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Thursday, April 28, 2016

HILLARY'S LEFT TURN: MORE GRIDLOCK

It’s difficult to speculate  with complete confidence about what President Hillary’s public policy agenda will look like because her decades long  pursuit  of personal status has been a process of changing positions depending on her reading of the political moods of her party.  In her 2008 campaign for  the  Democratic  nomination the then overconfident and “fiscally responsible” Hillary  supported the creation of a balanced budget by  passing  budget rules that would require new spending to be funded with cuts in existing spending or new revenues.

Even in September of 2010  as Secretary of State, she said this about the national debt:

            “it is a question of how we decide to deal with this debt and deficit . . .There is no free lunch and we cannot pretend that there is without doing grave harm to our country and our future generations.”

 But the unexpected populist appeal of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 nomination battle has caused Hillary’s preferred fiscal policies to “evolve” to match Sander’s “spend our way to happiness and equality” campaign and Bernie’s unexpected popularity among younger voters required a “ me too” response to his “free” college tuition offer.

Bernie’s plan is flawed.  He would send money to public colleges and universities and “pay for it” by imposing a series of taxes on stock market transactions.  This appeals to young voters based on the mistaken belief that only the “greedy rich” would be impacted.  But the resulting losses of market value as well as the taxes themselves would impact the retirement accounts of the middle class, private and public employee pension funds, and the endowment funds of universities as well.

No problem for Hillary.  Her plan as reported “would have the federal government send large grants to states, which would then ensure students can pay tuition without taking out loans. States would be required to increase their allocations to higher education, and schools would face new constraints on spending. Families would have to contribute ‘what they can afford’ based on an individual financial analysis, and students would be required to work 10 hours per week.

Thus the typical liberal solution to a problem is to create a huge new bureaucracy to monitor state “allocations to higher education”, monitor and “evaluate” on a continuing basis “what families can afford”, and ensure that students are doing the required 10 hours per week of some kind of meaningful employment.  Besides being a bureaucratic nightmare which would eat up a large percentage of the money allocated for tuition relief of four year colleges, the plan also includes Bernie’s free tuition for community college attendance.  The total cost of her plan is conservatively estimated at $350 billion  over  ten years.  But how to pay for it without impacting annual federal deficits and keeping in mind her earlier admonition  that “There’s no free lunch”?   Simple; impose the “Bernise” solution once again; “increase taxes on ‘wealthy taxpayers’.

But there’s much more to Clinton’s “economic vision”.  She would create an “infrastructure bank” at a cost of $27.5 billion annually; an Expanded Childcare Plan and an Early Education Plan  which would cost an additional $27.5 annually.  An Energy Plan to “reduce carbon emissions and repair oil pipelines and pay for health care and retirement for coal miners” who were put out of work by Obama’s EPA regulations, would cost $9 billion annually. The plan no longer includes her 2008 commitment to the “creation of a balanced budget by passing “budget rules that would require new spending to be funded with cuts in existing spending.” All of her new spending proposals depend on “new revenues” which are new or higher taxes.

Hillary has a proposed and array of anti-business and investor policies. She would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.  She would approximately double the short term capital gains tax for high income earners. She would impose a 4% “fair share” tax surcharge also on high income earners; and also impose a “Bernie style” transaction tax on frequent stock trades.

Clinton doesn’t always “evolve”, she sometimes revolves. 

On Trade:
            As Secretary of State she enthusiastically supported Obama’s TransPacificTrade  treaty before she opposed it as candidate Hillary, an obvious response to Sander’s opposition which was well received by organized labor.

On immigration:
            As a Senator from New York, in 2008, she proposed a two-step process which called for securing the borders “before legalizing” the 11 million illegals then currently residing in the U.S. She also supported stricter enforcement of federal law against employers hiring illegal immigrants even making a “Trump-like” assertion that, “"A country that cannot control its borders is failing at one of its fundamental obligations."

            But, after reading the political tea leaves in Bernie Sander’s cup which all pointed to the Left, her 2016 position was;  "I will do everything I can to protect the president's executive actions and ‘go further’ to bring more people relief and keep families together."

