Richard Williamson, R.I.P
Richard S. Williamson was not a household name, but for decades he was a tireless public servant and resolute defender of America’s national security. He passed away suddenly this weekend; he was 64. A release from the McCain Institute recounts, “He was involved in a wide variety of civic organizations, including serving as a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, as senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and as a trustee of Freedom House. Williamson was also Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Reagan White House, Ambassador to the United Nations Offices in Vienna (including the International Atomic Energy Agency), Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, member of the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control, Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs, Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate in 1993.” While he lost that Senate race to Carol Moseley Braun, he was an accomplished lawyer, author and speaker.
I came to know Richard in his capacity as a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. He was a staunch advocate for his candidates, and beyond that for the principle that foreign policy is the most critical aspect of any presidency and therefore must be a topic of debate in presidential elections. When other policy advisers pleaded to downplay foreign policy, Richard insisted it deserved a full airing. Many of the positions he helped his candidates articulate -- the danger of Russian aggression, the Obama administration’s duplicity in Libya, the rise of the Iran-Syria axis, the need for adequate national security spending and the need to speak boldly on behalf of human rights -- have proved entirely accurate. The country would have been greatly served had he returned to public office.
In the hurly-burly of a presidential campaign Williamson was unflappable, honest and gracious -- treasured qualities in a public servant. In the best sense of the phrase, he was an old-school gentleman.
His passing reminds us how essential a strong foreign policy is to the country’s well-being. He stood up for a strong America, leading the Free World. In addition to conservative groups, including the RNC, which have remarked on his passing, I would hope in the near future our current U.N. ambassador and others in the elite foreign policy establishment who knew him well will honor his achievements. He, as they know, was never one to put partisanship above country. He will be missed.
Congress in revolt on Iran deal
With the blistering New York Times editorial condemning sanctions efforts underway in Congress (“a breakthrough agreement at risk” falsely implies there is a U.S. -Iran agreement on key points), you know the administration is nervous, very nervous. It seems bipartisan contingents in both the House and Senate are unwilling to be threatened by the totalitarian regime in Tehran, which has threatened to call off the whole deal (which isn’t even a deal) unless the Congress shuts up. It is quite extraordinary -- both the Times and the mullahs vilifying Congress’s efforts merely to enforce the terms of U.N. resolutions on Iran’s illegal weapons program.
There are two sets of negotiations underway. In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are discussing a resolution that would set parameters -- or rather remind the administration of its own parameters -- for a final deal. This, in conformity with the U.N. resolutions, would require, among other things, an end to enrichment, dismantling of the Arak plutonium facility and unrestricted inspections. This is labeled “mischief” by the Times and a deal-breaker by the mullahs. Respect must be paid to Hoyer for resisting the bullies. With the House leaving town at the end of the week, we should know in the next 24 hours whether there is agreement on a resolution.
Over in the Senate, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are making progress on a sanctions bill that would kick in if Iran violates the terms of the interim deal (who knows what the terms are with no implementation deal?) and/or if there is no final deal embracing the terms of the U.N. resolutions. As with Hoyer, Menendez is for now standing up to Tehran and the Times.
This is not a partisan affair. Democrats and Republicans are both involved in efforts to stop Iran’s march toward a nuclear arms capability. Both sides are alarmed at a White House running toward appeasement.
At stake here is whether the administration seamlessly moves from the international consensus that Iran must not be allowed to enrich to a quiet form of containment, which the president vowed he would not do. Bret Stephens recalls that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wasn’t clever enough to conceal the end game during his confirmation hearing. (“The Obama administration’s policy on Iran’s nuclearization is containment, not prevention. The secretary of defense let that one slip at his confirmation hearings in January, and the media played it as a stumble by an intellectually overmatched nominee. But it wasn’t a stumble. It was a gaffe—an accidental, embarrassing act of Washington truth telling—by a guy who doesn’t do insincerity nearly as well as his boss.”)
Desperate to bolster Iran’s credibility, Secretary of State John Kerry blatantly misrepresented the Bush administration’s conduct, claiming it spurned an offer from Iran. My colleague Glenn Kessler awards three Pinocchio’s to Kerry for going “too far when he describes this as ‘an offer to the Bush administration that they would, in fact, do major things with respect to their program.’ It was not an offer, but a vague listing of U.S. aims and Iranian aims to start off a diplomatic process — which came from the Swiss, not even from Iran. There were no actual specifics concerning the nuclear program; there is notably no mention of halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” No, Mr. Kerry, Iran has never been interested in giving up its program, and rather than confront that reality, the administration is not-so-discretely acquiescing. No wonder the Times and Tehran are all bent out of shape.
The left is plainly engaged on this one. Attack sanctions proponents, toss multi-lateral resolutions overboard, cast those defending the international stance on Iran as being disloyal to the president and threaten dire consequences if Congress acts. It is the same line the mullahs advance. Congress should choose: Follow Menendez and Hoyer or be cowed by Iranian threats?
