Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Role of foreign policy in 2012

The Republican debate about national security between GOP contenders for president last week reminded me of the 2008 Democratic primary between President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

While economy, jobs and health care issues had given Obama an early leg-up in the primaries, Clinton nearly took him down on her right-of-center stance on national security. Post-GOP debate pundit commentary raised Clinton's iconic ad of the 3 a.m. call and the question: who was ready to be commander in chief on day one. Those measures of ability will still be present in 2012 to one extent or another.

There are three factors that will influence the impact of national security issues on the 2012 election outcome: In which candidate will the majority of voters have confidence that the 3 a.m. call will be answered with competence on day one; whether economic concerns will trump national security worries at the time of the election; and whose foreign policy aligns best with the views of the majority.

On point three, Obama wins hands down today. Polls conducted lately by Gallup, and nearly every other organization, found 63 percent of the Americans approved of Obama's handling of terrorism. Gallup found in late October that 75 percent of Americans approved of our pulling out nearly all U.S. military forces from Iraq.

Aside from Ron Paul's libertarian isolationism, GOP candidates either fell all over themselves trying to sound more neo-conservative or more experienced than the other. When all was said and done, other than tweaking time lines for troop withdrawals, amounts, or leadership style, there was not much fundamental difference with the administration.

That was most noticeable on the debate about what to do about Iran, which was a matter to what degree we should do more of the same of what the Obama administration was already doing … more embargoes, more international pressure, more saber-rattling, more covert action. Even Obama has taken no options, including military action, off the table.

Hitting the president for not doing enough covert action, when no one knows how much covert action we are doing now, was strange, to say the least. If we know about it, it is not covert, is it?

How about being ready on day one? Nearly all of the recent attacks on American security have happened in the first months of a presidency and the fitness and readiness factors should not be taken lightly. The Obama/Hillary contest was instructive. Clinton was obviously viewed as strongest on defense. Obama won anyway. Voters had enough confidence in his abilities, perspectives, and background to give him a pass. “Good enough, if not the best” was the litmus test then and could be again.

Here is where experience does count. Those with experience in the national and international arena — Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich — made the best impression. Gov. Perry sounded like he was still running for governor of Texas, a dangerous perspective. His fellow Texan George W. Bush was under the illusion that everyone abroad had the same aspirations as a Texan. It must have come as a shock to Bush that Iraqis did not rise up to embrace democracy when U.S. forces tore down Saddam's statue, since any red blooded American would have done so.

The moral to that story: Provincial perspectives can lead to very bad judgment calls. Perry's simplistic “yank the aid from Pakistan” correctly yielded a slap down from Bachmann for ignoring Pakistan's nuclear power.

Herman Cain demonstrated he had read his briefing books this time. Romney played to the neo-con crowd, a mask of his lack of geo-political credentials. Santorum did not make much of a mark.

The extent to which national security will sway voters' choices a year in advance is unknown. Much can happen that could bump it up in our list of worries. However, if the general election candidates bloody themselves to a draw on economic issues, it could be a tie-breaker.

My column appearing in the Sky Hi News today

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Grand County, Colorado, ground zero for needing Obamacare

My column in the Sky Hi News Nov. 23, 2011
Welcome to Grand County, one of Colorado's ground zeroes when it comes to the health care insurance problem.

While Colorado's statewide average of those without insurance is 16 percent, northwest Colorado and similar rural areas have between 20 percent and 25 percent uninsured. That is one out of every four or five of us.

It is exactly our kind of community that stands to gain the most from the health care reform law so many in our area call, with contempt, “Obamacare.”

Some cold hard statistics gathered by the Colorado Health Institute were reported in the Nov. 16 Denver Post by Michael Booth. (“Number of uninsured Coloradans up 22 percent in two years, report says”).

Linda Gorman, health-policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, fired back that the study seemed aimed at justifying more government health care. “The questions should be,” she was quoted in the article, “whether people are getting the medical care they need, not whether they are insured.”

Gorman could answer her own question if she climbed out of the bubble of her think tank and talked with shoppers she meets in our county's Safeway or City Market. It would be an instructive couple of hours.

My husband is a retired physician who does our grocery shopping. While shopping, he is frequently asked for names of specialists he recommends and where one can go for help with a medical problem.

He relayed to me the story of four local citizens who had sought direction from him recently. One was a jack of all trades who could only find part time work over the past year. He was referred to a local charity that had a network of primary care doctors who volunteered free or low cost services. He could not afford the medication to treat a debilitating chronic condition.

Another, a fast food worker holding down a total of three jobs to support his family, made too much money to qualify for a low cost doctor's visit, but he had a medical condition that required some surgery he could not even begin to afford.

A waitress only wanted a checkup, but she had “some issues” and was afraid she could not afford the extensive tests she might be required to take. None of these had insurance; none qualified for Medicaid and they faced gambling they could get by without care hoping their problems did not become emergencies later. These are among the 540,000 in Colorado who would benefit from Obamacare.

