Op-eds

The following are op-eds i composed. find them on The Lantern website by clicking the link below:

 

Are the political parties realigning?

The Lantern, 22 March 2016

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Who our next president is matters, but not for reasons you think

The Lantern, 17 November 2015

Political party operatives and the television pundits have proclaimed two simultaneous shifts during this election cycle: the shift of white, working-class, blue-collar voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, especially in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio; and the shift of nonsocial conservative, white-collar, business-class voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in places like Georgia and Arizona and North Carolina.

Many union and manufacturing workers in places like Michigan who traditionally vote Democratic are drawn toward Donald Trump, but concurrently, many moderate and liberal Republicans in places like Long Island, New York, are drawn away from Trump. But is this simply an anomaly of 2016? Is it simply a result of the Hillary-Clinton-versus-Trump dynamic inherent to 2016, but not other candidates or election years? And do the effects simply cancel each other out? If 250,000 union workers in Michigan who voted for President Barack Obama vote for Trump, and 250,000 white suburban folks in Michigan who voted for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney vote against Trump, it would be a wash of sorts. A similar effect could play out in places like Pennsylvania, where more traditionally Democratic areas like Scranton and Pittsburgh could tilt more Republican than usual, and more traditionally Republican areas like the Philadelphia suburbs could tilt more Democratic than usual.

The effect is marred, though, because many of these so-called “Reagan Democrats” who Trump says are leaving the Democratic Party to vote for him probably have not voted for a Democrat for president in years. Yes, they may still be registered Democrats, but for all intents and purposes, most have likely voted for Republicans John McCain and Romney instead of Obama. So the argument coming from the Trump campaign that he’s bringing new voters into the fold is true but disingenuous, because it may be a net negative or a net neutral, given that many voters will leave the Republican Party because of Trump.

Whether this type of shift is permanent for the foreseeable future, this potential shift should not worry people. These sorts of shifts happen from time to time. Consider the shift of African Americans from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party between the end of the Civil War and the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Consider the shift of southern whites from the Democratic Party to Republican Party between the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. These shifts are normal parts of the political process, as voters realign their party preferences to match the changing times.

I do not believe the realignment — whether permanent or for this election only — will be as pronounced as that of the aforementioned shifts of African Americans and southern Democrats. Rather, I believe it will be much more on the margins. A suburban county of Philadelphia that Republican Romney carried 51-48 percent may now go 53-46 for Democrat Clinton. Or a blue-collar county outside of Detroit lively with autoworkers that Democrat Obama carried 65-33 may now go only 53-46 for Democrat Clinton. Will this redraw the electoral map? It has the potential to, but I believe much of the state shifts from one party to the other will be offset by other shifts. So, for instance, Michigan or Ohio might just barely go Republican this November, but Georgia and Arizona and North Carolina might just barely go Democratic as well.

In any case, we seem to be seeing a realignment of the coalitions that comprise each party. Each party may be losing voters to the other, which is to be feared, but each party is gaining new voters from the other, which is to be embraced. Will this be the case? And how pronounced will it be? Only time will tell.

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For all those persons concerned “clown” Donald Trump or “wacko” Ted Cruz or “liar” Hillary Clinton will be our next president, I am here to calm your nerves and tell you it really doesn’t matter — at least not in the ways you think. Less than a year from now on Nov. 8, no matter who our country elects to be its next president, that person will be severely constrained.

Notwithstanding the results of the presidential race, Congress is likely to remain divided — and polarized. Barring some catastrophic change in the ideological makeup of the country, a realigning world event or political implosion, entrenched by their massive gains in the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans are likely to maintain at least a marginal majority in the House of Representatives after the 2016 election. On the opposite side of the United States Capitol, in the Senate, either party will probably hold only a 51-49 or 52-48 seat majority after the 2016 election. Based upon the allocation of Senate seats up for election in 2016, and because turnout in presidential elections seems to benefit Democrats overall, Democrats are much more poised to make pickups than Republicans.

