Archive

August 17th, 2016

Fulfilling a promise to Iran isn't 'ransom'

    The latest victim in the presidential race's assault on truth - to say nothing of nuance - came last week in the flurry of accusations surrounding the United States'payment of $400 million to Iran. Donald Trump called it ransom, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, accused the United States of acting like a "drug cartel."

    In reality, the payment represented continued adherence to a masterful feat of American diplomacy and to the peaceful resolution of disputes under international law. Ronald Reagan understood how important it is for us to keep our promises - which is why, as president, he upheld the agreement negotiated by the Carter administration that led to the recent payment.

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First Amendment can't save you from your homework

    The First Amendment protects students against being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. So how was it legal for a Texas teacher to require students to recite the Mexican pledge of allegiance, as a federal appeals court held this week? The answer lies in the difference between compelled symbolic speech and compelled class participation.

    The events underlying the case attracted national attention of the Glenn Beck variety when they occurred in 2011. Brenda Brinsdon was then a high school sophomore in McAllen, Texas, a town near the Mexican border. The teacher of her Spanish class gave students the assignment of facing the Mexican flag with a 45-degree salute and reciting the Mexican pledge of allegiance. The assignment was intended both to teach Spanish language and to give students the "cultural" experience of imitating another nation's pledge.

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Conspiracy chatter is a regular feature of American politics

    When people talk about conspiracy theorists in the 2016 presidential campaign, they usually focus on Donald Trump.

    It isn't hard to see why. Many candidates have played with conspiracy theories over the years, but Trump is far more flamboyant (most politicians do not insinuate that an opponent's family is linked to the JFK assassination) and far less interested in sounding refined (most do not cite the National Enquirer as a source).

    But he's not the only conspiracist around. Yes, Trump and his fans are prone to seeing plots. But alleged cabals have captured the imagination of Trump's foes, too. Conspiracy chatter isn't an occasional interruption that flares up on the fringes in especially weird election years. It's a regular feature of American politics.

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A crowd-pleaser's theory of Donald Trump's antics

    Think Donald Trump has some grand scheme behind his outbursts? Think his rhetoric is carefully thought out to produce a certain reaction? Think he meticulously plans each call for his followers to take up arms?

    Sorry, no. There is no strategy here, folks.

    Sadly, this is the part of Trump I get too well. I do a lot of public speaking, and when I do, I try to gauge the audience because I love a reaction. Like any entertainer -- and that's what an author tries to be on book tour -- I like to hear laughs or see that the audience is listening intently. I want them rapt and engaged. If I see too many people fiddling with their phones or looking bored, I'll try on the fly to fix it. If the jokes aren't going well, I'll give them a more serious how-to-write-a-novel talk. And vice versa. It's why I rarely prepare remarks.

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A court ruling that could save the planet

    A federal court this week upheld the approach that the government uses to calculate the social cost of carbon when it issues regulations -- and not just the cost imposed on Americans, but on people worldwide. It's technical stuff, but also one of the most important climate change rulings ever.

    The social cost of carbon is meant to capture the economic damage of a ton of carbon emissions. The assumptions that go into the analysis, and the resulting number, matter a lot, because they play a key role in the cost-benefit analysis for countless regulations -- not only the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, but also fuel economy rules for automobiles and trucks and energy efficiency rules for appliances, including refrigerators, microwave ovens, clothes washers, small motors, and clothes driers. The cost-benefit analysis can in turn help agencies to determine the level of stringency for such regulations, and indeed whether to go forward at all.

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Pieces of Silver

    By now, it’s obvious to everyone with open eyes that Donald Trump is an ignorant, wildly dishonest, erratic, immature, bullying egomaniac. On the other hand, he’s a terrible person. But despite some high-profile defections, most senior figures in the Republican Party — very much including Paul D. Ryan, the speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader — are still supporting him, threats of violence and all. Why?

    One answer is that these were never men and women of principle. I know that many in the media are still determined to portray Ryan, in particular, as an honest man serious about policy, but his actual policy proposals have always been transparent con jobs.

    Another answer is that in an era of intense partisanship, the greatest risk facing many Republican politicians isn’t that of losing in the general election; it’s that of losing to an extremist primary challenger. This makes them afraid to cross Trump, whose ugliness channels the true feelings of the party’s base.

    But there’s a third answer, which can be summarized in one number: 34.

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Trump tries to wreck the political system

    Apparently we've reached the part where Donald Trump, not satisfied with having demolished the Republican Party, tries to bring down the rest of the political system as well. No one should be surprised.

    The garbage that comes out of his mouth gets more vile and putrid by the day. On Tuesday, he suggested that fervent defenders of the right to keep and bear arms could take things into their own hands if Hillary Clinton were elected. It was a shocking incitement to political violence.

    "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," Trump told a rally in North Carolina. "Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know."

    We all understood exactly what he was saying. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested that perhaps he was trying to be funny. Since Trump knows nothing, perhaps Ryan will explain to him that five of our 44 presidents have been shot while in office.

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U.S. special ops in Syria are told, 'Don't get shot'

    U.S. special operations forces in Syria do many things in the war against the Islamic State. They gather intelligence, build relationships with local communities, help spot targets for air strikes and train and advise local forces on the ground. One thing they cannot do, though, is enter into range of the enemy's fire.

    Four U.S. military officials told me that the 300 or so U.S. special operators in Syria are under very strict rules of engagement. Because such rules are highly classified, these sources have requested anonymity.

    But the rules in place, known as "last cover and concealment," are highly restrictive compared to special operations missions in the war on terror before 2014. Those rules of engagement allowed for U.S. special operators to fight alongside the local forces they trained. The rules of engagement for Syria, according to one military officer, amount to: "don't get shot."

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Trump confronts 'common decency'

    If Donald Trump doesn't carry Pennsylvania, his chances of becoming president reach the vanishing point. For now, he's in deep trouble in a place that, demographically, ought to be a Trumpian promised land.

    A poll released Tuesday, by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal and Marist, found Hillary Clinton leading by 11 points in Pennsylvania in a two-way race with Trump, and by nine when Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein are added to the mix. Key to Clinton's leads in all the recent surveys: the aversion of women to Donald Trump.

    It's not hard to run into such voters, even among Republicans in York County, a GOP redoubt that gave Mitt Romney 60 percent of its votes in 2012 and John McCain 56 percent four years earlier, even as both were losing statewide.

    Susan Byrnes, a York County Commissioner and a moderate Republican who supported John Kasich in the Pennsylvania primary, said her work with veterans over the years explains her horror over Trump's comments about the Khan family and his casual treatment of the matter of earning a Purple Heart.

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This Goodlatte is bitter

    Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairs the House Judiciary Committee. That's a powerful position for a guy who clearly doesn't understand the U.S. Constitution. Late last week, Goodlatte condemned President Obama's commutation of the sentences of 214 inmates, most of them nonviolent drug offenders. From the News Virginian:

    "President Obama's power to commute federal prison sentences is not in doubt. But 6th District Rep. Bob Goodlatte said he is 'deeply concerned' about the size and scope of those commutations - including the 214 approved Wednesday - saying the president's actions are a 'blatant usurpation' of Congress's authority. . . .

    "But citing the Justice Department's own U.S. attorney manual, Goodlatte said commutation of a sentence is 'an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted.'

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