Monday, December 27, 2010

The Repeal of DADT

"Don't Ask Don't Tell" has finally been repealed. It is time now to look back on the hypocrisy of those who maintained a "separate but equal" philosophy regarding gays and lesbians serving in the military.

Remember the "unit cohesion" argument? That was a popular and prevailing argument in the 1990s. It appears ridiculous to most people today, but it is worth reminding ourselves that we have had our fair share of ridiculous convictions in our past. Consider "separate but equal," the jurisprudential doctrine that upheld Jim Crow laws in the South for over half a century. There is actually a common thread linking "separate but equal" of the 1890s with the "unit cohesion” argument of the 1990s. Those arguing for racial segregation a century ago believed that people of different races should not interact with each other, and the nation's highest court codified this belief. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Billings Brown argued that Louisiana's Separate Car Act (which provided for separate railway carriages for the "white" and "colored" races) was intended to preserve “public peace and good order” and was therefore a “reasonable” exercise of the legislature’s police power.

The argument in the 1890s was that the races should be kept in separate facilities to preserve "good order." That's not too different from the argument of the 1990s that homosexuals who are out of the closet should not serve in the military so that "unit cohesion" is preserved. In both cases, a specter of chaos and disaster was invoked to justify inequality. In both cases, what fueled this fear wasn't just ignorance and fear of the unknown, but obstinate ignorance - ignorance so virulent and shameless that its army was able to codify irrationality into public law.

It would be remiss, then, to not point out the hypocrisy of those who defended "Don't Ask Don't Tell" based on the "unit cohesion" argument. It would appear the only people whose morale were affected by the repeal of DADT are people who just aren't comfortable being around gays and lesbians. This is a classic example of psychological transference. The unit cohesion argument is too often, a smokescreen for unreflective bigotry, as if a concern for military readiness was really what was at stake in the debate. The fact is that gay men and women have served in the military since the revolutionary war without incident, and openly serving gay men and women have served in militaries around the world, also without incident.

If someone feels that they cannot serve their country well because they are serving alongside somebody with whom they cannot "socially cohere," this person should just get over it. It's called an education. Too often in our history, even though the problem does not reside in disaffected members of the in-group, members of the out-group are the ones who have found themselves legally marginalized. Consider the callousness with which the Supreme Court opined in 1896, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane." In effect, the racist majority in the Court had decided that if there was an "inferior" race, it wasn't the fault of the "superior" race that the world is just as it is. Just like that, racial segregation was deemed constitutional and morally legitimate.

The history of "Separate but Equal" and "Don't Ask Don't Tell" teaches us that when we fail to ask, or to interrogate the spuriousness of reasons offered in defense of irrational public policies, then irrationality prevails and it can continue to do so for decades. When we ask, we invite fellow citizens to consider their unspoken premises and their unreflective fears. That has always been how America, a country born during the Enlightenment, managed to emerge from our dark ages.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Obama's Silent Reset

President Barack Obama, who had taken a backseat to allow the First Branch to set the health-care reform legislative agenda last year, has now moved into the driver's seat of American government. An electoral shellacking was all it took to for a former constitutional law professor who once espoused the separateness and equality of branches to stop practicing what he once taught.

The irony is that it was united Democratic party control of all branches of government that allowed Obama the luxury of taking the back seat. When before, he could have relied on Pelosi and Reid, Obama has recently learnt that he can only rely on himself. The Oval Office is a lonely place, but he who realizes it quickly learns that as a result, it is also a powerful place.

So a lame-duck Congress was reborn like a phoenix last week with the ashes of presidential leadership. Obama unilaterally stepped in to negotiate a deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, without consulting the Democratic leadership. Some say he sold out, but all that matters is that he cut a deal. And whenever a president can put his signature to a piece of legislation, he wins.

Nancy Pelosi did not even turn out for the signing of the $858 billion tax bill. Granted that she is about to turn over her gavel to John Boehner as Speaker of the House, but her absence gives us a preview of what the next two years of the Obama presidency will look like. No, not that Obama would be sharing photo-ops in with Republicans (which to be sure, he would), but that he would be at the center of every picture.

Divided party control of White House and Congress invariably summons the imperial presidency. Whenever there is gridlock, the president becomes the Great Negotiator - he who enjoys the discretion to cut deals and to give concessions. Now, the bad cop can turn to his liberal base to say, "what did you expect me to do?" and the good cop and turn to his conservative allies to say, "see how much I've sacrificed for you?" When the president performs this strategic pirouette, he invokes the ancient power of monarchs, prerogative. And, as presidents have learnt to say, only ideologues and knaves stand in prerogatives' way. People say gridlock is going to weaken the Obama presidency; I say gridlock was his godsend.

Not that I think this is a good thing for constitutional government. For better or (mostly) for worse, the president has become the face of American government. He has become the font of our hopes and dreams because when nothing else works, Republicans and Democrats alike wait for our political messiah to signal an answer. And so the Founding logic has been inverted. Today, even as the Congress proposeth, it is the president who disposeth -- Article 2 now leads Article 1. As Obama has learnt on health-care, a president who takes the back seat means a leaderless party and a disheveled Congress. Conversely, when a president wins, so does his party. And so a republic has become a personal presidency. This is one of the unfortunate structural realities of modern American politics. The more divided we have become, the more power we send to the only person in the entire constitutional constellation who is uniquely in a position to negotiate a deal.

Some Republicans are now cheering that they got a relatively good deal from the president on the tax bill. What they might not realize is that Obama is already positioning himself for 2012. Look at any head-to-head poll between Obama and either a primary challenger or a Republican contender. For all the missteps of his last two years, the president's approval ratings are still hovering in the mid-40s. The president remains fairly likeable; or at least no less likeable than Reagan or Clinton were in their second years in office. Certainly, the approval ratings for the 112th Congress will rise a little at the start of next year, but it will soon fall back to its paltry equilibrium when the bickering invariably begins. All Obama would have to do then, is to preside "presidentially" over the gridlock and surreptitiously advance his own agenda in the name of compromise and bipartisanship, positioning himself as peacemaker and defender of the American people. Liberals will gripe, but Independents will swoon, and Obama would be well on his way to a second term.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Obama's Deal with Jon Kyl

Obama is a politician, and that's why he's made an estate tax deal with Jon Kyl in return for Kyl's support for ratifying the START treaty.

As Senator Chuck Schumer has suggested, the Democratic party would probably benefit by allowing the Bush era tax cuts to expire, but this is not what Obama is proposing because he has something up his sleeve.

Consider if Democrats allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire. People would be angry for a few days, but then come 2011, Democrats would be in a better bargaining position to play chicken with Republicans. Democrats would then be able to dare Republicans to stand against tax cuts for the middle class just so that these tax cuts could also be extended to the rich. Democrats are likely to win with themselves framed as the defenders of middle-class tax cuts, and not, as they are now, opponents of tax cuts for the rich.

Consider if Democrats insist on getting a deal before the year ends. Then Republican obstructionism becomes more powerful, and Democrats are more likely to have to blink in a game of chicken. Republicans today are wisely saying that the tax cuts should be extended, and it is not they who are obstructionist, but Democrats. This frame is so powerful that even majority public opinion, which is against the extension of the tax cuts for the rich, has been massaged into oblivion.

In American politics, whoever looks obstructionist ends up looking worst. Right now, it is the Democrats who appear obstructionist, and the frame is in the Republicans' favor. After the tax cuts expire, it would be Republicans who would look obstructionist, and the frame would be in Democrats' favor. Put another way: whatever passes in Congress next year would then be called the Obama tax cuts, not the Bush tax cuts and the Democrats would have begun to take back control of the tax issue from the Republicans.

So most Democrats are not in a hurry to pass the tax cuts - that is why they waited so late to even consider the issue, even though they have known for a decade that the Bush tax cuts will expire this year. Indeed, the only reason why Democrats are considering the issue now at the 11th hour is because the president is caving in to Republican requests to do so, for a reason that is entirely his own. This reason is much less noble, and entirely political.

It's about START. Obama is ceding ground on the tax cuts because he doesn't really get much credit for revising the tax regime. Other Democrats will share the accolade, and whatever benefits that redound to the economy will come slow and in the future. But if he gets something passed on foreign policy, the benefits accrue almost entirely to him, immediately. For a president worried that unemployment may still be around 9 percent in 2012, a foreign policy achievement would be the fitting antidote.

Who's against START? Senator Jon Kyl. And who was it that struck a deal with Obama about lowering the estate tax exemption to 3.5 million per individual (and not 5 million) and the tax rate to 35 percent (and not 45 percent), much to the chagrin of House Democrats? Senator Jon Kyl. Indeed, House Democrats are so outraged about this particular provision that they are refusing to even vote on the compromise bill until it is revised. This is the political deal of the year if ever there was a hustle. And it would appear, from the House's defiance, that some congressional Democrats are not pleased that the president has sold them out.

