Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Howard Dean: It is 2009, not 1965

The year is 1964, the high watermark of Liberalism. Lyndon Johnson takes 61.1 percent of the popular vote in his election contest against Barry Goldwater, an electoral feat that was bigger than Franklin Roosevelt's 60.8 percent in 1936 and one that has not been surpassed in the years since. The Democratic tsunami sweeps down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where Democrats would out-number Republicans two to one in the 89th Congress, and in the Senate they take 68 seats - the biggest supermajority held by any party to this day. The era of Liberalism had entered its Golden Age.

Unified by the inspiring memory of John Kennedy, Democrats were able to enact health-care legislation that even Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern Liberalism did not have the stomach to attempt as part of his New Deal. It would be Lyndon Johnson, not Harry Truman, not FDR, and not his counsin, Theodore Roosevelt (running as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912) who would enact the single biggest health-care legislation in US history, offering single-payer, comprehensive health-care benefits to seniors over the age of 65 (Medicare) and an option for states to finance the health-care of the indigent (Medicaid) in the Social Security Act of 1965.

We remember the New Deal, and perhaps the Fair Deal, but it is the Great Society that is the apotheosis of 20th century Liberalism. And if 1965 is Liberalism’s high water-mark, then those who would stymie health-care reform today because of the lack of a robust (or indeed, any) public option have gravely gotten their decades mixed up.

There was a time when Liberals did not have to call themselves “Progressives.” That was four decades ago, when Lyndon Johnson attacked Barry Goldwater for wanting to roll back social security and openly campaigned for a further expansion of the welfare state. Times have changed. Today’s Progressives must cagily wrap their Liberal agenda with talk of choice, competition, and bending cost curves. And if the era of Liberalism as FDR, Truman, and Johnson knew it is over, The Age of Reagan lingers on in the Tea Party Movement. Despite his aspiration to build an even Greater Society than Johnson, Barack Obama’s electoral mandate is 18 percent short of what Johnson possessed in 1965; the Democratic majority is the House is much smaller; and, despite the new cloture rules post-1975 in the Senate which has reduced the fraction of votes needed to end debate from 2/3 to 3/5, Joe Lieberman et al remind us every day that the Senate is anything but filibuster-proof.

To Governor Dean and his compatriots, it is 2009, not 1965.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Assessing Obama's Nobel Acceptance Speech

By saluting "citizens of America" before "citizens of the world," President Barack Obama's Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was addressed to the conservative side of his domestic audience, who have waited and waited and finally heard him say what they wanted to hear, "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world." No surprises then, that even though this speech contained a good number of potential appplause lines, it generated much less applause from his audience at Oslo City Hall than it did back home. Obama wasn't trying to flatter his immediate audience.

In this speech, Obama was justifying his war in Afghanistan to a European audience, but he did it so artfully that to a domestic audience, he sounded like he was indicting the Europeans for their arm-chair theories of peace. Thus the first paragraph of his speech delivered Obama's dual-pronged opening shot:

"I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations - that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice." If the end goal of our time on earth is justice, then even peace must give way to a just war, which is of course the theme of Obama's speech. A justfication of war and an ode to justice at the same time.

A complex rhetorical two-step well played, if anything because Obama will need the slight bump he's gotten in the polls if he hopes to complete the final lap of health-care reform(which, unlike foreign policy, requires partisan savvy more than bi-partisan equipoise).

But I would like to think that Obama's reasons were more than strategic. If Obama's receipt of the Peace Prize was premature, so are emerging theories about the Obama Doctrine in foreign policy. There is no Obama Doctrine, for saying that he is neither a pure realist nor a pure idealist does not make him self-consciously both. Our search for a presidential doctrine reveals our implicit inversion of the meaning of democracy so that presidents rule and set the formula for policy, while citizens follow. In fact, all President Obama did at Oslo was to represent not only Democrats, which he has done for most of his presidency, but also Republicans, who are also his fellow countrymen even if they did not vote for him. In mirroring the full diversity of opinion of his fellow citizens, he did not articulate an Obama Doctrine but represented an American one. And this is why Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingerich have given the speech their nods of approval.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Understanding "Broad Partisan Support" for Health-care Reform

By most accounts, President Barack Obama's proposed surge in Afghanistan has won broad bipartisan support from both parties. It might be worth examining this elusive idea to determine the conditions for it, and why it is, as a goal for health-care reform, an unachievable contradiction in terms.

Let’s start with “partisanship.” It is clear that the purists on either side of the political aisle are not pleased with Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan for 18 months. The anti-war wing in the Democratic Party does not approve of an escalation in Afghanistan, while the neo-conservative hawks in the Republican Party do not like the fact that the president set a timeline for troop withdrawal. What is important to note here is that Obama has achieved bipartisanship by making some friends angry, and making some foes happy. Both ends of the ideological extreme had to be spurned in order that “broad bipartisan support” be found. Bipartisanship, traditionally understood, captures our intuition about fairness that no side should ever asymmetrically receive the short end of the stick.

If the president managed to find broad bipartisan support for his Afghanistan strategy, it is nearly impossible that he will achieve the same in health-care reform, because he and Senator Harry Reid seem quite determined not to have to resort to the Reconciliation tactic (which requires only 51 Democratic votes in the Senate) to pass health-care reform. So they must contend with a potential Senate filibuster. A switch from majority to supermajority decision-making changes everything, even the meaning of "bipartisanship."

Unlike the decision to send in more troops in Afghanistan where the political center is the median voter or the 50th Senator (assuming the Vice-president casts the tie-breaking vote), the center of the political spectrum for health-care reform is the 60th Senator who could potentially break a Republican filibuster. In other words, unless the Democrats use Reconciliation, which will restore the applicability of the normal spatial metaphor governed by the median voter / politician, bipartisanship as traditionally understood will not deliver health-care reform. It’ll only get Democrats 5/6th of the way there.

In part because majorities have become an elusive thing in Washington, we have tended to conflate “broad support” with “bipartisan support,” as exemplified in the well-worn phrase, “broad bipartisan support.” But the two can be very distinct in certain circumstances. The rules of the Senate, and by extension of the Constitution, dictate that a preference for supermajority decision-making is necessarily a bias against bipartisanship. In practice, if a supermajority is ever to be found in the Senate, at least one end of the ideological extreme must always be on board. That means that our traditional understanding of bipartisanship that no one side should be forced to receive the short end of the stick becomes a road-block to finding a supermajority. (Notice that this is not the case for the “broad bipartisan support” for Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, where extremists on both sides were symmetrically spurned and so the President could find a way to walk a tight-rope.)

There’s no way to walk a tight-rope toward the public option, so either Obama must give it up or he must forget about or redefine “bipartisanship” as traditionally understood as symmetrically exacting on both Democratic or Republican partisans. If he wants a pure public option, the President must get off the tight-rope and walk on the left side of the rope to reach his destination, with the help of a few moderates like Olympia Snowe and Mary Landrieu. In doing so he would be taking sides, as indeed he already has, and the opposition, who will have to be asymmetrically spurned for the mathematics to work out, will cry foul. And that is why we no longer hear much aspirational talk about “broad partisan support” for health-care reform. All this might seem obvious, but amazingly, it has taken the President a long time - including an agenda-distracting summer of health-care town halls - to realize this basic insuperable decision-making fact of the august body from which he only recently departed.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unconscious Sexism and Racism in New Moon

Children are, if they are lucky, taught at home and in schools. But they are also taught with books and movies, where retrograde social conventions and meanings are reinscribed under the guise of good clean fun.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon is a romantic fantasy fusing teen lust and fantasy, but in the story of vulnerable girls swooning over powerful vampires, and rabid werewolves fighting the undead (who nevertheless retain their human form), we have a movie genre best reserved for Halloween.

Critics have been much better at picking up the retrograde gender subtext of the screenplay, at how it exploits the fine line between rape and lust, and how Bella Swan plays a terrible role model for teenage girls. Bella, the female protagonist, is portrayed as weak, vulnerable, virginal, and young while Edward Cullen, her male vampire love interest is portrayed as supernatural, more powerful than he dares admit, 17 and yet over a hundred, young but wise. Throughout the first half of the movie, Bella is depressed because Edward has left her, and she ultimately attempts a pseudo-suicide by going cliff-diving and nearly drowns, but lucky for her, another supernatural male, Jacob Black, who plays a werewolf, swoops in for the rescue. Throughout the movie, young girls are comforted and encouraged in mixing sexual desire with sexual vulnerability, that to be loved is to be rescued. As a preview of the next sequel, we are tantalizingly promised the consummation of Bella's and Edward's love, that he will finally agree to change her into a vampire. He would then take everything that is hers, no less than her life and her soul, and shockingly, it is everything that Bella ever wanted.

