.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Cracker Squire

THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

My Photo
Name:
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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The moment you finally think the White House has its act together . . . . - An Unserious Speech Misses the Mark


Congressional reaction to the State of the Union address

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It's almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor "flat." This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.

The central elements of the missed opportunity:

An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America's central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they're cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama's answer is to "freeze" a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it's not a package and it's not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it "sad," told a local radio station the savings offered "won't even pay the interest on the debt we're about to accumulate" in the next two years. The president was trying to "hoodwink" the American people, Mr. Coburn said: "The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It's 27% bigger than it was two years ago." Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it's a matter of "urgency."

Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we'll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we'll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we'll get our fiscal life in order, we'll save our country. Right?

Nah. We'll focus on "greater Internet access," "renewable energy," "one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," "wind and solar," "information technology." "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail." None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who'd say, "Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let's discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!" A better priority might be, "Get the kids out and call the fire department."

Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn't shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He's going to rationalize government? He wants to "get rid of the loopholes" in our tax code. Really? That's good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we're lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery," every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. "Race to the Top" isn't the answer. We all know this.

***

As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. "American innovation" is important. As many as "a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school." We're falling behind in math and science: "Think about it."

Yes, well, all we've done is think about it.

"I've seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I've heard it in the frustrations of Americans." But our deterioration isn't new information, it's a shared predicate of at least 20 years' standing, it's what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what's in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I's out of his speeches. We called his edits "I-ectomies." Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does "I implants."

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That's because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it's not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don't understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write "A Serious Man Seizes the Center." But he was not serious and he didn't seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that's what centrism is.

So goes California, so goes . . . . - California Weighs Vote to Renew Tax Increase

From The Wall Street Journal:

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday will launch the opening salvo in his campaign to ask voters to help plug the state's $25.4 billion budget hole by extending temporary increases on income and sales taxes.

Mr. Brown decided against simply asking the legislature for the tax extensions, which would have broken a campaign pledge. His ballot measure would specifically propose a five-year extension of a temporary increase enacted in 2009 on personal income tax, sales tax and vehicle license fees.

In a poll last week from the Public Policy Institute of California, 53% of respondents approved of that plan, while 41% disapproved. If the tax extension fails, California's legislature will have to restart budget talks from scratch.

Whether Mr. Brown succeeds in getting his unusual tax-extension proposal put before voters will be scrutinized across the country, as governors and legislatures in other cash-strapped states face similar budget woes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mark Sheilds and David Brooks on Obama 'Recalibrating' Stance on Egypt, State of Union

PBS NewsHour from Friday, 1-28-11.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

David Broder writes: Obama missed an opportunity on tax reform

David Broder writes in The Washington Post:

While I was out ill for six weeks in December and January, the world changed. Before that, the White House had badly misjudged the political climate. When I went to Ohio with Vice President Biden in October, he did his best to ignore the evidence of economic pain, giving a pep talk to skeptical factory workers and telling me and other reporters that he believed Democrats would retain their majorities in both the House and Senate.

The election rout came as a shock to President Obama and his administration. But Obama took the lesson and acted promptly. The first step in moving back to the center was to liberate himself from his dependence on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and cut his own deal with Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader of the Senate. In return for a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama got not only big pieces of his own economic agenda but also ratification of the arms treaty with Russia and the termination of "don't ask, don't tell."

Thus fortified, he began to repair the White House, giving it a distinctly Clintonian cast. He had already hired Jack Lew, a skilled negotiator, as his budget chief. He brought in my friend Bill Daley, a politically savvy operative with strong business and banking ties, as chief of staff, and Clinton administration veteran Gene Sperling as his top economic adviser. Liberal Democrats fretted, but the vibes from Washington to Wall Street were good.

Then fate intervened. The Tucson massacre provided the kind of occasion when all of the American people turn to the president to express their horror and grief but also their determination to reach out to each other and recover. As Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had done before him, Obama did not disappoint. His address to the memorial gathering reminded everyone why his voice had been cherished during the 2008 campaign - and why they might want to keep it in the White House.

Everything was cued up for the recovery process to climax at Tuesday's State of the Union address . It played well with the public, with its invocations of bipartisanship and its bursts of economic optimism. But it lacked a centerpiece.

Obama called this a "Sputnik moment" but offered no such ambitious enterprise. The one I had hoped he would choose is the overhaul of the tax code, which could pay multiple dividends.

I also hoped Obama would talk about closing special-interest loopholes, technically known as tax expenditures. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the president's debt commission, had spotlighted the remarkable fact that $1 trillion a year disappears from the Treasury because of these loopholes.

Recovering those funds ought to be at the top of the economic agenda. Big chunks of them are embedded in two pots that have broad public support - the mortgage-interest deduction and the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance.

But at least half of that $1 trillion is steered to favored special interests.

Think what recovering $500 billion a year would mean. If you used half of it to reduce individual and corporate tax rates, as Republicans would like, you would give a huge shot in the arm to economic recovery and job growth. If you used much of the rest to bolster education and alternative energy, and repair infrastructure, as Democrats wish, you could actually do those things without deepening the deficit. And you could even set aside $100 billion to reduce the national debt. What a great message that would send abroad - that the United States is serious about ending its economic tailspin.

I wanted to hear Obama urge Paul Ryan, the new Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee whose intellectually ambitious ideas have enlisted bipartisan interest, to meet soon with Kent Conrad, the retiring Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who well knows the arcane recesses of the tax code. Together, those two could provide an agenda and a strong nudge to the respective tax-writing committees. And I have to believe the big freshman class of legislators would welcome the opportunity to do what no predecessors since another politically divided Congress, prompted by Ronald Reagan, James Baker and the late Dick Darman, and Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, had done in 1986: clean up and simplify the tax code.

For Governors (including Georgia's), Medicaid Looks Ripe for Slashing

From The New York Times:

Hamstrung by federal prohibitions against lowering Medicaid eligibility, governors from both parties are exercising their remaining options in proposing bone-deep cuts to the program during the fourth consecutive year of brutal economic conditions.

Because states confront budget gaps estimated at $125 billion, few essential services — schools, roads, parks — are likely to escape the ax. But the election of tough-minded governors, the evaporation of federal aid, the relentless growth of Medicaid rolls and the exhaustion of alternatives have made the program, which primarily covers low-income children and disabled adults, an outsize target.

In Arizona, which last year ended Medicaid payments for some organ transplants, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, is asking the Obama administration to waive a provision of the new health care law so that the state can remove 280,000 adults from the program’s rolls. In California, the newly elected governor, Jerry Brown, a Democrat, proposes cutting Medicaid by $1.7 billion, in part by limiting the beneficiaries to 10 doctor visits a year and six prescriptions a month.

In the budget he will unveil on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York is expected to propose cutting even more — at least $2 billion from projected state spending on Medicaid, which totaled about $14 billion this year.

And Gov. Nathan Deal, the new Republican leader of Georgia, proposed this month to end Medicaid coverage of dental, vision and podiatry treatments for adults. South Carolina is considering going a step further by also eliminating hospice care.

The governors are taking little joy in their proposals. And many of them, particularly the Republicans, are complaining about provisions of last year’s health care overhaul, and of the stimulus package before it, that require the states to maintain eligibility levels in order to keep their federal Medicaid dollars.

The shrinking of Medicaid programs, if approved by the state legislatures, would come at a tenuous moment for the Obama administration. Starting in 2014, the health care law calls for an enormous expansion of Medicaid eligibility that is expected to add 16 million beneficiaries by 2019.

Some states are now cutting benefits like prescription drugs and mental health treatment that will be required then. The federal government will cover the entire cost of the expansion through 2016, when states must gradually pick up a share, peaking at 10 percent in 2020 and remaining there.

Governors have known that this precipice was near for close to two years.

Medicaid, which covered 48.5 million people in 2009, up 8 percent in a year, is a joint state and federal program. The federal government provides the lion’s share of the money and sets minimum standards for eligibility and benefits that states may exceed if they wish.

