Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Sullivan’

Obama’s Self-Interest Lies With the American People’s; the Republican Party’s Self-Interest Does Not.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Andrew Sprung – who I read semi-regularly thanks to links from Andrew Sullivan – sees Obama’s success with health care as part of “a recognizable pattern in Obama’s approach to setbacks – pause, regroup, rethink, collect new input, amend and re-present plans, and set a deadline.” You see this in Obama’s response to the loss in New Hampshire, to the Reverend Wright scandal, to Sarah Palin’s selection, to Afghanistan, to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and now to health care.

But Sprung points out another factor that in some way should motivate some more skeptical voters to trust Obama a bit more:

Another key strategic element for Obama– as a matter of policy rather than politics — was emphasizing cost control at the expense of more generous coverage expansion. That decision reflects I think a fundamental calculation that only effective cost control will enable lasting coverage expansion — and more broadly, only evident progress in deficit reduction will enable a domestic agenda that includes new government initiatives. [my emphasis]

To put it another way: If my livelihood depends on the amount of anger people have towards the government, then I don’t have much incentive to make the government do a good job. Irresponsible governance proves my point. As a pundit or legislator, I have the incentive to make government look as bad as possible.

On the other hand, if my livelihood depends on whether or not I solve a problem, or at least make things a bit better, then I have every incentive to use every tool at my disposal to make sure that happens. Responsible governance then proves my point. As a pundit or legislator, I have every incentive to fix the problem, or failing that, make it look like it’s being fixed.

Obama, aiming for historical achievements, has every incentive to accurately diagnose the problem and take steps to fix it – even for purely selfish reasons. If his reform bankrupts America and undermines our power, he won’t be remembered kindly. The Republicans, aiming for 2010, have every incentive to “throw their bodies on the gears” to destroy the system – because in destroying the system they not only get short-term gains but ideological traction.

(Thomas Frank explored this last idea at some length in his book, The Wrecking Crew.)

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads of the Week: A history lesson, Reconciling Chart, Theism, Starbucks, the New Global Middle Class, the Beijing Consensus, and the Traitorous Supreme Court

Friday, March 12th, 2010

A history lesson in ramming through one piece of legislation. Ezra Klein gives a short history lesson describing the tactics used by Republicans to “ram through” the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

Reconciling chart. The New York Times provides a chart of all the times reconciliation has been used.

Theism. Andrew Sullivan provides a beautiful quote from David Foster Wallace making what may be the best case for theism generally that I’ve seen.

Starbucks. Greg Beato for Reason has an interesting if annoying skewed take on Starbucks and its attempts to stay hip. His history and overall point is interesting, but the point of view he injects, his contempt for his less capitalist brethren, is irritating.

The New Global Middle Class. Rana Foroohar and Marc Margolis in Newsweek describe the new “global middle class” which “is more unstable and less liberal than we thought.” The examples they give are rather frustrating though. Brazil’s middle class is described as “more unstable and less liberal” because they applaud “more state control of the oil industry to keep out greedy foreign firms” and that “they don’t need outside advice on how to structure their societies, thank you.” The Russian middle class’s support for Putin and the Chinese support of the Beijing consensus are also cited and are much better examples proving their point. An interesting article, that touches on some gradually evolving issues in a way that most articles do not – but it seems to harness facts to reach their end rather than allow the facts to dictate the result.

The Beijing Consensus. Yang Yao in Foreign Affairs speculates that the Beijing Consensus – “a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention” – may be eroding. And as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense,” and “has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead, by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens,” the end of this consensus would lead to “greater democratization.”

The Traitorous Supreme Court. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy takes on the Andrew McCarthy/Liz Cheney line of attack calling those attorneys currently in the Justice Department who represented some of those branded terrorists by the Bush administration asking this question:

Does McCarthy think the Justices of the Supreme Court are guilty of aiding the enemy, and that (if we treat them like everybody else) they should be “indicted for coming to the enemy’s aid during wartime”?

[Image by me.]

Wieseltier owes Andrew Sullivan an apology. And The New Republic owes its readers a retraction.

