Monday, March 28, 2016

Ryan moves stir White House talk

By Scott Wong 
The Hill
March 29, 2016

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could be in prime position to run for president in 2020 if Donald Trump leads the GOP to a monumental collapse in November.

With his youth and sunny, Reaganesque message, Ryan could be a formidable White House candidate in four years’ time, when the Republican Party may be searching for a safer standard-bearer after the roller coaster ride of 2016.

"I honestly don't think Paul ever wants to run for president,” said Washington veteran Cesar Conda, who helped Ryan land his first full-time staffer job on Capitol Hill in 1992. “But four years is a long time, and Hillary Clinton could do so much damage to the country that he might reconsider."

Many in the party had hoped that Ryan, Mitt Romney’s 2012 vice presidential running mate, would jump in this cycle. But he took a pass, only to watch as Trump, the New York billionaire and reality TV star, dispatched the field one by one.

In hindsight, it was a smart move for Ryan to sit out the race. The new Speaker has managed to steer clear of the mudslinging and petty personal attacks that have defined the race while using his bully pulpit to offer a positive, forward-looking vision for the party and nation.

His “State of American Politics” speech to hundreds of congressional interns encapsulated that dynamic. Trump spent the week feuding with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over his wife as the GOP race took on a street-fight atmosphere. Ryan, meanwhile, standing in the cavernous Ways and Means Committee room flanked by American flags, used his address to call for more civility and less name-calling in politics, never once mentioning Trump by name.

To many observers, the Speaker looked and sounded presidential.

“My dad used to say, if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. So I have made it a mission of my Speakership to raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon,” Ryan said. “Instead of talking about what politics is today, I want to talk about what politics can be. I want to talk about what our country can be.”

The last-minute speech set off rampant speculation on Twitter. “I think Paul Ryan just launched his 2020 campaign,” tweeted Chicago consultant @johnvmoore. “2020 run?” added Bloomberg’s Steve Dennis.

“Ryan has slowly, carefully been pitching himself as the Republican Party's anti-Trump,” wrote one Washington Post blogger, “and Wednesday's speech sounded like he hoped to emerge as an alternative to a party burned by Trump for 2020.”

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong, the former national press secretary for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) failed presidential campaign, declined to comment for this story.

But other GOP sources close to Ryan said the Speaker harbors no presidential ambitions and has not spent any time discussing a future White House bid with House colleagues or aides. Ryan launched his “Confident America” campaign this year to give House Republicans a conservative, ideas-focused policy platform to run on in 2016.

“His constant narrative is, ‘I have big policy dreams for the country, not big political dreams for myself,’” said a House GOP colleague who knows Ryan well.

For Ryan, a self-described policy wonk who’s chaired both the influential Ways and Means and Budget committees, that political philosophy has so far served him well.

He took an unusual path to the Speaker’s office last fall after Ohio Republican John Boehner resigned under pressure from conservatives.

From the moment Boehner announced he was leaving, Ryan denied any interest in becoming Speaker — only to change his mind after the heir apparent to the gavel, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), abruptly dropped out of the race.

Given that reversal came after Ryan had adamantly denied any interest in the job — “I don't want to be Speaker,” he said early on — some are hoping he can be persuaded to change his mind about running for the White House.

With the ugly GOP primary race heading toward a possible contested convention this summer, some of the Speaker’s biggest fans have begun rooting for Ryan to become this year’s GOP nominee — a consensus pick in the event the delegates in Cleveland can’t agree on anyone else.

“Look, he’s already been vetted, he’s been on a national ticket, millions of people have already voted for him in that regard, we know how he performs,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.” “And frankly, he does represent the kind of vision and values, as a Republican, you would want to put forward.”

Ryan has repeatedly insisted there is no scenario in which he’ll agree to be the GOP nominee this year. And any “Draft Ryan” effort in Cleveland would certainly trigger a revolt from Trump and Cruz supporters, who believe the nominee should be someone who ran for president this year and won a large number of states.

Both privately and publicly, Republicans in Washington are warning that a Trump nomination could be disastrous for the party in the general election. The businessman has called Mexican immigrants rapists, proposed a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., mocked a disabled person, encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies and made crude remarks about women, including about former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and Fox News’s Megyn Kelly.

A Monmouth University poll released last week found Clinton crushing Trump in a general-election match-up, 48 percent to 38 percent. And there are serious concerns among establishment Republicans that a Trump ticket could have a disastrous, down-ballot impact, handing Democrats control of the Senate and possibly even the House.

Vulnerable GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a Miami-area swing district, is among a handful of Republicans lawmakers who have said they will not back Trump if he wins the nomination.

Asked if he could support a Ryan presidential bid in the future, Curbelo replied: “I'm always all-in for Paul Ryan — today, tomorrow and in 2020.”

If Clinton wins in November, the race for the GOP primary in 2020 will once again be a crowded one. Marco Rubio, who’s just 44, could certainly run again. And popular governors, including Mike Pence of Indiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, could take a look.

But Ryan is already a national figure and fundraising powerhouse who would match up well against Clinton. The Speaker would be just 50 on Election Day in 2020 and appeal to a younger generation of voters; Clinton, who’s struggled with the youth vote, would be 73.

And Ryan, who hails from Janesville, Wis., could do well in Rust Belt states, where Clinton has had mixed results.

"He'd bring experience, intellect and, more importantly, temperament," said Conda.

Article Link to the Hill:

Is it Time for America to Quit NATO?

U.S. NATO policy fails to be relevant and prudent.

By Ted Galen Carpenter
The National Interest
March 29, 2016

NATO will celebrate its sixty-seventh anniversary in April. Instead of being an occasion for the usual expression of mind-numbing clichés about the alliance’s enduring importance both to U.S. security and world peace, it should become an opportunity for a long overdue assessment of whether the NATO commitment truly serves America’s best interests in the twenty-first century. There is mounting evidence that it does not.

The creation of NATO in 1949 represented the most explicit break with America’s traditional policy of avoiding foreign alliances and generally charting a non interventionist course. Being drawn into two major wars in little more than a generation—and especially the psychologically devastating attack on Pearl Harbor—had struck a fatal blow to a non interventionist foreign policy. Even prominent non interventionists such as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) now conceded that the world had changed and that “isolationism” (a poisonous misnomer) was no longer an appropriate policy for the United States. Joining NATO, the ultimate “entangling alliance” with European powers, confirmed the extent of the shift in Washington’s policy and American attitudes.

It was hard to dispute the argument that the world had changed. There was no semblance of a European or a global balance of power in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Central and Eastern Europe were under the domination of the Soviet Union, a ruthless totalitarian power that posed an expansionist threat of unknown dimensions. Western Europe, although mostly democratic, was badly demoralized from the devastation of World War II and the looming Soviet menace. Even prominent non interventionists such as Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-OH) were not prepared to cut democratic Europe loose in such a strategic environment. He merely wanted to offer the Europeans a security guarantee without having the United States take the fateful step of joining NATO and assuming virtually unlimited leadership duties for an unknown length of time. Subsequent developments validated his wariness.

NATO partisans insisted that the world had changed with World War II and that the new paradigm required extensive U.S. leadership. The problem with their analysis, especially as the decades have passed, is that they seem to assume that change is a single major event and everything thereafter operates within the new paradigm. But that assumption is totally false. Change is an ongoing process. Today’s Europe is at least as different from the Europe of 1949 as that Europe was from pre–World War II Europe. Yet the institutional centerpiece—NATO—and much of the substance of U.S. policy remain the same.

The entire security environment is different. Instead of being a collection of demoralized, war-ravaged waifs, the European democracies are now banded together in the European Union, with a population and collective gross domestic product larger than that of the United States. Although they are troubled by the turbulence in the Middle East and the occasional growls of the Russian bear, they are capable of handling both problems. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a pale shadow of the threat once posed by the Soviet Union. The European Union has three times the population and an economy nearly ten times the size of Russia.

The primary reason that the EU countries have not done more to manage the security of their own region is that the United States has insisted on taking the leadership role—and paying a large portion of the costs [4]. As a result, the United States spends nearly 4 percent of its GDP on the military; for NATO Europe, the figure is barely 1.6 percent. That disparate economic burden is only one reason why we need to conduct a comprehensive review of whether the NATO commitment serves America’s interests any longer, but it is an important one.

