Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Romney Back on Top

The Republican game of musical chairs continues. One thing remains: Mitt Romney has held on to his seat as a leading contender for the nomination in the last four years.

Newt Gingrich's rise and fall in the past month has several lessons to tell. First, no self-serving candidate would ever dare commit himself to a positive campaign again. Gingrich tried, and by refusing to counter fire with fire until recently, his poll numbers have dipped under a relentless barrage of negative ads coming from the Perry campaign and the Romney superPAC. What was particularly foolhardy about Gingrich's pledge to remain positive is that the anti-Romney vote had shifted to him precisely because he had the fire in the belly that conservatives felt was missing in Romney. Second, this is only the most recent proof that negative ads work. Of course, what is bad for the candidate is even worse for the country. But in the heat of the campaign, no one cares. And the heat is on for 2012. Third, Gingrich's failure to get on the Virginia ballot tells a cautionary tale to any candidate who tries to play a national strategy when elections in this country are won by an organized war on the ground, state by state. Gingrich's failure to get his organizational act together only reinforced the narrative that he was erratic and not up to the grueling task of a long campaign.

As Gingrich supporters in Iowa return to the Romney camp, others have gone to Rick Santorum and especially to Ron Paul. This should not be surprising. Ron Paul is the original article. A Tea Partier before the (modern) Tea Party who has spent the better part of his life advocating his libertarian, small government philosophy. Between Paul and Santorum, Paul is likely to finish nearer to the top in the long haul because he has an organization on the ground in more states and because 2012 will be about the economy, not culture. What the Republicans want more than anything else (other than to defeat Obama) is to overturn Obamacare, not protect human life or restore DADT in the military. Cultural issues, in any case, are not going to be salient in a primary race where everyone already agrees on them. This is one reason why all the ads Rick Perry are putting out touting his Christian faith are gaining so little traction. (They will be enough, however, to split the socially conservative vote between him, Michele Bachmann and Santorum so a Huckabee-like surprise victory as in 2004 is not likely.)

As a sign of his newfound confidence, Mitt Romney's closing argument in Davenport, Iowa, as the campaigns wind down for the New Year just days before the Iowa caucuses was focussed entirely on Joe Biden and Obama, not any of his rivals who are struggling for political relevance. Having survived the Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich insurgencies, Romney has proven his mettle to many who had doubted him before that he can take on Barack Obama. And that -- a competent candidate -- is what Republican primary voters are ultimately looking for.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Eleventh Hour Reconfigurations in the Republican Primary Race

With so many candidates moving in and out of frontrunner status in the Republican nomination race in the past months, it would appear that the winner of the game of musical chairs could simply be determined by when the music stops. And it stops on January 3, when the Iowa caucuses meet.

Whether or not there has been a method to the madness, with less than a month to go, it would appear that Newt Gingrich has a shot to the seat at the top. New polls show Gingrich overtaking frontrunner Mitt Romney in the key states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Assuming Romney takes New Hampshire, Gingerich looks set to take three of the first four contests. He would then look like a formidable frontrunner by the end of January, if he doesn't slip.

Whether or not Gingrich will hold on to his lead will turn on whether and how much Democrats and the press decide to publicize his history of ethics violations and his prior experience as an alleged lobbyist. It will also depend on the effect of Gingrich's rather hasty acceptance of Donald Trump's invitation to host a debate for the Republican candidates, most of whom have wisely declined. Finally, Gingrich's fate rests on how soon the supporters of Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann join the Gingerich bandwagon. The longer the second-tier candidates stay on the campaign trail, the more likely Romney would be able to use his own considerable resources to fight on by a war of financial attrition.

It appears that the DNC ad on Mitt v. Mitt, timed to coincide with the implosion of the Herman Cain campaign, could be working. Meanwhile, a story just broke that electronic records of Romney's gubernatorial administrations were deleted when he left office. Coordinated by the White House or not, David Plouffe must be delirious with the possibility of a Gingrich nomination, but he's probably taking no chances. In Kansas this Tuesday, President Obama delivered his inaugural 2012 campaign speech, making clear that he anticipates that the central issue of the upcoming election to be the debate about the role and size of government. Why give this speech now? Perhaps because the White House hopes that Republicans who cannot forgive Mitt Romney for "Obamaneycare" will place their hopes on Gingrich.

And if that happens, Obama would be feeling a whole lot more secure about his seat at the Oval Office through 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Disconnect between Democracy and Republicanism

It should now be clear to all that the highly polarized environment that is Washington is dysfunctional, and the disillusionment it is causing portends yet more headlocks and cynicism to come.

Here is the all-too-familiar cycle of American electoral politics in the last few decades. Campaign gurus draw sharp distinctions to get out the vote. The impassioned vote wins the day. Impatient voters watch their newly elected president or representative fail to pass in undiluted form the the reforms promised during the campaign. Disillusion ensues. The gurus step in with a new round of fiesty charges, and the cycle begins anew.

At some point, citizens are going to get tired of being stoked, poked, and roped, and all for nought. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are reactions against a system gone awry. The low approval ratings for the Congress and the president are another indicator. The Republicans' perpetual search for an anti-establishment alternative is another.

And now we are facing a spectacular new failure. The "super committee" charged to reach a budget reduction deal has proved itself anything but super. If twelve people can no longer agree to make hard decisions, it is reflective of the larger malaise of which we dare not speak. It is that democracy has run amok in a republic founded on the idea that out elected representatives should be able to make decisions on our behalf, and sometimes in spite of ourselves because representation is a higher calling than mimicry. Maybe that is why Abraham Lincoln did not deliver a single campaign speech in 1860.

Each of the twelve men and women in the committee are thinking about their constituencies, their parties, and their base and so bluster and bravado must take precedence over compromise and conciliation. When the voice of the people, artificially stoked for shrillness, begins to infect the deliberative process even in between electoral cycles, there is no chance for serious inter-branch deliberation. We have reduced our representatives to sycophants whose mantra is do nothing but heap the blame on the other party.

The solution is not to exploit the disillusioned by way of new campaign slogans and negative ads to artificially jolt their temporary and baser passions, but for the noise and the trouble-makers fixated only on winning at the next ballot to be weeded out of the system. To do that, citizens must realize that the lion's share for what counts as democracy today is making it nearly impossible for the representatives of our republic to make decisions on behalf of We the People. Remember: ours is a republic, if we can keep it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Republicans Can't Find their Candidate

Mitt Romney must be the happiest Republican in the world. His political rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, seem to be trying to out-do the other in terms of whose campaign can implode faster.

Let's start with Rick Perry's campaign. Now we know why his campaign advisors were telling him to skip upcoming debates. Perry's oops moment in last night's debate will enter into the political hall of infamy, because that was the moment when his sponsors will realize that he is just a bad investment. If Perry cannot think just one sentence faster than he can talk, he will be demolished by a law professor when they debate next year.

Perry's gaffe's was probably a godsend to Herman Cain, but it would be little relief in the worst week of his campaign yet. It doesn't matter if the accusations of sexual harassment are true, but they are now distractions to Cain's message that he was already struggling to explain. And then he had to go call former Speaker Pelosi "Princess Nancy."

Sarah Palin wasn't an aberration in a line of competent Republican candidates from Eisenhower to Nixon. She is the new rule. The thing about modern conservatism is that it has become so anti-establishment that it now happily accepts any political outsider as a potential candidate for the highest office in the land. Political outsiders aren't tainted by politics, by Washington, so we are told. But, by the same token, they can therefore also make terrible candidates!

The irony, of course, is that the slew of debates being held this year was meant to give voters greater choice and knowledge of the candidates' positions. But all this is doing is reinforce the front-runner status of the establishment candidate. There is a reason why Mitt Romney and his perfect haircut has coasted through the debate without any oops moments. He's a professional politician! Tea Partiers are going to have to come to the uncomfortable realization that it takes one professional politician to beat another.

One relatively unmentioned reason why Mitt Romney is still hovering at 25 percent is because the Republican party changed the nomination rules in 2010 away from winner-take-all, so that states (except the first four) would allocate their delegates proportionately to the candidates at the national convention. This has the effect of giving less known candidates more of a chance of lasting longer in the race than they normally would, but the unintended consequence is that republican voters will have to watch their candidates battle it out, and even suffer the potentially demoralizing conclusion that in choosing their candidate, they must follow their mind, not their hearts.

It is far from clear, then, that 2012 will be a Republican year. Conservatives have yet to explain away a fundamental puzzle: if government is so unnecessary, so inefficient, and so corrupt, why seek an office in it? This is possibly why the very brightest and savviest would-be candidates are in Wall Street, and can't be bothered with an address change to Pennsylvania Avenue. Except Rick Perry and Herman Cain, of course.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Does Obama Lead when he does not Speak?

When the dust settles on the history of the Obama presidency, a major theme historians will have to consider and explain, is the startling contrast in his record in domestic policy versus his successes in foreign policy, which now include the assassination of Bin Laden and the toppling of Qaddafi. To put the matter in another way: if 2012 were 2004, and Obama would be judged purely on his foreign policy alone, he wouldn't have to be doing any bus tours in the battleground states now.

