Monthly Archives: August 2011

What Can the Controversial Republican Governors Contribute to the Tea Leaves?

I’d just like to develop a clever thought that David Wiegel had in Slate back in mid-March: If you consider the States the most-controversial Tea Party-backed Republican Governors govern and their minimal levels of public support, they may constitute the greatest threat to the Republican Party.

Most-recent approval ratings for the controversial Republican Governors:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Associated Press photo.

Chris Christie: 44% (Quinnipiac University, mid-July)
Christie has the highest approval rating of this sextet; it’s worth noting he is the only one who has to work with a Democratic State Legislature.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Yes, the iPhone in his hand displaying an image of billionaire Texas energy magnate and Tea Party financier David Koch is doctored. It's also very funny. Walker granted cynical but intrepid Liberal blogger Ian Murphy, who pretended to be Mr. Koch, a 20-minute phone call last spring and discussed some alarming details of his plans to railroad the bill to break Wisconsin's public employee unions through the State Senate. He also admitted to having considered stirring up trouble from within the union protests in Madison and likened breaking public employees' leverage to fighting Communism. Photo cleverly doctored at http://www.urantiansojourn.com.

Scott Walker, Wisconsin: 37% (University of Wisconsin/Madison Badger, mid-July)
Early-August’s setback for Democrats aside, a recall of Governor Walker would probably succeed.

John Kasich on the O'Reilly Factor--not as a guest, but as the substitute for Bill O'Reilly before being elected Governor of Ohio. At least if his approval ratings don't rebound he'll have a place to go once he joins the tens of millions of unemployed.

John Kasich, Ohio: 35% (Quinnipiac University, mid-July)
As in Wisconsin, it seems that busting public employee unions is even more-unpopular than public employee unions.  In accordance with State law the measure is up for a referendum in Ohio; advance polling suggests it will fail.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who bears an odd resemblance to Roy Batty, leader of the Replicants from Blade Runner. This was actually a portait produced by his political staff, though they discarded it in favor of less dark and reserved images.

Rick Scott, Florida: 35% (Quinnipiac University, early-August)
Incidentally, in the same poll 45% of Floridians disapproved of Scott personally, which if valid to other poll methodologies makes him the most personally-disliked Governor in the country.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The Governor has adopted some broadly-alienating policies, including signing a strange bill into law that allows him to deem incorporated municipalities "financially distressed," thereby giving him the power to appoint financial commissions authorized to break public employee and other municipal contracts by fiat, dismiss elected officials and even end a city's charter of incorporation. This power is at least granted some plausibility by the fact that several of Michigan's cities are the most rapidly-decaying in the country.

Rick Snyder, Michigan: 33% (EPIC-MRA, late this month)
Michiganders seem to doubt he has any ideas that will turn around the State’s dismal economy.

Maine Governor Paul LePage. As his appearance somewhat-suggests, LePage is the 1st French Mainer to be elected Governor of Maine; due both to his plurality victory in last November's election and his controversial anti-labor and anti-regulatory stances, he has never been very popular in blue-tinted Maine.

Paul LePage, Maine: 31% (Critical Insights, mid-May)
If reproducible I think this makes LePage is the least-popular Governor in the country.  This figure looks somewhat less-extraordinary when you consider that he was elected in a 3-way race.

States like Florida, Ohio and Michigan are bad choices of place to alienate independents with ideological government, particularly if these States are in the most-dire economic straights and these States can’t demonstrate competitive job and GDP growth.  Consider that with the exception of comparatively-viable Christie, who has to propose his reforms to a Democratic State Legislature and has been in office since early 2010, all of these Governors are polling throughout the 30s after about half a year in office.  They have a lot of time to redeem themselves, but poll numbers this low are subject to significant inertia and eventually less ideologically-beholden State legislators have to consider what their Governor’s policies are doing to their brand.  (Congressional Republicans learned this lesson only the hard way in 2006 and 2008 as a very-different mold of ideological Republican, George W. Bush, led them off a cliff with voters; to a lesser extent this is also what happened to Congressional Democrats who had governed from the Left with President Obama in 2010.)  These Governors–all but Christie representatives of strategic swing States–have to consider whether to take a different political tack for the remaining 3 1/2 years of their 1st term (and probably considerably less than that for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) or to pat themselves on the back for their ideologically-preconceived jobs well done and wait for the expected improvement in the economy.  So far, the only mountains they have moved are the swing voters in their States–away from support for their party.  It turns out you can’t become as popular of a Republican as Rick Perry by trying to turn your own State into Texas as fast as circumstances may allow.  This may require sacrificing not only your own political standing but some of the qualities your people love about their State.

I’d like to close with some nuance: I am not saying Democrats should hope that President Obama can count on a backlash against Republicans helping him in these swing States.  He is in serious political trouble because he has so far failed to stimulate employment and bring confidence back to the housing market.  My point is that Republicans conversely cannot hope to escape damage to their brand simply because of skepticism towards President Obama’s economic policies.

A Storm of Historic Disproportion

The Liberal Ironist has a contrarian view of Hurricane Irene, the much-anticipated “Big One” that turned out to be less-damaging than Hurricane Gloria, which made landfall on Long Island in late-September 1985.

Have you heard of Hurricane Gloria?  If you aren’t from Long Island, New York, there is a good chance you haven’t–and this now inescapably colors my view of Hurricane Irene.  Just a few days after public alarm over a magnitude-5.8 earthquake outside of Richmond, Virginia–noteworthy in fact for its novelty rather than the danger it posed–President Obama warned us that Hurricane Irene was “a storm of historic proportions.”

