he will have with independents in the industrial belt, where income and education levels are below the national average, compared with states like Colorado and Virginia with higher-income, better-educated independents.

Mideast struggles in future: Important struggles may no longer occur between Islamists and secularists, but rather among Islamists themselves.

From The New York Times:

By force of this year’s Arab revolts and revolutions, activists marching under the banner of Islam are on the verge of a reckoning decades in the making: the prospect of achieving decisive power across the region has unleashed an unprecedented debate over the character of the emerging political orders they are helping to build.

Few question the coming electoral success of religious activists, but as they emerge from the shadows of a long, sometimes bloody struggle with authoritarian and ostensibly secular governments, they are confronting newly urgent questions about how to apply Islamic precepts to more open societies with very concrete needs.

In Turkey and Tunisia, culturally conservative parties founded on Islamic principles are rejecting the name “Islamist” to stake out what they see as a more democratic and tolerant vision.

In Egypt, a similar impulse has begun to fracture the Muslim Brotherhood as a growing number of politicians and parties argue for a model inspired by Turkey, where a party with roots in political Islam has thrived in a once-adamantly secular system. Some contend that the absolute monarchy of puritanical Saudi Arabia in fact violates Islamic law.

A backlash has ensued, as well, as traditionalists have flirted with timeworn Islamist ideas like imposing interest-free banking and obligatory religious taxes and censoring irreligious discourse.

The debates are deep enough that many in the region believe that the most important struggles may no longer occur between Islamists and secularists, but rather among the Islamists themselves, pitting the more puritanical against the more liberal.

“That’s the struggle of the future,” said Azzam Tamimi, a scholar and the author of a biography of a Tunisian Islamist, Rachid Ghannouchi, whose party, Ennahda, is expected to dominate elections next month to choose an assembly to draft a constitution. “The real struggle of the future will be about who is capable of fulfilling the desires of a devout public. It’s going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.”

A week after, is it safe to wonder if this was a case of 'Look Mom, the Emperor has no clothes'? -- Analysis of Troy Davis' execution

This is the Cracker Squire's first and only post on the Troy Davis frenzy.

Walter Jones tackles a tough one where, regardless of what you say and how you say it, you risk offending just about everyone. Walter, thanks for this story. It shows why you are one of the best.

Walter Jones does an excellent job of reporting and analysis in his article entitled "Analysis of Troy Davis' execution: A cause gone out of control" in The Georgia Times-Union:

Troy Davis, the inmate executed Wednesday night for the 1989 killing of an off-duty Savannah policeman, will be missed.

Seldom does one man serve the purposes of so many.

His attorneys argued that he served the Savannah police during the public clamoring to solve the murder of a hero.

More recently, he provided the face of wrongful executions to death penalty opponents. It helped to have a fuzzy photo from the Department of Corrections of a man in outdated glasses and a slightly goofy expression to make the impression that the heartless government was killing Steve Urkel.

Supporters had more recent photos and trial photos to choose from, but chose the one that made him seem the least street-wise.

His was the 29th execution in Georgia since the switch from electrocution to lethal injection, and many of those inmates before him also went to their deaths proclaiming their innocence, but officials for death penalty opposition groups admit privately that few were as sympathetic as Davis.

The NAACP hired a public relations firm. Amnesty International’s website greeted visitors seeking information about Davis with a pop-up screen requesting donations.

Entertainers and celebrities who want to be thought of as current and concerned found his cause one to tweet about and sign petitions or pen songs when few ever participated in death penalty protests about other executions.

In many respects, the news media made use of Davis as well. Granted, it was a legitimate story that someone else had already generated an audience for through social media and the Internet.

Why no attention

But consider the execution of Roy Willard Blankenship in June, the 50th person Georgia has executed since 1973 when capital punishment became legal again. He was also the first person given a new cocktail of lethal drugs that his lawyers argued was unproven and therefore unconstitutional.

The fact that prosecutors say he was convicted of the death of a 78-year-old woman who died of a heart attack while he was raping her didn’t engender much sympathy. He was white, on drugs at the time and initially confessed but later recanted and claimed he had been stoned when he talked to police.

Only a dozen or so protesters showed up at the prison and just six journalists, not even filling every seat reserved for media observers. Individual TV networks had almost that many people assigned to the Davis case.

Yet, many of the reporters gave no indication in their reporting that they had read any of the court decisions in the multiple appeals that all went against Davis or even the transcript of the actual trial. Those who had read the court documents would have seen that the idea that seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted was a stretch.

Those same witnesses hedged during the trial about their identifications, and the jury heard their hesitancy and could have factored that into consideration. And the courts concluded that those who filed sworn statements backing away from aspects of their trial testimony did not offer material differences. None said it couldn’t have been Davis because “I saw someone else do it” or because he was in another town that night.

The stories also left out the fact that the same jury convicted Davis of another shooting the same night, although it was not fatal.

During the few minutes when Davis’ attorney, his preacher or the family of victim Mark MacPhail were before the media, many of the cameras zoomed in so close that their reporters could pretend they had an exclusive. They said, “So and So just told us,” or “Our station just talked to Such and Such ...” without viewers realizing two dozen other journalists were there, too, outside of view.

Media frenzy

Some media outlets took the other tack and interviewed other reporters instead of doing their own research.

The media frenzy peaked around 8 p.m. Wednesday when a cheer went up from protesters across the highway from the prison gates where the media was lined up. The reporters who had never covered an execution were baffled, some relying on Twitter to report incorrectly that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a stay when instead the state merely halted procedures, as usual, until the court ruled.

On the other hand, there was some fine reporting by professionals who had done their research and were familiar with the procedures so they weren’t misled by the crowds.

For all those who will miss Troy Davis, there must be others who breathed a sigh of relief when he gave his last gasp. The morning after his death, the state announced the next execution would be Oct. 5 of a white man convicted of stabbing a woman 41 times he had been seen with shortly before the discovery of her body. It will likely be a quiet, unheralded affair compared to the Davis circus.

And Gov. Nathan Deal announced the appointment of Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, to the parole board. That not only gives Mills a six-figure income and job security for years while the governor rewards someone from his own city, but it also relieves House Speaker David Ralston of a bur under his saddle.

Mills had challenged Larry O’Neal for the majority leader’s post, and he’s remained focused on conservative social issues while the House leadership has sought a more pragmatic path.

All in all, Troy Davis’ passing was a big deal for many people, for many reasons. It will be a while before someone else comes along as useful for such varied purposes.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Florida, Hispanic Voting Age Population (VAP) grew by 250,000 from '08 to '10 vs. white VAP grew by 30,400

From The Wall Street Journal:

The surging Hispanic population in several states that figure to be crucial to the outcome of next year's election is prompting an early scramble by both parties to influence Hispanic voters.

The trend is particularly important to President Barack Obama, who has seen his support among white voters sag, putting his hold on several swing states in danger. He is ramping up an urgent effort to win support from Latinos, while Republicans are trying to build on doubts among them about his stewardship of the economy.

In Florida, the nation's largest presidential swing state, the voting-age Hispanic population grew by nearly 250,000 people between 2008 and 2010, census data show. By contrast, the voting-age white population grew by 30,400.

Nevada added more than 44,000 voting-age Hispanics over the same period, more than double the increase of 18,000 voting-age whites. And in New Mexico, the voting-age Hispanic total rose by more than 36,000, outpacing the growth among whites of just over 19,000.

Mr. Obama won all three states in 2008—and two-thirds of Hispanic voters nationwide—but he's now facing headwinds. Hispanic unemployment stands at 11.3%, higher than the 9.1% rate for the nation as a whole. And the president has failed to deliver a promised overhaul of immigration laws that would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Obama's re-election campaign is starting a broad canvassing effort, reaching from traditional Hispanic communities to suburban areas where a Hispanic surge is relatively new. Hispanic-to-Hispanic phone banks are being set up in New Mexico and Nevada. Latino student outreach is also beginning.

Key Win for Alabama Immigrant Law

From The Wall Street Journal:

A federal judge Wednesday greenlighted key parts of an Alabama law aimed at curbing illegal immigration, rejecting the federal government's request to block them and strengthening the likelihood that the Supreme Court ultimately will decide whether states can pass their own immigration laws.

