Archive for March, 2012
This article originally appeared in National Review on March 13, 2012
The drumbeat is starting on the left over what an emboldened, reenergized Barack Obama should focus on in his second term. (There is the inconvenience of an election first, but polling numbers and the job-creation data are inviting enough to make Democrats giddy and eager to drop any veil of centrist intentions.) On the African-American left, the momentum is building for a rollback of the War on Drugs. This is a consistently vague agenda; it shifts from legalizing marijuana, to freeing police resources for more urgent matters, to comprehensive sentencing reform, and all points in between. But at its worst, it is a dangerously misplaced priority, and a sad reminder of the leadership vacuum in the one community that is trapped in a depression.
To be sure, critics of the War on Drugs have some indisputable facts on their side: Prisons at the federal and state level are crowded with relatively inconsequential, low-level dealers who are hardened by their stint behind bars, and who are often rendered permanently voteless and jobless when they resurface. A disproportionate number of those men, and ever so occasionally women, are black, a factor that helps give prisons the ugly look of a barricaded ghetto. (See Michelle Alexander’s best-seller The New Jim Crow.) Add to that the disparities in how our laws punish dealing in cocaine as opposed to methamphetamine or marijuana — or even “crack,” the rock-like substance derived from cocaine powder — and we see that the current system is outlandishly complex as well as unfair. Finally, there is the poor “kill” rate for the kingpins who are the intended targets. The war never keeps pace with the almost instantaneous succession rate in the drug trade; the critics even contend that aggressive prosecution only pumps up the illicit-drug market, by running up the value of drugs as a threatened commodity.
Most of these flaws have a valid remedy that policymakers should consider. (The supply-and-demand theory is the flimsiest; it would apply only in a fantasy world in which all narcotics were legal and unrestricted.) For example, there ought to be wide reforms in the criminal-justice process. Federal judges should have the flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums in crack cases; the innovation of drug courts, introduced in some localities, ought to be explored in the federal system, along with a range of alternative-sentencing options for small-time players. There are appalling weaknesses in the bar of court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants (especially at the state level), which result in too many felony guilty pleas by first-time offenders. All these shortcomings need to be addressed.
But the War’s sharpest critics would probably consider all of the above to be piecemeal and tepid. Their rhetoric, if not their specific proposals, suggests that they would be dissatisfied with any regime that stresses incarceration and punishment, and that they would distrust even a system that treats the bit players differently from the ringleaders. According to this view, the status quo is so steeped in disparity and so invidious in its purpose that it would take something quite close to disarmament to undo the damage.
Michelle Alexander’s recent work, for example, explicitly ties the origins of the War to the rise in conservative, law-and-order politics and to a backlash against the assertiveness of the civil-rights movement. Her charge ignores the objective facts that (1) the crack trade exponentially expanded in the Eighties, and (2) the users who were maimed by the drugs and their trade were overwhelmingly African-American. Her book offers a strangely sympathetic treatment of the viciously predatory men who ran that trade and built mini-fortunes from it. Instead of being Alexander’s lost generation, they were essentially murderers whose weapons of choice were vials and pipes, and who did their killing from a distance; it is horribly implausible to suggest that without a crackdown on drugs, they were headed for a life of good citizenship. (According to theNew York Times, James Forman Jr. — son of the civil-rights leader — makes a version of this argument in an upcoming article in the New York University Law Review. He makes the equally valid point that drug offenders are less than a fourth of the current prison population.)
John McWhorter, in The New Republic, makes a claim even more circuitous than Alexander’s: that it’s the drug crackdown — and not the drug epidemic itself, or the explosion of births out of wedlock, or crushing poverty, or abysmal education, or the insidious gang culture — that is responsible for the rise in inner-city alienation. That is a sweeping underestimation of every destructive trend in distressed communities, and it is as single-mindedly wrong as Alexander’s effort to read right-wing politics into what was, after all, predominantly a crackdown on black-on-black crime. (It is worth noting that, for all their flaws, drug sentences are the rare instance in which crimes with black victims are consistently punished severely.)
There is of, course, a cruel set of ironies at work here. In associating the devastated lives of young, poor black men so tightly with the War on Drugs, liberals are doing exactly what the most unfeeling conservatives do when they collapse all inner-city black men into vignettes of current and future street criminals. In arguing that incarceration and punishment drive poverty in the black community, the Left is unintentionally mimicking the Right’s bias that poverty is secondary to a pattern of criminal irresponsibility in the destruction of the ghetto. In its zeal to encourage a radical scaling back of the drug laws, the Left is short-changing the importance of education, jobs, and community reinvestment — in other words, it is de-emphasizing priorities in the same way the Right is accused of doing.
This is a classic sign of leadership that has analyzed its way into disarray. More pointedly, the overheated arguments against the War on Drugs are an unwelcome sign that the politics of victimization are hardly dying out with the fall of a Sharpe James, or the mainstreaming of an Al Sharpton, or the exposure of a Kwame Kilpatrick. I recall that Jesse Jackson used to talk about new wine being poured into old wineskins.
From Boston, Artur Davis recently took time to speak with Fox News on the state of the Republican candidate field. Please click below to view the clip in full.
There is a hard to miss media bias against the relevance of trends that start in Alabama. That partly explains why a popular, effective governor like Bob Riley received not a sliver of response to his nascent presidential ambitions, despite a record that compared well to Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry; and why the weirdness of the state’s teacher union linking arms with a conservative Republican in the last governor’s race drew no national coverage–despite an ad by the union (an arm of the liberal NEA) pillorying a more moderate Republican for backing “Barack Obama’s federal takeover of our schools”. The theory seems to be that the state is too self-consciously parochial, too doused in racial embers, for its politics to deserve much scrutiny. The state’s controversial immigration law and its perennial political corruption merit national mentions largely for the stereotypes they reinforce.
No surprise, then, that one of the most striking primary races this cycle is a week away and entirely below radar. On March 13, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, faces a challenge from a state legislator who has cultivated Tea Party support and challenged the incumbent as a Washington enabler. The race is thought to be competitive and the 20 year incumbent could well lose.
The challenger, a state senator named Scott Beason, has the kind of tangled history that makes Alabama politicians so confounding for outsiders to understand. A few years ago, Beason was entangled in the same grassroots snare he has set for his current rival: a clumsy vote to raise legislative pay brought him the ire of conservative activists, and a reputation for being a Republican with vaguely moderate inclinations.
But Beason discovered the potency of two lightning rods: immigration and the state’s powerful gambling lobby. He refashioned himself as the champion of a hawkish immigration law whose open purpose is to make the state unlivable for illegal immigrants by threatening them on as wide an array of fronts as possible. It is reviled in national liberal circles, but wildly popular with the state’s Republican electorate. Then, in a twist that sounds like John Gresham crafted it, Beason wore a federal wire in the spring of 2010 to snag the state’s casino bosses in a bribery scheme. The Democratic Party’s ferocity in attacking that probe has given him, in a Republican primary, the gift of convenient enemies.
In a climate where lengthy congressional service is already suspect, Bachus bears two extra burdens: the revelation that he made potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars (a number he hotly disputes) in stock transactions has gotten him labeled as an inside trader who profited from his access to sensitive economic data. Second, the largest county in the district, Jefferson, has spiraled into a bankruptcy that is tied to a disastrous refinancing of the county’s sewer repair bills by Wall Street investment giants. While Beason has handled the issue of bankruptcy gingerly (in most Republican circles, corruption by local Democratic officials is the real culprit), local media has been less circumspect, and has tied Bachus to the same banks through a history of campaign dollars. Beason has had no qualms in probing the same connections through Bachus’ support of the TARP bailout.
The peculiarities of Alabama politics have given the campaign a shape than an outsider wouldn’t recognize. Bachus’ latest ads improbably tie the allegations of insider trades to Barack Obama inspired Democrats and invite the district’s primary voters to send Obama a message. Beason has assailed banks with a zeal that Democrats in other states would recognize. Neither the slew of bad publicity around the immigration law, nor a federal judge’s findings challenging Beason’s credibility, have figured prominently in the race. This much is familiar: the whole of the state’s Republican establishment has rallied around Bachus over Beason, whose broader ambitions and sharp intra-party elbows have won him numerous GOP detractors; in turn, Beason has worn the outsider’s mantle as a point of pride.
Bachus, even with his liabilities, might well win. He is a certifiable conservative who has some of the deepest roots in the state’s relatively young Republican Party, and he is substantially better funded. Presumably, he will have a strong edge in the upscale suburbs that house most of Jefferson County’s white professional base, which happens to have strong links to the financial services sector and the law firms that represent it. But the 6th District’s rural and its middle income base–its quota of what the DC elite calls Walmart Republicans–was strengthened in redistricting; there, Washington and its sins are as anathema as gambling and illegal immigration, the populist edge is distinct, and Beason’s enemies seem liberal and sanctimonious.
This is all, perhaps, the shadow of another fight on the horizon. The southern Republican Party has grown by absorbing both suburbanites in the region’s metropolitan corridors and rural downscale voters who are ancestral Democrats: they have been forfeited by machine dominated, interest group controlled local Democrats who have drifted steadily to the left on social issues. The price of gaining so much new ground is fissures in substance as well as tone. Bachus and Beason are perfectly emblematic of two different strands of southern Republican partisans: a business oriented, image conscious establishment whose conservatism is grounded in an antipathy toward taxes, regulation, and predatory trial lawyers; and a more raw, emotionally charged conservatism that has a sore spot toward elites, and a willingness to stir the passions on social issues.
If Beason prevails, the southern Republican establishment’s grip seems just a little more tenuous. Beason’s brand of confrontation topped with populism will be credited with his rise, and nothing breeds imitation in politics like success. The Sixth District is worth watching for the rumble of a storm brewing. Then again, the national media would say, it’s only Alabama.
-My essay on Andrew Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh drew several strong reactions from readers who felt that it pulled too many punches. One reader wanted to know why a blog that touts its commitment to civil discourse did not effect more anger at two individuals who unmistakably represent the opposite value. In fairness, I doubt Breitbart’s fans would take much heart at my criticism of his take-down of Shirley Sherrod and my minimization of his Anthony Weiner expose; I am also reasonably sure that my description of Limbaugh as a perfect foil for liberals who want to blast conservatism is not the role he and his admirers believe he plays.
But I do plead guilty to the offense of not devoting an essay solely to the outrageousness in both men’s history. Certainly, there are parts of Breitbart’s legacy that deserve it (and David Frum’s blog was quite courageous in his devastation of that legacy); Limbaugh’s recent offensiveness is so gross that even his imminently forgiving sponsors have pulled back. But I think there is a value in my observation as to what the two reveal reveal about the political movement they epitomize for so many. Whatever lift their work has given the Right, I have argued that both men have injured it and contributed to a defensive culture that makes conservatism look weaker and more futile than it is. To be sure, that is not the defect that some want to hear, but it is a real one and conservatives would do well to reflect on it.
-The reactions to the Breitbart/Limbaugh piece reminded me of an occasional question I receive. One right-leaning version of it is “whose side are you on, and if it is conservatives, spare the occasional criticism”. Another version is “your views are hard to follow because they don’t fit one camp or another”. The best I can offer is that no, this is not a website that will cheer-lead for any particular viewpoint. Anyone who has perused the entries knows that there is a sympathy for conservatives, particularly the center-right brand that has more creativity to offer our politics than does the left. You may also find a skeptical tone toward orthodoxy, left or right, that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, or toward politicians or movements whose reputation for boldness exceeds their bite (see my thoughts on both Bob Kerrey and Americans Elect, and my comments on Olympia Snowe and Senate moderates below). But a consistent pitch for one cause or side? This is not the place you will find it.
-Lastly, some readers asked my thoughts on Olympia Snowe’s retirement. The short of it is that as gracious as Snowe is (no small attribute on the Hill), I never viewed her as ground-breaking. She, and Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln, and Jim Webb, are all examples of admirable people who pondered and signaled breaking party ranks more than they ever actually broke them. While the fault lies partly with their party structures and the pressure toward uniformity on both sides, I have often wondered how the last four years might have differed if the aforementioned, and a few others like Mark Warner and Mary Landrieu, had combined to craft alternatives on healthcare, financial reform, immigration, entitlements, and job creation. I think it is arguable that on the first two, in particular, they might have actually seized the debate and written law. At a minimum, such a putative center bloc would have shifted the argument away from “do everything” v. “do nothing”.
March has opened cruelly for conservatives. One of their icons, Andrew Breitbart, died prematurely; another, Rush Limbaugh, lives on, and valuable time is spent apologizing or distancing from his choice to punch down at a young woman. Between the recollections of Breitbart, and both the real and canned outrage over Limbaugh, the pugnacious, caustic side of the political Right is in full public view.
In the normal course of the ideological firefight, one favored tactic is to minimize antagonists as irrelevant and undeserving of attention. The critics of Breitbart and Limbaugh are actually just as quick to dramatize their importance as their defenders. For the left, the ferocity of both men helps prove their case that the Right is an intolerant, mean-spirited crusade that bullies its detractors. For much of the right, the two epitomize a conviction activism that has been indispensable in outwitting and outlasting the mainstream media and its liberal biases. It’s worth examining each claim for signs of inflation.
Breitbart first: to the extent the general public was aware of Breitbart, it was largely based on three episodes, one of which reflects poorly on him. On the plus side, he drove the exposure of ACORN as a loopy, madcap farce that was living off the public dime and an unmerited reputation for good works. On the neutral side, he outed Anthony Weiner as the kind of guy who milked his mini celebrity to bait attractive twenty-somethings, and who thought his best features are the kind that require public covering. It all seemed seedy, but small and trivial then, and looks even smaller and more trivial now. On the inexcusable side, his expose of Shirley Sherrod as a racist avenger didn’t survive the light of day: Breitbart may have been a white guy lost in interpreting colloquial black to black banter, but his confusion seemed willful and strategic.
The movement wing of the Republican Party knew Breitbart much more intimately as one of its sharpest ideological warriors. That’s a loaded compliment, to be sure: it identifies him with a zone of politics which regards opponents as blood enemies who need to be leveled. But for all of his bark, if memory serves, the vaunted Breitbart exposes tore more at bureaucracies and institutions than lives. Weiner’s is the one reputation he seemed bent on crushing, and Weiner’s efforts to make Breitbart out to be a hacker and a fabricator made that zeal at least understandable. As these things go, Breitbart’s foes didn’t exactly pull their punches either. Anyone who peruses online comments knows that Breitbart was the target of more than a few unproven smears about his own life, and the gusher of left-wing Internet responses that amounted to “good riddance” or “there must be more to his death” exceeded the viciousness of anything he ever wrote.
Limbaugh, meanwhile, seems to occupy two competing functions within the life of the political right: he amplifies its grievances by providing an echo chamber for individual conservatives who wonder if anyone out there is thinking what they’re thinking; then every so often, like clockwork, he vindicates the left’s darkest fantasies of who conservatives really are. To a liberal-leaning media that is quick to probe for signs of right-wing bigotry, there is Limbaugh labeling Obama “Puff the Magic Negro” ; for Democratic operatives eager to demonize right-wingers as misogynists who want to reverse feminism, there is Rush, making a martyr of an unknown law student by branding her with a barnyard sexual slur.
For all of their complexities, and their mixed legacies, both the left and right tend to miss the essence of both men: they are a symptom of a movement that instead of bristling with bravado, feels it is under siege, and worries that it is in danger of being outflanked by a hostile press and a confluence of liberal interests. It’s a curiously defensive sensibility for a cause with which roughly 40 percent of the country identifies and whose strongest critics make up only about 20 percent, and it is a sensibility that is coming to make conservatism seem more cranky than visionary.
The self-doubt, by the way, shortchanges the Right’s own recent string of victories: the surge in pro-life sentiment to the point that it is half the country; the discrediting of the Affordable Care Act, which is less popular now than the day it passed; the defeat of comprehensive amnesty for illegal immigrants and its failure to resurface even in a Democratic Congress; the preservation of the Bush tax cuts; successive 2011 budget deals that downsized spending without giving an inch on taxes; and a Democratic president’s wholesale adoption of the terror-fighting techniques of his Republican predecessor. If it’s not exactly the stuff of conservative fantasies, it’s a more than respectable win total given the devastated state of Republicans in early 2009.
Surely, the late Breitbart and Limbaugh deserve their share of credit for a successful guerilla movement that has limited Democratic gains; they both may well end up mattering more in the scheme of things than Romney or Santorum. But the claim that Breitbart and Limbaugh are emblematic and vital to conservatism? That distinction belongs not to the provocateurs, but to a host of politicians who in their own way trouble liberals much more: a Chris Christie, who is remaining popular while skillfully overturning the priorities of public sector unions in a Democratic state; a Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, who refute the myth that Republicans don’t represent the textures of a changing country; and a Mitch Daniels, who won’t let go of the notion that conservatives have to care about abandoned, shuttered communities.
These voices are the ones that will re-embolden conservatives. Otherwise, the right returns to what it was in the nineties: a master of grassroots discontent suited to undermining more than leading; a vigorous, crafty insurgency that functions better out of power.
This piece originally appeared in Politico on March 2, 2012
Count Bob Kerrey’s Senate candidacy in Nebraska as rich in irony: in a season of colorless candidates, he is a quotable, unscripted burst of candor. He is a 69 year old moderate who will ignite the young, and very left-leaning, blogosphere. He is a small state candidate whose fund-raising is bound to be East Coast and West Coast driven-a kind of mini-presidential figure for a party weak in national stars.
The less flattering irony, though, is that Kerrey is a flash of excitement, but one who always ends up disappointing: it’s a good bet that’s where all of this is headed again.
If your memory is long, you recall the phase in 1991 when Kerrey thrilled Democratic activists by entering the presidential race. He was the youthful, authentic war hero who turned drab things to gold—earning millions in small business, electrifying Democrats in Nebraska, of all places, and doing it with a then celebrated actress on his arm. He had an RFK like social conscience to boot—in the pre-internet era, a tape of him bringing a Mississippi audience to tears with a soaring riff about child poverty was all the rage. More than the Arkansas governor who seemed just a little too conservative, and who spawned too many whispers, it was Kerrey who seemed poised to revive a party.
Then, for the first time, Kerrey turned gold back to dust. He rambled and lost crowds too easily. His message rambled too, from universal healthcare to trade protectionism, from high-minded appeals to national service, to nasty jabs about Bill Clinton missing the war that maimed Kerrey. Soon after New Hampshire, he was gone from the race, and it’s not well remembered he was ever there.
The Senate seemed uninteresting to Kerrey after that. His peak of engagement was the summer of 1993, when he ostentatiously threatened to derail Clinton’s budget and when deficit reduction became his fixation. He turned in a stint chairing one of Washington’s perennial deficit commissions, but he was a bystander when the hard work of crafting a balanced budget dominated the mid nineties.
In 1999, he flirted hard with challenging Al Gore for the succession to Clinton. There was, once again, a flurry, a hint that he would run on a boldness of purpose that Clinton and Gore never delivered, but then Kerrey shut it down; and for good measure, got out of politics, and Nebraska, altogether. In a decade in New York, the stars and donors he met along the way kept his name in circulation, enough to grant him a small college presidency that was high-profile but contentious, enough to make the far-fetched notion of a run for Mayor of New York City seem plausible.
As is Kerrey’s penchant, the content of what he offers is vague. The Democratic Party is narrower, much more orthodox and uninterested in deviation today than the one he encountered in the nineties: is it plausible he would challenge that rigidity now, when he was so diffident about leading when the climate was so much better for it? The prospect of being president didn’t hold his interest, leading one to wonder why being a septuagenarian senator would do the trick.
Kerrey’s admirers are numerous in a field where memories are ordinarily short—that’s to his credit. They often praise him for the fact that his inner security doesn’t revolve on whether he is in or out of politics. That seems true; so does the fact that not much at all really turns on whether Kerrey is in or out of politics.
I’ve written previously about the challenges Barack Obama and other liberals have in building a communitarian case for their politics. I share William Galston’s perspective that the strains and dislocation in our society are at odds with the ideal of mutual obligation, and would add that a number of liberal-approved policies have contributed to that polarization. It’s worth pondering though, whether today’s conservatives do much better.
The short answer is that they don’t and often don’t try. At worst, most of the right fears that communitarian rhetoric is a cover for imposing an elite set of values over theirs, and for redistributionist tax and spend policies. To the extent there are conservative sympathizers (a Ross Douthat comes to mind), theirs is an enthusiasm for a localized brand of community, that relies on the vigor of private associations and faith based institutions. It’s a long way from the canvass Mario Cuomo was painting about a national “family”, or Obama’s contemporary efforts to draw from the unifying experience of the military or the mobilization of resources to build our national infrastructure.
On one hand, the conservative skepticism makes perfect sense. At a visceral level, the political right realizes that the cohesiveness liberals are invoking has pretty one-sided policy aims: realigning the tax burden, reaffirming the vitality of entitlements, and growing government’s reach into the economy, from capital markets to health-care to the energy sector. Conservatives also sense that liberals are not exactly agnostic in their viewpoints about the social values of a national “community”—it’s a pro-choice, pro gay marriage sensibility that openly distrusts any argument that incorporates, references, or elevates tradition or overt faith. Conservatives are quick to puncture the contradiction of embracing community while rolling eyeballs over some of its most conventional elements.
But as understandable as their resistance may be, it’s worth noting that the last conservative icon had more than a passing acquaintance with one of the most florid renditions of communitarian rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was a serial quoter of John Winthrop’s searing metaphor about America as a “shining city on a hill”, and often included the most utopian parts: the references to our fates “being bound one to another”, and the description of the American identity as one that aligned the weak and the strong alike. In fact, it’s an imagery so powerfully associated with the 40th president that one of his eulogists, Sandra Day O’Connor, attributed many of the lines to Reagan.
Is the language of shared responsibility helpful to a Republican who believes that individual freedom is being weakened and that defending it should be the sole enterprise of the conservative movement? Not likely. But there is another brand of conservatism that should grasp that society is linked by certain moral understandings, and that dangerous things happen when those arrangements come undone. This conservative reading ascribes the flight from corporate responsibility in the last decade to a slow unraveling of a social ethic—the notion that markets managed their power with restraint, and prudence, and that their accumulation of wealth was anchored to a morality that connected reward to work. Under this reasoning, the consolidation of risk into exotic financial instruments and a compensation structure that was un-tethered from merit turned that ethic on its head.
The liberal rendition of the economic near-collapse also captures some flavor of the aforementioned argument. The liberal version sails way beyond it though, to a denigration of wealth aggregating in any circumstance—moral, amoral, or otherwise. Think, as an example, Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech that almost all wealth and power is a giveaway in the form of corporate privileges or tax breaks, and that its time to pay the piper. It’s dubious, poorly descriptive economics, but it resonates with a country that prefers an implicit moral code that applies to powerful people too, over a rugged competition of the fittest.
Imagine a conservatism that was concerned with moral arrangements and reciprocity in a badly scattered society. That kind of conservatism might have the stature to distinguish profit from profiteering, and to defend the creativity of the private market as innovation worth preserving and not over-regulating. It might broaden the conservative case to address the deteriorating, abysmal state of public education, and would confront the teachers unions’ complacency as an affront to our shared values of accountability. It could only strengthen the brief against a bloated entitlement structure that pays Medicare recipients benefits equaling three times what they pay in; and that is financed in a starkly unprogressive manner.
As William Galston acknowledges, there is a legitimate tension in communitarian appeals that conservatives are right to avoid. If the idealized community has no vibrant role for local churches, or sectarian associations, it’s guilty of false advertising. It’s also a red flag when Chris Christie is assailed as a George Wallace for preferring a statewide vote on same-sex marriage to a legislative resolution: what kind of national community doesn’t recognize that local communities can organize under their own social institutions, and that states and local localities can lean left or right within the space of a broad federal constitutional framework? (that also means Mississippi can be more restrictive on access to abortions than New York, that Florida can walk away from affirmative action in college admissions when California might not want to).
But in a party that reveres Reagan for bringing it out of the wilderness, there’s something to learn from what he had to say about ties that bind us. It’s hard for conservatives to celebrate a country as exceptional, and then shrink from defining the common values that make it so.