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A lean toward Clinton among one group of undecided North Carolina voters

By Mary Jordan
A lean toward Clinton among one group of undecided North Carolina voters
Undecided voters in the presidential election, from left Jamilla Hawkins, Ron Townley and Cindy Adair. MUST CREDIT: Ted Richardson for The Washington Post.

CARY, N.C. -- Donald Trump so captured Ron Townley's attention as "an outsider ready to tear down the system," just the one who might break the Washington logjam, the doer to build new airports and highways, that he was considering voting for him.

But Trump's response Monday night when Hillary Clinton accused him of not paying a cent of federal tax left Townley appalled.

"That makes me smart," Trump said, unapologetic and smiling, during the presidential debate.

That comment caused a gasp in the hotel conference room where Townley and a half dozen other undecided voters in this battleground state were watching the debate.

"That's offensive. I pay taxes," said Townley, 52, a program director for a local council of governments.

"Another person would be in jail for that," agreed Jamilla Hawkins, 33, who was sitting beside him in the Crescent conference room of the Embassy Suites in this city of 150,000 near Raleigh.

Hawkins' mother had chided her to get off the fence and support Clinton, but the 33-year-old felt no connection at all to the Democratic nominee. "I just wasn't sold on her. A lot of my friends were on the Bernie Sanders train," she said.

But Hawkins said the debate made her appreciate Clinton more. She said she now leans to voting for her - a feeling shared by most of the undecided voters gathered here for an informal focus group.

Polls show that the race between Clinton and Trump is deadlocked in North Carolina, a once-solidly conservative state that has seesawed between Republicans and Democrats in recent years and is now too tight to call for either candidate.

Many believe that the race will come down to undecided voters like Townley and Hawkins - those committed to voting but not yet to a candidate. In North Carolina, the undecideds amount to around 10 percent of the electorate, according to surveys; in other parts of the country their numbers are even higher.

"In an election that is predicted to be as close as this, these undecideds could well be the deciding factor," said Anita Brown Graham, professor at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina.

Most voters in this polarized election support either Trump or Clinton and couldn't possibly consider voting for their rival. Yet there are a significant number who see attractive qualities and flaws in each of the two major party candidates and have not yet decided whom to choose.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed that 17 percent of registered voters said the debate might change their minds about which candidate to support; 6 percent said there was a "good chance" the debate could do so.

The undecided voters gathered here Monday by The Washington Post were from all over the state; they were in Cary to attend a Rural Center conference, where gubernatorial and Senate candidates were among the speakers.

Each of the men and women said they had not yet found a candidate to rally around because they found fault with both. But after the debate, four of the six undecided voters said they now leaned toward Clinton after she showed mastery of the issues and appeared more presidential. A fifth voter declared himself essentially now in the Clinton's camp: "After tonight, I think I am convinced, I will vote for Clinton," said the Rev. Kelly Andrews, a Baptist pastor from Tarboro.

But Cindy Adair said the 90-minute debate did not help her at all. She still abhors some of Clinton's policies, including NAFTA, which destroyed the textile industy she grew up in.

"That's a lie!" she said as Clinton, under attack for the trade agreement blamed for sending jobs overseas, insisted that domestic manufacturing jobs increased in the 1990s.

Clinton "looked snarky" at times, Adair said - though she did think she looked "more professional" than Trump. She said she didn't find Clinton's better performance surprising given that the former U.S. senator and secretary of state is a "career politician" practiced in this kind of forum.

Adair, a registered Republican, said she likes that Trump will reduce taxes. She thinks it is a big mistake that Clinton will continue "Obamacare and the move toward socialist health care."

On a scale to 10, Adair said Clinton scored a five and Trump a two. By the evening's end, she was still at a loss over whom to support on Nov. 8.

The others watching the televised debate had new problems with Trump after listening to him one-on-one for an extended time. They said he appeared racist in some of his remarks about African-Americans, not as prepared and rude in his frequent interruptions of Clinton.

When Trump gloated about not paying taxes, many called it a huge mistake. Clinton accused him of hiding something by not publicly releasing his federal tax returns, and she noted that some returns seen by state authorities showed he had paid no federal taxes.

Hawkins, 33, who works in community development, said that gave her a new view of the Republican candidate: that he is out of touch with the ordinary middle class person who doesn't think it's right for the rich to not pay their share of taxes.

"He started out OK, but then after 30 minutes, he started attacking. He is inconsistent and doesn't have the temperament," she said.

Hawkins' eyes widened with incredulity with his unexpected answer about the culprit behind recent cyber attacks: "It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"

"Really?" she said, calling it childish and offensive to those with weight problems.

Hawkins' main issue with Clinton - her difficulty relating to ordinary voters - hasn't disappeared. But she has a whole lot more issues with Trump.

Amy Bridges, 49, who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - a mirror of how this state went - was troubled by Trump's inability to keep his attention focused.

"He cannot stay on topic," she blurted out, when Trump started talking about ISIS when he was asked about his call for Obama to produce his birth certificate to prove he is a natural-born citizen. "I just want you to answer the questions!" she said at another point.

Before the debate, Bridges talked of her reservations about Clinton, especially "the feeling that she was untrustworthy." But afterwards, she said, "It was far more obvious she knows her stuff. I felt a bit more comfortable with her."

Andrews, the Baptist pastor, had been attracted to Trump's business experience and his understanding that people are upset about manufacturing jobs send overseas. He said his wife lost her job when a plant closed that made tools and drills. But then when he listened to Trump Monday night, he started shouting at the TV screen.

" 'Stop-and-frisk' is unconstitutional!" Andrews hollered. Andrews, who is African-American, said Trump's call for the controversial practice to instill "law and order" would allow police to frisk any black person.

Trump also said African-Americans and Hispanics in the inner city are "living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot," Trump said.

Andrews found that statement ridiculous.

