Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Do Republicans Want in Iran?

So, Republicans continue their attempts to torpedo negotiations with Iran.   So, it is fair to ask, what do the Republicans think our policy should be.  As I have said before, I believe that many right wingers are opposed to all diplomacy on principle, on the general grounds that (in the words of Cheney) "We don't negotiate with evil.  We defeat it."  So, if you rule out any sort of negotiations, the only real alternatives that leaves are war and complete disengagement.

Republicans (and Netanyahu) claim that disengagement will be successful. Underlying this claim is the belief that the Iranian government is on the verge of collapse, and that if we just continue sanctions a little longer or make them a little harsher, the government will either agree to all our demands or fall and be replaced by one more to our liking.  Well, to repeat myself, wishful thinking is a very poor policy.  Refusing to negotiate any sort of a deal to restrict a hostile government's nuclear program and hoping that it would fall before achieving nuclear weapons didn't work in North Korea.  There is no reason to think it would work any better in Iran. Mitt Romney points out that North Korea cheated on a whole series of nuclear deals 1985 to 2002, with the implication that refusal to make a deal would have been a better alternative.  What he neglects to mention is that over those 17 years, North Korea did not, in fact, develop any nuclear weapons, and that a mere four years after GW Bush decided no more deals, it did develop nuclear weapons.  Not exactly much of an ad for disengagement.

Then again, many Republicans seem to acknowledge as much and openly root for war (or, to use Mitt Romney's euphemism, a "kinetic alternative.")  In fact, the drumbeat for war seems to escalate the nearer we get to the deadline for a deal.  Presumably Republicans know they won't be getting their war with Iran very soon.  So what are they up to?  I see several possibilities.

The drumbeat for war is not serious, just a further attempt to sabotage negotiations.  Republicans probably know that they are not going to get a war with Iran in the immediate future. They are simply trying to drum up support for one in order to forestall any kind of deal.  My own guess is that this is about half true.  Republicans are obviously dead set against any sort of negotiated deal with Iran.  But their enthusiasm for war -- any war -- is not confined to this one case.  This simply seems to be their war de juer.

Republicans haven't had a war in a long time and are feeling withdrawal symptoms.  Of course, it is not altogether true that we haven't had any wars lately.  President Obama, after all, has launched several bombing or drone campaigns and a surge in Afghanistan.  But from a true hawk standpoint those don't count.  It has been over ten years since we actually invaded a new country with ground forces and, as Michael Ledeen famously said, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”  The US hasn't actually invaded anyone in over ten years, and some Republicans are starting to get sweaty and feel their hands shake.  If they don't get a war soon, they could go into serious withdrawal.  What other explanation could there possibly be for all the prospective Republican candidates for President denouncing Obama for passing up at least three opportunities to start a war (against ISIS, Iran, and Russia over Ukraine).  Then again, none of them have been so foolish as to promise that if elected, they would start all three wars, or that they will start a war any time the opportunity presents itself. Which suggests maybe they have something else in mind.

Republicans want a war, but want it to take place under Obama so they won't be blamed if it goes badly.  Yes, I am being cynical here, but I don't ever recall an opposition party pushing so hard to get the President to wage war somewhere.  Republicans must at least vaguely remember that last time we committed a large ground force to an overseas war, it didn't go so well. Hence pushing Obama into a war is the perfect "heads I win, tails you lose."  If the war goes well, this will be perfect grounds to call for even more wars.  If, on the other hand, it goes badly, Obama will take the blame and Republicans will get off scot-free.

Any war will do, so long as it enhances our "credibility."  If you are suffering acute war withdrawal, any war will do, so long as you get your "fix."  But this is not (to put it mildly) a good argument for war (any war will do).  Trying to present a more rational argument, the one usually (and no doubt sincerely) offered is that it doesn't really matter what war we fight, it will show the world that we mean business and everyone else will be intimidated into compliance.  This is part and parcel of the general neocon outlook that assumes that US power is infinite, and that the only constraints on it are lack of will power (a/k/a the Green Lantern Theory).  In the real world, however, US power is finite.  Concentrating your forces on the first war that pops up, far from enhancing your credibility, may convince some other countries that you are too busy fighting some other war to pay much attention to them.