Is Obama's commitment to START about national security? In part but not entirely, because the deal with the Russians was made as far back as April this year. The administration had all year to hurry the process up; but it was only after the mid-term "shellacking" that they realized that they better try to achieve something while they can because the next two years look very bleak indeed in terms of securing a positive presidential report card. The political gurus in the White House decided that this was a winnable issue and that it is better to secure something in the bag for which the president could take full credit for than to fight another drawn-out legislative battle (as health-care reform was) for a potential political gain that would have to be shared and diluted among fellow congressional Democrats.

Most Democrats are still giving Obama the benefit of the doubt that he is with them and not for himself, but this deal with Kyl will put this faith to serious test.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

WikiLeaks, Anarchism, and the State

WikiLeaks affirms on its website that "democracy and transparency go hand in hand." This may be true in the abstract, but in the world in which we live, it is not, because the only democracies we know of operate within the confines of the nation-state and nation-states are not comfortable with transparency. That is why the campaign by the nation-states of the world to shut the site down is proceeding with such ferocity.

Individuals - at least those who live in states committed to the rule of law - enjoy a presumptive respect for our privacy. There is no reason why anyone or any institution should have access to details of our private life. We do not owe anyone a transparent account of our lives.

WikiLeaks believes that nation-states should not enjoy a similar presumption because it believes that under the cover of secrecy, states are more likely than not to engage in nefarious activity. WikiLeaks rejects the "need-to-know" operational norm of the nation-state because it rejects its monopolization of the legitimate use of force and therefore its monopolization of the legitimate use of information.

And this is the disagreement between anarchists and realists. Realists believe that nation-states are the way to run what would otherwise be an even more anarchic world. If it weren't the American, German or any other government dealing with each other, it would be multinational corporations, sub-national groups, and transnational organizations (some of which are terrorist groups) determining the agenda and contours of global politics. Realists assume that the disorder between entities other than nation-states would far exceed the disorder between nation-states. Anarchists believe that the disorder between nation-states - most notably, war - is the source of global friction, not its solution.

The anarchism of Julian Assange (WikiLeak's public face) is not so far removed from other strands of anti-statism. Assange rejects all nation-states in a plenary fashion. The American Tea Party movement does not challenge the American nation, but it does reject the American state when its focus is directed internally (rather than externally). Like Assange, the movement believes that whereas individuals do not owe to others a duty to be transparent about ourselves, states owe a duty of transparency to those who are burdened by their authority. Osama Bin Laden rejects only Western nation-states and their support of the Jewish nation-state, but he is no anarchist because he wants to create a Palestinian state. Bin Laden believes in transparency too - just not his own. The interesting point that emerges from these comparisons is that whereas the anarchist is universally and without exception against the state (and believes that all nation-states, if they exist, should be transparent in their dealings with each other), both non-state actors like Al Qaeda and sub-state actors, like the Tea Party movement, are only selectively in support of the state and the virtue of transparency when they further their perceived interests but not otherwise.

What the last three examples force is a question that will come under increasing scrutiny in the decades to come: under what conditions do we need the state? Reasonable people can and will disagree, but what is clear is that very few people are completely against the state without reservation or exceptions. Anarchists, like all purists, are a lonely breed. While it is true that we now live in a world where one hacker or one terrorist master-mind can take on a superpower (and indeed Americans like in a country in which a nascent political movement can take on a state that was a century in the making), states will fight back. The enemies of WikiLeaks are powerful entities. They control the issuance of passports, the banking systems, legal systems, and the legitimate use of force. If for centuries, they have commanded the course of global and national politics; their grip on power will not be easily loosened.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why Racial Profiling is like Affirmative Action

The Transportation and Security Administration's new video screening and pat-down procedures has given new fuel to advocates of racial profiling at airports around the nation. Opponents of racial profiling argue that treating an individual differently simply because of his or her race is wrong because discrimination, even for noble intentions, is just plain wrong. Let' call this the principle of formal equality.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what opponents of affirmative-action say. They typically argue that some other signifier, for example class, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if affirmative-action policies were in place.

This argument is analogous to the one offered by those who are against racial profiling. They suggest that some other signifier, for example behavior, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if racial profiling policies were in place.

It seems, then, that one can either be for race-based profiling and affirmative action, or against both. What is problematic is if one is for one but not the other. My guess is that most liberals are for race-based affirmative action but against racial profiling, and most conservatives are against race-based affirmative action but for racial profiling. Inconsistency?

The problem is harder to resolve for the conservative who is anti-affirmative action but for racial profiling than it is for the liberal who is pro-affirmative action and anti-racial profiling. Here is why. The liberal can restate his or her philosophy as such: discrimination is wrong only when a historically disadvantaged group bears the brunt of a particular policy (as in racial profiling); discrimination is permissible when historically advantaged groups bear the brunt of a particular policy (as in affirmative action). By moving away from formal equality toward a more substantive conception of equality that incorporates the principle of historical remedy, a liberal can remain consistently pro-affirmative action, and still be anti-racial-profiling.

For the conservative who is against race-based affirmative action but for profiling, the problem is stickier. Almost every anti-affirmative action argument I have come across turns on the principle of formal equality: that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, no matter what the policy intentions may be.

Suppose, in an effort to reconcile an anti-affirmative action and a pro-profiling position, one argued that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, unless it was done in the name of some higher good, such as national security.

Well, then in protest, the pro-affirmative action liberal will simply substitute "some higher good" with "diversity," and the anti-affirmative action conservative would be forced to accept the plausibility of the liberal's position on affirmative action -- or at least the fact that they share similar argumentative forms with no way to adjudicate between one higher good and another (while retaining his or her pro-profiling stance.) The problem is that to admit of any higher principle other than formal equality (the claim that discrimination on the basis of race for any reason is just flat out wrong) to help distinguish the cases decimates the case against affirmative action that was itself built on formal equality.

Profiling on the basis of race, among other characteristics, such as behavior, is likely to become a de facto, if not a de jure, policy in our nation's airports in the years to come. It is going to inconvenience some innocent people simply because, among other factors, their skin was colored a particular way just as, and the hope is, it will save a lot more innocent people a lot of hassle if everyone were treated equally at airports. If Americans accept this trade-off to be worth it, then perhaps we should also accept the analogous trade off: that as affirmative action on the basis of race, among other characteristics, such as gender, has become law and policy in employment and college admissions, the policy is going to make things harder for some equally qualified people, but it is going to make things easier for a bunch of people who would otherwise have had to endure many obstacles to employment and admission to college.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Obama Attempting a Reset

For all the talk of a presidential reset button, the truth is that formal, public, dramatic resets don't work. They never have. Not when Nixon fired Joseph Califano, or when Carter fired four of his cabinet secretaries. The American presidency works best when it works silently, and the power exercised is invisible. It doesn't matter which party is in control of the White House; when foreign policy becomes issue number one, the executive becomes branch number one.

Something has crept up on us under an invisibility cloak. It is the new agenda in Washington. How quickly Washington has forgotten about jobs now that the elections are over. (Politicians won't have to pander to voters for another year or so.) Check out any newspaper, or cable channel: the bait and switch from jobs to national security is nothing short of astounding. Washington is abuzz with talk of TSA pat-downs, the NATO summit, North Korea' uranium-enriching facility, and, most prominently, ratification of the new START treaty.

Last April, both President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the new START treaty, which would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expired in December 2009 (and which had been proposed by Ronald Reagan himself.) If ratified, this treaty would be just about the most tangible foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration and this is the ideal reset button if ever there were one.

That is why Obama has put most of his eggs in this basket, using his weekend address to continue the publicity blitz started out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates advocating senate ratification of the treaty. Republican senators say that the treaty would be an obstacle to America's missile defense programs and the modernization of our nuclear weapons. The Obama administration argues that if the US does not sign the treaty, then it would not be able to send inspectors into Russia to verify its nuclear capability; it also argues that failure to ratify the treaty would weaken Russia's resolve to cooperate with the US on dealing with Iran, Afghanistan, and terrorism.

The weight of public and expert opinion is on the administration’s side. Five former secretaries of state, including Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, and six former secretaries of defense, including William Cohen and James Schlesinger, are already on the record in support of ratification, as is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen. Democratic senators are hoping to take on vote on the treaty sometime in December, and are still gathering Republicans to make the requisite 67 required for passage. Senator Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which has already approved the treaty on a 14-4 bipartisan vote) has come out strongly in support of ratification. His is a critical and respected voice who may well be able to bring 8 republicans on board. This is a winnable issue for the administration, and they know it.

Just weeks after his electoral “shellacking,” this could be Obama at the nadir of his presidency, and yet he dares call the Republican’s bluff on START. This is the audacity of the executive pride, because when the president talks foreign policy, he gets an automatic pass. The deference he enjoys is practically monarchical, and chief executives since Washington have known its power. That is how George Bush managed to get the Democrats on board with him to go to war in Iraq, and this is how Barack Obama will attempt his presidential reset. Quietly, without fanfare, we have pivoted from butter to guns, from jobs to security. Coincidence? For better or for worse, the executive pride will not be humbled.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Article 2 of the Constitution is a Paradoxical Thing

These are deliquescent days in Washington. As the Democratic party works out a deal to keep both Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn in the leadership hierarchy, and the Republican party takes stock of what it means to welcome 35 new Tea Party members into its caucus, the President must be wondering, what now?

