Editorial Roundup: United States

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

Aug. 16

The Washington Post on Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi brutality:

Salma al-Shehab, the mother of two young children, was studying for a PhD at the University of Leeds and took time off to go home to Saudi Arabia for a vacation. Ms. Shehab is a Shiite Muslim, a persecuted minority in the kingdom, and a women’s rights activist who spoke out on social media for the right of women to drive. Her vacation ended in prison.

Saudi authorities detained Ms. Shehab in January 2021 and subsequently sentenced her to six years in prison for using social media to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.” On Twitter, she had demanded freedom for Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for women’s right to drive and was incarcerated and tortured for it. In her appeal, Ms. Shehab noted that she used her real name on social media, had a peaceful background, posted photos of her children and had relatively few (2,000) followers, so how could she pose a security risk? She complained of being held in solitary confinement for 285 days. In response, prosecutors argued that she should be charged simultaneously under the kingdom’s counterterrorism laws and under its cybercrime statute. On Aug. 8, the court delivered an especially draconian sentence: 34 years in prison and then 34 years of travel restriction. According to the Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, this is the longest known sentence for a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia.

The case offers yet another glimpse at the brutal underside of the Saudi dictatorship under its crown prince and de facto head of state, Mohammed bin Salman, whose hit team assassinated Post Opinions contributor Jamal Khashoggi nearly four years ago. The crown prince, known as MBS, has been eager to portray himself as a modernizer, lavishing Saudi wealth on an international golf tour and promoting a utopian city to be built in the desert. In February 2021, Ms. Hathloul was released after nearly three years in prison but is still under travel restrictions, one of the Saudi ruler’s many pernicious punishments.

When President Biden visited Saudi Arabia last month and fist-bumped MBS, the White House said he “raised specific cases of concern” about human rights, including “the egregious murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” The president “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.” Now the crown prince shows exactly what safeguards were in place: none. The Saudi promises to Mr. Biden were a farce.

At the very least, Mr. Biden must now speak out forcefully and demand that Ms. Shehab be released and allowed to return to her sons, 4 and 6 years old, in the United Kingdom, and to resume her studies there. Golf fans and hosts of the upcoming Saudi-backed LIV golf events in Boston, Chicago and Miami should protest Ms. Shehab’s cruel treatment. In the Saudi kingdom, the crown prince commands fear and silence. But in open societies, his ruthless behavior must be denounced at every opportunity.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/16/salma-al-shehab-prison-sentence-saudi-arabia/

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Aug. 15

The New York Times on political bravery in the United States:

When elected leaders put party before country, Americans are diminished as a society: We grow cynical; we believe less; we vote less. Every so often, however, we witness a leader who takes a principled stand, at odds with the party leaders or supporters (or both) and ultimately against his or her own self-interest. In our era of partisan warfare, these principled acts amount to political bravery, and they are essential to democracy — helping replenish our belief in leadership and, in some cases, our trust in the rule of law being followed.

These acts of political bravery are also a powerful reminder that the structural flaws in our political system lessen the incentive to be brave. Leaders who follow their principles risk alienating donors, party bosses and voters who may scream betrayal rather than seek a measure of understanding. When Senator Mitt Romney cast the sole Republican vote to convict President Donald Trump for abuse of power in his first impeachment trial, Republicans nationally and in Utah criticized the senator; his own niece Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, defended Mr. Trump and chided her uncle. When Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis refused to commit to defunding the police amid a crowd of protesters after the murder of George Floyd, he was booed away, leaving to jeers of “Shame! Shame!”

These examples of leadership — whether you agree with those positions or not — are important moments in the political life of a country. It’s worth taking note of them, at a time when they are under particularly fierce attack. It’s also worth noting that the stakes of the current moment are only going to require more such acts, particularly among Republicans.

On Tuesday, two Republicans, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, faced primary challenges as they each sought another term in Congress. They both ran against opponents backed by Mr. Trump; indeed, their political fates were put into question solely because they stood up to Mr. Trump when it would have been much safer and politically expedient not to.

They are not unlike those Republicans who faced primary challenges and, in some cases, defeat in 1974 after supporting articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. And while circumstances differ, they also call to mind those Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and lost re-election that fall, or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic made her a divisive figure. She, too, did not take the safe and politically expedient course; she became the target of an alleged kidnapping plot in 2020 and is being challenged for re-election this fall by a Trump-backed Republican.

Ms. Cheney and Ms. Murkowski are, in fact, offering two models of political bravery at a time when straight, down-the-line party support is more and more common.