The Alabama law, widely seen as the nation's toughest, could embolden other states weighing stiff measures to stop illegal immigration after federal courts curbed such laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia in recent months. The federal government argues immigration is a federal matter.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in the Northern District of Alabama upheld a contentious provision requiring police in Alabama "to make a reasonable attempt" to determine the immigration status of any individual they stop if there is "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally.

Wednesday's ruling also upheld a requirement that public schools determine if students were born outside the U.S. or are children of immigrants that are in the country illegally. Judge Blackburn upheld a section of HB56, as the law is known, making it a felony for an illegal immigrant to enter into a "business transaction" with the state of Alabama, among other provisions.

But Judge Blackburn enjoined other sections of the law in a 115-page ruling issued one day before a temporary injunction was set to expire, saying "there is a substantial likelihood" that the Justice Department can prove they are pre-empted by federal law. For example, she blocked clauses that would make it a misdemeanor crime for an undocumented immigrant to apply for work and that make it unlawful for anyone to transport an illegal resident. For now, Alabama authorities also won't be able to pursue civil cases against employers that fail to hire U.S. citizens while hiring or retaining illegal immigrants, among other measures.

Arizona was the first state to pass a law to rein in illegal immigration, in April 2010. The law isn't entirely in effect. Among other provisions, a federal judge blocked one that would require police to check the immigration status of those they stop if they suspect they are in the country illegally. Arizona has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Alabama, Judge Blackburn slapped a temporary injunction on HB56 in August, after it was signed into law by Mr. Bentley in June.

Alabama's undocumented population, mostly from Latin America, totaled about 120,000 last year, up from 25,000 a decade earlier, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.

The center also estimates illegal immigrants account for about 2.5% of the state's population, compared with 4.4% in Georgia and 6% in Arizona.

See also an article in The New York Times.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

After Christie Speech, the Answer Is Still 'No' - Speech at Reagan Library focused on bipartisan compromise, not conservative red meat.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivers remarks at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Tuesday.

From The Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered a muscular plea for national unity in a speech Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan presidential library. Although he and those close to him have said repeatedly he won't run for president, the California appearance nonetheless stoked speculation he would enter the Republican nomination contest.

Asked after his speech whether he would run for president, Mr. Christie referred to answers he has given in the past: He's not running.

Mr. Christie's brother, Todd Christie, told the Newark Star-Ledger on Tuesday that the first-term governor wouldn't run, saying, "If he's lying to me, I'll be as stunned as I've ever been in my life." That came a day after former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean told the conservative National Review that odds in favor of a Christie run were increasing.

In answers to audience questions, Mr. Christie also took a swipe at Mr. Perry, criticizing his support of legislation to allow illegal immigrant children to get discounted, in-state tuition to colleges and universities. He also decried Mr. Perry's assertion last week at a presidential debate that opposing such legislation was heartless. "That is not a heartless position," he said. "That is a common-sense position."

While cast partly as a foreign-policy address, the speech dwelled on the conduct of the inhabitant of the Oval Office. It sought to contrast Mr. Christie's leadership style to President Barack Obama's, which he described as passive and rudderless.

Mr. Christie also decried "political conduct" that has diminished the nation's standing in the world and left its problems languishing, and he faulted "a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead."

But his speech focused on bipartisan compromise, not conservative red meat.

Instead of preaching stripped-down government, as many Republican politicians do, he said an assertive nation "takes resources—resources for defense, for intelligence, for homeland security, for diplomacy."

No free lunch: Benefits Tax Hits Businesses Twice

From The Wall Street Journal:

State and federal taxes are rising for employers across the U.S. as states struggle to repay federal loans for unemployment benefits, including more than $1 billion in interest due Friday.

The increases in state and federal unemployment-insurance taxes—paid primarily by businesses—are hitting as the recovery appears close to stalling, consumer confidence is low and unemployment remains high at 9.1%.

These tax increases come on top of measures intended to tame government budgets, including other state tax increases and spending reductions as well as federal cuts.

When joblessness soared during the recession and anemic recovery, many states drained their unemployment funds and borrowed from Washington to cover their share of benefits. Now 27 states collectively owe almost $38 billion. More than $1 billion in interest on those loans is due Friday, when the federal government's fiscal year ends, and some states are relying on additional taxes to make the payments.

Many employers will face a second hit—higher federal taxes—if their states don't pay their loan balances by November. The increased unemployment-insurance levies, an added $21 per employee a year in roughly 22 states, go into effect in January. That increase will be even bigger for states that miss their interest payments.

The federal loans to states for unemployment insurance were interest-free through 2010, thanks to a provision in President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package. Mr. Obama's 2012 budget proposal included a provision that would allow states to borrow interest-free for another two years but it gained little traction in Congress.

Rising unemployment taxes could diminish the impact of other government measures designed to boost the economy. The Social Security payroll tax cut for workers, which reduced the employees' rate to 4.2% of earnings from 6.2%, did little to reduce the overall tax burden or boost disposable income this year in part because it was offset by state-level tax increases and the expiration of other federal tax credits, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis.

Amid high unemployment, states could borrow from the federal government for years, leading to repeated rounds of tax increases to pay back the loans with interest.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Yes! Saggy pants ordinance brings cash to Albany

From The Albany Herald:

ALBANY, Ga. — The first saggy-pants ordinance violator less than nine months ago started a cash flow to the city.

City Attorney Nathan Davis stated, “The Municipal Court advises that 187 citations have been issued and fines collected of $3,916.49,” since the ordinance went into effect Nov. 23.

The ordinance bans anyone from wearing pants or skirts more than three inches below the top of the hips, exposing the skin or undergarments.

First-time offenders pay a $25 fine. On subsequent offenses, the fine can go up to $200.

Simpson-Bowles was an opportunity to begin reform. The failure to seize that moment was one of the Obama administration's gravest errors.

David Brooks writes in The New York Times in a column entitled "The Lost Decade?":

If you want a big swig of despair, listen to the people who know something about the global economy. Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary, is arguing that America and Europe are on the verge of a disastrous double-dip recession. Various economists say it will be at least another three years before we see serious job growth. Others say European banks are teetering — if not now, then early next year.

Walter Russell Mead, who teaches foreign policy at Bard College, recently laid out some worst-case scenarios on his blog: “It is about whether the international financial system will survive the next six months in the form we now know it. It is about whether the foundations of the postwar order are cracking in Europe. It is about whether a global financial crash will further destabilize the Middle East. ... It is about whether the incipient signs of a bubble burst in China signal the start of an extended economic and perhaps even political crisis there. It is about whether the American middle class is about to be knocked off its feet once again.”

The prognosis for the next few years is bad with a chance of worse. And the economic conditions are not even the scary part. The scary part is the political class’s inability to think about the economy in a realistic way.

This crisis has many currents, which merge and feed off each other. There is the lack of consumer demand, the credit crunch, the continuing slide in housing prices, the freeze in business investment, the still hefty consumer debt levels and the skills mismatch — not to mention regulatory burdens, the business class’s utter lack of confidence in the White House, the looming explosion of entitlement costs, the public’s lack of confidence in institutions across the board.

No single one of these currents prolongs the crisis. It is the product of the complex interplay between them. To put it in fancy terms, the crisis is an emergent condition — even more terrible than the sum of its parts.

Yet the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.

Many Democrats are predisposed to want more government spending. So they pick up on the one current they think can be cured with more government spending: low consumer demand. Increase government spending and that will pump up consumer spending.

When President Obama’s stimulus package produced insufficient results, they didn’t concede that maybe there are other factors at play, which mitigated the effects. They just called for more government spending. To a man in love with his hammer, every problem requires a nail.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, are predisposed to want lower taxes and less regulation. So they pick up on the one current they think can be solved with tax and regulatory cuts: low business investment. Cut taxes. Reduce regulation. All will be well.

Both orthodoxies take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. If we’re stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand. Look at the recent Obama stimulus proposal. You may like it or not, but it’s trivial. It’s simply not significant enough to make a difference, given the size of the global mess.

