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Winners and Losers


One of the many quirks of our political system is that each year there are winners and losers among politicians whose names are not actually on the ballot.  This year is no exception.  Neither Governor Tom Wolf nor State Senator Scott Wagner was up for election this year, but results of the balloting sent their career paths in opposite directions.

Governor Wolf has had a tough first two years in office dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature. His efforts to dramatically expand government spending, and to implement the historic tax hikes needed to pay for that agenda resulted in the longest budget stalemate in state history.  Legislative Republicans won.

Tuesday voters rewarded the GOP with even larger legislative majorities. Democrats in the state senate are now on life support.  Two Democratic incumbents were defeated by challengers; a third Democrat seat went Republican after the incumbent gave up several months ago and resigned from the ballot.  Combined, the three seats give Republicans a 34-16 edge and something rarely if ever seen in state government: a veto proof majority.

Meanwhile, across the rotunda in the House of Representatives Republicans saw their already historically high majority expand by three seats as four incumbent Democrats and one incumbent Republican lost.  The Republican pick-ups came in southwestern Pennsylvania which has been trending toward the GOP for several election cycles.  In fact, the most endangered species in Penn’s Woods might well be the non-urban legislative Democrat, with only a handful of Democratic lawmakers representing districts outside of the state’s urban cores.

All of this matters because next year’s state budget battle is shaping up to be even tougher than the first.  Republicans caved into Governor Wolf’s spending demands this year, but failed to fully fund the budget.  That coupled with revenue sources that either never materialized or have failed to meet projections presages a major fiscal fight next year.

Not only have Republicans added to their numbers, but this year’s legislative elections moved both chambers further to the Right.  Moderate state senators like Cumberland County’s Pat Vance and Lancaster’s Lloyd Smucker have been replaced by far more conservative legislators.  The continued drift of the House GOP caucus from moderate southeastern dominance to conservative central and western Pennsylvania influence means tougher sailing for those wanting to raise either taxes or spending.

Governor Wolf also saw his agenda rejected in another race; that the battle for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat.  The Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, was Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff and architect of the tax and spend plan that triggered the epic budget battle.  Incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey made hay of that effectively painting McGinty as out of touch with the financial needs of average Pennsylvanians. He won, she lost.

How then do the fortunes of one state senator rise on all of this? Senator Scott Wagner was an establishment pariah when he ran for an open seat in York County in 2014.  Shunned by his own party Wagner accomplished an historic first in Pennsylvania: He won a special election on a write-in defeating both party nominees.

The upstart senator has quickly gained clout and was tapped by his colleagues to lead the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.  The SRCC as it is known is tasked with recruiting, funding and electing Republicans to the state senate.  After playing a major role in helping to win several seats two years ago, Wagner effectively recruited candidates like Senator-elect John DiSanto of Dauphin County who upended Democratic incumbents last week.  Much of the credit for the senate’s now veto-proof majority goes to Wagner.

This is important because Scott Wagner has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in 2018 and is widely expected to announce his candidacy within weeks.  Having built a strong senate majority gives him a leg up both on the Republican nomination and on a grassroots organization for the battle against Tom Wolf who is expected to seek re-election.

Thus the 2016 election has set the stage for the beginning of the next big electoral battle in Pennsylvania. Political fortunes have risen and fallen. And the never ending cycle of campaigns has already begun anew offering no respite for weary voters.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Fixing America


Once again America is grieving.  The deaths of five Dallas police officers and two young men who died elsewhere having been shot by police have rocked the nation.  Set aside for a moment the politics and circumstances of these events and reflect on the fact that as a result today there are children without fathers, mothers without sons, wives without husbands, sisters without brothers.

The shootings, and the protests than inevitably follow, are becoming ever more common.  What has become abundantly clear is there are inequities in our criminal justice system. The growing violence stemming from those inequities has made the already difficult job of law enforcement even tougher, which in turn has yielded more violence.

This being a presidential election year the powder keg upon which we sit will become even more volatile.  President Obama is calling for more federal control over local police departments.  Donald Trump struck a traditional tough on crime posture.

The solution is none of the above. More federal regulation only hamstrings local police and social services agencies, and filling our prisons even further does nothing to address the root cause of the problem.  It is time to admit that, while government has a role, government alone cannot fix what is wrong.

What can government do?

Criminal justice reform is in fact one of the few areas of public policy where the Left and the Right have found some common ground.  Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaking to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference (http://www.paleadershipconference.org/2015-videos/205-ken-cuccinelli-2015) last year explained it well:  “Ninety-five percent of the people in our jails are coming back out.  So we can ignore that, or we can make the criminal justice system be what it was supposed to be and that is an opportunity for rehabilitation, for correction and for improvement.”