The classic case of this is (once again) in North Korea.  Just as GW Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, the North Koreans began engaging in the most obnoxious and provocative behavior possible, loudly and aggressively withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelling the inspectors, and unsealing their plutonium reactor.  They did everything short of shouting, "Hey, dummies, we're about to build a nuclear bomb!  What are you going to do about it?"  This seemed like sheer madness to many at the time.  GWB was on the march.  Did the North Koreans want him to march against them?  In fact, their actions were perfectly rational.  The North Koreans calculated that just as the US was gearing up for war against Iraq would be the safest possible time to engage in its provocations.  They reasoned that our forces and attention would be so focused on invading Iraq that their provocations would not be met with a military response.  And they were right.  Their mistake was assuming that we were unable to go to war, we would have no choice but to negotiate.  Instead, the Bush Administration considered it better to allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons than tormake any sort of deal that might stop them.  And that continues to be the attitude of many Republicans toward Iran today.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Quick Update on the Debt Ceiling

A quick update on the debt ceiling:  Apparently our borrowing limit expires on March 15.  Treasury Secretary Jack Lew hopes by "extraordinary measures" to postpone the need to raise the ceiling until October or November.

Good!  With luck, that means any showdown over the debt ceiling will coincide with a showdown over the budget and tend to be linked in the public eye.  I favor linking the two.

So, current agenda, showdown over Homeland Security in February.  Possible showdown over Obamacare in June, depending on what the Supreme Court does.  Showdown over the budget in September that may merge into a showdown over the debt ceiling in October/November.  Fun all the way!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Demagoguery: Its Uses and Abuses

So if I am starting to favor demagogues, maybe we should give some thought to what I mean by that term.

One possible definition is that a demagogue is one who refuses all concessions, regardless of whether that is a realistic position.  By that definition, I oppose demagogues.  Another is one who panders to the least common denominator.  But I am not even sure what that phrase is supposed to mean. Another definition is one who appeals to people's basest instincts.  I oppose that.  But another definition of a demagogue might be one who gets the people all riled up.  Now that depends. Because some things are worth getting riled up about.

Or let us put it differently.  Demagogue is a Greek word anyhow.  If you want a good English word for demagogue, let me suggest -- rabble rouser.  I realize that the term is usually used as a pejorative, meaning one who incites people's worst instincts.  But then again, sometimes the rabble need rousing. Appealing to anger and fear is usually bad -- but sometimes anger and fear are fully justified.

For instance, as I have said before, if Europe's response to Greece is no concessions, nothing but an endless grind, and that they are determined to make an example of the country to warn other debtors not to ask for relief, then I would say that is something worth getting angry about, and something worth rousing some rabble.

And in the U.S., since Republicans have made their top mission since 2010 to repeal Obamacare, Democrats in the run-up to the 2016 election ought to make their coordinated message asking Republicans if they intend to strip millions of their health insurance.  It is a perfectly legitimate question, after all.  It in no way misrepresents Republicans' actual position.  It plays to fear, but an entirely reasonable fear.  It places Republicans in an impossible position.  They can say yes an offend the Tea Party base.  They can say no and offend everyone else.  Or (most likely) they can be as incoherent as possible and look untrustworthy.  And to the extent that it rouses rabble, the rabble need rousing.

The question is, will Democrats have the guts to do it.

News from the Supreme Court

I have not followed the Obamacare arguments in front of the Supreme Court in the most excruciating detail, but others have and the results are not at all surprising.  As predicted, all four liberal justices strongly supported keeping the subsidies.  Equally predictably, Scalia and Alito favored withdrawing them.  And finally, as every Supreme Court watcher would predict, Clarence Thomas didn't say a word.  He never does.  But no one doubts which way he will go.

But then again, everyone has known all along that Kennedy and Roberts are the ones to watch. Kennedy showed himself concerned about the federalism argument -- that the attempt to coerce states into building exchanges by withholding subsidies if they do not is unconstitutional.  He worried about how states would be affected.  And, as I have said, if he does rule that way, he can give Republicans a symbolic victory to mask their substantive defeat.  The Supreme Court vindicated their interpretation of this clause and found part of Obamacare unconstitutional!  And no one lost their insurance as a result!  (Of course, they would still want to destroy the monstrosity).

As for Roberts, he is playing very close to the vest and not letting anyone know what he intends.

Every report has warned that you can't always predict what the Supreme Court will do based on oral argument.  So maybe Kennedy will rule against the subsidies after all.  And Roberts is anyone's guess.

I must say, I hope the Supreme Court upholds the subsidies.  And I hope that the prospect of millions being stripped of their health insurance scares some sense into Republicans and convinces them that destroying the system that millions now use to get their health insurance might not be altogether popular.

