Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Most Liberal Ever?, Why SCOTUS Should Strike Down DOMA But Uphold Prop 8

A Moderate By Any Other Name...
A conservative friend of mine, whose intellectual capabilities I respect greatly, was discussing potential 2016 nominees with me this week.

We started by debating the GOP potentials.  I was partial to candidates who had done actual governing, such as Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie.  He is not a Christie fan, feeling Christie is too moderate for his liking.  He does like Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels but was also bullish on Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, the former of which I think would be an utter disaster as a Presidential candidate (in spite of my respect for his recent principled stands) and the later of which I think is highly unproven as a leader.

Our discussion then turned to the Democratic side of the aisle.  We quickly agreed that if Hillary Clinton chooses to run, the nomination is hers to lose.  The more interesting scenario was if Hillary didn't decide to run in which case the field is fairly open to guys like Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley, Joe Biden or even a dark horse like Kirsten Gillebrand.  I stated that I didn't see Biden as Presidential timber and that my concern with Cuomo and in particular O'Malley was that they were too liberal for a mainstream candidacy.

It is then that this thoughtful thinker said something that I think is absolutely astounding.  He stated "well, Obama got elected and it isn't like it is possible for someone to be more liberal than him."

This is a popular talking point in GOP circles, that President Obama is on an extreme liberal edge and is essentially a socialist or even less flattering terms like a "statist".  The amazing thing to me is that smart people actually believe that.

Sure President Obama did some things that are on the left hand side of the American political ledger.  He oversaw a stimulus package that received only 3 Republican votes.  He pushed for a universal healthcare plan that was universally opposed by Republicans.  And he sought higher tax rates on high income individuals.

But, let's be real.  The stimulus plan was supported by every Democrat in the Senate and by three Republicans, including non-socialists Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.  While it may have been a left-of-center solution, it was hardly outside of the mainstream of American politics.  Liberals like Paul Krugman were aghast at how small the stimulus package was.

His health care plan, while opposed by the GOP and some conservative Democrats was far, far, short of the level of state involvement in health care in every other first world nation.  It was well short of single-payer solutions sought by liberals and was, in essence a plan architected by Republicans such as Bob Dole and Mitt Romney just a few years earlier.  Hardly the "most liberal" health care proposal ever.

On foreign policy, President Obama has essentially continued most of the policies of the Bush administration.  He sent more troops to Afghanistan, upped drone strikes, extended the Patriot Act and kept Gitmo open.  Hardly a liberal at all.

On social issues, President Obama has not sought federal funding for abortions, has only recently come out in favor of gay marriage (after a majority of the public already supported that view) and has only in his second term even spoken of gun control.

He has appointed an ex-Goldman Treasury Secretary, 2 Republican Secretaries of Defense and a Republican Secretary of Transportation.

Certainly President Obama is left of the Republicans who would run for the Presidency.  But he is more George Herbert Walker Bush than Karl Marx.  He didn't institute price controls like President Nixon (who also supported single-payer healthcare, incidentally.)  The tax rates he proposed were a full 50% lower than the top right under Dwight Eisenhower and his tax increases were proportionally a fraction of those signed by Herbert Walker Bush.

The most liberal ever?  Heck, he's hardly more liberal than half the US population.

The Right Way to Do Gay Marriage
Public opinion on gay marriage has turned.  9 states have gay marriage laws, with many others sure to follow in the next few years.  Advocates for gay marriage are hopeful that the Supreme Court this summer will strike down Proposition 8 in California as well as the Defense of Marriage Act and clear the way for gay marriage nationally.

I support striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.  The full faith and credit clause in Article IV, Section I of the US Constitution is very clear:
"Full faith and credit ought to be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings, of every other state; and the legislature shall, by general laws, prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings, shall be proved, and the effect which judgments, obtained in one state, shall have in another."

The meaning of this to me is clear - states must honor marriages granted in another.  The Defense of Marriage Act relegated gay marriage to a status where someone can be married in one state, but become unmarried when they cross state lines.  This is unprecedented in US laws - states that marry cousins must have their marriages honored by other states as do states that allow 13-year-olds to wed.  The reason for the full faith and credit clause is very simple - if contracts are allowed to be broken when one crosses state lines then contracts cease to have meaning.  The Supreme Court would be well justified in striking down DOMA.

