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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Budget Nightmares: Government Shutdowns, Slashed Tax Credits

Protesters flooded Minnesota’s Capitol grounds yesterday on the eve of a government shutdown in response to tense budget negotiations. The governor and Republicans must close a $5 billion gap for the next two-year budget cycle, but legislators are torn over how to accomplish that goal.

Though government officials and Governor Mark Dayton have kept the details of the negotiations largely secret, Minnesotans were quite vocal in their demands. Activists stated that they’re open to compromise, but don’t think the burden of the state’s budget woes should be dumped exclusively upon the shoulders of the poor.

"An all cuts budget would be devastating, what we need now is compromise so that we can move forward and continue to make our state better,” [said LeAnn Wallace].

Early today, the government of Minnesota officially shut down, leaving 20,000 Minnesotans out of work and others without statewide services. However, before the shutdown began, the state’s residents had already begun to see the effects of a statewide shutdown.

Motorists hoping to stop for a bathroom break were beginning to see "closed" signs on rest areas, and camping enthusiasts were being kicked out of state parks, which all closed at 4 p.m. Nonprofit organizations rushed to make last-minute decisions on whether to get financial help or curtail services....

At the morning rally, nonprofit groups urged a budget solution that would tax wealthy Minnesotans. Mary Cecconi of Parents United said that while leaders have promised to limit cuts to education, other state-funded programs are important for Minnesota children, too.

 "If you're trying to help kids grow up to be productive citizens who will seed the economy, they don't grow up in a vacuum," Cecconi said. "To succeed in school, they need healthy families and communities supporting them.”

Minnesota isn’t the only state currently facing a government shutdown. Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) and Democrats fought over funding for abortion at University of Iowa hospitals, a disagreement that put the overall budget in jeopardy. Additionally, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie threatened to veto Democratic lawmakers’ budget.

Even in states where a budget compromise was successfully struck, citizens still face grave cuts. In an analysis of Wisconsin’s state plan, the AP documents several ways the new budget will reshape priorities at the detriment of the poor.

Among the changes, poor families with two or more children will see their tax credits reduced. Overall, the tax credits for poor families in Wisconsin will be reduced by $65 million over the next two years.

Meanwhile, life for business owners will get a little easier. The budget creates a new capital gains tax deferral for investments in Wisconsin-based companies, loosens taxes charged to multistate corporations, and creates a new tax credit for manufacturers and agricultural businesses.

Medicaid will get more expensive, since the new budget cuts $500 million from healthcare programs, and citizens will face higher co-pays and deductibles. The budget also allows the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to increase tuition by up to 5.5 percent beginning with the fall semester, a move that will price many poorer students out of an education.

And that’s just scratching the surface. The full consequences of the cuts will be ubiquitous and devastating for millions of residents, and the aftermath of austerity in Wisconsin is really a microcosm of the larger national trend of state legislators asking the poor to shoulder the burden of budget cuts.

Currently, it seems like state governments operate in one of two modes: paralysis or aggressive punishment of the poor. 

Schools Out as British Teachers Strike Over Pension Cuts

They may not have been the largest crowd assembled in the streets of the capital, or the loudest demonstration in British history, but Thursday’s strike here by four public sector unions protesting government moves to cut state employees’ pensions was certainly the best behaved protest for its size. Which is fitting since three of the striking unions, the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the University and College Union, represented much of the nation’s teachers. Support among union members was strong enough to shut down half the schools in England and Wales—the government admitted some 11,000 state schools had been affected by the strike—as well as airports, welfare offices, the driving license agency and museums staffed by the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose 200,000 members also walked out for the one-day strike. After marching to Trafalgar Square the strikers helped clean up their litter.

But the protestors still got poor marks for behavior from Ed Miliband, who like St. Peter thrice denied the strikers his support. After twice issuing statements refusing to support the strike on the grounds that negotiations between the unions and the government were still going on, the Labour Party leader put out a statement on his blog saying “I understand their anger about the way the government has acted. But this does not alter my view that today’s strikes are a mistake. It is a mistake to resort to disruption at a time when negotiations are still going on. And it is a mistake not just because of the inconvenience caused but also because I firmly believe it will not help to win the argument with the public.”