The former is hopeful.  But I am not so naive as to believe the latter has a chance.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Netanyahu on Iran: Sounds Like Cheney on North Korea

I didn't really follow Netanyahu's speech to Congress, but since everyone else is talking about it, so I might as well throw in my two cent's worth.  His (predictable) point is that the US should not agree to the current deal under negotiations because it allows Iran to have some uranium enrichment capacity, even if it is quite limited and subject to arms control inspection, because allowing Iran any uranium enrichment capacity whatever is an existential threat to Israel.  This argument is not surprising, because it is the one hardliners have been making from the start.  

The obvious question is, compared to what.  Netanyahu apparently said that really, if we just hold out a little longer we can get a much better deal, in which Iran agrees to no nuclear enrichment whatever. Of course, there is no evidence whatever that if we just take a somewhat firmer line, Iran will give us everything we want.  Or, as this article says:
He defines “a much better deal” as a deal that doesn’t merely freeze and inspect Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but dismantles it—completely. Furthermore, the deal should be written so that, at the end of the 10-year period, the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted unless Iran stops all aggression against its neighbors, stops supporting terrorist groups, and stops its rhetorical threats to annihilate Israel—in short unless Iran changes its behavior or (here’s the real upshot) changes its regime.
Um, yeah, exactly.  Wishful thinking is not a realistic foreign policy.  Realistically, the options we have are (1) whatever deal (if any) we are able to negotiate with Iran, (2) war, or (3) allowing Iran to go ahead with its nuclear program.

Some people propose regime change as a fourth alternative, but there is no evidence that it is in the cards.  Wishing the overthrow of the government is a fringe view in Iran, without any significant support (either in terms of individuals or of firepower).  Even if someone did violently overthrow the Iranian government, there is no guarantee whatever that we would like them any better than what we have now.  In short, regime change fits in the category of wishful thinking.

So, if those are the three alternatives and you reject (1), it is incumbent upon you to choose between (2) and (3).  Thus far, no one is prepared to come right out and say that they favor war.  But Netanyahu has made clear that he prefers no deal, i.e., letting Iran continue unchecked, to any deal that allows Iran to keep any enrichment capacity.

I can only assume that to Netanyahu and to many US hardliners, given the choice between cutting a deal that allows Iran some enrichment capacity but prevents it from developing nuclear weapons and having no deal at all and Iran actually developing nuclear weapons, they would opt for the second because at least they would have the comfort of knowing that they took a maximalist stance against Iran and were not complicit in the bad outcome.

All of this feels familiar.  In fact, take out the name "Iran" and put in "North Korea" and it sounds very much like the debate we were having about a decade ago over any sort of deal with North Korea.  Bill Clinton had cut a deal with North Korea that we would give them various goodies in exchange for shutting down its plutonium reactor and inviting in weapons inspectors.  Hardliners of the same type denounced the deal as capitulation to blackmail.  When Bush came to power, he made one of his top priorities ending this deal.  Nor was he willing to negotiate a new one.  "We don't negotiate with evil.  We defeat it, " said Cheney.  And listening to blog discussions, there is no doubt to my mind that to many people, not submitting to blackmail and not paying protection money was a whole lot more important than actually keeping North Korea from getting a nuclear bomb.  And when North Korea did, in fact, set off a nuclear bomb, they weren't too happy about it (of course), but they
ultimately regarded the outcome as secondary.  An unyielding stance was a whole lot more important.

So, in the end, I can't do much better that cite and link to this column from the time.  Many paragraphs you can simply cross out North Korea and write in Iran and it will seem just as fresh today:
The Agreed Framework has been criticized on several counts. First, some people say that we allowed ourselves to be blackmailed by North Korea. This is true. However, given a choice between (a) shutting down North Korea's plutonium program in exchange for giving it some fuel and some nuclear plants that can't be used for nuclear weapons, and (b) letting it go forward with its plutonium program, I think that (a) is just obviously a better alternative. Paying blackmailers is never an ideal solution, but sometimes it's the best option you have.
. . . . . . .
To say that the fact that North Korea cheated on the agreement shows that the agreement was not worthwhile, you have to . . . think that the difference between a North Korea that works for years without being able to get enough uranium for one bomb and a North Korea that can extract enough plutonium for six bombs in twelve months doesn't matter.
. . . . . . . .
[T]he Cheney policy of not negotiating with evil is absolutely silent on the question: what alternative approach should we adopt? This would be fine if not negotiating with evil somehow caused its defeat: then we could simply wall ourselves off from all the evil countries in the world and wait for them to crumble under the crushing weight of our non-engagement. . . . The Cheney/Rumsfeld camp claims that they have a policy: regime change. . . . Well, I could declare that my policy will henceforth be to win the lottery, secure world peace, and cure cancer; but in the absence of any actual plan for achieving these goals, this wouldn't be a policy at all. It would just be a bunch of meaningless words. Similarly, like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bolton, I wish the regime in North Korea would change as soon as possible. It's vile, oppressive, and a danger to its own people and to the world. I wouldn't describe myself as having a policy of regime change, though, since I have no idea what I can do to bring regime change about. I don't see how that their commitment to regime change is any more a "policy" than mine.
Only one thing need be added.  Any time you tell a foreign government that you consider its existence unacceptable and that no deal is possible unless it ceases to exist, you can expect this maximalist policy on your part to be met with equal maximalism on theirs.

