Opinion

The Great Debate

Class war in the new Gilded Age

2012 was the first class-warfare election of our new Gilded Age. The first since the middle class has come to understand, in the words of new Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), that the “rules are rigged against it.” Business-as-usual may no longer be acceptable.

But Washington didn’t get the memo. Even as ballots were still being counted in Palm Beach, Florida, the two parties lurched into the fierce debate over the fiscal cliff, the noxious brew of automatic spending cuts and expiring tax cuts that would poison the recovery. The debate, a dismal sequel to the 2011 debt ceiling melodrama, focuses on deficits not jobs. Once more, Republicans are threatening to blow up the recovery unless Democrats make otherwise unacceptable concessions. Once more, President Barack Obama looks for a “grand bargain,” seeking bipartisan support for terms divorced from opinion outside the beltway. Once more, what Scott Galupo at The American Conservative called the “clown show” of the House Republican caucus blows itself up.

Republicans are the most clueless about this new reality. The election’s one clear mandate, confirmed in polls ever since, was for Obama’s oft-repeated pledge to let the Bush tax cuts expire on those earning more than $250,000. Yet, House Republicans stood staunch in defense of the very rich – refusing to pass their own speaker’s bill to extend the tax breaks on everyone except millionaires.

This came after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spent weeks insisting that Republicans would allow the Bush tax breaks to expire on the richest Americans only if the president agrees to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the core pillars of family security.

When the president came perilously close to giving him yes for an answer, Boehner broke off talks to get House Republicans to vote on his “Plan B” extension of all tax cuts for income under $1 million a year. But, with near Keystone Cop incompetence, House Republicans then blew up their own speaker’s plan. They recoiled at the horror of raising taxes on millionaires – though they could also eliminate the automatic spending cuts for the Pentagon, while doubling them on education, food safety and other domestic programs. Stunned, Boehner sent Congress home for Christmas, telling the media “God only knows” what will happen next.

The hard push ahead for gun control

Has the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre shifted the gun control paradigm? It certainly looks that way. The outcry for tougher gun laws is reaching a fever pitch.

But it may not be that easy.

The debate over guns has been paralyzed since 1994. That was when gun owners came out in massive numbers and shocked the political world by giving Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. They were seeking retribution for the Brady handgun control bill and the assault weapons ban passed by the Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Since 1994, Democrats have not dared challenge the status quo on guns. Especially since the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to own a firearm. President Barack Obama rarely mentioned gun control in the 2008 or 2012 presidential campaigns. New gun control laws have never been high on his policy agenda.

How Obama seized the narrative

Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”

Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.

This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”

Public agrees: Next step is gun control

Quite frankly, thoughts and prayers can only go so far. They have limited ability to protect our families.  The time has come for our elected leaders – including President Barack Obama – to stand up and fight for our families and children, and their safety.

Obama’s comments Friday after the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 little children were killed along with six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, were personal and touching. Yet the president’s only allusion to something like gun control were his words about taking “meaningful action.”

But the American people support stronger gun safety measures more than he believes or cares to say. Polls now demonstrate this to be true.

Big Love: The GOP and the super-rich

Will Republicans buck anti-tax orthodoxy and strike a budget deal? Since election night, they have begun to utter the dreaded “r-word” (revenue). But they have insisted that those revenues come from reducing loopholes — not increasing rates.

Many argue that this stance reflects the power of Grover Norquist and his no-new-taxes pledge. Yet the pledge forbids not only raising rates but also raising revenue by reducing deductions. So why are such reductions O.K. while President Barack Obama’s call for higher marginal rates is not?

Perhaps because the president’s plan would ask far more from the wealthiest Americans. By insisting that rate increases are off the table, Republicans are retreating to a time-honored position: protecting the richest of the rich at the expense of not just the middle class but also affluent households below the top reaches of the income ladder.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Policy debates in the Internet Age

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

A mandate to help the middle class

The focus in Washington has now shifted to the fiscal cliff, with the White House and Congress, particularly the House Republicans, staking out negotiating positions on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester.

The White House’s firm opening salvo—and House Speaker John Boehner’s grudging admission that he is “open” to a budget deal that contains new revenue—have been much discussed. With six in 10 Americans expressing support for higher taxes in exit polls on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama’s position is a strong one.

It’s important to remember, however, that the public came out on Election Day in support of more than Obama’s tax stance. Exit polls and public-opinion surveys show that the president’s mandate goes far beyond taxes and the fiscal cliff.

To see future electorate, look at California voters now

The changing face of the American electorate is etched all over the map of California. The Golden State may no longer be a partisan battleground, but it continues to be a reliable bellwether for the evolving national political landscape.

Even as President Barack Obama won a second term with an electorate that mirrored the demographic trends that have made California deep blue, Golden State voters chose to raise taxes to fund education and gave Democrats a two-thirds “supermajority” in both houses of the state legislature—meaning Democratic lawmakers will have the ability to raise taxes without a single Republican vote.

This willingness to increase taxes to pay for schools and other long-underfunded public services, coupled with California voters’ rejection of the GOP’s “no new taxes” mantra—up and down the ballot—could well echo across the nation, just as the passage of the state’s Proposition 13 ignited the anti-tax movement more than three decades ago.

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