Monthly Archives: February 2015

The “Power of the Purse” Myth

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As Republicans in Congress scramble today to piece together a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, it’s worth reviewing how we got here.

Shortly after the 2014 mid-term elections, President Obama issued executive orders providing residency and work permits to millions of illegal immigrants.  Republicans and even a few Democrats objected to the actions as an unconstitutional application of executive authority.  Republicans wanted to fight back without stealing the thunder of their recent electoral triumph.  So they passed an omnibus “continuing resolution,” funding at current levels the entire federal bureaucracy — except for the DHS, which they funded through today’s date only.  The thinking was that, in the new year, with majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans would be able to pressure the president into backing down from his “executive amnesty.”

We give the power brokers in Washington too much credit for their political calculations.  Why would anyone believe that President Obama, who had just led his party to a crushing defeat, could be cowered into backing down on a signature issue?  If anything, the President now has even less of an incentive to compromise.  He has no more elections of his own.  His party has taken as many lumps as it can.  Even fewer moderates survive in the Democratic caucus.  Politically speaking, there is nothing restricting the president from putting a foot on the accelerator of his agenda.

The Constitution does vest in the Congress power to appropriate funds from the treasury.  Technically, Congress can “defund” the administrative resources which the administration needs to “execute” objectionable executive orders.  Of course, “defund” in this context means to pass an appropriations bill with restrictions.  Even if such a measure were to garner enough bipartisan support to overcome a Senate filibuster, the president would have no compulsion to sign it.   Congress would not have enough votes to override a veto.  In short, we would find ourselves where we stand today — a looming “shutdown” of the department at issue.

Even if both sides are mechanically responsible for the impasse, public opinion lays the blame squarely on the party throwing up the initial roadblock — in this case, the GOP.  One can argue for principle above politics, but purity only gets you so far.  It’s easy for Rep. Steve King (R-IA) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to hold the line because neither faces any credible political fallout from his actions.  Bucking compromise only burnishes their credentials with their constituencies.  For the conservative movement as a whole, however, it’s a losing proposition.  As Homeland Security staff are furloughed or forced to work without pay, it’s obvious where the pressure will begin to mount.  The party which prides itself on law and order issues will have no choice but to cave.  Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the GOP was lucky to avoid punishment for the 2013 government shutdown.  If not for the disastrous roll-out of healthcare.gov and other blunders by the administration, mid-term election results would have looked very different.

This is not to say that conservatives have no cards to play in the battle over spending levels and priorities.  Options are simply more limited when we appropriate with omnibus bills that face little scrutiny or discussion.  There is a reason for “regular order” whereby the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations divide their work into twelve subcommittees, each tasked with developing an appropriations bill for its own section of the government.  These subcommittees can hold hearings and publish proposals and dig into the details which other legislators lack the time or interest to investigate.  It’s in the deep and dirty work of these subcommittees where Republicans can parlay the privileges of their majority.  It’s there that fiscal conservatives can shine a light on waste or muscle through resolutions which advance priorities without the distraction of emotionally charged national debates largely unrelated to the subcommittee’s core business.

It’s not capitulating or shirking responsibility to forsake tactics which turn the tables on contentious issues.  Critics have good cause to resent the president’s overreach.  To be effective in opposition, however, they need to read the political tea leaves.  No good will come from a DHS shutdown.  Better to fight for restraint by the courts and, ultimately, for control of the White House.

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Filed under Domestic Policy, Electoral Politics, Immigration

Dealing with el Diablo

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President Obama’s decision in December to restore diplomatic and eventually trade relations with Cuba has generated some unlikely alliances.

A few pragmatic-minded Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), agree that the 50-year-old trade embargo has accomplished very little.  Certainly, it hasn’t led to a meaningful change for the better, let alone the ouster of the Castro regime.