All things things need pointing out.

Gaming Out What the Supreme Court Will Do

All legal analyzes of King v. Burwell, the case that is challenging the Obamacare subsidies, rest heavily on the 1984 case of Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Counsel, a case about whether the Clean Air Act authorized certain regulations being passed by the EPA.  The details are unimportant. Two things are important.

First:  This case developed the Chevron test for the validity of an agency regulation.  The court will look at the statute authorizing that agency to make the regulation to see if there is an ambiguity in it. If the statute is unambiguous, then the agency must follow the unambiguous will of Congress.  If there is an ambiguity, and if the agency's interpretation of the statute is plausible, then the court will defer to its interpretation.

Second:  This approach is widely seen as necessary for the whole regulatory state to exist.  If the courts claimed that their interpretation of a statute supersedes the agency interpretation, then agencies could be paralyzed, never knowing if their regulations will be overridden.

There are at least two rationales for this,  One is that the courts are generalists, interpreting all statutes, while regulatory agencies are specialists who interpret only one statute and therefore have greater expertise in their narrow area than courts.  The other is political.  In the case of Chevron, for instance, the EPA had changed its regulations (and, by implication, its statutory interpretation) when Reagan replaced Carter in the White House.  The theory is that regulatory policy changes with who was most recently elected President, and the courts should defer to the people's will, as embodied by presidential policies.

King v. Burwell turns on a phrase in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, the official name for Obamacare) that makes subsidies available to people buying health insurance on an "exchange established by the states."  There is no mention of the federal government.  However, the IRS (which administers the subsidies) passed a regulation allowing subsidies on federal exchanges as well.  So the question is whether the statute is ambiguous as to where it allows subsidies and, if so, is the IRS interpretation reasonable.  Going by that single phrase, the statute appears to unambiguously limit subsidies to purchases on state exchanges.  But things are not that simple.  Also taken into account is the context of the phrase in the complete statute, the purpose of the statute, and legislative history to determine legislative intent.  And if the phrase in isolation appears to limit subsidies to state exchanges, the broader statute, its general purpose, and legislative history all point in the opposite direction.

All of which means the Supreme Court has three main options:

  1. It can say the statute is ambiguous and the IRS interpretation is plausible, so subsidies are allowed on federal exchanges.
  2. It can say that the statute unambiguously limits subsidies to policies purchases on a state exchange.
  3. It can strike down Chevron altogether and say that from now on, court interpretation of statutes trumps regulatory agency interpretation.  

Since many right winger/libertarians in this country (including some on the Supreme Court) see our whole regulatory state as constitutionally and morally illegitimate, this might look like a fine opportunity to destroy it altogether.  But the general consensus is that the regulatory state is too well entrenched to overthrow at a single stroke, so the Supreme Court would stop short of that, much as it might be tempted.

So I can make a pretty good guess what seven of the nine Supreme Court justices will say in King v. Burwell.

The liberal contingent (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) will hold that the statute is ambiguous and the IRS interpretation is plausible, so people buying insurance on federal exchanges can keep their subsidies.

Scalia and Thomas will call for overturning Chevron altogether and striking a death blow to the unconstitutional and immoral regulatory state.  Scalia will say this because he knows he is outvoted and there is no chance of his measure actually passing.  Thomas, by contrast will be completely serious.  Regulatory agencies were not part of the state at the time the Constitution has passed; the Constitution was never amended to allow such agencies; therefore they must go, consequences be damned.

