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Posts For: August 18, 2013

Note to Media: GOP Isn’t Doomed

There was a clear disconnect this weekend between those attending the meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston and the mainstream media. While, by all accounts, the RNC was upbeat and fully behind Chairman Reince Preibus’s attempts to push back at the party’s liberal tormentors by threatening to boycott networks that produced puff pieces on Hillary Clinton, most of the commentary about the gathering focused on the idea that the GOP was hopelessly divided and drifting farther to the right. The best example of this genre was the piece published in Politico on Friday under the almost farcically biased headline “Eve of Destruction.”

The article claimed that every “establishment Republican” in Washington was convinced the party was in hopeless shape and that it was, if anything, in even worse condition than it had been the day after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney. With blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, and swing voters completely alienated and every effort to drag the party toward a realistic position on major issues thwarted, Republicans have, Politico seemed to argue, already lost the 2016 presidential election. If all this is true, you have to wonder why the RNC even bothered to meet.

But while the GOP definitely has its challenges, the exaggerated reports of its demise should be taken with a shovelful of salt. Far from being dead in the water, the fact that Republicans are debating key issues is a sign of health, not a terminal illness. With help from their cheering section in the media, Democrats may have gotten a leg up on characterizing Republicans as a band of extremists. But Obama’s party should be worrying more about the way the problems of the ObamaCare rollout and a steady diet of domestic scandals and foreign-policy disasters could sink them rather than chortling about the GOP’s problems. Liberals may hope that extremists will be dictating the Republican agenda in the next three years, but the party’s prospects in both 2014 and 2016 are actually quite bright.

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There was a clear disconnect this weekend between those attending the meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston and the mainstream media. While, by all accounts, the RNC was upbeat and fully behind Chairman Reince Preibus’s attempts to push back at the party’s liberal tormentors by threatening to boycott networks that produced puff pieces on Hillary Clinton, most of the commentary about the gathering focused on the idea that the GOP was hopelessly divided and drifting farther to the right. The best example of this genre was the piece published in Politico on Friday under the almost farcically biased headline “Eve of Destruction.”

The article claimed that every “establishment Republican” in Washington was convinced the party was in hopeless shape and that it was, if anything, in even worse condition than it had been the day after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney. With blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, and swing voters completely alienated and every effort to drag the party toward a realistic position on major issues thwarted, Republicans have, Politico seemed to argue, already lost the 2016 presidential election. If all this is true, you have to wonder why the RNC even bothered to meet.

But while the GOP definitely has its challenges, the exaggerated reports of its demise should be taken with a shovelful of salt. Far from being dead in the water, the fact that Republicans are debating key issues is a sign of health, not a terminal illness. With help from their cheering section in the media, Democrats may have gotten a leg up on characterizing Republicans as a band of extremists. But Obama’s party should be worrying more about the way the problems of the ObamaCare rollout and a steady diet of domestic scandals and foreign-policy disasters could sink them rather than chortling about the GOP’s problems. Liberals may hope that extremists will be dictating the Republican agenda in the next three years, but the party’s prospects in both 2014 and 2016 are actually quite bright.

Let’s acknowledge that the battle over immigration reform and the talk by some Republicans of risking another government shutdown present Democrats with a clear opportunity. Should opponents of any effort to fix a broken immigration system succeed in thwarting efforts to pass a legislative package on the issue, it will be a gift to the Democrats and one they will have little trouble in capitalizing upon. A government shutdown, even to stop the funding of a deeply unpopular and clearly unmanageable scheme like ObamaCare, will also play into the president’s hands.

But these threats are a function of a debate going on in the GOP as it copes with the inevitable problems that always pop up when a party doesn’t control the White House. Unlike the Democrats, who are as divided on many issues as the Republicans, the GOP lacks a clear leader and a party infrastructure that is oriented toward the goal of furthering that leader’s agenda. As with any opposition party, Republicans are at the mercy of the factions that are competing for pre-eminence, with libertarians who like Rand Paul’s vision of government bumping heads with so-called establishment types.

But the media’s picture of a party held captive by extremists on abortion and obstructionists who wish to destroy the federal government is misleading. What the doomsayers fail to understand is that with a weak economy and the albatross of ObamaCare, Democrats are carrying far heavier burdens into upcoming elections than their rivals. Even if we ignore 2014, which even Politico suggested is likely to be a highly successful year for Republicans as they have an even chance to win back the Senate, the notion that the upcoming presidential campaign will be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton reflects mindless Democratic optimism.

