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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Commentary: If you oppose stimulus, don't take the money

By Paul Begala
CNN Contributor

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Paul Begala says South Carolina's governor should refuse to take federal aid he opposes.

Paul Begala says South Carolina's governor should refuse to take federal aid he opposes.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina took umbrage at my writing that his approach to the economic crisis is to do nothing. I'll deal with his "ideas" in a moment, but first let me make a modest proposal:

If Republican politicians are so deeply opposed to President Obama's economic recovery plan, they should refuse to take the money. After all, if you think all that federal spending is damaging, there are easy ways to reduce it: Don't take federal money.

Gov. Sanford can lead the way. South Carolina should decline to accept any federal funds for transportation, education, health care, clean energy or any of the other ideas President Obama is advocating to fix the economy. And the rest of the GOP can follow suit.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states "laboratories of democracy." So let's experiment. Gov. Sanford can be the guinea pig. His Palmetto State already gets $1.35 back from Washington for every dollar it pays in federal taxes, according to 2005 numbers, the latest calculated by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit tax research group.

South Carolina is a ward of the federal government. It's been on welfare for years. If Gov. Sanford is so all-fired opposed to federal spending, let's start by cutting federal spending in South Carolina. Otherwise, he's got about as much credibility on fiscal conservatism as A-Rod has on steroids.

Under the Bush-Sanford economic theories, South Carolina's unemployment rate has reached 9.5 percent -- among the highest in the nation. But if Gov. Sanford wants to continue those policies, good luck to him.

Make no mistake about it, Republicans like Gov. Sanford want to go back to the bad old days of George W. Bush. In his CNN.com column, Gov. Sanford expends 605 words attacking President Obama's plan to turn the country around after eight years of Bush-Republican-Sanford economics.

That is his right, but attacking President Obama's plan is not itself an alternative plan. Nor is dredging up hoary old gripes about the New Deal. Nor, indeed, is deriding neighborhood electric vehicles -- which create jobs, save money and reduce pollution -- as "streamlined golf carts." But that is what Gov. Sanford offers us. iReport.com: Share your thoughts on the stimulus plan

Then Gov. Sanford turns to his ideas (keep in mind he was responding to my charge that he favors doing nothing). He devotes precisely one half of one sentence to his plan to save the world economy; 24 words that will create millions of jobs, restore liquidity to capital markets, protect investors and consumers, regenerate stagnant demand and restore the capitalist system. Here they are:

"... cutting the payroll tax, opening foreign markets through an expansion of our trade agreements, and reducing our corporate tax, which is among the highest worldwide."

Wow. As we say in the South, I've got the vapors. So cutting taxes and cutting trade deals will get us out of this mess? That's all we need to do?

We don't need to extend unemployment insurance, or update health information technology, or move to renewable energy or repair roads or rebuild bridges or modernize the power grid or prevent states and cities from laying off teachers and cops or any of the other myriad proposals in President Obama's plan?

To be sure, President Obama's plan includes tax cuts -- mostly for middle-class families. But cutting taxes on corporate profits is of little utility when there are no corporate profits to tax. And precisely with whom would Gov. Sanford cut these miraculous trade deals? In case he hasn't been watching CNN, the entire world economy is in the tank.

If cutting taxes for the rich and for big corporations and promoting foreign trade alone could energize the economy, we wouldn't be in this mess. But maybe Gov. Sanford is right. Let's keep our federal money -- give it to states where the governors will actually put it to good use. We'll let Gov. Sanford try his plan, we'll try President Obama's plan.

Something tells me Gov. Sanford won't take that gamble. Because for all his rhetoric about hating federal spending, he can't wait to get his hands on our money.

Original here

A Party Fractured, GOP Conservatives Regroup

It was easy, from looking at the tally sheet for the House’s economic stimulus package vote on Jan. 28, to get the impression the Republican Party forms a unified conservative front in the new Congress. After all, 177 of the chamber’s 178 Republican members voted against the sprawling $819 billion measure — and the other one, Florida’s Ginny Brown-Waite , was committed to joining them until she was called away by a family emergency.

Which is why, even though the Democratic majority pushed the bill through with relative ease, some conservative activists hailed the outcome as a moral victory. “There is general agreement that our folks are finally standing up,” said Brett Littlefield, a spokesman for the American Conservative Union.

On the last weekend of this month, the group will hold its annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a gathering that Littlefield hopes will capitalize on the fleeting sense of empowerment captured in the stimulus vote. “Conservatives are looking for excitement and a reason to rally,” he said.

But many of the right’s grass-roots activists say the current political landscape offers little for them to get excited about. The political party they call home, of course, is coming off back-to-back devastating electoral losses, of Congress in 2006 and of the White House last fall. Just as grave, the GOP has no leader who’s clearly capable of restoring the magical Reagan alliance of fiscal and social conservatives that fueled the party’s strength for the better part of three decades — a critical task, activists say, when liberal views on social and economic policy are gaining popular appeal and traction in Congress.

Signs of movement disarray were on abundant display in the last campaign, from the top of the ticket on down. Republican presidential nominee John McCain was never a favorite of the social conservatives; indeed, he seized the nomination mainly because neither they nor the business conservatives were willing to give up on their own respective standard-bearers, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

At the same time, the conservative movement has seen several of its leading lights — Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Paul Weyrich and William F. Buckley Jr. among them — die in recent years, leaving no clear successors. One prominent evangelical who might have stepped into the breach had been Rick Warren, pastor of Orange County’s Saddleback Church. Warren instead helped confer evangelical legitimacy on the new administration by delivering the invocation at Barack Obama ’s inauguration.

