Opinion

The Great Debate

Tsarnaev: What would Washington have done?

George Washington was ruthless.

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington was prepared to crush those who attacked American liberty. He set up military commissions to swiftly hang enemies. He sparked an international incident when he ordered the execution of a random teenage prisoner. He even justified torture. But he reserved his ferocity for foreign enemy combatants.

Following the firestorm of last week’s Boston bombing and the ensuing violent manhunt, we are trying to find our bearings. We need to aggressively extract information, identify additional threats and hunt down any accomplices, whether foreign or homegrown. Yet we must remain careful not to slide toward an Orwellian state – where Big Brother runs roughshod over local authorities, monitors Americans without probable cause, restrains the movements of innocent civilians or rains drone missiles on U.S. soil.

We can take a lesson from the actions of the Founding Fathers. Washington provides a model for how we can best defend against foreign threats while still guarding our liberties at home.

Consider his response to Benedict Arnold. Most everyone knows about Arnold and his treacherous attempt to sell West Point to the British in 1780. However, many people forget that he had two accomplices – a young British soldier, John Andre, and an American co-conspirator, Loyalist Joshua Hett Smith. Washington’s differing treatment of these men reveals an important distinction between the rights of foreign nationals versus citizens.

Washington captured Andre first. He made short work of the young Brit: Andre was speedily brought before a military commission and hanged within days. Washington believed foreign enemy combatants had little to no rights, as he ferociously defended his people.

Judicial overreach to redefine presidential power

The first months of President Barack Obama’s second term promise to be full of big political fights on issues ranging from comprehensive immigration reform to the problem of gun violence to addressing America’s fiscal woes. Last week’s decision on recess appointments by three Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, proves there’s another battle worth waging: over the confirmation of judges to that court.

In invalidating Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the three-judge panel issued a troubling decision. And one that should spark a response. For it shows us, yet again, that it matters who sits on our courts.

First, this decision flies in the face of 150 years of practice by presidents of both parties. It represents the judicial overreach that Republican politicians usually decry. There were a total of 260 intra-session recess appointments made between 1867 and 2000, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush made 141 intra-session recess appointments, and Obama has now made a total of 26.

Obama mobilizes his New America

There’s a reason why President Barack Obama has chosen to put gun control at the top of his second-term agenda. No issue draws as bright a line between the Old America and the New America as the gun issue. It will keep his coalition mobilized – the New America coalition that delivered for him in the election: working women, single mothers, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jewish and Muslim voters, young people, gays and educated professionals.

Obama paid tribute to the New America in his second Inaugural Address on Monday. “We possess all the qualities,” Obama declared, “that this world without boundaries demands, youth and drive, diversity and openness, of endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

Obama insisted “our journey is not complete” until the country finds a “better way to welcome striving hopeful immigrants,” until “our wives, mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” until “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law” and until all our children – including those on “the quiet lanes of Newtown” – know that they are “always safe from harm.”

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

New Afghan war over U.S. troop levels

The stubborn war in Afghanistan, which has spanned a decade and cost more than 2,000 American lives, has now faded to one key question: How many U.S. troops will remain after 2014?

This is the issue that will likely occupy President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai when they meet at the White House on Friday. Officials are already batting numbers about, ranging from zero to 20,000.

But how many Americans are still paying attention?

For many voters, and those they elect, the war is over. Only brief and irritating interruptions, like the scandal the led to the resignation of CIA director and retired General David Petraeus, serve to remind the public that the United States remains at war. In the presidential campaign, candidates in both parties mentioned the war only in passing. GOP nominee Mitt Romney didn’t even say “Afghanistan” in his convention acceptance speech, while Obama and Vice President Joe Biden referred to the war only to discuss its “responsible end.”

The real fiscal cliff winner? Bush

“Tax relief is an achievement for families struggling to enter the middle class,” the president trumpeted, shortly after Congress, by sweeping bipartisan margins and after a bruising battle, had lowered taxes for almost all Americans.  “For hard-working lower income families, we have cut the bottom rate of federal income tax from 15 percent to 10 percent. We doubled the per-child tax credit to $1,000 and made it refundable. Tax relief is compassionate, and it is now on the way.”

Despite a furious counterattack from the opposition, the president had scored a major victory by securing lower tax rates for everyone in the middle class on down.

President Barack Obama last week after narrowly averting the fiscal cliff?  Nope, President George W. Bush in June 2001, signing the first set of his much-sought-after tax cuts. Perhaps the “compassionate” was a giveaway.

When political compromise is suspect

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s a problem.

For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.

This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.

The secrecy veiling Obama’s drone war

It’s rare for a judge to express regret over her own ruling.  But that’s what happened Wednesday, when Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York reluctantly ruled that the Obama administration does not need to provide public justification for its deadly drone war.

The memos requested by two New York Times reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union, McMahon wrote, “implicate serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and about whether we are indeed a nation of laws, not of men.” Still, the Freedom of Information Act allows the executive branch to keep many things secret.

In this case, McMahon ruled, the administration’s justifications for the killing of select individuals — including American citizens — without so much as a hearing, constitute an internal “deliberative process” by the government that need not be disclosed.

Post fiscal cliff: The fix is in

We’ve been trying to deal with the national debt in this country for 30 years now.  The fiscal cliff is just the latest failed gimmick.  We’ve had more failed gimmicks than professional wrestling.

Failed?  Yes, because the whole idea of the fiscal cliff was to force the federal government to put in place a long-term reduction of the national debt.  And look what happened.  Instead of reducing the national debt, the deal passed by Congress late Tuesday night will add $4 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

In the 1980s, we tried the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law.  If the federal budget missed its deficit-reduction targets, the law triggered across-the-board spending cuts (“sequesters”).  Guess what?  It never happened.  Congress exempted 70 percent of the budget from sequestration.

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