Some conservatives might recoil at that suggestion, but Cuccinelli explains: “I believe nobody is beyond redemption.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve punishment for doing wrong. But when you talk about literally or figuratively throwing away the key are you abandoning perhaps more important beliefs in your life?”

Those “more important beliefs” get to the heart of the ultimate solution, for our goal must be to prevent people from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place.  The root cause of the current crisis is as much societal than it is governmental.

I served for four years as a Dauphin County Commissioner with oversight of human services.  During that time I watched many dedicated folks dealing with the result of what was a breakdown of family and community.  Simply put, government does not and cannot have the resources necessary to supplant the many individual support networks that family, church, and community provide.

While we must work with law enforcement and improve our criminal justice system, the ultimate solution comes down to three things: faith, family and education.  Until and unless we strengthen those institutions we cannot expect the situation to improve.

The removal of religion from the public square is not just some right wing talking point.  Religion – Christian or other – has throughout history provided the moral underpinning of our society.  It is through religion we learn not only rules of conduct, but find the most important of human yearnings including unconditional love, forgiveness and hope.  In the absence of these vital intangibles people, particularly the young, fill the void with drugs and crime.

There has never been born that person who did not need the guidance and discipline of strong family ties.  Define family in whatever way you will, but at the end of the day children and youth need someone who cares about them, provides for them, and nurtures them.  In particular, the absence of fathers has contributed to a breakdown of the family unit.  All of our institutions – government, school, church – must place an emphasis on responsible parenting.

The third fundamental building block of society is education.  Rather than endless debates over the minimum wage we should be focused on educating people for jobs that pay a living wage. And that includes preparing students for the hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs in manufacturing that go unfilled. Our education system must bring everyone up to the starting gate of their work life fully equipped.

Rather than looking at government, or the police, or around the room at others, repairing what is wrong with America begins with each of us.  We must strengthen our churches, our families and our communities.  Then, and only then will what we have witnessed in recent weeks become the exception rather than the rule.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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When in the Course of Human Events


This is the time of year when Americans celebrate the anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain.  It is ironic that the United Kingdom itself a few days ago found it necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”  By leaving the European Union the British people have reconfirmed that the longing for liberty is an eternal emotion.

Meanwhile, here in the colonies, the very document that ensured our rights as a free people has been under relentless attack.  The Constitution of the United States has withstood the test of time. After the Articles of Confederation failed to provide the framework for an effective federal government delegates from the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia and in September of 1787 put their signatures to the document which, at least theoretically, remains our nation’s ultimate authority.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify theConstitution which then took effect on March 4, 1789.  The document was, however, viewed as incomplete and several states insisted on the inclusion of ten amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights.  Those amendments were ratified and became effective on December 15, 1791.

That the Bill of Rights was necessary is evidenced by periodic efforts throughout our nation’s history to disregard, water down, or remove them entirely.  Perhaps no amendment has been so violated as the tenth which limits the power of the federal government.  Congress and the president, frequently with complicity by the Supreme Court, have consistently throughout the ages infringed on this right.  Today the assault continues, especially upon the second amendment governing our right to keep and bear arms.  The non-existent “right” of freedom from religion has replaced the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed in the first amendment.

It is safe to assume that the founding fathers would place in the first amendment those rights that they viewed as most vital to a free people.  It is here that the Constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and of the press.  Now obviously there was no electronic media or internet back in 1787, but freedom of speech and of the press clearly applies to all means of communication.

A free press was instrumental in our nation’s founding.  The only method of mass communication was through the printing press producing formal newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides.  From Thomas Paine during the revolution to the Federalist Papers, the expression of opinion via the printed word was a vital means of exercising free speech.  Throughout our history we have depended on a free press to keep government in check, such as it did during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.  So vital is a free press that it is often referred to as the “fourth estate,” or fourth branch of government.

It is therefore disturbing to see candidates and elected officials from the national to the local level trampling this vital right.  In just the last few weeks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign events.  Here in Penn’s Woods, the Democratic mayor of Harrisburg, Eric Papenfuse, has revoked the credentials of the capitol city’s newspaper the Patriot News/Penn Live. Papenfuse’s actions are especially curious in that he is the owner of a prominent bookstore, so you would think he might have some loyalty to the unfettered circulation of the printed word.