I'm going to hazard a few hypotheses here to highlight the paradoxes of contemporary American politics. Only four years ago, Democrats were afraid that candidate Obama lacked the knowledge and the experience to take on the complex issues of the world -- a reason why Hillary Clinton was the presumed frontrunner. At the time, Obama drew sharp contrasts between himself and the Bush administration, essentially portraying himself as a kindler and gentler ambassador to the world rather than the abrasive tough-talking cowboy that his predecessor was. Also, at the time, it was thought that Obama's strong suit was what he would bring to the domestic policy-making table in substance (health-care reform) and style (bi- or post-partisanship). None of these expectations turned out to be accurate.

As it turns out, you don't really need all that much experience to have a successful foreign policy. Ronald Reagan didn't, and neither did Barack Obama. What mattered was that they were able to appoint personnel to get the job done. Delegation works when the President operates as Commander-in-Chief, when he does not need to negotiate with Congress or convince errant blue-dog Democrats yapping at his side. Call it what you will: "Leading from behind," engaging with the world, reasoning based on evidence, or hiring Hillary Clinton -- it has clearly worked. But another reason for why Obama's record on foreign policy isn't the topic of most Republican candidates' talking points is that it really isn't all that different from Bush's. He hasn't had to draw a line in the sand between a Democratic or a Republican approach. The tone and the execution may have been better, but in its essentials, such as the unilateral use of force (and especially predator drones), a preemptive presumption in favor of democracy, and a realist approach to "enemy combatants" (and Guantanamo Bay), the two administrations have not been all that different.

A gentler style and tone directed at the rest of the world may well be productive for the Commander-in-Chief, but it appears to have done nothing for the President at home. We may soon have to consider the grand irony that a person brought in to reconcile differences and to put red and blue states together has actually been spectacularly bad at doing so. It is almost as if it is precisely in those areas where Obama does not need to open his mouth to convince either side that he has met with the most success. That is to say, Obama has been most successful when he has been unilateral, picking and choosing what works and what does not and not really having to sell his selection to either party. And he has been the least successful when he has attempted to be persuasive, pragmatic and deliberative, trying so hard in town hall meeting after meeting to sell his domestic program -- the putative virtues he brought to the political table in 2008, no less.

Talk works in campaigns, but it appears perfunctory for the successful conduct of foreign policy and practically counter-productive when it comes to selling the president's domestic agenda. To be sure, the president is back on the road. But it is very likely, given the uncompromising Republican stance on raising taxes, that the speeches will be more effective in drumming political support for the president that it will be for his jobs plan. But this shouldn't be so surprising. We hire our presidents on the basis of their ability to talk, not their ability to govern. There is no real test for the latter until it actually happens. However counter-intuitive this may sound, the very stark contrast in Obama's leadership on foreign versus domestic policy strongly suggests that talking has much less to do with governing than our infotainment culture insists it does.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street Stands For

To understand the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is helpful to understand that it is the antithesis of the Tea Party movement, though for now, much smaller in scale. Occupy Wall Street protesters are, like the Tea Party protesters, disenchanted at the state of the economy, and impatient for solutions. But unlike their compatriots on the Right, their animus is directed at corporate America (Wall Street), not at government (Washington, DC).

Why is Occupy Wall Street more disorganized and rowdy, lacking a message as coherent as the Tea Party's? Because the American Left has always been a messy, rowdy bunch. Pluralism is inclusive, but it suffers also from having too many voices under the same tent. Yet one thing is clear, while Occupy Wall Street protesters are calling for government reform, they still believe in government. Indeed, they want a government that will stand up to the corporations. And this is why leaders on the Right, such as Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor, are calling the protests a form of "class warfare" and are wary of the "mob." (Incidentally, this frame of chaos and disorder, if it spreads, is only going to push independents in Iowa and Florida toward Mitt Romney, assuming NH is in the bag.)

President Barack Obama may be able to catch some wind from this leftist anger, but he has been prudently tentative. Protests - whether on the Left of the Right - are evidence of disenchantment with existing governing institutions. Even though the Tea Party movement helped sweep many Republicans into the House last year, it ought to be remembered that they kicked about as many out. For all the talk of their influence, Mitt Romney remains the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, without the Tea Party's blessings. On the Left, the Occupy Wall Street movement would be even more difficult to harness. The protesters are, after all, protesting in spite of the fact that their representatives control two of the three elected branches of the government. While it will certainly give Obama some bargaining room to argue for taxing millionaires to pay for his jobs bill, the movement is also evidence of frustrations boiling over -- a condition that is not conducive for governance.

People go to the streets when institutions fail. There is a sense that American governmental institutions are no longer up to the task of delivering on the American Dream. The separation of powers, the Senate filibuster, government by committee (and super-committee), the permanent campaign, and bickering political parties may be democracy in action, but it no longer appears to be governance in action. What the Tea Party Movement, and Occupy War Street, jointly, call for, is an overall appraisal and re-synthesis of all these moving parts, so that faith in our institutions may be restored. The politicians can begin by starting to agree on something, for there is a lot more anger from where either movement came from.

Friday, September 30, 2011

No Longer Loveable, the White House Presents a Fiesty Candidate

Republicans waited and they waited for Sarah Palin, but all she is is a tease. They tried Michelle Bachmann, and she had the day in the sun (or on Newsweek's cover). They tried Rick Perry, and he had his day in the polls until his debate performances revealed certain holes (he would say "heart") in his conservative armor. And now people are asking if Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey might be the last ("portly") standing man between Romney and the Republican presidential nomination.

All of this is good news for Romney, but mixed news for the Republican party. He is the Prince of Wales now -- the runner-up to the nomination in the last contest, and presumptive front-runner for the next. But like Prince Charles, he is barely likeable, and the Republican has gone around the country desperately looking for a candidate with the X-factor that would enthuse them the way Obama enthused Democrats in 2008.

The difference between 2008 and 2012 is that people were crazy about Obama. Democrats couldn't wait to get Bush of the White House, to be sure. But they loved Obama. He even gave Chris Matthew a tingle up his legs.

The one thing that unites the Republican and the Tea party is their intense hatred of Obama and Obamacare - some would say, the same thing, under the banner of "socialism." This is certainly a potent political force, and it will get the voters out next November. But what is curious is that this negative affect does not translate to any equivalent positive affect on any of the candidates in the field now. Ron Paul has won a few straw polls here and there, but his anti-war position disqualifies from the get-go. Perry's position on immigration is now earning him heckles on the stump. And if Chris Christie jumps in the race, it is unlikely that he will get a pass on his moderate positions on immigration and gun control.

Enter Barack Obama's campaign, jump-started very recently with a new sense of purpose and fury, ready to rumble. Obama will never be loved as he had been loved before -- the campaign gurus must know that by now. But, if there is one thing that will resuscitate the Progressive vote, it is that they want someone who would stand up to the Tea Party ranting, to deal a fist to their fury. The White House hopes that this might just be enough to overcome the forbidding reality that a bad economy always works against an incumbent president up for re-election. With no love on either side for their respective candidates, the next election is shaping up to be a slugfest between the Obama-haters and the Tea-party haters. We are en route to a very negative campaign in 2012.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Perry v. Romney

The two front-runners in the Republican nomination contest, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, narrowed the distance between them in the last debate in Florida sponsored by Fox and Google. This is a debate that showcased both their Achilles’ heels.

Perry's problem is not the "ponzi scheme" comment about Social Security. Most conservatives agree with him, and the consistent conservative would actually agree with him that Social Security is a matter that should be sent back to the states to handle. Perry's problem is his record and position on immigration -- this is the weak spot in his armor that the other candidates will jump on in the days to come. What Perry should have said during the debate is that it is a state's prerogative to decide on what counts as legal residency in a state and the benefits, such as an in-state tuition subsidy, that accrue to it; and then follow up to say that as a national policy, he would respect the country's majority's opinion against any "magnet" policy that could encourage illegal immigration. What Perry should not have done, was wax poetic about children of illegal immigrants who did nothing wrong because this runs consistent with the charge that if his heart is soft for the children of illegals in Texas, it would be equally soft when it comes to national immigration policy. Oops.

All this then is also to say that Perry isn't as quick on his feet as he needs to be. When Chris Wallace asked Michelle Bachmann if she stood by her comments that the HPV vaccine causing "mental retardation," she made a politician's pivot and attacked Perry for his executive order which would have mandated the use of the vaccine on Texas children. What Perry should have done was not to accept the redirected premise of Bachmann's charge, but to direct Chris Wallace's fire back at her. Perry certainly knows how to attack -- he did some of that when he accused Romney of flip-flopping -- but he does not (yet) know how to direct his fire when under fire.