In 2009, Congress provided about $90 billion for states in the stimulus package to offset the cost of surging Medicaid rolls. Last August, it extended the aid at a reduced level, adding $15 billion over six months. The relief raised the federal share to between 65 percent and 82 percent, depending on the state, up from between 50 percent and 75 percent.

While that money is widely credited with staving off catastrophe, deficits were so deep that 39 states cut Medicaid payments to providers in 2010, and 20 states pared benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

On July 1, the enhanced federal aid will disappear, causing an overnight increase of between one-fourth and one-third in each state’s share of Medicaid’s costs. But because of the federal eligibility restrictions, the options for states are largely limited to cutting benefits that are not federally required; reducing payments to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes; and raising taxes on those providers.

“States have already cut payments to health care providers and scaled back benefits over the last few years, so these new proposed cuts are much more painful,” said Edwin Park, a health expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research group.

A number of states, Texas and California among them, are considering further reductions of as much as 10 percent in payments to providers. Medicaid reimbursement is already so low that many physicians refuse to accept the coverage.

Several states also plan to raise co-payments for beneficiaries. And a number of governors, notably Rick Scott in Florida, are considering vast expansions of managed care plans in an attempt to control costs.

Mr. Brown’s proposed cap on doctors’ visits in California would affect only 10 percent of Medicaid recipients, said Toby Douglas, the state’s Medicaid director. But many of them would be among the sickest beneficiaries. Mr. Brown also has suggested eliminating an adult day care program that serves 27,000 people who might otherwise end up in nursing homes.

The Hotel Dell



The Wall Street Journal reports that the Blackstone Group LP is close to a deal with the owners of the historic Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego to become a major owner of the property.

Sally's father was stationed at Coronado for a while during his career in the U.S. Navy, and we love to visit the famed island whenever we can.

We always visit and eat at the famous Hotel del Coronado, also known simply as "the Dell," that was built in 1888 and has long been considered one of the world's top resorts. But staying there is a bit rich for our blood, and we stay across the street at a place I highly recommend that is pictured above, the Glorietta Bay Inn.

This mansion is located immediately across the street from the Dell, and was built by the principal owner and developer of the Dell. Although there are rooms in the historic mansion itself, Sally and I enjoy staying in fairly new and reasonably-priced accommodations in structures build immediately behind the Glorietta Bay Inn and part of Glorietta Bay Inn itself. The Inn has a great Web site, but you need to call well ahead to reserve rooms. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Senate Tea Party Caucus holds first meeting without some who had embraced banner

From The Washington Post:

The Republican senators who rode the tea party wave to victory in the fall are now weighing whether that label will help them on Capitol Hill or become a scarlet letter.

Thursday offered the first clear illustration of their situation as the newly formed Senate Tea Party Caucus held its inaugural meeting without three of the senators who won election under the tea party banner.

"I sprang from the tea party and have great respect for what it represents," said Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.), a polyester and plastics manufacturer who entered politics last year and defeated Sen. Russell Feingold, a Democrat who had held his seat for 18 years.

Johnson emerged as one of the tea party movement's bright stars but has decided not to join the Tea Party Caucus because he fears doing so could be divisive. Instead, he wants to bring tea party ideas under the broader Republican umbrella.

"The reason I ran for the U.S. Senate was to not only stop the Obama agenda but reverse it," he said in a statement. "I believe our best chance of doing that is to work towards a unified Republican Conference so that's where I will put my energy."

The decisions of Johnson and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) not to join the Tea Party Caucus underscore the fissures within the Republican Party as it seeks to build an effective governing coalition in Washington while satisfying an emboldened conservative base outside the Beltway. And for the tea party, the new Congress presents a test of whether the movement's activist momentum can continue within the rhythms and business of governing.

Freshman Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) joined Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in starting the Tea Party Caucus as a venue for promoting tea party ideals - cutting spending and bringing down the federal debt, for example. The only other senator to join was freshman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Go figure: As Arabs protest, Obama administration offers assertive support

From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration is openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East, a stance that is far less tempered than the one the president has taken during past unrest in the region.

As demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo and Beirut have unfolded in recent days, President Obama and his senior envoys to the region have thrown U.S. support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target longtime U.S. allies such as Egypt.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity . . . to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." She urged "the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites."

Asked whether the administration supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs replied only: "Egypt is a strong ally."

Administration officials say they will pursue a dual-track approach in the coming weeks, both speaking with civil activists in Egypt and meeting with officials to encourage reform in the bellwether Arab nation.

Such an approach comes with a degree of risk in the region, where democratic reforms have often empowered well-organized Islamist movements at odds with U.S. objectives. As a result, the United States has often favored the stability of authoritarian allies in the Middle East over the uncertainty of democratic change.

The administration's assertive stance contrasts sharply with Obama's approach during his first year in office, when he often tempered his advocacy of human rights and democracy with a large measure of pragmatism. His decision this time reflects the rising importance of those issues in his foreign policy goals.

A little party history about Old Hickory’s Ghost: How Andrew Jackson's legacy haunted both North and South on the eve of the Civil War.


A portrait of President Andrew Jackson, along with his famous quotation from the Nullification Crisis, “The Union must and shall be preserved.”

Russell McClintock writes in The New York Times:

Americans have always obsessed over their nation’s history, even when there wasn’t much to obsess over. The founding generation had barely passed on before politicians began scrambling to claim their legacy – and at no time was that more true than during the Secession Crisis. Secessionists claimed to be emulating the revolutionaries’ struggle for liberty against a tyrannical central government, while Northerners were determined not to let disloyal rebels tear down the noble republic the founders had created.

But the dynamics of secession also drew attention to a more recent historical event – the Nullification Crisis of 1833 – and brought back to the center of debate that most controversial of early Americans, Andrew Jackson. Conflicting interpretations of his legacy tell a lot about how the North and South – and Democrats and Republicans within the North – saw the crisis.

The tumult of the Jacksonian era was still fresh in America’s collective mind. He was the last president to serve two terms, and much had changed during his 13 years on the national political scene. When he first ran for president in 1824, there was only one national party, and Americans, taught by the founders to distrust parties as the tools of ambitious demagogues, relished the absence of partisan conflict. By the time Jackson left office in 1837, national politics was dominated by a thriving two-party system. The underlying reasons for this change were numerous, but the immediate catalyst was the impulsive, provocative Indian- and British-fighter from Tennessee.

To his supporters, “Old Hickory” was the quintessential Washington outsider: a tough, bold Westerner with patience for neither political maneuvering nor legalistic hairsplitting, a triumphant warrior who pursued corrupt politicians and elite bankers and industrialists with the same grim-faced resolve which had brought him victory over Indians, the Spanish and the British. To these “Democrats,” as his new party was called, Jackson was the champion of the common man, and they followed him into battle against powerful centralized government and the would-be aristocrats who sought to profit from it.

His enemies said Jackson was a loose cannon, a hot-tempered demagogue who shamelessly courted the masses with no thought to constitutional principles or the rule of law. They denounced him as an aspiring “King Andrew I” and styled themselves “Whigs” in emulation of the American Revolutionaries, who in their own fight for liberty had labeled themselves after the British opponents of absolute monarchy.

Muddying the Democratic purity of Jackson’s memory was the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and ‘33, in which the explosive executive displayed the unyielding decisiveness that his followers admired but also revealed the limits of his support for state rights. When the South Carolina legislature responded to a new protective tariff by “nullifying” it (that is, declaring it unconstitutional and therefore void), Jackson issued a blistering proclamation in which he condemned nullification as a treasonous attack on the Union. Privately vowing to lead an army into South Carolina himself and hang the nullifiers, he sent arms to local unionist military forces, reinforced the navy detachment at Charleston Harbor, made arrangements to collect import taxes at the harbor’s forts and requested that Congress give him whatever authority he needed to make South Carolina back down.

Jackson also worked behind the scenes for compromise (although in the end it was legislation negotiated by his rivals Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun that enabled South Carolina to stand down without losing face). Nevertheless, it was his resolute public stance for the Union that frustrated, resentful Northerners seized upon during the Secession Crisis. Ironically, Republicans, most of them former Whigs, were vociferous in their call for a strong Jacksonian response to secession, while most Northern Democrats – citing Jacksonian ideals of respect for local government and condemnation of antislavery agitation – called for compromise.

