Posts Tagged ‘John McCain’

Obama’s Health Care Reforms are morally decent technocratic improvements

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

I hate to quote this much from anyone, but Jonathan Chait’s entire post is brilliant and you should read his entire piece. But for future reference, and so I can always find it, these three paragraphs are what I wish I had written:

The latest Republican gambit, put forward by John McCain (who has become a pure stalking horse for the party leadership) is to demand that no change to Medicare be permitted through budget reconciliation. This means that the very difficult task of getting a majority of both Houses to approve a Medicare cut would become the nearly-impossible task of getting a majority of the House plus a supermajority of the Senate to do the same. Of course, Republicans as well as Democrats have used reconciliation numerous times to wring savings out of Medicare. But this proposal is not just the usual staggering hypocrisy. The immediate purpose is to render Obama’s health care reform impossible. But the long term effect would be to render any Republican reform impossible. How do Republicans propose to fulfill their vision of government when any forty Senators can block a dime of Medicare cuts? Don’t they ever aspire to govern?

In the lonely center of this howling vortex stands the Obama administration, diligently pushing its morally decent technocratic improvements. For this, the salons of establishment thought have given the administration little but grief. Sunday’sWashington Post editorial offers a fair summary of the response from the center. The editorial does allow that Obama’s plan would be ever so slightly preferable to the status quo. The Post editorial page is disappointed that Obama agreed to delay a tax on high-cost health care plans, and to replace the lost short-term revenue with a tax on the rich: “We think that it is not asking too much,” demands the editorial, “given the dire fiscal straits, for Washington to show that it can swallow distasteful medicine while, and not after, it passes out the candy.” Centrist critics have habitually used terms like “candy” and “dessert” to describe the provision of medical care to those currently suffer physical or financial ruin by the lack thereof. It is one of the most morally decrepit metaphors I have ever come across.

As Harold Pollack notes, Obama has successfully fought, over the opposition of lobbyists and Congress, to include numerous delivery reforms, such as an Independent Medicare Advisory Commission, bundled payments, and numerous other cutting edge steps. Centrists give these reforms little or no credit — after all, because they are untried, they have no record and the Congressional Budget Office can’t calculate their potential savings. The CBO can credit things like the excise tax, but the centrists give that little weight as well — after all, Obama agreed to delay the tax in order to let labor contracts adjust. He replaced the lost revenue by extending the Medicare tax to capital income earned by the affluent. But tax revenue from the affluent somehow counts less, too. The Postdismissively calls this “the politically easier option of extending the Medicare tax to unearned income of the wealthy,” as if raising taxes on the most powerful and well-connected people in America, in an atmosphere where one party opposes any taxes on the rich with theological fervor, is the kind of solution that’s just sitting there for the taking.

Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]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.]

The Continued Failure of Right Wing Social Engineering

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]At some point it became part of the standard Republican playbook to criticize liberals for engaging in “social engineering.” Liberals – in this telling – see humans as perfectible creatures who just need the guidance of the a centralized state with scientific-minded engineers to become better. With proper planning and direction longstanding human problems could be taken care of and humankind would exist in a socialist utopia. This view was always a caricature – indeed an appropriation of a term created to describe the early efforts at deliberate manipulation of large populations through marketing and propaganda – from the Nazis to American corporations. But Republicans co-opted this term to describe the grand government projects taken on at the apex of mid-20th century liberalism, as in our hubris we sought to “engineer” enormous changes to the benefit of all society.

This story – this narrative framework – was influential because it struck a note of truth. Mid-2oth century American liberalism saw an exceedingly confident America which believed in the nearly limitless potential of American government action. After all, America – led by its government – had defeated a seemingly unstoppable enemy, pulled the nation and world out of a Great Depression, learned how to split atoms and create enormous destructive and productive power, finally begun to deal with the legacy of slavery, begun providing generous benefits to the elderly, and even sent a man to the moon. The declarations of American liberals of this time were bold and utopian. FDR declared that America must ensure that every individual in the world must have “freedom from want,” a sort of economic right. Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty! Richard Nixon (a realist in a liberal era) declared War on Cancer, War on Crime, and War on Drugs! Today this hopefulness seems painfully naive as we learned that every massive government “war” has had massive side-effects while not, as yet, achieving its desired result.