At the same time, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has joined the majority of the Republican caucus in opposition to the president’s policy change, calling it a capitulation.  Even the Washington Post editorial board, hardly a regular critic of this administration, expressed its misgivings yesterday.  The island nation only 90 miles from our shores is no doubt a repressive state.  The Cuban government denies its people virtually every liberty we hold dear, arresting political dissidents and housing them in ghastly prisons, crushing independent media, and restricting movement and assembly of journalists and activists (among other egregious offenses).

But are human rights violations cause for economic retribution?  If so, it seems that not all violators are created equal.  What about the abuses in China?  In Vietnam?  In Saudi Arabia?  In Turkey?  According to Freedom House‘s accounting of political and civil liberties, some of our closer commercial and strategic partners rank near the bottom of the list.

Let’s face it.  If repressive governance disqualified a country from doing business with the U.S., we would be doing a lot less business in foreign markets.  Certainly there has to be something more than concern for human rights behind our persistent impasse with Cuba.

What about the country’s bad behavior beyond its borders?  For decades the Castro brothers have been notorious troublemakers from South America to Africa.  Then again, they don’t stand alone on this count either.  Despite a decade of destabilizing foreign intrigue by Hugo Chavez and his successor in Caracas, we continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and U.S. trade with the nation totaled $64 billion in 2012.

In practice, every conflict is different.  Effective policy requires a lens of realism.  Sanctions against Apartheid South Africa were justified in retrospect because the leadership of the country wanted to reverse its international isolation.  And for better or for worse, our current sanctions regime against Iran does seem to have brought the ayatollahs to the nuclear arms bargaining table.  In contrast, Kim Jong-un cares little about North Korea’s seclusion and the economic deprivations of his people.  We should not be surprised when our threats and bribes do little to bring Pyongyang into compliance with the most rudimentary norms of international behavior.

So while it may not comport very well with lofty political rhetoric, it appears that U.S. economic pressure is really just a tactical instrument, to be deployed when it helps, and discarded when it doesn’t.

What’s needed today is a bit more candor and clarity about our positions and policies.  We should not mince words when it comes to critiquing behavior which undermines liberty or America’s vital strategic interests.  It does not follow, however, that we need a uniform strategy to contain it.

The question we should be asking about Cuba is not whether the regime is bad — it is.  And it’s not whether 50 years of embargo has worked — it hasn’t.  Instead we should be looking forward with an honest analysis of our options.  Will continued isolation of Cuba perpetuate the problems or will it finally precipitate a tipping point for change?

There are well-reasoned arguments on both sides, but neither seems to acknowledge the other.  It would be refreshing to hear President Obama disparage the Castro mystique that persists among his base of support.  It would also be more convincing to hear Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) critique the shortcomings of the Cuba embargo, even as he advocates keeping it in place.  On balance, we should take steps to normalize, but at a measured pace and with a close eye for proof that it’s making things better.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Human Rights, International

What is really beyond the pale?

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In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many were quick to affirm the sanctity of free speech rights.  Je suis Charlie campaigners online and in the streets of Paris promoted the idea that people should be free to say whatever they wish.  Without legal sanction and without violent reprisals.

Not everyone signed on.  Conservative Muslims tempered the view that speech should be unfettered.  They cautioned that some speech is too offensive to be protected.

Americans by and large have sided with freedom.  While some have doubted where our president stands, most in our society have steadfastly disparaged the violent furor over cartoons that upset Muslim sensibilities.

But is the Western world intellectually consistent in its defense of free speech? Do we walk the walk when it comes to speech that offends our sensibilities? We’re all for “ridicule rights” so long as the target is a traditional religious point of view.  (I certainly haven’t noticed anyone among our political and cultural elite wagging a finger at the producers of the The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical which mocks The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.)

How about something that counters liberal norms about race, gender, or sexual orientation? Or sacred historical memory of epic injustice, such as black slavery or the Holocaust?