We need an approach that is both grander and more modest. When you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. You wouldn’t be smart enough to find it even if there was.

Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.

Simplify the tax code. End corporate taxes and create a consumption tax. Reshape the European Union to make it either more unified or less, but not halfway as it is now. Reduce the barriers to business formation. Reform Medicare so it is fiscally sustainable. Break up the banks and increase capital requirements. Lighten debt burdens even if it means hitting the institutional creditors.

There are six or seven big institutions that are fundamentally diseased, from government to banking to housing to entitlements and the tax code.

The Simpson-Bowles report on the deficit was an opportunity to begin a wave of institutional reform. But that proposal died because our political leaders are too ideologically rigid to take on big subjects like tax reform, which involve combining Republican and Democratic ideas. The failure to seize that moment was one of the Obama administration’s gravest errors.

The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads.

Geez. It is obvious Mr. Obama has never run a business and had to worry about making payroll: Obama Proposes Protecting Unemployed Against Hiring Bias

From The New York Times:

President Obama has not been particularly successful in fostering the creation of jobs. But he thinks he has found a way to pry open doors in the workplace for many of the unemployed, especially those who have been out of work for a long time.

Mr. Obama’s jobs bill would prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants because they are unemployed.

Under the proposal, it would be “an unlawful employment practice” if a business with 15 or more employees refused to hire a person “because of the individual’s status as unemployed.”

Unsuccessful job applicants could sue and recover damages for violations, just as when an employer discriminates on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Blue-State Math Is Boon to Obama, Target for GOP

Deep-blue: Voted Democratic is the last five presidential elections
Light-blue: Voted Democratic
Red: Voted Republican

Electoral Advantage

A presidential election isn't a contest to win the popular vote nationwide; it is a contest to win in a combination of states that will produce 270 votes in the electoral college. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections. Combined, they carry 242 electoral votes -- 90% of the votes needed for victory. See how states' electoral college votes were cast since 1992.

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Amid those dark political clouds overhead right now, President Barack Obama can console himself with this silver lining: The electoral map remains stacked in favor of him and his Democrats.

In a close presidential election—and there is every reason to believe that 2012's will be—that is an important and often overlooked fundamental. It will affect the strategic decisions both parties make as the campaign unfolds. Indeed, the shape of the electoral map already appears to be driving some moves this year, and offers signposts indicating which states will be pivotal next year.

The important thing to remember about a presidential election is that it isn't a contest to win the popular vote nationwide. It is a contest to win in a combination of states that will produce the 270 votes in the electoral college that give a candidate the majority there.

Therein lies the Democrats' built-in advantage. They happen to start with a bloc of reliably blue states that is larger, and much richer in electoral votes, than the reliably red bloc Republicans have on their side. If a Democratic presidential candidate merely hangs on to this trove of deep-blue states, he or she is a long way down the road to victory.

Specifically, there are 18 states plus the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic in all five presidential elections since 1992. Combined, they carry 242 electoral votes—90% of the votes needed for victory.

Republicans have a much smaller bloc of highly reliable electoral college votes. There are just 13 states that have gone red in each of the last five elections, and they deliver 102 electoral votes, less than half of the number needed.

That means the key to victory for President Obama is holding this blue line. Doing so will be significantly harder this year, because he is running amid economic distress of a magnitude unseen in any of those five previous elections. But if he manages to hold his party's blue base, he would need to pick off only a few more less-friendly states.

The most likely additional states for the Democrats are the five—Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and Ohio—that have gone Democratic in either three or four of the last five elections. If President Obama carries all of these light-blue states, while hanging on to all the deepest-blue states, he will have 281 electoral votes, 11 more than he needs.

And that, it should be noted, would be without having to win the giant swing state of Florida, or needing to hold on to the normally red states of Virginia and North Carolina that Mr. Obama won in 2008.

So the question for Republicans is pretty simple: Which of the deep-blue or blue-leaning states can they pick off? Know the answer to that question and you'll know where the 2012 action will be.

Indeed, the president faces problems in some of those deep-blue states, which suggests that the wall can be breached. "Recent history aside, Obama will have to work hard to keep the Democratic base intact in 2012," political analyst Rhodes Cook wrote in a recent newsletter examining the electoral map. "Not only does it include states on the two coasts, but also industrial battlegrounds such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."

The president's job-approval rating was below 50% in both California and Pennsylvania in recent polls, for example.

Another state that jumps out as a particular trouble spot is Wisconsin. Republican Gov. Scott Walker won the governor's seat there in 2010, and his blunt confrontation with public-employee unions has energized conservatives—and aroused liberals. How that translates into presidential politics is crucial.

Among the light-blue states, Iowa and New Hampshire both offer GOP opportunities. But big Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, is the juiciest target for Republicans among the light-blue states. Notably, the president's job-approval rating in Ohio stood just below 50% in a summertime Quinnipiac University poll.

Even if the president keeps all of the dark-blue states and all of the other light-blue states, take Ohio out of his column and he comes up seven electoral votes short.

Where could he make up those votes? Here's a good guess: Colorado, a swing state Mr. Obama won in 2008 after it went Republican in three of the previous four elections. It just happens to have nine electoral votes. Take out Ohio and plug in Colorado, and the president just squeaks by.

It's easy to see how these electoral calculations already are playing out, by watching where Democrats are focusing their energies and where President Obama is spending his time. It's no coincidence that both Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in light-blue Ohio in the past week. On Tuesday, the president arrives in Colorado, trying to shore up his standing in that potentially crucial swing state.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Caution fills Obama’s playbook

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

It was painful to watch President Obama last week at the United Nations, backing away from the goal of Palestinian statehood he had championed when he took office. The best that could be said was that it was a bit of foreign-policy realism, acknowledging the political and strategic fact that the United States will never abandon Israel in the U.N. Security Council.

Obama is playing defense in foreign policy these days, trying not to make costly mistakes. Like a football team protecting a slim lead, he wants to avoid fumbles that would cost him the game. The idea of daring offensive moves — the risky touchdown pass — is a distant memory from 2009. This is a team that chants to itself: “Dee-fense!”

There are worse things than playing cautiously. The big gamble may be tempting, but it can lead to disaster, as Menachem Begin found with his invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and George W. Bush learned after his occupation of Iraq in 2003. Though commentators may be howling for a big, bold move, the correct choice is often the one that hedges against really bad outcomes. Papa Bush (“41”) was teased on “Saturday Night Live” with the mocking phrase “wouldn’t be prudent,” but he politely backed his way right into the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.

It should be said that Obama is playing defense reasonably well. There are big, long-lasting mistakes lurking in the Arab Spring — chief among them a chaotic implosion of Syria that could trigger a wave of sectarian massacres on the order of Iraq in 2006. Obama has understood the need to be cautious about the Syrian transition, even if he gets hammered sometimes in the editorial pages.

Obama is hedging, too, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The danger there is the perception that America is leaving and the ensuing scramble to fill the power vacuum. Recognizing that problem, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is already talking about the likelihood that the United States will keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Obama could have avoided a lot of his current Af-Pak problems if he hadn’t coupled his December 2009 troop surge with a pledge to start withdrawing those troops in July 2011. The wiser course would have been deliberate ambiguity.

The retreat on the Palestinian issue must be a bitter pill for Obama. Regaining America’s role as an evenhanded mediator seemed his top priority when he took office. His first interview as president was with the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya; his June 2009 speech in Cairo was a masterful signal that America was ready to engage its Muslim adversaries and make peace. Obama knew that America’s security, and Israel’s, required creation of a Palestinian state.

What happened to that promise? It’s a long and depressing story, but the simple answer is that Obama got outfoxed. He decided not to immediately enunciate core principles for an agreement, which would have built on the remarkable progress made in 2008 by Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, a story that awaits Condoleezza Rice’s memoirs. Instead, he picked a fight over Israeli settlements that landed him in the morass of Israeli coalition politics.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited Obama out. Every month that the diplomatic wrangling went on, Obama grew weaker politically and Netanyahu stronger. The denouement was Obama’s speech Wednesday, in which he spoke almost ruefully of “peace in an imperfect world.” His best hope now is that he won’t actually have to veto a statehood resolution. Talk about playing defense.

