The root of Washington’s ills
By Fareed Zakaria, Published: August 1
The hottest political book of the summer, “This Town” by Mark Leibovich, is being read in Washington with equal parts embarrassment and delight. It is a vivid, detailed picture of the country’s ruling elite, filled with tales of ruthless networking, fake friendships and a sensationalist media. But beneath the juicy anecdotes is a depressing message about corruption and dysfunction.
If you are trying to understand why Washington works so badly for the rest of the country, the book says that it works extremely well for its most important citizens: the lobbyists. The permanent government of the United States is no longer defined by party or a branch but by a profession comfortably encamped around the federal coffers. The result is that Washington has become the wealthiest city in the nation, and its relative position has actually improved over the past five years, during the worst recession in 75 years. The country might be struggling, but K Street is not.
Leibovich describes a city in which money has trumped power as the ultimate currency. Lobbyists today hold the keys to what everyone in government — senator or staffer — is secretly searching for: a post-government source of income. He cites an Atlantic magazine report that says that in 1974, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists; today, that number is 42 percent for members of the House and 50 percent for senators.
The result is bad legislation. Look at any bill today: They are gargantuan documents filled with thousands of giveaways. The act that created the Federal Reserve in 1913 was only 31 pages. The 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation that regulated banking was 37 pages. The current version of that law, the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill, is 849 pages, with thousands of pages of additional rules. The Affordable Care Act runs more than 2,000 pages. Bills have become so vast because they are qualified by provisions, exceptions and exemptions put in by the very industry being targeted — a process that academics call “regulatory capture.”
In the mid-1950s, there were 5,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. Today, there are 12,000 — and, by several counts, many, many more, because thousands have reclassified themselves as “consultants” and “strategic advisers.” The money they spend — as much as $3.5 billion annually in recent years — sounds substantial but is trivial compared with what they are able to divert from the government’s $3.5 trillion budget.
The mistake Leibovich makes in his telling of Washington tales is to imply that today’s Washingtonians are particularly greedy or venal. I doubt they differ much from earlier generations of power brokers. But the system in which they operate has changed, creating much greater incentives for venality.
Consider just one factor (and there are many): the role of money, which has expanded dramatically over the past four decades. Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig has pointed out that members of Congress spend three of every five workdays raising money. They also vote with extreme attention to their donors’ interests. Lessig cites studies that demonstrate that donors get a big bang for their campaign bucks — sometimes with returns on their “investment” that would make a venture capital firm proud. A company would be crazy not to make such investments.
Compared with other democracies, the United States has become not just an outlier but practically another planet. The total cost of the 2010 national elections in Britain — the mother of parliamentary government — was $86 million. The cost of the 2012 U.S. elections has been estimated to be nearly 75 times that number, at $6.3 billion.
Taking money out of politics is a mammoth challenge. Perhaps the best that one could hope for would be to limit instead what Congress can sell. In other words, enact a thorough reform of the tax code, ridding it of the thousands of special exemptions, credits and deductions that are institutionalized, legalized corruption.
The most depressing aspect of Leibovich’s book is how utterly routine all of the influence-peddling has become. In  1990, Ramsay MacMullen, a distinguished Yale historian of Rome, published a book that took on one of the central questions of his field: Why did the greatest empire in the history of the world collapse in the 5th century? The root cause, he explained, was political corruption, which had become systemic in the late Roman Empire. What was once immoral became accepted as standard practice, and what was once illegal was celebrated as the new normal. Many decades from now, a historian looking at where America lost its way could use “This Town” as a primary source.
First, some developments of the time, identified because they proved favorable to extortion and bribe-taking. They are the higher level of violence employed by government; the ambiguity of law; the greater number and intrusiveness of laws, as of government servants likewise; and the isolation of the emperor.
10 rules for succeeding in Washington, ‘This Town’ style
1:48 AM EDT
Great article. A very detailed, 10 point definition of corruption.
Florida…led the country in convictions of public officials — 781 — between 2000 and 2010, according to Department of Justice figures.
“Florida has become the corruption capital of America,” said Dan Krassner, the executive director of a watchdog group, Integrity Florida, citing statistics going back to 1976 and the “significant number of public officials arrested this year and last.”
D.C. corruption due for a cleanup
D.C. corruption case gathers steam after Michael A. Brown guilty plea
The downfall of Michael A. Brown: The former D.C. Council member has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.
The joke’s on Obama as he replaces Romney as the most popular political target for late-night comedians
Gags: Jimmy Fallon was the toughest comic on Democrats, targeting them 240 times compared to 76 for Republicans
Racism doesn’t explain why Obama’s approval rating is falling
Racism likely cost Obama votes in 2012, but his latest polling drop is among non-southern whites and non-whites
Obama and the crumbling of a liberal fantasy hero
By Gideon Rachman
The most vociferous critics expected far more than a mere mortal could deliver
It has taken a long time, but the world’s fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter. Monday’s newspapers were full of savage quotes about the perfidy of the Obama-led US.
Der Spiegel, the German magazine that alleged that America’s National Security Agency has bugged the EU’s offices, thundered that “the NSA’s totalitarian ambition … affects us all … A constitutional state cannot allow it. None of us can allow it.” President François Hollande of France has demanded that the alleged spying stop immediately. Le Monde, Mr Hollande’s home-town newspaper, has even suggested that the EU should consider giving political asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower.
But if liberals wanted to compile a list of perfidious acts by the Obama administration, the case of the bugged EU fax machine should probably come low down the list.
More important would be the broken promise to close the Guantánamo detention centre and – above all – the massive expansion of the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, It has gradually dawned on President Obama’s foreign fan club that their erstwhile hero is using methods that would be bitterly denounced if he were a white Republican. As Hakan Altinay, a Turkish academic, complained to me last week: “Obama talks like the president of the American Civil Liberties Union but he acts like Dick Cheney.”
It is not just Mr Obama’s record on security issues that disappoints the likes of Mr Altinay. Liberals in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Iran and elsewhere complain that the US president has been far too hesitant about condemning human rights abuses in their countries. Or to adapt Mr Altinay’s complaint: when it comes to foreign policy, Mr Obama campaigned with the human rights rhetoric of Jimmy Carter but has governed like Henry Kissinger.
Yet those who argue that the world was duped and Mr Obama is simply a fraud are making a mistake. Before disappearing into a lather of anger and disappointment, the president’s critics should consider some counter-arguments.
First, some of the decisions that Mr Obama has made that liberals hate are partly a result of some other decisions that they liked. Foreigners have largely applauded the Obama administration’s decision to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if you are not going to go after your enemies on the ground, you may need other methods. Mr Obama’s controversial expansion of the drone strike programme is closely linked to his reluctance to deploy troops on the ground.
Similarly, Mr Obama has rightly received some credit for his decision to end torture of terrorist suspects, including such practices as waterboarding. But the need to gather information on terror threats remains – and the massive expansion of electronic monitoring is partly a response to that.
Europeans respond that bugging the EU’s Washington office has nothing to do with the “war on terror”. True enough – but is it really so surprising that allies sometimes eavesdrop on each other? The British have occasionally debated whether they should spy on the Americans – and only turned the idea down on the grounds that they would inevitably be caught, causing severe damage to the “special relationship”. The French are thought to have conducted commercial espionage, aimed at America. The Israelis spied on the US – as the conviction of their agent, Jonathan Pollard, confirmed.
The current European backlash against Mr Obama is reminiscent of a similar process of disillusionment undergone by American liberals in recent years. In one column, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times compared Mr Obama unfavourably to a fictional president, portrayed by Michael Douglas, in a film. This drew a sharp response from Mr Obama when, in a recent speech, he called out to Mr Douglas – “Michael, what’s your secret, man. Could it be that you were an actor, an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?”
It is not entirely Mr Obama’s fault that he became the vessel into which liberals all over the world poured their fantasies. Of course, like any politician, he pumped up expectations when running for office. But when Obama-mania really took off in 2008, it swiftly moved into a realm beyond reason. What was candidate Obama meant to say to the 200,000 Berliners who turned out to cheer him that year – “Go home guys, this is silly”? When the new president was given the Nobel Peace Prize, simply for existing, all he could do was graciously accept.
It is perfectly legitimate to argue that Mr Obama should have done more to cut back the rapidly growing secret state that he inherited when he took office. The combination of a “war on terror” and the new world of “big data” has created possibilities and pressures – and Mr Obama may have made some wrong calls in response. Yet the US president has had to balance a variety of pressures – including the continuing existence of a terrorist threat and the entrenched power of the intelligence world.
Mr Obama was living in a real universe, full of hard choices. It was his overheated critics who lived in a fantasy world.
The imperial president
Obama’s unilateral delay undermines the rule of law
Wednesday July 10, 2013 5:21 AM
With his delay of the employer-mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act last week, President Barack Obama once again thumbed his nose at the American system of checks and balances by doing an end-run around Congress and unilaterally decreeing a major change to a law.
In announcing the change via a Treasury Department blog post as Washington prepared for the July 4 holiday, Obama made another move toward “creating an imperial presidency,” in the words of one noted constitutional scholar interviewed by the Washington newspaper Roll Call.
Before he became president, Obama “rightfully criticized President Bush for violating the separation of powers and using signing statements to rewrite legislation, but Obama has been far more aggressive in circumventing Congress and far more successful in creating an imperial presidency,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.