If this is what causes teenage girls (and not a few self-confessed middle-aged feminists) to swoon at the movie, the unconscious racism in the movie takes us to a new league of egregiousness.

A google with the search terms "Twilight," "full moon" and "racism" only turned out less than 10 germane hits, with one of them addressing the fact that some fans were agitated that the character, Laurent, was played by a black man. They charge that vampires, whose skin sparkle in the sun (according to author Stephenie Meyer) surely have to be white. These fans probably felt that fidelity to the book (or art) was sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. I'll tell these fans to lighten up (no pun intended) though, since the author as well as the movie's casting director is clearly on their side, because Laurent, the sole black vampire in the screenplay, was conveniently dispatched by the werewolves early on in the movie.

Laurent, in any case is just the side-show to the movie's considerable moral insensitivity. The main battle in the movie is between the vampires and the werewolves, who are ALL native Americans of the Quilette tribe. The vampires are all wealthy, dress well, and live well. They are rational (read human) creatures rather than animals, and vampires do not not, as one puts it in the movie "smell ... like dogs." They abide by a code of rules, and even have a deliberative body seated at the palatial Volturi Tower in Italy. The werewolves, on the other hand, are hot-headed natives running around (half-naked) in packs ready to give in to their rage at any moment. Jacob Black drives a beat-up truck and not a cool black Volvo as Edward does.

Here is the easily missed factoid central to Jacob's angst and hence the plot. We learn that the leader of the pack disfigured his wife in a fit of rage but clearly loves her still. In political theory we would call this the cultural defence of domestic abuse. The author, Stephenie Meyer, would have us believe that wolves / native Americans are less rational and more posessed by rage / spirits. Jacob withdraws from Bella for he fears that he would harm her, conceding that it is in his nature to get violent; while Edward Cullen pursues her because the author believes that he can control his lust for her blood. With every little detail in the movie, we are told that it is better to be a dead human than a live animal; and this is certainly Bella's preference and her chosen future.

One would hope that this type of romantic sub-genre should be kept from our kids. After all, some of us think that Harry Potter should be kept from out kids because there is magic involved. Well, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, was released November 20, and boasted the largest single day domestic gross at $72.7 million. The book rose to the top spot in the New York Time's bestseller list for Children's Chapter books and stayed there for eleven weeks. Unconscious sexism and racism are much more dangerous to pre-pubescent minds than Voldemort, because the former exist outside of books and movies.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On Scientists v. Politicians on Mammograms

Last week, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a government-appointed group of 16 outside experts recommended that women should undergo routine mammograms only after the age of 50 and not 40, against the advice of the American Cancer Society and consistent with the recommendations of the American College of Physicians.

Medicine is not a precise science, so the task force could be right but it could also be wrong. Researchers and scientists make probabilistic claims from the data to offer recommendations, in this case, to the Department of Health and Human Services.

To prevent one additional breast cancer death, 1,000 women would have to get mammograms starting at age 40 rather than 50. But doing this would allegedly result in roughly 500 of the 1,000 women getting false positive results at least once, and 33 of them getting unnecessary biopsies, according to Jeanne Mandelblatt of Georgetown University.

According to researchers on the side of the Task Force, the adage that prevention is better than cure loses its intuitive force when one scrutinizes the risks associated with preventive care such as radiation or hormone therapy on abnormalities that may never have become cancerous tumors as well as the anxiety they provoke.

Now, other experts looking at the same data disagree on its interpretation. "We respect the task force, but we do not agree with their conclusions," says Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. "We are concerned the same evidence we think supports beginning at age 40 is being interpreted by others as not supporting mammography."

Scientists looking at the evidence can disagree, but when they do, they point to the data in order to support their conclusions. Most politicians, on the other hand, do not look at the data and they can in good faith either accept or reject the experts' recommendations since the experts do disagree. Only a few, however, grab one set of these recommendations, and then leap a few light years ahead, with uncanny certitude, to a conclusion solar systems away from the data on which the recommendations were originally offered.

"This is how rationing begins. This is the little toe in the edge of the water," Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. "This is when you start getting a bureaucrat between you and your physician."

This is when you put a politician between the people and responsible government. They will offer answers, explanations, and analogies with more certititude than the scientists who perused the data, and if their golden tongues wagged with enough vigor, people will believe them because it is easier to acquire information via gossip than it is to collect it ourselves.

Our indifference to doing our civic homework would not be a problem but for the fact that demagogues are able to synthesize our indifference with their certainty to create political slogans but not political solutions. Resolution and confidence are virtues only when the answers are always obvious and unambiguous. But in the world of statistics in which researchers on both sides of the mammogram debate inhabit, and in the world of politics where the meaning of public opinion and the general will fluctuates, unsubstantiated certitude is the one cancer on democacy we should be screening for, every day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On whether KSM deserves Vengeance or Justice

There are four reasons which have been supplied to suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) does not deserve a civilian trial in New York:

1. This is what KSM wants - a show trial, and he should not get what he desires.
2. The trial will increase the risks of a terorist attack in New York.
3. Classified information will be released in a civilian court trial, to the benefit of potential future terrorists.
4. The injury KSM has inflicted is a war crime, and not a domestic criminal matter.

1-3 are unverifiable predictions, sub-points to the main point, 4, which is the motive force behind the considerable agitation behind Attorney General Eric Holder's decision. Those who oppose a civilian trial for KSM want vengeance more than they want justice. This is exactly what Michael Goodwin has argued:

"Either try the detainees in military courts on secure bases or, best of all, give them death now. Mohammed and some others already acknowledged guilt and said they were ready to die.

I say we take yes for an answer."

Well, there we have it. Goodwin wants vengeance primarily, and justice only incidentally. Now, vengeance and justice are not unrelated. Vengeance presumes the existence of guilt, so the pursuit of vengeance can lead to justice. Indeed, in an anarchic, godless world of all against all, vengeance is the closest thing there is to justice. To speak of justice would be a categorical mistake because without the apparatus of sovereignty and law, it is a standard that stands on stilts. We say Justice under the Law because without law justice is a meaningless concept.

Goodwin and others like Mayor Rudy Giuliani who want to deny KSM a civilian trial believe, though they have not fully articulated their reasons, that the international milieu exists as a state of nature in which there is no universal law and no universally accepted sovereign law-giver, and as such the pursuit of justice is folly and the pursuit of vengeance necessary. If there is neither legality nor illegality, then there is only strength and weakness. Vengeance will have to do. This is why Rudy Giuliani insists on the frame that we are a nation at war, that we are dealing with terrorists or "enemy combatants" and not what John Yoo called "garden-variety criminals."

To be sure, in a government of laws such as in a liberal democracy, justice takes on higher attributes that vengeance does not (and cannot). While justice is about law; vengeance is about necessity because it privileges immediate judgment over the process that would deliver such a judgment. While vengeance gives solace to those who were injured, justice assures all citizens that the system in which they conduct themselves works - ie. while vengeance is pointed and specific, justice is blind and universal, and while vengeance is preponderant, justice is proportionate.

Well and good. But as we consider whether or not KSM should have been granted a civilian trial, we need to determine the context in which we make this judgment: is terrorism a domestic criminal matter or an act of war? If the former, then the Constitution takes precedence and it makes sense to speak of justice and that is what KSM deserves. If the latter, then because there is neither universal law nor a sovereign law-giver in the international milieu, KSM will have to suffer our vengeance because justice is not an alternative.

We have not settled on an answer to this question of whether or not terrorism is a criminal or a war crime because our historical definition of war has not caught up with its modern incarnation in which de-territorialized non-state actors perpetrate acts of violence. Our discussion over what KSM deserves is a footnote to this larger debate.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On The Disrupted Sequence of Health-Care Reform

Democrats must be thinking: what happened to the halcyon days of 2008? It is almost difficult to believe that after the string of Democratic electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, the vast momentum for progressive "change" has fizzled out to a mere five vote margin over one of the most major campaign issues of 2008, a health-care bill passed in the House this weekend. If you raise hopes, you get votes; but if you dash hopes you lose votes. That's the karma of elections, and we saw it move last Tuesday.

Democratic Party leaders scrambled, in response, to keep the momentum of "Yes, we can" going, by passing a health-care reform bill in the House this weekend. But despite claims of victory, Democratic party leaders probably wished that their first victory on the health-care reform road came from the Senate and not from the House. President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have always hoped to let the Senate pass its health-care reform bill first, initiating a bandwagon effect so that passage in the House would follow quickly and more easily, and a final bill could be delivered to the president's desk.

