Republicans ignore minorities at their peril

Published Nov. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As controversial as U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent executive order was concerning the status of undocumented, illegal immigrants in the United States, the issue might pose more strategic problems for his Republican opponents in Congress.

For all the threats and warnings from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner about “not playing with matches” or “poisoning the well,” a review of his own actions suggests the Republicans have themselves contributed substantially to the toxic atmosphere by blocking any legislative proposals by Democrats over the past four years. Moreover, they have been shown to have no new policy suggestions of their own on the issue.

Unlike the Democrats, they are clearly divided in trying to simultaneously satisfy tea party extremists who fantasize about impeaching Obama — among many other radical agenda goals — and the mainstream establishment wing of the party, more based in reality, which just hopes to win elections.

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PM should heed Mulroney’s career advice

Published Sept. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Imagine, if you can, that you are Stephen Harper.

You’ve had quite a career. You’ve gone from being an obscure economist on the political right to the leader of a national political party. You’ve fought four federal elections and won three of them. You’ve been prime minister of Canada for nearly nine years, and you love the job. There is nothing you would rather be.

The storm cloud on your horizon is a general election that must be held by next October. The polling gods are not smiling on you. They suggest you have lost a quarter of your electoral support since the 2011 election, leaving your Conservative party far behind the Liberals and barely ahead of the New Democrats. In an election today, you would be demolished in Atlantic Canada, decimated in the Greater Toronto Area and wiped out in Waterloo Region, for example.

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For reasons not entirely clear to you or your close advisers, you have been unable to win the hearts of the Canadian people.

What can you do? Well, you are not very good at taking outside advice (and that’s an understatement), but you could do worse that take some that was offered earlier this month by Brian Mulroney. Everyone knows you have issues with Mulroney and he with you. But you have to admit he has made a quite remarkable transition from polarizing prime minister and national embarrassment to elder statesman. “Lyin’ Brian” has become “Brian the Wise.”

In a CTV interview marking the 30th anniversary of his first landslide election, Mulroney offered these bits of wisdom.

To start with, treat the opposition leaders with some respect. Mulroney called NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “the best opposition leader since John Diefenbaker.” As to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau: “He’s a young man, attractive, elected two or three times to the House, attractive wife, beautiful kids — this is a potent package. …You’d have to be foolish to sit back and not recognize if somebody’s leading in the polls 14 months in a row, this is not a fluke.”

And don’t heed those who say Trudeau has no program: “His program is that he’s not Stephen Harper.”

Stop picking fights with the Supreme Court: “You don’t get into a slagging contest with the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, even if you thought that he or she was wrong. You don’t do that.”

Get your foreign policy in order: “When Canada, for the first time in our history, loses a vote at the United Nations to become a member of the Security Council … to Portugal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, you should look in the mirror and say: ‘Houston, I think we have a problem.’”

Mulroney said Canada’s foreign policy should not be one-sided: “(It) has to be enveloped in a broader and more generous sweep that takes in Canadian traditions and Canadian history in a much more viable way. We’re in the big leagues … so we have to conduct ourselves in that way. We can’t be out-riders.”

In particular, Harper needs to nurture Ottawa’s relationship with Washington and his personal relationship with President Barack Obama. Close ties matter: “If you can’t do that, you don’t have much clout internationally. The relationship with the United States is something the prime minister alone has to nurture the same way he would tend to the most delicate flowers in a garden. It’s that important.”

Recognize that a “pristine environment” is important to the middle class. The prime minister needs to get personally involved in the issue, make the environment a top government priority and commit the necessary funds.

Mulroney was prime minister for nine years, just like Harper. In the end, he overstayed his welcome and his Tories went down to crushing defeat in the 1993 election. If he has any retirement advice for Harper, he did not offer it in the television interview. That would have been fascinating.

Tea party getting a rougher ride from Republican voters

Published Nov. 11, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

It has become a cliché to say there were no winners in the shutdown of the U.S. in October.

Perhaps so, but even with President Barack Obama’s declining support levels in the face of problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Republican poll numbers fell more than did the Democrats, and in a zero-sum game, that effectively helped Obama’s side.