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Leon Wieseltier launched a graceless and rather paranoid ad hominem attack on Andrew Sullivan in the latest issue of The New Republic – accusing him of being an anti-Semite. The New Republic is my favorite magazine – but since reading this piece, I’m considering unsubscribing. It would bother me that any magazine would give itself as a platform for such an article, and is even worse that it is one I feel ownership over (as I have been a regular reader for some 12 years and a subscriber for 5, from the moment I graduated college.) Wieseltier further attacks my religion (Catholicism) as “a regress to polytheistic crudity” and seemingly marks the magazine as meant for Jews rather than Christians – saying that “readers of The New Republic” would clearly see what was wrong with Sullivan’s writings – just as they saw what was wrong with the concept of the Trinity. (Perhaps this was meant lightly. It’s a bit hard to tell as he levels such ridiculous charges.) I don’t consider myself the type of person who would cancel a subscription over offensive content – but it angers that the magazine would run a piece with so few redeeming features and such serious unsubstantiated charges.

Sullivan’s main and heartfelt response to the piece is here. He also points out the context to one of his quotes, including email correspondence with the current editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer. Other comments and a roundup of outside opinion from Sullivan here, here, here, here, and here. The Atlantic Wire has a more complete roundup.

Let me – as briefly as I can – make one point that I haven’t seen made. Most of Wieseltier’s piece concerns all sorts of damning positions Sullivan has taken: being moved by the Palestinian suffering in the Gaza attack, Sullivan’s anger at the Netanyahu government for refusing any substantial concessions to his government’s main patron, and the fact that Sullivan cites the respected Middle East scholar Stephen Walt “frequently and deferentially” when Walt was one of the authors of The Israel Lobby for which Wieseltier believes he should be shunned. About the only item cited by Wieseltier that could be construed as stereotyping of Jews is a Sullivan response to an article in the very self-consciously Jewish and right-wing Commentary on why Jews don’t like Palin because they’re educated, elitist, socially liberal, etc., but should support Palin because she has what Rubin considers the most important thing right: she opposes “the administration’s effort to put ‘daylight’ between the U.S. and Israel.” Sullivan begins his most anti-Semitic piece by quoting Jonathan Chait (of The New Republic) who puts Rubin’s piece in context elsewhere in his post:

The complaint of the Jewish Republican is a small but hardy feature of our political discourse. The complaint runs as follows: Jews are foolishly ignoring their self-interest by voting for Democrats on the basis of sentimental concerns (secularism, concern for the poor) rather than pursuing their true self interest (maximal hawkishness on the Middle East, low tax rates on the rich) as represented by the GOP.

Sullivan replies to Chait:

I worry about elements of proto-fascism becoming mainstream in the GOP.

But there is something particularly disturbing about the way in which neoconservatives, in their alliance with the Christianist heartland, increasingly argue for a strong and unchecked charismatic leader in the Palin/Bush mold, a disdain for reason in political life and a yearning for what Rubin calls an “instinctual skill set” in a leader…

Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights.) But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing – that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran – is something else.

Something much darker.

Wieseltier’s response entirely ignores the blatant stereotyping that Jennifer Rubin uses as the basis for her article as well as Chait’s easy categorization of “Jewish Republicans” who identify their “true self interest” as “maximal hawkishness on the Middle East.” Wieseltier instead goes after Sullivan:

I was not aware that [Goldfarb and Krauthammer] comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” What sets them apart from their more enlightened brethren is the unacceptability of their politics to Sullivan. That is his criterion for dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.

It is really quite something that the above cite is the closest Wieseltier gets to Sullivan “hating on” Jews. No fair-minded observer could believe that is what is going on. Sullivan posts a quote from DiA today that seems to offer a more reasonable explanation: that Sullivan is “pigeonholing” political actors which DiA acknowledges that “we all do this to some extent,” including Wieseltier himself.

However, I want to take a minute to defend discussing the religion’s effect on politics in exactly the way Wieseltier is accusing Sullivan of, as today, most people’s religious and political identities have become fused. One’s religion – whether it be evangelical Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, Methodist, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever else – is a profound influence on one’s outlook on the world and as such must be a matter for public debate and discussion. Andrew Greeley for example makes this case with reference to Catholicism in The Catholic Myth. He describes the profound effect growing up steeped in any mythology has on how any one sees the world, how it shapes our imagination and how we see how the world works.