It’s easy to imagine Democratic outrage if Mitt Romney had been elected president and unilaterally suspended provisions of the health-care overhaul as Obama has just done.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board calls Obama’s move typical of the selective enforcement of laws that “has become an administration habit.” The Journal cited examples including last year’s easing of welfare-to-work requirements and the enactment of “the DREAM Act by fiat” with regard to illegal immigration. Add to this Obama’s high-handed appointment of members of the National Labor Relations Board without Senate approval, which two courts have ruled unconstitutional.
Though he is a former constitutional-law professor, he appears to need a remedial course himself, starting with Article II, Section 3, which requires that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
While casting his suspension of the health-care mandate as a favor to employers who might need more time to prepare for the law, there are two more likely explanations. First, despite more than three years to prepare, the government finds it simply isn’t competent to micromanage a sixth of the U.S. economy. Second, Obama and his party fear what will happen to Democratic congressional candidates in the 2014 elections if the law is allowed to go into effect as required on Jan. 1, 2014. In April, senior Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who helped write the law, said that he saw “a huge train wreck coming down” as the law’s major provisions loomed.
Baucus’ fellow Democrats, who seized their moment in 2009 and 2010 to ram through a bill they thought would ensure them the undying gratitude of American voters, have been taken by surprise at the backlash. Even after losing control of the U.S. House in 2010, they clung to the notion that Americans would like the health-care law as they found out more about it. But the opposite has happened as news continues to spread about steep insurance-premium increases, employers deferring new hires and cutting hours for current employees. A June Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the law.
But whatever the political motives at work, the really serious problem with Obama’s high-handed act is that it undermines the rule of law. Only the rule of law protects citizens — their liberty and their property — from the arbitrary whims of government officials.
Liberals had hoped that re-electing Mr. Obama, the most pro-spending president since LBJ, would unleash another four years of Great Society government expansion. Instead, spending caps and the sequester are squashing these progressive dreams. Welcome to the new fiscal reality in Washington. All Republicans need to do is enforce the budget laws Mr. Obama has already agreed to. Entitlement reforms will come when liberals realize that the unhappy alternative is to allow every program they cherish to keep shrinking.
Rosen: Obama crises certainly not “phony”
President Barack Obama walks to a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hil on July 31. If a plague of misdeeds, foul-ups and coverups like these were tied to a Republican president and his administration, writes Mike Rosen, the liberal media would be in outraged, feeding-frenzy mode. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images)
POSTED: 07/31/2013 04:55:28 PM MDT
UPDATED: 07/31/2013 04:56:04 PM MDTBy Mike Rosen
The trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin and the aftermath of that verdict has been a timely and convenient distraction from the flock of scandals circling President Barack Obama’s head.
His surprise entry into a daily White House press briefing to deliver a speech on race relations was more likely contrived than impromptu. And his current road show to justify his failed economic policies — little more than a repetition of his standard populist campaign speech — is likewise part of the strategy to draw attention away from his scandals.
To list just a few, there’s Benghazi; the National Security Agency’s surveillance excesses; snooping on The Associated Press; harassment of Fox News reporter James Rosen; the ATF “Fast and Furious” debacle; and IRS targeting of conservative groups.
If a plague of misdeeds, foul-ups and coverups like these were tied to a Republican president and his administration, the liberal media would be in outraged, feeding-frenzy mode. Recall how The Washington Post went all in on Watergate to bring down Richard Nixon. But given their fealty to Obama (personally) and his leftist agenda (ideologically), they have a remarkably short attention span these days and an awfully high threshold for wrong-doing.
The credibility of the liberal media as objective journalists and watchdogs of government is now zilch. They should be ashamed.
White House press secretary Jay Carney behaves like the palace guard covering for the Wizard of Oz. He recently admonished the press to ignore the “phony scandals that have consumed so much attention here, all come to naught.” So he wishes. For one, the IRS scandal will come to far more than “naught” when House Republicans convene a select committee to take it to the next level.
The ongoing investigation has now implicated Obama political appointee William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel. Lois Lerner, as head of the exempt organizations unit in Washington, was in up to her neck, which might explain why she refused to testify, instead taking the Fifth. Elizabeth Hofacre, who processed Tea Party applications in the IRS Cincinnati office, told the House committee she was ordered to single out Tea Party applications for special scrutiny but not those from liberal groups, adding that she became frustrated with micromanagement from Washington.
Obama’s chief protector on the committee made an embarrassingly lame attempt at damage control. That’s Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat and ultra-liberal, who desperately sought a sound bite he could take out of context. He asked Hofacre if she knew whether her office was told what to do directly by the White House or if she had knowledge of President Obama’s personal involvement. She said “no” — from which Cummings has concluded that the investigation should be ended.
This charade called to mind a classic movie scene from “The Godfather,” which also took place in a congressional hearing room. A Senate committee investigating the criminal activities of the Corleone family had called Willie Cicci, a Mafia “button man,” to testify. Seeking to connect the godfather himself to individual killings, Cicci was asked under oath about the source of his instructions to perform such “hits.”
Sen. Pat Geary: Mr. Cicci, would you care to amplify your answer?
Willie Cicci: Would I what?
Geary: Would you expand on your response? I’m interested to know, was there always a buffer involved?
Cicci: A what?
Geary: A buffer. Someone in between you and your possible superiors who passed on to you the actual order to kill someone.
Cicci: (Amused) Oh yeah, a buffa. The family had a lot of buffas!
Obviously, the Obama administration has a lot of “buffas” between the president and lower-level bureaucrats who do his dirty work. But the buck still stops on his desk in the Oval Office.
The speculation over Hillary Clinton’s entry in the 2016 presidential race continues to escalate. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
The Hillary Clinton 2016 fantasy
She hasn’t even declared she’s running, yet people are putting her on a pedestal no leader can live up to and writing off Obama
…Speaking of Obama, an even bigger issue for the Democratic party is that Obama is still president. It’s as if people are already writing him off as he struggles with scandals and to get anything accomplished. Instead of dealing with the problems that confront the nation today, including a huge debate over security versus personal liberties, it’s easier to play fantasy president 2016.
It’s almost like the fantasy baseball or football teams people put together where they mix and match their favorite players from different teams. In politics, it seems, you take Hillary, add in the best of her husband’s presidential term (especially the economic surge and balanced budgets), and a bit more of what you think a good Democrat today needs (be more progressive, more pro-gay, more pro-women, better international figure) and then throw in a dash of your favorite leaders of all time (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, etc) and voilà, you have Hillary 2016.
The problem is the reality check will inevitably come. Just ask Obama.
Why is it that America’s roil family always seems better in abstract than in concrete? The closer it gets to running the world once more, the more you are reminded of all the things that bugged you the last time around.
The Clintons’ neediness, their sense of what they are owed in material terms for their public service, their assumption that they’re entitled to everyone’s money.
Are we about to put the “For Rent” sign back on the Lincoln Bedroom?
If Americans are worried about money in politics, there is no larger concern than the Clintons, who are cosseted in a world where rich people endlessly scratch the backs of rich people.
…We are supposed to believe that every dollar given to a Clinton is a dollar that improves the world. But is it? Clintonworld is a galaxy where personal enrichment and political advancement blend seamlessly, and where a cast of jarringly familiar characters pad their pockets every which way to Sunday.
Op-ed columns are filled with advice about what Hillary needs to do. She needs a narrative. A message. It can’t be that she’s a Clinton or a woman. It has to be . . .
Here’s a thought: She can save the world.
Already, the world has been saved, yet the world has not accepted the message of kerygma: repentance. Acts 3:19; 11:18
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: August 10, 2013
WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT OBAMA proved himself a great segue artist Friday, as he smoothly glided from his previously unassailable position on the matter of surveillance to his new unassailable position on the matter of surveillance.
There is no moral high ground that he does not seek to occupy. As with drones and gay marriage, he seems peeved that we were insufficiently patient with his own private study of the matter. Why won’t the country agree to entrust itself to his fine mind?
Yet while Barry is in the thick of it, the air is thick with Hillary. From the sidelines, she is soaking up a disproportionate amount of attention and energy, as though she were already Madam President.
She is supposed to be resting and off making $200,000 speeches, but instead she’s around every political corner.
The cicadas never showed up. But we can’t hear ourselves think here this summer over the roar of the Clinton machine — and the buzzing back to life of old Clinton enemies. Meanwhile, Obama’s vaunted campaign machine, which has morphed into a political group called Organizing for Action, has sputtered in its attempt to tear down Republican obstacles and push through his agenda.
While President Obama seems drained and disgusted at the idea of punching through the Republican blockade that awaits him on his return from Martha’s Vineyard, he told Jay Leno that Hillary “had that post-administration glow” when they met for lunch recently.
As the president was getting ready for his news conference, his former secretary of state was dominating the news with an event she didn’t even attend. Emily’s List held what was, in essence, Hillary’s first Iowa campaign event, titled “Madam President” and featuring Claire McCaskill, the Missouri senator who famously broke away from Clinton Inc. to join the Obama revolution in 2008. Now McCaskill, who once said she wouldn’t trust Bill Clinton near her daughter, is presciently back in the fold, on board with Ready for Hillary, the super PAC supporting Clinton for 2016.
As ABC News’s Michael Falcone reported from Iowa, the state that allowed Obama to vault over Hillary, McCaskill said she’s dreaming of “that moment in 2017 when we can say ‘Madam President’ to Hillary Rodham Clinton.’”
In a funny echo of Hillary’s defense of Bill during the Gennifer Flowers scandal, when she said she wasn’t home baking cookies and having teas, McCaskill told the forum it’s hard for women to run for office because it’s “not sitting down to tea and crumpets.”
For one thing, McCaskill said, it’s awful to go to a department store to buy Spanx and get recognized as a senator.
