Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Not a Single Republican

The House passed the $800 billion stimulus bill today 244-188. Not one Republican voted for the bill. So despite heroic efforts by our new president to reach out to Republicans in Congress, including eliminating provisions offensive to Republicans and adding a higher proportion of tax cuts than Democrats wanted, not one Republican would in the end support the bill. I heard a lot of criticism of the bill from Republicans around the margins, but hardly any to the basic concept of a massive stimulus bill that consists of a combination of tax cuts, aid to state governments, and infrastructure spending.

What kind of message are the Republicans trying to send? Are they telling the Democrats not to bother with any efforts of bi-partisanship, because despite such efforts, none of them will support the end result? Are they trying to tell the American people to blame the Democrats if anything goes wrong, because they have chosen not to play a constructive role in the government? Would they prefer that the legislation passed by Congress not contain any Republican input, since the Democrats don't need Republican votes to pass legislation, and the Republicans are not going to support anything the Democrats propose even if Democrats attempt to accommodate their views? As the New York Times points out, the House Republicans' actions today are reminiscent of their similar failure to support Bill Clinton's economic package when he first came to office. Then too, the president offered a balanced package of economic reforms. But because it contained tax increases, the Republicans en masse would not support it. Instead they issued dire warnings about how Clinton's bill would send the economy into a tailspin. Even though they were completely wrong in those predictions, the Republicans' negativity nevertheless led them to short term political gains, if not to any significant policy successes. The Republicans in the House appear to be following the same playbook today. Should the president continue to try to include them, or should he give in to their apparent wishes, and treat them as irrelevant to the process?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Are the People Ahead of the Politicians?

According to recent polling data, a large majority of Americans support substantial infrastructure spending even if taxes must be raised slightly to pay for it. The debate on the stimulus bill shows the politicians moving in the other direction, however. Republicans oppose most proposals for such spending, pushing instead for greater emphasis on tax cuts, even though tax cuts seem to produce less economic stimulus than increased government spending. Republicans also complain about the increase in the deficit that will be caused by the stimulus bill. (It seems a little late for those kinds of complaints now, considering that the last Republican administration added about $4 trillion to the national debt while neglecting to modernize this country's transportation and energy systems.)

Democrats, on the other hand, want to direct a larger part of the stimulus bill to bailing out state governments, to health care and similar social welfare spending, and a relatively small amount to fixing roads and bridges and such.

So while Republicans protect their ideological positions in the face of massive evidence that their answers are not working, and Democrats want to save their state compatriots from having to raise taxes, while they increase social welfare spending, the people seem to understand and support the type of infrastructure spending that will not only help the economy in the short run, but will also pay us dividends in the future. People are suspicious of bailouts, and government spending in general, but they recognize and support the need to pay for capital improvements. People do not seem to be clamoring for tax cuts.

This seems to be a case where the politicians in both parties would do well to listen to their constituents.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to Build a Movement for Change

On his first full day in office, President Obama pledged unprecedented openness and instituted sweeping ethics reforms. On his second full day, he ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, and adherence to the Army Field Manual for interrogations. Then he appointed one of the world's most respected mediators, George Mitchell, to get to work immediately on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Anyone who thought based on Obama's appointments that he was going to be too conservative or cautious should be very encouraged by these bold moves. The method, as Obama stressed throughout the campaign, has been to build as much support for change as possible, across as wide a part of the political spectrum as possible. That means that you first build a huge well-funded grassroots organization, then when you get elected you convince Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton and a whole lot of other respectable people to join your team, you flatter your opponents such as by holding a dinner honoring John McCain. Then you can marginalize the Rush Limbaughs and whomever else is left to attack you. With favorability ratings of 80%, with appointments generally sailing through Congress, and Republicans afraid to criticize him, Obama suddenly makes it look easy to get things done. I can't resist comparing these first few days to the start of Bill Clinton's presidency, which almost immediately got derailed, through both bad luck and blunders, into unproductive controversies over appointments that were seen as too radical (remember Lani Guinier?), gays in the military, and Waco. Barack Obama has clearly learned from this counter-example.

So far it looks as though Obama's hard-earned method of building consensus is working well in the foreign policy area. On the economic front, the picture is a bit uglier, with partisan battles already starting to form in the House especially, but the consensus for a giant stimulus bill is already there. We should all be proud of the direction in which the new administration is moving, and the inclusive way in which decisions are being made.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

George Washington

For those of us who were roused by Barack Obama's many inspirational campaign speeches, the Inaugural Address was something of a downer. We don't usually enjoy receiving a lecture about how tough times are and how we need to shape up. But we can still be cheered by the promise that the new administration represents a clean break with the past. President Obama unequivocally renounced the idea that government should step back and let the markets take care of themselves. He also clearly renounced the idea that we must sacrifice or bend our principles in fighting the so-called war on terror. These promises of a new beginning give reason for hope.