Pat Caddell and Douglas Schoen are advising Obama to not seek re-election. Others are simply predicting a one-term presidency whether or not Obama likes it.

But these grim prognostications are pre-mature, if only because most presidents have been able to marshall their incumbent benefits to win a second term in office. When David Axelrod exits the White House in January and passes the baton over to David Plouffe, the White House will go into full campaign mode. These guys do not like losing, and they have one thing going for them: the best self-promoter the business has ever seen.

Team Obama will have a few other things going for them. First, they no longer have to set the agenda. Whereas for the last two years, the White House has acted and the Republican party has reacted, a role reversal is about to happen. And one of the rules of American politics is that s/he who sets the agenda gets the blame when the constitution's multiple veto points invariably alters or derails the agenda. Second, now that the House will be controlled by the Republicans, Obama will be able to do what presidents do best: assign blame to the inefficient First Branch and take things into his own hands. Presidential discretion is a very powerful thing and it is especially powerful when the president's hand appears to be forced by an uncooperative House. Third, as Nancy Pelosi is likely to remain the leader of the Democrats in the House, she can continue to be the lightning rod for conservative critics (and proof to the liberal base that the Democratic party made a good-faith effort to be true to its progressive principles), while the president will be freed to perform the role of bipartisan leader so that he can try to win back the independent voters who have lost their love for him.

There is no reliable litmus test for Obama's re-electability until a credible Republican alternative is placed before the electorate. No such person exists right now - not even Sarah Palin, who seems newly interested in the job, but who is likely only to remain a fundraiser and kingmaker, but not the successful candidate, because she is even more polarizing than Hillary Clinton was in 2008. In the months ahead, the Republican party will take up the challenge of reconciling itself with the principles of Tea party libertarianism, and the party's success in 2012 will turn in large part on its ability to complete this reconciliation before the primary season of 2012 begins.

All told, the American presidency is strongest when it is weakest and weakest when it is strongest. Think of Bill Clinton when he was being impeached, or George Bush when he declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Obama was weakest when he stood triumphantly before corinthian pillars made of styrofoam and now that he has been humbled, no longer over-estimated, and indeed condemned to a single term, he is more likely than not to rise pheonix-like. Such is the nature of prerogative.

As historians begin to examine President Bush's newly released memoir, Obama should take heed that if history has not yet been written for his predecessor, then it has certainly not been written for him.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beware the Claims of a "Mandate"

Mandate claims in American politics are hogwash, and they are especially dubious in mid-term elections where an entire branch was not evaluated for re-election. Mandates imply that there is a clear date on which majorities are counted. There isn't, because ours is a republic in which the staggered electoral calendar introduced the principle that republican "truth" would emerge from a conversation between different majorities at different cross sections in time. The president elected in 2008 is still around - so as far as the Constitution is concerned, the Democratic mandate from 2008 is no less relevant and carries over into 2011 as much as the Republican mandate from 2010.

The Constitution understands that what you and I believed in 2008 and what we believe in 2010 could be the same or it could be different - but what matters is that the Constitution predicted our fickleness and finds its average between the two. The change that Obama promised in 2008 was as much mandated as the change that the Republicans and the Tea Partiers resisted in 2010. This is an important lesson for both Republicans in Congress and the President. If mandates are fragile, even meaningless things, then at the very least, neither should make too much of their own.

But still, since we are committed to majoritarian rule, it would be worthwhile to try to divine exactly what the American people are looking for in the next two years. Just where is the median position between the electoral mandate of 2008 and 2010? Should Barack Obama try to do what Bill Clinton did, and find a "third way" compromise with Republicans, and John Boehner should try to, like Newt Gingerich, push a purist Republican agenda? On balance, I think Obama should resist the urge to over-react, and Boehner should resist the urge to over-reach.

Bill Clinton's mandate from 1992 was not only much smaller (with 45 million Americans voting for him, he received a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote), it was also a mandate ("Putting People First") that wasn't based on a campaign that was categorically and emphatically about change. When his party lost 54 seats in the House in 1994, it was certainly humbling compared to the relatively paltry size of his own mandate.

Less so for Barack Obama. About 90 million voters turned out last week. Assuming that a vote for a Republican candidate for the House and the Senate and in any state can be meaningfully clumped together to articulate a generic Republican mandate for 2010, then about 47 million voters (52 percent of 90 million) signed on to the Republican Pledge for America in 2010.

That leaves an undiluted and quite unambiguous vote for one man, Barack Obama, in 2008 that was one and a half times the number of votes cast for 286 Republican women and men (239 in the House plus 47 in the Senate) in 2010, since 132 million Americans turned out in the 2008 elections, and about 70 million chose Barack Obama and his version of change. That's a pretty hefty differential, and if so 2011 should not be replayed as if it were 1995.

If Obama should not over-react, neither should Republicans over-reach. Republicans should not be blamed for playing the hype game today. It sets the bargaining position in their favor when they take control of Congress in January. But, Republicans should be careful with too much of a good thing. The higher the expectations they set, the harder they can fall. (Obama found that out.)

Obama and the new Congress should understand that the system under which they operate was designed to facilitate a conversation between voting generations. And since the system, in effect, anticipated the fickleness of voters, it is incumbent on those we have selected to represent us in government to enact a careful titration of two mandates loudly articulated against each other. If we we might have been too quick to believe Obama in 2008 and too quick to be disheartened in 2010, our elected officials ought to exercise independent and long-sighted judgment in government with the knowledge that they are not merely delegates of a people who may change our minds every day, but trustees of the republic which is here to stay.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Toward Equilibrium We Vote

When the dust has settled on the electioneering frenzy of these final days, 2010, the third “change” election in a row, will better be read as an equilibrium restoring election.

In the Senate, Democrats are about to hand back just over half of their recent wins (5 seats in 2006, and another 8 in 2008) to the Republicans. Most predictions for the number of seats the Republicans will pick up in the House hover around 50 because there are currently 49 Democrats occupying seats in districts that voted for McCain in 2008, and they are about to relinquish these seats. Put another way, Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006, and another 21 in 2008, and they're about to return just about every one of them back to the Republicans.

This is not coincidence. It is the revealed majesty of the Newtonian system that the Framers of the Constitution set up, and our subliminal internalization of its logic. The Founders weren’t too fond of waves of popular passion, which is why they applied “a new science of politics” and created institutions arrayed alongside each other with the specific principle that "ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

The invisible constitutional hand appears to be working. Now that Barbara Boxer has pulled ahead of Carly Fiorina in California, as has Joe Manchin over John Raese in West Virginia, it is likely that the Democratic firewall will hold just enough to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate. To take over the Senate, Republicans must take the seats in CO, IL, NV, PA, and WA. Indeed, because Republicans are polling ahead in each of these last 5 races, a nearly perfect partisan equipoise is likely to occur in the Senate. That means the 112th Congress which starts business on January 3, 2011, will likely see a slim Republican majority in the House, and an even slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

Another way to think about this election as equilibrium restoring is to observe the net neutral effect of the Tea Party movement. In some places, Tea Party candidates are giving seasoned politicos a run for their money. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul now look like shoos-in for the senatorial seats in Florida and Kentucky, and Sharron Angle is in a statistical dead-heat with Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada - which means, given the enthusiasm gap in favor of Republicans this year, Reid has a mountain to climb in the next two days.

Other Tea Party candidates, however, have turned out to be poor candidates. Principally, they don't know how to handle the media and the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. Some, like Joe Miller, think it's OK to hand-cuff journalists; others, like Christine O'Donnell failed to realize that telling us "I'm not a witch" does not kill a rumor but sustains it. Others who have been inducted into office, like Scott Brown from Massachusetts, have long since forgotten their patrons. Like all third party movements since time immemorial, the Tea Party movement - now a flick of sunshine on a strange shore - is not likely to last more than one or two more electoral cycles.

All told, the Republicans are going to regain the seats they lost in 2006 and 2008. But, the electoral tsunami would most likely not be enough, as it was in 1994 or 2006, to flip both houses of Congress. And because of the truncated constitutional calendar, this year's wave will stop short of the White House. The greatest prize of them all will stay in Democratic hands (a prize that will become especially valuable now that the Vice-president's tie-breaking vote in the Senate will likely be activated in the months to come.)

A tsunami which converts half a branch is, arguably, no tsunami at all. For this to be a really significant wave that is more than equilibrium restoring, Republicans would need to gain majorities at least as large as the ones Democrats took in 2008 (257/178 in the House and 57/41 in the Senate). That means the Republicans would need to win 118 new seats in the House and 26 in the Senate. So no, a tsunami isn't coming; but equilibrium will be restored.

