Archive

November 10th, 2015

A Republican can now kill Obamacare. Will he?

    Kentucky justvolunteered to be a national political experiment, and it can't help but be an edifying one for the whole country.

    Ever since the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have worked to sabotage the law and have done their best Yosemite Sam imitations to show the folks back home how furious they are at that varmint Barack Obama who signed it. Democrats have operated on the theory that Sam's six-shooter fires only blanks. If offered a genuine opportunity to repeal health insurance coverage for millions of Americans, would Republicans go through with it?

    The election of Matt Bevin as governor of Kentucky ought to settle the question. Bevin is a tea party guy who challenged Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014 with familiar complaints about big government and big Obama. McConnell beat back the upstart, but Bevin ran for governor and won this week.

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A real voice for every voter

    In Seattle, voters just sent a message to the nation. In adopting a sweeping campaign finance reform, they have shown that recent Supreme Court decisions don't block decisive change. With appropriate revisions, the "Seattle idea" can be taken national and serve as a litmus test of political seriousness for presidential candidates, who no longer should be allowed to pretend that only minor reforms are possible until the court reverses its decision in Citizens United. The time for action is now.

    The "Seattle idea" is straightforward: Provide each registered voter with a "democracy voucher" of $100 that he or she can spend for only one purpose - to support their favorite candidates for municipal office. One person, one vote, one voucher: This is the formula for reclaiming democracy in the United States.

    With the approval of Seattle's Initiative 122, candidates will remain free to rely exclusively on old-fashioned campaign contributions to fund their campaigns. But if they want to compete for the new democracy dollars, they must agree to an overall expenditure limit.

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November 5th

Tuesday's election and the two Americas

    To understand the disappointment of Democrats with Tuesday's off-off-year election results, consider what they might have said had two key states, Kentucky and Virginia, voted differently.

    Kentucky, a deeply red state in presidential years, has a habit of electing Democratic governors, including Steve Beshear, the popular incumbent who was term-limited. Polls gave Attorney General Jack Conway a strong chance of beating Republican Matt Bevin, a staunch tea party supporter not much liked by the GOP establishment. A Conway victory would have been heralded by Democrats as a sign of the dangers of right-wing extremism to the Republican Party.

    Instead, Bevin won, and won big. In eastern Kentucky, home of the state's old coal mining areas, counties that had long supported state and local Democrats shifted sharply Bevin's way. Neither President Obama nor the Environmental Protection Agency are popular in those parts.

    Democrats suffered an additional Bluegrass blow when State Auditor Adam Edelen, the party's top prospect for unseating Republican Sen. Rand Paul next year, also went down to defeat.

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Why working-class whites are dying

    The news this week that the death rate of middle-aged American whites - more particularly, working-class middle-aged American whites - is rising, while that of all other Americans continues to fall, is appalling. But it should come as no surprise.

    A study released Monday by Princeton economists Angus Deaton (the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics) and Anne Case documented that the number of deaths by suicide, alcohol use and drug use among working-class whites ages 45 to 54 has risen precipitously since 1999 - so precipitously that the overall death rate for this group increased by 22 percent. Death rate increases in the modern world are so rare that economists and public health scholars have been groping for equivalent instances. "Only HIV/AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this," Deaton told the New York Times. A closer parallel might be the increased death rates of Russians, particularly by alcohol, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economy - not only because the instrument of death was the same for both the Russians and our white working class, but also because the real cause in each instance was the end of a world that had sustained them.

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We need less entertainment, more information in presidential debates

    Now that the first three Republican presidential debates have thoroughly laid bare the Grand Old Party's lack of direction or unity heading toward next year's election, there's a stampede going on to blame the megaphone that broadcast that sorry message.

    Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who repeatedly offers an unconvincing example of the classic old party boss, has threatened to pick up his marbles and go home. He huffily scolded CNBC, which held the third debate, at which the Republicans as a whole laid an egg. In a letter to the head of NBCUniversal News Group, he wrote that the Republican National Committee was suspending its cooperation with NBC News for a February debate, "pending further discussion." (CNBC and NBC News are both business units of NBCUniversal News Group.)

