Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 13, 2013

PA May Not Be Site of Next War on Women

The “war on women” meme was a useful tool for Democrats in 2012. It probably wouldn’t have had as much impact on the voting had not Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy encapsulated the stereotype of a misogynist GOP that liberals had labored so hard to publicize. But even without Akin, whose idiotic statement helped drag down many another Republican last fall, the Democratic effort to try to brand their opponents as hostile to women was a potent factor. Having worked once, it is no surprise they will be trying to duplicate that success in 2014, but assumptions of that sort when applied to individual state races may not always work out. Hence, Politico’s preview of next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest may not hinge as much on women’s issues as readers might think.

On the surface, the race for the executive suite in Harrisburg has the potential to be a repeat of what happened in Missouri when Akin’s case of hoof-in-mouth turned liberal Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easily re-elected incumbent. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not only had a rocky first two years in office but has also been credited with some particularly obtuse quotes about women seeking abortion that will be easily exploited by the Democrats. His likely opponent is Representative Allyson Schwartz who has the smarts and the ability to raise the money needed to fund a campaign that will paint the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Corbett as a Keystone State version of Akin.

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The “war on women” meme was a useful tool for Democrats in 2012. It probably wouldn’t have had as much impact on the voting had not Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy encapsulated the stereotype of a misogynist GOP that liberals had labored so hard to publicize. But even without Akin, whose idiotic statement helped drag down many another Republican last fall, the Democratic effort to try to brand their opponents as hostile to women was a potent factor. Having worked once, it is no surprise they will be trying to duplicate that success in 2014, but assumptions of that sort when applied to individual state races may not always work out. Hence, Politico’s preview of next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest may not hinge as much on women’s issues as readers might think.

On the surface, the race for the executive suite in Harrisburg has the potential to be a repeat of what happened in Missouri when Akin’s case of hoof-in-mouth turned liberal Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easily re-elected incumbent. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not only had a rocky first two years in office but has also been credited with some particularly obtuse quotes about women seeking abortion that will be easily exploited by the Democrats. His likely opponent is Representative Allyson Schwartz who has the smarts and the ability to raise the money needed to fund a campaign that will paint the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Corbett as a Keystone State version of Akin.

But there are two problems with this scenario that may turn the war on women routine on its head. First is the very real possibility that Corbett will not survive a primary challenge next year. The other is that the assumption that a pro-choice woman will be more than a match for a pro-life man in Pennsylvania is far from certain. Particularly when the women is not just an advocate for reproductive choice but someone who made a living at what her opponents will call an abortion mill. Under these circumstances, there’s really no telling what may happen next year in Pennsylvania.

Let’s start with the fact that Corbett, who won easily in the big Republican year of 2010, may be the most vulnerable Republican governor in the nation. Corbett is seen as a weak leader who has done little to help the state’s economy and has been blasted by both the left and the right for being part of the same old partisan establishment problem in Harrisburg rather than the solution.

However, Politico focused more on Corbett’s unfortunate comments about abortion than any of that. By itself Corbett’s support last year for a bill that would have required women to have an ultrasound before an abortion would have been enough for the Democrats to play the war on women theme. But he made it worse when he said that any women who didn’t want to look at the image of a living fetus produced by the machine could simply “close your eyes.” You don’t have to be a political genius to understand how opponents for the rest of his career will hang this around his neck.

Yet Corbett’s biggest problem is his association with the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It took the state attorney general’s office three years to charge pedophile Jerry Sandusky in the case after allegations came to their attention. Most of that period encompasses the period when Corbett was attorney general before being elected governor. It’s far from clear that this was the result of any wrongdoing, but Pennsylvanians are so mad about the case and the impact that it had on the beloved Penn State football team and the late Joe Paterno that anyone even tangentially involved in it has become political poison. The probe of Corbett’s conduct in the case ordered by current Attorney General Katherine Kane, who is a Democrat, is a potential game changer in the governor’s race.

Though defeating an incumbent governor is a formidable task, this knowledge has penetrated Republican ranks to the extent that a primary upset of Corbett is not out of the question. The most likely candidate to oppose him is an old foe, Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, who was narrowly beaten by Corbett in a 2004 attorney general primary. Corbett has taken full advantage of his incumbency to raise enough money from major corporate backers—including from some Democrats—to be able to outspend any opponent inside or outside his party. But if Castor can position himself as the reform/Tea Party favorite in a GOP contest, all the pundits’ assumptions about Corbett being the Akin of 2014 go out the window.

But even if Corbett does survive a bitter primary, Schwartz has her own set of vulnerabilities. Pennsylvania may be in the northeast and has not voted for a Republican for president in a generation. But outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it is a generally rural state with a strong pro-gun culture as well as a significant pro-life constituency. Democrats do best when perceived as pragmatic centrists (as was the case with former Governor Ed Rendell) and/or have pro-life and pro-gun stands (as remains the case with Senator Bob Casey Jr.).