Prop 8 is another issue.  By striking down Prop 8, the court would need to find that prohibiting gay marriage violates the equal protection clause of the constitution.  To do so would be to usurp the Democratic process and substitute their judgement for that of voters and elected officials.  While I favor gay marriage, it seems both unnecessary and unwise to supplant the Democratic process.  Public opinion has made gay marriage inevitable.  Interpreting the equal protection clause as requiring gay marriage would be to instill in it a meaning that was clearly never intended by those who wrote the 14th amendment.

Public acceptance of gay marriage will be stronger with a full public debate.  And striking down DOMA alone would ensure that gay people have a place to go to get married in a way that will be recognized.

Sometimes how you get to an outcome is as important as the outcome itself.  I feel this is the case with gay marriage.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Believe It Or Not: The Budget Process Is Working, Rob Portman's Game-Changing Statement

Bipartisan Gridlock Is Striking the Right Balance
To the casual observer and most members of the mainstream media, or political system looks an utter mess as it relates to the federal budget.  In the past two years, we have almost shut the government down just to agree to pay our bills, we have gone down to the wire to agree to a tax policy for this year and we have implemented across-the-board spending cuts without rhyme or reason and trade-offs of government programs.

Taking a step back, while the process is certainly not working perfectly, the split control of the budgeting process between House Republicans and the President is producing positive results.

First, let's think about the deficit.  The only modern role model for a balanced budget that we have is during the Clinton administration.  During that time period, spending averaged between 19% and 20% of GDP and taxation also averaged between 19% and 20% of GDP.  The tax side was achieved through the 1993 tax hikes, which included an increased gas tax and increased income taxes, including the creating of a 39.6% bracket for those making over $250K.  The revenue side was contained by cuts to defense and welfare reforms, as well as a booming economy that led to low costs of things like unemployment benefits.

Fast forward to 2011.  Revenues had fallen to 15.4% of GDP, a Post-World War 2 low.  This was a combination of the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts, which created historically low tax rates and, through various exemptions and deductions, excluded a large percentage of the tax base.  Spending, meanwhile, had grown to 24.1% of GDP, increased by heightened military spending, new Medicare drug benefits, extended unemployment benefits, homeland security spending and growing entitlement costs as boomers retired (Obama's stimulus package and Bush's TARP program had both largely concluded their costs by this point.)  Essentially, up 4-5% of GDP in spending, down 4-5% of GDP in revenue from when we were in balance.

Those of us who would take a rational, fact-based approach, would say that we clearly had a problem of wanting the government to do a whole bunch of new things (drug benefits, wars) combined with more expensive existing things (Medicare, Social Security) while paying less for them.  Not a sustainable path.  The obvious path would be to try to get back to Clinton-era levels of taxation and revenue.  That sounds easy but isn't - we were still entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan, entitlements were  going to inherently be more expensive if nothing systemic was done and people had reset the baseline in their mind and would consider Clinton-era rates a massive "tax hike".

The gridlock in 2011, while walking on the edge of a knife, produced a spending agreement that substantially reduced federal discretionary spending out of the gate and produced the sequester.  The recent fight between the President and congress produced higher tax rates, both a repeal of the Obama payroll tax cut and a partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts for higher earners.  The sequester further reduced spending.

So what has happened?  The 2013 budget year, which runs October 2012 - September 2013 paints an incomplete picture as the changes are only partially implemented (the tax hikes will only be effective for 9 of the 12 months and the sequester spending cuts for only 7 of the 12 months.)  Even so, in fiscal 2013, revenues have risen to 17.8% of GDP and spending has fallen to 23.3% of GDP.  Next year, revenues will further rise to 18.7% of GDP and spending will further fall to 22.6% of GDP, leaving a deficit of only 3.9% of GDP, versus the 2011 level of 8.7% of GDP.

In other words, the range of budget fights have increased taxes by 3.3% of GDP and cut spending by 1.5% of GDP.  That's fairly balanced, although there is clearly more work to do.  The big area of spending opportunity is clearly entitlements, which to-date have been untouched.  There are also still large opportunities in the defense budget, which is still running way above 1990s era levels.

But what about the arbitrary nature of the spending cuts?  While there has been a lot of hand-wringing over the across-the-board nature of the cuts, this is not that different from what happens in private industry all the time.  If you work in a private corporation, have you ever experienced a travel ban or a freeze on all raises?  These are private sector examples of exactly the same behavior - it may not be the most precies way to cut spending, but it is simple to implement and allows each department manager to make trade-offs within the budget that they know the best.  The sequester isn't a bad thing in this regard.

