A Quick Reaction on the Midterms

Now that the midterm elections are over, with the Republicans capturing the House of Representatives for the first time in four years (as predicted by pollsters), questions are swirling over what President Barack Obama’s agenda will be over the remainder of his term.

Undoubtedly, the president will be forced to cooperate with Republicans like he has never had to do before. Domestic issues as the economy, fiscal policy, the debt, and government spending loom large for both parties at this point, and I seldom see the Obama Administration getting everything it wants without a little give and take. From an historical standpoint, the situation is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s experience in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party recaptured the House after being in the minority for an unprecedented forty years. At that time, Clinton managed to heed the challenge. Will Obama be able to do the same thing? The answer is up in the air.

What I’m interested in is the election’s effects with regard to Obama’s foreign policy. Even with both houses of Congress in solid Democratic hands, the Obama Administration’s lack of success abroad was pervasive. The record is clear; a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an ever-closer nuclear Iran; a chaotic Iraq; an escalated war in Afghanistan; a neglected Latin American policy. Surely an opposing party in the legislature will not make things any easier for him? Right? Wrong.

On some specific cases, a Republican majority will indeed cause trouble for the White House. The Obama Administration’s ambassadorial nominees for Syria and Turkey will probably be stonewalled for another few months unless the president either names new people to the posts or concedes in other areas. Hype over Iranian nuclear weapons will increase throughout the House like never before, with Republicans now controlling key foreign policy committees. The mission in Iraq will hopefully gain in significance, primarily with regard to the civilian front. (I personally hope the Republicans will push through some aid packages for Iraqi reconstruction. The State Department does not have all the resources it needs to do the job well) And Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is of course smiling that his conservative patrons have more power.

But on other fronts, namely the war in Afghanistan, a Republican victory might actually help Obama in ways that were unintended. The Republican rank and file, by and large, is more supportive of the president’s Afghanistan policy than the Democrats have been. Many anti-war congressmen were disappointed when Obama decided to boost America’s commitment to the war last fall, with an extra 30,000 American reinforcements. Moderate Democrats were starting to reevaluate Washington’s chances for success. Republicans, on the other hand, have endorsed the counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban (however remote that strategy may be). Obama may now have a little more time with Congress to prove that the United States and NATO are starting to gain the momentum in the war.

All in all, the election was a horrible mandate on the Democratic agenda. The turnover in Congress was embarrassing for Democratic heavyweights as Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer. But for Obama, the results are more of a mixed bag.

What a Republican Majority Can Accomplish

With the Republican Party now in the majority in the lower house of Congress, for the next two years, the party must stop boasting and prove that it can govern again.

Republicans have offered some clues of what they will do with their halfhearted Pledge to America. But other than promising to rein in spending somehow for the past two years in opposition, the party has largely refrained from suggesting concrete measures to reduce the deficit. Nevertheless, here are some things Americans can expect.

Budget

Republicans talk of fiscal responsibility but their track record and plans are anything but encouraging. Their Pledge to America contained almost no new proposals to seriously rein in spending. Rather their plans may add more than $700 billion to the debt.

Real proposals on spending cuts will not come from Republicans in Congress. They may come from the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission which will report its finding on December 1.

Tax cuts

Both parties have refused to compromise on the tax cuts they inherited from President George W. Bush. Republicans want to perpetuate the existing tax rates. Democrats want to cap any extension to middle incomes. If nothing happens before the end of this year, the tax cuts will simply expire and neither party wants that.

The two may be able to reach a compromise by redefining the difference between middle and high income. By extending the cap upward, Republicans can boast that they’ve saved the tax cuts for almost 99 percent of incomes while Democrats get to tax the very rich.

Energy

Even after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, Democrats failed to enact energy reform. But the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to start implementing stricter regulation of power plants nonetheless which are the country’s top polluters.

