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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

GOP Latinos face questions over immigrant pasts

From the AJC:

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is forced to research and clarify her late grandfather's immigration status. Marco Rubio, Florida's GOP Senator, is accused of embellishing his family's immigrant story.

As more Latino Republicans seek and win elected office, their families' backgrounds are becoming subject to increased scrutiny from some Latino activists, a reaction experts say is a result of Latino Republicans' conservative views on immigration. It's a new phenomenon that experts say Latino Democrats rarely faced, and could be a recurring feature in elections as the Republican Party seeks to recruit more Latino candidates.

"It's a trend and we are seeing more of it," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

For years, most Latino elected officials were largely Democrats, except in Florida, where Cuban Americans tended to vote Republican. But recently, a new generation of Latino Republicans has won seats in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Idaho. Those politicians have come under fire from some Latino activists for pushing for laws targeting illegal immigrants and for opposing efforts for comprehensive immigration reform — views that are in line with most Republicans.

In Florida, Rubio's official Senate website until recently described his parents as having fled Cuba following Fidel Castro's takeover. But media organizations reported last month that Rubio's parents and his maternal grandfather emigrated for economic reasons more than two years before the Cuban Revolution.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Noonan: At the end of the day, Obama didn't want to spend his political capital. That, ironically, is why his reputation seems increasingly bankrupt.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The talk this week was of who was most damaged politically by the failure of the super committee. The first, admittedly earnest answer is: the country. We have a projected deficit over the next 10 years of $44 trillion. A group of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in cuts. Just 1.2 out of 44. Not that hard. And they couldn't do it. Everyone says we will now fight out the basic issues on which the committee failed to achieve agreement, taxes and spending, in the 2012 election. And we will. Maybe the electorate will yield up a clear answer and produce an obvious mandate. But maybe not. Maybe the big muddle will continue. Which won't be good, because that way we sink deeper in the ditch.

Super committee success would have been important for this reason: It would have shown us, and the world, that we are not Greece. That we aren't helpless, incapable, deadlocked, that we can take at least baby steps in the right direction.

The second party most damaged by the failure was President Obama, that grand strategic thinker who's always playing long ball. It is a time of unprecedented and continuing economic crisis, and he went AWOL. He didn't put his public prestige behind a good outcome, didn't corral the Democrats on the committee, which could have made a real difference. He thought the super committee would likely fail on its own, and if it did, it only backed up his narrative—that dread word—about a do-nothing Congress dominated by Republicans in thrall to their billionaire slave masters.

What he doesn't understand is that Americans are tired of hearing the words "In Washington today," followed by the words, "another failure to . . ." They think: Another failure under Obama. Can't this guy get anything done? Doesn't anything ever work under him?

That is what will damage him. At the end of the day, he didn't want to spend his political capital. That, ironically, is why his reputation seems increasingly bankrupt. Maybe the most harmful aspect of the president's leadership style is that all of his political instincts were honed and settled before 2008, when he was rising. What he learned before he reached the presidency is what he knows. But everyone else in America knows the crash and the underlying crisis it revealed—on our current course, we are bankrupt—changed everything. Strangely, inexplicably, the president thinks the old political moves apply to the new era. They do not.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

David Brooks: The Two Moons

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

In 1951, Samuel Lubell invented the concept of the political solar system. At any moment, he wrote, there is a Sun Party (the majority party, which drives the agenda) and a Moon Party (the minority party, which shines by reflecting the solar rays).

During Franklin Roosevelt’s era, Democrats were the Sun Party. During Ronald Reagan’s, Republicans were. Then, between 1996 and 2004, the two parties were tied. We lived in a 50-50 nation in which the overall party vote totals barely budged five elections in a row. It seemed then that we were in a moment of transition, waiting for the next Sun Party to emerge.

But something strange happened. No party took the lead. According to data today, both parties have become minority parties simultaneously. We are living in the era of two moons and no sun.

It used to be that the parties were on a seesaw: If the ratings of one dropped, then the ratings of the other rose. But now the two parties have record-low approval ratings together. Neither party has been able to rally the country behind its vision of government.

Ronald Brownstein summarized the underlying typography recently in The National Journal: “In Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor polls over the past two years, up to 40 percent of Americans have consistently expressed support for the conservative view that government is more the problem than the solution for the nation’s challenges; about another 30 percent have backed the Democratic view that government must take an active role in the economy; and the remaining 30 percent are agnostic. They are open to government activism in theory but skeptical it will help them in practice.”

In these circumstances, both parties have developed minority mentalities. The Republicans feel oppressed by the cultural establishment, and Democrats feel oppressed by the corporate establishment. They embrace the mental habits that have always been adopted by those who feel themselves resisting the onslaught of a dominant culture.

Their main fear is that they will lose their identity and cohesion if their members compromise with the larger world. They erect clear and rigid boundaries separating themselves from their enemies. In a hostile world, they erect rules and pledges and become hypervigilant about deviationism. They are more interested in protecting their special interests than converting outsiders. They slowly encase themselves in an epistemic cocoon.

The Democrat and Republican parties used to contain serious internal debates — between moderate and conservative Republicans, between New Democrats and liberals. Neither party does now.

The Democratic and Republican parties used to promote skilled coalition builders. Now the American parties have come to resemble the ideologically coherent European ones.

The Democrats talk and look like a conventional liberal party (some liberals, who represent, at most, 30 percent of the country, are disappointed because President Obama hasn’t ushered in a Huffington Post paradise). Meanwhile, many Republicans flock to Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich because they are more interested in having a leader who can take on the mainstream news media than in having one who can plausibly govern. Grover Norquist’s tax pledge isn’t really about public policy; it’s a chastity belt Republican politicians wear to show that they haven’t been defiled by the Washington culture.

