Mike Kueber's Blog

October 7, 2011

An open letter to Jeff Kessler of the Washington Post

Filed under: Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:34 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Jeff Kessler is a so-called fact-checker at the liberal Washington Post.  His job is to identify politicians who misstate verifiable facts.  In doing this work, Jeff promises to be dispassionate and nonpartisan.  Based on Kessler’s recent hatchet-job on Mitt Romney, I would have to give him a failing grade in both regards.

Kessler’s job on Romney becomes even more objectionable when you consider that his analysis was first reported in February.    I guess Kessler and the Washington Post are going to keep repeating their opinion as long as Romney keeps repeating his, but don’t call it nonpartisan.

I was hopeful that discerning Post readers would have pointed out to Kessler and the Post the error of their ways, but my experience with readers of the liberal NY Times is that the readers have drunk as much Kool-Aid as the paper and its writers, and this is true of the Post, too.  The Post readers had a problem with Romney, but not with Kessler and the Post. 

Giving them the benefit of a doubt, I expressed my opposition to Kessler and the Post through the following comments:

  • Glenn, the Post‘s guiding principles indicate that (a) this is fact-checking, not an opinion-checking operation, and (b) we will strive to be dispassionate and non-partisan.  But your opinion about Romney’s assertions clearly are mere opinion, and just as clearly partisan.  Or do you deny that you are an Obama partisan?
  • Regarding the exceptionalism issue, you attempt to create some context, but in doing so, you fail to explain what Obama meant by his dominant, leading statement – i.e., yes, I believe America is exceptional, but I understand that the Brits and Greeks feel the same way about their nation-states.  Although it is subjective to characterize that statement as derisive, it is just as subjective and partisan to characterize it as “not derisive in the least.”
  • Regarding the apology tour, I understand that Obama did not use the term “apology,” but he did concede to the French that  America “has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward Europe.  Most people with a modest amount of common sense would conclude that statement to be an apology.  But you go even further – i.e., you charge that someone is engaging in major-league lying if her concludes that statement to be an apology.
  • I understand your partisan opinion, but don’t claim to be a dispassionate fact-checker.

July 26, 2011

Campaign bundlers

Federal-election law provides a personal limit of $2500 on presidential campaign contributions.  The limit is designed to prevent an individual from buying influence with a candidate by making a larger contribution. Sounds good.

The problem with the federal-election law is that candidates and influence-buyers will work overtime trying to circumvent it, and that is what has happened.  They have developed a concept called bundling in which an influence-buyer collects $2500 contributions from an assortment of colleagues and associates and then presents the collected bundle to the candidate for appropriate credit.  How scuzzy is that!

According to a recent editorial in the Washington Post, the law doesn’t require presidential candidates to reveal the identity of its bundlers, but most candidates (Bush-43 and McCain) have voluntarily disclosed this information.  In 2008, President Obama disclosed that he had 27 bundlers who raised at least $500,000 for him.

The Post editorial was concerned, however, that Mitt Romney was refusing to identify his bundlers, and it recommended amending the law to require this.  I agree, but think we should go one step further.  While we can’t stop a person from urging colleagues or associates to contribute to a candidate, we can and should prohibit the campaign from accepting or recognizing bundled contributions.

Some will argue that no matter how often you fix the law, unethical people will find a way around it.  But I think it is like insider stock-trading – i.e., even if it is impossible to eliminate, we must take a stand against it and root it out whenever we find it.

July 4, 2011

The TEA Party and the debt ceiling

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:02 pm
Tags: , , ,

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently columnized about the “zealots” in the TEA Party forcing America down the road to ruin by refusing to increase the debt ceiling unless middle-of-the-road politicians agree to essentially dismantle the federal government.  Although hard bargaining by responsible fiscal conservatives is completely appropriate, I agree that ultimately the debt ceiling must not cause America to default on debts that have already been incurred.

I disagree, however, with Dionne’s contention that the TEA Party stands for dismantling government.  He and his cohorts conveniently fail to mention that TEA stands for “taxed enough already.”  TEA Party people think government should live
within its means.  What’s wrong with that?