My goal here is not to defend the content of these publications – whose left-wing ideology frequently taints their reporting of the news – but to stand up for their right to do so.  If elected officials, from mayors to presidents can decide who can cover the news they can also then control the news.  This is not only a violation of the media’s constitutional rights, but an existential threat to our democracy and ultimately our individual liberty.

As we celebrate our freedom with fireworks and back yard barbecues let us always remember that the trampling of one right is the trampling of all rights.  The loss of any one right puts us on a very slippery slope which will ultimately lead to the loss of all rights.  From freedom of the press, to freedom of religion, to our right to keep and bear arms, we must fight to protect our God-given rights against those who would take them away.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Déjà vu All Over Again


‘Tis budget season again in Harrisburg.  Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature face a June 30th deadline for enacting the 2016-17 spending plan. If it seems like we just finished the budget; that is because it took until April for the longest fiscal stand-off in state history to be resolved.  And now, it is time to begin anew.

Hopefully, not the lengthy stand-off part.

June is typically when the heavy lifting on crafting the new budget is done, particularly the last week of the month when legislators act like college students pulling an overnighter to get their assignments finished.  In this case though, there is no penalty for tardiness.

The big question under the capitol dome is will there be a summer re-run of the 2015-16 budget drama, or will the state budget actually get done relatively close to the constitutional deadline?  So far, the signals are mixed – but ominous.

Will it be, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again?”  Two factors point to another epic battle.  First, Governor Wolf’s “budget address” last winter lacked any content actually pertaining to the budget. Instead, he unleashed a tongue lashing at the legislature for failing to approve his historic tax and spending increases.  This was as well received as an illegal alien at a Trump rally.  Second, not a single legislator lost in April’s primary as a result of the budget battle.

That second factor is significant.  With all House members and half of the Senate up for re-election this year pressure is normally on to avoid anything even remotely controversial so as not to upset the electorate.  However, Republicans in particular are emboldened because they stood their ground, bested Governor Wolf in round one, and were rewarded by voters.  This gives them no incentive to cave to the governor’s tax hike demands.  Quite the opposite, voters in their districts clearly don’t want expanded state spending and the taxes needed to pay for it.

Conversely, Democrats – who have become essentially an urban party in Pennsylvania – represent districts that benefit from state taxpayer largesse.  Their constituents want more spending because they are on the receiving end, thus those voters returned their representatives to office as well.

Stuck in the middle are the endangered species of suburban Democrats who represent so-called “swing districts.”  Largely located in western Pennsylvania, these districts have been flipping from Democrat to Republican in recent cycles.  This is where the biggest electoral battles of 2016 will be fought, and those Democrats are on the hot seat.

This brings us to the one factor that could bring about a prompt budget resolution: Democratic desires not to lose even more of their seats.  Already Republicans hold legislative majorities not seen in over a half century.  The electoral map does not offer Democrats much hope.  At least three Senate Democrats are imperiled while the GOP faces no significant opposition to holding their seats.  In the House, most battles will again be fought on the little remaining Democrat turf in the western part of the state.

In each of those districts the trend line has been favorable for Republicans, and the Democrat constituencies are far more conservative than those found in urban areas.  Thus, Democratic candidates in each of those districts can ill afford to be tagged with supporting Governor Wolf’s tax and spend agenda.  This is incentive for Democratic leadership to postpone until next year any epic battle over the budget.

Should that occur Pennsylvania taxpayers will have only a brief respite.  Governor Wolf must stand for re-election in 2018 meaning his last shot at enacting his bold plans to expand the size and scope of state government will come next year.  Lose, and his image as an isolated and ineffective chief executive will be cemented into place.  But for Tom Wolf, even winning comes with some risk: will statewide voters actually reward a governor who just imposed upon them a historically large tax hike?

The only thing we can say for sure is it will be interesting to watch.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Budget Battle Ends With Electoral Dud


The final pieces of legislation ending Pennsylvania’s longest budget stalemate fell into place just days before the April primary election. And the story that dominated state news for over nine months had no apparent impact on voters who meted out no electoral punishment for the fiscal fray that had school districts on the cusp of closing, nonprofits cutting services, and politicians at each other’s throats.

This budget stand-off was different from those that took place during the Rendell era notably due to the lack of public pressure placed on Governor Wolf and the legislature.  There were no daily protests on the capitol steps. State employees did not go without pay.  When the battle commenced last summer Governor Wolf’s first salvo was an attack ad campaign. It fell flat. Outside the halls of state government and the few remaining news media that cover it, the budget battle went largely unnoticed.