First of all, the odds that Republicans will actually shut down the government this fall are slim. Though Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may mean business, the vast majority of the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have little appetite for suicide. On immigration, the battle to get something passed in the House will be tough, but the ideal Democratic scenario of no bill in the lower chamber probably won’t be realized. The result probably won’t be satisfactory for reform advocates, but, as with the suicide caucus in the Senate on ObamaCare, many Republicans will be sufficiently turned off by anti-immigration extremists like Steve King to persuade them to get something through that can’t be represented as the shutout Democrats crave.

Nor will the Democrats be able to succeed as well as they did last year with another fake “war on women” as a result of abortion battles. Liberals would be well advised to avoid a national debate on late-term abortion. Most of those who favor legal abortion in the first trimester are opposed to a procedure that is closer to infanticide than “choice” after 20 weeks. This is an issue that is fought on conservative ground and Democrats would be foolish to engage in it.

Moreover, all the doomsayers about Republicans in 2016 are ignoring the GOP’s key asset and the Democrats’ greatest liability. Republicans have a strong lineup of possible candidates in the next cycle rather than the collection of marginal figures that dominated the field that Mitt Romney beat in 2012. In particular, successful GOP governors like Chris Christie and Scott Walker should scare Democrats.

Just as important, in 2016 Democrats will be without the main factor that won them the last two presidential elections: Barack Obama. Though the prospect of the first female president will be an edge for Clinton, she is the same politician who lost a race that was handed to her on a silver platter in 2008 and will carry the baggage from the last two Democratic administrations. Without Obama’s magical touch and ability to mobilize huge turnouts from their core constituencies, the playing field in 2016 will be considerably more level than it was in 2012.

Just as important is a factor that has garnered little attention: the erasing of the Democrats’ digital and technological edge. In 2012, Democrats had a far more sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign while Republicans were hampered by a campaign machine that couldn’t compete and was highly inefficient. Priebus seems to have taken steps to correct this shortfall and it’s unlikely that Democrats will be able to count on that advantage again.

Republicans have their problems, and should extremist libertarians capture the party and government shutdown advocates win out, it won’t have much hope of winning a presidential election. But that is not something Democrats should be counting on. The GOP has work to do to win over swing voters in the next three years–but so do Democrats. If, as appears to be their preference, they rest on their laurels and count on ObamaCare to avoid damaging the economy, in January 2017 they will find themselves reading similar columns to the Politico piece about themselves.

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A Republican Alternative to ObamaCare—Courtesy of the New York Times

In his weekly address this weekend (prerecorded so he could play golf and mingle with the common folk on Martha’s Vineyard), President Obama talks about implementing the Affordable Care Act, which everyone but the Obama administration calls ObamaCare.

As usual, the talk was full of nasty and misleading partisanship. After listing the popular aspects of the law, such as the guarantee of coverage despite pre-existing conditions, he accuses Republicans of wanting to make sure Americans don’t receive those benefits:

They’re actually having a debate between hurting Americans who will no longer be denied affordable care just because they’ve been sick – and harming the economy and millions of Americans in the process.  And many Republicans are more concerned with how badly this debate will hurt them politically than they are with how badly it’ll hurt the country. A lot of Republicans seem to believe that if they can gum up the works and make this law fail, they’ll somehow be sticking it to me.  But they’d just be sticking it to you.

Republicans, of course, are not against many of the aspects of ObamaCare, they are against its bureaucratic bloat, incredible waste, poor and backward-looking design (it’s basically the old Blue Cross Blue Shield model of half a century ago that Medicare was based on) and government control of one-sixth of the American economy. But as long as there is not even a broad-brush Republican plan to reform the medical marketplace, Obama will be able to beat up Republicans. As Harry Truman explained sixty odd years ago, you can’t beat something with nothing.

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In his weekly address this weekend (prerecorded so he could play golf and mingle with the common folk on Martha’s Vineyard), President Obama talks about implementing the Affordable Care Act, which everyone but the Obama administration calls ObamaCare.

As usual, the talk was full of nasty and misleading partisanship. After listing the popular aspects of the law, such as the guarantee of coverage despite pre-existing conditions, he accuses Republicans of wanting to make sure Americans don’t receive those benefits:

They’re actually having a debate between hurting Americans who will no longer be denied affordable care just because they’ve been sick – and harming the economy and millions of Americans in the process.  And many Republicans are more concerned with how badly this debate will hurt them politically than they are with how badly it’ll hurt the country. A lot of Republicans seem to believe that if they can gum up the works and make this law fail, they’ll somehow be sticking it to me.  But they’d just be sticking it to you.