The European security environment has changed in another significant way since NATO’s creation. During the early decades of the alliance, Washington’s goal was to preserve the security of major players, such as West Germany, Italy, France and Britain. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though, U.S. leaders have pushed for the expansion of the alliance into Central and even Eastern Europe, adding marginal allies with the casual attitude [5] that some people add Facebook friends.

But unlike Facebook, military alliances are deadly serious enterprises. NATO, with its Article 5 commitment pledging that an attack on one member will be considered an attack on all, could easily entangle the United States in an armed conflict that has little or nothing to do with America’s own security. The absurdity of NATO in the twenty-first century may have reached its zenith in February 2016 when, with Washington’s enthusiastic backing, the alliance admitted tiny Montenegro as a member. In the post–World War II decade, when the United States broke with its traditional noninterventionist policy, proponents of the new approach argued that alliances would enhance America’s security. How a microstate like Montenegro could augment America’s already vast military power and economic strength would seem to be a great mystery.

But at least Montenegro does not have any great-power enemies. The same could not be said of three other small members, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were admitted a decade ago. They are on frosty terms with Russia, and a leading think-tank study indicates [6]they are so vulnerable that Russian forces could overrun them in a matter of days. So, we have gone from an alliance commitment to protect crucial economic and strategic players against an ominous totalitarian superpower to putting America’s credibility, and perhaps its very existence, on the line to protect a collection of tiny players on Russia’s border. Indeed, the buildup of U.S. forces on Russia’s western frontier has contributed significantly to the deterioration of bilateral relations.

It would seem that NATO partisans are the ones who don’t appreciate the role of change in international affairs. To them, preserving the alliance, not maximizing America’s security and well-being, is the highest priority. We should not accept such static thinking. Sixty-seven years is a long time for any policy to remain intact and try to remain relevant. America’s NATO policy is increasingly failing the most basic tests of relevance and prudence. It is well past time to conduct a comprehensive review and consider even the most drastic option: U.S. withdrawal from the alliance.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Monday, March 28, Night Wall Street Roundup: Wall Street ends flat after choppy session

By Noel Randewich
March 28, 2016

Wall Street was mixed on Monday as weaker-than-expected U.S. economic data reduced concerns about potential interest rate hikes and a dip in oil prices pushed down energy shares.

U.S. consumer spending barely rose in February and inflation retreated, suggesting the Federal Reserve could remain cautious about raising interest rates this year even as the labor market rapidly tightens.

Trading was choppy and volume was low, with markets closed in Europe.

The S&P has mostly recovered from a 10-percent loss at the start of 2016 but many investors remain wary of potential interest rate hikes, the impact of volatile oil prices and an anemic global economy.

"I don't think we're out of the woods," said Frank Gretz, a technical analyst at Wellington Shields & Co, a brokerage in New York. "I've noticed some loss of momentum in the last week."

Investors will pay close attention to Fed Chair Janet Yellen's speech in New York on Tuesday for clues about when the central bank might raise interest rates.

"We'll be watching her to see if there is any change in her language or views, but the Street does not expect her to do anything to surprise the markets," said Warren West, principal at Greentree Brokerage Services in Philadelphia.

The S&P consumer discretionary .SPLRCD and consumer staples .SPLRCS sectors rose 0.51 percent and 0.43 percent respectively. The utilities sector .SPLRCU lost 0.36 percent and energy .SPNY lost 0.34 percent.

Crude prices moved lower, with U.S. crude below $40 a barrel.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI rose 0.11 percent to finish at 17,535.39 points and the S&P 500 .SPX edged up 0.05 percent to 2,037.05.

The Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 0.14 percent to 4,766.79.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT.N) rose 1.97 percent after China's Anbang Insurance Group Co raised its offer for the U.S. hotel operator to almost $14 billion, the latest challenge to its merger with Marriott International Inc (MAR.O).

Noble Energy (NBL.N) dropped 8.19 percent after the company warned of a possible delay in the development of a key natural gas field in Israel.

Pandora Media (P.N) fell 12.17 percent after the music streaming company said its founder Tim Westergren was coming back as chief executive.

Cal-Maine Foods (CALM.O) jumped 8.76 percent after reporting higher-than-expected quarterly profit.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,738 to 1,287. On the Nasdaq, 1,531 issues fell and 1,265 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 29 new 52-week highs and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 27 new highs and 42 new lows.

About 5.1 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Article Link to Reuters:

Cuba's Fidel Castro knocks sweet-talking Obama after 'honey-coated' visit


March 28, 2016

Retired leader Fidel Castro accused U.S. President Barack Obama of sweet-talking the Cuban people during his visit to the island last week and ignoring the accomplishments of Communist rule, in an opinion piece carried by all state-run media on Monday.

Obama's visit was aimed at consolidating a detente between the once intractable Cold War enemies and the U.S. president said in a speech to the Cuban people that it was time for both nations to put the past behind them and face the future "as friends and as neighbors and as family, together."

"One assumes that every one of us ran the risk of a heart attack listening to these words," Castro said in his column, dismissing Obama's comments as "honey-coated" and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.

Castro, 89, laced his opinion piece with nationalist sentiment and, bristling at Obama's offer to help Cuba, said the country was able to produce the food and material riches it needs with the efforts of its people.

"We don't need the empire to give us anything," he wrote.

Asked about Fidel Castro's criticisms on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration was pleased with the reception the president received from the Cuban people and the conversations he had with Cuban officials.

"The fact that the former president felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the president's visit, I think is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama's visit to Cuba,” Earnest said.

After the visit, major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties between Cuba and the United States, with no major concessions offered by Cuba on rights and economic freedom.

“The president made clear time and time again both in private meetings with President Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock solid and that's not going to change,” Earnest said.

Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and led the country until 2006, when he fell ill and passed power to his brother Raul Castro. He now lives in relative seclusion but is occasionally heard from in opinion pieces or seen on television and in photos meeting with visiting dignitaries.

The iconic figure's influence has waned in his retirement and the introduction of market-style reforms carried out by Raul Castro, but Fidel Castro still has a moral authority among many residents, especially older generations.

Obama did not meet with Fidel Castro during his three-day visit, nor mention him in any of his public appearances. It was the first visit of a sitting U.S. president for 88 years.

Fidel Castro blasted Obama for not referring in his speech to the extermination of native peoples in both the United States and Cuba, not recognizing Cuba's gains in health and education, and not coming clean on what he might know about how South Africa obtained nuclear weapons before apartheid ended, presumably with the aid of the U.S. government.

"My modest suggestion is that he reflects (on the U.S. role in South Africa and Cuba's in Angola) and not now try to elaborate theories about Cuban politics," Castro said.

Castro also took aim at the tourism industry in Cuba, which has grown further since Obama's rapprochement with Raul Castro in December 2014. He said it was dominated by large foreign corporations which took for granted billion-dollar profits.

Article Link to Reuters:

Are CIA-Backed Syrian Rebels Really Fighting Pentagon-Backed Syrian Rebels?

By Sam Heller
War On The Rocks
March 28, 2016

The Los Angeles Times’ contention Sunday that “in Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA” is basically incorrect.

This is complicated, but bear with me. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are not a monolithic force. Like nearly every other faction in Syria, they’re spread across an archipelago of enclaves nationwide. The SDF units clashing with Syrian rebels reportedly supported by the CIA are not supported by the Pentagon —they’re from a different enclave. The U.S. military is exclusively supporting the SDF in northeastern Syria on the other side of the Euphrates River. The Pentagon-backed SDF east of the Euphrates is fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, not rebels with or without U.S. backing.

Allow me to explain.

The confusion around this news story is a result of wartime Syria’s jigsaw-like map of control. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the SDF umbrella under which they operate are primarily active in northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates River, where they’ve linked what had been two isolated Kurdish enclaves to form a zone of control along much of Turkey’s southern border. But they also control a still-isolated enclave west of the Euphrates River in northwestern Aleppo province called Afrin, as well as a single neighborhood in Aleppo city. Afrin remains separated from YPG/SDF territory east of the Euphrates by a long stretch of Islamic State territory that the U.S. government calls the “Manbij Pocket.”

Before February, SDF units in Afrin had periodically clashed with Arab and Turkmen rebels in northern Aleppo province, including some that reportedly receive arms via a combined intelligence cell in Turkey that includes the CIA. Then, in February, the SDF in Afrin took advantage of the chaos caused by a Russian-backed regime offensive around Aleppo city to attack the rebels from the west and grab large sections of the northern Aleppo countryside. The Afrin SDF allegedly enjoyed Russian close air support against these rebels, although they have publicly denied these reports. Some clashes have persisted since then, but the new SDF-drawn lines have mostly held.