The tea party and Senator Ted Cruz are not really a Democratic problem, but rather a Republican problem.

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Tea party wing dogs Republicans

Published Oct. 16, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

There are some life lessons to be gleaned from the current ongoing debacle in the U.S. Congress.

First and foremost, one should be advised not to pick fights they can’t win.

This should seem obvious on the face of it, but when people have little self-awareness, and conduct all their conversations in an echo chamber with like-minded individuals, they can lose a grasp on objective reality.

Moreover, when one is involved in a confrontation, they should have
planned out some tactical approach, including an exit strategy if things
don’t go as expected. These observations would be true at any time, but
particularly when the leaders of a movement have from the beginning
clearly stated the impossibility of achieving their goals.

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Kamikaze Republicans precipitated U.S. shutdown

Published Oct. 2, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury

It has been just over two years since the Republican congressional leadership forced U.S. President Barack Obama to blink in an eyeball-to-eyeball game of chicken between these two branches of the American government.

At that time, the focus of the confrontation was extending the debt ceiling limit, which effectively meant honouring the nation’s debts. Obama conceded at that point, at least to the extent of establishing a commission to agree upon government spending cuts, lest an across-the-board sequestration would be triggered.

We know, of course, that the sequestration ultimately did occur, and that is still a contentious matter for many.

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Putin gives Obama a lifeline over ‘red line’

Published Sep. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Just when it appeared that U.S. President Barack Obama had painted himself into an inescapable corner over Syria’s chemical weapons use, an impromptu comment by Secretary of State John Kerry was picked up by the Russians to hand him a lifeline out of the mess that he had created with his indecisiveness.

One obvious lesson is that the American president should not specify red lines unless he fully plans to act upon them. This has clear implications for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, where Obama has also warned of red lines.

On the matter of Syria’s sarin nerve gas and other chemical weapons, estimated to amount to some thousand tons in total, authorities will be unable to verify their complete whereabouts without Bashar Assad’s full compliance.

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Sometimes it takes a firm push to get government moving

Published Sep. 9, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The wheels of government grind exceedingly slowly, as many citizens can attest from personal experience. And the more senior the government, the more slowly its wheels seem to turn. Decisions that might require a few days can take weeks or months, if not years.

Sometimes it takes a firm push, or a boot in the posterior, to get a government moving. Here are a couple of recent examples.

First, climate change. Back in 1997, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, committing Canada to the reduction of greenhouse gases. True, the Liberals never made a serious effort to meet the emissions targets, but at least they paid lip service to the notion that global warming was a bad thing. Not so Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. To them, climate change was fuzzy socialist thinking that intruded on the healthy capitalist enterprise of resource extraction.

Last week, however, word was leaked that Harper had written to U.S. President Barack Obama offering a deal. If Obama would do what he had become reluctant to do — approve the stalled Keystone KL pipeline, a $5.3-billion project to carry crude oil from the Alberta oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast — the Harper government would get serious about greenhouse-gas emissions. Harper proposed joint action by the two governments to reduce emissions.
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The pipeline provided the push. Whether it will actually lead to anything is matter for another day, or month or year.

The second example is the Senate. Senate reform has been stated policy of the Conservatives since they came to office in 2006. The Tories have been ragging the puck for seven years, going nowhere. Now, however, a combination of ill-considered appointments and the cynical use of celebrity senators (and their expense accounts) to promote the partisan interests of the Tory party has created a problem that will not go away.

It is distracting the government, making it look sleazy in the public’s eyes, and providing fuel to the opposition as the political cycle turns toward a general election in two years’ times. Now, Harper needs to be seen to be doing something about the Senate. After seven years, he has only himself to blame for his dilemma.

There are other examples of inaction. Thirty years ago, the CF-18 went into service with the Canadian Air Force. The government knows these aircraft must be replaced, but it cannot get its act together. When the Harper government took office in 2006, it decided to order 65 sophisticated F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters. Production delays, performance problems and a constantly inflating price tag played havoc with the proposed acquisition. Initially, the all-in cost was given as $16 billion. The figure kept rising in various reports — to $25 billion, $30 billion, then $40 billion. The latest figure circulating within the government: $71 billion (or more than $1 billion per plane).

