How to Make Government Work

Nov. 19 2012 5:41 PM

Republicans Should Stop Complaining About Obama’s Foreign Policy

Sen. John McCain won't let go of Benghazi as a political talking point


Note to Sen. John McCain and other Republicans who love to talk about foreign policy: The election is over. The moment for partisanship, if there ever is one when foreign policy is the topic, has passed. We used to say, "Politics stops at the water’s edge." And we believed it. Now is the time to focus on answers and solutions, if there are any, to the vexing issues we confront in a complicated and turbulent world.

Yet even yesterday, John McCain, perhaps the most senior Republican voice on foreign policy, continued to rant against the president. Some Republicans seem to view the entire world through the lens of partisan disagreement. Isn't the Benghazi tragedy a cover-up for something? Did the turmoil in Gaza erupt right after the election because the president somehow delayed the crisis there? It is all kind of nuts, maybe a last stage in Republican grief or denial that hopefully will pass soon. 

We all acknowledge that many regions of the world really are a mess, especially the Middle East. Syria's civil war is a continuing humanitarian disaster. Hamas is raining rockets down on Israel, and experiencing the predictable and appropriate response. Iran is marching forward with its nuclear enrichment process, and getting awfully close to whatever red lines have been drawn.

Simply stating that we need to get the Middle East peace process back on track is too vapid an answer. While I do like the idea of sending Bill Clinton back to the region to see if the talks can be revived, the moment simply may not be propitious for a broader agreement. A ceasefire to the current conflict is welcome, but there are deep-seated hostilities that need to be resolved before a two-state solution is realistic. And it is not yet clear what role Egypt will play. Public rhetoric aside, President Mohamed Morsi privately may be seeking a more moderate path between Hamas and Israel. With appropriate encouragement Egypt could join Turkey as a moderate, democratic, Islamic nation helping us thread the needle in this tortured region. This is where real diplomacy is needed, not theatrics by disappointed Republicans trying to unearth nonexistent cover-ups in the tragedy of Benghazi.

Nov. 16 2012 5:39 PM

What Makes a Good Judge? Why Ted Jones Had Exactly the Right Qualities.

Over the course of this year, Viewpoint has covered all kinds of stories about judges and the decisions they render—good, bad, and ugly. Sometimes the good decisions are new and innovative—a step forward in civil rights or economic justice. Sometimes they are just a reaffirmation of longstanding principles. After 25-plus years as a lawyer, prosecutor, and defense attorney, I have developed a deep appreciation for both the wisdom of the law and the role that jurists play in framing the rights and responsibilities that define our society. 

What is it that makes a good judge? There is no one-dimensional answer, of course. But today I had the sad responsibility of delivering a eulogy for a good judge, an individual I appointed to New York's highest court in 2007. 

Judge Ted Jones first came to my attention in 2005, when he presided over litigation surrounding a New York transit strike. If there was a thankless task, that case defined it. But with clarity of purpose, Judge Jones presided over this controversy just as he had over countless others: firmly and fairly. In the midst of the storm of voices, claims, and upset that define an event of this magnitude, Judge Jones was the voice of calm, of reason, and he was unquestionably in charge. Demeanor matters, and judicial demeanor is quite distinct from what may be appropriate in other arenas. 

It was not until December 2006 that I met Judge Jones. I had been elected governor, and I had the unique privilege of filling a vacancy on New York's highest court. When Judge Jones came in for his interview, I could tell what he was thinking: There is no way you are nominating me for this position. 

Truth be told, I was thinking pretty much the same thing. Why? He didn't have any of the traditional privileged pedigree in terms of college, law school, big-firm practice, or service as a prosecutor in an elite office.

What did he have? He had grown up on the streets, worked his way through college, was ROTC and served in Vietnam—rising to the rank of captain, brooked no excuses for failure, and had an abiding sense of fairness.

When he walked out of my interview with him, I can tell you exactly what I was thinking: That is precisely who I plan to nominate to New York's highest court. He had the character, the demeanor, the learning, the toughness, the intellect, the sense of justice, the understanding of people, the certainty of where he came from and how he got where he is that are all central to making a wonderful judge.