It’s being called Hillary’s “shadow campaign.” But the shadow campaign actually began when she was secretary of state. Obama granted his former rival special privileges and allowed her to move Hillaryland, with all her loyal image-buffers and political aides, into the State Department intact.
Because he doesn’t traffic in the unseemly nitty-gritty of politics that is mother’s milk to the Clintons, Obama has been somewhat naïve in how he has handled the imagery of their relationship.
West Wing strategists did not totally trust Hillary after the bitter 2008 battle. They thought by pulling the former secretary of state close, Obama could ensure that Hillary was not out there recreating events and decisions or taking more credit than she deserved — as she sometimes did during her 2008 campaign.
So Obama did not seem fully aware, with their cozy joint “60 Minutes” interview and their laughing al fresco lunch at the White House recently, that instead of co-opting Hillary, he looked like he was handing her the White House silver on a silver platter. The Clintons can present those images as Obama passing the torch and bypassing Joe Biden, just as Bill once took a simple handshake from J.F.K. during a Boys Nation visit to the White House and turned it into an Arthurian moment.
Many Democrats are hungry to make history again, and they see the first woman president as the natural successor to the first black president.
But in other ways, Hillary is not such a natural successor. The Clintons are ends-justify-the-means types with flexible boundaries about right and wrong, while the Obama mystique is the opposite. His White House runs on the idea that if you are virtuous and true and honorable, people will ultimately come to you. (An ethos that sometimes collides with political success.)
It’s odd that Obama, who once talked about being a transformational president, did not want to ensure that his allies and his aims were imprinted on the capital. Instead, he has teed up the ball for Hillary. Some of the excitement about Barack Obama was the prospect of making a clean start, after years of getting dragged into the Clintons’ dubious ethics and personal messes. Yet Obama ushered in the return of Clinton Inc. and gave it his blessing.
What he doesn’t seem to realize yet is that Hillary’s first term will be seen, not as a continuation of Obama, but as Bill Clinton’s third term.
The Great Disconnect
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: June 22, 2013
THIS January, as President Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to list their policy priorities for 2013. Huge majorities cited jobs and the economy; sizable majorities cited health care costs and entitlement reform; more modest majorities cited fighting poverty and reforming the tax code. Down at the bottom of the list, with less than 40 percent support in each case, were gun control, immigration and climate change.
Yet six months later, the public’s non-priorities look like the entirety of the White House’s second-term agenda. The president’s failed push for background checks has given way to an ongoing push for immigration reform, and the administration is reportedly planning a sweeping regulatory push on carbon emissions this summer. Meanwhile, nobody expects much action on the issues that Americans actually wanted Washington to focus on: tax and entitlement reform have been back-burnered, and the plight of the unemployed seems to have dropped off the D.C. radar screen entirely.
In part, this disconnect between country and capital reflects the limits gridlock puts on governance. The ideological divides in Washington — between right and left, and between different factions within the House Republican caucus — make action on first-rank issues unusually difficult, so it’s natural that politicians would look for compromises on lower-priority debates instead.
That’s the generous way of looking at it, at least. The more cynical take is that D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country’s most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead.
After all, gun control, immigration reform and climate change aren’t just random targets of opportunity. They’re pillars of Acela Corridor ideology, core elements of Bloombergism, places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers and the Wall Street 1 percent. If you move in those circles, the political circumstances don’t necessarily matter: these ideas always look like uncontroversial common sense.
Step outside those circles, though, and the timing of their elevation looks at best peculiar, at worst perverse. The president decided to make gun control legislation a major second-term priority … with firearm homicides at a 30-year low. Congress is pursuing a sharp increase in low-skilled immigration … when the foreign-born share of the American population is already headed for historical highs. The administration is drawing up major new carbon regulations … when actual existing global warming has been well below projections for 15 years and counting.
What’s more, on the issues that Americans actually prioritize — jobs, wages, the economy — it’s likely that both immigration reform and whatever the White House decides to do on greenhouse gases will make the short-term picture somewhat worse. The Congressional Budget Office’s recent analysis of the immigration bill errs on the side of optimism, but it still projects that the legislation would leave unemployment “slightly elevated” through 2020, and average wages modestly reduced. Given that similar estimates greeted the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, it’s reasonable to assume that carbon regulations would slightly raise the unemployment rate as well.
These costs might be more acceptable in a world where Washington was also readying, say, payroll tax relief for working-class families, or measures to help the long-term uninsured. But since those ideas currently lack constituencies in the capital, we’re left with the peculiar spectacle of a political class responding to a period of destructive long-term unemployment with an agenda that threatens to help extend that crisis toward 2020 and beyond.
This disconnect is the most serious threat to the current liberal ascendance. President Obama has a good chance to be remembered as “the liberal Reagan,” but the Reagan recovery was far better for most Americans than this one has been, and right now the president’s mediocre job approval numbers contrast sharply with the highs of Reagan’s second term.
In this sense, for all the (justifiable) talk about conservatism’s dysfunction, Republicans have more freedom of movement today than Democrats did after their 1984 defeat. As Yuval Levin wrote in The Weekly Standard in April, there has been no “morning in America”-style vindication for this administration; instead, “both parties give the impression of having outlived their eras,” and “the moment feels more like the late 1970s than the late 1980s.” The country clearly prefers Obama to the available alternatives, but it might prefer another alternative still.
But so far, Republicans have mostly used liberalism’s relative weakness as an excuse for not moving much at all, and sticking with an agenda that’s even more disconnected from the anxieties of the average voter than the White House’s second-term priorities.
Their assumption seems to be that eventually the public will simply have to turn to them. But their obligation should be to address both parties’ most conspicuous failure, and actually meet the voters where they are.
Joe Hallett commentary: Lawmakers seem to be doing more harm than good
Sunday June 23, 2013 6:39 AM
Our least expectation is that Congress and the General Assembly will act in ways that help us, not hurt us.
But more and more, we’re being let down by our representatives. Obsessed with protecting their careers, they have bent the democratic process toward that end, causing an insane devotion to fundraising and the use of gimmicks such as gerrymandering to ensure self-preservation. As a result, special interests gain supremacy over public good and narrow-minded ideologues drive public policy.
In the U.S. Senate, artificial rules require supermajority approval to pass bills, permit effortless filibusters and enable single senators to nix appointments. In the House, a majority of Republican members are required to support a bill for it even to get a vote. All of these rules subjugate the will of the majority.
Nothing big gets done, from ensuring the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, to addressing a strangling federal deficit, to even passing a budget.
But what does result are actions that hurt society, such as sequestration, the thwarting of common-sense gun controls and the failure to help curb financial exploitation by simply confirming Grove City’s Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though members of Congress overwhelming agree he is right for the job.
Congress hasn’t cornered the market on hurtful action. Ohio’s legislature is equally adept — or inept.
Nonsensical bills sprout like dandelions at the Statehouse, largely thanks to the hard-right government haters who nevertheless are happy to accept what it can do for them.
More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced to shield citizens’ access to government documents and public meetings, including one sponsored by Sen. Joseph Uecker, R-Loveland, to eliminate the ability of journalists to view concealed-handgun-license records. (They’re already off-limits to the public.)
If Uecker’s bill had been in effect, we might not ever have known that Joe Reel of the Dayton suburb of Kettering had a concealed-carry permit when he crashed his Jeep into barriers near the White House on June 9 in a possible attempt to harm President Barack Obama.
A U.S. magistrate questioned whether Reel suffers a “serious mental illness.” Before asking how such a man got a concealed-carry permit, you would have to know that he had one.
The GOP-controlled legislature, meanwhile, is punishing poor Ohioans. Despite the demonstrated need, the Senate declined to add its expected $2.5 million share to funding for food banks. Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said if $2.5 million went to food banks, it wouldn’t be available for education.
Really? Faber’s caucus chose to give $1.4 billion in tax cuts to businesses, and the state has nearly a $400 million surplus. And yet, $2.5 million can’t be found to help feed the poor?
Even more punishing is the irrational rejection of Gov. John Kasich’s plan to accept $13 billion from the federal government over seven years to expand Medicaid to 275,000 more poor Ohioans. The plan makes sense economically, medically and morally and has overwhelming support from business and health-care groups. If Faber and House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, allowed floor votes, it would pass handily.
But the Senate president and House speaker are more ideological than pragmatic. They are the philosophical enablers of a legislature that is unrepresentative of a state grotesquely gerrymandered to bestow dominance to members well to the right of most Ohioans.
Somewhere along the line, the democratic system got so far out of whack that Congress and the General Assembly now seem to be doing more to hurt us than help us.
The left needs to get real on Medicare, Social Security and the deficit
By Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, Published: June 27
Jon Cowan is president of the centrist think tank Third Way, where Jim Kessler is senior vice president.
There is a rising chorus on the left, most recently articulated in an op-ed Monday by Neera Tanden and Michael Linden [“Deficits are not destiny”] of the Center for American Progress that our fiscal conversation should be declared over and plans for meaningful entitlement reforms mothballed. These voices argue that we can have substantial new spending on public investments, a secure safety net, no middle-class tax increase — all without addressing entitlement spending.
Lo, if it were so. But the left’s reasoning is predicated on four fiscal fantasies that Democrats must see through if they hope to expand the economy, help the middle class and keep the safety net solvent.
Fantasy No. 1 is that taxing the rich solves our problems. Let’s say the top income tax rate were raised a whopping 10 points, to 49.6 percent — a level higher than anything under serious consideration. Tack on the “Buffett rule,” with its 30 percent minimum tax on millionaires to squash loopholes. And let’s take a whack at wealthy inheritances, cutting the estate tax exemption by about one-third and setting the rate on large estates at 45 percent.