The era of the two moons is a volatile era. Independent voters are trapped in a cycle of sour rejectionism — voting against whichever of the two options they dislike most at the moment. The shift between the 2008 election, when voters rejected Republicans, and the 2010 election, when voters rejected Democrats, was as big as any shift in recent history.

Sometimes voters even reject both parties on the same day. In Ohio last month, for example, voters rejected the main fiscal policy of the Republican governor. On the same ballot, by 31 points, they rejected health care reform, the main initiative of their Democratic president.

In policy terms, the era of the two moons is an era of stagnation. Each party is too weak to push its own agenda and too encased by its own cocoon to agree to a hybrid. The supercommittee failed for this reason. Members of the supercommittee actually took some brave steps outside party orthodoxy (Republicans embraced progressive tax increases, Democrats flirted with spending cuts), but these were baby steps, insufficient to change the alignment.

In normal circumstances, minority parties suffer a series of electoral defeats and then they modernize. But in the era of the two moons, the parties enjoy periodic election victories they don’t deserve, which only re-enforce their worst habits.

So it’s hard to see how we get out of this, unless some third force emerges, which wedges itself into one of the two parties, or unless we have a devastating fiscal crisis — a brutal cleansing flood, after which the sun will shine again.

For Deficit Panel, Failure Cuts Two Ways

From The New York Times:

The latest Congressional failure to agree on a plan for balancing the government’s books could yield a surprising result: a sharp reduction in annual federal deficits, larger than anything contemplated by the special panel that reached its fruitless finale on Monday.

But the absence of an agreement also threatens to significantly slow growth in an already ailing economy by raising taxes on almost everyone while reducing government spending on almost everything.

Tax cuts passed in the Bush administration will expire at the end of 2012. By law, the panel’s failure triggers new caps on spending, cutting $1.2 trillion from the military, education, health care and other priorities over 10 years beginning next fall. The combined impact of higher tax rates and less spending would reverse the growth of annual deficits beginning in 2013, reducing by more than half the current $1.3 trillion gap between annual revenue and spending.

That has inverted the normal reality, in which spending rises inexorably unless Congress musters the political will to impose cuts. Now, although both parties say they are committed to more gradual approaches, an agreement is required to avoid the fiscal equivalent of shock therapy.

“There could be a bit of a silver lining,” said Rosanne Altshuler, an economist at Rutgers University who served on President George W. Bush’s 2005 tax reform panel. “It forces us to come to terms with cuts in areas that have been difficult to touch — the military and Medicare. We may not like how the cuts are going to be done, but we better start dealing with the fact that cuts are going to have to be made.”

The latest committee, created in August as part of a deal to let the federal government borrow more money, was charged with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. Its failure forces the same amount of spending cuts, with half the money coming from the military budget.

The immediate economic impact depends first on investors, who must decide whether they are now any more concerned about the nation’s financial condition. Any increase in the interest rates that the government must pay would widen the deficit, as would any decrease in economic growth. But while stock market indexes fell sharply Monday, with the Dow Jones industrial average down 248.85 points, investors continue to pay for the opportunity to lend money to the United States. Two credit rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, affirmed their ratings of United States debt securities on Monday and said the failure did not change their assessment of the government’s ability to pay its debts. Fitch, a third agency, said it was reviewing its ratings and hoped to make a conclusion by the end of the month. It said in August that a failure by the special committee would probably result in a negative rating.

A second, looming question is whether Congress will extend a payroll tax break for workers and continue supplemental benefits for the long-term unemployed, both scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The tax break reduces the amount that workers must pay for Social Security; the extended benefits provide support for 3.5 million Americans who have been out of a job for longer than 26 weeks. The government will spend about $168 billion on the two programs this year. Economic forecasters estimate that a decision to end the benefits would reduce the country’s economic growth next year by more than one percentage point.

The Obama administration had hoped to wrap extensions of both benefits into a broader agreement. It now faces the challenge of rescuing a smaller compromise from the ruins of the negotiations, with some Republicans in outright opposition and others demanding offsetting cuts in other federal spending.

President Obama plans to call for the extension of both programs in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas on the special negotiating committee, said on “Fox News Sunday” that its members had been “laser-focused on trying to get success” on the payroll tax measure. But, he added, “the bigger tragedy is we have unsustainable debt that is threatening our national security, is threatening our jobs, frankly, and is threatening our children’s future.”

The decisions that must be made by the end of next year over the future of the Bush tax cuts and the reductions in spending are far larger, as are the economic consequences.

The Obama administration wants to extend most Bush-era tax cuts while restoring higher rates for higher incomes. Democrats say they will not strike any agreement on spending cuts without an agreement to raise new revenue. Mr. Obama repeated on Monday that he would veto any legislation extending all of the cuts. Republicans say they will accept nothing less.

A Moody’s Analytics report warns that failing a deal, the combined impact will amount to a “historically extreme” reduction in the deficit that could push the economy into recession. It notes that under current law, federal revenue would increase as a share of economic activity by 3.7 percentage points over 2012 and 2013 — the sharpest rise since 1969, when, Moody’s says, sudden tax increases “helped set off a mild recession.” Combined with the required budget cuts, the deficit would shrink to $510 billion from $1.3 trillion by 2013.

“You’re seeing a very rapid depletion of the budget deficit,” said Ben Garber, an economist with Moody’s Capital Markets Research Group who wrote the report. “You’re taking a weak economy and removing a large part of potential demand, which could be enough to tip us into recession.”