Miliband, who was only elected Labour leader thanks to strong union backing, also denounced the strike in a speech to the Local Government association, saying the strike was wrong “because of the effect on the people who rely upon these services.” However it is worth noting that none of the unions out on Thursday are formally affiliated with the Labour Party. So while many on the left were furious at Labour’s failure to back the strikers—when shadow business secretary John Denham called the strike a mistake on a BBC panel show he was booed by the audience—Miliband’s stand may have been a calculated gesture of independence.

But public sympathy appears to be with the strikers, despite the inconvenience. The government didn’t help its case when two of its ministers, arguing that public sector pensions had simply become unaffordable, seemed unaware of an official report showing that pension costs are actually projected to decline over the next few years thanks to changes made by New Labour. So far Miliband’s strategy seems to be to ride the waves of public discontent passively, like a surfer sitting on his board. But if the big public sector unions, who though supportive of Thursday’s action have so far remained on the sidelines, manage to coordinate their opposition and Miliband is still sitting on his board when that wave breaks then Labour will truly be washed-up.

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Mark Halperin Gets the Weiner Treatment

When I first saw that Mark Halperin was indefinitely suspended from Morning Joe for on air that Obama was “a dick,” I thought it was a rather classic case of projection.

Then I read Greg Sargent, who reminded me that of all the reasons to push this most sour face of Beltway smuggery off the air, saying a dirty bad word wasn’t it:

Halperin’s use of an expletive is trivial when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others—degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

And why did Halperin deem Obama a “dick”? As Sargent writes, Halperin had been arguing “that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal.”

Halperin has been the haughty dispenser of pinched political pronouncements for a long time now. (Pronouncements that are often simply wrong, says Alex Pareene. And so it might be too much to hope that his suspension—for whatever reason—will last for more than a week or two. But, boy, it’d be nice to have breakfast without him.

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Will South Carolina Lose Its Primary?

In a surprisingly little-noticed story earlier this week The State of Columbia, South Carolina, reported, “South Carolina’s much-watched first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary could become a far less important first-in-the-South caucus.” The problem is that the state’s Republican state government is seeking to balance its budget entirely through spending cuts. And so, in a fit of impressive if foolish consistency, Governor Nikki Haley opposes shelling out $1.5 million for the Republican primary. “We need to focus on core functions of government, and the presidential primary—which was until recently always paid for by the parties, not the taxpayer—simply doesn’t fall into that category,” says Bob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman. Without state funding, the state GOP may need to hold a caucus, because an actual primary requires expensive vote-counting technology that only the state owns.

An early primary is an excellent example of a public good. It extends something important to citizens (the power to influence a party’s presidential nomination) and generates economic activity (visits from candidates, volunteers and media). But no private enterprise will want to pay for it, nor should a private company be empowered to control a political primary. Unfortunately for Republicans, they don’t believe in public goods. The only spending Republicans care for is the type where a wealthy, organized interest benefits greatly. (Think military contracts.) If the beneficiaries are many diffuse individuals who don’t make enough to reward the favor with campaign contributions, then Republicans have no use for it.

South Carolina Republican party officials and political consultants are apoplectic, complaining that a caucus would not generate as much national interest as a primary. In principle that ought to be the case, since caucuses restrict turnout by forcing people to come during a set evening time frame and hang around for several hours. Single parents, night shift workers, night-time students and the disabled are among the widely disenfranchised as a result. Alas, the undemocratic Iowa caucus, where turnout is a fraction of the subsequent primary in New Hampshire, remains a media fixation.

But, assuming the negative predictions came true, that would be a delicious irony for South Carolina Republicans to actually reap what their miserliness has sown.