Fiscal conservatives are in transition, too. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the American Enterprise Institute, where Christopher DeMuth retired in December after 22 years as the group’s president. In tribute, the conservative National Review noted that “a good case can be made that DeMuth is AEI” and that “without him, the think tank might not even exist anymore.”

Other movement leaders, such as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who now chairs the grass-roots small-government group FreedomWorks, are dismayed over the $700 billion financial industry bailout, pushed last year by President George W. Bush and supported in the end by almost half the Republicans in the House and two out of three from the GOP in the Senate. “It’s a dangerous time for fiscal conservatism,” he said.

Indeed, many conservatives say they have little hope that congressional Republican leaders will carry their standard, said Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail guru who helped stir the Reagan revolution in 1980. “Who in the world is ever going to follow Mitch McConnell ? Who is going to follow John Boehner?” Viguerie asked in reference to the party’s Senate and House floor leaders. “They look weak. They talk weak, and they have no plan or vision.”

This gap was especially apparent when Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska — a popular presidential choice for 2012 among movement conservatives thanks to her red-meat conservative profile as McCain’s running mate — turned down an invitation to speak at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Hot Springs, Va., when she came to Washington in late January to attend the high-profile Alfalfa Club dinner.

Reckoning With the Bush Legacy

It’s true that social and fiscal conservatives are unified in their view of Bush’s presidency, but that appraisal has done little to lighten the mood.

Many fiscal conservatives, citing the financial industry bailout as well as earlier capitulations on big spending initiatives such as the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, say Bush’s tenure forced them to re-evaluate their affiliation with the GOP. “The libertarian voter was anti-Bush in every sense of the word,” says Fred L. Smith Jr., president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Social conservatives such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, say Bush was hardly better on their issues. Apart from his down-the-line opposition to abortion rights, Perkins says, Bush was “not a consistent conservative.”

Most movement leaders are arguing for a return to what they see as the tried-and-true conservative game plan of limited government and traditional values. Most of all, they want congressional Republicans to stand up to the new president. That’s why Perkins is among the movement leaders taking heart in the House stimulus vote. “It was the first time in the six years I’ve been in Washington that the Republicans have stood with the conservatives,” he said.

And in the Senate last week, it was Republicans who banded together with centrist Democrats and forced a significant reduction in the size and scope of that chamber’s version of the economic recovery legislation.

By contrast, Perkins last month said the performance of GOP senators was “almost nauseating” in allowing “Obama’s most objectionable appointments” — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Education Secretary Arne Duncan among them, in his view — to cruise to confirmation “without so much as a peep from ranking GOP leaders.”

But even as Perkins discerns a resurgent conservative mood in the congressional GOP, his own evangelical movement is speaking in a far less unified conservative voice. If Warren’s inaugural appearance bespeaks a new mood of political reconciliation among evangelical leaders, the forced resignation of the National Association of Evangelicals’ lead lobbyist, Richard Cizik, late last year showed that social conservatives are still prepared to punish those who waver on key issues. Cizik, who already had earned much conservative ire for his efforts to galvanize Protestant denominations behind initiatives to mitigate global warming, told a radio interviewer that he supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

In Cizik’s view, the evangelical world stands to lose a good deal of its clout if it doesn’t adopt more conciliatory views on hot-button social issues. “Smart political leaders find opportunities to solve problems, not simply to take a stand,” he said. “Most evangelicals don’t want more polarization.”

Congressional Republicans could be hamstrung by much the same difficulty, Cizik said, as they weigh the wisdom of compromising on or stonewalling major Obama initiatives. Either approach “may lead them in the same direction, namely decreasing influence and irrelevance,” he said.

Demographics vs. Discipline

Fiscal conservatives are facing internal discord, too, especially since the Bush era that began with a pair of deep tax cuts, ended with the financial bailout, and featured enormous spending on two wars, minimally restrained growth in domestic spending and the first $1 trillion annual federal deficit in history. “What happened is that the fiscal conservatives in power were seduced into focusing on just one element of that, tax policy,” thereby ignoring the need to also cut government spending, said the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Smith. “It doesn’t mater if you run up debt paying cash or credit. You still have to pay for it.”

Most troubling, said Smith, is that congressional Republicans, once known for their ability to generate compelling policy ideas, are now struggling to articulate conservative views. Even in areas where Bush held firm to conservative principles, such as environmental regulation, Smith said, liberals have successfully framed the issues in their favor: “Many conservatives believe the popular wisdom about how to address such issues is wrong, but they haven’t found a good way of articulating an alternative.”

The dyspeptic mood has even reached the American Enterprise Institute, long an incubator of conservative policy solutions, which last week invited a prominent critic, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress, to address a seminar on whether conservatives are “in the grip of dead ideas.”

Some prominent conservatives are pressing on in campaign mode, echoing the culture-war style appeals from the McCain campaign, even though such tactics proved largely ineffective in the general election. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, in opposing the House’s stimulus legislation, argued it “could open billions of taxpayer dollars to left-wing groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now” — the group, known as ACORN, does political organizing of poor people and was the focus of last fall’s GOP ire about potential voter-registration fraud. Both the American Conservative Union and FreedomWorks have since echoed Boehner’s line of attack. Similarly, the popular conservative newsletter GOPUSA, last week revived McCain’s campaign one-liner that Obama’s main motivation was to “spread the wealth around.”

Such appeals underscore the divide between those conservatives who believe the GOP just needs to deliver its message more effectively and those who think demographic changes will eventually compel Republicans to moderate their rhetoric.

