Archive for August, 2009

UPDATE: Cash for Clunkers Looking Good

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

The AP is reporting at this hour that the Senate has reached a deal to extend cash for clunkers. A vote is scheduled for Thursday to pump $2 billion more into the program, meaning consumers could get rebates on fuel efficient cars through Labor Day.

Following lengthy negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats and Republicans had agreed to vote on the plan Thursday, along with a series of potential changes to the bill, which was passed by the House last week. Reid has said Democrats have enough votes to approve the measure and reject any changes that would cause an interruption in the rebates of up to $4,500.

Apparently, this means the bill has enough Republican support to ward off a threatened filibuster.

[Republican] Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky concurred that the matter would be settled soon. And objectors conceded they do not have the votes to force all of the changes they want, or to block the House version of the bill.

This is terrific news, for all the reasons I blogged about yesterday. And this:

If the Senate approves the additional money, it’s likely to lead automakers to increase production and bring back laid-off workers. Many automakers reported low inventories due to increased sales from the program at the end of July. Already Hyundai Motor Co. has added a day of production to its Montgomery, Ala., plant, and Ford is considering increases.

It’s a great start to a critical month in which Democrats will be barnstorming the country, making the case for health care reform, asking Americans to trust their government.

POSTSCRIPT: On a 60-37 vote, the Senate approved $2 billion more for cash for clunkers today. The AP reports:

The legislation had its share of critics, though, most of them Republicans.

“What we’re doing is creating debt. … The bill to pay for those cars is going to come due on our children and grandchildren,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

Really? This, from the same Judd Gregg who didn’t bat an eyelash over the past eight years as George Bush racked up 4 trillion dollars worth of debt? More debt than any president in U.S. history?

I think what we are doing is creating jobs, selling cars, helping the environment, and spurring consumer confidence — all of which could hasten the end of this recession and actually help lower the national debt, over the long term.

But, hey, that’s just me.

Gergen: ‘If John Bolton Had His Way, These Two Women Would Still be in Prison’

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

All day today, washingtonpost.com ran its lead story — news that Bill Clinton had secured the release of two American prisoners in North Korea — along with an op-ed by John Bolton: ‘Clinton’s Unwise North Korea Trip.’

Which made me wonder, after I cleared my head and put my glasses back on: Is there anything the Democrats or the Obama administration could do that wouldn’t earn immediate public scorn from the GOP?

The women, both journalists, had been sentenced in sham trials to 12 years of hard labor in North Korean prison camps. Clinton, in a visit of less than 24 hours, secured pardons and releases for both women. It was billed as an unofficial visit, but according to reports, Obama’s State Department was very active behind the scenes, working to make this happen. As I write this, the women are flying back to the United States, with Clinton, in his plane.

The gist of Bolton’s argument seems to be that Clinton’s visit to North Korea somehow rewards state-sponsored terrorism.

Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so.

While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future.

Bolton, in case you’ve forgotten, was George Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations — the one who was opposed to the United Nations. (He famously said: “There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States,” also noting that the U.N. building in New York “has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”) Among his lifetime achievements are the derailing of the 2001 biological weapons conference in Geneva, and his support for military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power — during the Clinton administration.

“In Pyongyang’s view,” Bolton writes in the Post op-ed, “the two reporters are pawns in the larger game of enhancing the regime’s legitimacy and gaining direct access to important U.S. figures.”

On CNN moments ago, political consultant David Gergen — who served in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, and was an advisor to Clinton — was asked directly about Bolton’s views. Gergen did not mince words:

“I think that’s nonsense and heartless … I just sharply disagree here. Listen, the United States gave nothing away. Bill Clinton went as he is a private citizen … and beyond that, if John Bolton had his way, these two women would still be in prison.

“And finally, I must say we ought to take a moment here to say how exemplary Bill Clinton’s behavior has been since his wife became secretary of state. A lot of people thought he’d be a loose cannon. He has been totally supportive, he’s been quiet, and on this occasion he did something good for the country. I think people ought to have a higher level of respect for him, after this trip, and thank him for doing what he did.”

Quite honestly, I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

The Grinch Who Stole Cash for Clunkers?

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Here in the heartland, we were greeted with headlines this morning, the likes of which we haven’t seen since aught seven.

“Clunkers’ restarts auto sales; some makers have best month,” trumpeted the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Akron Beacon Journal announced: “July auto sales on the rise as program draws buyers.”

The federal “Cash for clunkers” program, as most people know, offers rebates of between $3,500 and $4,500 to people who trade in old cars for newer cars with higher fuel economy. The old cars have to get 18 miles per gallon or less. The rebate size depends on the fuel economy of the replacement car.

Congress initially appropriated $1 billion for the bill.

Funny thing happened on the way to the car dealership. People love this government program. It helps automakers (Ford last month posted its first sales increase since late 2007), car dealerships, and consumers — spurring the beleaguered economy, all while helping the environment. As the NY Times reports:

Dealers estimated that they moved a quarter-million cars with the rebate money. The Transportation Department reported that of 120,000 rebate applications processed so far, the average gas mileage of cars being bought was 28.3 miles per gallon, for SUV’s 21.9 miles per gallon, and for trucks, 16.3 miles per gallon, all significantly higher than required to get a rebate.

The House last week, with true bipartisan support, passed a bill to extend the program, authorizing another $2 billion worth of rebates.