Northerners likewise summoned Jackson’s memory as a standard which their own president was failing miserably to meet. In the wake of Major Robert Anderson’s daring transfer to Fort Sumter, James Buchanan’s comparative impotence led Northerners to moan, “Oh, for an hour of Old Hickory!”

On Jan. 8, the anniversary of Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, state and local leaders across the North ordered commemorations – a common practice, but one that took on thick political overtones in this climate. In Massachusetts the newly inaugurated governor, John Andrew, ordered 100 guns fired on Boston Common to honor both the Battle of New Orleans and Major Anderson. In Chicago, Mayor John Wentworth ordered business suspended so that people might gather to express their devotion to the Union, with cannons firing and bells tolling throughout the day. In Auburn, N.Y., home of procompromise leader William H. Seward, a hundred guns were fired “in honor of the memory of General Jackson as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and as the defender of the Union against nullification and treason.”

Even Jackson’s bitterest opponents rallied around him. In the 1820s and ’30s, General Winfield Scott had wrangled with Jackson both professionally and politically, their feud at one point nearly resulting in a duel. But in mid-December, with South Carolina’s secession looming, Scott pointedly reminded Buchanan of Jackson’s vigorous actions in 1833, emphasizing Jackson’s view that he was merely defending the government, “but that if So. Carolina attacked [federal officials] it would be So. C. that made war upon the U. States.”

Scott was far from alone: Despite the large number of former Whigs among their ranks, it was Republicans especially who embraced Jackson’s legacy. Party newspapers reprinted the Nullification Proclamation, praising its forceful response to South Carolina’s treason. Over and again editors, speakers and correspondents urged their leaders to take “a firm Jackson stand” against secession and hoped that Lincoln would be “another Jackson.”

The president-elect himself was closely examining Jackson’s record. In the 1830s, echoing the warnings of arch-Whig Henry Clay that a “military chieftain” like Jackson had no place in a republic, the young Lincoln had warned against the rise of “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.” But in composing his strategy against secession, Lincoln turned to the Old Hero’s Nullification Proclamation. Its ideas would be prominent in his Inaugural Address in March, including its claim that the Union predated the states, its insistence that no nation has within its fundamental law a provision for its own destruction, its emphasis on the obligations imposed by the president’s oath of office, and its declaration that any use of federal force would represent not aggression but self-defense.

Democrats, who blamed Republicans for the crisis and urged compromise with the South, struggled to maintain a claim on their party’s founding father. Democratic newspapers pointed out that not only Jackson but Whig idol Henry Clay had sought to defuse the situation through concessions, and they tried to align Republicans, with their state-level resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, with South Carolina’s 1833 stand. “If nullification be odious in South Carolina,” demanded the Daily Ohio Statesman, “is it not equally so in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio?”

The entire debate bore little, of course, on the actual question of the Secession Crisis. Few Northerners considered how closely the new crisis actually paralleled the earlier one. Indeed, there were a number of fundamental differences between the two, prominent among them three decades of mounting sectional tension, which had made Southern defensiveness stronger and more widespread while desensitizing Northerners to disunion threats.

But the most important difference stemmed from the strategy of Southern radicals. The chief reason South Carolina nullifiers backed down in 1833 was their realization that none of the other slave states supported them. But they also saw how Jackson’s forcefulness frightened and alienated those same moderate Southerners. In 1860 the radicals did not wait for cooperation among the slave states; rather, South Carolina’s secession was calculated to generate momentum that would either carry the rest of the South out of the Union along with it or pressure the federal government to carry through on the forceful response that Jackson had only threatened, thereby winning over the less-committed slave states.

It succeeded brilliantly in doing both. Over the next six weeks, despite varying levels of secession feeling, every other cotton state followed the Palmetto State’s example. And when the tidal wave of disunion broke against Unionist majorities in the Upper South, the mere existence of the seven-state Deep South Confederacy would impel Lincoln’s April decision to reinforce Fort Sumter, sparking open conflict. Once he called on the remaining states to help suppress the Deep South’s rebellion, four more slave states, including all-important Virginia, seceded and joined the new Confederacy.

In other words, it was neither Republicans nor Northern Democrats who had learned the most important lessons of Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis: that honor belonged to the fire-eating radicals who controlled his erstwhile opponent, the South Carolina state government.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Post hits the nail on the head with regard to the State of the Union address

Editorial from The Washington Post:

PRESIDENT OBAMA entered office promising to be a different kind of politician - one who would speak honestly with the American people about the hard choices they face and who would help make those hard calls. Tuesday night's State of the Union Address would have been the moment to make good on that promise. He disappointed.

It's not that everything he said in the speech was wrong; on the contrary, we agree with much of it. To remain competitive in the world, and to reverse the trend of rising inequality at home, the government will have to invest, as Mr. Obama proposed, in scientific research, education and infrastructure. To stay safe abroad, the country can't stint on national defense or foreign aid. Republican visions of dramatically smaller government are unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

But where will the money come from? "We will make sure this is fully paid for," Mr. Obama said as he grandly pledged to "redouble" road and bridge repair. With higher gasoline taxes? Traditionally, that has been the way. Mr. Obama didn't elaborate.

The president promised to freeze discretionary spending - exempting, that is, defense, veterans affairs, homeland security, Medicare and Social Security - for five years. Given that he'd already promised a three-year freeze, this was more incremental than earthshaking and, as he acknowledged, in any case affects only 12 percent of the federal budget.

The reality, as Mr. Obama understands, is that the country is headed for fiscal catastrophe unless it does some politically unpopular things: unwind the Bush tax cuts, including for the middle class; reduce projected Social Security benefits for future retirees, exempting the poor and disabled; rein in the cost of health care; limit popular income tax deductions. Mr. Obama knows this, but last night he did little to prepare Americans for any of it. The best you could say is that he left the door open to work with Congress on these issues.

In his first year in office, Mr. Obama said he couldn't confront the nation's long-term fiscal peril because of imminent financial collapse. In his second year, he said he needed health-care reform first, to "bend the curve" of rising health-care costs. He called for a bipartisan commission to study the debt and promised to pivot in his third year to fiscal reform.

Now that bipartisan commission has reported, but Mr. Obama didn't fully endorse any of its recommendations. To the contrary, he promised more jobs for teachers and construction workers. He warned against "slashing" Social Security benefits. Corporate tax reform is fine, but if it's revenue-neutral, it only postpones - and makes more politically difficult - the task of narrowing the nation's deficit.

So what happens now? Maybe some members of Congress will display the courage the president has lacked. Maybe Mr. Obama, in the budget he proposes next month, will grapple more realistically with the hard choices than he did Tuesday night. But even if he does, how can he expect public support if he hasn't made the case for austerity? From the man who promised to change Washington, it seemed all too drearily familiar.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hezbollah Chooses Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister

From The New York Times:

A prime minister chosen by Hezbollah and its allies won enough support on Monday to form Lebanon’s government, unleashing angry protests, realigning politics and culminating the generation-long ascent of the Shiite Muslim movement from shadowy militant group to the country’s pre-eminent political and military force.

Hezbollah’s success served as a stark measure of the shifting constellation of power in this part of the Middle East, where the influence of the United States and its Arab allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — is seen by politicians and diplomats as receding, while Iran and Syria have become more assertive.

How to Continue the Obama Upswing - One idea he should embrace: a ban on extended ammo clips.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The State of the Union Address is usually among the most important and least memorable of presidential speeches. The speech itself, in an august setting, is an opportunity for a president to break through in a new way. TV and radio carry it live, and it's hard for the average citizen to avoid seeing at least a piece of it. It's a real chance for a White House to tell the American people "This is where we stand, this is why we are here, this is what we believe in."

A prediction: President Obama's speech will be unusually good. Why? Because he's showing signs of understanding that if you say something simply, clearly and sparingly, it can stick. As a rule, when Mr. Obama speaks, he literally says too many words, and they're not especially interesting words. They're dull and bureaucratic or windy and vague, too round and soft to pierce and enter your brain.