Republicans, of course, are not against many of the aspects of ObamaCare, they are against its bureaucratic bloat, incredible waste, poor and backward-looking design (it’s basically the old Blue Cross Blue Shield model of half a century ago that Medicare was based on) and government control of one-sixth of the American economy. But as long as there is not even a broad-brush Republican plan to reform the medical marketplace, Obama will be able to beat up Republicans. As Harry Truman explained sixty odd years ago, you can’t beat something with nothing.

But if the Democratic Party is, ever increasingly, the party of government, the Republicans should be ever increasingly the party of the free market. No one argues that medical care should be allocated strictly according to market forces. But where market forces can exert economic discipline far more efficiently than bureaucratic fiat, they should be used and Republicans should advocate their use unashamedly. They should advocate allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines, so that people can evade the costly mandates that some states impose (in New York, you must be covered for acupuncture, in vitro fertilization, chiropractic treatments, etc.). This would instantly and greatly lower insurance premiums in those high-cost states. Removing medical malpractice from the tort-law system, which benefits only tort lawyers (a very powerful Democratic constituency), would save many billions as “defensive medicine” disappeared and malpractice premiums were drastically lowered.

And forcing medical service providers to make their prices public, just as the providers of most other services must, would also greatly lower medical costs. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the medical outrage called the chargemaster, the exhaustive list of prices for procedures, drugs, and medical equipment that every hospital maintains and which every hospital refuses to reveal—until they send the bill. Interestingly, even the avidly pro-ObamaCare New York Times editorial page has noticed that price transparency is a big problem in the American medical marketplace.

Tina Rosenberg writes in today’s Sunday Review section:

Here is a basic fact of health care in the United States: Doctors and hospitals know what they charge, but patients don’t know what they pay. As in any market, when one side has no information, that side loses: price secrecy is a major reason medical bills are so high. In my previous column, I wrote about the effect of this lack of transparency on the bills patients pay out of pocket.

Here is an obvious reform that wouldn’t cost the federal government one cent and would exert an immediate and powerful downward pressure on medical costs: require that medical service providers make those chargemasters public. Market forces would instantly force the prices down towards the low end.

The natural forces that dominate an economy would do the work, and the Republicans can have the credit for lowering medical costs. What’s not to like?

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Obama on Egypt: The Clueless Presidency

There’s some soul searching going on in the Obama administration as it ponders how they got sidelined in Egypt as the situation there got out of control in a spiral of violence. As the New York Times details in a post-mortem of U.S. policy, the administration went all out to persuade the military that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood to compromise and allow the Islamists to rejoin the government. Among other efforts to cajole them or to threaten aid cutoffs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made 17 often-lengthy phone calls to Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi trying to get him to make nice with the Brotherhood. They even sent two Republican senators—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—to continue the pressure in person in Cairo. And they’re baffled as to why they were ignored as Sisi ordered police and troops to clear out the Brotherhood’s armed camps in Cairo this week.

The easy answer to their questions is that unlike Sisi and the military, President Obama and his foreign policy-team continue to fail to understand that the conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game. The choice there is between the military and the Brotherhood and the transformation of a key Arab country into an Islamist stronghold. This failure to comprehend the nature of the conflict has led inevitably to paralysis. This spectacle of American impotence is worrisome no matter what you think the U.S. should do about Egypt. But it’s not unrelated to the administration’s other foreign-policy failures that are piling up in the Middle East. Having failed to act decisively to try to avoid a far bigger bloodbath in Syria, and content to waste years on futile diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat while devoting disproportionate effort on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that have little chance to succeed, it’s obvious that Egypt isn’t the only venue where Obama has demonstrated his cluelessness. As Sisi prepares to decide whether to enact a ban on the Brotherhood that might bring the confrontation in Egypt to a head, it’s important to understand that Obama’s failure in Egypt is not unrelated to his problems elsewhere. The common thread is a refusal to abandon its preconceptions and to look at facts rather than fiction inspired by ideology.

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There’s some soul searching going on in the Obama administration as it ponders how they got sidelined in Egypt as the situation there got out of control in a spiral of violence. As the New York Times details in a post-mortem of U.S. policy, the administration went all out to persuade the military that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood to compromise and allow the Islamists to rejoin the government. Among other efforts to cajole them or to threaten aid cutoffs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made 17 often-lengthy phone calls to Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi trying to get him to make nice with the Brotherhood. They even sent two Republican senators—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—to continue the pressure in person in Cairo. And they’re baffled as to why they were ignored as Sisi ordered police and troops to clear out the Brotherhood’s armed camps in Cairo this week.

