Archive for April, 2012
It is Lyndon Baines Johnson’s fate that as much as he was venerated during his career for his raw skills, he is remembered today largely as a colossal blunderer, by the right as a prototype of excess who spent taxpayers’ money profligately, and by the left as an adventurer who made a catastrophe out of a molehill called Vietnam. His own party, while framing the signature achievements in his domestic record–Medicare, the Voting Rights Act–as a secular temple that Republicans must be kept from dismantling, simultaneously avoids awarding Johnson much of the credit. His image is as grainy as the black and white television reels of his era, as harsh and remote as the perpetual grimace on his face in the footage from those reels.
Robert Caro’s latest entry in his opus on LBJ, “Passage to Power”, will do something to revive the 36th president’s reputation. It spans from Johnson’s inept, misconceived effort to win the presidency in 1960—a race which he never embraced and never seemed to think he should, much less would, win—to the stretch in the wilderness as John Kennedy’s vice president; to Johnson’s frenetic succession to power after November 22, 1963. Unexpectedly, the narrative stops in the spring of 1964, short of the demolition of Barry Goldwater, and well short of the 1965 legislative season that was Johnson’s epic moment. Caro’s readers will recognize that he has rarely felt bound by the precision of a conventional biographical framework and has stopped and started these volumes based on his own sense of rhythm and his perspective on which details best illuminate his much misunderstood subject.
So, the last and next edition is the one that will take on the well worn tale of Johnson going up and down Mt. Olympus between the 64 election and the fall from grace in 1968. This narrative dwells on the less familiar struggles of a politician who was unsuited to the changes that television and the atrophy of the establishment were effecting during the 1960 election; and to the almost as forgotten description of a president seeking to convert an unprecedented public moment, the assassination of a leader with an unfulfilled and active agenda, into a legislative program on Capitol Hill, in a political climate that was decidedly more right-leaning and resistant to change than is currently appreciated.
A book about a liberal president mastering power is bound to be mined for clues about the present. Because he never shies away from giving chapter and verse on Johnson’s major league corruption, including stealing votes in Texas and exploiting his Senate career to gild his pockets, Caro always seems an antidote to the tendency to build a cult of personality around successful leaders. You can plausibly read all 3388 pages of his series as one collective scream at his audience that it took a flawed, sometimes criminal, many times pathological, piece of work to deliver an iconic agenda, and that all of Johnson’s venalities even conferred an edge that he used to do massive good. (It is almost conventional wisdom at this point that a lifetime of social humiliation helped fuel his sympathy for underdogs).
It is no stretch, then, to conclude that Caro means us to consider the implications of this reality: the transition to image dominated politics would have kept Johnson from ever gaining the presidency except through succession. Indeed, no candidate with an insider, congressional pedigree has made it to the presidency since Johnson and the few who have tried have found that their DC ties were their most severe impediment: is it just a coincidence that every one of his successors has been stymied by hostility from the legislative branch and that the inventory of landmark legislation since that time does not match six months worth of Johnson’s greatest hits?
If Johnson’s Washington resume would seem toxic today, so would the schizophrenic nature of his pre-presidential politics, as a progressive who turned conservative and then turned back again. He won his second Senate race by managing to slide to the right of a Texas right-winger, and denounced civil rights laws as an intrusion on state authority; he financed his campaigns by slavishly courting business interests and farming out the Senate calendar to the oil and gas industry whenever they needed a tax break. It is the opposite of the “authenticity” profile modern consultants emphasize, and perhaps, a reminder of the limits in such a profile.
The other lesson in this story revolves around the assembly of congressional majorities on the Civil Rights Act and the much less well known tax cuts package of early 1964. The assiduous cultivating of his ideological opposition is a kind of mastery and subtlety that eluded Barack Obama as he tried to cash in the momentum from his 2008 victory; and it almost seems fanciful given the polarization of 2011 and 2012. The rebuttal, to be sure, is that Johnson never faced anything resembling the wall of unified Republican opposition that Obama has encountered.
But it is also true that Obama’s public gifts as a orator and the fact that he rose to power in a Democratic leaning state and on the tailwind of a severe national backlash against Republicans meant that he never had to hone much of an insider game, much less the skill of converting or neutralizing conservatives. Nor, as David Frum points out in Newsweek, has Obama taken much of a shine to LBJ’s strategic unwillingness to demonize congressional Republicans while the legislative end-game was playing out. There is a self-conscious moralizing to this administration that Johnson knew how to wield during the throes of a campaign, but kept sheathed until the votes were secured on the Hill.
And when Johnson did take to the bully pulpit, for example, the masterpiece of an address to a joint session of the House and Senate after Selma, there was almost no trace of partisanship or implication that social progress was a one party cause. In addition, Johnson’s defense of civil rights laws as a strategy for individual empowerment and self-reliance sounds weirdly, well, conservative, and off-key to a contemporary liberal tradition that rhetorically emphasizes group rights.
Both the political tactics and the arguments sound antiquated today. But the fact is that Johnson managed to undo a congressional logjam of northern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats that had held its ground for a political generation. As George Will observes, it is a seminal example of one force of personality undermining structural, inertial forces that seemed unstoppable and that had thwarted his charismatic predecessor.
In fact, that is the perplexing irony of LBJ’s record: as much as Vietnam remains indefensible as a semi-colonialist approach to foreign policy; as much as his war-making was distorted by lies and deceptions about cost; as much as the Great Society drowned in domestic commitments without accountability; as much as his style eroded confidence in the public trust, there is the insurmountable truth that Lyndon Johnson is the last Democratic president who was adept enough to significantly alter his political environment. Liberals shouldn’t be so quick to minimize how he did it.
I have a suspicion that the loathing toward John Edwards in Democratic circles is a kind of remorse toward a path that was almost taken. Another two days of campaigning in Iowa in 2004 and he might well have won there instead of coming in a close second; Iowa was in his reach again four years later and could have fallen his way had the late Obama surge been just a little weaker, or if the Jeremiah Wright tapes had more timely surfaced. Politics is made of those hair-length turns of fate; but there was more to it than some near misses with Edwards. For tantalizing moments in his career, he seemed unstoppable—a preternaturally smooth orator, but also a walking narrative of middle class aspiration who breathed passion into the old liberal idea that the powerful are lording over the powerless. The man who collapsed in a sex scandal came quite close to seducing a party to make him its savior.
Many Democrats know just how close, and in a complex way, they hate Edwards for it. The anger is compounded by the fact that part of his lie involved a marriage to a woman who died valiantly; and then there is the pathological depth of the lies, and the determined way he repeated them.
But the most legitimate disdain and righteous anger is not a calculus that should drive prosecutorial discretion. If it were, the investment banks who jiggered their books to disguise their leveraged, insecure portfolios, and who helped wreck an economy, would have long faced their day in the criminal dock. The lending institutions who subsidized loans with no documentation, and whose underlings fudged signatures, would have surely faced fraud charges. The executives who told Congress that Fannie and Freddie steered clear of subprime, the senior Goldman management team whose testimony about their securitization of risk has been so undercut by the facts, would all have been hauled off on perjury charges. The fact that the sordid trail just described has not generated one prosecution is defended, and excused, on the ground that the power of indictment is not for morally clear but gray legal areas.
It’s a rock-solid enough proposition, the notion that sin and egregious ethical dealing are not inevitably against the law; it is theocracies that run in the other direction. But what are we to make of the Edwards case? There is no claim that Edwards committed the typical offense of obstructing an investigation into his misconduct or that he led others to lie to a grand jury or even to the Federal Election Commission. The offense at issue is that his campaign kept excessive, above the legal limits contributions off the books—a serious sounding offense—but essentially what happens whenever a campaign disputes the nature of an expenditure. In this case, the defense contends that roughly $925,000 in funds from both a lawyer friend and a longtime Edwards donor to subsidize and silence his mistress don’t qualify as campaign expenses, and that the gaping hole that exists in federal election definitions makes it impossible to prove them wrong. The defense further reminds, accurately enough, that disputes over reportable expenditures are commonplace (although usually in the context of third party advertising expenses) and that the remedy is almost always a civil fine.
In an ordinary case about misuse of money, the sources of the money would be expected to be critical witnesses; that is impossible here, as the lawyer friend is deceased and the long time donor is 101 years old, infirm, and incapable of testifying. In most all criminal cases, the motivations and consistency of key witnesses is a threshold test of whether a case should proceed: in United States v. Edwards, the pivotal witness, a former Edwards staffer, has tainted his testimony with a movie deal and his published account of the episode seems fraught with errors and contradictions. It also seems that the same staffer received at least some of the cash in question himself. Finally, it is exceedingly rare that a witness knee deep in the charged conspiracy, and who was the conduit for the allegedly dirty money, would escape uncharged with an immunity deal as opposed to being made to plead guilty to some crime. Yet, that is precisely the fortuitous spot that Andrew Young, the star witness, finds himself in.
It is hard to escape the impression that corners were cut to get Edwards. It is hard to ignore the uncomfortable fact that much of the case, even its core question of whether Edwards knew the extra money was illegal, requires a choice to believe one discredited man over another, with precious little in the way of corroboration to settle the contest. It is also disconcerting that since the Edwards race, the Supreme Court has flung the door wide open to the kind of unlimited, outsized expenditures that the prosecution contends were illegal and excessive—a development that means that prosecutors are pursuing a crime that today would likely not be criminal.
There is no fault in a prosecutor calculating that a defendant is unsympathetic and will look outrageous to a jury. The trouble is when the outrage and the absence of sympathy seem starker than the contours of the crime and more dependable than the evidence.
The political right has more than its share of sins on immigration: the embrace of overly punitive restrictions in Alabama and Arizona that turn undocumented immigrants into a new social underclass; the lapse into culture-based arguments that can sound skeptical of multiculturalism in general; a weakness for schemes that punish children, like repealing birthright citizenship and opposition to nutrition subsistence programs for American born kids whose parents are undocumented; and a simplistic penchant to dismiss any strategy short of mass deportation as amnesty by another name. It’s an unappealing record that accounts partly for the surging movement of a socially conservative, faith- oriented Hispanic community into Democratic arms.
But it’s worth noting that the left has responded with its own immigration message that also seems engineered to compound the political divide over immigration. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Arizona’s law this week, the Obama Administration’s central theme will be that states have no legal authority to add their own approaches to the patchwork of federal immigration laws—a sweeping assertion of federal power that is oblivious to Washington’s inability to legislate on the subject and that flagrantly contradicts liberal enthusiasm for states being aggressive and proactive on consumer enforcement and environmental regulation, on the theory that they are only supplementing and enforcing federal regulations.
Similarly, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been caustic and personal in its attack on Senator Marco Rubio’s effort to revive the DREAM Act. Instead of saluting Rubio for the increasingly rare incident of defying his political base, the Democrats in the CHC have lambasted the Floridian for offering college graduating undocumenteds a streamlined pathway to guest visa status, but not to citizenship. To leave citizenship off the table, the CHC contends, is the work not of a potential deal-maker, but of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
In the same vein, Democrats fighting rearguard actions against Alabama’s law, and attempts to mimic it in Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, have settled on a rhetorical claim that translates well on MSNBC and CNN but is tone-deaf to the local constituents whose sentiments will decide the fate of these bills. The in-state critics describe their opponents as thinly veiled, race-mongering zenophobes who have substituted Latinos for blacks as a political wedge.
So, for Democrats, the prospect of immigration reform seems to be something to be talked about, and not much more, or an eventuality that will have to wait for a Democratic congressional landslide, which might permit a bare-bones majority, partisan bill that would sharply and racially divide the country. It is worth considering what the outlines of a serious-minded immigration overhaul might really look like.
First, any serious immigration proposal must acknowledge that the illegal immigrant low-wage labor market is a human and economic disaster. It is no act of altruism toward the undocumented, but instead a cynical exploitation of unskilled, English-illiterate victims who can’t sue or advance a claim of abuse or discrimination in an American court, and who are ideal pawns for some of the most back-breaking industries in the American economy. Without buying into the dubious claims that tough immigration laws automatically make unemployment decline, its only common-sense that the losers in that artificial market include unskilled and distressed Americans whose competitive position is reduced to nothing. As a result, rather than glide over the labor provisions in laws like the Alabama statute, supporters of reform ought to be welcoming sanctions that punish the hiring of illegals, and they should see the merits in stalled federal proposals to mainline E-Verify.
Second, reform ought to acknowledge that giving citizenship preferences to illegals does undercut the lawful immigration process. Simplifying the current maze that governs applications for work permits, citizenship, and visas is rarely a priority of the political left–to the contrary, it is dismissed as a kind of sell-out, or worse, a backdoor to aid white or more affluent immigrants–but it should be. Certainly, a middle-ground approach like Rubio’s is a workable alternative to the all-or nothing version of the DREAM Act that couldn’t clear even a 59 seat Democratic Senate majority.
Third, and here the right has to bend, restrictive immigration laws should not be blunt instruments to weed out and stigmatize illegals. For the very good constitutional reason that a felony can’t be enacted in an ex post facto manner, that is, in a way that applies a law today to conduct that happened yesterday, the right’s enthusiasm for making illegal entry a felony has nothing to do with 13.5 million immigrants who only committed a misdemeanor when they crossed the border.
Therefore, the federal policy of limiting deportation to offenders of new laws, denying illegals government benefits but not threatening their daily functioning, is an entirely appropriate reflection of that misdemeanor status. It is an over-reach to try to gut the current rule of law by putting undocumenteds in an additional penalty box, one that is actually much harsher than the conditions even ex-felons face. By the way, that is the unavoidable, if not always understood effect of the sections of the Alabama law that originally precluded renting, transporting, or extending utility services to illegal immigrants. (In fact, it is in this limited context, when states create a sub-class of individuals who are uniquely marginalized, that the Obama Administration has its best case that at least some state laws actively thwart the existing federal standard instead of bolstering it through local enforcement).
It’s a given that liberals lack the political might for massive assimilation by citizenship of the illegal immigrant population, and just as clear that it would be the wrong outcome. It’s equally true that while conservatives have a strong edge on the issue in some states, and a partly winning legal argument at the high court, that getting their way has costs in a country that is becoming more multi-racial. In a climate where centrism is often bandied around as a cover for a liberal agenda, this is one issue where a pragmatic center genuinely does need to take hold.
Washington is a city that loves to see itself on the television screen. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, neither of which is parochial or insecure enough to revel in the attention, the capital loves any affirmation of its glamour; it still takes quiet offense at the barb that it is Hollywood for powerful people who are simultaneously ugly and dull. So, it is no surprise that ABC’s late season series “Scandal”, which tries hard to inject some wit and sexiness into the conventional account of political tawdriness and cover-up, is buzz-worthy in certain sectors of the District. It helps that the show breaks genuine historic ground at the same time.
Most descriptions of “Scandal” have rightly accentuated the ground-breaking part: the casting of an African American woman (Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope) in the starring role in a drama is a development that has not happened either since Diahann Carroll appeared in “Julia”, or, perhaps, since Regina Taylor shared the lead role in the underrated and elegant “I’ll Fly Away”. (At this rate, a ten year old black girl will have her moment by the time I turn 65). It’s a weird—make it maddening, inexcusable thing—that there is still history to be made in the choice to cast a black woman in the lead, but it is unmistakable boldness on ABC’s part. Only three times in the life of our culture has a “big 4” television network trusted a black woman in an up-front role without a laugh track, and ABC to its credit ups the ante by rendering a narrative that has next to nothing to do with race or reimagining the culture of discrimination: no small thing in an industry that still makes movies about maids.
Olivia Pope is no sacrificing, modest victim of limitations. She is a stylish, equally lionized and feared practitioner of crisis management, which in the mythology of “Scandal”, is the business of burying the secrets of the high and mighty. (as to the impressionable among you, be advised that the real-life version of the profession has more to do with debunking corporate whistleblowers, spinning CEO demotions, and messaging sudden stock deflation). If you are the kind of viewer who catches the stray details in dialogue, it seems that Pope is a Republican—albeit, the moderate, feminist, non Tea Party loving kind. She was an instrumental member of the campaign team that elected the incumbent president, with whom she also shared a bed in between strategy sessions (a disclosure that was only slyly alluded to in the series trailer and which in a more intricate plot might have been late season cliff-hanger material, but which was offered up much too promptly within the opening hour).
But outside the novelty that is Pope, and the blend of sassiness and pout that Kerry Washington effectively contributes, this is a fair to middling hour that borrows a lot. It mimics the light, powdery stuff from other TV political fare–the repartee that turns conversation into an exchange of terse, but snappy, cool ripostes–is an old West Wing tic that “Scandal” distractingly, and poorly, imitates. There are the usual disjointed references to the true-to-life timeline, which only politically themed shows seem to bother with, and that serve mainly to clarify whose real foibles are official cultural punching bags. In the crisis of the week, there are the last-minute, the “clues are there early” revelations that feel familiar if “Law and Order SVU” is part of your television world.
“Scandal” is not “24”, though, which perfected the art of cloaking its large supporting casts in enough ambiguity that guessing who wore a mask and couldn’t be trusted was one of the program’s guilty pleasures. For three episodes at least, the sidekicks at Pope’s firm are un-mysterious, weak reeds who seem more like roster fill than fully developed members of an ensemble. There is meant to be more texture in President Fitzgerald Grant (a not terribly well known actor named Tony Godwin), whom we are told, is a masterfully charismatic politician whose flaw is his tendency to move from charm to seduction in a rather indiscriminate way that, of late, includes an intern who is coming apart. But that is a character arrangement so predictable that it barely intrigues, and the scripting of the president as a conviction-less, staff dependent drone undercuts the pretense of complexity. So far, this is a not a show that trusts viewers to unravel psychologies, or to find sinews of genuine unpredictability, in the narrative.
In fact, it is that barely cloaked disregard for its audience that keeps a promising show pedestrian. It surfaces not only in sub-plots that end too neatly, but in the relentless way “Scandal” packages and glides on stereotypes. It is jarring that an uber-powerful black woman like Olivia Pope in a city with a teeming black upper class seems pointedly uninvested in black men, and that the one consequential romance in her life is with a white man who made president: jarring until one remembers that the saga of the successful, lonely black woman and the ineligible pool of black man is a regular social trope in DC. It is noticeable that the one black male in the cast is both slick and bland, and not central to much of what happens—noticeable because it is a too common diss on black men in a suit. It is embarrassing, and too ordinary, that the non-Olivia Pope females draw so blatantly from caricatures of the neurotic or the manic professional woman.
The plots rely on the same trove of unexamined stereotypes. In episode One, the ambitious young anti-gay marriage Republican is a closeted homosexual who momentarily contemplates taking a rap for a murder he didn’t commit to avoid being outed. In episode Two, a DC madam’s prostitution ring consists disproportionately of portly, middle aged congressmen and Senators. The world that Olivia Pope inhabits happens to be the sum of the gossip at last night’s wine and brie reception downtown; its occupants are the unadorned straw men and women the culture constructs for us.
It’s hard not to dwell on the irony of a show that finally gives a black woman her due and then diminishes her with so little creative boldness. Imagine Olivia Pope matching wits not with straw-people but with the likes of the cunning, charming, guileful assembly around Julianne Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick on the “Good Wife”. Imagine the richness of Pope in the midst of characters whose depth and conniving matched her bravura, like the universe around Jack Bauer.
Maybe it all comes in the final five episodes that will determine the show’s fate. There is at least a hint of a plot that could twist in interesting ways: the unraveling of the president’s Illicit secrets, possibly with the help of a hidden enemy, and Pope’s inability to extricate herself from being attracted to her president, have potential. Or it may just be that ABC is content to depend on its mini-history, its shamelessly borrowed ambience and its stereotypes, and to leave the genius to others.
Hilary Rosen’s put-down of Ann Romney has operated in a remarkably generous manner for all sides of the dispute. For Republicans, the incident has been galvanizing, sympathetically raising the profile of Mitt Romney’s strongest validator, and reviving familiar arguments about liberal condescension toward traditional family structures. For Team Obama, the lightning fast denunciations of Rosen were an opportunity to claim solidarity with non professional married females who have lagged in their enthusiasm for the president in most surveys; and to simultaneously highlight the wealth gap between the Romneys and those same non professional marrieds. Even for Hilary Rosen, while her 33rd visit to the White House has been indefinitely postponed, she is now another previously interchangeable DC consultant whose business will thrive from the glow of 15 minutes of fame.
So, spare the ritualistic outrage over the Rosen comment, and the dissection of whether she was an aberration or just speaking out of school, long enough to consider the following: an election that seemed destined to be about job growth and consumer confidence is taking on broader dimensions. For the first time since 1972, the electorate is about to be treated to a debate between two divergent, contradictory views of our social and economic culture: one modernist and identity conscious at the same time, the other more rooted in the attachments of neighborhood and religion. Each is loaded with its sense of suspicions, even resentments about the other. The Obama half of this equation is at ease with the realignment of the country into a multi-cultural hive that divvies out policy perks in line with the agenda of the nation’s organized sects, from unions to racial minorities to gays to feminists. The Republican side of the equation finds that same power structure balkanizing, and fears that it is the handiwork of an intellectual, cosmopolitan elite. Liberals will dismiss that skepticism as the backlash of conservatives finally encountering a power structure they won’t profit from; conservatives will rebut that liberals are pitting Americans against each other based on a hierarchy of grievance.
The liberal camp may not sneer as derisively as their predecessors did forty years ago, but they still harbor a jaundiced view of open evangelism or devoutness as a veil for a retrograde approach to gender and sexual relationships. The right, in turn, still feels sneered at, and senses that the liberal respect for diversity stops at precisely the point overt faith rears its head. On economic issues, the left is convinced that the rules of the market are rigged to favor the affluent. The right is just as convinced that those rules would for the most part work fine, if government would only get out of the practice of interfering with and over-regulating that same market.
To be sure, both sides cling to rhetorical themes that overstate the core of their actual complaints. When the left alleges a right-wing “war on women”, it has in mind constraints on the choices of women who have entered the labor market, and who hold particular aspirations for climbing the ranks in that market. In contrast, when the right describes its fears about “runaway, big government” spending, it is focused disproportionately on spending that subsidizes the “undeserving”, whether they are the poor at one end of the spectrum or Wall Street banks at the other end (and the political right concludes that it is the fact that both ends are so infected with irresponsibility that renders them undeserving).
If the genius of Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992 was minimizing the ideological space between liberals and independents, and if Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both won elections by making conservatism more appealing to independents, the 2012 campaign already seems a more deliberately polarizing kind of enterprise. An incumbent whose approval ratings seven months from election are less than those of any president who has gotten reelected since Truman, and a challenger whose favorable ratings in the same time frame are the worst since Goldwater, will forego persuasion for a rallying of their party’s respective coalitions. Each camp will assume a divided electorate and will focus on making its half of the divide more passionate, more determined to vote than its counterpart. Each will promise to protect the self-interest of its loyalists from all manner of real and imagined threats from the other side.
So, there will be numerous examples of last week’s flare-up over the culture, many extra doses of contrived outrage while both sides deploy their own versions of coded dog-whistles. Both Obama and Romney are about to run campaigns that are altogether different from how their parties have won power in the last generation—or, for that matter, from how they made their own respective breakthroughs to statewide office. Is it any wonder that the loser is likely to end up discredited, and that the winner will have close to half the country still dead-set against him?
There is the conservative critique of Barack Obama that contends that he has grown the size and scope of government too much; then there is the liberal charge that he has moved to the middle and forfeited the progressive moment. The first is more true, the second more stinging to an administration that believes it is on the verge of breaking the political right.
There is a third case, however, that is tied not to a theory of how big or small government should be but to the idea that a leader has obligations to speak with precision and clarity about the nature of the country’s burdens. By that elusive standard, the famously slippery Bill Clinton still fares well on an issue like welfare reform, where he reminded his base that an entitlement that penalizes work is a social disaster. Jimmy Carter, for that matter, deserves points for an energy policy that meant to cap the rising dependence on foreign oil at 1978 import levels, which had future presidents stuck to his efforts, would have us paying $2.25 at the gas pump.
President Obama gets low marks on the precision and the clarity scale when he outlines a budgetary vision that treats Medicare and Social Security as asterisks and not the biggest driver of deficits, and trusts the future of Medicare in particular to the old trope of going after “waste, fraud and abuse.” He gets similarly low marks when his defense of healthcare reform channels Newt Gingrich’s tirade about unelected judges trumping our venerable elected congressmen (whose job rating bats .100) And he gets barely passing grades on his case for the Buffett Rule, a kind of minimum tax for millionaires that would trim the deficit next year by the grand sum of a tenth of one percent while diminishing charitable giving much more.
There is a particular kind of cynicism in the Buffett Rule, given its fractional impact on spending and the small amount of money it frees up in a cavernous budget. It is a kind of “statement” politics that puts the president on record against the insulated rich without making much of any down-payment on narrowing the gap between the 99% and the 1%; to the contrary, the strategy disingenuously blames the inequality problem on the tax code rather than, say, the dropout rate, the educational quality gap, the persistent challenges in starting a small business, and the under-water home values that have cut down the step-ladder to wealth for most families.
The Buffett rule is easier to explain than a systematic push to boost up the middle class; for that matter, court-bashing and “Social Darwinism” (once racist inspired theories of genetic progress, now a short-hand for Republican plans to contain spending at Bill Clinton era levels) have the virtue of easy listening too. It’s been a long road from the lofty promises of new beginnings on a cold 2007 day in Springfield. Or maybe it’s just the “but” that follows “yes we can”.
Some post-mortems on Rick Santorum’s partly admirable, partly vexing candidacy: First, his is a campaign that can credibly spend energy on the “what-if” game. That distinguishes him from Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann, all of whom were so thin in national campaign skills, or so palpably unprepared to be president, that no assembly of tactics would have gotten them there. I’ve believed since the night of his Iowa speech that Santorum did have a pathway. It involved owning a unique economic message, one that chastised both Wall Street and Washington for breaching the social compact, and one that recognized that middle class anxiety has cultural and economic roots. He could have so easily broadened that theme by embracing tough education reforms and a crackdown on special interest influence. He could have wielded the Bain Capital card much more credibly than Newt Gingrich.
For a mix of reasons—the lack of a strategic thinker in his campaign circle, an undisciplined communications style, and way too much time arguing process and electability instead of ideas–Santorum never polished the smart populism that I described above. Instead of becoming the “creative, new ideas” alternative to Romney, he lapsed into the politics of last conservative standing, which after his peak in February, was only good enough for the Deep South and a string of solid seconds. It’s a gambit that might have worked against a Giuliani or a Huntsman; but against a mainstream conservative like Romney, whom the right found acceptable if unexciting, the game plan was too cautious and too uninspiring.
The next question is whether 2016 will be kinder to him. The comparisons between Santorum and Ronald Reagan in 1976 have been bandied about by Tony Perkins, among others, but they seem strained to me. The results hardly compare: Reagan in 1976 entered the GOP convention effectively tied with a sitting president and as Craig Shirley’s masterful account, “Reagan’s Revolution” describes, it was only a few tactical fumbles that defeated him at that convention (that and Gerald Ford’s smart refusal to let the Great Communicator near the stage before ballots were cast). Santorum never obtained delegate parity with Romney, and the atmospherics of the race seemed genuinely close for all of one week, just before Michigan.
The Reagan insurgency was also built on one man’s supreme skills as a campaigner, and the twelve years he spent motivating the conservative base. Santorum remains largely an unknown to the Republicans who voted for him, a pleasant enough persona who filled a void but would have surely languished if a Perry had been better prepared, or if a Daniels, Barbour or Huckabee had run. Even for the movement conservatives who propelled him along the way, Santorum was more a vehicle than a personal cause. The odds that the same element of the party genuinely prefer him to Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, or even would be conservative governors like Mike Pence and Ken Cuchinelli, seem improbable.
Lastly, is Santorum’s brand of social conservatism one Republicans will want to emulate in the future? To be sure, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, which in exit polls was the one constituency that consistently rallied to Santorum, is not about to disappear in four years. But he is unlikely to face an opponent who runs on socially moderate positions, and under no circumstances will he have the field on the social right to himself. Also, for Republicans who are intent on reversing the party’s erosion with educated women, younger voters, and suburban independents, there will be a rush to find a candidate palatable to evangelicals but without Santorum’s paper and video trail.
And it is on this last score where Santorum’s effort boomeranged on conservatives. The cause of religious liberty needs a champion who defends faith institutions from an overreaching government, and who puts that defense in the context of opposing values respecting each other in a pluralistic society. Santorum offered instead an attack on contraception and the sexual freedom it provides—a subject for a pastor not a president. Moreover, the attack validated the liberal fear that the faith-minded are bent on imposing a theological agenda, and that autonomy is the last thing on their mind. It’s a fear with virtually no basis, and one that hints at anti-religious barbs against both Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy, but Santorum’s rhetoric gave it life.
I could go on: stridently denouncing JFK, sniping at college as an elitist conceit, etc. Santorum seemed all too often rooted in a theory of America that labels the left as an immoral, effete place. But in casting his arguments in such melodramatic terms, he made a Santorum nomination much too high risk in a country that rewards politicians who cut into the other side’s base—think Reagan with blue collars and Obama’s upper South moderates in ’08.
It was weird that on a day when Santorum dropped out, the broader public seemed more engaged by the account of a baseball manager flailing around Cuban politics and Fidel Castro. The story was grist for a press that loves the specter of a culture-based fight. It may be that for all of his fortitude and his virtue, Santorum ended up being just another part of our contentious, rambunctious noise, and that his mark will quickly be lost in the wind.
When Barack Obama is not being re-cast as a principled defender of progressive values, his defenders in the press try another sleight-of-hand, defining him as a pragmatist desperately seeking responsible Republicans with whom to cut deals. Enter Paul Krugman’s latest column, “The Gullible Center”,which is a warmed over attack on Paul Ryan’s “extremism” (the ninth from the New York Times editorial pages in seven days, but who’s counting) and a mildly more original jab at moderates who allegedly lavish the undeserved label on seriousness on Ryan’s budget cutting, while missing the genuine article in President Obama.
A few observations about Krugman’s revisionism. First, I’m not exactly a Ryan devotee for a variety of reasons: marginal tax rate reductions are overstated in Ryan’s model as a tool of economic growth; at the same time, his plan leaves too little room for additional investments in worker retraining, infrastructure, and education (it is particularly worrisome that he would leave Washington with fewer resources to incentivize the wholesale reforms on education that have to be effected at the state level) and it slices out too many elements of the safety net without doing a rigorous accounting of what has and hasn’t worked. Budgeting, Ryan style, is much too vulnerable to the criticism that it is a theory of emasculated government and an ideological tool rather than a blueprint for expanded prosperity.
But the notion that President Obama is the misunderstood centrist in the budget wars? It’s a fantasy; to paraphrase Krugman’s closing jab at moderates, a naked conceit that has not much substance. Obama’s current budget repeats his minimalist approach to entitlements from last year—a series of mini-measures on cost reduction for Medicare, no rethinking whatsoever of how to restore Social Security to a safety net rather than a substantial net windfall for its beneficiaries. While Ryan has at least traded future structural realignments in Medicare for a safe haven for current beneficiaries, Obama resists countering Ryan, by defending the status quo while outlining an alternative of what a sustainable future looks like. To the contrary, Obama’s budgetary approach to Medicare and for that matter Obamacare mimics conservatives when they load all manner of unrealistic growth assumptions on top of their tax cut proposals: Obama’s version of fanciful thinking is the cost-cutting from comparative efficiency techniques that may or not survive congressional review, and that may or may not be scalable.
The reality is that a presidential candidate who campaigned on incremental regulatory reforms, and who courted Wall Street with a zeal and effectiveness no liberal Democrat has ever mustered, has morphed into a president who believes that the country’s economy is wired in a fundamentally unequal way. The critique is, of course, not entirely out of kilter, and tells its share of truths about the middle class’s struggle to convert work into security. But the critique, in Obama’s hands, is conventionally short-sighted: it focuses on pruning the tax code of marginal rates and upper income shelters that combine to insulate wealth. It is vague and imprecise on the shape of government in an era when entitlement spending is deepening inter-generational inequity and just flat costs too much.
Back to Krugman’s point about centrists. He is right, in fact, more right than he probably means to be, when he diminishes their sway within the Democratic Party. As Krugman allows, centrism of the current Democratic brand more or less coalesces with Obama’s approach: deficit cutting that raises revenue and reins in defense spending without reimagining entitlements; healthcare reform that combines expanded government with “tough love”, but conveniently industry friendly, initiatives like individual mandates. In other words, Krugman’s preferred moderates look a whole lot like liberals who have to count votes, navigate lobbyists, and raise campaign funds.
The old fashioned kind of centrists–the ones who genuinely question whether government is the most efficient deliverer of social goods, the ones who are troubled by the evolution of retirement support programs into retirement dependency programs, the ones who are as skeptical of public sector interests as they are of private sector interests, the ones who prioritize growth over inequality–they’re discredited in the liberal world view that Krugman brilliantly articulates. In fact, not only are they headed toward irrelevance in Democratic circles, if you look closely enough, they are already gone.
Hillary Clinton must know that there are at least three ways she might have been president. Had she been modest enough to return home to build a Senate candidacy, rather than relocate to New York, she would have been handed the 2004 Illinois seat; and the young legislator named Obama who actually won that year might have become, say, a precocious lieutenant governor aiming higher, and the Democratic nomination would have been hers for the asking four years later. On the flip side, had she been more immodest, she would have sought the presidency earlier, in 2004, a year when the Democratic field was weak and George W. Bush was vulnerable. Had she been a shade luckier, in 2008, Florida and Michigan would have saved their primaries for Super Tuesday, and the comfortable wins they gave her would have been decisive instead of being discounted under the byzantine nominating rules of that cycle.
It’s enough narrowly missed fortune to haunt even a happy, contented soul who has power and fame to spare. Whether or not she feels cheated by destiny, though, Clinton can’t help but hear the drumbeat: the one from female activists who regret their coolness toward her in the last race; the one from Democratic insiders who don’t like the shape of a 2016 field of national novices; and the one from a surprising combination of the grassroots and the elite who aren’t bound to either party but harbor this quaint notion that for once, the most supremely qualified individual ought to advance to the presidency.
Mind you, no one really knows what a Hillary White House would mean. It is possible that it would be an unremitted push toward the left, and that her Republican admirers would end up recoiling as quickly as did Obama’s hedge fund bundlers. It is conceivable that this President Clinton would end up being the partisan one and the ideological one. But what if it turns out she actually absorbed her own engagement with middle and working class voters in those months of slogging through Ohio and Pennsylvania with the winds tilting against her?
If she did, Clinton might appreciate that some of the most vulnerable, neglected Americans actually work and abide by the rules, but don’t have access to a megaphone. Neither their unions nor their companies have adequately protected them, they don’t have an Al Sharpton or a Rush Limbaugh, and the interest group loyalties of the left and right during the last decade have short-changed their values. This slice of America is a casualty of Washington and Wall Street diluting the value of work and responsibility by offering up so many paths to entitlement that require neither virtue.
These were Hillary’s people in those months of struggle and her campaign came to resemble them: resilient but outgunned by larger historical forces and by changing liberal notions of who the un-empowered really are. To be sure, she lost for some of the standard reasons—squandered resources, a message that started out too thin and the bad luck of running against a superstar. But part of her undoing was that the heart of liberalism by 2008 was no longer a populist, working class phenomenon.
I also remember well when so many of my fellow African American travelers in the Obama camp turned on the Clintons with the fairly savage question: “how dare you stand in the path of a black rising when blacks have sustained your career in tough times”? The question always seemed to cheapen politics by making it tribal; it certainly diminished Bill Clinton’s record on equality by reducing it to the small size of a deal that deserved payback. If character is an evolutionary force, the Hillary Clinton who lived through the un-pretty side of the history made in ’08 could be expected to have a new appreciation for the flaws in identity politics, especially its inclination to make ethnic grievance a rallying cry.
The odds still seem that rather than convert her lessons into a second run at age 69, that Hillary Clinton will choose a life of global philanthropy over red-eye flights to make a breakfast of 50 in Iowa or New Hampshire. Republicans should wish hard for those odds to hold up: the last thing they to want to face in 2016 is a liberalism that trades the politics of ethnic interests and entitlement for its old working class roots.
-My writings on the flaws of the Affordable Care Act generated a range of responses, most of which of course begin and end with the reader’s opinion of the legislation. There is no amount of argument that will change the fact that the strongest defenders of the law view any attack on it as indifference to the plight of the sick, or as pandering to win votes or contributions in some hypothetical future campaign (the fact continues to be missed that significant sectors of the lobbying/corporate crowd supported the legislation, and that the first to be up in arms over the mandate’s collapse would be the well-heeled insurance industry).
It is worth addressing the argument that President Obama, and a number of you, have made regarding the “activism” of a Supreme Court that would dare to strike down the mandate or the entire statute. It’s a tempting sounding argument, as I noted in my critique of Judge Wilkinson’s column a couple of weeks ago, but it is one that is hopelessly subjective. Does it mean that the Court should never second guess the political process: that’s hardly an argument that has historically made progressives comfortable. Does it mean that the Court should engage only if there is some kind of “clear”, obvious violation: if so, it means that a constitutional violation would be tolerable as long as it doesn’t hurt more–the sloppiest, weakest of standards.
Would the Supreme Court be engaged in activism if it struck down state laws that reflect the desires of local citizens to restrict illegal immigrants? As flawed as the Arizona and Alabama versions are—and I think they are poor policy that do more harm than good—it seems that an overrule of them would be just as vulnerable to the activist label, especially given the federal government’s inability to legislate in this area. The examples are infinite, and the one certainty is that the losing side of any high court argument is quick to throw “activism” around and just as quick to discard the charge on a winning day.
It’s particularly hard to condemn activism when Congress has walked right up to the edge of its authority by exercising it in an unprecedented way. The administration itself cites no prior example of the government compelling, at penalty of sanction, a consumer to buy a product; the mandate’s defenders invariably confuse, or dodge, the issue by waxing eloquent about the centrality of healthcare in our economy, or about the economic burden that the voluntarily uninsured leave behind, but the novelty of what the government seeks to do remains. As even a liberal like Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post acknowledges, a court wrestling with that novelty seems less activist and more like an institution doing its job.
-A number of you have asked if I have revised any of my thoughts on Trayvon Martin’s shooting given the slow trickle of new details. While I did caveat my judgment that the shooting was unjust on the facts remaining as they appeared in the early days, I recognize that for my posting at Politico, the editors chose a headline that was unequivocally judgmental. The best I can say is this: it a reasonable bet that the facts will never be known to the point that there are no real doubts, or suspicions and we would all do well to make that concession.
Given that, I wish we would focus more on two elements. First, regardless of who cried for help, struck first, or followed the other, the powder keg in this incident was a concoction of fear: a young black man who felt threatened and disrespected when he was confronted and a non-black man who felt at risk and based that risk on a child’s appearance. The edginess in their encounter is one our society too regularly faces, and while it rarely leads to shootings, it leads all too often to blows and insults that only harden resentments, and arrests and detentions that only deepen anger at authorities. If this indescribably sad event doesn’t move us to consider the cost of our respective racial battle stations, the loss is compounded.
Second, the Florida Stand Your Ground Law is a bad one that needs to be scrapped; whether or not it caused this death, it will cause others if it is not changed. The law, which is more tolerant of a self defense claim than any law like it I have seen, doesn’t just judge behavior: it drives it. Individuals with a gun feel liberated to act like cops and not to wait for the police to arrive; the police who enforce it are inclined to view a shooting as self-defense if the shooter invokes a few buzzwords—“danger”, “suspicious”, “made an aggressive move”, “he hit me first”, etc. On top of that, another weakness of the law is that it likely would have empowered either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman to act on their fears that night; the law gives an instant shooting license to the fearful and the threatened at just the moment when their judgment is cloudiest. A law should never make firing a gun so easy.