The speech takes place at the midpoint of his administration and at the beginning of what may turn out to be a Clintonesque comeback. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll notes this week that his approval rating is at 53%, up eight points since December.

A big thing the president has going for him now, and part of the reason for his improved fortunes, is that he was chastened in 2010. Americans like chastened presidents, especially ones who have acted with extreme ambition and lack of humility. Americans know their presidents have extraordinary power, and so they enjoy reminding them who's boss. In the 2010 election they did just that. But after humbling him, they will, in their fairness, give him a second look at some point. Voters also did for the president what he could not do for himself: They surgically removed Nancy Pelosi from his hip by taking away her majority and her speakership. He can now stand alone.

Here are three things he can do in the speech that would be surprising, shrewd, centrist and good policy. The first may seem small but is not. Normal people are not afraid of a lowering of discourse in political speech. They don't like it, but it's not keeping them up nights. Normal people are afraid of nuts with guns. That keeps them up nights. They know our society has grown more broken, families more sundered, our culture more degraded, and they fear it is producing more lost and disturbed young people. They fear those young people walking into a school or a mall with a semiautomatic pistol with an extended clip.

What civilian needs a pistol with a magazine that loads 33 bullets and allows you to kill that many people without even stopping to reload? No one but people with bad intent. Those clips were banned once; the president should call for reimposing the ban. The Republican Party will not go to the wall to defend extended clips. The problem is the Democratic Party, which overreached after the assassinations of the 1960s, talked about banning all handguns, and suffered a lasting political setback. Now Democrats are so spooked that they won't even move forward on small and obvious things like this. The president should seize the moment and come out strong for a ban.

Second, his words on health care should not be defiant, high-handed or intransigent. The House this week voted to repeal ObamaCare. If the bill gets to his desk, he will veto it. But shrewdness here would be in conciliation. He should sincerely—underline sincerely—offer to discuss changing those parts of the law Republicans find most objectionable.

Third, he should argue for extension of the debt limit by offering a grand bargain: In return, he will work hand in hand with Republicans to cut or limit spending that can reasonably and quickly be cut or limited. This too would win support, and respect, from centrists and others.

The great thing for the president is that expectations are low. The political class sees him making a comeback; they're eager to see and laud the speech. But again, no one expects much from a State of the Union, and the president's reputation as a giver of speeches is wildly inflated. What he says is not usually interesting. He is interesting, but what he says is usually not. In this he is like Bill Clinton.

He is a president with everything to gain from shrewd decisions, moderate thinking, and respect for the center. He seems to have learned that wanting popularity and public approval is not, actually, below him. In fact, it's part of his job.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Structure Keeps Mafia Atop Crime Heap - Strict Hierarchy & Ability to Recruit Enable La Cosa Nostra to Survive Challenges From Other Organizations

From The Wall Street Journal:

Over the past three decades, Russian mobsters, Chinese gangsters, Mexican cartels and a host of other groups have all grabbed slices of the criminal activity traditionally dominated by the mafia.

But none have come close to exerting the kind of wide-ranging influence still enjoyed by La Cosa Nostra, as the Italian-American mob is known.

That is partly because of how the different gangs have organized themselves. The mafia has a strict hierarchical structure, law-enforcement officials said, and it has proven capable of finding new soldiers. Even after imprisonment of senior leadership, it survives, and in some places thrives, though most experts agree that its operations are now largely confined to its traditional bases in the Northeast and Chicago.

This week's round-up of more than 100 suspected mob members and associates is unlikely to stop the mafia's core businesses: extortion, loan-sharking, fraud and theft. Yet the arrests also indicate how difficult it is these days to be a mafia leader—paranoid about informants, afraid of telephones and dreading the early-morning knock on the door.

"We aggressively attack them…and the sentences are very large, but they continue to roll the dice," said David Shafer, who heads the Organized Crime Branch in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York Office, which also has squads dedicated to Russian and Asian gangs.

The mob has evolved in part by outsourcing, contracting out some of its criminal work to motorcycle gangs, according to Howard Abadinsky, a professor at St. John's University who writes about organized crime. The so-called Outlaws gang has done a lot work in recent years with the Chicago mob, while the Hell's Angels are used by New York City's mafia families. Philadelphia mobsters use a gang called the Pagans.

Russian gangsters were once feared as the next criminal superpower. But their looser structure, which helps them avoid detection by law enforcement, has also kept them from growing into an organization able to recruit the number of members needed to challenge the mafia.

The Russian networks tend to come together briefly for particular criminal plots and then disband, according to Michael Vecchione, who heads the rackets division at the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

Mr. Shafer, the FBI official, said some Russian crooks also realized there were great profits to be made in white-collar crime, such as scams involving insurance or medical fraud, "so why do the extortion or gambling?"

Most Asian gangs, meanwhile, tend to victimize only members of their own immigrant group and therefore remain small compared with much larger mafia families, experts who study the groups said.

In the late 1980s, Chinese and Vietnamese gangs such as the Ghost Shadows, Born to Kill and Flying Dragons were operating in New York City's Chinatown, engaging in gambling, drug-trafficking, prostitution, robbery, extortion and other crimes, including murder.

A series of racketeering prosecutions effectively dismantled the most dangerous of those groups, according to Mr. Shafer, reducing them to smaller, less ambitious groups that he said were more akin to "roaming wolf packs" than true street gangs.

But the true breadth and penetration of some ethnic gangs isn't entirely clear. For instance, Russian criminal networks are particularly difficult to crack because of the foreign-language expertise required, experts said.

One area dominated by the newer gangs is the U.S. drug trade, where Mexican cartels are now challenging the Colombians for supremacy, said John Gilbride, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's New York Office.

The shift in power began in the mid-1990s when the Colombian drug lords started paying the Mexican cartels—whose members transported the cocaine and heroin into the U.S. in tractor trailers and vehicles with hidden traps—with drugs instead of money.

But Mr. Abadinsky said the big drug cartels were "one-trick ponies" and didn't participate in non-drug-related crime since nothing else was as profitable.

So while the days of John Gotti—the "Dapper Don" whose swagger and scheming made him the most wanted mobster of his time—are long gone, the Italian-American mob remains the most powerful criminal enterprise in the U.S., mafia observers say.

A former mobster, who first joined a New York crime family 25 years ago, said: "The mob is still around but the education to it ain't there."

But he said the mob always had a comeback. "It will regroup. Everybody will lay low and see what happens. Then all of a sudden, little by little, they'll come out and they'll start regrouping. They gotta. There's too much money, and you gotta remember their egos won't let them walk away."

New Faces Appear at Bargaining Table: In Cash-Strapped States, Gov't Managers Form Unions; Organized Labor's Share of Overall Work Force Falls Again

From The Wall Street Journal:

Even as organized labor's share of America's public and private work force continued to slide last year, unions appeared to be growing in one place, among government managers and high-paid workers.

In Seattle, prosecutors and supervisors at the city's electric utility both have formed collective bargaining units in the past year, while in central Minnesota, managers at a regional library system have created its first union of any kind. In Sacramento County, Calif., a group that includes management engineers and lawyers nine months ago voted to become a collective bargaining unit for the first time.

The moves come as union membership as a whole continues to slide in the U.S., both in the public and private sectors. Union members accounted for only 11.9% of the work force in 2010, the Labor Department reported Friday, down from 12.3% in 2009 and far below the peak of 28.3% hit in 1954.

The 7.6 million government workers in unions made up more than half of the 14.7 million workers in the U.S. who belonged to a union last year, with the state and local government sectors among the most heavily unionized in the economy. Friday's Labor Department report showed union membership in the public sector slipped to 36.2% in 2010, down from 37.4% the year before, in part reflecting government work-force layoffs.

Forming unions is no guarantee of better wages or benefits. But in practice, simply filing a petition to form a union can prevent pay cuts. That's because governments that allow their employees to unionize are typically barred from making such changes during union organizing, because it could be construed as an illegal attempt to keep the workers from joining.

Efforts to unionize managers could make it harder for cities to trim their budgets, according to Michael Kolb, executive director of the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, a trade group for high-level government managers, who often negotiate with unions. "It's a roadblock to balance the budget, because it's another process you have to go through," he said.

