Category Archives: Political and Military History

Live-Blogging the 2015 State of the Union Address

10:10 pm: President Obama notes that he wants our children to grow up knowing that “This is not just a collection of Red States and Blue States; it is the United States of America.”  We’ve probably all heard that one before; the mere speaking of it isn’t substantial…but many Democrats rise to their feet in applause while Republicans are largely silent and still.  Do Republicans want to separate?

10:07 pm: “I have no more campaigns left to run–”

(thunderous applause from the Republican side)

“…I know because I won both of them.” (the President laughs)

10:06 pm: Mention of excessive police use of force and protests in Ferguson and New York City.  Oh boy.

Democrats quickly rise to a standing ovation at the mention of reform of the criminal justice system; Republicans applaud and mostly remain seated; some actually rise to their feet.

10:00 pm: “How ironic, the pundits say, that we seem more divided than ever,” 6 years into the supposedly post-partisan Obama Presidency, the President says.  “I still believe that we are 1 people.  I still believe that we can do great things, even when the odds are long.  I believe this because, over and over in my 6 years in this office I have seen Americans at their best.”  Americans are increasingly at their best, he declines to note, in cultural silos.  Are we one people if we increasingly unconsciously cluster with people who share our perceptions and values?  We’ve lived through 6 years in which the 2 parties in Washington, DC have worked together about as little as was possible in order to get whatever they could on those terms.

9:58 pm: I remember President Obama in mid-2013 saying “I welcome this debate” over NSA surveillance methods leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, who soon thereafter defected to Russia.  It’s worth noting that the President made no effort to have that conversation until an unsurprising but embarrassing leak forced him to.

9:54 pm: The President invokes the universal consensus of the scientific community and many other experts to say that “…climate change poses an immediate threat to our national security,” and that “We should start acting like it.”  He also notes the agreement he struck late last year with China; Democrats stand and applaud all this; Republicans sit with their arms tightly folded.  “National security” was his strongest ask; so, there we have Internet security and global warming as 2 now-partisan issues to which Republicans’ commitment to national security does not extend.

9:52 pm: The President calls for a comprehensive approach to protect commercial and national security assets (and, you know, people) from hackers on the Internet.  Republicans in the Senate filibustered the last attempt at an Internet security bill without giving a reason for it.  I believe based both on what he was saying about the bill at the time and his own national security credentials, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) may be able to explain more…

9:48 pm: The President notes without much elaboration that the trade and diplomatic embargo against Cuba has achieved nothing and that it is time to embrace Cuba as a neighboring country.

9:47 pm: “Mr. Putin’s display of aggression was supposed to be a masterful show of strategy and strength–That’s what I heard from some people.”  There is some mild gloating about Russia’s disastrous diplomatic isolation and unfolding financial collapse.  “This is how America leads: Not by bluster…”  This is an example of our President at his best: No line-drawing, no sloganeering, less talking and more communication.  Many have called for strident gestures against Russia; they would have done no better.  I hope George W. Bush is listening; he can see how unfit he was for this role.

9:45 pm: The President gets fairly broad applause when he affirms his commitment to take actions against Islamist terrorism.  NSA surveillance methods and the use of drones seems to have had its 15 minutes of Luke Skywalker talk.

9:42 pm: This for me is one of the most-revealing moments of the evening: “Let’s simplify (the tax code) so that a small business owner can file her taxes based upon her bank statement rather than the number of tax lawyers she can hire.”  Almost no Republicans applaud the suggestion; some of them are shaking their heads!  A simplified tax code that would remove unhelpful deductions and credits was supposed to be one of their most-principled causes, and for some reason they can’t make a gesture of approval for it when it’s articulated that way.

9:40 pm: A call for more-convenient and personalized information technology in health care available to patients, so as to lead to more-informed decision-making about lifestyle and treatment courses, gets bipartisan applause.  It isn’t just window-dressing, if it leads to actual implementation.  Better access to comprehensive health care information for either doctors, physicians’ assistants or patients can save lives.

9:38 pm: President Obama spoke-up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planning collaboration aimed at bringing free trade around the Pacific Rim: Republicans give a standing ovation, Democrats sit down!

9:35 pm: “So, to every CEO in America, let say tonight: If you want to get the job done, and get it done right, hire a veteran.”  From jobs programs to increased counseling and Veterans Affairs spending and scrutiny, President Obama’s long effort to improve the often fragile lives of veterans of the US Armed Forces has gone largely unnoticed.  It’s a small indignity following the outrage of the way so many of our veterans of this generation are living.

9:32 pm: President Obama repeats his plan for free community college for students who maintain a certain GPA and plans to graduate on-time.  He notes that State and local governments are supposed to play (pay) a part in the plan, and that both Republican Tennessee and Democratic Chicago are already doing their part.  This proposal actually gets as much applause from Republicans as it does from Democrats; there might actually be political and budgetary slack to do this in Congress.

9:30 pm: 20 minutes in, the President says, “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give them more of a voice.”  The fact is that the decline of labor unions has occurred more because of economic changes than because of government discouragement in places like Wisconsin and Michigan.  The decline of labor unions really came first.

9:25 pm: “We set-up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid…We set-up schools…the Internet.   That’s what middle-class economics is: Everyone gets ahead.  Everyone pays their fair share, everyone plays by the same rules…” *applause*

The President rolls into the idea of an expansion of middle-class and working-class tax deductions and credits (paid for through higher taxes on the capital gains of the rich).  Also, “It’s time we stop treating child care like a side issue, or a ‘womens’ issue,’ and treat it like the national economic priority it is for all of us.”  $3,000 per child annual expansion of the child tax credit.

The President notes that the United States is the only developed country on Earth that doesn’t have paid maternity leave or paid sick leave as a requirement of the law.  43 million Americans don’t have paid sick leave.

Mostly silence from the Republicans; how exactly are Republicans going to respond to this?  Are they confident that a message of simplifying the tax code and lowering tax rates (starting at the top) is going to resonate as well?

9:20 pm: President Obama notes that the deficit has shrunk considerably on his watch, the economy has grown, the stock market has grown rampantly, and that millions more Americans have health insurance since 2010.  “That’s good news, people,” the President says to laughter from the Democratic side of the House chamber.  There is icy silence and stillness from the Republicans.  It must be really awkward for them, after 6 straight years of doomsaying, to have accurately called nothing about what would happen in that time.

Republicans in Congress have no accomplishments to point to other than some budget cuts, and have probably said nothing that had any bearing on the course of the past 6 years.  Think about that.

9:17 pm: “It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to.  We are a strong, tight-knit family that has been through some very hard times…We are a strong, tight-knit family that has been through some very hard times…”  The President has used the typical SOTU human interest story in a different way; it’s a little disarming, after years of partisanship and even the President’s recent defiance of a Republican Congress on multiple fronts, to see the deeply and narrowly divided American public referred to as a “tight-knit family.”  It sounds so nice until you remember it’s just a speech.

9:15 pm: President Obama has claimed the United States has more freedom to chart its future course than any other country on Earth.

9:12 pm: “Our economy is growing jobs at the fastest pace since 1999…Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was during the financial crisis.”  This is intended to serve as the groundwork for the discussion of wealth inequality, more or less: Corporations and other big employers are literally putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their prognosis of our economic recovery; they just aren’t putting enough of it there.  The tide is coming in without the boats, will be his position.