Thus, the implication in the Los Angeles Times that the SDF drove west from northeastern Syria (east of the Euphrates) to the outskirts of Aleppo city is misleading. The story reports:

"At first, the two different sets of fighters were primarily operating in widely separated areas of Syria — the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeastern part of the country and the CIA-backed groups farther west. But over the last several months, Russian airstrikes against anti-Assad fighters in northwestern Syria have weakened them. That created an opening which allowed the Kurdish-led groups to expand their zone of control to the outskirts of Aleppo, bringing them into more frequent conflict with the CIA-backed outfits."

In reality, the Kurdish SDF actually pushed east from Afrin in the northwest, where they had been all along. SDF presence east of the Euphrates largely remains static, although they have established a beachhead west of the Tishrin Dam that spans the river.

All this is relevant because the Pentagon has only supported the SDF east of the Euphrates in its battles with the Islamic State. The Afrin SDF is not Pentagon-backed — this sounds sort of ridiculous, but it’s true.

So yes, it is technically true that the SDF receives U.S. Department of Defense support and one of its components is fighting Arab and Turkmen rebels, some of whom received CIA backing. But the factions of the SDF that are fighting these rebels are not Pentagon-backed, so we’re not seeing the sort of interagency warfare the story implies.

Beyond the eastern SDF, some elements of the non-SDF, northern Aleppo Arab and Turkmen rebels have received arms and close air support from the U.S. DoD and the broader coalition. This has received essentially no media coverage, but the non-SDF northern Aleppo rebels are seeded with several units that graduated from the Department of Defense “train and equip” program and are conspicuously equipped with the arms stocks procured for that program.

One train-and-equip unit, the 30th Division, was very publicly destroyed by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra when it was infiltrated via northern Aleppo, an embarrassing failure for the program. (Some members of the 30th Division actually fled to Afrin and joined a part of the non-U.S.-backed Afrin SDF.)

But the 30th Division was just one cohort from the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program. Others — including Liwa al-Hamzah, Liwa al-Mu’tasem, and the 99th Division — are now fighting alongside CIA-backed rebels with coalition close air support against the Islamic State in northern Aleppo. These U.S.-backed forces have consciously avoided the rebel-SDF fighting, instead focusing exclusively on fighting the Islamic State. Elsewhere, another train-and-equip unit, the New Syrian Army, recently collaborated with other rebels to seize Syria’s southern al-Tanaf border crossing with Iraq from the Islamic State.

So, to sum up: The non-Pentagon-backed SDF are fighting the CIA-backed northern Aleppo rebels, who are fighting alongside Pentagon-backed train-and-equip rebels against the Islamic State. The CIA-backed rebels are not fighting the Pentagon-backed SDF. They are fighting a different faction that does not enjoy U.S. support (and may have actually recently enjoyed Russian support). And the Pentagon-backed SDF is fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, half a country away.

Obviously, this is not an easy thing to explain properly, but I hold the U.S. government responsible for doing a poor job making these politically salient distinctions between its various proxies. I hope this doesn’t prejudice my access to various U.S. government spokespeople, but the official comment I’ve gotten to date on, for example, which section of the SDF receives Pentagon support has typically been muddled and unhelpful.

The facts here actually mean the fighting in northern Aleppo is not the absurd intra-U.S. government bloodletting it initially appears to be. But U.S. messaging on this has been sloppy, so you’d never know.

Article Link to War On The Rocks:

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Obamacare Is on the Back Burner in Election

By Albert R. Hunt
The Bloomberg View
March 27, 2016

No issue has aroused more partisan passion over the past six years than the Affordable Care Act. Yet the law is playing only a secondary role in the U.S. elections.

Sure, Republican presidential candidates cater to their base by vowing to repeal and replace Obamacare, and on the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont promises to replace it with a government-run universal coverage system.

But it doesn't dominate the dialogue and isn't a top priority on either side. Among the most embattled Senate Republican incumbents, the campaign websites of New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk of Illinois or Ron Johnson of Wisconsin barely mention the ACA. An exception is Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

The explanation may be that for all its controversy and imperfections, the sweeping law has taken hold. "This is in the fabric of the nation," says Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

To be sure, the presidential election outcome will be a determinant of whether Obamacare is reshaped, bolstered or downsized.

But even some skeptics acknowledge that its numbers are rather impressive. About 20 million more Americans now have health insurance than before the law was enacted in 2010; in the last enrollment period on the health care exchanges, 12.7 million signed up, almost 40 percent were newcomers. The expansion of Medicaid for the poor is making a mark.

Millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions no longer can be denied coverage; kids can stay on their parents' plans until age 26, and health care inflation is the lowest in years.

Burwell, in an interview, noted that there are a lot of less-known successes, such as a sharp reduction in patient harm at hospitals. She acknowledges challenges, which she put in "three buckets": reforming the health-care delivery system to encourage quality, not quantity, of care; addressing a few places where markets still are broken such as Alaska, and making technical fixes to so the law works a little better.

Critics find more. Premiums have soared this year in a number of states. Congress, in a bipartisan move, postponed and is threatening to kill a few important provisions that could create budgetary and cost-control problems; 22 states where Republicans hold sway have refused the expansion of Medicaid coverage.

In the presidential campaign, the rhetoric still can get hot. Texas Senator Ted Cruz says the ACA is "the biggest job-killer in this country. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs." Over all, from March 2010, when the law was enacted until today, the economy has added 13.7 million jobs.)

But most Republicans insist that they would keep popular provisions such as guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Governor John Kasich embraced the ACA's expansion of Medicaid in Ohio. The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has said he likes the mandate to get health insurance -- the centerpiece of the ACA and chief target of most conservative critics -- and that he wouldn’t let people "die sitting in the middle of the street."

When speculation surfaced of a possible Trump-Kasich pairing, the conservative Weekly Standard lamented that it'd be "The Nightmare Ticket for Opponents of Obamacare."

If Republicans win in November, however, even Trump would have to try to dismantle the law. The targets: the Medicaid expansion, the mandate (though with some replacement), and cutting subsidies. The problem would be that millions of newly insured would likely lose coverage, creating a political backlash.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, she also would espouse changes to buttress the ACA. The emphasis likely would be on cost controls. Last week, her daughter, Chelsea, vowed that her mom would do something about the "crushing costs" of Obamacare.

The ACA may not play much of a role in the outcome of this presidential election, but the partisan controversy hasn't gone away.

Article Link to the Bloomberg View:

President Obama's Overrated Unemployment Story

By J.T. Young
Real Clear Markets
March 28, 2016

Obama's economic highlight, employment, results not from growth, but a profound shrinking. This administration cites no economic statistic as it does employment. However employment's most popular measuring sticks - the number of employed and the unemployment rate - show Obama's story to be far less than billed. Rather than the crown jewel of his economy, employment further underscores its weakness.

In this year's State of the Union speech Obama stated: "Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We're in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the '90s, an unemployment rate cut in half."

Obama parsed his words carefully here, as he had to, in order to make his case. Saying America "right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world" is less than it sounds - considering today's global economic slowdown. But his real focus was accentuating his employment story.

However Obama did not mention that his focal economic achievement - higher employment and a low unemployment rate - must be viewed in isolation to appear impressive. Absent that, Obama's employment story unravels - and with it, his economic record.

The key to understanding this is a rather obscure statistic: The US labor force participation rate.

From the mid-1960s, Americans' participation in the labor force increased from just below 59% to plateauing just above 67% from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. Over the next decade, it dipped, hovering around 66%.

In 2008's last two months, it fell below 66%, reaching 65.7% when Obama took in 2009. It has since declined sharply, hitting 62.4% last September. Even having rebounded to 62.9% in February, dismissing the last seven years, this is its lowest point since 1978.

The large effect resulting from participation's drop is seen by comparing employment from the beginning of Obama's administration to today.

When Obama took office, America's potential labor force (the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Civilian Noninstitutionalized population) measured 234.7 million. February 2016's employment report recorded it at 252.6 million - a 7.6% increase. Employment over this period rose from 142.1 million to 151.1 million. Although a net 9 million employment increase, its 6.3% increase is less than the growth in the potential labor force.

The effect on the unemployment rate is far greater. If America still had the 65.5% labor force participation rate that existed when Obama took office, today's official 4.9% rate would instead be an enormous 8.7%. Conversely, if today's low 62.9% participation rate had prevailed when Obama took office, January 2009's 7.6% unemployment rate would have been just half that - an incredibly low 3.8%.