The easy answer to their questions is that unlike Sisi and the military, President Obama and his foreign policy-team continue to fail to understand that the conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game. The choice there is between the military and the Brotherhood and the transformation of a key Arab country into an Islamist stronghold. This failure to comprehend the nature of the conflict has led inevitably to paralysis. This spectacle of American impotence is worrisome no matter what you think the U.S. should do about Egypt. But it’s not unrelated to the administration’s other foreign-policy failures that are piling up in the Middle East. Having failed to act decisively to try to avoid a far bigger bloodbath in Syria, and content to waste years on futile diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat while devoting disproportionate effort on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that have little chance to succeed, it’s obvious that Egypt isn’t the only venue where Obama has demonstrated his cluelessness. As Sisi prepares to decide whether to enact a ban on the Brotherhood that might bring the confrontation in Egypt to a head, it’s important to understand that Obama’s failure in Egypt is not unrelated to his problems elsewhere. The common thread is a refusal to abandon its preconceptions and to look at facts rather than fiction inspired by ideology.

In Egypt, Obama’s main problem is his lack of understanding of the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood poses to both the non-Islamist majority in that country as well as to the region. Having bought into the myth that the Brotherhood’s rise in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak regime was an expression of democratic sentiment, it refused to see that if it was allowed to take power it would quickly move to destroy any opposition. The U.S. pressured the military to let Mohamed Morsi take office and then continued to urge them to stand aside as he proceeded to demonstrate that the Brotherhood had little interest in democracy. Even as 14 million people took to the streets to demand that Morsi step down, the president continued to preach restraint and then stood by in puzzlement when the military realized that this was probably their last chance to save their country. Even now, the administration seems stuck in the same mythical “Arab Spring” mindset that is predicated on the idea that a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood is compatible with liberal democracy. Since they don’t understand what led to the events of the last week, how can we expect the Obama team to put forward a coherent position on what happened and what may unfold in the days to come?

This is a familiar pattern.

Obama came into office thinking that he could charm the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions and that American pressure on Israel could magically create peace with the Palestinians. If problems arose elsewhere in the Middle East, he thought they would be easily resolved with bad guys like Bashar Assad conveniently leaving the stage because President Obama said he “must go.” So as we now peruse the Middle East, we see an Iran that thinks it can go on fooling the West with a diplomatic process intended to stall talks until they can build a nuke while the United States invests precious time and energy on muscling Israel into making concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in ever signing a peace agreement. And Bashar Assad, with the help of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies, remains in power while winning a civil war that Obama could have spiked two years ago with a timely push.

While critics from both the left and right assail Obama’s indecision that–as I noted on Friday–protects neither American interests nor values in Egypt, this is yet another symptom of an administration that remains besotted with the same preconceptions that it brought to Washington in 2009. While he laments his lack of good choices and the fact that America’s ability to influence events is limited, it is the president’s refusal to face facts about the Brotherhood and some of his other blind spots that is most to blame for the fact that he has left American foreign policy hanging in the wind at a decisive moment in history.

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On Competency-Based Transcripts

Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

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Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

Imagine you are an employer looking at such a transcript. You see the heading “Works in a Team Structure.” This sounds promising. You need people who know how to work in a team structure.

But read on, if you have time to analyze this verbose transcript while sifting through 400 other applications. “Works in a Team Structure” means that the student knows how to “identify key concepts and theories in Group Dynamics, identify key concepts and theories in intercultural communication and engage in intelligent, rational discussion about contemporary issues concerning work.” Why can you be confident the student knows all that? Because he or she has mastered two of the three lessons available that cover those competencies.

What does mastery mean? That the student has elected to show “high level comprehension of the material” through an “additional test, presentation, paper, case study, or other form of assessment.” So you know that the student has performed satisfactorily on one test or another of the ability to identify and discuss ideas about group dynamics and intercultural communication. What do you know about the student’s ability to work “in a team structure”? Apparently nothing.

But perhaps the transcript can tell you something about whether the student has learned to “Analyze Complicated Materials.” Can you make sense of, and do you even care about, what it means for the student to have mastered two of five available lessons in analyzing “paintings and literature, along with major themes in Marx, Spenser, Durkheim, and Simmel,” in discussing “emerging narrative and ideological components of postwar film and world literature,” and in demonstrating an “understanding and knowledge of Film Noir,” “Nations at War in the Middle East,” and of “the Cold War and its aftermath”?

It is as if a competency-based transcript differs from a traditional one because it omits the grade a student received in Film Noir, or the Cold War and its Aftermath, and inserts a sentence or two from the catalog descriptions of those courses. Certainly, it gives an employer no more, and perhaps rather less, confidence that a student can analyze complicated materials, than a traditional transcript that says a student earned an A in Shakespeare.

There is real promise in competency-based education, especially for adult students who already have most of the knowledge and skill a degree holder is expected to have. But it is important to distinguish between the rigorous evaluation of competence, and the mere appearance of such an evaluation.

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