Biden’s 2020 opening? Dem field missing foreign policy hand
By ELANA SCHOR and THOMAS BEAUMONT
Sunday, February 24
WASHINGTON (AP) — In town halls, television interviews and social media posts, Democratic presidential candidates are touting their support for “Medicare-for-all,” higher taxes on the wealthy and a war on climate change. But foreign policy, one of the chief responsibilities of a president, is largely taking a back seat on the campaign trail.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is seizing on that opening to position himself as the sole global policy expert in a crowded Democratic field if he decides to run for president.
In a series of speeches over the past month, Biden portrayed himself as an authoritative counterweight to President Donald Trump’s isolationist and nationalistic impulses. Last week, he told an audience in Germany that his vision of America “stands up to the aggression of dictators.” The problems of the 21st century, he later said at the University of Pennsylvania, can’t be solved “without there being cooperation.” His advisers have endorsed his foreign policy credentials to key political operatives and allies in early-voting states.
The moves reflect the vulnerabilities Biden, a 76-year-old firmly aligned with the Democratic establishment, could exploit in a crowded primary with rivals who are decades younger and working overtime to appeal to the party’s liberal base. In that kind of race, Biden could carve out space as a battle-tested statesman with the experience to stabilize America’s role in the world.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has already pledged to support Biden over home-state colleague Kamala Harris, recently summed up his advantage: “Huge international experience,” she told reporters. “And a knowledge that’s really unparalleled in terms of what’s happening in the world.”
Scott Mulhauser, Biden’s former deputy chief of staff, said focusing on foreign policy and national security “is a smart way to draw distinctions” in the primary field.
But running on foreign policy could carry risks. Although the election season is in its infancy and a crisis could shuffle priorities, it’s not clear that foreign policy is a top issue on voters’ minds.
AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate, found that 5 percent of 2018 midterm voters said foreign policy was the top issue facing the country. That falls well behind the percentage saying health care (26 percent), immigration (23 percent) or the economy (18 percent) topped their list.
Trump’s foreign policy has alarmed longtime allies and spurred criticism at home. A January AP-NORC survey found that 35 percent of Americans approve of the president on foreign policy, while 63 percent disapprove. Trump’s slated second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week will provide a fresh opportunity for the president to rebound or fall further, as well as for his Democratic would-be opponents to draw sharp contrasts with his self-proclaimed “America First” diplomacy.
But that doesn’t mean that Democrats, who are sorting through the most diverse and wide-open primary field in a generation, will warm to a Biden campaign focused on foreign policy.
“He’s got the experience, but I don’t want him to run,” said Julie Neff, of Ankeny, Iowa, home to the nation’s first caucus. “I would vote for a ticket that promised to put Biden in the Cabinet, like as secretary of state.”
Biden’s potential 2020 rivals are working to build their own foreign policy credentials, even if they’ve yet to spend a lot of time touting them to voters. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren this month proposed legislation that would prevent the United States from using nuclear weapons as a first-strike option, saying she wants to “reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation.” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has helped lead the charge on Capitol Hill to extricate the nation from the violent civil war in Yemen.
Yet Democratic candidates have generally avoided specifics when criticizing Trump’s foreign policy, in part because voters often press them on other topics.
In a series of Harris town halls in South Carolina and New Hampshire — her first events in both states as a declared candidate — voters did not question her on foreign policy, instead focusing on a range of domestic issues including health care, education and labor.
In Iowa Saturday, that changed, when a man asked Harris to explain her approach to the war in Yemen.
Harris generally criticized the Trump administration’s withdrawal from multilateral diplomacy, and joked it was her “intention to not conduct foreign policy by Tweet.”
But she steered clear of details, offering a general principle of engagement. “It is also about creating and conducting foreign policy in a way that understands that we are strong when we stand together with our allies,” Harris told more than 700 people during a town hall-style event in a suburb of Des Moines.