If we leave entitlements be, our annual budget deficit in 2030 would still be $1.3 trillion in today’s dollars, not much different from the $1.6 trillion deficit we’d have if income tax rates for the wealthy are kept the same. Sure, raising some additional taxes on the wealthy is necessary, but it is not nearly sufficient.
Fantasy No. 2 is that “we can have it all” — a bigger safety net and more investments that spur growth and opportunity. Events of the past 50 years say the opposite.
In the mid-1960s, the federal government spent $3 on public investments for every $1 on the major entitlement programs. By the early 1970s, the ratio was one to one. Last year, it flipped. The federal government spent $3 on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for every $1 on federal investments, according to our analysis of data from the Office of Management and Budget. By 2022, the ratio will be one to five. In other words, entitlement programs are drowning out public investments just as international competition and technology demand that we need these investments the most.
That is a 50-year trend, but what is most mind-boggling is that some on the left still cling to a belief — bordering on faith — that if a spending program is worthy, voters will support it without trade-offs. Yet the evidence is clear that as Democrats have sought to increase spending beyond a certain point, voters have taken them to the woodshed. Recall 2010: The health-care bill (which our organization vigorously endorsed) exceeded the limits of what voters were willing to spend after the 2009 stimulus, auto rescue and bank bailout. That November, Democrats lost the House, Republicans controlled 29 governorships and the tea party became dominant.
Fantasy No. 3 is that a delay on entitlement fixes is benign for the middle class. As evidence, some liberals point to this year’s improved
. In truth, it improved from horrid to awful. We can’t make even that boast about Social Security, where the outlook is plain wretched. Over the past 10 years, the Social Security insolvency date had leapt forward from 2042 to 2033. The hope was that an improving economy would push the date farther out. It did not, and every indicator of Social Security health worsened between the 2012 and 2013 trustee reports.
If there is one message from the trustee reports, it is that every year we wait, the inevitable fixes to Social Security and Medicare get harder. Here is one example: Several years ago, proponents of an all-tax solution to Social Security solvency called for eliminating the cap on payroll taxes to solve the entire problem. Now they say it solves most of the problem. That’s because we waited too long. Eliminating the FICA cap — a step that we do not support — solves 79 percent of the problem. Now, supporters of a tax-only solution also call for adding a point to the payroll tax rate for all workers. That one point means a tax increase of $650 a year for a typical working family. Over the course of their working lives, it will come out to more than $20,000. Waiting is anything but benign.
Fantasy No. 4 is that the politics to fix entitlements will get better. In fact, the politics will get worse every election cycle. In 2012, one out of six voters was a senior citizen. By 2024, one in four will be, based on the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract. How will we possibly fix safety-net programs for the elderly then? The answer: on the backs of the working-age middle class.
The country and Democrats face real fiscal choices. Avoiding them in favor of fantasies is not the answer.
The Morning Plum: The problem isn’t generic “Washington gridlock.” It’s the House GOP.
By Greg Sargent, Published: July 8, 2013 at 9:25 am
Congress returns this week to face a list of daunting challenges. The House is taking up immigration reform; the farm bill setting the nation’s agricultural policy remains in limbo; battles loom over the budget and the debt ceiling; the sequester cuts continue even though we remain mired in mass unemployment. The New York Times reports this morning that these challenges may not be met, however, blaming Washington “gridlock” as far as the eye can see:
There is no guarantee that any of these issues will be dealt with.
That’s true. But the primary blame for this does not fall on generic “Washington gridlock” or the “inability of both sides to compromise,” as the usual bromides have it. The fault lies mainly with the Congressional GOP.
Here is a quote from a House conservative, given to my Post colleague Zachary Goldfarb for a story about how the Obama administration views the road ahead, that captures the state of play perfectly. As Goldfarb reports, the White House believes it has put Beltway scandal-palooza behind it, and now hopes to mount a major push on immigration and the economy, but House Republicans continue to stand in the way:
Obama continues to face strong opposition among congressional Republicans, particularly in the House. If he continues on his current path, some GOP lawmakers say, they will make it as difficult as possible.
“We’re going to continue to be very aggressive in serving as a check and balance against the Obama administration. That’s what the country said in November,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), a conservative leader, referring to continued Republican control of the House. “We’re very far apart.”
This quote is more significant in what it says about the current situation than it first appears, so it’s worth unpacking a bit. The idea here seems to be that current House GOP conduct represents functional and ordinary “check and balance” behavior from the opposition, and that this is what the results of the last election show that the American people want. But here’s the reality.
On immigration, the current bill that is moving forward is not Obama’s bill; it passed the Senate by a wide bipartisan margin, and contains enormous concessions to conservatives in the way of border security. But there is still no sign that there is anything that can get a majority of House Republicans to sign on to a path to citizenship, even though poll after poll shows a majority of Americans support it. This is the real reason the two sides remain “far apart” on the issue. On Obamacare, the GOP’s gleeful, wholly unconstructive response to the delay in the employer mandate shows that Republican policy is still being dictated by a refusal to accept that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, as Jamelle Bouie has detailed. Indeed, the mandate delay is now being cited by some Republicans in the House as a reason to oppose immigration reform , because it shows Obama can’t be trusted, or something — as if there is anything that could get them to support any reform with citizenship in the first place.
On the debt ceiling, National Journal reports that House Republicans are drawing up a list of spending cuts they will demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. This, even though John Boehner has already admitted that the debt limit must be raised to avoid tanking the economy. This is hostage taking for the sake of hostage taking, and the pathological nature of it should not be sugar-coated. On the farm bill, the collapse of the measure already shows that Boehner can’t count on conservative support even for bills that contain major concessions to them (such as the farm bill’s $20 billion in cuts to food stamps). The response from conservatives will be to insist on still more spending cuts in the bill.
Yet in the view of Republicans like Steve Scalise, this sort of stuff represents typical opposition; indeed, it is exactly what the voters ordered last November when they comfortably reelected President Obama, expanded the Dems’ Senate majority, and even gave Dems the popular vote victory in the battle for the House. In one narrow sense, Scalise is right: The voters that support many House Republicans in safe districts insulated from the currents of national opinion apparently do want intransigent opposition to anything Obama and/or Dems support and fundamentalist devotion to bottomless spending cuts, whatever the consequences. But we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that the view among House Republicans and conservatives that this is their proper role — even if you accept that this is what their supporters want — is the primary reason for all the gridlock and dysfunction.
NEW LIGHT SHED ON SECRET COURT’S NSA OPINIONS: Don’t miss Eric Lichtblau’s weekend expose revealing new details about the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions authorizing broad NSA surveillance. The opinions appear to create a secret body of law that effectively exempts broad government collection of data from the Fourth Amendment, without challenge from outside the government, though they apparently do not authorize examination of the data.
In theory, these revelations should prompt more calls in Congress for their declassification, so we can have the debate Obama says he wants about whether the proper liberty/security balance has been achieved. Obama himself could theoretically declassify them, too.
* BOEHNER FACES MAJOR DILEMMA ON FARM BILL: One thing to watch for in coming days: Speaker John Boehner is under pressure from Tea Partyers to cut the farm bill’s spending even more deeply than the current bill does, even though its $20 billion in cuts to food stamps already cost the bill Dem support, resulting in it crashing and burning in the House.
The farm bill debacle already reveals Boehner’s inability to control House conservatives and to pass major legislation without Dem support, so his handling of this will carry major implications for the coming debt ceiling and immigration battles.
* BOEHNER’S BIG CHOICE ON IMMIGRATION: Related to the above, the New York Times editorial board accurately frames Boehner’s immigration options:
Mr. Boehner has a choice. He can let reform go forward with bipartisan support — House Republicans and Democrats together could pass a good bill. This would infuriate the hotheads in his caucus but save the Republican Party from itself. Or he can stand back and let his party kill reform.
Yup. Boehner insists nothing will get a vote without the support of a majority of Republicans. That may prove to be true in the end, but there’s no reason to assume any decision has actually been made. Remember: If the base kills reform, it’s only because Boehner let it.
* GOP REP. RAUL LABRADOR ON IMMIGRATION REFORM: This quote is striking:
“My concern with the Senate bill is that they put the legalization of 11 million people ahead of security. The legalization happens first, and then the security happens second.”
Actually, the Senate bill allots billions in border security and includes E-Verify as a trigger before citizenship can happen. If this is truly the House GOP view of the Senate bill, then it again confirms there is nothing approaching real reform that can likely get the support of House Republicans.
* DEMS CLOSE TO TRIGGERING NUCLEAR OPTION? Politico reports an interesting detail: Senate Dem aides apparently are confident they have 51 votes to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster on executive nominations, but not judicial ones. The last time I checked into this, the prospects for getting majority Senate support for the nuke option were very much in doubt, though perhaps narrowing the focus to just executive nominations could be proving persuasive among Senate Dems resistant to changing the rules by simple majority.
The GOP vow to make Obamacare a liability for Dems in 2014 is somewhat undercut by the fact that enormous sums were wasted on attacks on the law in 2012, to no avail. But real world implementation problems are a very real possibility. Dems can criticize implementation where warranted while standing fully behind the law overall, as it appears they are doing, despite all the commentary to the contrary.
* AND TODAY’S PLUM READS:
Paul Krugman ponders the possibility that public outrage may not end up forcing policymakers to do the right thing and focus on jobs, leaving us trapped in a new normal of mass unemployment.
The Post on the continuation of sequestration cuts. Remember the sequester?