John York, a tech consultant, said the bottom line for him was that Trump gave few details and "showed he really doesn't have a plan."

"The very big highlight for me was when Hillary tried to assure the world" rattled by this election, York said. Trump talked off ripping up trade and other international agreements while Clinton promised that America would honor its defense treaties and said "our word is good."

"I think people want change but they are not ready to flush the whole system," he said.


Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

Eight-cent eggs: Consumers gobble cheap food as grocers squirm

By Craig Giammona
Eight-cent eggs: Consumers gobble cheap food as grocers squirm
A woman shops at a Kroger grocery store in Birmingham, Michigan, on March 1, 2016. (MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Sean Proctor)

Call it the Great Grocery-Store Giveaway of 2016.

In Austin, Texas, Randalls slashed prices for boneless beef ribs by 40 percent, to $3.99 a pound. Not to be outdone, the H-E-B grocer down the street charged $1 a pound less. Albertsons recently advertised a deal you don't normally see on your finer cuts of meat: "buy 1 get 1 free" specials on "USDA Choice Petite Sirloin Steak."

And what does $1 buy these days? In North Bergen, New Jersey, you could pick up a dozen eggs at Wal-Mart. (OK, the price was actually $1.14.) A mile away, check out Aldi, the German supermarket discounter, which can actually break the buck -- 12 eggs for 99 cents. A year ago you would have paid, on average, three times that price.

In a startling development, almost unheard of outside a recession, food prices have fallen for nine straight months in the U.S. It's the longest streak of food deflation since 1960 -- with the exception of 2009, when the financial crisis was winding down. Analysts credit low oil and grain prices, as well as cutthroat competition from discounters. Consumers are winning out; grocery chains, not so much. Their margins and, in some cases, their stock prices, are taking a hit.

Eggs and beef have have grown especially inexpensive, and it isn't only an American phenomenon: In England, Aldi recently offered its prized 8-ounce wagyu steaks from New Zealand for about $6.50 -- a little more than the price of a pint of beer.

"The severity of what we're seeing is completely unprecedented," said Scott Mushkin, an analyst at Wolfe Research who has studied grocery prices around the country for more than ten years. "We've never seen deflation this sharp."

Mushkin, who researches local markets, recently found that prices of a typical basket of grocery items in Houston had fallen almost 5 percent over the past year.

He credits, in part, the discerning behavior of shoppers like Manny Sinclair. On a weekday lunch break, the 43-year-old contractor stopped by a Wal-Mart in Secaucus, New Jersey, to pick up turtle food and paper towels.

Sinclair typically buys groceries at his local ShopRite but has recently noticed the steals he now finds at discounters. He glanced at the meat case, where a 12-pack of "Angus steak burgers" fetched $15.82 and grass-fed ground beef could change hands for $4.96 a pound.

Sinclair was intrigued but, in the classic logic of a shopper in an age of deflation, figured he might find even lower prices elsewhere. Along with two Wal-Marts, a Target and an Aldi, the area even offers a Family Dollar that features a small refrigerated section.

"Wherever I find the good deals -- that's where I'm at," Sinclair said.

At first, falling prices helped grocers. Low-cost commodities pushed down the tab for meat and packaged food and boosted profits. Now, deflation has turned ugly for the industry. Led by Wal-Mart, retailers are pushing down prices, eating away at their profit margins.

"It starts to border on irrational pricing," said Jennifer Bartashus, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. "People are lowering prices just to draw traffic, without thinking about their margins."

Supermarkets are facing competition not just from Wal-Mart Stores and Aldi but also dollar stores and online retailer It could get worse. Lidl, one of Aldi's German competitors, is building three distribution centers on the East Coast and plans to open U.S. stores by 2018. Even Whole Foods Market -- famously derided as "Whole Paycheck" -- is trying to compete on price through digital coupons and promotions on items such as beer and produce.

In recent years, Kroger -- the largest grocery store chain in the U.S., with nearly 2,800 stores -- cut prices to compete with Wal-Mart and managed to increase its market share and sales. But deflation has been hard on the supermarket chain. The company's stock has lost more than a quarter of its value this year, as price cuts weighed on profits. Chief Executive Officer Rodney McMullen expressed frustration that many customers don't even notice.

"The other thing that's always hard is getting your message out, because it's fascinating - in our research, most people are saying their basket of goods costs more money," McMullen said on a call with analysts this month.

The likely reason for McMullen's lament: Food, on average, makes up only about 15 percent of a consumer's budget. Except for gas and other energy-related items, prices for most other goods are going up, if only modestly.

At the same time, restaurant food can still be pricey. The situation makes for some strange contrasts: In Chicago, a pound of Dunkin' Donuts coffee sells for $4.99 at a Jewel-Osco store, less than the cost of a venti pumpkin spice frappuccino at Starbucks. Albertsons Cos. owns Jewel-Osco, as well as Randalls, home of the cheap Texas ribs.

Elena Rosa, 63, a retired health aide, was blasé when she steered her shopping cart past the refrigerator case at Aldi in North Bergen, New Jersey. She paused, noting a dozen eggs for less than $1 -- one of the great food deals of recent memory.

"That's a good price," she said, before moving on without buying a carton.

- With assistance from Lauren Etter

UN plan sends thousands of refugees back into a war zone in Somalia

By Ty McCormick
UN plan sends thousands of refugees back into a war zone in Somalia
Katra Abii says the Kenyan government forced her to leave Dadaab. Now in Kismayo, she and her eight children often go hungry because vendors here hike up the prices of basic food items when they see her World Food Programme-issued ration card. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Ty McCormick-Foreign Policy

KISMAYO, Somalia - For years, Katra Abii dreamed of moving her family back to Somalia. All eight of her children were born in neighboring Kenya, in the world's largest refugee camp, but she hoped one day they would be able to marry and start families of their own in their home country.

As long as al-Shabab insurgents continued to maim and kill in their quest to topple the weak Somali government, however, she and her children planned to stay put.

