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Friday, September 30, 2022
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  • BLOOMINGTON – There are two especially striking aspects to the “Inflation Reduction Act,” the sprawling climate-change/tax-reform/health-care legislation that just passed Congress and was signed into law by President Biden. The first is that it passed on strict party-line votes. And the second is that in an unexpectedly productive Congress, this makes it unusual. The measure was the product of a year’s worth of patient negotiation and compromise in the Senate. And while there are portions of the law that might have had appeal across the aisle – the idea of allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare was also proposed by former President Trump – most of that work took place within an ideologically diverse Democratic Party. In particular, the Democratic leadership of the Senate and President Biden had to be willing to give up on some of the more far-reaching aspects of Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative, including long-sought goals like investing trillions in care for children and seniors, and establishing universal preschool. Instead, in painstaking negotiations, perhaps the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hammered out a bill that for the first time commits the U.S. to billions in spending on climate and energy investments; allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices for the first time; extends Obamacare subsidies; strengthens IRS enforcement (which in the last few decades has withered); and requires a 15% minimum tax for big corporations.
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s impossible to know right now what impact the work of the Jan. 6 committee will have in the long run, though it’s a fair bet that whatever the political and legal repercussions, there will be legislation coming. In pulling back the curtain on that day, the days leading up to it, and the days that followed, the committee has offered Americans a clear-eyed look at the misbehavior of high-ranking government officials all the way up to the president. The committee’s work is a dramatic reminder of why congressional oversight matters. In the minds of most members of Congress, oversight tends to take a back seat to legislating and constituent service. This is understandable. There’s usually no glory and – except in rare circumstances like these – little media attention paid to congressional oversight work. Yet it’s every bit as important as passing legislation. This is because making government work well is extremely difficult, even when officials are trying to do so. Even accomplished office-holders and civil servants struggle to ensure that their agencies and programs are working efficiently, effectively, and in line with what Congress intended. And when they don’t, we read about government mistakes and missteps, and action or lack of action. That’s Congress’s job: To look into every nook and cranny of the executive branch, to call attention to it, debate it, and, if necessary, to legislate improvements.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Watching the hearings held by the Jan. 6 committee as it delves into the events at the Capitol last year and what lay behind them, I’ve been struck by what you might think of as the “meta-coverage.” It’s been fascinating to see. Most news stories, of course, have focused on the alarming revelations uncovered by the committee – in essence, the lengths to which a sitting president and his allies went in trying to short-circuit the clearly expressed will of the American people. But some coverage has instead focused on how the select committee has gone about its work: The technology it’s using and its careful structuring of the hearings to create a clear narrative of the events leading up to and following the attack on the Capitol. As Axios’ Mike Allen put it recently, “The committee ditched the flabby traditional format and has methodically built a taut, colorful narrative with a prosecutor’s precision and a cinematographer’s flair.” He and others cite the influence of former ABC News president James Goldston, who, as Allen writes, “has been producing each hearing as if it were a ‘20/20’ episode,” as well as the committee’s discipline in building an easy-to-grasp accretion of facts and testimony.

  • BLOOMINGTON – Here’s a question: When was the last time at least half of Americans said the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time? It was right after 9/11, according to the Pew Research Center, and that was really just a blip. Before that, you’d have to go back to the 1960s. And after the 9/11 bump subsided? You won’t be surprised to hear that ever since the end of the George W. Bush administration, the percentage of those trusting government all or most of the time has been hovering in the low 20s or even the high teens. This is not a good state of affairs. Trust is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. When it’s gone, replaced by suspicion and lack of confidence, our system cannot work. For representative democracy to function as it should, the public officials, politicians, and policy-makers who act in our name have to have the support of ordinary people who can trust that our representatives will level with us without half-truths and that government can efficiently and effectively deliver the goods, services, and policy impact we expect.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The ebbs and flows of the war in Ukraine still manage to command headlines these days, even if it’s without the intensity of previous months. But for all the attention to the battles and maneuvering on the ground, the issue that keeps US policy makers up at night shows up only infrequently: Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (in terms of numbers of warheads), and no one in the West really knows whether its military would use it, how they’d deploy it, and under what circumstances they’d take that step. As CIA Director Nicholas Burns made clear back in April, the issue is the use of so-called tactical – or “low-yield” – nuclear weapons. “None of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort” to them, he told reporters. Still, he added, “While we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern. But we watch for that very intently, it’s one of our most important responsibilities at CIA.” Let’s be clear that “low-yield” is a matter of degrees. By current standards, at 15 kilotons the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a “low-yield” weapon. These weapons contain such awesome destructive power that even a minor nuclear explosion would be devastating.
