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March 27, 2015

Posts by Morton Kondracke

43 Posts

February 25, 2014

Make Schools Like the Olympics | Pennsylvania Avenue

The Winter Olympics prove again (as if proof were needed) that competition makes athletes strive to go faster, jump higher and become more agile.

Competition also produces better cars, better cellphones and better food.

So, why not apply competition to education? Full story

February 4, 2014

Go ‘Small’ on Immigration | Kondracke

Next to achieving Middle East peace, the hardest thing in the world seems to be passing a law to repair what everyone agrees is a “broken” immigration system. But there’s a chance, if Republicans and Democrats think not big but small.

The just-unveiled House Republican leadership document, “Standards for Immigration Reform” has part of a good idea — don’t even consider a “comprehensive” bill like the Senate’s bipartisan monstrosity.

Comprehensive reform would be great in theory — and might have been possible as either George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s first order of business — but right-wing anti-“amnesty,” “enforcement first” forces won’t allow anything to pass that isn’t punitive, restrictive and enormously expensive.

And that’s what the Senate bill is. It will cost probably $100 billion to build a wall across the whole Southern border and set up a national electronic status verification system covering every worker in the country.

And, it will invite illegal residents to identify themselves to authorities, then run through possibly 16 years of hoops to get a shot at citizenship, while failure to get through a hoop (say, proving continuous employment) could mean deportation.

Even the House GOP “step by step” approach isn’t likely to get through Congress. Partly that’s because some Republicans don’t want to interfere with the party’s anti-Obamacare, election-year message. Meantime, libertarians (and civil libertarians) fear that requiring every American to carry a national “biometric” ID card is Big Brotherism. And, ultra-restrictionists in the party think that giving any legal status to the undocumented is “amnesty.”

Ironically, Obama has set new records for border enhancement, deportations and “silent deportations” using federal databases to deny employment to the undocumented. He’s getting grief from Latino activists and his liberal base — but zero credit from Republicans.

He and Democrats certainly aren’t going to support a bill — such as House Republicans seem to be moving toward — that denies illegal immigrants any chance to become U.S. citizens, creating a “second class” system some have likened to apartheid.

A better answer is to think even smaller: to find elements of immigration reform with enough appeal to pass, without elements that might sink the whole process.

For instance: agribusiness and the United Farm Workers agree on the AgJOBS Act, a bill that would enable undocumented farm workers now in the U.S. to earn green cards and would allow in foreign guest workers who’d have to go home when the crops are picked.

Both Democrats and (many, if not most) Republicans agree that young people brought to this country as children and raised as Americans ought to be able to become citizens. So the DREAM Act ought to make it as part of “small” reform legislation.

Both parties also agree we need more highly skilled workers and should allow foreign science graduates to stay in the U.S. if they choose.

And, to satisfy “enforcement first” types, the package could include experiments in biometric identification for guest workers and persons coming in on visas — plus an electronic status verification system to track them, but not IDs and electronic tracking for every person in the country who applies for a job.

Granted, this “small” reform package would not address the plight of most adults here illegally. It’s terrible that they have to live their lives “in the shadows,” but the polarized American political system just can’t solve their situation now.

The bottom line: Congress should get a few sensible, necessary things done. Fix part of what’s broken. Politically, that will be hard enough.

January 29, 2014

Despite Obama’s Rhetoric, the State of the Union Is Not Strong | Kondracke

Delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama was vigorous, earnest, positive, non-confrontational, occasionally funny and determined to get things done.

But the word that kept popping into my head as I listened was: sugar-coating.

From the jobs numbers he cited (“8 million … over the past four years”), to education performance (a “graduation rate at its highest level in more than three decades”), to deficits (“cut by more than half”), to Obamacare signups (“more than 9 million”), to Iran’s nuclear intentions (“Iran is not building a bomb.”), to prospects for Afghanistan (“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.”), Obama tried to put the best possible face on the State of the Union, which he called “strong.”

He was evidently trying to convince Americans that he does not deserve to have a 43 percent approval rating (his lowest ever), that nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) are mistaken to think that the country is off on the wrong track and that it’s wrong that (according to Quinnipiac) only 46 percent think he is honest and trustworthy and 48 percent say he is not a strong leader.

He tried to assert his leadership, saying: “America does not stand still and neither will I. So, wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

But while the list of things he could do was positive, it was nowhere near what it would take to address what he rightly, but late in the day, called “the defining issue of our time” — the failure of the modern U.S. economy to guarantee upward mobility and opportunity to the vast middle class.