Alito will uphold Chevron but say that the statute unambiguously limits subsidies to state exchanges. This is a longstanding game the Supreme Court conservatives have.  Roberts, Alito and usually Kennedy vote in favor of the conservative policy preference, but limit their opinion to the case at hand and avoid sweeping implications.  Scalia and Thomas like to issue opinions that reach the same conclusion on the issue at hand to Roberts and Alito but have sweeping policy implications.  Being sure you are outvoted can do that.

The judges I can't place are Roberts and Kennedy.  They may join with Alito.  Or they may rule that Congress unambiguously intended withhold subsidies from federal exchanges in order to coerce states into making exchanges, but the attempt was unconstitutional because Congress failed to give the states adequate notice.  That will be a brilliant way to square the circle and mask a substantive defeat as a procedural victory.  It will accept the Republican interpretation of the statute and declare part of Obamacare unconstitutional, but avoid the messy consequence of stripping millions of their subsidies and putting Congressional Republicans on the spot to do something about it.

But I am inclined to think that one or the other will join Alito.  There were, after all, four votes to hear King, which almost certainly means four votes against the subsidies.  The fifth vote (whether Kennedy or Roberts) is the real wild card.



Follow up question:  Suppose the Supreme Court upholds the IRS regulation.  What is to keep our next Republican President from issuing an IRS regulation limiting subsidies to state exchanges? Politics, basically.  The overall lessons of the last six years of gridlock are as follows:

  1. People give the President credit or blame for just about everything that happens on his watch.
  2. In case of gridlock and obstruction between the President and Congress, people blame the President.
  3. If Congress tries to force something over and there is a showdown, people side with the President and blame Congress.
  4. If problems obviously started under his predecessor, people will give the President a certain grace period to get it right.
Now if a new President comes to power and issues a new IRS regulation stripping millions of their health insurance, that decision will be unpopular.  And everyone will know who to blame.


Averting Catastrophe: How to Pass It

All, right, so substantively, I would favor restoring Obamacare subsidies permanently in exchange for (say) repeal of the employer mandate and medical equipment tax, or a temporary extension to give Republicans time to come up with something better.  But politically, how do you get it to pass?

Personally, I would recommend something like the following:  Representatives of Obama and the Republican leadership in the Senate and House meet in maximum secrecy and work out a deal. Republican leaders call a press conference to announce it.  Obama denounces it as an intolerable outrage and vows to fight it at all costs.  He rallies liberal activists (some in on the joke, most not) to lobby against it.  Tea Party leaders are definitely not in on the joke, but do figure out that any system that keeps the subsidies flowing will, in fact, keep Obamacare alive.  Most people, however, don't much care about the details so long as millions are kept from losing their health insurance.  Moderate Democrats and Republicans join ranks to pass the measure.  Seeing no alternative, Obama "capitulates" and signs the thing.  Liberal activists grumble, but eventually figure out that they got most of what they wanted.  Moderate Democrats are just relieved the whole thing is over.  Moderate Republicans rejoice over their procedural victory, but eventually figure out that it was a substantive defeat.  The Tea Party says, "I told you so."

If that calls for too many conspirators keeping quiet to be workable, we can always go with our old standby.  Republicans pass a purely symbolic, meaningless repeal in the House.  Maybe Democrats filibuster it in the Senate.  Maybe they let it pass so Obama can veto it and denounce it as an attempt to strip even more people of their health insurance.  Maybe Senate Republicans figure out that responding to eight million people losing their health insurance by passing legislation to take insurance from even more is really bad politics and let the thing drop.  Someone in the Senate comes up with a reasonable compromise that either temporarily extends the subsidies or permanently extends them in exchange for something else.  Ted Cruz denounces it as the end of all liberty and little short of a Communist dictatorship.  But Obamacare advocates keep parading stories of cancer patients having their health insurance yanked and Obama makes speeches about how this can be resolved with a one-line bill fixing a typo.  Enough Senate Republicans defect to pass the measure.

In the House, the Tea Parties vows that they will allow the measure to pass when you pry their cold, dead fingers from the trigger.  John Boehner says it would be political suicide to introduce the measure.  But the pressure is building.  Republicans are caught between demands to make no compromises with the devil and pleas to restore people's insurance.  Eventually, enough defect that Boehner can introduce the measure pass it with mostly Democratic votes.  This one really might cost him his speakership.

But in the end, the Republicans may learn the hard way that stripping millions of their health insurance is a very poor hill to die on.  And restoring it just might we worth the sacrifice.