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.