“I’ve never bought into the post-election analysis that somehow the country has changed,” said Bobby Eberle, GOPUSA’s publisher. “It’s the same country. They just saw Republicans turn away from what got them to power, so they voted them out.”

But others argue that conservatives ought to be willing to examine their own failings and the marketplace of ideas in order to win national elections again. “The economic circumstances of the present raise serious doubts about whether the Republican Party has served the country well,” Cizik said.

He’s not alone. A desire to reach out to nontraditional Republicans certainly helped Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland who’s a moderate voice in the party, to win election last month as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele said in his acceptance speech he saw no benefit in obstructionism. “For those who wish to obstruct,” he said, “Get ready to get knocked over.”

A Wobbly Base?

If moderate voices don’t knock over the hard-liners, financial pressures might. Often a shift in power in Washington benefits interest groups of the opposite ideology, as was the case for conservative advocates after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and for liberal groups after Bush won in 2000. In each case, fired-up partisans increased their donations to interest groups that pledged to fight the new president. But such donor enthusiasm has yet to materialize for conservatives since Obama’s victory.

For example, two weeks after the November election, Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based conservative group, announced it was cutting a fifth of its workforce, or more than 200 employees. The move followed a staff reduction of nearly 50 in September. Now, Perkins says, the Family Research Council may soon follow suit because its revenues are down 15 percent from the previous year.

In Perkins’ view, Obama deserves credit for assuaging some of the concerns of conservative donors with moderate rhetoric. But Perkins, hopeful for a funding pickup later this year, sees little prospect for the détente lasting. “He made himself look like a moderate, but I think that, as he forces Americans to go places they don’t want to go, people will see how radical his policies are and, sacrificially, step forward.”

Original here

Watch out for Al Qaeda

By Marc A. Thiessen

We're bombarded with bad news -- the credit markets could freeze, millions more could lose their jobs, and today's recession could turn into a depression. But the danger we aren't hearing about could outweigh them all: the increased risk of a catastrophic terrorist attack.

A careful study of Osama bin Laden's videos, letters and Internet statements makes clear that Al Qaeda's goal is more than to terrorize Americans or to drive us out of the Middle East. Bin Laden believes that Al Qaeda can bring about the economic collapse of the United States -- and to achieve this goal, he has adopted a strategy of targeting America's financial centers and economic infrastructure.

Bin Laden cites the 9/11 attacks as proof that this strategy can succeed. In a November 2004 videotape broadcast on Al Jazeera, he boasted that Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America lost, "according to the lowest estimate, $500 billion ... meaning that every dollar of Al Qaeda defeated a million dollars [of America] ... besides the loss of a huge number of jobs."

"America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power," he concluded, "but all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points, which, even if you strike only one-tenth of them, then the whole edifice will totter and sway."

The terrorists' ambitions are shaped by their experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Before the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden said, "People used to ask us: 'How will you defeat the Soviet empire?' And at that time, the Soviet empire was a mighty power that scared the whole world. ... Today, there is no more Soviet empire. ... So the one God, who ... stabilized us to defeat the Soviet empire, is capable of sustaining us again and of allowing us to defeat America."

After 9/11, Bin Laden issued a letter warning the American people that our fate "will be that of the Soviets, who fled Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall and economic bankruptcy."

These statements tell us something important about the enemy: Although Bin Laden has many skilled bomb-makers and propagandists working for him, he lacks a single competent economist. Yes, the 9/11 attacks did cost America billions of dollars -- but our resilient free-market economy replaced every lost job within a few years. We would similarly recover from any other attack Al Qaeda might pull off.

But the terrorists don't have to be right to be emboldened. Clearly the daily news reports of our economic turmoil feed into Bin Laden's deep-seated belief that America is teetering on the economic brink -- and that with one big push, we can be forced into collapse. The financial crisis can only be serving to convince Al Qaeda that the time to strike America is now.

We have some factors working in our favor. The enemy has been weakened by our seven-year offensive against them. Our military removed Al Qaeda's haven in Afghanistan in 2001. With the "surge," we drove Al Qaeda from the new sanctuaries it had established in Iraq. And over the last year, America has put increasing pressure on Al Qaeda in its Pakistani stronghold. At least five of Al Qaeda's top operational planners met their end in that country in 2008, culminating on Jan. 1 when Usama al-Kini, Al Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan, and his lieutenant, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, were killed. This is the highest pace of strikes against senior Al Qaeda operational planners since the war on terrorism began.

Another factor working in our favor is the severity of the 9/11 attacks. In striking the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Al Qaeda set an extremely high bar for itself. If it launched an attack that did not meet that bar, it would be seen as a sign of weakness. This is likely why we have not seen smaller-scale attacks on shopping malls and other "soft" targets during the last seven years. By contrast, this also means that, whatever the terrorists are now planning, it likely will be on a scale to equal, or even dwarf, the attacks of 9/11.

Al Qaeda's failure to strike America after seven years creates pressure on the terrorists to act. The lack of another catastrophic attack on the United States, combined with the massive defeat terrorists have suffered in Iraq, sends a message to the Muslim world that Al Qaeda is losing its war with America. The terrorists need to pull off something spectacular to prove that they are still a force and a threat. Al Qaeda's growing desperation to strike America, and our perceived growing vulnerability, are a dangerous combination.

All this means that now is no time for President Obama to begin dismantling the institutions President Bush put in place to keep America safe. Obama needs to recognize that, at this moment, somewhere in the world, the terrorists are watching the economic turmoil in our country -- and planning an attack they believe will bring our economy to its knees. In the face of this danger, America must not let down its guard.