Enter Senate Republicans.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says cash for clunkers is an example of botched execution by the Obama administration. With people lining up to purchase new, environmentally friendlier cars from economically strapped dealers, Sen. John McCain is reportedly expected to lead a filibuster against the additional funds. Said Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina: “This is crazy to try to rush this thing through again while they’re trying to rush through health care. We’ve got to slow this thing down.” He called cash for clunkers an example of the “stupidity coming out of Washington right now.”

Actually — and this is what many Republicans simple cannot abide — it’s an example of a spectacularly popular government program that works.

Do they seriously mean to tell us with a straight face that because Congress underestimated the popularity of the program, it’s an example of government ineptitude? Would they say the same thing about Apple, which initially could not keep up with demand for iPod minis or Shuffles? Would they castigate Amazon.com, for initially failing to make enough Kindles? Would they hurl bromides about the stupidity coming out of Silicon Valley?

Republicans, having made the specious argument that this program’s popularity proves the government is too inept to manage health care, cannot now afford to let new funding go through. By their own logic, it would show that government can and does work for the people. And it would hand Obama a huge and visible victory as he makes the case this August that government can and will manage health care reform.

Yes, we know. More car rebates will add to the national debt. Just like all those war-time tax cuts Republican senators voted for during the Bush years.

Meanwhile, consumers line up in an ailing economy, hoping the Senate will come through, and they will be able to buy newer cars with better fuel economy.

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

Thank You, Thomas Friedman

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

The conservative mind is made up. President Obama is anti-Israel. See, for example, John Podhoretz’s latest essay in Commentary, “The Turn Against Israel“:

There is no question that we have entered a new era, one that I expect will be characterized by tensions and unpleasantnesses of a kind unseen since the days when George H. W. Bush was president, James A. Baker III was secretary of state, and the hostility toward Israel oozed from both men like sweat from an intrepid colonial traveler’s brow as he journeyed across the Rub-al-Khali.

It’s pretty wearying stuff, after awhile. I’ve heard Obama talk about Israel. Personally, in a small group in Cleveland, two weeks before the Ohio primary. This is a man who oozes respect for the Jewish state, its history, and its people.

“The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people,” Obama said, last October. “I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries” …

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”

“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.”

Never mind. Podhoretz skewers Obama for telling NPR that part of being a good friend to Israel is being “honest.”

But, of course, honest discourse about Iran [and its nuclear threat] was not the fearless truth Barack Obama wished to bestow upon Israel or the Muslim world.

Rather, his honesty solely concerned the trajectory of the “settlements” …

Nice to read this, then, posted a few minutes ago by the NY Times:

Officials said the United States was pushing for a package of measures ranging from Arab countries’ opening commercial offices in Tel Aviv to their leaders’ granting interviews to Israeli journalists. Another step would be getting Arab nations to allow Israel’s state carrier, El Al, to fly over Arab countries to cut flight times to Asia.

So much for only pressuring the Israelis. Obama’s negotiating team, lead by George Mitchell, is working tirelessly to get Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take concrete steps they’ve never taken before.

“One of the public misimpressionsis that it’s all been about settlements,” Mr. Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, said in a rare interview Friday after six months on the job. “It is completely inaccurate to portray this as, ‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.’ We are asking everybody to do things.”

Podhoretz, though, has a point to make:

And so the turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass—with a smile, and a nod, and an invocation of a word [honesty] that actually means something very different from friendship. It might even mean its opposite.

What a tonic, then, to read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning in the NY Times. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish columnist who began covering the Middle East for UPI in 1979, does have some advice for  Obama: 1) Don’t get into the historical blame game in the Middle East, because nobody believes they are at fault, and 2) Connect with Israel on a gut level. (I couldn’t agree more. I blogged nearly a month ago, “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.”)

[This, also from the Times article, should help address Friedman’s second point: “In coming weeks, senior administration officials said, the White House will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. The campaign, which will include interviews with Mr. Obama on Israeli and Arab television, amounts to a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank.”]

But here’s the rest of what Friedman has to say. And, as he’s been covering this topic for literally 30 years — and is one of the most even-handed and knowledgeable commentators on the region — he’s worth quoting in full:

President Obama is not some outlier when it comes to Israel. His call for a settlements freeze reflects attitudes that have been building in America for a long time. For the last 40 years, a succession of Israeli governments has misled, manipulated or persuaded naïve U.S. presidents that since Israel was negotiating to give up significant territory, there was no need to fight over “insignificant” settlements on some territory. Behind this charade, Israeli settlers bit off more and more of the West Bank, creating a huge moral, security and economic burden for Israel and its friends.

As Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, put it last week: “The settlement movement has cost Israel some $100 billion. … The double standard which for decades has favored settlers with inexpensive housing, heavily subsidized social services, and blind-eye building permits has long been accompanied by a kid-gloves approach regarding settler violence against Palestinians and their property. … Settlers and settlement planners have covertly bent and distorted zoning procedures, military directives, and government decrees in order to boost settlement, block Palestinian construction, agriculture, and access to employment, and effectively neutralize measures intended to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace progress.”

For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people — people who care about Israel — are sick of it.

The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Mr. Obama in a speech “that Arab they call a president.”

So if Mr. Obama has bluntly pressed for a settlements freeze, he is, in fact, reflecting a broad sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon and among many Americans, Jews included. …

What about Mr. Obama? He has nothing to apologize for policy-wise. The president is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations — with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone.

Put another way: The so-called “turn against Israel” is pure fiction.