Just as it looked like a fiscal cliff deal was coming together, President Obama gave a partisan, sarcastic speech this afternoon that seemed intended to set back the entire process. As Jonathan wrote, Republicans have good reason to think the president’s goal is to go over the cliff. But they also suspect the White House is preparing to push for further tax increases, in addition to the hikes on individuals making over $400,000 (and families making over $450,000) a year.
“What they’re telegraphing to me is that when Republicans ask for spending cuts, [Democrats are] gonna say ‘You’re not getting those unless we get more tax hikes’,” said one Republican Senate aide after the speech.
This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.
By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness.
There may be a last-minute compromise reached today in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, but not if President Obama has anything to say about it. Even as Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were believed to have led the effort to have the structure of a deal in place for the two houses of Congress to vote on later today, the president emerged to make a statement that seemed geared to scuttling the negotiations.
In a campaign-style event, the president spoke of a possible accord between the two parties that would avert the immediate effects of the fiscal cliff being reached. But the bulk of his remarks were devoted to goading the Republicans into backing away from any deal. Not only did he gratuitously insult the GOP about their stands on the budget to the great amusement of the hand-picked audience of supporters, he also made it clear that the tax increases in any compromise would just be the start of what he hoped to accomplish. Even worse, he implied that spending cuts, especially the entitlement reform that is necessary for any long-term solution to the nation’s problems, are not really on the table as far as he is concerned.
Given the tone of his comments and the timing, Republicans should be forgiven for suspecting that his real purpose was to send the country over the cliff in the belief that only the GOP would be blamed for the disaster.
Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairsessay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.
Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.
It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.
To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.
If you’d like to have your New Year’s Eve thoroughly ruined, I’d suggest taking a look today at Mortimer Zuckerman’s piece over at USNews.com, “Brace for an Avalanche of Unfunded Debt.”
It’s so depressing because it’s true. The federal government keeps its books not in ways that most clearly reveal the true financial picture, but in ways designed, quite deliberately, to obscure that picture. This is for the short-term benefit of politicians and nothing else, the country be damned. And, as Zuckerman notes, unless something is done about this, and soon, that is exactly what the country will be.
Right now the political landscape is grim for Republicans–and in the short term, thanks to the so-called fiscal cliff, things may get grimmer still. But moments like these can pass, often quicker than we think. And next year may turn out to be one in which the pernicious effects of the Affordable Care Act–aka ObamaCare–really begin to kick in, from higher premiums to the loss of employer-based health insurance to the start of enrollment in insurance exchanges. It will become more and more clear to the public what a nightmarish law the Affordable Care Act actually is.
“The administration is well behind schedule,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague James Capretta told Byron York of the Washington Examiner. “It’s going to be a train wreck in a lot of places.”
Mike Allen may have spoken too soon when he reported last week that the Chuck Hagel trial balloon had popped. RightScoop and Gestetner Updates both report that the White House phoned Jewish leaders last night to inform them that Hagel will be nominated for defense secretary this week. But probably the biggest indicator that Hagel is still in the running is that Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told a radio host yesterday that he would most likely be nominated on Monday.
“It’s most likely that on Monday they will announce that Hagel will be the choice. It’s obviously something that raised a lot of concern,” Hoenlein told talk show host Zev Brenner. “I think it is something that we’ll live with and we’ll work with him, whoever is in office. But … his past statements and his past record on a lot of issues–not just Jewish issues, I think American issues–raised concerns.”
Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)
Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.
Over the next four years, tax reform, done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy. Higher taxes, raised progressively, could encourage growth by helping to pay for long-neglected public investment in education, infrastructure and basic research. More revenue would also reduce budget deficits, helping to put the nation’s finances on a stable path. Greater progressivity would reduce rising income inequality, and with it, inequality of opportunity that is both an economic and social scourge.
Higher and more progressive taxation, in other words, is just the medicine the economy needs to begin to flourish again for the first time in six years. If the Times can produce even a single instance in history where higher and more progressive taxation led to economic prosperity I will eat my hat. The Times’s formula is precisely what FDR tried in the Great Depression. It didn’t work; the depression lingered on and on. But I can give you numerous instances where tax cutting produced near-instant prosperity (the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s, the 2000s in this country and many another instances in other countries; see this from Power Line).
It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.
If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.
In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel writes about two lessons the GOP should take from the fiscal cliff negotiations. One is that President Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. The second is that a house divided is a losing house. Ms. Strassel goes on to counsel the GOP to internalize these recent experiences, since the political dynamic won’t change much. In the future, she writes, Republicans “can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise” — or they can “realize that [Obama] will never be reasonable on taxes — and so they can’t give anything away.”
Ms. Strassel is always intelligent and always worth reading. But in this case there are some elements to the story that may complicate her analysis. It could be House Speaker John Boehner, based on his previous negotiations with Obama, went into the talks with the president hopeful but unconvinced he would get a deal this time. Still, Boehner may have made the calculation that he had to offer a plan that was viewed by the public as reasonable and flexible. Why? Because many Americans have (unfortunately) bought into Obama’s critique of the GOP as being obstinate. That is, even if Obama was not intent on compromising with Republicans, Boehner felt like he had to offer a deal that demonstrated the GOP was not being obstructionist and unyielding. So the speaker first offered raising $800 billion in revenues and then offered a second plan raising taxes on those making a million dollars or more.