Yet Leon Wieseltier either maintains that this type of thinking is out of bounds or that Charles Krauthammer’s specifically aren’t based on his Jewishness:

Moreover, Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas…[T]he grounds of Krauthammer’s opinions are no more to be found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness than the grounds of the contrary opinions–the contentions of dovish Jews who denounce torture, and oppose Israeli abuses in the Gaza war, and insist upon a diplomatic solution to the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability–are to be found in, or reduced to, their Jewishness. All these “wings” are fervent Jews and friends of Israel. There are many “Jewish” answers to these questions. We all want the Torah on our side. And the truth is that the Torah has almost nothing to do with it. [my emphasis]

Parsing the bolded sentence closely, you can see how hedged it really is – how Wieseltier’s actual point seems to be that there are multiple interpretations of Judaism and none should be called Judaism definitively. Which of course Sullivan does not – which Wieseltier acknowledges. But the clear intention of this passage is to claim that Sullivan is stereotyping Jews and reducing their political opinions by connecting them to Judaism. Specifically, he is offended that Krauthammer’s opinions are associated with his “Jewishness” when they are instead based on logical premises.

Yet this Jay Nordlinger profile of Charles Krauthammer in the National Review seems to offer Krauthammer himself refuting precisely these points. [Full access only to subscribers. However, someone posted the whole thing at the rightwingforum.]

Of Israel, Krauthammer has long been a leading student, defender, and explainer. Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.” Krauthammer believes that Israel needs two things to survive: the will to live, and the support of the United States. He believes that Israel has demonstrated a very great will to live, especially in its defeat of the “second intifada.” And he has “great faith in the goodness of America,” a goodness that will not let Israel go to the dogs. Europe could do all sorts of things to bedevil and imperil Israel: impose economic sanctions, prosecute Israeli soldiers, etc. But the key is America. And “if we ever reach a point where we become indifferent to Israel, that will mark a great turn in the soul of our country.”

Many Jews, particularly American ones, are nervous or scornful about the support that American evangelicals have shown for Israel. They say that this support is double-edged, or bad news, or embarrassing. Krauthammer will have none of it. “I embrace their support unequivocally and with gratitude. And when I speak to Jewish groups, whether it’s on the agenda or not, I make a point of scolding them. I say, ‘You may not want to hear this, and you may not have me back, but I’m going to tell you something: It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world. And here we have 50 million Americans who willingly and enthusiastically support us. You’re going to throw them away, for what? Because of your prejudice.’ Oh, I give ’em hell.” [my emhpases]

So, let me be clear: Wieseltier claims that “the ground of Krauthammer’s opinions” shouldn’t be “found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness” because Krauthammer’s views are actually based on his cold and clear rational analysis of the world and that he doesn’t present “feelings as ideas.” To claim otherwise for Wieseltier is evidence of anti-Semitism. Yet a recent profile of Krauthammer attributes to him the rather debatable view that “as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not” as Krauthammer “quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — ‘I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.’ ” Krauthammer then brags that he scolds Jews who disdain people like Palin, saying: “It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world.” In each instance, Krauthammer explicitly grounds his view of history and of foreign policy and national security in his Jewishness – and appeals to his audience to be properly “Jewish” and be grateful for the support Israel receives. Yet – Wieseltier accuses Sullivan of “demand[ing] Jews behave apologetically in America” and “defends” Krauthammer’s ideas as not being related to his “Jewishness.” Absolutely ridiculous.

Wieseltier owes Andrew Sullivan an apology. And The New Republic owes its readers a retraction.

Must-Reads of the Week: Ezra Klein, Sleeper Issue of 2010, Success, Virtual Insanity, Abdulmutallab, Obstruction, and Madden

Friday, February 5th, 2010

1. Ezra Klein on Rep. Paul Ryan, Health Care, and the Deficit. If you want a serious, policy-oriented daily take on health care and fiscal issues, turn to Ezra Klein. This week, he began the opinionosphere’s discussion of Rep. Paul Ryan’s serious attempt to balance the budget (which has no chance of being embraced even by the Republicans or Democrats.) Later, he interviewed Rep. Ryan – though it read more like a discussion between two serious people about fiscal policy and health care reform. Klein later attempted to see where along the political spectrum the Senate health care reform bill fell:

Take Rep. Paul Ryan’s health-care plan…as the conservative pole on this issue. Then take single-payer and place it on the other side of the spectrum. Where does the Senate bill fall?