Then, in May, Kenya announced its intention to shutter Dadaab, a desolate swath of desert that was home to more than 300,000 refugees, Abii and her children among them, because it claimed al-Shabab had made inroads there. Under pressure from the Kenyan government, which reluctantly hosts the seventh-largest refugee population in the world, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) agreed to accelerate the repatriation of those Somalis who were willing to return home.

Soon, it was sending as many as 1,000 people back to Somalia every day.

But Abii says there is nothing voluntary about UNHCR's "voluntary" repatriation program, which is partially funded by U.S. government. She agreed to relocate to Somalia in August only because she had been led to believe that the Kenyan government would eventually evict everyone by force. She knew if the army began rounding up refugees and sending them back to Somalia, as it did after a string of terrorist attacks in 2014, there would be no time to take advantage of the limited financial assistance UNHCR was offering to returnees.

So Abii decided to take her children back to Kismayo, even though she knew it wouldn't be a happy homecoming. Once there, she found that even the bare-bones support they had been promised - schools, health care, a meager cash allowance for food - was insufficient or didn't exist at all. She and her children ended up in a camp with internally displaced Somalis - people uprooted by the war who hadn't made it across the border into Kenya. Their new home, one of hundreds of flimsy huts huddled together on a trash-strewn beach, was similar to the one they had left behind in Dadaab. Except it was less secure and there were fewer aid agencies working to keep them alive.

"I was poor in Dadaab, but I am destitute here," said Abii, whose angular features were framed by a flowing blue headscarf tucked tightly beneath her chin. "The Kenyans told us it's time to return to your home country. They told us we don't have a choice."

Since December 2014, UNHCR has facilitated the return of more than 24,000 refugees to Somalia, all of whom it says went willingly. But as the agency has accelerated the repatriation process to keep pace with Kenyan efforts to close Dadaab, the line between voluntary and involuntary seems to have collapsed. UNHCR now appears to be managing a process that violates the cardinal rule of refugee protection: that refugees and asylum-seekers shall not be returned against their will to any country where they face a threat of persecution.

The principle of non-refoulement, as it is known, is enshrined within the 2013 "tripartite" agreement between UNHCR and the Kenyan and Somali governments that governs the current repatriation process, as well as the 1969 African refugee convention, to which Kenya is a signatory. Evidence that Kenya is subverting these agreements - and that UNHCR is enabling it to do so - has mounted in recent months as rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented incidents of intimidation in Dadaab. But interviews conducted by Foreign Policy in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo offer the first concrete evidence that refugees have been sent back against their will, confirming that a campaign of forced repatriation is underway.

This month, more than a dozen returnees from Dadaab told FP in separate interviews that they were intimidated by Kenyan authorities and ultimately felt forced to leave Kenya. The returnees, as well as multiple aid workers and Somali government officials, described a UNHCR-facilitated repatriation process that is not only coercive but haphazardly executed and unsupported by any long-term plan to prevent returnees from becoming de facto refugees in their own country.

"These people are being dumped here with no international support and no plan for how they will be cared for. They have no shelter, no food, no health, and no schools," said Ibrahim Mohamed Yusuf, the mayor of Kismayo. "We are a small nation reeling from civil war. People are already dying because of a lack of health care. How can we be expected to care for more people?"

Somalia is still at war. A 22,000-strong African Union force has expelled al-Shabab from most urban areas, but the al Qaida-linked group continues to strike at will virtually anywhere in the southern and central portions of the country. It has attacked a landmark hotel less than a block from the presidential palace in Mogadishu three times in the last two years, most recently killing 22 people with a truck bomb on Aug. 30. FP previously documented how this violence has affected returnees from Dadaab, some of whom have already fled back to Kenya a second time.

Even before it began accepting returnees from Kenyan refugee camps, the country housed more than a million displaced Somalis within its borders because of conflict and drought. Most live in crowded camps at the margins of cities, paying so-called "gatekeepers" to avoid being targeted by bandits and militiamen. The few hospitals and schools that are still standing after a quarter century of civil war are mostly private - and prohibitively expensive for all but the richest Somalis. Nationwide, four in 10 people don't have enough to eat, according to the United Nations.

UNHCR has nonetheless certified certain parts of the country as safe for return, including Kismayo. But even its own analysts acknowledge that this is mostly wishful thinking. "Civilians continue to be severely affected by the conflict, with reports of civilians being killed and injured in conflict-related violence, widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and children, forced recruitment of children, and large-scale displacement," UNHCR noted in a May security assessment for southern and central Somalia.

Without adequate job prospects or social services, Somali officials say male returnees are at risk for recruitment by al-Shabab. "I wouldn't rule out that some would join the extremists," said Ahmed Nur, the head of Somalia's national commission for refugees and internally displaced people, who estimates that around 10 percent of returnees to the Mogadishu area are already living in displacement camps.

In Kismayo, U.N. and other aid workers estimate that the figure for people who end up homeless is closer to 15 percent. Hundreds of returnees from Dadaab have streamed into displacement camps, 86 of which are scattered around the city, according to the regional government. At one called Tawfiq, or "Unity," dozens of makeshift dwellings, rigged up with empty grain sacks and whatever else residents could get their hands on, are arrayed across yellow sand dunes that descend into the ocean. Of the 200 families who eke out a living here, 60 are returnees from Dadaab.

"It is worse than Dadaab. There is no water, no sanitation," said Ahmed Mohamed Abubakar, who fled fighting in Kismayo with his family in 2009 but returned this year with the assistance of UNHCR. "This is my country, but there is nothing for me here. I am homeless, wandering."

Returnees described multiple pressures that forced them to leave Dadaab. Intimidation by Kenyan security forces, whom returnees blame for whipping up rumors of forced evictions, left many convinced they could face physical violence if they remained. Many said their community leaders in the camp had told them unambiguously that Kenyan authorities were saying it was time to leave. The appointment of army generals to the government committee tasked with closing Dadaab registered as a clear warning: Stay after Nov. 30, the government's deadline for closure, and risk being caught up in a military operation to clear the camp.

