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Cracker Squire


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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

As Medicare and Medicaid Turn 50, Use of Private Health Plans Surges

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — As Medicare and Medicaid reach their 50th anniversary on Thursday, the two vast government programs that insure more than one-third of Americans are undergoing a transformation that none of their original architects foresaw: Private health insurance companies are playing a rapidly growing role in both.
More than 30 percent of the 55 million Medicare beneficiaries and well over half of the 66 million Medicaid beneficiaries are now in private health plans run by insurance companies like the UnitedHealth Group, Humana, Anthem and Centene. Enrollment has soared as the government, in an effort to control costs and improve care, pays private insurers to provide and coordinate medical services for more and more beneficiaries.
Although the programs remain highly popular with patients, skeptics question whether the use of private plans will save the government money in the long run and worry that the plans may skimp on care. But both programs served as foundations for the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which, like the newer versions of Medicare and Medicaid, uses a combination of government money and private insurance to provide coverage.
This week, the White House is using the half-century anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid to portray the Affordable Care Act as a logical extension of the two social insurance programs, which are part of the fabric of American life. Administration officials hope that President Obama’s health care program will one day be as widely accepted as Medicare and Medicaid are now.
“The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid and built a model that helped fill some of the gaps between Medicare and Medicaid,” Jason Furman, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview Wednesday. “At the same time, it is rooted in the private sector and competition.”
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill creating Medicare and Medicaid on July 30, 1965, he made clear his ambitions for the programs: They would extend “the miracle of healing to the old and to the poor.” The legislation fulfilled decades of Democratic dreams, but, unlike the Affordable Care Act, it was passed with votes from a substantial number of Republicans.
“They believed that commercial health insurance had failed the elderly, and they wanted to replace it with social insurance, as a first step toward similar coverage for the rest of the population,” said Theodore R. Marmor, a Yale professor and historian of Medicare.
In the original versions of Medicare and Medicaid, beneficiaries could go to any doctor who would take them, and the government would pay providers a fee for each service. By contrast, in private managed-care plans, beneficiaries use a network of doctors and hospitals, and the federal or state government pays insurers, which receive a fixed amount per member per month.
The original setup of Medicare and Medicaid began to change in the early 1980s after Congress and the Reagan administration created incentives for private insurers to contract with Medicare. Enrollment rose and fell as federal officials tinkered with reimbursement rates.
In the last decade, as private insurers accelerated their marketing of Medicare plans and baby boomers accustomed to managed care reached retirement age, enrollment in the private Medicare plans, called Medicare Advantage, surged. About 99 percent of beneficiaries now have the option to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, and the average beneficiary has a choice of more than a dozen plans.
In interviews, Medicare beneficiaries expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the original government-run program and the private alternatives, which include health maintenance organizations and other forms of managed care.
“For seniors on fixed income, an H.M.O. provides the best bang for the buck,” said Ann E. Mason, 74, of Rochester.
Like many older Americans, she found that a Medicare Advantage plan offered better value than the combination of traditional Medicare and a supplementary insurance policy to fill gaps in Medicare, for expenses like co-payments and deductibles.
Ann C. Dorsey, 65, of Atlanta, qualified for Medicare several years ago after she developed a rare heart tumor and became disabled. She has invited insurance agents to her home to explain their plans and says she is pleased with her Cigna H.M.O.
“Anybody who doesn’t look at Medicare Advantage is nuts,” said Ms. Dorsey, who said she saved at least $1,000 a year because of lower out-of-pocket expenses. But, she said, before selecting a plan, beneficiaries need to do their homework, comparing benefits, physician rosters and prescription drug lists of different plans.
Yet even with managed care, big questions remain about how to finance Medicare and Medicaid for the next 50 years.
In Congress and in state legislatures, which help pay for Medicaid, the costs continue to cause anxiety. Under the Affordable Care Act, more than half the states have expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and state officials have enrolled most new beneficiaries in private plans.
In many states that expanded Medicaid, enrollment has far surpassed expectations, evidently because state officials underestimated the demand for insurance and the proportion of eligible low-income people who would sign up.
Michigan, for example, has signed up 600,000 people in 16 months — more than it expected to enroll in five years. Nearly 80 percent of the new beneficiaries are in private managed-care plans.
Congress did reduce payments to private Medicare Advantage plans in the Affordable Care Act, to help offset the cost of the legislation, and insurers predicted that enrollment would decline. Instead, it has increased to 16.6 million people, from 11 million in 2010. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the number will reach 30 million by 2025.
Experts say that private plans are not for everyone.
“Medicare Advantage plans are often more stingy with benefits,” said Judith A. Stein, who has represented hundreds of beneficiaries as the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Medicare Advocacy. “We have seen many cases in which people who are really sick cannot get coverage for nursing or therapy at home or in a skilled nursing facility — coverage that they would be able to get if they were in traditional Medicare.”
Improper payments, including fraud, still bedevil Medicare and Medicaid, irking beneficiaries and politicians. The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, says that improper payments cost the federal government $60 billion in Medicare last year, or 10 percent of program spending, and $17.5 billion in Medicaid, or 6.7 percent.
Last month, the Justice Department, in a nationwide sweep, accused 243 people of Medicare fraud schemes involving more than $700 million in billings for services that were unnecessary or never provided. Among those charged were 46 doctors and other professionals who offered home health care, psychotherapy, physical therapy, diagnostic tests and prescription drugs.
For Medicare and Medicaid, paying for the rising cost of prescription drugs remains a daunting challenge.
“Medicare Advantage provides great coverage,” said Nancy R. Corey, 68, a retired schoolteacher in Dayville, Conn. “But drug costs have skyrocketed. I’ve spent as much on my main medications in the first six months of this year as I did in all of 2014.”
With Medicaid rolls climbing to record levels, especially in states that expanded eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid officials also face a huge challenge finding enough doctors. In many states, doctors have been reluctant to accept Medicaid patients, in part, they say, because the fees are low.
Elizabeth A. Persaud, 36, of Alpharetta, Ga., who has a form of muscular dystrophy, receives home and community-based services through Medicaid. A personal attendant helps her get out of bed, shower, eat and go to work.
Medicaid is a boon that allows her to preserve her independence, Ms. Persaud said, but she added: “It is difficult to find doctors in my area who accept Medicaid. I often have to have someone drive me far away to see a specialist.”
Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University, said that Medicaid plans were “once the scourge of poor communities,” taking money without providing much care. But now, she said, they provide invaluable services to people with severe physical and mental health problems, as states often require those services in their contracts with insurers.
“The care is light-years better than what a Medicaid beneficiary would face if she had to go find an orthopedist, a rheumatologist or a podiatrist or get specialty drugs on her own,” Ms. Rosenbaum said.
Many Medicare patients agree.
In a comment echoed by other Medicare beneficiaries, Judith M. Anderson, 69, of Chicago said: “After a lifetime of an utterly boring personal health care history, I was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Without Medicare, I would be bankrupt and probably dead by now. I had three surgeries and chemotherapy and paid less than $1,000 out of pocket. I love Medicare.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Georgia Democrats drop Jefferson, Jackson from annual fundraiser - Why don't you go ahead and drop the name Democrat while you're at it Ms. DeHart

From the AJC's Political Insider:

For decades, the state Democratic party’s largest annual fundraiser has been called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, in honor of the two U.S. presidents credited with founding the party.
No more.

