Friday Talking Points [347] -- Spinning Straw (Polls) Into Gold

It’s one of those rare weeks in Washington where Congress deigns to actually do their job and vote on some . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [347] — Spinning Straw (Polls) Into Gold

Friday Talking Points [346] -- Is That Your Final Answer, Jeb?

Jeb Bush, is that your final answer? Sure you wouldn’t like to phone a friend, or maybe just . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [346] — Is That Your Final Answer, Jeb?

Friday Talking Points [345] -- Giggles The Pig For Mayor!

When it comes to the 2016 field of Republican presidential candidates, the rule of thumb this time around is obviously going . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [345] — Giggles The Pig For Mayor!

Friday Talking Points [341] -- Jeb Bush, Hispanic?

So, apparently, Jeb Bush used to think he was Hispanic. At least, that’s the box he checked when he registered to vote, a few . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [341] — Jeb Bush, Hispanic?

Friday Talking Points [344] -- Run, Bernie, Run!

We’ve got everything from hippies to Satanists to cover this week, so let’s just dive right in, shall we?

The Supreme Court heard a . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [344] — Run, Bernie, Run!

Friday Talking Points [343] -- Free Ponies Getting Into The Weeds

We’ll get to other political news in a moment, but since last week contained the date 4/20, we’re . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [343] — Free Ponies Getting Into The Weeds

Friday Talking Points [342] -- Chasing The Scooby Van

Strange but true, the “Scooby van” is now part of our political lexicon. Hillary Clinton herself is apparently to blame for this . . . → Read More: Friday Talking Points [342] — Chasing The Scooby Van

Friday Talking Points [340] -- Obama Earning His Nobel

FTP3President Barack Obama is finally earning his Nobel Peace Prize, it seems. A few months back, he announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba, ending a half-century of frostiness, and this week the outlines of a deal to avoid a war with Iran were unveiled, thawing a relationship that froze over back in 1979. Both of these foreign policy accomplishments go a long way towards deserving the Nobel Peace Prize Obama was prematurely awarded in 2009. At the time, many (this column included) joked that the Nobel committee was really awarding the prize to Obama for the sole achievement of “not being George W. Bush.” But it seems now that by the time he ends his term in office, Barack Obama will indeed have earned the world’s foremost peacemaker’s prize. Since this is Good Friday, perhaps a Bible quotation is in order: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Of course, President Obama’s critics are already denouncing the deal with Iran, even before the ink was dry in some cases. There seems to be a misconception among Obama’s opposition that there is another acceptable path forward that doesn’t involve an outright war with Iran. Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress seem to think that if they scuttle this deal, a better one will somehow appear on the horizon. This is wishful thinking, though. “More sanctions will do it!” cry the critics, who are ignoring the lesson Cuba provided.

Right now, seven nations have reached a preliminary agreement: the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, France, the U.K., and Germany. The “P5+1″ nations (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) have built a unified sanctions regime that has been a big incentive in getting Iran to the table. Republicans in Congress want even more sanctions rather than this agreement, because they think upping the pressure on Iran will force them to accept further concessions. But what could easily happen if Congress shoots down a deal and imposes stricter sanctions is that the P5+1 alliance may fall apart. If the rest of the world sees that Congress isn’t going to agree to any deal with Iran, then Russia and China may just decide to lift their sanctions altogether. Why bother restricting trade when absolutely nothing will satisfy the hardliners in the U.S. Congress, after all? If Russia and China bolt the negotiations and end their sanctions, then Iran will actually have less sanctions imposed on it than it does now, even with increased sanctions from America.

This is the end game that Congress could unintentionally create. This is where the Cuban example comes in. Most Americans aren’t even really aware of it, but for the past half-century, America has been going it alone with their economic sanctions on Cuba. Europeans can walk into a tobacco store and buy as many Cuban cigars as they please, and have long been able to do so. Because Cuba has sunny shores, Europeans can easily book a vacation there to escape their winter weather. There are no restrictions upon doing so whatsoever. Cuba is not only free to trade with Europe, but also with Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia. We stand alone among nations in trying to crush the Cuban economy.

For fifty years, our unilateral sanctions just did not work. Fidel Castro outlasted every president since Kennedy. All the U.S. sanctions did was to give Castro an easy excuse for why communism was failing on his island. But it certainly didn’t achieve the goals America set out, by any stretch of the imagination. It may have hindered their economy slightly, but they were always free to trade with the rest of the world, so it didn’t mean much in the long run.

That should be an instructive lesson on Iran. If the rest of the world sees the United States (Congress, in particular) as being so intransigent that it’ll never agree to any deal with Iran, then there would be no point in even holding further negotiations. If China and Russia decide to drop their sanctions, then it would free up the pressure on Iran to a very large degree (China, in particular, would likely buy all the oil Iran wanted to sell them). America (or perhaps America plus a few European countries) wouldn’t have anywhere near the influence over the Iranian economy without Russia and China backing sanctions up. If Iran became similar to Cuba — ultimate sanctions from the U.S., but not from anyone else — then we would have essentially lost any leverage we had over them. So to anyone in Congress advocating unilateral sanctions against Iran, the question should really be: “because that worked so well against Cuba, right?”