As confidence in government declined in the 1970s, the more thoughtful critics of this liberal tendency saw its core failing as hubris. They suggested a more modest approach in which government would act more as a gardener “cultivat[ing] a growth by providing the appropriate environment” rather than as some craftsman or engineer creating society anew through government coercion and radical changes.

But the Republicans who eventually took power on the wave of disgust, disappointment, resentment, and anger at liberalism’s excesses did not adopt this epistemologically modest approach. Reagan and his ilk replaced liberals’ confidence in the good government could do with the insistence that government was just getting in the way. Their conclusion was simple: Government wasn’t the solution to these problems – it was the problem! Rather than seeing the hubris of liberals as the problem, they thought liberals simply were certain about the wrong things. Their shorthand for this moral lesson was to accuse liberals of attempting “social engineering.” The solution was to cut taxes, to prune government, and to hold out the promise of slashing it eventually (to starve the beast.)

Politics though is about creating and shaping a society that we want to live in. It is less a matter of ideology and policy positions, and more about values. Right wingers saw that the problems they had identified as resulting from liberalism’s excesses did not cease as Republicans cut taxes and regulations and pulled the government back from involvement in the economy. Blaming liberal government action for upsetting the “natural” balance, right wingers yearned to shape society themselves in order to recreate what they had lost. They branded themselves as individualists even as they promoted the tyrannical, collectivist organizations commonly called corporations. From a complex web of ideological positions taken by the Republican Party to build their political coalition came a hodge-podge of goals which (though perhaps not cohering immediately) have solidified into an agenda of right wing social engineering. The Republicans began to use government to encourage the traditional nuclear family of a man, woman and 2 and 1/2 children; to promote and encourage a christianist lifestyle and increase the role and funding of religious institutions; to encouraged a particular brand of “rugged” individualism; and to aid the rise of American corporations at home and abroad.

The logical culmination of this new big government conservatism, this right wing social engineering, was the presidency of George W. Bush, as he increased the size of government mainly by outsourcing work and responsibilities to corporations, as he began 2 wars leading to 2 massive social engineering projects in the Middle East, as he allowed and encouraged government funding of faith-based charities, and most dramatically through his Ownership Society as he sought to transform America into a nation of homeowners with 401Ks and Health Care Savings Accounts instead of Social Security and Medicare and rentals. The right wing’s social engineering agenda extended past Bush though. The main right wing health care alternative adopted in some measure by Milton Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and John McCain seeks to transform American society to make its citizens more individualistic. This alternative begins by eliminating tax credits for employer-sponsored health insurance and the encouragement of Health Savings Accounts and the evisceration of all regulations on the insurance industry (by allowing competition across state lines where most regulations exist thus creating a “race to the bottom” as states attempt to attract the health insurance industry.) It would culminate in the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid. Many on the right have also made clear their goal remains to obstruct any liberal attempt to solve the fiscal problem they have engineered to give them the opportunity to re-write the social contract.

Looking at current Republican agenda – you see a similar hubris to what they decried as liberals’ “social engineering” – as they seek to remake the entire health care sector and the economy.

Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who had adopted an epistemologically modest approach – of tinkering with our current system to try to save it rather than to provoke a crisis to remake society, tearing apart the social bargain between citizen and government.

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Real Fiscal Responsibility & Deficit Politics: Republicans

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]See Part 1: An Introduction here. Parts 3 and 4 discussing the Democratic approach and then lessons from this moment of “welfare scleroris/imperial overstretch” coming tomorrow and Friday.

Republicans have called themselves, and are once again trying to position themselves, as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is the pendulum swing of deficit politics in its second repetition – as Republicans run up massive deficits during their time in power and then attempt to pass off the blame for raising taxes or cutting programs onto the Democrats who succeed them in office.