In Europe there are laws forbidding denial of the Holocaust.  Europeans are in a particularly tough spot about resurgent antisemitism, and the more responsible political leaders among them understandably want to tamp it down.  It is certainly upsetting to observe neo-Nazi sentiments surfacing amidst radical political and Islamist movements.  As with so many other social and economic maladies, however, the Europeans rely too heavily on government solutions.  Constraints on speech in France eliminate discredited ideas about as well as constraints on commerce reduce their high levels of youth unemployment.

You’d be mistaken if you hoped to find relief in the sanctuary of a college campus.  The Free Speech Movement may have originated at UC Berkeley 50 years ago, but that university long ago sacrificed its integrity on the altar of political correctness.  Nationally recognized speakers at Cal who fail to toe the politically correct line have been “disinvited” to speak or shouted off the podium when they do.  Just last fall the student committee organizing graduation ceremonies withdrew its offer to HBO comedian Bill Maher (until the university overturned its decision).

It would be comforting to write off this pattern as another example of “Bezerkley” politics.  Unfortunately, Cal is not exceptional in its treatment of speakers who stray from orthodox positions.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked dozens of similar incidents taking place at public and private universities across the nation.  Victims span the political spectrum.

Anti-Israel dogma has particular resonance in the academy as an excuse to suppress the free exchange of ideas.  The most recent and perhaps the most egregious Israel bashing emerged last month at The Durban University of Technology in South Africa, where student leaders demanded that Jews, especially those who decline to “support the Palestinian struggle,” be kicked out of the university.

Although we may disagree on the specifics, many ideas are genuinely offensive.  We have phrases like “the n-word” which are so inflammatory they can only be uttered without opprobrium by foul-mouthed black comics.  If a position is so fundamentally objectionable, however, it should not require the force of law or the threats of violent mobs to suppress it.  Any idea that is beyond the pale of civilized society we can and should refute with reasoned discourse.  To do otherwise is to undermine what should be the purpose of opposition:  to persuade.

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Filed under Education, Human Rights, Terrorism

No strength no peace

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The world is awash with troublemakers testing our resolve.  Is our president up to the challenge?

When it comes to national security policy, the administration seems adrift on so many levels.  Most alarming is President Obama’s outright disregard for real threats, chief among them the menace of Islamist terror.  He has alternately compared the jihadists to “a jayvee team,” “violent extremists,” and most recently, random urban criminals.  His unwillingness to identify — let alone combat — the scourge of radical Islam as a festering global challenge is bewildering, irresponsible, and insulting (not just to our intelligence).   Congressional leaders on the right and the left are simply exasperated.  Were it only a cynical ploy to avoid responsibility for policy failure, his dismissive attitude would be scandalous.  That he really seems to believe what he is saying is simply terrifying.

Where the White House does acknowledge a challenge, it is notoriously late to the game.  The Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the emergence of ISIS, and the unraveling of the government in Yemen — all seemed to catch the president off guard.  Advisors and spokesmen were then left scrambling to explain the government’s positions and strategy.

One instance where President Obama did try to get ahead of a global security challenge was the escalating brutality of the Assad regime in Syria.  Against the use of chemical weapons, the president famously drew a (red) line in the sand.  As we now know, when Assad called his bluff, Obama was unable or unwilling to follow through.  The rest of the world took notice, allies and foes alike.

Threats of force from this administration simply do not pass muster unless we can “lead from behind.” Or at least from the safety of a remote base piloting a drone.

Obama is so fearful of replicating the perceived overreach of his predecessor that he simply refuses to project strength.  Confession, conciliation, and concession are the standard features of the Obama doctrine (if you can call it that).  In Iraq and Afghanistan, we pre-announced our scheduled withdrawals and did little to protect the military gains for which we had sacrificed so much.  In the face of Russian intransigence — later to become belligerence — we unilaterally disarmed by unwinding commitments to place antimissile batteries in Eastern Europe.  And regarding ISIS, we take options off the table, such as “boots on the ground,” even though we lack the intelligence needed to sustain an effective campaign against the would-be totalitarian caliphate.