Marc A. Thiessen held senior positions in the Pentagon and the White House from 2001 to 2009, most recently as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Original here

They Sure Showed That Obama

By FRANK RICH

AM I crazy, or wasn’t the Obama presidency pronounced dead just days ago? Obama had “all but lost control of the agenda in Washington,” declared Newsweek on Feb. 4 as it wondered whether he might even get a stimulus package through Congress. “Obama Losing Stimulus Message War” was the headline at Politico a day later. At the mostly liberal MSNBC, the morning host, Joe Scarborough, started preparing the final rites. Obama couldn’t possibly eke out a victory because the stimulus package was “a steaming pile of garbage.”

Less than a month into Obama’s term, we don’t (and can’t) know how he’ll fare as president. The compromised stimulus package, while hardly garbage, may well be inadequate. Timothy Geithner’s uninspiring and opaque stab at a bank rescue is at best a place holder and at worst a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the TARP-Titanic, where he served as Hank Paulson’s first mate.

But we do know this much. Just as in the presidential campaign, Obama has once again outwitted the punditocracy and the opposition. The same crowd that said he was a wimpy hope-monger who could never beat Hillary or get white votes was played for fools again.

On Wednesday, as a stimulus deal became a certainty on Capitol Hill, I asked David Axelrod for his take on this Groundhog Day relationship between Obama and the political culture.

“It’s why our campaign was not based in Washington but in Chicago,” he said. “We were somewhat insulated from the echo chamber. In the summer of ’07, the conventional wisdom was that Obama was a shooting star; his campaign was irretrievably lost; it was a ludicrous strategy to focus on Iowa; and we were falling further and further behind in the national polls.” But even after the Iowa victory, this same syndrome kept repeating itself. When Obama came out against the gas-tax holiday supported by both McCain and Clinton last spring, Axelrod recalled, “everyone in D.C. thought we were committing suicide.”

The stimulus battle was more of the same. “This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking,” he says. Once the frenzy got going, it didn’t matter that most polls showed support for Obama and his economic package: “If you watched cable TV, you’d see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe.”

For Axelrod, the moral is “not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think.”

Here’s a third moral: Overdosing on this culture can be fatal. Because Republicans are isolated in that parallel universe and believe all the noise in its echo chamber, they are now as out of touch with reality as the “inevitable” Clinton campaign was before it got clobbered in Iowa. The G.O.P. doesn’t recognize that it emerged from the stimulus battle even worse off than when it started. That obliviousness gives the president the opening to win more ambitious policy victories than last week’s. Having checked the box on attempted bipartisanship, Obama can now move in for the kill.

A useful template for the current political dynamic can be found in one of the McCain campaign’s more memorable pratfalls. Last fall, it was the Beltway mantra that Obama was doomed with all those working-class Rust Belt Democrats who’d flocked to Hillary in the primaries. The beefy, beer-drinking, deer-hunting white guys — incessantly interviewed in bars and diners — would never buy the skinny black intellectual. Nor would the “dead-ender” Hillary women. The McCain camp not only bought into this received wisdom, but bet the bank on it, pouring resources into states like Michigan and Wisconsin before abandoning them and doubling down on Pennsylvania in the stretch. The sucker-punched McCain lost all three states by percentages in the double digits.

The stimulus opponents, egged on by all the media murmurings about Obama “losing control,” also thought they had a sure thing. Their TV advantage added to their complacency. As the liberal blog ThinkProgress reported, G.O.P. members of Congress wildly outnumbered Democrats as guests on all cable news networks, not just Fox News, in the three days of intense debate about the House stimulus bill. They started pounding in their slogans relentlessly. The bill was not a stimulus package but an orgy of pork spending. The ensuing deficit would amount to “generational theft.” F.D.R.’s New Deal had been an abject failure.

This barrage did shave a few points off the stimulus’s popularity in polls, but its approval rating still remained above 50 percent in all (Gallup, CNN, Pew, CBS) but one of them (Rasmussen, the sole poll the G.O.P. cites). Perhaps the stimulus held its own because the public, in defiance of Washington’s condescending assumption, was smart enough to figure out that the government can’t create jobs without spending and that Bush-era Republicans have no moral authority to lecture about deficits. Some Americans may even have ancestors saved from penury by the New Deal.

In any event, the final score was unambiguous. The stimulus package arrived with the price tag and on roughly the schedule Obama had set for it. The president’s job approval percentage now ranges from the mid 60s (Gallup, Pew) to mid 70s (CNN) — not bad for a guy who won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the vote. While 48 percent of Americans told CBS, Gallup and Pew that they approve of Congressional Democrats, only 31 (Gallup), 32 (CBS) and 34 (Pew) percent could say the same of their G.O.P. counterparts.

At least some media hands are chagrined. After the stimulus prevailed, Scarborough speculated on MSNBC that “perhaps we’ve overanalyzed it, we don’t know what we’re talking about.” But the Republicans are busy high-fiving themselves and celebrating “victory.” Even in defeat, they are still echoing the 24/7 cable mantra about the stimulus’s unpopularity. This self-congratulatory mood is summed up by a Wall Street Journal columnist who wrote that “the House Republicans’ zero votes for the Obama presidency’s stimulus ‘package’ is looking like the luckiest thing to happen to the G.O.P.’s political fortunes since Ronald Reagan switched parties.” There hasn’t been this much delusional giddiness in these ranks since Monica Lewinsky promised a surefire Republican sweep in the 1998 midterms.