  • BLOOMINGTON – In the wake of the leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito overturning Roe v. Wade and holding that there is no constitutional right to an abortion, there’s been a tidal wave of commentary on the Court’s politicization. Much of it recently has come from the left or from abortion-rights advocates, arguing that the Court has fallen prey to the same partisanship and polarization that have marked American politics in recent decades. It’s entirely possible that this alarm over the Court’s drift is simply a measure of the level of scrutiny its decisions have come in for. Certainly, over the course of my career I’ve seen rising public interest in what the Court does and how it affects American social and political life as the justices have rendered controversial decisions that touch on the most intimate aspects of Americans’ lives, from contraception and abortion to gay marriage, and on the workings of American politics in a divided age. I’m thinking particularly of the Citizens United decision and Bush v. Gore, though a series of redistricting decisions also come to mind. At the same time, this is hardly the first time that the Court’s politicization has become a hot topic. It came up repeatedly during the hearings on President Trump’s nominations of Amy Coney Barrett and, before her, Brett Kavanaugh, with their supporters on the right deploring the extent to which critics on the left were doing their best to undercut support for the nominees.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Recently, a couple of reporters at The New York Times published an intriguing story about conversations between House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of his leadership team. It was shortly after the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol, and they were talking about what to do about then-President Trump.  His conduct, McCarthy said, had been “atrocious and totally wrong.” Moreover, wrote Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin in their article, McCarthy “faulted the president for ‘inciting people’ to attack the Capitol, saying that Mr. Trump’s remarks at a rally on the National Mall that day were ‘not right by any shape or any form.’” He added, “I’ve had it with this guy.” Burns and Martin have since published a series of articles on the subject, including McCarthy’s fears that some of his more extreme colleagues could themselves incite more violence. Not surprisingly, there have been plenty of denials, but the two reporters have countered with one key point: They have the audio recordings.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Having just watched a Supreme Court nominee supported by a comfortable majority of Americans draw just three Republican votes in the Senate, you could be forgiven for thinking bipartisanship in Congress is a thing of the past. And in the case of Supreme Court nominees, you’d be right: The last time a nominee got over half the votes of the opposition party was in 2005, and you have to go back nearly three decades—to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993—to find one who drew votes from almost all senators. But if you look carefully, there are plenty of signs that bipartisanship is still possible in Washington. President Biden recently signed into law a bill reforming the Postal Service, which drew strong support from both parties in Congress. The same happened with a measure that keeps companies and universities from shielding themselves against lawsuits for sexual harassment. And both houses have passed a package aimed at boosting American competitiveness, again with support in both parties. There are other examples, as well, but you’ll notice something about them: They’re not focused on hot-button issues like voting rights or gun control or immigration. This is in no small part because in the Senate, a measure effectively needs 60 votes to pass—which means neither party can get bills approved without members of the other party.
  • BLOOMINGTON – An interesting thing happened after Russia invaded Ukraine. Though U.S. standing in the world had taken a knock after the much-needed but chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was no question where the world’s democracies would turn for leadership in the Ukraine crisis. As much of Europe and Asia has found a new resolve on behalf of democratic values, in the time since the war began the U.S. has been front and center in rallying them to the cause. This is a role we’ve played—with ups and downs—for many decades. It became fashionable not very long ago to argue that the US’s preeminent role in world affairs has disappeared, but it’s harder to make that case at the moment. There are other world powers, of course, China and Russia notable among them. And it’s also true that after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public’s taste for big-power projections of force has diminished. Yet as the democracies of the world look forward, the U.S.’s leadership role remains indispensable. With all of our problems – and we have no shortage of them – there are several reasons we’ve retained that position. The first is that, in the end, we know what we stand for: personal liberty, justice, economic opportunity, a sense of morality in world affairs.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Maybe it’s the perspective a long life brings, but I find myself eyeing with some skepticism the glut of “personal brands” that assault us every day on television, in print, and through social media. Entertainers, celebrities, politicians striving for acclaim, artists and writers who’ve mastered the public-relations game, journalists and media stars who are building their national profiles, all are “important” in terms of the attention they garner.  But are they actually important? In some ways, of course, the question is impossible to answer. Each of us has our own definition of what matters and our own approach to what makes a public figure significant. In the end, it’s a subjective question, the sort of exercise that makes for a fascinating family discussion or friendly debate: Who’s really important, and why? My own list would start with some obvious choices. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — these men (and others, of course) created the United States, not just as a political entity but as a set of ideals and political values that, over time, reshaped the history of the world.