Romney's problem is that he isn't sure of himself. People say he is slick and he is opportunistic -- and that is correct. But the reason why is that he lacks a solid sense of his core identity, a certain confidence that allows the best politicians to be able to change their public personas at will and according to circumstance -- most ignominiously like Bill Clinton -- and still know what they truly believe in their heart of hearts. Romney, unlike Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, does not have a heart of hearts. And that is why when he pretends, as all politicians sometimes must, it is painfully obvious. That is why he appears like a shell of a person to the Tea Partiers who want are looking for a live, throbbing, indignant champion who can take on Obama without flinching. This would be his Achilles’ heel.

Looking ahead, it is unlikely that Romney will find himself in the next couple of months, but it is unlikely that Perry would learn to be become a much better candidate in time for the start of the primary season early next year. In the end, Republican primary voters will have to choose between a better but inauthentic candidate as Romney is and a clumsier but more authentic Perry.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Nation Divided, A President Chastened

On 9/11 each year, the media reenacts the trauma the American people experienced in 2001. Images already burnished in our minds are replayed. Memorials services are held, moments of silence are observed, and the national anthem is sung. National myth-making occurs at the very site where national disaster occurs, so that a new birth of freedom rises phoenix-like from the ashes of ruin.

Or so it seems. What is poignant about the memorial services this year is that they are occurring against a backdrop of a nation so divided that the unity and fellow-feeling that the media is drumming up on 9/11 appears almost to be a parody of reality. The moment of silence we observe on 9/11 would not last a day, especially on cable television. Just a week before, we heard a presidential candidate repeat his characterization of Social Security as a "ponzi scheme" in a nationally televised debate, followed by a didactic presidential speech to a joint session of congress where some members did not deign to attend.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the Arab Spring has arrived; but America is still reeling from three summers of discontent. The juxtaposition of a relative national consensus on foreign policy and a national dissensus on domestic policy reveal that Americans love their nation, but they also hate their state. This is the paradox that Barack Obama's message of hope and change in 2008 tried to defuse; yet it has been the cold reality doused on his domestic agenda from this first day in office. If Barack Obama electrified a nation and rose to prominence when he declared that we are neither the red states of America nor the blue states of America; he has come full circle to the reality that we are still, if not even more so than before, both. Worse still, he must take some responsibility for the outcome.

In no other area has Obama done more harm to his credibility with the political Right than in the perception that he has broken the first commandment of fiscal conservatism: that government should do no harm; but the national debt is the surest proof that it has. Where there was once hope, many now look back and see hubris in the bank bailouts, the stimulus spending, and "clash for clunkers."

Fourteen months from the next election, it has dawned on his team that even Obama, Camelot incarnate, cannot reconcile Americans' patriotism and our deep distrust of the federal government. If it is now a foregone conclusion that there is going to be a huge enthusiasm gap between supporters of the Republican nominee and Obama groupies in 2012, then the president's best bet is to do no more harm. If the economy is not likely to rebound anytime soon, there is little point picking yet another fight with small chances of victory, and even fewer guarantees of economic consequence. Obama's jobs speech to Congress last week, then, was a fiery opening volley intended to disguise the new campaign logic for 2012: slow and steady wins the race. No more big ideas, just tried and tested formulas. 

The day has come when even the USPS is no longer spared the vilification due to another perceived beneficiary of federal largesse. In such a day, Rick Perry has burst into the national scene, ready to take on the paradox that Americans are patriotic and anti-statist. Obama has lost the credibility needed to reconcile the tension in that paradox, so his best bet is to lie low, and hope for a Republican nominee to propose something crazier than Obamacare.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Rise of Rick Perry

Rick Perry's star is on the rise. And the reason is that he is as authentically conservative as President Barack Obama is apologetically liberal.

Already some polls are showing him edging ahead of previous frontrunner, Mitt Romney. This is not a post-announcement bounce, but a game-changer in the Republican race. This is a man who has won every one of the 10 elections he has ever ran in, because he picks his battles and possesses an impeccable sense of timing. Unlike Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, who flirt with the media because they like the attention, Perry is in it to win -- and he may well.

A simple compare and contrast with Mitt Romney suggests why. Whereas  Romney has to manufacture a personality, Perry breezes through with his authenticity. Romney's gaffes embarrass him; Perry's asides endear him to his base even more. Whereas Romney represents the country-club Republicans ascendant in the last century, Perry represents a modern conservative grass-roots movement recharged by its reconnection to its Confederate past. Romney can't say very much about his Mormonism, but Perry is pretty aggressive about his Evangelism. Perry's anger at Washington is real and full-blooded; Mitt Romney appears to want to just get there.

A Republican field that now reveals more shades of Perry than it does of Romney confirms this tale. If 2012 were a year for a Romney candidacy, Ron Paul would be out, andTim Pawlenty would be in. Jon Huntsman would be on the cover of Newsweek magazine, not Michelle Backmann. Karl Rove's opinion of Perry would be damning, not flattering. In nomination races, one rule stands out: whoever wears the Teflon wins the prize.

Put yet another way, Perry is practically everything Obama is not. Talk about a contrast. Perry went to Texas A&M, Obama to Columbia and Harvard. Perry earned a commission from the Air Force; Obama was a community organizer. Perry wants to make Washington irrelevant, Obama lives there. And you can bet that Perry's going to be telling us that he helped create jobs in Texas, and Obama hasn't created many for the country. The only major thing that seems to connect them is a mutual disdain for George Bush -- but even there Perry appears, yet again, to be the right person, with the right attitude, at the right time.

So this leaves us with the question of whether it would be Romney or Perry who clinches the nomination. That depends on whether Romney can enact the part of political outsider better than Perry who authentically already is. Ours is unmistakably the era of outsiders. An expanded electorate since the 1970s with no patience for establishment candidates has picked Reagan and Clinton over George H. W. Bush, Bush over Gore, Obama over Hillary Clinton.

Now the only thing Perry has to do is to prove that he can raise money at least as well as Romney can, and nearly as much as Obama will. Finally, the race is on.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Call to Reason

America's economy is not in crisis, but its political system is, or so thinks the S&P. The real problem, however, is not the political system per se, but its infection with populism.

Even though the S&P has downgraded the US's credit rating, it did so from an exaggerated understanding of American politics based on its shrillness, and not its constitutional fundamentals. This is why on the first trading day after the downgrade, American bonds are still the place to go. The fact is there aren't enough AAA bonds out there for investors to substitute American bonds for, however "dysfunctional" American politics looks. AAA bonds in Europe aren't safer given the uncertainty in the euro zone, and stocks are certainly not going to be safer in these turbulent days. As potent as the Tea Party has become, there is still zero threat of default by the US, as Warren Buffet has noted, because the US Treasury pays its bills in US dollars, which the Fed can print at will.

S&P's downgrade, then, was driven in part by a misunderstanding of the way a separated system of checks and balances works. For all the charges of the Tea Party's "hostage taking," it is still their constitutional right to do so. But they also lack the constitutional power to have their way, which is exactly what happened. In the end, cooler minds in the House and Senate prevailed, and Congress actually passed a very, very bi-partisan bill that raised the debt ceiling.

But only in part. Unfortunately, because the S&P was duped, the populist infection has spread. The Tea Party anthem of doom and gloom had already been raging for two years, but the S&P added to its chorus by believing it. Saying so has finally begun to make it so, and the toxic language of the Tea Party Movement has helped bring consumer and business confidence to its knees.

Thanks also to the Movement, the unsophisticated debate about the public debt as a single monolithic figure has meant that we have not been able to sift out the real long-term problem of entitlement spending, and the possibility that government spending may well be required in the short term to stimulate demand, invest in education for the future, and address the infrastructural deficits in this country since businesses are reluctant to invest. Instead, the government's hands are clipped, even though it is precisely in this moment of distress that government needs to step up to offer some hope. Instead of a balanced menu of solutions, too much of what we hear from Washington is indiscriminate talk of austerity as if it were the silver bullet to all our economic problems.

The problem, then, is unregulated populism. Popular movements have always swept politicians into Washington; divided party control of government has always existed. But the framers never intended for the movements which swept their leaders into government to continue to hold a leash on them so that the whole point of representative government has now been turned on its head. Demagogues from both parties have become slaves to some of the irrational voices among their constituents, but the worst are those whose hatred of government is so intense that they actually wish for the full faith and credit of the US to be downgraded so that they can satisfy some atavistic yearning for a pre-modern economy based on corn and cotton. (Is this really what the spirit of '76 was about?)

To begin to get ourselves out of the immediate pickle, the super-committee of the Senate designated to discuss further spending cuts ought to be sequestered as much as is possible with little media contact, so that unelected feudal lords like Grover Norquist cannot stick their noses into the process and turn the cooling saucer of the Senate into another playpen for demagogues. Leaders should be allowed to be leaders -- John Boehner came so close to being one -- and should be permitted to think about the big picture and the long term without recourse to petty interests and ideologues. Thank goodness most senators aren't up for election next year.