They or others like them will arrive at the emergency room sometime in the future with strokes, stage three cancer, or other diseases that reach an acute level and have become extremely expensive to treat due to lack of earlier care. If any of these patients need surgery or hospitalization and cannot afford to pay, they get treatment regardless, and the unpaid bill is absorbed by the hospital who passes the cost on in higher charges for us all. This runs up insurance premiums for those of us who have health insurance and costs government more for Medicare and Medicaid.

It is estimated by the American Medical Association that those who have insurance pay $1,000 more per family per year for insurance than they should because of this and helps account for the often cited statistic that health care in the U.S. costs two and a half times per capita than elsewhere in the industrialized world.

We are already paying for the uninsureds' care and are paying more than top dollar for our care, too. It is no wonder that the Congressional Budget Office estimates net savings from Obamacare would be $120 billion to the government over the first 10 years and trillions thereafter, a statistic conveniently ignored by GOP presidential candidates who hyperinflate Obamacare costs as trillions without citing the offsetting savings and offer no plan to cover most of the 30 million of our nation's uninsured.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What we can learn from recent votes on issues; swinging pendulums rest in the middle

My column in the Sky Hi News today:
As the Republican Party tries to read the tea leaf residue of the votes on issues recently, Democrats were taking comfort that there was hope voters had not swallowed entire cups of Tea Party brew.

It may be too soon for either side to conclude much, but there may be justification for the Tea salesmen to be a little worried and the Democrats to feel encouraged. The coming 2012 election battle will not be for the hearts and minds of either ideological extremes, but the victory will belong to whichever side appeals to the more moderate middle. The middle made its voice known in these early November contests.

Ohio voters overturned the law passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and their governor, John Kasich, to prohibit collective bargaining by public employees. Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who was the object of sit-in protests over similar legislation, was probably having a few turns in his tummy digesting the news.

Mississippi voters rejected the personhood amendment that would have elevated a fertilized egg to human being status in the eyes of the law. This pro-life overreach was more than voters there could stomach, too.

I often wonder how my traditional rock-ribbed Republican parents would have voted if they had not departed this earth in the late 1980s or had lived in either one of those two states. Dad was staunchly anti-union and later anti-New Deal, and both were pro choice. Both looked warily at any extremes that rocked the boat.

I do not remember my father complaining about taxes, but just wanting them to be spent honestly and efficiently and not to benefit the slackers of this world. My mother observed often that wild political pendulum swings would always come to rest in the middle. If change came, it had to come slowly and be absolutely necessary.

They were true conservatives in the political science definition of the word, but they would not have qualified for that definition given the litmus tests every single candidate seeking GOP support to run for president has to pass these days. Nor did they fit the definition of reactionaries, yearning for the good ol' days of Hoover, either. They had voted for FDR for his first two terms.

The GOP, however, found one spot of cheer … a vote in Ohio against Obamacare mandates, the part of the health care reform law that required everyone to buy into the system according to their income levels. The mandate issue is chock full of irony.

Karl Rove, the GOP political strategist, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that this was a significant vote. In a sense, he was being self-congratulatory since he played such a significant role in turning Obamacare into a dirty word. Ironically, the same week an appellate court upheld the constitutionality of the mandate clause and followed the pattern of other conservative judge's rulings on the subject. Other courts had ruled otherwise. The Ohio vote was effectively symbolic since the constitutionality question will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring.

While I can guess my parents would have stood with the two governors on the collective bargaining issue and opposed personhood laws, they would have struggled with the health care mandate issue. They hated freeloaders of any social welfare system … those who took taxpayer money and did not make an honest effort to do their share. In fact, mandates were the brainchild of conservative think tanks for that reason . 

I could see the irony played out in the GOP candidate debate that took place the same week. While all pledged to overturn Obamacare, Michele Bachmann got a roar of approval for proposing that the poor pay their share of taxes, even if it added up to a couple of hamburgers. Freeloaders able but unwilling to pay into the health care system were fine, but the poor should not to be let off the tax hook, it appears.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

US power limited by actions of others and recession

US power is limited by actions of others and recession

My column in the Sky Hi News today
The Greek debt theater and the dizzying rise and plunge of the U.S. financial markets within a 24-hour period brought sharp focus to the fact that there are external events and conditions that limit the ability of our U.S. political systems and leaders to control our own destiny.

The U.S. has two problems: We are not the only power in an interconnected world and the often lamented structure and practice of our political system allows difficult, hard decisions to be uncompromised into inaction. There has been much less attention in this difficult economy paid to foreign and military policy, yet they have equal bearing on our economic well-being. It is time we sit up and pay attention.

The U.S. was in a unique position after World War II because the powers that challenged us or were allied with us were in ruins. Fortress America had survived and we basked in the illusion that we had the military force and leadership to continue as numero uno for our lifetimes. That did not last long.