Another irony is that conventional wisdom in South Carolina holds that the high-profile primary is a source of positive attention for the state, and losing it would be lamentable. As The State writes, “The state also would lose national exposure, prestige and millions of dollars that campaigns, media and others spend during the event.”

The primary looks quite different to Northern eyes. Shining a light on the South Carolina politics has a tendency to reinforce the worst images of Southern Republicans. This is the state that produced segregationist Strom Thurmond, Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson, Governor Mark “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” Sanford and his Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who compared welfare to feeding stray animals. But they were all topped last year by State Senator Jake Knotts, who referred to President Obama and Haley, who is Indian-American, as “ragheads.”

The primary brings attention to the machinations of South Carolina’s Republican operatives, who since South Carolinian Lee Atwater, have been renowned for their race-baiting smears. In 2000, Senator John McCain was undermined in South Carolina by false rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. (This was before it came to light that Thurmond had done exactly that.) Perhaps a lower-profile caucus would actually help South Carolina’s national image.

On the other hand, as any veteran observer of the Iowa caucuses can tell you, events that lower turnout to the most dedicated core of activists have a tendency to tilt the electorate toward extremes. In Iowa’s Republican caucus religious social conservatives enjoy a large influence, which is why Mike Huckabee won there in 2008 and Michele Bachmann is considered a threat to win there in 2012. An even more extremist South Carolina Republican electorate, if such a thing is possible, wouldn’t reflect especially well on the state.

It would have major implications for the race, such as helping social conservatives like Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, while hurting Jon Huntsman who, unlike Mitt Romney, is planning on contesting South Carolina. So when the South Carolina budget is passed, Huntsman may need to redraw his electoral map.

A Stunning Development in the Swipe Fee Debate

Earlier this month, we reported on the Senate battle over “swipe fees,” which banks charge merchants for processing credit or debit cards. It appeared the story was over, and an effort by banks to maintain high swipe fees was vanquished—but an eleventh-hour action by the Federal Reserve yesterday has given Wall Street yet another astonishing victory in Washington.

The average swipe fee in America is 44 cents, the highest rate in the world. In December, the Federal Reserve released an analysis saying that banks could still make profit by charging 12 cents per transaction, and under the Dodd-Frank financial reform, planned to enforce this cap starting today.

Banks—which collect $20 billion every year from swipe fees—naturally did not want this revenue reduced by almost 75 percent. Early this year, they launched a massive lobbying campaign to pass a bill by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) that would delay the Federal Reserve’s cap. Retailers, who claim high fees drive up prices and hurt the bottom line of small stores, had their own well-funded campaign to defeat the bill, and ultimately prevailed. On June 8, Tester’s bill failed to win a cloture vote.

It was a ridiculously expensive battle, utilizing hundreds of lobbyists and tens of millions of dollars in contributions and advertising. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) joked that it was a “full employment” bill, because “everybody who is a lobbyist in Washington is working on this amendment.” Senator Lindsey Graham told the Huffington Post that “everybody and their grandmother’s lobbying on this” and added it was in the “top ten” of brutal and well-funded lobbying battles that he’s seen.

The takeaway was that Wall Street could be defeated in Washington, but perhaps only by an equally well-funded special interest. As it turns out, even that assessment undersold the banks’ influence. Yesterday, less than twenty-four hours before their rules were to go into effect, the Federal Reserve announced it would cap the fees at as high as 24 cents, not 12.

In announcing that the Fed would double the proposed cap, chairman Ben Bernanke said “I think this is the best available solution that implements the will of Congress and makes good economic decisions.” Alongside the Senate fight, Wall Street has also been pressuring the Fed to help them out, and apparently their pleas have been heard.

Even though the 12-cent cap imposed a 75 percent reduction, the profit margin on 12 cents was still 70 percent. When Bernanke spoke of a “good economic decision” by doubling that cap, he could only have been speaking of bank balance sheets.