May 9, 2011

Divided counsel

Last night, President Obama was on “60 Minutes,” and he provided viewers with his description of the killing of Osama bin Laden.  His interview, which was prerecorded earlier in the week, showed Obama at his best – knowledgeable and articulate, with good judgment and common sense.  Although his geopolitical views are distinctly neocolonial and his domestic political views are far left-of-center, he is unsurpassed in his ability to understand and connect with ordinary Americans.  Much of that ability, I suspect, is due to living his life outside of the Washington beltway.  Although he is a career politician, he has amazingly managed to avoid becoming co-opted by the D.C. establishment.  Of course, the values instilled in him by his mother and grandparents provided a solid foundation.   

Obama’s explanation in the “60 Minutes” interview of why he decided against releasing photos of a dead bin Laden provides an excellent example of Obama’s foundational values and common sense.  According to Obama on releasing the photos – “You know, that’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.  You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he’s gone. But we don’t need to spike the football.”  This part of the interview had been released earlier in the week to resolve a roiling public debate.

The “60 Minutes” interview contained several new facts about President Obama’s perspective of the mission:

  1. The likelihood of Osama being in the compound was 55%-45%.  Other news reports placed the likelihood at 60-80%, with one outlier at 40%.
  2. The “vast majority” of President Obama’s senior advisors did not know about the mission, but he side-stepped a question about whether Michelle knew. 
  3. Some advisors had “voiced doubts” about the mission.  Despite these doubts, President Obama decided to send in the SEALs instead of air-mailing some bombs because he wanted (a) proof of the kill and (b) access to the information/intelligence in the compound.  Obama indicated a tertiary concern for the lives of the SEALs and the lives of innocent non-combatants (but in my opinion these tended to cancel each other out).

Although Obama said that some advisors had “voiced doubts” about the mission, his National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went further on several Sunday talk shows and said the president had received divided counsel ahead of the raid and had shown decisiveness under pressure.  “I wouldn’t call it dissension. I would call it a divided counsel — that people had, were in favor of, different options,” he said on ABC

Normally an organization likes to present a united front on important decisions.  Donilon’s interviews suggest, however, that the Obama administration has decided to spin its decision to attack bin Laden with Navy SEALs as questionable and controversial. 

From my selfish perspective, this spin refutes my argument that the decision was a no-brainer since there were apparently smart people in the White House who disagreed with the decision.

The Washington Post went even further with the administration spin by reporting:

  • President Barack Obama faced sharply divided counsel and, in his mind, barely better-than-even odds of success when he ordered the May 1 commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the president said in an interview broadcast Sunday….  In doing so, he rejected the advice of a substantial number of his national security advisers, who worried that the plan to send ground troops deep into Pakistan was too risky, he said.”

The Post must have been listening to a different interview because I never heard anything about sharply divided counsel.  Of course, a cynic would say the administration is trumpeting about divided counsel because it spins the president’s leadership as sine qua non to elimination of bin Laden – i.e., although the intelligence and military performed their jobs admirably, the successful conclusion depended on a daring president who trusted.

My friend Robert from Austin recently suggested that a success has a thousand parents and a failure is an orphan.  That will probably prevent us from ever knowing the identity of all the Obama advisers who argued in favor of the bombing option.     

A question that I have not heard anyone ask is whether President Obama felt any pressure to act between the discovery of Osama bin Laden in September of 2010 and the actual kill mission in May of 2011.  During those eight months, the CIA continued to gather information that culminated in it concluding there was as much as an 80% probability that Osama was in the compound.  The advantage of waiting for this additional confirmation is clear, but what about the danger of Osama deserting the compound during this time or, more important, what about the danger that Osama would commit more mayhem while we were confirming his identity?  Wouldn’t there have been a huge benefit to cutting off the head of the snake months earlier?

May 7, 2011

Operation Neptune’s Spear a/k/a the McRaven option

The highly successful conclusion to the search for Osama was due in no small measure to a child of San Antonio.  The commander of Operation Neptune’s Spear was William McRaven, who grew up in San Antonio and graduated from Roosevelt High School before moving on to the University of Texas in Austin for Navy ROTC and a journalism degree.

As news reports continue to describe Operation Neptune’s Spear, it has become clear that Admiral McRaven played a central role.  Although the mission was carried out by the military, the legal authority for the mission came from the CIA instead of the Department of Defense.  Thus, McRaven, whose was in charge of SEAL Team 6, reported directly to CIA Director Panetta, who reported directly to President Obama.

