Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The San Francisco Chronicle on the presidential debate:
Americans should be saddened, if not angered, by the distressingly unhinged debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night.
Some of the blame could go to Chris Wallace, the moderator from Fox News, for failing to take control of a debate undermined by Trump’s constant interruptions and wanton disregard for the time limit. To be sure, Biden occasionally stepped on Trump’s lines, though he generally refrained from taking Trump’s bait.
But most of the blame must be assessed on the president of the United States who was out of control from the start. At one point early on, Biden seemed to be speaking for millions of Americans when he asked the perpetual interrupter Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”
Presidential debates have been a great exemplar of American democracy since 1976, when Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford squared off. Some of those debates have been pivotal, some have been less than entertaining, but each has been carried off with a level of substance and decorum that voters want and deserve from potential leaders of the free world.
Until Tuesday night.
There were almost too many lowlights to count, most courtesy of Donald Trump.
It was as if Trump were given one last chance to show that he had grown into the job of the presidency, that the gravity of his duties and acceptance of the need to represent all Americans would humble him. He clearly has not. No doubt his supporters may have loved his bully mode, but if there is such a thing as “Trump fatigue” — and if there wasn’t before Tuesday, there is now — it’s hard to imagine his debate performance will gain him any votes.
If anything, Trump validated the prevailing concerns about him. He refused to answer a direct question about whether he would condemn white supremacists. Instead, he riffed about the greater problem with radicals on the left and — most disturbingly of all — suggested the white supremacist Proud Boys should “stand back” and “stand by.”
Even worse than failing to denounce this hate group, Trump just gave them a rallying cry.
Get nervous, Americans.
On the final question, Trump once again stopped decidedly short of committing to a peaceful transition of power if he were to lose. He repeated unfounded allegations about voting by mail, which is being expanded in multiple stands in response to a pandemic that makes in-person voting a health hazard. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said.
Biden was clear in his response: Once a winner is declared, “that will be the end of it.”
The New York Times on President Donald Trump’s income taxes:
In the years before he became president, Donald Trump lived lavishly while paying little in federal income taxes. The Times reported on Sunday that Mr. Trump paid no taxes in 10 of the 15 years immediately preceding his run for the White House. In each of the following two years, 2016 and 2017, he paid the token sum of $750.
Remove Mr. Trump’s current job from the picture, and what remains is a story that still demands attention. The portrait of a man who earned hundreds of millions of dollars, lived a life of comic excess and yet, in many years, paid nothing in federal income taxes is an indictment of the federal income tax system. It illustrates the profound inequities of the tax code and the shambolic state of enforcement.
The government has sharply reduced the share of income that it collects in taxes from the wealthiest Americans. One recent study found that the 400 wealthiest households paid 70 percent of their total income in federal, state and local taxes in 1950, 47 percent in 1980 and 23 percent in 2018. The cuts in tax rates have come mostly at the federal level.
The government allows income to be sheltered from taxation for hundreds of different reasons, but real estate investors have long enjoyed a particularly sweet set of loopholes. A homeowner can write off the interest payments on a mortgage loan, but the owners of commercial buildings get a host of other benefits, too. It’s relatively easy for real estate investors to use past losses to offset income, to defer income and to avoid reporting some kinds of income. Best of all, the law lets investors claim a building is depreciating in value — a theoretical loss of money — even as the actual value increases.
“I love depreciation,” Mr. Trump said during the 2016 campaign.
Moreover, the formidable complexity of the tax code makes it difficult to tell when wealthy taxpayers have crossed legal lines. For the rich, taxation often becomes a kind of structured negotiation between the taxpayer’s experts and the government’s experts.
It’s not a fair fight: The rich keep getting richer, while the Internal Revenue Service keeps getting smaller. Republicans in Congress have slashed funding for the I.R.S., stripping the agency of expertise, resources and authority. The number of I.R.S. auditors has fallen by one-third since 2010. The government employs fewer people to chase deadbeats than at any time since the 1950s.
The share of all tax returns subject to an audit declined by 46 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Astonishingly, the decline was even steeper for millionaires — the audit rate fell 61 percent over the same period.
Legend has it that the bank robber Willie Sutton said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. The I.R.S. has been reduced to going where the money isn’t. As ProPublica has reported, the government now audits lower-income households that claim the earned-income tax credit at roughly the same frequency as high-income households. It’s easier for the depleted agency to pick on people who can’t afford to hire expensive tax attorneys.