Moreover, the Fed’s action essentially exempts debit-card swipes from the regulation. As Zach Carter explains at the Huffington Post, the 44-cent swipe fee average is actually a composite of two different averages. When you swipe your card at a store and choose “credit” and provide a signature, the average fee charged by banks is 56 cents. When you choose debit and enter a PIN number, the average fee is 23 cents.

Thus, by capping swipe fees at 24 cents, the Fed is basically freeing all debit card transactions from regulation. Retailers are not pleased. "The Federal Reserve very clearly did not follow through on the intent of the law," Mallory Duncan, chairman of the Merchants Payments Coalition, told Huffington Post. "The [Fed] board members are overwhelmingly bankers, so they decided to take several billion more from the public and give it to the banks,” he added in comments to The Hill.

Duncan also said retailers will be looking at ways to “challenge” the Fed’s ruling. Washington lobbyists, call your office. 

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Greece in Crisis: Protest, Violence and Necessity

The Greek Parliament has just passed the package of savage austerity measures and privatizations required to get the last tranche of a 110 billion euro loan from the EU and IMF; without it, the country would have been broke by mid-July. Outside in Syntagma Square, protesters in cycling masks are running from clouds of teargas. Since yesterday, the square has been filled with surging crowds pushed back by riot police; Greek TV reports that 500 people aged between 15 and 65 have been treated in the metro station for respiratory problems and injuries.

Ambulances can’t get anywhere near the scene. The Twitter feeds give the flavor: “Fog of chemicals around #Syntagma they keep gas bombing us situation getting worse again”—“People are trapped at the sqr gas bombed from all sides”—“More doctors and supplies needed urgently at Syntagma Square in Greece. Please help”—“Police just hit directly to us. We were running, I saw a man spitting blood, 3 more fainted 3 steps away from me. Its really bad”—“Greek ministry of finance is on fire.”

By the skin of its teeth, Greece has escaped imminent bankruptcy; the Eurozone is safe for another week or two as the EU and IMF try to hammer out a second rescue package. Jose Manuel Barroso and Herbert von Rompuy, the presidents of the European Commission and Council, have hailed an “important step forward along the path of fiscal consolidation and growth-enhancing structural reform.” But the long-term prognosis is far from positive. First, the cuts and privatizations will not be easy to implement, leaving plenty of wiggle room for lenders later on. Second, this year’s austerity program has only plunged the country deeper into recession; even the EU and the IMF project that the debt and the interest on it are likely to keep rising, and the consensus is that Greece will have to default sooner or later anyway. Third, it isn’t clear how much more austerity the Greeks are willing or able to take. Almost a quarter already live below the poverty line; 50,000 businesses have closed in the last year; youth unemployment is at 42 percent; people are at breaking point.

It’s very hard to predict what is likely to happen next. The government still has to pass an enabling law on Thursday to speed up the pace of reform; after that, it has to put the austerity measures into practice. If it stumbles and is forced to call elections, Antonis Samaras, the leader of the opposition conservative party New Democracy, is most likely to win. He has no substantive alternative solution to the crisis, but has made populist hay by promising to “renegotiate” Greece’s loan agreement and to rescind a law granting citizenship to children born in Greece to legally settled immigrants.

The “aganaktismenoi” who have occupied Syntagma since the end of May are a new force in Greece—a popular movement that embraces leftists, centrists, nationalists, radical democrats and the apolitical, united by a collective allergy to traditional politics, with its cronyism and self-interest, its petty-mindedness and parochial machismo, its corruption and dishonesty. Some of them have been camped in the square for weeks, engaged in an experiment in direct democracy; whether that will survive today’s cataclysm of violence remains to be seen. Yesterday, peaceful protesters tried to stop the black clad agitators who were ripping up marble slabs and setting fire to vans and rubbish bins; today’s indiscriminate assault by the police has changed the atmosphere.

