Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Battle Over Obamacare

Ted Cruz is waging a personal battle against legislation that he urged the House to pass. This is generally considered to be a stunt. For that matter, so is the House bill which has a clause that would de-fund Obamacare. That clause will be taken out in the Senate and even if it wasn't, the President would rather see the government shut down than sign a law that would de-fund his signature accomplishment.

The fight to stop Obamacare was lost some time ago and, ironically, its biggest opponents killed any chance of stopping it.

The only way to stop Obamacare would have been to take the Senate and the White House. There was a good chance at taking the Senate but the Republicans lost several races against vulnerable Democrats because the Tea Party wing insisted that ideology was more important than winning.

The last chance to stop Obamacare came a bit under 10 months ago. In a close election where voter turn-out was the key to winning, far to many Republicans stayed home rather than vote for a moderate/right Mormon.

Since the Democrats control half of Congress and the White House, there is no way for the Republicans to roll back Obamacare.

That is not the end of the fight but it does make it more difficult. The left insists that Republicans are afraid of Obamacare because they know it will work. This is incorrect. What Republicans fear is that it will work for enough people to form a constituency. Just ask gun control advocates about the power of a vocal constituency.

We've already seen how efforts to replace Obamacare will play out with Social Security and Medicare. Both programs will run out of money in the foreseeable future but efforts at moderate reform have been characterized by ads showing Republicans throwing seniors over a literal cliff. Attempts to repeal Obamacare will get a similar treatment, possibly showing a mean Republican taking a crutch from a child.

Republicans need to take a long view. They will need to keep up their attacks on Obamacare's shortcomings but they also need to come up with a viable replacement. Obamacare may be a bad piece of legislation but it does address some real concerns like pre-existing conditions. If the Republicans don't have an answer for that then they will lose the long war.

They also need to follow the advice of Ronald Reagan who refused to attack fellow Republicans on ideological grounds.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Shootings and Political Expediency

For weeks after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, we heard regular updates on how horrible it was and how something had to be done. The same was true for the shooting at the Aurora theater.

But the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC has already vanished from the headlines. I realize that killing children is more shocking that adults but this still seems callous. What happened?

I suspect that editorial decisions were made to play up the Sandy Hook story and minimize the DC shootings because of political expediency.

The Sandy Hook shooting was used to push new gun legislation. We were told that if we would just outlaw certain rifles and high capacity magazines and have more background checks then we would be safe.

The DC shooting showed how flawed this argument is. Most of the victims were killed with a shotgun and the shooter passed a background check when he bought it. Until now the line has been that politicians don't want to outlaw guns used for hunting, just ones that are too dangerous to be in the hands of regular people. The only gun control law that would have helped is one that confiscated all weapons and that would never pass.

While a tragedy, the Navy Yard shooting served no political purpose so it has already been dropped from the new cycle. We will not see any survivors from the shooting or relatives of the victims appearing with the President. It was all political posturing in order to pass measures that would not have made us safer.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Obama Doctine

To refer to President Obama's Middle East policy as Amateur Hour is an insult to amateurs. His Syrian policy in particular has been one blunder after another but it is possible to analyze these and use them to construct an overall Obama Doctrine.

First, let's look as his actions. In Egypt he supported all sides at some point or another. The official response to the legal requirement to classify the military coup that created the most recent government is that it is not in the interests of either country to reach a conclusion. We all know that it was a coup but calling it one would require that we cut off aid pending Congressional action.

We intervened in Libya on humanitarian grounds without Congressional involvement but only after we were shamed into it by the British and French.

Syria is where the administration has shown the least competence. At different times during their civil war we have supported President Bashar al-Assad, said that he must go, implied that we would accept a partitioned Syria, and finally partnered with him on removal of his chemical weapons.

Obama clearly wanted to stay well away from the conflict. His red line was an off-handed comment that he never expected he would be called on to enforce. When pushed into it he was on the verge of ordering a cruise missile strike when he changed his mind and sent the decision to Congress to be voted on. At the same time he insisted that he didn't need Congressional approval but he wanted them to vote on a resolution anyway. Weeks later the text of that resolution has not been finalized.

Our current policy also started as an off-hand comment that bordered on being a joke. When asked if anything could stop an attack, Secretary of State Kerry suggested that Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons stores by the end of the week. He clearly meant this as something that could never happen (technically, the end of the week is here and it didn't happen). This inspired Russian head Putin to propose a weapons turnover as a serious policy.