The proportions by which Hurricane Irene is truly historic are in the scale of the preparations undertaken in its advance, and in the overestimation of the force with which it would hit New York City.  Hurricane Irene is likely to survive in our popular culture as an obscure reference to mass delusion rather than as the 100-year storm–though the full scale of the damage to Long Island hasn’t been assessed yet.  Some of the preparations, inconvenient though they were, were simply the dictates of prudence.  Many elected and appointed officials, business operators and private citizens simply took the appropriate precautions in order to protect lives and material assets; some of these preparatory steps–President Obama ending his Martha’s Vineyard vacation a day early to come back to Washington being a good example–seem to have been motivated more by fear of public judgment than by he urgency of his presence.  Though questions about such motivations clearly irritated him, a sense of having been burned by a sluggish City response to last December’s blizzard probably led New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to go into full crisis mode at the news of a hurricane, eager to demonstrate his seriousness and his ability to lead.

2 articles on this subject warrant reading in this order–“Hurricane Lost Steam as Experts Misjudged Structure and Next Move” from Monday’s New York Times and “Politicians Pushed to Stay Out in Front of Events” from Monday’s Wall Street Journal.  Together they paint a depressing picture of an indeterminate science where catalytic and repressive features are both incompletely-theorized and unaccountable in practice, and in which dramatic events are a consequence of contingencies on different fronts.  But the very drama of the results is enough to produce a popular expectation that these developments can be adequately foreseen and mitigated by our leaders, especially by the President.  This causes politicians to dramatize situations the public finds frustrating with lots of dark imagery and then to contrast that with promises they cannot keep unless they’ve already made the impending situation look quite bad.  (OK, this time I’m talking about meteorology, not economics or political science.)

In this situation the Liberal Ironist is brought back to the Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s very illiberal and un-ironic way of making sense of all the cant and injustices he saw in politics in his day: All human beings are shackled to the floor of a cave, staring at its back wall; behind them and further towards the cave’s mouth a few comparatively-free but rather un-ambitious people stand, with a bright fire burning behind them.  They hold aloft statues hewn to resemble “real things,” projecting shadowy images against the back wall of the cave, and sometimes they speak or project sounds to pass for the utterances or noises of those shadows on the wall: So do the powers that be, whether of politics or culture, keep the mass of people entranced by what they believe or want others to believe are “real things.”  The “real things” of which these shadows can be but a crude reproduction are to be found outside the proverbial cave altogether, under the all-revealing light of the Sun.

For readers who lack experience with the history of philosophy, yes, the Wachowski brothers derived the idea for The Matrix by literalizing a metaphor from a 2,400-year-old book.  The objection I’m raising is against the bit parts we tend to play in this comedy.

Maybe the Liberal Ironist is overreacting to this overreaction.  Hurricane Katrina–at peak strength a category 5 hurricane–was the real deal, resulting in 1,400 deaths and an American city inundated and forever changed by the loss of scores of thousands of its inhabitants, and over $100 billion in property damage.  The sheer scope of the human cost in New Orleans–and the institutional failure of the State and Federal response to it–was indeed not merely a major story, and a cultural event.

The sound and fury surrounding Hurricane Irene ultimately signified nothing–which also makes it a cultural event, in the Liberal Ironist’s view.  The philosophy that “The buck stops here”–with the President–has gone too far and essentially created a ritual of panic-mobilization.

President Obama’s handling of the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform is partly where these expectations–and some due comparisons to the current non-episode–come from.  Vapid talking heads on CNN–a key offender whenever it’s time to stir-up indignation during a lull in the news cycle–would point to misstatements by President Obama or appointed officials heading the Federal relief effort as evidence that the President, or the Federal Government, or someone, wasn’t doing enough to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  1st of all, it was silly for so many to blame the President for the slow pace of the operation to cap the leak; he wasn’t really in possession of a superior means to cap the spill than BP.  2nd (and I suppose more-provocatively), there isn’t much point in issuing charges against BP for the slow pace of the capping operation, either, since they were desperate to stop the damned oil leak so that the public relations nightmare would end.  Of course, if you wanted to issue charges against BP for its operation of the rig or against the Minerals Management Service for its cozy relationship with energy companies drilling for oil in unstable environments, be my guest–but that is a part of my point here.  Holding those who expose the public to a certain level of risk makes more sense than blaming those responsible for emergency response when the scope of the disaster exceeds the material means available to contain it.

If it sounds like the aim of this entry is simply to proclaim President Obama a victim of this cultural shift, then I’ve gone off-point–though not off-topic.  The point is that, as the Wall Street Journal article on the subject observed, a number of their leaders essentially used what proved to be a minor storm as an opportunity to demonstrate that they won’t miss an opportunity.  This was not a partisan phenomenon: Republican-turned-independent New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg sustained the hype surrounding Hurricane Irene, as did Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue.  All were concerned about seeming to fiddle while Rome burned, so they…inserted themselves into what turned out to be a non-situation.

Better safe than sorry?  Absolutely–and mandatory evacuations are not a joke.  Some of the unprecedented 370,000 New Yorkers and 400,000 Long Islanders ordered evacuated in advance of the storm, for example, won’t have homes to go back to.  But New Yorkers will be sorry today–not because of the “disaster storm surge” depicted in spectacular graphics on CNN but because the New York City Subway, its entire rolling stock withdrawn into yards or to high-and-dry spots in the tunnels, won’t be fully-operational for this morning’s commute.

Sometimes there’s no choice between preparation and catastrophe but between differing types of inconvenience to be experienced at different times.  And the expense of preparations for this hurricane stand as a testament to our capacity for self-injury through expectations of risk-reduction imposed on our political class.  They aren’t precisely victims; they’ve been foisted into the role of Medieval doctors applying leeches.  If you want someone to blame, the Liberal Ironist would like to offer the television media.