There is still plenty of time for Congress to unlock its self-imposed handcuffs and renounce frugality. Next year’s elections also could produce a clear mandate for one party to reduce deficits according to its priorities without any need for compromises. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum said they welcomed the failure of the current talks as an opportunity to win just such a mandate.

Over the last month, conservatives feared that the committee would settle for cosmetic cuts. They now see an opportunity to secure larger reductions, without tax increases, to encourage faster growth.

Liberals hope the Occupy Wall Street protests have shifted political debate from an overriding focus on the long-term danger posed by the federal deficit toward a focus on unemployment, income inequality and other immediate economic problems.

“This committee was created at a very different time, when the dialogue was that our deficits were too big and unsustainable,” said Martin Hart-Landsberg, a professor of economics at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. “This failure gives us time to help educate and change that dialogue, to focus on job creation and the direction of the economy.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

New York Times Editorial: Fixing Medicare

From The New York Times:

There is no way to wrestle down the deficit without reining in Medicare costs. Ensuring that the program provides quality health care coverage to millions of older and disabled Americans is essential. These goals are not incompatible, but they require a judicious approach to policy making that is depressingly absent in Washington.

Medicare is nothing less than a lifeline for 49 million older and disabled Americans. It helps pay for care in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, doctors’ offices, hospices and at home, as well as for prescription drugs.

It is also hugely costly. The federal government spent about $477 billion in net Medicare outlays in fiscal year 2011 — 13 percent of its total spending. By 2021, it is projected to spend $864 billion — or 16 percent of the total — according to figures derived by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That rate of growth is not sustainable indefinitely.

Unfortunately, many politicians seem less interested in coming up with ways to fix Medicare than in how they might impose their ideology on the program or leverage the issue for their next political campaign. Members of both parties need to define more clearly for the public what Medicare’s true problems are and how they propose to address them. Here are some of the major issues:

NEAR-TERM COSTS There are three key drivers of Medicare spending: the spiraling cost of all health care as new technologies and treatments are developed; much greater use of medical services by the typical beneficiary; and an aging population. By 2020, the number of enrollees will increase to 64 million.

The current rancorous debate in Washington is focused on finding big immediate cuts to slow Medicare spending. We are skeptical that this can be done quickly without wreaking major havoc.

The health care reform law enacted last year calls for cutting more than $400 billion from Medicare over the next decade, primarily by slowing the rate of growth in payments to health care providers and phasing out unjustified subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans that insure roughly a quarter of all enrollees. Republican leaders, who denounced those cuts in 2010, have since embraced Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal, which adopts virtually all of the same reductions. Even these will be difficult to achieve without driving out providers, according to the government’s nonpartisan budget analysts.

There is time to get this right. Since January 2010 the growth in Medicare spending has actually slowed to an annual rate of about 4 percent, less than half the annual rate for the previous decade. No one is quite sure why, but one theory holds that hospitals are scrambling to squeeze a lot of fat out of the system even before the health care reforms pressure them to do it.

LONGER-TERM SAVINGS The only way to make Medicare sustainable is to have it grow at the same rate as the economy that provides the tax base to support it. In recent years, Medicare spending has been growing faster than gross domestic product, by roughly 1.7 to 2 percentage points.

Policy experts of varied political stripes have proposed a host of ways to eliminate excess spending without harming beneficiaries or the medical system. Some would charge higher Medicare premiums for those able to afford them, or raise the age of eligibility, or increase cost-sharing by beneficiaries to deter unnecessary use of medical care. All such proposals have strengths and weaknesses that need to be carefully analyzed.

A more radical proposal, championed primarily by Republicans, is to stop providing Medicare payments for specified benefits no matter the cost and instead give beneficiaries a set amount of money to buy private insurance policies that might not provide the same benefits. These so-called premium-support or voucher plans come in many flavors — some good, some bad — and would need to be carefully vetted. The most extreme version, proposed by Representative Ryan, would save the federal government a lot of money mainly by shifting big costs to beneficiaries and driving up costs for the rest of the health care system.

FEE-FOR-SERVICE Experts across the political spectrum agree that Medicare’s system for paying health care providers is a big part of its spending problem. The traditional Medicare program pays doctors separate fees for each of 7,000 different services, such as a diagnostic test, office visit or surgical procedure. This encourages excess use of medical tests and procedures because the doctors get more income as their services proliferate and the patient has little reason to question whether another M.R.I. so soon after the last one is really necessary.

The solution, most experts agree, is to have Medicare pay doctors and other health care providers fixed sums to manage a patient’s care and then let the doctors decide which services are truly necessary. Close monitoring would be needed to ensure that doctors don’t deny medically important services to improve their bottom lines.

The reform law is making a start with pilot programs and modest changes in payment policies to encourage coordinated care management. More vigorous action is needed. This can be done by strengthening provisions in the reform law (unless the Republicans succeed in repealing it) or by adding additional measures that gain bipartisan approval.

BENEFITS Medicare reform should not just be about saving money. Medicare’s coverage has some glaring gaps that need fixing. There is no provision for long-term care in nursing homes or at home, forcing many middle-class people to impoverish themselves to qualify for Medicaid. And patients can be socked with very high or very low rates of cost-sharing depending on whether care is delivered in a hospital, nursing home, by a doctor or at home. This crazy-quilt pattern confuses patients about the costs they will have to pay and almost certainly complicates and drives up the costs of administering the program.

At this point, the supercommittee looks close to implosion. But the last time Washington tried for a quick fix of Medicare, in 1997, it did not turn out well. Congress devised a flawed formula that was supposed to hold down payments to doctors. Instead, many doctors simply expanded the number of services delivered to keep their incomes high, while Congress — after being lobbied — has postponed the payment cuts year after year. To catch up with the formula, Congress would have to cut physician reimbursements by 29 percent next year. That obviously shouldn’t happen and won’t.

That cautionary tale is in no way an argument for inaction. It is an argument for serious, unhurried analysis in a less polarized climate. That is the only way to fix this vital program.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saudi Arabia expands its power as U.S. influence diminishes

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

in the Middle East — a role that seems likely to expand even more in coming years as the Saudis boost their military and economic spending.

Saudis describe the kingdom’s growing role as a reaction, in part, to the diminished clout of the United States. They still regard the U.S.- Saudi relationship as valuable, but it’s no longer seen as a guarantor of their security. For that, the Saudis have decided they must rely more on themselves — and, down the road, on a wider set of friends that includes their military partner, Pakistan, and their largest oil customer, China.

For Saudi watchers, this change is striking. The kingdom’s old practice was to keep its head down, spread money to radical groups to try to buy peace, and rely on a U.S. military umbrella. Now, Riyadh is more open and vocal in pressing its interests — especially in challenging Iran.

The more-assertive Saudi role has been clear in its open support for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is Iran’s crucial Arab ally. The Saudis were decisive backers of last weekend’s Arab League decision to suspend Syria’s membership (though they also supported the organization’s waffling decision Wednesday to send another mediation team to Damascus).

Money is always the Saudis’ biggest resource, and they are planning to spend it more aggressively as a regional power broker — by roughly doubling their armed forces over the next 10 years and spending at least $15 billion annually to support countries weakened economically by this year’s turmoil.

The enormous military expansion was signaled this past week by Gen. Hussein al-Qubail, the chief of staff. Because of “surrounding circumstances,” he said, the Saudis would spend more to achieve “the highest degree of combat readiness.”

Overseeing the arms buildup will be a new defense minister, Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, described by Saudis as a strong manager during his many years as governor of Riyadh. This contrasts with what foreign analysts say was the loose discipline (and occasional corruption scandals) under his predecessor, Prince Sultan, who died in October after 48 years as defense minister.

Saudi sources provided an unofficial summary of the defense buildup. The army will add 125,000 to its estimated current force of 150,000; the national guard will grow by 125,000 from an estimated 100,000; the navy will spend more than $30 billion buying new ships and sea-skimming missiles; the air force will add 450 to 500 planes; and the Ministry of Interior is boosting its police and special forces by about 60,000. The Saudis are also developing their own version of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.

The doubling of ground forces is partly a domestic employment project, but it’s also a signal of Saudi confidence.

The Saudi shopping list is a bonanza for U.S. and European arms merchants. That’s especially true of the air force procurement, with the Saudis planning to buy 72 “Eurofighters” from EADS and 84 new F-15s from Boeing. The rationale is containing Iran, whose nuclear ambitions the Saudis strongly oppose. But Riyadh has an instant deterrent ready, too, in the form of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal that the Saudis are widely believed to have helped finance.

Big weapons purchases have been a Saudi penchant for decades. More interesting, in some ways, is their quiet effort to provide support to friendly regimes to keep the region from blowing itself up in this period of instability. The Saudis have budgeted $4 billion this year to help Egypt, $1.4 billion for Jordan, and $500 million annually over the next decade for Bahrain and Oman. They will doubtless pump money, as well, to Syria, Yemen and Lebanon once the smoke clears in those volatile countries.

“In outlays, we’ve budgeted $15 billion a year just to keep the peace,” says one Saudi source, adding up the economic assistance to Arab neighbors. But that’s hardly a stretch for a country that, by year-end, will have about $650 billion in foreign reserves.

The Saudis speak more charitably of the United States than they did a few months ago, after reassuring visits by Vice President Biden and national security adviser Tom Donilon, and close military and intelligence cooperation continues. But President Obama is seen as a relatively weak leader who abandoned his own call for a Palestinian state under Israeli pressure. The United States isn’t exactly the god that failed, but its divine powers are certainly suspect in Riyadh.

Now hear this; now hear this: Capitalizing on Collapse

The National Debt Clock located off Avenue of the Americas in New York.

The following article, noting that many Republicans and Democrats have concluded that they will get more out of the failure of negotiations to cut the deficit than they would out of success, is from The New York Times:

A new political calculus is emerging on both sides of the aisle now that it looks as if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction may fail to reach an agreement by Wednesday’s deadline.

Democrats, who have taken a beating since the 2010 election, are legitimately worried that Republicans will use the collapse of budget talks to pursue their own grand strategy.

Publicly, Republicans say they are determined to do everything possible to help the so-called supercommittee achieve its goals. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, said, “Boehner recognizes we are $15 trillion in debt, we need to deal with that right now, and he does not think we can wait until next election.”

In private, however, a number of Republicans acknowledge that alternatives to action by the supercommittee look highly attractive, if risky.

Should the supercommittee fail, the wheels begin to turn on $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, which split evenly between domestic and military programs.

There is bipartisan agreement that these cuts make no distinction among meat, bone and fat. The key political factor, however, is that the cuts go into effect after the 2012 election. Just as important, the “temporary” Bush tax cuts — enacted in 2001, 2002, and 2003 — terminate at the end of 2012.

Here is the Republican gamble: Intrade, the political futures market, currently puts the odds at just under three to one in favor of both a Republican takeover of the Senate and retention of the House — 74.4 to 21.5 for the Senate, 72.2 to 28 for the House.

The big question is the presidential contest. According to an ABC poll, a majority of Americans, by a margin of 55 to 37, believe that the Republican nominee will be victorious. Republican voters are overwhelmingly optimistic about their chances for the White House, 83-13. Democrats, by the far smaller margin of 58-33 percent, think President Obama will win re-election. Independents, by a 54-36 margin, believe that the Republicans will take the presidency.

The chance of all three contests going the Republicans’ way is less than 50-50, but if they do, the payoff would be huge. The risk is outweighed by the benefits of winning. What’s at stake? The power to further tilt the tax code in favor of the affluent and to perform progressively more radical surgery on the welfare state.

Given long-range demographic trends – the growth of the minority electorate and the increasing numbers of unmarried, Democratic-leaning voters, especially single women – the 2012 election could prove to be the last chance for the contemporary conservative movement to put a decisive stamp on the government.

As a top Republican Congressional aide put it in a interview about the supercommittee’s deliberations, “Winning the trifecta — House, Senate and White House — in 2012 is a game changer. We would be in the driver’s seat.”

In this scenario, Republicans in the 113th Congress would swiftly enact a version of the budget proposal put forward by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, which was approved by the House, but only the House, earlier this year.

The Ryan budget, which includes making the Bush tax cuts permanent, would meet the required $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, eliminating the need for across-the-board cuts. The measure would be contained in budget “reconciliation” legislation so that it would not be subject to a filibuster in the Senate and could be enacted by simple majorities in both branches. A Republican president would be sure to sign it.

A central Democratic player in the supercommittee negotiations noted that “there is a lot of fear” that the failure of the supercommittee “is intentional, that the Republicans are waiting until January, 2013, after an election has taken place. Who is in control will have enormous consequence.”

Capitalizing on collapse is not the exclusive terrain of the right. There are some on the left who believe that simply taking no action whatsoever before this year’s November 23 and December 23 deadlines will force the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012. The expiration of these cuts will produce an estimated $3.8 trillion in new revenue between 2013 and 2022 – enough to maintain many of the key safety net programs with relatively minor tinkering.

Of course, this strategy depends either on a Democratic chief executive to veto Republican legislation extending the Bush cuts or on the less likely event of Democratic retention of the Senate or a takeover of the House.

The risks to both sides of a do-nothing-for-now strategy are arguably outweighed by the many possible advantages. The economic policy gulf between the parties has become so wide that it seems impossible, barring the use of accounting gimmicks, for them to split the difference.

The anti-tax, anti-government ideology of the right cannot be legitimately reconciled the with pro-government, high-tax commitment of the left, and vice versa. On top of that, these competing ideologies have acquired a moral dimension that makes ordinary political give-and-take intolerable.

Notions of unilateral victory, whether through Republican domination of Washington or through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, become increasingly attractive, no matter how fanciful, if the alternative is engaging in the processes of honest bargaining, accommodation, negotiation and compromise.

The above article is by Thomas B. Edsall, a professor journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

Charlie Harper pens a keeper: It Has To Happen

Charlie Harper pens another keeper in the Courier Herald Column (as found in Peach Pundit):

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave Governor Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and the rest of Georgia news they wanted to hear. After touring the Port of Savannah with the duo, LaHood addressed the delegation and reporters in tow saying “We’ll figure out how to get the federal dollars to make this happen. It has to happen.”

The endorsement is as much the beginning of a process as the culmination of one. LaHood promised to convene a meeting of relevant and interested parties in Washington to identify funding sources for the project. Thus far, only $600,000 of the roughly $600 Million needed has been appropriated to the Army Corps of Engineers, and that was for the final permitting and planning. Construction dollars have not been committed.

With Supercommittees and various “Gangs” in Washington wielding budgetary axes, the funding is still not guaranteed. But when the President’s cabinet member says “It has to happen”, one could reasonably expect that it will happen.

Deal and Reed have been pursuing the funds since Deal’s inauguration, with Reed being the friendly face in Washington when calling on the Democratically held White House and other executive agencies. The united front of Republican and Democrat, Atlanta and Savannah, has impressed many along the way. With Deal a Republican and Reed a Democrat, the victory can be said to be one of bipartisanship. That oversimplifies the issue. In reality, two men of very different political backgrounds and bases of support have worked together toward a common shared goal despite the differences.

It’s what is usually done when something “has to happen.” In today’s political environment, however, it’s also tragically rare. The ability to work with others across an aisle toward common purposes used to be considered a valued skill. The act is viewed as “compromise”, and is commonly considered an act of weakness, treason, or selling out core principals. Partisans on both sides like to play all or nothing games, and are often now content to view gridlock as the ideal condition where no harm can be done until their side has a supermajority and can deliver 100% of their agenda.

The reality is that we, as a state and as a nation, have many items that have to be done. The U.S. is currently spending well over a trillion dollars per year more than we take in, with the national debt now standing at a cool $15 trillion. Spending on entitlements and interest on the debt is growing, yet already consumes all tax dollars collected. The entire discretionary portion of the budget is financed with borrowed money. This cannot continue, and the budget deficit trends must be reversed. It has to happen.

Our nation has known for 40 years that we needed to end our dependence on foreign oil. We’ve largely ignored the problem, with one side demanding “drill here, drill now” but without offering meaningful alternative energy solutions nor conservation measures. The other side wants layers of carbon credit trading and an end to most domestic energy sources of both oil and coal. Meanwhile, we send hundreds of billions of dollars per year to countries that wish us harm while spending hundreds of billions more to send troops overseas to protect oil supply routes. For our national and economic security, we must adopt a sound and comprehensive energy policy. It has to happen.