"We were afraid they would come with trucks, with soldiers," said Abii, who spoke quickly and animatedly, orange nail polish glinting in the sun.

Unable to answer the question of what would happen after the government's deadline, aid agencies did little to assuage people's fears. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme's 2015 decision to cut food rations by 30 percent began to look in retrospect to some residents like a covert plan to starve them out.

"The only option was to take the little money UNHCR was giving if you left," Abubakar said. "People were going hungry in Dadaab."

Mark Yarnell, a senior advocate focusing on Somalia at the lobbying group Refugees International, said the repatriation process amounted to a clear violation of international humanitarian law. "It's a sham to call it voluntary return when you have the Kenyans waging an effective information campaign to instill fear, and then you have UNHCR providing inducements for people to return to a place that's unstable and unsafe," he said.

The Kenyan Interior Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in the past it has denied that the repatriations are anything but voluntary and humane. However, officials have repeatedly skirted the issue of what will happen to those refugees who wish to remain. In July, Haro Kamau, the deputy commissioner of Garissa County who oversees Dadaab, told FP that it "would be very unkind for any refugee to refuse to go home."

The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support refugees in Dadaab over the years. It has also called on the Kenyan government to back off its plan to close the camp by Nov. 30. At the same time, however, it supports UNHCR's repatriation efforts. On a visit to Nairobi last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged an additional $29 million specifically to help facilitate the return of refugees to Somalia.

"We are very concerned by reports that refugee returns from the Dadaab camps in Kenya to Somalia are not truly voluntary," State Department spokesman John Kirby told FP in a written statement. "In consultations with both UNHCR and the Government of Kenya, we have stressed the imperative that those individuals enlisting in the voluntary return program are doing so with full knowledge of what they can likely expect in Somalia."

UNHCR continues to defend the repatriation process as consistent with its mandate to ensure that all returns are voluntary, safe, and dignified. It has acknowledged unspecified "concerns" raised by human rights advocates but says it is working closely with the Kenyan government to guarantee that refugees' rights are respected.

"UNHCR is not promoting returns to Somalia but facilitating the movements of those who make an informed and therefore voluntary decision to return, by providing travel assistance, cash grants and an in-kind assistance package," Catherine Hamon Sharpe, UNHCR's assistant representative in Kenya, said in a written statement to FP. "The fact that the Government of Kenya has set 30 November as a deadline for the closure of the camp and that no alternative has been provided, obviously creates anxiety among refugees, as a voluntary process cannot be time-bound. It is noted however, that the Government has repeatedly stated that there will be no forced returns."

UNHCR's insistence that a voluntary process cannot be time-bound but that this particular time-bound process is entirely voluntary succinctly demonstrates the corner the agency has backed itself into. In private, current and former UNHCR officials say they were faced with an impossible choice when the Kenyan government made clear that it was serious about closing the camp: If they recused themselves from the process, the Kenyan government might have started its own mass deportations that could have precipitated a humanitarian disaster. But a "humanitarian disaster" is precisely what the regional government in Kismayo - the Jubaland administration - has called the U.N.'s existing repatriation program.

"There was this sense that we were preventing the worst-case scenario, which maybe we are," said a UNHCR official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But you could also argue that we are approaching a worst-case scenario anyway."

Whether or not it's making the best of a bad situation, UNHCR's actions provide political cover to a Kenyan government that has long viewed this refugee population as a nuisance. And as the campaign of intimidation has intensified, the agency has found itself on the wrong side of international agreements and norms that it's duty-bound to uphold.

"The approach that's been taken up until now has been characterized by a lack of honesty," said Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR who is now affiliated with the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. "If UNHCR feels obliged, for one reason or another, good or bad, to get involved in an operation that doesn't meet its own standards, which it's put up in public, then it's got to explain what it's doing and why it's doing it. But my sense over the last few weeks is that they're trying to fudge this."

But it's not just that UNHCR has obscured the apparently involuntary nature of the repatriations; it has downplayed the abysmal and often unsafe conditions that await returnees, as well as its extremely limited ability to support them. Abubakar and other former residents of Dadaab complained bitterly that they had been abandoned by the aid agencies, which they believed would do much more to ease the transition to their shattered home country.

"UNHCR promised they would give us shelter and schools for our children," said Abubakar, who once manned a small shop in town but is now unable to find work. "But we came here and got nothing. The promises, they were false."

Some returnees said they had been given false information about the safety of their home regions, arriving in Kismayo only to discover that their ancestral villages were still controlled by al-Shabab. Virtually everyone said they were going hungry and that the financial support they received from international organizations - an initial lump sum from UNHCR of a few hundred dollars per household, plus a $200 monthly lifeline for the first six months, redeemable with a World Food Programme (WFP) ration card - wasn't nearly enough. Local vendors are said to regularly hike prices for anyone who tries to pay using the ration cards.

Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for WFP, said the organization is currently investigating reports of price fixing in Kismayo and that retailers have been warned against this behavior. "Anywhere we do cash-based transfers, we have robust monitoring of the retailers to avoid price gouging, for example including spot checks," she said in a statement to FP.

Yet returnees say they continue to go hungry as unscrupulous vendors cash in on the aid that was supposed to sustain them. "They know we are vulnerable," Abii said. "They see the WFP card, and the price is suddenly double."

Conditions have gotten so bad for returnees that the Jubaland administration suspended all return convoys from Dadaab last month. It says it won't accept any more until UNHCR and other aid agencies can ensure a minimum level of support.

"Jubaland has requested a halt of returns until we get solutions. Before they start again, we need basic services in place: water, sanitation, housing," said Yusuf, the mayor of Kismayo, who joked that he didn't want the U.S. taxpayers funding the UNHCR-led repatriation process to "feel let down."