While the House of Representatives is a majority-focused institution, which only requires a simple majority vote to advance legislation, the Senate is a minority-focused institution. In the Senate, in almost all instances, a simple majority is not enough to advance legislation. In the Senate, to break a filibuster and advance legislation, a three-fifths or 60-vote threshold must be crossed. This means that even if one party holds a 52-48 or 51-49 seat majority in the Senate, without a truly bipartisan agreement, the minority party can still stymie legislative progress.

If Clinton is elected president — the most likely Democrat at this point — a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and/or Republican minority in the Senate will be able to restrain her, thereby keeping a check on her left-leaning policy ambitions. If Trump or Ben Carson are elected president — the highest-polling Republicans at this point — a Democratic majority or minority in the Senate will be able to constrain them, thereby keeping a check on their right-leaning policy ambitions. No matter which party controls the White House, and no matter which party has a majority in the House of Representatives, unless either party has a filibuster-proof Senate majority, the Senate minority can severely restrain far-left or far-right legislation, thereby moderating a president of the opposing party. Because of this, little significant legislation is likely. Though Republicans currently hold a 54-46 Senate majority, due to the constraints mentioned earlier, in the 2016 election at least, it is nearly impossible for them to pick up the six Senate seats necessary for a filibuster-proof majority. For much of the same reasons, it is nearly impossible for Democrats to pick up the 14 Senate seats necessary to have their own filibuster-proof majority. And this dynamic isn’t likely to change soon.

While the next president will be severely limited on the legislative front due to institutional constraints and partisan polarization, another avenue is wide open to pursue — executive orders, judicial appointments and bureaucratic rulemaking. While the Constitution tasks Congress with creating laws, Congress is not large enough or specialized enough to implement legislation. The intricate details are left to bureaucratic agencies, such as the Department of Energy or Department of Agriculture, whose jurisdiction falls under the executive branch. As head of the executive branch, the president has the “real” authority to direct the creation and modification of rules and regulations. My prediction is that this avenue is likely to be utilized frequently by the next president because of Congress’ lack of productivity as of late. For the current president, this is already the case. Noticing Congress’ near-total paralysis on immigration reform, President Barack Obama directed certain federal departments to limit or modify the enforcement of federal law, among other things. The president has also issued orders concerning refinancing student loans, raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and reforming sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders, justifying his need for unilateral action by noting Congress’ lack of action.

Therefore, when voting for our next president, don’t be concerned with their legislative prowess, or lack thereof. I expect very little fruitful interaction between the next president and the next Congress. The next president will be going it alone. Be more concerned with what unilateral actions the next president will take, who he or she will appoint to the federal judiciary and executive departments and which federal agencies he or she will direct to do what. That is where the next president’s real power lies, most of the public just hasn’t noticed it yet.


A call to action for the youth generation

The Lantern, 14 October 2015

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Are there any issues that aren't political anymore?

The Lantern, 11 January 2016

Kicking the can down the road — we do it rather well in this country. Whether it is reforming the funding formulas for Social Security and Medicare, or addressing our nation’s crippling debt and deficit, or rising college costs, or wage stagnation, we seem to put off solving problems today that we can solve tomorrow.

According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security is likely to become insolvent in the early 2030s. According to Medicare’s trustees, it will become insolvent even sooner, in the late-2020s. That might seem far off, but it isn’t. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which funds upgrades in transportation, is set to expire Oct. 29. These impending calamities have not come from thin air, though. Congress has known for some time action is needed, upwards of the last decade and more. But has Congress acted in a serious and meaningful way? No.

These issues are difficult to solve, to say the least. After all, if these problems were so easy to solve, they would already be solved. Our members of Congress are human, like us. Perhaps they do not have answers to all these problems. But there is more to it than that.

For many elected officials, these issues are not priorities. The average age of a member of Congress is 57 years old — 61 years old for the average senator. Why should someone around that age be expected to prioritize stemming rising college costs, wage stagnation or the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare? When these programs go belly up, most of these people — with all due respect — will either be in nursing homes, six feet under or golfing in South Florida. Kicking the can down the road is easy for them because they will not have to live with the ramifications of inaction. The status quo bodes well for them — but not for their grandchildren.

