What might Democrats give up in “fiscal cliff” talks? That question arises Tuesday as Republicans complain that they’ve acceded to increases in government revenue but Democrats haven’t detailed any spending cuts they’d accept.
President Obama has talked about his preference for a “balanced” solution to the crisis, with about $1.6 trillion of new revenue as part of a $3 trillion deficit-reduction package spread over 10 years. He’s been largely silent on the spending reduction side of this balance, however, and some Democrats have indicated they’ll fight if Mr. Obama tries to slash entitlement programs, as the GOP wants.
“In the past, Democrats have demanded tax hikes now for spending cuts that never happened. Not this time. A balanced approach means real cuts, now,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Of course, to some extent GOP lawmakers have also fuzzed their proposed fiscal cliff solutions. While House Speaker John Boehner and others have talked vaguely about “new revenues,” they’ve haven’t said how those new revenues might be produced. Plus, they’ve continued to resist allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the very wealthy, as Obama wants.
But Republicans say that they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone by even discussing revenue hikes, and that in return Democrats must talk about sweeping entitlement changes. What sorts of changes? Consider the provisions of a 10-year, $4.5 trillion deficit-cutting plan that Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee is currently circulating. He calls for a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age to 68 and in the Medicare eligibility age to 67, plus a less generous mechanism for adjusting Social Security outlays due to inflation, among other things.
The GOP also wants provisions of the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” revisited.
“It’s ridiculous to suggest that we make changes to Medicare and Medicaid, while leaving $1.6 trillion in new Obamacare spending untouched,” said Senator McConnell on Tuesday.
The White House, for its part, continues to make noises about the big entitlement programs, saying they’re on the table as part of a multipart deficit solution that also includes increased revenue.
In past fiscal negotiations with Congress, Obama has indicated he might be open to a gradual increase in the Medicare eligibility age, as well as some limits on future Social Security checks. But in recent days White House spokesman Jay Carney has said the administration believes Social Security shouldn’t be part of the current talks, since by itself it isn’t adding to the deficit. And some core Democratic constituencies, particularly liberals and unions, would fight hard to keep the age of Medicare eligibility from rising.
Unions and progressive groups met Tuesday with administration officials and reported themselves satisfied as to where the president currently stands.
“One person at the meeting ... came away convinced that the White House would ultimately prove willing to go over the fiscal cliff if necessary, rather than give ground on core demands,” writes liberal Greg Sargent Tuesday on his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post.
The left might be open to more means-testing of Medicare, however. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, an adamant foe of raising the age of eligibility, said Tuesday during an appearance on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" that one solution is to have higher-income people pay more toward their government-run health plans.
As to Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program for lower-income Americans, the administration might resist large reductions. Under terms of the Affordable Care Act, Obama is trying to entice states to join in expanding the program to many more people. Big reductions in federal subsidies would not help in this effort.
One last issue that’s sure to come up is Obamacare itself – specifically, the subsidies the government will offer beginning in 2014 to help the uninsured buy health coverage.
The Obamacare bill that emerged from the Senate Finance Committee contained less generous aid than the final legislation authorized. It’s possible the two sides might agree to scale back this cost.
“I don’t see how the subsidies [for people earning] up to 400 percent of poverty could remain in this environment,” said G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a longtime Senate staffer, at a recent symposium sponsored by The Alliance for Health Reform.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is certainly riding high these days. His announcement that he will, as expected, seek reelection next year comes just as several new polls show his approval ratings have hit record levels in the Garden State.
According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, 72 percent of New Jersey voters currently approve of the job Governor Christie is doing. That’s the highest score ever recorded for a New Jersey governor, and a 16-point improvement for Christie since before superstorm Sandy hit the state last month. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Monday put Christie's approval rate even higher, at 77 percent. Even 52 percent of Democrats in the Quinnipiac poll now approve of the governor.
In a release, Maurice Carroll, the Quinnipiac poll’s director, commented that Christie "never looked more like a 'Jersey Guy' than when he stood on the Seaside boardwalk after Sandy, and, just about unanimously, his New Jersey neighbors – Republicans, Democrats, Independents – applauded.”
The turnaround in Christie’s standing in his home state has clearly given pause to Democrats like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who, not too long ago, seemed poised to mount a gubernatorial bid of his own.