We are making progress on the budget.  But Congress and the President must be willing to make some uncomfortable choices about entitlements over the next few years.  Entitlements are sucking up more and more federal money as the population ages and Medicare inflation continues to rise.

Rob Portman: Late to the Party, But Right
Rob Portman's revelation that he has a gay son and that he has come to support gay marriage is courageous for a man who is viewed as a leading elected conservative.  His personal story of coming to understand his son's orientation and reconciling it with his previous held religious and social beliefs is insightful and touching.

Portman may be late to the party, but to his credit, he is but a few months President Obama in coming around.

What is most fascinating to me about Portman's shift is that there isn't much anger among prominent conservatives on the issue.  While there are still screaming so-called "values voters", more and more young conservatives are embracing the notion of the GOP as the party of liberty and realize that embracing that notion means providing liberty to everyone, not just straight people.

While I could criticize Portman for not coming forward with these views last year when he was a contender for the VP spot, I could make the same criticism of President Obama for not supporting this view in 2008, when gay marriage support would have been a clearer political negative.

I welcome Rob Portman to the fold of those fighting for marriage equality and hope more conservatives follow his and Dick Cheney's lead on this issue.

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why Rand Paul is Right and Obama, McCain and Graham are Wrong

Something different happened this week.  In a Senate where true filibusters had long been replaced by the mere threat of filibuster - where Senators no longer stand and talk to stall a bill but simply vote against a "cloture motion", Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) went old school.

Incensed by the implication by Attorney General Eric Holder's implication that while the US had never used a drone strike against a US citizen on US soil, that the executie branch might have the right to do so, Paul took to the Senate floor for over 12 hours.

Paul's filibuster was impressive on multiple levels:
(1) He Actually Filibustered - rather than hiding behind procedural rules, Paul took to the floor to make his point and left no lack of clarity about what he was doing and why.
(2) He Filibustered Something Relevant - filibustering the CIA director nomination on the basis of what the CIA director might actually order is a pertinent filibuster.  Paul did not filibuster some unrelated nomination, he filibustered a nominee until it was clear what that nominee could or could not do in office.
(3) He Was Dead Right - the notion that without charge or trial that the US government could even conceive of killing an American on American soil should outrage each and every US citizen.  Liberals were all too proud to protest during the Bush administration when the government encroached on civil liberties, but have been silent as the Obama administration has continued many of the same policies - or even worse in this case.  On the left, only Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) showed up to support Paul's cause.  Good for Senator Wyden - and shame on the rest of the Democrats in the Senate.
(4) He Got His Way - Paul's filibuster was successful.  Attorney General Holder clarified, in no uncertain terms, that the executive does NOT have the authority to kill Americans on American soil.  Paul won a meaningful victory for American civil liberties.
(5) He Was True to His Word - Paul stated that he was filibustering the Brennan nomination to ensure that Americans would not be killed on American soil - once he was assured, he not only voted to invoke cloture, he also voted for the nominee.  There was nothing below board or disingenuous about what Paul did - he stated a clear principle (that we all should support) and didn't move the goal posts when he got what he wanted.

I am astounded that Holder or any Obama administration official ever implied the right to kill Americans without review in the first place.  He was dead wrong and I feel better now that he has admitted as much.

I am even more astounded at the sniping by John McCain and Lindsey Graham at Senator Paul for his filibuster.  In a year where John McCain promised not to filibuster, then filibustered the nomination of Chuck Hagel, a man he once named as a probable Secretary of Defense in a McCain administration, McCain has no moral high ground.  This is the same McCain who said we couldn't afford the Bush tax cuts, then turned around and hurled mud at President Obama for supporting a very modest partial repeal of those cuts.  In the realm of respectful politics, what Rand Paul did is far ahead of what John McCain has done of late.

Rand Paul captured the spirit of liberty, the very spirit that I have previously written is the key to the Republicans not being relegated to a minority party for the next 50 years.  Republican leaders would be wise to pay attention and learn from what happened this week, not shove it to the side as childishness.

