Archive

December 26th

Congress's good deeds for 2015

    It's almost the end of 2015: time to evaluate Congress's performance. By near-universal reckoning, lawmakers registered yet another disastrous session, marked by polarization and gridlock.The Republican majority wasted time pushing an extreme agenda against White House resistance, compromise was impossible, the debt mounted, there's still no update on the authorization for military force, and blah blah blah.

    Well, maybe it's just the eggnog talking, but right now I'm more focused on the surprising number of significant policy reforms that Congress did enact, on a bipartisan basis, with President Obama's signature.

    First, a provision in the year-end omnibus spending bill abolished the 40-year-old ban on crude-oil exports from the United States. Enacted after the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, the ban was a simplistic means to a valid end: limiting the United States' vulnerability to the price-gouging of oil- exporting nations.

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Why Trump and Cruz aren't Forbes or Cain

    There's a lot of loose talk in Republican politics about the battle that's supposedly raging between outsiders and the mainstream establishment. Actually, the battle's over. It's the outsiders in a romp.

    Look at the poll numbers, as averaged by Real Clear Politics. They show the relentlessly growing combined strength of the four main outsider presidential primary candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Only Cruz, a Texas senator who routinely defies his party, has held elective office. Trump and Fiorina are business leaders and Carson is a retired neurosurgeon.

    This month's polls show 64 percent of likely Republican primary voters favoring one of those four. Just 23 percent support one of the best-known insiders: former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.

    That represents a huge shift. Back in June, when Trump was just getting into the race and Cruz was little known, the four insiders were way ahead of the four outsiders, 35 percent to 23 percent.

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Think Star Wars won't be profitable? It's a trap

    It's too early to tell whether "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" will become the biggest grossing film of all time -- Goldman Sachs says it won't even come close -- but it's already shattered box office records, earning over $500 million globally during its first weekend. The really interesting question, however, is whether the movie will ever go into profit. After all, "Return of the Jedi" (now known as "Star Wars: Episode VI") never turned a profit, although its worldwide unadjusted gross is over $475 million.

    Now, don't worry. This isn't another column dumping on Hollywood accounting. (Easy though that would be.) What I actually want to do is offer a partial defense of the contract practices that so often send news reporters into a tizzy.

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Germany is right to flout Russia sanctions

    Germany has rallied Europe in support of Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia, but has been less diligent in their implementation. German leaders back these ineffectual measures primarily to humor the U.S. and are rightly unwilling to suffer too much for them.

    In a recent speech to her CDU party, which ended with a nine-minute standing ovation, Chancellor Angela Merkel said of the sanctions: "It was the right reaction, no matter how much we'd like to keep a good relationship with Russia. We must adhere to our principles."

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Blood, Sweat, and Trump

    Everybody pees.

    That’s actually the name of a public service campaign by the National Kidney Foundation, and I thought it a needless statement of the obvious until Donald Trump brought me to my senses. Apparently some people think that the laws of urology don’t apply to them. Apparently Trump is in this category.

    On Monday he said this of Hillary Clinton’s mid-debate bathroom break: “I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”

    He didn’t specify why. But it’s difficult to find anything indecorous about Clinton’s behavior unless you see it as entirely volitional and utterly controllable — something you do to indulge yourself, something that can be put off for hours or forever, an emblem of your weakness. I guess in Trump’s world, only “low energy” people need to go.

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Assad is reaching out to Washington power brokers

    Early this year, a former top White House official secretly went to Damascus and met with leaders of the Syrian regime. The visit is part of a broader effort by the Syrian government to connect with Washington's power brokers and gain influence.

    The former official, Steven Simon, served as the National Security Council senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs from 2011 to 2012. He has not publicly disclosed his trip, but two senior Obama administration officials said he was not acting as a back channel between the two governments. He traveled there as a private citizen and was representing only himself. The officials said he met with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

    Simon had been a paid consultant at the Middle East Institute, but the think tank ended their relationship after he made the Syria trip. Two employees there told me that the institute did not want to be associated with the trip, which they did not organize and were not consulted about.

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Speaker Ryan sails through the easy part

    Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is riding high.

    Capping a seven-week honeymoon, the 45-year-old House speaker navigated the huge year-end spending and tax bills through Congress without any government breakdown. He's promised to set a "bold" conservative agenda for Republicans and has the party's right-wing caucus, which made the previous speaker's life miserable, largely quiescent.

    As prominent Republicans look at the chaotic presidential race and contemplate a possible deadlocked result, Ryan's name rolls off their lips. Ryan doesn't carry the baggage of the other name that keeps coming up, Mitt Romney, and would be a fresher contrast to Hillary Clinton. The Ryan camp knows this is a decided long-shot, but is preparing ways to respond if the idea gains currency.

    Fifty-three days, however, does not make a season. Ryan has experienced the easy part; big challenges loom.

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Santa needs to bring us some sanity before rage consumes our Christmas spirit

    Santa, baby, just slip a little something useful under America's Christmas tree.

    We don't need hoverboards, Apple watches, drones or the pie face game.

    Our country needs courage. Reason. Sanity. But we'd settle for sedation.

    Maybe a Valium in every stocking? Probably not. And if Santa did bring us some meds to soothe our collective rage, pharma bro Martin Shkreli would find a way to price gouge it.

    There is too little Christmas spirit and too much fear and outright hatred.

    A Virginia school district totally shut down for a day last week after a geography teacher assigned kids to try their hand at Arabic calligraphy.

    The top of the work sheet said "practicing calligraphy." And then, "Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."

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An Apology to Bernie Sanders

    Hardly a week goes by without some demand for an apology populating my inbox. I have never apologized for two reasons: The usual one is that I'm not sorry. The other is that calls for an apology have become an irritating tactic in American political discourse, a kind of bullying.

    That doesn't mean I haven't regretted things I've said or the tone used. I have. So here's a compromise: I will issue one apology a year.

    And the winner for 2015 is ... Bernie Sanders.

    Why Bernie? Some liberal friends complain that I've been overly dismissive of the senator from Vermont's candidacy. They have cause.

    I was especially rough in pointing out the cracks in Bernie's self-portrait of a national force for civil rights. Perhaps I overdid it.

    But the fact remains that he fled the troubled New York of the '60s for the whitest state in the nation. It baffles that he shares his campaign stage with Cornel West, a black academic who condemns Barack Obama in nasty racial terms.

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A momentous, yet conservative, win for gay rights

    Reviewing the year at the U.S. Supreme Court, there's no question that the outstanding historic moment was June's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the court recognized -- or, if you prefer, invented -- a right to gay marriage.

    There was nothing substantively surprising about the decision itself. Justice Anthony Kennedy had been preparing the way for 20 years, melding the principles of equality and due process into a jurisprudence of "equal dignity."

    What's surprising is the lack of sustained national opposition to the decision. In the contentious, circuslike Republican primary campaign, there has thus far been astonishingly little discussion of Obergefell and how to combat it or roll it back. The candidates seem mostly to agree that the decision was wrong. But as Donald Trump put it in August:

    "Some people have hopes of passing amendments, but it's not going to happen. Congress can't pass simple things, let alone that. So anybody that's making that an issue is doing it for political reasons. The Supreme Court ruled on it."

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