Yusuf says his administration has set aside land for the returnees but that aid agencies have not made good on their promises to build housing and sanitation. Negotiations are ongoing among the Jubaland administration, the Kenyan government, and UNHCR to resume repatriations to Kismayo.

In the meantime, flights from Dadaab to Mogadishu continue to land several times per week. Passengers leave behind a hard life in the camp, but one with a semblance of a safety net provided by aid agencies. They begin a new one with fewer lifelines, in a place that is less forgiving. Often, it appears, they do so against their will and in violation of international humanitarian law.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Aleppo is the lesson the world always seems to forget

By richard cohen
Aleppo is the lesson the world always seems to forget

EDITORS -- Note quoted language in 2nd sentence of 7th graf.

In April of 1937, the war planes of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy chose a market day to bomb a Basque town, one of the first times a civilian population was deliberately targeted. Pablo Picasso, a native of Spain, quickly reacted by depicting the horror in his famous mural named for the town, “Guernica.” It was finished by June. If he were alive today, he might want to paint one called “Aleppo.” It should be mounted outside the White House.

Aleppo is not some quaint market town. It is -- or was -- Syria’s major city, an ancient trading center, a cosmopolitan stop for many a camel caravan. It is now being leveled by incessant bombings, the occasional use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs and, recently, bunker busters that entomb the wounded. Even ambulances and rescue workers have been targeted. Aleppo, like Guernica before it, is where the world is learning a lesson it seems always to forget.

Barack Obama tells every interviewer he’s anguished over Syria, but that is scant compensation to the victims and it has not moved the Russians or the Syrian government to halt their bombing. Secretary of State John Kerry, like some hapless suitor offering wilted flowers, has been appealing to Vladimir Putin’s wholly imaginary better angels. Putin takes the flowers and then bombs some more. Unlike Obama, he knows what he wants. He wants to win.

This is not Kerry’s failure. It is Obama’s. He takes overweening pride in being the anti-George W. Bush. Obama is the president who did not get us into any nonessential wars of the Iraq variety. The consequences for Syria have been dire -- perhaps 500,000 dead, 7 million internal refugees, with millions more coming at Europe like a tsunami of the desperate.

European politics has been upended -- Germany’s Angela Merkel is in trouble, Britain has bolted the European Union, and Hungary and Poland are embracing their shameful pasts -- but there is yet another casualty of this war, the once-universal perception that America would never abide the slaughter of innocents on this scale. Yet, we have. Obama has proclaimed doing nothing as doing something -- lives saved, a quagmire avoided. But doing nothing is not nothing. It is a policy of its own, in this case allowing the creation of a true axis of evil: a gleeful, high-kicking chorus line of Russia, Iran and Bashar Assad’s Syria. They stomp on everything in their path.

Aleppo then is like Guernica, a place of carnage. It’s also a symbol of American weakness. The same Putin who mucks around in Syria has filched American emails and barged into the American election. He has kept Crimea and a hunk of Ukraine and may decide tomorrow that the Baltics, once Soviet, need liberating from liberation. He long ago sized up Obama: all brain, no muscle.

All over the world, American power is dismissed. The Philippine president, a volcanic vulgarian, called the president a “son of a whore” and, instead of doing an update of sending in the fleet, Obama canceled a meeting. China constructs synthetic islands in the Pacific Ocean, claiming shipping lanes that no one should own, and every once in a while an American warship cruises close -- but not too close. We pretend to have made a point. The Chinese wave and continue building. The North Koreans are developing a nuclear missile to reach Rodeo Drive, and God only knows what the Iranians are up to deep in their tunnels.

Does all this stem from Uncle Sam’s bended knee in Syria? Who knows? But America’s reluctance to act has almost certainly given others resolve. There was never any need for the U.S. to put boots on the ground -- that has been Obama’s straw man, a totally fatuous excuse for inaction. A no-fly zone over Syria, just like the one George H.W. Bush imposed on Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds, would have saved countless lives. An Assad without an air force and his killer copters might now be Dr. Assad, the London eye doctor he once was. The Russians would have likely stayed out of Syria and the Iranians and their chums, Hezbollah, would still be minding their own business instead of propping up this revolting regime.

The mural of Guernica once seen is not forgotten -- the anguished faces, the twisted bodies, the hideous deformities of violent death. Now we have the photo of the Syrian boy in an ambulance, iridescent red, powdered with the dust of gone buildings, staring vacantly at a world where, for him, there are no adults. Once again, little is being done. Once again, worse will follow.

Richard Cohen’s email address is

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

Does the value of your home affect how you vote?

By kenneth r. harney
Does the value of your home affect how you vote?

WASHINGTON -- Do home values have any significance when it comes to presidential elections? Not directly. But indirectly they are manifestations of economic growth, unemployment rates, incomes, household formations, population inflows and outflows, along with historical patterns of land use and restrictions on building.

Almost certainly home values -- and the rate at which they appreciate -- have some subtle impact on homeowners’ outlooks: If your property value is falling or mired in negative equity, you’re probably less likely to have positive feelings about the current state of the economy and prospects for immediate improvements. If your home value has been steadily rising, you might be feeling a little better about your personal finances, more satisfied with economic trends and more sanguine about where things are headed.

With this in mind, I asked the housing analytics experts at Trulia, the online real estate data and sales information site, to do a purely statistical study of housing value trends in this election year’s battleground or swing states, plus all the traditional red (typically Republican) and blue (typically Democratic) states. The red and blue breakdowns were based on results from the past four presidential elections. Battleground states were based on recent polls taken before the first presidential debate. Values and appreciation were measured from January 2012 through July of this year.

So what did researchers find?

