Saturday, December 31, 2011


As we begin a new year we are again filled with hope for a bright future. But if the past year is precedent our hopes will be burdened with too many uncertainties.

2011 will perhaps be best remembered as the year of the Arab Spring. Following a month of violent protests, the Tunisian government collapsed on January 14 when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after twenty-three years in power. His people had risen up against high unemployment and inflation, corruption and a lack of freedoms in Tunisia.

The protests were triggered by the actions of a twenty-six year old vegetable cart operator named Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire to protest the local government. Public support for Bouazizi grew as protests spread with the help of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Bouazizi died from burns in early January, about ten days before the government fell. But Bouazizi's act opened the door for millions of Arabs throughout the region.

Demonstrators took over Cairo's Tahrir Square, at times as many as a million Egyptians protested their repressive government and demanded President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. The long-time American ally and friend to Israel resigned on February 11, leaving the Egyptian military in control until a new leader is elected.

Bahrain and Syria have also dealt with protests. But the Syrian Government has resorted to extreme violence against its own people leaving thousands dead and the country's future unclear.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to roil the world stage with its meddlesome acts throughout the Middle East and its threats against Israel and the West. The Iranian government continues to develop a nuclear weapons program despite painful sanctions that have been imposed by many Western nations. War clouds darken the landscape as the Revolutionary Guard represses its own people.

The U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraq leaving that country deeply divided as it struggles for a democratic future. Iran is doing all it can to destabilize progress in that country by influencing Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is accused by minority Sunnis of using security forces to consolidate his power. 4,063 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2011, a slight increase over the previous year. Turmoil and tumult abound in Iraq nine years after America freed the country from the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.

As the U.S. continues its war in Afghanistan al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters have reached out to Pakistani militants in an effort to set aside their differences to take on the U.S. led forces in Afghanistan. Meetings have been held in Pakistan's tribal region and an alliance may not bode well for Americans as they accelerate their withdrawal from Afghanistan. This as U.S.-Pakistani relations are at an all time low.

There is much on the world stage to be weary of, not the least of which is Europe's difficult economic problems and the rising influence of China. All these factors are having a great impact on America, which itself is struggling to regain its economic footing following the 2008 recession.

So the U.S. elections in November are critical. Yet Republican presidential candidates have decimated each other in an effort to curry favor from the Tea Party and Conservative Christian factions of their party. Their campaigns have reflected the divisiveness that has paralyzed Washington and Congress. They have done little to show a majority of Americans that they can unite the country at such an important time.

Meanwhile President Barack Obama, the persistent president, is now in full campaign mode. His policies are leading to slow but steady economic recovery. More and more people are being hired. His historic health care reform measures are beginning to have a positive impact on Americans. The U.S. auto industry is again vibrant thanks to his intervention.

President Obama has a credible foreign policy and he has kept the country safe from terrorist attacks. He has destroyed the leadership of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, and helped to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He has kept his campaign promises by ending the war in Iraq and focusing his efforts on Afghanistan. Yet huge federal deficits loom as far as the eye can see, entitlement programs lack true reform, the housing market remains weak and consumer demand is still tepid.

Come November Americans will have a choice: staying the course or voting for change. The question voters will face is, "Will the alternative be change we can truly believe in?"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ebenezer Boehner

"Bah! Humbug!" might as well have been the words of House Speaker John Boehner, who may seem like Ebenezer Scrooge to millions of Americans now facing a year-end payroll tax increase.

On Tuesday the Republican controlled House of Representatives rejected a Senate approved bill that would have extended payroll tax cuts for two months and allowed the unemployed to continue receiving jobless benefits. The House instead voted 229 to 193 to establish a negotiating committee so the two chambers can resolve their differences. But the Senate, having Saturday passed the payroll tax extension measure 89-to-10, is in recess until after the holidays and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would not call them back.

If the payroll tax cuts are not extended salaries will be taxed an additional 2%, or about $1,000 per year for the average American. The Senate bill would extend the payroll tax cuts for two months and it would also prevent a large drop in fees paid to doctors who accept Medicare. It appears that House Speaker Boehner refused to bring the Senate bill directly to the floor for an up or down vote because it would have passed with the necessary Republican support.

Many Republicans who face difficult reelection campaigns were critical of their own leadership. Among them Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who issued a statement after the vote that House Republicans, "would rather continue playing politics than find solutions." He added, "Their actions will hurt American families and be detrimental to our fragile economy."

The devil is in the details of the debate. Most members of Congress agree that the payroll tax cut should be extended for another year. But Republicans and Democrats, including the president, disagree on how to make up for the $150 billion shortfall to Social Security. The president proposed raising the taxes of the wealthiest Americans by about 3%. Republicans objected to any tax increase instead offering cuts in social programs. The president agreed to drop his tax proposal.

