Archive

February 7th, 2016

Paul Ryan to tea party: You are the problem

    This week, Paul Ryan gave a fascinating speech at Heritage Action, a tea party-allied organization that has fashioned itself as the guardian of conservative purity. The speech called for unity. "To quote William Wallace in Braveheart," he said, "we have to unite the clans."

    But his speech was actually a repudiation of everything the tea party has done. Not only that, Ryan also took shots at the congressional Republican leadership, and even the current GOP presidential candidates. He didn't call anyone out by name, but if you understand what's happening now and the conflict that has roiled the Republican Party for the last seven years, the critique was hard to miss.

    Not surprisingly, for much of the speech he blamed conservatives' own sins on progressives, Democrats, and Barack Obama. That has become a familiar refrain - It's their fault that we've become such monsters! - but when you say that, you're still acknowledging that the sins exist. Let's start here:

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Let Tesla sell its cars directly to consumers

    Tesla Motors has taken the first step toward challenging a year-old Michigan law that bars direct-to- consumer auto sales in the state. I trust you'll agree with me that the law is a blatant piece of protectionism, designed to help car dealers at the expense of consumers. But that still leaves an important -- and interesting -- question: Is the law not merely dumb, but unconstitutional, too?

    The best candidate to support a constitutional challenge to the Michigan law, and to similar ones in a few other states, is the Constitution's Commerce Clause. On its surface, the Commerce Clause just gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce.

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I'm a Muslim, not a terrorist. So why did the NYPD spy on me for years?

    A couple of weeks after I began lecturing on Islam at New York City mosques, something strange happened. Acquaintances and congregants told me they'd been approached by law enforcement officers, who asked about me and my talks. Soon after, I began to notice suspicious people in the audiences. One gentleman stood out - he was the most frequent attendee, but he regularly fell asleep while I spoke.

    It was 2003. I was a student at Brooklyn College, studying English literature. I'd grown up in New York and loved the city. But I'd also seen the way Muslims were discriminated against, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001. In the year after the attacks, hate crimes spiked tenfold. I wanted to encourage Muslims to stay strong in their faith in spite of these assaults. I spoke on theology and visiting the sick, on skepticism and the sinful pursuit of instant gratification, on the gravity of injustice and the vastness of God's mercy.

    I wasn't doing anything wrong. I consistently rejected violence and terrorism in my lectures. Still, for a decade, I felt like I was under surveillance, pursued by shadowy law enforcement officials seeking out a crime that didn't exist.

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How abortion opponents secretly bought a Virginia abortion clinic

    Pat Lohman's most powerful weapon in her long war on abortion has been deception.

    It's a tactic she's embraced for nearly three decades to disrupt one of Northern Virginia's few abortion clinics. Lohman operates her Manassas crisis pregnancy center right next door.

    Same brick building, same sign, same generic office decor. The abortion clinic, Amethyst Health Center for Women, was on the right. The pregnancy center, A-A-A Women for Choice, is on the left.

    Confused women seeking abortions would wind up in Lohman's place, where she threw all she had at them -- pamphlets, pleas, prayers, promises of help, used baby gear, bloody imagery, God -- to change their minds.

    "Deceptive? People say we're deceptive? OK," Lohman told me. "But what the other guys are doing? That's deceptive, too. Those girls have no idea what abortion really is. When I hear pro-choice, that is a deception. And this country has forgotten about God."

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Feel left out? Blame the two-party system

    In the 10 days leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, I witnessed a genuine democratic process that involved a good percentage of the state's voting age population (those coin tosses notwithstanding). Why then do so many Americans, and their politicians, consider their government to be broken?

    The turnout at the caucuses was 186,874 for the Republicans -- an all-time record -- and 171,109 for the Democrats, second only to 2008, when there were 236,000. In that year, when Barack Obama triumphed, 16.1 percent of voting-age Iowans participated. In 2016, 15.7 percent took part. That's a big share of the population involved in a time-consuming process that often forces people to think about matters of little relevance to their daily lives. Some people went to see several candidates, sometimes traveling long distances. Some saw the same candidate more than once, trying to make up their minds. And on caucus night, as a first-time attendee, I watched hundreds of people engage in lively debate about candidates with their neighbors, trying to persuade the undecided and sometimes to reassure themselves.