Instead, the order of bill passage has been reversed, making a final bill less likely than if things had gone according to plan. If even the House, which is not subject to supermajority decision-making rules, barely squeaked by with a 220-215 vote, then it has now set the upper limit of what health-care reform will ultimately look like. Potentially dissenting Democratic Senators see this, and there might now be a reverse band-wagoning effect. Already, we are hearing talk from the Senate about the timeline for a final bill possibly being pushed past Christmas into 2010. This is just what Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were hoping against, by pushing the Senate to pass a bill first. Unfortunately for them, the Senate took so long that to keep the momentum going (and amidst the electoral losses in NJ and VA last week), they felt compelled to pass something in the House to signal a token show of progress.

But the danger is that the move to regain control may initiate a further loss of control. The less than plenary "victory" in the House bill has only made it clearer than ever that if a final bill is to find its way to the President's desk, it will have to be relieved of its more ambitiously liberal bells and whistles. Even though the House Bill, estimated at a trillion dollars, is more expensive than the Senate version being considered, and it has added controversial tax provisions for wealthier Americans earning more than $500,000, what the House passed was already a compromise to Blue Dogs. On Friday night, a block of Democratic members of Congress threatened to withhold their support unless House leaders agreed to take up an amendment preventing anyone who gets a government tax credit to buy insurance from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion. If even the House had to cave in some, there will have to be many more compromises to be made in the Senate, especially on the "public option."

Sequencing matters in drama as it does in politics. It is at the heart of the Obama narrative, the soul and animating force behind the (now unravelling) Democratic majority in 2009. "Yes, we can" generates and benefits from a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect that begins with a whisper of audacious hope. From the State House of Illinois to the US Senate, from Iowa to Virginia - the story of Barack Obama is a narrative of crescendo. "They said this day would never come" is a story of improbable beginnings and spectacular conclusions. The structural underpinnings of the Obama narrative are now straining under the pressure of events. To regain control of events, the President must first regain control of his story.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Politics is Not Local

As we follow the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, and the special election for the 23rd congressional district in New York (NY23), the debate has overwhelmingly been about whether or not these races are wind vanes for the electoral weather to come.

So some thoughts in this vein, before the main point of this post. Obama is campaigning hard for NJ Governor Jon Corzine because he needs to show errant Democratic members of Congress that he still has coat-tails. If Corzine pulls off his re-election bid, members of Congress seeking a presidential endorsement in 2010 will at least think twice about voting against the president in 2009. If both Creigh Deeds and Corzine lose (and in the former's case, it is practically a foregone conclusion) in their respective gubernatorial races, then the rationale for party unity suffers and it is every politician for her/himself here on out. If this happens, Obama will face an even more recalcitrant Democratic aisle of Congress than he does now.

Meanwhile, with the exit of Dede Scozzafava from the race in NY23, the conservative movement looks set to shake up the Republican establishment, as Sarah Palin has promised. The soul-searching of the Republican Party continues; may the most powerful faction win.

Notice that none of these observations pay any attention to local concerns and local consequences. The significance of these races is entirely predicated on their potential impact on the balance of power in Washington, DC. When the punditry agrees without acknowledging that they do, their consensus is worth examining. There was a time when all politics was local. When the media establishments were not yet centralized in a few major outlets and the coverage of issues nationalized. A time when voters came out to vote for candidates at the local and state levels. Such races did not depend on huge television advertising budgets or endorsements by nationally elected officials, and they were not seen merely as divinizing tea leaves for the future but as important contests in their own right.

Today, voter turnout for local and state elections is paltry, and turn-out for off-year elections is abysmal. An army of national media, however, has descended in Virginia and New Jersey and even in upstate New York, to cover the races not for the benefit of local and state residents, but for the impact it will have on the balance of power in Washington. Even conservative, states-rights oriented politicoes understand that all local politics is national. (The revealing contrast is the high turnout for national elections in Europe and the low turnout for elections to the European parliament owing to the different balance of power between the center and its confederal parts in Europe.) Power resides in Washington, not in states, cities, or communities, because Washington's potential reach into every state and locality is extensive. Even those who want to invert this balance of power have been compelled to concentrate their attention and energies to the Federal City. We are all Federalists now.

Politics is no longer local because the return to turn-out is minimal at the state and local levels. In the 19th century, local party workers toiled to get the vote out because there were patronage jobs to be earned if their candidate won. Parades, torch-light processions, rallies, barbeques, banners, buttons, and insignia got people worked up and ready to go to polling booths. Contrast this level of enthusiasm for a 22 year old voter in Virginia who had voted for Obama last year. "Politics is boring," he said. "I know Obama is making changes, but it takes so long to make things happen." And that is why he is probably not going out to vote next Tuesday.

The lesson to be learnt in next week's contests is not what they will predict about the future, which will be endlessly debated even if only time will tell, but what they reveal about the transformation of American democracy, which time has already told.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sarah Palin Goes Rogue in New York

Last Thursday, former Governor of Alaska endorsed Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over Republican Party candidate, Dede Scozzafava, in New York's 23rd Congressional District's special election.

This is a pre-book launching publicity stunt, leaving no doubt that Sarah Palin is Going Rogue. She has now erased all remaining speculation that she retains personal political ambitions, at least within the Republican Party.

Ironically, it is not Barack Obama who has become a self-centered celebrity, but Sarah Palin, who is wowing the conservative crowd with her personal, anti-party appeal. Celebrities are most popular when they stand beyond and outside party - consider the sharp dip in Oprah Winfrey's popularity when she campaigned for Obama - and this is exactly what Palin has done. On Facebook, she explained her endorsement of Hoffman:

"Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of "blurring the lines" between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket."

Palin must know that her support of the Conservative candidate will split the Republican vote, and could end up giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. If she had wanted to play the endorsement game without stepping on anyone's shoes, she could have thrown in her support for the Republican candidates in the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, but she hasn't. Instead, she has become the Frankenstein maverick the McCain campaign created, biting the very hand that fed her. Here is how she concluded her Facebook note: "Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual." Palin doesn't so much stand for Doug Hoffman as she stands against "the Republican esablishment," fanning the conservative sentiment that the Republican Party performed poorly in 2008 not because it had become too conservative but because it wasn't conservative enough. She left out, in her account of Reagan, that his 11th commandment was thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. Hers is the anti-median-voter theory of elections, better read as the ideological theory of losing elections.

Palin is going to drive the legitimacy crisis of conservatism if she continues on this road. Harold Hotelling and Anthony Downs have showed us that in single-member districts moderate parties targeting median voters win elections. This is a mathematically provable proposition. That is why Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty are not yet weighing in on the New York race, because they are trying to do exactly what Sarah Palin is accusing the Republican Party of doing - blur the line between conservatism and Republicanism so that they can appeal to as many potential primary voters as possible should they choose to run in 2012. Ideologues (and celebrities) are too intoxicated by their ideas (or themselves) to care about winning elections, and Huckabee and Pawlenty want to keep that option open.

There was a time when liberals were proud to be liberals, and that spelt the beginning of liberalism's end. Pride and ideological purity drove liberalism's legitimacy crisis, as will be the case for modern conservatism's demise. Democrats, folllowing the lead of the "third-way" Bill Clinton, learned after the excesses of the War on Poverty not to stand on ideology alone - which is always extreme and uncompromising - but also on programmatic commitments that could appeal to the median voter.

Sarah Palin would not remember it, but there was a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when "conservatism" was a bad word coterminous with "stand-patting." She is in danger of recycling history, not that she cares, because she has a personal agenda, not an institutional one. She said it best herself - she is self-consciously Going Rogue. When a party allows those who do not care about winning elections to speak for its base, it courts trouble. Behind every anti-Republican establishment hurrah Palin provokes is a voter ready to Go Rogue on election day. Republicans, beware.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the Balloon Side Show, the Infotaining Media, and Representative Democracy

Last week, America came to a stand-still as we stood enraptured by television images of a runaway balloon carrying, so we thought, a six-year-old boy. Flimsy as the silver contraption appeared, we gladly suspended all disbelief that the balloon contained enough helium to be carrying a boy within so we could enjoy the side show. (Just as we did for Pixar's animated movie, "Up," which featured an old man who used balloons to move his house to a South American paradise.) So for almost two hours, most of the major news networks displaced all coverage of "hard" news to cover what Latimer County Sheriff Jim Alderman has now concluded to be a "publicity stunt." And I'm going to argue that this was not a bad thing.