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VW's mea culpa implicates all carmakers

    Volkswagen's voluntary admission of "irregularities" concerning the carbon dioxide emissions of its cars should send a shudder through the entire auto industry. Although VW's previous problem with nitrogen oxide emissions -- a software "defeat device" specifically meant to cheat tests -- appears to have been specific to the company, other automakers almost certainly share the flaw of building cars with CO2 emissions that look better on tests than in real life.

    The Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation -- the organization that led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expose VW's diesel emissions fraud -- showed in a report this year that real-life CO2 emission levels from cars in Europe were increasingly exceeding test results. In 2014, it said, emissions from European passenger cars exceeded certification values by 40 percent, four times the gap in 2001, when standards were more lax. No real- world CO2 reduction has been achieved since 2010.

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The Republican Reality Show Rat Race

    The current Republican presidential race is less a political contest than a reality TV series: a stage-managed melodrama with a cast of characters selected to titillate and provoke. By that standard, last week's CNBC debate succeeded far beyond expectations -- all but guaranteeing a larger audience for the next exciting installment.

    Viewers who tuned in to see Donald Trump boasting and hurling insults at the Sleepwalking Surgeon, the Sweaty Senator and the Amazing Spineless Governor found themselves invited to boo an entirely different set of villains -- CNBC's frustrated and argumentative moderators.

    In professional wrestling, of course, the referees are always part of the show.

    Senator Ted Cruz got the party started with a cleverly contrived bit of bombast camouflaging evasiveness as high principle. Asked if his opposition to the recently negotiated congressional budget compromise showed he wasn't "the kind of problem-solver American voters want," Cruz attacked moderator John Harwood instead.

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The CIA Is an Ethics-Free Zone

    I joined the CIA in January 1990.

    The CIA was vastly different back then from the agency that emerged in the days after the 9/11 attacks. And it was a far cry from the flawed and confused organization it is today.

    One reason for those flaws — and for the convulsions the agency has experienced over the past decade and a half — is its utter lack of ethics in intelligence operations.

    It’s no secret that the CIA has gone through periods where violating U.S. law and basic ethics were standard operating procedure. During the Cold War, the agency assassinated foreign leaders, toppled governments, spied on American citizens, and conducted operations with no legal authority to do so. That’s an historical fact.

    I liked to think that things had changed by the time I worked there. CIA officers, I believed, were taught about legal limits to their operations — they learned what was and wasn’t permitted by law.

    I was wrong.

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Super-PACs spoil Justice Kennedy's fantasy

    Is Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy having second thoughts about the campaign finance system he helped to create? The author of Citizens United v. FEC defended his handiwork before an audience of Harvard Law School students last week. But his confidence seemed shaken.

    "In my own view, what happens with money in politics is not good," he said.

    It's hard to imagine what part of the system Kennedy believes is working. It takes a lot of money to organize political campaigns and communicate with tens of millions of voters. And the supply side of campaign finance has simply overwhelmed the enforcement side.

    According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 1,221 super-PACS, which can raise unlimited sums, have organized for the 2016 election cycle. With the Iowa caucuses still three months away, total receipts so far have surpassed $300 million. Spending by so-called dark money groups, politically active nonprofits that aren't required to disclose their donors, exceeded $300 million in 2012, up from about $5 million in 2006. The trend line for 2016 isn't much in doubt.

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Rubio is most likely Republican nominee

    Marco Rubio is the most likely candidate to win the Republican 2016 presidential nomination.

    I said early on that Rubio was in a first tier of contenders with Jeb Bush and, before he dropped out, Scott Walker. There was a solid case for and against each of them. Well, the case against Walker turned out to be correct, while the one for Rubio has looked stronger and stronger.

    Ross Douthat of the New York Times recently described Rubio's oddly intangible front-runner status. After good reviews for his debate performance (and terrible ones for Bush), that has changed. Rubio has picked up his first two endorsements from his fellow U.S. senators -- Colorado's Cory Gardner on Monday and Montana's Steve Daines on Tuesday. After getting off to a slow start in high-visibility endorsements, Rubio has been on a roll for a while now. He has nailed down seven members of the House since Sept. 21. Over the same period, the other 14 GOP candidates had 10 new House endorsements combined.

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