Classical analogies for modern Greek politics are always irritating. But today I can’t help thinking about tragedy, not in the tabloid sense of something terrible happening but as a clash between irreconcilable laws, or Free Will banging its head against Necessity. My heart is with the protesters, with their spirit and recklessness and energy and desire, but my head knows that Parliament had to pass the appalling measures, because at this point the alternative would be worse, for Greece and also, perhaps, for the rest of Europe. Due to the long recalcitrance and rigidity of European leaders and their refusal to challenge the dominance of the markets; due to Greek politicians’ even longer failure to set their house in order; due to the absurd time pressure placed on this decision, there was, as EU commissioner Olli Rehn put it, “no Plan B.”

The tragic flaw is in Greece’s own responsibility for its problems, which has allowed Northern European pundits and politicians to demonize its people as incorrigibly lazy, feckless, criminal and corrupt: There simply wasn’t enough solidarity from outside the country to support a heroic last stand against austerity, the banks and the IMF. Perhaps political and economic pressure will soften the measures and ease the terms of Greece’s loans; perhaps, when default eventually comes, Greece will be better prepared to weather it. Perhaps the sight of a European country being forced to its knees might prompt a belated rethinking of the European project and the relationship between democracy and the markets. Perhaps. Otherwise, as one tweet coming out of Athens put it, “You are all in Syntagma Square. You just don’t know it yet.”

Implementing the DREAM Act, Piece by Piece

There is virtually no chance the DREAM Act will become law in the current Congress. The bill, which would provide conditional US residency to undocumented high school graduates who are pursuing either a college degree or a military career, died in the last Congress—before Republicans took control of more seats in both chambers. The new Republican House of Representatives would sooner pass a bill rescinding citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants, rather than extending it to anyone.

But the Obama administration is doing what it can to implement the DREAM Act through the back door by refusing to deport many undocumented students. It’s not nearly as effective as the comprehensive DREAM Act legislation—but it does keep talented immigrants in the country, and resembles several similar efforts in a dozen different states.

At a Senate hearing on the DREAM Act yesterday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano explained the rationale behind a recent memo written by Immigration and Custom Enforcement director John Morton, which outlines situations where “discretion” could be used to prevent certain immigrants from being deported, including students. It specifically allows agents and attorneys to consider if a person graduated from high school or is enrolled in a higher education program.

“We simply don't receive the appropriation necessary to remove everyone who is technically removable from the United States. And so we have to set priorities,” Napolitano said. “One of the things we're working on now, is to design a process that would allow us as early as possible, to identify people who are caught up in the removal system, who in the end really don't fit our priorities or in the end, would not be removable.”

As Suzy Khimm notes at Mother Jones, the discretion outlined in the Morton memo goes much further than earlier efforts at discretion during the Clinton administration. “It’s a paradigm shift…it’s the first memo I've seen by an ICE director written in plain English so that a field officer and trial attorney can understand it,” David Leopold, an immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Khimm. “What he's really saying is, look at the people you run across in the scope of your enforcement work as human beings, not merely as statistics and targets—have they developed ties, have they added to the social fabric and culture, do they have children that depend on them? I applaud him for that.”

Sen. John Cornyn underscored Republican opposition to the DREAM Act and similar executive actions under the Morton memo, asking Napolitano why DHS doesn’t just ask for the necessary appropriations to deport every undocumented person in the United States. Republicans like the Kansas secretary of state have similarly bashed the Morton memo as “the stealth DREAM Act,” but there’s little that Republicans can actually do to stop ICE from exercising such discretion.

Moreover, the Morton memo compliments many similar actions by states to keep talented, undocumented individuals as residents. On Friday, a law will take effect in Maryland that halves tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, and hundreds of undocumented students are expected to apply.

Republicans in Maryland are mounting a furious petition drive to delay or possibly repeal the law before it takes effect, and it appears they might be successful. If the petition signatures are valid, the law will be put up for a referendum later in the year.

But even if the law is delayed in Maryland, eleven other states have similar laws. California allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, and a legal challenge to that law was rejected by the Supreme Court earlier this month. Ten other states have similar policies: Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

These piecemeal efforts will have to do for now, and probably for the next several years--there are twenty-one Democratic Senate seats up for grabs in 2012, compared with only ten Republican seats. The passage of the DREAM Act in the current political climate is just that—a dream.