Some people think that as you make your way up the ladder of success, you have to choose sides. Not Judge Jones. For him, there was only one side, and that was the side of justice. And you have not achieved justice if you have not gotten there fairly.

All of that is what makes a good judge. We need more jurists like Judge Jones. And I will miss him dearly.

Nov. 15 2012 6:29 PM

The Supreme Court’s Threat to the Voting Rights Act

The Justices of the US Supreme Court sit for their official photograph in 2010.
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Courtin 2010.

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.

We just re-elected our first African-American president. Pretty overwhelming proof that we don't need a Voting Rights Act to protect against discrimination in voting, right?

Wrong. In fact, it is because we have a Voting Rights Act that hundreds of thousands of voters were able to cast the votes necessary to re-elect President Obama. So it is disconcerting to realize that the Supreme Court accepted for review a case that many think will lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 getting struck down. Section 5 of the act in particular is in trouble. It requires a number of states, mostly in the South and all with a history of discrimination, to get permission from the federal government before changing their election procedures.

As Columbia law professor Nathaniel Persily warns in the New York Times, we should begin preparing now for the likelihood that this landmark law will be struck down.

This should be unthinkable, especially given all of the efforts to suppress voting rights over the past year. In June it was Pennsylvania state House Republican Leader Mike Turzai who boasted that the state’s new voter ID law would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." He didn't say this because there was any evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. There isn't. But the statute would have permitted hundreds of thousands of voters to be disenfranchised.

This past weekend, it was Wisconsin state Sen. and Romney campaign co-chair Alberta Darling who suggested that Romney would have won Wisconsin if voter ID laws had been in place. Again there is no evidence of voter fraud. Fortunately, courts either delayed or banned enforcement of these statutes. And President Obama won both states by more than 200,000 votes.

Turzai and Darling are two examples of Republican state legislators honest enough in their comments to make clear what underlies this massive effort to enact voter ID laws: Republicans believe that suppressing voting rights is a legitimate campaign strategy. We shouldn't forget that more than 30 states have passed some form of a Voter ID law, and by the next election the number of states with strict photo ID laws will certainly increase. All to combat a problem that we know, and they know, doesn't exist.

That is why the Federal Voting Rights Act is so important. It is that statute that protected the right to vote, led to these unfortunate state laws being overturned, and made it possible to re-elect our first African-American president. Let's hope the Supreme Court realizes this.

Nov. 14 2012 5:07 PM

A Loopy but Probably Effective Way To Negotiate a New Budget Deal

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has an important op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal. Perhaps because no traditional Wall Street banking CEOs were invited to the CEO confab at the White House today, he wanted publicize his views on some important fiscal issues. While I don’t agree with all of the points Blankfein makes, he does articulate a framework that permits a serious negotiation about fiscal issues to move forward.

First, a disagreement.  Blankfein asserts that uncertainty surrounding tax rates is a key reason why companies aren’t making capital expenditures, leaving a reservoir of more than $1 trillion of cash on the balance sheets of U.S. non-financial companies. While eliminating uncertainty would be great, the much larger issue is a lack of demand for the products that the capital expenditures would produce. We have a demand crisis, not an uncertainty crisis.

Second, a point of partial agreement. Blankfein says, “I believe that tax increases, especially for the wealthiest, are appropriate, but only if they are joined by serious cuts in discretionary spending and entitlements. … Broadening the personal income tax base by closing loopholes will generate substantial additional revenue while minimizing increases in marginal rates that could stifle risk-taking and robust growth.”  Without parsing the pieces there that I disagree with, it is important to note that he says “minimizing” increases in marginal rates, not “eliminating” or “refusing to agree to” increases in marginal rates.  That is an important distinction. He is acknowledging that marginal rates will and should go up—something House Speaker John Boehner has refused thus far to agree with.

What is lacking in Blankfein’s piece, not surprisingly, is detail.  We all know the devil is in the details, and this is where it gets gnarly.