On November 2, Democrats would not be pleased, and Republicans a tad less than ecstatic. But neither should despair, for Madison had always been right:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Monday, October 25, 2010

NPR's firing of Juan Williams

If NPR values public deliberation as the highest virtue of a democratic polity, it did its own ideals a disservice last week when it fired Juan Williams without offering a plausible justification why it did so. On October 20, Williams had uttered these fateful words on the O' Reilly Factor:

"... when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Anxiety and worry make for poor public reasons. Quite often discomfort is a facade for prejudice - an emotion that knows no reasonable defense. Some men feel uncomfortable when women speak up in the corporate board room. Some straight men and women feel uncomfortable that they are serving with gays in the military. And some black men feel uncomfortable when they see people dressed up in Muslim garb on airplanes.

Perhaps there is a case that Juan Williams should have been fired because he allegedly harbored xenophobic sentiments, but that was not the official reason why he was let go. Williams was fired because he articulated his discomfort, not because he felt said discomfort.

According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Williams had repeated fallen short of NPR's standards that their news analysts should "avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings."

Notice that nothing was said about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Williams' emotional opinions. And so the emotions, though felt, were not addressed, and a learning moment was missed. NPR was indeed being politically correct, but what has not been noted is that its political correctness played to both sides of the ideological spectrum: in censoring Williams' speech, it played to the Left, but in censoring its real reasons for doing so, it played to the Right. As a result NPR’s action impressed no one.

Discomfort is an emotion. And emotions are just manifestations of reasons not yet expressed. Sometimes, when these reasons are legitimate, so are the emotions that come attached to them. Righteous anger, for example. But other times, when these reasons are illegitimate, then the emotions attached to them are necessarily illegitimate. Xenophobia, for example. But if we don't talk about the reasons behind the emotions - which NPR has elected to do - then a learning moment was missed. No doubt, NPR found it difficult to publicly articulate the claim that feeling anxious in the presence of someone in Muslim garb may be a natural, but not a reasonable reaction, because most Americans probably feel such a reflex.

Ironically, that was exactly what Juan Williams was trying to explore in first admitting his emotions. This is because seconds after his emotional confession, Williams returned to reason when responding to O'Reilly's claim that "Muslims attacked us on 9/11," by saying, "Wait, hold on because if you say, wait, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost we've got a problem with Christians. That's crazy." (See full transcript here.)

"I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith," Williams wrote in a statement released by Fox News. This was Williams' point, and though he didn't make it more clearly on the O'Reilly Factor, it was clearly his pedagogical intention.

But NPR, in firing Williams, wasted an opportunity to make such a pedagogical statement. It wrapped up its reasons in faux reasons of journalistic standards and objectivity, and ironically, ended up implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of Williams’ first, emotional, reaction. Indeed, I suspect that Juan Williams was fired because his bosses at NPR were, in turn, uncomfortable that he had articulated his own discomfort. And that is the problem. On reflex knee jerk begot another, but no reasonable explanation followed.

One thing we do know though, is that emotions cannot be bottled up. We either feel them or we don't, and Juan Williams apparently feels them when he sees someone dressed up in Muslim garb. What NPR did, in firing him, was send the emotional message that his emotions were illegitimate. But - and here was their mistake - NPR said nothing about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the reasons which provoked Williams' particular emotion reaction.

Emotions indicate the salience and intensity of issues, and they should be addressed even and in fact especially when they are based on bad reasons. NPR pushed a discussion of the legitimacy of these emotions under the carpet by firing Juan Williams under the faux reasons of journalistic objectivity and this is why in one fell swoop they lost both a journalist and a teaching moment. If NPR wanted to be politically correct, it might as well have gone all the way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Arrest a Spiral of Cynicism

For the third election in a row, voters will be throwing incumbents out of office. In 2006, the national wave against Bush and the Bush wars gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress. In 2008, the same wave swept Obama into the White House. In 2010, incumbents are yet again in trouble. At least some of them will be expelled from Washington, and if so the vicious cycle of perpetual personnel turnover and ensuing cynicism in Washington will continue. This is what happens when we become a government of men.

We need only look to the last anti-incumbent election, 2008, for lessons. The Republicans and the Tea Party Movement are running the risk of doing what Barack Obama did in 2008. They are promising change in the campaign, but they do not realize how difficult, by design, change is in Washington. But politicians aren't usually in the habit of thinking about the election after the one right before them.

Should Republicans take over the House in 2011, they will quickly learn, as Obama has learned, that change does not come via elections in American politics. Elections only change the publicly visible personnel at the top; at best they open the door to potential change. The permanent government persists, the political parties survive, the interests endure. Most important, the constitution and its precise method for law-making remains. The political candidate who promises wholesale change makes a promise that cannot usually be delivered in a few years, and s/he runs the risk of becoming the victim of a new political outsider, a Beowulf who will promise to slay Grendel, but who shall soon find out that with Grendel dead, still a dragon remains to be slayed.

Watch the triumphant Republicans who sweep into office in January 2011. They will be filled with as much hubris as Obama was. Fresh from the winds of the campaign trail, they would think the world their oyster. How could they feel otherwise? The applause and rallies which flatter every politician confirm in their own minds that they are kings and celebrities, the invincible crusaders swept in by a tide of popular love.

Then government begins. And boy did the tough job of governing begin in 2009, Obama might now recall. When the tough sail of real governing fails to catch wind the way a campaign slogan did in the year before, a politician stands humbled. Befuddled, to be sure; but ultimately humbled. Worse still, a people sit dismayed. Tricked again, we withdraw into our private lives. Disgusted at government, resentful that we allowed our hopes to go up, furious that we believed the boy who cried wolf thrice. All signs point to this happening again in 2011, especially if there is divided party control of government and the Constitution is activated to do what it does best: check and balance, and thereby ensure gridlock. Then the cycle begins anew. With both sides disillusioned, the question will then become, which side will be less disillusioned to believe in a new anti-incumbent politician who shall cry wolf a fourth time?

This is a vicious circle, and the only way to stop it is for every citizen to take a civic lesson or two in American government. Our Founders believed only in incremental change, in hard choices, in the give-and-take of inter-branch negotiation. The system of checks and balances was biased against seismic chances by design. No one, and certainly no branch monopolizes the truth, and no truth can be told ahead of time (ie. as they are in campaigns) until all branches agree. Despite the message of the get-the-vote-out armies of either party, there are no messiahs, no crusaders in the system the Founders invented. The heroes we have constructed in modern campaigns are just demagogues exploiting the impatience of the frightened or the unemployed. There are no quick and easy solutions, and politicians know it, but they only want our votes for right now, so the truth doesn't matter.

So by all means throw the bums out. But remember that whoever we replace them with will turn out to be bums too if we expect that they will swiftly enact pre-conceived answers consonant with our own, and forget that populist haste is exactly what the constitution was designed to thwart. Politicians come and go, institutions do not. If we understand that our hopes can and will be dashed by men, we might just restore our faith in government.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Turnover at the White House and a Crisis of Confidence

The Obama White House has announced a series of personnel changes in recent weeks, ahead of the November elections. The aim is to push the reset button, but not time it as if the button was plunged at the same time that voters signal their repudiation on election day. But the headline is the same as that of the Carter cabinet reshuffle in 1979: there is a crisis of confidence in the Oval Office.

The process this year has been more gradual but equally insistent. Two weeks ago, White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod announced his plan to leave the White House in early 2011. Last week, Rahm Emmanuel stepped down as Chief of Staff to pursue his political ambitions in the mayorship of Chicago. This week, we learned that National Security Advisor James Jones would be stepping down and replaced by his deputy, Tom Donilon. (Earlier this summer, Robert Gates had already registered his intention to leave in 2011.)

The biggest reshuffle has occurred for the economic advisors. Before year's end, chief economic advisor Lawrence Summers will be out. Meanwhile, White House budget director Peter Orszag and White House Council of Economic Advisers chairwoman Christina Romer have already left the administration. That means three of the top four economic advisors will be out by the end of the year, registering perhaps, the president's general sense that he really needs to up his game on managing the economy and his particular desire to mend fences with (and via a few strategic appointments from) Wall Street.

There is much truth, then, to the Republican taunt that this is an administration in turmoil. This is a lot more change we are seeing compared to the Bush White House two years in. Chief of Staff Andrew Card stayed on for 6 grueling years; Condi Rice stayed on as national security advisor till 2005 before she moved to State; and even the highly unpopular Donald Rumsfeld lasted till 2006 despite constant calls for his resignation.

The contrast between this and the last White House highlights two profiles in presidential confidence. Bush may have been populist in style, but he stuck to his guns whether it came to war in Iraq or his management of the White House. The irony is that while Bush was unapologetic about Iraq and Rumsfeld until at least 2006, Obama is already and practically apologizing about stimulus spending and health-care reform.