GOP Rep. Michael McCaul appears to believe the Senate immigration bill merely “threw candy” at the border. Again: Is there any level of security that can get House Republicans to accept citizenship?
Liz Cheney for Senate? As Steve Benen notes, her father seems to be gearing up to campaign for her, even as she insists she wants to run in her own right.
And this is from last week, but still: Jonathan Cohn has a very reasonable assessment on the real meaning of Obamacare’s employer mandate delay.
Is the GOP self-destructing?
The Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything.
After final votes were cast, members of Congress walked down the steps of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington as they left for a five-week recess. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press / August 2, 2013)
If Harry Reid (R-AZ)and Mitch McConnell (D-KY) switched parties, they’d be the same pile of (rap…!
The U.S. Senate, once considered the most exclusive and chummiest club in America, has in recent years been transformed into an ideological war zone, where comity and compromise have lost their allure, while confrontation and showmanship now pay big dividends.
“The only way you get something is to become obnoxious,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) declared during the recent immigration debate, explaining her threat to block the entire process. “We have turned from a Senate to a theater, and I’m tired of being part of a theater. If I wanted to be part of a theater, I would have gone to New York.”
The theatrics reached a new crescendo Thursday when Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) confronted each other over Reid’s effort to change the filibuster rules in ways that would strip the GOP’s ability to block confirmation of executive branch nominees and that could ultimately weaken the minority party’s ability to slow the majority agenda.
Mitch McConnell and the ‘we don’t work on Mondays’ Congress
Mitch McConnell’s 30-Year Senate Legacy Leaves Kentucky In The Lurch
The GOP’s shutdown showdown
America is under a partisan assault
Republicans and Democrats don’t talk to each other in Congress or in the ‘real world’. Can the 2014 elections change that?
Ana Marie Cox theguardian.com, Monday 15 July 2013 13.21 EDT
Americans, as a whole, are justifiably disgusted with the partisan gridlock that bogs down federal legislation. At the state and local level, they see state legislatures increasingly at odds with governors. But is any side winning?
Activists on both sides point to dramatic legal threats to one cause or another as proof that the troops must be rallied because America is under assault. We are either a country slipping into a swamp of socialism and secular humanist sin (see: Obamacare, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act), or we are on the verge of institutionalizing gender discrimination and doing nothing as a shock wave of gun violence terrorizes children (see: abortion law fights in Texas and Ohio, the failure of gun background check bill).
Both sides have some cause to be worried, but it’s a failure of the current political climate that at least part of the problem is that we rarely see these two sides matched face-to-face for any sort of decisive referendum. Yes, there are elections every year. But there are two entirely different electorates that turn out for those elections.
There is the presidential year electorate that you’ve probably heard about: the diverse and young population, who, along with single women, put Obama over the top in a tough economic climate. They are generally OK with gay marriage, Obamacare and immigration.
Then there is the off-year electorate: older, whiter, more conservative. They produce the statehouses where anti-abortion regulations simmer, and give states the right-wing governors who then face sweeping recall efforts of their legislation (or themselves) and stomach-turning unpopularity – as has happened in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They want closed borders and non-union state workers and teachers.
In some ways, the fate of the country – where it is between the two alarmist poles staked out by activists – lies in creating a contest wherein these electorates actually meet. We need an ideological cage match, and every off year, there are hopes that this will be the one: a cruicible of political will that can tip us off as to which way the country is really tipping.
This is all by way of saying, let’s get some more discussion about 2014 around here. There are plenty of people weighing in on the horse race aspects – who will gain control, etc. But I’m more interested in the ideas that get stirred up and the populations that get engaged.
I’ve been speaking to analysts (both professional consultants and opinion writers) about what’s getting their attention along those lines. With the usual caveats that it’s too early to say much specifically, supportes of parties agreed on more than you’d think: most surprising was Republican operatives admitting that some pet issues of the past year may not spark excitement outside the grassroots fringe. The IRS scandal, Benghazi, sequestration, even Obamacare and immigration reform are staples of Fox News and talk radio and could definitely bring out supporters, but probably only those already likely to vote.
I heard doubt that these issues might even fade before the primary races, though there’s a couple of big exceptions having to do with immigration. The coming battle between current Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) and former Representative Tom Tancredo (Republican Tancredo made “closing the borders” the centerpiece of his doomed presidential run in 2008), and the possibility that Republican Senator Lindsey “ Grahamnesty” Graham will face a primary challenger in South Carolina.
What will matter? As I’ve suggested before: reproductive rights, a topic that’s never gone away but that many politicians have considered themselves fortunate to escape speaking much about. It’s a losing issue for both sides, in some ways: pro-life politicians are rightly wary of stepping into what they see as unrelated women’s equality issues (or just knowledge-about-women issues), and pro-choice politicians do not want to seem “extreme” on an issue that is unsettling for so many. But even before we get into the meaning of a Rick Perry presidential run, abortion regulation will be foregrounded in the Ohio governor’s race (where John Kasich just signed restrictive legislation) and likely to surface in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker signed a heavily restrictive bill that’s gone under the radar as Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina get media attention.
A fascinating wild card mentioned by both teams: the revelations about the National Security Administration’s prying into the communications of American citizens. The polling on the issue is schizophrenic and doesn’t line up easily in a way that obviously benefits either parties, but as the stories keep coming – and lacking the context of an intense military engagement or specific attack – it may be an issue that candidates can’t ignore.
Imagine that: a policy debate that doesn’t lend itself to easy partisan exploitation. Individual candidates will have to carve out their own positions on the topic, making room for a flavor of libertarianism that would not necessarily be represented by the Paul (aka Rand and Ron) family.
Confidence in Congress drops to historic low
Americans’ confidence in the House and Senate has dropped so low that it now ranks as the least popular societal institution in U.S. history, according to a Gallup poll released Thursday.
Public confidence in Congress is at just 10 percent, its lowest mark in the history of Gallup surveys, and more than half of Americans — 52 percent — say they have little or no confidence in lawmakers.
Making matters far worse, Congress ranks last on a list of 16 such institutions for the fourth consecutive year, lower than HMOs (19 percent), organized labor (20 percent), banks (26 percent) — even newspapers (23 percent) (Side note: Why, America, do you consistently hate newspapers? Hmm??).
Overall confidence in Congress peaked in Gallup surveys in 1973, slid for a few years and climbed to 41 percent in 1986, before beginning a precipitous slide.
Image courtesy of Gallup
The number should come as no surprise even to the most casual observer of American politics, because with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill locked in dispute on virtually every issue, public perceptions have been poor for years.
Just 16 percent of adults approved of Congress in a Washington Post-ABC News poll from March, on par with results in our polling from recent years. A CBS News/New York Times poll from early 2011 found just 9 percent of Americans approved of Congress. (Yes, “approval” is different than “confidence,” but both signal bad news for lawmakers.)
Poor opinions of lawmakers are also the cause of rare bipartisan agreement, according to Gallup. Historically, members of either major political party express greater confidence in the legislative branch when their party controls both chambers. Republicans favored the place slightly more than Democrats when the GOP controlled the House and Senate in the early 2000s, for example, while Democrats started to favor the place more when they recaptured control in 2007.
But those days are gone.
With party control evenly split, just 12 percent of Democrats, 11 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of political independents hold confidence in Congress — a near tie.
Can Congress turn things around in the coming months by passing an immigration bill and working with the White House to strike a budget deal? Perhaps. But these numbers prove again how far Congress needs to climb in order to regain a majority of Americans’ trust
The Morning Plum: The problem isn’t generic “Washington gridlock.” It’s the House GOP.
…But the main tension is emerging between the parties. Religious conservatives remain the largest constituency within the Republican Party. So America is moving in the direction of having one secular party and one religious party, bringing polarization to a new level of intensity. This is movement in the direction of Europe, which has been cursed by the conflict between anticlerical parties and religious parties. For America, this could be a dangerous source of social division, with each side viewing the other as theocrats or pagans. There is no contempt like the contempt of the true believer or the militant skeptic.
Missing: The Food Stamp Program
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Published: July 12, 2013
“We’ll get to that later.” That was the dismissive answer of Speaker John Boehner on Thursday, when asked if the House would restore the food stamp program it had just coldly ripped out of the farm bill. “Later,” he said, Republicans will deal with the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. “Later,” maybe, they will think about the needs of 47 million people who can’t afford adequate food, probably by cutting the average daily subsidy of $4.39.
But right then their priorities were clear, as a bare majority rushed to provide $195.6 billion over 10 years to Big Agriculture. Most of the money went to subsidies for crop insurance and commodities, demanded by the corn, rice and sugar barons who fill campaign coffers.
The choice made by the House in cutting apart the farm bill was one of the most brutal, even in the short history of the House’s domination by the Tea Party. Last month, the chamber failed to pass a farm bill that cut $20.5 billion from food stamps because that was still too generous for the most extreme Republican lawmakers. So, in the name of getting something — anything — done, Mr. Boehner decided to push through just the agriculture part of the bill.
For decades, farm subsidies and food stamps have been combined for simple reasons of political expediency. Farm-state lawmakers went along with food stamps to keep the crop subsidies flowing; urban lawmakers did the reverse. The coalition may have been an uneasy one, and it cost the taxpayers untold billions in wasteful payments to growers, but that was the price for helping the hungry.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has repeatedly showed, the food stamp program (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) has long been one of the most effective and efficient anti-poverty programs ever devised. When counted as income, SNAP benefits cut extreme poverty nearly in half, a new study shows. Most families who get the aid have an adult who is working.