In her 2008 campaign  she said: "As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people."  In her 2016 campaign a Clinton spokesman said that she had changed her mind: "Hillary supports state policies to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants."

On terrorism:
            In March, 2016 Hillary announced her “three part plan” to defeat the Islamic State.

            1. “Take out ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria.”
            2. “Dismantle the global terror  network.”
            3. “Harden our defenses at home and prevent attacks”

Of course there’s major difference between a set of goals and a “plan” to accomplish them. Apparently voters will have to wait until she moves into the Oval Office to find out what as Commander-in-Chief, she will actually do to meet these goals since decisions with regard to the use of military force could offend the Democratic Left and give Bernie’s struggling campaign new life.

However, a glimpse of “Hillary’s toughness” can be seen in her December, 2015 outline of her terrorism strategy.
Clinton would combat terrorism with improved intelligence instead of troops. For example, agencies would use social media posts to identify terrorists. Visa applications would require full screenings for those who had traveled to terrorist countries. Operations officers and linguists would be added to U.S. intelligence agencies. (Source: "Clinton Lays Out Policies to Curb Terrorism," WSJ, December 15, 2015.)”

            How exactly “using social media” to “take out ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria” would work is yet to be explained but for now the “progressive” Left of the Democratic Party is unoffended.

            Thus while Hillary’s long history of “adjustments”, “evolutions”, and self-contradictions make a shift on any policy positions once she is in office only a theoretical possibility, she has moved so far to the Left that she will have great difficulty “revolving” back towards the political center to work with the Congress. She will gain some leverage if the Democrats are able to regain control of the Senate in the November, 2016 elections but regaining control of the House of Representatives still seems well out of reach.

One way or the other, her new “progressive” identity seems to predict a high level of continued public policy gridlock over the next four years.

            First, a look at the Senate, which retention of control by the Republicans would ensure such an outcome.
            The current Senate has 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats (Sanders I-VT & King I-ME) The Democrats need to gain 4 seats to create a 50-50 tie which could be broken in their favor by a Democrat Vice President, or gain 5 seats for an absolute majority. The Democrats have an advantage in the November, 2016 election because of the 34 Senate seats up for election, 24 are currently held by Republicans and only 10 by Democrats.  Credible (non-partisan) analysts currently see the Republicans likely to control 48 seats after the election and the Democrats likely to control 47 with 5 of the 34 contested seats as “toss ups”. So a Democratic majority is within reach but would require a near sweep of the toss up contests.

Control of the Senate is important not only because all legislation requires its concurrence but because it is the Senate that approves the appointments of all federal officers including senior military officers, cabinet secretaries and federal judges. This last power will be critical for the replacement of former Supreme Ct. Justice Antonin Scalia, which the Republican leadership in the current Senate has vowed to put off until the new Senate and President are elected. A Republican minority would still be able to filibuster a Supreme Ct. nominee but not nominees to other federal appointments including other federal judgeships which was disallowed by former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when he employed the so called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules to facilitate Democratic nominations to the federal bench.

The election scenario for the House of Representatives looks more secure for the Republicans.  House members represent much smaller districts than the state-wide constituencies of the Senate and historically have a very high rate of reelection.  Most change in the make-up of the house involves retirements.  In 2016, 42 House members are retiring; 26 Republicans and 16 Democrats, although all 435 members are up for reelection every two years.  Since the Republicans currently hold a 247/188 advantage the Democrats need to pick up 30 seats to gain a majority of 218.  Again, credible analysts predict a Democratic gain of 5-10 seats which indicates continued Republican control for the next two years.

Thus, even if the Democrats gain control of the Senate, Hillary’s “progressive” plans, most of which include higher taxes, will run into a road block in the House. The Constitution specifically requires that all “revenue bills” (taxes) originate in the House of Representatives (Article 1 Sec. 7).