The result? On current trends, the federal government will fail to collect $7.5 trillion in taxes over the next decade — about 15 percent of the total amount owed.
Cracking down on rich tax cheats is law enforcement. It is a basic function of government to ensure that people are playing by the rules. Tax cheating is not a victimless crime. Every dollar hidden from the government is that much less money to spend on education, roads and research. The rich are benefiting at the expense of everyone else.
It would be relatively easy to start collecting some of that money. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in July that adding $40 billion to the I.R.S. budget over the next decade would yield $103 billion in otherwise uncollected federal income taxes.
The methodology of that estimate is extremely conservative, as Natasha Sarin, an assistant law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lawrence Summers, an economics professor at Harvard, noted in a July paper. Dr. Sarin and Dr. Summers estimated that fully restoring I.R.S. funding, and modernizing collection techniques, would allow the government to collect $1 trillion of the unpaid taxes.
Strict enforcement should start with the president, to show that no American is above the law.
Mr. Trump claimed a tax refund of $72.9 million in 2010, according to the Times report; the government paid the claim, and then opened an investigation. If Mr. Trump loses, he could owe the government more than $100 million in repayment, interest and penalties. It should not take federal authorities more than a decade to determine whether Mr. Trump has paid the full amount he owes. The government must move urgently to resolve this question.
On Tuesday night, when Mr. Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, take the stage for their first presidential debate, both men should be asked what steps they will take to ensure that all Americans pay the full amount they owe.
And Congress should restore every penny of funding stripped from the I.R.S. since 2010 — plus whatever is necessary for the agency to perform its critical work.
Paying taxes is a civic duty, and the government needs the money. Most Americans try to pay what they owe, even if they wish they owed less, and they take comfort in the assumption that most of their neighbors are conducting themselves in the same way.
Americans deserve to know that the president has paid his taxes, too.
The Khaleej Times on Hezbollah and rebuilding Lebanon:
The spectre of state failure haunts Lebanon as Mustapha Adib, PM-designate, has now abandoned efforts to form a government of technocrats. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Despair is the operative sentiment in the people. They can see the global community making efforts and offering help to rebuild Lebanon, but cannot be blamed if they feel let down by their own country’s political leaders who are unable to seize the opportunity and allow any positive developments. The current state of affairs emphasizes all that has gone wrong with Lebanon’s political experiment. It has parceled out political power to 18 religious sects and turned the political system into a fiefdom for select families. This is now backfiring at the expense of the nation. Clearly, the attempt to maintain cohesion through this sort of confessional balance has simply not worked. Who is to blame? More importantly what can be done to resolve the governance issues that have plagued life in Lebanon for decades? How can the country free itself from the clutches of Hezbollah that has its roots entrenched in Lebanon but serves the interests of Iran?
It is time for Lebanon to break away from confessional politics. The first step arguably to initiate political reforms is to disarm Hezbollah. The militant group cannot be allowed to wield its military influence and impose its will on various sections of the country. Besides, there is also a need to strengthen the civil society and arm it with powers that can hold the leaders accountable. An empowered citizenry plays a pivotal role in a country’s governance setup. In the absence of these changes, we will forever be asking what next for Lebanon and waiting for another crisis to rise.
The Wall Street Journal on Trump’s supreme justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett:
President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court is a highlight of his Presidency and perhaps a hinge moment for the judiciary. Judge Barrett’s record and intellect suggest she can join Mr. Trump’s other appointees in reviving core constitutional principles in American law and life.
If this sounds like a tall order for one Justice, we do not mean to suggest this is her job alone. She is the latest example of a new generation of originalist judges whom Mr. Trump and the GOP Senate have elevated to the federal bench. The numbers—three Justices and 53 appellate-court judges—are crucial, but more important is how they approach the law. With rare exceptions, they think of themselves as protectors of the proper constitutional order, not as a third policy-making alternative to the political branches.
Though she has only served three years on the federal bench, Judge Barrett certainly seems an exemplar of this model. At the White House on Saturday, Judge Barrett said her legal principles are those of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she clerked. This could be dismissed as a rote genuflection to the revered Scalia, but her opinions and scholarship suggest she means it.
As David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman write nearby, her reasoning shows careful attention to statute and the Constitution. Her dissent in Kanter v. Barr (2019) on broad restrictions on gun rights for convicted criminals is especially impressive.
