Obama’s Sotomayor Nomination: Identity Politics over Merit

In picking Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama has confirmed that identity politics matter to him more than merit.

Judge Sotomayor is not one of the leading lights of the federal judiciary and would not even have been on the shortlist if she were not Hispanic.

She has a mixed reputation, with a questionable temperament and no particularly important opinions in over 10 years on the Second Circuit. Most notably, she was part of the panel that summarily affirmed the dismissal of Ricci v. DeStefano, where the City of New Haven denied firefighter promotions based on an admittedly race-neutral exam whose results did not yield the “correct” racial mix of successful candidates. Sotomayor’s colleague José Cabranes—a liberal Democrat—excoriated the panel’s actions and the Supreme Court will likely reverse the ruling next month.

If this is the kind of “empathy” the president wants from his judges, we are in for a long summer—and more bitter confirmation battles in the future.

Obama Chooses Sotomayor for Supreme Court Nominee

soniaIn nominating Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, President Obama chose the most radical of all the frequently mentioned candidates before him.

Given the way her panel recently summarily dismissed the Ricci case –- involving the complaint by New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters that the city had thrown out the results of an officers exam because the results did not come out “right” –- and the expectation, based on oral argument, that the Supreme Court will reverse the Second Circuit decision, there will likely be an extremely contentious confirmation battle ahead. If confirmation hearings are scheduled for summer, they will follow shortly upon the Court’s decision in that explosive case.

Are we to imagine that President Obama chose as he did because he wants that battle?

GOP Health Care Alternative: Not as Bad as Advertised

Like my colleague, Michael Cannon, I was convinced by the staff summary and general spin accompanying the Republican health care bill introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) that the bill headed, albeit more slowly, down the same road to government-run health care as expected Democratic proposals. However, a closer reading of the actual bill shows that, while there are still reasons for concern, it may be much better than originally advertised.

First, it should be pointed out that the centerpiece of the bill is an important change to the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez bill would replace the current tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,300 per year an individual worker or $5,700 per year for family coverage. This move to personal, portable health insurance has long been at the heart of free market healthy care proposals. The bill would also expand health savings accounts and make important reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.

And, the bill should receive credit for what it does not contain. There is no individual or employer mandate. (I could live without the auto-enroll provisions, but they look more obnoxious than truly dangerous). There is no government board determining the cost-effectiveness of treatment. There is no “public option” competing with private insurance. In short, the bill avoids most of the really bad ideas for health reform featured in my recent Policy Analysis.

Other aspects are more problematic. The authors still seem far too attached to the idea of an exchange/connector/portal. The summary implied that states would be required to establish such mechanism. In reality, however, the bill merely creates incentives for states to do so. Moreover, I have been repeatedly assured that the bill’s authors are aiming for the more benign Utah-style “portal,” rather than the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Massachusetts “connector.” Still, I would be more comfortable if the staff summary had not singled out Massachusetts as the only state reform worthy of being called “an achievement.”

And, if states choose to set up an exchange, a number of federal requirements kick in, such as a requirement that at least one plan offered through the exchange provide benefits equal to those on the low cost FEHBP plan. There is also a guaranteed issue requirement.

Elsewhere, there are also requirements that states set up some type of risk-adjustment mechanism although the bureaucratic ex-post option that I criticized previously, appears to be only one option among many for meeting this requirement. And, I wish the authors hadn’t jumped on the health IT bandwagon. Health IT is a very worthy concept, but one better handled by the private sector.

And, if we should praise the bill for what it doesn’t include, we should criticize it in the same way. The bill does not include one of the best free market reform proposals of recent years, Rep. John Shadegg’s call for letting people purchase health insurance across state lines.

The bills (there are minor differences between the House and Senate versions) run to nearly 300 pages, and additional details, both good and bad, may emerge as I have more opportunity to study them. But for now, the bill, while flawed, looks to have far more good than bad.

Troublesome North Korea Strikes Again

The North Koreans have been busy, testing a nuclear weapon and shooting off missiles.  It seems that nothing upsets North Korea more than being ignored.

President Barack Obama expressed the usual outrage:

These actions, while not a surprise given its statements and actions to date, are a matter of grave concern to all nations. North Korea’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security.

However, this really is all old news.  Although the nuclear test reinforces the North’s irresponsible reputation, the blast has little practical importance. North Korea has long been known to be a nuclear state and tested a smaller nuclear device a couple years ago. The regime’s missile capabilities also are well-known.

Contrary to the president’s excited rhetoric, the North has little ability to project force beyond the Korean peninsula.  So Washington should treat the North’s latest offense as an opportunity to reprogram the latter’s negotiating formula.

The U.S. should not reward “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il with a plethora of statements beseeching the regime to cooperate and threatening dire consequences for its bad behavior. Rather, the Obama administration should explain, perhaps through China, that the U.S. is interested in forging a more positive relationship with North, but that no improvement will be possible so long as North Korea acts provocatively. Washington should encourage South Korea and Japan to take a similar stance.

Moreover, the U.S. should step back and suggest that China, Seoul, and Tokyo take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang. North Korea’s activities more threaten its neighbors than America. Even Beijing, the North’s long-time ally, long ago lost patience with Kim’s belligerent behavior and might be willing to support tougher sanctions.

Washington should offer to support this or other efforts to reform North Korean policy.  But without Chinese backing there is little else the U.S. can do.  War on the peninsula would be disastrous for all, and Washington has few additional sanctions to apply.  Beijing has the most leverage on Pyongyang, but whether even that is enough to moderate North Korea’s behavior is anyone’s guess.

