Friday, May 29, 2009

The North Korea Syndrome

A defiant North Korea claims it will retaliate if its ships are boarded off its western coast and if the United Nations Security Council imposes stricter sanctions on its development of nuclear warheads. The announcement comes a day after the government said it would declare war on South Korea if provoked.

The latest war of words has strained the patience of its neighbors China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Not in Washington, apparently.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. has detected no unusual troop movements in North Korea and has no plans to reinforce some 28,000 U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.

“Should the North Koreans do something rash and extremely provocative militarily,” the United States “has the forces to deal with it,” Gates told reporters on a flight to Singapore for an annual security conference.

It is curious that Gates is taking an Alfred E. Neuman approach of "What, me worry?" while earlier in the week Secretary of State Hilllary Clinton warned North Korea of "dire consequences" and President Obama scolded the Kim Jong-il regime for testing an underground nuclear devise in violation of United Nations agreements.

The fact is the Obama administration has no new public policy position regarding North Korea and its special envoy to that country is only a temporary position.

North Korea's position seems to be intent on joining the world's arsenal of nuclear powers for self defense while the rest of the nations are wondering who the hell would want to invade that impoverished nation that has little to give.

Since it tested a nuclear device last Monday, triggering an international crisis, North Korea has test-fired at least six missiles.

The most likely hot spot for a provocation is a fishing and cargo channel off the western Korean coast which was the site of skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

Gates echoed other senior officials by saying that North Korea’s export of its nuclear technology to other countries was a major concern. “These guys have shown a penchant in the past for selling anything they’ve been able to develop,” Gates said.

North Korea’s military threats against the South were in response to South Korea’s decision on Tuesday to join an American-led operation to stop and search ships carrying suspicious cargo. The operation, called the Proliferation Security Initiative, was created by former President George W. Bush in 2003 and now includes 95 countries.

North Korea reacted by calling South Korea’s action a “declaration of war.” The situation is serious enough for 150 Chinese fishing boats, about half its fleet, to pull out of the troubled waters.

The second front of the crises is North Korea ratcheting up its nuclear tests.

"If the U.N. Security Council makes a further provocation, it will be inevitable for us to take further self-defense measures," the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea also accused the Security Council of hypocrisy.

"There is a limit to our patience," the statement said. "The nuclear test conducted in our nation this time is the Earth's 2,054th nuclear test. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have conducted 99.99 percent of the total nuclear tests."

The Obama administration is exercising patience because it has no game plan or is holding its cards close to its vest as in a high stakes poker game. The opinions expressed in the mass media markets are not encouraging, either.

Writes Michael Hirsh in Newsweek:

Kim Jong -Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses while starving his people, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn't look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea's traditional language of blackmail.

Writes Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan in the Washington Post:

The North Korean launch of its Taeopodong-2 missile and its second nuclear test have laid bare the paucity of President Obama's policy options. They have exposed the futility of the six-party talks and, in particular, the much-hyped myth of China's value as a partner on strategic matters. The Obama administration claims that it wants to break with the policies of its predecessor. This is one area where it ought to.

After decades of diplomacy and "probing" Pyongyang's intentions, one thing is clear: Kim Jong Il and his cronies want nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. What will dissuade them? Isolation and more punitive sanctions would make sense if China and Russia would go along. But they haven't, and they won't.

For several years, this lack of attractive options has driven many to look to the Chinese for help. Advocates of warm engagement with the Chinese have been the most enthusiastic promoters of this approach, less, we suspect, out of concern for solving the North Korea problem than to prove the worth of close cooperation with Beijing. North Korea, they have tirelessly claimed, is one of those common strategic interests that the United States and Beijing allegedly share.

This proposition has been discredited.

The ultimate American aim should be to help bring about a unified Korean Peninsula and not cede influence over the two Koreas to Beijing. The current diplomatic arrangements have permitted China to set the political agenda while quietly increasing its leverage over the North. But Washington doesn't need to go through Beijing to get to Pyongyang. Direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea, in close consultation with Japan and South Korea, are better than working through a middleman who has no desire or interest in closing the deal. Both Japan and South Korea would welcome greater U.S. engagement with the North. Seoul wants reassurance that it will not shoulder the burden of unification by itself. Japan wants U.S. protection and a guarantee that Washington will have some presence on the peninsula for the long term.

A New York Times editorial takes the Obama approach by negotiating first through six-party talks and then bilateral negotiations to allow weapons inspectors into the country as North Korea’s only hope for coming in from the cold and ending its deep economic privation.

Unfortunately, Pyongyang doesn’t see it that way right now, which is why the international response must be firm and skillfully choreographed. Loudly castigating and threatening North Korea and then failing to implement sanctions is worse than doing nothing at all. It will only embolden Pyongyang and send a dangerous message to others — Iran is surely watching — about the fecklessness of the major powers.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned North Korea for Monday's nuclear test, it is unknown whether they will enthusiastically support tougher sanctions now being deliberated in the UN Security Council.

However, there is growing dissent among Chinese intellectuals and media commentators.

"North Korea has become a major problem for China," says Zhang Yushan, who works for a government think tank in Jilin province, near the North Korean border. "It has become a dangerous player in the world."

China has a unique and influential relationship with North Korea as its closest ally and trading partner, sharing an 870-mile border.

In the past, many who influence Chinese policy supported the argument that North Korea's actions must be tolerated because opposing it might lead to instability. That view is changing. "I'm less interested in stability than in having a denuclearized Korean peninsula," says Zhang Liangui of the Party School, the leading think tank of China's Communist Party. "It is not in China's interest to have our neighbor exploding nuclear devices."

Russia, meanwhile, which has taken a back seat to China, is indicating a change in direction.

After an initial, mild expression of "concern" by the Russian foreign minister, the government issued a high-level statement denouncing the underground blast as a "direct violation" of U.N. resolutions.

"Initiators of decisions on nuclear tests bear personal responsibility for them to the world community," said Natalya Timakova, chief spokeswoman for President Dmitry Medvedev, adding that the test "deals a blow to international efforts to strengthen the global regime of nuclear nonproliferation."