Two significant facts emerge from putting Obama's seven years into context. First, although an additional nine million employed sounds impressive, it has not kept pace with the growth of America's potential labor force. Second and more dramatically, today's seemingly low unemployment rate is the product of today's low labor force participation rate - without its huge fall, today's unemployment rate would actually be far larger than when Obama took office!

Over an extended period, with a healthy economy and a growing population, employment growth essentially should be a given. The economy grows, the population grows, and employment grows. That is simply normal under most circumstances.

Yet over the last seven years, employment has not kept pace with the potential labor force's growth, but lagged well behind. That is abnormal.

This difference between the growth in the potential labor force and those actually employed is the far lower participation rate. This is a particular abnormality.

Examining Obama's employment and unemployment record, two basic conclusions emerge: Either employment failed to match the potential labor force's growth because there have been insufficient jobs; or Americans deem the available jobs not worth entering the workforce for. Either conclusion indicts Obama's real employment record.

Absent employment, Obama has nothing else to claim as an economic accomplishment. There is a reason why Obama makes no remarks concerning economic growth: there is little on which to comment. Annual real GDP growth during Obama's presidency has averaged less than half of the post-WWII period preceding it - 1.4% from 2009-2015 versus 3.1% from 1946-2008.

So employment is all Obama's economy has. And to have it at all, means looking at it in isolation. Examined in context and comparison, Obama's employment and economic record collapses.

Article Link to Real Clear Markets:

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WSJ: Why Americans Hate Government

The regulators who destroyed Decker College have never been held accountable.

Review and Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
March 27, 2016

As government expands, so does its potential for abuse. Yet in the Obama era the media have largely abandoned their role as watchdogs, and even gross abuses of power go unpunished. Consider the sordid persecution of for-profit Decker College, which has belatedly received vindication after being driven into bankruptcy a decade ago by a malicious regulator.

Education Department administrative law judge Robert Layton recently affirmed a 2012 bankruptcy court finding that the Council on Occupational Education had failed to tell the truth in stating that Decker’s online programs were never accredited. The Council’s “factually erroneous” assertion caused the Education Department to withdraw federal student aid in 2005, which precipitated Decker’s bankruptcy.

As we wrote in July 2012, a large docket of evidence showed that the Council had in fact accredited Decker’s online programs. Its accreditation application included several mentions of distance learning, and Council inspectors who visited its campus also noted “Dist. Ed” on their evaluations, among other evidence.

The Council yanked Decker’s accreditation after its executive director Gary Puckett received an unusual phone call from Kansas City Federal Student Aid (FSA) case team director Ralph LoBosco. At the time the Council was itself up for review, and Mr. Puckett testified that he felt the need to assure its government regulators that Decker’s online programs were not approved.

Bankruptcy trustee Robert Keats alleged Mr. LoBosco was trying to exact revenge against Decker CEO William Weld who as a U.S. attorney during the 1980s had prosecuted Mr. LoBosco’s former employer for fraud. While bankruptcy Judge Thomas Fulton didn’t infer regulators’ motivations, he ruled that Decker had been accredited.

Judge Fulton’s finding should have barred the Education Department’s bankruptcy claim for $31 million, as Mr. Layton has now ruled. Mr. Layton noted that “it is troubling that FSA relied exclusively on [the Council’s] letter as a scant basis for imposing a $31 million liability and that FSA chose not to conduct any examination of the facts and circumstances behind the letter,” especially since “in other actions FSA has factually looked to the underlying facts on an accrediting agency’s decision.”

Equally troubling is what Mr. Layton calls the procedural “quagmire” that the Federal Student Aid office and Council created to freeze the bankruptcy case for more than a decade. The Federal Student Aid office argued that the bankruptcy court decision was not final. However, the Council chose not to “make the Bankruptcy Court’s ruling on the accuracy of the letter appealable,” as Mr. Layton put it. This “procedural quirk” created “a permanent bar” that prevented administrative and bankruptcy claims from “proceeding, since both forums would be required to wait on the other to proceed.”

Mr. Layton has now lifted the “permanent stay” on Decker’s administrative appeal and rejected the government’s $31 million claim. “There is a point at which a delay in the hearing process becomes a constitutional violation of Decker’s right to procedural due process,” he explained, and that’s for sure. So at least now the bankruptcy can proceed and other creditors including many students and workers can recover their losses.

But all of this is too late for Decker’s employees, its students and investors. They were victims of statements found to be false in two court proceedings. Yet there has been no accountability that we can detect for those who destroyed Decker.

After all these years, Mr. LoBosco continues to draw a taxpayer salary from the Education Department, according to the Federal Student Aid website. The department IG hasn’t investigated complaints by Decker’s outside counsel—which were filed prior to the bankruptcy—against Mr. LoBosco. The Education Department renewed the Council’s recognition as a college accreditor in 2007 and most recently in 2013. A spokesman for the IG’s office hasn’t responded to our request for comment. Nor has Mr. Puckett, although the Council has said it disagrees with the bankruptcy court’s determination.

If Americans must live with a gigantic and intrusive government, then at least they should know there will be some accountability for abuses of power. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education for seven years, did nothing about the Decker outrage. John King was recently confirmed as the new secretary. The least he can do to set a better standard is to show that there is some accountability for regulators who scheme to destroy a company based on falsehoods and then spend years trying to deny the victims due process under the law.

Article Link to the Wall Street Journal:

Juan Williams: Dems must pay price to keep Sanders sweet

By Juan Williams 
The Hill
March 28, 2016

What does Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) want in exchange for endorsing Hillary Clinton?

And what can Clinton and the Democratic Party give Sanders to get him to campaign aggressively for her in the fall, harnessing the voting power of the passionate, mostly young, white left-wing voters who favor him?

Obviously, Sanders expects a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. Neither the Clinton camp nor the party’s leadership will have a problem with that demand.

But what if he wants to be the vice presidential candidate on a Clinton-led ticket?

That is a reach.

Sanders’ “socialist” label is a liability in a general election. The Vermonter will hurt Clinton’s effort to win support from political moderates, especially older voters. Sanders would also be a bridge too far for Republicans disenchanted by their party’s wild primary season and the prospect of either Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as the GOP’s presidential candidate.

Adding Sanders to the ticket would also create an opening for Republican ad-makers. They would gleefully target his past congressional votes opposing tax cuts, the Patriot Act and new military defenses against a possible Iranian missile attack.

But if Sanders is not to be made the prospective veep, Democrats will have to find something else to give him. After all, he has exceeded all expectations during the primary season. The depth of his support was underlined by his three strong victories on Saturday in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington. And Democrats live in fear of a him mounting a third-party run along the lines of the populist campaign run by Ralph Nader in 2000 that arguably gave the White House to George W. Bush.

The heart of this troublesome political puzzle for Democrats is how to get Sanders’s passionate supporters to line up behind Clinton. In early March, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a third of the people voting for Sanders saying they “cannot see themselves voting for Hillary Clinton in November.”

The Nation magazine, a leading voice of the left, reported recently that “nearly 60,000 people have signed the ‘Bernie or Bust’ pledge,” vowing to remain loyal to him even if Clinton wins the nomination.

The Clinton campaign’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, speaking in a recent Washington Post interview, charged Sanders with becoming “increasingly negative.” Sanders frequently points out to his crowds that several polls show him doing better than Clinton against Republican candidates in the general election.

President Obama is now getting involved in this escalating debate. According to The New York Times, the president privately told Texas Democrats that Sanders’s continuing campaign against Clinton stalls party organizers, donors and activists from getting started on beating the GOP in the fall campaign.

The president and leading Democrats in Congress are all but calling for Sanders to get out of the race now. The Democrats’ unstated anxiety is that Clinton, while a clear winner among primary voters, does not set the campaign trail on fire. Sanders and Trump, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination, are arsonists by comparison. The Vermonter continues to ignite the party’s base with his calls for a “political revolution.”

Even after he lost in Arizona last week — while winning smaller contests in Utah and Idaho — and saw Clinton increase her lead in the contest for delegates, Sanders continued to condemn a “corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy.” Clinton’s campaign is taking money from political action committees while Sanders is not.

Sanders is also casting an unfavorable light on Clinton by celebrating “the kind of energy and excitement” of his crowds and claiming that it is because “we are telling the truth.” He did not mention Clinton but the comparison is obvious, if implicit.