Rebecca DeHart, executive director of the state Democratic party, confirmed this morning that the names of the two presidents have been discarded from the upcoming event.

“We switched the name. Almost three-quarters of the states have already done it,” DeHart said. The Connecticut Democratic party did so on Wednesday, citing the two presidents’ status as slave-owners and Jackson’s authorship of the Trail of Tears that removed Cherokees and other Native Americans from Georgia and other states.

Ditto for Georgia. “It was probably a little bit of all of that,” DeHart said. “We want something that’s a little more inclusive and a little more Georgia-centric.”

Come on Mr. Presient, do you really mean it? And if so, to where? To Europe and Greece - Obama: ‘Africa is on the move’

From The Washington Post.

Democratic Party Machinery Shows Rust - Leaders worry losses of state, local offices create shortage of top candidates

From The Wall Street Journal:

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Democrat Chris Redfern was confident of his re-election chances, and with good reason. Voters in his state House district had elected Democrats for decades, and he was Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman.

Yet on election day, Mr. Redfern lost to a tea-party Republican, a defeat that drove him from politics into a new line of work, running an inn and winery.

Mr. Redfern’s political exit came amid a string of midterm-election losses by Democrats in Ohio and nationwide that reflected a deeper problem: As the party seeks its next generation of candidates, the bench has thinned.

A tepid economy and President Barack Obama’s sinking approval ratings contributed to some of the Democratic losses last fall. The setbacks also revealed a withering of the campaign machinery built by Mr. Obama’s team more than seven years ago. While Democrats held the White House, Republicans have strengthened their hand in statehouses across the U.S.

Democrats maintain a significant electoral college advantage as shifting U.S. demographics tilt their way. This spring, a Pew Research Center analysis found that 48% of Americans either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with 39% who identify with Republicans or lean Republican.

But many Democrats worry that GOP success capturing state and local offices will erode that advantage before they have a chance to rebuild.

“If you don’t have a well-funded state party, if you don’t have state infrastructure, then you’re just whistling past the graveyard,” Mr. Redfern said. From his new perch in the hospitality industry, he described leading the state party as the “worst job in politics.”

After two presidential victories, Mr. Obama presides over a Democratic Party that has lost 13 seats in the U.S. Senate and 69 in the House during his tenure, a net loss unmatched by any modern U.S. president.

Democrats have also lost 11 governorships, four state attorneys general, 910 legislative seats, as well as the majorities in 30 state legislative chambers. In 23 states, Republicans control the governor’s office and the legislature; Democrats, only seven.

Such losses help shape the future: An ousted state lawmaker doesn’t run for Congress; a failed attorney general candidate loses a shot at the governor’s office. As a result, the flow of fresh political talent rising to statewide and national prominence in the years ahead won’t be as robust as Democrats hope.

The party’s failure to elect more governors, for example, has shrunk the pool of potential Democratic presidential candidates, one reason few have challenged Hillary Clinton for the 2016 nomination.

For now, the two parties wield their influence in competing branches of government: Republicans in control of Congress, using state-level dominance to draw congressional districts friendly to GOP candidates; and Democrats in the White House, using their demographic advantage nationwide.

In few places are the Democrats’ troubles more apparent than in Ohio, the perennial presidential battleground state twice won by Mr. Obama. Ohio Democrats lost every statewide contest in the November midterms, allowing the GOP to build supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Democrats won just a quarter of races last year for county commissioner—the local masters of land-use rules, as well as county roads, jails and a host of other government services.

The losses in Ohio are the consequences of failing to develop a strong corps of local officeholders and the campaign machinery to support them, Democrats in the state say.

One reason Democrats have struggled to recruit candidates for higher office is that the pipeline has been choked off by a redistricting process dominated by the GOP. In Ohio, a five-member state committee made up of elected officials draws the district lines for state legislative seats that serve as a springboard to higher office.

The Ohio League of Women Voters, which has been studying redistricting for decades, says district boundaries now favor Republican candidates—just as in the past, Democrats drew lines that benefited their party, according to Carrie Davis, executive director.

An independent study of Ohio’s redistricting process in 2011 concluded: “The party in power used the process to gain maximum political advantage.” Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state Legislature 2 to 1.

With a shallow bench, Ohio’s Democratic candidate for governor, Ed FitzGerald, a former mayor and county executive, faced little opposition in the party primary. Once nominated, bad news undermined his candidacy, including the revelation that he drove for years without a valid driver’s license. He lost by 30 percentage points in November to incumbent Gov. John Kasich.

Mike Zickar, chairman of the Wood County Democratic Party, said members of his executive board confided to him that even they didn’t vote for Mr. FitzGerald, instead leaving the top of the ballot blank.

Without an inspiring candidate at the top of the ticket, Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections couldn’t rely on a broad network of volunteers, the kind of force that boosted Mr. Obama to wins in Ohio in 2008 and 2012. The state party mustered three paid field staff members; two years earlier, with Mr. Obama’s re-election bid in full swing, the number was 600.

“I offered to do more, work-wise, but nobody ever contacted me,” said Loree Resnik, a neighborhood team leader during Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who lost her bid for secretary of state last year, said Democrats asked for a visit by Mr. Obama or first lady Michelle Obama, an invitation the White House said was never received.

“We would have loved to have the president come into Ohio,” Ms. Turner said. “They didn’t come…I’m not going to mince words about it. We needed help in 2014, and we did not get it.”

White House officials said the president did all he could to boost fellow Democrats, headlining dozens of fundraisers and appearing at a handful of campaign events during the midterm campaign. They said he was willing to do more but few candidates wanted to share a stage with the president, whose popularity was slipping at the time.

Obama campaign officials said the president’s campaign staff shared voter files, data and volunteer lists with Ohio Democrats. But they acknowledged that the energy and manpower that boosted Mr. Obama’s White House bids in 2008 and 2012 couldn’t be easily replicated in last year’s midterm elections.

“People have a false expectation that because Obama was able to create all this enthusiasm that it was directly transferrable to the next campaign,” Aaron Pickrell, a top Obama campaign official in Ohio, said of Democrats’ struggles in 2014. “It doesn’t mean that Obama can just flip a switch and say, ‘Now go work for these people.’”

Ohio’s Democrats are trying to regroup. This spring in Columbus, party officials began training candidates for local office on everything from how to ask their friends for money to when to put up yard signs.

During a Saturday morning session, candidates for city councils, mayor and the state Legislature watched PowerPoint presentations and lobbed questions at Democratic officials about the nuts and bolts of campaigning.

Ms. Turner, the former candidate for secretary of state, told the few dozen Democratic hopefuls that “the glitz and the glamour seem to be on the federal level…but this is where the rubber meets the road.”

In nearby Union County, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who succeeded Mr. Redfern, joined a statewide listening tour aimed at re-energizing the party. One conclusion, detailed in a report by state Democratic leaders: We need better candidates.

Written in the aftermath of Mr. FitzGerald’s defeat, the report said: “A strong bench of effective public servants at all levels comprises the heart of a strong state party.” A priority for the state party will be “recruiting and cultivating candidates who connect with voters, win elections at all levels, and once they enter office, make a difference on the issues that matter most in the lives of their constituents.”

Democrats are quick to say they will rebound, just as the GOP bounced back from setbacks in 2006 and 2008. At the same time, some Democrats say the party can’t ignore its state-level defeats.