As the Balloon Boy story continued to dominate the weekend news cycle, the president and his advisors continued to deliberate on whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, and Senators worked behind the scenes to reconcile two different bills on healthcare. So let it be said that our "watchdog" media will switch its attention as soon as it is thrown an infotaining bone. But this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we are clear-eyed about the media's priorities. Instead, I think there is something strangely comforting that we allow ourselves such trivial pleasures. If we do not need an ever-vigilant watchdog, it is because we believe - by revealed preference - that government will mind government's business, and we can tend to our own. Better no coverage of "hard" news than bad coverage, I say.

And this is exactly what the media did at least momentarily last week even as the President and Congress debated world and country-changing policies. Instead of another round of predictable punditry, or fact-checking of the CBO's estimates of heath-care reform, we were fed images of a helium-filled balloon shaped like a UFO traversing the Colorado landscape. As we are with car chases, we, and therefore the media, were drawn to the balloon chase like flies are drawn to a light. We weren't so much interested in the outcome - indeed knowledge of the outcome would have waken us up from our trance - as we were in the process, which was visually enrapturing.

For over a year we have watched a presidential campaign turn into a permanent campaign, and the American public is fatigued. We see this in Barack Obama's dwindling approval numbers; and we also see it in our captivation by a drifting balloon. We are tired, and we are withdrawing from the public poltical sphere. The infotaining media detected this, and gave us a welcome reprief.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Ours is a representative, and not a direct democracy. We vote and delegate; they, the elected officials, decide. The constitutional calendar is very clear that the people speak only every 2, 4, and 6 years. As far as the US constitution is concerned, our voices do not matter when we speak at any other time at the federal level. (Though our voices do matter at the state level where such devices as recall and refederanda are sanctioned by state constitutions.) If we didn't believe this, than we have to deal with the conundrum that if last year's elections were held in the second week of September, John McCain would have won. Clearly then, what you and I believed on November 4, 2008 matters much more than what you and I believe in October, 2009 (or September, 2008). Opinion polls may capture majority or minority sentiment at any moment in time, but these sentiments (should) have no import on constitutionally sanctioned officers exercising their delegated powers.

The deliberation of troop increases and health-care reform involve complex proceedings in closed-door war room meetings and conference committees reconciling details many Americans know and care little about. Such decisions make bad television, so maybe we shouldn't try to force a message into an unreceptive genre lest we alter the message. Maybe those we put in charge should simply be let alone to do their job, for our constitution envisioned and sanctioned a low-effort, Rip Van Winkle approach to citizen participation. Sometimes we care a lot and we participate, but other times we tune out; and perhaps that is just as it should be. Last week, as we sat enraptured by the alleged antics of Balloon Boy, we embraced the implicit satisfactions of a representative democracy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Paradox of Love: Why Some Campaign Promises Matter more than Others

There is a growing consensus that President Barack Obama needs something to show for two years of campaigning as candidate and nine months of talk as president. But in a speech at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) this weekend, he felt no need to defer to this consensus and offered no more than a rehash of his campaign promises in 2008. It is probably true that Obama has bigger problems to deal with than ending DOMA, but there is a more interesting explanation for his foot-dragging.

Obama does not need to court the LGBT community because, as a member of the audience exclaimed even before Obama began reciting his prepared remarks, "We love you, Barack!" Because love is forgiving, and it is blind, political love is often taken for granted. And Obama knows that he can play the prodigal son for as long as he needs, as long as he comes home on the eve of his re-election campaign, when he will be welcomed with a robe and a ring, and feted with a fatted calf and HRC shall chat, "he was lost, and is found." Thus, even though the president remained committed to the HRC's agenda, he made no effort to demonstrate that its agenda is high on his list of priorities. "My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians," he tepidly assured 3,000 guests at the black-tie event. The prodigal son need not tell Dad when he'll come home.

HRC cannot issue a credible threat that the LGBT community will throw their support behind a Republican candidate in 2012. Perhaps the bigger problem is that it does not even want to. In an email sent out to supporters of the HRC, Joe Solomonese gushed, "It was an historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the President of the United States. It's simply unprecedented." And so, like labor, African Americans, and environmentalists to the Democratic Party, the HRC is less powerful as a lobbying group than it could be because it has been too quick to profess its love and too loyal to consider a break-up. Liberals ask why the President seems bent on courting Republicans for their support on a health-care bill without realizing that the answer is staring at them right in their face: the President realizes that he does not need to court those who have already swooned.

This is the paradox of democratic politics. The undecided decide elections, and the loving are unbeloved. The more astute leaders of lobbying groups, like the AARP and the Independent Women's Forum, understand the value of (at least professed) independence. Even the National Rifle Association devotes a fifth of its campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. Size and efficiency of organization matters, but so is the ability to switch sides.

We extol the importance of debate and diversity of opinions between different demographic and issue groups in America, but we have scarcely understood the value of dissension within them. Michael Steele is a sell-out, and so are the Log Cabin Republicans, I hear liberals say; so too is Arlen Specter and Andrew Sullivan, conservatives opine. But in politics, unconditional love begets unrequited love, and groups seeking political influence in Washington should learn to play hard to get.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Defense of Armchair Generals

Pictured: The chair George Washington used at the Philadelphia Convention to which Ben Franklin observed as the delegates were appending their signatures to the Constitution: "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."

Sarah Palin is not the only person going rogue these days. In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last Thursday, General Stanley McChrystal advocated for an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan by 40,000, while rumors that the General would resign his command if his request was not honored remain unquashed. A week before, McChrystal appeared on CBS's "60 minutes" to spread the word that help is needed in Afghanistan. And before that, he, or one of the supporters of his proposal, leaked a confidential report of his petition to the president to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, which published a redacted version of it. These are the political maneuverings of a General who understands that wars abroad must also be waged at home.

But, the General fails to understand that the political war at home is not his to fight, and his actions in recent weeks have been out of line. No new command has been issued yet about Afghanistan, but General McChrystal has taken it upon himself to let the British and American public know how he would prefer to be commanded. As it is a slippery and inperceptible slope from preemptive defiance to actual insubordination, as President Harry Truman quickly came to realize about General Douglas MacArthur, President Obama needs to assert and restore the chain of command swiftly and categorically.

As Commander of Special Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2008, McCrystal was given free reign to bypass the chain of command. This leeway allowed McCrystal's team to capture, most illustriously, Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war. But it may have gotten into his head that the discretion Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney granted to him has carried over to his command in Afghanistan. No doubt, McCrystal has been emboldened by supporters of a troop increase in Afghanistan, who have recently chastized President Obama for not having had more meetings with McChrystal. Others, like Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) have on CNN accused the "people in the White House ... (as) armchair generals."

Those who assault the principle of civilian control of the military typically and disingenously do so obliquely under the cover of generals and the flag, for they dare not confront the fact that the constitution unapologetically anoints an armchair general to lead the military. It is worth noting, further, that in the same sentence in which the President is designated "Commander-in-Chief," the Constitution states, "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments." The President may require the opinion of any cabinet secretary should he choose to do so, but he isn't even constitutionally obligated to seek the opinion of the Secretary of Defense, to whom General McChrystal's superior, General David Petraeus, reports via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General McChrystal has spoken out of turn even though his chain of command goes up quite a few more rings before it culminates in the person seated on an armchair in the Oval Office, and yet I doubt he would take kindly to a one-star general speechifying against his proposal for troop increases in Afghanistan.

Dwight Eisenhower, when he occupied the armchair in the Oval Office, wisely warned of the "Military Industrial Complex" because he understood that it was as much an organized interest as was the Liberal Welfare State, Wall Street, or what would become the Healthcare Industrial Complex. No "commander on the ground" will come to the President of the United States and not ask for more manpower and resources, and Eisenhower understood that the job of the armchair general was to keep that in mind.

Let us not rally around military generals and fail to rally around the Constitution. Inspiring as the Star Spangled Banner may appear flying over Fort McHenry, we will do better to stand firm on the principles etched on an older piece of parchment. As Truman wrote in his statement firing General Douglas MacArthur,

"Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Case for Bravado: A Critique of Obama's Performance at the UN

Since the 1960s, liberals have lost the American peoples' faith in their capacity to wage successful foreign policy. Look at John Kerry - who had his patriotism successfully challenged in 2004 by a man who didn't even serve in the military. Kerry lost that battle because he did not deign to fight it, and Barack Obama is in danger of repeating this mistake.

The Democratic party before Vietnam was very different from the Democratic party of 2009. The party of Roosevelt, of Truman, of Kennedy, and Johnson was the party of an aggressive anti-communism. There were isolationists in the party as well, but no more than there were Old Guard conservative isolationists in the Republican party.