So here is an offer: Let’s view this as open-source negotiating, as opposed to the closed dialogue taking place in Washington.  Let Blankfein put on the table his first offer on the revenue side—a loophole closing or a marginal tax rate increase, with an expected revenue figure—and I will then match him dollar for dollar with a spending cut. We will proceed until we have the $4 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years that are generally being sought. This way, we will see we what a genuine, detailed, balanced deficit-reduction package looks like. The details are tough, let’s give it a go and see if there is common ground.

Nov. 13 2012 5:33 PM

Who Obama Should Pick for His Second-Term Cabinet

What would a truly progressive Cabinet look like?  President Obama now has the enviable task of restocking his administration—recharging the top ranks with decision-makers who may well determine whether the president becomes a progressive icon or a status-quo second-termer.  In that spirit, I thought it might make sense to suggest a few names.

For Treasury: Paul Krugman. There is something to be said for having been right. As far back as the early days of the cataclysm, he has diagnosed the problem properly, in both its micro- and macroeconomic implications, and called for precisely the right remedies. And he has called out the Beltway bloviators who mince words, are afraid to take a chance, and usually just go along to get along.  Paul won a Nobel Prize for a reason.  The last thing we need is another Wall Street voice filled with self-serving malarkey about "uncertainty being the reason businesses aren't investing."

For secretary of state:  John Kerry. Not just because he looks the part. He has the depth of knowledge and capacity to deal with the gnarly problems out there.  Let's face it, the agenda isn't pretty.  Even after we are out of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East is a mess, the Iran situation is a conundrum, and China is omnipresent.

For Defense: Colin Powell.  He is among the wisest and most thoughtful military leaders out there. Plain and simple. And a City College of New York grad to boot.

For the SEC: Dennis Kelleher or Gary Gensler. Dennis has proved through his advocacy at Better Markets that he fully understands the structures and enforcement actions that need to be brought to bear. During his more than 15 years as a partner at Skadden, one of the nation's largest and finest law firms, he proved he knows the actual nuts and bolts of the lawyering that is used to mask what is going on.

Gensler has been a wonderful voice for reform from his perch at the CFTC, proving that where you come from—Goldman—matters less than how you think.

For chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers: Joe Stiglitz. He is the other half of the Krugman equation. His Nobel and writings prove that he, too, is one of the few who has been right, and he doesn't cave to the handwringing of the establishment on Wall Street.

For director of the OMB: Robert Reich. Just read his books, his blog posts, his transcripts on my show. It is clear why we want him! Bring him back.

For Energy:  My colleague Jennifer Granholm. The last thing we want is to lose her, but she would be great. As attorney general, governor, and now as a host at Current, she gets the politics and the substance, and she knows government.

This is just a start, but these are the types of progressive minds we need: a Cabinet that understands the import of the victory that last Tuesday represented.


Nov. 12 2012 5:53 PM

Why the GOP Quashed a Superb Report on Income Tax Rates for the Rich

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), center, speaks to members of the media.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, left, and Jon Kyl of Arizona. Republicans objected to a Congressional Research Service report that refuted one of the party's tax-cut arguments.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

If last week was all about politics, maybe this week we can put ideology and partisanship aside and apply a more objective, scientific approach to some of the tough issues we face. What do history and data suggest might be the best course for our nation to follow? Specifically, what is the impact of increasing the top marginal tax rate on investment and job creation?

If the numbers showed that raising the top tax rate injured job creation, I would reconsider my belief that the wealthy should pay more, because job creation is issue No. 1. On the other hand, if the record established that raising the top marginal rate did not in any way injure investment and job creation, then those who have been unalterably opposed should be forced to reconsider their views. Analysis should trump ideology.

And we now have the analysis, a fascinating report just issued by the Congressional Research Service. The CRS is a nonpartisan entity that produces academic-quality research to answer tough policy questions. The bottom line conclusion of the CRS report is this:

The reduction in top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.

The report notes that tax rates were at the highest when growth was at its peak, and that the reduction in rates has not had any discernible impact on the types of investment that lead to growth. Rather than acknowledge the findings, however, Senate Republicans successfully pressured the CRS to withdraw the report. It is reminiscent of a different era, when news the government didn't like was simply suppressed.