-- There are drastic differences in median home values that set apart red states from blue states -- maybe more than you knew. Of the top 10 highest-cost states, nine are solidly blue. Just one -- Alaska -- trends red. The six states with the lowest median homes values -- West Virginia ($99,800), Oklahoma ($113, 400), Mississippi ($114,500), Arkansas ($114,700), Indiana ($116, 700), and Kansas ($120,800) -- are all red. The $367,100 separation between the median price in the most costly mainland blue state (California at $466,900) and West Virginia is chasmic, as are the differences in underlying economic conditions. (Reliably blue Hawaii has the highest median, $565,900.)

-- Battleground states (Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Georgia) are a mixed bag. Their relatively moderate home values generally resemble red states more than blue, but their recent jumps in annual appreciation rates, taken as a weighted average, are higher than either reds or blues. As of July, the appreciation rate for homes in battleground states was 6.4 percent, while in red states it was 5.23 percent and in blue states 5.14 percent.

-- This year’s battleground states have experienced significantly different housing value patterns during the post-recession period. Though they are all seeing positive appreciation this year, they have radically contrasting recent histories. Nevada, Florida and Arizona were hotbeds of hyperinflation and toxic mortgage practices during the boom years, and all three suffered horrendous depreciation and foreclosure losses during the bust and recession. But since 2012, they have roared back. In January 2012, the median Nevada house was worth $122,800. As of this past July, that had grown to $218,400. In January 2012, the median Arizona house was valued at $136,500. Last July that had grown to $208,400. Florida has seen similar increases -- a $126,300 post-recession median in early 2012, compared with $191,300 this year.

Several swing states, however, haven’t rebounded as energetically as the others because of economic issues. North Carolina, where recent polls indicate an exceptionally tight race, had a median value of $137,500 at the beginning of 2012; today it’s $153,300. Pennsylvania came out of the recession with a $143,600 median value; by mid-year 2016, that had grown to just $154,500. Ohio’s median has moved from $107,200 four years ago to $121,600 this year.

So what do we glean from these housing numbers? Certainly there are no predictions here about how homeowners will vote. Housing is just one element in an economic backdrop, not a key causative factor in voting behavior. But it cannot be totally ignored. Felipe Chacon, a housing data analyst with Trulia, commented in an interview that “if you’re hearing doom and gloom and you’re in a swing state that’s been doing relatively well recently,” maybe you are marginally less likely to believe the doom and gloom.

On the other hand, if you’re a homeowner in a traditionally blue state like Maine, where employment and income growth have lagged behind national averages and median home values have plunged from $180,400 at the start of 2012 to $134,500 as of July, you might be more open to messages that major changes in economic policies are needed.

Ken Harney’s email address is

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

A man of distinctions

By gene weingarten
A man of distinctions

EDITOR’S NOTE: If possible, the line at the end of graf 14 -- “Gauntlet, n. medieval glove.” (Syn. Gantlet) -- should be rendered as subscript type.

WASHINGTON -- Behold: A new installment of Small But Important Distinctions in Life.

(BEG BOLD)[The n-word] vs. “the n-word”(END BOLD)

The word suggested by the bracketed phrase is a racial slur, whereas the phrase in quotes is what people say when they want to reference the racial slur without causing offense. It doesn’t work.

“The n-word” tries to defang [the n-word], whereas, in fact, it just dresses it up to make it seem presentable. It may be well-intentioned, but it comes off as grotesque and mannered -- people congratulating themselves on their own sensitivity.

It’s like dressing in a full-body stocking on which you have drawn perfect replicas of genitalia and nipples and a bellybutton, and glued on hair in places people have hair, and so forth. You are still forcing something obscene into everyone’s head, only you are doing it with a nudge and a wink.

[The n-word] exists. It is tied to a disgraceful history. It is powerful. There is probably some intelligent way of dealing with it, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

Corollary: Many white people disingenuously claim to be mystified that some black people are comfortable using [the n-word] among themselves but object when white people use it. This is a crock. It would be like my pretending not to understand why ladies think it’s OK that other ladies are allowed in their dressing rooms, but not men.

(BEG BOLD)Cake vs. pie(END BOLD)

Specifically, is cheesecake really cheese pie?

This is very much like the nerdy question about whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit. Everyone calls it a vegetable, but that is only because, in general, everyone is an idiot. A tomato plant has flowers and its edible part has seeds inside; ergo, it is a fruit. More shockingly, so are cucumbers. Squash! Olives! Eggplants!

Definitions define. What defines a cake as opposed to a pie is the presence of flour in the filling. Cheesecakes have little or no flour. Cheesecake is really cheese pie.

What makes this so surprising, of course, is that cheesecake brazenly declares itself a cake but just plain isn’t. Like the way the toilet in a 7-Eleven calls itself a “bathroom.”

(BEG BOLD)Gauntlet vs. gantlet(END BOLD)

A gauntlet is a medieval, stab-resistant, chain-mail glove. If you “threw down the gauntlet” -- literally, cast your glove at the feet of another -- it meant you were challenging him to a fight. Still does, metaphorically. A gantlet, also from the Middle Ages, is a kind of frat-boy hazing ritual where you had to run through two flanks of men who whacked you with cudgels. Metaphorically, running the gantlet refers to any such hostile ordeal. Possibly because both of these expressions involve Dumb Things Men Do, people have used them interchangeably forever, putting dictionaries in a bind. Some define each word correctly and then, in tiny type, as though out of shame, give in to the ignoramuses, as in:

“Gauntlet, n. medieval glove.” (Syn. Gantlet)

(BEG BOLD)Slovakia vs. Slovenia(END BOLD)

Even though these young Eastern European countries are very different and are not even neighbors, they are so often confused for each other that their embassy staffs are said to meet regularly to exchange misaddressed correspondence. Since both countries were born in the early 1990s, you would think they’d have at least chosen different flags, wouldn’t you?

Slovakia’s is three horizontal stripes (white, blue and red, top to bottom) and a shield-shaped coat of arms featuring a stylized version of what appear to be mountains. Slovenia’s is three horizontal stripes (white, blue and red, top to bottom) and a shield-shaped coat of arms featuring a stylized version of what appear to be mountains.