Still, in politics, popularity – particularly when it comes in the wake of a single event – can be fleeting. The real questions are: How long can Christie’s halo last? And, even if it begins to tarnish (as history suggests may be inevitable), could it still help propel him to a White House bid in 2016?
One obvious comparison is the case of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Giuliani’s popularity skyrocketed. He went being from a controversial and combative Republican in a city of mostly Democrats to “America’s Mayor,” as Oprah Winfrey famously dubbed him. He was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and he was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Notably, Giuliani managed to retain that image, nationally, for some time (it may have helped that term limits put him out of the office just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, which spared him some of the subsequent fights over victims’ compensation, rebuilding, and other thorny issues).
In early 2007, Giuliani was leading all other potential GOP presidential candidates in most national polls, with his approval ratings hovering in the mid-60s among all voters, and in the 80s among Republicans. But throughout the course of the campaign, Giuliani’s poll numbers steadily dropped. His post-9/11 reputation wasn't enough in the eyes of Republican primary voters to make up for his onetime liberal positions on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and guns (as well as his own marital history).
The harsh reaction from many conservatives to Christie's public praise of President Obama in the wake of Sandy suggests that he might face a similar set of hurdles were he to enter the presidential primary gauntlet.
Of course, dealing with the aftermath of a storm is not the same as dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack. There's reason to believe voters in New Jersey may not show the same levels of patience with their public officials' dealing with the ongoing hassles of cleanup and rebuilding as New Yorkers did in the wake of 9/11. And in terms of national reverberations, the storm is clearly a less significant event (though that could actually be a good thing – since, ironically, Giuliani wound up having to argue in his presidential bid that there was more to him than 9/11, pleading with voters to look at his "whole record").
Still, the goodwill Christie amassed in the weeks immediately following the storm shouldn’t be underestimated, either. A perhaps more relevant comparison is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – who, interestingly, seems to be pondering a 2016 run himself. Bush was widely praised by Democrats and Republicans alike for his handling of a series of hurricanes that battered the Sunshine State in 2004 and 2005. The St. Petersburg Times dubbed him “The Hurricane Governor” in a laudatory profile that quoted Democratic strategists who'd worked for his opponent as saying he’d been “a superb leader.” Two years later, Bush left office with a nearly 60 percent approval rating.
On the other hand, it's worth noting that Bush’s predecessor, former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, was roundly criticized in the wake of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew – with his approval rating in the state going all the way down to a dismal 22 percent. Two years later he won reelection, anyway.
In recent days some big-name congressional Republicans have said they won’t be bound by past pledges to not raise taxes. They’re rejecting this aspect of GOP orthodoxy to help strike a deal on the nation’s “fiscal cliff” problem, they say.
The latest lawmaker to bolt the longtime antitax party line is Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who said on Monday he’d be flexible about raising tax rates and capping income-tax deductions in return for reform of America’s huge entitlement spending programs.
Senator Corker, like virtually all other US GOP officeholders, once vowed to oppose and vote against all tax increases by signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of antitax activist Grover Norquist. But on "CBS This Morning," he told host Charlie Rose he wouldn’t let this past position stand in the way of solving today’s fiscal problems.
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“I’m not obligated on the pledge ... the only thing I’m honoring is the oath that I take when I’m sworn in this January,” said Corker.
Corker thus joins Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Republican Rep. Peter King of New York in saying that adherence to the Norquist pledge is outdated. Are they the harbinger of a mass defection that would make it much easier for party leaders to strike a deal with the White House?
Well, anything’s possible in politics. But we don’t see this as a game-changing development, at least not yet.
First, the folks we’re talking about here aren’t important players in terms of fiscal cliff negotiations. Remember, the Senate is controlled by Democrats, so what GOP senators think is much less important than what top House Republicans think. True, Representative King is a committee chairman, but it’s the Homeland Security Committee, and he’ll have to step down in the next Congress due to party chairmanship limits. (House Speaker John Boehner has spoken vaguely of accepting revenue increases, but hasn’t detailed what that means.)
Second, these revelations aren’t exactly new. The lawmakers involved have either endorsed tax increases in the past as part of a deficit deal (Chambliss, Corker), often floated initiatives of one kind or another, only to back down (Graham), or are moderate Republicans in a district surrounded by Democratic areas (King), writes David Dayen Monday on the left-leaning Firedoglake blog.
“There’s no news here at all, but instead a fake Washington drama based on personality,” writes Mr. Dayen.