Public-sector unions at the state and local levels have no federal protection and are governed by state law. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia give collective bargaining rights to most types of public workers, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Managers at the state and local level can typically join unions, in contrast to private-sector managers, who are generally barred from joining unions under federal labor law. Public-sector managers often form their own bargaining units, but in some cases they can join the same unions as their staff, creating potential bargaining conflicts over pensions and other issues.

State and local tax revenues, though once again growing, are still below peak levels in 2008, and money from the 2009 federal stimulus act, which helped prop up budgets, has been largely spent. Concerns about cities' ability to get their fiscal houses in order have roiled the municipal bond market, raising borrowing costs for many cities.

In general, unions have had more success organizing new members in the public sector, compared with the private sector, which is one reason a majority of union members now work for the government. Unions win more than 90% of organizing elections in the public sector, compared with roughly 65% in the private sector, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. She attributes the higher success rate partly to less opposition by government agencies to union organizing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Obama Rises to the Challenge - He sounded like the president, not a denizen of the faculty lounge.

Peggy Noonan wrote in last Saturday's (1-15-11) edition of The Wall Street Journal:

The beginning of the president's speech wasn't good, and was marked by the sonorous banalities on which White House staffs in times of crisis always insist. "We join you in your grief," "We mourn with you for the fallen," "a quintessentially American scene . . . shattered by a gunman's bullets." Modern presidents sometimes speak as if their words were crafted by producers for a TV newsmagazine like "Dateline." This is bad because television producers tend to think their audience is composed of people who require the plonkingly obvious to be repeatedly stated in the purplest prose. The trend should be stopped. Presidents are not anchormen of true-crime shows, or were not meant to be.

I begin grouchily to underscore the sincerity of the praise that follows. About a third of the way through, the speech took on real meaning and momentum, and by the end it was very good, maybe great. The speech had a proper height. It was large-spirited and dealt with big things. It was adroit and without rancor. The president didn't mourn, he inspirited.

It began to turn when Mr. Obama started to make things concrete. Vaporous talk of victims turned into specific facts about real human beings: Phyllis Schneck was a gifted quilter, Dorwan Stoddard spent his spare time fixing up the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. But the speech came into its own when the president spoke, again in concrete terms, of the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: "I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here." He had learned that "right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues in Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time."

This was met with thunderous applause. He repeated the sentence: "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time." More and deeper applause. Something seemed to shift at this point. Suddenly the president was fully integrated into the text, he was it and it was him. He lauded the heroes who did specific things. To Daniel Hernandez, in the front row: "You ran through the chaos to minister to your boss." "We are grateful to the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload." "We are grateful to petite Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition."

He was saying: We are not a nation of victims, we are a nation in which people work together doing brave things and achieving great outcomes. "Heroism is here . . . just waiting to be summoned." This is a statement worthy of a president.

Throughout Mr. Obama's career, he has critiqued America and its leadership from an outsider's stance, from that of an intellectual relatively new to public life. His sound was all faculty lounge. In this speech he celebrated America, and in celebrating it, he aligned himself more closely with the values the American people most justly celebrate in themselves—instinctive courage, idealism, willingness to take the initiative. His remarks reminded me, in fact, of part of the speech Ronald Reagan gave when he first announced for the presidency, which I read the other day in Craig Shirley's history of the 1980 campaign, "Rendezvous with Destiny."

Reagan said he saw America as "a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naive; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom."

The heart of Mr. Obama's speech asked a question. The lives of those who died, and the actions of the heroes of the day, pose a challenge. What is required of us now, how do we honor them?

Here, deftly, he addressed the destructive media debate that followed the tragedy. But he approached the subject with compassion and sympathy. It is human nature to try to explain things to ourselves, to "try and impose some order on the chaos," to say this happened because of that. And so we debate, and consider causes and motivations. Much of this is good, but not all. "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized," we are too eager to lay to blame "at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do." It is important that we talk to each other "in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds." Scripture tells us "that there is evil in the world." We don't know what triggered the attack, but "what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."

Lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, but "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [the victims] proud."

In saying this, the president took the air out of all the accusations and counteraccusations. By the end of the speech they were yesterday's story.

We have to be better, said the president. The way to honor the dead and those who tried to help them is to live up to their example, and make our country worthy of them. Of 9-year-old Christina Green, who was drawn to public service: "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it."

This was just what was needed. After a terrible tragedy, a political leader came forward with words that ennobled and consoled. Those rattled and damaged by the tragedy deserved it, and—sorry to be corny, but this is true—our children are watching and need to hear words that are a plus, not a minus.

Mr. Obama in some new way found the tone of the presidency in this speech, the sound of it. In a purely political sense he was talking to the center—to the great beating heart of the middle of the country—while going to the center himself. And so it may mark a turning point in his fortunes, because it prompts and allows people to see him in a new way, a fresher way.

One speech can't change everything, and shouldn't. But one speech can begin something new, or boost a certain momentum. After the strategic bow to the Republicans on taxes, and the appointment of a more moderate and business-friendly chief of staff, the Tucson speech marks the third time since the election that the president has in effect reached toward the center. The question in the coming year will be whether he can gain some purchase on that ground, whether he can begin to hold it, as he did in 2008.

Mr. Obama is attempting to come back as a real force, and as a potentially effective thwarter of Republican intentions, especially on health care. You can see the sweet reason and rope-a-dope coming: If there's a specific part of the program you have problems with please tell me, let's work together to make it better.

Republicans will have to meet him with dignity and good faith, and go toe to toe on one thing, the facts. For the facts on this are on their side.

But they should know their adversary. Something is going on with him. He's showing the signs of someone who has learned from two solid years of embarrassment and unpopularity. Maybe he has "not come back from hell with empty hands." Maybe he is going to be formidable.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Path Is Sought for States to Escape Debt Burdens

From The New York Times:

Policy makers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers.

Unlike cities, the states are barred from seeking protection in federal bankruptcy court. Any effort to change that status would have to clear high constitutional hurdles because the states are considered sovereign.

But proponents say some states are so burdened that the only feasible way out may be bankruptcy, giving Illinois, for example, the opportunity to do what General Motors did with the federal government’s aid.

Beyond their short-term budget gaps, some states have deep structural problems, like insolvent pension funds, that are diverting money from essential public services like education and health care. Some members of Congress fear that it is just a matter of time before a state seeks a bailout, say bankruptcy lawyers who have been consulted by Congressional aides.

Bankruptcy could permit a state to alter its contractual promises to retirees, which are often protected by state constitutions, and it could provide an alternative to a no-strings bailout. Along with retirees, however, investors in a state’s bonds could suffer, possibly ending up at the back of the line as unsecured creditors.

President Kennedy's inaugural address: 'I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.'

E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes in The Washington Post:

It's remembered as a day chilled by "a Siberian wind knifing down Pennsylvania Avenue" and illuminated by "the dazzling combination of bright sunshine and deep snow."

On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy began his presidency with a speech at once soaring and solemn. Fifty years on, we have not heard an inaugural address like it. Tethered to its time and place, it still challenges with its ambition to harness realism to idealism, patriotism to service, national interest to universal aspiration.

Theodore Sorensen, the speech's principal architect, was always modest about his own role, less so about the inaugural itself. "It certainly was not as good as Lincoln's second or FDR's first," Sorensen wrote in his memoir, adding that Kennedy thought it not as good as Jefferson's first.

By acknowledging what their joint product was not, Kennedy and Sorensen defined the historical company it still keeps.

A great speech includes lines so memorable that pedestrian orators eventually transform them into cliches. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This muscular call for sacrifice has launched a thousand lesser speeches.

"Civility is not a sign of weakness" and "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate" - staple references whenever politics becomes particularly vicious.

"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." And the torch gets passed again and again, whenever a younger politician is marking out generational territory.

It was a compact speech - at 1,355 words, it was less than twice the length of this column. Kennedy, wrote the historian Robert Dallek, insisted that it be brief because "I don't want people to think I'm a windbag." He needn't have worried.