The President should have addressed the American people prior to ordering a strike (or prior to kicking the can to Congress). Instead he waited until after it was sure to fail in both houses before giving a speech. In that speech he explained why it was urgent that we strike but then announced that we would not because of the Russian offer.

It is likely that the talks will go on for a while. There may even be a token turnover of weapons but nothing major. After sticking their necks out for him once, Congressional Democrats will be unlikely to so so a second time. The same is true for France, the only other country to support us.

It is even possible that Bashar al-Assad will continue using chemicals on a smaller scale. It came out that he had been using them for some time. The red line was only crossed when images of dead bodies began showing up on TV.

Put all of that together and you have the Obama Doctrine:

1) The United States will not intervene in the Middle East on humanitarian grounds unless other countries, preferably Great Britain and France, take the lead. We will call this "leading from behind" but it is indistinguishable from following.

2) In the absence of leadership from other countries, it is acceptable for a government to kill unlimited numbers of its citizens using conventional weapons.

3) Governments will allowed to use chemical weapons on its own people as long as it does not make the evening news. If it makes the evening news then the government will have to be punished. This punishment will consist of beginning negotiations to turn over its weapons. No other punishment will be given.

Not exactly the Monroe Doctrine but there you have it.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Which Way on Syria?

For the last two years I have been wishing that President Obama would do something about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. With hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, President Clinton's vows of "never again" have been forgotten. So, now that Obama is requesting permission to act do I feel so conflicted about it?

I've been weighing this question for the last few days and I finally realized that this is not even a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. He wants to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason.

The President's response has nothing to do with the humanitarian crisis. Worse, it is not really about the use of chemical weapons. What clarified the issue for me was a columnist who pointed out that, had Obama not made a speech last year drawing a red line, he would be making a case before the Hague instead of Congress.

But he did draw the line and, as in Libya, he insists that he has the executive poser to act on that without authorization from Congress. He is going to Congress, anyway but not because of a sudden respect for the Constitution or the War Powers Act. He is going to them for political cover.

So, the President wants to take some form of action, the nature of which is still under debate, because of a speech he gave and he wants Congress to share the blame when it inevitably goes wrong.

No wonder the Pentagon and a majority of both parties are reluctant to support him.

So, while I think that the US should have been supporting the non-Islamic rebels for the last two years, I cannot support Obama's current goals in Syria especially when his administration is unable to state clearly what they are. Congress should vote him down.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Obama and Syria

President Obama has painted himself into a corner on Syria. Elected on an anti-war platform, he is reluctant to get involved in new wars. He reluctantly got involved in Libya only after being shamed into it by the European countries. With the exception of France, they are sitting out this conflict so there is no "leading from behind".

For more than two years Obama insulated himself from the war with his "red line" which implied that Syria could slaughter as many of its people as it wanted as long as it was done with conventional weapons. He obviously expected that a warning about chemical weapons would be enough.

When he drew his red line, the President does not appear to have consulted with any allies or members of Congress. There are rumors that he did not even consult with the State Department. He warned of serious consequences but did not give any specifics and possibly did not have any in mind.

Now Syria has crossed the red line (by some reports they have been crossing it on ever-expanding scale for months). The President feels that he has to act but has not good options. There is no support for a boots-on-the-ground approach. Even an air attack has limited support.

Last week it was assumed that he would order a strike with cruise missiles and that this would be limited. At the last minute he decided to wait and ask Congress for permission. While this move was applauded by many, this move was more likely motivated by a desire to share the blame than by a desire to observe Constitutional requirements. This is the same president who ignored Congress and the War Powers act in Libya.

The President knows that any action he takes in Syria will be unpopular, especially with the anti-war base that the Democrats milked for support during the Bush years. In a bit of irony, there were anti-war protests outside of Secretary of State Kerry's house over the weekend. This is the same Kerry who first made his name as a Viet Nam protestor.

It is also possible that the President knows that the actions he has planned will be symbolic and will not change the balance of power in the area.

Politically, appealing to Congress has its advantages. The hawks will not vote for a symbolic strike and the doves will not vote for any action. There will be less fall-out if the measure fails in Congress than if Obama launches it and Syria continues to use poison gas.

A humanitarian and strategic case can be made for crippling strike combined with aid for the non-ideological rebels. Obama could make that case to Congress, the US citizenry, and the world but his heart is not in that option. He hasn't even delivered the small arms that were promised months ago.

Congress should reject anything short of regime change. Sharing blame for a symbolic action made necessary by the President's imprudent red line will not help Congress.

The President made it clear that he believes that he has the authority to order the strike regardless of Congress. If so then he should either act on that or back down instead of trying to share the blame.