So now the government is looking around for other options. Guess what they are looking at: the F-18 Super Hornet, the updated version of the aircraft Canada purchased 30 years ago. It still does the job.

Next, the search and rescue helicopters — an even longer story than the CF-18 replacement. Canada’s Sea King helicopters are routinely described as “aging.” That’s an understatement. The Sea Kings went into service 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963; 27 of the original 41 are still in service.

Back in 1986, the Mulroney Conservative government began looking for replacement choppers, and in 1992 it signed a $4.4-billion contract with European Helicopter Industries for 48 EH-101 helicopters. In 1993, however, Chrétien, keeping an election promise, cancelled the purchase, incurring $157.8 million in penalties. A new search began. These things take time. In 2004, Ottawa announced it would spend $3.2 billion for 28 Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopters.

Deliveries were to be made between 2008 and 2012. Sikorsky couldn’t make the deadlines, so Ottawa is looking around (again). Meanwhile the venerable Sea Kings keep chopping along.

Obama would be wise to reconsider course on Syria

Published Sep. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The late Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — in the days of the Vietnam War — learned a lot about the statecraft of warfare. Among the 11 most important lessons he said he learned was this: be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

What he meant was that before embarking on a military adventure, a wise leader will take the precaution of consulting his allies. If like-minded nations are not willing to join the war effort, the smart leader will reconsider his course. There may be very good reasons not to proceed.

McNamara’s 11 lessons are set out in The Fog of War, an extended interview with filmmaker Errol Morris, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Although McNamara was talking about Vietnam, his advice could — and should — have been applied to Iraq (the war began in 2003), and it is certainly relevant to today’s confrontation with Syria.

In McNamara’s view, the United States — never understanding Vietnam’s history or people — made a series of mistakes, beginning with the decision to proceed with precious little international support. Aside from South Vietnam itself, just Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines joined the ill-fated U.S. effort.
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In the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was joined by the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland (with a token force of 194). Such staunch allies as France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada refused to get involved; one of Jean Chrétien’s proudest moments as prime minister came when he said “no” to president George W. Bush’s request that Canada join “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to disarm Saddam Hussein of his alleged store of weapons of mass destruction. The war dragged on for eight years and claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and many times that number of Iraqis.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and we see a disconcertingly similar scenario. In place of Iraq, read Syria; in place of Saddam Hussein, read Bashar Assad (the Syrian president and Middle East villain of the hour); in place of weapons of mass destruction, read chemical weapons; in place of George W. Bush, read Barack Obama.

Obama wants very much to attack the Syrian regime and teach Bashar Assad a lesson through the use of drone aircraft and cruise missiles. No boots on the ground, but isn’t that what they said at the outset in Vietnam?

If McNamara were still alive, he would advise Obama to re-examine his reasoning, by checking out the nations willing to line up behind him. He won’t see many. He may be able to cobble together a coalition with France and Syria’s neighbour, Turkey, but that’s likely to be about all. He cannot get international support through the United Nations Security Council as long as Russia is Syria’s patron and weapons supplier.

Obama looked to the United Kingdom, but when Prime Minister David Cameron put the proposition to Parliament last week, his coalition government lost the vote. There was a sense at Westminster that Britain had been sold a bill of goods 10 years ago — no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq — and it would be unwise to embrace another American adventure. Cameron wisely said he would accept Parliament’s verdict. Back-peddling, Obama now says he will seek the authorization of both houses of Congress before embarking on military intervention in Syria.

McNamara would have approved. The delay will give time for cooler heads to prevail, to seek ways to address Syria and the issue of chemical weapons short of embarking on another Iraq-style war.

After speaking to Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he agreed with the president on the need for a firm response, adding that while his government had no present plans for a military mission, Canada would support its allies who choose to use force. What form that “support” might take, we don’t know. What we do know is that Harper does not intend to consult Parliament.

No surprise there.