The important point here is the rigorous conclusion reached by the study: Raising the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent will not have any of the damaging consequences that the Grover Norquists of the world suggest. A week after the political and ideological battle for slightly higher taxes on the wealthy was won, we now have a careful analysis supporting the same course. Facts matter. And in this case, fairness wins.

Nov. 9 2012 3:35 PM

How Obama Can Face Down the Republicans About the Fiscal Cliff

Even though control of the White House, Senate, and House remains the same as it was before the election, the negotiation among them has been turned on its head. Hence the manifest desire on the part of Republicans to reach an accord on immigration reform. That's good news for everybody—except maybe Maricopa, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio of course. Maybe, just maybe, he'll finally be exorcised from our national political dialogue.

Despite this power shift, Republican posturing on the so-called fiscal cliff and its related issues—namely the debt ceiling and tax rates—has remained bizarrely similar to what it was before the election. They have absolutely no give on the notion of raising tax rates for the wealthiest. Republicans continue to repeat their favorite meme—just close loopholes—without ever specifying which loopholes, or explaining how it’s mathematically possible to close loopholes and raise enough revenue without crushing the middle class. Why no explanation? Simple: it’s not mathematically possible.

The Republican political calculus—and it may just be right—is that they can put together a 50-percent-plus-one coalition if they include Latinos, yet they don't give any ground on their fiscal platform.

Whether they are right or wrong politically is up for debate. What is certain is that they are wrong substantively.

And that is why I and many others—see Paul Krugman's piece in the New York Times—state with certainty: No deal. Mr. President, do not make a deal on fiscal issues with the Republicans right now. Call their bluff. Stare them down. Tell them to go over the cliff and enjoy the ride.

The public gets it. The public understands that rates should go up for the wealthiest. Look at every poll on the matter. Mr. President, you need to tell Speaker Boehner that the time for elliptical answers and vagueness is over. Tell him that if he wants to have a substantive conversation on fiscal negotiations, it's time he put his cards on the table, face up. Ask him to explain exactly which loopholes he'd like to close.

Ask him to explain how those loopholes could be closed without decimating the middle class. Tell him the time for specifics is now.

Mr. President, it's also time for you to announce some specifics of your proposed deal. Start by eliminating the capital gains rate, the tax rate applied to most dividends, stock sales and the infamous carried interest that benefits hedge fund managers. Make it clear this is an essential part of any deal. Capital gains should be taxed as ordinary income.

It's time to be tough.

Nov. 8 2012 6:44 PM

Don’t Do a Tax Deal in the Lame Duck Session, Mr. President

The ink is not yet dry on the election returns, and the chattering class have come to an agreement that the dreaded fiscal cliff must be confronted—now! No delay, do not pass go, go directly to grand bargain. Whenever public opinion is so uniform, my instinct is to pause and reflect.

The fiscal cliff is a real threat: Sequestered cuts of $109 billion and automatic tax hikes of $536 billion could seriously dent our nascent economic recovery. Doing nothing in the long term would be horrendous. But doing nothing in the next seven weeks has advantages. The president has said that the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy cannot be renewed as part of a grand bargain. He is right for both economic and ethical reasons. Tax rates for the wealthy should revert to Clinton-era levels both because it is necessary for long-term deficit reduction and because fairness dictates it. Moreover, there is no proof that higher marginal rates dissuade investment, all the rhetoric from the right notwithstanding. If we wait until Jan. 1 to act, the Bush tax cuts expire, meaning rates for the middle class and wealthy revert to Clinton-era levels, and the president can send the new Congress a tax bill that cuts middle class tax rates—and incorporates other elements of an answer to the fiscal cliff—but simply ignores tax rates on the wealthy and hence leaves them at Clinton-era levels.

Doing nothing till after Jan. 1 gives the president what he wants—and what he has pledged to do. The president gains all the leverage by waiting. Before Jan. 1, the deal the president wants requires that he and Democrats appear to support a tax increase on some. After Jan. 1, the package the president wants requires the Republicans to oppose a tax cut for the middle class, and the president merely to oppose a tax cut for the wealthy.