It’s closer to Ryan’s plan than to single-payer. A lot closer, in fact.

Yet this basic fact – that Obama has taken a rather conservative approach to health care substantively similar to the 1994 plan Republicans counter-proposed to Bill Clinton – has been obscured by a Republican Party intent on obstructing Obama’s agenda to gain partisan advantage. As Klein explains, the problem is that the incentives for each party don’t line up:

[T]hat’s the underlying reality of health-care reform. Substantive compromise is easy. In fact, the bill is a substantive compromise. It’s a deficit-neutral, universal-coverage scheme that relies on the private insurance market and looks like one of the Republican alternatives from 1994. What’s hard is political compromise. Because there, the two positions are that Democrats are helped if a bill passes and Republicans make gains if a bill fails. There’s no way to split the difference between those positions.

At the same time, however, Klein castigates Democrats as well as Republicans for failing to put the national good over their own political situations:

The distinguishing feature of the budget conversation, however, is that it happens at a very abstract level. This red line needs to come down to meet this black line, and this huge number needs to eventually become this slightly-smaller number. That’s all fine for a floor speech, but when you start trying to muscle the red line into position or subtract from the very big number, things get real specific, real quick. Suddenly, you’re telling seniors that there are treatments they just can’t get and you’re telling workers that the insurance system is going to have to change. And just as Conrad doesn’t have much appetite for doing that to his constituents on the small things that most of them don’t notice, very few legislators have demonstrated much appetite for doing this to the country on the big things that pretty much everyone notices.

2. I do not accept second place for the United States of America. Edward Alden and E. J. Dionne comment on what is brewing to become the big issue of the 2010 elections, not coincidentally countering the main narrative put forth by the right wing.

3. A successful first year. Norm Ornstein and John P. Judis explain some of the significant accomplishments of Obama’s first year in office.

4. Virtual insanity. Andrew Sullivan’s main theme this week has been the virtual insanity of the Republican Party. He writes: “On every single major issue of the day, they are incoherent.” He quotes Daniel Larison:

Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning.

Then of course are the highlights from that Daily Kos poll in which – for example – 59% of Republicans believe Obama should be impeached for something-or-other.

5. Reid v. Abdulmutallab. Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly gets some hard hits in on the ridiculousness of the Republican response to Obama’s handling of the panty-bomber. And Benen doesn’t even get into the fact that Abdulmutallab is now cooperating.

6. Obstruction. I examined some of the theories of why the Republicans are so uniformly obstructionist.

7. Madden vs. Real Life. As a football-related article for this Super Bowl weekend, Chris Suellentrop for Wired explored how the video game Madden is affecting the real game of football.

[Image by Doug Kim, used with permission of the creator, and in anticipation of the snowstorm that might rock Manhattan today as I’m commuting home.]

Let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Andrew Sullivan pointed to two rather positive takes on the Obama administration over the past year from right wing Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein and liberal magazine reporter John P. Judis reporting on the regulatory agencies.

Judis in The New Republic:

[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for–but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

Judis explains several ways conservatives attempted to eviscerate the regulatory apparatus including appointing lobbyists for those being regulated to head the agencies and through the clever use of cost-benefit analysis:

The conservative version of cost-benefit analysis stressed costs rather than benefits and subjected only regulation–not deregulation–to cost-benefit scrutiny. Conservatives also sometimes adopted bizarre formulas for assessing costs and benefits. They assigned less monetary value to improvements or protections in poor communities because the residents were willing (that is, able) to pay less for them, and they used a spurious correlation between a society’s wealth and the health of its citizens to argue that the costs of regulation outweighed the benefits. Under George H.W. Bush, for example, OIRA argued that OSHA regulations on chemical contaminants would end up harming workers more than exposure to chemicals. Wrote James McRae, the acting head of OIRA, “If government regulations force firms out of business or into overseas production, employment of American workers will be reduced, making workers less healthy by reducing their income.”