The Hard Part for the Libyan Revolution

If the dark times for the Libyan Revolution are at an end, the difficult part is just beginning.  Not only have the Rebels survived, but thanks to an at-times spotty but ultimately adequate NATO assist, they have thrived, at the time of this writing having seized control of most of the capital Tripoli.

The Libyan Revolution needed all of 4 days to become the indisputably most-violent of the Arab Spring revolutions.  Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has ruled Africa’s most-affluent country as an undisputed tyrant since 1969, responded to initial peaceful protests with indiscriminate violence, killing scores in half a week and even ordering his soldiers to fire on the funeral processions for those killed in the previous days’ violence.  But when he ordered some army units to put down a mounting uprising in Benghazi the next Monday, a city the size of San Francisco, they rebelled, pledging themselves to the uprising and declaring Benghazi liberated.  By Tuesday the Italian Foreign Minister concluded that he found initial reports that 1,000 Libyans had died in just under a week of fighting credible.  This is a staggering death toll in the prologue phase of a civil war in a country of just 6.5 million people with 2 major cities.

Through the last week of February and the first few week of March, it appeared that the Rebels had an almost unstoppable momentum.  On the road westward from Ras Lanuf to Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi’s hometown and the headquarters of the Libyan Special Forces, the Rebels ran into trouble.  Unable to advance into that garrison town, the Rebels helplessly fell back, unable to maintain their supply lines and facing not just suddenly-stiff resistance on the ground but now-withering air strikes from the small and unsophisticated but unchallenged Libyan Air Force.  It was at this time that President Obama’s earlier disinclination to apply force appeared to countenance the violent suppression of the Rebel movement as a whole.

President Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring has presented an ungainly parallel for his muted and shifting tact in dealing with the new and very-Conservative Republican majority in the House: In both cases he maintains an appearance of comity and an ability to build consensus with great ease when the basic political situation is favorable and without complications.  When he faces a dynamic political environment full of resistance and ideological incongruity, he sometimes seems to lose his voice and to prefer inaction to planting a flag in a torrent.  Such a de facto policy of reticence isn’t really prudent, however, as it seems to amount to complicity with the regime being resisted.  In the context of the Arab Spring, the difficult weekend at the end of January would have been a perfect time for the President to “get religion” and make an open announcement to Middle Eastern autocrats that their regimes could not survive without opening their political systems in substantive ways.  Instead, he seemed to be waiting to see who the victor would be before having a policy.  That isn’t always an option in a situation where both parties have the means to gauge a leader’s reaction; civil society also expects a President to take a stand on an issue that, right or wrong, has gained official “crisis” status.  This expectation makes a President’s job harder, but it is simply one that must be mastered, even if it exposes a leader to risks.  (If leaders weren’t exposed to risks when making a judgment call, everyone could be one.)

In any case, President Obama seemed to have a change of heart about intervention in Libya once it became clear that the revolt couldn’t succeed under its own power.  The resolution submitted to the United Nations Security Council passed due to Russia’s and China’s abstention as opposed to veto; this marked a significant diplomatic accomplishment that couldn’t have come any later for the Libyan Revolution.  Had they waited 1 more day to prepare a response, Benghazi might have fallen.

The resolution was adopted on Thursday, March 17th; by Saturday, March 19th a French fighter jet destroyed its 1st target on the road to Benghazi.  Loyalist troops defending the Gaddafi regime had brought the full-blown civil war to the edge of Libya’s 2nd-largest city but were now forced by a UN-authorized, NATO-enforced no-fly zone to fall back.  This NATO operation effectively amounted to the Libyan Rebels’ air force.  Within days, Loyalist and Rebel forces were back to contesting for control of Ajdabiya and Brega, oil-export towns to the southwest of Benghazi, rather than for the fate of the Rebel provisional headquarters at Benghazi itself.

This competition went on for months, in retrospect the longest phase of the Libyan conflict thus far.  While NATO air power–nominally a no-fly zone but in effect a Western intervention on the side of the anti-Gaddafi Rebels–was sufficient to protect the Rebels from the soon-destroyed Libyan Air Force and Loyalist tank columns, it appeared to be insufficient to root-out entrenched loyalist positions in cities.  Through July Gaddafi continued to issue calls for peace talks with the Rebels–though his past history of using calls for cease-fire as ill-conceived feints to press an assumed advantage had met with justified contempt from the Rebels.  But around this time a concurrent rebel movement in the mountain villages southwest of Tripoli became increasingly organized, with tribal bands of around 600 fighters apiece prepared for a march on the small cities to the west and south of Tripoli.  These broke the seige of long-restive Az-Zawiya, 27 miles west of Tripoli, shortly after the siege of Misurata–a city of over 300,000 that had been effectively surrounded for most of the uprising–was lifted by a combination of Rebel resistance and NATO air strikes against Loyalist positions.

Now the tribal bands from the western mountains and the Rebel expedition force that broke out of Misurata have met in a blood-soaked Tripoli.  They appear to have a tenuous control over the city, but the neighborhoods around the now-vacated Gaddafi compound in Bab al-Aziziya in south-central Tripoli and the Rixos Hotel in southeastern Tripoli (where foreign journalists have been holed-up for days) remain hotly-contested if not still under Loyalist control.  Colonel Gaddafi has not been found, but is now effectively in hiding.