As Politico rightly notes, social issues will cut both ways in a Corbett-Schwartz tussle. Schwartz is not well known statewide and is viewed as a stereotypical Philadelphia-area liberal even if she claims to be a moderate on fiscal issues. In 2000, she lost badly in a Senate primary to a little known Pittsburgh-area congressman largely because of her limited appeal in the rest of the state. Though her stature has grown since then, it’s not clear that has changed much.

While her background working at the Planned Parenthood-run Elizabeth Blackwell Center endears her to liberal women, it could be a liability in a general election. Though most voters are not sympathetic to extreme anti-abortion statements, what liberals in the media often forget is that abortion is still viewed with distaste even by many who would not wish to repeal Roe v. Wade. That will complicate any effort to rerun the war on women theme.

If all politics really is local, then national reporters looking to Pennsylvania as turning on a national issue like abortion may be in for a surprise. The Sandusky case may trump it and remove Tom Corbett from the equation before Democrats have the chance to fit him for the Todd Akin clown suit.

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Ayotte and the Future of Conservative Foreign Policy

As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.

But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:

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As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.

But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:

Ayotte agrees with McCain and Graham on U.S. drone policies, though she didn’t take part in their attack on Paul.

“He and I have a different viewpoint,” Ayotte told The Hill. “I certainly respect Sen. Paul for standing up for what he believes in, but I also very much understand and appreciate Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham’s views that they expressed on the underlying policy.”

Ayotte has built up a fiscally conservative record in the Senate — she has a 92 percent rating from the conservative Club For Growth, ninth highest among senators who served in 2012. She’s a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend (her picture is alongside Paul’s on a promotional flyer).

Though she gets less attention than Rubio, who is out in front on the immigration issue as well, how Ayotte navigates these two constituencies is likely to be quite consequential for the GOP’s stand on foreign policy going forward. And it may not be as easy as staking out positions popular with the base; as the Hill notes, instead of appearing at Paul’s filibuster Ayotte was taking part in the president’s “dinner diplomacy”–along with McCain and Graham. The optics were enough to draw the ire of conservatives.

Ayotte’s significance on foreign policy is due in part to the fact that she doesn’t have Rubio’s stature as a national figure. Though Ayotte was mentioned often as a possible vice presidential choice for Mitt Romney last year, she is not considered to be one of the young conservatives leaning toward a presidential run in 2016. That means she either ends up on the ticket as vice presidential nominee or she stays in the Senate (providing she wins reelection in 2016), where she will presumably take an expanding role in shaping foreign-policy legislation.

Ayotte was outspoken in her condemnation of the Obama administration in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack and Susan Rice’s time in the spotlight as a possible secretary of state nominee, for which Ayotte earned plaudits from conservatives who wanted their congressional delegations to hold the administration accountable. But she also opposed the defense cuts in the sequester, and wants to see them reversed. That’s important, because Ayotte sits not only on the powerful Armed Services Committee but is also the ranking Republican on a subcommittee that will have influence over how the sequester military cuts are administered. As the New Hampshire-based Daily Democrat reported:

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over military resources and training, as well as depots and shipyards, business management and contracting oversight, and energy security issues….

Ayotte also served as ranking member of the subcommittee last year. Ayotte said she hopes to identify efficiencies and savings in the Pentagon’s budget and guard against “irresponsible cuts” that would leave troops and defense suppliers “less prepared.”

Ayotte, Graham, and McCain together hold the ranking GOP spots on half the Armed Services subcommittees, and McCain is also on the Foreign Affairs Committee (along with Rubio and Paul). Ayotte has been a proponent of arming the rebels in Syria, expressed concern about a too-hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and has criticized calls to eliminate foreign aid as “penny wise and pound foolish in terms of protecting our own country.”

The media spotlight, for the next few years at least, will likely stay focused on Rubio and Paul. But Ayotte’s position in the Senate as a bridge between the old guard and the young guns may be just as much an indication of how much of a home conservative internationalism will have in the next generation of Republican leadership.

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Ultra-Orthodox Big Losers in New Coalition

There was no blue and white smoke emanating from the roof of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem today, but not long before the College of Cardinals sent up their signals in Rome announcing the election of a new pope, reports began to circulate that after nearly two months Israel’s leading political parties had finally concluded their negotiations and a new government has been formed. Reportedly, the government will be formally announced on Saturday night and sworn in on Monday, only two days before President Obama arrives in the country.