You have to laugh: Right-wing groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks are determined to vote no on a budget deal not yet done or announced. My inbox is full of e-mails from them and their pet candidates (who cut and paste the same anti-budget deal argument) decrying a deal that doesn’t yet exist. That tells you all you need to know about these groups. They say they are operating off of news reports -- that would be the dreaded main stream media from which they now take direction. Puleez.
Let’s begin with a few facts. The concept of replacing hobbling defense cuts with different cuts and/or mandatory cuts is one the House has supported and voted upon with the backing of these same groups. “In May, 2012 the House took an important step forward by passing a reconciliation measure that cut spending, made important reforms, and avoided the worst of the harmful defense sequester.” So said Heritage Action. In 2012 the Heritage Action argument was: “Indeed, the reconciliation measure which is essentially a spending reduction plan takes an important step forward. It seeks to address two pressing problems: the soaring cost of entitlement spending and the arbitrary defense cuts mandated by the so-called Budget Control Act.”
No matter. Heritage Action is now in the dog house with many Republicans, so it is not surprising it is flailing away trying to regain relevance.
Let’s keep a few things in mind as the actual deal -- if there is one -- comes to fruition. The test of conservatism is not adherence to a single budget sequester formula; it is whether we move in the direction of budget discipline and begin to tackle the underlying driver of the debt, mandatory spending. If the end product is greater reduction in overall spending, the beginning of mandatory spending reform, attacks on cronyism and shifts from taxpayer subsidies to user fees (e.g. airline passengers pay for airline travel, pension insurance is paid by corporations), that is all to the better. (This argument on user fees is one continually advanced by these same groups.) If the result is more cuts than we have and significantly more cuts than user fees, these groups should be leading the parade.
Most important, I would argue, is relief on the defense side. There is no question but that we are harming readiness and putting more burden on fewer troops and their families. Defense is the first priority of federal government, and if we can shift cuts from there to mandatory spending or cuts in crony spending, all the better. Understandably, anti-defense right-wingers (some of whom tried and failed in the defense authorization bill to enact changes on sexual assault that would take responsibility away from military commanders) will be peeved; those concerned about the growing threats unaddressed by President Obama should be pleased.
There is always a legitimate concern that short-term, immediate spending cuts may get traded for ephemeral cuts in mandatory spending down the road. But that, frankly, is the way mandatory spending reform works. You make small changes in the law for big payoffs later. Moreover, the idea that the sequester cuts are now “permanent” belies the argument that they, too, can be modified by a future Congress. If we change, not eliminate, the Budget Control Act to have a better mix of mandatory-to-discretionary and defense-to-domestic programs, this is a win. A big one.
What these outside groups would ask for is a repeat of September: A government shutdown (i.e. demand repeal of Obamacare for more cuts, no new revenue). That worked out so well last time, huh? These groups are blowing on the dying embers of a fire that once fueled dysfunction and burned the GOP. It’s high time they were marginalized. Let’s see what the real deal is, if we get one, and judge it on the merits.
More cooks in the White House kitchen
John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and is one of the Democratic Party’s most experienced strategists, is joining the White House to help President Obama salvage what has become a difficult second term.
Podesta, who has been an outside adviser to Obama since leading his presidential transition after the 2008 election, will formally join his inner circle as White House counselor for a year, according to sources familiar with the move.
The addition of Podesta to the White House staff is indicative of the rotten management skill that got the president to where he is. Rather than replace the inept group around him, he has further complicated the White House hierarchy by adding Podesta to the mix. Is Valerie Jarrett going to give way to Podesta? I doubt it. President Obama is kidding himself if he thinks adding yet another “cc” to the e-mail chain and populating useless meetings with one more voice will turn things around.
The move will, I strongly suspect, merely create another power base (“Podesta’s circle,” “Jarrett’s circle,” etc.) and reaffirm one of the most debilitating aspects of this presidency: No matter how badly you screw up, you never get fired. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is still there, although Jeff Zients was brought in to try to clean up some of her mess. Likewise, Podesta enters but Jarrett and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough remain.
Moreover, the selection of Podesta, a left-wing ideologue whose idea of innovative thinking is an income-inequality screed, suggests the president, as he invariably does, is merely doubling down on his statism. This is not a president who really internalized the problems with big government, nor one interested in reaching out to the center. No, this president is now in a panic and rushing to his base, presumably to keep his approval ratings from sliding into the 30s.
One can’t ignore Podesta’s closeness to the Clintons. One danger now is that the Clintons -- as Bill did when he suggested the president had to keep his promise that you can keep your insurance -- cut loose from Obama in an effort to separate Hillary from the president. The last thing Obama needs is Bill and Hillary explaining how they’d do things differently and previewing excuses for Hillary’s mediocre tenure at state. Podesta, for now, keeps everyone on the same page.
