Archive

November 5th, 2015

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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Please Don’t Shoot the Moderators

    We were treated to a classic man-bites-dog moment at the latest Republican presidential debate.

    There the moderators were, CNBC’s finest, lying in ambush with their carefully crafted “when did you stop beating your wife” questions at the ready. But as soon as they tried asking them, the contestants — forgive me, candidates — counter-attacked.

    “How dare you ask me to explain my positions, you biased liberal media hack” was the general theme. And it worked. The crowd, a conservative group, roared its approval again and again.

    The media is liberal, they say. It’s biased against conservatives and it makes things up. A God-fearing, free-enterprise-worshipping American can’t expect a fair shake from them.

    Those are the inaccurate messages that went out, and I’m afraid that a frightening number of people bought it.

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OK, candidates: Ask the questions yourselves

    It seems that some Republican presidential candidates don't think much of the people who've moderated their debates. OK then, here's a solution: let the candidates question one another.

    Both the answers -- and the questions -- might be revealing. There couldn't be allegations of liberal bias. It would be fair to everyone.

    Last week's CNBC debate was flawed by moderators who were careless and at times snide. (Ignore Republican charges of ideological bias and the assertion that the single Democratic debate was a "softball" session. That's standard-issue media- bashing that's become a favorite talking point and fund-raising vehicle.)

    Still, there's precedent for a moderator-free event. Candidates questioned one another at a Bloomberg/Washington Post Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College four years ago. It worked out pretty well.

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Ohio rejects pot as its constitution gets weird

    Pot is news, and Ohio voters' rejection of an amendment to legalize marijuana Tuesday deserves the headlines it's gotten. But a more important story is easy to miss: Those same voters amended the Ohio Constitution to make it very difficult for future initiative promoters to give themselves a monopoly through the state referendum process.

    The new amendment was targeted at the marijuana growers, who wanted a monopoly in exchange for having advocated legalization. Yet the new amendment is an important example of a very unusual constitutional phenomenon: an entrenching amendment that makes future amendments much harder.

    The proposed pot amendment, called Issue 3 on the Ohio ballot, was going to legalize marijuana use and simultaneously create 10 facilities with the exclusive right to grow and distribute the drug. To gain control of one of those facilities, investors had to donate $2 million each to the ballot initiative campaign.

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'Lame-stream media' charge is getting really lame

    Republican presidential candidates may have some legitimate complaints to make about media bias, but sometimes I think they protest too much.

    For example, after the heavily Republican audience at the Grand Old Party's CNBC debate booed some of the moderators' questions, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina complained indignantly that she'd "never seen that before."

    No? She must have missed the debates four years ago. Who could forget the Republican crowd's explosion of boos and jeers in South Carolina, two days before that state's pivotal primary?

    The boos came after CNN's moderator John King opened the debate by asking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about open marriage. King was following up on an interview in which Gingrich's ex-wife said he had sought one.

    Gingrich called the question and the timing "as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."

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