While skeptical of climate change, Republicans do like the prospect of energy independence. With a majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans may be able to expand nuclear energy while as Speaker, John Boehner could seek to put together a legislative package that combines subsidies for renewable energies with provisions for additional drilling for hydrocarbons in Alaska and the Gulf.

Vast reserves of oil and natural gas are waiting to be exploited beneath the Atlantic coastline and northern coast of Alaska and on land, in Colorado and Wyoming. Combined, these regions hold over two hundred billion barrels of oil and 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that are recoverable with today’s technology. That’s more than most OPEC nations. If fully developed, it would be enough to free America from the import of foreign oil for almost fifty years.

Health care

Although Republicans campaigned aggressively against health-care reform this summer, they’re unlikely to repeal it. Their Pledge to America promises to make health care better but even with control of both houses of Congress, they haven’t enough seats to override a presidential veto against outright repeal.

Instead, Republicans may try to undercut the federal government’s ability to implement the least popular part of the law — the individual mandate which forces people to buy health insurance. By withholding funds for the IRS and health department in the House Appropriations Committee, which has to approve all federal spending, Republicans could try to “starve the beast.”

In any event, a vote to repeal Obamacare is possible, if only to satisfy the more aggressively anti-reformists in the new Tea Party caucus.

Afghanistan

The two parties don’t usually disagree on the outlines of foreign policy but recently, Afghanistan, and in particular the president’s July 2011 deadline with withdrawal, has given Republicans cause to complain.

Democrats may be able to win some allies on the issue however as Tea Party candidates pour into Washington this fall. They claim to be fiscal hawks and tend to be more isolationist than traditional Republican lawmakers. But only the most libertarian of tea partiers, including former presidential candidate Ron Paul, have vocally opposed the war. What is more, aside from rejecting overseas interventions, these Tea Party candidates also staunchly support the military and are unlikely to strike a deal with Democrats while the rest of their party cries “surrender.”

Two Tea Party Stalwarts on Sunday

Two politicians who have been instrumental in the recent surge of small-government conservatism in the United States appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows this weekend to share their expectations about the upcoming midterm elections for Congress. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi sat down at the table of NBC’s Meet the Press while former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2008 Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News Sunday.

According to Barbour, who, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been the driving force behind the Remember November campaign and is sometimes mentioned as a possible contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2012, the midterm elections are undoubtedly a referendum on the Obama Administration. He mentioned the rising national debt and persistent joblessness rates as among the foremost of reasons for independent voters to swing to the right this election. “The Obama policies aren’t working,” he explained. “We need new policies.”

Sarah Palin was all the more blunt. “You blew it, President Obama,” she said. The message of these elections will be, “no more business as usual,” according to the former governor. Minority Leader John Boehner, who is likely to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, has been using the very same rhetoric for several weeks. Just what Republicans intend to do instead has remained largely unsaid however.

The Republicans have offered their Pledge to America but volunteered notably few concrete pro-growth policies. There is still a lot of anger on the right and with Democrats apparently confounded by voter frustration that sentiment will be enough to propel Republicans to victory. But if they want to channel their newfound popularity into sustainable electoral success, Republicans have to stop boasting and lay out a new agenda.

This fall though, “repudiating” the Democrats’ legislative agenda is more likely and that is precisely what Barbour promised.

Health care reform, which was enacted by Congress in the spring and which is still being contested by individual states for being unconstitutional, is a case in point. Republicans haven’t exactly promised to repeal Obamacare as they persist in calling it. Rather they will “replace” it, according to their Pledge or make “big changes” to it, in Barbour’s words.

Asked whether incoming congressmen and senators should be willing to compromise on such hotly contested issues, Sarah Palin said, “Absolutely not. That’s been part of the problem,” she added. “We can’t afford to compromise on principle.”

Both Barbour and Palin have been mentioned as possible Republican contenders for the presidency in 2012. Barbour said on Meet the Press that he hadn’t given running any thought yet. “After this election is over,” he added, “we’ll sit down and see if there’s anything to think about.”