While crediting Obama’s caution, I wish he would study the example of Henry Kissinger, who was playing a weak hand in 1971 when the Vietnam War was unraveling. Kissinger dealt a new set of cards by traveling secretly to China. He recalls in his memoirs that in his first meeting with Zhou Enlai, he cautiously opted for a broad, philosophical discussion of “our perceptions of global and especially Asian affairs.”

“The statesman finds opportunity,” even in adversity, notes Robert Blackwill, a Republican foreign policy expert who worked for Kissinger and both Bushes. That’s a good prescription for Obama. He’s in damage-limitation mode — sensible enough in a time of uncertainty but not really a strategy. What’s the opportunity — in Pakistan, in India, in Turkey, in Syria — and yes, in the Palestinian state that inevitably will be declared?

Playing defense works if you’ve got a lead to protect. But it’s not enough when that lead is slipping away.

Obama 2012 campaign’s Operation Vote focuses on ethnic minorities, core liberals

From The Washington Post:

President Obama’s campaign is developing an aggressive new program to expand support from ethnic minority groups and other traditional Democratic voters as his team studies an increasingly narrow path to victory in next year’s reelection effort.

The program, called “Operation Vote,” underscores how the tide has turned for Obama, whose 2008 brand was built on calls to unite “red and blue America.” Then, he presented himself as a politician who could transcend traditional partisan divisions, and many white centrists were drawn to the coalition that helped elect the country’s first black president.

Today, the political realities of a sputtering economy, a more polarized Washington and fast-sinking presidential job approval ratings, particularly among white independents, are forcing the Obama campaign to adjust its tactics.

Operation Vote will function as a large, centralized department in the Chicago campaign office for reaching ethnic, religious and other voter groups. It will coordinate recruitment of an ethnic volunteer base and push out targeted messages online and through the media to groups such as blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women, seniors, young people, gays and Asian Americans.

No surprise here: Small Donors Are Slow to Return to the Obama Fold

From The New York Times:

They were once among President Obama’s most loyal supporters and a potent symbol of his political brand: voters of moderate means who dug deep for the candidate and his message of hope and change, sending him $10 or $25 or $50 every few weeks or months.

But in recent months, the frustration and disillusionment that have dragged down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have crept into the ranks of his vaunted small-donor army, underscoring the challenges he faces as he seeks to rekindle grass-roots enthusiasm for his re-election bid.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amateur Hour at the White House, but at U.N. Obama rises to the occasion - In his 1st foreign-policy foray, Perry was a cheap, base-playing buffoon.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

A small secret. In writing about the White House or Congress, I always feel completely free to attempt to see things clearly, to consider the evidence, to sift it through experience and knowledge, and then to make a judgment. It may be highly critical, or caustic, even damning. But deep down I always hope I'm wrong—that it isn't as bad as I say it is, that there is information unknown to me that would explain such and such an act, that there were factors I didn't know of that make bad decisions suddenly explicable. Or even justifiable.

I note this to make clear the particular importance, for me, of Ron Suskind's book on the creation of President Obama's economic policy, "Confidence Men." If Mr. Suskind is right, I have been wrong in my critiques of the president's economic policy. None of it was as bad as I said. It was much worse.

The most famous part of the book is the Larry Summers quote that he saw it as a "Home Alone" administration, with no grown-ups in charge. But there's more than that. Most of us remember the president as in a difficult position from day one: two wars and an economic crash, good luck with that. But Mr. Suskind recasts the picture.

Like FDR, Mr. Obama had big advantages: "overwhelming popular support, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and the latitude afforded by crisis." But things were weird from the beginning. Some of his aides became convinced that his "lack of . . . managerial experience" would do him in. He ran meetings as if they were afternoon talk shows. An unnamed adviser says the 2009 stimulus legislation was the result of "poor conceptualizing." Another: "We should have spent more time thinking about where the money was being spent, rather than simply that there was this hole of a certain size in the economy that needed to be filled, so fill it." Well, yes.

The decision to focus on health care was the president's own. It could have been even worse. Some staffers advised him—this was just after the American economy lost almost 600,000 jobs in one month—that he should focus on global warming.

Mr. Suskind's book is controversial, and some of his sources have accused him of misquoting them. The White House says Mr. Suskind talked to too many disgruntled former staffers. But he seems to have talked to a lot of gruntled ones, too. The overarching portrait of chaos, lack of intellectual depth and absence of political wisdom, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter at this paper, rings true.


Let me say here clearly what I've been more or less saying in this column for a while. It is that Mr. Obama cannot win in 2012, but the Republicans can lose. They can hand the incumbent a victory the majority of American voters show themselves not at all disposed to give him. (No column is complete without his latest polling disasters. A Quinnipiac poll this week shows Florida voters disapprove of the job the president is doing by 57% to 39%.)

Republicans only six months ago thought the president was unbeatable. Now they see the election as a bright red apple waiting to fall into their hands. It's not. They'll have to earn it.

Mr. Obama isn't as resilient as a Bill Clinton, with his broad spectrum of political gifts and a Rasputin-like ability to emerge undead in spite of the best efforts of his foes. His spectrum of political gifts is more limited. That's a nice way to put it, isn't it?

But consider what happened this week in New York.

Mr. Obama's speech Wednesday at the United Nations was good. It was strong because it was clear, and it was clear because he didn't rely on the thumping clichés and vapidities he's lately embraced. When the camera turned to the professionally impassive diplomats in the audience, they seemed to be actually listening.

"It has been a remarkable year," he said: Moammar Gadhafi on the run, Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali deposed, Osama bin Laden dead. "Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be." Technology is putting power in the hands of the people, history is tending toward the overthrow of entrenched powers. But "peace is hard. Progress can be reversed. Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart."

On the Mideast conflict: "The people of Palestine deserve a state of their own." But the proposed U.N. statehood resolution is a "shortcut" that won't work: "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now." Peace can be realized only when both parties acknowledge each other's legitimate needs: "Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state." Friends of the Palestinians "do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine."

"I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress," the president said. "So am I." All in all, it was a measured statement at a tense moment. It was meant to defuse tensions, to cool things down.

Contrast it with the words of Rick Perry, who zoomed into New York to make his own Mideast statement the day before the president's speech. The Obama administration's policy, the Texas governor said, amounts to "appeasement." It has encouraged "an ominous act of bad faith." We are "at the precipice of such a dangerous move" because the Obama administration is "arrogant, misguided and dangerous." "Moral equivalency" is "a dangerous insult."

This was meant not to defuse but to inflame. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Perry that when you are running for president you have to be big, you have to act as if you're a broad fellow who understands that when the American president is in a tight spot in the U.N., America is in a tight spot in the U.N. You don't exploit it for political gain.

Perry competitor Rick Santorum responded: "I've forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel," he told Politico. Mr. Perry "has never taken a position on any of this stuff before, and [the media is] taking this guy seriously."

The Israeli newspaper Ha'artez likened Mr. Perry's remarks to "a pep rally for one of Israel's right-wing politicians, and a hard-liner at that," adding that the governor "adopted the rhetoric of Israel's radical right lock, stock and barrel."

I'd add only that in his first foreign-policy foray, the GOP front-runner looked like a cheap, base-playing buffoon.

As I said, Mr. Obama can't win this election, but the Republicans can lose it by being small, by being extreme, by being—are we going to have to start using this word again?—unnuanced.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Strange bedfellows: E-Verify Bill Against Illegal Workers in Doubt

From The Wall Street Journal:

Conservative, tea-party and libertarian groups have joined liberals in fighting a signature Republican bill in Congress that would crack down on illegal-immigrant workers. The legislation, they argue, would hurt businesses and employees while expanding government regulation.

The bill, by Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas), would require all employers to use E-Verify, an electronic government database that checks whether new hires are eligible to work in the U.S.