The political challenge the Republicans face is intriguing. Their ideology holds the solution to the deficit is to shrink the size of the government. Yet the Republican base consists of corporate America, the military, and the elderly – the largest beneficiaries of current government spending. Given this, it’s not surprising that while in power Republicans have expanded rather than shrinking government. Bush expanded Medicare further than anyone since LBJ created it all while cutting taxes and engaging in two wars and allowing Congress to engorge itself with discretionary spending increases never before allowed. Bush was not an isolated example. Like his apparent role model, Ronald Reagan, he saw deficit spending as a way to win politically in the short term as you gave everyone what they wanted – and protected those interest groups who supported you – while in the long term the incredible irresponsibility would force government to shrink, and perhaps even discredit the idea of a competent or sustainable government program. In other words, deficits were the way to “starve the beast.”

Republicans did not jettison this approach along with Bush when they began to repudiate his legacy. John McCain – for all his talk of fiscal rectitude – offered more of the same in his campaign agenda. He proposed dramatic tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts (while masking this by proposing the elimination of pork barrel spending which represents a minuscule portion of the federal budget.) As an alternative to the stimulus, McCain and the Republicans attempted the same trick – attacking the plan for adding to the deficit with spending while proposing a plan that would add even more to the deficit through tax cuts (which the Congressional Budget Office determined was a less effective way to stimulate the economy.) For Republicans, increasing the deficit by cutting taxes is “fiscally responsible” – while increasing the deficit with spending is “generational theft.”

What’s tricky is how Republicans position themselves with regards to the looming fiscal crisis. The business conservatives who make up an influential portion of the Republican base tend to propose pragmatic but politically impossible solutions like cutting spending to the other core Republican constituencies – the elderly and the military, and sometimes, even the tax and other subsidies to big corporations. The other groups seem primarily concerned with ensuring that their own government dollars continuing to grow. The past two times a liberal has taken office following several terms of extreme fiscal irresponsibility by a Republican though, a semi-independent movement has sprung up, thus changing the political dynamics in the Republican party. This movement of citizens concerned about the size of government, of government debt, and especially of liberals being in charge of this government (which suddenly seems more intrusive now that it is in the control of those they don’t sympathize with) was incarnated in Ross Perot’s two presidential campaigns, the 1994 Republican Revolution, and today, the Tea Parties. In each instance, this movement has coalesced around an inchoate frustration with the way things are coupled with the remarkably fixed position of opposing everything the Democrats do, opposing tax increases, and supporting the reduction of the deficit. Though this logically must lead to cutting government programs, which programs will be cut always remains vague which works well enough until a Republican gets in power.

To balance and rally these constituencies while out of power – the anti-tax fiscal hawks, the elderly relying on government programs, the military reliant on government spending, and the corporations who profit from government favors – Republicans have adopted a framework whereby they condemn any new spending as “generational theft” while protecting the status quo. Within this framework, Republicans claim their protection of the status quo which is screwing over my generation is actually about protecting my generation. This language also comforts the elderly who don’t wish to see any reduction in their benefits. Under the Republican approach, the only elderly who will see a reduction in benefits under the Republican plan are the eventual elderly of the younger generations – as the government programs they are now paying for cease.

The challenge Obama has given to the Republicans though is to propose a solution to the looming fiscal crisis through health care reform. Republicans have responded by claiming that the plans will add to the deficit (contrary to the Congressional Budget Office) while at the same time they have been attacking any measures in the plan which might actually cut costs. For example, Senator Coburn has said, “If you’re a senior and you’re on Medicare, you better be afraid of this bill” – which is a difficult position to maintain while at the same time holding that any deficit spending today is “generational theft.” But it is of course, the only political answer they have.

The Republicans – for short term political expediency – are creating an interesting political dynamic (and an impossible situation for the country.) They are telling the elderly that any spending that adds to the deficit is stealing from their grandchildren and children – while telling them to be afraid of any cuts to the programs they like. Meanwhile, as they filibuster any attempts to alleviate the situation, they inculcate the belief among the younger generation that the government cannot do anything right – pointing to the approaching fiscal disaster as proof. The hope must be that if they are correct that this disaster cannot be averted, their obstruction of any attempt to avoid it will be forgiven, especially if the disaster itself discredits the government, thus bringing the younger generation ideologically closer to the Republican position.