Our generation’s engagement in these issues can command the attention of elected officials. If youth engagement as a percentage can rival that of our parents and grandparents, elected officials would be wise to heed our wants and needs more than they currently do — it would be shrewd electoral politics to do so. Research shows those who participate in government and politics receive more attention than those who do not. Thinking realistically, why should an elected official be responsive to a generation that does not engage or vote in large numbers, who therefore pose little threat to the official’s re-election when he or she is not responsive? If elected officials consciously ignore issues important to our generation, there is little threat of reprisal. Martin Wattenberg humorizes that “politicians are not fools; they know who their customers are. Why should they worry about young nonvoters any more than the makers of denture cream worry about people with healthy teeth?” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in his 2016 presidential campaign, has reached out to youths, as he believes many align with his more libertarian values, but youths do not engage or vote in large enough numbers to sway the election.

Ironically, there is a cyclical nature to the process of impassiveness between young people and elected officials: A lack of our generation’s engagement in the electoral process necessitates a lack of attention paid to youth issues by elected officials; a lack of attention paid to youth issues by elected officials necessitates a lack of our generation’s engagement in government and politics. Which caused which in the first place is a chicken-or-the-egg type of question, but it shows how each side’s apathy indirectly reinforces its own indifference.

This is a call to action. Our generation, those in their teens and twenties, has to get engaged — our fiscal future depends on it. It is not my intention to scare or guilt people into action, as that might sound very doom-and-gloom, but we must awaken our generation out of indifference and apathy. I recognize every 18-to-29 year old will not engage, but more should. What is realistic is for each of us to find an issue we are especially passionate about, and focus on tackling that issue. For some it might be rising college costs — great. For others it might be addressing deteriorating entitlement programs — great. For the remainder it might be the dissatisfaction with partisan vitriol between Democrats and Republicans — great. Pick an issue and contact your elected officials about it. Send them an email or call their offices. Even easier, talk to your friends and neighbors about it. Encourage them to become more engaged.

If we ignore these issues, they will not solve themselves. If we ignore these issues, we become complicit in our own fate, intentional or not. Our elected officials will continue to eschew acting soon if we remain unengaged and unconcerned. The positive news — and there is some — is that we have an opportunity to act, but we must do so quickly. We are the masters of our own fate. That is both gift and curse. The curse lies in that the window to act is closing, whether we act or not. Inertia allows the can to continue being kicked down the road, but our mobilization can stop it. Enough is enough; let’s stop kicking the can down the road.

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From Ted Cruz’s kids to Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities to Barack Obama’s birthplace, are there any issues that aren’t political anymore? Nothing is off limits. Factor in the 24-hour news cycle, national reporters foaming at the mouth for a sensationalizing story, and news outlets catering to only one fraction of the populace, and it seems everything is ripe for being turned into a political controversy. Confrontation has run wild. In August 2014, Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, New York, expressed outrage and accused President Obama of lacking seriousness when he wore a tan suit during a press conference. The Islamic State was beheading western journalists, but a suit color was the offense.

While American politics has seemingly run amok, especially as one looks toward statehouses or the nation’s capital, I believe regular Americans are not nearly as guilty of such chicanery. Walk down almost any street in America, stop a few people at random, talk to them for a few minutes, and I am willing to bet there are still issues that are apolitical or entirely bipartisan. After much thought, here are two of them.

Issue One: lowering the interest rates on federal loans to college students, thereby decreasing the amount of money student borrowers owe on those loans. With college costs rising exponentially and the job market still iffy, students could use a break. The federal government could make all federal loans to students subsidized, meaning no interest accrues while they are in school, or the federal government could charge a flat fee when the loan is distributed rather than charge any interest on the loan. Yes, this would lessen the profits the federal government receives from issuing student loans, but should the federal government even be making money off students anyway? There is something to be said when the federal government profits from some of the most economically vulnerable in society.

The federal government does not administer the federal student loans program exclusively out of the goodness in its heart — it is a cash cow for federal coffers. There is little incentive for the federal government to encourage schools to increase efficiently, thereby decreasing costs, or to encourage students to take out fewer loans, when those loans are so profitable. If the federal government really wants to help students, it should make paying back federal loans less burdensome. Democrats and Republicans should agree on this issue, as Democrats want to lessen the economic burden of taking out student loans while Republicans want to minimize the federal government’s stake in the student loan business.