Meanwhile the Senate went ahead and passed a two-month extension to buy time for further negotiations over funding. It passed the Senate by a 9 to 1 margin, including a majority of its Republican members. The two-month extension would cost about $33 billion which would be funded by an increase in the fees that new homeowners with federally backed mortgages would pay to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. The Congressional Budget Office reports the bill would reduce the deficit by $3 billion.

But House Republicans, primarily Tea-Partiers, oppose the Senate bill because they are said to be concerned with the uncertainty caused by just a two-month extension, as well as the political benefit the White House could gain in the national dialogue over taxes. It appears that they forced Speaker Boehner to take a hard line on the measure. The Speaker sent a letter to President Obama, which said, "I ask you to call on the Senate to return to appoint negotiators so that we can provide the American people the economic certainty they need."

Speaker Boehner changed positions on the Senate bill, after earlier indicating in a party conference call he would support the Senate compromise. To many it appeared that Majority Leader and aspiring Speaker Eric Cantor pressured Boehner to change his position. However, Boehner said he only praised a provision in the Senate bill requiring presidential action on the Keystone pipeline.

So as Christmas approaches, millions of Americans face a tax increase because Republicans want to defeat President Obama more than they want to help the middle class. And when they want to know how the Grinch stole Christmas, they can ask Ebenezer Boehner. Bah Humbug!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Republican Slugfest

With the Iowa Caucuses little more than two weeks away the two Republican frontrunners are now in a slugfest. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged into the lead in several state polls, including Iowa, Florida and South Carolina, leaving Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney rattled.

Now Romney is sounding more desperate and flustered. In Saturday night's Republican debate Romney inexplicably offered to bet Texas Governor Rick Perry $10,000 that he was misrepresenting Romney's position on individual mandates, which are part of Romneycare. While that is a substantial amount of money for most Iowans, it is not for multimillionaire Mitt Romney. And it didn't play well in Des Moines.

On Monday Romney decided to come out swinging, but it sounded more like the pot calling the kettle black. Romney attacked Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, the government sponsored mortgage company that has been lambasted by conservatives. Romney called on Gingrich to return the millions he made working for Freddie Mac after he left office. Romney told Fox News, "One of the things that I think that people recognize in Washington is that people go there to serve the people and then they stay there to serve themselves."

But Gingrich later responded to Romney harshly. "I love the way he and his consultants do these things," Gingrich said. "I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him and I'll bet you $10 dollars -- not $10,000 -- that he won't take the offer." Romney founded Bain Capital in 1984, an investment and consulting company. Romney is now worth more than $200 million.

Gingrich and Romney have many things in common. They are both very wealthy. In fact, Gingrich has bragged he regularly gets $60,000 to make a speech; the median family annual income in the United States is about $50,000. They have both supported health care mandates. Both supported the Wall Street bailouts, government subsidies for ethanol and agree that humans play a role in climate change. And, most noteworthy, both are serial flip-floppers on several issues.

But in Saturday's debate, Governor Romney pointed to his lengthy career in the private sector as the reason he is the best qualified to turn the American economy around. Gingrich wasn't buying it, "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. It's a bit much. You'd have been a 17-year career politician by now if you'd won."

No doubt Gingrich was not amused by an earlier Romney political ad in which he claimed to be a man of "steadiness and constancy." In his narration Romney said, "I've been married to the same woman for 25 -- excuse me, I'll get in trouble -- for 42 years. I've been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympics." This was clearly attack on Gingrich's personal life.

This is Romney's second attempt at the Republican presidential nomination; he first ran in 2008. Since he declared his candidacy last April he has devoted all of his energies to getting nominated. While has always been among the frontrunners, Romney has never been able to get more than 25% in Republican polls. The reason is simple: they just don't trust him.

Gingrich was written off a few weeks ago by most observers. He is intelligent and energetic, yet he is equally unpredictable and mercurial. And, despite all his flaws, he has now emerged as the darling of the right because they are willing to forgive his past transgressions. His debate performances have lifted him to the top and his supporters believe he is best able to take on President Barack Obama in a debate.

Two weeks is a long time in politics, especially given the intensity of this race. But an almost certain victory in the Iowa Caucuses and a strong showing in the New Hampshire Primary against frontrunner Romney will likely propel Gingrich to victories in the South Carolina and Florida primaries. But Romney will fight on.

The ultimate winner of the Republican nomination will have to unite a battered party in order to defeat President Barack Obama. And the will have to keep Congressman Ron Paul from declaring as a third party candidate, which is a real possibility.

Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.