Right and left still battle over Kennedy's words. Were they a call for resolve before the communist threat ("we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty") or were they a plea for negotiation as the answer to nuclear annihilation?

Probably both. The classic realist's declaration that "only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed" was followed by this:

"But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course - both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

"So let us begin anew."

And so have we remained a nation forever in search of new beginnings, invoking, by turns, Lincoln or Kennedy to bless our fresh starts.

All writers take heart: Kennedy and Sorensen wrote and rewrote, often accepting changes proposed by friends. One fortunate fix came from John Kenneth Galbraith. The final address read: "United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures." The original draft referred to "joint ventures," which Galbraith thought sounded like a mining company.

They also took columnist Walter Lippmann's suggestion, changing "enemy" to "adversary." The less hostile word fit better with the speech's wish that "a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion" - a line the self-critical Sorensen saw as "a metaphorical stretch."

And Kennedy advisers Harris Wofford and Louis Martin won the insertion of six words and helped change history.

In the original draft, Kennedy declared that the new generation for which he spoke was "unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today."

To which Wofford and Martin got Kennedy to add, "at home and around the world," thus marrying the struggle for freedom abroad with the cause of domestic civil rights. There would be no turning back.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Crackdown on Illegal Workers Grows

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration plans to intensify a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants with the establishment of an audit office designed to bolster verification of company hiring records.

In an interview, John Morton, chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, said the Employment Compliance Inspection Center would "address a need to conduct audits even of the largest employers with a very large number of employees." The office would be announced Thursday, he said.

Enforcement activity during the Bush administration focused on high-profile raids in which thousands of illegal immigrants were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. Relatively few companies and their executives were prosecuted.

In contrast, the Obama administration has made employers the center of its immigration policy with "silent raids." Critics say the policy has penalized small employers while failing to target larger employers.

Since ICE initiated the IMAGE program in 2006, only 115 companies have signed on, with many reluctant to open their books to government scrutiny and to invest in training and new systems to bolster their employer-verification process, experts say.

About 11 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S., according to government estimates. Without them, experts say, such industries as construction, lodging and agriculture would be forced to radically change how they operate—sharply boosting costs for consumers or curtailing the services they provide.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When it rains, it pours: Conrad's Exit to Pressure Democrats

From The Wall Street Journal:

Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota announced Tuesday that he wouldn't seek re-election, denting his party's hopes of retaining its Senate majority in 2012.

Mr. Conrad's departure after next year will make it harder for Democrats to hold his seat in what could be a tough election season for the party. In November, North Dakota voters picked Republicans for Senate and House seats that had been held by Democrats.

Next year, Democrats will have to defend 23 Senate seats, many of them in conservative or swing states such as North Dakota, Missouri, Virginia and Nebraska. Republicans are defending only 10 Senate seats in 2012. That landscape gives the GOP a chance to overcome the Democrats' majority in the Senate, which stands at 53 seats to 47. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) also won't be seeking re-election, according to people familiar with the matter.

So far, the only Republican to announce retirement plans is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana reaffirmed his plans to seek re-election, despite a likely primary challenge from a tea party-backed candidate. Republican prospects are strong in both states.

North Dakota has become an emblem of the Democratic Party's weakened position in the Upper Midwest. The state's three-person delegation had been held entirely by Democrats since 1992. Like South Dakota and Montana, the state has often displayed a kind of prairie populism and a centrist streak in its social attitudes that has allowed Democrats to win congressional seats, even as voters favored Republicans in presidential elections.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sarah Palin's effort to defuse controversy using words 'blood libel' to describe her critics in the media - Not a good choice of words Sarah

From The Washington Post:

Blood libel is the centuries-old anti-Semitic myth that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals such as baking unleavened bread during Passover. It was used to justify persecution of Jews.

Why Obama Chose Bill Daley - The departure of press secretary Robert Gibbs is another sign that big White House changes are afoot.

Karl Rove, a/k/a "The Architect [of President Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns]," writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's first chief of staff, was treated like a rock star by journalists. He made good copy with vivid quotes and manic energy. He also oversaw a clearly dysfunctional White House.

Mr. Emanuel's interim successor, Pete Rouse, was the anti-Emanuel: self-effacing and calm. He did the president a great service by convincing Mr. Obama to pick a new chief of staff from outside his personal and ideological circles.

A veteran congressional staffer who joined Mr. Obama when he came to the Senate, Mr. Rouse appears to have gone so far as to tell the president that to strengthen the White House, he must cast off long-time aides who wanted more authority but weren't up to it.

For example, last April the Washington Post reported that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was "eager" for "a senior advisor role." On Jan. 5, Mr. Gibbs announced he was leaving the administration—though he was quick to say he'd help on the president's re-election and remain a trusted adviser.

But when someone leaves the White House, the idea of continuing, influential input is a polite fiction. Mr. Gibbs was a powerful insider. Now he will become one distant voice among many. There may be something to be said for an expensive suite on K Street, but in terms of influence it can't compete with a West Wing office.

Mr. Gibbs signed on with Mr. Obama at the start of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. So Mr. Rouse, who likely told the president he must deny Mr. Gibbs a larger White House policy role and instead ease the acerbic press secretary out, was suggesting a tough but necessary move. If he did, Mr. Rouse is owed thanks by Mr. Obama for candor in pushing him to do what no president likes to do: reshape his White House.

Mr. Rouse also apparently convinced the president that his new chief of staff should have stature and centrist credentials. Hence the selection of William Daley, who was President Bill Clinton's Commerce Secretary.

Big changes are in store. Mr. Daley is unlikely to constantly outsource the drafting of legislation to Congress. He'll also end the West Wing's habit of only talking to Democrats and instead speak often with senior congressional Republicans. During the president's first two years in office, GOP leaders were more objects of contempt than conversation.

Mr. Daley already has an extraordinary number of staff posts to fill and may force even more departures. If the rumor mill is correct, by spring there could be only seven people in the 23 to 25 seats at the morning senior staff meeting who were there a year ago.

Nor is the White House likely to be nearly so insular and arrogant, certain that all wisdom resides within its 18 acres. When faced with a challenge, Mr. Daley's instincts will be to draw in outsiders who possess practical experience.

Mr. Daley will probably streamline the West Wing's unwieldy decision-making structure while expanding the range of opinions the president hears. There are likely to be fewer senior aides, including perhaps an end to the (unwise) practice of the president's top people having their own individual "chiefs of staff."

It's also hard to believe that class warfare will make it into the president's speeches now that draft remarks have to pass through Mr. Daley's hands. The days of portraying successful business people as leeches and robber barons are hopefully at an end.

Some of these changes will be forced by the new circumstances of a GOP House and a much-reduced Democratic margin in the Senate. It's no longer possible for Mr. Obama to pass legislation with only the votes of congressional Democrats.

Perhaps the most intriguing question is how much Mr. Daley's centrist credentials will influence the course of the Obama presidency. Mr. Daley, after all, helped Mr. Clinton pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama "miscalculated on health care," and opposed the administration's financial-regulation bill. All this angers—not enthuses—union bosses, liberal activists and left-wing bloggers.

It's doubtful that Mr. Obama really shares Mr. Daley's centrist impulses. Over his political career, Mr. Obama has proved himself to be both very liberal and highly partisan. But he is also up for re-election in 2012. He understands he must regain the support of independents who voted for GOP congressional candidates last November by 59% to 38%.

Mr. Obama's best chance of success 22 months from now rests on reclaiming his image as a reasonable, bipartisan and unifying figure. It won't be easy, given his track record as president. That can't be airbrushed from history. But the selection of Mr. Daley as chief of staff indicates that Mr. Obama is willing to give it a try. It makes sense. After all, what he was doing nearly wrecked his party and has imperiled his presidency.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One less Democrat serving as a constitutional officer in Georgia; one more politician of both persuasions joins McKenna, Long & Aldridge


Jim Galloway reports in the ajc's Political Insider that:

Thurbert Baker will join the law and lobbying firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge when he steps down on Monday after 13 years as Georgia’s attorney general.

The Democrat [said] he will handle regulatory and public policy matters at the practice.