The Democrats lost their appetite for war after Vietnam, and by doing so, they created neo-conservatism, whose ranks were filled by old liberals who voted for Franklin Roosevelt, as Ronald Reagan did, but who refused to stay with a party that they believed had turned pacifist. And so it has become a post-1960s electoral rule in American politics that Democrats are strong(er) on domestic policy issues, and Republicans are strong(er) on foreign policy. Put another way, the median American voter stands to the Left of the Republican party on domestic issues, and to the Right of the Democratic party on foreign policy. Durable governing coalitions in our time are determined by the ability of either party to break this stereotype.

Enter President Barack Obama, who clearly has an ambitious agenda to remake the Democratic party and to build a durable governing coalition for years to come. But last week, he went to the UN and reinscribed every conservative and Republican stereotype of the weak and morally relativistic liberal Democratic stance on foreign policy.

Obama must really believe that what he is doing is morally right, and the best way forward for both America and the world (and UN), because he has gained no politial points by speaking with a soft voice to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. If Obama was not even trying to break the old stereotype that liberals are weak on rogue nations, then at best to his moral credit but not to his political credit, he was a principled ideologue at the UN last week.

Contrast this to President George W. Bush, who aggressively tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to break the stereotype that conservatives are uncompassionate and weak on domestic issues. He made a serious effort to take on social security reform, and he even managed to declare that no child should be left behind and signed into law a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Karl Rove had dutifully informed his boss that to build a winning coalition, the Republican party could not afford to accept extant partisan stereotypes and concede the argument that the Republican party can only be strong on guns but weak on butter. So the Bush administration aggressively took on signature Democratic terrain to try to break the Democratic monopoly over them. Bush failed, but not for lack of trying!

But Barack Obama doesn't seem to be doing anything to break the stereotype that liberals love butter but hate guns. He has been quite happy to work on churning out more butter (in the form of economic stimulus bills and health-care coverage), but he has also been reinforcing the stereotype that liberals just don't get it in terms of foreign policy.

Obama doesn't even need to carry a big stick, but to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, he could gain so many political points simply by speaking in a louder voice against the likes of Ahmadinejad, Qaddafi, and Hugo Chávez. Granted that he is mired in an impossible situation of considering troop increases in Afghanistan - either way he goes someone will be unhappy - but he would have only gained and lost little had he simply adopted a harsher tone towards the universally disdained pariahs of the world. Indeed, a louder voice against Ahmadinejad would have given him at least temporary cover for using a softer stick in terms of (desisting the request for)possible troop increases in Afghanistan.

Liberals should try exhibiting some chest-thumping bravado sometimes. If John Kerry had deigned to wear his patriotism (or, for that matter, his religion) on his sleeve, he may have had a stint in the White House. If partisan stereotypes are merely symbolic realities, then they can be subverted, at a relatively low cost, by symbolic acts.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Republican Party is Not the Conservative Movement

A political movement is not the same as the party that claims to represent it. And the disconnect between the Republican party and the conservative movement is sharper today than it has ever been since the heyday of the Reagan revolution. Consider the rising star of Glenn Bleck - as if one Rush Limbaugh isn’t enough – and the marginalization of Michael Steele, who wasn’t even invited to speak at last weekend’s march in Washington and who was denied the opportunity to speak at a Chicago Tea party in April. The angry voices in town-halls and the national mall are not evidence that the Republican party has found its voice, but that it hasn't. When citizens feel that elected officials don't speak for us, we take up arms ourselves (sometimes, literally).

The Reagan coalition is fraying, because the libertarian faction of the conservative movement has had enough of sitting at the back of the movement's bus. For too long, they bought Ronald Reagan's and George Bush's argument that expensive and deficit-increasing wars are a necessary evil to combat a greater evil, but the bailout of the big banks last Fall was the last straw for them. If Irving Kristol once said that neoconservatives are converted liberals (like Ronald Reagan himself) who had been "mugged by reality," Tea Partiers are conservatives who have woken up to the fact that neoconseratives are no different from pre-Vietnam-era liberals chasing after utopian dreams.

The reason why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the heroes of the movement, and Michael Steele is persona non grata, is because fiscal conservatives no longer trust the Republican party who for too long has placed their agenda on the backburner. This, in turn, has been brought on by the fact that neoconservatives have lost their privileged status within the movement because of the delegitimation of the adventure in Iraq and the onset of the economic recession. While the end of the Cold War vindicated neoconservatism, the events of September 11 gave it a new lease of life. Together, these two contingent facts of history contributed considerably to the longevity of the Reagan revolution, even as the botched and expensive adventure in Iraq put a screeching halt on the neoconservative ascendancy. Americans today face a crisis in their pocketbooks and not with foreign nations. Tax-and-spend liberals are a worthy enemy, but they are nowhere as scary or as unifying as the "Evil Empire" or the "Axis of Evil."

This is why Republican public officials are doing a lot of soul searching these days as they try to make sense of the disconnect between their ideology and party that has been brought on by neoconservatism's decline. The lack of coordination and indeed the widening chasm between the party and the movement can be evidenced in Arlen Specter's cross-over to the Democratic aisle, Senator George Voinovich's complaint that his party was being "taken over by Southerners," and in Olympia Snowe's and Susan Collins' overtures to Barack Obama.

Most people will agree that we know exactly what Barack Obama is up to, politically. The right-wing talk-show hosts will be the first to tell us. But we really do not know what the Republican party stands for or who could possibly lead it in 2012. This is because the party has lost its synthesizing logic and lacks a unifying hero. This weekend, a straw poll conducted at the Values Voters Summit put Mike Huckabee on top, with 28 percent of the vote, because the straw pollers are Values Voters, who constitute yet another faction within the conservative movement. But what was more telling is that even though Sarah Palin did not even turn up for the event, she nevertheless garnered the same endorsement as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Pence, at 12% each. This is conservatism in search of a leader.

Because it is parties that win elections and not movements, Republican members of congress should not be taking any comfort from the passionate protests of the Tea Partiers. Instead, they should be embarrassed about the fact that they have been trying to play catch up with a movement that has lost hope in its elected officials. More importantly, the Republican party must find a new way to unite the neoconservative, libertarian, and traditionalist factions of the movement to have any chance of standing up against a president and party, who in 2010, could well be riding the wave of an economic recovery to electoral success.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Tea Party Movement and its Controversial Roots in American History

On September 12, 2009, tens of thousands of Americans gathered at the national mall for a mass rally, itself a culmination of a 7,000 mile bus tour that had started two weeks before in Sacramento, California, to protest the tax and spending policies of the Obama administration.

Participants of the 2009 Tea Party movement, which was organized just before Tax Day this year, took their inspiration from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and not, say, 1776, South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification of 1832, or the Confederacy of 1861-65, because while rebellion against George III was legitimate and even glorious, rebellion against the government of the United States was ostensibly not. But a closer examination of history reveals the incoherence of the intended historical parallel, and the plausibility of the unintended historical parallels.

The Bostonian colonists in 1773 were objecting to the right of a distant legislature, in which they had no representation, to pass laws (in this case the Tea Act of 1773) affecting their livelihoods. “No taxation without representation” isn’t just a line one finds on a Washington, DC bumper sticker; it is an ancient British constitutional principle to which the American colonists were legitimately appealing. In this sense, the Boston Tea Partiers were still operating within the framework and premises of the British constitution and seeking redress for where its application fell short.

This clearly is not the case for modern Tea Partiers. Not only does every single protester in the modern Tea Party movement have a representative and senators representing him or her in at the federal level, Washington, DC – the analogue to the foreign metropole (from the Greek “metropolis,” meaning “mother country”) that London was – does not even enjoy such representation! While the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the British government from America, the modern Tea Party is a protest against American government from no less than her capital city.

The appropriate historical parallel then, is not 1773, but 1776, 1832 and even 1861-65, when Americans challenged the authority of their own government. That modern Tea Partiers have 1. rallied to the support of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s expression of sympathy to Texans advocating secession during a Tea Party in April; 2. brought their loaded weapons to town-hall meetings about health-care reform during Summer 2009 in a show of defiance to the president; 3. were, as Rush Limbaugh was, “ecstatic” about Representative Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) indecorous outburst in the middle of President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, suggests that the Tea Party movement intends to strike at the very legitimacy of American government. For what is rebellion but the rejection of deliberation and the turn toward politics by any other means -- be it secession, physical interpositioning, or incendiary impudence? And so it is a movement Alexander Hamilton would have scoffed at, but one Thomas Jefferson would have gleefully partook.