According to an absorbing article in the Washington Post, Operation Neptune’s Spear was known as “the McRaven option.”   He earned the assignment because, for the three years that he headed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), their “jackpot rate” – i.e., when Special Operations raids got their intended target — jumped from 35 percent to more than 80 percent.

The Post article suggested that McRaven selected the SEALs for the mission because, “SEALs have a tradition of moving in and out fast, often killing everyone they encounter at a target site….  One senior official said the general philosophy of the SEALs is: ‘If you see it, shoot it. It is a house full of bad guys.’”

That suggestion, however, is contrary to the additional facts presented in the article:

  • A ‘pattern of life’ study of the compound by intelligence agencies showed that about a dozen women and children periodically frequented it.  Specific orders were issued to the SEALs not to shoot the women or children unless they were clearly threatening or had weapons. (During the mission, one woman was killed and a wife of bin Laden was shot in the leg.)  Bin Laden was to be captured, one official said, if he ‘conspicuously surrendered.’”

When Obama refused to release the photos of Osama, he famously said, “That’s not who we are.”  I agree whole-heartedly with that sentiment, and I agree whole-heartedly with the rules of engagement for Operation Neptune’s Spear.  The distinction between the combatants/men (kill unless conspicuously surrendering) and noncombatants/women and children (don’t shoot unless clearly threatening) reflects American values when fighting a war.

As Charles Krauthammer accurately opined in his column earlier this week:

  • Bin Laden declared war on us in 1998. But it was not until 9/11 that we took him seriously. At which point we answered with a declaration of war of our own, offering the brutal, unrelenting and ferocious response that war demands and that police work prohibits.  Including bin Laden’s execution. It’s clear there was no intention of capturing him. And for good reason. Doing so would have been insane, gratuitously granting him a second life of immense publicity on a worldwide stage from which to propagandize.  We came to kill. That is what you do in war. Do that in police work and you’ve committed murder. The Navy SEAL(s) who pulled the fateful trigger would be facing charges, not receiving medals.

The Washington Post article contained four additional pieces of information that are relevant to our Monday Morning Quarterbacking of Operation Neptune’s Spear:

  1. “Several assessments concluded there was a 60 to 80 percent chance that bin Laden was in the compound. Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, was much more conservative. During one White House meeting, he put the probability at about 40 percent.”
  2. Officials said Obama’s national security advisers were not unanimous in recommending he go ahead with the McRaven option. The president approved the raid at 8:20 a.m. Friday.”
  3. “During the assault, one of the Black Hawk helicopters stalled, but the pilot was able to land safely. The hard landing, which disabled the helicopter, forced the SEALs to abandon a plan to have one team rope down from a Blackhawk and come into the main building from the roof. Instead, both teams assaulted the compound from the ground.”
  4. After the information was relayed to Obama, he turned to his advisers and said: ‘We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?’”  Since information about the downed copter was highly classified, let’s hope this humorous aside did not unintentionally reveal the actual cost of this bird of war.  

 As Obama told the SEALs on Saturday, “a job well done.”

May 5, 2011

Getting carried away – lessons learned about Obama from the killing of Osama

Maureen Dowd of the NY Times wrote a column yesterday titled Cool Hand Barack.”  In the column, she compared Barack Obama not only to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” but also to Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”  That’s fine; poetic license is fine.  But then Maureen attempted to distinguish between Obama and his milquetoast predecessor, Jimmy Carter:

  • But now the president has shown he can lead straight-on and that, unlike Jimmy Carter, he knows how to order up that all-important backup helicopter. He has said that those who call him a wimp are mistaken, that there is often muscular purpose beneath his diffident surface.”

That’s not fine; that is not poetic license or mere hyperbole.  I don’t think anyone in a position to know has indicated that Obama had anything to do with the back-up choppers. 

Maureen’s bald misstatement reminds me of Senator Kyl’s statement that 90% of the work of Planned Parenthood involves abortion and his follow-up comment that the statement was not intended to be factual.  Perhaps Maureen expected her readers to realize that she was merely attempting to prove her point. 

You might think that I am being too picky with Maureen, but she is not alone.  Today Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne went even further in trying to create a legendary Barack Obama.  His description of Obama as a warrior (“sheer audacity”) evoked Robert E. Lee, but Dionne also noted, “It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence — for example, making sure that additional helicopters were available to our Navy SEALs.”

