Monthly Archives: September 2011

The House Republican Leadership Can’t Control Its Caucus

This is not an exaggeration, nor do I think I’m jumping to a conclusion.

An upset that warrants lasting scrutiny transpired last night: The House Republican leadership brought a continuing resolution to temporarily maintain the Federal budget to the floor of the House, in order to tide discretionary government operations over pending a final bill with spending cuts.  This bill failed 195-230.

48 Republicans voted against their Caucus’ continuing resolution.  While 182 Democrats voted against the continuing resolution out of a belief that its budget cuts go too far and its $3.65 billion allocation for Hurricane Irene disaster relief is too small, the 48 Republicans joined them in a belief that the continuing resolution does not cut Federal spending deeply-enough.  195 Congressmen, including 6 Democrats–about 45% of the House–though the continuing resolution was just right.

The House Republican leadership could probably propose further spending cuts and pick up the several-dozen Republican holdouts without dividing their caucus, but Senate Democrats would never support such a bill, and President Obama is practically being pushed into confrontation with the House Republicans at this point.  Unless Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor can persuade about half of the Republican holdouts to support the continuing resolution or cut a deal with House Democrats (!), the Federal Government will go into shutdown on September 30th.

Yes, after Senate Republicans filibustered Federal health assistance for chronically ill 9/11 rescue workers to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, we nearly entered a government shutdown this spring, and the Federal Government almost failed to pay half its bills in an unprecedented breakdown of ordinary operations this summer, we are 9 days away from an unanticipated Federal Government shutdown precipitated not by a confrontation between House Republicans and President Obama but the inability of the Speaker of the House to persuade all of the Tea Partiers to participate in governing.

I didn’t make enough of Speaker Boehner’s inability to deliver his caucus for his preferred version of the debt limit compromise in late-July of this year.  His failure to pass a preferred plan for 10-year budget cuts on the volume of his own caucus forced him to make a deal on terms more to Democrats’ liking.  Among the concessions he had to make:

1.) Out of $917 billion in initial discretionary spending cuts, 45% will come from Defense spending, and much of the rest is expected to come out of the Department of Agriculture (though this is subject to budget process).  These are the great repositories of the “secret socialism” of rural Republicans from resource-poor Congressional Districts.

2.) In all but name, President Obama got a debt limit increase that will last until spring 2013.

3.) If the new Congressional “Super-Committee” fails to recommend at least $1.2 trillion in Federal deficit reduction by November 23rd of this year, mandatory spending cuts will kick in–$600 billion more from the Department of Defense and $600 billion from Medicare payments to hospitals and clinics–but not beneficiaries.

In short, to rule-out any tax increases, Republicans had to open themselves to a minimum of half of all spending cuts coming from their own priorities, leave the social safety net untouched (depending on Committee recommendations but subject to Presidential veto), get about $1 trillion less in 10-year spending cuts than President Obama was offering them, and turn in their cards on this fight until 2013.  In addition to the policy concessions, the public clearly judged the Republicans the belligerents in this confrontation.

66 Republicans still voted against the final deal to raise the debt limit–on August 1st, at which point time was up.  If scores of Democrats hadn’t supported the deal to raise the debt limit, the Federal Government would have been unable to pay a fairly-randomized 1/2 of its bills, and the public would have judged Congressional Republicans responsible.

I have both a contemporaneous observation and a speculative prognostication to offer in response to these developments.  The aforementioned observation: The House Republican leadership simply cannot control the “Tea Party” Conservatives in their caucus.  I’d previously speculatted that the Tea Partiers among House Republicans had been brought to heel during budget negotiations between President Obama and the House Republican leadership in March and early-April; this (tentative) conclusion turned out to be wrong.  In that mid-April entry I also raised the question of whether the Republican Party was in trouble or the Speaker of the House would face a leadership challenge.  My speculative prognostication looks sideways at both of those questions: In its recent remaking through an ideological grassroots movement, the Republican Party has ironically lost its fabled unity.  The era of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Never insult another Republican,” is gone.  Actually, it’s been gone for years, as Conservatives have thrown around the RINO–Republican In Name Only–epithet any time a party member showed some independence; the real change is that Republicans aren’t ashamed of such ideological policing now.

This brings me to an important point: Ideological policing is evidence of the insecurity of an ideology, not its vitality and popularity.  From Evangelical localists to old-school Libertarians, a motley crew of different activists of limited government rallied to support the Republican Party in 2010, correctly concluding that the most-effective means of stopping and reversing President Obama’s activist agenda for the Federal Government was to take over the infrastructure of the Republican Party through the Democratic process.  Some of those limited-government factions were happy simply to pull the existing Republican Party to the right on economic policy and to disavow the “big-government Conservatism” of the George W. Bush years; Libertarians and an unspecified but probably-small proportion of the humiliated Christian Right wanted to replace the Republican Party platform with its own dogma.  It’s clear that George W. Bush’s attempt to remake the Republican Party through “Compassionate Conservatism” has failed; W. Bush’s ambitions for his party produced blowback from the base in part because its electoral strategy of massive tax cuts and massive new Federal programs was fiscally irresponsible, but also because rank-and-file Republicans never really wanted it.  Instead, they sat out the 2006 and 2008 elections in large numbers, concluding the Republican Party had betrayed its principles.  The Town Hall protests of 2009, in which Conservative activists heckled Congressmen discussing the state of negotiations over Health Care Reform, afforded many Republicans and instinctual Conservatives a rallying-point, something to get excited over.  The 2009 and 2010 elections, of course, brought many pro-business and limited-government Republicans into power throughout State governments, in the House of Representatives, and to a lesser extent in the US Senate.  The intensity of the Conservative agenda varies by State, being comparatively-pragmatic in Virginia while at times hard to defend even in principle in Florida.  But for the most part, Republicans seem to have unified around diverse Conservative agendas within the States.  Disputes such as have developed between Ohio’s new Governor John Kasich and the State’s new Republican legislative majority have been rare.

But in retrospect, the aberrant statements by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is definitely the result of this cleft of several dozen House members–enough that without their support the 242-seat Republican House majority cannot function–which won’t compromise their goals for spending reductions no matter what it does to the Republican Party.

Fareed Zakaria recently made a perceptive observation: The Republican Party is undergoing the same transformation that the Democratic Party underwent exactly 40 years ago–specifically, the democratization of its primary process.  In 1972 the upshot for the Democrats was the nomination of Senator George McGovern (D-SD), hero of World War II, history professor, former Congressman, Senator…and the worst Democratic candidate in Presidential politics in the modern era, period.  My point isn’t to say that Texas Governor Rick Perry is un-electable–the Liberal Ironist thinks he is quite electable in spite of his own objections–but that any opening of a party franchise to the masses is attended by demand for ideological performance at the expense of practical suitability to govern.

Where were we?  Right, yesterday the House Republican leadership, notorious for their party discipline and aggressive negotiating style, saw 48 Republicans vote against the temporary budget resolution they’d said was needed to provide disaster relief and avert a government shutdown.  While we’re on the subject, 5 Republicans, including feckless presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, simply didn’t turn out for the vote. Without those 53 votes, the House Republican Caucus stands at 189 members, just 10 more than they had in the 111th Congress last year.

Many pundits have speculated that House Republicans have made a strategy of denying President Obama any victories in an effort to weaken him for the 2012 Presidential Election.  While certainly plausible on the evidence, the problem with this theory is that it assumes House Republicans want to make a strategy of having virtually nothing to show for the 112th Congress.  Failing to govern and then blaming the President and asking for more power might be a way to turn out the base, but the electorate will likely be 50% larger in 2012 than in 2010; such a political tack would be risky bordering on foolish (at least were it not for the stalled economic recovery and President Obama’s attendant poor polling).

The Liberal Ironist now subscribes to an alternate theory: The Tea Party is not an “astroturf” movement controlled by its rich supporters, and it is not just a hyped-up old Republican Party.  The House Republican leadership team have failed to discipline the Tea Party faction.  As a consequence we are now a little over a week away from a Federal Government shutdown that has nothing to do with President Obama or the Democrats.

It isn’t Congress that’s dysfunctional, it’s the House Republican Caucus.  Welcome to a Republican Party that’s been made new by its constituents.

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The Tea Party Debate: Wrinkles in the Picture

The Liberal Ironist thought he would follow-up his thoughts on the 3rd Republican Presidential Primary debate 1 week ago with some passing observations about the Tea Party Debate hosted by CNN in Tampa, Florida last Monday.  My entry on last week’s debate was enormous; fortunately, the Tea Party Debate was largely a retread of philosophical and policy positions staked-out by the 8 attending Republican presidential hopefuls at the last debate, freeing me to make observations about nuances of reasoning (where apparent), continuities or discontinuities between the debates, and elements of the emotional context in the debate.  This entry should thus be viewed more as a rider to the much longer running commentary on last week’s debate; as it turned out, there were some surprises as the candidates jousted with each other but nothing discontinuous with the substance of the previous debate, if you were familiar with the various hopefuls’ versions of Conservative ideology.

Again, all comments shall be directed towards the Republican presidential hopefuls in order of their current polling strength.

Rick Perry

Governor Perry, like Senator Santorum (who once voted for President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit), remarkably said he wouldn’t eliminate the Prescription Drug Benefit if he became President.  Much like the nice-sounding promises of Speaker Gingrich, he proposed institutional consolidation as a way of reducing costs and making that expensive but valuable new entitlement solvent.

Governor Perry’s penchant for simply making up his own facts continues unabated, however:

“(President Obama) had $800 billion dollars worth of stimulus in the 1st round of stimulus; it created exactly 0 jobs.  $400+ billion in this package, and I can do this math on that one: 1/2 of 0 jobs is 0 jobs.”

That makes for a funny red meat line, but the Congressional Budget office produced statistical inferences on numbers of jobs created or saved by President Obama’s stimulus, and it projected that there would be somewhere between 1.5 million and 3.5 million more unemployed if it weren’t for President Obama’s stimulus.  Governor Perry must not have looked it up.

The Liberal Ironist was pleased to hear Governor Perry defend in-State tuition for those whom have been residents of Texas for 3 years–regardless of citizenship.  He took some heat–1st from Senator Santorum, then from the surprisingly anti-immigrant Governor Romney (then from parts of the audience itself)–for defending this policy, but as with his discussion of his executive order instituting the HPV vaccine and in his defense of President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit, Governor Perry resisted demands to show some kind of knee-jerk and simplistic Conservative ideology.

If Governor Perry is the Republican presidential nominee, based on his Texas policies and experience he will probably lay the strongest claim to support from Hispanic voters of any of the Republican hopefuls.  He should certainly command more support from Hispanics than Governor Romney, the latter being far more-technocratic, uh…Mormon, and (unlike Perry) openly anti-illegal immigrant.  This is a consideration to set against Romney’s slightly more-competitive general election polling match-ups against President Obama.

Governor Perry also added some nuance to Governor Huntsman’s call for us to withdraw our forces from the Afghan war theater.  While concluding much the same, he still said we should maintain some bases in Afghanistan and that US foreign aid should be targeted at infrastructure development in that country to put it on a sounder social and economic footing for fighting the Taliban.  It was interesting to hear Perry, however-briefly, leave the door open just a crack for nation-building in Afghanistan.