9:10 pm: “Members of Congress, I have the distinct honor and high privilege of presenting to you the President of the United States.”  I give House Speaker John Boehner credit for his Ohio nice; that introduction had some feeling to it.

9:09 pm: (I’m not going to speculate and prognosticate about the next 2 years without any prompting from anyone whatsoever.)  You have the television news to do that.)

9:06 pm: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!”  We’re running 6 minutes late; happily, I’m not superstitious.

It’s 2015: No hoverboards, no flying cars, no self-drying clothes.  No bipartisan middle ground to be had in Washington, DC.  The President is already committed to come out swinging for income inequality: Increase Federal spending broadly, raise taxes on the rich to cut them on the middle class and the working class.  Is this the start of negotiations or a declaration of war?  All we have in order to determine, or even to find whether Democrats and Republicans in Washington themselves know, is their language and gestures.  Junkies, stay tuned…

Social Conservatives in the Republican Party: Their Disenfranchisement is Real, the Threat They Face Less-Than-Existential

Jonathan Martin recently wrote an interesting conceptual scoop for Politico, wherein social Conservatives offer a surprisingly-subtle recriminatory argument: They can’t be the source of systemic weakness in the Republican Party because President Obama’s banner Presidential Election wins in 2008 and 2012 came in the face of socially-moderate Republican Presidential candidates.  Sure, President Obama may have won election and re-election on the basis of energizing a majority coalition for Liberalism, but that doesn’t mean (goes the argument) there isn’t such a natural constituency for Conservatism.  They assert that the Republican Party was weak in the past 2 Presidential Elections because the party’s leaders were running from their base, rather than because it alienated key demographics.

It’s an interesting, counterintuitive argument.  It’s also rubbish.  Christian Conservatives actually surged around the moderate-ish John McCain in 2008–and he performed about as poorly as any Republican Presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Furthermore, it’s curious how easily the Christian Conservatives interviewed here either forgot or skirted around the shameful cases of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, 2 Republican Senate candidates who were considered near-guarantees to win Red State Senate seats until they each argued that raped women shouldn’t be allowed to obtain abortions.  Oops.

Towards the end of the article, the author notes that abortion is not gay marriage; he is right.  The much-noted sea change in attitudes towards gay marriage is real and irreversible; the general spread of opinion on abortion, strangely, has hardly shifted at all since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.  So, I expect the Republican Party’s positions on social issues to be determined not so much by some aggregated interest group within the party winning some abstract argument but by actual party leaders and candidates following incentives.

Gay marriage is gaining acceptance and legal recognition so quickly now because it is about people who differ from us only in sexual orientation asking for the same rights the rest of us have; once people feel safe to admit they are gay (which the bigotry of Judaism, Christianity and Islam made almost impossible for millennia), it soon becomes difficult to appraise bans on gay marriage as anything other than institutional discrimination for a difference of orientation that is both beyond one’s control and completely harmless. The very fact that one doesn’t need to live in fear means that society will be confronted with any attendant forms of exclusion or domination of their difference, and when this is seen it will be found to be bereft of justification.

Abortion is not an issue in the same class; it has never stopped being divisive.  In fact, as the article notes, the Republican Party is now more consistently pro-life (and the Democratic Party more consistently pro-choice) than ever before.  With the domination of several State governments–as with the much-maligned new Virginia requirement that women seeking an abortion first submit to a transvaginal ultrasound and most recently as a Republican legislative supermajority in North Dakota legally establishing personhood at the point of quickening (roughly 6 weeks)–the pro-life side has flexed its muscle and expanded its denial of women’s right to choose.

Before you opine that its pro-life stance is killing the Republican Party with women, remember that the Republican Party was, if anything, more emphatically pro-life in 2004 and that didn’t stop President George W. Bush from taking a slim majority of the popular vote in that Election.  Plenty of women are pro-life; they were going to vote for Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, too–until they realized how callous they were towards rape victims.  The Roe v. Wade decision remains the law of the land and the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be interested in re-litigating it; many of the qualifications to abortion rights which Conservatives have pushed for in Congress or in the States are actually broadly popular, if perhaps their real-world impact on women isn’t well-understood by many.  My point is that, disappointing as it may be to many fellow-Liberals, there is no reason to believe that Republicans will feel motivated to jettison their hostility to abortion rights, or that they will pay an electoral price for their disinclination to do so.  (Much as some social Conservatives say, Republicans would pay an electoral price for giving up the pro-life cause, no less if it was explicitly done as a groping attempt at re-branding.)

So, forget about the Republican Party becoming the Libertarian Party or the culture wars simply disappearing; there is no evidence of a link between broader demographic shifts and Republican concessions on certain social issues and Republican concessions on other issues.  Regarding low levels of support among women, Republicans probably just balanced their social Conservatism with support from Conservative women poorly in 2012–specifically, on account of recent extremist gestures.

Gay marriage has taken up more of this discussion–as it did in this article–but immigration reform is another example of an issue where the Republican Party is coming around, in this case to former President W. Bush’s Liberal-leaning position.  A legal guest worker program for nominally illegal immigrants, which offers an opportunity for them to work their way to citizenship, has a serious chance of passing through a split-control Congress, which it couldn’t do in 2007 with a Democratic Congress due to massive opposition from Senate Conservatives from both parties.  Again, here the Republican Party is simply following incentives: The party’s leaders and leading lights are anxious about their party’s growing reputation for callousness and simply need to assuage Hispanics’ fears of their intentions if it is going to remain viable in the Southwest–and eventually, in the biggest States of the South.

Add a possible cultural shift against the “gun show loophole” in favor of universal comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers (and hopefully, reasonable restrictions on the high-capacity bullet clips that allow any private citizen to mount their own assault), and we’ve probably just about seen the extent of the concessions Congressional Republicans will feel they have to make to Liberals in the Culture Wars.

Note that these distinctions represent different factors–an abrupt and broad cultural shift following open acceptance of homosexuality; Republicans mounting offensives against abortion rights and facing electoral punishment from alienated women and secular men in specific cases where the optics suggested callousness towards women; a simple need to calm the fears of and do something for America’s largest minority group; and growing public awareness of the dangerous gaps which NRA interference has left in our nation’s ability to research who is trying to buy a gun in the wake of a growing number of mass shootings.  These general factors have put pressure on Republicans because they fear appearing cruel or too insular on these issues (which have identifiable constituencies).  It doesn’t mean the Republican Party will become openly affirming of gay marriage in every State (at least not for a generation, perhaps), or that it will stop being pro-life (it won’t), or that we are going to see another 1986-style amnesty as President Reagan instituted (we have nearly 4 times as many illegal immigrants now as then and this has become an emotional issue) or that Republicans will stop being active supporters of the gun culture (actually, if President Obama’s gun control legislation passes Congress this year it will likely create significant headwinds for Congressional Democrats in 2014).  Republican retreat on these issues is real and tangible; but in the fashion of good military metaphor, not to make strategic retreats on these issues would bring far greater injury to Republicans on the electoral front lines than the ideological space under contestation warrants.  But this is by no means a wholesale exchange of a Conservative ideology for a Libertarian one, or even a Republican Party that is going to have any chance of appealing to metropolitan Liberals as merely a “fiscally conservative” party.  The Republican Party still has its power base in rural areas and culturally-homogenized suburbs; there is no reason to believe it will try to profoundly alienate those people, and I really don’t think its electoral situation is that desperate.