Sanders’s number one issue is income inequality. He continues to accuse Clinton of being too close to Wall Street, further arguing that this makes it implausible that she will rein in wealthy bankers and hedge fund managers.

It is easy to see how his followers might be convinced she is the no-change, establishment candidate and become permanently turned off to Clinton.

Sanders’s lack of formal connection to the Democratic Party is another part of the political problem. At an Ohio town hall meeting earlier this month, he admitted to having considered running for president as an independent but decided to run as a Democrat because “in terms of media coverage — you have to run within the Democratic Party.”

Last year, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner (D), whose wife Huma Abedin is a top Clinton aide, publicly expressed the reservations Democratic insiders still have about Sanders, even as they ask him to get in line behind Clinton.

“What exactly does he think he’s doing in a Democratic presidential primary?” Weiner wrote in Business Insider last July. “Why is he asking for the nomination of a party he always avoided joining…Now he wants to not only be a member of the party but its standard bearer?”

The answer for Weiner is the answer for the Democrats. To bring Sanders inside the camp they will have to do more than make him a TV star at the convention. They will also have to put Clinton, union organizers and money behind his issues, creating a permanent movement based inside the party for a living wage, for lower-cost college education and a sharper critique of Wall Street.

The party is going to have to buy into Sanders if they want him to buy into them.

Article Link to the Hill:

ISIL has its eyes on Al Qaeda’s global network

By Hassan Hassan
The National
March 27, 2016

Is ISIL really shifting its focus towards terrorist attacks abroad to compensate for its military losses in Iraq and Syria? This theory became popular in media and policy circles after the Paris attacks in November, and resurfaced last week after the strikes on the airport and metro in Belgium.

ISIL undoubtedly wants to increase its foreign attacks because it has suffered a long series of military losses over the past 12 months since its defeat in Tikrit. But those who see the development as anything but part of the organisation’s evolution are missing the mark.

If anything, the attacks in Paris and Brussels portend the weakening of the link between the organisation’s international activities and how it is faring on the ground in the region. Military successes in the summer of 2014 helped establish the group as a destination for thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom travelled to Syria and Iraq with their families. ISIL’s ability to attract sympathy abroad was largely contingent on its performance on the ground.

But that interdependency between its local and foreign strategies is now significantly, if not completely, diminished. ISIL’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria is still key to its relevance regionally and internationally, and its hold will probably continue for many years even if that territory is steadily shrinking. However, its loss of territory has little impact on its ability to build influence elsewhere. As an international organisation, ISIL has come of age.

For most of its history, ISIL has been an Iraqi insurgent group focused on fighting the Iraqi government and foreign forces inside the country. It was Al Qaeda that led the international networks. ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, announced expansion into Syria only three years ago, and declared the so-called caliphate less than two years ago.

Even when the group was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, it was dominated by foreign fighters from the Levant and other areas in the region, such as Libya, committed to fighting the “near enemy" in their midst. So its international focus is relatively new, and this puts it in direct rivalry with Al Qaeda in terms of conducting global jihad.

ISIL has begun diversify its messaging over the past year. Its rhetoric in Iraq and Syria is noticeably different from that in Africa and internationally. An early endorsement of the Paris attacks featured a statement by Osama bin Laden, rather than by ISIL’s leadership. The execution of Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya was portrayed as revenge for the killing of Bin Laden, whose body was reportedly thrown into the sea. ISIL is clearly trying to appeal to Al Qaeda’s sleeper cells and sympathisers, particularly in Africa and Europe.

The United Nations and western intelligence services recently revealed that hundreds of ISIL militants have been returning to their own countries – mostly Libya and Europe – to bolster home fronts or launch attacks. This reverse migration is happening even though armed forces are badly needed in the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.

ISIL needs Al Qaeda’s operatives to build its global network. While ISIL has more than a decade’s worth of experience in terms of governance and holding territory in Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda prevails in the international arena. But Al Qaeda’s financial and operational cells have weakened over the years, and ISIL today presents itself as the upcoming group that is better positioned and more willing to wage war against the West and its regional allies.

To facilitate the deadly attacks in Paris and Belgium it would seem that ISIL has relied not only on returnees carrying instructions from Raqqa, but on existing smuggling and operational networks.

ISIL is expanding its reach, and many of Al Qaeda’s former operatives may start casting their lot with the burgeoning extremist organisation. More than waging revenge for its losses in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is clearly trying to replace Al Qaeda as a global organisation by targeting its members.

ISIL knows that battle-hardened, experienced and dogmatic Al Qaeda operatives are more valuable to it than the new recruits it has relied on, or the children it is training to become the next generation of committed and resilient adherents.

ISIL’s terrorist attacks should be examined in this context. They were not the work of fighters whose ability to strike will decrease as their numbers shrink or the group deteriorates militarily in its immediate conflict zone.

Instead, these attacks are the work of a maturing international organisation that increasingly operates independently of the parent insurgent group in Iraq and Syria.

Article Link to the National:

ISIL has its eyes on Al Qaeda’s global network

Trump: The Stupid Psychopath Problem

There is not a secret solution awaiting Trump.

By Kevin D. Williamson 
The National Review
March 28, 2016

‘I alone can solve.”

Donald Trump, who can barely communicate in his native language, is the candidate of the social-media era, and the above sentiment — proffered to the electorate via Twitter in regard to Islamic terrorism — is in fact indicative of the breadth and depth of his thinking.

Trump is an example of the Stupid Psychopath Problem.

The Stupid Psychopath Problem does not plague stupid psychopaths exclusively, but they are most vulnerable to its seduction. I will leave it to the medical professionals to diagnose whatever it is that ails Trump psychiatrically; as for the stupid part, my belief is that you can learn a great deal about a person from the way he writes and speaks (my former students may recall that I am not an easy grader), and Trump’s use of language suggests very strongly that he is . . . very fortunate to have inherited a great deal of money and real estate. So dumb he thinks a manila folder is a Filipino contortionist. So dumb he thinks Tupac Shakur is a religious holiday for the “little short guys that wear yarmulkes” counting his money. Trump is like the ugly building in Chicago with his name on it: There’s a vacancy on the top floor.

The Stupid Psychopath Problem is the political distortion resulting from the fact that a great many people — some of them on barstools, some of them dangerously close to the levers of real power — believe that there are obvious, simple, straightforward solutions to complex problems such as the predations of the Islamic State or the woeful state of U.S. public finances, but that these solutions are not implemented because people in government are too soft, unwilling or unable to get tough and do what needs to be done.

Men such as Donald Trump, and a half a hundred million idiots just like him across the fruited plain, really believe that the reason we haven’t eliminated Islamic terrorism is that it never occurred to anybody in the federal government — including the people who run, e.g., the U.S. Special Operations Command — to get tough. These people imagine that the trained killers in the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, and the often ruthless men who oversee them in Washington, simply are not willing to do what it takes to win. What that means, these people have no idea, because they are unwilling to think very hard about these sorts of problems and generally have no experience themselves. Trump is famously a physical coward who lied to stay out of the military during the Vietnam war, and he knows nothing about foreign policy, national defense, or the workings of the military, which is why all we ever hear from him is “get tough” and “win.”

He seems to believe that, if he were to be elected president, he would sit down in a room full of spooks and soldiers and operatives and be given a menu of possible strategies to use against the Islamic State, at which point he would say: “Don’t we have anything . . . tougher?” At which point, the spooks and soldiers and operatives would look at one another nervously and say, “Well, Mr. President, there is another possibility, but it is just too mean. It’s too tough. We’ve never really seriously considered it. We just never had the guts to try it.” And then, Trump imagines, he’ll choose that.

Choose . . . what? Trump has no idea, naturally. He imagines that the problem is not the lack of useful alternatives, but the lack of Trump.

Trump is a habitual liar and a man who has treated his wives and family with an unusual level of callousness. Though he is as dumb as nine chickens, he knows that he is in this regard somewhat like mentally normal men, that whatever sort of conscience he has is an atrophied and useless thing. He believes this to be a virtue. Indeed, his entire public persona is constructed around convincing himself — not the public, but himself — that this is in fact a virtue, that he isn’t a man who is cruel to women and heedless of his children and dishonest in his business affairs but a man who is tough, assertive, willing to do things that other men are not willing to do, etc.