Palin, too, seemed reluctant, citing media scrutiny of her person and her family as a reason for not throwing herself in the race. “I love the freedom that I have,” she said, “that I can tell you anything I want to tell you and not have to worry so much about how it will affect my future political career.” But, “the country is worth it,” she added, “to make those sacrifices. If the country needed me I would be willing to make the sacrifices.”

Midterms Cast Doubt on START Ratification

With Senate approval of the New START treaty still pending, the upcoming midterm elections for Congress cast further doubt upon its ratification. Several of the Republican candidates that are likely to secure a senatorship this November are skeptical of further downsizing America’s nuclear deterrent.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague last April. In accordance with the agreement, which further reduces the number of nuclear warheads held operational by both former Cold War rivals, the Obama Administration is planning to take out of service some thirty missile silos, 34 nuclear bomber aircraft and 56 submarine launch tubes. Most of the bombers will be converted to conventional use. None of the Navy’s fourteen strategic nuclear submarines will be forced into retirement. Rather each will have four of its 24 launchers removed.

All in all, America’s nuclear arsenal remains sizable and well equipped to deter any potential adversary.

That’s not how the political right sees it. In combination with the administration’s pledge not to retaliate with nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states in the event of a conventional weapons attack, some conservatives describe Obama’s nuclear policy as nothing short of bizarre. In the Senate, Republicans have been scrambling for votes to defeat the treaty.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants the Senate to vote on ratification during a “lame-duck” session right after the election. But three Senate seats will change hands immediately in a week, making it all the more difficult to win the 67 votes necessary to enact the treaty.

The senators elected in Delaware, Illinois and West Virginia will begin their terms immediately after the November 2 election while the Republicans are expected to pick up somewhere between eight and ten seats in the upper house in total. Even if Democrats win in all of the three aforementioned races however, ratification is anything but certain.

Christine O’Donnell in Delaware has serious reservations and is likely to side with the Republican majority in the Senate whichever way it votes. The views of her opponent on this issue, Chris Coons, who is leading the polls, are unknown.

In Illinois, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias supports ratification of New START but his opponent, Mark Kirk, is undecided. “The congressman will review the details of the treaty carefully and make his decision based on what is in the best interest of America’s national security,” said a spokesman.

West Virginian Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin, who is leading his Republican opponent by an extremely slim margin, is also skeptical of New START. “Joe Manchin’s governing philosophy on defense policy will be to listen to our commanders and generals on the ground,” said a spokesman, “and before he can cast a vote for or against START II, he will need to assess their recommendations.” (START II, of course, was actually signed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin in 1993 but never ratified.) Just who those “commanders and generals” are supposed to be remains a mystery, all the more so since the Pentagon has come out in support of New START.

Manchin’s opponent, John Raese, is adamantly opposed to nuclear disarmament.

“Secret Foreign Money” Influencing Elections?

With just a week to go before November’s midterm elections for Congress, Democrats, apparently confounded by voter frustration with their agenda, are trying a new strategy to persuade Americans not to vote Republican — allege that the opposition is taking in “secret foreign money” to fund its campaigns.

Although Republicans are unlikely to take control of the Senate, they are expected to pick up many congressional seats, probably enough to win a majority in the House of Representatives. Many governorships are also up for grabs while scores of state legislatures are set to turn red this election season.

Democrats went into the elections without a message. While frustration with the administration’s failing economies policies continues to mount and health-care reform remains unpopular, Democratic lawmakers up for reelection opted to lambaste Republicans instead, blaming them for the “mess” America is in.

A recent Politico poll found 64 percent of voters worried about the country being on the wrong track including a majority of 56 percent “strongly” believing this. When people were asked to name the top reasons for holding this opinion, over 20 percent listed President Obama; 12 percent blamed Congress for taking America in the wrong direction while 10 percent identified government deficit spending as the single largest impediment to prosperity.