Now, in contrast to what social Conservatives such as Gary Bauer said, limited-government Conservatism probably *is* needed to bind the party’s disparate wings together, so if the Republican Party feels more-Libertarian than it did when George W. Bush was President, well, by that general standard you are right.  Whatever gays, women, Hispanics, Asians, the Millennial generation, the college-educated and metropolitan-dwellers may think it, the Republican Party has remade itself with impressive speed as a more-committed small-government party, and it has to maintain this promise to its core supporters.  Hence the focus on cosmetic changes which encourages jokes: The Republican base doesn’t want “armies of compassion,” it wants to be left alone…unless someone wants an abortion, of course.

Just a Theory I Have…

“Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion — mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.  As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

“Now we need to finish the job.  And the question is, how?

“In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year.  These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness.  They’d devastate priorities like education, and energy, and medical research.  They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.  That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.

“Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.  That idea is even worse.

“Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population.  And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms — otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

(President elaborates, mostly on proposals designed to reduce cost inflation in Medicare.)

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits but not closing some loopholes?  How does that promote growth?

“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.  We can get this done.  The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring — a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t work the system and pay a lower rate than their hardworking secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America.  That’s what tax reform can deliver.  That’s what we can do together.

“I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform will not be easy.  The politics will be hard for both sides.  None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.  But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.  So let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  We can’t do it.”

–President Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address, Tuesday, February 12, 2013 (emphasis mine).

I have a theory: For weeks, both parties have decided that the harmful spending cuts of the budget sequestration are inevitable, and offers of alternative policies have essentially been designed to reflect a narrative in which the other party is responsible.  How’s that?  For one, in last week’s State of the Union Address President Obama counts the $1 trillion in sequester spending cuts he wants replaced towards the achievement of about $2.5 trillion deficit reduction he considers accomplished.  The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the recent tax increases and the sequester spending cuts combined will shave about 1.25% off of this year’s GDP growth and cost the national economy about 1.5 million jobs.  This disaster wouldn’t be fully-felt initially, and while it would reverberate through certain industries these Federal spending cuts won’t necessarily tip us back into recession.  (For one, the Dow Jones Industrial Average may have largely priced-in the susceptibility of certain sectors and companies to steep, blunt spending cuts.)  In any case, the President has made it clear that the arrival of these Federal spending cuts would be very bad–for the economy, our competitiveness, and our military standing abroad.

As an alternative, the President specifically mentioned both revenue-raising tax and entitlement reform, particularly to Medicare–in other words, tax increases that cross a red line for Republicans and cuts to entitlements that are outrageous at least to Liberal Democrats.  In short, the President proposed replacing spending cuts that are bad for the health of the country with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that offend each parties’ ideological sensibilities.

How much confidence could he possibly have in the prospects for a proposal that offends the 2 parties’ base supporters merely because it is in the nation’s common interest?  Reflecting a more-partisan angle, Senate Democrats have offered their own interim proposal to replace the sequester spending cuts, which they also cannot really expect to happen since it both deliberately embarrasses Congressional Republicans and doubles-down on spending cuts that hurt Republican policy priorities.  The Senate Democrats’ proposal leaves the drastic military spending cuts intact while eliminating all US farm subsidies, calls for a 30% minimum effective tax rate on millionaires and closes a lot of tax loopholes that Republicans have protected, the last provision having descended from 2011 proposals leading up to the debt limit crisis.  The temporary measure would only last for a year, but why would Senate Democrats leave the controversial 2nd round of military spending cuts intact and propose abolishing all farm subsidies?  They don’t want Congressional Republicans to seriously consider supporting the proposal.

And what about Congressional Republicans?  Are they negotiating in good faith?  Well, that depends on whether you think negotiating entails ever making an offer–but their self-representation is completely different from the Democrats’.  While President Obama and (somewhat less-plausibly) Senate Democrats have modeled their appeal on an offer of compromise, the Republicans propose a litany of ideological wish-fulfillment that would be politically-damaging to their party if it could actually happen.  House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who while certainly a Conservative has generally avoided either partisan histrionics or dissembling about his policy goals, currently claims to be writing a multi-year budget outline that will balance the Federal Budget in about 10 years.  This is a suspicious promise for Congressman Ryan to make less than 2 years after an already-radical Federal Budget proposal that would have made a neutral balance possible after 30 years cost his party several previously-safe House seats in special elections.  Now the Republicans’ budget specialist proposes an even more-radical plan to cut Federal spending, just months after facing a decisive rejection by the electorate in a Presidential Election explicitly waged over the size and scope of government.  And would you be surprised that Congressman Ryan has been saying for weeks that he expects the sequester spending cuts to happen?

If it’s hard to imagine a plan being a political success both if it were to be seriously aired and debated in Congress and if the effects of implementation were actually felt, you should ask yourself if it could be boilerplate.  Why scale-back your dreams–Indeed, why scale-back your fantasies–if you think being pragmatic won’t avail you?

So, either President Obama and the Democrats wanted a balanced, negotiated solution and Republicans were just too fanatical to accept it, or Republicans were genuinely ready to pursue the ideological budgetary goals their Conservative party base demanded of them, and the Democrats simply blocked them on account of holding the upper reins of Federal power.  Or maybe neither of those propositions is true, and all of this is a rehearsal of the respective eulogies that Democrats and Republicans will deliver for their disparate visions when a very unpleasant round of blunt-force spending cuts take effect on schedule in a matter of weeks.  Make no mistake: The sequester will be bad for the country.  But any significant changes to those cuts will offend 1 or the other of the parties’ bases all the more.  So, the sequester is the most-likely outcome, and both parties have moved on to preemptively setting the tone for this costly failure to compromise.

If this realization causes the less-partisan among you to lose faith in the political system, you should know that the reason stunts like this (and harmful policy results like sequestration) happen is because activists are the ones who pay the closest attention to politics.

President Obama’s 2nd Term Strategy: Real Benefits and Real Costs

President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address laid-out a Liberal policy agenda, validating it in terms of government’s power to help Americans, the need for the rich to contribute more towards Federal deficit-reduction, and our common status as American citizens.  While the tone was amicable compared to that of the President’s bold (some said brash) 2nd Inaugural Address last month, he nonetheless doubled-down on his staring match with the diminished but probably secure Republican majority in the House of Representatives–a chamber he needs in order to pass most of the agenda he laid-out in the Address.

President Obama--2013 State of the Union Address

President Obama during the 2013 State of the Union Address last night. The President has become more confrontation-prone towards House Republicans over the course of the past 2 years; now it seems to be his standing approach in dealing with them, even in central policy speeches. Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Agence France Presse/Getty Images.

Do you remember President Obama campaign pledge to be the postpartisan President during the 2008 Election?  I do, and that promise is now completely gone.  That is a pretty good mark of how far the President–and the country–has come.

“Bipartisanship is stupid,” a friend–a fellow graduate student in political science–said almost exactly 4 years ago, and I essentially agreed.  Don’t the 2 parties exist in order to represent different material interests or values?  Why would either party agree to work with the other on their legislative priorities, unless it is thereby able to attain what for its members is a higher policy priority in exchange for concessions on a lower priority?

Republicans seemed to feel this way; in general, they never gave President Obama a chance.