Former Gov. Zell Miller — who first appointed Baker attorney general in 2007 and is also employed at the firm as an advisor and consultant — said Baker will bring valuable government experience to the new job.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

New state Senate rules is to be unveiled Monday, and will vest authority in an eight-member Committee on Assignments - “The Ocho”

Jim Galloway of the ajc's Political Insider reports:

In November, you’ll recall, Senate Republicans revolted and stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of nearly all his power over the chamber – save for wielding the gavel while the Senate is in session.

A written version of the new Senate rules is to be unveiled Monday, and will vest authority in an eight-member Committee on Assignments – which Capitol insiders have dubbed “the Ocho.” (Something to do with “Dodge Ball: The Movie,” we hear.)

Cagle is allowed two appointees – Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia. But six members of the Ocho – the ones who backed the coup – are the ones who really matter.

Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, will chair the Committee on Assignments – but will vote only in cases of a tie. His office remains on the third floor of the Capitol. Senate Majority Chip Rogers, the next most powerful members, has his office on the second floor.

The other four members of the Ocho who matter have taken over the 421 suites: Cecil Staton, R-Macon, is in the office once occupied by Mullis, who now has a corner office in a basement suite; Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, is in an office that last year belonged to Renee Unterman, R-Buford; Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, replaces Dan Moody, R-Roswell, who retired; and David Shafer, R-Duluth.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Lower the flag in America to half-mast - This is senseless; it will set the tone of the political debate for the next several months.


Jim Galloway, in a way sort of live, writes in the ajc's Political Insider:

“I do think it’s really important as a society that we take the edge off our positions,” said [my good friend and our District's Representative Jack] Kingston over an aide’s cell phone.

[Arizon Rep. Gabrielle] Giffords, his House colleague, hovered between life and death – the first member of Congress felled by a bullet since Leo Ryan was gunned down in Guyana in 1978 by followers of Jim Jones.

“She’s one of the most popular and delightful members of Congress,” Kingston said. “Her husband’s an astronaut – so she’s got that celebrity flair.”

Because she was not at either end of the political spectrum, her shooting puzzled him, Kingston said. “She would be the last person you’d figure as a target for anyone.”

Giffords was one of 20 Democrats on a graphic posted by Sarah Palin’s political action committee last spring, each marked for elimination with the crosshairs of a gun sight. On Saturday, the website offered condolences to Giffords, her family, and the other victims.

UPDATED from The New York Times:

Ms. Giffords was also among a group of Democratic House candidates featured on the Web site of Sarah Palin’s political action committee with cross hairs over their districts, a fact that disturbed Ms. Giffords at the time.

“We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list,” Ms. Giffords said last March. “But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

Birthright Citizenship Looms as Next Immigration Battle

From The New York Times:

Of the 50 or so women bused to this border town [Nogales, Arizona] on a recent morning to be deported back to Mexico, Inez Vasquez stood out. Eight months pregnant, she had tried to trudge north in her fragile state, even carrying scissors with her in case she gave birth in the desert and had to cut the umbilical cord.

The next big immigration battle centers on illegal immigrants’ offspring, who are granted automatic citizenship like all other babies born on American soil. Arguing for an end to the policy, which is rooted in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, immigration hard-liners describe a wave of migrants like Ms. Vasquez stepping across the border in the advanced stages of pregnancy to have what are dismissively called “anchor babies.”

GOP Governors Seek Leeway to Cut Medicaid Rolls

From The Wall Street Journal:

Republican governors are pressing the Obama administration to make it easier for states to cut Medicaid enrollment, setting up a fight over one of states' costliest programs.

On Friday, 33 Republican governors and governors-elect plan to send a letter to the White House and congressional leaders asking them to remove a part of the health-care overhaul law.

Under the rule, states that drop enrollees from the program would lose the federal money that accounts for the bulk of Medicaid funding, an unthinkable scenario for states staring down unprecedented budget shortfalls in 2011.

"The effect of the federal requirements is unconscionable," the governors wrote. "The federal requirements force governors to cut other critical state programs, such as education, in order to fund a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to Medicaid." The signatories include all 29 of the GOP governors who will hold office this year, plus four who are leaving office soon.

Supporters of the current rule said states shouldn't be allowed to chop millions of poor people from the rolls when the weak economy makes Medicaid coverage critical. They also fear that loosening the rule could undercut the health overhaul, which is designed to expand Medicaid to an additional 16 million Americans starting in 2014.

But states say that swell in enrollment could make the program unmanageable. Another problem for states: An extra $26 billion they got from the federal government last year to prop up Medicaid expires in June.

Medicaid, which provides health insurance and covers nursing-home costs for the poor, has become most states' top spending conundrum. Although the federal government pays 57% on average of states' Medicaid costs, states are straining to cover the other 43% because Medicaid enrollment continues to rise.

Medicaid enrollment rose to 47.8 million people in 2009 from 42.6 million in 2008, according to the Census Bureau. The percentage of Americans on Medicaid is the highest since 1987.

Prevented from paring enrollment, states have cut services, including Arizona's limiting of Medicaid coverage for organ transplants.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering a cut of about $2.1 billion in the state's projected spending on Medicaid in the upcoming fiscal year. He has asked union leaders and hospital executives for cost-cutting ideas.

At least a half-dozen states have publicly discussed withdrawing from the Medicaid program altogether because of its expense.

"For most governors, this is the biggest budget problem, and federal mandates are a huge part of that," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in an interview.

Mr. Barbour, a potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, said lifting the requirement would allow his state to move enrollees to more efficient health programs, and wouldn't necessarily increase the ranks of the state's uninsured.

The Obama administration said it was trying to help states tame rising Medicaid costs. "We understand that states are facing extraordinarily tight budgets, and that's why we supported measures like enhanced" Medicaid funding, said Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for the White House. "We're exploring options to continue to assist states."

Congress would need to pass legislation to approve the change. So far there's no sign that congressional Democrats would give it the support it needs. The health overhaul does contain a provision that allows states with budget deficits to seek permission from the federal government to limit Medicaid eligibility, but only for relatively higher-income adults who are not pregnant or disabled.

Under the current requirement, a state effectively can't change its Medicaid eligibility rules until it has one of the new health-insurance exchanges created by the overhaul law. That's expected to happen in 2014.

States are pressing forward with deep cuts to the few parts of Medicaid they can change without risking losing their federal matching funds. Those including trimming nonessential benefits for adults—such as prescription, vision and dental coverage—and shaving the rates Medicaid pays health-care providers.

Texas estimates that it will cost an additional $9.1 billion to retain its current Medicaid service levels through 2013. If it tried to plug that gap by cutting health-care provider rates, it would have to reduce them by 48%— and that might drive care providers to stop accepting Medicaid patients, according to the governors' letter. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has threatened to pull out of Medicaid.

Georgia Facing a Hard Choice on Free Tuition

From The New York Times:

Students here [Athens, Georgia] at the University of Georgia have a name for some of the fancy cars parked in the lots around campus. They call them Hopemobiles. But there may soon be fewer of them.

The cars are gifts from parents who find themselves with extra cash because their children decided to take advantage of a cherished state perk — the Hope scholarship. The largest merit-based college scholarship program in the United States it offers any Georgia high school student with a B-average four years of free college tuition.

But the Hope scholarship program is about to be cut by a new governor and Legislature facing staggering financial troubles.

The lingering effects of the recession and the end of federal stimulus funds have sunk many states into a fiscal quagmire. The seriousness of the problem, and a growing concern over how much worse it might become, have many states struggling to find ways to trim services or raise revenues.

In Georgia, that means taking a slice out of the Hope scholarship.

When it was begun in 1993, the program was covered easily by Georgia’s state lottery. Politicians enjoyed how happy it made middle-class constituents. Educators praised the way it improved SAT scores and lifted Georgia from the backwaters of higher education.

It was considered so innovative that 15 states copied it. And while the lottery-based scholarship programs in states like Tennessee are dipping into reserves to cover the costs, none have fiscal woes as big as Georgia’s.

Part of it is the program’s popularity. A majority of freshmen in Georgia have grades good enough to qualify for Hope, which covers tuition, some books and fees — but not housing costs — at any Georgia university or technical school.