Now that coalition has been sundered, and the future of food stamps is threatened. If the program is not returned to the five-year farm bill, it will have to be financed through annual appropriations, which puts it at the mercy of the Republicans’ usual debt-ceiling stunts and government shutdown threats. House leaders said they would submit a food stamp bill “later,” but that will probably include the right wing’s savage cuts and unprecedented incentives for states to shut out poor families. Neither will get past the Senate or the White House.
The only way forward is for a Senate-House conference committee to restore the food stamp program to the farm bill (the Senate bill contains a far more modest $4 billion reduction in food stamps). Since compassion is no longer an incentive for the House, the threat of a cutoff to the big lobbyists will have to work, just as it always has.
CBO sees brighter economy with budget deficit to plunge to $642 billion this year
As the deficit shrinks, jobs not cuts should be the priority
By Neera Tanden and Michael Linden, Published: June 23
Neera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress. Michael Linden is the center’s managing director for economic policy.
Washington has spent the past three years obsessing about debt. While there were good reasons to worry about deficits and debt three years ago, many of those reasons have dissipated. Three years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected that deficits would exceed 8 percent of gross domestic product by 2023. Today, deficits are projected to average around 3 percent of GDP without the automatic “sequester” spending cuts; with them, deficits will be even lower.
At the same time that the budget picture has been improving, we have been missing the mark on the broader economy. Unemployment is a full percentage point higher this year than the CBO predicted it would be by now, while total economic output is 5 percent lower.
Washington’s relentless focus on deficit reduction has made it harder, not easier, to create good middle-class jobs and boost economic growth. In a rational world, Washington would be able to work simultaneously on bringing down the long-term debt and creating good jobs now. But the past three years have proven that lawmakers are not very good at walking and chewing gum at the same time. We’ve enacted nearly $4 trillion worth of deficit reduction since 2010 — when the sequester is included — but few policies to help the economy grow.
Washington deficit hawks don’t dispute that the budget picture has brightened or that the economic picture remains too dim. But they worry that by focusing on the more immediate economic challenges, we are walking away from long-term deficit reduction and entitlement reform. The Post’s Fred Hiatt, for example, wrote on this page last week that “If liberals succeed in blocking any serious entitlement reform during the Obama presidency… they will have handed the conservatives a gift” [“A liberal case for reform,” op-ed column, June 17]. Where that analysis goes wrong is that liberals aren’t the ones blocking entitlement reforms. Conservatives are.
Indeed, liberals have been leading on entitlement reform as part of a balanced approach to deficit reduction for the past four years. The Center for American Progress offered a detailed plan to reform Social Security that would achieve 75-year solvency while making the system more progressive, stable and eliminating its gender inequity. We also offered a Medicare plan that would continue to reduce costs for the federal government, saving $385 billion over 10 years, without shifting those costs onto middle- and low-income beneficiaries, businesses or states. These are good ideas, and Congress should pursue them.
But consider all the instances over the past three years when the president has attempted, unsuccessfully, to get conservatives in Congress to agree to a bargain that includes serious entitlement reform. Most recently, the president’s 2014 budget included both health-care and Social Security reductions, again signaling his willingness to make substantial changes to entitlement programs.
The contrast between the president’s eagerness to bargain and Rep. Paul Ryan’s successive budget plans — each one with more spending cuts and ways to privatize Medicare than the last — is hard to miss. This has been the pattern for three years. Liberals repeatedly try to compromise while conservatives move even further right.
Despite having no viable partners for compromise, deficit hawks insist that liberals must continue to pursue entitlement reform because, they say, without it health-care and retirement costs will crowd out progressive priorities. But the relentless pursuit of deficit reduction is already crowding out progressive priorities. Federal funding for education, science and technology, infrastructure and a broad swath of other basic public services is on track to decline to just 2.7 percent of GDP by 2022 — lower than at any point in the past 50 years. And that path is the direct result of repeated spending cuts to so-called discretionary programs that were made possible only by the perceived imperative of deficit reduction. Indeed, the sequester is the product of an attempt to force a grand bargain.
Furthermore, there is no inherent tension between safeguarding a dignified retirement for seniors and investing in young people and future prosperity, as CAP’s deficit reduction plans have repeatedly shown. That stark tradeoff exists only because conservatives have refused to consider any serious revenue enhancements.
Perhaps deficit hawks should focus their ire not on liberals but on congressional Republicans who refuse to adopt a balanced approach to long-term deficit reduction. Until that happens, we can’t allow economic growth to be held hostage to the seeming mirage of a grand bargain. That’s why CAP has proposed a responsible, manageable plan to get rid of the sequester for the next three years while making common-sense investments in jobs and growth.
Yes, the nation still has a long-term deficit challenge. And yes, entitlement reform will have to be part of the solution. But rebuilding a strong economy with a vibrant middle class is an urgent problem today, not 10 years from now. Washington has been focused on deficits, not growth. It’s time to shift that focus.
On this Labor Day, American workers face a buyers’ market. Employers have the upper hand and, given today’s languid pace of hiring, the advantage shows few signs of ending. What looms, at best, is a sluggish descent from high unemployment (7.4 percent in July) and a prolonged period of stagnant or slow-growing wages. Since 2007, there has been no gain in average inflation-adjusted wages and total compensation, including fringes, notes the http://www.epi.org/”>Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.
The weak job market has a semi-permanence unlike anything seen since World War II, and the effects on public opinion extend beyond the unemployed. “People’s expectations have been really ratcheted down for what they can expect for themselves and their children,” says EPI economist Lawrence Mishel. There’s a sense “that the economy just doesn’t produce good jobs anymore.” Possible job loss becomes more threatening because finding a new job is harder. Says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center: “Security is valued more than money because it’s so fragile.”
What’s occurring is the final breakdown of the post-World War II job compact, with its promises of career jobs and something close to “full employment.” The dissolution of these expectations compounds stress and uncertainty.
Defining Prosperity Down
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: July 7, 2013
Friday’s employment report wasn’t bad. But given how depressed our economy remains, we really should be adding more than 300,000 jobs a month, not fewer than 200,000. As the Economic Policy Institute points out, we would need more than five years of job growth at this rate to get back to the level of unemployment that prevailed before the Great Recession. Full recovery still looks a very long way off. And I’m beginning to worry that it may never happen.
Ask yourself the hard question: What, exactly, will bring us back to full employment?
We certainly can’t count on fiscal policy. The austerity gang may have experienced a stunning defeat in the intellectual debate, but stimulus is still a dirty word, and no deliberate job-creation program is likely soon, or ever.
Aggressive monetary action by the Federal Reserve, something like what the Bank of Japan is now trying, might do the trick. But far from becoming more aggressive, the Fed is talking about “tapering” its efforts. This talk has already done real damage; more on that in a minute.
Still, even if we don’t and won’t have a job-creation policy, can’t we count on the natural recuperative powers of the private sector? Maybe not.
It’s true that after a protracted slump, the private sector usually does find reasons to start spending again. Investment in equipment and software is already well above pre-recession levels, basically because technology marches on, and businesses must spend to keep up. After six years during which hardly any new homes were built in America, housing is trying to stage a comeback. So yes, the economy is showing some signs of healing itself.
But that healing process won’t go very far if policy makers stomp on it, in particular by raising interest rates. That’s not an idle worry. A Fed chairman famously declared that his job was to take away the punch bowl just as the party was really warming up; unfortunately, history offers many examples of central bankers pulling away the punch bowl before the party even starts.
And financial markets are, in effect, betting that the Fed is going to offer another such example. Long-term interest rates, which mainly reflect expectations about future short-term rates, shot up after Friday’s job report — a report that, to repeat, was at best just O.K. Housing may be trying to bounce back, but that bounce now has to contend with sharply rising financing costs: mortgage rates have risen by a third since the Fed started talking about relaxing its efforts about two months ago.
Why is this happening? Part of the reason is that the Fed is constantly under pressure from monetary hawks, who always want to see tighter money and higher interest rates. These hawks spent years warning that soaring inflation was just around the corner. They were wrong, of course, but rather than change their position they have simply invented new reasons — financial stability, whatever — to advocate higher rates. At this point it’s clear that monetary hawkery is mainly a form of Puritanism in H. L. Mencken’s sense — “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” But it remains dangerously influential.
Unfortunately, there’s also a technical issue that plays into the prejudices of the monetary hawks. The statistical techniques policy makers often use to estimate the economy’s “potential” — the maximum level of output and employment it can achieve without inflationary overheating — turn out to be badly flawed: they interpret any sustained economic slump as a decline in potential, so that the hawks can point to charts and spreadsheets supposedly showing that there’s not much room for growth.
In short, there’s a real risk that bad policy will choke off our already inadequate recovery.
But won’t voters eventually demand more? Well, that’s where I get especially pessimistic.
You might think that a persistently poor economy — an economy in which millions of people who could and should be productively employed are jobless, and in many cases have been without work for a very long time — would eventually spark public outrage. But the political science evidence on economics and elections is unambiguous: what matters is the rate of change, not the level.
Put it this way: If unemployment rises from 6 to 7 percent during an election year, the incumbent will probably lose. But if it stays flat at 8 percent through the incumbent’s whole term, he or she will probably be returned to power. And this means that there’s remarkably little political pressure to end our continuing, if low-grade, depression.
Someday, I suppose, something will turn up that finally gets us back to full employment. But I can’t help recalling that the last time we were in this kind of situation, the thing that eventually turned up was World War II.
Do we have the will to fight for the jobless?