Third, the counterattack from the right has already begun. Grover Norquist himself on CNN’s "Starting Point" on Monday played down the issue, saying it’s nothing but a few lawmakers “discussing impure thoughts on national television." Some conservative activists have been more pointed, saying that all those involved risk facing primary challenges from the right if they maintain such an attitude.
“On this core issue, Republicans like Chambliss and Graham side with Democrats. We side with the Constitution,” writes Mr. Horowitz.
One final thought: If individual GOP lawmakers, such as those mentioned above, truly believe the antitax pledge shouldn’t prevent a fiscal cliff solution, should they just keep quiet about it, pending negotiations?
That’s because Speaker Boehner faces tough talks with the White House. In terms of game theory, Boehner might benefit from administration uncertainty as to where the rank-and-file GOP stands.
Theoretically, President Obama might give in a bit more if the administration comes to believe that Republican backbenchers would revolt at revenue increases.
“Boehner may ironically (but completely classically from a game theoretic vantage point) benefit from being able to portray himself (accurately or not) as not being able to corral his own troops. ‘Sir, I told them gruel was sufficient to survive the night, but they simply insisted they’d die without gruyere,’ ” writes John Patty, an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, on his blog, The Math of Politics.
Will Obamacare be targeted for possible budget cuts during upcoming talks in Washington aimed at averting a fiscal crisis in January? Speaker of the House John Boehner insists that it should be. In an opinion piece he wrote for The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this week he called the president’s signature Affordable Care Act a massive, expensive, and unworkable government program.
“That’s why I’ve been clear that the law has to stay on the table as both parties discuss ways to solve our nation’s massive debt challenge,” he said.
Democrats, unsurprisingly, see things otherwise. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quotes an administration official saying this is something President Obama opposes. A top Senate Democratic aid calls the idea “absolutely” a nonstarter, according to Mr. Stein.
The reality is that aspects of Mr. Obama’s health reforms likely will be discussed when negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff” heat up. But another reality is that Obamacare is now the law of the land, and isn’t going to be repealed or changed in any major way as a result of a final fiscal deal.
That last point is in conflict with Boehner’s expressed wishes. The part about negotiating cuts in the law was only a few lines in his recent opinion piece. Overall he said that he and the GOP leadership would continue to try and repeal the entire law. “As was the case before the election, Obamacare has to go,” he wrote.
Well, good luck with that. With a Democratic president and Senate still in place, the best House Republicans can hope for is to chip away the law’s rough edges. As respected Washington health-care policy consultant Bob Laszewski wrote on his blog following the election, the Affordable Care Act’s fate is now settled.
“It will be implemented,” wrote Mr. Laszewski. “It will also have to be changed but not until after it is implemented and the required changes become obvious and unavoidable. We can all debate what those things will be ... but it doesn’t matter what we think will happen – time will tell.”
As to what aspects of the law might be tweaked in exchange for GOP acceptance of increased tax revenues from the rich, the most obvious are the subsidies intended to help lower income Americans purchase health insurance when the law takes full effect at the beginning of 2014.
As the law now stands, those with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level could qualify for at least some aid. But as senior editorial writer Conn Carroll points out Friday in the Washington Examiner, the original version of the Affordable Care Act passed by the Senate Finance Committee was less generous.
“Republicans think they can get Obama to go back to those levels of Obamacare spending,” writes Carroll.
Other obvious targets include various boards and oversight panels that the law would authorize. Among these, the Affordable Care Act sets aside $10 billion for a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. The CMMI is supposed to test methods of saving money in big government health-care entitlement programs.
The GOP thinks this is a waste and wants to reduce the group’s funding, writes congressional reporter Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo.
“Top Republicans have floated the idea before in previous debt reduction talks and, with the fiscal cliff negotiations coming up, will hope to reduce the funding for CMMI,” writes Kapur.
Black Friday: It’s a day in which most American citizens put aside politics in pursuit of shopping bargains. But in Washington we can sort almost anything in the US in terms of partisan proclivity, and temples of commerce are no exception. Want to know whether the big box store where you’re waiting in line leans Democratic or Republican? The folks at the invaluable Center for Responsive Politics have compiled a handy guide based on campaign contributions.
Toys R Us, for instance, seems a solidly blue store. Self-identified employees of the store gave $39,000 to political candidates in the 2012 election cycle, and $36,000 of that went to Democrats.