Thus is the logic of deficit politics and starve-the-beast governance.

Real Fiscal Responsibility & Deficit Politics: Introduction

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Last week I wrote a semi-irresponsible post about how Republicans are waging a generational war* by opposing fiscally responsible health care legislation. It was a variation on the common refrain from the right that all sorts of government programs are in fact “generational theft.” This memorable phrase was coined by John McCain to describe the stimulus bill, but there is nothing in principle to distinguish it from all deficit spending.  Bill Frezza writing in Real Clear Markets in a more recent example of this right wing meme called Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” which in which the younger generations are being screwed. The general message of the “generational theft” meme is that the young shouldn’t expect to benefit from government spending – but should only see it as a burden.

Few would dispute that it is my generation that is being screwed if our current policies remain in effect. The deficit we face now is big but manageable. But the real reason we are being screwed is that the projected deficits are not manageable, specifically because of the rising costs of Medicare. (Graph source: CBO.)

We know that projected spending is unsustainable: so the question moves to why has this issue not been addressed? To answer that, you need to look at who benefits from the status quo and wants to protect it. The federal budget and tax system consists primarily these components:

  • Entitlement spending on the elderly, mainly Medicare and Social Security, which together represent the largest projected expenditures of the federal government. (For 2010, Medicare about $453 billion and Social Security about $695 billion.)
  • Military spending. (For 2010, $664 billion. Or as commentor John Rose points out, including non-DOD military spending, the total would come to somewhere in the $900 billion range.)
  • Medicaid and other aid to the poor. (For 2010, $290 billion on Medicaid; some portion of the $571 billion in “other mandatory spending.”)
  • Interest on the debt. (For 2010, $164 billion.)
  • Subsidies to corporations in the form of tax loopholes which makes our effective corporate tax rate among the lowest in the world (even while the nominal rate is among the highest.) Also, more traditional subsidies to large corporations in favored industries, specifically agriculture. (More than $75 billion on tax subsidies; some portion of the $571 billion in “other mandatory spending.”)
  • Education and infrastructure. (Combined, for 2010, about $120 billion, plus some portion of the $571 billion in “other mandatory spending.”)

People of all political stripes acknowledge the approaching fiscal apocalypse, but each party’s responses and proposed solutions have been shaped by their core constituencies and their ideology.

The next two posts will explore each party’s approach in more depth, but in short:  Republicans, believe government is the problem; yet as the currently elderly, along with big corporations and the military are core interest groups and the primary beneficiaries of the status quo, they implicitly propose a deal whereby they maintain the status quo today – and then eliminate or drastically reduce entitlement spending on future elderly, the young Democrat-voting generation now, as well as, presumably, shrinking the government by eliminating other spending programs that do not benefit their interest groups.

The Democrats meanwhile, believing government programs can work, propose a three-step approach culminating in a “grand bargain,” to finesse the issue:

  1. Get the GDP growing again. A growing economy expands the tax base and reduces welfare spending, and – most important – reduces the size of the deficit in relation to the economy making it easier to pay off.
  2. Curb the growth in health care costs – thus alleviating the biggest factor leading to the explosion of the deficit.
  3. With these two factors relieving pressure, strike a Grand Bargain. Either through a technocratic commission or through bipartisan legislation, push through some combination of taxes and adjustments to current programs to make them sustainable.

Both of these plans are risky. But any path we choose now will be risky – due to the incredible and seemingly deliberate starve-the-beast-style (see next post) fiscal irresponsibility of George W. Bush’s administration, coupled with a downturn and the looming fiscal crisis.

Part 2 on the Republican approach found here. Parts 3 and 4 discussing the Democratic approach and then lessons from this moment of “welfare scleroris/imperial overstretch” coming tomorrow and Friday.

*I know that’s a bit unfair, a bit too pithy to be true. But the simple messaging – the oversimplification – can be a useful tool to get people to think if it is not used to reinforce the conventional wisdom. All too quickly, using such an oversimplified scheme, one can come to the wrong conclusions – which is part of the reason George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language” stressed using original phrases. The first time one encounters such a phrase – it can prompt thought. But all too quickly, it solidifies into dogma and ideology.