You will have to read Dionne’s entire column to get the full flavor of his man-love for Obama.  For now, let these closing words suffice:

  • “And anyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.  This single action does not ‘change everything,’ because nothing ever changes everything. Killing one man does not settle two messy wars. Obama’s political standing will ultimately rise or fall largely on the basis of domestic issues and economic circumstances. The president’s supporters will again experience bouts of frustration when his philosophical caution prevails over his bold streak in the less martial work of negotiating budgets and promoting the general welfare at home. His opponents will not suddenly embrace his priorities.  But because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.”

I wonder what was the “sheer audacity” of the assault on Osama bin Laden.”  Surely, things could have gone wrong, as they did with President Carter, but what choice did President Obama have.  He had already waited for months for intelligence to raise the likelihood of Osama being in the compound to 60-80%.  I suppose he could have waited longer.  His only other options were (a) to bomb the hell out of the compound or (b) involve the Pakistanis.  I don’t know anyone who has argued that those were better options.

Let’s assume that President Obama did not actually plan the assault, including the back-up choppers, then please tell me how Obama was a difference-maker.

April 25, 2011

Hawks

Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent posted an interesting entry today about “deficit hawks.”  According to Sargent, the term has been unfairly appropriated by the Republican Right, even though the Right is often more interested in drying up all streams of government revenue than it is in eliminating the deficit. 

This deficit-hawking started with Ronald Reagan in the late 70s, when he argued for lowering taxes, balancing the budget, and rebuilding America’s defenses.  When pressed to prioritize these conflicting values, Reagan said there was no conflict.  This prompted a moderate Republican opponent (Bush-41) to coin the term “voodoo economics.”

I think blogger Sargent makes a good point.  If you claim to be a deficit hawk, that should mean that reducing or eliminating the deficit is so important to you that you are willing to sacrifice other values – such as your opposition to raising taxes – in order to address the deficit problem.  If you aren’t willing to raise taxes to reduce the deficit, then you are more accurately described as a believer in smaller government or an adversary of big government.  Paul Ryan is a believer in smaller government, not a deficit hawk.  By contrast, the Gang of Six senators are deficit hawks.

Sometimes I think the anti-war liberals are still resentful of being labeled doves during the Vietnam War, as opposed to the pro-war conservatives being labeled hawks.  Most alpha Americans think doves are a little squishy.  NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd has tried for years to get back at the hawks by name-calling those who didn’t serve in Vietnam – she particularly enjoys calling VP Dick Cheney a chickenhawk.  (Although that term is considered an epithet, the NY Times is apparently OK with its usage by columnists.)  I wonder, however, if Dowd has taken this labeling to its logical conclusion – i.e., under his classification, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are chickendoves.  Don’t think they’d like that appellation.

April 15, 2011

Grover Norquist, the chief cleric of sharia tax law

The budget battle in Washington is getting ugly, and some of the ugliest language is coming from an internecine fight within the Republican Party.  Many Republicans, especially those in the Senate, are pragmatists who have been wandering forlornly in a desert for years and they now sense a unique opportunity to make significant progress toward eliminating America’s burgeoning deficit.  By contrast, many of the Republicans in the House are newly elected and they believe they have a mandate to take no prisoners while they slay the budget-busting liberals. 

As reported in the Washington Post, anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist has pocketed pledges from 41 Senators and 237 House members that they will not vote for any tax increase.    The face of the pragmatists is conservative/pragmatic Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, who signed off on the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan.  Based on Norquist’s uncompromising stance, Coburn’s spokeman called Norquist the chief cleric of sharia tax law.  That is witty.

Grover Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 at the behest of Ronald Reagan and remains its president.  Its primary objective is to reduce the percentage of GDP consumed by the federal government, or in his own colorful phrasing – “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  He is married to a Kuwaiti Muslim and he opposed the conservative fight against the Muslim mosque in Manhattan.  That makes me think that the comment from Coburn’s spokeman might have been more mean than witty. 

The problem with Norquist is that, while his objective of reducing government is subjective, his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” is not.  It reads:

I, _______________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the state of__________, and to the American people that I will:

ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and

TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

The pledge essentially precludes a signator from compromising with the Democrats to achieve an effective compromise.  In hindsight, signing the pledge seems ill-considered, but the pledge wasn’t signed by statesmen, it was signed by politicians trying to get elected.  Coburn signed it.