Indeed, unless Hillary abandons her new far Left public policy orientation in those areas beyond the exclusive powers of the President, she will not even have the leverage of broad public support for new public policy initiatives to bring political pressure on a recalcitrant House.  On the major issues, the general public still seems to be closer to center-right positions than to those of the Left.

A 2015 Gallup Poll found that 37% of poll responders identified as Conservative, 35% as Moderates and 24% as Liberals.  Even less  than half (45%) of Democrats identified as Liberals, unlike the Democratic membership of the Congress.  Seventy-three percent of Independents described themselves as Moderates or Conservatives.

This continuing trend is reflected in responses to specific issues.

ISIS:  On dealing with the Islamic State, few Americans would accept Hillary’s “strategy” of using a “social media” offense and increased “intelligence” gathering to bring down the terrorists. A poll taken two days after the Islamic State attacks in Paris found that 65% of Americans “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” sending additional ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria compared to 31% who wouldn’t. The same poll found 58% believe “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism.

TAXES:  An April, 2016 poll found that more than 53% of Americans said their taxes are too high including 44% of Democrats.  Of course Hillary says she wants to lower taxes on the “middle class” but she wants to finance her new spending programs by taxing the “rich”.  However the April poll found those making  just $75,000 per year or more, rejecting the idea of heavy taxes on the rich by a 59% to 40% margin.

CRIME:  Hillary has said that she wants to reform the judicial system because it’s unfair to minorities. But the Gallup Poll found that Americans' level of concern about crime and violence is at its “highest point in 15 years. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults say they personally worry ‘a great deal’ about crime and violence, an increase of 14 percentage points since 2014. This figure is the highest Gallup has measured since March 2001.”

IMMIGRATION:  As mentioned above Hillary’s position on immigration has veered widely to the Left since 2008. Now she wants to expand Obama’s executive amnesty program for illegals and include a pathway to citizenship, but a Rasmussen Poll conducted in early 2016 found that 52% of Americans believe that a “pathway to citizenship” for illegals will encourage more illegal immigration and most oppose Obama’s program.  Even 51% support Donald Trump’s call to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Sixty-one percent believe the U.S. government is not aggressive enough in deporting illegals.

Thus congressional-executive gridlock seems all but inevitable. Breaking gridlock requires presidential leadership and the willingness to compromise.  Getting two diverse legislative bodies made up of 535 individuals to initiate compromise is much more difficult.  But unless “flip flopping” for political advantage becomes the new definition of leadership, there is little in Hillary Clinton’s political career that would indicate that she possesses this quality. 


Gridlock will be defined as “Republican obstructionism” by the Democrats and liberal media, no doubt enhanced by adding “sexist” to the charge.  But the polarization of the Congress and the last eight years of Obama’s dismissive and at times insulting response to any rejection of the “progressive” policy agenda by the Republican majorities in Congress and Hillary’s Left turn has paved the way for a largely ineffective third Clinton administration.

Monday, April 4, 2016

OBAMA'S LEGACY LIST: ISIS WON'T MAKE IT

The capitals of Europe are under attack.  There’s nothing new about this, major terrorist attacks have occurred over the last several years and have included Spain, England, France, Germany and now Belgium.  Although the contagion spread to the U.S. long before the recent San Bernardino massacre with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and then the second World Trade Center disaster on 9/11/01, the last seven plus years under the Obama administration have been characterized by a distressing level of passivity bordering on indifference.
  
Although the problem of Islamic terrorism in Europe is complicated by domestic issues of immigration, non-assimilation, and economic and social dysfunction, the threats of Islamic violence in both Europe and the United States share a basic cause. This is the leadership of the Islamic State and its absurd fantasy of creating a medieval styled “caliphate” across international borders in the Middle East and beyond.
Despite the various contributing domestic issues which offer a supply of willing volunteers in Europe, the role of Islamic State leadership in Syria is primary.  It recruits, encourages, supplies and trains the individual terrorists who do their bidding.  This is an extension of their military expansion within the nations of Syria and Iraq which could ultimately spread to Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya.