That book of Hitler speeches that Mrs. Trump (no, not this Mrs. Trump; no, not that Mrs. Trump) describes him keeping by his bedside makes perfect sense in that context, as does his obvious admiration for murderous strongmen such as Vladimir Putin. When Herod gave the order for the Slaughter of the Innocents, he needed a captain to carry out those orders. Trump is the sort of man who likes to imagine that he is that sort of man: willing to do whatever is needful in the moment. Knowing the immorality and disregard with which he is willing to treat his family, friends, and colleagues, the stupid psychopath imagines that he can make of the moral void inside himself an instrument of public good.

But it does not work that way.

The problem is that while there is an effectively endless supply of stupid psychopaths, there is no secret cache of simple, straightforward solutions to complex problems just waiting in a filing cabinet somewhere in Washington until a sufficiently tough guy comes along willing to be as cruel and as vicious as the hour requires. We have plenty of cruel and vicious men in Washington. What we do not have is effective public policies. You can repeat “get tough” until you blow a temporomandibular joint, but it won’t make any difference.

“I alone can solve.” That’s what Donald Trump says. He’s been pressed for details about what that means in the context of the federal deficit, and his answer was ludicrous, unworthy of a high-school debater. He should be pressed for details on what that means in the context of Islamic radicalism. But who really thinks that Donald Trump could locate Yemen on a map?

Article Link to the National Review:

American voters are waiting to see how Colorado’s pot experiment turns out

By Timothy Lynch
The New York Post
March 27, 2016

The Supreme Court has handed the marijuana-legalization movement an important victory.

Two states — Nebraska and Oklahoma — sought to invalidate the landmark Colorado measure known as Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in that state. But the challenge fell flat when the Court announced last week that it wouldn’t hear their case.

That means the Colorado law will remain in effect — and more states can opt to legalize also.

No one can deny the gathering momentum behind the legalization movement. Since 2012, four states have approved referenda that essentially legalize marijuana for recreational purposes:

Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. (Washington, DC, has embraced legal marijuana also.) At least five more states will be voting on pot in November: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Arizona and Maine.

Drug reformers have several reasons to be optimistic about their prospects. First, according to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans say marijuana should be legal. And that number has been climbing steadily — majority support for the third consecutive year.

Second, young people overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization — and they turn out to vote when there’s a presidential election.

Third, older voters are more supportive than they have been in the past.

Like it or not, more and more Americans regard adult marijuana use as something akin to gambling on the NCAA tournament — it may be illegal, but it shouldn’t be. Some adults like to relax with a beer or a glass of wine, but others prefer to relax with a marijuana cigarette. It’s just not a big deal to them.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Supporters of the war on drugs have been watching the marijuana-legalization movement with alarm. They keep saying it’s “dangerous,” but fewer and fewer people seem to agree.

Facing losses at the ballot box, the warriors took their objections to court. Ever since the initial, pivotal measures passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012, there have been voices saying that those state laws would never hold up against a legal challenge because federal law criminalizes marijuana possession and federal law is supreme when there’s a conflict with state law.

At first, the Obama Justice Department was widely expected to bring a legal challenge in court. But that never happened, so the state attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma brought their own case to the Supreme Court.

Even though the Supreme Court declined to hear the dispute, the legal challenge was weak and would have likely failed anyway. Federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration can still make marijuana arrests in Colorado if they choose to do so. The Colorado law makes no attempt to nullify federal law — so there is no “conflict.” Amendment 64 basically says that Colorado police are no longer going after adults who buy and use marijuana.

Under the principle of federalism, states can decide for themselves what they want their police to focus on. The Supreme Court has made it clear that state and local police can’t be commandeered by federal authorities.

Drug reformers have history on their side. Alcohol prohibition was a disastrous policy that created more problems than it solved. It began to unravel when New York state repealed its local Volstead Act prohibiting liquor sales. Other states followed, and prohibition eventually fell by the wayside.

The same thing is starting to happen with marijuana. Thus far, reformers have been successful with the ballot-initiative process, but now even state legislatures are moving. This year, the general assembly in Vermont approved a marijuana-legalization bill. That’s another indication that the political climate is shifting toward reform.

It’s fair to say that many Americans have adopted an attitude of “Let’s see how this experiment with marijuana sales works out in Colorado.” That’s a prudent position to take. Drug reformers are confident things will continue to proceed smoothly there. And the Supreme Court just bought the marijuana movement more time to allay the fears of skeptics.

Article Link to the New York Post:

Unhappy With Donald Trump Or Hillary Clinton? Let Markets Fix The Problem

By John Tamny
March 27, 2016

Asked recently about the role he’ll play assuming a brokered Republican convention, Paul Ryan said he would like to be “Switzerland.” The House Speaker’s answer was probably the correct one considering ongoing certainty as to the eventual GOP nominee.

Still, there are rumblings in the media that suggest big surprises when the Republicans convene in July. Apparently some who aren’t pleased with either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz hope that a brokered process produces someone not Cruz or Trump. After that, media accounts suggest some Republicans are hopeful that Ryan himself emerges as the Party’s presidential nominee.

At the same time, the fact that an unabashed socialist in Bernie Sanders is still in the race versus Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination suggests a great deal of unhappiness among Democrats as to their choices. In that case, it’s a fair assumption that many Democratic politicians with national ambitions are presently regretting sitting out the 2016 presidential primaries, plus the less-than-energetic support for either Democrat running arguably signals donors in play who would very much like to support the presidential ambitions of someone not Clinton or Sanders.

Whatever the eventual answers in July, any Republican or Democratic nominee who isn’t one of the existing candidates would face an uphill battle. The organization required for a grueling presidential run is the equivalent of a mid-sized company, and as the size suggests, the staging of such a run on what is now short notice would be incredibly costly. No doubt even a brokered nominee would quickly prove a magnet for donor funds, but the act of merely setting up a fundraising operation would hardly be simple or costless.

But what if the funding were already secured in advance? Better yet, what if donor market signals could be compiled in advance to provide political parties with market-driven knowledge of what excites and doesn’t excite the electorate? Where people are willing to spend or donate is particularly accurate as a gauge.

CrowdPac, a new politics-driven crowdfunding website may be the answer, or one of many solutions to the dual political challenge of vetting candidates, then finding money for them. Seeking to bring “politics back to people,” CrowdPac represents the non-partisan political marketplace vision of Stanford professor Steve Hilton. A former senior advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Hilton’s aim is to make the political process more market driven.

Applied to Ryan, CrowdPac works like this: as there are apparently more than a few Republican voters who would like to see the House Speaker emerge as the GOP presidential nominee, a “Ryan 2016” CrowdPac website could be set up to accept monetary pledges. The site would provide empirical data revealing the financial fervor (or lack thereof) behind the presumed groundswell. Much the same could be done on the site by supporters of Joe Biden, or some other popular Democrat. Biden’s name has been regularly floated throughout the primaries as a possible replacement for those in the race, and CrowdPac funding would indicate just how much interest there actually is.

What’s important is that if it turns out Ryan ends up acting as “Switzerland” in July, and Biden simply a convention elder statesman, those who’ve pledged financial support to either wouldn’t be out any money for having done so. Those pledged to hoped-for campaigns, referendums, recalls or anything else would only have their credit cards charged insofar as what they pledge to actually materializes. If not, there’s no transaction to speak of.

While politicians in either political party hardly need encouragement, a crowdfunding site focused on bringing politics “back to the people” has the potential to do just that. Figure the average person can essentially nominate pols for all manner of offices (local to federal) without massive organizational or financial expenditure. Crowdfunders will once again only donate insofar as said politician runs. As for referendums and recalls, true believers will have a way of gauging market interest in advance of major capital commitments.

One substantive disagreement with CrowdPac’s mission has to do with the view expressed that most financial contributions to politicians “should be small dollar donations” to “help end the stranglehold of big money donors.” It seems the better answer is that political donations, regardless of the financial means of individuals and corporations (companies always and everywhere owned by individuals) donating, are an important way for all of us to freely express our views. This is particularly true in a country like the U.S. in which our right to free speech is constitutionally protected. Also, CrowdPac itself will prove a much more valuable indication of actual political sentiment the more that its various crowdfunding endeavors reflect donors of all sizes.

So while there’s disagreement on the subject of big money and political campaigns, this political season speaks to the valuable role companies like CrowdPac could play in perhaps fixing what has been embarrassing. Indeed, it’s hard to remember a presidential vetting season more thoroughly defined by voters holding their noses. Clinton once again can’t fully shake off a Vermont socialist, while Trump combines Gerald Ford-style (37 percent) front-runner support with astoundingly high negatives among members of the Republican base. Voters plainly want a do-over, politicians probably do too, and crowdfunding might be a way to correct mistakes on the fly.