Ms. Cheney’s model is that of a consistent conservative who, on a critical issue that has become a litmus test in the party, took the right stance — calling out Mr. Trump’s election lies and attempting to hold him accountable for subverting American democracy and fomenting the Jan. 6 attack. First she lost her House leadership position; now, as one of only two House Republicans to serve on the Jan. 6 committee, she has lost to a Wyoming Republican championed by Mr. Trump. The former president is deep in the revenge business these days; she has a different purpose.

While Ms. Cheney voted in line with Mr. Trump nearly 93 percent of the time, her commitment is to the rule of law, and her resolve to put country above party is clearly more important to her than blind loyalty. History will remember Ms. Cheney for her principles just as it will Mr. Trump for his lack of them.

Ms. Murkowski’s model is that of a more moderate pragmatist with a history of crossing the aisle on some crucial legislation and votes, against the drift of many Alaska Republicans. Ms. Murkowski did not go along with the party’s attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act, and she opposed the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and supported confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. She also helped broker the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill last year.

But it was her vote to convict Mr. Trump in his second impeachment trial that now has him seeking political payback. She was one of seven G.O.P. senators to find Mr. Trump guilty then; she is the first to face re-election. … Ms. Murkowski is still one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in this year’s elections, but Alaska’s system gives her a chance to be judged by all the voters there, rather than registered Republicans alone.

Both models of political bravery bring to mind another Republican, Senator John McCain, with his thumbs-down vote in 2017 that helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, and with his bipartisan efforts on some policy issues, like immigration reform. And on the surface, Ms. Murkowski’s affinity for bipartisan coalitions — which annoys some on the right — is shared by two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, which annoys some on the left. The duo are better known for stonewalling Democratic legislation than crossing the aisle to get legislation passed, but plenty of moderate Democrats and independents see them as taking a stand in defense of consensus and compromise (neither of which is politically in vogue these days).

The positions of Ms. Cheney and Ms. Murkowski stand in sharp relief to so many of this season’s Republican candidates, who are launching scorched-earth attacks on Democrats as “liars” even as they continue to promote Mr. Trump’s Big Lie.

Some MAGA Republicans like to pretend that they’re brave with shows of chest-beating, name-calling and machismo and complaints about being persecuted by social media and the news media. But so much of this is political theater aimed at whipping up the Trump base, and none of it requires moral courage.

Violence, like the violence unleashed during the Jan. 6 attack, is an ever-present and growing response to political bravery in our democracy. It was there at the Capitol that day; it was there in the hate aimed at John Lewis and his fellow marchers in Selma; it was present in the alleged kidnapping plot aimed at Ms. Whitmer; and it is present in the stream of death threats endured by politicians in both parties whenever they cross a line.

There are few incentives for politicians to exhibit bravery today. In a recent Times Opinion focus group exploring instances of courage and bravery in politics, six of the 10 participants — including four independents and one who leans Republican — said they thought President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was politically brave. “There are a few of us here who are old enough to remember the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the similar way that it played out in Afghanistan,” one of the independents said. “But it was something that needed to be done. It was not popular, but it was very courageous.”

Yet the chaos and bloodshed of the withdrawal are the first things that many Americans recall about it; future generations may recall Mr. Biden’s decision to remain steadfast in his decision, but in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal, he faced severe public criticism and a sharp drop in his popularity.

Barbara Lee, the veteran Democratic congresswoman from California, is familiar with this lack of incentives. In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she emerged as the sole voice in Congress to oppose the authorization of military force sought by the Bush administration as a means of responding to the cataclysmic events of that month. Ms. Lee recalled recently that her Democratic colleagues warned her at the time that the party couldn’t make military force a partisan issue in a moment of crisis. “I said we can’t do this, it’s overly broad and setting the stage for ‘forever war.’” And after she cast her nay in what would be a 420-to-1 vote, Ms. Lee recalled that her friends in the House “thought I was making a mistake, saying, ‘You are doing all this good work on H.I.V. and AIDS and foreign affairs; we don’t want to lose you.’”

Some colleagues feared for her safety, others for her re-election, she said. “I got death threats — people’s shotgun shots into my voice mail,” Ms. Lee said. “The threats lasted for a long time. They don’t come as often, but I still get threats today.”

Ms. Lee faced a primary challenger the following year but was re-elected. She sees a parallel between her experience and Ms. Cheney’s. “In a strong democracy, there is the right to dissent,” Ms. Lee said. “She is dissenting as I chose to.”