  • BLOOMINGTON – When Congress returned to Capitol Hill last week after a recess, it faced a changed world from the one that existed when its members left town. Not just because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as dramatic as that has been, but because of the response to it. Before the invasion, Europe was fractured. So, of course, was the United States and nowhere more so than in Congress. Now? Europe is acting with remarkable unity of purpose, while Congress, if only on Ukraine, is showing levels of bipartisan agreement we don’t get to see very often. It’s impossible to know how long this will last, but it seems a safe bet that these tumultuous few weeks will leave a lasting imprint. What’s key to remember about Congress is that of all the policy-making bodies in Washington, it’s the one that’s in closest touch with the American people. And many Americans have a visceral reaction to bullies. So, although there was some disagreement from the Right, there’s overall been strong congressional and popular support for the tough stance taken by the Biden administration. Even Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, said, “There’s broad support for the president and what he’s doing now.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – Around the country, states have been taking on the task of coming up with new lines for congressional districts. And with about two-thirds of the districts for the next decade mapped out, a recent New York Times analysis found something discouraging. The people drawing redistricting maps, wrote Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti, “are on pace to draw fewer than 40 seats out of 435  that are considered competitive based on the 2020 presidential election results.” To be sure, it’s not like we used to live in a political paradise of competitive districts, where each voter could believe that he or she might make a difference. Even in the best of times, the bulk of House districts leaned toward one party or another. Politicians always want a district drawn for them that gives them the advantage, and over many decades both parties have amassed great expertise at creating districts whose voters suit them. Still, a decade ago there were 73 competitive districts, which was hardly ideal but was certainly better than what we’re facing now. As one former Republican member of Congress tells Epstein and Corasaniti, the parties are “taking the voters out of the equation. November becomes a constitutional formality.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made a startling suggestion. He proposed a cross-party 2024 presidential ticket: Joe Biden and Liz Cheney, perhaps, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or another combination of a leading Democrat and an anti-Trump Republican. Friedman’s reasoning is that the U.S. is at a crossroads, and he contends that the main body of the Republican Party “has shown that it isn’t committed any longer to playing by democratic rules, leaving the United States uniquely threatened among Western democracies.” Under these circumstances, he wrote, the country needs a “broad national unity vehicle” that would draw members of both parties. “We all have to be small-d democrats now, or we won’t have a system to be big-D or big-R anythings,” he continued. To buttress his argument, he turned to Israel’s current national unity government, which united members of the right and left in an effort to turn down the heat generated by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to delegitimize the government and judicial system. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s been about a year since Joe Biden took office as president, and though it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions about his performance, it’s not too early to discern some trends. Especially in light of how Biden positioned himself in the 2020 campaign and, I believe, how he still sees himself: As a centrist and a moderate who can unite the country by bringing professionalism to the White House and make the federal government work. He began his presidency with, overall, a lot of good will. Many Americans longed for an end to the tumult of the Trump presidency and, as Biden himself put it, a return to normalcy. But since last year, the polls have shown him losing favor in Americans’ eyes. In part, this was inevitable. He’s had to try to buck a very tough political climate, facing intense political division, the country’s unending culture wars, a riled-up opposition determined to thwart him, a pandemic that throws the country a new curve every time it seems to be settling down, and an inflation rate that has many Americans looking for someone to blame.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Decades ago, it was easy to talk about “the promise of America,” as historians and boosters did regularly, and have most people understand what you meant. These days, I worry they’d look at you as if you’d taken leave of your senses. Even before the pandemic threw us back on our heels, many people here and abroad increasingly viewed our country and its system of representative government as outdated, flawed, and in decline. They question whether it deserves to be perpetuated or to serve as a beacon for others. And yet, while there’s room to be chastened and reflective about this shift, what it really means, I think, is that as Americans we have our work cut out for us. Because our system – which really did produce a nation that served as a beacon and a model for others – was put in our care by the people who created it. If this country is to flourish and fulfill its promise, it’s we the people who will have to do it. So what does “the promise of America” actually mean? In its details the answer differs from person to person, but looked at broadly it’s really two promises.
  • BLOOMINGTON – With a $1 trillion infrastructure package on the books and the Biden administration’s $1.8 trillion “Build Back Better” measure preoccupying the Senate after passing the House, government spending is very much on Americans’ minds. In public meetings, I frequently hear people say that government’s share of the economy is too big, and it’s likely that voters’ feelings about federal spending in particular will figure prominently in next year’s elections. If you look ahead, even beyond the current debate on Capitol Hill, there’s no question that there will be intense pressure to expand even further. To deal effectively with climate change, reckon with the impact of an aging population, handle the health care needs of Americans post-pandemic – these are problems that will demand a role for government. Which, in turn, will mean more spending, more bureaucracy, more opportunity for corruption, and less space for the individual enterprise that fuels economic prosperity. The U.S. is not alone in this. “On current forecasts,” The Economist wrote recently, “government spending will be greater as a share of GDP in 2026 than it was in 2006 in every major advanced economy.” 