Issue Two: universal background checks for all gun purchases. This would include closing the gun show loophole, which allows anyone, regardless of intent, criminal record or mental health history, to walk into a gun show, pay cash and get a gun, no questions asked. This would also include disallowing Internet sales and straw purchases of guns, which allows for background checks to be avoided. Universal background checks for all gun purchases seems reasonable, and around 90 percent of Americans agree — even Republicans and gun owners.

Many argue that criminals do not follow the law, which is correct, hence why they are called criminals, but criminals do not even need to break the law when they can get a gun legally at a gun show or online without a background check. A law-abiding gun owner can pass a background check, so having universal background checks does not harbor on their Second Amendment rights. And Fox News host Bill O’Reilly agrees. On his Jan. 5 show, he challenged the National Rifle Association “to be reasonable” and allow for the FBI to conduct background checks for all gun purchases, even calling it an “obligation to increase public safety.” When O’Reilly echoes the sentiment of liberals, which does not happen often, it should give us pause.

In politics there is often mention of the 80-20 rule. Politicians in Washington spend 80 percent of their time arguing about the 20 percent that they disagree on, leaving only 20 percent of their time — if even that much — for the 80 percent they agree on. In a perfect world, they should be spending 80 percent of their time working together to make progress on the 80 percent they do agree on. This world may not be perfect, but reforming federal loans to college students and mandating universal background checks are a prime place to start. If there are any issues that should not be political, these are the ones.


I oppose the Iran deal because I support the president

The Lantern, 26 August 2015

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Is President Obama a leader?

The Lantern, 17 February 2016

I think it is safe to say I am one of the few Americans who respects President Barack Obama, is sympathetic to a reasonable chunk of his agenda, is disheartened by the near-constant opposition to him by Republicans in Congress, and who thinks his Iran deal is 100 times worse than Donald Trump’s hairdo.

On many fronts, President Obama has worked hard to reshape the national agenda. At least in spirit, he has done a great deal to move the country forward. His regard for tackling income inequality, promoting criminal justice reform and increasing college affordability is commendable. Whether it be the Affordable Care Act expanding access to healthcare for millions, or the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act doing more to protect consumers from Wall Street recklessness, or his countless speeches promoting common-sense gun reforms like universal background checks, the administration is quite capable of doing a decent job. The administration has shown leadership on LGBTQ issues, on immigration reform and on expanding the military and intelligence relationship with our allies like Israel. On some foreign policy matters, such as Cuba, commencing new relations has the propensity to benefit both nations. President Obama has also done well to open up dialogue and carry the conversation on race issues.

I oppose his Iran deal because I genuinely believe the administration can do better. In my heart, I know it can. I have seen how successful their messaging can be, how much concern they have shown for pressing issues and how much they have tried to forge bipartisan agreement, and am dumbfounded they seemingly dropped the ball during Iran negotiations. The president has done well on many other issues, and he should have done better on this. I am disappointed. The administration should have insisted on more dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, not simply put it in storage until the deal’s sunset provisions kick in. It should have required Iran to change its rhetoric and behavior and come clean on its past weaponization efforts. The current deal does not do so. Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, as its tentacles of terror stretch from Yemen to Syria, to Lebanon to Iraq — where they currently sponsor terror, often against fellow Muslims — and to Argentina and to Bulgaria — where they have sponsored attacks against Jews in the past — and to our nation’s capital — where, in 2013, they attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. The current deal provides upfront, rather than gradual, sanctions relief, to the tune of around $150 billion in the first year alone. It is difficult to deny that Iran’s support of terror and unrest will only increase with this newfound wealth.

In Washington, ill will exists on all sides. The administration never trusted Congress to scrutinize a deal on the merits only, outside of the usual political gamesmanship, and that is precisely why the deal was not submitted to Congress as a treaty; Congress never trusted the administration to acknowledge its objections and factor outside views into the negotiations. 