Dig into the numbers though, and you’ll see that Toys R Us is not so much Democratic as Klobucharian. All that $36,000 went to one candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota. (That’s kind of odd, isn’t it? The retailer’s corporate headquarters are in New Jersey.) Other than that, Mitt Romney got $1,750 from Toys R Us workers. President Obama got zilch, according to CRP’s Open Secrets blog.
Macy’s employees, on the other hand, were big Obama fans. They donated $28,870 to the president’s reelection campaign, as opposed to $16,390 to GOP nominee Mr. Romney. This Democratic lean was counterbalanced to a certain extent by the store’s corporate political action committee, however. (Toys R Us doesn’t appear to have a central PAC.) Macy’s PAC gave $12,000 to Republicans, and $4,000 to Democrats.
Best Buy seems more of a red retailer. Both it s employees and the company’s PAC had a slight preference for Republicans, according to CRP. Store employees gave $17,662 to Democrats and $22,419 to the GOP, for instance.
But there’s Senator Klobuchar again – she’s the individual candidate to whom Best Buy-related entities donated the most. Yes, she’s chairperson of a Senate Commerce subcommittee on competitiveness, so that might have something to do with it. Maybe the money comes due to her political affiliation with Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton? Governor Dayton is the scion of the Dayton retail empire, which among other things founded Target.
Hmm, we see that Target leaned GOP as well, so maybe that theory isn’t right. Of the store’s $483,777 in individual and PAC contributions, the majority went to the right side of the aisle, according to Open Secrets. And the top recipient is not Sen. Klobuchar, but Rep. Eric Paulsen – a Twin Cities Republican.
Employee donations skewed Republican – which might not be surprising, since Wal-Mart is a big employer in the exurban/rural areas where Romney ran strongly. The firm’s PAC gave roughly equal amounts to candidates of both parties, however. That might be because Wal-Mart lobbies hard in Washington and needs relationships on both sides of the aisle.
In fact, Wal-Mart has spent more than $12 million on lobbyists in the past two years. It has its own Washington office, with 15 employees, and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in retainers to such top outside lobby firms as Patton Boggs and the Podesta Group.
The firm’s No. 1 issue is sales taxes – specifically, getting states to slap sales taxes on web retail. Rep. Steven Womack (R) of Arkansas, whose district includes Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters, has long pushed national legislation that would force out-of-state online retailers to collect sales tax. He’s one of the top recipients of Wal-Mart campaign contributions.
“The traditional brick and mortar retailer is not asking for special treatment. They know they have to compete against a number of consumer criterion. What they don’t want – and should not compete against – is a disadvantage based on a tax loophole,” said Congressman Womack earlier this year during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue.
Has the White House turkey pardon jumped the shark?
We ask this because this year’s traditional ceremony – in which President Obama will pardon a bird presumably otherwise bound for a Thanksgiving platter – is more, um, elaborate than ever. It involves two turkeys, and Facebook, and voting, and Carly Simon. This isn’t a lighter moment in a president’s otherwise heavy schedule, it’s an over-produced reality show. Call it “The Gravy Factor," or maybe “America’s Got Drumsticks."
OK, we’ll back up a moment and take this whole thing from the top. Since at least 1947, US presidents have participated in an annual event in which they receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving harvest feast.
At the beginning, these birds had a date with oyster stuffing. President Truman ate his, or at least said he was going to. President Eisenhower did the same thing.
But more recently, White Houses have decided it looks less carnivorous for them to grant the on-stage bird clemency. According to a White House history of the event, John F. Kennedy was the first to send his turkey back to the farm. “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said.
President George H. W. Bush was the first to use the actual word “pardon." He sent his turkey to live out its days at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va., thereby indicating he had a subtler sense of humor than historians give him credit for today.
Since then the ceremony has become more and more Hollywood. Two turkeys are involved – a primary turkey and a backup in case the first bird can’t carry out its duty of continuing to live.
Enter Gobbler and Cobbler. This year, some Obama aide had the bright idea of pitting these two birds against each other in a Facebook-based voting contest. The one with the most “likes” would be named the official White House bird.
Cobbler is a four-month-old, 40-pound male, also from Rockingham, who’s a “strutter” and likes the song “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, according to his official bio.
(Sweet cornbread stuffing! Who’s the overachieving White House official who had to make that stuff up? They clawed their way to the top of Washington and thought they’d be running the world and instead they’re hawking poultry.)