North Korea is a problem likely to be long with us. The U.S. has limited ability to influence the North. Washington should offer the prospect of improved relations as a reward for improved North Korean behavior, but should let the North’s neighbors, most notably China, take the lead in managing this most difficult of states.

Tough Words

In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady got Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher to go on the record about current Fed policy. He talks tough about inflation. “Throughout history, what the political class has done is they have turned to the central bank to print their way out of an unfunded liability. We can’t let that happen.”

What is lacking is a plan to match the tough words with tough actions. Only when a tough and resolute U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, was matched with a tough and resolute Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, did the Fed turn into an effective inflation fighter. There is no such match up now in the face of trillion dollar deficits forecast with no end in sight.

Ms. O’Grady describes Fisher as “the lead inflation worrywart” on the Federal Open Market Committee of the Fed. But Fed officials do not act in a political vacuum, and regional Fed presidents cannot on their own stop the Fed’s printing money in the face of the deficits. That requires leadership at the top from both the Fed chairman and the U.S president.

The Administration’s plan appears to be “to print their way out of an unfunded liability.” Thus far, despite tough words from some quarters, the Fed seems ready to accommodate “the political class.”

Iraq’s Refugee Crisis

George W. Bush’s misguided attack on Iraq has had catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people.  Although the removal of Saddam Hussein was a blessing, the bloody chaos that resulted was not.  Estimates of the number of dead in the ensuing strife starts at about 100,000 and rises rapidly.  The number of injured is far greater.

Moreover, roughly four million people, about one-sixth of the population, have been driven from their homes.  The most vulnerable tended to be Iraq’s Christian community and Iraqis who aided U.S. personnel – acting as translators, for instance.  Yet the Bush administration resisted allowing any of these desperate people to come to America, since to resettle refugees would be to acknowledge that administration policy had failed to result in the promised paradise in Babylon.

This horrid neglect continues.  Reports Hanna Ingber Win:

Of the millions displaced, the United States will resettle about 17,000 new Iraqis this coming fiscal year. While that is a relatively small number of arrivals compared to the number displaced, about a third of them will end up in El Cajon and Greater San Diego. More than 5,000 new Iraqis will arrive in San Diego County during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, according to Catholic Charities in the San Diego Diocese. Getting jobs, homes and visas to reunite the families of the new arrivals — many of whom put their lives and their families’ lives at risk by helping the U.S. military — is a monumental task.

As the Iraq War played out, the Bush administration seemed to do everything in its power to ignore the refugee crisis. Former President Bush, reluctant to admit to a failed war policy, never mentioned the plight of the refugees and for years refused to allow Iraqis fleeing the war zone to resettle in the U.S. Only after significant political pressure from members of Congress and advocacy groups did the administration’s policy begin to change, and refugees began gaining access to the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. He vowed to increase the amount of aid given to countries like Syria and Jordan, which harbor most of the displaced people, as well as expedite the process of resettling refugees here.

“The Bush administration made every effort they could to try to minimize the issue [of Iraqi refugees] in the debate on the war,” Amelia Templeton, a refugee-policy analyst with Human Rights First, says not long after the presidential election. The Obama administration, on the other hand, she says, has made the issue an explicit policy priority. “Obama has said this is a major problem, that we are responsible for this problem and we will try to change this.”

Whether the Obama administration will live up to its rhetoric is still to be seen.

Immigration is an emotional issue at any time.  But there is no excuse for not accepting more persecuted peoples who are fleeing violence sparked by U.S. military action and attacks sparked by their aid for U.S. military forces.  If America refuses to act as a haven for these people, then yet another light will have gone out in what was once a shining city on a hill for the world.

Gingrich, Fear-Mongering, Failed Leadership

There’s a reason why Newt Gingrich is on the political sidelines, and there’s a reason why Vice President Dick Cheney does not have a Republican successor to carry on his preferred policies. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, the contrasts in terrorism and national security policy between President Obama and these leading Republicans were in high relief.

After discussing the personal investment in aggressive counterterrorism Dick Cheney and others in the Bush White House had after the “shock” of 9/11, Newt Gingrich said:

Let me just say, I think people should be afraid. I think the lesson of 1993 – the first time they bombed the World Trade Center – was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of Khobar Towers – where American service men were killed in Saudi Arabia – was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the two embassy bombings in East Africa was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the Cole being bombed in Yemen was: Fear is probably appropriate.

I’ll tell you, if you aren’t a little bit afraid after 9/11 and 3,100 Americans killed inside the United States by an effort. If you aren’t worried about the second-wave attack that was designed to take out the biggest building in Los Angeles, I think that you are out of touch with reality.

Host David Gregory asked:

But, Speaker Gingrich, you make the point about how Vice President Cheney felt – personally, personal fear. And isn’t President Obama’s argument that fear as a basis of national security policy is not sustainable over time? How do you come up with a sustainable legal framework, a sustainable national security policy? Don’t we elect leaders to transcend fear for lasting policy?

Gingrich’s response was to cite the sustained American effort in the Cold War. There was, of course, background fear of nuclear war and communism during that time, but the policy that got us through the Cold War was the pragmatic and rational policy of containment – a far cry from policymaking based in fear.

For the time being, Republicans appear to be “on tilt” about terrorism, and seeking their footing in the politics of panic.