(Presumably it was this article that Jon Stewart was referring to in his O’Reilly interview.)

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – no fan of Obama’s agenda – can’t deny the significant accomplishments of this Democratic Congress:

[T]his Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it — $288 billion — came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

And of course, this has something to do with Obama, as NPR reported:

In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, aCongressional Quarterly study finds.

As I wrote last week, listing some additional accomplishments:

He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy.

(Of course, there are disappointments as well – but let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.)

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Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.

Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)

What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?

Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:

The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.

There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:

McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something  that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:

GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’

Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’

GOP member:  ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’

Dem member:  ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’

Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:

“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”

Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.

In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:

Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.

With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Americans Want a Second Bush-Cheney Administration?

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Sometimes, I’m not sure when Andrew Sullivan means something literally and when he means something as a politically challenging debating point. I say this with the knowledge that the same can be said of me at times. When I tweeted the following, I was challenged to back up this “assertion”:

The Scott Brown Effect? DOW down almost 200 points since election of 41st Republican makes it harder for US to tackle fiscal matters.

I retreated eventually:

In all honesty, this Scott Brown thing was a reaction to the near-constant harping of people on the right about the “Obama effect” on the stock market. It was a way to gain a cheap political point in the short-term while planting the seed of doubt in the mind of those who actually thought Obama was the cause of the stock market drops last fall or today.

In other words, I was trying to win a debate point against those who decried Obama’s effect on the stock market. I wonder if Sullivan is doing something similar himself here:

From Day One, the GOP has had one strategy, utterly unrelated to the country’s interests, and utterly divorced from any responsibility for their own past: the destruction of any alternative to Bush-Cheney conservatism.

They believe that the policies of 2000 – 2008 are the right ones for the future…

It is the second sentence which seems more of a debate point meant to box your opponents in than a legitimate one – because as Sullivan has acknowledged before – the Bush administration’s views changed dramatically around 2004/2005. Which is why its not quite clear to me what one might describe as “the policies of 2000 – 2008.” With regards to national security and terrorism specifically – Bush took office nonchalant about terrorism, panicked after September 11, and then backed away from those panicked positions substantially while defending them as correct rhetorically.

This has been one of Sullivan’s main theses, and one which has profoundly shaped my views of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration in terms of national security policy. For while the Bush administration gradually scaled back the worst abuses, often due to court or rarely, Congressional, intervention, it never repudiated the precedents it set in the panic, precedents that if invoked would create an authoritarian executive. This is what bothered most of the liberals, what they feared. They saw in Bush’s immediate response an understandable panic, but in the precedents he set by refusing to repudiate the measures he took, the seeds of the destruction of our republic.

This is part of the reason Obama’s response has been significant – as he has attempted to gradually move the country to deal with terrorism rationally, in a nonpartisan fashion, and as a matter of law – to deal with it from a coherent strategic-legal framework rather than as the panicked, emergency, tough-seeming Bush policies. Obama has grasped the essential truth: What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism.

While Cheney, et al. attack Obama for abandoning the framework they created for the War on Terror (as they attempt to preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack), it is important to keep pointing out that Bush himself stopped using much of the Cheney framework by the time he left office. What we desperately need is for national security policy to become less polarized, less partisan. Mario Cuomo in the winter of 2007 foreshadowed this moment in history, as he called on Americans fed up with George W. Bush to seek:

Something wiser than our own quick personal impulses. Something sweeter than the taste of a political victory…

He called on Americans to instead turn to:

“Our Lady of the Law,” as she comes to us in our Constitution ─ the nation’s bedrock.

Because this is what many right wingers today reject as they defend – not the Bush administration as a whole – but this hard core Cheneyite view that Bush himself turned away from by the end of his time in office. They defend the panicked policies and fearful abandonment of American values as “tough” – asserting that it was this panicked response that “kept us safe” because they cannot quite bring themselves to acknowledge that no president can keep them safe.

What we so desperately need as a nation – if we are to maintain our power and not fritter away the rule of law and other strengths overreacting to terrorism – is to come to a national, bipartisan consensus on how to deal with terrorism. (We also need to come to a similar consensus on how to deal with our impending fiscal catastrophe – but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Andrew Sullivan sees the stakes – it is he who so often pushes me to confront them – to see that what we face is at its core “a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems.” To resolve this crisis, the ideologues and Cheneyites must be defeated; and they can only be defeated if we are able to take back control of the political conversation from the idiocrats.