The first amendment gives us a right to articulate and seek redress for our grievances against the state, but it is worth stating that there is no first amendment without a constitution, which some of Governor Rick Perry’s constituents appear to be challenging. So on pain of self-contradiction, all Americans must concede that we do not have a constitutional right to revolution. However, this does not mean that we have not inherited a primal instinct to rebel. Revolution is in our blood, because we are the daughters and sons of revolutionaries. Which is why among those rights the Declaration of Independence held “self-evident,” is “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” On this point, the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally at odds with the US constitution and its claim to a "more perfect union." No one has successfully exercised this right since 1789, but there are sections in the country who have never stopped believing that such a right is any more inalienable than the fact that all men are created equal.

1773 is an oblique way of referencing 1776, which is itself a way of leapfrogging 1789, the year a federation of sovereign states gave way to a more consolidated federal government, to which, like modern Tea Partiers, the author of the Declaration of Independence would feel considerable antipathy as opposition leader to the Federalists and later president, and to which Publius, in contrast, recommended a measure of "veneration" -- a sentiment Representative Joe Wilson could not, in the hallowed walls of the US Capitol, bring himself to possess.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Speeches are about Strategy, not Poetry: Obama's Prime-time Challenge on Wednesday

President Obama is finally attempting to take charge of the health-care reform debate with an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

It comes down to this. If he does not pass a health-care bill – whatever its provisions may look like – he will indeed face his political Waterloo, because health-care reform has become the defining issue of his 2008 campaign on which the president has staked all his remaining electoral mandate. That this is open knowledge to every member of congress does not bode well for the president, because just about the worst bargaining position one can have is the one in which everyone knows that the bargainer not only cannot have what he wants, but must make compromises to get even some of what he wants. Because everyone knows this, everyone to the left and right of Obama will make their demands, and his only hope of coming out unscathed is if one or the other side is willing to shift their bottom line (on what Democrats call the “public option” and what Republicans call “government-run insurance”.

The bargaining game ahead of the president is enormously complex, but there are few ground rules that he could follow to maximize his returns. First, he must absolutely decide in his mind if he wants a bipartisan bill or not, and there are many Democrats who don't, and will be quite happy to go the Reconciliation route, which is certainly a distinct possibility to be considered when all fails. I will assume that Obama must at least present the public facade of wanting a bipartisan bill, at least until October 15.

Second, he must pull all sides away from the fault-line of the debate - whether or not to have a "public option" - because health-care reform is rather more than just about "government-run insurance." The president must find a way for us to see the bigger picture, if only so that we do not continue our microscopic attention to our differences.

Third, Obama needs to create face-saving conditions and incentives for one or more dissident factions in the health-care debate to capitulate. It seems to me his best bet is to try to change the minds of members of his own party, in part because the president seems doggedly committed to at least a semblance of bipartisanship. (Again, he need not, but he wants to.) An electoral mandate (or whatever that is left of it) is nothing without the coat-tails effect of the president, and on this the president can try to call in a few favors in return for future ones. As I think it has become very clear during the August congressional recess, capitulation from the Republicans seems all but unlikely now. If anything, Republican members of congress have become emboldened by the president’s falling approval ratings.

Senator Olympia Snowe's idea that a public option would only be "triggered" if certain conditions are set is one such face-saving possibility for the president to try to woo the more liberal members of his party, as is the idea of a "co-op." In privileging the status quo, the conditional triggering option concedes that median congressional position on the debate has shifted to the right of where the president initially stood. But by specifying what the triggering conditions are, liberal democratic members of congress can tell their constituents (like the AFL-CIO) that they are still achieving their initial goals but with different means. If the president can just shift the debate to what these "triggering" conditions should be - and the devil will be in the details - he would have earned a significant victory. Such a compromise will not unite the country, but it could make us less divided, ironically, because no one is getting what they want.

It is too late now for the president to tell us what he wants on Wednesday, not only because he won’t get it, but also because he has allowed the debate to fester and the battle lines are now drawn. His job on Wednesday is to muddy the battle lines again, to make a global argument for health-care reform. Why we need it, not why we cannot afford not to have it. And as he is already starting to do, Obama should try to convince all negotiating parties that there should be no bottom lines, no veto points, no categorical demands. The erstwhile professor of constitutional law will have the unenviable task of bringing together what the constitution pulls asunder. Not the Great Communicator, but the Great Umpire he must be.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Justice and Politics Part Company

Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to conduct investigations on the CIA presents a serious dilemma for the Obama White House, which was at pains to point out that Holder's decision was independently made. I think the White House is being honest here, because these investigations will only be a distraction from health-care reform. The bigger problem thrown into sharp relief here, however, is that democracies' commitments to justice and the politics ncessary to deliver electoral and governing solutions do not always sit happily together.

The pursuit of justice (which is state-sanctioned retribution) is inherently a backward looking process. It most look to the past in order to establish that a wrong was committed. And to put things bluntly, even when properly meted out, justice often offers only cold comfort to whom injury was inflicted. Epecially in politics, such returns are slow in the coming, if they come at all.

If the pursuit of justice pulls us back in time, the conduct of politics pulls us into the future. Power today is a derivative of the anticipated store of power tomorrow, which is itself a function of whether today's promises are fulfilled tomorrow. Politicians (in active service) don't have time for the past, for they must protect their future. President Obama is looking ahead to the health-care battles to come in the Fall, and he does not want (nor does he need) to be pulled back to rehash a contest with the last administration in which voters already declared him a winner in 2008. Justice and Politics do not go well in this moment, and Obama knows full well that he has more to lose than he has to gain in Holder's investigation. To stay in office, he must offer a politics of solutions, and not the politics of redemption that his liberal base wants.

Strangely enough, Dick Cheney is on the side of liberal Democrats on this one, at least in the sense that he understands that democractic countries are bad war-makers. The difference of course, is that Cheney believes that war is OK, but democratic ends must be met with undemocratic means (while some liberals believe that war - the sport of kings, not democracies - is not OK). In Cheney's own words on Meet the Press in 2001: "We have to work the dark side, if you will. Spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world." Cheney's thorough-going ends-justifies-means philosophy is revealed in his interview with Chris Wallace. "They looked at this question of whether or not somebody had an electric drill in an interrogation session — it was never used on the individual," Cheney said of the inspector general's report. "Or that they had brought in a weapon — never used on the individual." This cavalier attitude towards undemocratic means stems largely from a very sharp line differentiating "us" and "them" in the neoconservative world-view, a line that takes off from a commitment to protecting the demos in a democracy and a characterization of all others as outsiders to our social contract. This line is inperceptible to the liberal eye fixated on universal justice, which presumes the basic humanity of even a terrorist suspect.

Democrats really want to go for Cheney, but they will have to settle for the CIA; Cheney wants to protect his legacy, but he will have to settle for a proxy war. The politicization of justice and the justiciation of politics are reifiying the turf battles between CIA and FBI, the very cause of the intelligence failures that led to September 11 in the first place. The mere fact that we are airing our dirty laundry in public is already having a "chilling" effect on CIA agents and both Cheney and Holder are complicit in this. Justice and Politics are friends to democracy individually, but we are better off without one of them in this case.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why the President Needs to Re-frame Health-care Reform: What's in it for us?

The only times when words don’t matter is when events speak for themselves, especially in rare crisis moments. In such moments we are not. As a result, many Americans, who already have health insurance, feel no especial need to take a shot in the dark with President Obama on health-care reform. That is why the correct framing of the health-care reform issue is critical. By “framing,” I mean the rhetorical strategy of setting an argument out in a specific way that predisposes a listener to a preferred conclusion.

But on this crucial pre-battle of words, the Obama administration has failed. The president has told 80 percent of Americans that "if you are happy with your present insurance, nothing will change." This is a fatal error. Not only is his message lacking even the slightest hint of a call to collective social responsibility that may help influence Democrats and foot-dragging Blue Dogs, there isn’t even a concomitant sell to unconvinced Republicans about what could be in it for them. The latter error is more egregious than the former, because most citizens are not crusading social workers but consumers of public policy.

The president made a mistake by starting the debate on the defensive. Instead of making a positive case for health-care, he has focused too much on the need to keep the costs of health-care reform down. Accepting and perpetuating the metaphor of the imperative to "bend the cost curve" of federal outlays was foolish, because it accepts the metaphorical entailment that if the trajectory is untouched, the costs of a public option will automatically go up. This leaves unsaid that the costs for health-care without reform is also on an exponentially upward trend. Where is the talk of "bending the cost curve" on the consumer’s end? A public policy cannot be sold by a promise of what it will not be (expensive), but what it will be. For the grand majority of Americans who are privileged to be in possession of health-insurance, they need to know why the president wants to rock the boat. And we are only willing to share our privileges (to the involuntarily uninsured) only if those of us who are already privileged get yet some more (in terms of more affordable, quality health care.) The only way to get over an atavistic distrust of the state is to speak in the currency of consumerism - what's in it for us?

