Archive

February 20th, 2016

Donald Trump is right; Pope Francis' visit to the border is political

    With a visit to the U.S.- Mexico border this week, Pope Francis brings a clarion message from the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and protect the refugee is an ancient commandment.

    The presence of the first Latin American pope at the border also symbolically puts the most influential religious leader on the global stage squarely in the middle of a fierce presidential election-year fight over immigration.

    Donald Trump last week called the pope "a very political person" and implied Francis was being used by the Mexican government.

    "I think Mexico got him to do it," Trump sniffed, "because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they're making a fortune and we're losing."

    A pope who travels to the margins as a witness to God's solidarity with the poor and vulnerable isn't playing politics. He is following the Gospel. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus radically redefined the definition of neighbor beyond language, religion and border.

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Darkness at the Supreme Court

    Someday the Senate will consider a president's nominee for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia.

    Meanwhile, interested parties should prepare by reading a gripping new book about one of the court's darkest moments.

    "Imbeciles" is the arch title that lawyer-journalist Adam Cohen has given his narrative of Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case in which the justices approved Virginia's involuntary sterilization of "feeble minded," epileptic and other purportedly genetically "unfit" citizens.

    The vote was 8 to 1. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s opinion dispensed with young Carrie Buck's physical integrity in five paragraphs, the six cruelest words of which characterized Virginia's interest in preventing Buck from burdening the state with her defective offspring: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

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Apple's fight with FBI isn't about encryption

    The most striking aspect of Apple's message to customers on Tuesday wasn't the rejection of U.S. authorities' demand that the company help them break the encryption of an iPhone owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was involved in last year's murders of 14 people in San Bernardino, California. It was Apple's admission that it has the technological capacity to help, despite previous statements to the contrary.

    In other words, Apple is acknowledging that it isn't encryption that protects the personal data of its customers, but the company's stubborn insistence on keeping its software proprietary and its refusal to accept open source software. That, however, is hardly perfect protection.

    In October, Apple filed a response to a New York court's order that asked about the feasibility of gaining access to private data on an encrypted iPhone. It repeated numerous previous statements from Apple executives:

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America’s Stacked Deck

    It’s a little bizarre this political season to see wealthy candidates in both parties denouncing our political system for representing mostly the interests of, well, wealthy people.

    Bizarre, perhaps, and sometimes a tad hypocritical, but also accurate. America’s political system is rigged. The deck is stacked against ordinary people. That’s the frustration that has fueled, in very different ways, the anti-establishment campaigns of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders in particular, and that is leading other candidates, like Hillary Clinton, to grab their pitchforks as well.

    “Yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top,” Clinton declared in the Democratic debate last week.

    One glimpse of the structural unfairness in America is this: A dumb rich kid is now more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid, according to Robert Putnam of Harvard University.

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Who Are We?

    I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.

    Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)

    I don’t remember an election when the pillars of America’s strength were so under attack — and winning applause, often from young people!

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Virginia for the Win: If other states had followed Virginia's lead, the Republican Party could stop Trump

    Virginia for the Win is a series examining Virginia's crucial role in the 2016 presidential race and national politics.

    "A house divided against itself cannot stand," declared Abraham Lincoln before a standing-room-only SRO crowd at the 1858 Illinois Republican State Convention in Springfield.

    Lincoln discussed the growing divisions already responsible for the Whig Party's collapse that now threatened to destroy the nation. His political advice, updated to reflect the current clash between the Republican Party's brand of conservatism and Donald Trump's personality-driven presidential campaign, is still prescient today: "I don't expect the Republican Party to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or the other."

    The question now is what the Party of Lincoln will become: a house built on broad conservative principles, or one built around Donald Trump's personality.

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The Thurmond rule shows Republican weakness

    Republicans insist on strictly following the Constitution. Just not right now. Now is special, they say. Now is not the time to resort to a nitpicky document drawn up by bewigged ancients.

    No, for Republicans, the only sensible course now is to be governed by norms -- those long-established byways that govern the behavior of esteemed institutions such as the Senate without having been written into the Constitution or Senate rules. Actually, what Republicans want is not so much adherence to longstanding norms as adherence to a single, somewhat suspect and short-standing norm -- the "Thurmond Rule."

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February 19th

Democrats, Don't Blow It

    The death of Antonin Scalia has set off yet another epic partisan struggle as Senate Republicans seek to deny President Obama his constitutional right to nominate the next Supreme Court justice. They want to wait out Obama's last year in office, hoping his successor will be one of their own.

    If the Democrats choose Bernie Sanders as their presidential candidate, Republicans will almost certainly get their wish. Furthermore, the Republican president would probably have a Republican-majority Senate happy to approve his selection.

    The makeup of senatorial races this November gives Democrats a decent chance of capturing a majority. Having the radical Sanders on the ballot would hurt them in swing states.

    Some Sanders devotees will argue with conviction that these purplish Democrats are not real progressives anyway, not like our Bernie. Herein lies the Democrats' problem.

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The Syrian truce is dead and Russia's in charge

    Syria's cease-fire deal was born in Munich, in the early hours of Friday morning -- and pronounced dead in the same town within a day, a development that exposed just how little influence the U.S. now has over the conflict.

    British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond probably had the smartest take on the deal, when he divided it into two parts during the annual Munich Security Conference, which began hours after the deal was signed. One part, to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged civilians, will probably happen to some extent and would surely be a worthwhile achievement. The other, a potential truce, is entirely dependent on what Russia wants, Hammond said.

    That's a stunning admission in itself: Since when did Russia, rather than the U.S., play the deciding role in any part of the Middle East? Since now. The terms of the truce show the impotence of the U.S. in Syria.

    In the short term, at least, there should be no mystery about what Russia wants, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy: Aleppo.

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The next big idea is just what the economy needs

    This presidential election has driven home a problem that others have been noticing the last few years: The U.S. seems to be out of ideas for economic growth. The main argument appears to be over redistribution -- tax rates, the size of the welfare state, free college. Protectionism is also making a comeback; Bernie Sanders would restrict trade and punish Wall Street, while Republican candidates would curb immigration. These are mostly debates about the size of the pie. But what about growing it?

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