Thus, the undeniably necessary response from the nations  most directly affected, including the U.S, is the destruction of the Islamic State at its core.  To date, no serious international response has been forthcoming.  The U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition has never been effective as it has lacked coordination, commitment and has been limited to military aid and training for rebel forces mostly engaged with Syria’s government forces and since 2014 to tactical air strikes encumbered by highly restrictive rules of engagement. 

The regional members, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have withdrawn their air support, as has the new Liberal government of Canada.  This leaves only the U.S., Britain, and France as the major participants.  Drone strikes on ISIS leaders have had some success but a “strategy” of trying to kill off the leaders of this forty thousand plus terrorist organization one by one is not a strategy at all. Obama is locked into a political philosophy of passivity and seems to have had a long term lack of understanding of the implications and seriousness of the problem.  He is unwilling to make a major commitment as a starting point to negotiations with regional states and affected European nations to commence serious operations against this major source of international terrorism. 

Obama’s dismissive attitude towards domestic terrorist attacks is astounding.  He has said that more people in the U.S. are killed in bath tub accidents and automobile deer strikes than in terrorist attacks and that the Islamic State is not an “existential threat” to the U.S.  Thus horrific slaughters of individuals as occurred in San Bernardino, California are just risks we must accept like slipping in your tub. 

Of course ISIS is not an “existential threat” to the United States.  That is a na├»ve “straw man” argument to justify largely ignoring the problem.  The Islamic terrorist’s attacks and numerous attempted plots are attacks on the sovereignty of the nation and the lives of its citizens.  These are not to be discounted or minimized as an inconvenience or domestic criminal matter.  The ISIS inspired terrorism in San Bernardino was an “existential threat” to the American citizens who were killed and wounded.  Their deaths and others yet to occur should not be simply accepted as “collateral damage” to Obama’s unwillingness to eliminate the threat.

As Obama entered the final year of his presidency, he has turned away even more than before from the hard decisions that go with the office and has let his concern with his “legacy” guide his policy priorities.  Thus he had Secretary of State Kerry “negotiate” a flawed nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.  Desperate to conclude some kind of agreement, he avoided the tough negotiations that would have been necessary to give the agreement the longevity of a formal treaty, opting instead on an executive agreement that is vulnerable to modification or termination by his successors.
 
The result of his urgency is an agreement which lifted the economic sanctions on Iran which brought them to the negotiating table and which provided the strongest card in the U.S. hand to make the outcome a genuine and long term denial of a nuclear weapons program.  He then returned approximately 1.5 billion dollars in sequestered funds which gave up the next most powerful negotiating position.  The final result included only a ten year limit on Iran’s nuclear weapons development plan and an agreement that Iran would “self-inspect” its primary nuclear weapons facility.

The opening of relations with Cuba is another “legacy” policy.  It was time to establish more normal relations with the island nation just ninety miles from Florida.  But again, Obama gave, but did not receive.  The new relationship will be much more valuable to Cuba than to the United States as tourism and investments flow in.  This reality could have provided negotiating incentives for Cuba’s aging leadership to make concessions on human rights and market based economic policies, but since Obama’s goal was simply to put “opening Cuba” on his legacy list, those opportunities were ignored. Cuba’s founding autocrat, Fidel Castro publicly disparaged the entire process.

Obama’s belief that global warming is a bigger security threat than international terrorism led to another legacy chapter.  This was the much promoted idea that the emissions agreement with China and the subsequent international agreement on the same and finalized in Paris were Obama led “break throughs”.  But the Paris agreement, while including a more comprehensive list of nations than the previous Kyoto Agreement, is long on style and short on substance.  It is a voluntary agreement. The parties  decide on their own what level of reduction of greenhouse gases they will set as a “goal”.  The agreement contains neither mandatory reporting requirements nor accountability if violated. Climate experts agree that the expected individual national “goals” will be inadequate to reduce global warming by the scientifically agreed critical target of 2 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile the unwillingness to lead an international effort to destroy the ISIS army and its occupation of large areas of Syria and Iraq, is a similar “legacy” driven policy of non-involvement in ground operations in the Middle East, a political campaign promise related to his pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. But ISIS has evolved, both from that pledge, and from the reluctance of regional states to act without the support of the United States with its superior military capabilities. 