Promising to “bridge the partisan divide” on the campaign trail, Obama has been blamed by Republicans for failing to take their policy solutions into account. On both health-care and financial reform, they say, Democrats ignored their views and pushed through a “radical” agenda. With vast majorities in both houses of Congress, they were able to legislate almost without having to compromise.

Nonetheless as early as April of this year, President Obama attacked Republicans, alleging that they were taking their cues from Wall Street in opposition to financial reform legislation. Republicans and lobbyists were waging a “relentless campaign” said the president against “even basic, common sense rules” to prevent financial abuse. This summer he again blamed Republicans for stalling “progress” and blocking economic recovery measures “on the backs of the unemployed.”

Since blaming Republicans for lack of “progress” didn’t seem to resonate with voters anymore, two weeks ago the White House unleashed a new strategy: openly questioning the Republicans’ campaign contributors.

The president’s main advisor, David Axelrod claimed on CBS’ Face the Nation that the Chamber of Commerce, which often supports Republican Party causes, was using “foreign money” to fund campaign advertisements. The Chamber disputed this claim and provided the financial records to show that it was bogus. On an annual budget of some $200 million, a mere $100,000 stems from foreign companies. The organization, which lobbies for business interests, expected to spend $50 million on political campaigns this fall.

Asked whether he had any evidence of the Chamber using foreign money to fund campaigns, Axelrod told the interviewer, “Do you have any evidence that it’s not?”

The next week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attacked conservative groups spending millions of dollars on campaign ads without having to reveal their donors. “They’re going to impact this election,” he said, “and nobody knows who they are.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi later warned that if Republicans win the elections, “it would mean that we are now a plutocracy, an oligarchy — whatever these few wealthy, secret, unlimited sources of money are, can control our entire agenda.” The president himself has described the injection of foreign money into the campaign as a “threat to our democracy.”

Both parties take money from corporate sponsors but independent political action groups are not compelled by law to disclose their donors. They are able to finance campaign ads which may influence elections but as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said on NBC’s Meet the Press this Sunday, not a “shred of evidence” has been produced thus far suggesting that these organizations have accepted financial contributions from foreigners — let alone that Steele’s party would have anything to do with it.

Most Republicans have largely ignored these “secret money” charges and continue to campaign on reining in federal spending and creating jobs. With many voters, Republicans and independents, worried about the deficit — which is set to exceed $1 trillion this year — and nearly one out of ten American workers unemployed, that obviously concerns people more than campaign finance right now. Some House and Senate races are narrowing nonetheless though whether there is any correlation between that movement and campaign finance allegations hasn’t been demonstrated.

Democrats Confounded by Voter Frustration

Mere weeks ahead of the congressional midterms elections in November, many Americans are no longer able to “think clearly” because of the economic malaise they are suffering. According to President Barack Obama the burden is on Democrats “to break through the fear and the frustration people are feeling.”

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” Obama said on Saturday during a fundraiser event, Politico reports.

The president and his party have been lambasting the opposition for supposedly tapping into that fear. “The biggest mistake we can make right now,” said Obama, “is to go back to the very same policies that caused this mess in the first place.” With the economic recovery stalling and Democratic candidates across the country distancing themselves from the administration’s landmark legislative achievements — health-care and financial reform — its new message of “hope” is apparently that Republicans will do even worse if elected.

There is certainly a lot of anger on the right. The huge electoral defeats of 2006 and 2008 left the Republican Party rather without direction, allowing loud and controversial opinion makers as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to fill an ideological void.

What restored coherence to conservative America was the interventionist economic agenda of the Obama Administration. Tea Party activists rallied against health-care reform. Stalwart Republicans once again championed constitutional conservatism. Libertarian candidates and congressmen as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Paul Ryan of Wisconson won primary elections and crusaded for less government in the immediate aftermath of a crisis that Democrats blamed on the free market.

Presuming that unbridled greed and unregulated capitalism caused the downturn, it is difficult for Democrats to understand why millions continue to oppose their “big government” solutions. Even BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer wouldn’t convince tea partiers. White House chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanual alleged that Republicans saw BP as the aggrieved party under the circumstances, not local fishermen. “They think that the government’s the problem,” he exclaimed in disbelief.