The outlines of the agreement that seems to have been concluded were apparent as soon as the votes were counted after the January election for a new Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu Party will join forces with the two other big winners, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi as well as one of the losers, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, to form the new coalition. The fractious talks in which both Netanyahu and Lapid appeared to be bluffing and threatening each other up until the last moment would seem to indicate that this Cabinet will be at each other’s throats and might not last the full four years until the next election. The fierce rivalries and even personal grudges among these four leaders will provide plenty of fodder for Cabinet leaks and feuds. But with only four parties in the government and with little disagreement among them on the most important economic and social issues facing Israel, predictions of doom might be misplaced.

Yet more important than the contentious dynamic that will exist among those inside the tent will be the question of who won’t be there: the ultra-Orthodox parties. Their absence and the opening for reform of the draft system, as well as the potential end of the patronage gravy train for Haredi institutions, will have a bigger impact on the nation than any disagreements among the party leaders.

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There was no blue and white smoke emanating from the roof of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem today, but not long before the College of Cardinals sent up their signals in Rome announcing the election of a new pope, reports began to circulate that after nearly two months Israel’s leading political parties had finally concluded their negotiations and a new government has been formed. Reportedly, the government will be formally announced on Saturday night and sworn in on Monday, only two days before President Obama arrives in the country.

The outlines of the agreement that seems to have been concluded were apparent as soon as the votes were counted after the January election for a new Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu Party will join forces with the two other big winners, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi as well as one of the losers, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, to form the new coalition. The fractious talks in which both Netanyahu and Lapid appeared to be bluffing and threatening each other up until the last moment would seem to indicate that this Cabinet will be at each other’s throats and might not last the full four years until the next election. The fierce rivalries and even personal grudges among these four leaders will provide plenty of fodder for Cabinet leaks and feuds. But with only four parties in the government and with little disagreement among them on the most important economic and social issues facing Israel, predictions of doom might be misplaced.

Yet more important than the contentious dynamic that will exist among those inside the tent will be the question of who won’t be there: the ultra-Orthodox parties. Their absence and the opening for reform of the draft system, as well as the potential end of the patronage gravy train for Haredi institutions, will have a bigger impact on the nation than any disagreements among the party leaders.

With Obama about to arrive in the country, most of the attention of the world remains focused on the question of whether this new government will accede to demands to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to restart peace negotiations. But as the election campaign proved, most Israelis have long since given up on the peace process and are primarily interested in economic and social issues. The banishing of Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have been mainstays of almost every governing coalition for the past 30 years, to the backbenches has created a unique opportunity to create change.

No Haredim means after decades of failed attempts, this government will change the draft system to require the conscription of far more ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israel’s army. Though even this breakthrough is something of a compromise, since they will be able to stay out until 21 as opposed to the age of 18 for other Israelis, it does represent an effort to equalize the burden of service. Their absence will also enable needed reform of the education system.

It may be too much to ask that this team of Cabinet rivals will take the next step in terms of reform and begin to change the electoral system to one that will have constituencies rather than the ultra-democratic proportional system that has heretofore given the Haredim outsized influence. But even if they just raise the minimum number of votes needed for a party to make it into the Knesset, it will be another step forward toward a more workable system.

Israel’s next government won’t preside over the end of a conflict that can only conclude as the result of a sea change among the Palestinians. But it does have the power to enact some fundamental changes that could end some longstanding inequities. Though there may not be much love lost between the foursome of party leaders, if they hang together long enough to accomplish that much they will have still done a lot. 

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MSM Finally Discovers Obamacare’s Flaws

Now that Obamacare is a fait accompli, the mainstream media is discovering what the rest of us have known for years: Obamacare is a bureaucratic mess, unlikely to solve the nation’s healthcare woes. Senator Mitch McConnell’s office recently released a photo showing just how complicated the regulations for the bill have become. Sadly, the photo depicting a tower of regulatory paperwork seven feet tall isn’t even the final product of what will become the backbone of Obamacare; more regulations are on the way.

The Associated Press got the scoop on the latest bad news for Obamacare supporters with an incredibly amusing headline for any conservative who saw this coming from a mile away: “AP Exclusive: Applying for health care not easy.” The AP’s story described the forms involved with applying for Obamacare, which “could be as daunting as doing your taxes.” The forms the AP are referencing are only the first step in applying for the health insurance which requires applicants prove their financial need.

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Now that Obamacare is a fait accompli, the mainstream media is discovering what the rest of us have known for years: Obamacare is a bureaucratic mess, unlikely to solve the nation’s healthcare woes. Senator Mitch McConnell’s office recently released a photo showing just how complicated the regulations for the bill have become. Sadly, the photo depicting a tower of regulatory paperwork seven feet tall isn’t even the final product of what will become the backbone of Obamacare; more regulations are on the way.

The Associated Press got the scoop on the latest bad news for Obamacare supporters with an incredibly amusing headline for any conservative who saw this coming from a mile away: “AP Exclusive: Applying for health care not easy.” The AP’s story described the forms involved with applying for Obamacare, which “could be as daunting as doing your taxes.” The forms the AP are referencing are only the first step in applying for the health insurance which requires applicants prove their financial need.