Bravery alone is not enough to heal the nation’s partisan divisions. Timothy Naftali, a historian of the Nixon era, said he fears that the country is far more divided now than it was then. “We did not form a consensus about Trump after Jan. 6 like many Americans did in the summer of 1974 regarding Nixon’s abuses of power,” he said.

And even the most courageous, principled stand may not change the minds of die-hard partisans, Mr. Naftali noted. Even after the months of work by Ms. Cheney and so many others on the Jan. 6 committee, some recent polls show that it hasn’t really changed public opinion about the former president.

Ms. Cheney is not sounding any regrets. “If the cost of standing up for the Constitution is losing the House seat,” she recently told The Times, “then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” Democracy needs more profiles in courage like that.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/15/opinion/liz-cheney-lisa-murkowski-primary.html

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Aug. 14

The Wall Street Journal on government subsidizing health coverage:

The Health and Human Services Department recently made news with a report touting that “National Uninsured Rate Reaches All-Time Low in Early 2022.” Sounds encouraging, but look beneath the covers and what you find is a quiet but enormous shift from private to government-subsidized coverage.

HHS estimates there are 5.2 million fewer uninsured Americans than in 2020. Yet Medicaid rolls during the pandemic have swelled by 24 million—a 34% increase—while two million more adults have enrolled in ObamaCare exchange plans.

Why are so many more people on Medicaid when the U.S. unemployment rate has reached a near-record low? A large part of the answer: The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act from March 2020 barred states from removing people who become ineligible from their Medicaid rolls for the duration of the public-health emergency in return for a bump in federal funding.

If not for Mr. Biden’s recurring emergency declaration, about 20 million Medicaid enrollees would no longer be eligible, most because their incomes exceed the threshold for qualifying. Many could now get coverage through their employers, but why pay insurance premiums when Medicaid is “free”?

Taxpayers are thus getting slammed with a huge surprise medical bill. Annual Medicaid spending has increased by $198 billion during the pandemic. That’s about as much as Medicaid spending grew from 2012 to 2019 during the first seven years of the ObamaCare expansion. As long as the Biden Administration continues the public-health emergency—now set to end on Oct. 13—the taxpayer Medicaid tab will continue to grow. And what are the odds the Administration won’t renew the emergency again before the election?

The other explanation for the government insurance takeover is Democrats’ expansion of ObamaCare exchange subsidies in March 2021. As a result, millions of Americans pay no premiums, and households making more than 400% of the poverty line receive generous subsidies. The Congressional Budget Office initially estimated the two-year subsidy expansion would cost $22 billion. Actual cost: $50 billion.

More Americans enrolled in the exchanges than CBO predicted, and insurers have taken advantage of the sweetened subsidies by raising premiums. Yet CBO bizarrely forecasts that the Schumer-Manchin bill’s three-year subsidy extension will cost a mere $33 billion.

How does CBO figure that three years of subsidies will cost 34% less than two years? Maybe it expects healthcare spending to fall as the pandemic recedes, but insurers are now raising premiums to cover Covid treatments they expect the feds to stop paying for.

By the way, CBO doesn’t account for the Administration’s proposed regulation to fix ObamaCare’s so-called family glitch, which limited exchange eligibility for many individuals offered family coverage through their employers. The Administration estimates the change could make an additional five million Americans who currently have access to employer coverage eligible for more generous subsidies on the ObamaCare exchanges.

The Administration appears to want to drive more people into Medicaid and tightly regulated ObamaCare plans, and thus make more Americans dependent on government for healthcare. Government also subsidizes employer coverage through the healthcare tax deduction, but this is significantly less expensive for taxpayers.

Annual Medicaid and ObamaCare spending has increased by about $230 billion during the pandemic, which comes out to about $44,000 per newly insured American. Alas, taxpayers can’t challenge this overcharge.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-governments-stealth-heath-takeover-health-and-human-services-department-insurance-coverage-medicaid-11660254013

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Aug. 14

The Guardian on President Joe Biden’s climate law:

When the House of Representatives passed landmark climate legislation on Friday, President Joe Biden chalked up one of the surprise successes of his presidency. Only last month his ambitious agenda appeared sunk after a conservative Democrat and coal baron, Joe Manchin, refused to back it. His vote is crucial in an evenly divided Senate. However, the climate proposals were largely resurrected in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), co-authored by Mr. Manchin, which Congress approved.