Obama has no specific plans to do the things that might turn that trend around — tax reform that closes loopholes and lowers rates, an entitlement overhaul that shifts benefits from old people to young, a de-regulated and de-bureaucratized infrastructure and energy agenda. He mentioned such plans in only general terms, and omitted entitlement reform completely.

The truth is, the state of the union is not strong and a worried public knows it. The economic recovery is weak — only 74,000 net new jobs created last month when 250,000 a month are needed. In education, the nation’s 15-year-olds rank 28th on world science tests and 36th in math. Deficits are down, but the gross national debt is still more than 100 percent of gross domestic product and is on a rising trajectory. Iran has not given up its capacity to make a nuclear weapon and the United States figures to be just another foreign power that failed to tame Afghanistan.

Regardless what sugar he applies, Obama’s fortunes depend on how his signature program — Obamacare — turns out. And the signs are not good. Yes, people can get insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions and young people can stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26. But sign-ups under Obamacare skew old and sick, menacing the private insurance market. And millions of people are either losing their old insurance policies, seeing their premiums sky-rocket or both. Obama did not suggest any fixes.

He avoided blaming Republicans for his failures, but he’s not going to get much cooperation from them this year — maybe on immigration, but probably not. And at the rate things are going, he may face both a Republican House and a Republican Senate after this year’s elections. Obama tried to be upbeat, but the realities of his situation are down.

January 22, 2014

It’s the States, Stupid! | Pennsylvania Avenue

The New York Times’ front-page story on Jan. 12 on one-party domination of all but 13 state governments is an important piece of journalism that should cause serious rethinking and action.

In six specific ways:

1. It’s a reminder — especially to the media — that, with the federal government rendered impotent by partisan gridlock and poor leadership — significant political and policy action is taking place at the state level.

Every good newspaper and TV network needs to upgrade and systematize its (currently haphazard) coverage of good and bad things happening at the state level and the politics behind them.

As Nicholas Confessore’s piece reports, almost every one of the 23 states totally dominated by Republicans has passed new restrictions on abortion, made it harder to vote, refused to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare, moved to limit union power and barred same-sex marriage.

Most all of the 13 states dominated by Democrats and the 13 mixed-control states — Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature — have rejected abortion and voting restrictions, have expanded Medicaid, have a minimum wage higher than the national federal requirement and either have legalized same-sex marriage or are close to doing so.

What needs systematic reportage is not just what’s happening on these and other fronts, but what the consequences are.

2. The NYT piece is another reminder of how polarized the country is — the map shows the South, Mountain West and (since 2010) significant parts of the Midwest in bright red.

That, plus this recent Gallup poll report showing the 70 percent domination of the GOP by conservatives and increasing liberal influence among Democrats — means that we are becoming two nations, deeply divided ideologically and geographically. That’s the bad news.

3. The good news, if there is any, is that this will be a good time for the states to be closely examined as “laboratories of democracy.”

Good reporting — by the media, assisted by think tanks — should be tracking not just policy changes imposed in single-party states but the human results they produce — unemployment, economic growth and poverty rates, health statistics, education performance, incarceration rates, pollution levels, voter participation, etc.

If you read The Wall Street Journal editorial page, you find lots of assertions that red states like Texas are booming. If you listen to MSNBC, you’d think ordinary people are systematically victimized there and California is again Paradise. Anyone is free to comb databases to track the truth, of course, but the media should do it all the time.

4. Likely as not, at least a few 2014 GOP candidates for president will be governors — New Jersey’s Chris Christie (if Tollgate doesn’t eliminate him), Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, maybe Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John R. Kasich. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to think he deserves a second try.

And among Democrats, let’s hope New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley won’t be scared off by the Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut.

Instead of waiting until the campaign gets started and charges and countercharges fly about the performance of these governors, the media should be paying systematic attention starting now. Who has improved student performance? Job growth? Public health? How do GOP governors stack up against Democrats?

5. The Times story is basically about crafty fundraising — especially how use of loopholes in various states’ laws masterminded by gifted GOP strategist Ed Gillespie for the Republican State Leadership Committee resulted in huge gains for that party in 2010, then was copied by liberal and gay groups in 2012.

It’s an implicit lament for the demise of the campaign finance reform movement that culminated in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act limiting the size and use of political money. Increasingly — maybe, as ever — anything goes in campaign finance, and now it’s been blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court. And may be again.

The upshot is that political reformers need to radically change focus away from trying to control money and start trying at the state level to combat gerrymandering, open up primaries and make voting easier — all to enhance participation by moderates and independents.