You don’t have to subscribe to the foreign policy principles of Senators McCain and Graham to realize how much we are dropping the ball.  Our adversaries can either ignore our demands and threats outright, or they can simply wait for them to pass and wither.  While President Obama slow-walks offers to bolster the army of Ukraine with lethal weaponry, the rest of Eastern Europe is getting anxious.  It’s only a matter of time before Vladimir Putin identifies Russian speakers elsewhere in the region who require protection from some contrived injustice.

So when it comes to negotiations with Iran, is it any wonder that leaders of Congress doubt the White House?  Why should anyone trust that diplomacy engineered by this president can keep the Iranian nuclear program in check?  Iran is at the table of under the strain of a vigorous sanctions regime.  Obama seeks to curtail further moves in this direction, threatening to veto legislation that would tighten economic pressure.

Sadly, it seems this is the only kind of threat from President Obama one can believe in.

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Filed under International, Terrorism

Strategy without deserts

“Would you send your son to go fight ISIS?”

That was the provocative question posed to me over dinner last week.  Of course, I wouldn’t be keen to send my children to fight in any war, but my dining companion wasn’t really arguing that point.  Instead he was charging that we don’t own the problems of the Middle East.  His was another flavor of the cliche that “America isn’t the world’s policeman.”

Pundits and politicians step over one another to assign blame for the world’s problems.  It does not serve our national interest.  As Peggy Noonan wrote last week, “you have to unhitch yourself from your predispositions and resentments and face what is happening now.”  Normative judgments are fine and good as a way to defend policy prescriptions, but they do not address the problems at hand.  People are rightly exasperated with President Obama’s reluctance to admit how Islamic thought is motivating today’s biggest security threats.  That said, we are not in an existential war against political correctness.  Our clear and present danger arises from a growing set of deranged actors.  The president’s primary fault is his failure to articulate a coherent strategy and lead the fight against our enemies.

Obama set off a firestorm in his homily at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, where he ostensibly likened the crimes of the medieval crusaders to those of modern day jihadists.  Without debating the historical merits or otherwise of his comments, it’s unsettling how much this president moralizes about metaphorical stone throwing instead of orchestrating a global campaign against the sadists who are literally throwing stones as he speaks.  Being action-oriented and practical minded doesn’t make you a practitioner of realpolitik.  We should lead where we can — not because we caused a problem, but because we fear the alternatives to our leadership.

When I travel in pro-Israel circles, it’s not uncommon to hear advocates recite a laundry list of transgressions by the Palestinian people and their leadership.  The Arabs have rejected compromise, fomented hatred, celebrated violence, and glorified murderous suicide.  It’s impossible to defend such behavior with a straight face.  It gives context to Israeli policies which vex the liberal conscience.  What your adversaries deserve, however, is not the foundation of a strategy to deal with them.  The most persuasive proponents of a two-state solution in Palestine are those who enumerate the practical risks of denying civil rights to an occupied population.  Palestinians need an independent state as a way to resolve Israel’s continuing security and diplomatic challenges of the conflict.  It’s not that Palestinians “earned” independence by their conduct.  Israel must stay the course of negotiations because it serves its best interests to do so.

Which brings me back to the thorny question of ISIS and its fellow travelers across the globe.  Do Americans want another military incursion in the Middle East?  Not very likely.  Do Americans want battle-hardened jihadis hitting our shores to blow up subways in New York or scatter bullets across newsrooms in Washington, DC?  Also not very likely.  We own the problem of radical Islam whether or not we share some responsibility for its incarnation.  What we need is a clear-headed strategy for countering the threat.  Let’s back up the comparatively civilized front-line fighting forces (e.g., Jordan’s army and the Kurdish Peshmerga) with arms, resources, and unhindered logistical support.  Let’s use our best diplomatic and intelligence capabilities to rally the like-minded against a metastasizing global menace.  I shudder to think of those I know and love suffering at the hands of jihadi terrorists.  Washing our hands of the problem won’t make it go away.