Understandably, demand for the plan has been meager at best. Roll Call reports that some government agencies are so desperate to increase enrollment that they’ve been reduced to gimmicks to promote the insurance:

When a California county wanted to encourage residents to buy health insurance earlier this year, officials employed a time-tested tactic for generating interest: nudity.

The Alameda County Social Services Agency’s ad campaign featured bare-skinned people who held up signs in strategic spots that read, “Cover your family.”

For those Americans feeling daunted by the process, the Department of Health and Human Services has produced a video to explain the process in more detail. The video runs 12 minutes long and instead of clarifying the process, it ends up muddying the waters considerably.

Thanks to Obamacare and its regulatory red tape, there may be a lot more of that financial need for low-cost insurance programs in coming years despite the bill being named the “Affordable Care Act.” The AP also reported today that

Some Americans could see their insurance bills double next year as the health care overhaul law expands coverage to millions of people.

The nation’s big health insurers say they expect premiums — or the cost for insurance coverage — to rise from 20 to 100 percent for millions of people due to changes that will occur when key provisions of the Affordable Care Act roll out in January 2014.

If only the mainstream media had come to these realizations before the bill was voted on and passed.

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No Way Around Entitlement Reform

Should the federal government’s balance sheet be treated the way a family approaches household finances? That’s the question at the heart of the renewed debate over Paul Ryan’s budget, President Obama’s spending, and the idea of balancing the federal budget. Conservatives argue that keeping a balanced budget is a basic expression of fiscal responsibility, and they point out that states have balanced budget requirements. Whether this makes it more or less compelling for the federal government to have a balanced budget requirement is up for debate, and the New York Times offers an in-depth survey of economists and experts on what the president derides as balancing the budget for its own sake.

Republicans seem to think that balancing the budget is a good political message to get behind, but they should be wary of how reasonable the other side comes out in stories like today’s Times piece, and they should also take into consideration the sometimes perverse unintended consequences of some efforts to force a balanced budget. Here is how the Times summarizes the two views:

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Should the federal government’s balance sheet be treated the way a family approaches household finances? That’s the question at the heart of the renewed debate over Paul Ryan’s budget, President Obama’s spending, and the idea of balancing the federal budget. Conservatives argue that keeping a balanced budget is a basic expression of fiscal responsibility, and they point out that states have balanced budget requirements. Whether this makes it more or less compelling for the federal government to have a balanced budget requirement is up for debate, and the New York Times offers an in-depth survey of economists and experts on what the president derides as balancing the budget for its own sake.

Republicans seem to think that balancing the budget is a good political message to get behind, but they should be wary of how reasonable the other side comes out in stories like today’s Times piece, and they should also take into consideration the sometimes perverse unintended consequences of some efforts to force a balanced budget. Here is how the Times summarizes the two views:

As sensible as a balanced budget might sound — much like a balanced checkbook for a family — countries are generally able to run modest deficits for years on end while still keeping debt stable as a share of economic output. One year’s deficit is effectively paid off by later economic growth, especially if a government is investing in public goods like roads and schools….

“It is important to reduce the debt, and balancing gets you there faster,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a prominent Republican economist. “That’s paramount.”

He said a balanced budget is a goal everyone could understand. “It gives Congress a way to say no,” he said. “Transparency and political buy-in are important, and people understand balanced budgets. It has a lot of virtues.”

Having a balanced budget is one thing; how you get there is quite another. And this is what makes the conservative position more of a challenge than would first appear. There are two ways, essentially, of bringing the government’s budget into balance under current conditions, and they both contain pitfalls conservative politicians should be aware of. One way is via a balanced budget amendment. This has been part of the House GOP’s agenda for the last few years, and the argument for it basically echoes what Holtz-Eakin told the Times above: it forces the government’s hand.

But just as conservatives often lecture liberals on the unintended consequences of economic policy, they should take as a warning signal the unintended consequences of state balanced budget amendments. In New Jersey, for example–though this practice is not confined to the Garden State–the state government has to work with debt limitations and balanced budget requirements, and simply utilized accounting tricks that are becoming increasingly popular to get around them. As the Mercatus Center points out:

While the New Jersey Constitution’s debt limitation clause restricts borrowing by requiring voter approval, the New Jersey Supreme Court has permitted broad exceptions to this rule, allowing the state to issue debt through independent authorities and to use debt to balance the state’s operating budget.

In at least 33 states, independent authority debt has become more common in recent years as a source of financing capital projects, emerging as a “particularly blatant evasion” of debt limitation clauses contained in state constitutions.