At the state level, Georgians in the Atlanta area face some of the worst traffic and commute times in the nation. The quality of life that has attracted so many to the region for decades is deteriorating into gridlock. Yet no major regional infrastructure program has been initiated in the last two decades as the problems grow worse. If Atlanta is to continue to grow, then there must be a coherent regional traffic plan. It has to happen.

Georgia’s education system remains among the nation’s worst. Employers looking for a skilled labor force need a labor pool that meets more than just basic physical requirements. We will not attract employers to turn around higher than national average unemployment numbers without being able to provide 21st century skills though our K-12 schools, technical colleges, and universities. It too has to happen.

Government is not the sole solution in any of the above issues. But the limited government we have should be functional, competent, and dedicated to the overall policies that create an environment that lets individuals prosper. Too many within government are now more interested in protecting their fiefdoms, and of making sure that the other guy doesn’t win that we all end up losing. This can no longer be considered acceptable. Governor Deal and Mayor Reed have demonstrated how to work across party lines to accomplish big goals. Others need to follow their lead. This has to happen.

GOP’s loose lips sinking their covert options

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

The leading Republican candidates were weirdly overt with their promises in last weekend’s debate about waging covert war against Iran and even assassinating its scientists. Perhaps it’s a sign that foreigners don’t take U.S. politics very seriously, but the inflammatory talk created barely a ripple in this part of the world.

Or maybe the savvy, cynical Middle East believes that the covert war has already begun — with Israel’s Mossad conducting lethal operations of the sort Republicans are clamoring for the CIA to adopt. The danger is that if the other side thinks the conflict has already started, it will feel compelled to retaliate.

The language the GOP candidates used was astonishing, at least for people who assume that covert activities are ones that aren’t talked about openly — much less, touted in campaign debates.

With the easy talk about waterboarding and “taking out” Iranian scientists, it seemed, too, that the party was back to 2006 — recaptured by the hard-line policies of Dick Cheney and the neoconservative ideology that undergirded them. The hawkish GOP line echoed that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in recent weeks, according to Israeli press leaks, has been arguing the case for war.

This field of Republicans says strange things in debates, but it was still startling to hear the leading candidates’ statements. Mitt Romney said President Obama should have worked “on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents.” Herman Cain said he would “assist the opposition movement in Iran that’s trying to overthrow the regime.” Newt Gingrich promised “maximum covert operations . . . including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable.”

Romney also promised “covert activity” against Syria, while Gingrich argued for a “mostly covert” effort to topple the Syrian regime.

What is it about “covert” that the Republicans don’t understand? What would be the U.S. reaction to similar public threats against this country if they were made by Iranian or Syrian politicians? This kind of loose talk is one reason the world doesn’t take the CIA as seriously as it once did. Activities that are so glibly discussed lose some of their credibility, in addition to their deniability.

Here in the Persian Gulf, many leaders would secretly love to see the United States (and probably Israel, too) take a pop at Iran, so long as they don’t have to face the blowback. That’s the risk of secret war; the enemy can respond covertly, where and when it chooses. That’s why the Gulf states are so nervous about the Shiite opposition movement in Bahrain and the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. They see them (not always correctly) as weapons in Iran’s secret arsenal.

Beyond the war talk of recent weeks, it’s clear that the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program truly is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” to use Harvard professor Graham Allison’s memorable phrase. Either the Iranians agree to turn back their program or the West accedes to Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. The alternative is a collision.

The question is starkly similar to what President John F. Kennedy faced in the October 1962 standoff: He sought a way to convey U.S. determination without outright war. The Pentagon generals were screaming that Kennedy had to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba — in much the same way that Israeli hawks are agitating today for a bombing campaign against Iran. Kennedy wisely realized that it wasn’t all or nothing; he could operate along a continuum of power, in which bombing would be the last step, not the first.

The option Kennedy chose deserves some discussion now. He decided, against the advice of most advisers, on a “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent the nuclear missiles from becoming operational. It was a step well short of war (or even lethal covert action), and it left the Soviets room to maneuver. It also avoided the political fallout across Latin America that would come from bombing Cuba (similar to the destabilizing effect that bombing Iran would cause for the United States and Israel).

A quarantine of Iran’s nuclear program could take many forms, along a ladder of escalating seriousness. It would seek to enforce U.N. resolutions, peacefully. If crafted wisely, it would have the support of most U.S. allies.

As America chooses its tools along the continuum of power, it will undoubtedly continue (and perhaps augment) its covert activities against Iran. But they lose their impact and rationale if they become a topic for facile domestic political debate.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Supreme Court’s planned review of health-care law shocks Medicaid advocates

From The Washington Post:

While there was no surprise over the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to review the 2010 health-care act’s insurance mandate, supporters of the law are reeling over the justices’ announcement that they will also consider a long-shot challenge to what many consider an even more central provision of the statute.

That provision is the extension of Medicaid to cover a greater number of the poor. Twenty-six states say the expansion amounts to an unconstitutional coercion of state governments, which provide part of Medicaid’s funding.

“The decision on this issue is probably the most important the Supreme Court will be making on the Affordable Care Act,” said Ronald Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a consumer advocacy group that backs the law, referring to the statute by a common shorthand.

“Probably the most important achievement of the law is that it is going to reduce the number of people who don’t have health insurance by tens of millions. . . . About half of these people will gain their coverage through the Medicaid expansion. So the review of this provision goes right to the heart of the major accomplishment of the Affordable Care Act,” Pollack said.