At last look, Cobbler was the favorite – he had about 2,400 “likes” to Gobbler’s 2,100. Neither will be eaten, so the title is honorific. Maybe they get a sash, or a crown.
But here’s our point – it seems to us they’re being ironic about the whole ceremony instead of straightforward. “Cobbler”? Carly Simon? If it’s not worth doing it without a subtext, maybe it’s not worth doing at all.
It’s not like presidents enjoy it. Or at least, many don’t seem to. Ike and Jimmy Carter made their veeps shoulder most of the turkey-related duties. Ronald Reagan laughed when his turkey made a flyabout and bolted for freedom.
In 2009, Obama approached the bird to be pardoned, named “Courage," and asked his (the bird’s) handlers if there was an “official gesture." Come on – this whole thing has become too grandiose, like the “Happy Days” episode where Fonzie literally jumped a shark while water-skiing. At that point, the show’s creators were out of ideas, and it began to go downhill.
Perhaps the turkey pardon has reached that crucial turn in the narrative road. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Obama to end the practice, calling it “archaic."
“The White House turkey ‘pardon’ is a sorely outdated event,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk wrote in a letter to the White House.
We might agree with that, but then again, the scalloped oysters are our own favorite part of the turkey-day meal.
Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas may be retiring from Congress but he still knows how to stir a pot, metaphorically speaking. In the latest example of his ability to get people talking he’s issued a statement that’s supportive of state petitions to secede from the US.
You’ve heard about those petitions, right? They’re on a section of the White House website intended to allow citizens the ability to express their opinions about the direction of the US government. Disgruntled voters have now initiated petitions for each of the 50 states to withdraw from the union. The one for Texas has the most signatures – 115,751 the last time we looked.
Anyway, all this got Congressman Paul thinking. “Is it treasonous to want to secede from the United States?” he writes.
While many people might think this question was answered by the Civil War, the “principles of self-governance and voluntary association are at the core of our founding,” Paul argues. He adds that if secession is off the table, there’s nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on individual liberties.
“Consider the ballot measures that passed in Colorado and Washington State regarding marijuana laws,” Paul writes, pointing out that the residents of those states have indicated they want pot policy to be different than the federal government's.
"At what point should the people dissolve the political bands which have connected them to an increasingly tyrannical and oppressive federal government?" Paul concludes.
Well, we’ve got a couple of comments here. The first is that, yes, for all practical purposes the Civil War did settle this question. But we’ll move past that since Paul is just writing rhetorically here. He notes that he has no expectation Texas is really going to secede.
The second is that this argument appears to greatly discount the power of democracy. Without the threat of secession, there’s nothing to stop the gradual slide toward a police state? That would mean elections don’t matter. Why bother to have them?
Which brings us to pot. Yes indeed, voters in Colorado and Washington indicated a desire for a different kind of antidrug regime. But would it be churlish to note that voters in both those states delivered their electoral votes to President Obama? That means they also approved of the administration that’s supposed to enforce national antidrug laws, which were passed by duly elected members of Congress. At the least, they're sending a mixed message here. Paul is picking the result he agrees with and discounting the one he opposes.
It's the same thing with regards to Obamacare. He says the federal government doesn't appear to be respecting the wishes of states that refuse to establish the health insurance stores, or "exchanges," called for under the law. But the law makes clear that if states don't establish these, the federal government will step in and do it for them. If US voters truly wished to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, they could have elected Mitt Romney. They didn't.
Lastly, it's possible that Paul is overstating the popularity of the secession petitions in general. He wouldn't be alone in this – even the media, in reacting to them, in essence elevate them to a level they may not quite deserve.
That's because many fewer individuals may have signed them than appears at first glance. While the petitions focus on particular states, signees may be from anywhere. They can – and do – sign more than one petition.
Neal Caron, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has, with the help of his students, analyzed the particulars of more than 900,000 of the signatures, and his conclusion is that they represent about 321,000 different people. In essence, each signee put their John Hancock down in three places.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, support for secession was strongest by far in red states Obama lost, and strongest of all in – you guessed it – Texas.
What does this mean? It means that the secession craze is narrower than it at first appeared. And maybe it also means that in the end, talk of secession is about rejecting other American voters the secessionists don't agree with, as much as the federal government.
On Tuesday President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East in an attempt to end the deadly fight between Israel and Hamas. Why now? After all, to this point US involvement in the escalating war of missiles and air strikes has seemed reticent, instead of forceful.