Its prospects had looked good in the GOP-controlled House, where it is to be finished by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Regarded as less controversial than others drafted to tackle illegal immigration, it was seen as able to win bipartisan support in the Senate, too, especially with unemployment high.

Now, the backlash threatens to sideline the bill, as Republicans seek to placate conservatives wary of legislation they consider intrusive and to court Hispanic voters who might deem it discriminatory.

E-Verify works by comparing information entered from an employee's I-9 employment form with Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security records. It is used by 4% of U.S. employers. Federal contractors must participate, and a few states also mandate its use.

[F]issures over illegal immigration continue to surface among Republicans as they come under pressure from various interest groups. Businesspeople are pushing for a business-friendly immigration policy. Over the summer, farmer groups descended on Capitol Hill to protest what they see as E-Verify's negative impact on their work force and on U.S. food production. They, too, then launched an online campaign to oppose it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

From the liberal editorial board of the Post: In debt plan, Mr. Obama goes ‘medium’

An editorial from The Washington Post:

ENCOURAGED TO go big, President Obama chose instead to go “medium,” as Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget aptly put it. Compared to the $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings that the new congressional supercommittee on debt reduction is required to achieve, the debt reduction proposal Mr. Obama unveiled Monday involved significantly more in savings — some real, some bogus, as we’ll explain in a bit. Compared to what’s necessary in terms of long-term debt reduction, and in particular compared to the savings outlined by his debt-reduction commission, better known as Simpson-Bowles, the plan falls short.

The best point of comparison is the level of debt as a share of the economy that both would achieve after 10 years. The president’s plan would leave the debt at an unhealthy 73 percent of gross domestic product. The Simpson-Bowles plan would reduce that number to 65 percent, a still high but far less troubling level. The difficult truth is that getting the country on a sustainable fiscal course will require more painful choices than the president, under fire from his base and facing a recalcitrant Republican Party, chose to deliver.

The administration’s claim to have come up with $4 trillion in deficit reduction is misleading. The more accurate amount is barely half that, including about $1 trillion in domestic and security spending cuts already agreed to as part of the debt ceiling deal, and $1.5 trillion in tax increases on the wealthy. The administration gives itself credit for another $1 trillion by counting savings — already incorporated in any realistic base line — from winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration further pads its results by giving itself credit for $866 billion in “savings” from letting the George W. Bush tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000 a year.

The president is right, of course, that credible debt reduction requires a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, and it is unfortunate that Republicans have been unwilling to accept that fact. But a more fundamental sweep through the tangled underbrush of the tax code, as envisioned by the Simpson-Bowles report, would be an even better approach.

The other essential element of credible debt reduction is tackling the biggest driver of long-term deficits — federal health spending, particularly Medicare. Here Mr. Obama backed away from some of the entitlement reforms he entertained in his closed-door discussions with House Speaker John Boehner, including raising the eligibility age for Medicare and changing the way that Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation. Mr. Obama left Social Security entirely out of Monday’s proposal, and his Medicare savings ($248 billion over 10 years) once again primarily target providers. A White House fact sheet on the proposal brags that 90 percent of the savings come from “reducing overpayments” and that changes affecting beneficiaries do not begin until 2017 — after a second Obama term, if he is reelected.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for tackling other mandatory spending, including agriculture subsidies, military health care and federal worker retirement programs. But Monday’s proposal looks better as an initial bargaining stance than as a rigid bottom line — and realistically, the prospects for even a scaled-down bargain emerging from the supercommittee are not good. Mr. Obama does not have a partner willing to meet him any part of the way on tax increases. So the package in the end may serve more as a campaign document. If so, that would be a shame — most of all for a country that cannot keep putting off the day of fiscal reckoning.

All work and no play . . . . A non-political post: In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious

The forum has been around several years in my town.

From The New York Times:

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. — In the small towns nestled throughout the Ozarks, people like to say that everybody knows everybody’s business — and if they do not, they feel free to offer an educated guess.

One of the established places here for trading the gossip of the day is Dee’s Place, a country diner where a dozen longtime residents gather each morning around a table permanently reserved with a members-only sign for the “Old Farts Club,” as they call themselves, to talk about weather, politics and, of course, their neighbors.

But of late, more people in this hardscrabble town of 5,000 have shifted from sharing the latest news and rumors over eggs and coffee to the Mountain Grove Forum on a social media Web site called Topix, where they write and read startlingly negative posts, all cloaked in anonymity, about one another.

And in Dee’s Place, people are not happy. A waitress, Pheobe Best, said that the site had provoked fights and caused divorces. The diner’s owner, Jim Deverell, called Topix a “cesspool of character assassination.” And hearing the conversation, Shane James, the cook, wandered out of the kitchen tense with anger.

His wife, Jennifer, had been the target in a post titled “freak,” he said, which described the mother of two as, among other things, “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Not a word was true, Mr. and Ms. James said, but the consequences were real enough.

Friends and relatives stopped speaking to them. Trips to the grocery store brought a crushing barrage of knowing glances. She wept constantly and even considered suicide. Now, the couple has resolved to move.

“I’ll never come back to this town again,” Ms. James said in an interview at the diner. “I just want to get the hell away from here.”

In rural America, where an older, poorer and more remote population has lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet, the growing use of social media is raising familiar concerns about bullying and privacy. But in small towns there are complications.

The same Web sites created as places for candid talk about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept.

A generation ago, even after technology had advanced, many rural residents clung to the party line telephone systems that allowed neighbors to listen in on one another’s conversations. Now they are gravitating toward open community forums online, said Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public,” said Mr. Sandvig, who has studied the use of social media sites in rural areas.

Topix, a site lightly trafficked in cities, enjoys a dedicated and growing following across the Ozarks, Appalachia and much of the rural South, establishing an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls “the feud states.” One of the most heavily trafficked forums, he noted, is Pikeville, Ky., once the staging ground for the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry.

“We’re running the Gawker for every little town in America,” Mr. Tolles said.

Whereas online negativity seems to dissipate naturally in a large city, it often grates like steel wool in a small town where insults are not easily forgotten.

The forums have provoked censure by local governments, a number of lawsuits and, in one case, criticism by relatives after a woman in Austin, Ind., killed herself and her three children this year. Hours earlier she wrote on the Web site where her divorce had been a topic of conversation, “Now it’s time to take the pain away.”

In Hyden, Ky. (population 365), the local forum had 107 visitors at the same time one afternoon this month. They encountered posts about the school system, a new restaurant and local arrests, as well as the news articles and political questions posted by Topix.

But more typical were the unsubstantiated posts that identified by name an employee at a dentist’s office as a home wrecker with herpes, accused a gas station attendant of being a drug dealer, and said a 13-year-old girl was “preggo by her mommy’s man.” Many allegations were followed with promises of retribution to whoever started the post.

“If names had been put on and tied to what has been said, there would have been one killing after another,” said Lonnie Hendrix, Hyden’s mayor.

Topix, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is owned in part by several major newspaper companies — Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy — but has independent editorial control. It was initially envisioned as a hyperlocal news aggregator with separate pages for every community in the country. But most of its growth was in small cities and towns, and local commenters wanted to shift the conversation to more traditional gossip.

Mr. Tolles acknowledged the biggest problem at the site is “keeping the conversation on the rails.” But he defended it on free-speech grounds. He said the comments are funny to read, make private gossip public, provide a platform for “people who have negative things to say” and are better for business.

At one point, he said, the company tried to remove all negative posts, but it stopped after discovering that commenters had stopped visiting the site. “This is small-town America,” he said. “The voices these guys are hearing are of their friends and neighbors.”

Mr. Tolles also said the site played a journalistic role, including providing a place for whistle-blowing and candid discussion of local politics.

He noted that the Mountain Grove Forum, which had 3,700 visitors on a single day this month, had 1,200 posts containing the word “corruption,” though it was unclear how many of them were true. One resident used the site to rail against local officials, helping build support for a petition-driven state audit of town government.

Topix said it received about 125,000 posts on any given day in forums for about 5,000 cities and towns. Unlike sites like Facebook, which requires users to give their real name, Topix users can pick different names for each post and are identified only by geography. About 9 percent are automatically screened out by software, based on offensive content like racial slurs; another 3 percent — mostly threats and “obvious libel,” Mr. Tolles said — are removed after people complain.