Asked by reporters about the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela after a meeting of Latino and Asian activists in Des Moines, Harris stopped short of suggesting how to get U.S. aid into the country.
“We need to take it very seriously,” she said. “But I don’t know that at this point we need to, and I would not condone, military action at this point.”
Because the campaign season is just beginning, Democratic candidates will have plenty of opportunity to build out their foreign policy agendas. Warren, who delivered a major speech on global affairs last year, aligned herself with Trump’s use of “diplomatic pressure” in recognizing a new interim president of Venezuela before criticizing his “saber-rattling” during an interview last week with the liberal Pod Save America. Sanders, for his part, recently declined when asked by Univision to urge socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step aside in favor of new leadership.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a prominent foreign policy voice who’s pushed alongside Sanders to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, urged his colleagues running for president to make foreign policy “a wedge issue.”
“I think he’s deeply vulnerable on national security,” Murphy said of Trump in a recent interview. “The national security gap has always been a huge liability for Democrats, and Trump’s mishandling of foreign crisis after foreign crisis gives us an opportunity to eliminate that gap.”
Beaumont reported from Ankeny, Iowa. Associated Press writer Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.
Analysis: Amazon Paid Zero Corporate Taxes Last Year; Why Aren’t 2020 Democrats Talking About It?
By Michael Graham
The current crop of Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination have made it clear who they’ll be coming after once they’re in the White House: Big corporations and the wealthy 1 percent.
Candidates such as senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris echo the sentiments of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has all but declared war on “these rich guys who have been waging class warfare on the middle class for decades” through a “rigged system that props up the rich and powerful, but kicks dirt on everyone else.”
So when news broke that Amazon — the world’s third-most valuable company, run by the world’s richest man — paid zero federal corporate income taxes on its $11.3 billion in U.S. profits in 2018, what did these candidates have to say about it?
No statements, no speeches, not even a tweet. Despite the fact that 2018 was the second year in a row Amazon avoided paying U.S. corporate taxes and, in fact, received a $129 million refund. Progressives like Warren, Booker and Harris have issued public statements on a wide array of topics in the past week, from Jussie Smollett to support for using paper ballots in elections, but not a single note about Amazon’s zero-dollar corporate tax bill.
And the question some campaign observers are asking is, “Why?” In a political moment dominated by economic populism and calls for open class warfare from Democratic leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, why aren’t progressive presidential candidates making Amazon the poster child for corporate greed?
A notable exception is Senator Bernie Sanders, who tweeted out a news story reporting the Amazon tax bill and his observation that, “If you paid the $119 annual fee to become an Amazon Prime member, you paid more to Amazon than it paid in taxes.”
Sanders has been singling out Amazon for its tax avoidance and oversized political influence for years. Interestingly, so has another populist, President Donald Trump. When the company avoided all U.S. corporate income taxes last year, Sanders called them out on it, and in September he proposed the Stop Bad Employees by Zeroing Out Subsidies, or “BEZOS Act, targeting the online retail giant and its CEO Jeff Bezos. The bill would tax corporations for every dollar that their low-wage workers receive in government benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.
No other 2020 candidate is even close to matching Sanders’ aggressive stance toward a corporation that, on paper, embodies everything progressive candidates are waging war against on the campaign trail. But other than a few remarks about Amazon’s decision to withdraw plans for a new corporate headquarters in Queens, N.Y., (“The fact that Jeff Bezos wanted our taxpayers to pay for his helicopter landing pad just shows how disingenuous he was from the beginning,” said New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another 2020 contender), they’ve been silent.
Some Amazon critics credit the company for what they call an effective, if evil, communications strategy.
“Why have politicians been so silent? I’m guessing somewhere in Amazon’s executive office someone said, ‘Look, if we’re going to pull the plug on New York (the HQ2 project) anyway, let’s do it now while the tax bill comes out. That way people will be totally distracted from it,’” says Bob Engel of the corporate watchdog group Free & Fair Markets Initiative. “If you’re gonna rob a bank, rob it on a day the FBI is busy.”