Andrew Sullivan convinced me in his moving op-ed last year that the single individual most able to create this consensus is the man who so disgraced himself while in office: George W. Bush. Which is why I think it is a mistake to paint his administration’s policies with such a broad brush. We should condemn the Bush policies of 2001 – 2004, and embrace his gradual evolution to more nuanced positions. We must split those who supported Bush from those who supported Cheney in order to form a broader consensus; even if that distinction barely exists now – we must create it. From that barest of cracks is the beginning of a national consensus and the final marginalization of the Cheneyite view of executive power.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

Before You Watch Obama’s Speech Tonight…

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Read these three takes on what Obama must or should do. Each piece is worth reading in full – but following are excerpts.

Andrew Sullivan:

If he cannot do that, if he punts on this bill, or if he is passive and uncommitted, then those of us who placed hope in his leadership skills will have to acknowledge we hoped too much. The test of leadership is sometimes staying a course even when all the polls and pols have turned against it on a dime. There are times when a president should preside; but there are also times when he must lead.

I have one simple test: if the health bill dies from neglect and irresolution, Obama is no leader.

Ezra Klein:

Depending on what they think will happen, observers bring up two well-worn narratives from the campaign. The first is Obama’s tendency to patiently let the fury of the news cycle abate before attempting to change its direction. You saw this in the months before Iowa, they say, where a listless campaign recaptured its spark with Obama’s tremendous speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. You saw it in the Summer of 2008, when John McCain and Sarah Palin seemed to be surging, and Obama was holding his money and negative firepower in reserve. You saw it in August, when Obama let the townhalls play out and Congress return to session before giving his first national address on health care.

Pessimists, however, point to a very different narrative. Obama, they say, has not shown himself a fighter for his policy commitments. His time as a national figure was short, adulatory and unmarred by hard causes or lonely battles. During the primary campaign, he was battered by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on social policy, surviving mainly on the strength of his personal narrative and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His strategy on health care was to compromise with industry, compromise with Congress, and seek the path of maximal consensus, which has resulted in an ugly bill that doesn’t excite supporters and doesn’t comfort voters. This is all, they say, part of a pattern of conflict-aversion that the president’s supporters have refused to acknowledge.

Steven Pearlstein on the “State of the Union speech Obama would give in a more honest world“:

[A]s a country we seem to have completely lost the will and the capacity to collectively confront these challenges. Our union has been torn asunder by a clash of ideologies and special interests and brigades of power-hungry partisans that has resulted in a paralyzing political stalemate. In response, our citizens have become angry, cynical, distrustful and dispirited.

Economists have long recognized that what distinguishes successful and wealthy countries from those that are poor and failing is not their natural endowments or even their level of human capital, but rather the quality of their institutions. By institutions, economists refer not only to governmental, business, educational and civic entities, but also the formal rules and informal protocols by which decisions are made, disputes are resolved, commerce is conducted and people interact. It was the quality of its institutions that led our country to become the richest, most powerful and most admired on the planet. Now the deterioration of those institutions threatens our standing in the world…

No institution, however, has deteriorated more than the one in which I stand now, the U.S. Congress, which has transformed itself into a hyper-partisan swamp that fails to live up even to its most basic constitutional duties — making timely appropriations, confirming nominees for top positions and declaring when we are at war. You have saddled the country with a monstrous debt and projected deficits that will bankrupt the nation, yet you refuse even to allow an independent commission to draw up a reasonable plan to cut spending and raise taxes. You have spent a year deliberating on the urgent issues of health care, global warming and financial regulation, yet so far you have been able to agree on nothing.