Additional reporting by Zachary Newkirk

What Does the LA Dodgers Bankruptcy Say About America?

Much has been written about the Los Angeles Dodgers declaration of bankruptcy. Much has been said about the business practices of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his battle against the efforts of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to forcibly seize the team. But what does an insolvent Dodgers franchise say about the state of America in the 21st century? Maybe it says nothing at all. Maybe it’s as simple as saying that Frank McCourt's greed and incompetence ran a civic institution into the ground. Yes, it’s true that McCourt used the team as a personal ATM to live a lifestyle that would shame Caligula.

But that doesn’t explain the broader economic crisis in the sport. It doesn’t explain why the Texas Rangers in 2010, on the road to the World Series, had to be auctioned off at a bankruptcy sale. It doesn’t explain why the New York Mets, playing in the game’s biggest market, are flat broke after team owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz thought Bernie Madoff would make a fine personal investment banker.  It doesn’t explain why Selig, when he crows about baseball’s rosy financial picture, sounds like he’s living in the last days of disco. But more than anything else, it doesn’t explain how – of all teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in this crucible of humiliation. The Dodgers are arguably the most culturally significant franchise in the history of American Sports. It’s the team of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, and Hideo Nomo. That’s more than just a tradition. That’s a Ken Burns epic

From their days in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were the franchise of the immigrants, the strivers, the ones who thought the American Dream was there for those willing to scratch and bleed for it. They were able to maintain this persona even when they broke Brooklyn’s heart and absconded for the Left Coast. There, they entered the hearts and homes of the Chicanos, Dominicans, and Asians that make up Southern California. Going to Chavez Ravine in the 1970s and 1980s was like going to a diverse people’s assembly that would shame the United Nations. They have always been baseball as baseball wants to be known: a melting pot that speaks to our best angels. Unlike the Yankees who simply won with remorseless efficiency, the Dodgers were interested in building a more perfect union.

Precisely because this team has always lived at the heart of the national Zeitgest, their bankruptcy should be seen as a brutal microcosm of the leveraged capital and dashed dreams that define the new century. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post, the Dodgers now represent “a particularly vicious form of capitalism that America has come to know too well the past few decades: a new owner takes over a venerable firm and extracts what he can for himself, decimating the company and damaging the community in the process.”  In as public a way as possible, they are now the public symbol of a reality we often turn to sports to escape.

American author Alison Lurie once wrote, “as one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.” That future is now the site of income inequality on par with the Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Malaysia. It’s a place of fake riches and real pain. Official unemployment sits at a doctored twelve percent with youth unemployment at thirty-five percent. All of these numbers should be taken about as seriously as a Goldman Sachs balance sheet.

In such an environment, the team that was always supposed to represent the spirit of immigrant America now has a shrinking, demoralized base of support. Attendance has plummeted. Tailgating is dismal. After a brutal beating in the stadium parking lot on Opening Day, security is now run by the LAPD. They shadow every corner of the landscape, making the Elysian Fields feel like occupied territory. Instead of Dodgers Stadium being the place where you take your kids on your day off, it’s the place you either avoid or hope to find a job.

Perhaps the most emblematic moment of this entire saga has been seeing the name of Vin Scully on the team’s list of creditors.The 83-year-old Scully has been the Dodgers announcer for 62 years. Starting in Brooklyn and making his way with the team across the country, he has brought the exploits of immortals like Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Orel Hershiser and now Andre Ethier to life. As Meyerson wrote, “I’ve long believed that kids who grew up listening to Scully got at least a 30-point bump on their verbal SAT.” Now Scully is just another person the Dodgers went to court so they wouldn’t have to pay. Now he’s just another senior citizen wondering how a California dream could become so scarred. What does the Dodgers bankruptcy say about America? Everything.

