Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “This Is Not 2009” Mr. Blow says the emergence of a new economic picture has dampened the outrage.  Mr. Nocera looks at “Obama’s Gitmo Problem” and says it isn’t Congress’s fault that the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, hasn’t closed. It’s the president’s.  Ms. Collins has a question in “The Women Versus the Ted.”  She says the Senate seems a bit less polarized and more productive this session. She then asks:  Is that because there are more women in power or is it thanks to Ted Cruz?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

With the scent of scandal encircling the White House, some Republicans are already licking their chops over the 2014 midterm elections, while some Democrats are pre-emptively licking their wounds.

Not so fast, folks. Retract those tongues.

While it is impossible to predict what might drive voter attitudes in an election 18 months away, there are quite a few signs that 2014 will be nothing like 2010, which produced tremendous success for Republicans.

First, the electorate is less conservative.

In May 2009, the Tea Party had just begun to flex its muscle and feel its power on a national level. Now, the movement has lost momentum.

An April 2012 Associated Press report included a finding from Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor, that the number of Tea Party groups had fallen from about 1,000 to about 600. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found that the portion of people saying they strongly support the Tea Party, just 10 percent, was the lowest they had recorded since 2011.

Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll released Friday, the shares of Americans describing themselves as economic conservatives and social conservatives are down by more than a tenth since 2009, after having risen sharply following Barack Obama’s election a year earlier.

The portion of Republicans who said their position on economic issues was conservative — the Republican Trojan Horse for a retrograde social agenda — has seen little movement since 2009, dropping just five percentage points, from 75 percent to 70 percent.

(On the other hand, the share of Democrats who describe their positions on social issues as liberal has increased, from 45 percent to 50 percent.)

Speaking of economic issues, the economy is experiencing a resurgence, at least in some quarters.

In May 2009, the United States economy was nearing the end of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate had risen to 9.4 percent from 5.5 percent the previous year. People were losing their homes to foreclosures in record numbers. The Dow Jones industrial average had fallen to about 8,500 from more than 13,000 the previous May. And the deficit tripled from the 2008 fiscal year to the 2009 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

This had Americans rightfully worried and near-panicked about their economic prospects.

Now the economic picture couldn’t be more different.

The unemployment rate has dropped to 7.5 percent. The Dow is above 15,000 and continuing to set records. The housing sector is rebounding — “Sales of previously owned homes reached the highest level in more than three years, with the share of foreclosure purchases shrinking, as the housing market continued its rebound last month,” according to a report Thursday in The Wall Street Journal.

And the deficit is shrinking faster than expected, according to a report released last week by the budget office. The report found that if current laws are unchanged, “Relative to the size of the economy, the deficit this year — at 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (G.D.P.) — will be less than half as large as the shortfall in 2009, which was 10.1 percent of G.D.P.”

This takes almost all of the air out of the Republicans’ economic argument.

Lastly, legislative unease has become about what Republicans haven’t done, rather than what Democrats have done.

By May of 2009, President Obama had already signed the huge — though many still believe not huge enough — stimulus package, Chrysler and General Motors were in need of a bailout and the ball was rolling on the president’s historic health care law.

Conservatives were railing against what they saw as an unprecedented, ominous and ultimately ruinous expansion of government, driven by the president and made possible by a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Now, the tables have turned. Two of the most glaring legislative failures this year have ostensibly been the work of obstinate Republicans: the failure to avoid the sequester and the failure to pass expanded gun background checks legislation. According to that recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, most Americans still disapprove of the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, and according to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, 81 percent of Americans still favor the passage of a bill expanding background checks.

The next hurdle will be immigration reform. But Republicans may find a way to derail that legislation, too.

The signs look positive for Democrats this spring. This is not to say that they should prematurely lift their glasses, only that they have no reason to prematurely throw up their hands.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

Late Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before President Obama made his big national security speech — in which he said, for the umpteenth time, that the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed — a group of American lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees filed an emergency motion with the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia. The motion asked the court to order the removal of “unjustified burdens” that the military command at Guantánamo has placed on the detainees, making it nearly impossible for them to meet with their lawyers.

Let me tell you about these new burdens, which were imposed in recent months, around the same time that the detainees’ desperate hunger strike was gaining momentum. Lawyers used to be able to easily get ahold of their clients on the telephone, or could visit them in Camp 5 or Camp 6, where the “no value” detainees have been confined for years. (The smaller group of genuine terrorists is held in separate quarters.)

Not anymore. Today, if a lawyer asks to speak with his or her client, a meeting — and even a phone call — must take place at another location. And before they are moved to the location, the detainees are searched for “contraband.” According to the legal filings, the search includes touching the genitals and the anus of the detainees — which, as the military well knows, violates the detainees’ Muslim faith and will cause them to refuse the meeting. If the detainee does decide to go forward with the meeting, he is then shackled hand and foot, and chained to the floor of a van, in a purposely painful, bent-over position.

The detainees are all in solitary confinement. They are shackled when they are taken to the shower. They cannot speak to their families unless they submit to that same repugnant body search. In other words, an already inhumane situation has become even worse on the watch of the president who claims to want to shut down the prison.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama hit all the right notes. He talked about how holding detainees for an indefinite period without charging them with any crime has made the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He noted that it has hurt us with our allies. He even mentioned how absurdly expensive the prison is — nearly $1 million per prisoner per year. “Is this who we are?” he asked.

“History,” he concluded, “will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism.” He’s right about that. But he will hardly be immune from that judgment.