I should clarify that I have always liked the idea of bipartisanship in the sense that I do not believe that the other party is just evil or stupid, or that it serves entirely illegitimate interests.  When I was younger I had a little more trouble embracing this notion, but ironically it was shortly before the President George W. Bush Presidency fizzled in 2006 I have accepted that you can tell a lot of clashing stories with reference to the same facts.  (In a different context, 1 of my professors once called this the “Rashomon effect.”)  Taken to an extreme, the sentimental call for bipartisanship ignores premises on which democracy was based–that the meaningful political questions of the day can still inspire people with legitimately-differing opinions, and that the political parties should explain the respective philosophies that motivate them and propose policies which they both think will work and will help them to achieve their values.  At an extreme bipartisanship seeks to dilute that ideal into “Well, here is what I want to do; you should get on-board or you’re being a bad American.”

I’m not saying President Obama was either foolish or disingenuous to call for a bipartisan coming-together (though I do think he was a little naive).  Consider the professions President Obama came from: He has been a lawyer, a Constitutional law professor, a South Chicago community organizer, an Illinois State Senator, a US Senator from Illinois, and 4 years after election to the US Senate he became President of the United States.  During his 4 years as a US Senator he saw President W. Bush have about 4 months of good news and policy successes before the bill started coming due for the information manipulation, unsustainable policies and political contradictions of his 1st term; after that Congressional Democrats found their voice, went on the offensive and enjoyed successive wave elections.

What am I getting at?  Well, Governor Romney did at least have a plausible critique of the President: Barack Obama never ran anything.  I find the President’s policy record compelling and I have found him to be a consistent champion for the right causes; binding those 2 findings together are Barack Obama’s good political instincts.  But the fact remains that his record of dealing with resistance from Congress indicates significant amounts of denial and even avoidance behaviors.  Democrats and Republicans have made those charges.  This isn’t damning–and as I’ve said before, the President has won more political battles than he has lost.  But rather than explain this in terms of President Obama’s professorial inclinations, I think this is best-explained through the fact that his political experience prior to becoming President was through community-organizing and serving in 2 legislatures: Our President has a lot of experience marshaling those who share his causes but before becoming President had never really herded the legislative cats himself.

The low point of my confidence in President Obama’s political abilities came in mid-November 2010, just after the Republicans had their best wave election since the 1920s or 1930s.  While admitting that he had just suffered an electoral “shellacking,” President Obama nonetheless explained his loss in terms of failure to get his message out.

You see, the loss of 7 Senate seats (starting in January of that year), 63 House seats, 6 Governorships and about 700 seats in the State Legislatures nationwide in a high-turnout Midterm Election came about because people just didn’t understand all the great things President Obama and the Democrats were doing.  Wow…

But the fact remains that President Obama was re-elected by a pretty-solid margin for a Presidential Election, with an unusually-high unemployment rate and Republicans running an extremely well-financed campaign around a message of limited government and citizen independence that had them excited.  They had a lot of existing elected officials nationwide to help them carry that message to most parts of the country.  There had been discipline problems, but this message and the 2012 Republican National Convention had largely assimilated intraparty differences of opinion while maintaining substantive policy positions.

Yet as it happened, the Republicans performed worse nationwide in the 2012 Elections than the consensus of the pundits had allowed.

The reason for this was positively identified by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight by late-August of last year, and is simple: The constituencies that tend to support Liberal policies now form a natural majority in Presidential Elections.  This situation has been developing steadily for the past 20 years, though it was not always perceptible on the surface; this year was a fairly-strong test of it.  The Republicans actually dominated the vote of self-identified independents, and they had a bad election year anyway.  As a consequence, President Obama has realized that Democratic Presidential candidates don’t require the support of constituents who might be antagonized by Liberal causes and legislation.  Being “outed” as a Liberal doesn’t preclude election for President by a popular vote majority.

For some, the strategic tack the President should take in light of this realization is straightforward: Divide and conquer.  But the truth is, this situation poses a choice in which both courses of action offer benefits and costs.

Ron Brownstein noted as much in an interesting article for National Journal on the demographic changes that have created an electoral majority for Democratic Presidential candidates: President Obama’s turn from appealing to the center to appealing to his base, crossing a threshold by actively-supporting gay marriage in 2011 and perhaps hitting full-bore with his combative 2nd Inaugural Address, is not just a personal political tack but a bid to capitalize on massive demographic changes that actually make it easier for Democratic Presidential candidates to ignore or even alienate the White working-class voters the Democratic Party used to need in order to win.

The importance of the diverse Democratic Party base to President Obama’s election and re-election is a story that has already been told, but President Obama’s pursuit of a Liberal agenda of immigration reform, new gun control, rescinding the Defense of Marriage Act and new climate change legislation reflects his recognition that aggressively pursuing his party’s platform is actually good politics.  This hasn’t been true for Democratic Presidents since Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

So we’ve come along way from Senator Zell Miller (D-GA)’s 2003 lamentation that the Democratic Party was A National Party No More because it had alienated social and fiscal Conservatives…or have we, in a more-comprehensive sense?  While appealing to the Democratic base may actually be advantageous to Democratic Presidential candidates now, this strategy comes with a probable cost: it may actively disadvantage the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. Even without the partisan gerrymandering that so heavily favors Republicans in the Midwest and the South, Congressional races tend to have about 2/3 or less of the turnout of a Presidential Election; even non-partisan Congressional Districts probably aggregate towards a natural Republican majority in the House because of political geography–working-class Whites live in wide distribution through suburban and rural America–and the Voting Rights Act’s mandate to create a proportional number of majority-minority Congressional Districts where possible (which makes drawing adjacent Conservative-leaning Congressional Districts easy).  So, for a Democratic President to promise and proceed to govern from the Left could help the Democratic Party dominate the Executive Branch for the foreseeable future–but it also could also keep the Democrats out of the House for years, perhaps indefinitely, because this strategy basically takes a dump on socially-Conservative parts of the electorate that are more-likely to vote down-ballot, especially in the Midterm years.

I remember the expansion of the party’s ranks in 2006 and 2008. Some of those Congressional gains, at least in 2008, were probably based on the post-Financial Crash reaction against the Republicans and the coattails from President Obama’s high-turnout, massive 2008 Presidential win. But some of those Congressional gains could have been permanent (at least Districts we could have retaken if not held through 2010).  Brownstein’s argument is President Obama’s decision to go to the left was made possible by structural changes in the electorate; it still wasn’t inevitable or even the only plausible strategy.  He suggests, and I think the evidence corroborates, that we had to choose between our Congressional majority and investing in strategic dominance over the Presidency–at least for the next few Congressional terms, and maybe a lot longer.

Lincoln: A Review Through the Lens of the Theory and Practice of Politics

I find it ironic that a friend of mine and I who went to Lincoln in high spirits came out of the movie fighting bitterly.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye at all about the quality or significance of what we had just seen on the screen.

I had been riveted by the account of an America divided and almost ruined by completely-incommensurate views on politics, whose Representatives were guided through a time of great uncertainty to vote for a far-reaching change to the United States Constitution; my friend had been bored by a staid representation of a perfect President Abraham Lincoln, a cliché-ridden one at that.

We both saw the same movie, and we were hoping to find different things in it.  Considering the story was one of people who were worlds apart coming together to give incomplete standing to a burning moral truth, our complete disagreement over what we had just seen was disappointing.  (Actually, it fouled-up the whole evening.)

Lincoln 1

President Lincoln in the opening scene, speaking with curiousity to 2 Negro soldiers. Lincoln seemed far less certain about the prospects for good race relations than he did about the need to abolish slavery. He is portrayed as finding his way on the issue.