Mitt Romney

Over the last month or so, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has set himself up as the defender of Social Security.  If he is the Republican presidential nominee he will cast himself as the defender of Social Security’s solvency from a supposedly-dithering President Obama; for now, early in the primary season, Governor Romney must cast himself as the defender of Social Security against those who would like to end it outright, like Texas Congressman Ron Paul, or those who once spoke in favor of devolving its resources to State control, like Governor Perry.  While Perry probably won the debate between the 2 of them on the optics of the issue with Tea Partiers, Romney has definitely better-established his credibility on this issue with the non-Republicans whose vote in 2012 will likely prove crucial in the decisive Midwestern States.  In fact, at this rate Romney will also likely have a lock on non-Tea Party Republicans eager to advance a candidate who can represent the GOP establishment rather than a loose populist coalition of anti-Federal Government activist groups.  Several candidates hounded Governor Perry for the usual Culture War non-issues, such as his executive order mandating a vaccine for HPV (which causes cervical cancer) for 12-year-old girls or his granting of in-state tuition rates for non-citizens pursuing US citizenship and residency in Texas.  Here Governor Romney commendably challenged Perry for almost the opposite reason: Perry has tried to get by with a lot of Tea Party support with words of invective without having to get too specific in discussing how he would manage Social Security’s solvency problem (which unlike those confronting Medicare and Medicaid is quite manageable, at least in principle).

Romney, as the Liberal Ironist noted in the discussion of the last debate, has a 160-page economic plan.  In this most-recent debate he mentioned his proposal to eliminate middle-class taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains.  This proposal is a nice tweak, by Republican standards, on the W. Bush-era idea of the “ownership society,” which the former President apparently thought he would achieve by elimination of all taxes on dividends and many taxes on corporations.  Of all the Republican presidential candidates, Governor Romney seems to be the most-serious about progressive indexing of his proposed reforms to benefit classes of Americans other than the very-rich.

To his credit, Romney defended his Massachusetts health care reform instituting an individual mandate to buy health insurance.  Kneeling at the Republican altar of the Commerce Clause, he still said that President Obama’s Health Care Reform was “bad law” and had to be repealed, but it’s nice to see Governors Perry and Romney, the top-tier Republican candidates in the 2012 election cycle, defend their records–even immovably–when they are ideologically-nonconforming.  The Liberal Ironist is in deep disagreement with both hopefuls on many issues, but at least they can plead innocent to the charge of subordinating their minds to some fire and pitchfork-wielding Tea Party committee.

Ron Paul

The best that can be said for Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy is that he said during this debate that he “would never use the executive order to legislate.”  If that is the truth, then he would be quite unable to institute many of his more-radical proposed reforms, as he would surely lack authorization even from a Republican Congress to do so.

When asked about whether a hypothetical (though with our utter mess of a health care system no such horror story is really “hypothetical”) 30-year-old man who hasn’t bought health insurance but then needs 6 months of intensive care due to an unforeseen disease or injury should simply be allowed to die, some people in the audience shouted “Yes!”  Even Dr. Paul seemed startled by this.  So much for his indignant insistence in the last debate that those who don’t think the government should be providing benefits to those in need shouldn’t be charged with a lack of compassion!  Dr. Paul may believe he has the wisdom to split that hair, but it warrants further consideration that many of his supporters don’t, and that thought was nicely-dramatized last Monday.

Dr. Paul had a spirited debate with Senator Santorum, who once again brandished his Neoconservative credentials with an all-out attack on Paul’s claim that our traditional interventionist foreign policy essentially caused September 11th.  Ever the Libertarian dogmatist, Dr. Paul dug in and claimed in so many words that the September 11th terrorist attacks were a consequence of our government’s past actions.  This elicited boos much louder than the applause generated by his earlier comments.  Foreign policy isolationists may be a stronger presence among the Tea Party crowd than the larger pool of Republicans, but if those in attendance at the Tea Party debate pass for any form of focus group, I wouldn’t put much money on Dr. Paul’s foreign policy vision changing the Republican Party.  Outrageous as the Iraq War was, I’m relieved to see that the Republican Party is unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Senator Santorum achieved a strategic victory by calling Dr. Paul out on this subject…for all the good it will do him.

Michele Bachmann

Ms. Bachmann’s attack of Governor Perry at the Tea Party debate–alleging that he executive ordered vaccination of 12-year-old girls against HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer, didn’t go over as she had hoped.  Governor Perry said he was “offended” by her allegation that the Governor instituted the vaccine as a payback for a $5,000 campaign donation (out of $30 million in campaign funds raised).  Bachmann’s failed “gotcha” moment during this debate is a milestone in the inevitable collapse of her superficial candidacy; Perry’s informed rejection of her accusations made more of an impression than the charge itself.

In response to Governor Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform, Ms. Bachmann charged that “No state has the constitutional right to force a person, as a condition of citizenship, to buy a product or service against their will.  It’s unconstitutional, whether it’s a state government or whether it’s the Federal Government!”  That’s simply wrong.  The 10th Amendment and the Commerce Clause imply that the States and local governments in fact retain the authority to undertake fairly-radical economic policies regardless of whether their constitutions expressly direct it.  In fact, it is common for States to require licensed drivers to buy car insurance, a fact that seems to have made no impression on Ms. Bachmann.  State constitutions are not obliged to provide a positive enumeration of the powers State governments enjoy.  Not only is Ms. Bachmann not possessed of a great legal mind, but unlike the more-sophisticated Governors Perry and Romney, she seems to think she will make a winning message of imposing the same right-wing policies on all parts of the country.

Newt Gingrich

Either Newt Gingrich believes in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not insult another Republican”) with all the fervor of any fanatic, or he has accepted that he will not be the Republican candidate for President and wants to be kept on the short-list for a Cabinet appointment.  As in the last debate but with a less surly disposition about it, Gingrich emphasized that rather focusing on whether Perry’s comments about Social Security are “scary” or Romney’s comments about raiding the trust fund to finance our debt being criminal is “scary” and more on President Obama’s (alleged) campaign to frighten the American people during his public statements.

Gingrich’s surly disposition matches a complete disregard for facts he well-understands.  A Tea Party supporter asked the candidates a rather naive question: “What is your plan to balance the budget, and get this spending under control, so that my children’s share of the debt is erased, without compromising my retired mother’s already-tenuous financial future?”  Hmmm…Essentially, she asks, “How do we eliminate the Federal debt entirely without touching current Social Security and Medicare outlays?”  (I call the question naive because the questioner is herself a member of the Tea Party and as such presumably thinks she is “Taxed Enough Already:” Without raising income or payroll taxes considerably such extremely incompatible policy goals will prove elusive.)  Anyway, when Gingrich responded to this question, he claimed it was all quite simple:

“But that’s just a Washington mythology.  Anybody who knows anything about the Federal Government knows that there’s such an enormous volume of waste, that if you simply had a serious all-out effort to modernize the Federal Government, you would have hundreds of billions of dollars of savings follow…”  You should mistrust those who start an assertion with “Any idiot can see that–,” as this thinly-veiled insult cannot hide the irony of the fact that a controversial claim is being made.  In Paul Ryan’s failed 10-year budget blueprint, in tense negotiations over the debt limit increase, and now in their participation on the deficit-reducing Congressional “Super-Commission,” House Republicans are proposing cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in Federal spending by cutting entire Federal programs, not “waste.”  Gingrich still didn’t proceed to say that he could eliminate annual Federal deficits without raising taxes; this would have done much to expose current Republican concerns with the deficit as a pretext for politically-preferred budget cuts.

Eliminate waste from government spending, Gingrich says, and Federal outlays can fall by $500 billion a year.  (He takes this proposition on the authority of 1 Conservative think tank.)  Anyway, for perspective, domestic discretionary spending currently totals around $400 billion a year.

Speaker Gingrich probably came up with the philosophical statement of the night at this debate when he said “The American people create jobs, not government.”  This is the rallying cry of the Republican Party in both its technocratic and its populist wings, post-2009: The economy is organic, the output of as many plans are there are citizens, not the result of a master plan.  Taken too far this statement becomes tautology, and it also suggests that on some level Republicans don’t claim responsibility for the results–desirable or undesirable–once they have established what they consider favorable circumstances for the private sector.  But the Liberal Ironist suspects that current anxieties focus largely on our common lack of control in contemporary life–and even if government is the only agent with the capacity to redress some aspects of that sense of a loss of control, Americans probably have an easier time grasping the nature of a concession of freedom to government–even if the freedom lost (such as the freedom to buy less cost-effective light bulbs or the freedom to go without health insurance) isn’t of much practical use to most people.  I don’t think for 1 second that this pithy comment will improve Newt’s chances of winning the nomination, but I do think it’s the most-upbeat summary of the current Republican Party’s self-representation.

Herman Cain

It’s funny to watch Mr. Cain of Georgia, founder of Godfather’s Pizza, transition from being one of the most-unschooled candidates to one of the most policy-driven debate participants.  (It’s the sort of thing that almost makes you optimistic about the resilience of our political system.)  Back in June Mr. Cain was saying he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his cabinet due to doubts about “their” loyalties; soon after he said that local communities had the right to prevent the construction of houses of worship whose beliefs they disagreed with.  Now he’s eager to discuss his “9-9-9 plan,” in which our current Federal tax structure would be replaced by a 9% income tax, a 9% corporate income tax, and a 9% sales tax.  Between the lowering of the upper income tax rates to 9%, the net higher taxes likely to be paid by the poor, and the apparent elimination of the capital gains tax (through which many corporate executives are lavishly-compensated), as well as the simple fact that the poor spend more of their money on consumption than the rich, Mr. Cain’s tax plan could actually result in the poor paying a larger share of their income in taxes than the rich.

Cain is also the heir to former President George W. Bush’s unsuccessful 2005 bid to add an option to convert one’s payroll taxes to a permanent investment account for the stock market.  He cited the positive experiences of Chile and Galveston, TX (which utilized the option to invest its payroll tax revenues in the stock market), but it remains unclear how receptive the public, post-2008, is to a plan to subject Social Security, even in part, to the vagaries of stock.

Mr. Cain’s most-interesting contribution to the debate was his call for association health plans, under which companies within a sector would be able to bargain for the creation of health insurance plans to cover employees within their own industry.  As is typical of Republican proposals addressing health care, this idea has some plausible merits for cost controls and reimbursement, but is fundamentally unable to address the problem of gaps in coverage, or to promote regular primary care for people who simply want to save money they would otherwise spend on health insurance.  In any event, his grievance that the National Restaurant Association (remember, he is the founder of Godfather’s Pizza) was unable to insure its millions of association employees through an association health plan tailored to industry needs (he declined to elaborate what those needs were) fits well with the rightward ideological turn of the Republican Party on economic principles.

Rick Santorum

Senator Santorum increasingly speaks brashly.  At last week’s debate he attacked Governor Perry for not making the HPV vaccine optional rather than mandated; at the Tea Party Debate this week he offered himself as the candidate who had the courage to talk about Social Security’s solvency problem 1st, back in 1994.

Senator Santorum sometimes adds an interesting intellectual dimension often missing from these debates.  In the 1st Republican Presidential Primary debate back in mid-June, Santorum attacked the concept of public reason, the idea that people motivated to pursue public policy goals due to religious or private moral principles should justify those goals in public discourse with secular rationales and appeals to fact rather than an explanation of their beliefs.  In last Wednesday’s debate Santorum said that the problem with the Federal Reserve is that its charter had expanded from maintaining the strength of our currency to that plus fostering employment, and that the Federal Reserve had to return to its simpler original mission.  This intellectual dimension to Santorum’s presidential bid owes to his distinct background–he was a Newt Gingrich-type Republican elected to the US Senate rather than the House in 1994, he is a Catholic Republican probably best viewed as part of the Christian Right, and he had a lot of ideological affinity for President George W. Bush and is finally running for President in a Republican Party that has disavowed the W. Bush legacy.  Senator Santorum’s penchant for offbeat but interesting ideas seems to have worn on the candidate after months of being overlooked by an agitated primary electorate.

His tendency to the philosophical also has its drawbacks, particularly that this philosophy is sometimes a poor man’s Foucaultianism.  If anything, Santorum was even more-hostile than Bachmann to Governor Perry’s executive order instituting vaccinations against HPV.  Maybe the Senator is just desperate to remain relevant in a crowded field by issuing red meat lines, but for him to say that Governor Perry’s aim of spreading awareness and use of a vaccination against HPV was wrong in principle is just nihilistic.  The old charge that the leaders of the Christian Right don’t want us to beat sexually-transmitted diseases because they want those who engage in recreational sex to be exposed to dangerous diseases seems to be true.