Without a positive case for health-care reform, there has only been confusion out there about what the final health-care bill will look like. Compounded by the fact that there is still no White House plan – Obama is still waiting for Congress to hammer details out - uncertainty and poor framing have engendered the fertile soil on which doubt can and has been planted. In an informational vacuum, stories about death panels and health-care for illegal immigrants have taken hold.

No one but Obama can frame the issue right for him. Not even the “liberal” media can help him this time. Consider the fact that even outlets like MSNBC have been constantly featuring incensed questioners in Town Hall meetings around the nation, albeit with disapproving commentary. The coverage is only reinforcing the growing belief that public indignation around the nation is not contrived or orchestrated but real and widespread. There is no liberal media working in Obama’s favor this time, because the media has a different story-telling agenda than the policy-selling one that the president has. Barack Obama can take that bull-horn and reframe the health-care reform debate, or he can keep playing catch-up to a debate that has already spiraled out of control.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How Barack Obama can Pacify the Ghosts of Anti-Federalism to Advance the Health-care Debate

As America goes into intensive partisan-battling mode this summer over health-care reform, it may be helpful for President Barack Obama and his advisors to sit back and understand the basis of the rage against their plan. An understanding of the resurrected ghosts of Anti-Federalism in today’s conservative movement may offer him some strategies for bringing the Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats back to the discussion table.

The rage that is out there among conservatives may seem excessive and irrational to liberals, but it is based on an ancient American quarrel. The differences between the "Birthers" and angry town-hallers and Obama precede the Democratic and Republican parties; they precede the Progressive, the Whig, and the Jeffersonian-Republican Party. They were there from the beginning. For the biggest fault-line in American politics was also the first political debate Americans ever had between themselves. It was the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists about the need for a consolidated federal government with expanded responsibilities.

In 1787 and 1788, Anti-Federalists hurled charges of despotism and tyranny against those who proposed the need for a stronger federal government with expanded responsibilities than was envisioned in the Articles of Confederation. Today, the analogous charges against the neo-Federalist Obama are of fascism and socialism. As Federalists reviled the Anti-federalists for their shameless populism, Obama has likened the angry protests staged by his health-care opponents as mob-like thuggery. Conservatives, in turn, have recoiled at liberal condescension; just as Anti-Federalists fulminated against the Federalist aristocracy.

The Anti-Federalists envisioned a small republic because they could not conceive of their representatives - sent far away into a distant capital and surrounded by the temptations of a metropole - would ably be able to represent their communities. The fear of the beltway and of faceless, remorseless bureaucrats directing the lives and livelihood of honest workers and farmers struck fear into the heart of every true republican (lowercase is advised), as it does the modern conservative. Death-panels weren't the first Anti-Federalist conspiracy theory.

Today's "birthers" and "enemies list" conspiracy theories are not new stories in themselves other than the fact that they reveal the visceral distrust conservatives have of Barack Obama, just as many Anti-Federalists turned (Jeffersonian) Republicans accused Alexander Hamilton of illicit connections with the mother country, England. Today's "Tea Parties" are but the modern conservative articulation that they are, like the Anti-Federalists were, the true bearers of the "spirit of '76.'"

As Cecilia Kenyon observed decades ago, the Anti-Federalists were "men of little faith." This characterization is both accurate and one-sided at the same time, so it is no surprise that contemporary Democrats have taken the same line of attack, calling Republicans the "party of 'No.'" The Anti-Federalists, like today's conservatives, cannot bring themselves to trust the federal government or Barack Obama. Conservatives are using "scare tactics" because they are scared.

But their fears are not entirely unfounded and certainly not illegitimate, because a measure of distrust of government is the first defense against tyranny and the first implement of liberty. Liberals who have been so quick to trust the federal government should not only have a look at Medicare and Social Security, but acknowledge the mere fact that with one half of the country unconvinced (legitimately or not), the country's faith in its government has been and will almost always be a house divided. This is a given fact of a federal republic; it is the blessed curse that is America. That is why in all areas in which there is concurrent federal and state responsibility - such as in education and immigration policy - lines of authority and execution are invariably confused and American lags behind almost every other industrialized country. In areas in which federal prerogative is clear and settled - that is to say in areas in which the federal government acts like any other non-federal, centralized government in the world - such as in foreign policy, the president can typically act very quickly (if not too quickly).

The conservative grassroots movement (staged or not) is a real threat to Obama's health-care plan. But if the movement doth protest too much, it should ironically also be a source of comfort to the president. That there is so much anxiety and push back suggests that conservatives feel genuinely threatened. With Democratic control of all branches of government (and the open possibility of passing the health-care bill via the reconciliation process which will only need a simple majority in the Senate), conservatives believe that the liberals can transform their America into something their parents and grandparents would no longer recognize.

Here then, is the lesson to be learnt. If the president wants to get anything done - he must strike at the heart of the problem: it is one of a fundamental, thorough-going(dis)trust. Barack Obama must convince Republican and Blue-Dog dissenters that he is one of them. Bowing before foreign Sultans and mouthing off about racial profiling did not endear him to conservatives, who only want to feel assured that the president is for them, not against them. These are minor gestures, which is why it won't be tremendously costly for the president to present them as a peace offering. And calling protesters to his health-care plan a "mob" is definitely not a peace offering. It invokes the very perception of condescension the Anti-Federalists felt in 1787, reinforcing the ancient and original "us" versus "them." To unite the country, he must transcend not only party, but ideology, and history itself. Barack Obama must break the legacy and transcend the language of our 222-year-old, bimodal politics. Quite simply, he must convince conservatives that he too can feel, and talk, and protest, and hurt, and fear, and agitate like a latter-day Anti-Federalist; and he is no less intelligent, no less rational, no less compassionate, no less constructive, and certainly no less American for trying to do so.

Update of 9/12: Representative Joe Wilson's now infamous line, "You Lie!" encapusulates the president's atavistic (dis)trust problem in two words.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Power of Reconciliation in the Health-Care Reform Debate

There is a lot of hushed talk about using the Reconciliation procedure to pass health-care reform in the Congress these days, so Americans need to know something about this obscure parliamentary procedure, and what is at stake.

Reconciliation is an optional, deficit-reducing procedure that was created in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act. The Reconciliation process is a two-stage process. First, Reconciliation directives must be included in the annual Budget Resolution (as they were in the 2010 Budget Resolution passed on April 29). These directives instruct the relevant Congressional committees to develop (in this case, health-care) legislation to meet certain spending or revenue targets. This year, the Reconciliation process can be used starting October 15, when the instructed committees can send their legislative recommendations to their respective Budget Committees, who then package all recommendations into one omnibus Reconciliation bill. Enter Stage 2,when this bill can then be considered on the floor of both chambers of Congress under expedited procedures; of greatest political note is the 20-hour limit on debate on any Reconciliation measure, which effectively strips the minority party of the filibustering option in the Senate. That means the Democrats can pass health-care reform with a simple majority.

But there is an attendant cost to the majority party for using Reconciliation. The Byrd rule, passed in 1985, sets out the rules for what Reconciliation can and cannot be used for. In particular, it specifies that Senators will be allowed to raise a point of order against "extraneous" provisions in a Reconciliation bill which, among other things, "would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure." Critically, cloture must be invoked to overcome a point of order. So the filibuster power is back.

Here's the bottom line. Since the Budget Act states that the Reconciliation measure covers the next ten years, the Byrd Rule had the effect of allowing a point of order to be raised against any spending increase (or tax cut) that does not contain a ten-year sunset provision. That's why the Bush tax cuts, passed via the Reconciliation route in 2001, 2003, and 2005, had sunset provisions written into them. If Democrats use Reconciliation, they will get a health-care bill, but it will expire.

Now let's talk politics. There's a debate within the debate that only seasoned politicos know about. Since the actual benefits of Reconciliation are mixed - a health-care bill can be passed with a simple majority in the Senate but it must have a sunset provision - the real power of Reconciliation is not in its actual usage, but in the mere threat of its usage.

The benefits of issuing the threat of going the Reconciliation route are akin to the threat of a presidential veto. The threat of a presidential veto sets the boundaries of permissible legislative action; it lets Congress know what is out-of-the-question and therefore powerfully guides legislative outcomes in the direction of the president's preferences. By letting it be known that they will resort to Reconciliation if they had to, Democrats in Congress are incentivizing Republicans to be part of the making of a bi-partisan bill rather than be shut out of a purely partisan one. In making the threat, Democrats are specifying the costs of Republican non-compliance to the tune of: "if we let you stay in the kitchen, at least you can determine some of the ingredients in the cake. Make us shut you out and you won't have even the slightest say."

