Archive

December 11th

Obama fails to deliver in tone. Congress fails to deliver on war against Islamic State.

    President Barack Obama has the impossible job of calming a freaked-out nation while trying to " destroy ISIL (the Islamic State) and any other organization that tries to harm us ," as he vowed in his Oval Office address Sunday night. And he has to do it in a presidential election year when emotions trump facts, red-hot rhetoric passes for policy and rational debate is futile.

    Because said task is impossible, Obama's speech was bound to leave folks unsatisfied. If his tone were an oven setting, it was "pre-heat" while the nation clamors for "broil" in the wake of the Islamic State-inspired slaughter in San Bernadino, Calif., last week and the Islamic State-directed attacks in Paris last month. Predictably, Republicans leapt on the president like so many Agent Smiths on Neo in "The Matrix." But I'm going to focus on only one aspect of the president's address: war.

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Downsizing the News Staff; Downsizing Quality and Credibility

    On Monday, Nov. 2, every National Geographic staffer was told to report to the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters the next day to await a phone call or e-mail from Human Resources.

    Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation bought the magazine in September, there were rumors the new owner would maximize profits by terminating employees. Those predictions came through when Management fired 180 people, and told dozens of others they were being offered “voluntary buy-outs.” The corporation also announced it was eliminating health coverage for future retirees and was freezing all pensions. Management told the public there would be no loss of quality, but it’s hard to believe those claims when the same management sliced photo editors, designers, writers, and several fact-checkers from the payroll.

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Downsizing the News Staff; Downsizing Quality and Credibility

    On Monday, Nov. 2, every National Geographic staffer was told to report to the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters the next day to await a phone call or e-mail from Human Resources.

    Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation bought the magazine in September, there were rumors the new owner would maximize profits by terminating employees. Those predictions came through when Management fired 180 people, and told dozens of others they were being offered “voluntary buy-outs.” The corporation also announced it was eliminating health coverage for future retirees and was freezing all pensions. Management told the public there would be no loss of quality, but it’s hard to believe those claims when the same management sliced photo editors, designers, writers, and several fact-checkers from the payroll.

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The unlikely alliance to reform U.S. prisons

    The most interesting political meeting this week may be the one between Valerie Jarrett, the closest confidante of President Barack Obama, and Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the anti-Obama Koch brothers.

    This will be their fourth meeting. They correspond regularly and have developed a mutual respect while working on the most sweeping reform of the U.S. criminal justice system in decades.

    Addressing the economic and social cost of the huge prison problem -- more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, a higher share of the population than almost anywhere else -- is a priority for both the White House and the Kochs.

    The effort is advancing in both houses of Congress; House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell are committed to bringing legislation to the floor.

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No, you don't have an absolute right to own guns

    The "Second Amendment," more than a right, has become a rhetorical device. It's a counterargument in two words, a rallying cry designed to end debate. Want to restrict firearms, or regulate their sale, or limit which kinds Americans can buy?

    Meet the Second Amendment, the simplest rebuttal goes. It creates the unfettered right to own guns in America. Full stop.

    This claim -- prominent among gun-rights advocates -- implies that the Second Amendment establishes not just a right to own guns, but a right that the government cannot legally limit. The problem with this argument: None of our rights work this way.

    "The Supreme Court has said repeatedly that no right under the Constitution is absolute," says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. "In general, where the government has very strong reasons to restrict a right, it can."

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In Baltimore, not even Santa on a Harley can ease tensions from Freddie Gray case

    In this slightly off-kilter, riot-scarred city, Santa arrives on a tugboat. Or roars past the rowhouses on 34th Street in Hampden on a Harley.

    The gum is smack-chewed, the eyeglasses are cartoonishly cat-eyed and folks invite strangers onto their porches to look inside at the white-flocked motorized Christmas tree that is slowly twirling, even while dad opens the mail on the couch in his jammies and the dog sleeps with his hindquarters smooshed against the glass front door.

    This is Bawlmer, hon. And we are strolling the Miracle on 34th Street, a block of rowhouses that goes bazonkers every year with the most animatronic and explosively fabulous Christmas decorations.

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Congress gets a positive year-end review

    I jab at the majority Republicans in Congress when they don't do their job, so I should give them credit when they do.

    A five-year highway bill has been sent to the president. That's something Republican Congresses since the 1990s (and the Democratic ones in 2007-2010) have found difficult to do. Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz makes a reasonable argument against the way the bill is funded, but I agree with Kevin Drum of Mother Jones on this one: Muddling through is good enough.

    Up next is an education bill. Legislators have had revising or replacing No Child Left Behind on their to-do list for years. This Congress is getting it done, with just a final Senate vote remaining.

    In both cases, Republicans in the House and Senate demonstrated the ability to compromise and cut deals to get much of what they wanted, even if it wasn't everything they hoped for.

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Americans choose gun rights over public order

    Joe the Plumber had it right. In May 2014, after six people were killed in a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, the erstwhile Republican campaign icon published an open letter to the father of one of the victims.

    "I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds -- your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights."

    Joe the Plumber's timing and blunt language may have been insensitive, with the effect of pouring salt in a grieving parent's unsuturable wound. But his analysis was unassailable: Gun rights reign supreme.

    That reality has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution. Guns were regulated in America both before and after the Constitution existed. Even the Supreme Court's creaky 2008 Heller decision, which by a 5-to-4 vote established an individual right to arms that previously did not exist, makes it clear that regulation of guns is both rational and constitutional.

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Calling on Batman to explain our dark world

    Batman used to carry a gun. It's true. Back in the 1930s, not only did he carry a gun, but he killed bad guys with it. The very first official "Batman" comic featured the Caped Crusader firing a machine gun. But the public grew uneasy. So the editors adopted a new rule: no guns for Batman. Bob Kane, the character's co-creator, would later explain that his editors worried "that mothers would object to letting their kids see and read about such shootings."

    That tale from a simpler age comes to mind this week as, once more, we cringe at the ease with which carnage can be inflicted by a determined shooter. We've long passed the point when parents can shield their children from seeing and reading about horrific violence, whether or not inflicted by guns. And reports about violence -- especially terrorism -- frighten them.

    A lot.

    If children are scared, what do we tell them?

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December 9th

The long-term fight against terrorism

    "A cancer that has no immediate cure" was not the most soothing metaphor President Obama could have chosen, but it was the most honest. He has no idea how to prevent another terrorist attack like the one in San Bernardino -- and neither does anyone else, including his Republican critics.

    The president used that somber phrase in his Oval Office address Sunday to describe what "many Americans are asking." The answer was implicit: Yes, that is indeed what we face, and the cure for the disease will take time.

    The specific actions Obama demanded from Congress are no-brainers. Yes, individuals on terrorism watch lists should be prohibited from buying guns. Yes, the sale of military-style assault rifles should be banned. Yes, there should be better screening of foreigners who enter the country without a visa.

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