Specifically, the law vastly broadens the minimum eligibility requirements for Medicaid, which provides health insurance to the poor and disabled with a combination of federal and state dollars.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Obama Shift on Insurance Mandate May Be Health Bill’s Undoing

From The New York Times:

As Barack Obama battled Hillary Rodham Clinton over health care during the Democratic presidential primaries of 2008, he was adamant about one thing: Americans, he insisted, should not be required to buy health insurance.

“If things were that easy,” Mr. Obama told the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in February of that year, “I could mandate everybody to buy a house, and that would solve the problem of homelessness. It doesn’t.”

Now President Obama may wish he had stuck to those words. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up a constitutional challenge to his landmark health care bill, and a decision could come in the midst of Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

At the heart of the challenge is “the mandate” — a provision requiring nearly all Americans to buy coverage or pay a penalty — that he so vigorously opposed as a candidate. If it is struck down, much of his signature legislative achievement could fall with it in a decision that would undoubtedly be construed as a rebuke to the president.

Polls show the mandate is by far the most unpopular provision of the 2010 bill, and now Mr. Obama, who ultimately embraced the idea, is in the awkward position of defending something he once rejected.

“I think his political instincts were right,” said Paul Starr, a health policy expert at Princeton University who argues it is possible to expand coverage by other means. “I think he saw that there could be a backlash against a mandate and that there needed to be some other kind of approach. So in a way, I’m sorry he didn’t stick to his original position.”

The theory behind the mandate, according to its proponents, is this: Requiring coverage brings both sick and healthy people into the pool of those insured, which is essential because premiums paid by the healthy offset the cost of covering the sick. Otherwise, healthy people wait until they are ill to buy insurance, which leads to what policy analysts call a “death spiral” in which premiums skyrocket out of control.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama did favor requiring all children to have insurance. Once he took office, his top aides began examining other options, said Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a former health policy adviser to Mr. Obama. The aides studied the experience of Massachusetts, which has a mandate, and health laws in other states that do not. They considered voluntary incentives to get healthy people to enroll.

Their internal modeling, Dr. Emanuel said, showed that a mandate would extend coverage to 32 million uninsured people. Without such a requirement, he said, the administration estimated it could cover 16 million people at three-fourths the cost of covering the 32 million. Mr. Obama reversed himself.

“I don’t think it was a slam-dunk,” said Dr. Emanuel, now a vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular contributor to the New York Times Op-Ed page. “The president did take very seriously his reputation for following what he said, so he was very reluctant to change his opinion unless he was very convinced.”

Health insurers also insisted on a mandate, as did the Democrats who controlled Congress. In July 2009, Mr. Obama told CBS News that he was “now in favor of some sort of individual mandate as long as there’s a hardship exemption” for people who truly could not afford to buy insurance.

While the White House may have been prepared for the public unhappiness over the provision, it appears to have been caught off guard by the constitutional challenge — in part because Obama advisers regarded the mandate as a conservative notion. The idea gained currency in the early 1990s, when some Republicans proposed their own version of an “individual mandate” as an alternative to the “employer mandate” in President Bill Clinton’s health plan.

Polls show the individual mandate is hugely unpopular. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks public opinion on the health measure, reported in March that 74 percent of Americans would keep, rather than repeal, the law’s provision barring insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. But only 27 percent would keep the mandate. (A CNN poll released Monday found 52 percent support the mandate, up from 44 percent in June, though unlike Kaiser CNN did not explain that failure to comply would result in a fine.)

The Obama administration insists that if the mandate falls, so does the provision on pre-existing conditions. “The mandate,” said Jonathan Gruber, a health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has advised the administration, “is the spinach you need to get the chocolate you want.”

Chris Jennings, a former health policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, makes much the same point. “Health reform without an individual requirement,” he says, “is like driving a train without tracks; you can still move, but you can’t get to your coverage destination and it will be a rougher and far more costly trip.”

But not all economists agree. Some say the government has other ways to make sure enough healthy people buy insurance and offset the cost of the sick. One option is “auto enrollment,” in which the government would automatically enroll citizens in insurance plans, but give them the chance to opt out. Mr. Starr, the Princeton professor, who helped draft the Clinton health bill, proposes a system of penalties and incentives to get healthy people to enroll. For instance, people could be given a choice: Sign up now, or wait another five years.

Of the four appeals courts that have weighed the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, only one has struck it down. The most recent decision, issued last week by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the law. The Supreme Court decision will almost certainly thrust health care back into the public debate next year. But its effect on Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign remains to be seen.

Professor Starr says a finding that the mandate is unconstitutional would be “a severe blow” to the act, and the Obama presidency.

But Drew Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said health policy rarely affected election outcomes. “If any health care issue is a voting issue,” Mr. Altman said, “it’s not health reform, it’s Medicare.”

Some experts say that if the bill had imposed a tax on Americans who did not have insurance — rather than requiring them to buy a policy — the entire legal fight might have been avoided.

“It’s a little bit surprising that the constitutional arguments weren’t out there sooner,” said Mark McClellan, who ran Medicare under President George W. Bush. “They could have written it in a way that would have better overcome the constitutional challenges.”

That may be what the Supreme Court orders. But for Mr. Obama, it may be too late. The Republican leaders in Congress want to repeal the bill, not rewrite it.

Herman Cain on Libya

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Westmoreland, Kingston to introduce immigration bill - Stay tuned, this is going to be interesting and may gain traction rapidly.