Despite Governor Wolf’s threats of electoral retribution, lawmakers did not pay a political price for engaging in the budget battle.  The first clue that the fiscal free-for-all was not impacting the electorate came in February when there was no wave of candidates filing to oppose incumbent legislators.  Looking at the primary election results it would be difficult if not impossible to point to a single lawmaker who lost his or her seat because of the sustained budget stand-off.

In fact few lawmakers lost for any reason.  And those that did lose were a result of local political divisions rather than anything that happened in Harrisburg.  In Philadelphia, for example, Democrats engaged in their biannual exercise of primary fratricide.  The state’s longest serving House member – State Representative Mark Cohen – was defeated by a challenger who claimed he had been in office too long and was out of touch with his constituents.

Another rare defeat of a House incumbent took place in Lackawanna County where State Representative Frank Farina lost to former legislator Kevin Haggerty.  The two former colleagues found their districts merged in redistricting a couple of years ago and have been battling over the seat ever since.

While voters were busy returning incumbents to office some lawmakers even got a promotion.  State Representative Mike Regan ran for and won the Republican nomination to replace outgoing state Senator Pat Vance in Cumberland County.  In what was a hard fought and nasty campaign the budget crisis did not register as a key issue.

For Republicans looking to hold onto historic majorities in both the Senate and the House the future looks bright.  Senate Republicans could actually achieve a veto proof majority as the fall battles will be fought over swing seats currently occupied by Democrats.  On the House side, the primary yielded solid GOP nominees for open seats like Dawn Keefer in Cumberland County and Frank Ryan in Lebanon County.  Conversely, Democratic retirements in western Pennsylvania provide the opportunity for additional Republican pick-ups in an area already trending toward the GOP.

Further evidence of the impotence of the state budget battle on the electoral process can be found in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.  Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff, Katie McGinty, was one of the prime architects of the budget proposal that triggered the lengthy stand-off.  She resigned last summer to run for the U.S. Senate and prevailed against three opponents in the primary.

Why did the epic budget battle fall so flat with voters?  Chalk it up to a lack of attention being focused on state government.  Or the fact the absence of a state budget had little impact on the daily lives of Pennsylvanians.  Timing was also a factor.  With the nation transfixed by the presidential race scant coverage has been afforded other matters.

And so we find ourselves back to where we began.  Another budget season is underway in Harrisburg.  Governor Wolf is pushing for more spending and higher taxes, Republicans are adamant in their refusal.  The fight will continue, apparently without consequence for anyone involved.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Get a Grip: Congress must return to an orderly budget process


Millions of Americans, likely you are one of them, have sent a tax return off to the Internal Revenue Service over the past couple of weeks having been given little choice but to follow the Biblical admonition to “render under Caesar” a significant portion of your earnings.  Neither religious fervor, nor patriotic sentiment prompted the paying of our taxes – financial penalties and even a jail cell await those who fail to comply.

It is interesting then that while we the taxpayers ponied up, Congress – the body that established the income tax – failed to meet its own first fiscal deadline of this year.  This, of course, is nothing unusual as Congress has missed virtually every deadline in the budgetary process for well over a decade.  It should be noted that not a single member of Congress has paid a penalty – financially or electorally – for their inability to execute the most basic of legislative duties.

By April 15th of each year Congress is required to establish the parameters of the federal budget.  This budget blueprint allows the various committees of the House and Senate to then debate and pass spending bills.  The impact of congressional failure to pass the budget blueprint by April 15th is that the committees will automatically assume a higher level of spending for the upcoming fiscal year.

That was precisely the goal of Democrats and Republican moderates. The budget blueprint did not happen because conservatives pushed for adoption of a more fiscally austere budget blueprint and could not come to agreement with their more moderate colleagues.  This failure is widely viewed as a serious setback for new House Speaker Paul Ryan who has made a return to the regular order of the budget process a top priority.

What will happen over the coming months is that the various committees will debate and pass spending bills the total of which will exceed both the nation’s ability to pay and congressional will to approve.  As has happened regularly over the past decade the September 31st deadline for passing a new federal budget will arrive without congressional consensus.

This is why we typically hear late summer rumblings over a pending budget crisis and threats of a government shut-down in October.  To prevent such a shut-down Congress will then pass a continuing resolution.  The continuing resolution – or CR in government parlance – will allow spending to continue for a set period of time at the previous year’s spending level.