If the period from around February 16th, when initial protests met with harsh violence, to around March 20th, when the Loyalist counterattack on Benghazi began to fall back in the face of NATO airstrikes, was the existential threat to the Libyan Revolution, then this phase is the hard part for the Libyan Revolution.  The Rebels must impose order on a situation in which Gaddafi’s beneficiaries may not be bound by any scruples to stop the fighting.  The Special Forces garrison at Sirte still prevents the Rebels in their eastern headquarters from joining the offensive force that is currently taking Tripoli.  This federation of tribal fighters has taken on a lot of the burden itself, but it isn’t yet integrated into the Benghazi-based transitional government.  And don’t forget the recent assassination of a Rebel leader in Benghazi: The gains of revolution produce scores that must be settled–1 way or another.  Daunting as it was, the issues at stake during the uprising were simple: Survive and fight back.  Tactical choices were submitted to the most-direct form of appraisal–military victory or defeat.  After 1 month of waiting, NATO was there to prevent destruction and to allow the Rebels to press their advantage in Libya’s small and scattered set-piece battles.  But the issues at stake now are hard: It is time to assert control over a lawless capital and find a way for many aggrieved parties to pick a legitimate government for themselves.  There are always bumps along this road, and one can’t just blame the malice of the enemy and turn to the arsenal anymore.

At least relative affluence, a small population, and a long line of (present but not controlling) Western benefactors should help.

Rick Perry

The Liberal Ironist put-off a response to the Ames, Iowa Republican presidential primary debate for several days–which was just as well, because a new bit of news has completely and justifiably overshadowed the debate, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN) and Congressman Ron Paul’s (R-TX) surprising 1st- and 2nd-place takes in the (irrelevant) Iowa Straw Poll Saturday, and even former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s philosophical announcement on Sunday that he was closing down his presidential campaign.  On Saturday–while the Iowa Straw Poll was in session–Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he was running for President.

Rick Perry announcing his presidential candidacy last Saturday in South Carolina, at the meeting of the Conservative blog RedState.com. Photo by Associated Press/Gerry Broome.

Everyone knows this now.  I waited long-enough before writing on this–less than a week–for a Rasmussen poll to come out putting Perry well in the lead among likely Republican primary voters for the Presidential nomination.  True, almost 6 months remain until the Iowa Caucuses, at which point we will have a more-valid picture of which Republican hopefuls have gathered the most Party support.  Still, for Governor Perry to vault right into the lead essentially upon announcement of his candidacy for President suggests that the Republican Party has been waiting for a deliverer–and has found one.

The point of this entry is to offer an assessment of Governor Perry’s cosmetic assets.  (No, this has nothing to do with his hair.)  In this entry, the Liberal Ironist means to set aside the record and proposed policies–which if anything are more-Conservative than you would reasonably respect from a Republican Presidential candidate–and simply focus on the qualities that could allow the man to pull-through a primary and get elected, and little else.  The 1st sign of Perry’s political acuity to emerge from his announcement of candidacy was his sense of timing.  Perry of course made the customary advance notice of a formal announcement last Friday; the official announcement of his candidacy itself came at the conference for the conservative blog RedState.com in South Carolina–on Saturday, August 13th.  This was the day of the Iowa Straw Poll, of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s surprising (but not shocking) 1st-place win and Congressman Ron Paul’s surprising (but not shocking) 2nd-place win.

We are to believe that Governor Perry announced his candidacy for the Presidency on the other Conservative upstarts’ big day as a coincidence?

Governor Romney has met his match–not just in the immediate polling but in political acuity.  Though his string of startling early campaign statements may yet :  As much as Romney wants to run on his business experience, Perry wants to run on his record as Governor.  For philosophical reasons, Democrats will find this record horrendous, Conservatives (though not necessarily all stripes of Republican) will find it almost ideal-type, and independents (whom in practice are usually unaffiliated because they are little-informed) will probably be looking for any sign, including loose association, of an executive who has found a way out of our prolonged economic stagnation.

37% of all job growth nationwide since June 2009 (at around which time or shortly thereafter President Obama had forecasted the US unemployment rate would peak at around 8% and begin to fall again) has occurred in the Republic of Texas, home to 10% of the US population.  Many of these jobs are minimum-wage or even sub minimum-wage, many of them are in State and local government, and many of them are tied to Texas’ large oil and natural gas industries; these 3 factors make the “Texas Miracle” largely-irrelevant to a national economic policy.  But Perry was the Governor of record in Texas at the time, a fact he isn’t likely to forget.  Throw in the fact that he balanced Texas’ budget, and Governor Perry has a plausible myth in his favor; right now President Obama just has a probably-true but ungainly counterfactual: We didn’t realize the severity of the Great Recession in January 2009, and without the stimulus the downturn would have been much worse.  The President deserves to be able to use this defense, but with a 9% unemployment rate and an 18.2% underemployment rate nationwide, the Liberal Ironist will be able to understand when no one besides the President’s principled supporters really care.

Rick Perry at his office in Austin, Texas. For 140 days each year, the Governor of Texas makes policy with the State Legislature, mostly to see if they can find new ways to deregulate stuff. These policies have made Texas the leading State in US job growth but also the leading State in creating the world of Blade Runner. (Associated Press Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Is Governor Perry’s job-promotion narrative vague on the details?  Sure.  Will that mean he can’t use it effectively?  The Liberal Ironist thinks he can and will.  Governor Perry’s “Texas Miracle” isn’t a lie, it’s a myth.  He slashed education spending he previously supported in his post-Financial Crash budgets to bring them into balance without raising taxes; he’ll say that those were the “tough decisions” he’s been talking about, claiming that he’s put his money where his mouth is–and likely criticize President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act for creating unfunded mandates for academic progress anyway.

Oh, yeah–Have I mentioned Rick Perry’s Federalism?  Last year Governor Perry wrote a book called Fed Up!  Our Fight to Save America from Washington.  It reads light on policy prescriptions and heavy on a list of grievances against Washington.  What makes it distinct–not unprecedented to those familiar with Barry Goldwater or Newt Gingrich, but still an under-vocalized tack considering the recent rightward shift of the Republican Party–is its advocacy of power decentralization, especially to the 50 States.