Jon Huntsman

Governor Huntsman seems to have come to a realization that acting as a voice of reason and moderation in these debates wouldn’t be sufficient; Governor Romney does a somewhat more ideologically-rectified version of this, and furthermore manages to discuss policy with enthusiasm.  In this debate Huntsman was eager to get to his tax plan.  He proposes marginal personal income tax rates of 8%, 14%, and 24%, and a corporate income tax rate of 25%.  He proposed to pay for these tax rate reductions by eliminating tax breaks.  It has been interesting to watch Republicans go on the attack against tax rate deductions that amount to “tax expenditures,” or de facto government spending through preferentially-low taxes.  This has been a bipartisan response to the anti-tax ideology favored by Republicans (and at times, suburban and rural voters in various States) whereby both parties have managed to institute policies favoring certain constituencies or business sectors.  Huntsman will have to get enthusiastic about discussing the particulars of another issue if he wants to make headway in the Republican Presidential Primary, however; from Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, candidates whom are willing to provide the particular details of their proposed tax policies are in no short supply.

In Conclusion

The Tea Party Debate was more of a focus-grouped elaboration on the previous debate than a radical departure from it.  Viewers did learn a bit more about the way the candidates differ from each other, but other than a few clarifications of their records and 1 or another inserted comments that were somewhat off-point, most of the discussion served to confirm much of what we knew about them from the previous debate.  Representatives Paul and Bachmann continued their precipitous declines into irrelevance, while Speaker Gingrich and Governor Huntsman each seemed to prepare themselves for a running mate or Cabinet office call from 1 of the 2 presidential front-runners.  (Gingrich did this by acting more-cordial than usual, while Huntsman did it by acting more-combative, though playfully-so, than usual.)  While Governor Romney continued to perform well at a far less-receptive forum than he encountered in previous debates, the real winner of the debate must be said to be Perry, whose record tended to dominate discussion and who defended himself on controversial past actions from the left in front of what may be the most-Conservative audience he will join a national debate in front of.  While he still is not as comfortable discussing policy on a national stage as the more-experienced Romney, Gingrich, or Santorum, he was clearly more-prepared and more-“present” after only a few days.  The much-storied Karl Rove attack machine just hasn’t materialized; it’s hard to believe Perry’s opponents from the Party’s abandoned “Compassionate Conservative” wing are just biding their time while letting him consolidate Republican primary support.  Rick Perry is favored to win the Republican presidential nomination; somewhat contrary to the norm, we will likely be able to tell by the end of the Republican primary season whether he is also favored to win the presidency.

Could It Happen Anywhere? No–But It Doesn’t Have To

Last night, a Republican candidate without a political background won an upset in New York’s 9th Congressional District–which is in the middle of Queens.  He defeated a popular Democratic State legislator after the latter linked him–plausibly–to the Tea Party, which polls rather badly with the general public and has little support in cities.  This was the district represented by Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned earlier this summer when it was revealed that he repeatedly presented lewd comments and photographs to women he met online (and then lied about it).  It was Conservative-ish by Queens standards, with a relatively large concentration of white Democrats and Orthodox Jews, but with the exception of Staten Island as a rule no Congressional District in New York City is Republican.

Some Republicans will try to cast this upset as a bellwether of Republican victories in all parts of the country in 2012; such claims are hyperbole, resting on either faulty memory or partisan cant.  Seats vacated owing to scandal change hands reliably during the special elections that follow, which are often low-turnout affairs wherein the incumbent party often has difficulty turning out the base due either to demoralization or the cognitive dissonance produced by the very fact of the special election.  If there is any doubt about this, consider the 2006 midterm Congressional Elections, in which Democrat Nick Lampson won Texas’ 22nd Congressional District–which had been Tom DeLay’s until he faced charges for illicit diversion of campaign funds; consider also the loss of Ted Stevens, at the time the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, to Democrat Mark Begich in 2008 following a campaign finance scandal of his own.  Then there is this past May, when the most-Republican Congressional District in New York (the 26th) voted for a Democrat following Congressman Christopher Lee’s embarrassed resignation following a similar but even more-bizarre scandal than the one the toppled Congressman Weiner.  (Congressman Lampson lost his very-Republican district in the next election to the current Congressman, Republican Pete Olson; Begich is still in his 1st term in a very Republican State.)  The point is that losses in special elections follow a local logic.

In recent elections, it has sometimes appeared that these special elections in the shadow of scandal have augured wave elections favoring the opposition party; this theory would make more sense if a Democratic upset just prior to the summer hadn’t been followed by a Republican upset late in the summer.  More-likely these low-turnout special elections follow their own uncomplicated if sometimes surprising logic.  After the enormous Republican gains in the House of Representatives last year, there just aren’t many House seats they could appeal in in a general election.  What the election of a Republican in New York’s 9th Congressional District does indicate is the depth of dissatisfaction towards President Obama.

A very large cross-section of the public has embraced the narrative that President Obama’s economic policies have failed.  In the New York Times report on this election, many voters asked about their vote volunteered both that they were Democrats and that they voted as a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy.  The fact that they have judged his economic policies are a failure and should be replaced doesn’t itself validate that this is so, of course, but the fact is that the 1.5 million–3.5 million jobs the Congressional Budget Office estimates were created or saved by the President’s 2009 Stimulus don’t come close to addressing the 14 million unemployed, 8.8 million underemployed, and the roughly-1 million discouraged job hunters the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in August.  (The unemployment rate, stuck around 9.1%, would have to be halved and underemployment almost eliminated for us to return to a situation we consider “normal.”)  The chances of President Obama’s latest stimulus plan passing through the Republican House are poor, unless he consents to Republican demands to make the stimulus deficit-neutral without raising taxes–meaning that it is paid for out of current Federal spending.  If the President doesn’t accommodate Republican demands in this way, they have no real incentive to act on his plan.  Most of the measures he has proposed, such as grants to States to maintain teachers’ jobs, about $50 billion in transportation spending, an extension of unemployment insurance and an extension of the payroll tax cut for employees, will save or create jobs intrinsically and help some small businesses by boosting consumption, but in aggregate there’s no reason to expect that this will reduce the unemployment rate or encourage investment sufficiently to foster a visible recovery over the next year.

Right now many typical constituents of the Democratic Party seem to be eager to go on the record that they don’t think the President has done enough to fix the economy.  Last November, the Liberal Ironist argued that this failure to restore some modicum of confidence about our economic prospects was the reason the Republicans cleaned up both up and down the ballot in the 2010 midterm elections.  Right now, I don’t believe the President has a path to mitigate this perception open to him.  Some Liberal opinion-makers have argued the President should go for broke promoting a bold agenda in the Roosevelt tradition.  I’d be receptive to such an initiative on principle, but I don’t think the independent voters that give the edge in a presidential election would be.  Meanwhile, Democrats are coming forward and volunteering their belief that the President’s economic policies simply haven’t worked.

This week Republicans may be crowing that they’re going to be winning Congressional races in impossible places; this exultation is unjustified.  They will, however, be making another strong claim that is justified.

Thoughts on the 3rd Republican Presidential Debate

Now that Texas Governor Rick Perry is in the race, the Republican field of 2012 Presidential hopefuls includes not just ideological diversity (every type of Conservative represented!) but ideological diversity among serious candidates.  Perry has taken the lead among Republicans and Conservative independents, consistently out-polling former Massachusetts Governor and previous leading hopeful Mitt Romney as their preferred candidate.  His lead is close, however, and Perry is not a tested debater.  On Wednesday night he was forced to give an account of himself in a forum where the other hopefuls could raise objections to both his philosophy and his administrative record; his self-accounting was adequate for now–no better.  Other candidates, especially an enthusiastic and even studied Herman Cain, ran circles around him in giving policy proposals (though Cain’s ideas are too radical for his recent refinement to help him politically).  Perry has been Governor of Texas longer than anyone else, has been in the Republic of Texas’s government since the 1980s, and while Governor he has enjoyed a large partisan majority in the Texas “‘Leg.”  As such he is the executive of record, and must defend by what his State looks like today.  The Liberal Ironist offers these thoughts on last Wednesday’s performance by the Republican presidential hopefuls, in order of the size of their support in the last Washington Post poll.

Fair warning: I’d hoped to post this response for last Thursday; I am offering it on Monday morning because it grew into the largest blog entry I have written by far.  If you wanted to know my thoughts about a particular candidate’s performance, you might just want to skip down to it.

Rick Perry knows nothing, more or less, about climate science. This and all images in this post are the work of MSNBC.

Rick Perry: Perry’s 1st critique of Federal Government power during this debate wasn’t in his strong suit.  As the Governor of Texas, he has presided over the State with the largest proportion of uninsured citizens.  His culprit? Medicaid, the Federal health care entitlement for the poor!  (Strange that Medicaid’s benefits haven’t been so clearly-linked to reduced rates of insurance coverage in the…49 states where a larger percentage of the population is insured.)  Perry raised some good points about how allowing States to design different payment and benefit schemes through Medicaid might allow the States to spread their resources further and insure more people; they may also have little to no effect, as being poor, you know, makes buying insurance a daunting proposition.

The lack of mandatory insurance coverage, meanwhile, creates a twofold problem for our health care system that only Governor Romney (through top-down “Romneycare”) has addressed through policy:

1) Being uninsured, many young people don’t go in for check-ups with a primary care physician, thus missing out on sound lifestyle advice they may not get anywhere else as well as early detection of emerging health issues.

2) Health insurance markets fail in part because it is rational for a young person to risk going without health insurance to save money for many years; once that bet fails (as it does for all of us) and a person has a chronic health problem, treatment is expensive and private insurance companies don’t want to compensate because an insurer can’t profit off of taking care of sick people.  (Conservatives somehow evade this basic problem, but this is why Medicare and Medicaid were so much less-controversial than universal health care in 1965.)  Medicare and Medicaid each assume part of the cost burden for such preventable health emergencies among the long-uninsured.

When asked about his book Fed Up!, in which he asserts that Social Security was just a sly swindle by a corrupt President who acted like a dictator (certainly not a view which the Liberal Ironist accepts or even condones), Perry averred that he didn’t want to end the program: “Well, I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what’s been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time,” (This may actually have been intended as a barb at Ron Paul) “and rather than spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doin’ back in the ’30s and the ’40s–It’s a nice intellectual conversation, but the fact is that we’ve got to be focused on how we’re gonna change this program.  And people who are on Social Security today, men and women who are receiving those benefits today, individuals my age who are in line pretty quick to get them, they don’t need to worry about anything.  But I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program…And it’s a monstrous lie–it is a ponzi scheme–to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, ‘You’re payin’ into a program that’s gonna be there.’  Anybody that is for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”  Perry wanted to have his cake and eat it, too, but to his credit Governor Romney didn’t allow this.  He noted that Perry wrote in his book that by any measure, Social Security is a failure.  It is a fallacy to say that a program that most Americans depend on in their retirement, which simply happens to have a long-term projected funding shortfall that could be addressed with any of a number of controversial yet simple tweaks in its financing or benefit schedule, is a failure.  Social Security is an enormous success, and while this might not be ideologically-congruous to some Conservatives, Social Security really is one of our central privileges as Americans.  As currently conceived, Social Security will become unsustainable over the next quarter-century.  But this doesn’t mean the program isn’t viable.  Businesses have balance sheets that couldn’t hold up through 2037 without radical changes in their revenue sources or their overhead costs, but no one would call those businesses “failures” as long as they undertake the necessary restructuring to stay in the black.