All of this is bad news for fiscal conservatives in that the end result is that instead of an orderly passing of each component of the budget by category one gigantic spending bill – known as an omnibus – ends up being passed, usually sometime in December, that allows federal government spending to continue growing virtually unchecked.  To make matters worse usually unrelated, must pass items are tossed into the omnibus making it politically difficult for any member to vote against the package.

The ultimate impact of this is that the tax burden on the average American continues to grow. According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, Tax Freedom Day – the day we stop working to pay federal taxes – will fall on April 24th.  That is 114 days into the year (excluding Leap Day).  But, wait – it’s worse: “If you include annual federal borrowing, which represents future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day would occur 16 days later, on May 10.”

As if that isn’t bad enough, it doesn’t include your state, county, school district and local taxes which push your personal Tax Freedom Day into June.  Overall, according to the Tax Foundation, we Americans will pay $3.3 trillion in federal taxes, another $1.6 trillion in state and local taxes all adding up to about 31% of your income.

This growing tax burden is the reason why it is so important that Congress re-establish an orderly budget process.  The current method of governing by crisis only leads to bigger government.  Without an agreed to blueprint that establishes spending limits, hearings and debate that set clear priorities, and passage of a budget in a non-crisis atmosphere, it is next to impossible to get a grip on out-of-control government spending.  Congress’ failure to do so means we will continue working deeper and deeper into the year to pay the tab.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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It’s the Delegates, Stupid


As the lengthy presidential primary and caucus season moves into its end stages the electorate is beginning to realize that winning delegates is more important than winning states.  The value of delegates is rising in both the Democratic and Republican contests as Bernie Sanders’ victories fail to translate into delegates and the GOP race has become so fragmented a contested convention is now a very real possibility.

Not since 1976 have Americans witnessed a contested convention.  When the GOP met in Kansas City that year incumbent President Gerald R. Ford entered the convention just short of having a majority of delegates.  He ended up beating Ronald Reagan for the nomination before losing the General Election to Jimmy Carter.

In recent decades presidential nominating conventions have been little more than three or four day infomercials.  The primary and caucus system determined nominees well in advance of the conventions which then were heavily scripted to establish campaign themes and play to a television audience.  As a result voters have lost sight of the fact that primaries and caucuses do not pick the nominee – delegates do.

That is not to say voting in a primary or a caucus doesn’t matter.  It does as many delegates are bound – at least on the first ballot – to the outcome of a primary or caucus win.  Most, but not all, will be so encumbered.  But, should it take more than one ballot many of those delegates become unbound and are then free to vote for whomever they choose. There are also “super delegates” on the Democratic side: party officials who are not bound to any specific candidate, and uncommitted delegates on the Republican side who are similarly unfettered.

The race for the Republican presidential nomination began with 17 candidates competing creating an environment which raised the potential for a contested convention.  Looking at the math it will be difficult for any candidate to secure a majority of committed delegates prior to the convention, but Donald Trump and Ted Cruz still remain mathematically viable.  Ohio Governor John Kasich has been mathematically eliminated, but is pinning his hopes on winning over delegates in a contested convention.

As if this were not confusing enough for the average voter, Pennsylvania Republicans will face a challenge when they step into the voting booth on April 26th.  The first step is simple enough: voters can cast their ballot for the presidential candidate of their choice.  The winner of the statewide presidential primary will then get 17 at-large delegates committed to him on the first ballot in Cleveland.  If the convention takes more than one ballot to arrive at a nominee, those 17 may then vote as they see fit.

Now for the complicated part: Three delegates will be elected from each of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts.  The names of the delegate candidates will appear on the ballot, but the word “uncommitted” will appear under each.  This means the voters will not be able to tell by looking at the ballot for whom each delegate candidate is committed – or if they are committed at all.  Thus, to make your vote really matter you must go into the polls knowing not only which presidential candidate you will vote for, but you must also know which delegate candidates are supportive of your presidential candidate.

Some delegate candidates say they will vote for whichever presidential candidate wins their congressional district.  You therefore have no way of knowing whether or not that delegate candidate will support your choice for president until after all of the votes are counted.

Presidential campaigns will be working to elect their delegates, but this year’s primary requires voters themselves to do a bit of homework before going to the polls.  To effectively support a presidential candidate the voter must vote not only for that candidate, but also for three delegates pledged to him.  And they must know who those delegate candidates are before going into the polling place, otherwise their delegate votes are a shot in the dark.

Famed political consultant Jim Carville once put a sign on the wall of Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters that read: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  That was to keep the focus on the campaign’s central message to voters.  This year the presidential primary in Penn’s Woods will actually matter.  We can update the old Carville saying to: It’s the delegates, stupid.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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