6. Final lesson that underscores all of the above: Gillespie & Co. were so successful in 2010 that GOP legislatures and governors gerrymandered their party into Republican domination of the U.S. House for the rest of this decade. This means that politics in Washington is going to remain gridlocked and impotent — Democratic president, hostile Congress — until at least 2017. So the action is going to be at the state level. Let’s watch it — really closely.

December 9, 2013

The Tragedy of the Budget Deal | Kondracke

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., are grown-ups, and it looks as though they are reaching a deal to avoid another government shutdown crisis — provided superpartisans don’t block it.

That said, it’s sad — and bad for the country — that the best they could do was avoid immediate disaster. What they could not do, apparently, is make the slightest dent in the long-term disaster that the federal debt represents.

If the Washington Post lead story Monday is right, their deal will also — to their credit — partially repeal the budget sequester that is strangling federal agencies and give them slightly more money to spend in fiscal 2014 and 2015.

It’s not clear, but one hopes they will also provide Cabinet officers with the ability to move money around and not continue having to slash every program across the board.

But it’s a grave disappointment that they could not even begin to shave the government’s $17.6 trillion national debt — more than 100 percent of GDP, now higher than at any time since World War II. Full story

November 23, 2013

JFK’s Signal Accomplishment: Saving the World | Kondracke

I didn’t read or watch every observation of the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (who could?)  but the ones I did gave short shrift to his signal accomplishment — saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)


His cool restraint during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — resisting many advisers who were calling for bombing Soviet missile sites in Cuba — ought to earn him the top-of-the-heap public approval ratings he enjoys (90 percent in a CNN poll).

I doubt the ratings are based on that, though. His celebrated grace, glamour, wit, eloquence, inspiration of a generation to public service, his (belated) support for civil rights, the Camelot myth created by his widow — and, above all, his martyrdom — most likely are the major factors. Full story

November 20, 2013

Arne Duncan Was Right About U.S. Schools | Kondracke

OK. So Education Secretary Arne Duncan could have said it better, but fundamentally he was right: Parents are getting awakened to how inferior even “good” American schools are, and they don’t like it.

Speaking  to state school superintendents in Richmond last week, Duncan said that some opposition to adoption of the Common Core education standards is coming from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [find] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were …”

His comments lit a firestorm of criticism on Twitter and the blogosphere, with critics accusing him of sexism and racism, and he had to publicly admit “clumsy phrasing.”

If he was clumsy, it was in knocking the kids. On the rest of what he said, he was dead right. Full story

November 12, 2013

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Both Parties | Kondracke

Face it: Both the Republican and Democratic parties are in trouble. Neither can be sure which is in worse shape. So it behooves them both to do something right for a change.

What? Reach a budget deal that ends threats of government shutdowns and debt defaults, restores confidence among both foreign and domestic investors, and convinces the public that federal politicians can govern.

Will it be hard to get a deal — especially by the mandated deadline of Dec. 15? Of course. But both sides know what needs to be done — reform entitlements to get the country’s long-term debt under control, reform taxes to make the economy more productive, and lift the budget sequester’s stranglehold on domestic spending and defense. Full story

October 16, 2013

McConnell to the Rescue — Again | Pennsylvania Avenue

Assuming that the U.S. economy survives its latest near-death experience, significant credit ought to go to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

President Barack Obama ought to realize this is the second time this year that McConnell has been the key player in resolving a terrifying fiscal crisis — and start talking to him regularly.

This time, it is the Kentucky Republican’s negotiations with Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada that (apparently, hopefully) are saving the country from a catastrophic debt default and are ending the costly close-down of the federal government.

In January, it was McConnell and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. who figured out how to prevent the country from falling over the “fiscal cliff”— avoiding tax increases on all but the richest Americans.

McConnell “gave” on what had been a key GOP demand: keeping tax rates on the rich from rising to 39 percent.

In July 2011, McConnell invented a plan B to avoid an earlier default by giving Obama authority to raise the debt limit subject to congressional veto.

Obama evidently detests McConnell, regarding him as hopelessly partisan. It took Obama a full 18 months at the outset of his presidency to have a one-on-one meeting with the GOP leader.

But McConnell has proved to be a statesman. He’s risking the fury of the Senate Conservatives Fund and its allied tea party extremists, who are running a primary candidate against him in Kentucky.

Obama ought to take notice. The Reid-McConnell agreement, assuming it passes Congress and saves the day, merely puts off new days of reckoning on spending and debt.