Not all Republicans are so clueless, whether in Congress or beyond. Charlie Crist, the moderate Florida governor who appeared with the president in his Fort Myers, Fla., town-hall meeting last week, has Obama-like approval ratings in the 70s. Naturally, the party’s hard-liners in Washington loathe him. Their idea of a good public face for the G.O.P. is a sound-bite dispenser like the new chairman, Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor. Steele’s argument against the stimulus package is that “in the history of mankind” no “federal, state or local” government has ever “created one job.” As it happens, among the millions of jobs created by the government are the federal investigators now pursuing Steele for alleged financial improprieties in his failed 2006 Senate campaign.

This G.O.P., a largely white Southern male party with talking points instead of ideas and talking heads instead of leaders, is not unlike those “zombie banks” that we’re being asked to bail out. It is in too much denial to acknowledge its own insolvency and toxic assets. Given the mess the country is in, it would be helpful to have an adult opposition that could pull its weight, but that’s not the hand America has been dealt.

As Judd Gregg flakes out and Lindsey Graham throws made-for-YouTube hissy fits on the Senate floor, Obama should stay focused on the big picture in governing as he did in campaigning. That’s the steady course he upheld when much of the political establishment was either second-guessing or ridiculing it, and there’s no reason to change it now. The stimulus victory showed that even as president Obama can ambush Washington’s conventional wisdom as if he were still an insurgent.

But, as he said in Fort Myers last week, he will ultimately be judged by his results. If the economy isn’t turned around, he told the crowd, then “you’ll have a new president.” The stimulus bill is only a first step on that arduous path. The biggest mistake he can make now is to be too timid. This country wants a New Deal, including on energy and health care, not a New Deal lite. Far from depleting Obama’s clout, the stimulus battle instead reaffirmed that he has the political capital to pursue the agenda of change he campaigned on.

Republicans will also be judged by the voters. If they want to obstruct and filibuster while the economy is in free fall, the president should call their bluff and let them go at it. In the first four years after F.D.R. took over from Hoover, the already decimated ranks of Republicans in Congress fell from 36 to 16 in the Senate and from 117 to 88 in the House. The G.O.P. is so insistent that the New Deal was a mirage it may well have convinced itself that its own sorry record back then didn’t happen either.

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Some Find Hope for a Shift in Drug Policy

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

Andy Rogers/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, via Associated Press

Seattle has focused on drug intervention and treatment in R. Gil Kerlikowske’s time as chief.

SEATTLE — Washington State law prohibits the possession of marijuana except for certain medical purposes. Hempfest is not one of them. Yet each summer when the event draws thousands to the Seattle waterfront to call for decriminalizing marijuana, participants light up in clear view of police officers. And they rarely get arrested.

“Police officers patrolling are courteous and respectful,” said Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

One reason for the officers’ approach, said Ms. Holcomb and others who follow law enforcement in Seattle, is the leadership of R. Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of the Seattle Police Department and, officials in the Obama administration say, the president’s choice to become the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, known as the drug czar.

The anticipated selection of Chief Kerlikowske has given hope to those who want national drug policy to shift from an emphasis on arrest and prosecution to methods more like those employed in Seattle: intervention, treatment and a reduction of problems drug use can cause, a tactic known as harm reduction. Chief Kerlikowske is not necessarily regarded as having forcefully led those efforts, but he has not gotten in the way of them.

“What gives me optimism,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “is not so much him per se as the fact that he’s been the police chief of Seattle. And Seattle, King County and Washington State have really been at the forefront of harm reduction and other drug policy reform.”

The White House has yet to announce the nomination of Chief Kerlikowske, and a spokesman for the Seattle police said the chief would not discuss the matter. His appointment would require Senate confirmation.

Chief Kerlikowske, 59, became police chief in Seattle in 2000, after serving as a deputy director for community policing at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration. While there he worked with Eric H. Holder Jr., then a deputy attorney general and now the head of the department.

Before going to the Justice Department, Chief Kerlikowske was the police chief in Buffalo and in Fort Myers and Port St. Lucie in Florida. Under John P. Walters, the drug czar during most of the administration of President George W. Bush, the drug office focused on tough enforcement of drug laws, including emphases on marijuana and drug use among youths. The agency pointed to reductions in the use of certain kinds of drugs, but it was criticized by some local law enforcement officials who said its priorities did not reflect local concerns, from the rise of methamphetamine to the fight against drug smuggling at the Mexican border.

“The difference is I’ll be able to call Washington and get ahold of Gil and he’ll answer the phone,” said William Lansdowne, the police chief in San Diego and a member of the board of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Chief Kerlikowske is the president of the association. “He listens. He’s very open to new ideas. He’ll build cooperation.”

Chief Lansdowne added, “He’ll take a look at prevention as much as enforcement.”

But Chief Kerlikowske also has critics.

Norm Stamper, whom Chief Kerlikowske succeeded in Seattle, said he was a “blank slate” on drug policy. Mr. Stamper, who left office not long after the riots that broke out during a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, supports legalizing marijuana and spoke at Hempfest after leaving the chief’s job. He said Chief Kerlikowske had not been a vocal supporter of some of the city’s drug policies focused on treatment, like a needle exchange program or a 2003 city ballot initiative, overwhelmingly approved by voters, that said enforcing the law against marijuana possession by adults should be the department’s lowest priority.

“The question is, if he were in a much more conservative community, would he attempt to turn that around?” Mr. Stamper said.

Others said that Mr. Kerlikowske’s role as a police chief put him in a delicate political position because he would not want to be accused of being soft on crime. They note that he did not actively oppose the 2003 initiative and that he instructed his staff to comply with it once it passed. They say that Seattle police officers in recent years have kept their distance from the sites of needle exchanges.