After a challenge from more than 30 state attorneys general, Topix stopped charging for the expedited removal of offensive comments — which Jack Conway, the attorney general for Kentucky, said “smacked of having to pay a fee to get your good name back.”

Despite the screening efforts, the site is full of posts that seem to cross lines. Topix, as an Internet forum, is immune from libel suits under federal law, but those who post could be sued, if they are found.

The company receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commenters as part of law enforcement investigations or civil suits, some of which have resulted in cash verdicts or settlements.

But at Dee’s Place, Jennifer James said she did not have enough money to pursue a lawsuit. And even if she did, she said, it would not help.

“In a small town,” Ms. James said, “rumors stay forever.”

David Brooks: Obama Rejects Obamaism

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

I’m a sap, a specific kind of sap. I’m an Obama Sap.

When the president said the unemployed couldn’t wait 14 more months for help and we had to do something right away, I believed him. When administration officials called around saying that the possibility of a double-dip recession was horrifyingly real and that it would be irresponsible not to come up with a package that could pass right away, I believed them.

I liked Obama’s payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I’m a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.

It recycles ideas that couldn’t get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn’t try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.

He claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the I.R.S. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)

This wasn’t a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible.

Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.

But remember, I’m a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.

It has gone back, as an appreciative Ezra Klein of The Washington Post conceded, to politics as usual. The president is sounding like the Al Gore for President campaign, but without the earth tones. Tax increases for the rich! Protect entitlements! People versus the powerful! I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I’m a sap.

Being a sap, I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems. I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.

That means when he talks about raising revenue, which he is right to do, he can’t really talk about anything substantive. He can’t tax gasoline. He can’t tax consumption. He can’t do a comprehensive tax reform. He has to restrict his tax policy changes to the top 2 percent, and to get any real revenue he’s got to hit them in every which way. We’re not going to simplify the tax code, but by God Obama’s going to raise taxes on rich people who give to charity! We’ve got to do something to reduce the awful philanthropy surplus plaguing this country!

The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There’s a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.

The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I’m a sap.

'Don't Ask' Policy Draws to a Close

From The Wall Street Journal:

The "Don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military will be lifted on Tuesday, marking the end of an 18-year practice under which more than 14,000 service members were discharged.

With the change, gay and lesbian troops prohibited from discussing their sexual orientation or same-sex relationships are free to do so. Recruiters no longer have to turn away openly gay prospects, and service members expelled from the military because they were gay can now apply to rejoin.

"Don't ask, don't tell" started in 1993, after the president, Bill Clinton, failed to end a ban on gays serving in the military, in the face of stiff opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress. Under the policy, gays were supposed to be free to serve, as long as they didn't publicly discuss their orientation and no one else accused them of homosexuality.

President Barack Obama made a push to lift the ban and didn't meet united opposition from the military. Although some service chiefs continued to oppose any change in wartime, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, argued passionately that it was time for Congress to lift the ban.

Congress struck down the ban late last year, with its act to take effect 60 days after the military announced that the repeal wouldn't hinder the readiness of the armed forces. The military spent much of this year putting some 2.3 million service members through an hourlong training course.

Some advocacy groups had grown impatient after the congressional vote. But Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former soldier discharged in 2002 under the policy, said the military's deliberate approach was likely to pay dividends in the years to come.

"Two million of America's most conservative youth went through this training," Mr. Nicholson said. "The seven months provided an unprecedented opportunity to train and educate people about the gay and lesbian community. It was an opportunity to realize the normalcy of the gay community."

All GOP hopefuls at Aug. debate said would turn down a hypothetical deficit-reduction deal that had 10 times as many spending cuts as tax increases.

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

In the great casino of national politics, here's the current action: Both parties are busy doubling down their bets on taxes, the subject that figures to define the partisan divide in the 2012 campaign.

By proposing to pay for his new jobs program with tax increases, as he did last week, and by proposing numerous tax hikes to reduce the giant federal deficit, as he did Monday, President Barack Obama is laying down a populist marker.

Facing an economy in need of stimulation now and deficit reduction in the long run, he is saying the sensible formula is for the wealthy and corporations to pay more to right the ship and keep it afloat.

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner has declared tax increases "off the table" for deficit reduction, redrawing the same battle lines seen during the long and frustrating summer of debt negotiations.

And, of course, there was that scene of all the Republican presidential candidates agreeing at an August debate in Ames, Iowa, that, because of their opposition to any tax hikes, they'd turn down a hypothetical deficit-reduction deal that had 10 times as many spending cuts as tax increases.

Republicans are saying that the nation's economic and fiscal distress has made them less likely, not more, to support more taxes.

This tax divide has become the core philosophical debate three years into a horrible economic downturn. The split doesn't bode well for finding any consensus on economic matters in Washington this year, but it sets up a great ideological clash in next year's voting.

At some level, of course, every election is about taxes. The level of taxation determines the size of government the country can afford, and size of government goes a long way toward determining the role government plays in the economy and the society.

But the picture is more stark than normal, for two reasons. First, the yawning deficit has made the choices for dealing with it—spending cuts or tax increases—more acute. And second, the Republican presidential primary race has made the tax question more pronounced: At the heart of the tax debate lies the question of whether the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush—one of the GOP's proudest accomplishments of the past decade—will survive the presidential campaign intact or not.

That has only reinforced what had become a fairly uniform view on taxes among Republicans, which, in turn, reflects a fairly strong ideological consensus within the party.

Indeed, one of the principal problems President Obama faces at the moment is that ideological convictions are running stronger among Republicans than among the president's Democrats.

In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, 68% of Republicans identify themselves as conservative—half of them calling themselves "very conservative"—while just 31% of Democrats call themselves liberal.

William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now at the Brookings Institution, says this disparity means the polarization between the two parties is "asymmetrical."

He says Republicans are more ideologically unified and therefore feel more strongly about their core issue, low taxation, while Democrats aren't as ideologically united and therefore not as ardent on their core issue, defense of entitlement programs.

"That's the difference between the two parties," Mr. Galston says. "A substantial number of Democrats would be willing to endorse a grand bargain involving both taxes and entitlements, while very few Republicans would be willing to join them."

In a nutshell, that explains much of the past six months in Washington, and nothing said or done Monday suggested much of a change.

Republicans essentially charged that Mr. Obama's tax-the-rich idea for deficit reduction is class warfare: "Pitting one group of Americans against another is not leadership," said Mr. Boehner. Retorted the president: "This is not class warfare. It's math."

The effort to paper over this split now will be handed to the congressional supercommittee set up in the summer debt-reduction deal to find at least $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reductions. But it's becoming clear that the real referendum comes in the 2012 campaign.

And both parties enter the fight seeing opportunity but running risks on the tax question.

Republicans think that with government spending at roughly 25% of gross domestic product, the highest level since World War II, Americans have turned a corner on the size of government and see squeezing taxes as a way to throttle down Washington.

The danger for the GOP is that independent swing voters don't consider the tax question as the kind of central issue as do Republican primary voters.

More than half the independent voters in the Journal/NBC News poll said they considered it acceptable to attack the deficit with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

Democrats, meanwhile, think that with government revenue running at about 15% of GDP, the lowest level since 1950, Americans in the middle don't consider the country overtaxed. And Mr. Obama knows he's delivering a tax message badly wanted by his party's base: Three-quarters of them say they are happy to see the Bush tax cuts ended for wealthier Americans.

The danger for Democrats? The history of their candidates entering presidential campaigns proposing tax increases isn't so encouraging.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Turkey Predicts Alliance With Egypt as Regional Anchors

From The New York Times:

A newly assertive Turkey offered on Sunday a vision of a starkly realigned Middle East, where the country’s former allies in Syria and Israel fall into deeper isolation, and a burgeoning alliance with Egypt underpins a new order in a region roiled by revolt and revolution.