"The reaction has been quite serious and quite unusual," said Alexander Pikayev, a top arms control expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "Moscow is really concerned. North Korea most likely has an operational deterrent now with this successful test. So this changes the whole situation."

Vasily Mikheev, a senior Asia scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Medvedev seemed to be driving the more forceful response, perhaps to assert his authority over foreign policy a year after succeeding Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister.

Medvedev may see the issue in the context of his efforts to improve relations with the United States, Mikheev added. "Nonproliferation is one of the most important areas where Russia and America can work together," he said.

And what do the South Koreans think?

“We sent them food, fertilizer, factories, more than we give our own poor people,” said the South Korean, Lee Soon-hwan, a 30-year-old office worker. “And all they pay us back with is this nuclear test.”

After years of hope that relations with the North would thaw if the South tried to coax it into engagement, regional experts and others speak of growing disenchantment. Many South Koreans reacted with exasperation and even anger to North Korea’s nuclear test on Monday, uncharacteristically harsh responses in a country that has long been more tolerant of its unruly northern neighbor than have its allies in Washington and Tokyo.

“There has been a paradigm shift in how South Koreans view North Korea,” said Jeung Young-tai, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The nuclear test has made people feel that North Korea has gone too far, and it’s high time for us to be tough on North Korea.”

But Jeung said that people now felt no safer after 10 years of engagement and that the latest nuclear test, along with the North’s test-firing of a long-range rocket last month, had driven home to many in South Korea their need to build up their own military, and stick with their traditional ally, the United States.

The thing is, no one knows what's going on in the distorted mind of Kim Jong-il or the thirsty grab for power by either his political cohorts or even the military.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

All You Want To Know You Already Knew

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only person in the world who occasionally reads findings and conclusions by experts in the health care field and say to myself, "Well, duh!"

Two such studies appeared on the Internet today. One debunked the practice many cardiologists prescribe for wearing tight stockings to prevent blood clots in heart attack patients. The other torched the myth that exercise will turn you into a fat-burning machine.

But a third report, an essay written by a Long Island medical specialist, answered a lot of questions I had about the buddy system practiced in doctor referrals.

Okay, taking one at a time. The tight stockings study of 2,500 stroke patients by a London research team concluded the stockings did nothing to reduce the chances of a clot. Not only that, but they caused problems like skin ulcers and blisters.

I have personal experience with those damn stockings although in my case they were said to improve my Venus blood circulation on the return trip from feet to heart. They didn't. Besides, I came close to cardiac arrest just trying to put them on. Even the nurses in a physical therapy hospital labored furiously albeit with more success.

The study on exercise conducted at the University of Colorado trashes a misperception that diet doesn't matter as much as physical workouts.

“People think they have a license to eat whatever they want, and our research shows that is definitely not the case,” says Edward Melanson, an exercisiologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver.

In the new report, published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, Melanson and colleagues discuss research to date on the issue of burning fat during and after exercise. The authors conclude that while people do burn more fat when they are exercising than when they are not, they have no greater ability to burn fat over the next 24 hours than on days when they are couch potatoes.

Do you get the feeling such as me -- "I knew that"?

Of much graver importance is the custom how and why primary care physicians refer patients to specialists. In practice, its a case of networking and the buddy system in which ethics are at issue but not as severe as it would be of pharmaceutical salesmen offering kickbacks to doctors for pushing their products.

Sandeep Jauhar is a cardiologist on Long Island and the author of the recent memoir “Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation.” Here are excerpts from his essay published in The New York Times.

Physician-to-physician referrals are the currency of day-to-day transactions in medicine, but as with any currency, they can be manipulated.

Logic says that a referral should depend only on a patient’s needs and the reputation and skill of the physician to which the patient is referred. But medicine is a business too, so that isn’t how it always works in practice.

The talk springs up in every doctors’ lounge: “Dr. X is opening shop — let’s give him some business.” When my wife told me she wanted to start an endocrinology practice, I reassured her that I would send patients to her, and that so would my brother, also a doctor, and his friends. As far as I can tell, there are no restrictions on such a practice.

Studies suggest that physicians receive up to 45 percent of new patients by referral, usually from other physicians. Referral rates to specialists in the United States are estimated to be at least twice as high as in Great Britain.

The rates reflect several aspects of American medicine: increasing specialization, the lack of time for any doctor to give to complex cases, and fear of lawsuits over not consulting an expert. At the same time, referrals are a way for cash-strapped doctors to generate business.

When I was in training, simple referrals from internists, like patients with only mild hypertension, bothered me as a waste of time. Now that I am in practice, I welcome them. I haven’t changed my mind that these referrals are probably unnecessary, and there is plenty of evidence that wasteful expert consultation is adding to health costs and creating redundant care. But as a full-fledged doctor, I appreciate the business. It is hard not to view a referral as an overture from another physician, and it is equally hard not to return the favor.

A sort of paradox is at work. Specialists are better paid than primary care physicians, but they are also less autonomous because, unlike primary care physicians, they depend on other doctors for referrals. There is pressure on specialists to keep referral sources happy, especially in doctor-saturated metropolitan areas like New York City.

There are limits, of course, on the autonomy of referring physicians, too. For instance, by federal law a doctor cannot refer patients to himself or to a business in which he has a significant financial stake, like a laboratory or imaging center, and he cannot be paid for a referral. The reasoning is that such behavior can interfere with clinical judgment, decrease quality and increase costs.


But there are gray areas in practice. The Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services has investigated office space rentals, for example. Across the country, mobile medical imaging companies have made arrangements with internists to perform, in their offices, cardiac ultrasounds, which the companies send to cardiologists for interpretation. Insurance companies that cover the imaging pay the companies, and the companies pay rent to the internists. By law, these rent payments must reflect fair market value and be unrelated to the volume of patients referred by the internists for imaging. But according to doctors familiar with these agreements, that isn’t always the case.

“Obviously you get more rent if you provide 50 patients than if you provide 5,” an internist on Long Island, who did not want his name used, told me.

When I asked whether it wasn’t just a form of a kickback, he shrugged.

“When the companies take more time, they have to pay more rent,” he said. “You don’t say it is per patient; you say per hour. But patients equal time.”