Drug arrests are down in the city and overall crime is at a 40-year low, though concerns have increased recently over gang violence.

Chief Kerlikowske has faced plenty of criticism during his time in Seattle. In 2001, a study found that more than half of adults arrested for drug crimes in the city were black, though less than 10 percent of the population was black. The chief vowed to address the disparity, and it has decreased.

In 2002, he received a vote of no confidence from the local police union. The year before, officers had been frustrated by his handling of a Mardi Gras riot in which one person died and dozens were injured. Some officers said they were prevented from intervening soon enough.

In 2007, a special commission found that the department had been too lenient in disciplining officers in certain situations.

In 2004, the chief’s personal weapon, a 9mm Glock pistol, was stolen from his unmarked police car while he and his wife shopped downtown on the day after Christmas. A police spokesman said later that the chief had accidentally left his car unlocked but that he had not violated department policy by leaving his gun in his car.

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An Eternal Optimist -- But Not A Sap

by Ronald Brownstein

After the trials and triumphs of his tumultuous first weeks, President Obama appears increasingly focused on ends, not means. In a conversation early Friday evening with a small group of columnists, Obama was flexible about tactics and unwavering in his goals. He signaled that he's open to consultation, compromise and readjusting his course to build inclusive coalitions, but fixed on the results he intends to produce. "My bottom line is not how pretty the process was," he said, looking back at the congressional fight over his economic recovery package. "My bottom line was: Am I getting help to people who need it?"

Obama spoke on Air Force One as he flew to Chicago for a three-day weekend. Just before he sat down, the House had approved his massive economic plan without a single Republican vote, just as when the plan initially cleared the chamber in January. While he talked, the Senate had begun the vote that would approve the package Friday night with support from just three Republicans.

Obama was relaxed, responsive and, as usual, seemed preternaturally calm and unruffled. He understandably celebrated his legislative victory; the scope of the economic plan and the speed of its approval were equally unprecedented. The plan funds the public investments (like scientific research, infrastructure and education) that Democrats consider essential to long-term growth with more new money than Washington has provided at one time since at least the 1960s and maybe the 1930s. And the vote demonstrated far more unity among congressional Democrats than Bill Clinton was able to generate for his economic agenda in 1993. "The end product is not 100 percent of what we would want," Obama said. "But I think it is a very good start on moving things forward."

Yet Obama held no illusions about the scale of the challenges he faces, both economic and political. One of those challenges was the overwhelming Republican resistance to his plan, which frustrated his campaign hopes of quickly bridging Washington's ideological and partisan divides. Obama seemed to split that opposition into several categories. Some of it was ideological: "I think that there were some senators and House members who have a sincere philosophical difference with the idea of any government role in boosting demand in the economy. They don't believe in [economist John Maynard] Keynes and they are still fighting FDR." Some was tactical: "I also think that there was a decision made... where [Republican leaders] said... 'If we can enforce conformity among our ranks, then it will invigorate our base and will potentially give us some political advantage either short-term or long-term." He paused. "Whether that's a smart strategy, I think you should ask them."

Obama said the near-unanimous Republican opposition, after all his meetings with GOP legislators, would not discourage him from reaching out again on other issues. "Going forward, each and every time we've got an initiative, I am going to go to both Democrats and Republicans and I'm going to say, 'Here is my best argument for why we need to do this. I want to listen to your counterarguments, if you've got better ideas, present them, we will incorporate them into any plans that we make and we are willing to compromise on certain issues that are important to one side or the other in order to get stuff done,'" he said.

Cooperation on the economic agenda, he suggested, may have been unusually difficult because it "touched on... one of the core differences between Democrats and Republicans" -- whether tax cuts or public spending can best stimulate growth. He predicted there may be greater opportunity for cooperation on issues such as the budget, entitlements and foreign policy. And if he keeps reaching out, he speculated, Republicans may face "some countervailing pressures" from the public "to work in a more constructive way." White House aides suggest that regardless of how congressional Republicans react on upcoming issues, Obama will pursue alliances with Republican governors and Republican-leaning business groups and leaders.

Yet while promising to continue to seek peace with congressional Republicans, Obama also made clear he's prepared for the alternative. "I am an eternal optimist [but] that doesn't mean I'm a sap," he said pointedly. "So my goal is to assume the best but prepare for a whole range of different possibilities in terms of how Congress reacts."

Obama displayed the same instinct -- clarity about his goals, flexibility about his tactics -- in discussing the plan Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled this week to stabilize the banking and credit system. In the conversation, Obama reprised some of the arguments he's raised to defend the plan from the widespread reaction on Wall Street and Capitol Hill that it lacked specifics. But most interesting was the way he described the proposal as a work in progress that inexorably will evolve as conditions do. "Here's the bottom line," he said. "We will do what works. It is going to take time to lay out every aspect of this plan, and there are going to be certain aspects of any plan... which will require reevaluation and... some experimentation -- [a sense that] if that doesn't work, then you do something else."

In that spirit, Obama refused to close the door on a broad range of possibilities. One of his interviewers asked him to compare his approach to the responses to earlier banking crises in Japan -- which faced an economic "lost decade" after failing to intervene forcefully enough -- and Sweden, which temporarily nationalized its failed banks before selling them off. Obama said the administration was trying to find the "sweet spot" between those alternatives. Japan offered no model, he said, because "they sort of papered things over and never really bit the bullet." And while many on the left are urging Obama to follow Sweden's example, he thinks the scale of the U.S. problem argues against that course. "You can make a good argument for the Swedish model except for this fact: They only had a handful of banks; we've got thousands of banks," he said. "The scale, the magnitude, of what we're dealing with is much bigger."