Engel, a longtime critic of Amazon, told InsideSources that “Amazon is a company whose business strategy is really based on gaming the system,” highlighting its political utility as a target for tax-the-rich progressives. And yet the company has largely gotten a pass, perhaps because of an area of math not directly related to taxes: Polls.
A July 2018 survey by the Baker Center for Leadership and Governance asked Americans to rate their level of confidence in 20 U.S. institutions, including the military, the media, and the courts. And the number-one most trusted institution among America’s Democrats was … Amazon.com.
(It was also the second-most trusted institution among Republicans, just behind the military.)
Writing about what she calls this “frankly embarrassing (for Democrats) poll” at the liberal website Slate, Nicole Karlis notes: “From an objective standpoint, Amazon’s values — like any for-profit corporation — don’t exactly line up with those of a democratic society that promotes wealth equality and opportunity for all.”
“I blame Congress,” says Matt Gardner, a senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which first released the news of Amazon’s zero corporate tax bill.
“Unless we see the actual tax returns, nobody can say exactly how Amazon avoided paying any corporate income taxes, but the available information makes it clear that three provisions in the tax code were very important: The research and development tax credit, the ability to write off 100 percent of investments in equipment, and the ability to deduct stock options to employees from taxable earnings,” Gardner said.
“While the Trump tax bill made some changes, all three of these have been part of the tax code for a long time. Congress could have eliminated or reformed them. They knew full well what the impact would be,” Gardner said. “Politicians talk all the time about ‘closing loopholes,’ but the conversation never goes any further.”
Gardner adds that this blame “comes with a big asterisk, because lobbyists are on Capitol Hill pushing for these tax policies,” but are progressives pushing back? Do opponents of so-called corporate greed like Warren, Booker or even Bernie Sanders really want to close the R&D “loophole”? Do they oppose allowing companies to deduct the costs of equipment, or reject the law (proposed and enacted by President Bill Clinton and a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1993) allowing the stock option deduction?
If so, they rarely mention it on the campaign trail and it doesn’t appear on their campaign websites. (Booker, Harris and Warren’s campaigns declined repeated requests for comment.)
These senators are also no doubt aware of the fact that Jeff Bezos isn’t just the CEO of an online company with 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers, but he also owns the The Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in America that reaches many Democratic primary voters.
The Post’s motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Perhaps. But that certainly seems to be where you’ll find the Democratic candidates’ debate over Amazon and tax policy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Graham is political editor at InsideSources. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinion: Will Howard Schultz Serve a Liberty Latte or Stale Socialist Dregs?
By Edward Hudgins
Far-left Democratic politicians are tripping over themselves to run for president in 2020, and the news media are tripping over themselves touting those candidacies — but only when they’re not busy praising Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s economy-destroying “Green New Deal.” Enter Starbucks founder and liberal Democrat Howard Schultz, who says he might run for president as an independent in 2020, on the assumption his own party is hopeless.
The extreme left is apoplectic, fearing he’ll divide the Democratic vote, re-electing Trump in 2020. Millionaire moviemaker Michael Moore calls for a boycott of Starbucks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wants to tax all wealth and denounces “billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else.” She commands “these billionaires to stop being freeloaders.”
This vitriol comes because Schultz is disrupting Democratic Party dogma.
First, Schultz slammed Warren, rather than apologizing for his wealth. He came from a poor family — he was one of the “everyone else” Warren allegedly loves — and created his wealth and his company, with all its jobs and benefits. Customers choose his lattes and coffee shops reminiscent of gathering-place cafes in Europe. Only a deluded demagogue could call this “freeloading.” Schultz tagged rags-to-riches stories like his own the “American Dream” he supports. While not saying so explicitly, his response challenges the envy-driven agenda of extreme-left Democrats.
Second, Schultz challenged Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and their ilk directly by saying, “I don’t believe the country should be heading to socialism.” Shades of Trump! Other Democrats silently fear that their party’s extreme leftists could throw 2020 to Trump. Schultz challenges the extremists out loud.