By Katrina vanden Heuvel, Published: July 9
Turmoil in Egypt. Edward Snowden’s travel plans. Immigration reform’s fortunes. Obamacare’s troubles. The Weiner-Spitzer return to politics. There’s no shortage of items absorbing political energy and media bandwidth. But simmering below all of this is a crisis that goes without the immediate attention it demands. Last Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yet another month of lackluster jobs numbers. While Washington has long since lost any sense of urgency regarding the jobs crisis, this is an issue that continues to poll at the top of Americans’ concerns.
Our economy is stuck at just over 2 percent growth, and the rate of productivity is worse than anemic. We have hit a point where an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent inspires cheers of “it could’ve been worse!” The result is a painful “new normal”for too many of our fellow Americans.
Few commentators even mention that most of the 195,000 jobs added last month, as well as the ones added in the last few years, are low-paying, temporary, part time and usually without benefits. Much of the job growth we have seen is in restaurant, retail and temporary work — the sort of jobs that rarely offer basic security, let alone a foothold for people to climb into the middle class.
For working families, the struggle is painful, persistent and real: Hourly wages have plummeted to record lows, while executive pay has soared to record highs. There is no longer an income gap; there is now an income gulf. In 1978, the average American chief executive earned 26.5 times more than the average worker. Today, that gap is four times larger, with chief executives taking home 206 times more than average workers.
The crisis is disproportionately affecting minorities and younger Americans. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 16.1 percent, while African Americans are at 13.7 percent and Latinos are at 9.1 percent. The picture we are left with is of a severe shortage of jobs, in which millions of Americans drop out of the labor force in frustration and despair.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party, not least its “intellectuals,” such as Paul Ryan, has come to fetishize the values of Ayn Rand — radical individualism, a hatred of government intervention and spending — and the sort of austerity policies that have proved to be a disaster all over the world. They display adoration for the wealthy and apathy toward the working, and non-working, families that they claim to represent.
Recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that after four years of recovery, we’re only one-fifth of the way out of the hole left by the recession. At this rate, we won’t close the jobs gap until 2020. That’s too long for out-of-work Americans who continue to suffer.
Fortunately, some in the media are speaking out. And dedicated lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other thoughtful Democrats in both the House and the Senate, continue to introduce strong, smart bills to put people back to work. They are stymied only by the wrongheaded belief that debt, not joblessness, is our central challenge — and by GOP obstructionism that has paralyzed the capital.
June 22, 2013, 2:30 pm
Young and Isolated
By JENNIFER M. SILVA
In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.
“With college,” she explained, “I would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’t want to be a cop or anything. I don’t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.”
Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.
For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.
Lowell and Richmond embody many of the structural forces, like deindustrialization and declining blue-collar jobs, that frame working-class young people’s attempts to come of age in America today. The economic hardships of these men and women, both white and black, have been well documented. But often overlooked are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in 1972 called their “hidden injuries” — the difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working-class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.
These are people bouncing from one temporary job to the next; dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or fulfill their major requirements; relying on credit cards for medical emergencies; and avoiding romantic commitments because they can take care of only themselves. Increasingly disconnected from institutions of work, family and community, they grow up by learning that counting on others will only hurt them in the end. Adulthood is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others.
Take Jay, for example. He was expelled from college for failing several classes after his mother suffered a severe mental breakdown. He worked for a year, then went before the college administration and petitioned to be reinstated. He described it as a humiliating experience: “It’s their jobs to hear all these sob stories, you know, I understand that, but they just had this attitude, like you know what I mean, ‘Oh, your mom had a breakdown and you couldn’t turn to anyone?’ ”
Jay got back in and graduated (after a total of seven years of college). But when I talked to him, he was still working food-service and coffee-shop jobs at 28, baffled about how to turn his communications major into a professional job. He felt as if he was sold fake goods: “The world is at my fingertips, you can rule the world, be whatever you want, all this stuff. When I was 15, 16, I would not have envisioned the life I am living now. Whatever I imagined, I figured I would wear a suit every day, that I would own things. I don’t own anything.”
I heard many people express feeling betrayed by the major institutions in their lives, whether colleges, the health care system, employers or the government.
Christopher, who was 25, stated simply, “Well, I have this problem of being tricked.” He explained: “Like, I will get a phone call that says, you won a free supply of magazines. And they will start coming to my house. Then all of a sudden I am getting calls from bill collectors for the subscriptions to Maxim and ESPN. It’s a runaround: I can’t figure out who to call. Now I don’t even pick up the phone, like I almost didn’t pick up when you called me.” He described isolation as the only safe path; by depending on no one, Christopher protected himself from trickery and betrayal.
These fears seep into the romantic sphere, where commitment becomes yet another risky venture. Kelly, a 28-year-old line cook, spent 10 years battling depression and living off and on in her car. She finally had a job and an apartment of her own. But now she was worried about risking that hard-earned sense of security by letting someone else into her life. “I like the idea of being with someone,” she said, “but I have a hard time imagining trusting anybody with all of my personal stuff.” She said she would “rather be alone and fierce than be in a relationship and be milquetoast.”
Men often face a different challenge: the impossibility of living up to the male provider role. Brandon, who worked the night shift at a clothing store, described what he thought it would be like to be in a relationship with him: “No woman wants to sit on the couch all the time and watch TV and eat at Burger King. I can only take care of myself.”
It is not that these men and women don’t value family. Douglas, then 25, talked about loss: “Trust is gone. The way people used to love is gone.” Rather, the insecurities and uncertainties of their daily lives have rendered commitment a luxury they can’t afford.
But these young men and women don’t want your pity — and they don’t expect a handout. They are quick to blame themselves for the milestones they have not achieved. Julian, an Army vet from Richmond who was unemployed, divorced and living with his mother at 28, dismissed the notion that his lack of success was anyone’s fault but his own: “At the end of the day looking in the mirror, I know where all my shortcomings come from. From the things that I either did not do or I did and I just happened to fail at them.” Kelly echoed that: “No one else is going to fix me but me.”
This self-sufficiency, while highly prized in our culture, has a dark side: it leaves little empathy to spare for those who cannot survive on their own.
Wanda, a young woman with big dreams of going to college, expressed virulent anger toward her parents, a tow-truck driver and a secretary, for not being able to pay her tuition: “I feel like it’s their fault that they don’t have nothing.” Rather than build connections with those who struggled alongside her, Wanda severed relationships and willed herself not to be “weak-minded” like her parents: “if my mentality were different, then most definitely I would just be stuck like them.”
Working-class youths come to believe that if they have to make it on their own, then everyone else should, too. Powerless to achieve external markers of adulthood like marriage or a steady job, they instead measure their progress by cutting ties, turning inward and numbing themselves emotionally.
We don’t want to go back to the 1950s, when economic stability and social solidarity came at the cost of exclusion for many Americans. But nor can we afford the social costs of going forward on our present path of isolation. The social and economic decline of the American working class will only be exacerbated as its youngest members make a virtue out of self-blame, distrust and disconnection. In order to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story, we need to provide these young men and women with the skills and support to navigate the road to adulthood. Our future depends on it.
Cheap money can’t buy a strong economy
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President Obama should cut off military aid.
Obama’s not to be trusted on foreign policy
Having declared an end to the War on Terror, the US president no longer has any clear idea of his country’s global role
Barack Obama: since the president declared an end to the War on Terror, the US has retreated from 19 embassies Photo: REUTERS
By Janet Daley
3:57PM BST 10 Aug 2013
The West can no longer rely on American leadership in the world. For the remaining duration of the Obama administration, Washington’s judgment and effectiveness in foreign policy cannot be trusted. It is quite an achievement for the one remaining superpower to appear as ineffectual and wrong-footed as the United States has managed to do in the past week. But there it is. The president’s global strategy in his second term was based on two resounding premises. First, al-Qaeda was “on the run” having been smashed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the successful US drone operations in Pakistan: in May, Mr Obama gave a triumphal speech in which he declared the War on Terror officially over.
That was then. This is now: over the past week, 19 US embassies in the Middle East and North Africa had to be closed for a week, and diplomatic staff evacuated from Yemen because of “specific terrorist threats”. So who exactly is on the run? When the embarrassing contrast between this mass exit of the American presence and the “War on Terror (End of)” speech was pointed out, White House spokesmen clarified – as government spokesmen like to call it – what the president had said: it was al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan that had been all but defeated, not its franchise in Yemen, which was clearly still alive and kicking.
This clarification was followed shortly by the evacuation of diplomatic staff from Lahore in Pakistan due to – a specific terrorist threat. In his most recent comment, Mr Obama rephrased his dismissal of the Islamist forces: al-Qaeda may not be “on the run” but it is “on its heels”. (Meaning: still facing forward and able to fight?) More confusingly still, Mr Obama is apparently determined to return some Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen, where they will presumably add to the dangerous mix of jihadi terrorists.
The questions remain: is the US “at war” with global jihad or isn’t it? It is now engaged in drone attacks on Yemen, whose government is repeatedly declaring victory over the local al-Qaeda branch. What precisely is America’s role in this, if not as part of an international “War on Terror”? When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, he committed himself to the war in Afghanistan (rather than Iraq) and refused to rule out the possibility of invading Pakistan. Does he now have any clear, coherent objectives or is his White House simply reacting to events?
The second plank of the Obama global plan was that America’s contentious relationship with Russia would be “re-set”, thereby eliminating one of the main obstacles to the West’s attempts to deal with Syria and Iran. But last week, to pursue the computing metaphor, the re-set crashed rather spectacularly taking the entire software program with it. The White House decided to cancel the scheduled Obama-Putin meeting during the G20 summit in what was publicly presented as a “snub” to the Russian president, who had been so famously unhelpful over the matter of Edward Snowden.