Strikingly, the president would not rule out more direct government intervention if his initial approaches fail. "What you can say is I will not allow our financial system to collapse," he said forcefully when asked if he was excluding a Swedish-style solution. "And we are going to do whatever is required to get credit flowing again so that companies and consumers can do their business and we can get this economy back on track."

In such comments, and his remarks about his willingness to work with or without Republican support in Congress, Obama may be revealing much about his conception of leadership. He was insistent that a president's responsibility is to resist the daily (if not hourly) scorekeeping of the modern political and media system and keep his eye on the horizon. "My job is to help the country take the long view," he said. Obama portrayed himself as willing to consider a broad range of perspectives for responding to the country's daunting problems -- "We're going to... work with anybody who wants to work with us constructively," he said at one point -- and open to adjusting his own course to bring others along or simply to respond to evidence that his ideas aren't working. But repeatedly he declared that no one should interpret that to mean he lacks any clarity about his goals: "My consistent bottom line is: How do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids and we can grow the economy." Any compromises or course corrections, he argued, must serve those overriding priorities.

That's an elastic and responsive vision of the presidency which doesn't quite match the preferences of either the ideological warriors of left and right, or those who define consensus as simply the midpoint between each party's traditional answers. It contrasts markedly with the style of George W. Bush, who too often viewed rigidity as proof of resolve. Bill Clinton came closer to Obama's approach, but even he seemed more intent on proving certain fixed assumptions -- that opportunity could be balanced with responsibility, for instance, or government activism squared with fiscal discipline. Ronald Reagan likewise shared an instinct toward compromise, but he operated within a more constricting ideological framework than Obama.

Obama's determination to elevate ends over means could bring him closer in temperament to presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt (who pledged "bold, persistent experimentation") and Abraham Lincoln, who often insisted, "My policy is to have no policy." That doesn't mean either man lacked identifiable goals, much less bedrock principles. It did mean they were willing to constantly recalibrate their course in service of those goals and principles -- as Lincoln once put it, like river boat pilots who "steer from point to point as they call it -- setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see."

Obama is a long way from matching the achievements of Lincoln and Roosevelt, of course. (If Obama, and the country, is lucky, he won't have to.) But his common inclination to "steer from point to point" may serve him and the country well, especially since Obama has inherited problems of a magnitude faced by few of his predecessors other than those two titans. Obama recognizes the obvious challenge those problems present, but also sees in them opportunity. "I think that there are certain moments in history when big change is possible... certain inflection points," he said. "And I think that those changes can be for the good or they can be for the ill. And leadership at those moments can help determine which direction that wave of change goes."

Is this one of those moments, he was asked. "Yes, I firmly believe that," he said, leaning in toward his audience. "Which is part of what makes it scary sometimes, but also is what should make people determined and excited, because I think that we can really solve some problems that have been there for a long time and we just couldn't get the collective focus to tackle them. Now may be one of those moments that we can." Indeed, in today's maelstrom, we may have no other choice.

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Ken Starr: Obama's Supreme Court picks will face trouble

BY CARRIE SHEFFIELD


Kenneth W. Starr has a warning for the Obama administration: What goes around comes around.

During a speech yesterday in Boston, Starr told a group of attorneys that President Obama could face an uphill battle over his Supreme Court nominees because as a senator he opposed two of President George W. Bush's Supreme Court picks, Samuel Alito and John Roberts.

Starr's message: Elephants don't forget.

The former independent counsel during President Clinton's Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, Starr said an aging Supreme Court means that Obama could be able to name perhaps two or more nominees to the high court. And that could lead to a showdown with Senate Republicans, who were livid with Democrats such as Obama, who filibustered and voted against the Bush picks.

Starr pointed out that Obama enters office with healthy Democratic majorities in the House and Senate; however, he said "the salience of this very enviable position, politically, for our president is brought home by the president's own approach to the high court during his years of service as a United States senator."

He continued: "There is one historical factoid of note: He is the first president of the United States ever in our history to have participated in a Senate filibuster of a judicial nominee. Never before has that happened."

Photo by Matthew Imbler

Starr quoted from a November article in The Washington Times by my colleague S.A. Miller about the problems Obama faces.

"'Senate Republicans say the president-elect's voting record and long simmering resentments over Democrats' treatment of President Bush's nominees will leave Mr. Obama hard-pressed to call for bipartisan help confirming judges or even an up-or-down vote,'" he quoted.

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Dems Fed Up With McCain: "Angry Old Defeated Candidate"

Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated with the brash political attacks Sen. John McCain has launched against Barack Obama in the weeks since the new president took office. No one expected the Arizona Republican to be a legislative ally for this administration. But it was widely assumed that Obama's overtures to McCain in the weeks after the election would dull some of the hard feelings between the two. Now, they are realizing, it has not.

"He is bitter and really angry," Bob Shrum said of McCain in an interview on Friday. "He is angry at the press, which he thinks is unfair. He is angry at Obama and angry at the voters. He has gone from being an angry old candidate to being an angry old defeated candidate."

Indeed, during the debate over the economic stimulus package it was McCain, as often as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spearheaded the opposition. The Arizona Republican denounced the proposal as pure pork on the Senate floor and introduced an alternative measure comprised nearly entirely of tax cuts.

On Sunday, McCain wouldn't let the fight die, even with the legislation through Congress. Appearing on CNN, he described the $787 billion measure as "generational theft" and said that the bill's authors should "start over now and sit down together."

Meanwhile, appearing on ABC's This Week, Sen. Lindsey Graham -- McCain's chief ally in the Senate -- said of the process by which the stimulus was forged: "If this is going to be bipartisanship, the country is screwed."