Governor Perry promotes his book Fed-Up!, a radical defense of power devolution to the States, in an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in November 2010. With its satirical take on the day's news aimed at a young, Liberal audience, The Daily Show has become a presidential-interest litmus test for media-savvy Republicans. Photo courtesy of The Daily Show.

For a Republican to call for less Federal power is as unremarkable as it gets, but for him to make the central basis of his appeal the idea that Americans have the space to live separately–essentially, to advance the 10th Amendment’s reservation of unenumerated powers “to the States respectively, or to the people” as the the health of the Constitution–is different.  While not unprecedented, Federalism (in the contemporary, not the original, idiom) affords Governor Perry the opportunity to have his Tea Party cake and eat it, too, proposing a Federal Government with less power over consumer and investor decisions and our personal lives.  Make no mistake: Rick Perry could come out as a Libertarian–which he is not–and the Liberal Ironist would none the less prefer for Barack Obama to remain President.  My point is that Governor Perry could cobble together a large constituency if he found a way to split the difference on some of the debates that have proved interminable in national politics; he simply has to be smart-enough to stick to that message and unabashedly expound on its appeal.

There is reason to believe that he isn’t smart-enough to stick to that comparatively non-threatening position.  Apparently driven to out-maneuver his various freakish Republican primary opponents on the right, from staple curmudgeons like the Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) to the reliable naysayer (and likewise legislative non-presence) Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to long-shots whom have simply succumbed to varying degrees of bigotry in their campaign statements (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain), Governor Perry has called for a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage–and this not long after conceding that the elected representatives of the people of New York had the right to institute gay marriages there.  A Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage would face daunting hurdles to passage–Republicans have no chance of taking 2/3 of both chambers of Congress for the foreseeable future, and 38 State legislatures would have to ratify any such Amendment–though such an Amendment could alternately be recommended by 34 State legislatures and subsequently ratified by 38.  That’s actually close to the number of States that have passed either constitutional or statutory bans on gay marriage.  But only 25 State legislatures (including officially-nonpartisan Nebraska) have Republican majorities; adding split legislatures and Democratic-majority legislatures dominated by Conservative Democrats, and I suspect only around 31 States would support such an Amendment.  Such assurances aren’t offered in Perry’s defense, mind you; they are testaments to his partisanship.

What could wreck a Perry candidacy in the general election quick is his recent call for a Constitutional Amendment banning abortion.  Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision back in 1973, about 3 in 5 Americans have consistently expressed support for the vast majority of circumstances under which abortions are performed.  (The near-total stability of opinion on this issue, in spite of the overlaying partisan change and the unresolvable nature of the moral premises behind the Pro-Choice and “Pro-Life” causes, is rather fascinating.)  Americans by a majority tend to accept all kinds of qualifications on abortion rights, supporting parental notification before a minor can get an abortion (which seems strangely-cruel) and a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion, which really refers to an abortion in the latter 6 months of a pregnancy, relatively rare, and generally performed in the context of an emergency (and thus also seems strangely-cruel).  But most Americans definitely do not support a Constitutional Amendment that would make abortion illegal except in the event of rape, incest or an immediate threat to a woman’s life.  While support for an anti-gay marriage Amendment might just raise skepticism towards a Perry candidacy rather than further arouse base enthusiasm, proposal of a so-called “human life” Amendment could actually put Perry in Goldwater territory in the 2012 Election.

Barring that, current political circumstances almost seem prepared for Governor Perry, even if he is a strange animal for Federal politics.  There is undeniably growing public frustration with President Obama.  It may be the President has been condemned for not doing the impossible in putting the US (and in a sense, the global) economy back in working order, but the plain truth is that he has failed to meet the benchmarks for economic progress he himself set in early 2009.  Congressional Republicans have neither ideological nor political cause to work with him on another stimulus, and just because the Federal debt limit is now effectively raised through 2012 doesn’t mean that future drives to raise the debt limit won’t be used as leverage in the same manner by whichever party is in the opposition.  Something–we don’t know what–must resolve itself in the current impasse in national politics.

The times call out for a deliverer.  The Liberal Ironist is convinced that Governor Perry is exactly the wrong man for the job, with ideological attacks against a managed recovery and even parts of our social safety net.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t get lucky–initially in choosing to run for President in 2012, next perhaps watching the economy gradually unstick itself by default and then in claiming–unfalsifiably–that the people made the right choice and the market has worked again.

The current Governor of Texas carries a gun, gets highways built over public controversy, and always finds the attack ad that sticks.  His biggest challenge throughout the 2012 Presidential Election cycle will be managing his own swagger.

Governor Perry has both the politics and temperament to make the last Texas-Governor-Turned-President look like a Democrat. I'm not sure that pistol is big-enough...

How Not to Attack Mitt Romney (and Why Not)

On Thursday, former Massachusetts Governor and current Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney was heckled by some Lefty activists during a campaign appearance in Iowa.  The context was a discussion of cuts to Federal entitlement spending–to hugely-popular Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–which will be necessary at some point in the future to prevent both skyrocketing taxes and drastic cuts to other Federal programs and the Department of Defense.  Because of the universality of Social Security and Medicare and the strong moral impulsion behind Medicaid, which pays for health services for the poor, it is a difficult political proposition even to propose spending cuts to these massive government programs, even when the proposed cuts are administrative changes that might leave benefits unaffected.  Still, the projected increase in Federal outlays to these programs are so massive and steep that some form of cuts to eligibility or benefits will be necessary to prevent them from becoming a drain on other government programs or on the economy through higher taxes, or both.  Stifling discussion of this issue has actually opened the space for reform proposals to include ideological agendas that would be genuinely-harmful.  (Witness House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s proposal to convert Medicare’s defined procedure benefits to vouchers for the elderly to buy private insurance–a weirdly-bad idea that would never have had a pretext to emerge had a past President and Congress taken more-aggressive steps to moderate Medicare’s automatic expansion.)