Doubt is a good thing in the classroom, but it does not work in a boardroom or in the White House. If Barack Obama does not believe that government spending will stimulate the economy, then it won't. Consider the Keynesian multiplier - the idea that every dollar spent by government becomes income to some consumer who then spends a portion of it. This in return becomes income to another consumer who again spends a portion of it. This process is reiterated several times, and the sum of its effects is called the Keynesian multiplier.

Why hasn't stimulus spending worked, as some argued it did during the Great Depression? Well, maybe Keynes and Hicks were just wrong. Or maybe, according to George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, the missing link this time is the "confidence multiplier" (or the fact that "stimulus spending" have become foul words.) Consumers hold back spending if they are not sure if government spending (ie. deficits) can continue indefinitely, and even if they wanted to spend, banks are withholding credit because they are not sure if government would be in a position to bail them out when creditors default. Yes, confidence is grounded in real-world conditions such as the size of the US public debt. But confidence is also grounded in raw animal spirits. Myths as real or unreal as the dreams of our presidents.

If Obama lacks faith in his advisors, it must be because he lacks faith, ultimately, in himself. His faith in his proposed solutions to our economic and health-care problems has proven to be tentative because he has been quick to back down. Whereas George Bush dug his heels in and kept a poker-face when challenged, Obama volunteers to change his hand.

If leadership is the audacity of hope, and audacity is the capacity to hope against hope, then as Barack Obama buckles under the pressure of less than instantaneous results in his young administration, he may do well to meditate on his own campaign literature. There can only be as much change as that which the president himself ultimately believes in.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Democrats Don't Do Unity Well

The generic Democratic ballot appeared to rebound a little last week, in part because of the Republican Pledge to America, the story of Christine O'Donnell of Delaware spreading in the liberal base, and in part because of anticipation of the One Nation march on the National Mall this weekend. Could it be that Democrats may actually be able to keep their majorities in Congress if this trend continues?

A cold look at history tells us that the odds are still low. One of the iron laws of American politics is that the president's party almost always loses seats in the House in off-year, mid-term elections. Since 1870, there have been 35 mid-term elections and on all but four occasions, the president's party lost seats in the House (the average loss is 34 seats).

On these four occasions, the gains made by the president's party were minor. Republicans and Democrats respectively picked up 9 seats in 1902 and 1934 (perhaps having the last name, Roosevelt, had something to do with it.) In 1998, the Democrats picked up 4 seats in part because of the public backlash against the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In 2002, the Republicans did not lose any seats (or gain any) and bucked the historical trend because the country was rallying behind the president after September 11. (Democrats searching for hope this year should observe that three of these exceptions occurred in year two of a new presidency; 1998 was the only exception to the famous "six-year itch.")

On average, Democrats have proven to more adept at losing seats than Republicans, consistent with the conventional wisdom that the Republican party is a more orderly party and better able to act in unison than Democrats can. Democrats have typically lost 39 seats in the house in mid-term elections (exactly the number the Republicans need to take over to gain majority control this year), while Republicans have lost an average of 32 seats in mid-terms.

The virtue of being a not-so-big-tent party is that there tends to be less internal disagreement within the Republican party than in the Democratic party. It took a Tea Party movement to create dissension within Republican ranks, and yet some would argue that the movement has only rallied and unified the base.

On the Democratic side however, value, demographic, and ideological pluralism has always been a double-edged sword. For here is the telling history of 2009-2011: whereas Republicans are united that Obama was a mistake, Democrats are far from united about what mistakes Obama has made. The liberal faction of the Democratic party, for example, began losing faith in Obama when he compromised on universal health-care, and conservative "blue-dog" Democrats parted ways with their brethren just when the president proposed a middle-way in the form of a government sponsored "public option." This is the perverse outcome of the party boasting more registered members than the Republican party (or for that matter, any other organization in the world.)

If Democrats, unlike Republicans, don't do unity well, then it may well be that they could be better off, or at least no worse off than they are today, should Republicans take one or both Houses of Congress this year. If divided party control of government shall come to pass, it would be because the Democrats were already splintered from the very moment they were blessed with united or single party control of government. Put another way, it may not really matter what happens come November, because Democrats were only united in name in 2009-2011 (and that was possibly what made the infighting more intense).

Indeed, Democrats might even glean a silver lining in losing Congress.  The two most cankerous periods of Democratic party history in recent memory - the Carter presidency, and the first two years of the Clinton presidency - were also the only other times in the last four decades when the Democrats were blessed with the bitter-sweet mandate of single party control of all branches of government.

Democrats appear to have have internalized the pluralist's precept that power corrupts. So they may just be about to shoot themselves in the foot again this November.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Pledge to Do Nothing

The Republican "Pledge to America" is an attempt to show that the Republicans are more than a Party of No. The Pledge to America, however, is just a clever way to disguise a set of promises to undo or not do; but it is not ultimately a pledge to do anything.

Party platforms make a little more sense in the British parliamentary system, from whence they developed, because parliamentary sovereignty there does not have to contend with the separation of powers. But the Republican’s watered-down platform is a stunt if only for one reason alone. It's called the presidential veto, and the Pledge exaggerates what Republican takeovers in one or both chambers of Congress in November could achieve. This is a Pledge of faux intentions because Republicans know full well that it would only take a stroke of a presidential pen and almost every one of the proposals contained in the Pledge will not see the legislative light of day. If Democrats think they had it tough in the last two years trying to get 60 senators on board with each of their proposed bills, wait till the Republicans try getting 67.

The Pledge, then, is not even governing by campaigning, because it is pretend-governing by campaigning. How the Republicans are going to deliver, for example, on their promise that they will allow any lawmaker (Democratic or Republican) to introduce an amendment that would cut spending on any spending bill boggles the mind. What if the likes of Dennis Kucinich introduces amendments to reduce defense spending in every bill and the Congress grinds to a procedural halt? And if that’s the intention (as John Boehner flirts with the idea of shutting down the government), there is a problem there too.

At root, there is something fundamentally inconsistent about the Pledge. A philosophy of Government against Government is rather more self-defeating than the far Right admits. Not many people and certainly not many independents want to send representatives and Senators to Washington to sit there and do nothing or merely to undo something (like Obamacare). And Tea Partiers should realize that no politician is going to endure the campaign trail and finally get to DC only to make his/her job and reason for existing perfunctory. There is a built-in bias for government in the very notion of elections, and the far Right’s desire to starve the beast called the federal government cannot be accomplished for as long as the American people support Medicare and Social Security (neither of which are given much attention in the Pledge.) The beast is here to stay, so we might as well learn to tame it.

The GOP plans to unveil this Pledge at a hardware store in suburban Virginia on Thursday. The ceremony and hoopla may look patriotic, and heart-felt, and in keeping with our highest founding ideals. But the Pledge to America is little more than a publicity stunt revealing the danger of pretend-governing via campaigning in America. The solution to our troubles is not no government, but better government, and this nuance appears to be lost on the poll-tested slogans of this election year.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Tea Party Movement and Elections 2010

For Republicans to take over 10 seats to gain control of the Senate, 2010 Republican voters must not see themselves as voting the Bush/Rove Republicans (who were kicked out in 2006 and 2008) back in, but for a new type of Republican newly infused with Tea Party sentiments. The question then is, can the Tea Party be synergistically incorporated into the Republican electoral machine?
There is no doubt that the Tea Party movement has been a force to reckon with this primary season. Consider the fact that there are 37 seats in the Senate up for election this year, 18 of which are currently occupied by Republican incumbents. Of this 18, seven candidates backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (two of whom, Bennett and Murkowski, are incumbent senators) have lost to Tea Party candidates in the Republican primaries: Lee (UT), Miller (AL), Buck (CO), Angle (NV), Paul (KY), O'Donnell (DE), Rubio (FL). We have not seen the Tea Party movement and its influence at a higher point than where it is today.
This has been reflected in the rising fortunes of the movement's star. Of the 36 primary races the most prominent Tea Party personality, Sarah Palin, has supported, 25 have been victorious. This King-maker is newly revisiting the idea of making herself King in 2012, when she re-opened opened the doors to speculation that she would run in 2012 when she visited Iowa last week. Right now, Palin’s future looks good. But this could be because we are just done with primary season, where the most conservative also tend to be the most likely to turn-out. Check back again after November, and things could be looking very different. What is clear is the Tea Party movement is ideologically committed to bottom-up, grassroots politics. As a result, it is even more in need of a unifying figure than previous third party movements (almost all of which coalesced around charismatic figures like Theodore Roosevelt or Strom Thurmond).
Whatever happens this November will dramatically affect the composition of the Republican party and its thrust in 2012. Here are the best and worst case scenarios for the Tea partiers.
Best case: If Christine O'Donnell wins in Delaware, Sarah Palin's fortunes will be looking even brighter for 2012 (for she would have repudiated the prediction of the Cardinal of the Republican establishment, Karl Rove, who has publicly criticized O’Donnell’s candidacy.) If she doesn't win, establishment candidates will do better. (Mitt Romney, ever the opportunist covering his bases, sent an endorsement and a maximum contribution of $5,000 to the O'Donnell campaign the day after her victory.)
Worst case: Lisa Murkowski, competing as a write-in candidate in Alaska could keep Joe Miller from winning. Miller only beat Murkowski by 1,600 votes in the primary, so doing so was by no means a conclusive test of electability come November. If Miller and Murkowski end up splitting the Republican vote and giving the election to Democrat Scott McAdams in Palin’s own backyward, civil war could erupt in the Republican party because the Tea Party movement would no longer be credited for bringing energy to the party, but dark matter.
What Palin and the Tea Party movement have done, however, is shake up the Republican party's modus operandi of typically always having an heir-apparent waiting in line. The GOP is going to be much less orderly in the years to come because the mavericks have infiltrated, and are now reconstituting its soul. What is undeniable is that 4 million more Republicans turned out than Democrats did in this year's primary contests (and this is the highest Republican turn-out since the 70s), so the complexion of these primary results will permeate at least some of the general election results.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The White House Looks Ahead to 2012

The "Summer of Recovery" has failed to materialize, and with that, the White House has had to start planning for 2012 earlier than expected.