Though he no longer participates in these contracts, he was open about the payments — about $100 per patient — and he saw nothing wrong with them. “As internists, we don’t bill for procedures, so we have to figure out another way to make money,” he said. “Every little bit helps.”

Whether the rent payments amount to indirect kickbacks is an open question still being investigated by the inspector general. The real issue, I think, is not the rentals but a referral system that is too easily corrupted. There is so much pressure to generate referrals that lines become crossed.

Our health care system needs a different approach, one in which patients are not treated as commodities.

Well stated, Dr. Jauhar. Not always, but a few times, I as a patient felt like I was treated as a commodity. Another piece of meat inspected on a conveyor belt.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We'll Know More About Her Than Our Mothers

Consider yourself in the shoes of Sonia Sotomayor whose life over the past 54 years will be scrutinized, analyzed, demonized and idolized.

I hope President Obama's nominee to the United States Supreme Court is as tough as nails as she is purported to be.

Think about it. In the span of four months we will know more about the current appellate court justice than we do about our own mothers. Such is the vetting process in our system of government which is more grueling than achieving sainthood where most of our mothers reside in our minds.

How any sane person can withstand such an undressing of deeds in the public arena boggles the mind. Such is the nature of the beast for one seeking a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

I can assure you it wasn't always that way. A distant grandfather, Oliver Ellsworth, was appointed the second Chief Justice in 1789 by President Washington. The two were friends and my great-great grandfather was a distinguished lawyer at the time and served on the bench until 1796. It was a case of knowing the right people.

No longer. Today everyone has an opinion on what qualifies for a judgeship.

Okay, class, what did we learn about Judge Sotomayor today? Born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican parents, she was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8, her father died when she was 9 and her role models were Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. At age 10 she dreamed of becoming a judge. She graduated from Princeton and Yale Law School, married briefly, has no children but considers her law clerks as her offspring. A prosecutor, private attorney and scaled the ladder in the federal court system and, as one observer noted, blah blah blah.

That astute observer is Craig Calcaterra, a sportswriter, commenting on a judicial decision rendered by Judge Sotomayor. What, pray tell, would a sportswriter care about the intricate dealings in the court of law. I'll let him explain:

The coolest thing about the new nominee is that on March 30, 1995, she put an end to the worst strike in baseball history, when she issued the preliminary injunction against the owners preventing them from unilaterally implementing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and using replacement players. The owners gave up the ghost right after that, and by doing so, the path was cleared for the 1995 season to begin...

Well, I have a single issue with which I'm obsessed: baseball. So far Sotomayor is batting 1.000 in that department, so as far as I'm concerned, let's skip all of the ugliness that's about to begin, confirm her and get on with the pennant races.

We all have our own agendas but sportswriters can make life so simple. Just as it was for Grandpa Ellsworth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Little Brat On The World's Block

In terms of world troublemakers, North Korea is the recalcitrant little kid on the block who tweaks his nose at the cops and gets away with it.

The tiny impoverished nation announced Monday it successfully conducted an underground nuclear test. South Korea said it also may have fired three ground to air missiles into the Sea of Japan.

A special meeting of the United Nations Security Council was called. Big frigging deal. UN sanctions have done nothing to thwart North Korea from its nuclear testing program.

A report in Monday's New York Times offers a roundup of condemnation from world leaders:

President Obama said in a statement : “North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation. It will not find international acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”

China's Foreign Ministry said it was “resolutely opposed” to the test.

Russia said the test would “endanger security and stability in the region,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement.

Argues North Korea's official news agency KCNA: “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way as requested by its scientists and technicians." The test was safely conducted “on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control,” the agency said. “The results of the test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology.”

It will take several weeks to determine the success and strength of the test, according to military and diplomatic analysts.

So, the hand wringing continues on what to do with the piss ant leaders who bully their neighbors and doom all but a few elite to abject poverty.

If its bargaining chips they're after, there are two American journalists scheduled for trial June 4 charged with illegal entry and hostile acts. No offense, but those are small potatoes compared to a nation hellbent on bringing nuclear destruction in the Far East or selling their weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

Besides, with the help of China, the Bush administration in 2007 promised fuel to North Korea if they stopped their nuclear production. The communist government reneged and kicked out the verification inspectors.

The Obama administration last week dispatched Stephen W. Bosworth, the American special envoy on North Korea, to Asia with a fresh offer of dialogue. Hours before he arrived in Seoul, North Korea's Foreign Ministry announced “There is nothing to be gained by sitting down together with a party that continues to view us with hostility."

How long this waiting game lasts is undetermined. One suggestion is to wait until North Korea's scotch-drinking, porn-watching chairman Kim Jong-il dies and hope for a more enlightened leadership.

U.S. neocons would love a pre-emptive strike to take out the nuclear plants but all that would do is grant North Korea the excuse to attack South Korea with 25,000 U.S. soldiers on the front line.

These little brats can be a thorn in the side of the Obama administration that could get bloody.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I Hear The Trumpeter Playing Taps

Four highly visible Republicans appeared on the political talk shows Sunday talking about the split threatening the party between moderates and conservatives.

What I heard were two divergent themes: Rebuilding the party to win elections vs. purging the ranks to retain only the concepts endorsed by conservatives.

One theme trumpets the future. The other is playing taps.

Give credit to Colin Powell and Tom Ridge for bucking the shrill voices of the far right. They have the good fortune of being private citizens and have no fear of seeking reelection as do the Republican leaders face in Congress and bow to the oracles of Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney.

Karl Rove said Powell and Ridge should prove themselves Republicans by putting up or shutting up.

Newt Gingrich, who is deluding others he may be a presidential candidate in 2012, cautioned conservatives for using litmus tests to drive the party to the smallest base possible.

What we have here is an argument for a viable political party in a two-party system and a movement which takes no prisoners, controls its base followers and owns the loudest, shrillest voices.

What amazes me is that all conservatives believe Ronald Reagan was the guiding light, the savior of Republicans. Yet they violate Reagan's principle that the party should cast the largest net possible.

Republican conservatives are on the road to the cemetery where the Whig, Progressive, Libertarian and Green parties are buried.