But this is a review of the movie through my eyes.  Lincoln is not a probing biography of 1 of our most-beloved Presidents, but rather a political account of 2 momentous months of his life–December 1864 and January 1865 to be precise, just weeks before his death.  Lincoln is simply about the passage of the 13th Amendment, or about President Lincoln’s way of achieving it.

This is the story of the crowning political accomplishment of an Illinois lawyer, elected President during a time of profound political division, who would controversially assume a variety of powers to the Executive Branch, antagonizing both the opposition party in Congress (those thus often implacably opposed to his political goals) as well as those of his own party who found the President insufficiently-zealous in his advocacy against racism (and thus counted him either a consummate opportunist or worse, an academically-aloof appeaser).

Lincoln 2

In several scenes we have the benefit of watching President Lincoln deliberate with the many naysayers of his Cabinet. As per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Lincoln was good at identifying and contending with loyal opposition.
In a memorable early scene, it gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual fancy footwork, his lawyerspeak.

That’s right, when I watched Lincoln I saw a good parable for President Barack Obama’s political circumstances.  I’ve previously been told the likeness is a bit melodramatic, but I strongly-disagree (and I truly think the fact that I love President Obama is incidental).  It’s certainly true that our current political deadlock pales in comparison to the 600,000 Americans killed in a war to end slavery and preserve the Union, but political junkies who downplay the likeness between our time and theirs at the elite level are actually minimizing how abnormal the depth of current partisanship is.  Put differently, shouldn’t it bother us that we have to reach back to the Civil War in order to put today’s partisan political differences into perspective?

Lincoln may not give us the upstart young lawyer, the Congressman from Illinois or the eloquent but failed candidate for the US Senate, or even the evolution of the hapless pragmatist into the crusading Abolitionist, but what it does give us is 2 months of cat-herding within an energized Republican Party which culminates in the legal abolition of slavery in the United States.  At the time the Republican Party is split, primarily between an establishment wing we would now characterize as Conservative and the Radicals who might otherwise be viewed as Conservatives today but whom were adamant about enshrining full racial equality (and providing basic property for former slaves through subdivision of the old Southern plantations) in Federal law.  The Democratic Party is mostly Southern or rural in its power base, though it is also powerful in New York City, where many Irish immigrants were conscripted for the war but lacked much experience with Protestant Abolitionism; overall it is quite opposed to abolishing slavery.

By this time the Emancipation Proclamation has already abolished slavery in the Confederate States by wartime Executive order.  But in a marvelous monologue we see the lawyer Lincoln, as he runs through competing, often exclusive rationales for the Emancipation Proclamation that might not hold up under Constitutional scrutiny at the end of the war.  The Border States–Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Territory–still have legal slavery because “forced” emancipation could not be constitutionally justified as a wartime measure.  Not only could the Emancipation Proclamation be ended and slavery even restored in the Confederate States at the end of the war, but in a particularly cruel reversal plantation owners may even have the gall to demand the return of their “property.”

The Senate has already passed the 13th Amendment by a large 38-6 majority, but the House of Representatives retains a large-enough Democratic Caucus that they need crossover votes in that chamber to send the 13th Amendment along to the States.  While many House Democrats have lost their bids for re-election, it is uncertain how quickly the Confederate States will rejoin the United States, thus raising the prospect that the political window to abolish slavery could shut suddenly.  Thus, President Lincoln is unsure when the 13th Amendment will pass, if not in this lame-duck session of Congress.  The abolition of slavery must have the force of law before any delegation of the Confederate States of America is able to ask for preservation of slavery as a condition for rejoining the Union.

The President needs the votes of Democratic Representatives–fast.  Naturally, he turns to the offer of patronage jobs as the easiest way to obtain them.

1 of the things I liked best about Lincoln was its juxtaposition of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of an almost pure President Lincoln (and this portrayal is every bit as amazing as you must have heard) with the amorality (some would say corruption) of politics–a state of affairs which doesn’t trouble the President in the slightest.  He isn’t campaigning against corruption, he’s campaigning against a great evil.  He has bag-men collect lame-duck Democratic votes in the House for him, sometimes literally in the dead of night, he serenely lies in public about the state of peace negotiations with a Confederate delegation, he insinuates powers to the Executive Branch–and primarily troubles himself about the Constitutional ramifications when he suspects that the Supreme Court will soon do the same.  President Lincoln can be called a Conservative on policy and philosophy, but not in spirit.  To appearances he shares nothing of the Constitutionalism and innate fear of Federal Government expansion which binds contemporary Conservatives together.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA)

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who distrusts President Lincoln as a self-aggrandizing politician. President Lincoln is able to appeal to his sense of what is achievable in their political environment to temper his zeal.

The tension between President Lincoln and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), a Radical Republican who militates against racism to the point of maintaining the full equality of Whites and “Negroes,” provides a simple but very timely lesson in good politics.  President Lincoln warns Congressman Stevens that his blunt public expression of belief in the full equality of faculty of Blacks with Whites strikes many as too radical, and thus a political burden in the fight to abolish slavery.  Stevens defends unvarying argument from principle, likening it to having a compass, saying that his aim is simply to move towards true north.  Lincoln in turn agrees that such basic orientation is valuable (and implies the possibility that Congressman Stevens has it), but then notes that the map of local terrain is at least as important for navigation as the compass.  “If, deprived of knowledge of the terrain, you should happen to wander into a swamp, what good is it that you know true north?” the President asks.

Congressman Stevens, normally almost contemptuous of President Lincoln as more of a politician than a moral champion, allows this point and even seems troubled by it.  During subsequent debate on the draft of the 13th Amendment in the House, 1 of the Democrats opposed to passage puts to Stevens the question of full equality of faculty between Negroes and Whites.  Though he has visible difficulty with the question, Stevens avers that he merely seeks to secure legal equality of Negroes with Whites.  Tellingly, this evasion angers both the pro-slavery Democrats and the Radical Republicans.  Representative James Mitchell Ashley (R-OH) has it out with Stevens right outside the House chamber.  “Is there nothing you won’t say?!” he asks, mortified by what he considers Congressman Stevens’ extreme abdication of his integrity.  Stevens, however, has internalized the President’s message of circumspection, and acknowledges that if it provides for the abolition of slavery in America then and there (as opposed to untold years hence), there is indeed nothing he would not say to achieve it.

Congressman Stevens dominates a scene laden with irony late in the movie, in which a re-elected Democratic Congressman from his home State of Pennsylvania informs him he wishes to vote for the 13th Amendment and subsequently switch parties.  Before accepting his offer, Stevens rebukes the Democrat, who is tongue-tied, transparently self-serving and seems almost frightened by the man he has come to see.  Stevens says he is a sorry inheritor of the party of Thomas Jefferson.  In an instant, the irony of the party of Lincoln becoming a fundamentally-Southern party struck me, and I was met again with this mythological resemblance of the story to our own partisan deadlock.  This was 1 of the aspects of the film my friend found the most distasteful: President Lincoln’s adversaries in the Democratic Party are portrayed as an assortment of deplorable human beings–some afraid, some complete yokels, some transparent bigots relying on the decorum of their legislative chamber for protection, some violent.  I was untroubled by the portrayal of the President’s Democratic opponents as morally-ugly or as fools–for a very specific reason: This is a story about how President Lincoln and his political allies were able to win some House Democrats’ votes.  The political story we need is 1 about an opposition party we might be inclined to see as morally-ugly or as fools, but whose votes are needed on far-reaching legislation whether we come to see merit in what they stand for or not.  If that sounds like too bleak of a message, ask yourself if it is not true that 1) Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government disagree with few cross-cutting party cleavages on most of the policy issues that either party considers urgent, and 2) Democrats and Republicans will have to continue to work together for at least the next 4 years even to pass a budget.  This is the aspect of President Lincoln’s story that is most-illuminating to us at this moment.