  • BLOOMINGTON – I still remember a question I got years ago. It was at a public meeting in southern Indiana, in one of those squat, featureless cinder-block buildings you find all across the country. This young woman stood up and commented that I’d traveled throughout the U.S.  and had met all kinds of people. So she wanted to know: What was my impression of Americans? I didn’t even hesitate: The American people are fundamentally decent, I told her. I still believe this. And when I say it, I’m not talking about a bare majority. Most Americans are good people. Why even mention this? Because at the moment, we live in a country where a lot of Americans don’t believe it. They think fellow citizens who belong to a different political party are at best misguided and at worst, evil. We have public officials who want nothing more than to do a good job and stick by the laws resigning because they’re tired of the threats to themselves and their families. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It would be fair to say that for a good bit of our history, Americans paid scant attention to redistricting. The redrawing of congressional and legislative lines every 10 years, sparked by population shifts captured by the Census, tended to pass unnoticed. Unless, of course, it involved some particularly outrageous instance of gerrymandering. For line-drawers, especially in the age of the computer, this was just fine. When your basic laptop can so easily create any desired political complexion for a district, the politicians who were usually in charge of the process were quite happy to get the chance to choose their voters without much public notice. This would give the party in power in a state a lock on as many seats as possible—never mind the damage it did to competitive elections and, more generally, our representative democracy. An interesting thing happened after the last redistricting round, however. As overt and divisive partisanship ratcheted up around the country, so did public concern about partisan line-drawing. In several states, reform advocates were able to create citizen-led redistricting commissions, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s a cliché to say that everything’s connected. But we live in a world where this is clearly true. Ideas, goods, services, workers, tourists, commerce, communications, drugs, crime, migrants, refugees, weapons, climate impacts … and, of course, viruses; they all cross borders constantly. This is one reason I’ve come to believe that drawing a distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” policy, while often helpful, is also misleading. Globalization essentially means that we can’t escape the impact of what’s happening in other countries and regions around the globe, either at the policy level in Washington or on the street where you live. This is often beneficial. The free movement of goods and services from this country to others builds our economy and creates jobs. Likewise, goods and services produced elsewhere and imported or used here have provided many American consumers with a quality of life that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The relatively free flow of ideas, cultural life, and people with talent, skill, ambition, or all three, have enriched this country and many others. Yet managing globalization is also a clear challenge, because it’s not only the good stuff that goes along with it.
  • BLOOMINGTON – As Americans, we tend—understandably—to focus on the Constitution as the source for our representative democracy. It is, after all, our basic operating document, the blueprint for the system we’ve been shepherding for the last 234 years. But the Constitution did not arise out of thin air; our forebears marked key steps along the way with other documents as well. Here’s a quick tour of some of them. The first was the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620 by 41 of the male colonists, including two indentured servants, aboard the Mayflower after it made land in Massachusetts. There is no historical certainty about who actually wrote it, though it’s often attributed to William Brewster, one of the leaders of the community. It’s not long, and it essentially says that the colonists – who at the time were divided between the Pilgrims, who had intended to settle in Virginia, and the merchants, craftsmen, servants, and others who’d gone along for the ride –would work together to establish the colony and enact the “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices” the colony needed.
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  • Morales denies sexual harassment allegations; Wells comments
    "As a husband and father, I understand sexual harassment is deplorable and can leave devastating scars. The claims being made against me are false and I unequivocally deny all of them. The women, who will not reveal their identity, cannot corroborate their stories. They have neither documentation nor sources to substantiate their defaming comments. The falsities stem from 15 years ago and were not brought forward until now. The timing is clearly politically motivated, especially considering one of the women mentions that she is now volunteering for my opponent's campaign. The claims were printed in a publication that uses a disclaimer stating, 'This is a compiliation of pure gossip, rumor and blatant innuendo'. I am appalled to be included in this publication (and) I was not provided an opportunity to respond to these falsehoods before they were printed." Republican Secretary of State nominee Diego Morales, responding to allegations published by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz at IndyPolitics. Democrat nominee Destiny Wells said in a statement: "Diego Morales' victims need to be heard and believed. It takes tremendous courage in coming forward, and the last thing I want is for their personal sacrifice to be for naught. While this race has been focused on safeguarding our right to vote, we too must safeguard a woman's right to exist in the workplace free of sexual harassment and assault. For weeks we have seen mounting evidence that Diego will say and do anything to get what he wants — as Hoosiers, I know this is not in line with our values — we have had enough."
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