“We have a little bit of blue in the West Coast. A little bit of blue in the Northeast, and occasional blue elsewhere. But, boy, it’s a bright red map in all of those big, square states,” said former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. “That’s where I do worry about recruiting and building a bench and finding ways to connect with real voters. We’re not doing a very good job of that.”

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton has assured local Democrats that she is aware of past setbacks and is committed to making the party more competitive at all levels. More states need a “permanent Democratic Party,” she has said.

Earlier this month in Iowa City, Mrs. Clinton mentioned Iowa Republican Joni Ernst’s victory over the Democratic candidate in the 2014 race to succeed longtime Democratic senator Tom Harkin. “I want to help rebuild the Democratic Party in Iowa because you can’t have a loss like having Tom Harkin retire and not be really motivated to get other Democrats in there,” she said.

Some Democrats blame Mr. Obama, saying his political machine, Organizing for Action, was good at electing him president but has done little for other candidates.

“That did hurt the Democratic Party, because a lot of money went into OFA that might have ordinarily gone into the Democratic National Committee,” said Howard Dean, a former DNC chairman.

The Obama team “basically ignored” the party, said Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Obama’s defenders said he has left a lasting legacy by modernizing campaigns with data and technology.

“The tools and the tech culture that defined the Obama operation are now ingrained here at the party,” Mo Elleithee, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said before leaving the job last month.

Mr. Pepper, Ohio’s party chairman, meanwhile told Democratic activists during his state tour: “Every volunteer who gets excited about Hillary Clinton, we can’t let them leave a year later. Every piece of information we enter into the voter file, we keep and learn from not just to win in ’16, but to win in ’18.”

The enemy of my enemy is ... How does that go? -- Man, this thing sure is complicated, our involvement with Muslims fighting muslims: Turkey strikes Kurdish militants in Iraq, ends truce of more than 2 years

From The Washington Post:

Turkish warplanes struck Kurdish militants in northern Iraq early Saturday, expanding and complicating the air war launched by Turkey against the Islamic State in Syria the day before.

The strikes targeted weapons-storage facilities and camps belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, at its Mount Qandil headquarters in the remote mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to a government statement.

There were also strikes for a second night in a row against the Islamic State in Syria, indicating that Turkey is now actively engaged in the war against the militants after months on the sidelines.

The strikes against Kurds in Iraq opened a second front for Turkey, effectively ending a two-year truce with the PKK that had been a signature achievement of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

The PKK issued a statement saying that the cease-fire, which had already been strained by a number of PKK attacks in Turkey, is now off. “This truce has no meaning anymore,” it said.

The targeting of Kurdish militants will also complicate the United States’ air war against the Islamic State, which has relied heavily on a PKK-allied group of Syrian Kurds to make advances in northern Syria.

The United States, like Turkey, has designated the PKK a terrorist organization, but unlike Turkey it does not apply the label to the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, thereby making cooperation possible.

“There is no connection between these airstrikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against ISIL,” he added, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

So keen was the Obama administration to secure Turkish cooperation against the Islamic States that it would be unlikely to object to Turkey also taking on Kurdish militants, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Turkey just pulled the carpet from under the Kurds,” he said. “In the name of fighting terrorism . . . Turkey now has carte blanche to act against the PKK because it is also is acting against ISIS.”

The attacks stirred up tensions between Turkey and Kurdish groups across the complex spectrum of alliances and rivalries spanning the territories in Turkey, Iraq and Syria that Kurds claim as their homeland.

Report: Obama administration policy shift could ‘substantially transform’ immigration system, lower deportations

From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration’s profound shift in its enforcement of immigration laws could “substantially transform” the nation’s immigration dragnet, reducing deportations and protecting nearly 90 percent of the illegal migrants already here, a new report says.

As The Washington Post reported this month, the Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to ensure that the majority of the United States’ 11.3 million undocumented immigrants can stay in this country. The changes are designed to hasten the integration of long-term illegal immigrants into society rather than targeting them for deportation.

With little fanfare, DHS has since January been training thousands of immigration agents nationwide to change their everyday enforcement of immigration laws. The new policies direct agents to focus on three priority groups of illegal migrants — convicted criminals, terrorism threats or those who recently crossed the border — and leave virtually everybody else alone.

The policy changes are separate from the court fight over President Obama’s highly publicized executive action on immigration. That battle centers on the constitutionality of a program that would officially shield as many as 5 million eligible illegal immigrants from deportation, mainly parents of children who are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. A federal judge put the program, known by the acronym DAPA, on hold in February after 26 states sued.

Although the new measures DHS is taking do not grant illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, advocates for immigrants say their lives could be changed in numerous ways, including making them less fearful of driving so they don’t get stopped by police.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

David Ignatius: Let Greece leave the eurozone

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

The Greek financial crisis has eased — for now. But many skeptics share the worry of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble that the bailout plan may not work, and that the only way to restore competitiveness and growth is a Greek exit from the euro.

Schäuble was blasted as a heartless German for insisting, even after the rescue package was agreed to on July 13, that “the better solution for Greece” could be a “Grexit,” as it’s known. He had earlier proposed a five-year “timeout” for Greece from the common currency. For these heretical views, he was portrayed by a cartoonist as a black-clad terrorist with a knife at Greece’s throat.

But maybe Schäuble has a point: What’s the greater cruelty? Prolonging Greece’s agony with a plan that maintains its euro zone membership but cripples it with unpayable debts and perpetual insolvency? Or taking the painful but relatively quick cure of restoring the drachma and letting it fall to a level where Greece can again be competitive and prosperous?

The bailout plan calls for reform measures that would be difficult, even if the government and public genuinely supported them. But, in fact, Greece’s government and its people abhor the imposed terms of the bailout. That became clear in the July 5 referendum when 61 percent voted “no” on terms that were easier.

The bailout plan may rescue Europe — by restoring German-French amity and signaling that the currency union is intact. But it won’t rescue Greece. It will leave its uncompetitive economy in the financial version of an intensive care unit, surviving on the life support of new loans and fiscal transfusions.
The kinder approach might be to let Greece leave the euro zone, in what might be called an assisted transition. A devaluation of the drachma to, say, 50 percent of the euro’s value would make Greece instantly competitive and a magnet for investment. But the devaluation shouldn’t go too far. The European Central Bank could pledge to intervene in currency markets to support the drachma and prevent it from falling by, say, 70 percent or more.

A gentle Grexit would also include the kind of “haircut” — in debt forgiveness and rescheduling — that’s almost impossible if Greece retains the euro. This was Schäuble’s point on July 16, when he told German radio: “No one knows at the moment how this is supposed to work without a debt haircut, and everyone knows that a debt haircut is incompatible with membership in the monetary union.” This honest and probably accurate statement brought new calls for Schäuble’s resignation.

Generations of experience have taught economists that currency devaluation, though a severe shock to the system, usually produces beneficial results — and often fairly quickly. Exports become much more competitive (in the case of Greece, tourism becomes a bargain). A virtuous cycle should ensue: Revenues grow, confidence rises and, eventually, domestic demand returns. The country and some of its businesses might default on their debts, but most creditors would have no choice but to renegotiate terms if they want any repayment. It’s no panacea: Inflation often follows a devaluation; and as prices rise and the currency falls, savings can be wiped out.