This is already a time of panic, of disillusion, and of market irrationality; so there is no need for more. The framers created a representative democracy so that the noise would be filtered out, not invited to the deliberative halls of the greatest democracy the world has seen. Let leaders be leaders; if not, a system that has morphed out of control may well be seeing the beginning of its end.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Triumph of Politics

America is the only country in the world that has the luxury of creating an economic crisis when there isn't one. Ours is the only democracy with a debt ceiling, with the exception of Denmark, which raises its ceiling well in advance of when it would be reached. Economists say that our "debt crisis" is an unforced error, because people are more than willing to lend us money, at pretty good rates. This is the benefit of having a really good credit score.

And yet there are some who wish to call the credit card company to voluntarily reduce our credit limit after they just max-ed it out. This tells us that politics triumphs economics in this country. That we ended up with so much debt is a result of politics, anyway. For all the talk of budgetary restraint coming from Congress, the fact is it was Congress that authorized all the spending that has brought us to where we are. Yes, every single dime. The only way to explain a Congress which wants to spend, and indeed already has, and also wants now to cap spending, is to understand the pathologies of the budgetary process. Members of Congress have an incentive to bring the pork home, and they have done this for two centuries. They must also defer all redistributive policies to the federal government, because citizens of states are mobile and can escape the reach of state redistributive policies. The collective outcome of this is a federal government that is milked for everything it can give to the states, and on top of that, left to do the dirty redistributive (and regulatory) work that no state can do. The grand paradox is that a Constitution written to exploit jealousy and suspicion in the pursuit of liberty also ended up consolidating a bureaucracy that not even Hamilton could have imagined.

And still we continue apace. Rather than fight politics by taking it away, the libertarian ideology of Grover Norquist is an effort to fight politics with ideology. In the hope that ambition can counteract ambition, this has always been the American way. The Tea Party is deliberately trying to inflict a wound on our financial credibility, by signally to the market that we may choose to default in a roundabout way of forcing us to spend less. And yet for all the talk of "getting our house in order," presumably the whole point of doing so was to restore our financial credibility, which would be better off without a forced financial crisis in the first place.

If we are talking in circles, it is because politics is circular. It is rooted in human nature, messy, dedicated to the short term, and oblivious to the historical accumulation of short-term utility-maximization. But fissiparous politics has also been the guarantee of liberty in America. And the greatest freedom is surely the freedom to make our own mistakes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Republicans will Pay for the Tea Party's Ideological Purity

Tea Party Republicans are about to be forced fed a slice of humble pie. In the first test of their political acumen since sweeping into Congress last year, they showed an ignorance of the first rule of democratic politics: never say never, because a politician's got to be a politician.

Especially on an issue, the federal debt ceiling, with stakes as high as financial Armageddon itself! All the best intentions in the world served up on the high horse of ideological purity is about to bring the entire Republican party to its knees before Obama on this issue.

Ronald Reagan presided over 16 debt ceiling raises, Bush saw it raised 7 times. Did Tea Party Republicans really think that they could out-Republican Reagan and Bush? There's the crux of any bargaining game -- know thine chips. There is simply no way Wall Street and the Chambers of Commerce around the nation were going to sit around and let the Tea Party faction within the Republican fold play with this financial matter of life and death. Maybe it was the residue of last year's electoral hubris, or maybe they believed the myth that fiscal conservatism is the one thing that unites Republicans, or maybe they forgot that the president wields a veto, but Tea Partiers and their leaders in Congress should never have done a repeat of George H. W. Bush's "Read my lips, no new taxes." Doing this backed them into a corner, flanked by no debt ceiling increases on the one side, and no tax increases on the other. Leaving no standing room left for compromises, the Tea Party caucus is about to realize that two negatives do not together make a "yes" from the White House. In fact, the only one who gets to say "no" with no less than constitutional gravity is the President.

Obama knew this issue was his to win all along, and he has played the Republicans like a fiddle, presenting himself as a grand negotiator and eminent pragmatist; the go-getter who slyly had it implied that cheques for social security may not be sent out in August, and the media played along and covered the circus. But Obama knew that he never ever had to compromise, which is why he raised the goal of achieving a 4 trillion dollar plan to ensure both that he looked presidentially ambitious, and that he would get exactly what he wants when the deal inevitably fails. Republican leaders trotted along into the White House negotiation table, willingly playing his game in part because they had to look like they were trying, but for the most part, clueless about the plastic value of their bargaining chips.

It is one thing to take an extreme position, but it is another to take an extreme position on a matter that could precipitate financial Armageddon. I have to believe that anyone who is willing to take that risk has a part of herself who would like to see financial collapse on Wall Street, the decimation of corporate capitalism, and a return to Jacksonian laissez faire. The president is rather smugly playing this game because he knows that he doesn't have to lift a hand knowing that in the end, Wall Street will rein the Tea Party in. And so mainstream Republicans have allowed themselves to lose control of the message -- which worked so very well in their favor when they were still focused on jobs -- by talking themselves into corner on an issue they wrongly thought was more on their side than on the president's. Wall Street is not conservative or Republican, Tea Partiers! It's even more powerful than the liberals, and that's why the Dow's not even flinching.

Worse still, by sticking to their guns on no tax increases, the Republican party, which is bigger and normally wiser than the Tea Party orthodoxy, has missed the opportunity to call the president's bluff, and take the deal of a life time involving three dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of revenue increase. Republicans should take the deal if it is still on the table, or else they are going to look very impotent indeed when they're forced, under Mitch McConnell's plan, to raise the debt ceiling by convoluted way of saying no to it. Either way, this was a high-stakes game of politics played wrongly on the Republican side. That the debt ceiling would be raised was, and remains, a foregone conclusion, and that the Tea Party thought they could use it against Obama guaranteed that they will be used.

Monday, July 11, 2011

If the Public Debt Robs our Children, We Robbed the WWII Generation

It is often said that the public debt is a burden we leave to our children and grandchildren. Even Barack Obama said the same when he was a Senator. Invoking children is a great way to make a moral argument without sounding moralistic, but it is a spurious way to make an economic argument in committing the fallacy that all borrowing is deferred charge.

The American people should know that it is not as if the 14 trillion dollar public debt is owed to foreigners. Actually, Paul Krugman (not surprisingly, a Keynesian) thinks that the figure that matters is the debt (or federal securities) held by foreigners and institutions outside of the US, which is about 9.6 trillion. The remaining 5 trillion or so, called intra-governmental debt, is the debt the federal government owes to itself, such as in the form of debt owed to trust funds like Social Security. The cries against burdening our children and grandchildren are illegitimate here. Borrowing by the federal government is itself a market transaction and an investment decision in which the lender forgoes the present use of her money, and purchases a security in return for interest. This interest is socially costless because it is simply a redistribution from all tax-payers to bond-holders. This is a transfer payment, not robbery.

What is missed in the intergenerational-robbery fallacy is that deficits actually help present working cohorts to invest in the increased supply of assets, generated by the debt. Far from being a burden to their children, the present working cohort are, if they are not also building tangible assets made possible by the money raised, at the very least saving for their retirement and doing their part to ensure that future generations are not called on to fund their retirement (either personally, or by public programs). We don't even have to get into Keynesian arguments about how debt possibly increases aggregate demand and jobs to show that government borrowing in such instances does the exact opposite of burdening future generations. This is what makes government borrowing a potent instrument of fiscal (read "stimulus") policy, and it is the real reason why deficit hawks are against it.

Debt sounds like a bad word only because we are falsely analogizing from the personal, or the household, to the public sphere. But what is prudent for the individual or the household is not necessarily prudent for the market. (That's why the economy needs us all to go out and buy even if we don't feel we should.) Yet the false analogizing isn't too surprising if we recall that one strand of ideology in this country has always started off from the perspective if the individual, and the other, the collectivity. We can argue till the cows come home on the latter, but the idea that the public debt is always and entirely a burden to future generations is simply and certifiably fallacious. We are the children and grandchildren of people living during WWII, during which time the public debt as a percentage of GDP was even higher than what it is now, but I don't think anyone will argue that we're now paying off their debt.

OK wait, maybe some will.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Rethinking July 4th

Today is Independence Day, we correctly note. But most Americans do not merely think of July 4 as a day for celebrating Independence. We are told, especially by the Tea Partying crowd, that we are celebrating the birth of a nation. Not quite.

Independence, the liberation of the 13 original colonies form British rule, did not create a nation any more than a teenager leaving home becomes an adult. Far from it, even the Declaration of Independence (which incidentally, was not signed on July 4, but in August), did not even refer to the "United States" as a proper noun, but instead,  registered the "unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." And that was all we were in 1776 - a collection of states with no common mission, linked fate, or general government. This was the understanding of the the Franco-American treaties of 1778, which referred to the "United States of North America."

America was not America until it was, well, constituted. The United States of America was born after the 9th State ratified the US Constitution, and Congress certified the same on September 13, 1788. So we should by all means celebrate the 4th, but confusing Independence with the birth of a nation has serious constitutional-interpretive implications. If the two are the same, then the Declaration's commitment to negative liberty -- freedom from government -- gets conflated with the Constitution's commitment to positive liberty -- its charge to the federal government to "secure the Blessings of Liberty." The fact of the matter is that government was a thing to be feared in 1776. Government, or so the revolutionaries argued, was tyrannical, distant, and brutish. But it was precisely a turnaround in sentiment in the years leading up to 1789 -- the decade of confederal republican anarchy -- that the States came around to the conclusion that government was not so much to be feared than it was needed. This fundamental reversal of opinion is conveniently elided in Tea-Party characterizations of the American founding.