But it also creates the opportunity for serious negotiations on entitlement and tax reform. If Obama wants to avoid a repeat of the current crisis, he’d best start talking — secretly, if necessary — with Republican grown-ups such as McConnell and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.

House Speaker John A. Boehner obviously has to be part of the mix, but he has fallen far short — so far — of showing McConnell’s courage and legislative acumen. Even though the Ohio Republican obviously knows that his tea party brethren are irrevocably tarnishing the GOP brand, he’s yielded to them time after time.

In the meantime, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, have isolated extremists Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to the fringe and encouraged tea party favorites like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida to behave.

If his leadership causes the radical right — the radio talkers, Heritage Action, the Fund for Growth, etc. — to make McConnell a key primary target in Kentucky, it’s an opportunity for sane Republicans to counter them in force.

Most of all, this whole dismal exercise ought to lead Obama, Reid, McConnell and House GOP leaders to understand that they will put the country through crisis after crisis — and allow other legislative priorities to die — unless they finally reach a long-term fiscal deal.

It’s time for a grown-ups’ weekend retreat at Camp David.

October 8, 2013

When Will Grown-Ups Come to the Rescue of ‘Rigid’ GOP?

Faint glimmers are appearing that Republican grown-ups have decided to reclaim the schoolyard, but there’s a long way to go for the party to avoid long-term disaster.

Even Speaker John A. Boehner’s defiant-sounding statements Sunday demanding concessions from President Barack Obama can be interpreted as an appeal for face-saving help from the president, giving him permission to rely on Democratic votes to reopen the government and temporarily lift the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default on the national debt.

Reportedly, other grown-ups — House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. — are working on a GOP negotiating position that might lead to a “grand bargain” with President Barack Obama on entitlement and tax reform. Full story

October 1, 2013

Poll Watchers Beware: Public Blames GOP | Pennsylvania Avenue

The new Quinnipiac poll’s findings on public attitudes on the crucial upcoming debt limit fight ought to give serious pause to Republicans. They thought voters were on their side, but the latest evidence shows they aren’t.

The GOP and its outside supporters were emboldened on Sept. 26 by a Bloomberg poll showing that by 61 percent to 28 percent, voters said it would be “right to require spending cuts when the debt ceiling is raised, even if it risks default” on the government’s debts.

It was seen as a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s stance that bills previously contracted by the government had to be paid and that he would not negotiate about it.

Republicans thereupon decided they could load nearly their entire agenda onto the debt vote, including delay or repeal of Obamacare, fast-track authority for tax reform, a rollback of EPA regulations on greenhouse gases and coal ash emissions, medical malpractice caps and restrictions on the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

They also took encouragement from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that the public, by 44 percent to 22 percent, opposed raising the debt limit.

And any number of polls, of course, have shown a decline in Obama’s approval ratings.

The Quinnipiac poll out Tuesday also shows Obama’s approval somewhat under water — 45 percent positive, 49 percent negative.

But the results were devastatingly negative on GOP tactics on both the government shutdown and the debt limit. By 77 percent to 22 percent, the public opposed the GOP tactic of shutting down the government to block implementation of Obamacare.

And by 64 percent to 27 percent, voters opposed blocking an increase in the debt ceiling to stop Obamacare.

They are split on Obamacare — 45 percent pro, 47 percent anti — but they opposed cutting off its funding 58 percent to 34 percent.

Undoubtedly hardliners on the Republican side — maybe leaders, too — will say, forget Quinnipiac and believe Bloomberg.

But there’s other evidence that the public understands that not raising the debt ceiling and not being able to pay the government’s bills is a bad idea.

The Washington Post/ABC poll on Sept. 18 showed that by 73 percent to 22 percent, voters believe that not raising the limit would cause “serious harm” to the economy. It’s true that voters favored raising the limit by only 46 percent to 43 percent. But, on the question of which side — Obama or the Republicans — was doing too little to compromise with the other, it was 49 percent, Obama, and 64 percent, the Republicans.

The bottom line is that Republicans are risking both political and economic disaster if they persist in loading multiple conditions onto the debt limit vote later this month.

A government shutdown, if it doesn’t last too long, will cause pain, but not risk the fundamental health of the economy. Defaulting on the national debt well might — and the latest evidence is that the GOP will get (and deserve) the blame.

September 25, 2013

Sequester-Battered Research Budget Hurts Economy, Too

Today’s Washington Post compellingly traces the case of Yuntao Wu, a pioneering AIDS researcher at George Mason University whose funding has been cut off owing to across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress and President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, the article was at the bottom of Page A6, below a story on the capital’s latest fixation, Sen. Ted Cruz’s political showboating around Obamacare. The crisis in research funding — which I wrote about last week — deserves to be Page 1 once in awhile and to be addressed specifically as Congress considers how (I mean, whether) to keep the government operating.