After all, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had already conceded this summer that the House may fall to Republican hands. (Nancy Pelosi didn't like the sound of his prescience then, but Gibbs was merely thinking strategically for his boss. )

The one thing Democrats have going for them is that nearly every political commentator believes that an electoral tsunami awaits Democrats this fall, which means that they have low expectations on their side. And because the Democrats currently have a healthy majority, it would be nearly impossible that the flip will generate a Republican majority bigger than the one Democrats now enjoy. Victory for the Republicans would not taste so sweet because it would be fragile.

There is a silver lining inside this silver lining for the White House. If Republicans take control of the House, then at noon on January 3, 2011, President Obama will finally be able to do what presidents do best - blame the stalled progress on his domestic agenda on congressional intransigency, and switch to the domain in which presidents are able to act (and receive credit) unilaterally - foreign policy.

About a week and a half ago, Obama appeared to be embarking on this strategy, when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Whereas his second Oval Office address started with foreign policy issues and meandered awkwardly toward the economy (because the President was still hoping for a "summer of recovery"), the president's first press conference inverted this order of priorities.

This press conference was delivered in the middle of the work day. It was directed to Washington elites and insiders, not the American public, for whom more talk of the economy would have been politically appropriate this election year. But the president began with the economy, but then ended with the Arab-Israeli conflict - displaying not only the agenda-setting power of the media to determine what presidents talk about, but also the instinct of presidents (even liberal ones) to withdraw to foreign policy as the presidential domain when domestic policy is not producing political credit for them.

It is no coincidence that very few Democratic candidates are campaigning on healthcare reform, even though it is the signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency and Democratic congress and the topic which headlined the political discussions of 2009. This is why Obama did not mention health-care reform at all in his first and second Oval Office addresses, and he only brought it up haltingly and defensively in his first press conference last Friday.

With unemployment still at about 9.6 percent, everyone knows that the preeminent issue for Election 2010 is the economy. But Obama actually has, by a 10-point margin, higher approval numbers in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief than his handling of the economy. The White House realizes that the lack of results or higher casualties in Afghanistan doesn't matter. What matters is that Obama is doing exactly what a Republican president would have done in Afghanistan and when there is nothing to fight about, the public approves.

After spending half of his first term on an ambitious domestic agenda for which he has gotten no credit but only blame, Obama may find reprieve in finding a legacy in foreign policy and in particular Middle East peace. To be sure, almost every president in recent history has turned to this issue in their second term but Obama is ahead of the curve because his first term has been as unusually productive as it was controversial and he may be fearing that his first term may be his last. Obama is switching tracks also because he is done fighting the Tea Party movement and wants to bring them on board after 20 months of rancor. The Tea Partiers do not care for either the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they care neither for a bloated health-care state nor for an expensive national security state. With no guarantee that health-care reform or financial regulation will deliver the benefits promised to the American people, the White House is approaching the conclusion that foreign policy accomplishments and in particular peace in the Middle East could unite the liberal with the libertarian (and divide the fiscal conservatives and the neo-conservatives), and in it may be found a new pursuit for a floundering presidency.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Obama: Graying but None the Wiser

President Barack Obama's second Oval Office address to the nation wasn't bad, but it wasn't the game-changer to his declining approval ratings which despondent Democrats were hoping for.

The speech was a valiant attempt to connect Iraq with unemployment (guns with butter), but it came off to many as meandering and confused. The reason is one that has plagued the Obama presidency from the day it started talking about post-partisanship. It is not so much that the zero-sum relationship between guns and butter was too subtle a link to explore on television, but that the president was cagey about frontally stating it.

His opening line encapsulates his equivocation: "Tonight, I'd like to talk to you about the end of our combat mission in Iraq, the ongoing security challenges we face, and the need to rebuild our nation here at home." This sentence is only more obfuscating that it is confusing.

It was only at the start of the last third of his speech (paragraph 22 of 30) when he finally got down to explaining the pivot ambiguously suggested in his opening thesis statement, saying, "We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits."

Yes, guns and butter are a zero-sum priority game. This is not about the president's ability or inability to multi-task foreign and domestic policy milieus. The point (had it been explicitly made) is that if we spend money on guns, then the revenue collected from our taxes cannot be spent elsewhere to boost the domestic economy. This is the point Obama was trying to make, but he was so cagey about making it that one wonders why he even tried.

Whether or not Obama is correct that the money spent in Iraq may have been better spent elsewhere is besides the point. Obama believed it enough to gingerly suggest it in his opening line, but was embarrassed enough for believing it that he hid his belief that the money spent on guns would have been better invested in domestic infrastructure by borrowing the foreign-policy language of "rebuild(ing) our nation here at home" to cover up the point that he maybe wanted to make. (That was argument by exemplification.) The president ended up confusing his friends and foes alike because he used an Oval Office speech to work out his internal demons.

Everyone knows that "stimulus spending" is no longer a popular word, but Obama was probably naive if he actually thought that he could make an idea popular again by calling it something else. A rose by any other name ...

The more encompassing explanation would be that Obama was trying to exercise what I would call a Legion Theory of Representation. He represents many points of views, for he is many. Deep down he is a liberal and a half, but he feels compelled to give the other side a fairing. But this causes him so much internal ideological dissonance that he ends up stabbing himself in the foot with words that meander toward nothing because his words are no longer use to communicate but to postpone communication.

Conservative commentators were the first - and rightly so - to have called the President out on his tortured reasoning. If all he could summon in terms of an olive branch to President Bush was his overture, "no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security," it is very clear that his right hand is not at all happy with what his left hand is doing. The president's intuition and his conscience are not in consonance with each other, and he should find some way to reconcile the two.

The curious thing is that most leaders who fail to rise to the occasion fail because they haven't found their voice. Obama has a voice, but he has chosen not to use it but sort of to use it, in schizophrenic spurts. If a nation at war with itself cannot stand, a president at war with himself cannot lead.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Secret Behind Glenn Beck's Magic

On August 28, Glenn Beck held a rally on the national mall with the theme, “Restoring Honor,” tapping into the Tea-Party sentiment that something has gone terribly wrong in America. Beck was not clear what and whose honor we have lost, but he has definitely tapped into an atavistic American nerve - politicizing nostalgia.

Nolstalgia is the selective invocation of the past. It is probably the worst kind of historical reasoning used by romantics who glorify what we remember to be good (Mom and pie) and conveniently forget all that was bad (Jim and Crow). Because nostalgia is history without the guilt, it is the most comforting kind of political appeal. And since there is no guilt without details, Beck’s bumper-sticker speech communicated offensive content without offending.

In narrating our national declension, presumably since the March on Washington in August of 1963, Beck attacked the civil rights movement without appearing to do so. When Chris Wallace asked him on Sunday what message he was trying to send to Washington, he was deliberately ambiguous, "I don't know what they were trying to tell the leaders." Speaking for himself, he proposed: "Be your highest self. Stand in the fire because that is the only thing that is going to save us." That still didn’t answer Wallace’s question, and one wonders if it is because a direct answer would have been too offensive for national television.

"Restore America" is a slogan that implies, especially because it was articulated on the anniversary of an event most Americans are very proud of, that everything has gone to hell since the Founding. As Beck intoned on his website, "Help us restore the values that founded this great nation." Or as Sarah Palin chimed in, "We must not fundamentally transform America... we must restore America." We forget that the premise that our nation has been desecrated (and therefore in need of restoration) is no innocuous claim because it was first inoculated with sweet nostalgia. Beck wants us to be our "highest self" because he rejects collective action solutions, and yes, even the gold-standard of America's social movement history.