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Federal judges show sympathy for torture victims

    International human-rights litigation in the U.S. is still alive, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's best efforts to kill it. The latest evidence is a decision this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to allow part of a lawsuit alleging human-rights violations in Somalia in the 1980s to go forward. The case is thoroughly fascinating, on both the facts and the law. It sheds light not only on the state of human-rights law in the U.S., but also on the U.S. government's murky record of enabling violations by its military allies.

    The defendant is Yusuf Abdi Ali, a former colonel in the Somali national army under the regime of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who ruled from 1969 to 1991. Ali's nickname was reportedly "Tukeh," or "the Crow," said to derive from his sharp facial features. According to at least one human-rights group and (at one time) the U.S. government, Ali presided over the killing of hundreds and perhaps thousands of members of the Isaaq clan in northern Somalia between 1984 and the end of the decade.

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Corporate Japan needs to do more than apologize

    Last week, we were treated to a bout of speculation that Shigehisa Takada, chief executive officer of Takata Corp., would resign after the companies' faulty and lethal airbags led to a wave of auto recalls. Takada kept his job for the time being. But the focus on the possible resignation exposes deep flaws in Japan's corporate and political culture -- an overemphasis on punishment instead of prevention, and on individuals instead of organizations.

    As an example, take the wave of accounting fraud scandals that have swept Japan in the past several years. After Toshiba was found to have overstated profits by about $1.2 billion, CEO Hisao Tanaka resigned, along with eight board members. The same saga unfolded at camera manufacturer Olympus: a $1.7 billion fraud scandal in 2011 led to the chairman's resignation. The story is always the same.

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Clinton's a stout candidate in a shaky campaign

    The Hillary Clinton presidential quest is a puzzler.

    She won the Iowa caucuses by a hair, just enough to soften the impact if she loses the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. She trails in polls there but the race is probably closer than it looks. Her campaign has checked most of the political good- practice boxes. She's a superb debater, which will be on display again Thursday night, and she has a better chance than any other single candidate to become the next president.

    Yet she's a mediocre campaigner. There is more confusion than clarity to her message, and the controversy over a private Clinton email account won't go away.

    Aides insist that she's found her stride. Not yet. I've watched her on the stump four times in the past week and her performance is uneven. She often seems to be screaming. My wife says I'm holding her to a sexist double-standard - that I wouldn't say that about a man. But I'd say the same of her rival Bernie Sanders and would not say it about most of the scores of women whose campaigns I've covered for four decades.

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Clinton, Sanders peddle inferior estate-tax plans

    Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are trying to one-up each other over how best to tax dead millionaires and billionaires.

    This is part of their competition to show who cares more about economic inequality. But neither Democratic candidate's plan to increase estate taxes would get at the root of the problem: Few people pay these taxes anymore, thanks to myriad deductions, exclusions and loopholes that tax lawyers easily exploit.

    Even if the loopholes are closed, the estate tax is an ineffective way to close the economic divide created by the accumulation of wealth of those at the top of the income scale. Both Clinton and Sanders are overlooking a fairer and more productive way to tax inheritances.

    Clinton would increase the estate-tax rate to 45 percent from 40 percent and decrease the amount excluded from $5.45 million now to $3.5 million. Sanders would exclude the same amount but, not to be outdone, raise the top rate to 55 percent, with a special 65 percent rate for billionaires.

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February 6th

Republicans find welcome message in Iowa caucuses

    The rest of the country can thank the voters of Iowa for two outcomes of their first-in-the nation caucuses. They have punctured the alleged inevitability of the presidential nominations of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Each may yet occur, but probably only after a long slog through the remaining state primary and caucus elections.

    A clearer picture may come next Tuesday, when New Hampshire voters have their say in the first primary. Trump will no longer be able to boast that everybody loves him, and Clinton faces polling showing that Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont holds a very substantial lead.

    Similarly significant is the very close third-place finish in Iowa of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who with 23.1 percent of the vote was on the heels of Cruz's 27.7 percent and Trump's 24.3. Three other centrist Republicans -- Jeb Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio -- have focused on New Hampshire to challenge Rubio for the party's establishment label, and they need to put up or shut up there.

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