After Social Security Dr. Paul got a question about Governor Perry.  (Does this tell you something?)  Paul had attacked his Governor for using an executive order to mandate vaccination of girls for HPV, in order to prevent cervical cancer.  In this case the Liberal Ironist applauds Governor Perry’s action.  Parents were allowed to opt-out of the vaccination mandate (even though the study linking vaccination to autism turned out to be a complete fraud, and I have yet to hear just what precepts of theology or moral philosophy are offended by the standard regimen of toddler vaccines).  I understand that this is a control issue for parents, but I also understand that what they are controlling in this case is simply their child’s susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.  Governor Perry’s reasoning was simple: “I hate cancer.”  He also went on to discuss the incubator Texas has provided for cancer research–a $3 billion fund.  For him, the mandate contained in the executive order was the most-effective way to build awareness that HPV leads to cervical cancer.  He didn’t want to wait for people to catch on to this issue; he wanted to save lives.  The Liberal Ironist applauds his concern for the most-vulnerable, and his pragmatism.  (See? Liberal, and ironist.)

Moving forward in the debate, Perry resorted to epithets in excess of what we normally hear from a presidential candidate at any point in the cycle.  “For the President of the United States to go to El Paso, Texas and say that the border is safer than it’s ever been, either he has some of the poorest intel of a President in the history of this country or he was an abject liar to the American people…”  It’s possible that Governor Perry is simply angry about some pervasive condition of lawlessness along the US-Mexico border; it’s at least as likely that we simply saw another opportunity to take his signature potshots at an opponent.  Governor Perry is a dirty campaigner; if he is the Republican Party nominee for President in 2012, the 2012 elections are almost guaranteed to have less light and more heat than if Romney is the candidate.

While he probably took a substantively similar position, Romney easily bested Perry on this question with references to the supposedly perverse incentives that attract illegal immigrants to come to the United States.  There’s a good test for Perry’s credibility: Does he resort to name-calling when he feels strongly about something but doesn’t really know what to say about it?

Perry expressed his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution during the debate.  Unless he or she has found $1 trillion in annual spending that he wants to cut, or is prepared to raise taxes by several hundred billion dollars, any politician who proposes a balanced budget amendment is just playing politics.  The House of Representatives–which hasn’t produced a budget plan which its members claim can balance the budget–just did this with their phony “Cap, Cut, and Balance” bill, which justifiably died in the Senate.  In order to pass an amendment to the Constitution, 2/3 of Congress or 2/3 of State legislatures must recommend the amendment, then 3/4 of State legislatures or State-appointed conventions (the latter method employed only once, during the repeal of Prohibition) must ratify the amendment.  Republicans engage in unaccountable talk on this issue, much as they do on abortion and gay marriage, because they know they’ll never have to follow-through on their most-radical proposals.  Their supporters buy into these coy calls for Constitutional amendments that are too controversial ever to pass, because they sound nice.  In reality, a Federal balanced budget amendment would be a disaster, requiring drastic spending cuts or tax increases during an economic downturn.  How would either of these measures be well-advised?  Rejecting Keynesian stimulus during a deep recession or depression is to be unduly-optimistic about the prospects of recovery; to impose the opposite of a Keynesian approach, essentially imposing damaging austerity measures in every downturn, is just foolish.  If businesses and citizens can borrow money, why should a much larger fiscal entity, with the power to tax and responsibility for providing some public goods to all of us be unable to?

For better and for worse, Republicans love their slogans.  “Cap, Cut and Balance” is definitely for worse; those 4 words cannot contain a serious rationale for the blunt way they seek to tie the hands of a government responsible for 310 million people.

When asked about his global warming denialism, Governor Perry’s argumentative acuity simply collapsed, as we should have expected it to.  Try listening to this segment of the debate–which starts with about 13 minutes left in the debate–in audio (without Perry’s Presidential good looks).  He sounds off his depth, not just while he’s talking but even while he’s coming up for carbon-laden air.  He makes what is now a standard Republican case that regulations on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions by industrial processes and vehicles would pose unacceptable costs to our economy, but he was unable to get specific.  He spoke enthusiastically about improvements in Texas’ air quality on his watch, a much greater comfort level which suggests to me that as Perry becomes more-acquainted with national political discourse and issues he will grow as a Presidential candidate.

When Brian Williams noted that Perry had presided over the execution 234 death row inmates–a national record–a sizable share of the attending audience clapped loudly.

Perry, in one of several allusions to his professed preference for power devolution to the States, averred that the death penalty was appropriately “a state by state issue,” but insisted that capital punishment was warranted by the severity of the crimes in question and by its popularity in those cases with the public.  A late-2010 Gallup poll found 64% of Americans supported the use of the death penalty, fairly-stable throughout the past decade but a significant decline from the 70%-80% support the death penalty enjoyed in annual polling in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Liberal Ironist cares about the morality of the issue: Killing by the state of individuals utterly within its power is perverse and in a way, superstitious.  The possibility that 1 person could be executed by mistake overwhelms the plausible moral value of ending a life that is considered irredeemable.  Defending death sentences against appeals often makes the death penalty more expensive than life incarceration; some studies have found that the death penalty is much more-likely to be sought in cases involving the killing of white than black Americans.  Even where due process has been followed and confirmed hardened killers are executed, the death penalty remains an ironic monument to barbarism, frontier justice in a civilized land.

But many of the Republicans assembled for this debate clapped at mere mention of executions with an eagerness not matched by other red-meat lines by the candidates.  The aspect of the provocateur hangs around many Conservative Republicans.

Governor Perry hit a pothole with this debate and may need to pull into a rest stop and check his tire pressure.  But some of Perry’s critics or skeptics were predicting a blowout on the highway when he reached full national exposure with this debate; this didn’t happen and probably won’t happen.  Perry was polling in the lead among Republicans before this debate; his race with Governor Romney may tighten given that experienced presidential candidate’s strong debate performance.  But if Perry can continue to refine his base appeal, linking his narrative about Texas to his attack on President Obama and refining his Federalist message without sounding as reactionary as Ron Paul, he will play to precisely those strengths that the party base are looking for.

The fact remains that Perry’s learning curve was visible in this debate.  Actually, many pundits made this observation almost immediately after the debate.  Over the next 6 months he is going to have to find something to talk about during these debates and on the stump with questioners besides how important it is to create jobs.  Both President Obama and all the Republican presidential hopefuls want to create jobs; everyone is for this idea.  Perry has his “4 essentials” about the way things are done in Texas, but the United States just isn’t Texas.  If by that time he cannot give an account of how he appreciates the difference between his current job and the job he wants, then he doesn’t appreciate the difference.

Considering how horribly his predecessor as Governor of Texas mangled US foreign policy over 2 terms, that is something to consider.  (And with that, the Liberal Ironist sincerely hopes to avoid making mutually-unfair comparisons of Rick Perry with George W. Bush in the future.)

Governor Romney talking about what his 160-page economic plan could mean for YOU. (Yes, he has a 160-page economic plan...He really, really wants to be President.)

Mitt Romney: It’s become increasingly-interesting to watch Governor Romney participate in these debates.  He has been in a lot of them, and he still feels like the most-studied candidates (which he is).  He wants to be President so much it’s also palpable–which probably explains a slight exasperation in his voice now that he has relinquished his lead in support among Republicans to “late-comer” Perry.

When asked, Romney stood up for his Massachusetts health care reform, which included a mandate for individuals to buy health insurance to improve the solvency of risk pools.  He also insisted that his 1st act as President would be to issue an executive order granting States waivers from President Obama’s Health Care Reform.  It’s interesting that he has promised to issue an executive order allowing States waivers from the President’s new health care mandates and entitlements; this suggests to me–though it is hardly proof of such–that Governor Romney stands by the reform he instituted in Massachusetts, and that as President he agrees with his attackers that many parts of President Obama’s Health Care Reform are essentially the Massachusetts plan Federalized, and that as such it could be used to develop States’ health care markets in the right direction.  This is a conjecture, but if I’m right about it, this suggests both more consistency and more nuance on Romney’s part than he is often given credit for.

Kudos to Governor Romney for not following Bachmann’s silly pie-in-the-sky promise to get gas prices down to $2 a gallon.  (I’ll buy that promise for a dollar!)  This campaign pledge of Bachmann’s reminds me of Tim Pawlenty’s assumption that his economic plan would achieve 5% annual US GDP growth–in retrospect probably a promise made in desperation.  The Liberal Ironist shouldn’t have to applaud a presidential hopeful for declining to promise the impossible, but in the interest of fairness a few…cranks, for lack of a better word, have been given a hearing in this debate, and so the kind of resignation and honesty we should be able to expect from a leader when facing what he knows he couldn’t deliver deserves special accolades.

Governor Romney took the opportunity to demonstrate his superior polish as a presidential candidate when asked about immigration.  That Governor Perry had stumbled significantly on this question was clear only when Romney spoke about it, as Romney focused on a conversation with a Border Patrol agent in San Diego.  This man reportedly told him that “We’ve left the magnet on,” meaning “When employers are willing to employ people who are here illegally…sanctuary cities, giving tuition breaks to the kids of illegal aliens…Those things also have to be stopped.”  He closed with the applause line: “We’ve got to stop talking about amnesty,” by which Romney means that he opposes President George W. Bush’s unaccomplished 2nd term proposal to allow illegal immigrants who can demonstrate employment to apply for citizenship here and “get in line” behind current legal immigrants.  (This has so far struck the Liberal Ironist as the most-practical and humane way of addressing the illegal immigrant population in the United States that isn’t amnesty; while much more-complicated, in contrast to simple amnesty George W. Bush’s path-to-citizenship proposal would ensure substantive naturalization of our new citizens, which simple amnesty would not.)  As an issue that probably isn’t close to Romney’s heart or his governing record, this sounds like 1 on which Romney is willing to play politics and play for applause, talking about as harshly about it as any current Republican hopeful, almost objectifying millions of illegal immigrants in his comments on the matter, and in general repudiating President W. Bush’s embrace of immigrants and clemency towards illegal immigrants.

Still, the point is that where Perry simply attacked the President, Romney stuck his neck out and gave us some idea what (harsh) policy changes or stands we should expect from him towards illegal immigration.  As the Governor of a fast-growing State that is essentially a mini-nation, Rick Perry should have had something interesting (even if disappointing or unpleasant) to say about immigration; yet while coming off as a hard-nosed Conservative the former Governor of Massachusetts just sounded like he’d given the issue more thought.

When Brian Williams asked Romney if he was a member of the Tea Party, his response was “Uh, I don’t think you carry cards in the Tea Party.  Uh, I believe in a lot of what the Tea Party believes in.”  He pointed out that he agreed with Tea Partiers that taxes and spending are too high and that we need to do something to spur job growth.  I see that as Romney’s polite way of saying “Uh, no.”

Romney’s polished campaign theme really came out when he was asked if he would retain Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman: “Uh, no, I’d be looking for somebody new…”  His tone elicited laughs.  He spoke critically of Bernanke after Gingrich did, but avoided the latter’s conspiratorial tone and referred to policy failure rather than alleged deficiencies in the man.  He noted that the Fed’s 2nd round of “quantitative easing”–the creation of more dollars to put money into the economy and slightly inflate the currency to ease the trade imbalance and soften the real value of existing debt–had failed to stimulate consumption or job-creation.  He referred again to his highly-detailed, 160-page economic plan, which he validated by reference to his long experience in business.

Dr. Paul expresses indignation at the insinuation that he is lacking in compassion merely because he gets excited by a 224-year-old government document but is equivocal when asked about programs that feed starving children. Perhaps we don't understand the meaning of the word "compassion"...

