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.