From The Newnan Times-Herald:

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland says to buy Vidalia onions.

"You better buy all you can this year," he told about 50 people at a Town Hall meeting in Senoia on Thursday. Next year, he predicted, "there's not going to be anybody to pick them."

Immigration was one of the topics discussed by Westmoreland at the meeting sponsored by the Senoia Tea Party Patriots.

Westmoreland said he and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) are introducing a bill that will address both illegal and legal immigration.

"It's going to be politically uncomfortable for a lot of people. The truth is the truth. It may be ugly sometimes, but at the end of the day it's still the truth," Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland said the program that allows farmers to legally hire Mexican migrant workers needs to work better. That law allows foreign workers to pick produce with the employer providing transportation and housing.

Too often, getting those applications processed is difficult, and there are instances where workers arrive later in the season than they are most needed.

"We need to make sure our farmers, our ranchers, our apple growers have the people they need," Westmoreland said. "We have an illegal immigrant problem because we have a legal immigrant problem."

Westmoreland said immigrants have been "doing work that the average American is not going to do." Initially, "the people who came up here, came up here strictly to work."

The illegal immigrants were often spending $2,500 just to go back and forth to Mexico or farther south. Being in America meant earning $8-$10 per hour instead of a dollar a day. The workers began to bring their wives and children.

They could get "the best education for their kids" and could not be turned away when they went to hospital emergency rooms for medical care, Westmoreland said. "Every child born here was an American citizen."

Westmoreland said the guest worker program needs to work more efficiently. He also said guest workers should not be allowed to bring their families with them.

He said illegal workers initially kept to themselves and were largely unseen except at work. Now they have emerged "out of the shadows," Westmoreland said. "We even have them protesting now."

Friday, November 11, 2011

The worst debate moments ever

Obviously, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment Wednesday night was one of the biggest debate gaffes of all time. But how does it fit into the long history of debate slipups?

See others in this article from The Washington Post.

Obama's Virginia Defeat - Democrats were trounced in Tuesday's state legislature election - New Dominion is looking like Old Dominion

From The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964; he beat John McCain by seven percentage points; and he did so on the strength of his appeal to Northern Virginia's many white-collar independents. Along with victories in North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada, the Obama Old Dominion win in 2008 inspired a flurry of stories about how Democrats had forever altered the political map.

So the White House is pouring resources into what Tim Kaine, the state's former Democratic governor, now pridefully refers to as Democrats' "New Dominion." The Obama campaign has held some 1,600 events in the state in the last half-year alone. Only last month Mr. Obama hopped a three-day bus trip through Virginia and North Carolina. Obama officials keep flocking to the state, and Tuesday's election was to offer the first indication of how these efforts are succeeding.

Let's just say the New Dominion is looking an awful lot like the Old Dominion. If anything, more so.

For Romney, 2005 Was Key Year of Policy Shifts - Obama campaigned aga. mandate that everyone must buy health ins., saying it should be limited to kids

From The Wall Street Journal:

To win election as governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Mitt Romney made a truce with liberal activists and cast himself as a moderating force within the Republican Party. If he becomes the GOP nominee for president, it may be because of steps he took to change those alliances during a few months of 2005.

Mr. Romney had once said he didn't "line up" with the National Rifle Association, but in May 2005 proclaimed "The Right to Bear Arms Day.'' He had rejected the label of either pro-choice or pro-life, according to an abortion-rights activist, but in July 2005 wrote: "I am prolife." He helped lead talks on a pact to control emissions but in December 2005 surprised some staff members by pulling out.

A "flip-flopper" tag has long dogged Mr. Romney. Less known is that his reputation as ideologically elastic was cemented over a 10-month stretch in the second half of his term as governor. Conservative interest groups that had once received a cold shoulder were extended a glad hand, while liberal groups often got iced out.

To people who served in his administration, 2005 was the year his mission changed. For the two previous years, the problem-solving, ideologically ambiguous governor was tackling the issues of a state in deficit, clogged with infrastructure problems and sprawl, and struggling with the uninsured

"You have to understand, Mitt Romney is very pragmatic, and I think what happened was the issue became, 'How do I win the presidency of United States?'" said Rob Garrity, a Republican environmentalist and Romney supporter who served in his administration. "Positions changed."

His repositioning prepared him to be a plausible candidate for the GOP beyond liberal-leaning Massachusetts, while showing him ideologically nimble enough to still appeal to voters in the political center. It is that appeal that supporters say makes him the most electable of the Republican contenders.

Changes of positions are hardly unique to Mr. Romney, and he isn't the only one running for president who has to wrestle with shifts in policy or tone. President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 against a mandate that everyone must buy health insurance, saying it should be limited to the purchase of health coverage for children. He switched as the health bill wound its way through Congress, and now the mandate is the center of political and legal battles over the health-care law.

Hillary Clinton established her reputation as an activist liberal when she was First Lady. After she was elected to the Senate, she set out to re-establish herself as a political moderate ahead of her own White House run.

Republican candidate Herman Cain has offered shifting explanations of his position on abortion. Rick Perry has retreated from a position he took as Texas governor that the state should order girls to be vaccinated against the HPV pathogen.

All have been criticized from within their own party for such moves, and, like Mr. Romney, often attribute the shifts to changing circumstances or argue the moves are alterations of tone more than substance.

Mr. Romney as governor pressed forward with a health-care law that he saw as his legacy, a market-driven approach that was in vogue with many conservative thinkers at the time. Now, it appears he may have miscalculated: The Massachusetts health-care law remains a major burden on his quest for the Republican nomination.