Usually waiting and delay are the enemy of progress. In this instance, they may be the friend.

Nov. 7 2012 6:34 PM

Six Obvious Lessons From Obama’s Victory

President Obama celebrates with his wife, Michelle, in Chicago

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

The adrenalin has faded. The exhaustion is setting in. The realization that the campaign is over and the task of governing awaits is growing on the victors. The quiet reality of loss is setting in for the vanquished. For the rest of us, the question remains: What does it all mean?

So here are a few quick takes. And remember, sometimes the most obvious is also the most important.

First, the Tea Party got thumped. Its candidates lost essential senate races that the Republican Party had taken for granted mere months ago. The Tea Party isolated Mitt Romney from mainstream voters, linking him to a rabid ideology that he could not shake as he desperately tried to move to the middle in the closing weeks of the campaign. Lesson: The loudest voices don't often command the votes needed to win in November.

Second, in the melting pot that is America, inclusive trumps exclusive. Whether it's single women, young adults, or minorities, alienating the rapidly growing voting blocs is not smart politics. Latinos voted by a margin of almost 3 to 1 for the president. To survive, the GOP needs to invite people in, not shut them out.

Third, pandering on everything doesn't work. Constancy of views matters when running for the presidency. You can't be a theological right-winger on issues of contraception and women's health and then suddenly pretend to be moderate without sacrificing your credibility. On every issue that mattered, the Etch A Sketch approach damaged Romney’s credibility.

Fourth, we really did build this—all of us, together. At a deep level, this election was about our notion of community in times of need. The public appears to appreciate the role that government plays at those times. And that is why Hurricane Sandy was such a vital metaphor. It was the real-life reminder that crises—whether the economic cataclysm of 2008 or a natural disaster—require a common effort in response. Yes, our sense of community does not override our deep belief that individuals make our nation great, but no individual can succeed without the surrounding support and investment provided by all the rest of us. Mitt Romney simply didn't seem able to convey this simple but core notion of what it means to be an American.

Fifth, the Republican House has to figure out whether to continue to play obstructionist naysayer or come to the table. Is Grover Norquist still the head of the Republican Party? Or will Speaker John Boehner acknowledge the better angels of his nature and negotiate a meaningful comprise with the president? That, and the willingness of the Senate to pass filibuster reform, are the two biggest outstanding questions that will determine the course of the next several months.

And finally, the question for the president. Will he tell the story of our national success with power and passion, as he can and did last night, to build support for the range of issues that demand attention—from the fiscal cliff to the environment to the stagnation of middle-class income to the ravages of gun violence? He has won re-election and with it the power of the pulpit. Let's hope he uses it.

Nov. 5 2012 4:51 PM

The Two Critical Issues Both Candidates Willfully Ignored

Hurricane Sandy, pictured at 1440 UTC, churns off the east coast on October 29, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean.
Hurricane Sandy churns off the East Coast on Tuesday

Photo by NASA via Getty Images.

It is all over but for the screaming and shouting. Two final thoughts. First, despite all the acrimony and fury, let's not forget that somehow this process has worked for more than 200 years. The rest of the world has not only watched and marveled; it has imitated and followed. Our democratic principles have taken root throughout the globe, even if imperfectly. What was viewed 224 years ago as an experiment doomed to fail is now the model for all. Virtually everywhere in the world, people still wake up and want their country to be more like the United States than any other nation. We are the envy of the world because of what we stand for and how our democratic process, flawed as it may often seem to be, operates. We should take pride in that.

Second, I sorely wish that two critical issues had not been ignored over the course of the campaign: global warming and gun control. Tragedies highlighted both: the Aurora shooting, which so vividly made clear what we must do to rein in the terror of semiautomatic guns with grossly excessive magazines, and now Hurricane Sandy, which while surely not exclusively a result of global warming, highlights the attention we must pay to climate change. Each of these issues was skipped over for unfortunate political reasons, yet we ignore them at our long-term peril.

Whoever governs starting in January—and I am still quite sure it will be President Obama—will have to push back against the political voices who argue to ignore these critical issues. Delay is the enemy of progress.