That two Republicans Senators who consider themselves prudent compromisers would forcefully condemn the president's top legislative priority is noteworthy in and of itself. That it comes after President Obama made overt gestures of reconciliation to both McCain and Graham raises questions as to just how long it will take for this era of post-partisanship to arrive.

Not to mention that, as other observers pointed out, McCain isn't being entirely consistent.

"During the Senate debate, 36 of the Senate Republicans voted for an alternative that would have cut taxes over the next decade by $2.5 trillion, [and] reduced the top marginal race to 25 percent," said the Atlantic's Ron Brownstein on "Meet the Press." "For John McCain -- who voted for that alternative of a $2.5 trillion tax cut over the next decade -- to talk about generational theft, I mean, pot meet kettle."

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Obama Upholds Bush Religious Discrimination Policy

Posted by Scott Michaels

Obama holds up Bush's religion policies

Obama upholds Bush's religion policies

Proving he’s no amateur when it comes to tacking as far right or left as necessary to capture some vital constituency, President Barack Obama recently upheld a key Bush administration policy allowing groups receiving federal dollars to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

During the campaign, Obama had assured audiences of his intent to keep the Bush White House focus on faith-based groups but with an end to the exception allowing those groups to decide who they might hire based on religious values or principles. Being an actual professor of constitutional law once, it seems Obama had correctly surmised that the idea of extending federal funds to a group which might use those same funds to ensure its continued activities would be all right in the main; but that using those funds also required the group to acknowledge the fact that public money can never be used to subsidize discrimination on the basis of religion, let alone several other proscriptions laid out within our chief governing document.

Not surprisingly, more than a few religious organizations applauded our president vigorously for the brave stance he took in continuing to uphold what seems to be a clear violation of legal principles going all the way back to the common law from which much of our Constitution was drawn, not to mention the writings of John Locke and Montesquieu, to name just a few. Ah, well…such is political expediency when you’ve got a shot at roping in a voting bloc as large as the religious folk in our country can be at times.

None of this should be taken to be an attack against the vast number of people in this country who adhere to the idea of a divine being. Far from it: The good works done by men and women of faith in this country is a testament to the legacy of tolerance and respect for one another the framers of our constitution fervently desired we show on a perpetual basis. For the most part - and with several very notable exceptions - we seem to have by and large made a good-faith (no pun intended) effort to do just that.

However, a President (and especially one as intelligent and thoughtful as Barack Obama) who says one thing on the campaign trail yet does another once safely bedded down in the White House only serves to diminish his office, not enhance it. And it was proven with depressing regularity over the last twenty or thirty years by a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents. This time, though, it seemed like it would finally be different. Like we’d finally come across a man who knew, to the core of his being and with a surety almost frightening in its purity of focus, that the law would tolerate no discrimination nor encourage it to be practiced, even when the religion itself may have correctly demanded it, so long as public money was involved.

The extension of the people’s wealth to groups (religious or otherwise) in our society stands in for the compact against bad behaviors our Constitution requires a people (both in the individual and the collective sense) to swear allegiance to, by the way. Mr. Obama so blithely disregarding this compact is something at once unsettling and deeply disappointing at the same time.

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A Torture Report Could Spell Big Trouble For Bush Lawyers


By Michael Isikoff

An internal Justice Department report on the conduct of senior lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. H. Marshall Jarrett, chief of the department's ethics watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos "was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys." According to two knowledgeable sources who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, a draft of the report was submitted in the final weeks of the Bush administration. It sharply criticized the legal work of two former top officials—Jay Bybee and John Yoo—as well as that of Steven Bradbury, who was chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the time the report was submitted, the sources said. (Bybee, Yoo and Bradbury did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But then–Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his deputy, Mark Filip, strongly objected to the draft, according to the sources. Filip wanted the report to include responses from all three principals, said one of the sources, a former top Bush administration lawyer. (Mukasey could not be reached; his former chief of staff did not respond to requests for comment. Filip also did not return a phone message.) OPR is now seeking to include the responses before a final version is presented to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. "The matter is under review," said Justice spokesman Matthew Miller.

If Holder accepts the OPR findings, the report could be forwarded to state bar associations for possible disciplinary action. But some former Bush officials are furious about the OPR's initial findings and question the premise of the probe. "OPR is not competent to judge [the opinions by Justice attorneys]. They're not constitutional scholars," said the former Bush lawyer. Mukasey, in speeches before he left, decried the second-guessing of Justice lawyers who, acting under "almost unimaginable pressure" after 9/11, offered "their best judgment of what the law required."

But the OPR probe began after Jack Goldsmith, a Bush appointee who took over OLC in 2003, protested the legal arguments made in the memos. Goldsmith resigned the following year after withdrawing the memos, and later wrote that he was "astonished" by the "deeply flawed" and "sloppily reasoned" legal analysis in the memos by Yoo and Bybee, including their assertion (challenged by many scholars) that the president could unilaterally disregard a law passed by Congress banning torture.

OPR investigators focused on whether the memo's authors deliberately slanted their legal advice to provide the White House with the conclusions it wanted, according to three former Bush lawyers who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing probe. One of the lawyers said he was stunned to discover how much material the investigators had gathered, including internal e-mails and multiple drafts that allowed OPR to reconstruct how the memos were crafted. In a departure from the norm, Jarrett also told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year he would inform them of his findings and would "consider" releasing a public version. If he does, it could be the most revealing public glimpse yet at how some of the major decisions of Bush-era counterterrorism policy were made.

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