Like the presidential veto, the power of Reconciliation is maximal at the level of a threat. For between the time a threat is issued and the time when a bill is passed (via Reconciliation or not), there is a powerful incentive for Republican Senators to come back to the bargaining table because there is the distinct possibility that they could be shut out. Reconciliation is the Democratic antidote to the Republican Party becoming the "Party of 'No'" For if Republicans keep saying "No," then they box themselves into the plea of Nolo Contendere.

That is why different spokespersons for the Democratic Party are keeping the Republicans guessing and making sporadic and cryptic references to the Reconciliation possibility. And Republicans are trying to minimize the power of the threat by characterizing it as a no-go "nuclear option." Unfortunately for Republicans, theirs is an empty threat because there is no Mutually Assured Destruction in this asymmetric power situation, and it is both a legal and political fact that, as the White House says, the Reconciliation option "is out there." It is a win-win situation for Democrats to issue the threat, for if Republicans are unmoved by the threat, Democrats could materialize the threat and get what they wanted having known that an effort at bipartisanship had failed anyway.

What is missed in the debate out there now is that the effect of Reconciliation is already underway, for its power lies in its threat.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Professor Gates v. Sargeant Crowley: A Rush to Judgment that Informs our Healthcare Debate

In his press conference on July 22, President Obama's knee-jerk reaction to call what the Cambridge police department did "stupid" was poor form. The president thought he was avoiding the hot spot when asked about the Gates arrest by saying that the controversy offered a "teachable moment." But having admitted that he had imperfect knowledge of the facts, he went on and assumed that this particular incident invited a lesson about racial profiling and made the very indictment that his conversational segway was intended to avoid. In so doing, Obama confirmed conservatives' belief that minorities love to whine about their beleaguered status (also another knee-jerk belief, incidentally) even if Obama could have made a case had he marshalled the evidence appropriately. Obama spoke like a liberal before he thought, and that was his mistake.

In so doing, he repeated the same mistake that Professor Gates made. Like Obama, Gates, too, jumped to the conclusion that Sgt Crowley was racist. I do not know if Sgt Crowley acted hastily in arresting the Professor for allegedly exhibiting "tumultous" behavior, so I won't jump to conclusions but simply note my suspicion that there was probably a contest of egos on both sides. Those who have rushed to Crowley's defence should ask themselves if they do not also have a knee-jerk reaction to give the benefit of the doubt to a law enforcement officer (or a soldier or a partisanly affiliated Commander-in-Chief.)

Gates, Obama, and possibly Crowley were not the only people who have been jumping to conclusions, substituting unreflected intuition for a careful weighing of the evidence. Frank Luntz and his political students are encouraging Americans to become thoughtless automatons responding to carefully researched code words like "government takeover" and "health-care rationing." The issue domain is different, but the error is the same.

It is very difficult to prove racial-profiling, for it demands an investigator to go inside the head of the alleged perpetrator. It is equally difficult to prove that the president's and Democratic Congress's plan for a "public option" is a precursor to a completely government-run health-care system. If it is not appropriate to rush to accuse someone of being racist, then it is at least premature to rush to accuse of someone of being socialist (assuming that that is a bad thing).

Those who are accusing Obama and Gates for rushing into judgment should look into the mirror to see if they too have not rushed to conclude that liberals are whiners and socialists who want a government takeover of health-care. At some level, we all have the instinct to cherry-pick the evidence to come to the conclusions we want.

Ideologies, like sterotypes, are cognitive cues or heuristics. They help us to "think" before we get the facts. They allow us to abdicate our duty to make sense of the world with our own independent judgment. They do the easy but intellectually dishonest work of guiding our reactions to the conclusions we want without us having to do the hard work of getting to know a person or a proposed policy before we came to a judgment. The people who are reinforcing such behavior in our politics are destroying our democracy and robbing us of our first freedom - the freedom of independent thought.

So the Gates controversy is a teaching moment, and the lesson is quite simple. Look before you leap; think before you conclude. It is probably the first lesson of critical thinking, but two professors forgot it last week. If Obama wants us to learn this lesson, he should have been clearer about what the nature of his lapse was. It wasn't that the president miscallibrated his words - for the question wasn't about the intensity of what he said, but the very fact that he said something at all. Obama should have apologized for expressing what he felt and intuited without having first perused the evidence. If he had done that, he would have claimed the moral ground to shame some of his opponents in Congress into admitting that they too are doing the same thing in their knee-jerk opposition to what they call "Obamacare."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama's 4th Press Conference: A Waste of Time and Political Capital

As the wise saying goes "if you've nothing good to say, don't say anything." But President Barack Obama went ahead anyway with a prime time press conference, and as Bill O'Reilly was right to observe on Wednesday night - he said practically nothing specific about what the shape of the health-care bill would look like and viewers were left scratching their heads.

President Obama wanted to let Congress take ownership of the bill, rather than hand them a fait accompli (as Hillary Clinton did back in 1993/4), I hear Democrats chant in his defense. But if Obama wants to stay on the side-lines, then he should do so consistently. Either be genuinely deferential to Congress and stay out of the picture until a consensus emerges, or take complete ownership of the agenda - don't try to do both. Yet the president is back in the limelight doing prime-time press conferences, and attending town hall meetings in Cleveland and such. Obama should decide which way he wants to go. If he is the salesman-in-chief, then he has to have something to sell, if not his consumers would be left completely befuddled as to why he's putting on a show for no particular reason at all.

Liberals are mad that Obama didn't throw a few more punches at Republicans. I think many are unwilling to admit the more pointed fact that he just didn't do a very good job at all, because he didn't have much to say.

So Wednesday's press conference was a squandered opportunity. We are not in 2008 anymore when Barack Obama would announce that he is giving a speech and the whole world would stop to listen. The clock is ticking on his presidential luster, and the next time he says "hey, listen to me," it's going to be that much harder.

Let us be clear why health-care reform has stalled, at least till the Fall. Because the Congress, and in particular the Senate Finance Committee could not agree on a way forward. I don't see why the President and his advisors thought that a prime time press conference last Wednesday night would have gotten things moving. In fact it probably achieved the exact opposite, when we heard on Thursday morning from Senator Harry Reid that a Senate vote before the August recess would not be possible. The president's time would have been better spent persuading his former colleages up on the hill in private conversations to compromise on a bill. When they've got a bill and all/most are united, then go out and do the meda blitzkrieg, by all means. Wednesday night just wasn't the time for that.

So it looks like the Permanent Campaign is back. The President has chosen to go back to campaign mode, selling himself. Because without a specific plan to sell, all his public appearances amount to going public for the sake of going public. This strategy belies a serious misunderstanding of American politics. Personal approval ratings do not translate to public support for specific policy proposals (not that they were forthcoming) - the president should have known this by now. They barely even translate into congressional support for presidential policies.

This error - of going public with nothing specific to sell - was compounded, and probably encouraged, by a complete underestimation of the push back from the conservative wing of the Demoratic party (the "Blue Dogs") worried about spiralling deficits. These were the people Obama should have been talking to. And given he's still out town halling and speechifying, I'm not sure he fully undertands what came over him.

To make matters worse, Obama had to pour fuel over the fire of the Henry Louis Gates controversy during the press conference, accusing the Cambridge police of of a "stupid" arrest when he had incomplete possession of the facts. Have something to say about anything all the time has become the rhetorical ethic of the modern presidency. Obama's observance of this ethic was a disastrous distraction to what little point he had to make at his press conference. The news cycles are now spending more time covering the Gates controversy than they are covering the health-care debate.

I'm afraid to say - though this is water under the bridge - that Hillary Clinton would have known better. This week, for the first time in his fledgling presidency, Obama looked like a total novice in Washington. His 4th press conference was a waste of time, and probably the first time since Obama broke onto the national scene in 2004 that his rhetorical wizardry had fallen so flatly on death ears. He seems to have bought the bad conventional advice - whenever you're in trouble, just go out and give a speech - wholesale. The president should take heed:

1. The public is less attentive between election years and he must have something meaningful to say if he wants to keep their attention.
2. Especially on a complex issue like health-care where there are too many details to cover, the media is much more likely to jump at an oportunity to take the path of least resistance to cover something juicier, like Henry Louis Gates and racial profiling.
3. Just because the public (still) loves Obama doesn't mean that they will love what he is doing as president (and not as presidential candidate).
4. It is often more important to talk to members of Congress - the people who actually pass legislation - than to deliver speeches around the nation where the only tangible return of applause is a fleeting sense of psychic gratification that one is loved.

President Obama, it's crunch time. Stop yakking.