The medium term future is not promising.  Intelligence agencies in Belgium and France have reported that hundreds of Islamic terrorists are in their midst to carry out future domestic attacks.  ISIS has also openly put the U.S. on its latest target list. 

Although the American public would likely not support a major invasion of Syria on the scale of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Such a mission would not be required.  The U.S. led coalition in 2003 defeated the large, highly organized and well equipped army of Saddam Hussein in just seven weeks.  The ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria are essentially civilian recruits with light weapons, a few captured tanks and no air capabilities. Their strength against the currently weak opposition of the Iraqi army and the Syrian government’s forces, has been in urban fighting, and that has shown recent signs of weakening.

Obama has chosen to pursue a policy that looks as if he is committed to doing something but without taking any risks.  The result  is a U.S. led coalition effort involving tactical air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The air campaign coalition (Operation Inherent Resolve) is a smaller part of the larger anti-ISIS coalition (Operation Enduring Freedom) which is focused on providing aid and training to Iraqi and Kurdish troops and to rebel forces fighting the Syrian government. 

While Inherent Resolve has the participation of several regional nations plus several more European nations and Australia, their contributions are small in number.  Australia’s six fighter aircraft and three support aircraft is the second largest foreign contingent after the U.S.  Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its planes as has Canada. But in spite of flying thousands of sorties (one plane on a single mission) since beginning in 2014, the territory controlled by ISIS is essentially the same as it was when the operation began. Obama has said the Islamic State is “contained” but estimated that the air operations would need to continue for three years.  Retiring Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno who was more pessimistic, and not at all worried about his legacy, estimated a period of “10 to20 years.”

The basic problem with the air operation is that it is so seriously encumbered by restrictive rules of engagement which have been imposed by political authorities over a fear of killing even  “one civilian” that most valuable targets are off limits and when pilots report targets of opportunity they must get radio clearance before making an attack.  They report that this process can take up to an hour or more rendering the request useless.  The result as reported to Senator John McCain, himself a former Navy attack pilot, in the first year of the mission, is that pilots were returning to base without dropping  their bombs 75% of the time.  The commander of the air mission, Lt. General John Hesterman, confirmed this figure.

The rules have been somewhat loosened in recent months as ISIS controlled oil facilities have been bombed and the ridiculous rule prohibiting the attacking of ISIS oil delivery trucks because the drivers might be civilians, has been revoked.  Still, the majority of targets are empty building, vehicles, storage facilities and “fighting positions” outside of populated areas. The “capital” of the Islamic State is the city of Raqqa in Syria, but Isis leaders and combatants, fully aware of the restrictive rules of engagement intermingle with the civilian population and avoid attack.

Military experts say that victory over ISIS will never be accomplished with air power alone.  A determined effort by a coalition of professional ground forces from Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and led by a contingent of American forces with American battlefield intelligence and air power seems to be the only answer to the eradication of this otherwise permanent terrorist threat to the civilian populations of Europe and America and the direct military threat to regional states.

This is a complicated situation and requires tough decision making and leadership. Jordan, with a border on Syria, has said it will not participate in a ground operation without a mandate from the UN and the forces are “led by the Americans and the British.”  Saudi Arabia has discussed participation in such an operation in cooperation with Turkey.  But Turkey’s participation is complicated by their hostilities with the Kurds whose territory lies along the northeast border of Syria with Turkey.
The civil war between the Assad government in Syria and rebel forces is also a complicating factor as a foreign ground invasion directed at ISIS in the northeast of Syria would help Assad. But a cease fire between Assad’s government forces and the rebel forces which is under negotiation could open the door for a separate ground operation against ISIS.

Thus it can be done if the planning starts now, and it is the only alternative to a generational conflict in the region and a permanent terrorist threat to Europe and the U.S.

Obama’s concern about his place in history is myopic and his “legacy” list is flawed. His primary responsibility is to protect the security and interests of the citizens of the United States at home and abroad.