And even though as many as two-thirds of Hope students let their college grades slip so much that they no longer qualify — “I’ve lost Hope,” they joke when it happens — Georgia still gives away more financial aid per student than any other state. Since the program started, 1.3 million Georgia students have received a total of $5.6 billion in educational support. The program offers as much as $6,000 a year for some students.

But the program has become so popular it cannot sustain itself. Lottery sales, which by law can pay for only the Hope scholarship and a free prekindergarten program, will be short $243 million this fiscal year and as much as $317 million the next, according to state budget estimates.

Last year, lawmakers had to pull millions of dollars from the state’s reserve fund just to cover the cost. But this year, there is nowhere to turn.

Like the other states that are facing the worst fiscal crisis in recent memory, Georgia heads into its legislative session next week staring at a budget deficit of as much as $2 billion. And that is after billions of dollars in cuts over the past two years that have reduced the state’s spending power to $17.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

But trim the program that for years has paid to educate the children of the most reliable voters in the state?

“Undoubtedly, this is, in every sense of the word, a very strongly ingrained entitlement for a certain segment of voters, and politicians are indeed reluctant to touch it,” said Christopher Cornwell, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, who has studied the effect of the Hope scholarship on the state, including an analysis of the positive impact the scholarship has had on car sales.

Politicians are hoping for mercy as they begin this month to make decisions that will surely have the parents of college-bound students scrambling to find new ways to pay for tuition.

“We trust and we hope the people in the state of Georgia understand the position we’re in,” said State Representative Len Walker, a Republican who leads the House Higher Education Committee.

They do and they don’t.

Cathy Ottley, a part-time office manager, and her husband, a management consultant, are raising three children in Marietta, north of Atlanta. One is a sophomore at the University of Georgia, courtesy of the Hope scholarship. A daughter who is a high school senior had her heart set on the University of North Carolina but has come to see an in-state college as the practical way to go. And then there is the youngest, a high school freshman with a promising future in athletics. Without the scholarship, Ms. Ottley said, college for her children would be a stretch at best.

“This just gives you options,” she said. “I don’t have peace about kids just starting out at 22 with $200,000 in debt for their education.”

Mr. Walker said no one was talking about cutting the program completely.

“It appears at this point that it will not be a 100 percent scholarship. It might be 90 percent. It might 80 percent,” he said. But the cost of books and fees will most certainly be eliminated.

Other options include raising the required grade-point average, which would cut the number of students who qualify, or giving more to exceptional students and less to merely above-average performers.

“That would make it so much harder,” said Myisha Price, a junior at Clayton State University in Atlanta, who relies on the scholarship and also works. “I don’t go to clubs. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke and I don’t party and it’s already hard.”

Another idea is to work economic need into the equation, though that idea does not have much support, both lawmakers and educators said.

The most likely plan, and one that Governor-elect Nathan Deal, a Republican, has indicated he supports, would be to create a flat rate for each student, regardless of the tuition bill.

At a cafeteria table here this week, a group of Hope recipients defended the program and debated a range of ideas to keep Hope alive, including raising taxes.

Allie McCullen, who is majoring in English and women’s studies, is in her fourth year at Georgia. She is the only child of a single mother who in 2006 lost her job in the mortgage industry. Ms. McCullen pieces together her living expenses and extra book costs through a small grant and two jobs.

“If I didn’t have it, I might not be able to attend at all,” she said. “Or I would just be in such severe debt that I might not ever be able to get out of it.”

If the scholarship ends or gets cut drastically, it could send the most promising students out of state and even end the era of new cars for incoming freshman.

Lauren Rice drives a Hopemobile (though, she concedes, it is only a Honda Civic). Her parents told her she could go to college anywhere. She was considering Auburn in Alabama. But her parents offered her what she called “the car incentive.” That, plus the daunting out-of-state tuition helped her select the University of Georgia.

But without Hope, Ms. Rice’s decision might have been different.

“If you’re going to have a bill in-state anyway,” she said, “then what does it matter?”

David Brooks: Health care - Buckle Up for Round 2

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

The health care reform law was signed 10 months ago, and what’s striking now is how vulnerable it looks. Several threats have emerged — some of them scarcely discussed before passage — that together or alone could seriously endanger the new system. These include:

The courts. So far, one judge has struck down the individual mandate, the plan’s centerpiece. Future decisions are likely to break down on partisan lines. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, this should concern the law’s defenders.

False projections. The new system is based on a series of expert projections on how people will behave. In the first test case, these projections were absurdly off base. According to the Medicare actuary, 375,000 people should have already signed up for the new high-risk pools for the uninsured, but only 8,000 have.

More seriously, cost projections are way off. For example, New Hampshire’s plan has only about 80 members, but the state has already burned through nearly double the $650,000 that the federal government allotted to help run the program. If other projections are off by this much, the results will be disastrous.

Employee dumping. This is the most serious threat. Companies and unions across America are running the numbers and discovering they would be better off if, after 2014, they induced poorer and sicker employees to move to public insurance exchanges, where subsidies are much higher.

The number of people in those exchanges could thus skyrocket, especially as startup companies undermine their competitors with uninsured employees and lower costs. The Congressional Budget Office projects that 19 million people will move to the exchanges at a cost of $450 billion between 2014 and 2019. But according to the economists Douglas Holtz-Eakin and James C. Capretta, costs could soar to $1.4 trillion if those who would be better off in the exchanges actually moved to them. The price of the health care law could double. C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, who has been among those raising the alarms about this, calls the law’s structure “unworkable and unfair.”

Health care oligarchy. Since the law passed, there has been a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, as hospitals, clinics and doctor groups have joined together into bigger and bigger entities. The drafters encourage this, believing large outfits would be more efficient. The downside to this economic concentration is there could be less competition and cost control. In many places, the political power of these quasi-monopolies would be huge, with unforeseeable results. The law bans doctors from starting up hospitals to increase competition.

Public hostility. Right now about 53 percent of Americans oppose the health care law and 43 percent support it, according to an average of the recent polls. Complaints are especially high among doctors. According to a survey by the Physicians Foundation, 60 percent of private practice doctors say the law will force them to close their practices or to restrict them to certain categories of patients.

Given this level of unhappiness, people will blame the Obama law for everything they hate about the health care system. Political opposition was fierce last November, and it could easily shape the 2012 election and lead to changes or repeal.

Over all, there is a strong likelihood that the current health care law will face an existential threat over the next five years. Each party should be preparing contingency plans.

When the crisis comes, Democrats will face an interesting choice — to patch the Obama system or try to replace it with something bigger. The administration may want a patch, but by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1, according to a CNN poll, Democratic voters would prefer a more ambitious law. Liberals could logically say that the mistake was trying to create a hybrid system, rather than moving straight to a single-payer one.

Republicans are going to have to move beyond their current “Repeal!” posture and cohere behind a positive alternative. One approach, which Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has written about, is to allow more state experimentation. Another approach, championed by Capretta, Yuval Levin of National Affairs and Thomas P. Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, revolves around the words “defined contribution.”

Under this approach, Republicans would say that the federal government has a role in subsidizing health insurance — a generous role, but not unlimited. The government would provide needy citizens with a predefined amount of money to spend on insurance and allow them to shop in a transparent, regulated, but not micromanaged marketplace.

After the trauma of the last two years, many people wish the issue would go away. But it’s not going away, especially since costs will continue to rise.

Some Congresses achieve health care; members of this Congress or the next one will have health care thrust upon them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

States seek to tackle birthright citizenship, illegal immigration

From the ajc:

State lawmakers from Georgia and several other states are gathering in Washington this week for the announcement of a new front opening up in the war over illegal immigration.

They are taking aim at the 14th Amendment, which grants U.S. citizenship to children born here even if their parents are in the country illegally. The lawmakers disagree with that practice, complaining illegal immigrants and their children are sapping taxpayer-funded services and attracting more illegal immigrants to the United States.

[Observers familiar with the] group’s efforts said they could include legislation aimed at withholding state benefits and services from children born here to illegal immigrants.