Despite themselves, the Republican Party will return to power. It won't be on the battlefield of ideas we hear today.

It will be failures which are bound to happen by the Democrats.

And when that day comes, we can look back and admire the wisdom of Ralph Nader, our nation's most infamous third party candidate. He said you can't tell the difference between the Republicans and Democrats.

That's politics, folks. And, yes, I'm a cynic.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Michigan, Nukes And Pizza

You wouldn't think Michigan is one of the hardest hit states in terms of unemployment and economic meltdown by viewing their television ads promoting tourism.

These are among the best, slickest and most professional ads seen on the tube in markets where they are shown.

The cost to produce these ads must run in the millions of dollars whether they are paid out of local taxpayers pockets or a benevolent industry. Doesn't matter. The question is will they produce results.

For a month now, the ads asking viewers to go to have saturated the Time Warner Cable market in Southern California.

Competition for the tourist dollar is intense. Second to Michigan in terms of sheer volume of advertising is the state of Utah, Key West Florida, Las Vegas, Jamaica and Israel. The California Tourism agency boasts a cute ad featuring celebrities including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger and his wife, Maria Shriver. For the life of me I don't understand why it spends money touting the tributes in one's own state.

Tourism is a major industry in many states and my guess it is suffering as a result of the recession and tight credit just as most other sectors of the economy are feeling. It make me wonder about the old axiom that it takes money to earn money.

Speaking of spending advertising dollars, the Republican National Committee's latest commercial features President Obama praising the impending closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison by plagiarizing a Lyndon Johnson 1964 ad which portrayed a little girl picking leaves off a daisy. The implication is a countdown to a nuclear holocaust as suggested in the ad 45 years ago.

What??? Oh, I get it. Instead of a nuke, the closure will mean we will release terrorists on the streets of America. Now what idiot is going to believe that? The RNC raised $5 million in April, about a million more than the Democrats. Flushed with money to burn, they spent a portion of it on the ad. Some investment, Mr. Steele.

Television ads are forever insulting the intelligence of us consumers. The dumbest of the dumbing down goes to a pizza chain which blindfolds its subjects and have them eat pasta in famous restaurants. After praising the cuisine, the diners are told: "Surprise! It's from Pizza Hut."

Wouldn't you love to see the outtakes from those commercials?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dueling Banjos

President Barack Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney played dueling banjos Thursday over Guantanamo Bay prison and torture with each charging the other that their opposing policies made America less safe from terrorists.

In some respects it was an historic confrontation not seen since former President Theodore Roosevelt took on his former protege William Howard Taft in 1912.

The speeches were delivered back to back in separate locations in Washington D.C. and covered live by the cable news channels.

It wasn't a case of oneupmanship. Neither man won or lost. But it did give the public something to chew in a digestive tract that won't be regurgitated until the next election cycle or two. Or another terrorist attack on the United States.

The most significant aspect of the speeches is that Obama and Cheney -- at least until he left office Jan. 20 -- are the only two persons privy to all the classified intelligence matters to speak publicly about the status of our national defense security mechanisms. Everything else we have heard or read has come in bits and pieces from the White House and testimony before Congressional committees.

For example, in Cheney's defense we have seen no evidence he claims vindicates what he calls "harsh interrogation" techniques. We have heard from former Central Intelligence Agency officials that torture does not work. Until all the evidence is revealed, Cheney must be given the benefit of the doubt despite the fact I believe his sole purpose in this debate is to cover his ass.

In his speech, Obama failed to outline a detailed course of action closing Guantanamo which forced his Democratic allies in the Senate to withhold $80 million funding for the base closure.

What he did was spell out a course of action with congressional and court oversight to hold and try suspected terrorists in U.S. prisons.

This is where it gets sticky. Most Americans do not want these terrorists in prisons or courts in their backyards. Yet, dozens of terrorists are being held in federal prisons with no security breaks reported. The exception to the opposition is tiny (pop. 3,500) Hardin, Mont., where an empty federal prison exists, and Democratic Rep. John Murtha's district in Pennsylvania.

Charging that congressional debate over the issue produced "fear-mongering" and speeches "calculated to scare people rather than educate them," Obama pledged: "We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security; nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people."

Obama stressed taking the high moral ground in the fight against al-quada terrorists.

"It's the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government; the reason why America's benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries; the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty," he said.

"Where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology," Obama said. Those values were put to the test by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which showed that the government would need new tools to prevent future assaults.

"Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions," he said. While those decisions "were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people," he said, "too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight," and it often "trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions."

He added, "Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."

Stressing that "we are indeed at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates," Obama said that "we do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat." But he said this must be done "with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability."

Cheney, meanwhile, defended the interrogation techniques that the Bush administration authorized the CIA to use on suspected terrorists and denounced the "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" that he said the methods have inspired.

"They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do," Cheney said of the interrogation techniques. "They prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."

In an apparent reference to the Obama administration, Cheney also charged that "people who consistently distort the truth" about the interrogations "are in no position to lecture anyone about 'values.' "

He warned: "To completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe."

For me, Obama is steering a proper course, despite all its pitfalls and lack of details. There is nothing in the mindset of Muslims that provokes more anger against us than when they see pictures of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

And that, twisted into a recruiting tool by al-quada, is the legacy left behind by the Bush administration torture techniques.

I might suggest the best course of action for Obama is to embark and refine his policy handling the prisoner detainees and let Congress and perhaps a special prosecutor investigate the mess Bush left us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

California Dreaming

We've heard this before.

General Motors, AIG and Citigroup are too big to fail.

But, what about California, the most populous state in America? It is on the brink of insolvency.

Less than 15% of the state's registered voters Tuesday trashed five state special election ballot measures the legislature proposed in a first step of reforming the ever-increasing deficit now estimated at $25 billion.

The blame game is running wild and most of the finger-pointing is directed at the voters.

Michael Finnegan, political writer for The Los Angeles Times, elicited these observations from the field of California pundits.

"No one's really stepping back and confronting the harsh realities that face our state in a critical sense, because of constraints put on our elected leaders," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "We're unable to focus on the long term and the big picture at a time when we desperately need to do so."