According to Beck, he had not intentionally timed his rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. But it surely benefitted his message symbolically that the theme of “Restoring Honor” would be articulated on the anniversary of an event which called on white Americans to own up to the sins of Jim crow, for it is clear that Beck wants us to stop feeling guilt (even if we should have in 1963) and start feeling pride, ie. "honor." And if that meant desecrating the memory of MLK's speech, so be it. Beck admitted nearly as much on his show, "This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement."

Add God (the Alpha and the Omega of history) to nostalgia and the potion could be too potent to resist. Beck’s demagoguery on Saturday would have been more blatant had he not invoked a counter-weighing appeal, God. The flatterer conceals his flattering when toward heaven his compliments turn into pious worship. In a recent change in his public persona, Beck is now more than ever before cloaking his anti-Progressive agenda with Christian values, linking our political decay with our moral decay, and thereby grafting the mostly libertarian Tea-Party movement with the Christian Right. (And that is how Beck, a mormon convert, has become a leader of the new fusionism in the conservative movement.)

The truth is, we have progressed from some Founding beliefs, as we have conserved its greatest ideals (both puns intended). It is simply ridiculous to suggest that the best way to conserve our highest ideals is to undo our progress from some antiquated Founding beliefs. But that is exactly what “restoring honor” advocates, in implying that everything that happened after 1963, the year of King’s speech, has been a tragic national tale of decline and declension. If Beck hopes to “reclaim the civil rights movement,” does he mean that he wants to take back the rights restored to (for they were previously stolen from) African Americans in 1964?

We seldom stop to think about the implications of our nostalgic thoughts, because the flattery and self-congratulation they offer is comforting to the point of being hypnotizing. Nostalgia can conceal or justify thoughtlessness, which according to Hannah Arendt is the banality that is Evil. And that is the magic that is Glenn Beck.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama's Leadership Gap

In recent memory, there was Al Gore , then it was John Kerry. It was a only a matter of time before President Barack Obama would be compared to the failed Democratic presidential bid of Michael Dukakis in 1988. According to Noemi Emery, Dukakis and Obama are "both creatures of the liberal Northeast and of Harvard, with no sense at all of most of the rest of the country; both rationalists who impose legalistic criteria on emotion-rich subjects; both with fixed ideas of who society’s victims are, which do not accord with the views of the public."

With the economy still struggling and the President insistently on the unpopular side of the debate about the Ground Zero mosque , Barack Obama has become the newest target of an ancient charge that Democrats are "clueless, condescending, and costly."

Abraham Lincoln once invited the nation to be guided by "the better angels of our nature." But when he said those words in 1861, the North was less than inspired and the South was surely unmoved. The nation did eventually come to the right conclusion about slavery by the end of the Civil War but it would take much longer (via the detour called Jim Crow) before we came close to the right conclusion about racial equality.

The civic education of a nation takes time, and Barack Obama should take heed. In a democracy, public opinion is king. And the king should either be obeyed (and this is typically the path of least resistance), or he should be educated (this is leadership). But Barack Obama has done neither. People say he has been too professorial. But maybe he hasn't been professorial enough.

For after endorsing the idea of the mosque near Ground Zero and resisting the path of least resistance, a day later, the president back-tracked, saying "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding." (As Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it.) Well done, Polonius.

If Obama was referring to the Declaration of Independence, he should have known (as Lincoln came to know) that even truths which are self-evident must nevertheless be said, resaid, and said again before stubborn majorities come to see the light. Obama should either have deferred to the majority against the idea of the mosque, or tried to convince the majority that their particular sensitivity about the location of the mosque was illegitimate . What he should not have done was perform the unhappy medium: tell people they were wrong but not wrong enough that the president himself would take up the considerable challenge (called leadership) of disabusing stubborn majorities of their ill-conceived conclusions.

If Presidents dare tell the American people that they are wrong, then they should also be brave enough to follow through with a thorough explanation. "I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there" is not an explanation. It is an abdication.

Where Gore, Kerry, and now Obama have fallen short is their failure to assume that that which is self-evident to them almost always demands explanation for others. And quite a lot of it, because our better angels have never popped up spontaneously like a burning bush. Ask the abolitionists, and the suffragists (and the best teachers): they of all people knew that intuitions feel utterly right and unassailable until they are brought under the prolonged and penetrating light of reason. We have always fumbled our way toward the right side of history because most of our leadership have bowed to public opinion whereas only the great ones have educated it. The worst kind of leaders are those who assert without explanation, as if they were absolute monarchs, and then accused their errant subjects of being bitter as they cling on to their guns. Such presidents are invariably cast and perceived as clueless and condescending and rightly so, because they were too quick to give up on the redemptive promise of their fellow Americans. The necessary price of democracy is that majorities matter, even and especially when they are wrong, because public opinion has no patience for the tyranny even of enlightened Democratic presidents.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque" and An Ode to Political Correctness

Last Friday, President Barack Obama communicated his support for the building of a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, saying, "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country." This seemed harmless enough until he found out that over two thirds of America disagreed with him. Chastened, the President went off-message while visiting the Gulf Coast on Saturday to control the political damage, saying "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque".

Tsk, Tsk, Barack Obama. He forgets that he needs to be sensitive to the hurt felt by the families of 9/11 victims, and it is not enough, apparently, for a president to merely recite our constitutional rights without acknowledging that what is constitutionally permissible may nevertheless be emotionally distressing to some fellow citizens.

The truth is, the American Left is in agreement, and zealous proponents of this principal of political correctness: that we should always err on the side of being sensitive to the emotional hurt felt by victims of oppression and injury. The Left is perturbed, for example, that statues of Confederate generals are allowed to remain in many Southern cities in the name of the freedom of expression. The Left argues that we should be sensitive to the emotional harm inflicted on the descendants of former slaves that live among us, and symbols of their ancestor's oppression ought not to be brandished with impunity.

Even though the Right tends to speak of “political correctness” in pejorative terms, their outrage at the “Ground Zero Mosque” is nothing but an exercise of political correctness. Everyone agrees that the developers of the mosque have the right to build the mosque on private property; most Americans believe that it would be insensitive to do so.

Usually, the Democrats are accused of being over-sensitive. Not so this time. It is the Left that is accusing the Right of exaggerating emotional harms and conjuring phantom injuries. Exactly what harm is being done to the pastor of a Southern Californian church if a mosque is constructed two blocks from Ground Zero? What has a mosque in America have to do with a bunch of Muslim terrorists who flew planes into buildings in the name of Allah?

About as much as a statue of a Confederate general can inspire memories of the institution of slavery in the minds of the descendants of former slaves.

It is a reasonable argument to propose that if we are committed to our fellow citizens, we owe those who have suffered certain injuries a measure of sensitivity, even when we free strongly that these emotional injuries are several times removed from a tangible injury. Whether this be the emotional harm felt by families of 9/11 victims (or the harm felt by conservatives who never knew but nevertheless feel connected to the families of 9/11 victims) or this be the emotional harm felt by descendants of slaves (or the harm felt by white liberals who feel they are kindred spirits with their African American friends), political correctness encourages the fellow-feeling that is necessary for the unity of a community.

To recognize that a constitutional right may not always feel like a moral right is to acknowledge that feelings matter. To concede that we need to be sensitive to each other’s emotional injuries is to say that we are all, at one time or another, members of the PC police. But, if we arbitrarily picked and chose who among our fellow citizens we would extend our sympathies to, then we are not being very good citizens at all. If we choose to be a government of men (above and beyond a legalistic, emotionless government of laws) we should extend our sympathies to all fellow Americans, not just those we find it easier to sympathize with.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Deep Politics of the 14th Amendment

In 2004, the Republican's hot button political issue du jour was same-sex marriage. 11 states approved ballot measures that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Last week, a federal judge struck down California's Proposition 8 (passed in 2008) because it "fails to advance any rational basis for singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license."

However, Republicans politicians are not taking the bait to revisit this hot button political issue, despite Rush Limbaugh's encouragement. One explanation is that Republican voters are already angry and motivated this year, and they are concerned about the economy and jobs. There is no need for Republicans to exploit a get-the-vote-out issue this year.

But, that is exactly what some Republicans have done, just not on the marriage issue. Instead, prominent Republicans like Senator Lindsay Graham and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty are directing their attention this year on repealing the 14th amendment, and in particular the provision guaranteeing birthright citizenship.

So is it or is it not "the economy, stupid," for Election 2010? I think it's about something even bigger than the economy. It's about the power of the federal government, which increased dramatically with the passage of the 14th amendment.

Consider that the first sentence of Section 1 of the 14th amendment ("All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside"), which established the priority of national citizenship over state citizenship. While there were references to citizenship in the Constitution of 1789, the Framers did not define the content of citizenship in part because there was little need, at the time, to consider the idea of national citizenship as opposed to state citizenship. The nation as we know it today was not fully developed until the Civil War.

Read in totality, the first Section of the 14th Amendment isn't so much a grant of birthright citizenship - the content of the first sentence - but a constraint on states' rights, the point of the second: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." We know this to be historically accurate. Since the 1930s, the "equal protection" and "due process" clauses have been used against state actors to extend the scope and depth of federal governmental powers.