At a time when partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to send us plunging over the fiscal cliff, it is comforting to know that at least in some areas lawmakers can still reach bipartisan consensus. Not many admittedly, but there are some–such as the Senate’s vote, 73 to 23, to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as amended in 2008, when lawmakers gave their imprimatur to what had been an executive initiative undertaken by President George W. Bush to monitor potential terrorists’ communications after 9/11.
Bush had torn down the wall which had prohibited monitoring foreign terrorists’ communications with people in the U.S. absent a court order. This had become controversial when it was publicly revealed, but Congress stepped in to provide the authority needed. Now Congress has extended that authority, and in so doing, senators turned back numerous attempts by lawmakers on both the far-left and far-right to stop or water down this legislation, which is badly needed by our intelligence agencies.
During the last decade both the Obama administration and its predecessor went down the garden path with Iran several times. Yet every time Washington believed the Islamist regime was finally embracing diplomacy and that a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was imminent, the ayatollahs pulled the rug out from under its gullible Western adversaries. This has happened so many times that one would think it would be impossible for the Iranians to pull off this trick again, but it appears that the United States is about to play Charlie Brown to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Lucy Van Pelt and her football again.
Using its usual anonymous sources within the Obama administration, the New York Times is claiming that Iran has sent a clear signal to the West that it is ready negotiate about its nuclear program. The paper reports that according to unnamed government officials Iran has slowed down its enrichment of uranium in recent months. The use of what is described as a “significant amount” of material for a small medical reactor may affect Iran’s nuclear timetable. This has led the U.S. to believe that the Iranians are sending a signal to the West that they are ready to negotiate rather than to continue to stonewall the world on the issue:
One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.”
No doubt it was calculated, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that calculation has anything to do with a desire to negotiate an end to their program—the goal that President Obama said was the only sort of compromise he would accept during his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney.
Hillary Clinton is returning to work next week, and apparently some Senate Republicans are considering holding John Kerry’s confirmation vote hostage unless she testifies on Benghazi. Sounds to me like an empty threat, but over to Josh Rogin:
Clinton has pledged to remain in the job until Kerry is confirmed, which Obama said he was confident would happen “quickly.” The Senate is expected to take up Kerry’s nomination in early January, but multiple Republican senators have already said they won’t agree to a vote on Kerry’s nomination until Clinton testifies about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Illness and a concussion has prevented Clinton from appearing thus far.
For the sake of accountability, Clinton should testify—but to be honest, she probably wouldn’t add much more than what her deputies have already said. The real benefit of her testimony for Republicans would be that she might say something self-incriminating that could be used when she runs for president in 2016. She probably knows this, which is why she’d be crazy to do it unless she’s compelled to. After all, if the GOP wants her to testify badly enough, the House foreign affairs committee can always issue a subpoena.
If reports filtering out of Washington are to be believed there is a fair chance that a compromise will be reached sometime over the next three days that will head off the most unpopular aspect of the impending financial crisis: across the board tax increases for all Americans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the compromise which may be crafted between the White House and the leaders of the House and Senate will avoid dealing with the spending cuts mandated by the sequestration process including devastating decreases for the nation’s defense.
President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have given every indication that they think it is in their interest to see the nation head over the fiscal cliff making any sort of compromise appear like a last minute rescue no matter how unfortunate its terms might be. Most Americans are of the opinion that any deal that would limit the scope of a tax increase is better than no action at all. They are right about that but the fact that it appears impossible to do anything about spending either in the short term or the long right now represents a massive failure on the part of the government. While up until now much of the public still appears to be blaming the mess on recalcitrant Republicans who oppose any tax increases, the unwillingness of the president and Senate Democrats to budge on entitlement spending even in the shadow of potential disaster may eventually lead to a shift in opinion.
The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.
The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.
Politico’s Mike Allen reported on “Morning Joe” today that Chuck Hagel’s potential defense secretary nomination is on the rocks, after the administration realized there is “not a natural constituency for him.” Don’t ask why it took them that long to figure that one out:
In the last week, the New York Timeshas published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.
Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.
On the list of possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, somewhere between “fully independent Palestinian state on PA territory” and “Jordan is Palestine” falls a hybrid of the two: “Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.” Longtime Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab writes in the Atlantic that the idea seems to be experiencing something of a revival. Most notably, Mahmoud Abbas himself has reportedly suggested its consideration.
A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation in some ways is a relic of the past, before a fully independent Palestinian state was regarded as the consensus solution to the conflict. Kuttab notes that since the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration at the United Nations gave them symbolic recognition, Abbas may be open to the idea of a confederation, in which a state of Palestine would be technically independent but Jordan would play a role in maintaining security and probably—though this hasn’t been spelled out—in the Palestinian state’s general foreign affairs portfolio. But the idea is less realistic than it may seem. Kuttab, unfortunately, doesn’t discuss why that is. He writes: