Archive

February 19th, 2016

Democrats, Don't Blow It

    The death of Antonin Scalia has set off yet another epic partisan struggle as Senate Republicans seek to deny President Obama his constitutional right to nominate the next Supreme Court justice. They want to wait out Obama's last year in office, hoping his successor will be one of their own.

    If the Democrats choose Bernie Sanders as their presidential candidate, Republicans will almost certainly get their wish. Furthermore, the Republican president would probably have a Republican-majority Senate happy to approve his selection.

    The makeup of senatorial races this November gives Democrats a decent chance of capturing a majority. Having the radical Sanders on the ballot would hurt them in swing states.

    Some Sanders devotees will argue with conviction that these purplish Democrats are not real progressives anyway, not like our Bernie. Herein lies the Democrats' problem.

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The Syrian truce is dead and Russia's in charge

    Syria's cease-fire deal was born in Munich, in the early hours of Friday morning -- and pronounced dead in the same town within a day, a development that exposed just how little influence the U.S. now has over the conflict.

    British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond probably had the smartest take on the deal, when he divided it into two parts during the annual Munich Security Conference, which began hours after the deal was signed. One part, to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged civilians, will probably happen to some extent and would surely be a worthwhile achievement. The other, a potential truce, is entirely dependent on what Russia wants, Hammond said.

    That's a stunning admission in itself: Since when did Russia, rather than the U.S., play the deciding role in any part of the Middle East? Since now. The terms of the truce show the impotence of the U.S. in Syria.

    In the short term, at least, there should be no mystery about what Russia wants, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy: Aleppo.

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The next big idea is just what the economy needs

    This presidential election has driven home a problem that others have been noticing the last few years: The U.S. seems to be out of ideas for economic growth. The main argument appears to be over redistribution -- tax rates, the size of the welfare state, free college. Protectionism is also making a comeback; Bernie Sanders would restrict trade and punish Wall Street, while Republican candidates would curb immigration. These are mostly debates about the size of the pie. But what about growing it?

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The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Trump

    Donald Trump has been recognized for his mastery of the media, his fascination with gilt and his bold advocacy for baffling hair.

    But I think his greatest distinction is as a surrealist. Not since Salvador Dalí has someone so ambitiously jumbled reality and hallucination.

    I’m thinking of his news conference in South Carolina on Monday and of one assertion in particular, although with Trump it’s always hard to pick and choose.

    In an appeal to African-American voters, he charged that Barack Obama had done nothing for them, and drew a contrast between himself and the president by saying: “I’m a unifier. Obama is not a unifier.”

    The second of those sentences is debatable. The first is just a joke. Trump sneeringly divides the world into winners and losers, savagely mocks those who challenge him, dabbles in sexism, marinates in racism, and on and on.

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Scalia's death probably flips big cases

    How will the death of Justice Antonin Scalia affect the major cases before the Supreme Court this term, all of which are expected to be decided by the end of June? The answer doesn't depend entirely on how Scalia would've voted. It also depends on a necessary rule of procedure: When the Supreme Court is divided equally, it upholds the decision below.

    Applying this dual analysis to five major cases in the pipeline yields some surprising results. The issues involved are: fees in lieu of union dues for nonunion workers, the University of Texas's affirmative-action admissions program, Texas's restrictive abortion law, President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, and a group of nuns' demand to be exempted from filing a certificate so they won't have to pay for employees' contraceptive insurance under the Affordable Care Act. By my reckoning, most of these cases now have a strong chance to come out differently than they would've had Scalia lived through the end of the term.

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Reid to Republicans: Don't take the path of partisan sabotage

    We are entering uncharted waters in the history of the U.S. system of checks and balances, with potentially momentous consequences. Having gridlocked the Senate for years, Republicans now want to gridlock the Supreme Court with a campaign of partisan sabotage aimed at denying the president's constitutional duty to pick nominees.

    Republicans should not insult the American people's intelligence by pretending there is historical precedent for what they are about to do. There is not.

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Originalists wouldn't delay

    A controversy has erupted over whether the Senate should consider anyone President Obama nominates to the Supreme Court to replace my friend Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly Saturday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and others argue that, because it's an election year, the Senate should delay confirming a new justice in order to "defer to the American people."

    A true "originalist" would reject the Republican position.

    After Scalia lost a bet to me in 2010 over whether the Affordable Care Act would be enacted, we shared many meals and arguments. He educated me about his judicial philosophy of "originalism." This is an approach to constitutional interpretation that emphasizes that understanding the Constitution's capacious phrases, such as "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws," requires examining what those phrases meant when they were written. Originalism is a quintessentially backward-looking doctrine that gives respect to those present "at creation."

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Jeb Bush's big brother makes him look small

    It was the mystery of the 2016 presidential campaign: Why wasn't Jeb Bush, who seemed a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and has the resources to go all the way, doing better in polls and primaries? In North Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday night, I got my answer.

    Bush, who at first seemed unsure whether his last name was an asset or a liability -- his posters, after all, just say "Jeb!" -- has increasingly brought his family into his campaign in recent weeks. Barbara Bush, his mother, came to New Hampshire. On Monday, his older brother George W. Bush went to bat for him at the North Charleston Convention Center -- and stole the show. In fact, his appearance was such a triumph that it became obvious that Jeb didn't quite measure up to the ex- president, for whom many Republicans feel nostalgia.

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Humanity may be losing a race with its own growth

    Humanity is engaged in a high-stakes race with its own growth: Lest our use of energy and materials get out of control, we must constantly innovate to become more efficient. Unfortunately, new research suggests we may be losing.

    The rapid advancement of electronics technology illustrates how the race works. The number of transistors in the world's devices has gone from one in 1947 to a thousand billion billion today -- more than there are letters in all the written text produced in human history. The proliferation hasn't inundated the planet because the amount of physical material and energy used in each transistor has shrunk spectacularly, reflecting a relentless advance -- seen in almost all technologies -- that gets economists and tech enthusiasts excited about the possibilities for a cleaner and more environmentally friendly future.

    The hope is that by doing more with less, we can keep growing without bumping up against physical limits -- an optimistic vision sometimes called "decoupling." But is there any evidence for it? That's less clear.

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George W. Bush is a mixed blessing for Jeb

    Jeb Bush has had a brother problem from the start of his campaign. Asked about the 43rd president, George W. Bush, Jeb has always hemmed and hawed. He said, "I love my brother ... but I'm my own man." He noted that information on weapons of mass destruction from the intelligence community turned out "not to be accurate" and riffed that "there were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure." He said that looking back, "anybody would have made different decisions."

    Despite their vast understatement, misuse of the passive voice, and blame-shifting, Jeb's answers tamped down the issue. It helped that there were bigger fish to fry, as Jeb plunged in the polls. The fickle focus of the race moved on.

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