"We all want a free lunch, but unfortunately that doesn't exist," said former Gov. Gray Davis, whose 2003 recall stemmed largely from a budget crisis brought on by the dot-com bust. For decades, Davis said, Californians have been "papering over this fundamental reality that the state has been living beyond its means."


On Tuesday, Californians showed they were unwilling to scale back their demands in tight times: Voters turned down propositions that would have freed up money that they set aside years ago for mental-health and children's programs.

"The irony is that the more the hands of the Legislature and governor are tied up, the more frustrated people are," said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.


Together, voters' piecemeal decisions since the 1970s have effectively "emasculated the Legislature," said John Allswang, a retired Cal State L.A. history professor.

"They're looking for cheap answers -- throw the guys out of power and put somebody else in, or just blame the politicians and pretend you don't have to raise taxes when you need money," he said.

"This is what the public wants, and they deceive themselves constantly. They're not realistic."


The public's contradictory impulses were laid bare by a recent Field Poll. It found that voters oppose cutbacks in 10 of 12 major categories of state spending, including the biggest, education and healthcare. Yet most voters were unwilling to have their own taxes increased, and they overwhelmingly favored keeping the two-thirds requirement for tax hikes passed in a constitutional amendment in 1978.

"They clearly want more in services than they're willing to pay for in taxes," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley.


Also intensifying California's troubles is a surge in debt, often with voter consent at the ballot box, which makes future budgets harder and harder to balance. Under Davis, outstanding general-obligation debt jumped from $26 billion to $37 billion; it has soared to more than $70 billion under current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to the state treasurer's office. As a result, California has the worst bond rating among all 50 states.

Adding to the state's difficulties is the complexity of many ballot measures, no doubt a factor in the defeat of the main budget measures that lawmakers put before voters Tuesday.

"We pay the legislators to go to Sacramento and figure these things out," said Denise Spooner, a lecturer on California history at Cal State Fullerton.

As for the cumulative problems created by the last few decades of ballot-measure voting, she said, "I certainly don't think this is what the Progressives had in mind."


To John Hein, a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant, the absence of any master vision by voters appears to be a key flaw in the state's recent history with ballot measures.

"They kind of take each issue in a microcosm, rather than relate the decision to prior decisions, or future decisions that they might make," he said. "Voters don't think about the consequences of how one thing fits with another."


Others point to the term limits that voters imposed on state officials in 1990 as an enduring problem. Lawmakers who focus on quick career advancement tend to neglect California's long-term problems, they say.

Whatever the ups and downs of the proposition system, California's voters have seen themselves for a full century as "the arbiters of the future of the state," said social historian D.J. Waldie. To Waldie, the grim circumstances of Tuesday's election suggest that they are losing faith in any grand ambitions for public investment in California's future.

"I'm rather pessimistic at this point," he said. "We're reaching the point where Californians are throwing in the towel."

Man, oh man. These guys really dished out a spanking to California voters. They're not calling them stupid, by the way. Rather extremely myopic.

The root problem, as I reported in Monday's posting, is the system designed piecemeal by voters over the course of the last 100 years.

There is a movement in the legislature to call for a constitutional convention in 2010 and start from scratch.

A frantic call to the White House at 3 a.m. will fall on deaf ears.

Washington: We have a problem.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Most Dysfunctional State In America

Few eyes in the world, including those in California, will be focusing on Tuesday's state special election which sets out to prove it is the most financially dysfunctional government in the nation.

Most of the six ballot measures, according to recent polls, will fail, sending the state into deeper economic chaos. Even if they pass, the state's fiscal problems will only be prolonged. The only measure expected to pass is one limiting pay increases for state legislators.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter May 11 to the legislature warning it that, by his latest estimates, the state will face a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the ballot measures pass, $21.3 billion if they fail. Prisoners will have to be released, firefighters fired, and other services cut or eliminated.

The problem, folks, is the state's constitution, third longest behind India and the state of Alabama. If you think the U.S. Senate's 60-vote majority rule is cumbersome, in California it takes a two-thirds (67%) vote for the legislature to pass a budget and increase taxes. Most statewide fiscal initiatives to change the constitution take only a simple majority. When that happens, voters grow more hostile because the state does not have the money to pay for them.

A by-product of this is that California now has the lowest bond rating among all 50 states.

Because of quirky and arcane laws dating back to the Progressive Era in 1910, it no longer is the citizens who control the legislature but special interest groups and lobbyists and entrenched politicians from both parties protected by gerrymandered assembly and senate district boundaries.

California is one of 24 states that allow referendums, recalls and voter initiatives. But it is the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives and has no sunset clauses that let them expire. It also uses initiatives far more, and more irresponsibly, than any other state.

In short, it is democracy at its worse.

If its representative democracy functioned well, that might not be so debilitating. But it does not. Only a minority of Californians bother to vote, and those voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population, says Steven Hill at the New America Foundation, a think-tank that is analyzing the options for reform.

I am a native Californian, a longtime political observer, and nothing that happens in state government surprises me. I'm always fascinated how others look upon my state and as it just so happens everything I suspected is laid out in this article in The Economist.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Oh, No, Say It A'int So

A terrible scenario is unfolding in the Sadr City district of Baghdad where the U.S. military outposts will pull out June 30.

Some U.S. and Iraqi military officials and civilian leaders believe the impoverished Shiite community will return to lawlessness and ignite a civil war.

"When the Americans leave, everything will be looted because no one will be watching," an Iraqi army lieutenant newly deployed there said. "There will be a civil war -- without a doubt," predicted an Iraqi interpreter. Council members have asked about political asylum in the United States.

Such a doomsday offering is portrayed in a story in Sunday's Washington Post.

The story has credence because since the U.S. troop surge began destroying the Shiite Mahdi Army, its commander cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to lay down their weapons.

The issue is whether al-Sadr will cooperate with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's assertion that his government stands ready to assume control over security.

Sadr City and Mosul are ticking time bombs.

If the situation explodes after June 30, all the gains the U.S. military achieved at a horrendous loss of lives will go down the drain. No doubt our forces will be called back into a never ending presence to provide security for a nation we invaded with no exit strategy.