The first major U.S. climate law comes not a moment too soon. It is the country’s best and last opportunity to meet its goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and, with it, a world where net zero by mid-century is possible. After Donald Trump, Mr. Biden can reclaim the mantle of global climate leadership for the U.S.. But the act reveals the limits of his power.

The Democrats’ initial $3.5tn plan was to expand education, fight poverty, lower healthcare costs and tackle climate change. That was whittled down to a $1.75tn bill that the House passed last year. But it got nowhere in the Senate. Mr. Manchin refused to back the social security programs and his centrist colleague Kyrsten Sinema refused to back the tax rises. What was left was $490bn in climate and healthcare investments.

This deserves a small cheer from progressives. Mr. Biden is pursuing a muscular policy of state intervention in the economy. The act for the first time gives the federal government the power to negotiate lower drug prices. Significantly for the climate, it represents a new U.S. industrial policy that subsidizes zero-carbon power production via tax credits. It also recognizes that the U.S. is falling behind China in green technology — spending $152bn less on renewable investments last year – and focuses on ways to encourage clean-energy manufacturing.

Politics in the U.S. is unfortunately far too influenced by the power of vested interests. The U.S. remains addicted to fossil fuels, which generate 61% of its electricity. Its shale gas industry is looking to replace Russia as the major energy supplier to Europe. The upshot was that fossil fuel lobbyists won concessions in the climate legislation. The compromise means linking renewable development to new oil and gas extraction for which many communities will bear the disproportionate cost.

Nevertheless, for every one ton of emissions caused by the act’s fossil fuel provisions, the non-partisan Energy Innovation thinktank says 24 tons of emissions are avoided by its green provisions. This ought to help energize Mr. Biden’s base ahead of the midterm elections. Despite Republican antagonism, climate action enjoys broad support in the US. A Pew Research Center poll suggests that 58% of voters think the federal government is doing too little to “reduce the effects of global climate change, compared with just 18% who say it is doing too much”.

To be a truly transformative president, Mr. Biden will need to remake society. What the act demonstrates is that he does not have the votes – yet – in his own party for such a program. Mr. Biden’s climate plans may fall short because he is relying on the carrot of spending rather than the stick of taxes to underpin an energy transition. Yet the wasteful consumption of the wealthy will have to be reduced with progressive taxation to make resources available for socially-useful spending. Ultimately the climate emergency needs a fundamental economic restructuring. Mr. Biden’s new environmental law is a good start, but there’s a very long way to go.

ONLINE: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/14/the-guardian-view-on-bidens-green-deal-leadership-after-trumps-denialism

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Aug. 11

China Daily on the global effects of political polarization in the United States:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Mar-a-Lago, a residence of previous U.S. president Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday.

The significance of the law enforcement department’s action does not rest solely with the object of the search, many pages of classified documents that Trump allegedly brought with him to the property when he left the White House in January last year, but the timing and possible consequences of the move, as it will cast an unavoidable influence on the midterm elections in November.

The Republicans — although no longer the monolithic whole they appeared to be before the Capitol Hill riot — have been prompted to coalesce again, accusing the Democrats of conducting a “political witch hunt” and calling the investigation “political persecution” typical of an authoritarian regime.

Some Republican members of Congress have even threatened to take revenge by carrying out a series of investigations against the Democrats if the Republican Party regains control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections as expected.

If that’s not enough, the protests fervent Trump supporters staged outside Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s high-profile disclosure of the search, in which they clamored “Civil war coming to America”, should ring the alarm bell that the aggressive populism and anti-intellectualism that Trump gave free rein to during his presidency will once again hold sway over the U.S. political system.

The Democrats have tried to dodge the attacks by adopting a strategy of “less talk, less trouble” and prevaricating on the incident. U.S. President Joe Biden’s spokesperson said he didn’t know about the search, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t know about it until the incident was reported.

Trump himself has sought to exploit the incident by posting a tirade against the “political persecution” targeting him and calling on his supporters to raise funds for him on Monday night.

All of which further aggravates the polarization in the United States.

Surveys show the Republicans are very likely to take control of the House of Representatives, as the exorbitant inflation in the U.S., the technical recession of the U.S. economy and the quagmire of the Ukraine crisis are all being blamed on the Biden administration, even though a lot of his policies are a continuation of those of the Trump administration.

Whatever the outcome of the midterm elections, the worsening polarization in U.S. politics will continue to take its toll on the rest of the world by manufacturing divisions, confrontations, mistrust and crises.

ONLINE: https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202208/11/WS62f4f6b9a310fd2b29e71b39.html

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