The other big political story of the week was the huge victory over legalized bigotry in both Indiana and Arkansas. Because conservatives know full well that in just a few months the Supreme Court is going to legalize marriage equality across every one of these United States, they had the bright idea to codify state-level discrimination against gay weddings. But it didn’t go quite as they had planned. Continue reading Friday Talking Points [340] — Obama Earning His Nobel

Friday Talking Points [339] -- Best Pi Day Of The Century!

FTP3Before we get on with all the politics, we have two unrelated announcements. The first is tomorrow’s quirk in the calendar. Actually, today is quirky as well, if you’re a friggatriskaidekaphobe, since it’s Friday the 13th. But tomorrow is much more momentous, because the convergence only comes once a century. Tomorrow morning will mark an extraordinary moment in time for geeks everywhere, in fact. Know a mathematician? Call him or her up tomorrow morning and wish her or him the happiest of Pi Days!

For the uninformed, Pi Day is a yearly celebration of a date on the calendar, for its numerical significance. It ranks up there among geeky holidays with the fourth of May (“Star Wars Day,” since you can go around wishing everyone “May the Fourth be with you!”). The significance is it will be “3/14″ (at least in the United States, as Europeans write their dates differently). These are the first three digits in the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, or “pi.”

But this year’s Pi Day will be the best one for the next 100 years, because a whole bunch of digits will come into play. Pi’s value is, to 10 digits: 3.141592653. This year’s Pi Day will be 3/14/15. Taking it a step further, just before 9:30 AM tomorrow morning, the date and time will read: 3/14/15 — 9:26:53. Woo hoo! Best Pi Day of the century!

The admissions office at MIT has taken note, and this year’s acceptance letters will all go out tomorrow. How appropriate!

Mathematical geekiness aside, we have one more announcement to make. This column is going on vacation for the next two weeks. Yes, we will be going on hiatus until April 3, as we travel to the Emerald Isle to experience a thoroughly Irish St. Patrick’s Day. So don’t expect another fresh talking points column for the next two weeks. You have been duly warned.

In an entirely unrelated story, Ireland kind-of, sort-of legalized a whole bunch of drugs this week. A court threw out one of Ireland’s main drug laws, on a technicality that rendered it unconstitutional. Whoops! This meant that ecstasy, crystal meth, and magic mushrooms were all suddenly legal (leprechaun sightings must have gone through the roof, one assumes). The Irish legislature scrambled to pass emergency legislation to fix the problem, but it still must have been a pretty psychedelic week for some in Ireland! By the time I get there, however, I will be completely satisfied as long as Sir Arthur Guinness’s fine product is still widely available (and legal). So to speak.

But it wasn’t all fun and games in the world of international politics last week. Far from it, in fact. Since it is Friday the 13th, a day when many ponder unlucky numbers, we have to wonder what it is about the number 47 that keeps getting Republicans in trouble. First it was Mitt Romney’s infamous dismissal of the “47 percent,” after which he wound up with exactly 47 percent of the vote in the general election. This week, 47 Republican senators decided it would be a good idea to sign an extraordinarily condescending letter to the leaders of Iran’s government. Maybe, in the future, Republicans should try avoiding anything associated with the number 47? Just a suggestion, guys….

The Republicans’ effort to hobble President Obama’s negotiations with Iran failed spectacularly. That much, everyone agrees upon. Perhaps the best commentary on the letter came from Iran’s foreign minister, who dismissed it as an attempt at “propaganda,” and went on to school the Republicans in the way international and U.S. laws and agreements actually work.

The only real difference in the reactions to the senators’ letter was in the terminology used to condemn it. The New York Daily News ran a gigantic headline that stated: “Traitors.” The Wall Street Journal was a little more reserved in its language, but not by much. The New York Times ran an editorial under the headline “Republican Idiocy On Iran.” The Washington Post pointed out that Republicans seem to think they’re running some sort of breakaway nation of their own (calling it “Republicania”).

European leaders soon joined in the chorus of condemnation. Conservative commentators admitted the entire thing was a fiasco. Cartoonists, of course, had a field day (our favorite so far is Jeff Danziger’s take on Tom Cotton). One retired general rejected the term “traitors,” but didn’t exactly mince his own words:

I would use the word mutinous. I do not believe these senators were trying to sell out America. I do believe they defied the chain of command in what could be construed as an illegal act. What Senator Cotton did is a gross breach of discipline, and especially as a veteran of the Army, he should know better. I have no issue with Senator Cotton, or others, voicing their opinion in opposition to any deal to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Speaking out on these issues is clearly part of his job. But to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our Commander in Chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on, to succeed. The breach of discipline is extremely dangerous, because undermining our diplomatic efforts, at this moment, brings us another step closer to a very costly and perilous war with Iran. I think Senator Cotton recognizes this, and he simply does not care. That’s what disappoints me the most. I expect better from the men and women who wore the uniform.