That doesn’t preclude the possibility that a balanced budget amendment can be designed to be airtight–but that brings up another obstacle. An airtight balanced budget requirement could enable the growth of entitlements and other popular spending by telling the government that they absolutely must raise taxes to meet budget demands. Such an outcome would be the worst of both worlds.

But that brings us to the other way to balance the budget: the old-fashioned way, by simply spending responsibly. The challenge here is twofold: first, it does not have the enforcement mechanism the amendment would (hopefully) have. And second, the Senate is controlled by the Democrats and President Obama still has no plans to dramatically cut spending. Entitlement reform is necessary, but it’s also easy to demagogue. As President Obama has made all too clear, if the Republicans want to reform entitlements, they have to control Congress and the White House; they won’t have any help from Democrats who are always thinking about the next election.

It is not, as the media and Democrats love to pretend, ideological extremism or Randian heartlessness to want the government to spend within its means and keep a balanced budget. But conservatives are going to have to win the public’s support for entitlement reform to get there. The debate over the balanced budget may prove to be a detour, not a shortcut.

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Karzai Needs the U.S. More Than the U.S. Needs Him

If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

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If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

Alissa Rubin, the New York Times‘s knowledgeable bureau chief in Kabul, is surely right that Karzai is trying to salvage his historical reputation–he is “desperately trying to shake his widely held image as an American lackey by appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan’s sovereignty.”

The problem is that Karzai is paying attention only to Afghan popular opinion–or at least the version of popular opinion that reaches him in the palace where he spends his days–while ignoring American popular opinion and, more specifically, American political opinion.

Karzai seems to think that the U.S. needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the U.S. He couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, the U.S. needs to use bases in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda and its ilk on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier–but the perceived need is less now than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was still alive. Yet there has been no diminution in the need of Karzai–and his successor, whoever that will be–to have the U.S. continue buttressing his shaky security forces and to continue funding his government (which gets more than 90 percent of its funding from foreign aid).

Without considerable American assistance post-2014, odds are that Afghanistan will sink into a civil war and the Taliban will fight their way back into power. And yet there is little support in the United States–and especially in the administration itself–to continue providing such aid.

President Obama and Secretary Hagel are not viscerally committed to Afghanistan the way that President Bush was to Iraq. In fact, they are looking for an excuse to leave–or if not leave, then at least draw down our commitment as rapidly as possible. If he is not careful, Karzai will give the decision-makers in the White House the excuse they need to write off Afghanistan as ungovernable and unsalvageable.

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Obama Goes Back to the Blame Game

White House staffers who have been grumbling about President Obama’s outreach efforts with Republicans in the past two weeks probably cheered up a bit when they saw their boss’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos yesterday. While the president was still talking about the virtues of schmoozing with the GOP, the more he talked about the substance of the budget negotiations the less likely it seemed that there would ever be much to talk about.

Liberals were denouncing the budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan yesterday as a sign that Republicans were unwilling to bow to the president’s dictates and abandon their principles. But in his interview, the president was characterizing the issues that would have to be resolved in a way that makes it appear he isn’t backing down either. More than that, his lack of urgency about dealing with the debt crisis and his unwillingness to contemplate any meaningful reform of entitlements as well as the way he spoke of GOP efforts in that direction gave the lie to the current media narrative about his desire for compromise. If the president can’t even conduct a charm offensive without demonizing the other side in this dispute, then the whispers from the White House staff that the entire exercise is a cynical sham appear to be entirely correct.

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White House staffers who have been grumbling about President Obama’s outreach efforts with Republicans in the past two weeks probably cheered up a bit when they saw their boss’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos yesterday. While the president was still talking about the virtues of schmoozing with the GOP, the more he talked about the substance of the budget negotiations the less likely it seemed that there would ever be much to talk about.

Liberals were denouncing the budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan yesterday as a sign that Republicans were unwilling to bow to the president’s dictates and abandon their principles. But in his interview, the president was characterizing the issues that would have to be resolved in a way that makes it appear he isn’t backing down either. More than that, his lack of urgency about dealing with the debt crisis and his unwillingness to contemplate any meaningful reform of entitlements as well as the way he spoke of GOP efforts in that direction gave the lie to the current media narrative about his desire for compromise. If the president can’t even conduct a charm offensive without demonizing the other side in this dispute, then the whispers from the White House staff that the entire exercise is a cynical sham appear to be entirely correct.

To give President Obama his due, his continued willingness to talk to Republicans is a positive development, albeit four years too late. So, too, is his emphasis on the importance of economic growth. Prosperity would go a long way toward solving the budget problem, but any scheme put forward based on that assumption is a prayer not a plan. Nevertheless, every moment that he spends talking about building the economy rather than building the government must be counted as a plus for the cause of fiscal sanity.