Although the pledge remains politically powerful, I think history has shown that its rationale is flawed.  Back in the 80s, Reagan argued that the only way to reduce the size of the federal government was to starve it by cutting taxes and keeping them low.  Without revenue, he thought, fiscal sanity would prevent Congress from growing its expenditures.  We all know what actually happened.  Twenty-five years later, the federal government is staring into a deep abyss of debt, having mortgaged much of our future.  Surely, that is not what Reagan wanted.  Surely, we can’t continue playing this game of chicken in which the least responsible party prevails.

Norquist apparently wants the game of chicken to go on.  On Thursday he said that the only significant tax measure that is currently feasible is a so-called repatriation holiday that would allow multinationals to bring their offshore profits to the U.S.  With respect to any other progress:  

  • A lot of good tax changes are going to require a different president and a different Senate.”

That’s not the kind of talk I want to hear from Republicans.  Politicians like that may not get an endorsement by the people in 2012.  More importantly, this ticking time-bomb of a debt needs to be addressed now. 

Git r dun, Coburn.

March 23, 2011

The power to make war

Republicans are supposed to be sticklers about constitutional niceties – they often describe themselves as constitutional conservatives.  As a practical matter, however, they don’t let constitutional niceties get in the way of America making war at the drop of a hat.  Thus, you did not hear objection from Republicans when Barack Obama recently decided to make war against Libya without any authorization from Congress. 

A couple of nights ago on Bill O’Reilly’s show, Karl Rove noted that, although George W. Bush received Congressional authorization prior to fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration did not believe such authorization was constitutionally required.  Rove explained that, although the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, the Constitution also makes the President the commander in chief, and that right implies the right to make war.  If that were true, why bother giving Congress the right to declare war?

As Washington Post columnist George Will recently declared

  • “Congress’s power to declare war resembles a muscle that has atrophied from long abstention from proper exercise. This power was last exercised on June 5, 1942 (against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary), almost 69 years, and many wars, ago. It thus may seem quaint, and certainly is quixotic, for Indiana’s Richard Lugar — ranking Republican on, and former chairman of, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — to say, correctly, that Congress should debate and vote on this.”
  • “There are those who think that if the United Nations gives the United States permission to wage war, the Constitution becomes irrelevant. Let us find out who in Congress supports this proposition, which should be resoundingly refuted, particularly by Republicans currently insisting that government, and especially the executive, should be on a short constitutional leash. If all Republican presidential aspirants are supine in the face of unfettered presidential war-making and humanitarian interventionism, the Republican field is radically insufficient.”

After the disaster in Vietnam, Congress attempted to rein-in presidential war-making by passing the War Powers Resolution in 1973.  This law requires a president to obtain Congressional authorization within 60 days of initiating hostilities.  If America is still fighting Gadhafi in 60 days, it will be interesting to see if the constitutional conservatives insist on a congressional vote.

P.S., a column by Maureen Dowd in today’s NY Times included the following quote from candidate Obama on presidential war-making powers:

  • As compelling as the gender split is, it’s even more interesting to look at the parallels between Obama and W.  Candidate Obama said about a possible strike on Iran, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  Yet both men started wars of choice with a decision-making process marked more by impulse and reaction than discipline and rigor.  Denouncing the last decade of “autopilot” for presidents ordering military operations, Senator Webb told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC: “We have not had a debate. … This isn’t the way that our system is supposed to work.”
  • 

February 5, 2011

Liberal values and the U.S. Constitution

I am currently reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.  In his 2006 book, Obama argues that Democrats need to challenge the Republican Party’s near-monopoly over those voters with faith and values.  Five years later, Ruth Marcus in her Washington Post column makes a similar argument concerning the conservative hi-jacking of morality and the U.S. Constitution.  “I’d like them back,” she says. 

Regarding the role of government welfare, Marcus quotes from an Obama speech:

  • And that’s why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.”

(Obama’s book contains an almost  identical passage.)

Regarding the U.S. Constitution, Marcus again quotes from Obama: 

  • One side’s version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom.”

I agree with Marcus that some conservatives too quickly resort to arguments about constitutionality without having a solid understanding of what the Constitution says.  Stupid laws are not necessarily unconstitutional.  The U.S. Constitution does not stand in the way of the federal government creating a welfare state. 

I also agree with Marcus that liberals have values – their values lean more toward communal achievement while conservative values lean more toward individual achievement.  The U.S. Constitution can accommodate either morality.

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