Third, Schultz sees the now $22 trillion federal debt as an existential threat to our country. Obama drove it up more than all previous American presidents combined, and the GOP, good on so many cut-back-the-government policies, hasn’t been much better. Will Schultz be tempted to hike taxes to cut deficits? Such hikes historically slow down economies, thus reducing tax revenue — or, at the very least, slowing its growth.
Further, Starbucks recently announced Trump’s tax cuts “accelerated” wage increases, employee stock grants, and other benefits for its workers. Successful entrepreneur Schultz should appreciate the truth about taxes better the ne’er-do-well Democrats in Congress, many of whom have never held productive jobs in their lives.
Fourth, Schultz has rejected Medicare-for-All as too expensive. Indeed, government regulations under such a scheme restricting even further patient health care choices would yield a system like the scandalous government veterans’ hospitals, where those who survived on battlefields die on waiting lists to see doctors.
In 2014, Schultz pledged $30 million to help veterans, so he surely appreciates that all Americans should not be subjected to the abuse veterans have suffered at the hands of the government they so honorably served.
Fifth, Schultz has denounced the “Green New Deal.” He pointed out, for example, that it “would mean that between 2,000 and 3,000 buildings a day would have to be reconstructed” to meet the plan’s requirements, and that “it’s immoral to suggest that we can tally up $20-, $30-, $40-, $50 trillion of debt to solve a problem that could be solved in a different way.”
But where could these sensible positions lead liberal Schultz?
Concerning global warming, he’s said “we must address it, we must fix it,” but will he understand that even current “climate solutions” double or triple electricity prices, as they have in Germany and Australia; impoverish consumers; and slow or drive businesses offshore? Will he look closely at the science and see global warming is, in fact, not a serious problem?
Since Schultz rejects Medicare-for-All, will he understand that where consumers are given more choices over their health care dollars — from tax-free heath savings accounts to experimental state Medicaid programs, where poorer Americans are offered choices and incentives to spend wisely — costs are better contained and consumers express greater satisfaction with their care?
At Starbucks, Schultz generously provides many employees with college scholarships, but he rejects the “Green New Deal” promise of free college to everybody. Does he understand that the Obama-era government tuition loan guarantees have driven up tuition, burying millions of graduates in decades of debts for, in many cases, useless degrees? Will he understand that many students, without college, can train for profitable careers, with private businesses footing part of the bill, through Swiss-style apprenticeship programs?
Does he understand that customer choice works in education as well as in Starbucks, and that when parents as customers make choices with their tax dollars about where to send their kids to K-12 schools, performance improves? Does he know inner-city parents are desperate for such options?
Schultz offers himself as the alternative to extreme leftist Democrats. But pushing back against their dogmas could break down his remaining dogmas so he sees that the country need not become the stale statist and socialist dregs other Democrats want it to be, but rather a liberty latte that offers more of the free-enterprise and individual-choice policies that allowed him to build Starbucks.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Why proposals to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia raise red flags
February 22, 2019
Author: Chen Kane, Director, Middle East Nonproliferation Program, Middlebury Institute, Middlebury
Disclosure statement: Chen Kane receives funding from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Partners: Middlebury College provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
According to a congressional report, a group that includes former senior U.S. government officials is lobbying to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. As an expert focusing on the Middle East and the spread of nuclear weapons, I believe these efforts raise important legal, economic and strategic concerns.
It is understandable that the Trump administration might want to support the U.S. nuclear industry, which is shrinking at home. However, the congressional report raised concerns that the group seeking to make the sale may have have sought to carry it out without going through the process required under U.S. law. Doing so could give Saudi Arabia U.S. nuclear technology without appropriate guarantees that it would not be used for nuclear weapons in the future.