The short answer as to why Secretary Clinton is suddenly involved in shuttle diplomacy is that the conflict may have reached a moment when the presence of a high-ranking American official can do some good. In that sense Clinton’s trip may be a lagging indicator of a possible cease-fire, not a leading one.
Presidents don’t generally like to dispatch their secretaries of State to war zones unless they’re fairly sure something positive will occur during the trip. Otherwise, the US looks even weaker, as if they tried to influence events, but nobody would listen.
And indeed, following the announcement of Clinton’s visit, media reports are claiming that Hamas will cease firing rockets at Israel beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time. These reports say Israel is asking for 24 hours of calm before it will accept a formal cease-fire.
The longer answer about the timing of Clinton’s trip involves the changed triangular relationship between the US, its traditional ally Israel, and the new pro-Islamist government of Egypt.
The last time Israel struck Gaza to “mow the grass,” or deter rocket fire against its territory, was in 2008. As Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out in a recent analysis, back then the US could count on authoritarian figures such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to rein in Hamas in an effort to keep violence at lower levels.
They can’t any longer. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other Arab leaders now face domestic pressure to “demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States ‘accountable’ for their actions,” writes Mr. Cook.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all but campaigned for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election cycle. At the highest level, the US-Israeli friendship, in a word, is “strained.”
In this context, the timing of a secretary of State’s visit to the region becomes all the more delicate. The US has no relations with Hamas, which it labels as a terrorist organization, and thus depends on Egypt to press the group to cease rocket fire. It needs an Israeli prime minister whose bluster has angered the White House to refrain from sending his troops over the border in a ground assault.
Indications are that both these things are occurring. (Or not occurring, in the case of the ground war.) President Morsi has voiced loud public support for Hamas, even visiting Gaza, but behind the scenes he seems to be trying to restrain Hamas leaders from an escalation of violence that could result in a devastating Israeli response. At the same time, Israel has massed troops and tanks on the Gaza border, but hasn’t yet unleashed them, despite threatening for days that it was just about to do so.
Any cease-fire in this conflict would be as fragile as balsa wood, weak enough to be shattered by only one Hamas rocket. Yet if Israel agrees to stand down its troops, the US might get some credit in the region for pressing restraint upon its ally.
In any case, this is not the Middle East of 2008; US influence now goes only so far with Egypt and other nearby nations newly sensitive to their own population’s demands. For Clinton, who is soon to leave her post, and Mr. Obama, who isn’t, the combat in Gaza is a difficult test in a region full of new tensions.
As the Republican Party continues its post-election “proctology exam” (as the always colorful former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour – a Republican – put it), analyzing what went wrong and how to restore the party brand, we’re starting to hear hints at a prescription that just two years ago would have been unheard of: Maybe it’s time to throw Grover Norquist under the bus.
Mr. Norquist, of course, is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and the author of the famous “no new taxes” pledge taken by most GOP members of Congress. In years past, if politicians violated – or even threatened to violate – the pledge, Norquist at times responded by running attack ads against them and even supporting primary challengers.
But as the parties begin negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" – the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to hit at the end of the year – there are signs that Norquist may be losing some sway. For one thing, as The Hill's Russell Berman recently noted, in the next session the number of members who have taken the pledge will go down to fewer than half overall. This is in part because of GOP losses, but also because roughly a dozen newly elected Republicans did not sign it, and a handful of returning Republicans have now explicitly rejected it.
And notably, Republicans are not only making conciliatory comments about new tax "revenue" in general – but some are also explicitly saying they'd accept higher tax rates on the wealthy.
Of course, no one is suggesting that the party should abandon its overall commitment to low taxes. But there is clearly a growing realization among many Republicans that the party’s current image as favoring the wealthy at the expense of the middle class has become politically toxic – as has the perception that the party puts ideological purity before practicality. As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) wrote in an opinion piece for CNN: "We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys."
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol kicked off the "let's consider higher tax rates for the rich" conversation last weekend, when he said on Fox News Sunday: “It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won’t.” He then asked rhetorically: “Really? The Republican Party is going to fall on its sword to defend a bunch of millionaires, half of whom voted Democratic, and half of whom live in Hollywood and are hostile to Republicans?”
That line was echoed this week by some Republican governors: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told Politico that his party would have to be more flexible when it came to raising taxes on the wealthy. “Elections do have consequences,” he said. “As a piece of an overall package with tax reform that is more comprehensive, I think it’s something that absolutely has got to be discussed.”