Ron Paul: I’m down to the 3rd Republican candidate in primary polling and instantly I’m in crank territory.  (I can but parrot the conventional wisdom: There are 2 Republican candidates in this race with a shot.)  Brian Williams opened with Dr. Paul asking about his Strict Constructionist Constitutional philosophy.  Could Paul really oppose Federal car safety regulations? the Food and Drug Administration? the Federal Aviation Administration?  Paul’s answer was “Why, I think in theory, if you understood the free market and a free society, you don’t need government to do that!”  “In theory…”  Paul resorted to this phrase again when Williams again asked him if pharmaceutical manufacturers could effectively police their own drugs for defects or commercial pilots should direct their own traffic in the sky “in an organic way.”  (Williams had trouble hiding his snarky side with Dr. Paul; somehow the ideologically-consistent Libertarian easily evoked amusement from him.)  Paul insisted that he doesn’t disbelieve in regulation entirely, and invoked “regulation by the market.”  (This is an oxymoron, of course, one that would make our very concept of what a regulation is redundant if it had any practical meaning.)  Neither the passion of Dr. Paul’s followers nor their consistently small numbers in the scheme of things really surprises me.  That a few people have faith in the viability of any ideological Shangri-La is inevitable given our variety; that they would hang their hopes on a loud but consistent advocate of these dogmas in government is only logical.  Paul gains attention for the same reason he is a political non-presence in Congress: Because he never takes the actual process of governing seriously, he is able to maintain his ideological rectitude.  Since 1997, Dr. Paul has sponsored 1 bill that has passed the House of Representatives–just 1.  The rest of the time he has carried on about how the Federal Government doesn’t look the way he thinks it should look.  He is the proverbial drunken uncle, carrying on at a family gathering: “Now, if I were President…”

At 1 point sensing an interjection from Brian Williams about the importance of financial regulation, Paul shrugged slightly and said such concerns could be handled at the State level, because the Federal Government isn’t authorized to address this problem.  Somehow this argument would seem more-reassuring (less simultaneously doctrinaire and a hedge) coming from an actual Governor, say, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or Jon Huntsman.  Texas under Perry instituted strict regulations on who qualifies for a mortgage.  Admittedly, this was not some ideologically-correct but non-existent “market regulation” but old-fashioned actual regulation, and by acknowledging limits on our society’s capacity for homeownership and restricting the demand side of insecure debt, Governor Perry’s Texas was in fact able to evade the worst of the 2008 Financial Crash.

Asked if he believed the minimum wage should be abolished, he insisted it should–because it is a mandate, and mandates are bad.  Considering his rather long but unproductive Congressional tenure, Dr. Paul takes a rather dim view of government in general, saying it consists of little beyond instituting mandates.  He then called Medicare a mandate, with emphasis as if he were being clever.  It seems that in affirming that he wanted to eliminate the minimum wage, Dr. Paul was eager to assure us he would abolish Medicare as well.  The Liberal Ironist considers mistaking one’s own club for a microcosm of the way the World really works and thinks is the very definition of arrogance; based on their own preferences, most of those who heard Dr. Paul speak would have to find his philosophy of government abhorrent if they understood it.

Dr.  Paul called for abolition of the Department of Homeland Security, asserting that private airlines acting on their own could better provide for our security while flying than the TSA does now.  In spite of horror stories about incompetence, misallocation of resources and close calls with some terrorist plots, the only way Dr. Paul could argue that private airlines on their own provide(d) better security than all the security changes mandated and funded through the Department of Homeland Security; this is an untenable position.

Brian Williams’ last question for Ron Paul confronts us with a very basic fact about his Libertarian ideology:

“A long time ago a fellow Texan of yours, a young student teacher in Catoula, Texas, was horrified to see young kids coming into the classroom hungry, some of them with distended bellies because of hunger, and made a vow that if he ever had anything to do about it, the government would provide meals–hot meals at best–in schools.  The young student teacher of course, uh, later went on to be President Lyndon Johnson.  Do you think that is any more–uh, providing nutrition for schoolchildren–a role of the Federal Government?”

Ron Paul said simply that it wasn’t in the Constitution and that “it doesn’t work.”  A good Texan, he gave Perry-style assurances that State and local governments have the authority under the Constitution to provide such programs as they see fit–but having come through with a reasonable-enough hedge there, he then angrily denounced “lavishing out…free stuff from the Federal Government” and insisted that only markets can free people.  The Liberal Ironist agrees that only markets can produce food, but governments certainly can feed people–and through unemployment insurance, Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families it provides for many of the poor and the unemployed.  These welfare state programs keep millions of people afloat; the indignation Dr. Paul expressed at the suggestion–one I still find plausible–that those who oppose the programs are not compassionate would perhaps be more-justified were he to express some intellectual curiosity as to how State and local government and private charities could actually assume the mandatory responsibilities these programs assume on behalf of those who can’t provide for themselves.  Until Dr. Paul produces such a plan, the Liberal Ironist won’t express surprise that such an intellectually-rigid mind can find a following, but that it can find its way into a mainstream debate among presidential hopefuls.  But then, the drastic recent decline in Paul’s always-uncompetitive poll numbers leave him free to speak his mind from condemning the Reagan legacy to expressing boredom with the question of how to take care of the hungry.

Michele Bachmann expresses her approval of immigration policies that had been instituted by President Coolidge--which the latter had justified in explicitly-racist terms.

Michele Bachmann: Something has struck me about Congresswoman Bachmann all along: She really has no grasp of policy.  I can’t think of another candidate on the stage last night who seemed less-interested in discussing policy.  She couldn’t point to her record; since becoming a Congresswoman she has never sponsored a bill that has passed the House of Representatives, let-alone become a law.  (One could be forgiven for taking Bachmann for, say, a headline-grabbing backbencher who is of no real consequence.)

Of course, this didn’t stop Bachmann from insisting on her “strong leadership” during the debate.  I wouldn’t necessarily draw such a harsh line between talking about doing something and doing something if one weren’t running for President of the United States.  Many Liberals prefer to call Bachmann crazy; I prefer to call her irrelevant.  Conservative-populist Perry’s entry into the race didn’t just soak up a lot of her pre-primary support, it also trivialized her as Vice Presidential material.  Perry and Romney, if each would be willing to assume that role for the other, are far-stronger contenders in ideological, geographical and policy-formation terms to balance each other’s tickets right now, while Bachmann has nothing to contribute to the ticket.  (Given their seeming affinity at the debate last night, Jon Huntsman might do much to ground a Perry candidacy as its Vice Presidential nominee, without threatening its Conservative bona fides.)

Bachmann didn’t sound too different from the 4 hopefuls who spoke before her on the subject of immigration, in large part because her answer to the question of what to do with over 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States (many of whom have already put down roots here) was indirect and muddled.  What she did contribute to the discussion of immigration brought a terrible period in our immigration policy to mind:

“…Our immigration law worked beautifully back in the 1950s until the early 1960s, when people had to demonstrate that they had money in their pockets, they had no contagious diseases, they weren’t a felon, they’d agreed to learn to speak the English language, they had to learn American history and the Constitution, and the 1 thing they had to promise was that they wouldn’t become a burden on the American taxpayer.  That’s what we have to enforce.”

Whoa, where to begin?  From the 1920s through the early 1960s was the bad old days of  highly-restricted immigration.  The Congresswoman didn’t mention that this policy also greatly restricted immigration by non-Northern Europeans.  Expecting immigrants to demonstrate that they had money in their pockets can be unreasonable, as they sometimes come to our country at considerable expense precisely to rectify their lack of it.  Immigrants, legal or otherwise, whom are here to work are often profoundly-eager to learn English; legal immigrants still have to learn US history and the Constitution for naturalization.  These are typical problems with any talk of the “good ole days.”

Bachmann strangely chose to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as part of her club even though he piled up massive Federal budget deficits.  (Her reasoning wasn’t strained, though; she didn’t employ any.)  Again, on this question of balancing the budget, Bachmann said she has been “leading on this issue for the last 5 years.”  I find it interesting that she thinks of herself as “leading” on an issue merely because she has released a lot of predictably-Conservative statements about it.  Can’t we expect more from her than that–say, implementation of an actual policy? anything?

In all fairness, Speaker Gingrich only says indefensible things when his mouth is open.

Newt Gingrich: The 1st Republican Speaker of the House since 1954, the Conservative pole through the at-times bitter but far-reaching policy debates of 1995-1998, got off to an unsettling start: “I served back during the Reagan campaign with people like Jack Kemp and Art Laffer…”  Oh, boy.  Yes, true, this establishes his bona fides as a Conservative, but in the same way that knowing Fyodor Dostoevsky personally might give you insight into the historical emergence of Existentialism in literature and philosophy; people may be quiet when you speak, but the fact remains that you are a part of the 19th century.

Without really having a point, Speaker Gingrich attacked his questioners after each of his 2 initial questions.  When Brian Williams asked if his forward for Governor Perry’s book Fed-Up! in which he called Perry uniquely-qualified to speak about the economy meant that Perry should be the nominee, Gingrich said that to draw any conclusions from a book that was more-philosophical than programmatic was “silly.”  When asked to judge between Massachusetts’ individual mandate for health insurance (wherein almost no one in Massachusetts in uninsured) and the Texas approach to health insurance (about 1 in 4 Texans are uninsured) Gingrich petulantly responded, “Well, I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”

That line led to applause, but it’s hard to see why.  Gingrich wasn’t being asked to hurl epithets, and he wasn’t being asked to judge the Romney and Perry records of governance overall.  (Given the very-different nature of their States, their offices, and the circumstances of their tenures, that indeed may have been a crude question.)  Gingrich was asked to judge how to handle health care at the State level, and he dodged–very rudely.  He brought the conversation back to President Obama’s Health Care Reform, which he said was a “disaster” that “must be repealed.”  He didn’t say why, though his dodge of the question was so emphatic as to suggest that he was unconcerned with individual mandates to buy health insurance where implemented by the States.  (I’m not sure that is a philosophical position of his, but he seemed genuinely not to care what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elects to do.)  In any case, in this debate a man who has a reputation for being a very Conservative policy wonk with a chip on his shoulder came off as simply having a chip on his shoulder.  He really seems to have nothing to this race, which is unfortunate in a way: His legendary meanspiritedness aside, Gingrich is a very-intelligent former House Speaker who marshaled a movement in Congress and has always had a passion for policy, not merely the ideologically-Conservative bent but of a technologically-savvy and technocratic nature as well.  Here he gives the impression of wanting to relive the historic experiences he had in 1994, 1995 and 1996.  If so, he is doing it in entirely the wrong forum.  It is unbecoming for relics to draw blood with words.

When asked about immigration Gingrich surprisingly was the 1st of the Republican presidential hopefuls to say that deporting all 11 million or so of our illegal immigrants was impractical and inhumane.  Other than that he expressed support for all the substance of W. Bush’s old guest worker proposal–though with a page from his 1990s cultural battles, he insisted that the children of both immigrants and native-born Americans should be required to learn more about American history.  On general principle, the Liberal Ironist agrees.

When asked what he thought about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s administration, he flatly responded that he would fire Bernanke “tomorrow.”  His string of demonstrably-false accusations against the hard-working but often-maligned Federal Reserve Chairman went as follows:

“I think he’s been the most inflationary, dangerous, and power-centered Chairman of the Fed in the history of the Fed, I think the Fed should be audited, I think the amount of money that he has shifted around–in secret, with no responsibility, no accountability, no transparency–is absolutely antithetical to a free society, and I think his policies have deepened the depression, lengthened the problems, increased the cost of gasoline, and been a disaster.”

It’s noteworthy that Speaker Gingrich, in an attack that makes Governor Perry’s incivility look restrained, would offer such pointed criticisms of the Federal Reserve Chairman and quickly move on without offering any indication of what policies the Federal Reserve should have adopted.  (While the Federal Reserve’s various levers on the economy are indeed powerful, its range of policy options are nonetheless limited and so if Gingrich had such strong opinions about Chairman Bernanke’s performance, he should have had some alternative Fed policies to suggest.)  Robert Samuelson had a fine op-ed in the Washington Post simply demolishing every criticism Gingrich made of Bernanke.  It’s worth reading, because it offers some perspective on the lack of evidence behind much of the accusatory mentality to many of the Republican presidential hopefuls.  In particular, Samuelson notes, inflation has been at its lowest annual rate under Bernanke of any Federal Reserve Chairman of the past 40 years, and he has regularly disclosed the minutes of all the Federal Reserve’s meetings and regularly appeared for press conferences.