However, the more the president talks about his ideas about a compromise with what he patronizingly referred to as the “common sense caucus” among Republicans, the more it sounds as if his definition of the word is very different from that of Webster. His statements made it clear that he is not particularly interested in dealing with the deficit. Even worse than that, his approach to one of the key planks of a prospective deal—entitlement reform—amounts to nothing more than lip service.

The president dismissed Ryan’s plan for balancing the budget in 10 years not just because it was predicated on repealing ObamaCare but because he doesn’t think there’s any real need to reach even that long-term goal. As he told Stephanopoulos:

We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next ten years, it’s gonna be in a sustainable place.

But the problem goes deeper than the president’s apparent complacence. Although he said “entitlement reform” would be part of a deal, he slipped back into his usual campaign rhetoric when discussing how that would be accomplished:

No. We’re not gonna balance the budget in ten years because if you look at what Paul Ryan does to balance the budget, it means that you have to voucherize Medicare; you have to slash deeply– into programs like Medicaid; you’ve essentially got to– either tax– middle-class families a lot higher than you currently are; or you can’t lower rates the way he’s promised.

In other words, the president’s concept of reform is indistinguishable from his re-election vows to preserve the status quo that earned him the loyalty of his party’s base.

Moreover, discussion of balancing the budget elicits more of the president’s scorn as well as a standard piece of Obama demagoguery:

And, so– you know, my goal is not to chase– a balanced budget just for the sake of balance. My goal is how do we grow the economy, put people back to work, and if we do that we’re gonna be bringin’ in more revenue. If we’ve controlled spending and we’ve got a smart entitlement package, then potentially what you have is balance. But it’s not balance on the backs of, you know, the poor, the elderly, students who need student loans, families who’ve got disabled kids.

Lost from his analysis is any acknowledgement that what he is doing is paying for all the benefits he wishes to distribute by piling up debt that will be put upon the backs of the kids and students who will be the taxpayers paying down the deficit he has grown a decade from now and beyond that. The generational theft that he is supervising will hurt the middle class that he is constantly telling us he cares about far more than the wealthy whose taxes he wishes to raise.

Indeed, far from working toward establishing common ground with Republicans, the president seemed to be much more interested in preparing to lay the blame for any failure to make a deal on the GOP:

But ultimately, it may be that– the differences are just– too wide. It may be that ideologically, if their position is, “We can’t do any revenue,” or, “We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,” if that’s the position, then we’re probably not gonna be able to get a deal.

Ryan and other Republicans may have their differences with the president but, as he well knows, their goal is to reform entitlements in order to preserve them. Without taking steps to make these programs fiscally viable by increasing the age of eligibility and means testing, they will eventually drown the federal government in a sea of debt that it cannot tax its way out of. Rhetoric about gutting Social Security and Medicare is not reaching out. It is just the same old Obama class warfare that helped create the current deadlock.

The president’s falling poll numbers and the shrinking gap between those who blame Republicans and those who blame the White House for the impasse created the need for an Obama charm offensive. The crying of wolf about the sequester from the White House flopped not just because it wasn’t credible but because the public—even many of those who voted for the president—understood that the only way to deal with the debt and to fix the nation’s problems is to start shrinking government rather than expanding it. Though he may be preparing the ground for blaming the GOP for the failure to find a compromise (and, he hopes, win the 2014 midterm elections), he may find that this tired act is wearing out its welcome.

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The GOP and Foreign Aid

A battle is going on for the future of Republican foreign policy. At one end of the spectrum stand the isolationists–or, if they prefer, non-interventionists–like Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has incredibly enough has called for the elimination of all foreign aid–a policy that, if ever implemented, would decrease American clout in the world and leave allies dangerously exposed. His message resonates with some in these days of war-weariness and budget insolvency. But his policies are extremely dangerous–not only for the United States and the world but also for the Republican Party which, if it were to embrace the Paulian gospel, would return to its irrelevancy of the 1930s.

Luckily Paul does not speak for the majority of Republicans–not even close. Luckily, too, there are smart voices emerging in the party to provide a principled voice for American leadership in the world. Foremost among the new contributors to the debate is Senator Marco Rubio, who has defended the utility of foreign aid in general while not being afraid to condition U.S. assistance on the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

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A battle is going on for the future of Republican foreign policy. At one end of the spectrum stand the isolationists–or, if they prefer, non-interventionists–like Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has incredibly enough has called for the elimination of all foreign aid–a policy that, if ever implemented, would decrease American clout in the world and leave allies dangerously exposed. His message resonates with some in these days of war-weariness and budget insolvency. But his policies are extremely dangerous–not only for the United States and the world but also for the Republican Party which, if it were to embrace the Paulian gospel, would return to its irrelevancy of the 1930s.