Unlike an anxious Israel, a skeptical Iran and a United States whose regional policy has been criticized as seeming muddled and even contradictory at times, Turkey has recovered from early missteps to offer itself as a model for democratic transition and economic growth at a time when the Middle East and northern Africa have been seized by radical change. The remarkably warm reception of Turkey in the Arab world — a region Turks once viewed with disdain — is a development almost as seismic as the Arab revolts and revolutions themselves.

On the vote over a Palestinian state, the United States, in particular, finds itself almost completely isolated.

Other countries — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel — would undoubtedly look upon an Egyptian-Turkish axis with alarm.

The United Auto Workers' tentative labor pact with General (a/k/a Government) Motors Co. - A raise during a recession and a what?

From The Wall Street Journal:

A contract reached Friday between GM and the UAW increases pay by $2 to $3 an hour for entry-level workers and includes a signing bonus of about $5,000 . . . .

Sunday, September 18, 2011

For Obama, another September of discontent

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

It is September and Barack Obama is in trouble. His poll numbers are down, and there is unrest within his party and among his supporters. Some Democrats have begun to doubt whether his inner circle is up to the task. They are calling for changes — in Obama and his team.

To President Obama and his advisers, this may be today’s story, but it was also the story in September 2007, September 2008 and to some extent September 2009 and September 2010. Obama weathered the first two storms but struggled through the second pair. Which history will be repeated? Can he count on the good luck that helped him earlier? Can he summon within himself the changes that may be needed this time?

Nervous Democrats aren’t sure at this point. White House officials say they are well aware of how tough their problems are but believe things will brighten politically over the coming months. Looking ahead to next year’s election, senior adviser David Plouffe said Saturday: “We understand the very perilous situation we’re in, but we think we have a pathway forward. But we don’t have much margin for error.”

Plouffe says the tough economy and the ugly debt-ceiling debate have taken a toll on the president’s standing, but he dismisses any suggestion that there has been a break between the president and the electorate that will block his attempt to bounce back.

Obama is not, Plouffe argued, in anything like President George W. Bush’s situation in late 2005, after his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina — on top of Iraq-war weariness and other problems — inflicted permanent damage on his presidency.

“They have not at all tuned him out,” Plouffe said of the president and the public. “I completely reject that, the comparison to Bush.”

Four years ago this month, Obama was struggling. His poll numbers against Hillary Rodham Clinton were stagnant. In his estimation, his campaign was operating unevenly, and he was not the candidate he wanted to be. Donors were in revolt. At a meeting with his finance committee that fall, he offered them reassurance. “I will hold your hand,” he said. “. . . We can win this thing if you don’t waver.”

Two months later, after some tactical changes in the campaign and considerable sharpening of his message, Obama finally found his voice at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa. His campaign started to gain traction, and he became the candidate that many of his followers hoped he would be.

A campaign slump

Three years ago, in mid-September, the Obama campaign went into another slump. Republican nominee John McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, came out of their convention with unexpected momentum. Some polls showed McCain ahead of Obama. Democrats were complaining about the Obama team. Plouffe dismissed those complaints to the New York Times as “bed-wetting.”

Not entirely. Obama gathered his advisers together on the night of Sept. 14, 2008, and told them the campaign had become too reactive. He gave orders to shape up.

In that case, it wasn’t necessary. The next day, Lehman Brothers went belly up, changing the campaign overnight and sealing McCain’s fate. Obama was the beneficiary of external events that worked politically in his favor. The September slump was quickly forgotten.

The slumps of September 2009 and 2010 were less easily navigated. Obama used a joint-session speech to Congress in 2009 to try to jump-start congressional action on health care. Over that summer, his approval rating had dropped 11 points to 54 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The speech provided a temporary lift, at least psychologically, for the White House. But damage that summer proved lasting — though when he signed the health-care bill, his approval rating was about the same as it had been in September. And Democrats had surrendered Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown.

By this time a year ago, Obama’s approval ratings had dropped further, to 46 percent, and Democrats were heading toward an electoral storm that would cost them the House and seats in the Senate. Nothing the White House did at that time fended off the Republican surge. To the extent that Republicans fell short of their expectations, it was more because of self-inflicted wounds than presidential muscle.

White House officials consoled themselves by noting that the president was not actually on the ballot. They correctly pointed to the economy as the main cause of the voters’ anger. Many Democrats did not accept that explanation completely, signaling disconnect between the president and some in his party that has intensified since then.

Troubles mount

Which brings us to September 2011. The news this week highlights the president’s problems: Weak numbers (approval down further). Criticism of the president and his staff for perceived tactical and strategic mistakes. Reports of past infighting.

Democrats are voicing complaints publicly and privately. James Carville wants the president to fire somebody. A new book by Ronald Suskind paints a portrait of a White House divided over economic policy. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley was the target of two stories late in the week questioning his stewardship.

People are second-guessing the president’s team. Two Democrats in New Hampshire volunteered their concern to me at a political dinner in Manchester on Friday night, saying the Obama campaign has been slow to develop a presence in this important primary and general-election state.

Republican strategists running campaigns for Mitt Romney and Rick Perry see a president fundamentally weakened and saddled with an economy that isn’t going to rebound quickly. White House officials say voters know little about either of the two leading Republicans. Eventually, they argue, voters will and may not like all they see.

At some point, voters will begin to weigh the election as a choice between Obama and the Republican nominee.

“As unhappy as people are about the economy,” Plouffe said, “they certainly don’t want to go back to the policies that got us into this stuff. . . . We are confident people want our vision more.”

Obama advisers regard criticism of the president’s staff as a conversation ignored by most Americans, who are focused on their lives, their jobs and their unease about the country — which should be only partially reassuring, given the depth of concerns about the economy.

Obama advisers believe the president is stronger in the battleground states than his national numbers suggest. They also argue that, whatever the president’s condition, congressional Republicans came out of the debt-ceiling debate in even worse shape and face losses in the House next year, particularly if they reject most of the president’s new jobs plan.

Still, the weight of evidence underscores the president’s vulnerabilities 14 months out from the election. Plouffe told Senate Democrats late last week that the White House would not suffer from overconfidence.

“What I don’t want to suggest is that we’re sitting around and thinking everything is great,” he said. “We’ve got a pathway that is fairly straight and narrow.”

In his campaigns for the Democratic nomination and the general election, Obama fought effectively when his back was to the wall. During his presidency, he has left doubts among his loyalists about whether he has the stomach for the current battle. What is known is that another September has come with questions facing him and his team. How will they respond this time?

The most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

I’VE never been more worried about Israel’s future. The crumbling of key pillars of Israel’s security — the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan — coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.

Israel is not responsible for the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or for the uprising in Syria or for Turkey’s decision to seek regional leadership by cynically trashing Israel or for the fracturing of the Palestinian national movement between the West Bank and Gaza. What Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is responsible for is failing to put forth a strategy to respond to all of these in a way that protects Israel’s long-term interests.

O.K., Mr. Netanyahu has a strategy: Do nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Turkey that will require him to go against his base, compromise his ideology or antagonize his key coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme right-winger. Then, call on the U.S. to stop Iran’s nuclear program and help Israel out of every pickle, but make sure that President Obama can’t ask for anything in return — like halting Israeli settlements — by mobilizing Republicans in Congress to box in Obama and by encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote. And meanwhile, get the Israel lobby to hammer anyone in the administration or Congress who says aloud that maybe Bibi has made some mistakes, not just Barack. There, who says Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy?

“The years-long diplomatic effort to integrate Israel as an accepted neighbor in the Middle East collapsed this week, with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassadors from Ankara and Cairo, and the rushed evacuation of the embassy staff from Amman,” wrote Haaretz newspaper’s Aluf Benn. “The region is spewing out the Jewish state, which is increasingly shutting itself off behind fortified walls, under a leadership that refuses any change, movement or reform ... Netanyahu demonstrated utter passivity in the face of the dramatic changes in the region, and allowed his rivals to seize the initiative and set the agenda.”