On this point my friend averred that this meant the film was not meant to be timeless; in response I said that a work of art–or of history–is permitted to bear the mark of the time it was made as much as it may the time it recalls–as long as it does so in a manner that reveals rather than obscures something about the reason it was made.

The final House vote tally is tense.  There is evidence, however circumstantial, that lack of access to information once facilitated the passage of legislation: The 13th Amendment has been justified to Congress as a measure that could bring the war to a swifter conclusion, as with the Constitutional abolition of slavery the Confederate States of America would have no bargaining motive to prolong a war its leaders already knew they could not win.  In reality, however, while the House debates the 13th Amendment there is already a Confederate delegation in Virginia negotiating terms for their surrender!  The Confederate delegation, in turn, must be misled into thinking that the 13th Amendment isn’t going to pass, and that their prompt surrender improves the chances that their States could be readmitted to the Union in time to block its passage during ratification.

These multiple deceptions seem not to trouble President Lincoln in the slightest–not even, particularly, in the exceptional level of risk they entail.  He cares about his goal, which is the abolition of slavery.  He was originally pragmatically-oriented towards this social question, but the circumstance of the way gave it such a central importance in his mind that he came to append a transcendent importance to ending it.  He didn’t care about assuming statutory powers not provided to his office in the Constitution, he didn’t care about doling-out government jobs for votes, he didn’t care about what legal or moral rationales would persuade people, he didn’t care about lying to fellow leaders of his own party he had known for years or for lying to everyone outside of a handful of confidants in order to marshal needed votes on the day the Amendment was passed in the House.

President Lincoln was a pragmatist who re-defined his later life as being about the achievement of a moral end, procedure, the appearance of scandal, and parsimony of philosophy be damned.  He was right, and his critics were wrong.  He is counted among the heroes of history, and he got there (as is so often the case) by refusing to concern himself with the cosmetic side of politics that is the fodder of so much daily political discussion.  While it is so often our lot to pedantically discuss what is right before us, he exercised his moral imagination.

LINCOLN

Another Not-so-Grand Bargain

The 2001 Bush income tax rate cuts will expire for individuals earning more than $400,000 a year and couples earning more than $450,000 a year; above that amount the top marginal income tax rate will rise from 35% to 39.6%.  (Congratulations, Congressional Republicans: You have created another tax bracket.)  Capital gains taxes, already set to rise from 15% to 18.8% on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $250,000 a year through the 2010 Affordable Care Act, will rise to 23.8% at a $400,000/$450,000 threshold.  The estate tax will rise from 35% to 40% on estates valued at more than $5 million for individuals or $10 million for couples–though the estate tax will also now be indexed to inflation, thus rising to a projected $7.5 million/$15 million valuation threshold by the end of the decade.  The Alternative-Minimum Tax, designed as an alternate tax rate to prevent affluent taxpayers from claiming too many deductions and paying too little tax, will now be permanently indexed to inflation, thus sparing millions of middle-class households regularly protected from the tax only by annual adjustments to its income threshold.  The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the college tuition tax credit–all part of President Obama’s 2009 Stimulus–have been extended for the next 5 years.  A large, complicated assemblage of business tax deductions set to expire, including 1 for business capital spending also created through the 2009 Stimulus, have been extended for 1 year.  The President’s late-2010 payroll tax cut, a temporary stimulus measure which was extended through all of 2012, will be allowed to expire.  Additional unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed will be extended through this year at a cost of $30 billion; this additional safety net spending will not be offset with spending cuts.  The “Medicare doc fix,” which spares Medicare service-providers the rate cuts scheduled to take effect through the mandatory spending cuts of the dreaded “sequester,” has been put off for 1 year, hopefully pending some more-extensive deal on deficit-reduction.  All other sequester mandatory spending cuts will be put off for 2 months.  This 2-part suspension of the sequester is projected to cost about $110 billion.  All of that increased spending is to be deficit-neutral, 1/2 through offsetting spending cuts and 1/2 through taxes on new Roth IRAs for Federal employees.  The recent farm bill will be extended for 9 months to buy time to pass a replacement, thus preventing an expected  doubling of milk prices due to the automatic return of outmoded 1949 price controls.  Finally, a recently-instituted pay raise for Federal employees (including Congress) will be frozen as a small (but in Congress’ case, satisfying) cost-saving measure.

The new income tax, capital gains tax, estate tax and Alternative-Minimum Tax rates are all permanent and will not require further statutory maintenance.

Nobody likes this deal intrinsically, which is the hallmark of a legitimate compromise.  No one has anything good to say about the institution through which this deal was struck–Congress–which simply reflects a lack of reciprocity and trust all around.

So, who won the fight over the fiscal cliff?

What’s that?  You think it’s cynical of me to ask after the political optics of this deal immediately after offering only the general analysis of the plan itself?  Why yes, I suppose that is cynical of me.  I am in an exceedingly cynical mood.  The least-productive, most self-injurious Congress in American history nearly collapse in appalling dysfunction as it adjourned, and the reason for this is clear: The House Republican Conference is not well-adjusted enough play with others.

If you’ll indulge me, I will review a dreary history: In January 2010 Republican Scott Brown had an upset win in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) old Senate seat.  Since that time, when the Republicans advanced to 41 seats in a 100-member Senate, they proceeded to filibuster any attempts to pass a budget–just the ordinary budget–through their chamber; Congressional Republicans then repeatedly and for years noted, with false indignation, that Senate Democrats had failed to pass a budget through their chamber since 2009!  It had become the default strategy of Congressional Republicans to stall Democratic policy initiatives while offering few of their own that had any chance of becoming law, then blame the Democrats for being unproductive.

For the record, there is a difference between being a Conservative and manipulating institutional checks and balances in order to make the country ungovernable in order to undermine the other party for temporary tactical advantage, then refusing to negotiate about anything whatever.  I can’t believe this needs to be clarified, but it is a point dozens of House Republicans have consistently failed to grasp.

Consider Congressional Republicans’ highlight moments since gaining that 41st vote in the Senate: In November and December 2010 41 Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama’s New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would integrate gays into the US Military, new FDA food safety inspection standards, the DREAM Act which would allow immigrants brought into the country illegally as children but who were either studying a 4-year college or serving in the US Military, and most-horrifyingly the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.  They waged this filibuster because President Obama did not intend to extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and for no other reason.  At the same time they were railing against the largest Federal budget deficits in decades, and repeatedly insisted that no new sources of Federal revenue would be needed to lessen these deficits.  I was and remain an expositor of the tax cut deal that followed, which allowed President Obama to complete most of his 1st term agenda in 2 years as well as institute the payroll tax cut, which served as a valuable form of stimulus in giving an average-income family a $1,000 tax cut; but whereas I hoped this peculiarly Republican form of brigandage could transmute through this deal into the grounds for broader consensus, it turned-out to be what the pessimists thought it was–the honeymoon, done before the 112th Congress even met the following January.