Anyway, Romney’s discussion of the need to control the growth of entitlements was the context for the various hecklers, including an old man who shouted “I’m on Social Security!” as if protesting Romney’s promise to personally assault him.  As the presidential hopeful refrained his refusal to raise taxes (the unifying Conservative bromide of the day), a crowd of hecklers came forth from the larger crowd of Republican viewers to call him a liar, pointing out (correctly) that Social Security and Medicare are funded through the payroll tax and thus do not actually contribute to the Federal deficit (thereby disingenuously implying that cost growth in those programs wouldn’t have to be restrained as our elderly population and health care sector inflation increase).  After expressing his support for the entitlements, he then laid out the general alternatives for how to keep the programs solvent.  When he mentioned tax increases, 1 of the hecklers shouted “Corporations!” to which he responded, “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Within hours this gaffe had become an analogue for the political controversies surrounding the Supreme Court’s recognition of corporate personhood.  More-deplorably yet more-predictably, seized upon by Democrats of as high a profile as Congresswoman Deborah Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), who called it “a shocking admission from a candidate–and a party–that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors, and students.”  It was no such thing, and in the eagerness of some of my fellow-partisans to capitalize on an understandable misstatement by Romney the Liberal Ironist sees an example of a lack of focus both in our critique of the Right and of our fiscal or legal agenda, or both.

Governor Romney was definitely trying to say that corporations are groups of people. The point he was making at the time that you can’t tax corporations without reducing profits to individual people–in effect, taxing corporations is as always taxing people, not taxing a vast and abstract thing.  Actually, Romney missed a golden opportunity to quote President Ronald Reagan, who said “Corporations don’t pay taxes; people do,” which is true.

The people who heckled him during his speech in Iowa were positively acting like creeps–shouting at him for daring to suggest that we could make Social Security and Medicare solvent by providing fewer benefits for the rich.  Means-testing for entitlement benefits (or progressive indexing as Romney called it) isn’t really a measure that I support because means-testing might make those programs less-efficient (and because it undermines the 1-size-fits-all principle of those programs), but these people were in effect harassing him for saying current entitlement spending is unsustainable.  In the case of Medicare this is definitely true.  The hecklers implicitly condemned Romney for proposing a lowering of the corporate income tax rate–which is hardly fair, considering President Obama’s Deficit Commission recommended doing the same thing last December.

I feel bad for Mitt Romney–I can’t believe I’m saying this–and I think these hecklers both abused their privileged access to a presidential hopeful and inhibited the efforts of earnest attendees to ask him questions.  If we don’t support his candidacy–and I do not–our sense of fair play should still lead us to make this determination after he’s been allowed to finish speaking free from public bullying by people who aren’t really interested in the details of his proposed changes to entitlements.  To his credit, this is precisely what he told the hecklers during his speaking engagement.

In reference to the connection to the various Supreme Court rulings establishing corporate personhood, this concept may turn out to be just a harmful dysfunction of Conservative legal ideology.  That said, it isn’t flippant to point out that President Obama hasn’t weighed-in on this issue, either.  I’m neither trying to let Romney off the hook nor say that “Barack Obama is just another Republican!”  I am saying that even if Mitt Romney’s idea that “Corporations don’t pay taxes; people do” and the de jure legal status of corporations both serve the goals of Conservative ideologues and the interests of their allies in business, they still warrant separate consideration.  The regulatory status and legal standing of corporations, on the one hand, and the balance between considerations of income equality and optimal economic growth in corporate tax policy on the other, shouldn’t be studied and debated in the same space; doing so reflects Liberal prejudices about those issues (through the “Corporations are malignant and/or working together” prism) more than Conservative ones.  If we just assume that Romney’s statements about corporate tax policy tell us how he feels about corporations’ legal standing, we are just as likely to make favorable assumptions about President Obama’s opinion on the issue.  Thus, conflating these 2 issues is as good as dropping the latter.  This is part of why we shouldn’t cease to take serious candidates that we disagree with seriously.

Actually, I’ll push further than that: We Liberals should no more allow the mere fact that corporations post billions of dollars in profit to predispose our attitude towards corporate tax policy than Conservatives should allow the fact of hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of dollars spent by the Federal Government to jaundice their views of government programs without some analysis of what those programs do.  (Ideology may justify policy choices with harsh consequences in either case, but it does not legitimately do so via an ignorant reaction to large numbers.)  Of course, analysis of tax policy and program efficacy will never be sufficient to lead Liberals and Conservatives to some golden age of consensus, but it could lead to novel policy agreements over taxation and Federal program spending–and I think most will agree that this era of stagnation and constraints would be a good time for it.

Or we could just blow past absolutely anything Romney has said about entitlement spending and corporate tax rates and just round it back to corporate legal personhood.  While I agree that this is an important issue, due to either discretion, distraction or a curious point of ideological agreement between the Supreme Court majority and President Obama, this isn’t an issue on which we’ve been presented with a choice in the first place.  The irony is that if we simply lay the blame for corporate legal personhood at a Republican Presidential candidate’s feet ad-hoc when it is the Federal Courts that have crafted it in every detail, we shouldn’t expect this issue to become a subject of live political debate at all.