The whole Tea Party phenomenon was not taken very seriously by Democrats initially. Since it became evident that the Tea Parties were a force to be reckoned with however, as they marched by the hundreds of thousands and helped elect populist candidates in GOP primary elections, the left has been quick to label them as radical and extremist.

Since the start of this year, different commentators and lawmakers have alleged or suggested that the Tea Parties are racist. A recent study by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which is an organization critical of fringe and racist movements, entitled Tea Party Nationalism, “found Tea Party ranks to be permeated with concerns about race and national identity and other so-called social issues,” contrary to the movement’s self-proclaimed focus on government excess. “Tea Party organizations have given platforms to antisemites, racists, and bigots,” according to the report. The MSNBC documentary Rise of the New Right further tied anti-government protests to militias and fanatics, conveying the notion that the whole of this “new” right is inclined to violence or at least willing to sanction it.

On the campaign trail in April 2008, Obama said that he understood how people could become embittered and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” in times of economic hardship. Since then, millions more Americans have lost their jobs while government stimulus measures have delivered little more than trillion dollar deficits.

Democrats meanwhile continue to blame Republican policies for the “mess” America is in and warn that their return to power will only herald greater inequity and despair. The White House is now theorizing that “secret foreign money” is paying for Republican campaign advertisements and the president himself doesn’t even talk about health care anymore.

Less than two years after promising “hope and change,” Obama and his party don’t appear to have much of a message, let alone vision, for the upcoming elections anymore — which are a referendum on the presidency whatever the administration may like to pretend. Democrats’ inability and unwillingness to defend their own policy record of the past two years is a dismal sign of weakness and failure, one Republicans eagerly exploit. Democrats don’t seem to understand why people are so upset. The president said it best in April of this year when he talked about Tea Party protesters. “I think they should be saying thank you.”

Rand Paul, Jack Conway Debate

In Louisville, Kentucky yesterday, Fox News Sunday hosted a debate between Republican Senate candidate Dr Rand Paul and his Democratic opponent, the state’s Attorney General Jack Conway. Among the issues discussed were the nation debt, spending, cap-and-trade, and the Obama agenda.

Moderator Chris Wallace pointed out early in the debate that whereas Conway was running campaign ads which portrayed Paul as being out of the mainstream, the libertarian candidate’s campaign hardly mentioned Conway. On air, Paul stressed that the issues were at stake in his campaign and he wasted little time to talk about them. He said that he opposed the administration’s energy agenda because its effects would be disastrous for Kentucky’s coal industry. Conway moreover, according to Paul, had in been in favor of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; something that he believes has failed to recover the American economy. When pressed on the jobs supposedly saved or created by the stimulus, Paul claimed that 17,000 have been lost because of it while each of the jobs saved had a price tag attached to it of $430,000.

Conway responded by pointing out that while he supported the stimulus, he had opposed the bailouts for lack of accountability.

When the discussion came to federal regulation of environmental and workplace safety, the candidates agreed that unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t be the ones making law, as the Environmental Protection Agency recently attempted with regard to greenhouse emissions. They disagreed however on the extent to which government should be involved. Rand, who has been critical of the Democrats’ health care and economic policies, is a proponent of limited government and argued that local authorities are always better equipped to legislate on the things that directly affect people’s lives.

Discussing his role in the Senate, if elected, Conway expressed support for union card checks and the health-care reform bill enacted by Democrats. When asked about his political position compared to President Obama, Conway repeated his pledge to “put Kentucky first” by focusing on national security and the war on the drugs.

Paul, finally, said that he would support fellow Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell for Majority Leader if Republicans manage to win back the upper chamber this fall. His allegiance was in question because McConnell previously endorsed Paul’s primary opponent for the nomination. He further promised that more of Kentucky’s tax dollars would stay if Kentucky and that he would fight to rein in government spending.