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The Pawbama Doctrine

“Have you seen him speak before?” Asked one relatively young attendee at Tim Pawlenty’s Tuesday morning address to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Yeah, he’s no Sarah Palin,” his friend replied with a sneer that suggested either a begrudging acknowledgment of Palin’s charisma or a rueful admission that the bar for foreign policy expertise in the Republican primary is not very high.

As Pawlenty’s speech demonstrated, he certainly lacks Palin’s winking charm. His one intended laugh line—“President Obama announced his plan to give Assad ‘an alternative vision of himself.’ Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?”—was delivered with such earnestness and poor timing that it barely elicited a single chuckle from the audience.

But what Pawlenty does not share with Palin on matters of style he largely does on matters of substance. He demonstrates a much firmer grasp of general world history, politics and geography than Palin, but Pawlenty’s foreign policy ideology has much in common with hers, (at least before she took a sudden turn towards pragmatism.) And like Palin, one suspects that Pawlenty’s foreign policy positions are determined more by domestic politics than foreign affairs. An evangelical Christian, he has a set of foreign policy talking points designed for the religious right: forcefully advocate freedom, stare down the Islamists in Iran and never criticize our dear friend Israel.

For the past few months Pawlenty has assiduously burnished his hawkish credentials. At a March campaign stop he said, “My basic perspective on foreign policy…is…you're dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength, they don't respect weakness.” Last week Pawlenty told Bill O’Reilly of FOX News that Obama’s decision to start gradually withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is “a grave mistake.”

But, while Pawlenty contends with Michele Bachmann for social conservatives on his right flank, he is also positioning himself to be an alternative to Mitt Romney for establishment Republicans. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of the Establishment, is crucial to that goal. So while Pawlenty painted in broadly neoconservative strokes about first principles, his programmatic advice on specific countries was often more cautious, and it varied based on conditions. By tempering idealism in principle with pragmatism in practice Pawlenty laid out a vision that might just be called a more hawkish Obama-ism. Or, as Pawlenty would say, the “Pawbama doctrine.”

The theme of Pawlenty’s speech, which focused entirely on the Middle East, was that the Obama administration has abandoned the US role as a leader in the global struggle for freedom. Pawlenty asserted that the Obama administration “waited long enough to see the Green Movement [in Iran] crushed,” and that Obama “abandoned the promotion of democracy just as Arabs were about to seize it.” Left unexplained is how US support for democratic movements in the Middle East, where the United States is dreadfully unpopular, would help rather than hinder their local effectiveness. Pawlenty had a long list of demands that the United States should issue to Middle Eastern countries—that they institute free speech, press and religion, independent judiciaries and women’s rights—but rarely did he have a clear answer as to what leverage the United States has to issue these demands  and why using it would work. Twice Pawlenty demanded that Washington show its disapproval for human rights abuses by the Syrian regime by withdrawing our ambassador from Damascus. How this would force Bashar Al-Assad from power, which Pawlenty says is the only acceptable outcome in Syria, is unclear. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Tehran for thirty years, and yet, remarkably enough, the Iranian theocracy remains intact. The gaping holes in Pawlenty’s foreign policy were especially evident when he was asked by an audience member how he would apply his pro-freedom agenda to North Korea and he had no concrete answer.

The only country in which Pawlenty offered a credible scenario for how his ideals would be put into action is Libya, where Pawlenty favors stepping up military pressure—or threats thereof—to force Muammar Qaddafi from power. Indeed, Pawlenty offers an unreconstructed return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush. On Libya, as Bush did in Iraq, Pawlenty argues that UN, Arab League and European Union approval or cooperation were unnecessary and that waiting for them constituted “dithering.” Nor does Pawlenty believe that Congressional approval was necessary to launch the US action in Libya. Instead, Pawlenty maintains that because Qaddafi is a terrorist who killed Americans forcibly removing him from power is the sensible approach, speciously analogizing the question of what happens next in Libya to someone asking at the start of World War II what would replace Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Pawlenty’s barbs were aimed as much at some Republicans as at Obama. He lamented that “parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.” Pawlenty didn’t name these malefactors, but he didn’t have to. He’s clearly referring to Jon Huntsman, who has called for swifter withdrawal from Afghanistan than Obama is implementing. The Huntsman campaign, having caught Pawlenty’s camp previewing the theme of his speech on Monday, issued a response Tuesday morning before the speech was even delivered. Naturally, Huntsman warded off any suggestions of weaknesses by claiming Reagan would have done the same, saying, “America can best project strength in the world when we are strong at home and able to take on our enemies where they are, not when we are expending resources fighting expensive ground wars for which there is no defined exit strategy. Ronald Reagan understood that.” Pawlenty offered a scathing attack on this thinking in his speech, saying, “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”