My own take: Obama decided to spend his first year playing an inside game getting substantive policies through and legislation passed. 2010 would be about pushing initiatives that might not pass, about idealistic leadership rather than pragmatic deal-making. Tonight marks the pivot between the two. The only real question in my mind is what Obama will choose to do on health care. He can try a short-term political move by offering a re-written and even more modest health care bill that Republicans have demanded – while being prepared to blame them for rejecting it anyway as they likely would do. Or he can focus on the longer-term politically and on policy and ask the House to pass the Senate bill with changes being made afterwards through reconciliation. My bet is – given that most reports suggest that the debate on what approach should be taken is ongoing – Obama will do what he always does and hedge. He’ll say he is willing to consider a stripped down bill but that a bill must be passed even if that means the House has to accept the less progressive Senate version. Of course, he’ll say this in less wonkish terms.

But at this point, hedging is exactly what Obama shouldn’t be doing. Sullivan and Klein are largely right. Which is why I hope Obama is finally able to take hold of the political conversation for this moment, to tell a story about his presidency that helps the nation understand him, and that demonstrates why it is essential for the Democrats to pass health care reform immediately.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Buck Up, Democrats!

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Andrew Sullivan, who was largely responsible for derailing Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care reform, likewise urges Obama and the Democrats to seize the moment:

[Obama should] tell the American people that he understands their anger and frustration (hence the big swipe at the banks last week), but that he refuses to stand by and do nothing. If the American people want nothing, they should support the opposition. If the American people want something, they should back the president they just elected in implementing a health reform plan he campaigned on.

Jonathan Bernstein explains why the “safe” choice of trying to appease your partisan opponents has little effect:

Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them, regardless of what they do.  Democrats could eliminate the estate tax permanently, slash the capital gains tax, repeal the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, invade Iran, and pass a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, and Republicans would still attack them — with exactly the same vehemence and vigor that Republicans have now.  That’s politics.  It’s how partisan politics is played.  It is absolutely impossible to avoid attacks from one’s opponents; nothing you do gives them license to attack, because they will attack whatever you do.  Oh, and this isn’t partisan; Democrats are going to attack Republicans, whatever the Republicans do.

Don’t believe me?  Republicans are attacking Democrats for taking away people’s guns, even though the Democrats basically surrendered on that issue fifteen years ago.  They are attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and for allowing Medicare to grow so fast that it’ll bankrupt the nation — sometimes in the very same speech (I’ve seen it in the same paragraph)…

My advice to Democrats unsure about what to do is this: think about the actual bill, and what its effects would be if it became law.  If in your judgment those effects would be bad for your constituents, then odds are they will dislike it, blame you for it, and you’ll be in trouble.  If those effects would be good for your constituents, then vote for it.  Then figure out how you’re going to sell the thing and yourself, based on that vote.  But don’t back off of it because you think it will open you up to attacks; you’re wide open right now, and you’ll remain wide open regardless of what you do.

Jonathan Cohn writes a letter to the House Democrats who are considering not voting on the Senate bill:

I don’t want to mislead you: You could pass the Senate bill, which you may really not like, and still lose reelection. But passing health care reform would seem, if anything, to improve your odds of political survival. And if it doesn’t–if you’re doomed to lose anyway–enacting health care reform would give you a meaningful accomplishment in your record.

Think of everything you could do while serving in Congress. Would any single act be bigger than this? However imperfect, it will make a huge difference in people’s lives–and, quite likely, the evolution of the American social welfare state. You’ll be sparing financial or physical hardship for thousands of Americans every year, while delivering peace of mind–and safer, higher quality medicine–to literally millions of others. You’ll be saving the American economy and, along the way, helping people to stay healthy.

You can be a part of this moment in history–and, if you play your cards right, stick around in Congress long enough to enjoy it. It just takes some common sense–and maybe a little mettle.

In other words: Vote for the Damn Bill!

The Future of the Tea Party (cont.)

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Markos Moulitsas sees echoes of the rise of the progressive netroots in the Tea Party’s money bomb for Scott Brown (H/t Sullivan) – though he also sees its demand for ideological purity as different from the approach taken by Daily Kos and much of the rest of the progressive netroots. He seems to share with David Brooks the sense that the Tea Party Movement is here to stay.

I’m still not certain. This group seems so similar to the flare-up of similar sentiments from 1992 to 1994 – which was quashed finally by Bill Clinton’s fiscally responsible governance. The Obama administration – if the economy doesn’t enter into a double-dip recession – will try to steer a similar path.

My bet is that the Tea Party will only gain momentum – and have any relevance beyond 2010 if the economy doesn’t rebound.