Mr. Barbour, the former Mississippi governor, concurred, saying: “If there’s enough savings, if there’s enough entitlement reform, if there’s enough certainty about tax reform in the next few years, I would" let the Bush tax cuts expire on top earners. He added: “You can’t be purist.”
Now, the Republican leadership in Congress has been much more vague. So far, they’ve indicated that while they agree there is a need for new tax “revenue,” they’d prefer that it come from closing loopholes, not raising tax rates. Reading their statements closely, it's possible to interpret them as still relying on assumptions that a cleaner tax code, with lower rates, will automatically lead to greater economic growth, and – presto! – generate more revenue that way. (This is an assumption that Democrats regard as little more than wishful thinking and many economists, too, view with some skepticism.)
Yet some rank-and-file members have begun hinting that they might, in fact, be open to raising tax rates at some point. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia postulated in an interview with FoxNews.com this week that, "What I think you will see is a retention of the tax rates as they are for a year, with the promise that we will get into looking at all revenues – and that could include tax rates."
For his part, Norquist has always maintained that he’s fine with closing tax loopholes, as long as the overall effect is “revenue neutral” – meaning that the federal government should get no net increase in money. And he argues that raising tax rates on the wealthy would be just a first step toward ultimately raising tax rates on everyone.
But at this point, that appears to be a risk that more Republicans are willing to take. If they capitulate on the upper-level tax rates, they may hand Obama and the Democrats a victory – but they could also go a long way toward rehabilitating their own party brand in a way that ultimately gives it broader, more populist appeal. And that may be a more palatable option than risking being seen as the party that holds the US economy hostage for the sake of lower taxes for wealthy 1 percenters.
But even as her ascent up the leadership ladder showed Republicans realize they need to improve their standing with female voters, it was also the exception that proves the rule that Democrats have done far more to reach out to women, including by electing them to Congress.
With the backing of House Speaker John Boehner, among others, Representative McMorris Rodgers defeated Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a former chairman of the largest House conservative caucus who had the backing of former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, in the race for the GOP’s conference chairman.
That news was welcomed in many GOP circles as a good sign for a party that endured a yawning gender gap in the 2012 election cycle, where Democrats won women’s votes by an 11 percent margin over their Republican foes.
“She is a firebrand for conservative women, and electing her to the chairmanship is the first step in a much-needed transformation of the GOP party,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, in a statement. “The party – still viewed by many as too old, too white, and too male – needed a shakeup, and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers is the right person for the job.”
“I'm proud to see the progress that is being made within our party and the growing role of women in our leadership,” Representative Ellmers said in a statement.
The number of women in the GOP leadership increased by one versus the last cycle – while Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota stepped away, Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) of Kansas and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) of North Carolina both joined the leadership team.
McMorris Rodgers isn’t a token lawmaker – she was Mitt Romney’s congressional liaison and was already in party leadership during the last Congress. Moreover, she defeated a man who has deep respect in the conference for his knowledge of policy issues, particularly on health care.
But compared with the level to which women have come to help define the Democratic party in Congress, McMorris Rodgers and Co. have a long, long way to go.
One need only look to earlier in the day, when House minority leader Nancy Pelosi showed the potency and breadth of women’s power in her party. There was Representative Pelosi, standing shoulder to shoulder with many of the nearly 60 House Democratic women at a press conference announcing that she, the first-ever female speaker of the House, would stay on as leader of her caucus for another two years.
That’s a nearly three-to-one advantage for Democrats in terms of female representation in the House. In the Senate, where liberal heartthrobs like Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin will join the party in 2013, Democrats will have 16 women senators to the Republicans’ four.
Overall, that’s the most women in the Senate ever – and it’s a four-to-one advantage for Democrats.
While there isn’t a one-to-one connection between lawmakers and gender support, the results of the 2012 election are unambiguous: Exit polls showed women breaking for President Obama and Democrats by double-digit margins in many states.
“I come here with my sisters,” said Pelosi, noting that when she came to Congress a quarter of a century earlier there were only 23 total women in the House, split relatively evenly between right and left.
“Today, we have over 60 House Democratic women,” she said as her members applauded. “Very good. Not enough. We want more.”
In the Republican event unveiling the party’s new leadership, women – even with three of them on stage – went with nary a mention.