And what a worthless Congress the 112th was!  I can still remember February 2011, when Speaker Boehner cordially proposed $38 billion in mostly-nominal spending cuts, which amounted to several hundred million dollars in probable cuts to actual spending outlays.  Speaker Boehner found he couldn’t carry the House Republican Conference along for a budget with such modest spending cuts, though he was already pulling against President Obama, who had already proposed new spending to invest in our infrastructure, basic research and education system in his 2011 State of the Union Address.  Anyway, several weeks of incoherent and rancorous negotiations and several temporary budget resolutions later, the US House and Senate signed off on…just under $38 billion in mostly-nominal spending cuts, which amounted to about $350 million iI didn’t know it then, because I had wanted to think that the Conservatives of the 112th Congress were simply getting their bearings and learning their limits–but the spring 2011 fight over the Federal Budget was a microcosm for our whole experience of the 112th Congress.  It was shrill, it deepened mistrust, the top negotiating parties were ambiguous or kept changing, resolutions were ad-hoc and budgets effectively lasted for several weeks, there were multiple threats of government shutdowns of varying severity, consumer demand nationwide was weakened by what spending cuts the Republicans did get, and the financial markets tumbled several times in reaction to multiple phases of weeks of uncertainty about taxing and spending policies–or even uncertainty about whether the Federal Government would pay Social Security checks and Medicaid services on-time.  On more than 1 such occasion the Conservative “Tea Party” Republicans in the House of Representatives ended-up either acceding to or unable to stop last-minute deals that were worse for them than what President Obama had offered them, simply because they have previously refused to compromise on any tax increase.  The dramatic failure of Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal to raise income taxes only on those making over $1 million a year is fresh in most political junkies’ mindsbut do you recall that the exact same thing happened in the House in late-July 2011 with the confrontation over raising the Federal debt-limit?  There was the prelude of the November-December 2010 tax rates fight, the February-April 2011 Federal Budget fight, the appalling June-July 2011 debt limit fight, about 3 months of fruitless argument over how to reduce Federal deficits in a balanced way that ended with the “sequester” spending cuts activating on Thanksgiving 2011, the FAA shutdown, the near-suspension of Federal highway spending (which could have shut-down highway construction and maintenance projects in progress all over the country) in June of year past, and now the December and November wrangling over the “fiscal cliff,” wherein House Republicans clamored that they would risk letting taxes go up several thousand dollars this April for middle-income families rather than entertain raising tax rates only on millionaires.

This is the bizarre non-record of the 112th Congress, simply-put and in all seriousness the worst Congress in American history.  But for all the uncertainties and contingencies in political life, I can tell you exactly the primary source of all the problems: It’s the House Republican Conference, which for 2 years has vainly passed a series of activist bills that had no chance of becoming law.  These bills weren’t intended for the real World but for a Tea Party fantasy-land in which Republicans had a supermajority in the Senate, there was a Conservative-Republican President, and the country wasn’t still starving for consumer spending following the worst financial shock in 4 generations.  By promising to and then proceeding to fight the President at every turn Congressional Republicans lost the middle American voter, who gave them their best election night in decades in November 2010; by attacking the welfare and regulatory state President Obama sought to modernize and constantly negotiating in bad faith, they transformed their political nemesis from a parliamentary consensus-leader into a fighting executive; by refusing to compromise when the Speaker of the House presented them with favorable compromise antes the Republican right-flank ruled themselves out of any legislative winning coalitions and drove last-minute deals on the budget and taxes to the left.

Having seen the full scope of the 112th Congress and what it was capable of (which is essentially less than its automatic functions), we can safely conclude in its last full day that the 112th Congress was not worth a damn.  In aggregate this Congress could not avoid actively harming the nation’s economic recovery; it could only desist doing it when 1 of its parties–always the same one, I have concluded–relented in the face of the realization that it was about to be blamed for causing that harm.

So, since political considerations (as opposed to policy, let-alone public service) are all Congress can concern itself with today, I will move right on to the “vulgar” political question: Who won the fight over the fiscal cliff?  Well, I don’t even know know at this point, and if you’ll pardon the cliche, the American people lost on account of all the attention invested in such narrowly-conceived issues, and the (understandable) investor ambivalence which has set our economy back while Congress wrestled with itself to prevent middle-class taxes from rising thousands of dollars in a single year, or a doubling of milk prices.  So we lost, that much goes without saying.  And it is at this point that I realize the 112th Congress is best understood as the theater of a war started by the Tea Party.

Does that seem a bit extreme?  Well, what was this Congress but a steady and intrinsically profitless destruction of 2 parties’ resources in the hope that 1 party would eventually give up and make massive political concessions in the hope of peace?  That would be a war.  True, there were no literal casualties.  That’s because the Federal debt limit was increased in summer 2011.

So who won?  Unfortunately, the ugliness truly is in the eye of the beholder this time.  I actually have a lot more to say about this, but this is the thought I want to leave you with.

The General Assembly Vote on Palestinian Observer Status

I think the hardest tack for one to take over the Israel-Palestine Conflict is to be simultaneously substantive and humane.  It is certainly more-intuitive to simply take a side.  Take the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, which touched not only the Gaza Strip but also Israel’s largest cities: Israel supporters typically focus on Hamas rocket attacks launched in peacetime while at least declining to broadcast any opinions about the total blockade of a population the size of Manhattan or Israel’s continued construction of settlements in West Bank lands they have never made legal claim to; many Palestine sympathizers focus on the hundreds of Palestinians killed every time the IDF undertakes a major operation in the Territories, thereby claiming disproportionality in the use of violence–which implies, whether they will verbally admit to this or not, that months of prior attacks by Hamas with the express purpose of killing Israeli civilians (or Hamas’ strategic decision to hide in dense civilian neighborhoods) are morally and politically irrelevant in Israel’s decision to resort to violence.  There are the positive neutrals (“I hope that both parties are able to bring this conflict to a quick and peaceful solution”) whom are of course well-represented in the diplomatic corps, and the negative neutrals (“I wish these asses would just blow each other up already”) of whom you probably know a few personally.  I for one am frustrated by the State of Israel’s disingenuous foot-dragging over giving Palestinians more control over their land and their government, and making reasonable restitution for Palestinian land, property and life lost after taking the strategic upper hand in multiple wars.  I am also frustrated by what appears to be a total lack of discussion among Palestinian sympathizers of the harm done to the Palestinian cause by militants.  (Apparently the non-violence that worked for India, Black Americans in the South and Black Africans in South Africa would just never work for Palestinians in the Territories or abroad…But then the Territories have been under occupation for 45 years and armed struggle has actually spoiled proposed improvements in their status.)  Like the positive neutrals I am pleased to see the violence stop, but I  have a greater trepidation that these episodes are nothing but a perverse political negotiation in which some of the parties are both foreign and non-public.  (A certain Islamic Republic comes to mind, and if I am right it definitely isn’t helping.)  I share nothing of the negative neutrals’ animus in this case, aside from a mistrust of many of the powers that be–especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Hamas.