It is no wonder that politicians can get American history so wrong if we ourselves -- 84 percent, according to the National Constitution Center's poll in 1997 -- actually believe that the phrase "all men are created equal" are in the Constitution. Actually, quite the opposite. Those inspirational words in the Declaration of Independence have absolutely zero constitutional weight, and they cannot be adduced as legal arguments in any Court in the nation.

Nations are not built by collective fear. Jealousy is a fine republican sentiment, especially if it is directed against monarchy, but it is surely less of a virtue when directed against a government constituted by We the People unless jealousy against oneself is not a self-defeating thing. What remains a virtuous sentiment, in monarchies or in republics, however, is fellow-feeling, a collective identification with the "general Welfare." America can move in the direction of "a more perfect Union" only if citizens can come to accept that the Declaration of Independence was the prelude to the major act, and not the culminating act in itself.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage , State by State

New York has just become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, together with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, and the District of Columbia. New Jersey, Maryland, and Rhode Island have not legalized same-sex marriage, but they do recognize those performed in other states. State by State, the dominoes against same-sex marriage are falling away as surely as reason must conquer unreason. President Barack Obama has been accused of allowing a state governor, Mario Cuomo, to be the leader on this issue. But on this issue, Obama's hesitation and characteristic equivocation might turn out to be strategically, if unintentionally wise, because civil rights issues are most effectively advanced by state legislatures, not national institutions.

Consider the bitter-sweet record of the Civil Rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the lesser known Loving v. Virginia (1967), which legalized inter-racial marriage, were landmark Supreme Court decisions. But they created decades of backlash, most easily exemplified by the busing controversy as well as the "special rights" retort -- the argument that a too-ready conferral of alleged rights to identity groups creates an atomistic society and a government with more obligations than it can or ought to fulfill -- the lead argument against affirmative action policies today. In 1967, the year inter-racial marriage was made legal by "judicial activism," 72 percent of Americans were opposed to inter-racial marriage. It was not until 1991, 35 years later, that these Americans became a minority. Brown and Loving gave us the right decisions, but not necessary with the smartest strategy.

The history of the same-sex marriage movement in the mid-2000s exhibited the same one step forward, two step backwards tendency when it tried to follow in the strategic footsteps of the Civil Rights movement, by way of the Courts. In 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, that it was inconsistent with the State's constitution to limit marriage only to opposite-sex couples. Massachusetts became the first US state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; a triumphant first hurrah, but ultimately a harbinger of backlash, including a national movement to amend the US constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and the passage of amendments in 11 state constitutions to the same on election day. 2004 would be remembered as the year of anti-same-sex-marriage backlash, not the year when the movement for marriage equality started.

But something remarkable happened in the last few years, when the movement decided that the "special rights" retort was too powerful to overcome. The movement suspended its alliance with the Courts, and turned, as presidential candidates must, to a state-by-state strategy. In doing this, the movement drove a knife into the the heart of the anti-same-sex-marriage argument. The argument against "activist judges" -- a procedural argument that disguises the moral disgust -- cannot stand when state legislatures comprised of elected officials redefine the meaning of marriage. Just seven years after a national hysteria against "judicial activism, " conservative groups are now left with one of two choices, either come out (no pun intended) and articulate the real moral or religious reasons why they are against same-sex marriage, or lose the public battle because they can no longer adduce smoke-screen procedural reasons. Whereas it took 35 years before a national majority was found in favor of permitting inter-racial marriage, as Gallup reports, it has taken just 7 years (after Massachusetts' Goodridge decision) for same-sex marriage.

Impatience begets backlash in American politics, a lesson liberals find difficult to stomach even as they watch public support for "Obamacare" decline every day. But this nation was built state by state, in a laborious ratification process that for better or for worse, became the template of our majoritarian rule; a reminder that majorities can be built from the ground up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Politics of Pessimism

The election of 2012 will turn on the economy and jobs. But jobs or the lack thereof are only a component of a more pervasive sentiment in American politics today. That sentiment is pessimism, because Horatio Alger has become Joe the Plumber.

The pessimism in American politics is concentrated in one part of the electorate -- the white working class, also the group which has pulled most sharply from Obama's support. Understanding the disaffection of the shrinking white working class is key to understanding the politics of our time. Consider that as late as in 1940, 86 percent of adults over the age of 25 who did not have a 4-year college degree were white. In 2007, the demographic had shrunk to 48 percent. It is this group of Americans, who had recently just lost their majority status, who feel taxed and spent from the decades of liberal government in the interim. As the Economic Mobility Project poll found, while only 48% of Caucasians believe their economic circumstances will be better in ten years, substantial majorities of African Americans (68%), Hispanics (66%), and Asian Americans (64%) foresee improved personal finances down the road. Tea Partiers agitating to "take back" America, no less than "Birthers" challenging Obama's citizenship or Minute Men securing the border in Arizona, are registering a heart-felt disenchantment that they have been left behind in America's liberal march. This is why those competing for the Republican nomination who are also articulately expressing this declension narrative are resonating with the base. It is also why even though no one thinks that Ron Paul would win the nomination, the Doomsday Prophet has already won two straw polls, most recently at the Republican Leadership Conference this weekend in New Orleans; and why Mitt Romney's gaffe that he too, is "unemployed" will  come back to haunt the front-runner who looks more like the aristocratic poster child of the Republican party of 1920, not 2012.

2012, however, is not 1828; nor is it 1980 because while the white working class votes reliably for the conservative party, it is also not the majority any more – a very recent development which even Ronald Reagan did not have to navigate. Andrew Jackson waxed poetic on the virtue of the plowman as Reagan sounded morning in America. They gave hope to the disillusioned because the disillusioned were many. But every Republican candidate today is highlighting the evening in today’s America because if they can convince enough voters to identify with the disenchanted working class, Obama will lose the battleground states of FL, OH, CO, and NV. The candidates, however, are walking an increasingly fine line of empathizing with the base's sense of being culturally and economically eclipsed, and the political playbook's rule that elections are won on hope. Obama's challenge, on the other hand, is to re-fashion his message of hope -- and that is why he is aggressively courting young, college-educated whites -- even as wherever we look in the economy, it appears that it is still evening in America. And so it has been for two centuries, race, class, hope, and despair are locked into our quarrels about the future.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rick Perry 2012

A lackluster field of Republican candidates for president will receive a significant jolt if Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, decides to throw his hat in the ring. There is significant buzz now to take this possibility seriously.

The big story about Newt Gingrich's campaign implosion wasn't that 16 of his staff members walked out; it is that that two of them, Dave Carney and Rob Johnson (who managed Perry's last campaign when Perry beat Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by over 20 percentage points in the Republican primary), are longtime aides to the Governor who are now free to offer their services to him. I doubt it is mere coincidence that only a week before, Rick Perry ended years of denial and was reported to have said about running in 2012, "I'm gonna to think about it."

Perry would be a formidable candidate if he got in. For one, he has never lost an election in his life and if he comes in, it means he's done the math. Governors from big states already start off with an advantage because they can carry their state's electoral college votes with them, and Republican governors from Texas are especially advantaged because Texas is the biggest fundraising state for the party. An earlier favorite of the Tea Party, Perry would be able to articulate an authentic voice against big government and capture those votes originally reserved for the more colorful spokespersons of the movement whom we all know would not, in the end, actually run. (A Perry run would also conclusively kill all remaining speculation about whether or not there would be a Palin run, as they're both courting the same crowd.) As a third term governor, Perry would be able to speak with more executive experience and more authority against "beltway" insiders than the other governors in the declared field, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. Texas' job creation record in the last year has also been nothing short of astounding, making it home to 37 percent of the nation's newly created jobs since the recession ended, and you can bet Perry would take the credit for it if he runs. Finally,  Perry will benefit from his well-known rivalry with George Bush, while his fiscal fundamentalism and his secessionist sympathies would inoculate him from ties to the party establishment. For a Republican party yearning, after the Bush years, to return to original principles, Rick Perry is as authentic as it gets.

The Republican field is, to use Bill O'Reilly's caption for Tim Pawlenty, "vanilla" enough that there is tremendous hunger for a candidate with as much stylistic oomph -- never-mind the substance -- that could match the party's distaste for President Obama. (Witness the initial surge of interest in Herman Cain.) With no commanding frontrunner this late in the game, Perry has read the tea leaves and he is tempted. And the best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Sleaze Factor

If Congressman Anthony Weiner loses his job because of a few lewd pictures, he would probably have lost the most among a long line of unfaithful politicians for having sinned the least. Bill Clinton's encounters happened in the Oval Office (among other places). At least Larry Craig managed to graze another foot at a bathroom stall. But Anthony Weiner didn't even go much beyond Twitter. There is a chance that Weiner would endure the political storm (as Senator David Vitter and President Bill Clinton did), by waiting the scandal out and hoping that the uproar subsides. But two things stand in the way.