One segment of the Post story made me wince. As part of the reconstruction effort in Sadr City, the U.S. paid civilian leaders to act as informants in what could be described as a neighborhood watch program. These people, who now drive Mercedes Benzes and Hummers, fear for their lives.

I concur that as a presidential candidate John McCain received a lot of flack from the left when he asserted U.S. troops may be needed in Iraq for the next 50 to 100 years.

We'll find out this summer.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

GOP Moderate Picked For China Ambassador

About a month ago John McCain was asked on one of those political talk shows who he thought were viable Republican presidential candidates in 2012.

The first name mentioned was Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

My first reaction was "who is that guy?" I filed the name in the back of my mind as a to-do list to check out some day. Utah is not exactly the news capital of the universe.

President Barack Obama beat me to the punch. The president Saturday nominated Huntsman U.S. Ambassador to China.

In reading his bio, Huntsman speaks Mandarin Chinese (a top priority to my way of thinking),
and served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and as a deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. trade ambassador under President George W. Bush.

He is a popular two-term governor in a state dominated by The Church Of Latter Day Saints where he has developed a reputation for his moderate brand of political governing.

In short, he is my kind of Republican. Obama must share that opinion and without being too sinister effectively removes Huntsman as a rival in the 2012 presidential race should the Senate ratify the appointment. Okay, it may be sinister from a political viewpoint but that does not detract from the qualifications the Utah governor brings to the diplomatic table.

Huntsman, 49, learned Mandarin from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, and is regarded for his experience in trade matters between the two nations and as an environmentalist.

He signed an initiative that would set a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming. And in a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman spoke of the need for China and the U.S. to work together to protect the environment.

"The United States and China must be good examples and stewards of the Earth. We must match economic progress with environmental stewardship. The effects of industrialization are felt worldwide," Huntsman said then.

As governor, Huntsman quietly negotiated the loosening of the state's rigid liquor laws in an effort to attract more tourism to the state.

Huntsman made headlines recently for encouraging the Republican Party to swing in a more moderate direction if it wanted to bounce back from the 2008 elections. He favors civil unions for gay couples although he supported a 2004 state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.

These positions have drawn the ire of Republican conservatives.

Before becoming governor in 2005, Huntsman made millions serving as chairman and chief executive of his family chemical company.

If confirmed by the Senate, Huntsman will succeed Clark Randt as U.S. ambassador to China.

Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert would become governor until a special election in 2010.

Unless there's something creepy in his portfolio, Huntsman seems a good choice. But politics being what they are, I'm standing by to hear the expected mumbling by conservative Republicans complaining he's too moderate, moderate Republicans grumbling because they lost another piece of presidential timber, other Republicans complaining the appointment is a diabolical plot and some party loyalist Democrats bitching it should have been one of theirs.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Circuitous Game Of Card Checks

Earnings of America's blue collar working class has lost ground in recent years because of a variety of factors, one of which is the decline of organized labor as the nation shifts from a manufacturing to a service-oriented economy.

To reverse this trend, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, labor leaders and a Democratic-controlled Congress are pushing for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act — also known as "card check."

It is akin to a child of divorced parents, forced to decide between his mother or father.

It is more complicated than the simple explanation that it would allow a majority of workplace employees to sign cards to join a union instead of holding secret ballot elections.

I went to Wikipedia for this definition:

Under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), if the National Labor Relations Board verifies that over 50% of the employees signed authorization cards, the secret ballot election is bypassed and a union is automatically formed. Introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2005 and reintroduced in 2007 and 2009, the EFCA provides that the NLRB would recognize the union's role as the official bargaining representative if a majority of employees have authorized that representation via majority sign-up (card check), without requiring a secret ballot election. Under The EFCA, if over 30% and less than 50% of employees sign a petition or authorization cards, the NLRB would still order a secret ballot election for union representation. In other words, the current threshold to have a secret ballot election is signatures from 30% of employees. The EFCA would keep that threshold, but make a new threshold of signatures from 50% + 1 of employees to bypass the secret ballot election and automatically be unionized. Therefore a petition signature would have the same weight as a "yes" vote in a secret ballot election.

Speaking before the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has about 1.6 million members, Biden said it's time to "level the playing field" for unions by passing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize.

Biden pointed out the difference between public sector employees, where 37 percent belong to unions, compared to the private sector, where just 7.5 percent of workers carry union cards. He said federal, state and municipal employees face fewer barriers to organization, while managers in the private sector use "every trick in the book" to undermine unions.

Biden said he and President Obama would not consider their economic recovery efforts a success unless growth creates "good, sustainable, livable jobs in the process." A key element, he said, is rebuilding the American labor movement, which has steadily declined since the 1950s.

Moderate and conservative Senate Democrats are negotiating amendments to the bill to avoid a predicted filibuster by Republicans.

But the Democrats by no means are united on the issue. George McGovern, the most liberal Democrat nominated for president, opposes the card check bill. According to The Politico:

The liberal icon’s public break with the left has produced from his old allies anger, confusion and a failed campaign to persuade him to change his mind on the legislation, which would give workers the option of joining a union by signing cards rather than by voting in a secret ballot.

Instead, McGovern has stuck to his guns in an unlikely campaign that began in the pages of The Wall Street Journal
, where he wrote that, for Democrats, abandoning the secret ballot would be “a betrayal of what we have always championed.”

Flirting with sacrilege, he compared his opposition to the bill to “my early and lonely opposition to the Vietnam War.”

McGovern’s stance may say more about the iconic, idiosyncratic former senator and Democratic presidential nominee than about the cause, but his words were repeated in television ads across the Midwest by
business-backed groups, and labor leaders from Sioux Falls to Washington took note.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, described the limitations of the system of NLRB elections quoted in Wikipedia:

"The current process for forming unions is badly broken and so skewed in favor of those who oppose unions, that workers must literally risk their jobs in order to form a union. Although it is illegal, one-quarter of employers facing an organizing drive have been found to fire at least one worker who supports a union. In fact, employees who are active union supporters have a one-in-five chance of being fired for legal union activities. Sadly, many employers resort to spying, threats, intimidation, harassment and other illegal activity in their campaigns to oppose unions. The penalty for illegal activity, including firing workers for engaging in protected activity, is so weak that it does little to deter law breakers.