Remember those halcyon days when all Republicans maintained that “listening to the generals” was the way to deal with questions of war? Ah… memories!

Liberals, of course, were universal in their disgust at the 47 Republicans. A movement quickly began to charge all 47 with violating the Logan Act (a law passed in the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts). The petition to demand charges be brought under the Logan Act at the White House’s website currently has over 275,000 signatures. I wrote about this idea yesterday, pointing out the history of the Logan Act, and why bringing charges would probably not be the best idea, but I realize others differ in their opinions. Continue reading Friday Talking Points [339] — Best Pi Day Of The Century!

Friday Talking Points [338] -- Obamacare Fails to Kill Jobs, Once Again

FTP3The February jobs report is out, and — once again — Obamacare has failed to kill all those jobs Republicans warned us about. But we’ll get to all of that later, in the talking points, so you’ll just have to wait for that.

Before we do get to how good the job market has become, let’s take a quick spin around the rest of the week’s political news. There were three major stories vying for media attention this week, so let’s take a look at them first.

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu gave a campaign speech to Israel’s citizens this week, an event which normally wouldn’t have gotten much press coverage in America, except for the venue he was offered (which might be called “the world’s biggest hustings”): the United States Congress. Most American media utterly failed to grasp what was really going on (Bibi giving a speech to win re-election as prime minister), which was kind of astonishing because it was really staring everyone in the face. All you had to do was look at the timing of the speech. If, as Republicans maintain, the speech was given for the benefit of the American people, then why was it scheduled so it could appear on prime-time television in Israel? Why wasn’t it given in the evening in Washington, when American networks could choose to broadcast it live? The answer is obvious: because that’s not really what the speech was about. It was given on Israeli time to an Israeli audience, because it simply wouldn’t have had the same domestic impact if Bibi had spoken in the middle of the night, Tel Aviv time.

As for the content of the speech, Fareed Zakaria has been doing the best job of deconstructing Netanyahu’s speech, pointing out the fact that he’s been ringing the same exact alarm bell for a quarter-century now — the last time Netanyahu spoke to Congress, he warned Iran was “extremely close” to getting the bomb, and warned: “Ladies and gentlemen, time is running out. This is not a slogan. This is not an overstatement.” That was in 1996. Zakaria also helpfully pointed out this week that Bibi had pretty much no plan for what would happen next if the talks collapsed and no pact was reached, which is also well worth a read.

The second big story was essentially buried by the first. On the very same day Netanyahu spoke in the morning from the House podium (again: in the morning, for the benefit of the Israeli television schedule), John Boehner completely caved on the big fight over the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. He got his caucus together and told them that anything other than passing a clean bill was nothing more than the sheerest delusional fantasy, which (predictably) annoyed all the Republican House members who are incapable of understanding what “not having a veto-proof majority” actually means. But Boehner was smart in his timing, you’ll have to admit, because forcing the bill through right after the Netanyahu speech meant it received far less attention on that evening’s news. This dampened the attention given to Democrats, who have known all along that passing a clean bill was the only possible option open to congressional Republicans in this particular fight. In the end — just as everyone expected — a bill passed with all Democrats and over 70 Republicans voting for it.

After the bill was signed by President Obama, even Ted Cruz (of all people) admitted the entire exercise had been folly all along:

Unfortunately, [the Republican] leadership’s plan was never to win this fight. Since December, the outcome has been baked in the cake. It was abundantly clear to anyone watching that leadership in both houses intended to capitulate on the fight against amnesty. It was a strategy doomed to failure. It’s an old adage in Washington: Never take a hostage you’re not prepared to shoot. There was no chance, zero, that Republicans were going to fail to fund the Department of Homeland Security because Republicans care deeply about homeland security.

Which is, of course, what Democrats have been saying since Republicans demanded to have this fight in the first place. But lest you think Cruz has suddenly seen the light on the stupidity of holding hostages during such negotiations, he suggested instead choosing a different hostage next time: “[We] should have focused on the EPA, or the IRS or the Department of Labor. Now, those are departments which a majority would be prepared to allow funding to temporarily expire in order to use as leverage.”

These next fights might come sooner than anyone thinks, Huffington Post reports, as the freshman hardliners in the GOP are eyeing “a transportation funding debate, a mid-year fight over the future of the Export-Import Bank, and a battle over raising the debt limit and approving a budget” to stage their next legislative tantrums. Not to suggest that the GOP is incapable of doing anything but lurching from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis, mind you. Continue reading Friday Talking Points [338] — Obamacare Fails to Kill Jobs, Once Again