Luckily Paul does not speak for the majority of Republicans–not even close. Luckily, too, there are smart voices emerging in the party to provide a principled voice for American leadership in the world. Foremost among the new contributors to the debate is Senator Marco Rubio, who has defended the utility of foreign aid in general while not being afraid to condition U.S. assistance on the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

In this regard Rubio has just introduced the Egypt Accountability and Democracy Amendment, which “would block the disbursement of additional economic support funds and new foreign military financing (FMF) contracts until Egypt begins to enact economic reforms and the Obama administration certifies that Egypt is protecting basic freedoms and human rights.”

This is an entirely appropriate response to the growing campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood to seize control of all aspects of Egyptian society including the judiciary–and it stands in contrast not only to Paul’s simple-minded efforts to cut of all assistance to everyone everywhere but also to Secretary of State John Kerry’s overly generous pledge to give Egypt another $250 million in economic aid even without any evidence of real economic reforms. Rubio is redefining conservative internationalism for the Age of Obama–and beyond.

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Bloomberg’s Soda Grab and the Administrative State

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his aides at the NYC Department of Health seem to have been caught unawares Monday when Judge Milton Tingling Jr. struck down their “Portion Cap” ban on large sizes of sweetened beverages. They probably realized the mayor’s signature nanny-state initiative was unpopular with ordinary New Yorkers; but lulled, perhaps, by favorable press, they hadn’t realized how vulnerable it was on legal grounds as well.

In the short term, Judge Tingling’s decision is a delicious win for consumer liberty against the Napoleonic New Bossiness streak in the city’s chief executive. As has been pointed out, however, the judge would not necessarily have struck the regulations down had they been adopted by the New York City Council rather than imposed by the mayor’s appointees through administrative fiat; he wasn’t recognizing any general right of individuals to decide for themselves what foods to consume. Moreover, the judge’s diagnosis of the rules as “arbitrary and capricious” because they were riddled by so many exceptions is at best double-edged from opponents’ standpoint; would we really prefer rules redrafted so as to allow fewer exceptions?

But yesterday’s decision should cheer us for other reasons. It holds the Gotham administration accountable for overstepping the separation of powers, an important principle in the safeguarding of liberty. (In a profile of Judge Tingling, the New York Times notes that he’s been skeptical of government claims to power in a number of other cases as well.)

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his aides at the NYC Department of Health seem to have been caught unawares Monday when Judge Milton Tingling Jr. struck down their “Portion Cap” ban on large sizes of sweetened beverages. They probably realized the mayor’s signature nanny-state initiative was unpopular with ordinary New Yorkers; but lulled, perhaps, by favorable press, they hadn’t realized how vulnerable it was on legal grounds as well.

In the short term, Judge Tingling’s decision is a delicious win for consumer liberty against the Napoleonic New Bossiness streak in the city’s chief executive. As has been pointed out, however, the judge would not necessarily have struck the regulations down had they been adopted by the New York City Council rather than imposed by the mayor’s appointees through administrative fiat; he wasn’t recognizing any general right of individuals to decide for themselves what foods to consume. Moreover, the judge’s diagnosis of the rules as “arbitrary and capricious” because they were riddled by so many exceptions is at best double-edged from opponents’ standpoint; would we really prefer rules redrafted so as to allow fewer exceptions?

But yesterday’s decision should cheer us for other reasons. It holds the Gotham administration accountable for overstepping the separation of powers, an important principle in the safeguarding of liberty. (In a profile of Judge Tingling, the New York Times notes that he’s been skeptical of government claims to power in a number of other cases as well.)

Under separation of powers as generally understood at the time of the Framers, an executive agency cannot enact new legislation on its own, that being a role constitutionally reserved for the legislature. Especially during the Progressive Era and New Deal, these barriers were eroded as administrative agencies claimed a power to issue regulations that looked more and more like traditional legislation, under powers deemed to have been delegated by the legislature. Still, there are some limits, both under the U.S. Constitution and in New York (which under a 1987 case called Boreali v. Axelrod applies its own, quirky standard in evaluating whether a regulation oversteps the separation of powers.) And those limits to delegation were at the heart of the soda case.

The New York City Health Department was asserting a breathtakingly broad definition of its powers, on the grounds that successive city charters give it sweeping authority to address all matters relating to health. Under the interpretation advanced by Bloomberg’s lawyers, this vague charter language would empower the department to issue pretty much whatever diktats it pleases for New Yorkers to obey on any topic somehow related to advancing health. (They did concede that the department could not take actions that were otherwise unconstitutional–say, suspending freedom of the press or quartering troops in civilian homes during peacetime.)