The Cold War began soon after and the Soviet Union balanced our power and defined our foreign affairs for the next 40-plus years. We had the economic system that allowed us to increase our military might and we were able to spend the weaker communist system under the table.  The resulting illusion then was that we were almighty.

That too did not last long as Europe united and China and India arose. Our mentality is stuck in nostalgia, that post World War II, post Cold War were the natural state of our being. In reality, we have spent most of the post World War II constantly challenged, reacting mostly with military action both threatened and conducted as a succession of powers emerged. We succeeded, but the nagging recession is a new reality.

To continue to look at the world through the prism of military power alone could result in our spending ourselves under the table, too. Our economic ability to rely on continued high military spending, to invade and occupy, is shaky, either because we lack the will to pay for it or even the resources.

Instead of going solo, we need allies and alliances to chip in their blood and treasure. We also need foreign policies that do not goad potential world rivals to fight us with the sword. Trade and diplomacy should help us avoid expensive military action instead.

That is why I shudder when I hear the chauvinistic declarations of some GOP candidates who are either naïve or who appeal to our nostalgic pride in America to see the world from the perspective of solely a military power. The GOP debate this week will be about foreign policy. So far the candidates, save one or two, have shown lack of interest or sheer ignorance of world affairs. One who has ventured to offer an opinion is Mitt Romney, whose pronouncement so far has been to roll back every recent cut to the Pentagon  budget and increase military spending by 20 percent.

Most GOP presidential candidates so far have been united in their approaches: to criticize President Obama for withdrawing our nine year long occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and for his leading from behind by playing a supporting role in Libya. In the meantime, there is no will among any of those candidates to raise taxes or to do more than decimate any social programs to pay for longer engagements .

Another policy proposed by Romney has been to stop trade and engagement with China to force them to adopt policies more favorable to us. China could be our largest future trading partner. Economic interdependence with us could be the best deterrent to future military conflict. The antithesis of the Romney approach has been engagement, favored by Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China. While Huntsman has little chance of being the GOP candidate, a dialogue between the two may expose Romney's narrow  global vision.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How ideologically based policies can hurt the advocates

 My column in the Sky Hi News Nov. 2, 2011

The problem I have with ideologically based theories is that true believers can carry them to ridiculous conclusions that eventually butt smack dab against expectations of ordinary people when their theory is put into practice.

The Tea Party mantra of small is beautiful, that government is the problem, that the states can always handle it better than the federal government, has some fatal flaws: The public still looks to the federal government anyway to help when the chips are down, and voters take it out on whomever is in power, even years later, for not having the ability or will to fix their problems .

The current GOP mantra is getting EPA and Wall Street regulations off the backs of business so jobs can be created. Rick Perry‘s jobs plan is exclusively to drill for oil and gas unshackled from government environmental regulations. That is music to Texans' ears, but just wait until the next BP-like oil spill destroys shrimpers' income and coats South Padre Island beaches in goopy oil. Watch the fingers point to the EPA and regulators then. Woe be unto a President Perry if he is in the White House.

Closer to home, Colorado's Jensen Farms' listeria-tainted cantaloupe disaster can be directly attributed to lax inspection, as reported in the Denver Post on Oct. 30. Because the Food and Drug Administration inspections are so underfunded, industry is supposed to regulate itself, hiring third parties to do inspections instead. Rarely, according to the Post, do the third party inspectors ever blow a whistle; their employers may not like it.

Many of our recent e coli and tainted meat scares can be traced to the lack of hard nosed, toe-the-regulation-line inspections. However, somehow the public assumes and expects the federal government to be doing its job regardless of whether taxpayers give them the wherewithal .

Who took the fall for the Katrina disaster? It was not the private sector. Federal failures were a major black eye for George W. Bush who looked incompetent in the face of the inability of the federal government to do what was expected of it.

Yet in September the GOP tried to hold the FEMA disaster fund hostage to budget battles in the wake of the Joplin tornado and a hurricane.

What if the GOP captures the White House, and both houses of Congress and repeals the Wall Street reform act? No one has challenged the GOP, including the Occupy Wall Streeters, with any vigor. It is partially because no one understands what the legislation does, but a few years from now, when consumers get suckered by lenders playing deceptive shell game marketing tricks, as they did leading to this last crisis, or one bank holds the whole economy hostage to their economic failure, whoever is in the White House will be blamed.

While focus has been on what reform did not do, the act did establish a consumer protection bureau and it tackled the “too big to fail issue.” Before the reform act was passed, when big banks that also had investment arms threatened collapse, the bailouts were the only way to keep them from bringing down the rest of the banking dominos and our entire economy to boot. Now there is a mechanism to wind down an investment bank without having to resort to a bailout. Repeal Wall Street reform will leave us again with one option to avoid taking down our economy: bailouts.