At present the market signals that are the primaries seem to be telling us voters want something different. What’s unknown is how much the latter is true, along with what can be done assuming voters would prefer candidates not Clinton, Cruz, Sanders and Trump. CrowdPac’s crowdfunding concept might not only divine the actual mood of the electorate, but it would also help fund alternative candidates for voters who are apparently very unhappy with the present presidential lineup.

Article Link to Forbes:

The Case for Vice President Al Franken

This is not a joke: Hillary needs someone like Franken if she’s going to beat Trump.

By Bill Scher
March 27, 2016

This is not a joke. Senator Al Franken should be the Democratic Party’s choice for vice president.

If I had said that 10 years ago, or even six months ago, the notion would have been preposterous: a former Saturday Night Live writer, perhaps best known as the mock self-help guru Stuart Smalley, Franken became synonymous with left-wing bombast thanks to his best-selling book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. He took the presidency itself as a joke, writing a satirical campaign memoir, Why Not Me, in which Franken wins the White House on a platform of eliminating ATM fees, only to be quickly chased out by the “Joint Congressional Committee on the President's Mood Swings.”

But for a 2016 presidential race that’s already stranger than fiction, his party truly needs someone like Franken if it’s going to win the presidency.

Before Donald Trump, Franken wouldn’t possibly have merited serious consideration. Even though his seven-year record as a senator from Minnesota suggests he’s a genuinely committed legislator, the first rule of V.P. picks is “do no harm”—and pre-Trump, the trove of politically incorrect barbs from Franken’s past would have been far too much baggage for a presidential nominee to want to carry. The spotlight would have been on him instead of Clinton.

Candidate Trump erases the old standards. Nothing that Franken said decades ago would be remotely as incendiary as the insults Trump spews as a matter of campaign strategy. And Trump’s presence demands new rhetorical weaponry. As Trump himself might say, Franken’s “classy” and “elegant” wit is just what the ticket needs to avoid the kind of brawl that drags everyone down to Trump’s level. Clinton will want to stay above the fray, and Franken can provide the buffer.

With Hillary Clinton’s grip on the Democratic nomination firm, and Trump on track to insult his way to the Republican nomination, Democrats will want their vice presidential choice to accomplish the following:

1. Prevent Bernie Sanders’ energized left-wing youth from snubbing Clinton and flocking to the Green Party;
2. Protect the Rust Belt from Trump’s blustery charms; and
3. Navigate an unprecedented media circus dominated by Trump’s barrage of taunts.

That set of criteria marks a shift from what Democrats were initially expecting. But with the elimination of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush from the Republican primaries, the electoral incentive for a Latino vice-presidential nominee is diminished. Democrats didn’t have many options anyway, lacking any Latino governors and senators, save for the indicted New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Speculation has centered on minor Cabinet officials Julián Castro of Housing and Urban Development and Tom Perez of Labor, both a stretch to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

To sate the desire for an economic populist, neither Sanders nor beloved-on-the-left Senator Elizabeth Warren are likely to fit the bill. For one, neither is likely to say yes, since both can wield more influence as outside agitators than as Clinton surrogates, sublimating their rhetoric to the top-of-the-ticket candidate. And for her part, Clinton would rather have a team player on her ticket instead of constantly worrying that her veep will go rogue.

* * *

With the two most prominent progressives off the table, the list of presidential-caliber candidates shrinks. Any senator who voted to support President Barack Obama’s “fast track” trade promotion authority, helping grease the passage of the hated Trans-Pacific Partnership, wouldn’t pass muster with anyone feeling the Bern. That strikes Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, long seen as in the running both as a swing stater and Spanish speaker, as well as other less buzzed about purple-state options: Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. The Democrats’ only swing-state governor not running in an election this year, Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, also supports TPP, as do Cabinet officials Castro and Perez. And while rising star Senator Cory Booker voted against fast track, populists remember when he said Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record were “nauseating” and counseled the president to “stop attacking private equity.” That’s exactly the kind of attitude the Democrats have to run against this year.

Many eyes will turn to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, floated by yours truly last month and by NBC’s Chuck Todd after Sanders’ upset victory in Michigan. Brown was populist before populism was cool. He would easily impress Sanders voters, and as an early endorser, he has Clinton’s trust. Most importantly, he hails from the most pivotal battleground state in the industrial Midwest.

But Brown does come with a big drawback: In Ohio, the governor gets to fill a Senate vacancy. Were he to run and win election as vice president, Brown’s successor would be appointed by Republican Governor John Kasich. To reclaim the Senate in this year’s elections, Democrats will likely need to win every competitive race; Clinton may not feel Democrats have enough cushion to sacrifice the seat.

Moreover, Brown may be unprepared, or unwilling to stomach, the madhouse that is the 2016 presidential primary arena. Trump’s scorched-earth approach has already turned Bush and Rubio into puddles. Brown hasn’t had many tough races in his career, the hardest being his 2012 reelection, in which he overcame $31 million of attack ads from independent groups. Facing down the Trump buzzsaw is another level of political warfare and mind games.

Outside of Brown, the Rust Belt offers few options for Democrats. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan has been in the Senate for little more than a year, and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is out of step with the party on abortion. There are no Democratic governors in the heart of the Rust Belt. On the outskirts are Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, who is barely into his first term; Missouri’s Jay Nixon, who struggled to handle the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson; and West Virginia’s Earl Ray Tomblin, who leans right on abortion and the environment. Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, one of America’s most popular and most liberal governors, is theoretically another option, but he is far from charismatic and has had some health problems.

There are several female Midwestern senators to choose from: Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin—who would be the first LGBT vice-presidential candidate on a major-party ticket. But the often-misogynistic Trump is likely to drive women into Clinton’s camp anyway, so there is little need for Clinton to double down on gender.

* * *

Which brings us to Franken.

His jump from comedian to politician was through a ring of fire. Franken aimed high for his first campaign: U.S. senator from his home state of Minnesota. After a few years as a talk radio host, Franken aimed to avenge the bitter loss Democrats suffered in 2002 following the fatal plane crash of incumbent senator and liberal icon Paul Wellstone two weeks before Election Day.

Republicans painted Franken as an immoral Hollywood hothead, circulating bestiality jokes from a Playboy magazine humor piece Franken wrote, using out-of-context video clips where he looks deranged, and digging up evidence of his failure to pay back taxes and workers compensation. “We in Hollywood are a bit worried that Al Franken is hurting our reputation,” needled Cheers actor John Ratzenberger in one of the Republican Party’s final attack ads.

Yet Franken didn’t just survive the assault: He prevailed. After a recount and months of legal wrangling, Franken escaped with a 312-vote victory. While Franken was already trying to present a more serious face to Minnesota voters, the dead-even outcome was a constant reminder of his precarious political position, spurring him to be a senatorial workhorse and not a show horse.

Today, he stands on firm ground. In the 2014 midterms, as the Republican tide was cresting in Colorado and Iowa, Franken scored an impressive 10-point reelection victory. And progressive activists credited his proud populism for his exponential electoral growth. Mother Jones’ Patrick Caldwell, among others, showered praise on Franken for channeling “populist outrage at growing inequality and the hardships of the financial crash.”

If that sounds a lot like a 2016 campaign theme, you’re getting the idea. That year, his sober ad campaign skewered “Wall Street banks” that “were actually paying the credit-rating agencies to give AAA ratings to financial products that were junk. The game was rigged.” He stood for refinancing student-loan debt and closing the tax loophole that favors hedge fund managers. “The Wall Street hedge fund guys may not like that,” he said to the camera in an October 2014 ad, “but I don’t work for them.” Less noted by progressives—but important to sealing the deal—was how he leavened his populist pitch with an emphasis on bipartisanship to pass the farm bill and a Senate amendment to reform credit-rating agencies (Franken left out how his amendment was watered down in the final version of the Dodd-Frank law).

Franken has also won over younger Bernie-loving progressives by being, as The Nation once deemed him, “one of the Senate’s most impassioned champions of net neutrality,” the Federal Communications Commission regulatory approach that, activists argue, protects online free speech from corporate profiteers. Similarly popular with the “netroots” community was Franken’s successful grass-roots campaign to block Comcast from buying Time Warner Cable. An early Clinton endorser, Franken could serve as a bridge between the grass-roots left and the Democratic establishment.