What could Israel have done? The Palestinian Authority, which has made concrete strides in the past five years at building the institutions and security forces of a state in the West Bank — making life there quieter than ever for Israel — finally said to itself: “Our state-building has not prompted Israel to halt settlements or engage in steps to separate, so all we’re doing is sustaining Israel’s occupation. Let’s go to the U.N., get recognized as a state within the 1967 borders and fight Israel that way.” Once this was clear, Israel should have either put out its own peace plan or tried to shape the U.N. diplomacy with its own resolution that reaffirmed the right of both the Palestinian and the Jewish people to a state in historic Palestine and reignited negotiations.

Mr. Netanyahu did neither. Now the U.S. is scrambling to defuse the crisis, so the U.S. does not have to cast a U.N. veto on a Palestinian state, which could be disastrous in an Arab world increasingly moving toward more popular self-rule.

On Turkey, the Obama team and Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers worked tirelessly these last two months to resolve the crisis stemming from the killing by Israeli commandos of Turkish civilians in the May 2010 Turkish aid flotilla that recklessly tried to land in Gaza. Turkey was demanding an apology. According to an exhaustive article about the talks by the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, the two sides agreed that Israel would apologize only for “operational mistakes” and the Turks would agree to not raise legal claims. Bibi then undercut his own lawyers and rejected the deal, out of national pride and fear that Mr. Lieberman would use it against him. So Turkey threw out the Israeli ambassador.

As for Egypt, stability has left the building there and any new Egyptian government is going to be subjected to more populist pressures on Israel. Some of this is unavoidable, but why not have a strategy to minimize it by Israel putting a real peace map on the table?

I have great sympathy for Israel’s strategic dilemma and no illusions about its enemies. But Israel today is giving its friends — and President Obama’s one of them — nothing to defend it with. Israel can fight with everyone or it can choose not to surrender but to blunt these trends with a peace overture that fair-minded people would recognize as serious, and thereby reduce its isolation.

Unfortunately, Israel today does not have a leader or a cabinet for such subtle diplomacy. One can only hope that the Israeli people will recognize this before this government plunges Israel into deeper global isolation and drags America along with it.

Chicago’s Mayor Challenges Teachers Union

From The New York Times:

One by one, teachers at public elementary schools here have been voting to buck their own union and take Mayor Rahm Emanuel up on an unusual offer: to accept bonus pay in exchange for waiving union contract provisions and keeping children at some schools longer each day.

Union leaders suggest a . . . motive, saying that the sidelining of labor unions and a mood against public workers seen this year in Republican-led states like Ohio and Wisconsin are now coming through in subtler ways in Democratic-leaning cities like this one, the nation’s third largest.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Support for Obama Slips; Unease on 2012 Candidates

From The New York Times:

President Obama’s support is eroding among elements of his base, and a yearlong effort to recapture the political center has failed to attract independent voters, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, leaving him vulnerable at a moment when pessimism over the country’s direction is greater than at any other time since he took office.

Republicans appear more energized than Democrats at the outset of the 2012 presidential campaign, but have not coalesced around a candidate. Even as the party’s nominating contest seems to be narrowing to a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a majority of their respective supporters say they have reservations about their candidate. Half of Republicans who plan to vote in a primary say they would like more choices.

It Wasn't Really an Upset - Another Democratic loss, another message to Obama. This one may come too late.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

An upset is a surprise. The loss of Anthony Weiner's former seat to the Republicans was not a surprise. It was the latest in a long string of referendums on the president's leadership. That string started in 2009 when the New Jersey and Virginia governorships went Republican, and continued in 2010 with the loss of Ted Kennedy's former Senate seat. Then there was last November.

At first these elections looked like, and could be experienced by the White House as, an attempt at a corrective: Change your ways or you'll lose us. By November 2010 they were a warning: You're losing us, we're leaving. Now they are simply more proof of a broad rejection: You've lost us.

How did it happen? It still comes down to three big mistakes: the president's spending decisions, his health-care bill, and the White House's strange inability to understand the breadth and depth of the economic crisis. Spending was both high and same-old-same-old: The 2009 stimulus and the budget proposals were Democratic wish lists. This at the exact moment voters were coming to fear that we are losing America, the strong country of old, and the first thing we must do to right things is stop the hemorrhagic spending in Washington. The health-care bill was huge, expensive, vaguely menacing and lacking in any serious reform. Most amazingly, the White House failed to understand what the financial crisis was. They did not understand it was systemic, world-wide, would last years, and would change everything. They seemed to think it would pass. But the crisis rendered old campaign promises null and demanded new approaches.

History will write of this era when history has the time and the distance. The president would have been helped by wise old aides with wise old heads, people who somewhere along the line had had to meet a payroll. Instead he was surrounded by bright, committed, energetic naïfs who didn't know what they didn't know. They knew Democratic Party politics. They did not know national politics. To know that you have to know the nation's mood.

Anyway, what a disaster cluster.

To the New York race. As this is written, with 92% of precincts counted, Republican Bob Turner leads Democrat David Weprin 53% to 47%. That doesn't look big but is. In 2008, Mr. Weiner won the district with 93%. In 2010, a bad year for Democrats, he beat Mr. Turner with 61%. In 2008 Barack Obama carried the district 55% to 44%. This week a Sienna College poll said voters there now had an unfavorable opinion of the president by 54% to 43%. It's a perfect reversal.

Orthodox Jews and Israel, gay marriage, the economy—all these things played a part, but at the end of the day it was about Mr. Obama. It is always about his leadership now. And that is a great quandary for Democrats, because they are not going to get rid of him, they are not going to primary him, because they don't want to break their party open.

Lloyd Green, a close follower of New York politics and former staffer in the George H.W. Bush campaign of 1988, looked at the voting patterns. The predominantly Catholic 23rd Assembly District went for Mr. Turner by 2,000 votes out of roughly 10,000 cast. In predominantly Jewish and Russian Flatbush, Mr. Turner got more than twice the votes Mr. Weprin did. "The white middle class is heading for the exits," said Mr. Green. The Republican won with a coalition of Catholics, ethnics and Jews. "This was not only Rudy Giuliani's base, it was Bill Clinton's New York base as well."

Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner: "For nearly two decades it has been taken for granted that white residents [of] metro New York are heavily Democratic." Not in this election: "They just issued what amounts to an emphatic thumbs down on the policies of the Obama Democrats."

Meanwhile, those who write about politics struggle each week to find new ways to say the president's poll numbers are worsening. From Bloomberg this week: Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy 62% to 33%. "The president's job approval rating also stands at the lowest of his presidency," 45%. In Virginia, which Mr. Obama carried 53% to 46%, voters in a Quinnipiac poll said 51% to 41% that he doesn't deserve four more years.

In California, which Mr Obama carried with 61% vote in 2008, a Field poll reported only 46% of respondents approve the president's performance. That is a big change even from three months ago, when Californians gave him 54% approval. What happened in those three months? The debt ceiling. Republicans insisted on cuts to equal the debt raise. The nation was anxious, markets jittery, and you have to know where—and when—to pick your battles. The president should have agreed to the cuts, avoided a crisis, and kept walking. He did not, and he continues to pay.

This is all so dire and critical that I will swerve and end with three things I've admired about the president since he entered the White House.

The first is that he has an intact, multigenerational family, a wife and kids and mother-in-law all living together in that big house. This is no doubt a source of strength for him, but it's also moving and impressive to see in a country ravaged by family breakup and fatherless—and sometimes motherless—children. It is a needed example. As nothing human stays intact without great effort, all credit to him, and them.

The second is that he isn't mean. His staffers do snark and push-back, but they don't do targeted abuse, they don't seem to try to take down foes in a personal way, as administrations before them have. Credit goes to the president because it's always the boss who sets the tone.

The third has been a relative absence of deep political scandal. It's been good not to have a Watergate, a Whitewater. But there are signs this week that could change with the Solyndra loan scandal. The White House apparently tried to rush almost half a billion dollars of taxpayer loans to a solar panel manufacturer that later went belly up and took a thousand jobs with it. The reason for the rush: The awarding of the loan would make good PR. This looks bad, and if it's true, heads should quickly roll. It's one thing to be branded as "out of your depth but not corrupt," quite another when it's "out of your depth and corrupt." That is much worse.