Rand Paul is to be commended for his actions this week.  I certainly don't agree with a lot of his views, but this was a classy, principled defense of our rights.  We all owe Senator Paul a debt of gratitude.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something Wonderful Is Happening

Frequent readers to this space know that I am an unwavering advocate for gay rights.  While there are many social issues that give me a deep sense of moral conflict - late term abortions, for instance, I see utter moral clarity in the struggle for equal rights for gay men and women.  I have always rejected traditionalist views that revolve around either unprovable religious theories ("that is what God intended" rings shallow for me, unless you can put him or her on the phone) or constructs lacking evidence ("children are best raised by a mother and a father" may sound nice, but a. presents an utterly false choice and b. is not born out by the evidence of the success of children of gay adoptions versus straight adoptions and/or birth children raised by gay couples versus other divorced/remarried children.)

Beyond any factual debate of the social impacts of gay marriage, gay adoption and non-discrimination laws against gay and transgendered people, this is fundamentally a moral debate.  If we believe in freedom and equal rights as fundamental American and human moral precepts, then they demand that those rights be applied without filter.

To wit, would anyone argue against black marriage or black adoption due to the fact that children raised by black couples have higher recidivism rates than those raised by white couples?  To do so would be repugnant, racist and offends our very moral fabric.

Would anyone argue that Catholics should not be allowed to adopt children or get married since Catholic children experience a higher rate of sexual abuse than those raised by parents of other religions?  To do so would be absurd and bigoted.

Such it is with gay rights.  Gay people have a right to lead the lifestyle that they choose.  They have a right to have the person that they love make critical medical decisions when they cannot.  They have a right to protect the financial well-being of those that they love.  They have the right to access to the same health care benefits as straight people.  Or at least they should.

Gay marriage has been a lightning rod issue in this country.  I have said frequently that I believe that the evolving moral compass of this country always eventually swings towards greater social justice.  But the path is not always a straight line.  It has taken us over 200 years to get to where we are with civil rights and women's rights, and there the work is certainly not done.

So it is with a level of wonder and excitement that I take in the pace at which our attitudes and laws about gay rights are changing.

Think back to 2004, a mere 9 years ago.  In that election cycle, gay marriage was a wedge issue for the right.  11 states passed ballot initiatives banning gay marriage, including blue states like Oregon and Michigan.  Karl Rove leveraged public sentiment against gay marriage to mobilize conservative voters and defeat John Kerry, who, ironically, was against gay marriage.

In fact, every Presidential candidate from both parties through 2008 had stated opposition to gay marriage.  Bill Clinton signed the awful Defense of Marriage Act during his Presidency.  Al Gore was opposed to gay marriage, as was John Kerry.  Barack Obama was a stated opponent of gay marriage in 2008.

Then the wonder began to happen.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, by court order.  Connecticut followed in 2008, then Iowa in 2009, also by court order.

While gay marriage was beginning to happen in the US, it was happening at the dictate of judges.  Through 2009, no state legislature had passed a gay marriage law and no pro-gay marriage ballot proposition had ever passed a state.

Then, a flurry of change happened.  Vermont legalized gay marriage in 2009 by legislative action.  New Hampshire followed in 2010.  Washington, DC did so in 2010 also.  New York followed in 2011, including passage from a Republican state house.  Legislators were showing courage and changing their stripes.

President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden showed up to the part, albeit way too late and endorsed gay marriage.

Then the voters weighed in in 2012, legalizing gay marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington by ballot initiative.  Minnesota, while not legalizing gay marriage, explicitly rejected a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

Now comes the Supreme Court Case over the gay marriage ban in California.  Amazingly, to date, over 100 national REPUBLICAN figures have signed on to an amicus brief in SUPPORT of gay marriage. While they do not include 2016 Presidential aspirants, they do include Meg Whitman, Rep. Ilena Ros-Leithan, Rep. Richard Hanna, former RNC Chair Ken Melhman and former Governors Jon Huntsman, Wiliam Weld, Christie Todd Whitman, Jane Swift and Paul Celucci.  Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson is also a strong supporter of gay marriage, although he has yet to sign the brief.

Republicans SHOULD be advocates for same sex marriage.  If they are to be the party of liberty and freedom, as they aspire to, they should never acede to having the government dictate marriage terms.  Democrats should also support same sex marriage as it supports their cause of social justice.

We have come a long way on this issue.  National recognition of same sex marriage now seems inevitable at some point in the next 20 years.  And it can't come soon enough.

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