Fast forward to the 2010, and it is no coincidence that almost everything up for political debate today and in November has something to do with the power of federal government versus states' rights, whether it be Arizona taking it upon itself to write its own immigration policy and the Obama administration insisting that immigration policy is a federal prerogative, or Missouri primary voters rejecting the federal ("Obamacare") mandate that all individual citizens must buy health insurance, or Californians deciding in Proposition 8 that only marriages between a man and a woman are valid in their state. If the unifying thread in these agitations is the perception of a bloated, out-of-control federal government, it is also worth noting that the major resource for the aggrandizement of the government has been the 14th amendment.

The Republican Party of 2010 is not the Republican Party of 1868, the year the 14th amendment was ratified. The GOP, back then, believed in federal preemption of states' rights. Democrats were the ones who were wary of federal power. The Republicans' switch today is the culmination of Reagan's successful Revolution. Now that even the 14th amendment is at least symbolically on the table, we can be sure that very fundamental, soul-searching questions about the very nature of the American union will be up for debate this election year.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama on "The View"

President Barack Obama knew that he needed to help his party out as Washington gears up for the November elections. And so, he went on day-time television.

According to Nielsen ratings, Obama had 6.5 million people tuning in to The View last Thursday. In his last Oval Office address on the BP oil spill at primetime on June 16, he enticed only 5.3 million to listen in. As a pure matter of strategy, the decision to go on The View would have been a no-brainer. With a bigger audience in a relaxed atmosphere and soft-ball questions, Obama had little to lose and much to gain by going on daytime tv. In fact, because people are tired of speeches from behind a desk (which is why speeches from the Oval Office garner smaller and smaller audiences the further we are from Inauguration day), people rarely get to see a president taking questions on a couch (which is why The View got .4 million more viewers on July 31, 2010 than on November 5, 2008, the day after Obama was elected).

People say the president's appearance on The View, the first ever by a president on a daytime tv show, "demeaned" the office. (People said the same thing when Bill Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall show.) Maybe this is true, and there is something undignified about taking questions while seated on a sofa. But one wonders if there might have been some sexism involved, that what was deemed "demeaning" was that Obama didn't think it was below his station to be flagrantly courting a minority demographic.

Demeaning or not, like a flower turns towards the sun, Obama is returning to his base in the summer before the mid-term elections. He must, because a large proportion of his base are women. Although 56 percent of women voted for Obama in 2008 ( and this was over four times the size of the gender gap between Kerry and Bush in 2004), about a third of these women have since jilted him. Obama was being more than honest when he jested that "I wanted to pick a show that Michelle actually watches."

Obama is rehabilitating his reputation because his party's fortunes are inextricably linked to his this November. More than any single factor out there, Barack Obama can enhance the size of the Democratic turn-out in November. And it is worth repeating that almost everything he has done in the last year and a half has guaranteed a sizeable Republican turn-out. As Republican candidates have also been successful in nationalizing local races, these voters are disproportionately angry, charged-up, and ready to do some damage to Democratic one-party rule in Washington. Democrats have one piece of good news in this: according to Pew Research, only 52 percent of Republican voters are anticipating their vote as a vote against Obama, compared to 64 percent of Democrats who felt the same in 2006, which suggests that the electoral slap-in-the-face come November might not be as stinging as some pundits have been suggesting.

If there is one thing we know Obama can do, it is to campaign. While that does not make him a good president, he remains a force to reckon with because the road to Capitol Hill runs through the White House. So on The View and on the road the president shall be.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Elections 2010: Politics at a Time of Uncertainty

We have 99 Days to go before Election Day. How different things look today compared to Obama's first 100 days. In the last year and a half, the national mood has turned from hope to uncertainty. The sluggish job market is the economic representation of this psychological state. Business are not expanding or hiring because they do not know what the future holds for them.

The White House, in acknowledging that it expects unemployment to remain at or around 9 percent, has conceded that voters will have to deal with this state of uncertainty even as they will be invited this Fall to make up their minds about whether their members of Congress deserve another term or if it is time for another reset. A certain act given an uncertain future. That's the crux of the political game this year.

Come November, voters will be asking: do we stay the course and give the incumbents a little more time to bring back the test results, or do we throw the bums out and issue a new test? Republicans are chanting behind one ear saying, "no results means bad results" and Democrats are chanting in the other, saying, "wait for it, the good times are coming." With no good news or an objective litmus test in sight, the election outcomes will turn largely on the perception of despair versus hope.

The emerging Republican narrative for Election 2010 is that all this uncertainty in the market was generated by big brother. A massive health-care bill which has made it difficult for business to predict their labor costs for the years to come; a financial deregulation bill has given new powers to government but no indication as to how such powers will be deployed; and now, talk of legislation that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2010 will only spook business out even more. The Republican headline is: despair; and it is time to move on.

Unless they can point to some specific pork they have brought back to their constituents, Democrats will have to deal with this national mood of uncertainty that can easily be turned into despair. The question of whether or not will Democrats lose one or both (because zero is nearly out of the question) houses of Congress will turn on how successfully, once again, they would be able to massage the reality of uncertainty away from the fairly contiguous sentiment of despair into the more unrelated sentiment of hope.

Now that was a lot easier done in 2008. When patience had run dry with Iraq and George Bush, even Independents found it easy to be optimistic about an alternative path. Anything but the status quo was cause for hope in 2008. Not so in 2010, where there is neither clear light at the end of the economic tunnel nor a wreck in sight. It would take a much bigger leap of faith this year for the same people who voted Obama into office to continue to hope that his friends in Congress will deliver on his promises. Indeed, at this point, Republicans and most Independents are probably done with hoping. They’ve heard the boy cry “wolf” too many times.

The only people who will see hope when there is only uncertainty are the Democratic party faithful. If Democrats want to avert an electoral catastrophe, their best bet is to turn out the party faithful who will vote for a member of their own party even if the heavens came crashing. In this year’s political wheel of fortune, it’s all about whether uncertainty can be massaged into despair or spun into hope.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Racism, the NAACP and the Tea Party Movement

The NAACP was doing its job when it accused the Tea Party movement of harboring "racist elements," but it didn't necessarily go about it in the most productive way.

All it took was for supporters of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin to write, "All decent Americans abhor racism," and that with the election of Barack Obama we became a "post-racial" society, and the NAACP’s charge was soundly “refudiated.” Or, as Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell put it to Candy Crowley on CNN on Sunday, he's "got better things to do" than weigh in on the debate. He was elected to deal with real problems, not problems made up in people's heads. Case closed.

If one has decided not to see something, one won't see it. (And to be sure, if one has decided to see something, one will always see it. That's a stalemate.)

I think the NAACP ought to consider the possibility that the residuum of racism that exist today are more thoughts of omission than acts of commission. Racism is a very different beast today than it was on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, or on the eve of the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, it is so difficult to detect and even harder to eradicate precisely because it is no longer hidden behind a white conical hood.

Because our standard for what counts as "post-racialism" has gone up with each civil rights milestone, the NAACP should realize that as the old in-your-face racism is gone, so too should the old confrontational techniques of accusation and litigation. Unconscious racism can only be taught and remedied by explanation, not declamation.

To understand unconscious racism, consider the case of Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, who was expelled by the Tea Party Federation, an organization that seeks to represent the movement as a whole when Williams posted a fictional letter to Abraham Lincoln, saying "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards."

The stridently mocking tone of this letter belied a breezy assumption that any and everyone could see that this was a letter written in satire. Sure it was. But if that was William's subjective excuse, it would also be his objective crime. Williams did not stop to consider that it is so much easier to tell a joke than to be the butt of one. Here's a bully telling the bullied to get over it.

If we don't want to call this indifference “unconscious racism,” we can certainly call it bad citizenship because it is a failure to consider the grievances of a group of fellow-Americans. Isn't this exactly what we were faulting our British cousins for doing in 1776?

Most of us, Tea Partiers or not, care about our taxes, our jobs, and our children. It takes a lot of energy and civic mindedness to worry about someone else's taxes, jobs and children. (And that’s why our British cousins failed to summon the energy to care in 1776.) But the least we could do when we fail to enlarge the ambit of our sympathies is to admit that politics is a zero-sum game, and that other people have an equal right to petition for what they care about, even if we lose if they win. But that’s not a courtesy Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, or Mark Williams extended to the NAACP for so categorically dismissing its plea.

Even if we lived in a post-racial society, it is not for Sarah Palin to announce it, and it is certainly not Mark Williams' place to tell African Americans to get over his joke. But the NAACP should also bear in mind that whatever we call this presumptuousness - unconscious racism or indifference - it is bad citizenship precipitated, in part, by the NAACP's excessive focus on accusation, and not also education. If we want every American to learn to walk around in another person’s shoes, we should invite them to try each other’s shoes, not just order each other to not to step on them.