Pawlenty also cited Reagan whenever possible. Of course, as Thomas Friedman reminded us in Sunday’s New York Times, Reagan withdrew from Beirut because he saw that the United States would be stronger if it stayed out of a messy civil war, and that the Soviet Union was being weakened by its presence in Afghanistan. This is a lesson from Reagan’s presidency that Pawlenty—who would undermine civilian control of the military by letting the generals decide on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and who contends that the United States will be perceived as weak if it minds its own business—seems not to have learned. 

Cuomo's Big Problem in 2016: Democrats

After New York’s historic gay marriage vote last week, the national political media has begun speculating about the presidential prospects for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Right now, in fact, Cuomo is drawing more national media attention and more Google searches than at any other point in his governorship.

Check out this Google Trends graph, which shows people’s searches on the bottom and press coverage on top—the peak “D” refers to a Washington Post article, Andrew Cuomo, 2016 frontrunner?:

So reporters and regular people are zeroing in on Cuomo. But put aside the historical significance of the gay marriage vote, and anyone who follows New York politics knows the prospect of Cuomo as a popular Democratic primary candidate in 2016 is a joke. 

This boomlet is a drastic illustration of the gap between DC political reporters imagining what the Democratic base wants and what the Democratic base actually says that it wants. By contrast, on Tuesday, one of the most popular diaries submitted by a reader on a top liberal blog, DailyKos, bashed Cuomo’s conservative record:

But while the same-sex marriage achievement is a terrific one…Cuomo has otherwise governed New York like a red-state conservative (not just a New York Republican, but a Christie-like conservative) who has made the New York Post editorial page swoon: ending taxes for millionaires, while cutting services for the elderly, children, disabled, ignoring environmental hazards to protect the deep-pocketed gas drilling industry, and waging a war on labor.

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and the Daily Beast, notes that Cuomo’s budget will cost New York schools
2,600 teachers and another 1,000 city workers, “many of whom work in health care for the poor, at a time when the need for both could hardly be greater.” Those cuts were not inevitable austerity measures, Alterman emphasizes, since Cuomo “fought tooth and nail to ensure the death of New York’s millionaire tax, at exactly the moment when its proceeds might have been able to prevent exactly [these] kinds of cuts.”

Those measures don’t play well with the progressives, union members and government workers who form a substantial part of the Democratic primary electorate. That’s especially true after the high-profile showdowns with Republican governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey—and in a climate where Democrats’ main, recurring domestic beef with President Obama is insufficient economic populism.

In New York state, the Democratic establishment obviously wants their top dog to look good, and last week was a clear victory. But privately, even some local Democrats who have worked for Cuomo say his record provides little foundation for a presidential run.

“Cuomo has governed as a red-state conservative, cutting taxes for millionaires while decimating services for children and the elderly,” says one Democratic operative who has worked for Cuomo and other government officials, adding, “He placed the interests of big business over all else.” The operative, who is disillusioned with Cuomo’s governorship and requested anonymity to speak candidly about his old boss, says people should study the totality of Cuomo’s “extreme right-wing record, praised by the Tea Party and New York Post,” because there’s little chance that “progressive primary voters would rally behind that.”

For his part, Cuomo recently said the presidential speculation was “silly,” because it is premature. He’s half-right.


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