The easy decision would have been to go along with the panel majority, and popular opinion, by barring gun ownership to felons. Judge Barrett looked at the constitutional history and the Supreme Court’s Heller precedent to make important distinctions that protect the Second Amendment the way liberal jurists once protected the First Amendment regarding unpopular political speech. Perhaps on the High Court she can coax Chief Justice John Roberts to stop treating the Second Amendment as the prodigal son of the Bill of Rights.
Democrats will portray her as a blank check for executive power, but they misjudge her principles. She has ruled against the Trump Administration on immigration law, notably in Morales v. Barr, a deportation case.
At a Hillsdale College event in 2019, she noted that “(Justice) Robert Jackson owed his career to Roosevelt. . . . Yet Jackson did not allow whatever personal loyalty or affection that he had for Roosevelt influence his decision in (Korematsu, the Japanese-American internment case in World War II). Unfortunately, he was in the minority. His was a dissent. The Court decided 6-3 that the exclusion order was constitutional.”
The political left is also portraying Judge Barrett as a “radical” who will easily dismiss precedent, especially on abortion. This is what they say about every conservative, and they are wrong. She adhered faithfully to precedent on the Seventh Circuit, notably on abortion in Price v. Chicago (2019). One dissent she joined in an Indiana abortion case was vindicated at the Supreme Court. Our guess is that on overturning precedent she will fall in the Court’s middle—more willing than the Chief Justice but less than Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
A note about abortion is in order here that will displease the left and right. Both sides claim for political reasons that they anticipate a repeal of Roe. v. Wade, but they are likely to be disappointed. Anti-abortion conservatives once supported Anthony Kennedy for the High Court because like Judge Barrett he is Catholic, only to be disappointed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
Roe was transcended by Casey, which further embedded abortion rights in precedent. You can believe, as even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, that Roe was based on faulty logic and still believe the right to abortion is too settled in law to overturn now. The real legal battleground will be over the limits of state regulation such as late-term abortion and health restrictions.
It’s no accident that Clarence Thomas is the only current Justice who has called for overturning Roe. Demanding that a nominee declare herself on Roe is a destructive exercise, whether from Democrat Mazie Hirono or Republican Josh Hawley, and Judge Barrett shouldn’t answer.
Every new Justice changes the dynamics on the High Court, and in ways that are hard to predict. One helpful change with a sixth center-right Justice is that Chief Justice Roberts would need to persuade at least one other conservative if he wants to form a majority with the three remaining progressives.
Democrats view all this with horror, but we think they would be wiser to view it as an opportunity. One reason Court nominations have become so bitter is because progressives have long viewed the judiciary as a second legislature for policies they can’t pass in Congress. Think racial preferences and climate regulation (Massachusetts v. EPA, 2007). If that avenue is foreclosed, as we hope it will be, then the left may have to achieve what they want the old-fashioned way—democratic persuasion and consent.
This is also a lesson for Republicans, who shouldn’t default to the courts simply because there are more conservatives on the bench. In the best case, a more modest Supreme Court that sticks to the law and its constitutional calling may even cause Congress to return to doing its job of forging durable consensus.
All of this is hope for the judicial future. For now, and no matter the election consequences, Republican Senators should do their elected duty and confirm an excellent nominee. Win or lose in November, they will have left a significant legacy in restoring proper constitutional government.
The Washington Post on Trump conceding the presidency:
It would have been unthinkable, not long ago, for a White House to have to issue such a clarification. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany averred Thursday that President Trump “will accept the results of a free and fair election.” Ms. McEnany was not rebutting some kind of fevered left-wing conspiracy theory but the president’s own words. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday when asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation,” he said.
Sadly, there’s a limit to how much reassurance Ms. McEnany can provide. Mr. Trump will reserve to himself the right to determine whether the election is “free and fair,” and he has already said the only way he could lose is through fraud. Mr. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr have pre-spun the results by fanning conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots. “Get rid of the ballots” means curbing the mail-in voting that large numbers of Democrats say they will use this year.
There’s a touch, but only a touch, more reassurance to be had from the mild condemnations that Republicans issued following the president’s antidemocratic statement. There is some comfort in the fact that they said anything at all; such things are not guaranteed these days. But it is easy for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to say that “the winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th.” It may take more gumption for them to do the right thing after their president has spun a narrative of massive electoral fraud.