Against this, Judge Tingling reasoned (as have judges in other cases) that the charter language could not have been meant to grant the department an absolute and monarch-like authority over a subject populace; natural and reasonable limits must be read into it. What are the natural and reasonable limits to the authority of a public health agency? Looking at cases where the agency’s authority to act had been upheld, the judge noted instances of emergencies, particularly those relating to epidemics of contagious or communicable diseases. Those are indeed the traditional functions at the core of a public health agency; saving us from voluntarily assumed dietary choices that may very gradually undermine our health is not among them. So if the agency wishes to assert powers in these new areas, it must ask the legislature for new authority.

In that legal finding is the germ of a much-needed rebuke to some actors in the public-health movement, who have taken the centuries of moral and practical authority originally built up by their colleagues from the fight against epidemic infectious disease and dubiously sought to apply it to a dozen other health-related questions of life and lifestyle, including not only doughnuts, soft drinks and salty snacks but also such supposed “disease vectors” as gun ownership and overreliance on cars for commuting.

It’s about time someone told them no. Let’s thank Judge Tingling for doing that.

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Bloomberg Spends His Time on Soda, Not Record Homelessness

On Monday afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a press conference to discuss a judge’s decision to strike down his infamous soda ban. The mayor told reporters he was confident the ban would be upheld by higher courts, and explained why the soda ban has been such an integral part of his administration: “It would be irresponsible not to do everything we can to try and save lives.” 

On that point, I agree with Mayor Bloomberg. His administration should be doing everything it can to save the lives of its citizens. Would a ban on soda (he calls it “portion control”) actually save lives? The research indicates that the soda industry is already suffering. Today the New Yorker quoted a soda industry statistic showing a 12-percent decrease in non-energy drink sales for the carbonated soft drink industry since 2005. Despite that decline, obesity rates have continued to climb. Attempts to institute taxes on soda have proven futile in fights against obesity and there has been little successful research conducted into if reduced soda intake would effectively reduce BMI (body mass index). Putting aside the egregious violations of individual liberty that this and many other Bloomberg pet projects commit, the soda ban would also likely achieve few, if any, of its aims.

If Bloomberg were so interested in saving lives, he should be focusing on how to do so within the bounds of his powers as mayor–powers that wouldn’t be challenged in court and fought over long after he leaves office. In 2004, shortly after becoming mayor, Bloomberg delivered a speech outlining his administration’s goals, including promising to lower the city’s shelter population as well as tackling other issues related to the homeless. The Atlantic Cities reports on how that turned out:

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On Monday afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a press conference to discuss a judge’s decision to strike down his infamous soda ban. The mayor told reporters he was confident the ban would be upheld by higher courts, and explained why the soda ban has been such an integral part of his administration: “It would be irresponsible not to do everything we can to try and save lives.” 

On that point, I agree with Mayor Bloomberg. His administration should be doing everything it can to save the lives of its citizens. Would a ban on soda (he calls it “portion control”) actually save lives? The research indicates that the soda industry is already suffering. Today the New Yorker quoted a soda industry statistic showing a 12-percent decrease in non-energy drink sales for the carbonated soft drink industry since 2005. Despite that decline, obesity rates have continued to climb. Attempts to institute taxes on soda have proven futile in fights against obesity and there has been little successful research conducted into if reduced soda intake would effectively reduce BMI (body mass index). Putting aside the egregious violations of individual liberty that this and many other Bloomberg pet projects commit, the soda ban would also likely achieve few, if any, of its aims.

If Bloomberg were so interested in saving lives, he should be focusing on how to do so within the bounds of his powers as mayor–powers that wouldn’t be challenged in court and fought over long after he leaves office. In 2004, shortly after becoming mayor, Bloomberg delivered a speech outlining his administration’s goals, including promising to lower the city’s shelter population as well as tackling other issues related to the homeless. The Atlantic Cities reports on how that turned out:

In January 2013, for the first time in recorded history, the New York homeless shelter system housed an average nightly population of more than 50,000 people. That number is up 19 percent in the past year alone, up 61 percent since Bloomberg took office, and it does not include victims of Hurricane Sandy, who are housed separately.

The Bloomberg administration has blamed the economic crisis for the record numbers of homeless citizens in city shelters, but City Limits took Bloomberg and his administration for task on their wavering commitment to solving the problem, which has now turned into a crisis:

In the final chapter of his tenure, Bloomberg and the Department of Homeless Services appear worn out on the issue, maybe downhearted by the size of the problem. A sense of helplessness has grown where there was once a hint of notable successes. For all the brash ambition in the mayor’s final state of the city speech in February, homelessness didn’t merit a mention.

The Mayor’s staff and press office have spent a considerable amount of time and energy promoting a soda ban that the research suggests will be ineffective. Instead of spending the city’s limited resources in this manner, Bloomberg would have better served the city of New York by upholding his promise to homeless New Yorkers to get them off the street and into homes. The next mayoral election is in November. If Bloomberg decides to punt the issue to his successor, New York City’s homeless will spend at least one more winter in the cold.

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