[Image by Vermin Inc licensed under Creative Commons.]

Why Do Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality?

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The motto of the Republican Party these days seems to be this: If you’re not getting traction opposing something the Obama administration is doing, then make shit up and oppose that.

This was the approach to health care reform and it’s the approach to cap-and-trade legislation (which had been the Republican, market-based approach to dealing with climate change until Democrats came on board.)  The Republican and right wing opposition to net neutrality provides yet another example of this. It’s not that there are no legitimate grounds to oppose these and other Obama administration positions – libertarians and paleoconservatives have found many – it’s just that the Republicans and right wing media figures opposing it choose instead to pretend that what is being proposed is some fantastical evil scheme.

In this case, they are pretending that net neutrality is (a) a radical change rather than a preservation of the internet as it is; and (b) would create an “internet czar” who would “police content” and force conservative bloggers and website owners to put liberal content on their websites. This is not even close to being true!

Network neutrality is an essentially conservative principle – meaning that it seeks to preserve a core principle of the status quo. (SavetheInternet – a pro-net neutrality group – has a good FAQ page if you’re unfamiliar.) Internet service providers (the companies you pay to be able to get onto the internet) in seeking to find new ways to make even more money want to not only charge you to get onto the internet, but to charge companies with websites to be able to reach you (or to be able to reach you quicker.) Doing this would radically undermine the internet as it is and could easily lead to the entrenchment of any big company willing to pay to best its opponents rather than the company with the best idea.

Net neutrality was a fairly uncontroversial idea as late as 2006 – attracting broad bipartisan support in Congress. A libertarian/conservative group – the Internet Freedom Coalition – did oppose it – on the theory that the internet already was regulated enough and no further laws were needed; but the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee still passed the 2006 net neutrality bill 20 votes to 13.

Last summer though, things began to change. I wrote a piece about how money had begun to flow into John McCain’s campaign as well as other Republicans as the cable companies and other opponents of net neutrality began to try to gin up some opposition. McCain himself seemed confused though his campaign had issued a definitive statement saying he was against it (coincidentally right around the time he started to get money from net neutrality opponents.) McCain said in an interview to Brian Lehrer after this statement that he went “back and forth on the issue.” In the interview, he seemed genuinely confused as to what the issue even was.

But as the money began to go to various Republican candidates, and as progressives and liberals began to defend net neutrality, the issue became polarized. Republican and former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, claimed that net neutrality could lead to the regulation of political speech on the internet, calling it a ‘Fairness Doctrine for the Internet,’ which is clearly a Conservative Strawman, as anyone who bothered to do any research about what the meaning of net neutrality was would quickly find out. Even the Internet Freedom Coalition declines to make this exaggerated claim.

Now, the issue has broken into the news again as the FCC is considering writing rules officially adopting net neutrality rather than invoking it on a case by case basis as it has in the past. (Unfortunately, I’m a bit unclear on the distinction being made between guidelines relied upon by the FCC and rules enforced by the FCC.)

And of course, Republicans, having been duly bought and paid for, are now opponents of net neutrality – as rather than conservatively seeking to preserve the structure of the internet, they seek to allow big corporations the freedom to undermine it in any way they find profitable. John McCain who was so confused by this issue just last year now is a leading opponent, introducing a bill this week to prohibit the FCC from protecting net neutrality or any of the other basic principles underlying the internet as it exists now. Marsha Blackburn, a House Republican, has officially taken on the role of the Sarah Palin for the net neutrality debate, as she pushes the limits of public dialogue by demagoguing net neutrality and regurgitating the wacky talking point that net neutrality is the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.”

Perhaps in this storyline you can see what it takes to unhinge the public debate from reality: an interest group with money to burn to concentrate the benefits of government policy and disperse the costs.

[Image by -eko- licensed under Creative Commons.]