A presidential candidate should play fair because he should want to talk about what he wants to do.  President Obama in particular composed himself marvelously in the 2008 Presidential Election, and unlike the personally-upbeat George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, he didn’t use a shadow campaign that hurled epithets and spread false rumors to stir-up the passions of his base.  If we as consumers of political news, whatever our partisan stripes, focus our political interest on anything besides a candidate’s past policies, proposed policies, and knowledge about their behaviors and personal associations that may raise justified doubts about their promises or put their policies in a different light, we are not paying attention to the news for the right reasons.  We ordinary people, ironically, have a “cognitive luxury” here: We get to be partisans while not cheapening our intellect as spin doctors or party apologists.  We can proudly embrace political beliefs without having to constantly ask, “Will this development make the other guy/opposing argument look bad?”  In politics it is the lay audience and not active practitioners who have the opportunity for academic distance from the cacophony.  As the Liberal Ironist would argue with regard to entitlement reform and the legal and regulatory rights of corporations, it isn’t naive to demand a sense of fair play in political questioning and political reporting; it’s naive to think there’s nothing at stake in the choice between seeking pragmatic ways to achieve policy goals and confusing our party for a soccer team.

The Democratic Revanche in Wisconsin Falls Short This Month…But Still Appears On-Track

Yesterday the recalls of 6 Republican State senators were held in Wisconsin.  This recall effort was the fruits of an effort by the Democratic Party and labor groups to recall 8 Republican State senators available for recall under State law.  The whole effort depended on Democrats taking at least 3 of the 6 seats subject to recall, rendering the State senate majority to the Democrats and putting a stop to Governor Scott Walker’s ideological agenda.  That effort has failed–for now–as Democrats have taken only 2 of 6 of the Republican seats up for recall.  While this is disappointing, it shouldn’t be taken out-of-context: Democrats could only immediately recall Republicans in seats that have been in Republican hands for some time–not marginal districts or recent pickups.

The Liberal Ironist previously called for–and still calls for–the recall of Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who has been very busy in his 1st year in office.  Having passed large business tax cuts upon assuming office, the Governor then quickly set about converting Wisconsin into a “freedom-to-work” State, stripping its public employee unions of the right of collective bargaining for anything more than to adjust their current salaries with inflation.  (In essence, public employees in Wisconsin have lost the right to collectively bargain for anything more than–at best–to maintain the wages they have now.)  Governor Walker characterized this issue as about restoring the State of Wisconsin to fiscal health, but the budget had been close to balance before the Governor passed his business tax cuts.  Among other measures, the Governor also rejected hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal grants to upgrade Wisconsin’s passenger rail infrastructure.  (The ideologically-similar Governors of Ohio and Florida did the same, the principal result of which was simply the transfer of those Federal funds to other States with plans to upgrade their intercity passenger rail infrastructure.)  Still on the docket (thanks to the failure of the Democratic recall effort to shift partisan control of the State senate) is legalization of concealed-weapons and new rules requiring provision of ID to vote–a cause celebre of Republicans and social conservatives that appears aimed at people who don’t have a driver’s license.  Among the principal developments I discussed in my previous entry on this story was the comical “Koch call” in which Liberal blogger Ian Murphy called Governor Walker’s office claiming to be billionaire Texas energy magnate and Tea Party fundraiser David Koch–and landed a 20-minute phone conversation with the Governor.  Among other rather unflattering episodes during the “Koch call,” Governor Walker asked Koch outright to provide money for TV ads attacking Wisconsin’s senate Democrats for leaving the State so the budget bill including the union-breaking provisions couldn’t come up for a vote; fake-David Koch asked Governor Walker if he considered using paid troublemakers to get the crowd to do something criminal–to which the Governor said that he had considered that but judged against it because was he worried it might cause public opinion to shift decisively in favor of settlement with the unions; he compared his own fight to break the teachers’ unions in Wisconsin with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers–and bizarrely claimed the latter “was the first crack in the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism;” and eagerly said he’d like to take fake-David Koch up on his offer of a good time.  So, it’s not surprising given these surreal revelations–which the Governor has owned-up to–that Walker polled at 59% disapproval in a University of Wisconsin poll in mid-July.  Still, disapproval of an incumbent’s performance doesn’t always translate into support for the available alternative, and in any case Governor Walker is not eligible for recall until he has been in office at least 1 year.  That gives Walker another half a year to say Wisconsin has moved on (and to push a fairly right-wing agenda in the home of the University of Wisconsin and dairy farmers).

The failure of the Democrats to take the Wisconsin senate (and thus to stop the flurry of the usual right-wing legislation out of a State where it’s proving to be pretty unpopular) is discouraging, but needs to be put into perspective.  True, the Democratic Party and public employee unions weren’t able to muster enough voters in a State President Obama won by about a 14% margin in 2008 to pick up half of 6 seats subject to recall in a State senate they controlled until last November’s election.  But the explanation for this is simple: Wisconsin’s recall rules only allow elected officials who have been in office for at least 1 year to be recalled.  So only Republican State senators who were already in office through 2010 (and who generally represented more-securely Republican districts) were eligible for recall yesterday.  As I said before, 8 Republicans were eligible for recall this year; 6 Republicans faced recall drives that gathered enough signatures for the vote; finally, 2 were recalled, though these 8 Republicans as a class were probably the most-secure in the State senate under normal political circumstances.  While some advance polling suggested a Democratic edge in 3-4 of these senate districts, even this indication was contested on methodological grounds and had tightened-up just before the vote.  What’s interesting is that Wisconsin’s deep and often close partisan divide appears to have been quite stable for the past 5 tempestuous months: SurveyUSA’s early-March poll in Wisconsin found clear majorities for the recall of GOP State senators Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper–and those were the Senators who were recalled.  So, what we’ve learned is that an assault on a cornerstone Progressive institution such as public employee unions–unlike, say, an assault on universal-benefactor entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare–can’t shift an electorate against activist Republicans in defiance of existing political geography, but it is sufficiently-alienating to a contested electorate to bring politically-marginal districts back to the Democrats.