My point is, this is a self-inflicted wound. I urge you to send letters of complaint to their embassies. For Slovakia, write to “Embassy, Republic of Slovenia, 2410 California St. NW, Washington, DC 20008.” For Slovenia, write to “Embassy, Republic of Slovakia, 3523 International Ct. NW, Washington, DC 20008.”

Gene Weingarten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesday, Sept. 27, at noon Eastern at

(c) 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group

In the High Plains, a Republican worth voting for

By george f. will
In the High Plains, a Republican worth voting for

AURORA, Colo. -- Here on the High Plains, where the deer and the antelope once played, Denver’s suburbs roam toward the Rockies’ front range and the nature of today’s polyglot politics is written in the local congressman’s campaign schedule. One day last week, Republican Mike Coffman went from a Hispanic charter school in a strip mall, to another strip mall for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant with leaders of the Ethiopian-American community, then to a meeting with the editor of the largest of two Korean-language newspapers serving more than 3,000 Korean-Americans in the metropolitan area.

Coffman was elected to Congress in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote, replacing Tom Tancredo, a firebrand who that year ineffectually ran for president as a scourge of illegal immigrants. Coffman’s thinking was somewhat congruent with Tancredo’s. Then, however, the political market -- aka democracy -- began to work, with an assist from Democrats, who inadvertently made Coffman a better politician and person.

After he was re-elected with 66 percent in 2010, his district was gerrymandered to make it more Democratic -- 20 percent Hispanic, with a generous salting of other minorities. He won in 2012 with just 48 percent of the vote. In 2014, national Democrats recruited a formidable opponent, a Yale graduate who had taught, in Spanish, in Central American schools. So, Coffman learned Spanish well enough to do an entire debate in the language, and today banters in Spanish with the children at Roca Fuerte Academy.

The pastor who founded it in 2008 says this charter school is anathema to, and underfunded by, the local school district, which is obedient to the teachers union, which dislikes charters that are not obedient to it. The district’s schools have just a 61 percent graduation rate. Roca Fuerte Academy does better.

Some of the academy’s pupils in their school uniforms are antecedents of the pronoun in Donald Trump’s four-word immigration policy: “They have to go.” They were brought here by illegal immigrants. Trump wants to send them “home” to countries they do not remember. Coffman has co-authored legislation that would provide legal status and a path to lawful permanent resident status to those who came before age 16, have lived here five consecutive years, and who have been accepted to a college or vocational school or have demonstrated an intent to enlist in the military, or have a valid work authorization.

At the Nile restaurant, Coffman’s cowboy boots go beneath a table groaning under the weight of trays laden with Ethiopian food that is eaten without utensils, scooped up with bits torn from rolls of bread as thin and flexible as fabric. Coffman sits next to an Orthodox bishop who is wearing a cassock and a glittering pectoral cross. As guests arrive, several kiss a crucifix he holds. He speaks scant English but draws 1,500 to Sunday services. Many of those around the table have been in America for at least a decade and are citizens and small-business entrepreneurs. Ethiopians are Colorado’s second-largest immigrant community and are grateful for Coffman’s attempts to pressure Ethiopia’s authoritarian government to stop using violence against protesters. Coffman attends the annual “Taste of Ethiopia” festival here in America’s Mountain West and “Ethiopians for Coffman” might matter in November. As might the Korean-American community, which continues to honor those Americans who, like Coffman’s father, fought in the Korean War.

Coffman, 61, enlisted in the Army before receiving his high school diploma, which he earned while serving. After leaving the Army and graduating from the University of Colorado, he went to Marine Corps officer training. When he left the Corps he became a state legislator until called back into uniform in 1991 for the Gulf War. In 2005, he resigned as state treasurer to serve a tour of duty with the Marines in Iraq. There he helped organize elections in a place where diversity is rather more problematic than in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

His opponent this year, who dislikes charter schools and school choice, does not speak fluent Spanish and, unlike almost all candidates challenging incumbents, does not seem to want many debates -- she even declined the Denver Post’s. Coffman thinks she does not want anything to distract from her theme, which is: Trump is a Republican and so is Coffman.

In early August, however, Coffman acted pre-emptively with a television ad that began: “People ask me, ‘What do you think about Trump?’ Honestly, I don’t care for him much.” Spoken like a Marine who does 10 sets of 50 pushups daily.

George Will’s email address is

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

Given the soaring costs, is long-term care insurance still worth it?

By michelle singletary
Given the soaring costs, is long-term care insurance still worth it?

WASHINGTON -- I wasn’t sure what to tell them -- any of them.

A Silver Spring, Maryland, couple -- the husband is 84 and the wife about to turn 79 -- were distraught. They had received notice that their long-term care insurance premiums, purchased on the private market, are rising to a point they can no longer afford. Their policies were first taken out in 1999 and had a combined yearly premium of about $4,000. With these latest increases, they would be paying close to $8,000 a year.

The couple could downsize their current policy, reducing the length of coverage and/or eliminating an inflation rider, but they don’t like that option. It’s not what they signed up for. They are now on a fixed income and don’t have room to save to cover any reductions in benefits should they need long-term care.

“We thought we were doing the right thing,” the husband said. “They’ve made the premiums so cost-prohibitive we may have no alternative than to let the policy lapse.”

Karen and Tom Davis from St. Petersburg, Florida -- she’s 57 and he’s 75 -- also reached out to me. They bought long-term care insurance 14 years ago while both were still working for the federal government. They too are facing a steep premium increase in the federal program.

Federal employees and retirees who participate in the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP) have until Sept. 30 to decide whether to accept higher premiums that on average will be 83 percent or $111 more per month.