John McCain’s Cowardly Politics

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Senator John McCain established his reputation as a “maverick” in a large part for the bold positions he staked out in the 2000 campaign on long-term problems affecting our nation. That was his trademarked, “Straight Talk.” He was one of the few politicians out there who would tell you how much trouble Social Security and Medicare were in. But under the Obama administration and to a lesser extent throughout his career, McCain has gained great credibility and popularity by taking very strong, responsible positions on long-term issues – while finding some minor excuse to oppose any attempts at reform that cost him politically.

But the Obama administration apparently still continues to hope to meet the McCain who was often invoked, though rarely seen, in the 2008 campaign – the “maverick” with an interest in “bipartisanship” who “puts country first.”*

McCain’s 11th Sunday morning talk show appearance this year occurred this Sunday, as he  appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Chris Cilizza of theWashington Post said he expected the interview to be “Must Watch TV” – and in fact, it was – as McCain demonstrated a phenomenon I call “the politics of irresponsible responsibility.”

In his interview with Stephanopoulos, McCain talked like a moderate on domestic policy issues – but managed to find a single or dual objection that allowed him to obstruct Obama’s agenda on every issue. The two-step would go like this: “Yes, [fill-in-the-blank] is a serious issue. I am in favor of reform. We need to do something right away. But Obama’s plan is missing [fill-in-another-blank] so I will fight to stop this effort at reform.”

  • On Guantanamo Bay, McCain agrees that the prison should be closed – and soon – but opposes the Obama administration’s attempts to do so because he doesn’t think they “have an overall policy developed.”
  • On the stimulus package, he does not deny that there was a need for government spending to stimulate the economy, but nevertheless opposed it because there was pork spending in it.
  • On cap and trade, he agrees that climate change is real and serious and the government must act – but opposes every action proposed because they don’t include support for nuclear energy (and beyond that, he presumes that the bill must contain large amounts of pork spending).
  • And then on health care, he supports reform – and knows we need it – but he opposes every reform on the table because of the public option.
  • He believes we need to “reform Medicare” to cut trillions in costs, but he demagogues Obama’s proposal to create a board that studies the effectiveness of treatments as a common-sense measure to restrain spending as “not quote death panels” exactly – but certainly something scary.

As George Stephanopoulos pointed out, John McCain – despite his rhetoric – has hewed more closely to partisan positions this year than at any point in his career – even after he called on his supporters to support Obama in his concession speech:

McCain had an explanation for his increasingly partisan record: “It’s been some of the issues.” Though he claims to see the need for reform and take the issues seriously, he’s not willing to pay the political cost of getting serious. In this McCain represents – perhaps better than any politician – the politics of irresponsible responsibility. Like another “respected,” “serious,” “moderate” Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley, McCain will work to get his ideas into legislation, but will demagogue and oppose even a bill he agrees with if he believes if will cost him support among the Republican base.  He talks about serious issues affecting our nation – and boldly states the problems in stark terms. But his boldness evaporates when he is asked to take an immediate position. Guantanamo should be closed, he agrees; but take a step towards doing so, and his long-term conviction does not restrain him from attacking what is being done to close it. Climate change is real and serious – on this he agrees with the Obama administration; but he will oppose any steps towards reform if they don’t include his pet ideas of nuclear energy and pork barrel spending. It’s a low cost way to kneecap reform while maintaining the mantle of a reformer.

This is not a courageous position. And it demonstrates the inadequacy of our current political conversation. When the most powerful people in the Republican Party blatantly lie about issues – and those who are “responsible” and “moderate” find any excuse to avoid dealing with the issues they say are essential, any attempts to deal with the systematic problems facing our nation will falter. And we face no shortage of problems – built up over decades of avoiding them – climate change; economic growth dependent on bubbles; our deteriorating health insurance and transportation  systems; our long-term deficit and the looming entitlement crisis; our economic imbalance with Japan and China – the list goes on.

A courageous politician, a maverick would take a stand in favor of responsible reform – and not seek to obstruct every effort as Senator McCain has done. His actions are not that of a maverick or reformer – but of a coward.

*On one set of issues, McCain has lived up to his reputation. Like most public officials are, McCain is treated as an expert on any policy matter before the Senate – but his interviews and various statements in the past demonstrate that McCain is no expert on foreign policy or domestic policy issues. The area where McCain has shown expertise is the military components of national security. On everything else, he seems a bit lost – jumping from one talking point to another – like a more seasoned version of Sarah Palin.