But the process usually restores growth. Perhaps the best example is Argentina. Like Greece, Argentina thought in the 1990s that it could boost its weak economy by having an inflexible currency. For Argentina, it was a one-to-one peg with the dollar. Things went well until corruption and mismanagement made the peg unsustainable.

Crunch time came in 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its debts and floated its currency. Its peso fell roughly 75 percent. But recovery began in 2003, and Argentina’s real gross domestic product per capita has now roughly doubled from the crisis years. A debt haircut was part of Argentina’s rebound. It was a nasty negotiating process, but bondholders eventually accepted deals that repaid only about 30 percent of the paper value.

If Greece returned to the drachma, a similar process might occur. The country’s euro-denominated debts would roughly double, measured against the drachma. This burden would be insupportable. So creditors would have to do what the bailout so far has shielded them from — renegotiate the debt to a manageable level and put a newly competitive Greece on the path to recovery, at last.

Reforms might be easier, too, in a new Greece that had decided to set its own course. But as Schäuble discovered, Euro-correctness seems to prevent serious discussion of this option.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An Expert View: Accept the Deal but Move to Contain Iran - Nicholas Burns, a former point man on Iranian nuclear matters, advocates effort to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Nicholas Burns was there when Iranian nuclear diplomacy was born—a birth that occurred, as is little remembered now, during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Burns was undersecretary of state and the diplomatic point man on Iranian nuclear matters in the second Bush term, when the U.S. initially teamed up with European nations and offered to negotiate. The Iranians didn’t take up the offer at the time, and Mr. Burns ultimately turned the task over to incoming Obama administration officials.

But the experience gave him some perspective on Iranian nuclear matters—and the fact he now is out of government gives him some objectivity. So what is his advice now that a deal designed to limit Iran’s nuclear program has been struck, amid wide controversy over its merits?

Accept the deal, imperfect as it is, as the best option available now on the nuclear front and promptly move onto a “parallel track” strategy of containing Iran’s regional ambitions, with a heavy dose of U.S. leadership.

The theory here is that the new agreement, while it certainly doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program, accomplishes its core goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon over the next decade.

“If you look through this deal, these are substantial restrictions on Iran,” says Mr. Burns. “The probability of Iran getting a nuclear device in the next 10 years is extremely low.”

Much of the criticism of the deal, in Israel in particular, derives from the fact that slowing and shrinking Iran’s nuclear program this way falls well short of the original diplomatic goal, which was to end entirely Iran’s ability to enrich uranium—the “zero enrichment” goal. While that was plausible years ago, when Iran had a couple of hundred centrifuges to enrich uranium, Mr. Burns says it is an implausible goal now that it has some 19,000.

“If I could get an ideal solution, or you could, where the Iranians submitted to every demand we had, I would take that,” he says. “In a real world, you have to make real-world decisions.”

Which leads to the second line of criticism: that the deal, even if it does succeed in stopping Iran’s nuclear program for a decade, will enrich Tehran by lifting international economic sanctions while doing nothing to prevent it from using newfound riches to make more trouble in the region.

Here is where Mr. Burns thinks there are grounds for action, taken jointly by those who like the deal and those who hate it—notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states. Implicitly, this strategy doesn’t embrace the idea that a nuclear deal with the international community will moderate Iranian behavior. In a sense, it guards against the opposite result.

That effort would start by renewing a commitment that was made first by President Jimmy Carter and then renewed by President Ronald Reagan in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. “We should say the security of the Persian Gulf is a vital interest of the United States…and put the Iranians on notice that we’re not going to tolerate any diminution of American influence in the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Burns says.

The U.S. also would declare anew that it is going to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, which runs past Iranian territory. It would back up that pledge with a “major effort” to upgrade the defensive capabilities of the Saudis and other Gulf states.

U.S. officials point out that military spending by the Gulf Arab states already outstrips Iran’s many times over, so the upgrade wouldn’t simply be a matter of sending more arms. Rather, it would be working more closely with the Saudis and other Gulf states to make that military equipment knit together better, and making clear it would be used in coordination with the U.S.

The next step in containment would be to get past the current poisonous period in relations with Israel. “The U.S. estrangement of Israel has gone on too far and for too long,” Mr. Burns says. “Our identity of interest with Israel is so important that the White House has to narrow that gap with the Israelis.” That should begin, he says, by expanding Israel’s “qualitative edge” in armaments over its neighbors.

But such steps wouldn’t be enough to deter Iranian mischief-making in venues as far-flung as Yemen and Syria. That would require an intangible addition to the containment formula: A forceful reassertion of American interest in playing a leading role in the region.

“It’s not just money or weapons,” Mr. Burns says. “It’s credibility. They have to see that we will take steps to protect our allies and our interests.” For America’s friends, he adds, “this isn’t Yankee go home. This is Yankee come back.”

I really like this guy: Ohio’s Kasich poised to join big field of GOP candidates

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. John Kasich joined the 2016 presidential race Tuesday, carrying a message of fiscal conservatism and social welfare compassion that he hopes will shake upthe Republican Party and vault him into contention for the party’s nomination.

“I am here to ask you for your prayers, for your support, for your efforts because I have decided to run for president of the United States,” the two-term governor told a cheering crowd at a rally on the campus of Ohio State University.

Kasich was joined onstage by his wife and daughters.

His announcement follows months of travel to the early primary and caucus states. Kasich has sought out prospective donors around the country and assembled campaign and Super PAC staffs that include longtime advisers and veteran strategists who are newcomers to his inner circle.

Kasich served in the House for 18 years and was chairman of the Budget Committee at a time when Washington balanced the federal budget for the first time in a generation. He spent another decade in the business world before winning the governorship in 2010. He won reelection in a landslide last November after his Democratic opponent imploded a few months before the general election.

He begins the race far back in the pack, according to most polls. But as the governor of one of the nation’s most important general election states, and with a political style unlike that of others in the race, Kasich’s advisers say they believe he can become a credible threat to win the nomination. His detractors question whether he has the discipline required to win a long and grueling presidential race.

Kasich’s entry rounds out the largest Republican presidential field in modern memory, with at least 16 candidates seeking the nomination. It is a race that includes well-known names and political novices alike. With Kasich, the field includes four sitting governors, four sitting senators, at least four former governors and one former senator.

Collectively, the 2016 field is far more experienced and seen as politically heftier than the group of Republicans who sought the GOP nomination four years ago, setting up a contest in which the winner could be seen as having defeated the best the party has to offer.

So far, however, none of the candidates has truly broken out or broken through, save for businessman Donald Trump. No one, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents who has amassed in excess of $110 million for his campaign and Super PAC, has been able to come close to taking charge of the race.

Trump has dominated the campaign since his entry last month and his skills as a showman have made him the center of attention, for good or ill. The flamboyant reality TV star has found an audience with his harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration and his criticisms of the political leaders, including President Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bush and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday evening showed Trump leading the others in the race with 24 percent support. He is, however, anything but a traditional front-runner, if he can be called that. Many Republicans doubt Trump has the staying power or the breadth of appeal to win the GOP nomination.

In recent weeks, he has produced one controversy after another, the latest coming when he appeared to disparage Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as not being a hero just for being captured and held prisoner during the Vietnam War.

That controversy in particular has left in question whether he can sustain the level of support shown in the new poll and there were hints in the Post-ABC poll that the controversy over his McCain comments already has begun to affect his numbers.