 

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Hyphenation Nation

In 2000 I was enamored with the “insurgent” candidacy of John McCain for President.  Although his image took a beating in later years, back then his maverick reputation had earned him accolades in the press and in popular culture.  So I went online and made a donation.  The campaign also sold me what it must have thought would secure my commitment:  a bumper sticker reading “Jewish Americans for McCain” and featuring a martial five-point star in tribute to Sen. McCain’s distinguished military service.

Upon closer inspection, the sticker felt a bit creepy.  While a Star of David would have made more sense, it wasn’t the star that seemed misguided.  Rather, the well-intentioned “swag” rubbed me the wrong way because I had never called myself a “Jewish American.”  The designation awkwardly lined me up with all the other hyphenated ethnic and racial designations bandied about by professional liberal activists.  To be sure, I am a proud Jew and a proud American, and I belong to countless American Jewish organizations.  What drew me to Sen. McCain, however, was his extraordinary biography and commitment to American leadership in the world.  Then as now, his principles stood for shared American values that transcend special interests.  For this reason, I eagerly lined up behind the senator, albeit as a nondescript “McCainiac” rather than a “Jewish American for McCain.”

McCain’s clumsy appeal to ethnicity was a sign of the times and seemed to augur the rise of the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority (EDM).  Originally coined by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in their 2002 book by the same name, the EDM thesis postulates that the Democratic Party will come to dominate national elections because of the changing demographic landscape.  Specifically, whites are declining as a percentage of the electorate as racial minorities are rising.  This fact, together with the relative strength of Democrats among minorities and other demographic “voting blocs,” apparently spells doom for Republican prospects.  Just last week, however, Judis himself pulled a 180 with a piece in National Journal, where he explains how Republicans are set to dominate elections after all, due especially to their rising hold on middle-class voters.  Politicos of all stripes have been breaking down the arguments, often to suit their own agendas.

Lost in all the beltway chatter is the sad premise that U.S. elections turn on capturing the disconnected hearts and minds of this segment or that one, be it Hispanics, blue-collar workers, senior citizens, millennials, gays, soccer moms, veterans, unmarried women, urban professionals, or — dare I say — Jewish Americans.  True, it was the machinations of Karl Rove which introduced the power of micro-targeting to the campaigns of George W. Bush.  But President Obama’s second Presidential campaign took identity campaign politics to an unprecedented level.  From the beginning Obama for America was really a conflation of building blocks — Obama for blacks, Obama for Hispanics, Obama for gays, Obama for labor unions, Obama for pro-choice activists, Obama for gun-control activists, Obama for trial lawyers.  Stack ’em all up and they totaled more than the would-be coalition for Romney.  Gone was even the lip service to the 2008 rallying cry of “not a collection of red states and blue states… the United States!”

I wasn’t too politically aware when Reagan held the White House, but one thing I remember clearly was his sunny demeanor and his message of bringing freedom and prosperity to Americans from every walk of life.  Likewise Bill Clinton worked hard to weave a thread of shared purpose in “a bridge to the 21st century.”  Appealing to our common American values should be the centerpiece of a Presidential campaign.  The motto of our nation’s Great Seal is e pluribus unum.  That means “one from many” not “many from one.” Instead of littering their speeches with trite anecdotes illustrating one interest group or the other and instead of manufacturing soothing but shallow catch phrases like “middle-class economics,” our leaders should be delving deeply into what makes America truly special and rallying the population around it.  They may be surprised how many [insert label here]-Americans break out of the molds predetermined by cynical political strategists.

As the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, I hope we see a fresh approach from the Republican field and the presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  For her part, Clinton is working hard to articulate a substantive rationale for her prospective candidacy.  A good place to start would be to enunciate principles for boosting the economy and countering our nation’s enemies abroad.  Democrats and Republicans may not agree on policy, but we should be able to agree on the end goals.