First, Anthony Weiner has no friends. He hasn't been around long enough, as Charlie Rangel had when he faced his own scandal, to have built up friendships and loyalties in the House. Actually, many Democrats privately believe that Weiner's an upstart who has adopted a combative style not to further the collective cause of the party but simply to side-step the rules of seniority in the party and to attract media attention to himself. This is why no one has stood up for Weiner; indeed they have done the reverse. Harry Reid was as only as quick to call for Weiner's resignation as Nancy Pelosi was to call for a formal ethics investigation.

Second, Weiner didn't go far enough to actually have, at least no evidence is yet forthcoming to the effect, a full-blown affair. And this may count against him because it increases the sleaze factor in his scandal. If Weiner had had an actual affair, he may actually look more like your typical cheating politician. But instead, he now looks like some wierdo who sends pictures of himself to strangers but did nothing to follow up, suggesting that the sexual pleasure consisted purely in the puerile act of sending lewd photos to unsuspecting victims. (I'm not endorsing a hierarchy of sins here, merely pointing out the arbitrariness of what counts as a damning political sin and what is not.)

The sleaze factor infecting Weiner's scandal was not aided by the fact that his wife did not join him at his confessional press conference. One reason why David Vitter and Larry Craig survived their scandals is that their wives stood by them, literally. For if the wives could forgive their husbands' indiscretions, who are we to judge?

Put another way, sexual misconduct does not have to become politically damaging. It was for Gary Hart and Eliot Spitzer, but it wasn't for John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The lesson for the politicians is not that they should be faithful to their spouses or even that they shouldn't get caught; but that if they're going to cheat, they should do it sans the sleaze. D.C. Madam, anyone?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why Celebrities Do not Leaders Make

The tragic flaw of American democracy is that we seek the same qualities in candidates for political office as we do in the movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most recent case in point.

Celebrities have name recognition. They are easy on the eye. And they pretend really well. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to keep a 13 year old secret from his own wife. Whoever said he was just a robotic bodybuilder clearly underestimated his considerable acting ability.

It is no wonder that good actors make great politicians. Like actors, politicians use image consultants to change how they look; their words are crafted by somebody else; they have publicists for image (or damage) control. And so mimesis occurs alike in art and in politics. Because both the actor and the politician revel in the attention that comes with being on stage, Plato did not think it wise that actors should have a political role in the republic. (Actually he wanted them expelled.)

Yet let us not malign the actors. The difference between political deception -- whether it be the innocent smile of a John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger's family values spiel -- and acting is that when doing the latter, the audience understands that make-belief is part of the game. Whereas the actor performs to entertain, the politician performs to gain office.

The distinction between acting and politicking, however, is less clear in our corrupted democracy. And citizens must accept our complicity in this, because we have come to expect a degree of deception from our politicians just as we condone make-belief in our actors. For it was too easy, too comforting for Californians to believe that an action-hero would sweep in and solve the state's budget troubles. The Governator pulled out all the stops of his celebrity to encourage this lazy assumption.

Californians, and Americans in general, have two choices. Either we stop allowing actors to pretend their way into politics, or we stop complaining when they fail to live up to their big-screen reputations. The outrage we express whenever we find out that our predictions of moral rectitude expressed in our votes were way off is just our way of avoiding the more painful truth that the heuristics that we had adopted to guide our vote were entirely inaccurate. Sophisticated citizenry requires that we understand that glib actors with charming smiles are lovable, but that does not mean that they would love us back.

Our politicians and our citizens today worship at the altar of make-belief (policians make, and citizens believe) images. Someone has to break the glittering cycle. It might as well be us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Same Ole Party for Now

In 2010, the Tea Party movement was out and about. Newly christened and newly outraged, they created the enthusiasm gap that creates victories in an age of evenly split bipolarized politics.

This year, the rage has sizzled out to disgruntled listlessness. Even for those still against Obamacare, the memory of its passage has waned because the promised effects of its eventual implementation will not become evident for a few more years, and the debate about the national debt is either too real (in medicare) or too esoteric (as in the debt ceiling) for easy populist manipulation.

If Republicans are still waiting for a political novice from a mid-western town to emerge out of nowhere to take the country by storm (ie, their Obama), then they best wait for the next cycle, because their most talented candidates have already opted to do so. The smart candidates, if they can afford the time, are polishing their CVs for 2016, because they know that whoever it is, incumbent presidents are just hard to beat; plus they just happen to have to be facing an incumbent president who appears as adept at filling his war-chest as he is at delivering campaign sonnets.

Trump was a fun fantasy, as was Huckabee, and as remains Herman Cain. So many tantalizing options, some sparks of celebrity; and yet no magic, no candidate with the star quality -- the je na sai quoi of our era of infotainment politics. It's not that there is no talent on the Republican side, but that the talented have wisely chosen to withhold their talent for a better shot in the future.

And so all we have on the Republican side right now is the same old. The front-runner, as far as any is visible, is a stiff millionaire with Wall Street credentials with the slick hair to match his slick politics. He was for health-care in Massachusetts before he was against it in Washington. But he does raise a lot of money, so at least he satisfies the bare minimum requirement for what it takes to take on Obama. And that's it. For all the Right's talk that Obama is just about the worst president that has ever befallen American (so terrible he's even been deemed, literally, unAmerican), there is a gaping lacuna in their search for an alternative.

In the era of the permanent campaign, when all elected politicians are already campaigning for their next appearance at the poll, now is rather late in the game that we are not already speculating about the most viable candidates. Now granted the speculations are often wrong, but the point is early speculation is a sign of enthusiasm that helps create a victorious wave for whoever the nominee is later on. The last time there was an incumbent president on the ballot, the Democrats were going gaga over Howard Dean at this time in that cycle. We are well past this point for the 2012 cycle, and yet the Republican Tea-partiers are only just getting over Donald Trump's flirtatious clownery. Whereas by 2006, the lame-duck George Bush was already being eclipsed by the media's extended foreplay with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most eyes remain on the same two characters, even if some are cast in contempt. There still isn't a newsmaking, paparazzi-feeding figure on the Republican side who also looks credible enough to party apparatchiks. (Sarah Palin fails on the latter criterion), in part because no candidate on the Right has yet mastered the fine art of credible populism -- as close as one can come to giving the je ne sai quoi of presidential star quality a name in the era of plebiscitary and anti-intellectual politics. The existing range of candidates are sub-par because they are either too stiff or too silly.

All populists are, to some extent, sweet-talking thespians. It cannot be otherwise, because democracy makes the voter sovereign, and sovereigns love flattery. But while it takes a populist to win, it takes a populist with a head on her shoulders to govern, and thank goodness, our electoral system is still able to wield insanity out. The situation with the Republican field today is that there are populists, and there are clowns who until recently were still stoking the "birther" issue for a day in the political sun. But the serious candidates -- those with the talent to both gaggle and govern -- have for now, chosen to wait this one out.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden is Dead

Osama Bin Laden was reported to have been killed by US forces late Sunday night EST at a compound in Abbottabad, just outside Islamabad. This will be a tremendous morale boost for the US, and it would be a crushing blow to Al Qaeda's. Sure, Bin Laden is just a figurehead of an organization which has now sprouted branches all over the world, and sure his death will likely provoke retaliatory attacks by his followers seeking to revenge his "martyrdom," but there is little doubt that this development is a net gain for the US.

As supporters spontaneously gathered outside the White House and in New York to sing the Star Spangled Banner and to chant "USA" upon hearing the news, we also already know that President Obama will benefit politically from this event. Fair or not, the future of the history of 9/11 will forever be: 9/11 happened under Bush's watch, and America's revenge occurred during Obama's watch. (The president made sure to highlight in his late-night speech from the White House that he had ordered the successful operation in Pakistan.)

Obama was very wise to have called President Bush before his speech at the White House. He knows how history would be written, and he wants no impression that he had a hand in writing it. It almost doesn't matter how much of a success or failure Obama's presidency will be for the rest or possibly his next term, for Obama has gained an immunity from being ranked with the likes of James Buchanan and Warren Harding. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been poured into America's search for justice, and the US, whose influence in the world appeared to be mocked and challenged on 9/11, has been sorely in need of vindication for nearly a decade. Whether or not our world is safer, Americans needed a psychological catharsis and a reason still to believe that we always prevail.

The CIA is also up, as is the national intelligence and the counter-terrorism community writ large. As it turns out, Bin Laden was not hiding in a cave, as we might have been led to believe, but in a mansion specifically built with multiple layers of security to house a VIP in a military town near Islamabad, as if he was under the Pakistani military's protection. Even though President Obama has claimed otherwise, it is difficult to believe that the Pakistani government, or at least the government under Pervez Musharraf, has been as cooperative with the US as they have been claiming. In the weeks and months to come, the US will have to reassess the manner in which we co-opt allies for our counter-terrorism efforts.