Everyone was expecting references to Abraham Lincoln, and of course there are historical parallels to Kennedy and to Roosevelt, but Obama probably surprised a lot of people by invoking George Washington. The parts of his inauguration speech that announced the clearest breaks with the prior administration are those that said that no matter how serious the challenges, this country should not let go of its ideals. George Washington's actions may represent the best example from our history of this principle. When General Washington's army was forced to retreat from New York, the whole Revolution looked like it would soon come to an inglorious end. Yet Washington managed to lead his ragtag army on the attack against the British several times in the midst of a bitter cold winter, by crossing the Delaware, by defending Trenton, and by marching overnight to Princeton to surprise the unguarded British outpost. In the course of that struggle, Washington made clear that contrary to the British practice, the American army would treat its prisoners humanely. (I recommend Washington's Crossing, by David Fischer, for anyone who wants to read more about this episode. Fischer also offers Washington's example as a direct rebuke to the shameful practices of the Bush administration.)

Paying tribute to George Washington also reminds us that Washington led a revolutionary movement to establish a radically new form of government, and that he helped make sure there would be no more kings in America, and that Washington as President would not be treated like a king. Obama's campaign also stood for putting the people in charge of the government.

It is also worth noting that the quotation that Washington ordered read to the troops was from Tom Paine. So while referencing the safe figure of Washington, Obama subtly slipped in an unattributed quotation from the most radical of the founders.

There is a lot of talk now about post-partisanship, and about responsibility. These were important themes of the inaugural address. But the address ended with a story about the father of our country, signaling a new beginning, and a sharp break from the past. Washington's example serves as a reminder that this country has faced difficult times before, and has emerged triumphant by adhering to its founding principles, not abandoning them.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What was so hard about that question?

Eric Holder testified that waterboarding is torture.

As my kids would say, duh.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


In addition to restoring the credibility of the Department of Justice, much work needs to be done to restore the integrity of our intelligence agencies. The president-elect has been under pressure, and rightly so, to appoint a director of the CIA who is not tainted by the CIA's complicity in unlawful interrogation techniques and other questionable practices during the Bush administration. He surprised many people by choosing Leon Panetta, who has virtually no background in the area.

This appointment immediately came under fire from Senator Feinstein. Perhaps she was just miffed that she was not consulted beforehand, and Joe Biden apparently took care to patch things over in that regard as best he could. But is there any validity to her contention that the director of the CIA should presumptively be someone with background and experience in the agency? Why does she think that is so important? Many other agency heads are brought in from outside the agency that they are called upon to lead. With respect to the CIA, this seems an especially good time to bring in someone from the outside to re-think the agency's role. Could it be that Senator Feinstein and other members of the intelligence sub-committee simply think that they would find it easier to get along with someone who is comfortable with the old ways of doing things, with which they are themselves complicit?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tax cuts

Is Barack Obama pandering to the Republicans by including such a large proportion of tax cuts in his stimulus bill? Most economists who have studied the issue will tell you that tax cuts are not necessarily the most efficient way to stimulate the economy, but Republicans always support tax cuts, almost as an ideological reflex. It is almost a mantra for Republicans to say that people spend their money more wisely than the government does, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary. It is such a self-evident proposition that they never need to prove it. And of course tax cuts are always politically popular. Almost everyone believes that they would rather decide how to spend some money than someone else.

Obama's people should and probably do know better. Their preference is for infrastructure spending that will immediately put people to work, and will give us some useful projects to show for the deficit spending they plan. But they are including a substantial amount of tax cuts as well, in part to fulfill a campaign promise, and in part to get bi-partisan support for the stimulus bill. Could it be also that Obama wants to take the tax-cutting issue away from the Republicans, in the way that Clinton took the crime issue and the welfare issue away from the Republicans? If so, that could be a brilliant move. What will the Republicans have left, besides accusing the Democrats of being soft on terrorists, or pro-gay marriage?

I also hope that Obama couples the tax cuts he is proposing with a message about the shared sacrifice that is going to be necessary to pull the country out of recession. Perhaps coupling the payroll tax cuts he is proposing with a graduated gas tax hike would send the message that not only are we going to spend our way out of our problems, we are also going to modify our wasteful energy habits to help put the country on a better financial and environmental footing.