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What to do about veterans healthcare

Yesterday the Senate unanimously passed The Clay Hunt SAV Act, a rare bipartisan measure designed to allocate resources for suicide prevention and other mental health needs of our nation’s veterans.  It’s hard to argue with the bill’s purpose, which is to stem the wave of self-inflicted wounds among our returning servicemen, such as the one which took the life of the legislation’s namesake.  Given the modest investments the bill underwrites, such as a peer support program and an interactive website, it’s also hard to imagine the money being squandered by the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration.

Of course, in light of the VA’s checkered history, we can only hope this program won’t prove to be yet another disappointment.  Ever since last summer’s wait list scandals at the VA, I’ve been asking myself how our treatment of wounded warriors could get any worse.  More than once I’ve wondered why our veterans, the citizens most deserving of our compassion and support, should be shunted into an unaccountable government health care system.  Really — what’s the point?  Why do the rest of us — even those relying on government financed health insurance — have the opportunity to choose among private health care services, while our heroes must turn to the medical equivalent of the DMV.  It’s true — increasingly so — that citizens on public assistance are having a harder time gaining access to care as practitioners stop accepting Medicaid, Medicare, or Obamacare patients.  But certainly that fact alone cannot justify keeping veterans on a separate track.

As a recent survivor of a near-fatal traffic accident, I have had an intimate encounter with our nation’s current healthcare delivery system. The extraordinary care I received both to save my life and to rehabilitate my body provides a case study in the disparity between privately managed healthcare and the socialized model serving our nation’s veterans.

In May I was riding my scooter near my home in suburban Los Angeles when a careless driver in a minivan struck me during the morning commute.   I was rushed to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where the doctors performed a series of gutsy maneuvers to save my life. In addition to orthopedic procedures, I had to endure open-heart surgery and removal of my spleen.

My wife later explained to me how the various specialists consulted meticulously with one another to assess options and determine the best path forward. They patiently conferred with my wife so that she could understand their recommendations and the attendant risks. After five major surgeries and ten days in ICU, my condition stabilized, I became conscious of my surroundings, and I began my long path to recovery.

What happened next was particularly instructive about the standard of care in the system. Every professional who served me – from the most senior expert surgeons to the food service crew, treated me with skill, patience, courtesy, compassion, and diligence. At no time were my questions or requests disregarded or delayed. At no time did any person mislead me about my condition or the timing and risks of various treatments. At no time did my private insurance carrier Anthem Blue Cross deny me any coverage for the procedures, therapies, medications, and equipment prescribed by my various physicians. Simply stated, I was treated with professionalism, respect and dignity throughout my ordeal by every stakeholder in the private healthcare delivery system. There were no bureaucratic or financial impediments to my recovery.

Compare this experience with the continuing flow of reports about the incompetent, shameful, and potentially illegal conduct at all corners of the Veterans Administration.  Time and again we hear about the treachery of VA bureaucrats more concerned with lining their own pockets than caring for America’s wounded warriors. The culture of this government managed healthcare delivery system has been proven to be woefully corrupt. The VA bureaucracy lacks any accountability for its misdeeds because there is no competitive alternative for our soldiers.

In contrast, the professionals at my privately managed hospital and insurance carrier were committed to excellent patient care as a top priority. Failing to live up to that commitment would not only create a public relations challenge but also a competitive disadvantage.  Veterans deserve no less.  Instead of forcing them to use VA facilities, a better solution would be to grant them vouchers to obtain healthcare from the providers of their own choosing.

I’m not writing today about the disconcerting trends accelerated by the Affordable Care Act, but the top-down failures emblematic of the VA system should serve as a cautionary tale.  The more government controls healthcare, the worse it becomes.  More broadly, we should adopt a competitive, consumer-driven healthcare program such as the one outlined by the organization Docs 4 Patient Care (D4PC). Only when we stop treating healthcare as somehow immune from the discipline of competitive markets will we truly address the challenges of caring for our soldiers and our citizens.

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