But just who will emerge as finalists in the GOP competition remains a matter of debate and conjecture. Beyond Bush, the names most often cited as possible long-distance runners are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is in second place in the Post-ABC poll and leads polls in Iowa, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has natural campaign skills and who argues that he would contrast favorably against HillaryClinton in a general election.

The field is so large that not everyone now running will be invited onto the stage at the first debate, which will be held on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. Fox News, which is hosting that event, has declared that only the top 10 candidates, based on a group of national polls, will qualify. Those who do not will have the opportunity to participate in other forums that week.

At this point, there are two races underway. One is a contest among some of the most conservative candidates for supremacy in Iowa. The other is a largely separate contest among those candidates seen as less conservative and more acceptable to the party establishment who doubt they can win in Iowa and will need to finish strongly in New Hampshire to stay alive.

It is the New Hampshire contest that is most attractive to Kasich, according to his advisers. He has spent the past two years separating himself from some of the harder edges of the conservative movement. He has said often that he wants to define what it means to be a Republican.

In Ohio, he engineered an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, in contrast to many Republican governors. He has championed spending more money on such things as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. He cites his religious faith as motivating him to help those in need. He has said he is open to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants

At this point, there are two races underway. One is a contest among some of the most conservative candidates for supremacy in Iowa. The other is a largely separate contest among those candidates seen as less conservative and more acceptable to the party establishment who doubt they can win in Iowa and will need to finish strongly in New Hampshire to stay alive.

It is the New Hampshire contest that is most attractive to Kasich, according to his advisers. He has spent the past two years separating himself from some of the harder edges of the conservative movement. He has said often that he wants to define what it means to be a Republican.

In Ohio, he engineered an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, in contrast to many Republican governors. He has championed spending more money on such things as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. He cites his religious faith as motivating him to help those in need. He has said he is open to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

In his first term, he signed a bill that restricted collective bargain rights for public employee unions, along the lines of legislation that caused a partisan political eruption in Wisconsin under Walker. When Ohio voters rejected the plan in a later ballot initiative, Kasich accepted defeat and has not clashed seriously with the unions since over those kinds of issues, though he and organized labor have been at odds over spending and taxes.

Kasich’s top priorities as both a House member and governor have been spending and taxes. He will point to his record in Ohio of eliminating a budget deficit, reducing unemployment and cutting taxes as evidence of how he would attempt to govern as president, though Ohio’s economy has benefited from national forces and the bailout of the automobile industry in addition to state actions.

In advance of Tuesday’s announcement, the governor’s Super PAC released two videos, the first a five-minute introduction of the prospective candidate that stresses his record on both fiscal and national security issues, and a one-minute ad that highlights his work in helping to bring about a balanced budget. As a House member, he was a key lieutenant of then-speaker Newt Gingrich in the years after Republicans took control of that chamber in the 1994 elections.

Kasich is in danger of not qualifying for the Cleveland debate, given his current standing in the polls. Advisers hope that his late announcement will give him the kind of political bounce that could boost him into the top 10 in the polls. But with Trump commanding so much attention right now, that could prove difficult.

Kasich’s longer term hope is to rise relatively quickly in New Hampshire and to be seen as a serious contender there by the early fall. He will spend the next several days in the Granite State holding town hall meetings.

His advisers believe he can connect directly with voters better than his rivals with a message that is compassionate, upbeat and with a personality that is direct, occasionally prickly and rarely reserved or hesitant.

Kasich ran for president in the 2000 cycle but never found an audience. He quit the race in the summer of 1999, one of the earliest dropouts of that campaign.

See also The Wall Street Journal on Kasich

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The 2016 Contest Begins to Take Shape - Hillary tries pointillism, while the GOP contends with an embarrassment of riches.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The weekend will be dominated by back-and-forth on the Iran deal. The administration will argue that some agreement was necessary and this was the best that could be got. They will continue their almost childlike insistence that it proves President Obama is either Ronald Reagan (he negotiates with foes) or Richard Nixon (he reaches out to adversaries).

There will be plenty of serious criticism of the deal, accompanied by a generalized sense that the U.S. probably got taken—because Mr. Obama always wants it too much. As with the opening to Cuba, Mr. Obama put his face on it too early, put his name on it too hard, talked about it too much in public, let his aides give background interviews saying this is a crucial effort, a historic gambit, part of the president’s visionary legacy. The adversary sees this, the need and the want—they watch the news too!—and proceeds accordingly.

Mr. Obama is an odd one in that when there are rivals close by, in Congress for instance, with whom he could negotiate deals, he disses them in public, attacks their motives, yanks them around with executive orders, crushes them when possible. But when negotiating with actual tyrants he signals deference, hunger. I leave it to others to explain what it means when a man is bullying toward essentially good people and supplicating toward bad ones. But the sense is he always wants it too much and is consequently a poor negotiator, and this will have some impact on U.S. and world reaction.

Hillary Clinton has given her tentative support. The day before the deal was announced she gave a big economic speech, at the New School in New York.
I wanted to think along with it, but Mrs. Clinton doesn’t give you much to think to. She offers policy clumps wrapped in general sentiments. There was policy jargon—“consumer economy,” “quality, affordable child care,” “paid family leave,” “our fiscal outlook is sustainable.” In the tired rhetoric department there were “currents of change” and getting “our country moving.” There were a few fleeting shots at Republican candidates, which provided the speech with a kind of leavening cynicism.

She seemed at times to knock Mr. Obama, or at least distance herself from him. Wall Streeters who tanked the economy in the late 2000s got off with “limited consequences—or none at all.” Who’s been in charge since 2008? She made two references to rising health-care costs. I thought we took care of that.

There was a thought worthy of unpacking, which had to do with the “short-termism” that dominates CEOs’ thinking; they are enslaved to a “quarterly capitalism” that leaves them focused on the share price and the next earnings report at the expense of longer-term investment. This is true: They’re all squeezing too tight and missing the big picture because in the general rush of demands they can’t afford to see it. I’m not sure what a president can do about it, but it’s not bad to talk about such things.

Along the way she smuggled in a campaign theme: “I want to have principled and pragmatic and progressive policies.” I suspect we’ll be hearing more of the three P’s.

There was a nice thought nicely expressed: At its best, “public service is planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit.” That was pretty.

It was a pointillist policy-dot speech meant to add up to a portrait of meaning. The meaning was clear: More progressivism, please. Also: There’s little substantial difference between Bernie Sanders and me other than that Goldman SachsGS0.61% likes me, which only proves my range. The left doesn’t have to bolt away.

A concern for her campaign has to be Mrs. Clinton’s robotic delivery, as if she’s never there in the moment but distanced from herself. As if she’s thinking: I don’t fully believe this, but more important, do I seem to believe it? She seems to be overcoached by people who keep telling her to be natural. But why would someone in public life for more than 30 years need to be instructed in naturalness? I don’t understand her discomfort and wonder what it suggests or portends. You can argue she’s a strong leader; she may be the next president, she may be the acknowledged head of her party, but she is a poor campaigner—a poor giver of interviews and speeches, which is now most of what campaigning is. At the end of the day this will mean something.