You could take everything Newt Gingrich says with a grain of salt, but somehow it still tastes foul.

Oh, right--Herman Cain is also running for President...

Herman Cain: Cain has modeled himself as a “tough-talking” candidate; he has some charisma and has definitely read-up and polished his pitch relative to where he started; the fact remains, however, that Cain is a crank.  The founder of Godfather’s Pizza was initially unable to transcend the same basic response that Representatives Paul and Bachmann have to a question–namely, the drunken uncle’s “Now, if I were President…”  A Conservative businessman wants to run for President on the Republican ticket; he will be haunted by the simple fact that he has no experience in government.  This is not a cosmetic issue; ideology aside, the Federal Government isn’t a business, as he doesn’t own it.  His bold pronouncements of fiats mean nothing.

That said, Cain has developed an enthusiasm for talking policy changes.  In stark contrast to Gingrich, he has real ideas.  Many of them probably aren’t practical, and he definitely comes off as idealistic about the capacity of businesses to set up programs to address their own problems, but he has real ideas and can be mapped on the ideological firmament relative to the other Republican presidential hopefuls on a number of issues.  Some of his proposals–which unsurprisingly are extremely business-centric–might find their way into the Republican policy arsenal.

Cain proposes replacing the Federal Government’s current graduated income tax, 15% capital gains tax 35% top corporate tax rate, and the 6.4% Social Security and 1.75% Medicare payroll taxes with a 9% income tax rate, a 9% corporate tax rate and a 9% sales tax rate.  Like many Republican policy proposals sold on the basis of their simplicity, this is a dreadful idea.  The considerable uncertainty about how economic growth would be impeded (and revenues thus reduced) by institution of a big sales tax aside, sales taxes are regressive: Because the working class and the poor by definition have to spend more of their income buying goods than the rich (who can travel or buy goods abroad as well as invest their greater income), Cain proposes a government that is essentially supported by a considerable imposition on the working class and the poor.  Of course, in eliminating capital gains taxes entirely, Cain proposes eliminating most of the tax burden among wealthy executives or investors whom are compensated primarily through corporate shares.  His naivete shines through.

Cain did have 1 proposal that I found interesting, in his 1st question response: While discussing his very simple (too simple, I imagine) reform of the tax code, he proposed designating badly-depressed cities (think Detroit, Cleveland, Newark) as “empowerment zones” and setting Federal tax rates even lower within those jurisdictions.  State governments already offer tax abatements to encourage development in chronically-depressed regions; these can be pretty effective.  This is a measure with a progressive purpose.

Cain attacked “Romneycare” after Gingrich refused to–a predictably-Conservative gesture–but he tellingly managed to do so with more grace than Gingrich’s pardon of Romney.  He pushed association health plans, one of the more market-oriented health care reforms George W. Bush promoted.  I have a feeling that the Republican candidate for President will make this a campaign centerpiece: modify regulations to encourage businesses within a given industry to set up insurance collectives to try to cover more of their employees.  That might work alright for most of the employees of certain industries, the way public employees tend to have relatively-extensive and inexpensive health insurance coverage; but such associations won’t address the notorious unreliability of private health insurance coverage, the catastrophic inflation caused by the large gaps in our country’s insurance coverage, or the basic immorality of our country’s current failure to insure 45 million Americans.

Interestingly, Cain criticized both Perry and Romney for waxing rhetorical in their respective discussions of Social Security rather than advancing their own plans to make it solvent.  What Cain proposed is the “Chilean model,” which is what President Bush proposed to do in spring 2005.  (That was the old bait-and-switch of talking up homeland security and a gay marriage ban during the 2004 election, followed by flattening the income tax and private accounts in Social Security.)  There are several versions of this plan around, that propose converting varying proportions of one’s Social Security check into money that is invested in the stock market.  This has the added curiosity of making it possible for Social Security to function as an actual ponzi scheme.  What would we have done if many senior citizens’ Social Security payroll taxes had been invested in Enron?  What would our political discourse look like right now if between 2005 and 2008 future Social Security recipients had been allowed to invest in the stock market?  The Republican critique of Social Security’s solvency issues (which is only projected to produce a shortfall in payments around 2037) are insignificant compared to what they almost did to the program by accident during the debate over creation of personal investment accounts in 2005.  We should hear-out candidates such as Governor Romney who sound serious about protecting the solvency of the program, but we should not forget that in 2005 Republicans proposed program changes that would have blown our Social Security funds in the 2008 Financial Crash, while only this year Congressional Republicans proposed replacing Medicare with Federal payments to our famously-unaccountable private health insurers.  One is hard-pressed to think of another set of issues where Republican policies seem primed to do so much harm to so many, or where Republicans can less-afford to lose credibility.

Mr. Cain again talked tough on immigration, essentially preferring a souped-up status quo to immigration reform.  There was a welcome nuance in his call for cleaning up the INS bureaucracy so that legal immigrants could become naturalized much more-quickly.  (The last time I recall a Presidential hopeful making that specific promise was Democratic Vermont Governor, then Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean in 2003.)  But insisting against any path-to-citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country, Cain instead chose to play to the Republican base on this issue.  Insisting that “the people closest to the problem are the best ones to be able to solve that problem,” Cain called for granting more power to the States to enforce Federal immigration policy.  Like I said, that amounts to a call for a souped-up status quo–more burdensome law enforcement changes in States like Arizona, more sanctuary cities in States that don’t impose harsh enforcement measures.

Senator Santorum speaks up for Liberal interventionism, arguing that we didn't move to aid Libya's anti-Gaddafi rebels fast-enough.

Rick Santorum: When asked how he squares his Catholicism, with its central emphasis on care for the poor, with his market-oriented Republican ideology, Santorum offered a passionate defense of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which he as the junior Senator from Pennsylvania passed along with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  He made his case with emotional intensity, but more-importantly it made sense.  He did an admirable job of squaring the circle, making a plausible argument that the Republican philosophy at its best is not about eliminating government programs providing targeted assistance for the poor, but about radically restructuring those programs so they can help the disadvantaged find a place in the market economy, “not to save money, but to save people’s lives.”  This is a little more practically-plausible with the conversion of Welfare into Welfare-to-work than it is with housing assistance and food stamps; it isn’t at all clear to me how Senator Santorum thinks the latter 2 could be used to induce people to work, aside from extortion.

In any case, with his triangulating talk of utilizing entitlements for the poor as a vehicle for preparing them for the working class, Santorum demonstrated that he isn’t a Tea Partier, a proponent of destroying Federal programs he doesn’t understand simply because he can’t find specific authorization for them in the Constitution.  He also demonstrated, in contrast to Newt Gingrich, that it is possible for a Republican presidential hopeful now to express himself as a child of 1990s politics without simply coming off as a reanimated corpse.

Senator Santorum attacked Perry’s executive order mandating vaccination for HPV after getting a separate question.  He said that rather than an opt-out, the vaccination program should have been opt-in.  The Liberal Ironist has long been fascinated by the observation that Senator Santorum is an instinctual Foucaultian: Everywhere he looks, he sees experts on the march, invoking their specialized scientific expertise as grounds for making value-judgments on policy.  This suspicion he has of field experts when they are allowed to recommend regulations is anti-authoritarian bordering on anarchic.  His social Conservatism thus has this weird asocial side that demands autonomy from the State, even if it is a very-Christian autonomy.  This forms an intriguing contrast to the fact that he isn’t a Tea Party small-government Conservative.

Santorum’s position on immigration in effect was the same as Gingrich’s.  (It’s interesting to see some of the weaker-polling hopefuls taking more-moderate and humane stands on illegal immigration than the Party frontrunners!)

Towards the end of the debate, Senator Santorum stood up for Liberal interventionism, invoking Ronald Reagan and decrying what he sees as tendencies towards isolationism in the new Republican Party.  This was touching and a little surprising, and Santorum really seems to embrace his Church’s call to good works on Earth when it comes to the use of force against evil.

There is plenty of evil to go around.  One reason isolationism remains a foreign policy school of thought–though perhaps that term lends it too much credence–is because it and not an ideology favoring interventionism can be implemented consistently.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has made his campaign about expertise, principle, and a spirit of national reconciliation. The polling puts him in dead-last among those invited to the debates.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah Governor and 3-time (!) US Ambassador (most-recently to China) spent a lot of time establishing his record and credentials.  They are truly impressive, and his intellect has drawn a lot of sympathy for Huntsman among Democrats; the fact remains that they will never have a chance to vote for him.  Huntsman’s sorry state in the polls–carrying 1% support among Republican and Conservative respondents in the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll–reminds me of a trivial but still under-appreciated truth: It is very hard to become President.  If you are a viable candidate in the opposition party and you smell blood in the water around the incumbent, all the other viable candidates (or at least those with political acuity) probably smell blood, too.  Trapped between the pragmatic and technocratic Romney and the Federalist and populist Perry, Huntsman may never get the time and space he needs to distinguish himself.  Of what consequence are all the qualities you have to offer when you’re invisible?

Consider Huntsman’s response to the question of signing pledges not to raise taxes: “I’d like to get everybody to sign a pledge to take no pledges!  I’ve a pledge to my wife, I pledge allegiance to my country…Beyond that, no pledges!  I think it diminishes the political discussion, I think it jeopardizes your ability to lead once you get there.”  He pointed out that when he ran for Governor of Utah in 2004, he refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.  He didn’t raise taxes and Utah maintained a strong economy throughout the Aughts, but his point was that he wasn’t going to let unaccountable single-issue activists dictate what measures he could take to handle his State’s finances.  He said a presidential candidate’s record is more-important than the pledges he or she has signed.  Heavens, what a breath of fresh air.  Anyway, the Liberal Ironist is discussing Huntsman last because he’s dead-last in current polling.  I don’t think this is so much because he strays from Republican orthodoxy (as he has merely reserved the right to do so) but because he has simply been squeezed-out of this field by early coalescence around better-known candidates.

From the Parts, Seeing the Whole

The various Republican Presidential candidates have definitely moved away from the un-reflective Obama-bashing (well, aside from Governor Perry) and provocative slurs that characterized the 1st debate in mid-June.  The discussion among Republican presidential hopefuls is resolving into increasingly coherent and meaningful debates over both philosophy and policy.  Having rejected George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” the Republican Party has come to be dominated by its Conservative wing.  Others have said we can look forward to a clear debate on general principles of government in the 2012 Presidential Election; what has eluded some is the increasingly interesting and articulate debate emerging within the Republican Party through its presidential hopefuls.  The primary debates afford us surprising diversity–if not in ideology, then in ideological accents, political background, and temperament.  Each of these men and 1 woman really do have somewhat-different ideas about what the Republican Party should be–Perry focusing on a populist localism, Romney on a technocratic business conservatism, Paul on Libertarian ideology, Bachmann on suburban white Evangelicalism, Santorum on something closer to George W. Bush’s Christian-influenced “Compassionate Conservatism,” and Huntsman on some combination of expert administration and Ronald Reagan’s “big-tent” approach to Conservatism.  In the end, the Liberal Ironist expects (and looks forward to) a serious ideological confrontation between Perry’s States-as-nations approach centering on power devolution, and Romney’s strong emphasis on economic policy and national reconciliation.  I do think it comes down to these 2 men (a dynamic that is typical of Republican presidential primaries), but indications of Perry’s defeat of Romney are premature.

Paul Krugman’s September 11th Bitter Recriminations

Today this blog is 1 year old.  Logically-enough, I thought I would reflect on September 11th again.  A friend recently messaged me in anger about Paul Krugman’s blog entry on the New York Times website over our collective errors in judgment following September 11, 2001.  Calling Paul Krugman “an ugly individual,” he reasoned that the gravity of this moment essentially didn’t allow for the condemnation of our national character implicit in his judgment of the strong public support for the Iraq War, which has proved both superfluous and disastrous to United States foreign policy interests and even its considerable moral aims.