Even when employers don't break the law, the process itself stacks the deck against union supporters. The employer has all the power; they control the information workers can receive, can force workers to attend anti-union meetings during work hours, can require workers to meet with supervisors who deliver anti-union messages, and can even imply that the business will close if the union wins. Union supporters' access to employees, on the other hand, is heavily restricted.

The Employee Free Choice Act [with its provisions for majority sign-up] would add some fairness to the system…"

The AFL-CIO states the following in arguing that the company-controlled secret ballots actually make the process less democratic:

"People call the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election system a secret ballot election — but in fact it's not like any democratic election held anywhere else in our society. It's really a management-controlled election process because corporations have all the power. They control the information workers can receive and routinely poison the process by intimidating, harassing, coercing and even firing people who try to organize unions. No employee has free choice after being browbeaten by a supervisor to oppose the union or being told they may lose their job and livelihood if workers vote for the union."

Those who oppose majority sign up argue it strips workers of their right to a secret ballot and that it increases intimidation and pressure by union organizers, making it an inaccurate mechanism for determining employee support for unionization. Many business organizations, including The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the implementation of card check. From its website:

"Under the existing law today, workers have a chance to vote for or against unionization in a private-ballot election that is federally supervised. Under Card Check, if more than 50% of workers at a facility sign a card, the government would have to certify the union, and a private ballot election would be prohibited--even if workers want one. By forcing workers to sign a card in public - instead of vote in private - card check opens the door to intimidation and coercion."

According to a 2004 Zogby survey conducted for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 78% of union members support keeping the current secret ballot system.

So there's the arguments.

I can't help but observe that both sides claim the secret ballots are subject to intimidation. Makes you wonder.

All I know is that the working stiffs deserve a larger piece of the pie. Without them there would be no dough (nor pun intended).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evidence The Lenders Were The Bad Guys

I can't remember what I did yesterday. But I can recall a scenario in which the Clinton administration and in its early stages the Bush White House promoting home ownership for all Americans.

Clinton got his folks in Congress to soften lending standards at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A housing market bubble ballooned for several years, aided by Bush's penchant for deregulation.

While everyone enjoyed the good times, the housing bubble burst as we now know because of subprime loans, default derivatives and other exotic financial leveraging devices.

Immediately, finger pointing began, led by the right-wing Bush apologists. The two main targets were Rep. Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee and Sen. Chris Dodd of the Senate Finance Committee for their close association with Fannie and Freddie.

But among the outcry from the more extremist critics were racial slurs that many new Hispanic and African-American homeowners had no business owning property they couldn't afford and were the direct cause of the market collapse.

Of course, there was an element of truth on what the critics charged with little regard for all the facts.

Today we learn from the Pew Hispanic Research Center that the gains in home ownership since 1994 among minorities has reversed but not nearly as much as one would expect.

In fact, foreign-born Latinos, whose rate of home ownership, while low, has stalled in the downturn but not fallen.

Since 2004, home ownership for all Americans has declined to 67.8 percent from 69 percent. For African Americans it fell to 47.5 percent from 49.4 percent. Latinos had a longer period of growth, with home ownership rising until 2006, to 49.8 percent, before falling to 48.9 percent last year. Home ownership for native-born Latinos fell to 53.6 percent from a high of 56.2 percent in 2005.

For all immigrants, home ownership fell minimally, to 52.9 percent from 53.3 percent in 2006. Latino immigrants, who have the lowest rates of home ownership among the groups studied, did not lose any ground, remaining at the high of 44.7 percent that they reached in 2007.

The gaps between whites and minorities remain significant, with home ownership rates for Asians (59.1 percent), blacks (47.5 percent) and Latinos (48.9 percent) well below that for whites (74.9 percent).

Like previous studies, the report found that blacks and Hispanics were more than twice as likely to have subprime mortgages as white homeowners, even among borrowers with comparable incomes. Only 10.5 percent of white home buyers took out high-cost loans in 2007, compared to 27.6 percent of Latinos and 33.5 percent of African Americans. These loans, which typically require little or no down payments and are meant for borrowers with low credit scores, made home ownership possible for many black and Hispanic families during the boom years, but also led to high rates of foreclosure.

“Basically that gap was closed on poor loans that never should have been made and wound up harming folks and their neighborhoods,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, an organization of nonprofit housing groups.

African Americans and Latinos remain more likely than whites to be turned down for mortgages, with 26.7 percent of applications from Hispanics being rejected in 2007; 30.4 percent for blacks; and 12.1 percent for whites. These disparities held even for borrowers whose incomes were well above average for their area.

Though there are no data on the race or ethnicity of homeowners in foreclosure, the researchers found that counties with high concentrations of immigrants had high rates of foreclosure. This association was even stronger than that between the prevalence of subprime mortgages and the foreclosure rate.

But the research did not suggest that high rates of immigration cause high levels of foreclosure on their own, said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of research for the Pew Hispanic Center. High unemployment, falling house prices, subprime loans and high ratios of debt to income all contributed to high foreclosure rates.

This is a lot of statistics thrown at us and one can twist them any which way.

It is apparent in my mind that predator lenders duped the low-income minorities into the home ownership dream by offering them something for nothing. Too good to be true. And, it was. The predators took the money and ran leaving the rest of us folks holding the bag.

Was the black janitor or Mexican farm laborer being responsible? No.

On the flip side, the lender who negotiated the loans was a criminal predator.

Don't blame the guy with the dream.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fed Should Not Buckle To Investor Lobby

HELP WANTED: The Obama administration is seeking private investors to infuse billions of dollars into struggling banks.

SERVICES OFFERED: Dozens of equity capitalists are standing by to invest billions in these banks.

Problem solved? Not exactly. Here's the catch:

Investors want controlling interest in the banks they salvage. The Federal Reserve says no they can't buy controlling interest.

Folks, what we have here is a game of chicken.

It will start playing out Thursday when Treasury announces the results of its stress tests on banks. Those deemed unworthy of surviving the troubled economy will need more capital equity.