So, for now Republicans have a 1-vote senate majority with which to pursue their agenda in Wisconsin.  But this is a swing state, and still apparently trending blue in Presidential elections.  With a concealed weapons law in a State with traditionally-strict gun laws and an ID requirement in the birthplace of Progressivism both on the docket, think of each month between now and his recall as another foot in the grave of Scott Walker’s political career.

Too Much for a Fragile Recovery

Yesterday, Monday, August 8, 2011, the recovery officially died.  True, we are not technically in a recession yet, but yesterday was as good a day as any to draw the line separating our faintest remaining hopes for restoration of economic normalcy from a general sense of foreboding (or for some of us, resignation) about what is to come.

2 numbers are likely to be oft-repeated in news items in the coming days: 634.76 and 1 trillion.  The 1st of those is the number of points by which the Dow Jones Industrial average fell on Monday, which amounts to a 5.6% drop in its total value; the 2nd is the total value of investor assets that were lost in Monday’s domestic market tumble.  The S&P’s downgrade of the United States Federal Government’s credit rating from a perfect AAA to AA+ may have erred on the side of hasty, but even if Monday’s dismal market performance is an overreaction to an overreaction, there’s really nothing to restore the lost value of those investments, because these days there’s just no apparent good news to stamp-out the bad.   The New York Times observed that bank stocks were hit the hardest:

“…Bank of America fell 20 percent. Citigroup fell 16 percent. Morgan Stanley dropped 14 percent. JPMorgan fell 9 percent. And Goldman Sachs fell 6 percent.

“Investors feared that banks could be hit by the economic slowdown and that, with government spending constrained, lenders would be less likely to receive official support in the future should they need it, as they did during the financial crisis.”

Mind you, I’m not with those grumbling about the S&P’s downgrading of our government’s credit rating.  The S&P’s report on its decision gave 2 reasons for the slight but real decline in its confidence–a prognosis of deficits not managed, which I think is as-yet unjustified, and frank doubts about whether our political system and current politics will always provide for the reliable payment of our debt service, which I think is a fair question after House Republicans’ bizarre brinksmanship with the Federal debt limit.

I’m really curious how Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers feel about how the loss of $1 trillion in domestic investments in a single day compares to the aggregate amount by which President Obama has proposed raising their taxes.  The fact that 1 rating agency downgraded the Federal Government’s credit rating from its highest to its next-highest rating and it caused the sharpest drop in the value of the Dow since the 2008 Financial Crash vindicates the President’s dark prognosis about what a “technical default” would have done to the economy.  This demonstrates the truth of the President’s insistence that House Republicans were holding all of us hostage when they held up the vote on increasing the Federal debt limit.  I’m not gloating about this sudden shock to the market, I simply wonder if Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers feel the fools for their massive fundraising rally for the radical Conservatives of the Tea Party movement in 2010.

I also don’t mean to say that the President has exhibited any great insight into this problem.  At this rate the public is likely to blame him for the emergence of the Second Recession during his watch, and this will be a very hard charge to shake.  President Obama’s recriminations at the S&P over its decision to downgrade our government’s credit rating are uncompelling to put it mildly.  A friend of mind was shrugged the grim portents off yesterday: “Taking off my Marxist hat”–Oh, did I mention this friend is a Marxist?–“if you’re living in a market economy, you’re living in a market economy.  If the relevant professionals judge that you aren’t as creditworthy as you used to be, the way you feel about their judgment has no bearing on it.”  The President’s bitterness over the damage to our credit rating is pointless, and unbecoming.  The World has changed a little once again, that’s all.

Maybe President Obama is expressing frustration over a development that will damage his re-election prospects.  If one actually wants to be President, one probably wants to be re-elected President.  The outlook for his re-election has now become dim, and he must suspect that this is owing to the foolhardy actions of others.  This is true–but it isn’t the whole story.  The President of the United States is both the most powerful man in the World and doomed to constant reaction against a kaleidoscopic diversity of crises from all corners.  It’s true that a great many factors beyond his control have undermined our economic recovery from the start.  It’s also true that President Obama predicted that unemployment would peak around 8% by fall 2009 and begin to fall thereafter; with unemployment at 9.8% that September, the President declined to give the most-dismal economy in generations his full attention.

The great irony of the S&P’s downgrade of the government’s credit rating is that it actually drove investors to buy more US Treasury bonds.  With the Dow taking a 634.76 point plunge in 1 day, many investors concluded that stocks aren’t a safe asset in which to keep their money.  They turned instead to the investment they considered the most-reliable–the debt of the US Federal Government, somewhat-diminished from its unblemished reputation as an unshakeable source of sustainable interest, but still a more-stable investment than that of any private company or any other sovereign country.  Effective interest rates for all private-sector borrowers may rise on the news as investor confidence fades, and there simply is nowhere to stow massive financial assets more-securely than in US Treasury bonds.  (Talk of the Euro serving as a replacement currency for the dollar to denominate international financial transactions is dead, as the European Union grapples with the financial bailouts of several less-industrialized members–first Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, and now implausibly, Spain and Italy, 2 of the largest economies in Europe.)  So a market rating agency understandably censured the Federal Government for signaling that it lacked the political will needed to pay its own bills, which pulled the floor out from under many recently-cautious private financial actors, thus leading investors to put their cash in US debt, thus making deficit-spending cheaper for the Federal Government.  Why would the market do this?

The answer, of course, is the same motivations that drive the market at all times–self-interest in its most-Hobbesian of manifestations, profit and fear.