On the substance, I mostly disagree with Krugman by reference to what he doesn’t mention: Justified skepticism towards the massive and not really terrorism-focused USA PATRIOT and healthy disgust with the scope of (and the public argument in favor of) torture of suspected terrorists aside, the extent of our discipline as a society, the President’s prudent, moral and important insistence that terrorists–not the World’s Muslims–were our enemy, and the continued peaceful existence and demonstrable loyalty of the vast majority of American Muslims all attest to the integrity of our society.  As the Liberal Ironist occasionally argues, we tend to be oblivious to the good some public figures (or even we ourselves) have done simply through the circumstantially-plausible evils we have averted.  They are a part of the story, too, invisible to us and so rarely attributed to our character because they are recognizable only through abstraction and do not constitute an “episode.”  Where some would say “but for the grace of God go we” when looking across time and space at societies convulsed with hate, we can rightly say “In this way we can see how our ideas are better.”

The Liberal Ironist has said much in our defense; but all is not well and on the narrower terms that he made his point I must agree that Krugman–sadistic though his choosing of our solemn day is–is right.  I do think the only reason the Iraq War happened was because President W. Bush’s Neoconservative advisers imagined–and the President was persuaded of–an “imperial moment” in which they could reshape a culture by force and seize control of history.  (Political leaders that look for them may find numerous opportunities to influence history, but directing history is impossible: Others are not obligated to want what you want.  As Michel Foucault marvelously put it, “The work is the death of the intention;” so it is with political action in the context of history.)

The Iraq War was simultaneously more-costly, a greater aggregate of cruelty and less “inevitable” than any other form of overreach, negligence or abuse that occurred during the W. Bush Administration.  Over 110,000 Iraqi civilians and over 4,500 US soldiers and Marines and over 1,300…well, mercenaries killed (and thousands more soldiers returned to us with broken bodies or minds), the partial destruction and subsequent disbanding of an army that, in spite of past atrocities was keeping Iran in check and repressing internal divisions which still express themselves violently today, the near-exhaustion of military ground forces which are now unavailable for pressuring or contingency planning against the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Kim Family Regime in North Korea, years of military competence wasted that could have been focused on destroying al-Qaeda’s vulnerable network of mass murderers (a task at which, in one of the great under-reported stories of the past 2 years, the Obama Administration has self-evidently proved more-capable) and on suppressing the Taliban in Afghanistan and denying the Pakistani Army full use of its pool of terrorist cells.

The Iraq War almost threw far less-elaborate, more urgently-humanitarian and more-prudent military interventions such as the recent operation in Libya into jeopardy.  It also badly damaged relations with Continental European powers that had been deeply-sympathetic at both a popular and elite level after September 11th.  I’m not saying our government doesn’t reserve the right and possible cause to defy “World opinion,” but blowing it on an abstractly-justified enterprise that backfires and for which the costs of fighting are virtually ours alone is an outrageous waste of political capital.  The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Iraq War will cost us $1.9 trillion through 2017.  Much of that expense was the result of inflated no-bid contracts going to favored companies for reconstruction projects Iraqi firms weren’t allowed to build, or to the mercenaries we hired to secure specific sites to take the pressure off our undersized military presence.  All this life, political capital and money just burned away at George W. Bush’s discretion, and I can honestly say I didn’t believe that Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs or ties to al-Qaeda for a moment.  I don’t think any US President has weakened our country so much with the wind so strongly at his back.  His other errors and abuses of his office combined pale in comparison with this one by any measure–material, political, ideological, or moral.

Where I disagree with Krugman is on the rest of it.  As frightened or angry or off our depth as we were after September 11, 2001, we have muddled through.  There have been mistakes, some crimes, and even atrocities–I use the passive voice intentionally because I can’t seriously hold everyone responsible for many bureaucratic and clandestine actions of which most people were never informed–but in either historical or comparative terms I think our response has been disciplined compared to what we could expect from most governments, or the sentiments we could expect to see openly expressed in the political mainstream in most societies.  To his credit, George W. Bush never campaigned against Muslims, and though many Americans succumbed to varying degrees of bigotry towards Muslims at different times, the actions of American Muslims and non-Muslims generally suggest humaneness, trust, and a sense of justice.  We continue to see Conservative activists try to manipulate building codes to violate the rights of Muslims and other non-Christians in an effort to prevent them from exercising their 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment rights in building religious institutions, but our institutions (and at least some of our public figures, such as Mayor Bloomberg) are strong-enough to resist these efforts upon appeal.  When France and Belgium ban the Islamic hijab or abaya, we rightly hold them up to ridicule for it.

In the case of the Iraq War, however, I find us to be at fault as much as our generalized live-and-let-live sentiment in other regards has been admirable.  As George W. Bush prepared to play Napoleon in Iraq, we enabled him, letting him admit assertions in the place of evidence and uncritically buying–in an age rich with critical cinema about the Vietnam War–his claims that the Iraq War could be won in days and pay for itself out of Iraqi oil money!  We bought it all, because we wanted a demonstration of force, to prove to ourselves that we were in control.  We proved the opposite, to ourselves and to competitors or enemies that either admired or feared us.  This point seems not to have gotten through to us; I can’t think of a surer sign of our complacency.

Between last December and now, Arab 20-somethings employing Facebook and Twitter and challenging their despotic regimes in the street demonstrated that the Iraq War was completely-unnecessary from a social engineering standpoint.  Our entirely self-inflicted humiliation is now complete.

On the question of Paul Krugman’s timing, I agree that the lack of fellow-feeling expressed in this post suggests that he is an alienated individual.  I won’t go so far as to second my friend’s verdict that he is an “ugly human being,” because I can imagine ways that this angry mood–estranged though it is–could be the result of a sense of this self-injury.  Once the thought that our imprudence in 2003 harmed us more than the evil of the terrorists in 2001 sank in, how was he supposed to calm down?  It comes down to whether Krugman has the instincts of a healer and a constructor in him–and based on this terse and angry statement on what is deservedly a solemn day, I’d conclude he does not.

For what a statement of intentions is worth, the Liberal Ironist earnestly desires to be a healer.  I make no partisan points about some “Republican” culpability for Iraq; it was George W. Bush’s decision that engaged us in that theater and Republicans of no lesser stature than William F. Buckley Jr. and his own father expressed compelling doubts about his plans for war.  Krugman’s partisan criticism of President Bush for the Iraq War is accurate but irrelevant to current politics; today the Republicans want to drastically reduce the size of the Federal Government–a bad idea, sure, but there’s nothing Napoleonic about it.  While our future is dependent upon our misadventure in Iraq, our politics has moved on from it.  Should a President Perry or a President Romney should be inaugurated in January 2012 I don’t expect them to make any foreign policy blunder like the Iraq War: I’d expect them to make their own, better foreign policy blunders; for his part, President Obama deserves credit for doing much to heal our damaged diplomatic relationships and drawing-down our forces in Iraq on an appropriate timetable.  Though violence in Iraq endures, the security and economic situation there is continually improving (though the rate of progress has slowed).  Now that the Iraq War has been fought, stabilizing the country and consolidating its economic development is in everyone’s interest save for a few radical Islamists.  We have to remain engaged there.  The challenges of winding down our 2 major wars, fighting al-Qaeda, and moral and occasionally material support to the cause of Arab democracy aren’t as competitive as they once appeared.

Though there has always been some private grumbling, ours remains a society where many communities are present and able to live in accordance with their conscience.  We made a big mistake in 2003, but most of what we have done before and since that time is not a shame at all.  Since the time of Woodrow Wilson US actions have steadily expanded the democratic franchise both at home and abroad, and the Aughts have not been shameful in that regard.  They have been a marvel.

A New Challenge for Libya’s Rebels: Resisting Revenge

Libya’s Rebels now control most of the country, with the exception of the rural southwest, a remote non-Arab support base for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the town of Bani Walid more than 100 miles south-by-southeast of Tripoli, and Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown on the middle of Libya’s Mediterranean coast.  Rebels have largely consolidated control of Libya’s sprawling capital Tripoli, and are poised to move on Gaddafi’s 2 (aforementioned) most-strategic remaining garrison towns.

But the Rebels haven’t completely consolidated control of the capital.  There isn’t much doubt (the Gaddafi clan’s continued bluster notwithstanding) that Loyalist forces have lost Tripoli for good (and permanently, too); still, this large city is now rife with rifles and full of flak–not all weapons of which are in the hands of organized Rebel units–and the Rebel units themselves consist of different tribal backgrounds which reflect somewhat-different rationales, timing, and costs for entry into the rebellion.  The Libyan Transitional National Council’s representatives in Tripoli have wisely already gone about integrating Rebel soldiers into the country’s police force, as many who worked as police under the previous regime have declined to come to work, owing to either resentment or fear.

Tripoli’s new police units, and those Rebel infantry attaining formal status as the reorganized Libyan Army, have as-yet informal jurisdiction over a rapidly-growing legal and moral problem–the status of Libya’s large population of black African migrants.  Yesterday the New York Times reported that hundreds of black Africans have been rounded up and imprisoned in Tripoli on suspicion of being mercenaries deployed by the Gaddafi regime to suppress the rebellion, which took 6 months of fighting and an air intervention by NATO to finally depose the Gaddafi regime to the hinterlands.  The Times story reports on the latest development in a narrative that has unfolded since the early street battles in Libya: While individual soldiers and entire units of the Libyan Army defected to the rebellion and at times faced execution by their peers rather than fire upon their civilian countrymen in the early days of the civil war, African mercenaries from places like Chad and Niger who know no loyalty other than to their cash pay and plunder reportedly perpetrated massacres and other atrocities in restive neighborhoods, in some cases killing people door-to-door or sniping from rooftops, in both cases with extreme prejudice.

It’s a horrifying and entirely-plausible story.  We’re also still unsure whether it’s true.  Racism and xenophobia have broad influence in Libya, which was brutally colonized by Italy and has for most of its independence been ruled by 1 of the most-despotic and violence-prone leaders on Earth.

The truth is, we don't know who these people are. Associated Press photo by Kevin Frayer.

It’s well-known by now that the eccentric and tyrannical Colonel Gaddafi purposefully kept the Libyan Army small and untrained.  While at 6.5 million its national population is one of the World’s smallest, Libya has the 4th-largest land area of any country in Africa, making it one of the biggest in the World.  The active-duty Libyan Army was merely 25,000-strong (though there were nearly as many draft soldiers) when the uprising began as peaceful protests on or around February 16th of this year.  As some Libyan Army units fired on protesters and then on their funerals in an effort to mortify the public, these outrages simply worked to make people angrier.  By February 20th an order by Gaddafi calling for Libyan Army units to fire indiscriminately on crowds in the streets of Benghazi led instead to the defection of much of those units to the protesters; they declared Benghazi liberated and in about a day of skirmishes made that claim a reality.  About 4 or 5 days after initially-peaceful protests, Libya–both the most-affluent and the most effectively-repressed country in Africa–was in the throes of a full-blown civil war.  Neither conventional wisdom nor well-developed academic theory predicted this war–but there is a wrinkle in the narrative that helps demonstrate the rule: In spite of his own military background and his rise to power in a bloodless coup, Colonel Gaddafi had purposefully kept the Libyan Army small and unsophisticated in order to prevent the formation of an opposition power base in the chain of command that could eventually overthrow him.  As it turned out, that marginalized and decentralized army found common cause with the citizens of Benghazi, an old hotbed of anti-regime activity, as defecting units quickly opened arsenals around the city to the Rebels.