Here's where politics enters the equation. Congress and the vast majority of the public have cast bankers as villains and they will be damned if banks receive another nickle in taxpayer money. Such a perception may be unfair. But the counter-argument of failure lingers if the behemoths such as CitiGroup and Bank of America launch a domino-effect collapse of the entire industry.

Which returns us to the fed's tough stance on the guys with wads of cash to invest.

The Federal Reserve wants to make sure that it does not set the stage for the next financial implosion by turning banks over to private equity firms, some of the riskiest players in the business world.

And they are implementing their vast reserves to lobby Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner into submission.

These investor groups are hovering over the banks as vultures for they envision easy money to be plucked.

They see banks as the recession’s biggest prize: potential money machines that could one day generate fabulous returns, particularly after the federal government eats the losses of failed banks, then heavily subsidizes their sale. Some of them would prefer to take over the banks completely, replace their managements and take all the profit.

The fed has excellent reason to stick to its policy: Too many equity capital takeover of banks have failed, whether it be in the United States, Japan or the Euro nations.

Current law prohibits mixing banking and commerce, based on a fear that if industrialists own banks, they will dominate and try to manipulate the economy, as they did during the early-20th-century.

The government also wants the ability to stabilize a teetering bank by drawing on the funds of its parent company. That is hard to do with private equity firms, which have numerous businesses owned by funds, each of which is walled off to protect investors.

For these reasons, banks generally cannot be owned by nonfinancial companies.

The equity firms counter that banking desperately needs cash if the economy is going to recover, and that they are the only big sources of money around. An executive at the Carlyle Group said the industry had an estimated $400 billion in “dry powder,” or ready-to-invest reserves.

Wall Street billionaire J. Christopher Flowers is one of a handful of equity managers at the vanguard of buying banks and hopefully gaining total control with the help of the feds.

He is profiled in a fascinating reader in Wednesday's New York Times. It is recommended reading before anyone draws conclusions about the evils of saving banks.

My conclusion is moderate and pragmatic: Encourage the private investments into banks by covering toxic asset losses but keep the fed rules of controlling interest in tact.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Change Seen By An Old GOP Pol

So much has been written and aired about what's wrong with the Republican Party that I figured, what the hell, maybe former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, writing an op-ed piece in Tuesday's Washington Post, would put his finger on it.

I was shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

"Things change because things change, not because of any ideological primacy or purity on a particular end of the political spectrum," Baker writes.

The depth of his perception is as deep as a 90-pound jackhammer bouncing off a slab of concrete.

But, there's more from the old sage:

The core Republican beliefs in less government, lower taxes, more liberty and greater security in a dangerous world united people as different as Mark Hatfield and Jesse Helms during my years as leader of the Senate. Those same beliefs carried Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980 and 1984. Those beliefs still have power today. And if the American people perceive overreaching or underachieving in the Obama administration and among its allies in Congress, the Republican way may prove very attractive again in very short order.

As a historian, Baker is dead on.

But as we move towards the second decade of the 2000 millennium the Republicans are losing their grip on reality and their constituencies by clinging to the past. They are a rudderless ocean liner without a captain afloat in a sea of confluent currents.

The party's demographic power rests in the South and a handful of mountain states. Right-wing intolerant conservatives rule and shout down the more moderate and independent voices.

Republican Congressmen are now members of the Party Of No. In the Senate, Jeffery Sessions was handed the minority chairmanship of the Judicial Committee. The former federal prosecutor from Alabama was denied a judgeship in the 1980s because he was deemed a racial bigot.

The current environment is pervasive even for a Republican with brains and charm to gain a foothold in party ranks unless he cowers to conservative doctrines.

The thing is, the demographics of America have changed from the days of Howard Baker and Ronald Reagan. Voices never before heard now spring loudly from Hispanic, black, women, gays and other minorities. In a few short generations, some of these minorities will be the majority voice. And the Republicans are doing little to attract them into their tent.

A political party is not viable unless it wins elections. A two-party system works only if both are competitive. As of now, the Republicans are not.

I don't mean to bash conservatives as the root of all evil. They are just as important to the Republican base as left-wing liberals are to the Democratic Party.

Maybe I give the Republicans too much credit. They're great and fun to watch as a minority party. Their current crop just can't govern worth a damn.

And remember Howard Baker's downplay of "ideological primacy or purity." I take that as a shot across the bow of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and all the others of his ilk.

I could be wrong.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Justice For The Common Man

If President Obama sticks to his way of governing incubated in his days at Harvard Law School, his top priority for a new Supreme Court Justice will not be a woman or Hispanic.

It will be a person skilled in constitutional law but by judicial demeanor understands the impact jurists have on the common man.

If that person he selects is a woman or Hispanic, so much the better.

When Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review he remained aloof to the student rebellion against professors and judges with only academic credits in their portfolios. But, according to one of his underclassmen, sympathized with the protesters that jurists must have an empathy for the people. (The classmate was Juan Zuniga, a cousin of mine, of whom I wrote in a post several months ago.)

And that exactly is what Obama spelled out when he announced Justice David Souter's pending retirement and search for a new replacement by October.

Nominations for Supreme Court are some of the most contentious debates in our democratic system. The politics and special interest pressure is brutal.

Think about it. The opposition party will always threaten filibuster. A litmus test will be required by pro-choice and anti-abortion proponents. Nominees will be subject to hypothetical questions they can't in good conscious answer. Gender and ethnic groups demand balance on the 9-justice court bench. And, on and on.

The opposition vetting tactics are such that no longer is it likely a confirmation will be made by the Senate when the justice turns out to be a turncoat. The list of judges falling in that list are legion -- Warren, Blackmum, O'Connor and Souter, to name a few.

The New York Times Saturday ran a story about more than 200 women in federal courts and former governors who could meet Obama's standards.

Most prominently mentioned is Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge of Puerto Rican descent.

The Hispanic pool is much smaller yet excruciatingly critical from Obama's standpoint. Latinos are part of his major base and projected to be the largest ethnic group in the nation by 2040.

A gentle reminder to President Obama: Stick to your guns and please, please, make damn certain your nominee has paid all taxes and never hired an undocumented foreign nanny, cook or gardener.