What matters now is how the succession battle within Al-Qaeda pans out. There has always been and will always be people who hate the United States, but it took a very rare mastermind with the organizational and motivational skills to launch a successful attack on US soil. Al-Qaeda's international network is a motley and complex crew, so it is entirely possible that the organization caves in under its own disunity if they cannot decide on a leader to match Bin Laden's charisma and credibility (as was the case for what happened to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's insurgency group in Iraq after he was killed.) With the turmoil in the Middle East and Arab leaders focussed on internal order and with less resources to fund Al-Qaeda, and with the treasure trove of intelligence information found in the compound where Bin Laden was killed, we might well be facing a turning point in the war on terrorism.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Campaign Fund-raising and the Pre-Primaries for Elections 2012

Something of a myth of American democracy is that decisions are made in the ballot box by voters on election day. Actually, these outcomes are structured by fundraising efforts by would-be candidates years in advance.

Aspirants to the GOP presidential nomination, now entering the crucial second quarter before election year and on the eve of their formal declarations of candidacies, are now racing for credibility by racing for cash. And those without name recognition, in particular, have to rake in as much as they can before June 30 and the slower summer months begin, so that their second quarter federal disclosure reports do not look so pitiful that their campaigns would end before they even began.

President Barack Obama, for his part, appears on top of his own game. Having quickly declared his candidacy, his campaign manager Jim Messina has already mapped out a plan of getting 400 major donors to raise $350,000 each by the end of the year. By forcing the campaign finance issue so early and so soon on GOP hopefuls, he is already shaping the GOP primary outcome. Even more so than in the typical cycle, Republican primary voters will face pressure to forego a candidate of purer conservative principle with less fund-raising potential such as Rick Santorum in favor of a candidate with more fund-raising potential (or the name-recognition to achieve to same) such as Mitt Romney. Obama's early campaign kick-off, then, has heightened the GOP's dilemma between boring but credible candidates, and exciting but unknown candidates -- a reason why the party has not already settled on a clear frontrunner the way it had done for every campaign since 1952.

In the House and Senate, both parties understand that elections have to be bought as much as they must be fought. Democrats in both chambers appear to have begun to narrow the "enthusiasm gap" of 2010, and raised a little more money than Republicans in the first quarter of this year in spite of the expectation that donors are typically unenthusiastic in the fundraising cycle which follows their party's defeat at the polls. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $11.69 million, just slightly more than the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee's figure of $11.2 million. A positive sign for Democrats is that the senators holding important swing seats the GOP hopes to re-capture, such as those of Bill Nelson (FL), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Sherrod Brown (OH), did well by raising over a $1 million each in the first quarter. But this could merely mean that these senators are gearing up for a tough, and perhaps uphill battle ahead.

Democrats fared better in the House as well, but the numbers again are very close. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $19.6 million, compared to the National Republican Campaign Committee, which raised $18 million. The DCCC is taking comfort in the fact that the average freshman Republican congressman raised less in the first quarter of 2011 than the average freshman Democratic congressman did in the first quarters of 2007 and 2009 - the years after the Democrats had just enjoyed their victories. There were, however, clear winners on the Republican side, and topping that list was Michelle Bachmann, who raised over $2 million in the first quarter. The critical question for the year ahead is whether the Tea-Party's enthusiasm for Bachmann is portable enough to help other Republican members achieve their fund-raising goals. If the Tea Party proves capable of inspiring cheques as well as it has inspired hearts, the Republican party will have no problem keeping the House and gaining in the Senate next year.

For American politics, look not to the polls; for where the money goes, so goes the elections.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What is Driving the Republican Position on the Budget Battles?

What exactly, for Republicans, is the budget debate about? It is not primarily about the public debt; it is not even about economic growth.

The last two Democratic presidents, Carter, and Clinton both reduced the size of the public debt as a percentage of our GDP. On the other hand, Richard Nixon was the last fiscally conservative Republican. Every Republican president since has contributed to the rise of the public debt's share of GDP. Indeed, between Reagan and the first Bush, the gross public debt in nominal terms increased fourfold. (Data from CBO.)

Closer to our time, the combined 2 trillion dollar swing between the last year of budget surplus enjoyed during the Clinton administration and the budget deficits of Obama was principally the doing of the Republican president between the two. According to the New York Times' analysis of CBO data, the business cycle (or recession) accounted for 37 percent of this 2 trillion. About 33 percent came from Bush's tax cuts, wars, and prescription drug benefit bill. Obama's main contribution of 20 percent came from his continuation of the Bush tax cuts and wars. His own policies, namely, the bailouts and health-care reform contributed just 3 percent. If Democrats are the party of tax-and-spend, Republicans are the party of cut-taxes-and-spend, and the latter are the reason why the public debt has risen to an unsustainable level.

There are three solutions to reducing the debt. One is to only raise taxes, one is to only cut spending, and one is to do both. And it is a reflection of the rightward political equilibrium of our times that the Republican party is insisting on its predictably single-pronged strategy of just cutting spending, whereas the Democratic party is at least making a perfunctory effort to do both. Republicans justify their call to cut government spending to encourage economic growth. However, if we accept the popular (but mistaken) view that the Carter years were the recent nadir of US economic performance, it is still worth observing that every Republican president since Herbert Hoover, with the single exception of Ronald Reagan, experienced lower annualized GDP growth during their administrations compared to Carter. Clinton, as most would remember, actually enjoyed high growth rates than did even Reagan. (Data from BEA.)

Put yet another way, the ratio of the public debt as a percentage of GDP has decreased for every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt, and it has increased for every Republican president except for Eisenhower and Richard Nixon's first term.

What do these details tell us? It's not primarily about the debt, and its not primarily about growth for most in the Republican party now, except perhaps those among the Gang of Six. There are lots of avenues to cut spending and at least a whole other way, raising taxes, to reduce the public debt.  Instead, it is no wonder that on the Budget Committee Republicans' webpage about "Today's Major Domestic Challenges," over half the words deployed focussed on Social Security and healthcare, while the word "debt" appears only once. What Republicans want today, even more than reducing the debt, is to shrink the size of the federal government, and in particular Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and "Obamacare." In the end, Republicans care most about the liberty and virtue of individuals, and less about the goals of collectivities -- whether these be the healthcare of the indigent, the social security of the old, or the economic growth of the nation as an aggregated abstract. And that is why the public "debt" is ultimately only the political lever conveniently at hand for an ideological end born out of their first principle -- not necessarily misguided I should add -- that liberty from government should always come first.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More Sound than Fury in the Budget Battles Ahead

The strategic gamesmanship leading up to the budget compromise that was reached late last week suggests a blueprint for the budget battles to come. But while many observers believe that Washington is bracing for even more epic battles to come, when Congress considers the budget for the rest of the fiscal year and legislation to raise the debt ceiling, my guess is that there will be more sabre-rattling than a serious effort to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Here are three reasons why.

First, even Democrats agree that cuts are necessary; and even Republicans know that deep cuts are difficult. There will be collusion to fight, but not necessarily to disagree. Certainly, Republicans and Tea Partiers still enjoying the honeymoon from last November's elections have successful set the frame of "spending cuts" such that Democrats have been forced to fight the battle on Republican turf. But everyone already accepts that the federal government has to rein in its spending. Now, Republicans will have to take their pick between fiscal restraint and their social agenda. So far they have been consistent in prioritizing the former, for when push came to shove, even Senator Tom Coburn dropped his insistence on the Planned Parenthood rider. For Democrats, the question is not whether they can beat Republicans at their own game and propose a bigger budget slash than Republicans want, but whether they can reset the political agenda, postpone the issue, or talk about something else. Both sides however, will be sure to start off each new debate with maximal bluster and deliberately over-reach, so as to win the maximal concession from the other side and to achieve a final resting point closest to one's original pre-bluster preference.

Second, last week revealed that neither side wants to risk the political fallout of a government shut-down. Conventional wisdom holds that Bill Clinton was the net political winner when Republicans forced a government shutdown in 1995 and 1996. Last week, even Tea Partiers revealed their interest in seeing government work, not shut down. The budget talks were the first real test of the Tea Party in government, the first test of Speaker Boehner's ability to unite a diverse group of freshmen and veteran Republican congressmen, and the first test of President Obama's ability to reconcile Democrats and Republicans after his announcement to seek a second presidential term. Because nobody wants to risk appearing obstructionist, the irony of divided party control in Washington - which was the case the last time a president managed to balance the budget - is that it may well prove to be more constructive than gridlocked in the short-term. The long run, of course, is a different matter. Nobody in Washington thinks about that.

Third, while Democrats are hailing the $38 billion cut in spending they acceded to as the biggest real spending cut in history, the fact is this amount represents 12 percent of the amount (about $300 billion) we would have to cut from the budget so that Congress would not have to raise the public debt ceiling of $14.294 trillion, which the Treasury Department expects we will hit in about a month. Not even Congressman Paul Ryan or Senator Marco Rubio have proposed plans aggressive enough to save us $300 billion in one month. When politicians make the most noise, then we know that they are interested more in the semblance of trying than confident in the possibility of a solution.