In his speech, Obama blamed the failure to close Guantánamo — which, please recall, was one of his most strident campaign promises five years ago — on laws passed by Congress. And, yes, after the failed terrorist attempt to blow up a flight headed to Detroit four years ago, Congress did pass laws making it more difficult to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo.

But Congress didn’t make it impossible. The president could have jumped through the hoops Congress now requires and continued moving prisoners out of Guantánamo. But he didn’t. Instead, he froze all transfers, including 56 men from Yemen who had been “cleared” for transfer by a national security commission that Obama himself established. The government, the commission essentially said, has no national security interest in holding these men. Yet Obama continued to let them rot in that Cuban hell. And you wonder why they are on a hunger strike?

Or, for that matter, why the military command at Guantánamo has no compunction about instituting punishing new “burdens” on the detainees even as their commander in chief decries what goes on there? (For the record, a military spokesman denies that the heightened searches include genital and anal touching.) Indeed, the current commander of the prison, Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., was just named to a cushy new post at the National Defense University. Thumbing one’s nose at Obama, as virtually everyone in Washington has learned by now, has no consequences.

It is my belief, shared by many lawyers who have followed the legal battles over Guantánamo, that the president could have shut down the prison if he had really been determined to do so. One reason innocent detainees can’t get out is that the courts have essentially ruled that a president has an absolute right to imprison anyone he wants during a time of war — with no second-guessing from either of the other two branches of government. By the same legal logic, a president can also free any prisoner in a time of war. Had the president taken that stance, there would undoubtedly have been a court fight. But so what? Aren’t some things worth fighting for?

Whenever he talks about Guantánamo, the president gives the impression that that’s what he believes. The shame — his shame — is that, for all his soaring rhetoric, he has yet to show that he is willing to act on that belief.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s discuss how much better Congress would work if most of the members were women.

The Senate seems to be a tad less polarized since the female population rose from 17 to 20 this year. It’s also possible that there’s been more productivity since women got more power. For instance, the Budget Committee has a new chair, Patty Murray of Washington, and it has produced a budget for the first time in four years.

It’s conceivable that the committee was inspired by a rule that would have canceled the senators’ salaries if they didn’t deliver. But I’m hoping for a larger picture.

“Women tend to listen to what everybody’s needs are, rather than just saying: ‘I’m the only bright person in the world and you have to listen to what I say,’ ” suggested Murray in a phone conversation from her home state, where she was inspecting a spectacular bridge collapse. We will all stop here to envision the moment in the State of the Union address when President Obama called for more bridge repair projects and John Boehner failed to applaud.

The Senate passed its budget two months ago, after 50 hours of debate and an all-night series of 70 amendment votes. The next step was to send members to a House-Senate conference committee, but the Republicans held that up, arguing that before the conference committee could work on an agreement, the Senate should decide what the agreement would say.

The obstructionists’ great fear — I swear to you this is true — is that if the House and Senate conferees get together, the Republicans from the House will be so overwhelmed by the charm and power of the Senate Democrats that they’ll agree to a grand bargain that includes raising the debt ceiling.

“Let me be clear. I don’t trust the Republicans,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican.

This has been going on for ages. Recently, a couple of the Republican senators — John McCain and Susan Collins — demanded that their colleagues stop stalling and follow the rules. This could be a plus for my argument, since half of that little rebellion is a woman.

But it also brings up a second possibility, that if the Senate is inching slightly closer to the middle, it’s because many of the Republicans are beginning to reject Tea Party extremism due to their hatred of Ted Cruz.

“It has been suggested that those of us who are fighting to defend liberty, fighting to turn around the out-of-control spending and out-of-control debt in this country, fighting to defend the Constitution — it has been suggested that we are wacko birds,” Cruz said proudly. “Well, if that is the case, I will suggest to my friend from Arizona there may be more wacko birds in the Senate than is suspected.”

Actually, no student of the Senate has ever suggested a wacko bird shortage.

Cruz is aligned with other young Tea Party Republicans, including Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. They’re all very conservative and very talkative, but senators target Cruz as the one who just goes on and on and on and on.

He’s definitely the person responsible for bringing back the maverick version of John McCain. You will remember McCain the campaign finance reformer who kept co-sponsoring bills about global warming with Joe Lieberman. The one John Kerry thought about making his running mate before Kerry stumbled on the truly exceptional alternative of John Edwards.

The maverick McCain evolved into John McCain, terrible presidential candidate, and then John McCain, terrified right-wing Senate re-election candidate. The sullen, superpartisan version was bitter about losing the presidency to a cocky young whippersnapper like Barack Obama. But now McCain sees an Obama who has become winningly gray-haired and beleaguered. While in his place there is Ted Cruz, who is younger and cockier and a trillion times more irritating.

“When I travel across the state of Texas, men and women stop me all the time, and say: ‘Enough of the games. Go up there, roll up your sleeves, work with each other and fix the problem,’ ” Cruz lectured his colleagues this week, while he was engaged in stopping the budget process dead in its tracks for the ninth straight time.

So, people, who do you think has been more helpful in edging the Senate toward a pinch of progress? The women or Ted Cruz? One strives for collegiality by holding regular bipartisan dinners. One called his colleagues “squishes” for opposing a gun control filibuster.

I’m sticking with the girls. “Women seem to know how to work in a way that at least moves the process,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the new chair of Appropriations. If you can agree on how to proceed, then maybe someday you get some progress.

On the other hand, Ted Cruz has memorized the Constitution.

Well, at least the Second Amendment, or parts thereof.  You know, omitting the bit about “well regulated…”


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