Meanwhile, Scott Walker announced in Waukesha, Wis. There is still something fresh and awake about him. He’s not all dinged up and slump-shouldered, even though he’s been a target for so long. His subliminal message—actually, it’s liminal—has two parts: I wasn’t born into it, I’m normal like you—but I’ve achieved a great deal, maintained my seriousness, and been a brave governor.

He made his announcement in the increasingly popular casual manner, in shirt sleeves with an open collar and casual slacks. They’re all trying to express intimacy by removing barriers—podiums, teleprompters. But that’s superficial. You can make a connection in a suit behind a podium if you sound as if you’re thinking and speaking honestly and with depth. All this physical symbolism has gotten carried away. John Kasich is next. I’m hoping he won’t announce in a T-shirt and underpants.

What is most interesting about Mr. Walker is that he has remained in the top tier, often in the top three, while being less in the public eye recently than other candidates. His years as embattled Wisconsin governor have given him a hold on the Republican imagination. As he spoke I thought: He’s from the Republican wing of the Republican Party—blunt, direct, unadorned, Midwestern. His message was workmanlike: “I know how to fight and win.” He is a reform conservative, believes in federalism, is hard-line on foreign policy: Mr. Obama says climate change is the greatest threat to future generations, but “the greatest threat to future generations is radical Islamic terrorism.” Vladimir Putin, like Lenin, probes his adversaries with bayonets: “If you encounter mush, push; if you encounter steel, stop.” Mr. Walker will run hard on his Wisconsin record: “We lowered taxes by $2 billion. In fact we lowered taxes on individuals, employers and property. In fact, property taxes are lower today than they were four years ago. . . . How many governors can say that?”

All this will make him highly competitive for the nomination. Is it suited to the mood of the nation in the general election?

Mr. Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, soon John Kasich: They are going to be flooding the hustings very soon, and they’re going to hit Republicans on the ground as an embarrassment of riches—interesting, accomplished figures, all with a case to make. They’ll have the money to last because they pretty much all have rich backers. It is going to be hard for Republicans to make up their minds. This primary is going to go longer and end later than anyone knows.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Obama Plan for Immigration Action Gets a Cold Reception at Appeals Court

From The New York Times:

NEW ORLEANS — Government lawyers labored on Friday to persuade federal appeals court judges here to allow President Obama to move ahead with sweeping initiatives to protect immigrants in the country illegally. But the judges’ questions seemed to make it ever more unlikely that the president’s programs, which he has hoped would be a central piece of his legacy, would start any time before the last months of his term, if at all.
A panel of three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit heard arguments in a lawsuit by Texas and 25 other states challenging executive actions Mr. Obama announced in November that would give temporary reprieves from deportation to as many as four million immigrants and also permit them to work.
In February, a federal district judge in Texas blocked the programs. On May 26, a panel of the Fifth Circuit denied the administration’s emergency request to cancel that injunction, with two judges supporting the denial and one dissenting. This time, the judges heard a broader appeal by the government on the challenge to the executive actions.
But even though the judges issued no decision on Friday, it seemed highly probable that the administration would lose. By a stroke of bad luck for Mr. Obama and good fortune for the states bringing the lawsuit, two judges on Friday’s panel — Judge Jerry E. Smith and Judge Jennifer Elrod — are the same conservatives who ruled against the administration in May. Court officials said both panels had been randomly selected, well before the administration even brought its case to the Fifth Circuit.
A setback now would be decisively damaging to the president’s argument that he has full authority to carry out the vast programs nationwide and would leave the administration little choice but to take the case to the high-stakes and slow-moving deliberations of the Supreme Court and to hope for a favorable ruling before the end of its term in June of next year.
Mr. Obama has run into far deeper legal trouble than officials anticipated when they decided last year to create a program by executive action, without approval by Congress, extending deportation deferrals and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants who are parents of American citizens or legal residents.
Judges Smith and Elrod peppered the government’s lawyer, Benjamin C. Mizer, a principal deputy assistant attorney general, with skeptical questions about his contention that the administration had ample authority to focus immigration enforcement on deporting immigrants who commit crimes or threaten national security, and to defer deportations of those who pose little risk to public safety and have families in the United States.
Referring to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Judge Elrod asked, with a note of incredulity, “So the secretary has boundless discretion to give work authorization to whomever he wants and it is not constrained by congressional law?”
The administration’s arguments about the president’s powers have faltered over Texas driver’s licenses. Texas has said it would be a burden to have to pay at least $130 each for driver’s licenses for as many as 500,000 unauthorized immigrants who could obtain the licenses if they received deferrals under the president’s programs. Judge Smith, in his 42-page opinion in May, agreed.

But even though the judges issued no decision on Friday, it seemed highly probable that the administration would lose. By a stroke of bad luck for Mr. Obama and good fortune for the states bringing the lawsuit, two judges on Friday’s panel — Judge Jerry E. Smith and Judge Jennifer Elrod — are the same conservatives who ruled against the administration in May. Court officials said both panels had been randomly selected, well before the administration even brought its case to the Fifth Circuit.

A setback now would be decisively damaging to the president’s argument that he has full authority to carry out the vast programs nationwide and would leave the administration little choice but to take the case to the high-stakes and slow-moving deliberations of the Supreme Court and to hope for a favorable ruling before the end of its term in June of next year.

Mr. Obama has run into far deeper legal trouble than officials anticipated when they decided last year to create a program by executive action, without approval by Congress, extending deportation deferrals and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants who are parents of American citizens or legal residents.
Judges Smith and Elrod peppered the government’s lawyer, Benjamin C. Mizer, a principal deputy assistant attorney general, with skeptical questions about his contention that the administration had ample authority to focus immigration enforcement on deporting immigrants who commit crimes or threaten national security, and to defer deportations of those who pose little risk to public safety and have families in the United States.
Referring to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Judge Elrod asked, with a note of incredulity, “So the secretary has boundless discretion to give work authorization to whomever he wants and it is not constrained by congressional law?”
The administration’s arguments about the president’s powers have faltered over Texas driver’s licenses. Texas has said it would be a burden to have to pay at least $130 each for driver’s licenses for as many as 500,000 unauthorized immigrants who could obtain the licenses if they received deferrals under the president’s programs. Judge Smith, in his 42-page opinion in May, agreed.
But Scott Keller, the solicitor general of Texas who argued for the states, drew concern from all three judges when he said Mr. Obama’s programs were not only a “sweeping assertion of executive power” but were breaking the law. His arguments raised complex new issues for the judges to consider this time around, probably extending the time before they rule.
The judge who sided with the administration in May, Stephen A. Higginson, was not on the panel on Friday. The third member was Carolyn D. King, nominated in 1979 by President Carter, and formerly chief judge of the Fifth Circuit. She sharply questioned Mr. Keller, the Texas lawyer.
Jurists and legal experts familiar with procedures in the Fifth Circuit court said it was coincidence — and very unusual — that the two panels hearing different phases of the immigration lawsuit included two of the same judges. Judge Smith is an outspoken conservative who has wrangled publicly with Mr. Obama over the extent of the president’s powers.
Court officials said the chief judge, Carl E. Stewart, was so concerned it might appear that the court had acted improperly to influence the immigration case that he ordered a clerk to flip a coin in the presence of witnesses to decide which of two panels scheduled to hear cases this week would handle the Texas lawsuit.
The debate in the hushed, elegant courtroom was overwhelmed several times by the sounds of drums and horns from about 600 protesters from immigrant rights groups in the street outside, including people who traveled from California, Arizona, Texas and Alabama.
A smaller group sat down in the street in front of the offices nearby of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. A spokesman for the protesters said 14 people were arrested, but were quickly released.
“People are still getting deported every day,” said Saket Soni, the executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. He said the demonstrations were intended to “supply hope to the movement and signal to ICE there is much more of this coming.”
The administration has faced even more serious legal trouble with the federal district judge in the case, Andrew S. Hanen. He has chastised officials for failing to inform him that more than 100,000 deferrals with extended three-year terms had been issued under the president’s programs to young immigrants before he imposed the injunction. He ordered the government to cancel the deferrals and collect about 2,000 work cards that were also granted.
Infuriated that the administration had not collected every card, on Tuesday, Judge Hanen issued an unusually harsh rebuke, calling the officials’ conduct “unacceptable and completely unprofessional.” In an action federal judges rarely take, he ordered the secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Johnson, to appear in person in his Brownsville court on Aug. 19 to explain why the judge should not find him in contempt.