If the last ten years, in which we have raised the debt ceiling ten times is any guide, it is very likely that we are going to have to raise the debt ceiling, if not the US government would not be able to raise money to fund its operations, or more important, to pay its creditors. That’s when talk of default comes in, but no politician wants that to happen, at least not on their watch. Because politicians are re-elected in the short term, most have preferred to raise the debt ceiling rather than countenance cuts draconian enough to reduce the public debt in the long term, when they would not be around the reap the political benefits. The end result of the short-sightedness generated, in part, by our zippy electoral time-horizon is that we are already defaulting by stealth, by the gradual depreciation of the US dollar so that the value of our debt measured in foreign currencies can be lowered.

So epic fights aren’t really on the way. There is going to be a lot of noise, but American politics evinces substantive policy changes only when we are at the brink. But as long as we are allowed to raise the debt ceiling year after year – and we have done this 79 times since 1940 – we will continue to hear more sound than fury.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Obama $et to Announce Re-election Bid

For weeks, President Barack Obama seemed consumed with the challenges in governing. With the turmoil in the Middle-East taking one unanticipated turn after another, the White House has been in crisis management mode for the past several weeks. Decisions that matter to millions of people around the world, as well as to our allies, who want more of us than we are willing give in Libya, have had to be made. Despite our democratic fantasy, leadership occurs behind a barricade of confidentiality. Both Obama and George Bush well know that leaders must sometimes push on behind the scenes, with or without public and congressional support.

But just two years into office, the president is emerging from the woodwork because the campaign beckons. Last week, he delivered his address explaining the mission in Libya, after several days of criticisms about Mission: Unclear. Then on Saturday, he re-entered the debate about the federal budget for this year, after staying away from the fray for weeks, by calling Senator majority leader Harry Reid and Speaker John Boehner to tell them that he is supporting a deal to cut another $23 billion from last year's spending levels. Obama is back in the public eye in part because he had a bit of political windfall on Friday when the Labor Department reported that unemployment dipped slightly to 8.8 percent. Because the public (still) cares more about the economy than what is happening abroad,the president must wade back into economic and spending issues. So the machinations begin, and the wires are now reporting that Obama is likely to announce his re-election bid early next week.

There is one reason why Obama is making the obvious official so soon. He can start raising money as soon as he registers with the Federal Election Commission, and the sooner he starts, the more likely his would become the first billion dollar campaign in the history of American politics. (Obama raised $750 million in 2008.) So whereas Republicans have no incentive to declare early (because the first in is also the first attacked by would-be contenders in a crowded primary field, especially one in which the balance of power of the Tea Party movement remains too unclear in the face of ongoing budgetary debates for potential contenders to dare to come down firmly or tepidly for it), the President would be off to a head-start. If he forces the inevitable internecine fight in the Republican fold to start earlier, Obama wins. If he doesn't, it doesn't hurt to start building the campaign war-chest. After all, in this day and age, the costs of appearing self-serving at a moment when the nation is mired in budget talks and trying to extricate itself from a third war are nevertheless worth the gain in campaign finance by starting early. This is particularly the case for a Democratic candidate who, in the face of recent political reconfigurations in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, might well have to find a different way to the 270 than the one which worked for him in 2008.

So expect a text, an email, or a tweet soon. The White House hopes to downplay the event because it doesn't need a boost the way it would if primary challengers are expected, and it is more important that the president does not appear like he is taking time out from governing to raise money. But raise a lot of money Obama will, starting from his first re-election fundraiser in Chicago - where the heart of the campaign will be located, as in 2008 - on April 14.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Isolationist Shift within Conservatism

What is it about conservative opposition to Obama's policy in Libya? It appears conservative critics think he has done both too little too late in Libya, and also too much. While there is agreement on the Right that whatever Obama does is bad policy, the divergent critical voices are not so much evidence of hypocrisy as the disagreement between neo-conservatism and libertarianism. As it now appears the case, the Tea Party movement, which started off as a movement focused almost exclusively on the domestic politics of bail-outs and health-care reform, has matured and developed an alliance with the isolationist segment of paleoconservatism. With this new alliance we see a rightward shift in conservative politics, and the resurgence of the isolationist strand in Republican politics which has been dormant since the Nixon Doctrine.

For all the talk of polarization in American politics, on one thing, some liberals and some conservatives have always agreed on - it is an assertive, hegemonic engagement with the world. The "neo" in neo-conservatism registers the fact that many neo-conservatives used to be old liberals disenchanted with the Democratic Party's anti-war shift after Vietnam. This is why the neo-conservatives from the Bush administration have pretty much supported Obama's intervention in Libya. As Michael Gerson writes, "President Barack Obama’s decision to participate in the air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is a vast improvement over previous policy, a victory for human rights idealists." And this is what unites Leftists who believe in humanitarian intervention and Rightists who support the propagation of democracy around the world. Both are idealists.

Tea Party libertarians and paleoconservatives, on the other hand, believe that foreign policy should not be guided by visions of utopia. The former are all too aware that wars cost money, and the latter believe that a fortress will protect us better than an advancing army, especially one staffed by member nations of NATO and authorized by the United Nations. Both, therefore, believe that we should go to war only when we absolutely must. And so just like that, paleoconservatives are riding on the coat-tails of Tea Party libertarianism back into political salience.

This is why the Right has complained that the Obama administration has done too little and too much in Libya, with the balance of voices revealingly weighted on the latter. This is significant as a signpost of the development of American conservatism, because it reveals a reformed conservatism more ready to take on Obama in 2012 than it was a few months ago when conservatives were still fixated on the Reagan coalition and the Reagan doctrine. Reagan ordered major bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi in Operation El Dorado Canyon, and he ordered the invasion of Grenada. Reagan was no isolationist.

Call it restraint, or call it isolationism, but its resurgence reveals American conservatism undergoing reform and re-accreditation. Presidential hopefuls on the right should take heed, so that they do not get caught on the wrong side of this evolution. In tough economic times, when our troops are now spread out in three theaters of war, conservatism has taken on a new complexion for our time, and Barack Obama would likely be facing an opponent so far to the Right on foreign policy issues, s/he may actually come full circle and begin to sound like Dennis Kucinich.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Operation Odyssey Dawn May Become Another Protracted Odyssey

The Obama administration is having a hard time responding to critics who disagree with its decision to intervene in Libya. Some on the Left do not want another war; while some on the Right don't want a multilateral approach to war focussed on humanitarian intervention and one authorized by the UN. Both sides, of course, are using a "separation of powers" line, charging that the President failed to seek congressional approval, but the procedural objection disguises a substantive disagreement. The fact is very few politicians have ever really cared about the erosion of congressional authority (not that they shouldn't) since the last war Congress declared was 60 years ago during World War II.

And there lies the crux of the matter. It is not that the president has clearly made a blunder, whether in the timing, method, or articulation of our aims in Libya, for all are up for debate and indeed are being debated. It is just that war is not the sort of thing that we, and most democracies, can easily agree on. (And that is why kings, not presidents in our inquisitive electronic age, have been most successful in using prerogative and secrecy to wage war.)

What is worse is that our agreement on war is so rare that we have romanticized the one war where we came closest to agreeing on, which of course has added to more disagreement because we have subsequently held ourselves to such impossible standards. This is our collective cognitive illusion that all wars should be like World War II, ostensibly the last war in which America took the right moral stance, where we were both unilateral and multilateral, defensive and yet also aggressive, and on which, at least after Pearl Harbor, there was relatively little partisan disagreement. The romanticization of this unusual war has only made the conduct of foreign policy more, not less, difficult in the decades since.

Democracies are rarely in consensus about the conduct of war, which is why we should start them with abundant caution. One reason why we have had a long and less than impressive list of foreign misadventures since the middle of the last century and at least since Vietnam is that we have tried too long, and without any success, to prove to ourselves that World War II was the war to guide all future wars. As it turns out, that war was the exception, not the rule. Yet both the Obama administration and its critics share such a missionary zeal about how foreign affairs should be conducted, respectively, in their anti-totalitarian aspirations, their commitment to procedural orthodoxy, and moral leadership.

Our present disagreement about how to deal with Libya comes from uncertainty, the fact that no one holds a crystal ball. The problem with military intervention is that interveners must know which domestic party to side with, and some appreciation of what the end game should look like. But while we suspect that Muammar Qaddafi isn’t the best bet for democracy in Libya, no one can be sure that the rebel government in Benghazi would do any better. By definition, interveners guide the outcome of domestic strife, changing the timing, manner, and outcome of that which would otherwise have organically occurred. This is good, in the short run, for global order; but bad, in the long run, for democratic consolidation in the host country, and political consensus in the intervening country.

As the White House struggles to articulate a clear mission in Libya in the face of criticism from both the liberal and conservative bases, it is worth noting that ambiguous aims beget unending wars as it is worth remembering that Odysseus took 10 years to make his way home after the fall of Troy. If the Middle East’s journey toward democracy is likely to be long and protracted, Operation Odyssey Dawn may suffer from "mission creep" if the administration is not careful.