[Image by marcn licensed under Creative Commons.]

A “Smart” Girl’s Partisanly-Selective Indignation

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I know the blogosphere has a reputation as a place where any idiot can have a voice. That’s why I’m here.

But I have trouble respecting someone’s opinion when it so slavishly follows the party line as Dawn Kelli Hochhalter-Krauss of “Smart” Girl Nation in a piece posted by Dawn.1 Her article on the “U.S. Foreign Policy Circus” seemed to be of potential interest – though the picture of Obama in clown shoes labeled “Appeaser” was less promising. But her insistent and partisanly-selective indignation quickly lost me. An article that talks about our ballooning structural deficits which fails to mention they stem more from the actions of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than the current White House occupant – that expresses shock at the fact that a liberal was chummy with a dictator without referencing Bush’s weekends at the ranch with Saudi Arabia’s tyrant and the countless chummy encounters between other prominent right-wingers and dictators; that professes outrage at opening up lines of communication with an enemy – as every President in history save George W. Bush did2; that presents Obama’s response to North Korea as a sign of weakness, while neglecting to give an alternate policy – which George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and presidents going back in history would have appreciated – as there are no good options there.

In short, in another piece posted by Dawn on Smart Girl Politics (in which the author confesses he is incapable of understanding the grammatical complexity of the phrase, “The Audacity of Hope” while trafficking in bizarre anti-Obama conspiracy) is anything but a “smart girl.” She does though have the audacity to attack Obama for not understanding the situation in Honduras and Iran while neglecting to take the time herself to catch up on these matters. It was a bit difficult for me to figure out she didn’t know what she was talking about – as she so rarely cites any sources or facts, instead relying on the gospel of her own opinion. She does give a few indications where she is coming from though – as she cites Fouad Ajami’s clueless op-ed on the Iranian crisis and refers to those opposing the demonstrations as “Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs” – when in fact, Ahmadinejad’s support comes mainly from the Revolutionary Guard and Basiji – and a large number of the mullahs are being rallied against him by Rafsanjani. This “smart girl” also dismissed out of hand the suggestion that the Bush administration’s action enhanced Iranian influence – despite the near-unanimity that it did so, if unintentionally. After all – we did take out two regimes that had opposed Iran, including their mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein.

I think what Hooman Majd (an actual expert on Iran, and indeed an Iranian with an actual stake in the Green Revolution) explained to Jeanne Carstensen of Salon also applies to Smart Girl Politics:

The John McCains of the world, they’re Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots. They’re doing a great job for him.

  1. The article was posted by Dawn but written by Kelli. Several other edits made given this. []
  2. Including Reagan over the objections of his right-wing staff. []

The Incoherence of Ajami

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Fouad Ajami wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page on Obama’s response to Iran that John McCain (he of the “hip-shooting onanism”) called a “Must read.” You might remember Ajami for writing another op-ed just before the election in which he compared Obama to Eva Peron, Ayatollah Khomenei, and Gamal Nasser – third-world populists who had dictatorial tendencies (if they were not entirely dictators.) Ajami starts from the same starting points most right-wingers take when dealing with Obama – presuming him to be both naive and acting in bad faith. This in itself makes his piece unpersuasive.

But more importantly, in taking on the issue of Iran, Ajami seems to have no understanding of the power struggle actually occuring. Not that I’m an expert – but even I know that the people marching in the streets are chanting slogans from the 1979 revolution – which they still look to as a positive event. They believe they are fighting for the spirit of that Revolution, and they see Ahmadinejad as a perversion of the legacy of this revolution – as the religious order he follows did not participate in it and rejects many aspects of it. Ajami though blunders in the middle of all of this, and lends credence and support to Ahmadinejad by portraying him as “a son of the Ayatollah Khomenei’s revolutionary order.” The crowds Ajami supports reject this – seeing Ahmadinejad’s theft of the election as a repudiation of the 1979 revolution.

At the same time, Ajami profoundly misunderstands Obama’s rhetoric and method. Ajami claims that Obama “believed he could talk rogues and ideologues out of deeply held beliefs.” But what he misses is that Obama actually uses respect and civility as political weapons – in a classic community organizer technique.

And then there is Ajami’s total incoherence on looking at the differences between Obama’s and Bush’s approach to Iran:

[Obama] would entice the crowds, yet assure the autocrats that the “diplomacy of freedom” that unsettled them during the presidency of George W. Bush is dead and buried. Grant the rulers in Tehran and Damascus their due: They were quick to take the measure of the new steward of American power. He had come to “engage” them. Gone was the hope of transforming these regimes or making them pay for their transgressions. The theocracy was said to be waiting on an American opening, and this new president would put an end to three decades of estrangement between the United States and Iran.

But in truth Iran had never wanted an opening to the U.S. For the length of three decades, the custodians of the theocracy have had precisely the level of enmity toward the U.S. they have wanted – just enough to be an ideological glue for the regime but not enough to be a threat to their power.

Ajami doesn’t begin to deal with the coincidence that the fissures within the Iranian regime came suddenly into the open a few months after Obama stopped threatening to bomb Iran and Iran and reached out to them. Yet Ajami admits that the Iranian regime is held together by the “ideological glue” of  “enmity towards the U.S.” If a regime was held together by this, what better way to undermine it than to weaken that glue and break the cycle of escalating moral outrage. (Which again – is precisely the point of Obama’s method of reaching out.)

I don’t claim that Obama’s outreach caused this Iranian Green Revolution – but the removal of the U.S. as a potential invader of your country has a way of freeing up the internal dialogue. Without an external enemy to rally against, you focus on divisions within.

Ajami seems to think that after 30 years of pressure, America needed just a little more time to squeeze the regime before it fell. Now, it’s hopeless. Except, that at the moment, as soon as Obama relaxed our posture, the regime was shaken to its core – with the leading candidate the people rallied behind imitating Obama in several ways and the people on the streets expressing hope that Obama’s election in America might lead to a rapprochement.

John McCain’s Hip-Shooting Onanism

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Joe Klein has had enough (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

McCain’s bleatings are either for domestic political consumption or self-satisfaction, a form of hip-shooting onanism that demonstrates why he would have been a foreign policy disaster had he been elected.

To put it as simply as possible, McCain – and his cohorts – are trying to score political points against the President in the midst of an international crisis. It is the sort of behavior that Republicans routinely call “unpatriotic” when Democrats are doing it. I would never question John McCain’s patriotism, no matter how misguided his sense of the country’s best interests sometimes seems. His behavior has nothing to do with love of country; it has everything to do with love of self…

The protesters admire our freedom, but…[they] consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran – a crude, unsophisticated demagogue…

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout “Allahu Akbar” in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program…

Klein’s exactly right on all counts. Except perhaps the “hip-shooting onanism” – that’s an image too far. For those unfamiliar with the biblical term, it refers to the story of Onan who was struck dead by God for “spilling his seed” on the ground. Onan was actually having sex with his dead brother’s wife at the time – but that was okay as his duty was to impregnate her. But he attempted to avoid impregnating her by “spilling his seed” – which wasn’t okay – and thus he was killed by God.
Despite the disturbing image, I can see why Klein found it hard to resist labelling McCain’s foreign policy views mastubatory. The compelling argument for the necessity of the President taking the side of the Iranian protestors is the same as the rationale for masturbation: It feels good, so do it.

Obama, meanwhile, has reiterated his position today:

This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

Obama realizes this is not about us – but about Iran. And though his comments equating Mousavi and Ahmadinejad may have gone too far, it is important to realize that we are not likely to see a Western-style democracy coming out of Iran. Many of the protesters in the street want more freedom – but they still support the nuclear program and political Islam and see the 1979 revolution as a positive event. But the rising up of the people helps to demonstrate why I believed – and still believe – “Iran and America are natural allies on most issues.” It’s why I find Les Gelb’s assertion that “Within ten years, Iran will be our closest ally in the region,” to be convincing despite our history of conflict over the past three decades.

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