Most of us have bought into the story that the Gaddafi regime has held onto power through the use of his capital reserves and air transport capacity to import African mercenaries from Chad and Niger into the country; many of these alleged mercenaries, when captured–alive–by Rebels, have claimed that they had stepped onto planes in their home countries with the intention of finding work in oil-rich Libya but once on the ground there were given assault rifles and brought to contested towns and told to go forth and kill the Rebels or die at the hands of their new bosses.  Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the chaos in Libya featured a terrified-looking black African captive–either a traumatized pawn of Gaddafi’s brutality or a rather brilliant actor–who was among the 1st to claim having been pushed out in front of the Rebels with a gun.

How many of those foreigners captured by the Rebels while armed were formal mercenaries and how many were…”conscripted” under false pretenses?  How many of those so-conscripted and forced to fight actually killed–and why?

Surely some of these forced mercenaries killed out of fear and desperation while others–maybe a small percentage–simply accepted this as their work and hoped it would lead to better prospects.  How can subsequent investigation discern the dazed from the malicious?  In most cases this is probably impossible.  Thus war makes a mockery of justice; thus Rebel justice will either let a lot of the war criminals who wreaked havoc on them go free or else incarcerate or even execute scores whom are simply lost victims of a mass kidnapping.

So far the Rebels–to the extent that they can be called a monolithic entity–appear to have conducted themselves fairly-honorably as regards alleged African mercenaries, incarcerating many on principle but proposing loose standards for separating civilian migrants from actual mercenaries, as the Times report shows.  But given the scope of the problem, the emotions tainted with racism surrounding the narrative that foreign mercenaries–surely not Arabs!–are responsible for violence against civilians, and the limits of current Rebel capacity to control its military units (let-alone conduct hundreds of investigations), numerous episodes of both undeserved punishment and pardoning of the wicked seem virtually certain.

The Liberal Ironist has already raised the question of the alleged African mercenaries’ motives, but the Times article also suggested various motivations among native Libyans for incarceration of black Africans.  Without explicitly raising the question of the moral din that this implies, the Times reported that some Libyan Rebel units and civilians appeared motivated by a desire for revenge, some by simple racism, some by a desire to find and punish mass murderers, some by a belief that these sweeps were necessary to pacify the streets, and some out of a fatalistic sense that the safest place for a black African migrant to be in Libya (at least for now) is in a guarded cell.

Libya’s Rebel movement is a ragtag assemblage of thousands of fighters with different motivations.  Among those yearning for democracy are secular Liberals with legal backgrounds and Jihadists.  Among military defectors are those guided by their conscience and self-seeking careerists who can sense which way the wind is blowing.  Some tribal leaders who joined the rebellion may well have believed Gaddafi was evil; others probably just feel passed-over for pork projects by the old regime.

This is an early and unwelcome (but inevitable) test of both the institutional and the moral integrity of the Libyan Transitional National Council.  Where motives are mysterious (always somewhat the case in politics), alliances are sure to be unpredictable.  Among those in the TNC favoring mercy and due process in dealing with Libya’s many detained black Africans, some will be all-business, responding pragmatically to what they know about the human rights scruples of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Qatar, their biggest benefactors.  Alternately, some will maintain an even poise and solemnly insist that all they want is justice for Gaddafi’s victims as they apply the word mercenary to all black Africans in Libya.

There is an outside risk of a very massive crime emerging during such a sensitive situation.  The media and our government should watch these detentions closely.

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers and Incommensurability of the Religious with the Absurd

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  The Coen Brothers choose to open this movie, which is downbeat even by their standards, with words written by Elie Wiesel.  A friend once suggested that this was the moral thread running through the Coen Brothers’ long catalogue of Absurdist fables, and A Serious Man seems as idiomatic of their work as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men–even if it isn’t a caper.

The scene that immediately follows the opening words is like something out of a horror movie: A Jewish peasant living somewhere in the Russian Empire in the 1800s walks home in wintertime, marveling at…something.  Either the beauty of the night, or a random encounter on the road with a helpful old man his wife knows, has the man in a reflective trance.  The man returns home–long-after he was expected, and breathlessly gives his wife the news: Traitle Groshkover, an accomplished scholar of Jewish ethics, helped him out when his cart broke down in the snow.  His wife is in shock.  She tells her husband Traitle Groshkover has been dead 3 years, that a friend of hers has long-since sat shiva for him, concluding the mourning period.  What helped her husband on the road, she insists, was a dybbuk, a demon of possession.

Then, there’s a knock on the door.

Who have you invited over?

Having promptly laughed-off his wife’s insistence that Groshkover was 3 years dead, he now haltingly informs his wife that he invited the old man over for dinner as repayment for his mitzvah.  Then they both stare dully at the door.  Everything looks a little different when you must subject what you believe to an empirical test–and what a test!  As he haltingly opens the door, he sees a man; she sees a dybbuk.

The rest of the scene, whatever you may believe, is horrifying.  At this point my roommate (Oh, right: I saw A Serious Man for the 1st time with my roommate.) suggested that, much as I’d said that the opening scene of Black Swan contained within it the essence of the story that was to unfold, so this opening scene, disjointed as it is from the rest of the film in time and space, must serve the same purpose in this film.  In any case, it does pose exactly the same challenge.  A rational man and his superstitious wife confront a situation that is terrifying for both, and in neither case does it strike at the heart of what they believe.

Each development of this scene makes judgment of what you're looking at more-difficult, and more urgent.

As is typical of the Coen Brothers’ work, A Serious Man isn’t a film for the faint-of-heart: We see a sequence of events that seem to have little narrative order to them aside from their accomplishment of the psychological demolition of an imperfect but undeserving human being.  Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, but he is also a devout Jew: His son David is enrolled in Hebrew school and will read from the Torah at his Bar-Mitzvah.  When the World weighs on him too heavily, he seeks-out 3 rabbis in succession to see what they can tell him about God’s mysterious purposes.  Their interpretations take him (or don’t take him) through progressively-complex levels of anxiety about the rationality and basic beneficence of the World; none of this can prevent the moment at which he tires of bearing the burden of his integrity.  He has been looking for a satisfactory explanation from learned men, some whom he knows personally, who can explain why God would cause a succession of bleak, alienating and just plain creepy things to happen around him: His wife wants to leave him, his children are selfish, his tenure review case at the university looks shaky, he and an acquaintance meet with great misfortune at the very same moment.  His next-door neighbor disregards the zoning code–and he is afraid to press the matter because his neighbor is well-armed and uncomplicated.

Professor Gopnik calmly explains to Mr. Park that he doesn't interpret his son's failed attempt to bribe him for a better grade as a "culture clash."

If this account of a man who meets with a long succession of unfortunate events sounds familiar, you are right: The Coen Brothers have adapted the Book of Job, and for the purpose they’ve set out for themselves, they have done so brilliantly.  In the Book of Job, God permits Satan to subject “my servant Job” to a cruel test of the limits of his faith, in successive events killing most of his immediate family and destroying most of his property, leaving him poor.  Through this Job is able to maintain his reverence for God.  Finally, God permits Satan to make Job himself sick, and at this point, in the presence of 3 supportive friends, he curses God and declares the World an absurd place rather than the stage for moral drama, suggesting he has been betrayed by God for the lack of a simple explanation for any of this.  In response to all this, Job’s 3 friends offer progressive responses designed to assuage his anger at God and lead him to accept his fate.  Bildad reasons that Job’s children must have sinned for God to allow Satan to kill them, for God is just; Job must repent his own sins, and his life will be made right.  Zophar insists that Job must have sinned himself to have suffered so, and that even if Job were absolutely upright he still couldn’t hope to understand the beneficence of God’s design of the Universe.  Eliphaz scolds Job for thinking his own perspective wide-enough and his own wisdom exhaustive-enough that he can demand of God an explanation for his suffering; he also rather eloquently tells him that he can hear only sin talking in Job’s bitter recriminations, warning him that “All his days the wicked man suffers torment…” (Job 15:20)  (His wife’s suggestion, tellingly, is simply “Curse God and die!”)  His friends’ dogged combination of commiseration, reassurance, rebuke and confrontation fails to shake Job from his anger at God’s silence–until God appears before Job in the form of a tornado.  God is angry, and explains nothing more about himself than that his vastness, of which the vastness of his creations is but an expression, means simply that God will provide or not provide for his servants at his pleasure.  The only rational course is to abide.

This is the story the Coen Brothers wanted to remake in their own way.

"The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." (bell rings) "...But even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm!"

I’ll not discuss Gopnik’s encounters with the Rabbis, which for his purposes are even more-obtuse.  When confronted with those moments of life that seem to undermine us, the proof is in the fable: If you are looking for a positive explanation wherein all of your misfortune has a genesis that is either rational or providential, you will get lost.  The tragedy surrounding Gopnik is very Greek, because his own words suggest he should understand this already.  Consider the exchange he holds with a Korean student he suspects of offering him a bribe for a raised grade:

GOPNIK: (holding an envelope in his hand) “This is not nothing.  This is something.”

CLIVE: “It is something.” (a blank stare)  “…What is it?”

GOPNIK: “You know what it is, I believe.  And you know I can’t keep it, Clive.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “I’ll have to pass it on to Professor Finkel, along with my suspicions about where it came from.  Actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir, often.”

GOPNIK: “No, always!  Actions always have consequences!  In this office, actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “Not just physics–morally.”

CLIVE: “Yes.”

GOPNIK: “And we both know about your actions.”

CLIVE: “No, sir, I know about my actions.”

GOPNIK: “I can interpret, Clive.  I know what you meant me to understand!”

…And so it goes.  A few things are worth pointing out here.  1st, the test the student, Clive, has failed wasn’t just on any physics but included a mathematical proof of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle addresses a narrow but very-important range of subatomic phenomena where underlying processes can never be known for certain because the very act of observing such a small object irrevocably acts upon it, violently interrupting its old stasis.  2nd, in their previous meeting the student insisted–as the Liberal Ironist no-doubt would have in his situation (though without subsequent resort to bribery) that he understands the principle well-enough to understand the metaphors and stories told to demonstrate it, and thus he doesn’t need to have all that math down.  Professor Gopnik, our protagonist, insisted that the story is just like a “fable” that exists for illustrative purposes only, that the mathematical proof is the description of how it all really works.  Physics is the math behind it, Gopnik says.  3rd, as I’ve said already, Professor Gopnik is a devout Jew.  He has now said “In this office, actions have consequences” and “I can interpret…I know what you meant me to understand!”  If you are a believer, this may be the most-important exchange in the film.

"In this office, actions have consequences...Not just physics--morally."

What I gather from my roommate’s suggestion to interpret A Serious Man in light of its Janus-faced but invariably disturbing opening scene is that the Coen Brothers invite the viewer to interpret Gopnik’s misfortunes in either religious terms (as God’s way of testing one man’s faith) or in atheistic terms, as an Absurdist statement asking if we can live meaningful lives in a World that is dead to our ideals.  For the Coen Brothers to have made a film that could be seen through the prism of a believer or an atheist isn’t wishy-washy; rather, their admonition to “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” is their 1 uncompromising demand.  In this sense the Coen Brothers’ morality is as severe as any the Liberal Ironist has encountered; this tension as to why its merits are reflected in Larry Gopnik’s story can only be resolved by the viewer.  It’s interesting to reflect on this in particular: As humiliating as the patronizing conversations are, as unutterably painful as the estrangement from his children must be, as psychologically demolishing as the surplus pressures of the pushy people in his life can be, there is meaning in Larry Gopnik’s story.  He can’t see it while it unfolds, but the viewer can just see a warning coming into view: A picture of your life will emerge on its own if you focus on what is within your control rather than on what you believe is at stake.  The atheist’s perspective on the picture highlights a message that anyone should consider: The only thing Larry Gopnik can truly control–and the only power that is his to relinquish–is that he is an honest man.  Does that make him sound too pathetic?  Not at all; actually he has something precious at stake in this drama.  The only thing we have to surrender is our integrity.

The Coens can deliver that message as many times as they want.

I am what I am.