The addition of Podesta won’t change the underlying problems dragging this presidency down. Obamacare’s problems are multiplying. The Senate increasingly looks like it will flip to a Republican majority. As the Rothenberg Political Report notes:
In a recently released Quinnipiac University poll in Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall polled in the mid-40s against a handful of underwhelming and unknown Republicans. This is in a race currently rated by the Rothenberg Political Report as Safe for Democrats.
We don’t have comparable public data for too many other supposedly safe Senate races, but there are at least 10 other Democratic Senate seats that are structurally more vulnerable than Colorado. Of course, as I’ve written before, Republicans only need to win states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 to get back to the Senate majority. The GOP won’t likely need victories in Michigan, Iowa, Colorado or New Hampshire. Those would just be icing on the cake.
(Since that was written, a new poll, albeit an internal one, shows Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) leading Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) 48 to 41 percent.)
The president’s second term is sliding downhill fast. The Podesta pick suggests the president hasn’t a clue what to do about it.
The deck is stacked against Obamacare
Democrats and their media allies are giving us a bad case of whiplash. Obamacare will work! Obamacare won’t matter! Obamacare is going to give millions of people affordable health-care coverage! Of course it’s more expensive — look what you are getting! Yes, these are contradictory spiels, an inevitable consequence of a White House is disarray, if not on the verge of panic. Depending on the spin of the moment (HealthCare.gov is fixed! It doesn’t matter if it’s fixed!), the left-leaning blogosphere twists this way and that, trying to follow the White House’s logic.
One thing we know for sure: The GOP is running against Obamacare, and hard. The GOP’s gamble is entirely understandable, and isn’t much of a gamble. Consider the problems that still loom:
The electorate is firmly opposed to the law and is increasingly disinclined to believe Obama’s promises about his health-care plan.
The Web site is still not working 100 percent.
The error rate in transmitting information to insurers is high, raising concern that come Jan. 1, people who think they are insured won’t be, according to their carrier.
Sticker shock is spreading, ignited by the realization that even the lowest-level Obamacare plan is higher on average than pre-Obamacare plans.
For a very long time, millions more will have been dropped from coverage than will have signed up in the exchanges.
Many Americans will soon discover they didn’t get to keep their insurance plan or their doctor.
The security risks (or the appearance of security risks) associated with HealthCare.gov.
The ratio of younger, healthier people to older, sicker people is unlikely to match the administration’s predictions, leading to higher costs.
Even if some of those problems turn around, others will not because they are features of the law (for the time being) — the prices, the insurance disruption and the doctors no longer available “in network.” And the gap between expectations and result is so stark that it’s hard to see how Obamacare can fix all these problems and reach its goals. James Capretta argues:
Of course, the goal for Obamacare is not just to tread water and prevent a rise in the number of uninsured. The goal is “universal coverage,” or something close to it. In 2014 alone, the administration says it wants to reach 7 million newly insured people in the exchanges. To reach that goal, the administration probably needs to sign up at least 6.5 million people for coverage in the exchanges over the period December to March (this is in addition to the 9 million they want to sign up for Medicaid). That is the equivalent of about 50,000 people per day—on top of the people who need to go through the exchanges because their current policies have been cancelled. So, realistically, if Obamacare is back on track as we are told it is, then we should be hearing about a surge of enrollment that is well in excess of 100,000 per day in December. Not even the law’s most ardent and optimistic defenders expect that to happen at this point.
The law’s fundamental problem remains as it has been from day one: success depends on large numbers of Americans enrolling in insurance plans that they would rather not purchase.
Recall that Obamacare was designed primarily to help the 15 percent of the population not insured. That was a small minority of the electorate. And the sliver has gotten tinnier since a number of those in the 15 percent couldn’t get Obamacare (due to Web site issues or affordability issues) and a number of the 85 percent (who lost coverage, doctors, etc.) who were fine before have been harmed. After a year of this, there will be more people in the “don’t like the current system” group than before Obamacare. That, in a nutshell, is the Democrats’ problem: It is making things worse for more people than does the current system.
The problem for the GOP is that it isn’t enough to repeal Obamacare now that the damage has been done. Insurance plans have been redesigned. People have lost coverage. There will be gaps in coverage. Obamacare created even more uninsured people. Repeal is not feasible (if it ever was); Republicans must come up with both a rescue plan for those adversely affected now and a longer-term solution for improving healthcare, which was the point of Obamacare all along.
So, yes, Obamacare will matter very much next year, and it is in all likelihood going to be a boon for the GOP. How helpful it is and whether it enables the GOP to capture the Senate depend in large part on what Republicans offer as an off-ramp from the current mess and what alternative route they suggest.