The law nobody wanted

Published Feb. 27, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

It is ironic that in an American Congress where members are divided along party lines, and seem barely able to agree upon the time of day, one of the few laws they have passed authorizes a budget sequester which is being decried on all sides, and threatens to disrupt an already tepid economic recovery in the US. The explanation of course, is that the sequester was never supposed to happen. It was a miscalculation by both Republicans and Democrats that by adopting threatening tactics they could jointly frighten each other into compromising upon financial offsets, to permit the House of Representatives an extension of the debt ceiling, which was itself a threat to force the president into spending cuts without reciprocal revenue increases.

This all dates back eighteen months when the American economic outlook was even bleaker than it is today, and President Obama was apprehensive about the impact of a crisis precipitated by Congress to force an economic default, prior to the 2012 presidential election. He and congressional Democrats hoped that if they spared the mandatory entitlement programs, the fear of a mutual reduction in domestic discretionary spending as well as defense spending, might motivate Democratic and Republican legislators to break their ideological impasse on other expenditures.

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Try talking sense to the gun lobby

Published Jan. 21, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office formally Sunday, he may have reflected on the reality that the job of being president is a good deal more complicated than it seemed in the euphoria of his first swearing-in four years ago.

Back then, he was a junior senator from Illinois who had propelled himself to the highest office in the land. He soon had to deal with the war in Iraq, the meltdown on Wall Street and a global recession. He made climate change a priority, but wasn’t able to do anything significant about it. He tried to inject a measure of fairness into the tax code, but had to settle for a minuscule increase in taxes on the super-wealthy.

He made health care reform his signature priority and he succeeded to a greater degree than his predecessors. Using every ounce of his political capital, he managed to persuade Congress to give him a half-loaf — an insurance plan that subsidizes poor and middle-class families but stops far short of a single-payer system, on the Canadian model. He had to fight to get Republicans in Congress to agree to prevent the United States from falling off the “fiscal cliff.”

Looking ahead, Obama knows he faces more of the same in his second term. There may not be another hurricane Sandy or another massacre like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School to test the nation’s will. But the Republicans will still be there in Congress, more determined than ever to thwart the president’s will. Ideology and partisanship will continue to dictate their politics.
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The test of Obama’s will — and perhaps a measure of his presidency — will come on gun control. By all accounts he was genuinely devastated by the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn, in December. He promised action, and last week he announced it: a ban on new assault weapons (but not on existing ones), limits on high-capacity magazines, more thorough background checks for purchasers of firearms, and tougher laws on trafficking of weapons across the country.

The Obama proposals, to be entrusted to Vice-President Joe Biden, amount to something less than a declaration of war on guns and gun violence — a good deal less. The new laws, if enacted, will do nothing to reduce the number of firearms in private ownership in the United States (currently 270 million, or 88.8 guns for every 100 Americans, women and children included). And they will do precious little to deter people who should never be trusted with a deadly weapon from acquiring one, legally or illegally.

“If enacted,” are key words. The attack ad aired by the National Rifle Association featuring Obama’s daughters was unconscionable, but it is a harbinger of the abuse the president can expect as the gun control debate moves into Congress.

Although polls show a modest increase since Sandy Hook in public support for some form of gun control, the opponents are digging in against what they interpret as a socialist, even communist, crusade to confiscate their weapons. The rhetoric of the gun lobbyists, both in and outside Congress, reflects the growing intensity of their opposition.

On Saturday, a series of rallies was held in 49 states (all except Alaska) to mark an event called, if you can believe it, “Gun Appreciation Day.” Summoned by social media, crowds ranged from a few dozen to a few thousand people, some wearing holstered pistols.

In St. Paul, Minn., 500 people cheered a local Republican legislator when he called for laws to allow teachers to carry guns in school and university students to pack guns on college campuses.

In Phoenix, Ariz., activist Eric Cashman, dressed as a 1776 Revolutionary War Minuteman, invoked the memory of the founding fathers: “Had they not had their firearms … to stand up against the British, we’d still be a British colony.”

Get real! How does a 21st century president talk sense to idiots living in the 18th century?