Well, one man’s “snub” is another’s attempt to save face. In fact, one commentator close to the Obama administration put it quite frankly: “The calculation… was [that] going to Moscow would have yielded no benefit to the president’s agenda and he would have paid a price over Snowden and human rights in Russia.”
In other words, Mr Obama would have emerged from this one-to-one meeting having to admit that he had gained absolutely nothing from an obdurate Mr Putin. So he decided to get his own snub in first, and to try to make it seem like an international humiliation for Russia – when in reality Russia has made the US look impotently furious over the Snowden affair. This presupposes, of course, that we take the White House statements over Snowden at face value. Suppose we assume for a moment that, in foreign diplomacy, nothing is as it seems. Does the administration really want to take Snowden back to America to be put on trial for espionage or treason?
Public opinion polls in the US show that a majority of the electorate is concerned about NSA surveillance and could be ready to see Snowden as a genuine whistleblower who performed a national service. And this dissident view stretches right up to Capitol Hill, where two politicians of wildly different orientations – liberal Democrat Congressman John Lewis and Republican Senator Rand Paul – have both compared Snowden to Martin Luther King, which is about as close as you can get in American political culture to secular sainthood. (This may be why the president was tying himself in knots at his Friday press conference, insisting that the NSA surveillance programme was not being abused – but that he was still determined to reform it.)
So if Snowden, who has shown himself to be very articulate indeed, was taken back to the US and put on trial, isn’t there a chance that, with the help of a clever defence counsel, he might inspire an enormous national controversy about mass surveillance and data mining that would create serious problems for the administration? Might it be that the US security services are quietly advising the White House not to try too hard to get Snowden back? The Obama putdown of Putin looking like the “bored kid at the back of the class” was an attempt to counter the damage done to US prestige by the mischievous Russian president.
But a bit of international embarrassment is preferable to the undermining of your entire intelligence programme, and American transparency being what it is, an awful lot of awkward questions might have to be answered about how much access the federal government already has to everybody’s “private” electronic communications. At any rate, the heavily publicised cancellation of the one-on-one session with Putin is neither here nor there. The US and Russian foreign and defence secretaries were meeting as planned in Washington, quite as if nothing had happened. The presidential sulk on both sides is public relations tosh.
But for the rest of the free world, or the West as it is now loosely defined (including, as it does, much of Eastern Europe), this is all deeply worrying. The American government seems to be incapable of stating – or acting – in a consistent, decisive way at a very dangerous time. Mr Obama has accused Mr Putin of having a Cold War mentality. This is a charge with a real sting, since we all know that the Russian president is an authoritarian KGB man at heart.
But there must be at least a glimmering of doubt even in Europe – where the Obama presidency has been given an absurdly easy ride – that America, too, is adrift in the post-Cold War landscape: that it no longer has any clear conception of its global role. Mr Obama, who talks constantly about his hopes for the future, seems to have very little interest in the new demands this new landscape might make on his country.
Saudi Arabia throws down a gauntlet by targeting missiles at Iran and Israel
The disengagement of President Barack Obama’s America from the Middle East has forced the kingdom to square up to Iran and Israel
The Saudis have come to the reluctant conclusion that, so far as their own security is concerned, they must be more self-sufficient in protecting their interests Photo: Getty Image
By Con Coughlin
8:07PM BST 11 Jul 2013
There was a time, not so long ago, when any missiles directed at Iran from Saudi Arabian soil would most likely have carried the insignia of the United States. But that was before al-Qaeda’s murderous campaign against American influence in the kingdom resulted in Washington relocating its military operations in the Gulf.
So we should not be surprised that the latest images of Saudi ballistic missiles directed at Iran and Israel bear the Saudis’ distinctive green emblem of two swords beneath a palm tree. These days, rather than looking to Uncle Sam to protect their interests, the Saudis realise they are very much on their own.
As the Obama administration’s inept handling of last week’s removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected government has demonstrated, not even a military coup in one of its most important regional allies will evoke much of a response from the White House.
Indeed, with President Barack Obama determined not to allow the US to be drawn into any of the region’s poisonous disputes, whether Syria’s brutal civil war or the continuing controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme, former staunch American allies such as the Saudis have come to the reluctant conclusion that, so far as their own security is concerned, they must be more self-sufficient in protecting their interests.
This certainly explains the revelations by IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review that recent satellite intelligence photographs show the Saudis have built a new missile base deep in the desert, stocked with powerful Chinese-made DF3 surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 1,500 to 2,000 miles, which are targeted at Israel and Iran.
The fact that the Saudis find it necessary to point missiles at Israel is itself an alarming indictment of the Obama administration’s decision to turn its back on an erstwhile ally. If America were fully engaged in taking care of its allies, then there would be no need for the Saudis to target Israel. After all, as the recent WikiLeaks disclosures revealed, the Saudis share the same strategic objective as Israel: persuading the US to launch military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme – or, as one Saudi diplomat elegantly put it, to “cut off the head of the snake”. But with the Obama administration absent, the Saudis believe they have no option but to defend themselves against potential Israeli aggression.
That missiles are also directed towards military targets in Iran should not come as a major surprise. The Saudis are rightly concerned about the obsession Iran’s ayatollahs have with arming themselves with nuclear weapons. Just having the capability to produce nuclear weapons would give Tehran a distinct advantage in its long-standing ambition to become the dominant regional power.
It is for this reason that, were the ayatollahs to press ahead with making nuclear weapons, the Saudis would respond immediately by buying an off-the-shelf device from Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal has in the past received Saudi funding. The Middle East would then be plunged into a nuclear arms race.
With the Iranians engaged in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the West over its nuclear intentions, the rivalry between the Gulf’s two predominant powers is confined to a proxy and ugly war being fought between rival militias throughout the region.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran can be found backing murderous Shi’ite Muslim militias such as Hizbollah in its efforts to support, respectively, the governments of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Assad regime in Damascus, Iran’s closest regional ally.
The Saudis, on the other hand, are committed to supporting Sunni Muslim opposition groups in both countries although, unlike neighbouring Gulf states such as Qatar, their support falls well short of sponsoring al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups, such as the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. One of Osama bin Laden’s original objectives, after all, was to secure the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.
The principal reason the Saudis feel obliged to involve themselves so deeply in Syria’s sectarian conflict is that, without America’s protection, they believe they must reshape the regional landscape in a way that better protects their interests.
This trend can be traced back directly to Mr Obama’s decision to back the overthrow of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak during the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Just like the Saudi royal family, Mr Mubarak had been a staunch ally of the United States for many decades, and the US administration’s decision to abandon him in his hour of need sent as many shock waves through the royal palaces of Riyadh as it did through the souks of downtown Cairo.
From that moment the Saudis, in common with many other conservative Gulf states, concluded that Washington could no longer be trusted as a reliable ally, with the predictable result that the Saudis are embarked on a course of taking every possible action to protect themselves from the dangerous revolutionary currents sweeping the region.
The irony of Washington’s decision to distance itself from Riyadh is that it comes when the Saudis are undergoing important changes. After years of the country being controlled by an ageing and deeply conservative elite, a new generation of dynamic and US-educated princes has emerged, determined to modernise the way the kingdom does business.
Members of a British parliamentary delegation that visited Saudi Arabia this year reported finding a much more positive attitude among the younger princes, who expressed their determination to tackle long-standing structural problems in the economy, such as the kingdom’s bloated public sector that has given the Saudis little incentive to branch out into business.
And with the country’s 89-year-old monarch King Abdullah in poor health, there is every possibility that a new generation of rulers will soon take power, with a mandate to tackle some of the country’s more glaring anachronisms, such as the ban on women driving cars.
“There is certainly a whiff of change in the air,” commented an MP who joined the delegation. “The new generation of Saudi royals are clever and motivated, and seem determined to make some important changes to the way the country does business.”
But for the moment the fate of the country rests with the old guard, and in their efforts to defend the kingdom from external threats they have taken an increasingly hard line against their opponents. Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the second in line to the throne, was responsible for the government’s harsh treatment of Shia anti-government activists who, encouraged by Iran, staged a number of protests in the Eastern Province during the start of the Arab uprisings two years ago. Indeed, the governing principle of Saudi Arabia’s approach to defending its interests is to target any faction that enjoys Iran’s backing.
The fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a close ally of Iran’s ayatollahs has been sufficient to persuade the Saudis to give their whole-hearted backing to more moderate elements within the Syrian opposition, which includes supplying them with a small number of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons.
Nor is there any reason to dismiss suggestions that the Saudis were deeply involved in last week’s military overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi. Having opposed the removal of Mubarak in the first place, the Saudis had little interest in supporting his replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The turning point was when Mr Morsi launched Egypt on a course of rapprochement with Iran, which culminated in former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo this year.
For decades under Mubarak, Egypt shunned Iran to the extent that Iranian warships were denied access to the Suez Canal, which severely limited Tehran’s ability to meddle in the Mediterranean. Within weeks of Mr Mubarak’s departure, Iranian frigates were once more making their way past Port Said.
The prospect of Iran and Egypt striking up a strategic partnership that effectively encircled Saudi Arabia was too much to bear. Rather than waiting for the Americans to wake up to the dire consequences of their disengagement policy in the Middle East, the new-look, assertive Saudis took matters into their own hands to make sure Mr Morsi and his Islamist followers no longer posed a threat to their security and stability.
President Obama’s disastrous counterterrorism legacy
A president who came into office pledging to take the ‘war on terror’ out of the shadows plunged it deeper into those shadows