Among supporters and detractors of the deal, most had their positions staked out long ago, along partisan lines. Many Democrats, looking to afford President Obama a foreign policy victory, and to avoid seeming disrespectful or undermining him, would blindly support any deal, no matter the content. Many Republicans, on the other hand, view this administration with extreme hostility and mistrust, and would oppose any deal reached, no matter the content, simply to deny the president a foreign policy victory. In both instances, judging the deal on its merits is not on the menu, and that’s a shame.

Many opponents of the deal fail to recognize the administration’s good intentions, instead promoting ad hominem attacks against President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry or the negotiators themselves. These opponents also fail to acknowledge the hard work of the negotiators and fail to see, or to believe, the administration worked toward a good deal. On the flip side, the administration has exhibited extreme naiveté in believing Iran will somehow radically moderate its behavior under this regime, end its vociferous support of international terror and become a Middle Eastern form of Sweden or Norway. The President is naïve to believe Iran will quickly reverse its pariah-state behaviors, be a force for good in the region and become a reliable American partner. 

On the Iran issue, my support and respect for the president on domestic and other foreign policy issues has little bearing. My opposition to this deal has no relation to healthcare, gun control, Cuba, and other issues, as it shouldn’t. What does access to affordable healthcare have to do with the Iran deal? What does college affordability have to do with the Iran deal? What does criminal justice reform or race issues have to do with the Iran deal? Because America has become so polarized, it is assumed if I support the president on one issue, I support the president on all issues, and vice versa. It is time to separate issues. Opposing the Iran deal should not imply I do not like the president. I oppose the Iran deal on its merits, regardless of my support for the president’s position on other unrelated issues. I implore the president and the administration to do better because I know it can.

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President Barack Obama’s critics accuse him of being weak — of not leading. When they do give him credit for leading, which is not often, they say he is “leading from behind.” Across both sides of the political aisle, people want this president to display strong leadership. But what does that even mean? What does “strong leadership” look like? “Strong leadership” is as metaphorical, abstract and vague as “hope and change,” the president’s 2008 campaign slogan.

I think “strong leadership” is code for being more aggressive — being more hawkish in political speak. Specifically as it relates to foreign policy, it means being more brash, more interventionist and more cocksure. Unfortunately, it also means lashing out before considering the full and long-term ramifications of certain actions. The president’s critics will not use the terms “dovish” and “hawkish” — defining the president as the former — because that sort of imagery conjures up comparisons with former President George W. Bush, whose hawkish foreign-policy endeavors still entangle the United States. Even so many years later, these endeavors are not popular with the American people, Democrats and Republicans alike. Rather than directly calling the president a dove, with intent to avoid the aforementioned comparison with Bush’s foreign policy — which is a losing argument for them — they simply accuse the president of being a weak leader.

Make no mistake, the same people who accuse the president of not being a strong leader want more U.S. intervention abroad, and the majority of that type of intervention looks rather similar to the Bush administration. Many congratulations go out to these critics, as they have simultaneously and successfully done two things. First, they have managed to discredit the president’s character and resolve, rather convincingly. Second, and more cleverly, they have managed to call the president a weak leader for not being as interventionist as Bush without invoking the Bush foreign-policy legacy.

Perhaps the foreign policy of Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be more in tune with the desires of Obama’s critics. Clinton recognizes the role the United States must play in the world, and how a lack of American leadership abroad leaves open a vacuum for Putin’s Russia, the ayatollah’s Iran and communist China to fill, which means no “leading from behind” is allowed. But on the flip side of the coin, Clinton is no neoconservative — she won’t be appointing Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney to her cabinet. People like John McCain or Lindsey Grahamshould find her foreign policy more palatable, even though she will be more calculated, and her foreign policy will be more reserved than Bush’s. The sad part is that Obama’s critics are likely to criticize Clinton’s foreign policy, regardless of what it actually is. This is a byproduct of our intense partisanship in this country, which leads to divisiveness, and that is unfortunate. When our foreign policy is not delivered through one voice, it weakens America.

I am not proselytizing for Clinton’s candidacy, but I am fairly convinced that her foreign policy will stake out a middle ground between the over-intervention of the Bush years and the under-intervention of the Obama years. This should please a lot more people, yet I have a funny feeling it will please very few.