Opinion

The Great Debate

Palmer Raids Redux: NSA v civil liberties

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency’s secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans, June 7, 2013.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

During the “Red Scare” that swept the United States in the wake of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Justice Department launched a cycle of raids against radicals and leftists. The U.S. attorney general, a once-celebrated Progressive leader named A. Mitchell Palmer, gave his name to this unfolding series of attacks against civil liberities.

Though initially supported by Congress, the courts and the press, the 1919 Palmer raids revealed a darker side of the American psyche. They eventually provoked a national backlash, which inspired the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union; led to stirring free speech dissenting opinions from Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis, and ignited a political counter-movement determined to prevent similar civil liberties abuses in the future.

President Barack Obama is far from resembling Palmer in terms of civil liberties abuse, but his conviction in his own progressive righteousness is an unfortunate trait when it comes to designing and overseeing surveillance programs. Obama has also continued to defend the current invasive National Security Agency surveillance programs – even while insisting he welcomes a national conversation about the appropriate balance between liberty and security.

It remains to be seen, though, whether this current crackdown on American civil liberties can spark a new period of backlash from American citizens and the courts. The Obama administration has consistently swatted down lawsuits that challenge it by saying that citizens who believe they have been victims of surveillance lack standing to bring them. It has also prosecuted the very whistleblowers whose leaks made possible the national debate the president says he welcomes.

Can Christie tackle the partisan divide?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Asbury Park in New Jersey, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

How often these days do we see a political figure liked by both Republicans and Democrats? Not so often that we should fail to notice.

But there was the evidence last week in two different polls. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drew a 58 percent favorable rating from his fellow Republicans around the country and 52 percent from Democrats in a recent Gallup Poll. Forty percent of Republicans in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and 43 percent of Democrats, said they like Christie. (The NBC-Journal numbers are a bit lower because the poll offered a “neutral” option.)

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Xi Jinping (L) met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his landmark summit with President Barack Obama in California Friday and Saturday, the critical mission of improving China’s image in the world could well be uppermost in his mind.

The central challenge that Xi faces here is that China’s soft power – its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment – has lagged far behind its purposeful hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

Democrats must overcome Clinton nostalgia

President Bill Clinton salutes supporters at a campaign rally Oct. 31, 1996. REUTERS/Archive. 

Democrats now delight in watching Republicans flounder as they try to free themselves from the failures of President George W. Bush and the extremes of the Tea Party. But the GOP’s tribulations should not blind Democrats to their own challenge. The party must free itself from the legacy of former President Bill Clinton and the centrism of his New Democrats.

Clinton’s successes in office have little relevance for Democrats today. The 1990s were a very different time both politically and economically. In fact, many of Clinton’s policies led to the travails now facing Americans. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And Clinton’s strategy of co-opting conservative themes offers no way out.

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.

Party opinion usurps public opinion

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

What the IRS should be scrutinizing

President Barack Obama, making a statement at the White House, announced that the Internal Revenue Service acting commissioner had been ousted, May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The tempest about the Tea Parties and the Internal Revenue Service is a gift for the Republican Party — and one that obscures the real issues.

Why, for example, has the IRS been so indulgent of far bigger, flagrantly partisan tax-exempt groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity?  Such groups spent hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars to influence the last two elections, in clear violation of IRS rules.

Watergate: Are we there yet?

President Barack Obama at a news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

O.K., you know the one about the old guys sitting in the diner:

“When I was a boy, I had to walk five miles to school in the snow.”

“Snow?  I had to walk five miles in the snow with just newspapers on my feet.”

“Feet?  You had feet?”

That’s what it feels like when you lived through Watergate and the scandal decades that followed it. I was in Washington — sentient, glued to the tube, writing about it all. And Leonard Garment, my husband and the special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, was often the one in the center of the press mob, looking as if he wasn’t going to escape with his life. Then you read last weekend’s news reports about scandal politics “sweeping Washington.” Come on, people. Get a grip.

Terrorism, Putin and the Cold War legacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin, April 11, 2013 REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool

Terrorism always complicates diplomatic relations.

Since the Boston Marathon bombing, the suspected handiwork of two brothers of Chechen background, Russian and American security officials have focused on a blame game.

Could better cooperation between the FBI and the FSB (successor to the KGB) have averted this bombing? Which country is responsible for the carnage? The United States, which Russia warned in 2011 about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who was killed in the police shootout a few days after the bombing? Or Moscow, which gave Washington scant evidence to pursue in that query?

Grassley aims for GOP political spin on federal judiciary

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s stunning decision this week to strike down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post signs reminding workers of their right to organize, is a clear indication of why this D.C. court has become an ideological battleground.

Senate Republicans, in particular, are going to great lengths to preserve their partisan advantage on a court widely regarded as second to the Supreme Court in importance.

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