Democrats may have a more tenuous hold on Sherrod Brown’s Ohio than Al Franken’s Minnesota, but Minnesota’s tint is light blue—in 2012, the state gave Obama his 10th smallest margin of victory. If Trump can’t win the relatively diverse mega-swing states Florida and Pennsylvania, or the western swing states Colorado and Nevada, he’d have to sweep the upper Midwest, including Minnesota. Franken can be a firewall. Though he has a celebrity background, he has real experience connecting with the white working-class Midwest constituencies whom Trump will be lavishing with attention.

All that puts Franken in similar company with Brown. But Franken distinguishes himself in two key places. First, Minnesota’s governor is a Democrat who will presumably replace Franken in Washington with another Democrat. Second, Franken can match wits with Trump, and then some.

* * *

What most unnerves Democrats about facing Trump is the sheer unpredictability of a candidate who gleefully breaks all rules of decency and decorum. He laid waste to Bush and Rubio, getting in their heads and taking them off their game. Clinton would certainly do her best to avoid their plight and remain above the fray, but Trump’s capacity to turn every news cycle into a smoldering train wreck would test any campaign’s ability to remain on-message.

Franken has worked hard to prove he is a detail-oriented, issues-driven senator, not a political novelty act. But he has decades of experience skewering factually challenged conservatives.

He wrote an entire book called Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, slapping Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on the cover and earning the host’s seething ire for life. On Franken’s Bush-era radio show, he turned the NPR quiz game into his own “Wait Wait Don’t Lie To Me,” challenging callers to distinguish between “lies,” “truth” and “weasels.” He’s publicly debated conservative celebrities such as Ann Coulter, countering her desire to have been FDR “so that I could not introduce the New Deal” by offering, “I would be Hitler. You get to call off the New Deal; I’d like to call off the Holocaust, World War II … but I’d keep the Volkswagen.” He will not be flustered by the intensity of the national spotlight.

Furthermore, his style of humor is deadpan and wry, the perfect tonic to Trump’s coarse broadsides. He’ll have no need or inclination to get sucked into the gutter, the way Rubio did, just to get a piece of the daily news cycle. While HBO’s John Oliver has been racking up YouTube clicks with satirical Trump fact checks, Franken can do same in real time and make sure they end up on broadcast TV’s nightly newscasts. But any attempt to trivialize Franken as a gimmick who could never fill the Oval Office chair will only set a low bar to clear when he shows off his policy acumen in the vice presidential debate.

Franken even works superficially; he’s an inch shorter than Clinton and practically screams “second banana.” Franken will attract attention, but with a clearly defined role that will mitigate concerns about overshadowing the top of the ticket. No one will demean Clinton by musing about whether the ticket’s positions should be reversed.

Now fully comfortable after nearly seven years in office, Franken is more willing to use his comical side to serve his serious ends. Recently, he cheekily tweaked Republicans for refusing to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in Obama’s last year in office, suggesting the standard should also apply to senators: “The 28 senators who are now in the midst of their re-election campaigns and the six senators who are stepping down should be precluded from casting votes.”

He delights in debunking conservatives to their faces, like when he called out an anti-gay marriage witness during a Senate hearing for misrepresenting federal data on two-parent families as covering only heterosexual couples. “I would think that the study, when it cites nuclear families, would mean a family headed by a husband and wife,” the witness claimed. “It doesn’t,” Franken scolded, with just the right lilt to spark rare laughter in the Senate hearing room.

And he’s already lending his wit to the Clinton campaign, reading the “mean tweets” he received after making his endorsement, and turning it into an opportunity to sell skeptical liberals on her platform. “Franken is plugged into the establishment matrix,” reads one. Franken retorts, “That sounds painful. And it was. That was part of the enhanced interrogation techniques they did during the Bush administration.”

The best reason for Clinton to pick Franken is this: It would make the entire fall campaign bearable to watch.

Article Link to Politico:

The Case for Vice President Al Franken

Obama’s next gift to Iran means breaking another promise to America

By Post Editorial Board
The New York Post
March 27, 2016

President Obama’s Iran policy can be summed up in four words: All carrots, no sticks.

Endless carrots, too — even ones his team told Congress the Iranians would never get.

In the drive for Senate approval of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the administration repeatedly said Tehran would be denied access to the US financial system.

Looks like it’s about to get it after all.

The move would not only give Iran financial resources well beyond the $150 billion it’s already pocketed under the nuke deal, it would also leave all the remaining economic sanctions in tatters.

The Associated Press reports the administration is getting set to open new sanctions-relief doors — including long-forbidden access to US markets. Asked about it, the Treasury Department responds only that it continues to “analyze the sanctions lifting.”

And Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says outright that new action by Washington is ahead to ensure Iran “gets relief.”

All because Iran has been complaining that it deserves more rewards for its supposed compliance with the accord.

Never mind that Treasury’s sanctions chief last summer assured Congress “Iran will not be able to open bank accounts with US banks, nor will Iran be able to access the US banking sector.”

Oops — now that the Senate’s OK’d the deal, the administration’s stopped making those assurances.

The AP says Tehran may still be denied direct access; it would have to use Hong Kong clearinghouses to conduct dollar transactions. But the impact would be the same.

Obama originally promised to end only nuclear-related sanctions. But giving Tehran access to US financial markets would gut all economic sanctions — boosting Iran’s support of terrorism and its regional aggression.

The president’s carrots, in short, mean a lot more Iranian sticks.

Article Link to the New York Post:

Monday, March 28, Morning Global Markets Roundup: Dollar firms, Asia stocks slip as U.S. data, Fed comments awaited


March 28, 2016

The dollar firmed on Monday and most Asian markets surrendered early gains as investors cautiously awaited U.S. economic data and speeches by Federal Reserve officials this week that could signal more interest rate increases than expected.

European markets are closed for the Easter Monday holiday.

U.S. stock futures ticked up 0.3 percent, although they remain flat for the quarter.

In the past week, the dollar has been helped by stronger-than-expected gross domestic product data and comments from some Fed officials indicating that policymakers think they could raise interest rates as early as next month.

The dollar index against a basket of six major currencies rose as high as 96.339, its highest in almost two weeks. It was last trading up 0.1 percent at 96.273.

"Fed officials generally looked to share views that they need to maintain a rate hike path given a U.S. recovery," said Jeong My-young, Samsung Futures' research head in Seoul. The dollar rose 0.4 percent to 113.51 yen, keeping intact its steady recovery from a 6-1/2-month low of 110.67 hit on March 17 after a Federal Reserve meeting that left markets convinced U.S. interest rates would not rise soon.

The yen weakness gave Japan's Nikkei a 0.8 percent boost to its highest close in two weeks.

Japan was the region's sole winner. With share markets in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong closed for holidays, the MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was down 0.1 percent.

Shares in Korea ended the day little changed, and Taiwan gave up earlier gains to close down 0.2 percent.

Chinese stocks also reversed course, with the Shanghai Composite index falling 0.3 percent and the CSI 300 losing 0.4 percent.

Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines all extended losses, trading between 0.3 percent and 1.2 percent lower.

U.S. GDP increased at a 1.4 percent annual rate in Oct-Dec, above the previously reported 1.0 percent pace, driven by fairly strong consumer spending, the third GDP estimate showed on Friday.

U.S. PCE inflation data due at 1230 GMT could further fan expectations of an early rate move if it shows increasing inflationary pressure.

"The PCE inflation has been rising of late. The Fed has said the prices will be the key in determining policy so the data should attract a lot of attention," said Masahiro Ichikawa, senior strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management.

The annual core PCE inflation rose 1.7 percent in January, the fastest pace since July 2014.

The data will be followed by a speech from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and a few other Fed policymakers on Tuesday, making the Fed's policy the biggest focus for now. [FED/DIARY]

Given that money markets are pricing in only about a 50 percent chance of a rate hike by the Fed in June, with hardly any significant likelihood in April factored in, signs of a tightening in the next quarter could rattle financial markets.

Gold, which earlier fell to a one-month low, recovered some of those losses to trade down 0.2 percent at $1,216.10 an ounce.

The euro was little changed at $1.1163, not far from Thursday's one-week low of $1.1144.

The Australian dollar advanced 0.3 percent to $0.7525 having lost 1.4 percent last week and knocked away from an eight-month high of $0.7681.

Oil prices, which have risen about 50 percent since multi-year lows hit in January, extended their gains in thin trading, powered by major producers' plans to freeze output at January's highs.

U.S. crude futures gained 1.3 percent to $39.96 per barrel, and Brent advanced 1.2 percent to $40.91.

Article Link to Reuters: