Archive for May, 2012
This article originally appeared in National Review on May 8, 2012.
Who knew that Massachusetts provides an opportunity to add a touch of color to the almost all white US Senate? Who knew that when Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren tailored her professional biography to cultivate ties with people who are “like I am”, she had in mind not left-leaning academics, or advanced degreed professional women, or bankruptcy policy wonks, but Oklahoma Cherokees? There is a rich vein in humor in the Boston Herald’s revelation that Harvard Law School touted the clearly Caucasian Warren as a Native America and that for nine years, Warren listed her ancestry in the same manner in official law school directories.
To be sure, the Warren campaign handled the damage control front with a skilled deflection: Team Warren has professed much outrage over any insinuation that her climb up the academic ladder was lifted by affirmative action (a claim her Republican opponent, incumbent Senator Scott Brown, has not remotely raised) and the New Republic has equated the whole thing with far-right birtherism regarding Barack Obama’s background. It’s a clever dodge that minimizes Warren’s creative accounting of her ancestry while reviving the liberal meme that Republicans have a beef with achievements that don’t belong to white men.
Here’s one hope that Warren doesn’t get away so easily. For all the mirth that has greeted the disclosures, there is a serious thicket of questions here for the professor and an embarrassing glimpse into the East Coast elite liberalism that she represents. One appropriate line of inquiry is whether Warren’s drive to reestablish her Cherokee roots manifested itself in any more tangible outreach to Native Americans in, say, her home-state of Oklahoma, who may not have perused law school association guides. The marginalized young adults in that community would certainly have relished a connected, powerful role model, and it is fair game to press Warren on whether the ethnic pride she described last week ever led her to be that person. And it is equally legitimate to ask whether Warren ever used the Native American identification in any context other than a directory that would have been a primary resource for law school recruiters and head-hunters.
There is also a window here into the facile way liberalism often engages race. Regardless of whether Warren’s ancestral roots boosted her chances at a professorship, Harvard Law thought enough of them to advance those roots in defense of its hiring practices–it was in response to a 1996 story about the absence of minority hires at the school that an HLS spokesman offered up Warren as an example. It was a telling reflex from an institution whose faculty and administration then and now are near exclusively white, despite an impressive array of minority students and a proud and self-conscious embrace of diversity. Within the school’s center of power, diversity is suddenly not such a driving force, and it is satisfied with results that are paper-thin, and if the reference to Warren is indicative, more than a little contrived. (I should note that during the four months I spent recently as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, I encountered not a single African American staffer, one Hispanic administrator who departed suddenly, and one Latina on the support staff whom I saw once. I suppose crimson neither fades nor changes very much).
It’s entirely fair and accurate to describe Harvard’s hiring policies as emblematic of a particular leftist contradiction on race: an emphasis on public values like admitting minority students in robust numbers combined with a reluctance to make internal changes that would hit closer to home. It is the familiar evasion of high powered law firms thatr extol their pro bono activity while their offices are the least racially diverse major business enterprises in New York and Washington; or of news organizations that are aggressively vigilant for signs of racial intolerance on the Right and whose own management levels are only marginally more inclusive than a country club.
It would be instructive to know whether Warren especially cared that her hundred year old ancestral links passed for diversity in Harvard’s faculty lounge, or whether she got bent out of shape by Harvard’s promiscuous use of her lineage. If she didn’t–and she has not claimed that she took offense–the silence diminishes the “authenticity” that is such a carefully cultivated part of Warren’s appeal. An authentic truth-teller would have recognized that her name was being invoked by Harvard in a disingenuous sort of way.
The episode should also be a sore spot for a candidate who has made powerful use of her biography and the admirable striving in her life-story. The implication might be that Warren is less a crusader than one more media-savvy politician who knows how to spin a personal history to make it bolder and more vivid than the facts warrant; and that when the narrative is inspected enough, it fades to gray. The divorcee whose financial plight made her a populist blurs into the media superstar whose best fundraising base is the toniest slice of Hollywood. Her working class origins and her criticisms of non wage based wealth segue into the hefty portfolio of a near seven figure tax bracket, hundreds of thousands of dollars in “consulting fees”, and a five million dollar home. There are traces of it all two decades ago, in the Native American hiring stat that turned out to be Elizabeth Warren.
Mark Schmitt has just written a solid critique in the New Republic of the failing political enterprise that is Americans Elect. On this site and elsewhere, I’ve echoed Schmitt’s point that the putatively grassroots organization has turned into little more than a society of well connected K Street/Wall Street donors and establishment types who are steering toward some amorphous “center.” I‘ve also argued that this center is a socially liberal, deficit conscious, selectively pro big business zone that reflects the worldview of any lobbyist-paid lunch table at the Palm or Bobby Vann’s. In other words, less a coherent middle ground than a hodgepodge of views that are already well represented in American discourse, especially at elite levels.
As Schmitt documents, the group has lagged in its audacious plan to elevate a third party presidential candidate. Its goal of securing ballot access in 50 states, which was supposed to have been accomplished last fall, has barely crossed the halfway point. The top contenders in their online virtual primary—Buddy Roemer and an unauthorized rump of Ron Paul diehards– are compiling embarrassingly low numbers that look like single precinct caucus totals. And the veil of indifference about the identity of an eventual candidate has been lifted in favor of a not so covert push for former Comptroller General David Walker, a serious man but one whose flirtations with running have yielded 360 online votes and an occasional Google alert.
The failure is not surprising: the two occasions in which a third party has genuinely broken through in our politics have involved either a national catastrophe—the Republicans who were born from the disintegration of the country over slavery in the antebellum era—or the galvanizing presence of a charismatic former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was denied a comeback by his party’s retrograde machine. For all of the angst over our current partisanship, America circa 2012 is not remotely a nation in fundamental disarray, or one whose political institutions are unraveling. The Tea Party on the right has already realigned into what amounts to a populist wing within the Republican Party while Occupy Wall Street on the left has quickly faded into irrelevance and incoherence.
Nor is there a figure of undeniable stature who could have capitalized on the discontent that does exist. The 22nd Amendment has cancelled out the possibility of a popular ex president stalking the landscape waiting to be recalled to duty (think of the campaign Bill Clinton might be waging). Even compelling figures like Hillary Clinton in 2008 and John McCain in 2000, each of whom might have had a rationale to take their case to the general election, were much too tied to their party’s infrastructure to contemplate a break that might have inspired a third party.
It is a testament to the insularity of the operatives and funders of Americans Elect that they confused last summer’s Acela corridor angst with Barack Obama and K Street’s fear of a far-right coup inside the GOP with the atmospheric conditions for a systemic breakdown. If a sustainable centrist politics were the agenda, it would have made infinitely more sense for Americans Elect to invest its capital in running genuine moderates in 15 to 20 congressional primaries in an effort to gain a tangible balance of power (as opposed to the hypothetical influence a 15 percent presidential contender would have on a winner who secured roughly three times that level of support). The strategy would have provided an authentic counter-weight to the right’s influence in the GOP and to the strength of organized Democratic interests like labor unions (who ended the careers of two moderate Pennsylvania Democratic congressmen in primaries last month).
Alternatively, the same cash could have been deployed in running third party slates in swing congressional districts, an approach that Matt Miller at the Washington Post hinted at in a few columns. While it would have been tough to dislodge two party voting preferences, the leveraging of dollars in local media markets would have gone further than the same funds could ever go in a national race; moreover, the marketing of a targeted effort to break the two party grip on Congress might have had far broader appeal than a quixotic bid to “influence” the next president through a protest vote.
Schmitt suggests in his column that Americans Elect languishes for lack of a major, galvanizing idea. His point is absolutely right, although his proffered solution, deficit reduction, is precisely the agenda that Obama was pursuing when his numbers hit rock bottom last August; it is also a fact that the Republican Party’s big thinking on deficits, the Ryan Plan, is the single least popular element of its election year messaging. The specifics of cutting deficits remain far less alluring than its generalities.
My hunch is that if there is a sweetspot in the center of American politics, it hinges around the standard of comprehensive, aggressive reform of stagnant public institutions, in an effort to make them more accountable: overhauling the tenure protections that make public education the most uncompetitive, insulated service profession in American life; revamping unemployment insurance to add a mandatory job training component; weakening the grip of special interest money on campaigns; and subjecting federal agencies to meaningful performance reviews that yield cuts that are smart but not indiscriminate.
The fact that the elite behind Americans Elect has had so little to say about a wholesale reform agenda—indeed, the fact that its main spear carrier, Tom Friedman, just co-authored an entire book on economic competitiveness without ever mentioning the Affordable Care Act, or the regulatory drag on small business growth, or the NLRB’s effort to block South Carolina from recruiting Boeing leads to an inevitable suspicion: Americans Elect is small-ball that exists less to transform politics than to shape the margins of the politics we have now. In other words, countering the anti-tax orthodoxy on the right and getting Democrats a touch more serious about deficits. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: if you want real change, these aren’t the people you have been waiting for.
A new right-leaning star was born last weekend at the True the Vote summit in Houston, while the dynamo who heads True the Vote simultaneously achieved multiple goals related to ballot integrity. For a single 24-hour conference to achieve so much is remarkable, and deserves more attention than one meager column, alas, can give it. But let’s try.
First, what is True the Vote? Despite leftist propaganda to the effect that it is some sort of partisan (or even racial) attempt at vote suppression, True the Vote is a growing, bipartisan, multi-racial, national movement to ensure that elections are conducted with integrity and without polling-place antagonism. The idea is to place and train poll watchers, as per existing law, in every precinct in the country – so they will know exactly what they can and can’t do to stop and report voting irregularities without causing a stir that could in any way intimidate, much less suppress, legitimate voters.
A largely volunteer organization, its founder and president is Catherine Engelbrecht, the aforementioned dynamo equally adept at organizing, speaking and inspiring a dedicated platoon of good citizens. The effort is desperately needed: In the past decade, 46 states have prosecuted people for vote fraud, the incidence of which is certainly far higher than authorities have caught. Dozens of states and counties have more people registered to vote than there are actual, voting-age adult residents – an anomaly serving as open invitation to even more fraud.
The summit itself featured a combination of excellent training (for those who will organize poll watchers) and superb speeches by a plethora of luminaries including journalist John Fund, author of Stealing Elections, Justice Department whistleblower J. Christian Adams, author of Injustice, and longtime Democratic pollster Pat Caddell. The latter fired up the crowd with his insistence that existing vote fraud is widespread and “nothing less than the political equivalent of treason” and “a bullet at the heart of what this country is about” – while also expressing amazement that Attorney General Eric Holder has not yet been “impeached” for “corrupt[ing]” the Justice Department “in the service of every bizarre ideology you can imagine.”
Another galvanizing speaker was former ACORN official Anita MonCrief, who described that organization’s “climate and culture of fraud” while blasting the New York Times and CNN for spiking her story in 2008 despite reams of documentation she provided.
But the surprising star of the show, according to many observers including this one, was former Rep. Artur Davis, the Alabama Democrat who gave one of the key nominating speeches for Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In recent months, Davis has written numerous times for the conservative National Review, and he strenuously opposed ObamaCare while in Congress, so it was already clear that on at least some issues he leans right of center. It was already known that he supported voter-ID laws: Last October 17 he wrote a column in the Montgomery Advertiser saying as much. Of fraudulently manufactured votes, he wrote then, “If you doubt it exists, I don’t; I’ve heard the peddlers of these ballots brag about it, I’ve been asked to provide the funds for it, and I am confident it has changed at least a few close local election results.”
But that was child’s play compared to the tour de force of a speech he made last weekend. Holding up a photo-ID, he ridiculed those who say it is too great a burden to require one – especially those who have said such a requirement is a violation of civil rights and human dignity.
“This is not a billy club,” he said, recalling violent civil rights battles of the past. “This is not a fire hose…. This is not Jim Crow…. My parents and my grandparents can tell you what a colored-only water fountain tasted like. They could tell you what a colored-only bathroom smelled like.” It certainly, he said, was nothing like his ID card: “this tiny little thing that doesn’t wound, that has no sharp edges.” And: “To call photo ID a degradation of human rights is not only something that is so fundamentally wrong, but is something my parents would not even recognize…. That [claim that ID requirements violate human rights] is the old tactic of telling us the very opposite of what it true.”
Also blasting the establishment media for waking up in tony enclaves and driving to offices in prime real estate while telling the rest of us that we are out of touch with America, Davis lumped those media folks together with the political ruling class that willingly looks away from (or tacitly condones) vote fraud. “You cannot let the insiders run this game,” he thundered.
Point very well taken. Fortunately, Catherine Engelbrecht and her dedicated volunteers, outsiders all, are acting on Davis’ advice.