Archive

February 23rd, 2016

A Supreme Court fight is good for Democrats

    President Barack Obama can make the fight over filling a Supreme Court vacancy a political winner for Democrats.

    The debate about what to do with the slot vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend has already turned into a brawl. Republicans made an initial mistake by insisting they wouldn't even hold hearings on any Obama nominee. That alone has the potential to mobilize the Democratic left.

    But Obama will have to play the politics deftly. He doesn't have the luxury of tapping someone chiefly to excite his party's base because doing so would excite the Republican base too. Nor does the shrill politics of the situation let him choose a politician or a confidante, much as the High Court could use someone who understands the real world of politics.

    Instead, he would be smart to select someone who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been confirmed by the Senate before and would be a natural fit for the Supreme Court. No one could question the qualifications; this would set critics back on their heels.

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Varieties of Voodoo

    America’s two big political parties are very different from each other, and one difference involves the willingness to indulge economic fantasies.

    Republicans routinely engage in deep voodoo, making outlandish claims about the positive effects of tax cuts for the rich. Democrats tend to be cautious and careful about promising too much, as illustrated most recently by the way Obamacare, which conservatives insisted would be a budget-buster, actually ended up being significantly cheaper than projected.

    But is all that about to change?

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Bernie and Me

    As he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) often sounds like he's running as much against me as he is the other candidates. I have never met the senator, but I know from listening to him that we disagree on plenty when it comes to public policy.

    Even so, I see benefits in searching for common ground and greater civility during this overly negative campaign season. That's why, in spite of the fact that he often misrepresents where I stand on issues, the senator should know that we do agree on at least one - an issue that resonates with people who feel that hard work and making a contribution will no longer enable them to succeed.

    The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.

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February 22nd

Let's save the U.S. from the Harvard-educated oligarchy

    The late Justice Antonin Scalia argued last year that there was something wrong with having a Supreme Court composed entirely of people who had studied at Harvard and Yale law schools. You may disagree with the larger point he was making -- the observation was part of his dissent to the court's landmark same-sex marriage decision -- but you've got to admit that it's pretty weird that the members of the nation's highest judicial body are drawn from only two schools. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg got her law degree from Columbia, but spent two of her three law-school years at Harvard.)

    The justices' post-law-school careers have been similar too. From Adam Liptak in the New York Times:

    "Three of the current justices are former Supreme Court law clerks. Only one has served as a trial judge, and none has served on a state court. Not one has run for public office.

    "All of the justices but one are former federal appeals court judges. With one exception, those eight served on what might be called the court of appeals for the Acela Circuit, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington."

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Bush's last stand

    The South Carolina Republican primary may well be Jeb Bush's last stand. He described the situation -- polls show him trailing badly, following weak performances in Iowa and New Hampshire -- in typical Bushian syntax:

    "It's all been decided, apparently," he harrumphed this week in Summerville, a town near Charleston. "The pundits have made it all, we don't have to go vote, I guess. I should stop campaigning maybe, huh?"

    Maybe so, actually.

    Several recent state polls agree on two things: Bush's nemesis, Donald Trump, has a commanding lead in my native state; and no late-breaking surge for Bush has yet been discerned. South Carolina Republicans are capable of producing a surprise -- in 2012, Newt Gingrich trounced Mitt Romney, who was the establishment favorite -- but I see no good reason to wager that Bush is about to stun the political world.

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U.S. candidates ignore Europe at their peril

    In stump speeches and debates, the U.S. presidential candidates only bring up Europe to make domestic political points or highlight the dangers of Islamic State terrorism or immigration. But ignoring the other major part of what is commonly known as "the West" is a mistake.

    If European countries are mentioned at all on the campaign trail, it is in passing. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that "only China, Germany and the U.S." can be the sustainable energy power of the future, and she wants it to be the U.S. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her Democratic rival, says Germany offers free university education to its citizens, so the U.S. can afford it, too.

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Two presidents take on Trump

    While the White House aspirants in both parties struggle to figure out what to do about Donald Trump, two living presidents, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, have conspicuously jumped into the fray.

    Not surprisingly, former President Bush went to South Carolina Monday to try to bail out the floundering Republican candidacy of his brother Jeb in next week's primary there. George W. pulled out all the stops in his speech at a North Charleston rally in which, without mentioning Trump by name, he clearly alluded to him.

    "These are tough times and we know that Americans are angry," the 43rd president said. "But we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and our frustrations."

    Jeb, following his brother to the microphone, observed that "when Donald Trump was building a reality TV show," George W. was "building a security apparatus to keep us safe" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Put Puppy-Whistle Politics on a Leash

    In politics, the "dog whistle" is coded language designed to delight a targeted subgroup and pass over the heads of everyone else. Other terms, such as "establishment," "Washington insider" and "free trade," are not quite full-grown dog whistles. Let's call them puppy whistles.

    These are expressions whose meanings remain vague. For the puppy whistle, the vaguer the better.

    Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rail against "the establishment." This is a way of saying that they are not favored by the traditional leaders of their parties -- the leaders said to have let us down.

    "Establishment" is hard to define, and when you do, it's sometimes carries positive feelings. Who among us wouldn't be impressed by a plumber's ad reading, "The Wrench Brothers, Established in 1971"?

    On the left, "the establishment" is itself a highly established term. It gained steam in the 1960s as a designation for the adults who messed things up for us kids. Sanders uses it as pure pejorative.

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On Planet Clinton, where everyone's a critic

    Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire trouncing at the hands of Bernie Sanders has set Clintonland afire. The rout set loose a cacophony of complaints from allies about the candidate's campaign strategy and staff.

    If she loses the Nevada caucuses this weekend the clamor will grow louder.

    It stands to reason that the biggest targets for second-guessing are the most visible and obvious staffers: campaign chief Robby Mook and pollster Joel Benenson.

    QuickTake U.S. Campaign Finance

    Some of the second-guessers talk about better candidate messaging, or taking on Sanders more effectively, or reassigning staff in key battlegrounds. Yet there's more criticism than solutions and for a good reason: There's not much they can do about the shortcomings of their candidate.

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Mitch McConnell's supreme blunder

    It's one of the first Latin sentences we learned to translate in high school: "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" -- roughly translated as "If you can't say anything good about the dead, don't say anything at all." In which case, I should end this column about Justice Antonin Scalia right now.

    Except -- having interviewed him twice, introduced him as a luncheon speaker, had dinner with him, and chatted on many social occasions -- there are good things I can say about Scalia. He was an engaging conversationalist, fun to be around. He was a brilliant, if wrong-headed, intellectual. He was the most powerful presence on the Supreme Court. And he was a talented wordsmith. Only Scalia could write such obnoxious opinions in the most felicitous and memorable language.

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