A competitive global market
Exporting nuclear technology is lucrative, and many U.S. policymakers have long believed that it promotes U.S. foreign policy interests. However, the international market is shrinking, and competition between suppliers is stiff.
Private U.S. nuclear companies have trouble competing against state-supported international suppliers in Russia and China. These companies offer complete construction and operation packages with attractive financing options. Russia, for example, is willing to accept spent fuel from the reactor it supplies, relieving host countries of the need to manage nuclear waste. And China can offer lower construction costs.
Saudi Arabia declared in 2011 that it planned to spend over US$80 billion to construct 16 reactors, and U.S. companies want to provide them. Many U.S. officials see the decadeslong relationships involved in a nuclear sale as an opportunity to influence Riyadh’s nuclear future and preserve U.S. influence in the Saudi kingdom.
Why does Saudi Arabia want nuclear power?
With the world’s second-largest known petroleum reserves, abundant untapped supplies of natural gas and high potential for solar energy, why is Saudi Arabia shopping for nuclear power? Some of its motives are benign, but others are worrisome.
First, nuclear energy would allow the Saudis to increase their fossil fuel exports. About one-third of the kingdom’s daily oil production is consumed domestically at subsidized prices; substituting nuclear energy domestically would free up this petroleum for export at market prices.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. Ninety percent of its drinking water is desalinated, a process that burns approximately 15 percent of the 9.8 million barrels of oil it produces daily. Nuclear power could meet some of this demand.
Saudi leaders have also expressed clear interest in establishing parity with Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 2018 interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
As a member in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and is entitled to engage in peaceful nuclear trade. Such commerce could include acquiring technology to enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. These systems can be used both to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors and to make key materials for nuclear weapons.
Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., discusses his government’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.
US nuclear trade regulations
Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, before American companies can compete to export nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh must conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the U.S. government must submit it to Congress. Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution within 90 days disapproving the agreement, it is approved. The United States currently has 23 nuclear cooperation agreements in force, including Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt (approved in 1981), Turkey (2008) and the United Arab Emirates (2009).
The Atomic Energy Act requires countries seeking to purchase U.S. nuclear technology to make legally binding commitments that they will not use those materials and equipment for nuclear weapons, and to place them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It also mandates that the United States must approve any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation activities involving U.S. technologies and materials, in order to prevent countries from diverting them to weapons use.
American nuclear suppliers claim that these strict conditions and time-consuming legal requirements put them at a competitive disadvantage. But those conditions exist to prevent countries from misusing U.S. technology for nuclear weapons. I find it alarming that according to the House report, White House officials may have attempted to bypass or sidestep these conditions – potentially enriching themselves in the process.
According to the congressional report, within days of President Trump’s inauguration, senior U.S. officials were promoting an initiative to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without either concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement and submitting it to Congress or involving key government agencies, such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One key advocate for this so-called “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East was then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who reportedly served as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3, the firm that devised this plan, while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign.
The promoters of the plan also reportedly proposed to sidestep U.S. sanctions against Russia by partnering with Russian companies – which impose less stringent restrictions on nuclear exports – to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Flynn resigned soon afterward and now is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But IP3 access to the White House persists: According to press reports, President Trump met with representatives of U.S. industry, a meeting organized by IP3 to discuss nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia as recently as mid-February 2019.
Rules for a Saudi nuclear deal
Saudi leaders have scaled back their planned purchases and now only expect to build two reactors. If the Trump administration continues to pursue nuclear exports to Riyadh, I believe it should negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom as required by U.S. law, and also take extra steps to reduce nuclear proliferation risks.
This should include requiring the Saudis to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that give the agency additional tools to verify that all nuclear materials in the kingdom are being used peacefully. The agreement should also require Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers, and export the reactor spent fuel for storage abroad. These conditions would diminish justification for uranium enrichment or opportunities for plutonium reprocessing for weapons.
The United States has played a leadership role in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile regions. There is much more at stake here than profit, and legal tools exist to ensure that nuclear exports do not add fuel to the Middle East fire.