Friday, July 10, 2015

After Backing Regime, Syrian Minorities Face Peril - Islamic State, Nusra Front threaten groups tied to President Bashar al-Assad

From The Wall Street Journal:

ISTANBUL—Ever since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad tried to cast it as a religious conflict with radical Sunni Islam in which he would wear the mantle of protector of the country’s numerous minorities.

The plan has worked to a great degree, with Mr. Assad’s own Alawite community as well as Shiites, Christians, Druse and, initially, even the Kurds, backing him against a predominantly Sunni rebellion that has become progressively more bloody and sectarian.

But now, as the regime is reeling under attack by the murderous Islamic State militants in the east and a rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front in the north, these minorities face the growing danger of being wiped out alongside Mr. Assad.

“As bad as things have been in Syria, they could get a whole lot worse,” warned Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Damascus and dean of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.

Massacres of Alawites, in particular, are one such scenario, he said.

Out of Syria’s 18 million people, Sunnis account for about 74%, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, plus much smaller Shiite communities allied with them represent about 13%, Christians roughly 10%, and the Druse, who follow a separate religion with roots in Islam, are some 3%.

The Alawites and the Christians played a major role in the Baath Arab Socialist Party that seized power in a 1963 coup. President Hafez al-Assad ousted another Alawite strongman in an internal Baath power struggle. He and his successor and son Bashar have ruled Syria for the past 45 years, ruthlessly suppressing Sunni Islamists and creating a security establishment dominated by fellow Alawites.

“The majority of the minorities have either supported Assad or opposed the revolution,” said Ghassan el-Yassin, a prominent Syrian activist from Aleppo who was imprisoned in the early stages of the uprising. “The system of governance since 1963 was the rule of the minorities, and they want to preserve their privileges.”

For many Alawites in particular, it is now a more existential struggle. Many fear their entire community—already suffering heavy casualties as part of Mr. Assad’s army and pro-government militias—could be exterminated if the war is lost.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

George Will: Greek crisis a reminder that the European Union was a terrible idea to begin with

George Will writes in The Washington Post:

When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras decided to call a referendum on a bailout offer from Greece’s creditors — an offer that expired before Sunday’s referendum — he informed the Greek nation in a televised speech. At 1 a.m.

Mediterranean lifestyles are different. Greece’s chosen style of living is dependent on others’ choices.

Tsipras is a peculiar phenomenon, a defiant mendicant. He urged voters to do what they did. In voting “no,” they asserted that Greece’s dignity is incompatible with loans that come with conditions attached. Tsipras’s Syriza Party insists, however, that dignity is compatible with perpetual dependency on the forbearance and productivity of others.

Karl Marx, an intellectual for whom labor as most 19th-century people experienced it was only a rumor, detested the division of labor because it “alienated” workers. But although Syriza partakes of the European left’s unending romance with Marxism, its program requires a particular division of labor: Greece will live better than its economic productivity can sustain, and more productive Europeans will pay the difference. Until socialism arrives, Marx said, “the worker . . . is only himself when he does not work,” a sentiment many Greeks embrace by retiring on government pensions at age 50.

Left-wing parties in other southern European countries — Portugal, Spain, Italy — are watching to see if Greece can turn weakness, indeed prostration, into strength: Continue to rescue us or we will collapse into a contagious mess. Actually, the risk of economic contagion is slight: Greece’s economy is about the size of Louisiana’s, and is 2 percent of the euro zone’s, and markets have discounted a Greek default. The real danger is a political contagion — a flight from free-market reforms elsewhere.

It is said that the European Union is a splendid idea but that the euro — the common currency — is a bad idea. Actually, the euro is a bad idea that is the logical application of an even worse idea — the European Union.

By the middle of the 20th century, after the Somme and the Holocaust, Europeans were terrified of themselves. This propelled the movement toward European unity, yet another of Europe’s misbegotten enthusiasms.

One from which Margaret Thatcher, a daughter of the “Mother of Parliaments,” quickly recoiled. In 1988, she said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” In the general election campaign earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on British membership in the E.U. It will be more important than this year’s parliamentary elections because it will determine whether future parliamentary elections will matter.

The E.U. exists to require nations to “pool” their sovereignties in unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies. The retrograde point of the E.U. is to leech from national parliaments powers that were hard-won over many centuries of struggle. National governments rendered unserious by the E.U. are apt to regress to adolescence, as with Syriza’s referendum — a tantrum masquerading as governance.

Seventy years after the guns fell silent, the drive to turn “Europe” from a geographic into a political expression lacks the excuse of preventing continental convulsions caused by nationalistic militarisms. Now, the drive for “ever closer union” — which means ever-more attenuated democracy — is fueled by the traditional socialist (and, in the United States, the progressive) goal of expanding the reach of a mandarin class of supposed experts in social rationality.

Today, the European Parliament has 24 official languages, and the fate of “Europe” is said to be linked to the future of ramshackle Greece. There, on Sunday night, people poured into Athens’s Syntagma Square to celebrate having told the creditors to send more money with fewer strings attached. Many celebrants came to the square by subway, which did not charge riders because capital controls, a consequence of five years of negotiations with creditors and evasions of reality, had made currency scarce.

On Sept. 30, 1938, when French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier’s plane bringing him back from the Munich conference was landing in Paris, he feared that the crowd gathered at the airport would be furious because of the concessions that had been made to Hitler. When Daladier saw that the crowd was cheering, he reportedly said: “The bloody fools.” After the 61 percent “no” vote was announced in Sunday’s referendum, there was dancing in the streets of Athens.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Two Reasons Not to Dismiss The Donald - Trump warrants GOP attention for the damage he can do and the lesson he can bring

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Search Google for Donald Trump buffoon and you will get more than 50,000 hits in return. As that suggests, the tendency to dismiss Mr. Trump, the billionaire populist Republican presidential candidate as exactly that—a buffoon—is pretty widespread.

It’s also a mistake. Mr. Trump is important for two reasons: first for the damage he can do to the Republican Party, and second for the useful lesson he can teach that same party. The potential damage comes largely in the harm he can do—indeed, already may have done—to Republicans’ crucial mission of building better bridges to Hispanics. The lesson comes by way of illustrating the depths of populist anger running through sectors of the GOP right now.