“The thinking was that we would not expect extended family members to care for us in our senior years if we required long-term care, so three to five years of nursing home care sounded smart,” Karen Davis wrote. “Given the statistics and our age difference, I could potentially be vulnerable as a possible surviving spouse. We find that we have now invested over $20,000 (him) and $18,000 (me) in this plan. Would it be more reasonable to plan to self-fund long-term care, drop the insurance and cut our losses? There is always a possibility that the plan will increase again.”

Another reader wrote, “I am one of the many retired feds who is wondering what to do with the FLTCIP. Given the premium increases versus lowered payout, what’s a retiree to do? I wonder if my considerable lifetime pension (through the Civil Service Retirement System) will carry me through any care needs, plus what I’ve got in the Thrift Savings Program, plus other savings. I hate to keep throwing good money after bad.”

I’m writing a series of columns on long-term care insurance and wanted to start with the voices of people angry and stunned by the steep increases.

In my next column -- shortly before the Sept. 30 deadline -- I’ll pass along advice from financial planners for those who are facing premium increases and have yet to make a decision. The choices come down to: accepting the increase and keeping the same coverage, or taking less coverage at the same price. There’s another option that allows people to convert to “paid-up coverage,” which means the enrollee’s new maximum lifetime benefit would be reduced to the total amount of premiums paid for coverage or 30 times the person’s daily benefit amount, whichever is greater.

Long-term care insurance can cover the cost of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and in-home care. In most cases, insurance will cover expenses for those who need help with daily activities such as eating, dressing and bathing, or who have a severe cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Medicaid covers long-term care, but to qualify for the benefit, you have to be pretty poor. Medicare -- except in very limited situations -- does not cover long-term care.

The premium increases have people wondering if long-term care insurance is worth it anymore because the companies got the pricing horribly wrong. The initial premiums they charged weren’t enough to cover claims.

So now you have folks who bought and held on to policies -- sometimes for decades -- asking should they go or should they stay. Many are now retired and living on a fixed income. They don’t have the savings to make up the difference in the cost of their long-term care that they had planned to be covered under their insurance policies.

And there are some who won’t be able to pay for policies even if they accept reduced benefits. But if they end up letting their insurance lapse, they risk losing money they might have just saved.

Insurance is all about hedging against risk. The question I hope to help you answer is whether you can risk going without some long-term care insurance.

--0-- --0-- --0--

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

More bigotry from the Trump brigade

By dana milbank
More bigotry from the Trump brigade

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump supporters may be passionate, but they’re a bit irony-challenged.

In the days since I wrote that Hillary Clinton wasn’t necessarily wrong to say that half of Trump’s supporters are racists and other “deplorables,” the response has been, well, deplorable. A sampling of the thousands of emails and social media replies:

“Please do not tell me you think we whites are just as violent, nasty, and/or Godless as the other races.”

“You call it racism, I call it concern that in time ‘foreign’ folks will have the voting power to make the USA another Muslim state.”

Another writer informed me that “blacks are the most violent population in America,” that “blacks work the least of any race in America” and that “black women have the lowest moral standards of all women in America,” concluding: “The biggest problem for blacks is blacks.”

Many others suggested I perform an impossible sex act on myself and another sex act on male genitals, called me a “scumbag” and far worse, and suggested I eat feces. Some took the opportunity to inform me that I and my fellow Jews are “the most racist people on the Earth,” that I worship Satan, and that my children and I will be boiled in oil.

Then this simple note was sent to me: “I hope you outlive your children.”

I reprint this small sample of the nastygrams not to ruin your next meal but because the half of Trump supporters who aren’t motivated by prejudice, and the few voters who remain genuinely undecided, should be aware of the bigotry that Trump has brought into the open -- and that those who vote for Trump are condoning.

This week, police shootings of African-Americans in Tulsa and Charlotte provoked more racial strife -- and Trump apparently couldn’t help but stir the pot. He said he was “troubled” by the shooting of the unarmed motorist in Tulsa, and he delivered a speech that was, in the prepared text, balanced: “We all have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

But even as he tried to pull back from the flagrant and well-documented bigotry that has characterized his campaign -- coziness with white supremacists, scapegoating of Latinos and Muslims, anti-Semitic imagery -- Trump couldn’t resist going off script and announcing, without proof, that “if you’re not aware, drugs are a very, very big factor” in the Charlotte protests. He told a questioner in Cleveland that he would reduce violence in black communities with the “stop-and-frisk” policy that has produced discriminatory treatment of African Americans; he later said he would do that only in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign chair in Mahoning County in eastern Ohio resigned after she told the Guardian in a video interview that there wasn’t “any racism until Obama got elected.”

“If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault,” the official, Kathy Miller, said. “When do they take responsibility for how they live? I think it’s due time, and I think it’s good that Mr. Trump is pointing that out.”

And in Charlotte, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), an enthusiastic Trump backer who claimed he had Trump’s support in his primary, told the BBC that the Charlotte protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” He apologized.

Are Pittenger and Miller and those who send vile emails representative of Trump supporters? Or are they more like the way Donald Trump Jr. describes refugees: a few bad ones in a bowl of Skittles?

That’s what I tried to answer in my column analyzing Clinton’s claim that half of Trump supporters are racist, Islamophobic and the like. I cited data from the American National Election Studies, the gold standard of public opinion research for seven decades. It showed a big recent jump in prejudicial sentiment, to the point where 62 percent of white people believe black people are either lazier or less intelligent than white people, or both. The study further finds that such people disproportionately favor Republicans. Extrapolating, you can calculate that a solid majority of Mitt Romney’s voters in 2012 were white people who thought black people lazier and/or less intelligent than white people. The proportion will likely grow for Trump.

This doesn’t mean most Trump supporters are running around wearing sheets and burning crosses. But it does indicate racist sentiment is more widespread than commonly thought. What’s truly deplorable is that Trump -- unlike Romney and others who carried the Republican banner before -- is encouraging the sentiment.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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