The most distinct danger, in other words, is not that Mr. Trump will refuse to cede power after unambiguously losing. It is plausible he will lead in key states on the evening of Nov. 3, based on an advantage in in-person voting — and that his lead will then diminish or disappear as mailed ballots are counted. If he falsely portrays the shift or the delay as scandalous, will Republicans stand up for democracy and the truth? Or will they support him as he seeks to do what he has openly said he intends — to “get rid of the ballots”?
A president with a modicum of decency would seek to reduce national tensions and assure Americans that the government is working to ensure that every American has a fair opportunity to vote. During a pandemic, that would mean acknowledging that many more Americans will want to vote by mail, which was not controversial until Mr. Trump decided it might hurt his chances. It would mean explaining that the shift toward mail-in voting might make things feel different — full results will not be available on election night, for example — but assuring people that this is not evidence of fraud.
That is not the president we have. So it falls to others — Democrats and, we hope, Republicans — to explain and explain again. Mail-in and early voting are safe and appropriate. The winner may not be known on election night. It is more important that every vote be counted. Vote, be patient, and do not be swayed by the president’s lies.
The Boston Globe on setting term limits for Supreme Court justices
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood, more than anyone else, the enormous consequences of her death. “My most fervent wish,” she said, in a statement dictated to her granddaughter before she died, in her Washington, D.C., home, “is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
But barely hours after her death was announced, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would quickly move forward with a vote to fill Ginsburg’s seat with President’s Trump nominee, brazenly contradicting his own rule against installing Supreme Court justices in presidential election years.
It was unseemly, to say the least, that our collective mourning of Ginsburg’s extraordinary life and influential legacy was almost immediately eclipsed by the political implications of her death. But that’s what Supreme Court confirmations have become: another venue for the country’s poisonous partisanship.
And while a deeply divided Congress often winds up doing little, here so much hangs in the balance. A new conservative justice on the Supreme Court could mean the end of Roe v. Wade, the Affordable Care Act, climate pollution regulations, and other rights and protections for vulnerable populations.
How did the fate of such major, life-changing rights and rules come to rest on the health of a single person? And why have recent appointments of Supreme Court justices so frequently set off an intensely partisan, nasty, and destructive national fight? Part of the answer lies in the lifetime tenure of the nine Supreme Court justices.
When justices serve so long, the stakes of each appointment are too high. And when justices can time their retirements, the politicization of the court grows too acute; see all the calls for an aging Ginsburg to retire during Barack Obama’s presidency to guarantee the appointment of a left-leaning replacement.
One sensible way to lower the temperature on appointments, and preserve the legitimacy of the court, is to establish term limits for justices.
The idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices is not new or radical. It’s supported in both conservative and progressive quarters. The most talked-about plan involves staggered, regular appointments to 18-year terms. Each president would get two appointments per elected term, one every other year. In 1983, John Roberts, then an attorney working in Ronald Reagan’s White House counsel’s office, wrote a memo expressing support for term limits. “Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence,” wrote the future chief justice. “It would also provide a more regular and greater degree of turnover among the judges.”
Roberts was right. Term limits would not only depoliticize the highest court. They would put it more in touch with the crosscurrents of American life.
Term limits for Supreme Court justices are popular, too. Fix the Court, an advocacy organization that promotes reform in the federal courts, released a poll two years ago that showed nearly 80 percent of Americans are in favor of restrictions on length of service for SCOTUS. Yet another poll, conducted by Marquette Law School last year, showed that 72 percent of those polled supported term limits for Supreme Court justices.
The question of how to end lifetime tenure and set term limits is unsettled. Some legal scholars say the change must be enacted via a constitutional amendment, while others say Congress can do it through legislation as long as certain conditions are met. While the Constitution does not specifically grant lifetime tenure for justices, it does spell out that federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behaviour” and not have their compensation reduced. To comply with such language, a new statute setting judicial term limits could require that retiring justices — after serving for 18 years — sit on lower federal courts with no change to their salaries. Regardless of the vehicle, ending lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices is an idea whose time has come.
The chaos to come over Trump’s pick for the court makes it abundantly clear that Americans deserve a better system that lowers the stakes. It would be a fitting tribute to Ginsburg’s legacy if her passing became a catalyst for reform of the Supreme Court.
Traditionally, Jewish people say “may their memory be a blessing” when someone passes. In recent years, some have offered up an alternative for pathbreakers like Ginsburg: “May their memory be a revolution.”
May her memory be a revolution, indeed — a reimagining of the highest court in the land.
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