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly granted Observer status to the Palestinian Authority.  Acceptance of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition from the General Assembly was widely anticipated.  While this vote does not make the Palestinian Authority a full member in the UN and certainly does nothing substantive to make Palestine a functional state–full membership would have to be granted by the Security Council where the United States wields veto, and Palestinian functional statehood is unattainable without consent from the State of Israel–this vote represents the consensus of the General Assembly and would allow the Palestinian Authority access to a number of United Nations institutions–including, potentially, the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court was organized to deal with charges of war crimes against individual persons.  The danger of the Court (which is the reason the United States is not a party to it) is that charges of war crimes can be issued on an inconsistent or politically-motivated basis.  Now that the Palestinian Authority gains Observer status at the UN, if it is granted access to the ICC it could bring charges of war crimes against IDF or Israeli government officials.  The United Kingdom, which ultimately abstained from the vote, had indicated that possible participation in the ICC was one of its greatest reservations against granting observer status to the Palestinian Authority.

I for one applauded the Palestinian Authority’s decision to pursue this acknowledgment from the United Nations, and I congratulate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on its success.  While my country and Israel both insist that nationhood can only be granted through negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, negotiations have effectively been frozen since the fall of the moderate Olmert government.  (Intransigence from the far-right Likud government is a major culprit, of course, but after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial withdrawal from multiple settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has not committed to any further concessions.)

The simple fact is that Israel is taking advantage of the current situation.  As I have said before: This is Netanyahu’s fault for dragging his feet, period. He has never had any intention of granting Palestinians further rights or self-determination. This is why you negotiate in politics–yes, even with your “enemies.”

Again, to head-off the skeptics and the shruggers with all their damned reasonable arguments: This certainly isn’t full recognition, let-alone functional statehood or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but fair play to the Palestinian Authority for peacefully asserting Palestinians’ rights.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (and Likud’s) position remains that the Palestinian Authority must be unitary, accept Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence before the State of Israel will enter any new negotiations.  (These conditions sound entirely reasonable until one reflects on how many wars could never end if they were offered as preconditions for just talking.)  Fatah in the West Bank has met these conditions while Hamas has not. When Hamas narrowly won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament in the 2006 elections, Israel cut off all the tax revenues it was collecting on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority.  This led to a brief but decisive civil war between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in 2 separate semi-state entities in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may have felt it had no choice but to deny revenues to Hamas, but now the Netanyahu government refuses any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because it “will not renounce violence.”  This is a fraud; Likud is just using the Palestinians’ internal divisions as a convenient excuse to leave them in legal limbo.

The Territories have been under military occupation for 45 years.  This would be a tragedy if there weren’t a short list of Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian government officials we can hold morally responsible for it.  The idea that “the Palestinians” must assume all moral responsibility for this state of affairs, while Netanyahu’s coalition government (which includes public figures who in the American political system would be called unabashed fascists) builds and maintains new settlements in the West Bank at will, is offered in such bad faith that I suspect its aim is to maintain this situation of military occupation always, in the vague and fantastic hope that over 4,260,000 Palestinian nationals will simply…go away.

No, I am not implying what you’re probably thinking.  I recognize no obtuse and offensive likeness between Israel and the Nazis.  I will be the first to admit that the State of Israel could do far worse than it has to the Palestinians at any time.  But there are limits to the pertinence of such a point.  It in no way changes the fact that the conditions the Palestinians must abide are awful.  If there is a consensus in Israeli politics that Hamas is illegitimate, that doesn’t explain why the State of Israel cannot negotiate further agreements (whether final or interim) with the Palestinian Authority through the agency of Fatah, at least to increase their control over and freedom within the West Bank.  But no further agreements have been inked with the faction of Mahmoud Abbas, which has probably wanted meaningful negotiations all along.  The real reason Abbas unilaterally pushed for acknowledgment through the UN General Assembly is because his receptivity to Israel has brought him nothing–not even evidence that any kind of political deal was possible.  He was pushed to this point.  Our government’s position was that Abbas’ action is “not helpful;” I say, he obtained something for Palestinians and did not have to use violence–indeed, used a legitimate international mediating institution–to do it.  What is there to gripe about, unless one wants the Palestinians to have nothing?

40% of the West Bank is either under IDF jurisdiction, is reserved for the settlements, has been unilaterally annexed by Israel or has been designated a nature preserve by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf.  Palestinians cannot pass from 1 side of the West Bank to the other.  Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank at all except through Israeli-occupied territory.  Israel continues to build new settlements wherever it finds a water table.  Note that I haven’t said that the 1967 boundaries are sacred, or that everyone who claims descent from a Palestinian refugee should have a “right of return.”  I have only mentioned East Jerusalem implicitly.  I have made no argument that the State of Israel is illegitimate in itself, and I am not going to.  But should we expect the Palestinians to be entirely politically-passive?  Should we accept premises and offer arguments that assume they will be politically-passive?  We are supposed to believe that Bibi Netanyahu really just wants peace, but has tragically been frustrated for want of an honest negotiating partner among the Palestinians?  That is absurd.

I recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself.  In everything else it has done, I have long suspected the Netanyahu government of acting in bad faith.  Do not forget: Of President Obama–whose Ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning unilateral settlement expansion, and who just voted against granting Palestine Observer status in the General Assembly–Prime Minister Netanyahu sees such an obstacle to the sort of partnership he wants in the United States that he met with the new Republican House Majority Leader to get assurances of more help, and tried to stir-up pre-election controversy to help Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney–who had promised him unqualified support.

Observer status for the Palestinian Authority is far from an ideal status (and certainly isn’t profoundly-portentous)–but it is something.  I will not just shrug-off a nonviolent call for legitimate recognition by the Palestinian Authority.  If it causes Israel institutional headaches, that marginally increases the political prospect of some kind of concessions, whether negotiated or unilateral.  Even incremental progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been almost unheard-of since Prime Minister Sharon went into a coma.  This minimal level of recognition from the UN General Assembly creates institutional ties that reinforce the concept of and capacity for Palestinian statehood; as I am convinced that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing Palestinian statehood, this is the 1st development that improves the prospect of a 2-state solution since Sharon undertook the unilateral withdrawal of West Bank and Gaza settlements.

I don’t think the distinctions I have made here are brilliant, profound, or novel.  I do think they are unusual, and require some measure of courage on one’s part to say all at once.  This is because the many unqualified supporters of either side have dumbed-down this debate, preferring to speak to the like-minded and invoke their respective cases of victimhood rather than seek help with their own moral blind spots.

I have not pretended to be an “objective” or “unbiased” observer of these events, whatever that means.  But I am trying to support the policies and the attendant sentiments which I consider most-humane.  I have often seen no choice on the part of the State of Israel but to use military force against Palestinian militants.  This has earned me consternation from friends who support the Palestinians.  On a day to day basis, or in an event such as this when the Palestinian Authority peacefully seeks further concessions or brings claims against the State of Israel which the latter finds embarrassing or damaging, I find myself referring to the same litany of abuse or neglect which advocates of the Palestinians claim.  This seems to puzzle or frustrate friends who support the State of Israel.  I only claim a preference for those policies and goals which I think most-humane.  The thing I like least is manifest violence; the thing I like next-least is oppression.  I also find invocation of historical grievances useless, especially after generations have passed and the principal victims and perpetrators are dead.  We should find it outrageous that there isn’t a serious discussion about the terrorism Hamas regularly perpetrates or attempts against Israel; we should find it outrageous that the Palestinians have had to live under military occupation for 45 years.

We should also find it outrageous that so little passion is contributed to holding both sides to account simultaneously.  I should have more to say about this, but I feel burdened with general points on which there should be agreement but which are usually just a signal of one’s politics.