It seems necessary to note that Mr. Trump isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, in the sense that he might actually win. But he can win a place on the campaign stage, at least for a while, his relative strength increased by the dilution of support across a sprawling GOP field that now has more than a dozen affirmed contenders. He ranked second in the most recent CNN/ORC national poll of Republican voters at 12%, and tied for second in the latest Quinnipiac survey of Iowa voters.

Nobody is more eager to remind us of this burst of support than Mr. Trump himself, who seems available to jump on the phone at any time with any cable-TV host to discuss it. The specific problem for Republicans is that what most of Mr. Trump’s interlocutors ask about is the view of Hispanics he laid out in his announcement speech, which was more of an announcement screed.

That was the speech in which he characterized Hispanic immigrants this way: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” As for the country of Mexico itself, he declared: “They are not our friend, believe me.”

This view of Hispanics is associated with a man who, for the moment at least, has a good chance of carrying those views into nationally televised Republican presidential debates starting in one month.

The reason this matters so deeply is best illustrated in a new book, “2016 and Beyond,” by Republican pollster Whit Ayres. The book’s subtitle is “How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America,” and Mr. Ayres musters data that shows that task is pretty much impossible without an improved performance among Hispanic voters.

In a nutshell, the story is this: The white population is steadily shrinking as a share of the electorate, and the Hispanic population is steadily growing. But the Republicans’ presidential-campaign performance has been going in the reverse order: Its candidates are winning more of a shrinking white vote and losing more of a growing Hispanic vote.

In 2012, Mitt Romney won a whopping 59% of the white vote, more than either John McCain in 2008 or George W. Bush in 2004. But Mr. Romney won only 17% of the non-white vote, less than either Mr. McCain in 2008 or Mr. Bush in 2004. Net result: comfortable Democratic win.

Fast forward to 2016, when the white share of the vote will be smaller and the Hispanic share larger, and Mr. Ayres calculates that a Republican who wins the same 59% share of the white vote that Mr. Romney took will have to take 30% of the non-white vote—almost twice the share Mr. Romney took—to win the election.

“Republicans can complain about these trends, wring their hands over them, and get heartburn as a result,” writes Mr. Ayres, who now is polling for the presidential effort of Sen. Marco Rubio. “What they can’t do is change them.”

What they can also do is avoid making their challenge bigger, which is where Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments about Hispanics have done harm, and which is why most other GOP candidates are running away as fast as their legs will carry them.

Yet there is something more instructional about Mr. Trump, which lies in his simple but angry narrative of America today: We’re getting weaker, our enemies are getting stronger and our leaders are too “stupid” to do anything about it. Indeed, he used the words “stupid” or “stupidity” eight times in his announcement speech, mostly in reference to our nation’s political leaders, and not just Democrats.

Mr. Trump’s burst is a sign that there is a populist streak at the base of the party. This is in part the natural result of the GOP’s expansion in the past three decades to include more working-class voters.

Today, many of them feel economically threatened and marginalized by cultural change. Some cite a decline in moral values as the most alarming trend in the country. They aren’t the genteel patricians of Republican stereotype, but they are Republicans nonetheless.

And yes, The Donald is speaking to them.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

I am in favor of the result, but as am attorney understand and appreciate the issues raised in dissents about how we got there by fiat: The High Court’s Disunited State - As five justices declare a right to same-sex marriage, the other four dissent vigorously and ominously (And again and to be clear, I very much favor the ultimate ruling.)

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling against school segregation, was decided in a unanimous vote, 9-0. The court understood that in decisions that mandate significant societal and cultural change, and that will garner significant opposition, the fact of unanimity is in itself a kind of final argument.
In Loving v. Virginia, in 1967, the high court struck down prohibitions on mixed-race marriages. That too was decided unanimously.

Unanimous decisions tend to quell dissent; they confer an air of inarguable legitimacy, even inevitability. Whatever your own views, you as a citizen must acknowledge that nine lawyers, presumably skilled interpreters of the Constitution who hold different judicial and political philosophies, were able to agree on the charged issue at hand. Unanimous decisions rob opponents of arguments.

Landmark decisions based on narrow splits reflect a continuing breach.

Not fully acknowledged in the past days of celebration on one side, and profound reservation on the other, is that the court in Obergefell v. Hodges was split 5-4 on same-sex marriage, and that the dissenting opinions were truly remarkable. They were fiery and in some cases colorful, but they also showed a court divided on the essentials of the Constitution. Most strikingly, some of them included ominous warnings.

Chief Justice John Roberts scored what he sees as the court’s grandiosity and overreach.

The petitioners in the case had “strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness” that same-sex couples should be allowed to “affirm their love and commitment” through marriage. In the past six years voters or legislators in 11 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws to allow marriage between two people of the same sex. The highest courts in five states “decreed the same result.” Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved “considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view.”

But the high court has stopped that “vibrant debate.” The majority has “enacted their own vision of marriage.” In effect they are “stealing this issue from the people,” which will make “a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

“The Constitution itself says nothing about marriage,” the chief justice observed, so that states are “free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.” The majority has taken an “extraordinary step” in ordering every state to license and recognize same-sex marriage. The court’s decision is “an act of will, not legal judgment.” It “omits even a pretense of humility,” instead moving on a desire “to remake society” according to what it calls “new insights.”

“The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to,” the chief justice argues. “The Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

That grandiosity endangers the Court’s very legitimacy, which rests on public respect that “flows from the perception—and the reality—that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and the law.”

The Obergefell Court is “anything but humble or restrained. Over and over, the majority exalts the role of the judiciary in delivering social change.” They act as if “it is the courts, not the people, who are responsible for making ‘new dimensions of freedom . . . apparent to new generations.’ . . . Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role.”

And the decision raises serious questions about religious liberty. Every state that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically has, “out of respect for sincere religious conviction,” included accommodations for religious practice. There are none in this decision. The majority “graciously suggests” that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. “The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

Finally, and “most discouraging,” the majority felt “compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate.” “Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history”—including the tens of millions who voted to reaffirm their state’s enduring definition of marriage—are depicted as having disparaged and inflicted “ ‘dignitary wounds’ upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. These apparent assaults on the character of fair-minded people will have an effect, in society and in court.”

Justice Antonin Scalia put his criticism in populist terms. His message seemed a warning to the court. “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers of the Supreme Court. . . . A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

Those lawyers are “select, patrician, highly unrepresentative.” All studied law at Harvard or Yale, four are natives of New York City, eight grew up on the East or West coast, “only one hails from the vast expanse in-between.” Not a single Southwesterner, nor a genuine Westerner, not even a Protestant. The “unrepresentative character” of the court would mean nothing if its members were “functioning as judges.” But in this case they are not. This “judicial putsch,” Justice Scalia writes, is the product of “hubris”—“sometimes defined as o’erweening pride; and pride, we know, goeth before a fall.”

Justice Clarence Thomas composed a ringing aria on the subject of dignity. The majority, he says, believe they are advancing the “dignity” of same-sex couples in their decision, but they don’t understand what dignity is or where it comes from. Dignity is “innate”; the government is “incapable of bestowing” it. “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”

If the government cannot bestow dignity, “it cannot take it away.”

Justice Samuel Alito warned the decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” The majority compared the traditional definition of marriage to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women: “The implication of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

Thus “by imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.”

You can hardly get more ominous, more full of warning, than these opinions, which should be read in full.