As The Post and I related, the budget sequester has taken a 5.5 percent bite out of funding at the National Institutes of Health and all the other research programs of the federal government. Full story

September 23, 2013

Averting Calamity Comes Down to Boehner’s Leadership Skills

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The health of the U.S. economy depends on the legislative skill — and the courage — of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

It’s up to him to prevent a shutdown of the U.S. government at the end of this month and, a little later, the first-ever default on the national debt.

If he succeeds, he can prevent the economy from slipping back into recession — or, if we do default, possibly triggering a catastrophic new financial crisis.

But in the process, he will have to prove himself to be Master of the House — and may have to risk being toppled from office by furious tea party conservatives and their allied outside claques. Full story

September 17, 2013

‘Century of Biology’ in U.S. Is Being Undone by Sequester

Besides the prospect of a government shutdown or a default on the national debt, the most destructive aspect of the federal budget impasse is the sequester’s damage to basic scientific research, especially biomedical research.

Almost everyone agrees that across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending — which make up just a third of all federal outlays — are a poor substitute for debt reduction that includes entitlement reform.

But the continuing failure to address the debt comprehensively means that the sequester may go on indefinitely.

Many federal agencies undoubtedly can afford a 5 percent haircut without damaging the national interest. But chopping research — already underfunded — is worse than eating the nation’s seed corn. It’s like letting it wither in the fields or feeding it to the pigs.

Even though federally funded research laid the basis for the success of major employers such as Google, Sun Microsystems, Genentech and Cisco, its funding as a percentage of gross domestic product has fallen by more than 30 percent since the mid-1980s.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the budget sequester is cutting total federal research-and-development funding to below 0.8 percent of GDP, its lowest level in 40 years.

Fifteen years ago, Congress and the Clinton administration temporarily reversed the trend, doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health in four years. George W. Bush finished the project. But the budget has been flat since 2003.

The combination of inflation plus a $1.6 billion reduction mandated this year by the sequester has cut the NIH’s research power by 20 percent. “We’re being undoubled,” NIH Director Francis Collins told me.

After the doubling, nearly a third of the qualified research ideas submitted to NIH got funded. Now, the number is down to 14 percent — a reduction of nearly 700 this year alone.

The cuts are crippling the biotechnology industry, sacrificing what has been a major U.S. job creator and world leader. They are forcing young scientists we’ve spent a fortune educating to look for other work or go overseas.

Worst of all, they’re going to kill people.

Among its research projects, the NIH has been funding work on a universal flu vaccine that could prevent a pandemic killing millions.

The sequester demands a 5 percent cut across the board at every one of the NIH’s 27 institutes and research centers, including the one concentrating on infectious diseases. So, there’s a slowdown in work on the vaccine.

In a normal year, about 40,000 Americans die from influenza and about 500,000 die worldwide. But the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic may have killed 100 million. In another such outbreak, the toll would be even higher.

Or, take cancer. Thanks in part to NIH-funded research, the U.S. cancer death rate has fallen 15 percent in the past decade and a half, but 580,000 people still die of it annually in this country.

Instead of carpet-bombing all cancers with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, researchers are using genomics to develop personalized treatments for various kinds of cancer.

Now that work has slowed, too, because of cuts at the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Collins told me he has met with more than 100 members of Congress to plead for an undoing of the sequester. The Senate Democratic budget does it. Collins said that most House Republicans tell him, “‘You’re right, but there’s not much I can do.’” They certainly ought to try.

As Collins says, this could be “the century of biology,” leading to the conquest of major diseases and the development of new energy and food sources. But it won’t be America’s century if the government keeps slashing research.


September 11, 2013

Obama’s Syria Stumblings Might Actually Work — for Now

Give President Barack Obama this much credit. After months of bumbling over Syria policy, he came essentially to the right decision: The United States must use force in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

And, after weeks of indecision, he demonstrated leadership and courage in pursuing the military option despite overwhelming public opposition, foreign abdication of responsibility and the possibility (even likelihood) that his proposal would be defeated in Congress.

Before Russia’s latest gambit to forestall a U.S. strike, Obama was planning to go before the war-weary nation Tuesday night and argue, essentially, for war. In fact, that is what he did do — saying he was merely putting his request for an authorization in abeyance to explore the idea of Syria’s voluntarily giving up its chemical weapons. Full story

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