Friday, July 30, 2010

What's Wrong with Velcro?

Poor President Obama.  He has to endure nonsense like the front page LA Times story this morning calling him the "velcro" president, as compared with Ronald Reagan, the "teflon" president.  The thesis of the article is that whatever problems occurred during the Reagan era never seemed to stick to the president, as those surrounding him were better able to absorb responsibility; whereas President Obama seems to attract the blame for everything people are unhappy about during his administration.  As the article states:
Reagan was able to glide past controversies with his popularity largely intact. He maintained his affable persona as a small-government advocate while seeming above the fray in his own administration.
One small problem that undermines this thesis, is that it buys into the enduring myth of Reagan's incredible popularity.  According to Gallup, however, at this exact point in Reagan's presidency, Reagan's approval rating was 42%.  Obama's is currently 45%.  Let me repeat that for the hard of hearing.  HELLO LA TIMES REPORTERS: OBAMA'S APPROVAL RATING IS THREE POINTS HIGHER THAN REAGAN'S!  So why aren't these reporters writing that it is Obama who is actually the teflon president, because he seems to be exceedingly popular despite the difficult times we are still facing, while Reagan is actually the president that people were blaming for whatever problems existed in 1982?  (By the way, I remember 1982, and the problems we had in 1982 were nothing compared to what we are dealing with today.)

There is a second fallacy in this kind of story.  It seems to suggest that having a president who smilingly stays above the fray, and in fact, doesn't seem to have a clue about what is going on all around him, is somehow . . . a good thing.  Whereas having a president who strictly adheres to Truman's "buck stops here" doctrine, and who stays on top of every situation is somehow seen as a problem.  Once again, hello?  Don't we want a president who takes responsibility and who knows what is going on?  Maybe President Obama should embrace the label of "velcro president," and maybe the American people should feel grateful that instead of a president with the "what, me worry?" look of his predecessor, we have an administration that is working hard to solve some very difficult problems.

(This is not an endorsement, just a photo acknowledgement, but you can actually buy these cute velcro patches here.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Saving Us from Ourselves

So often we see important political issues turned into legal issues, which sometimes relieves legislatures of the consequences of ill-considered actions.  Such seems to be the fate of Arizona's well-publicized immigration enforcement law, SB 1070, large portions of which were enjoined today by a federal judge.  This kind of resolution may be frustrating to both proponents and opponents of the law, but perhaps is the best way to defuse the controversy.  Proponents of the Arizona statute are sure to get outraged at the audacity of "liberal" judges to overturn the legislature's expression of the popular will, but are unlikely to work through the nuances of the court's application of the preemption doctrine.  An analysis of the court's decision shows that what the judge did was actually rather routine and straightforward.  Holding that this statute is likely to violate the preemption doctrine involves none of the creativity that the U.S. Supreme Court employed this year in for example, holding that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising, or holding that the Second Amendment is incorporated to apply to the states by the due process clause or the privileges and immunities clause.  (Both those times by the way the Federal Courts overturned carefully-considered statutes duly enacted by either Congress or local ordinance, but we didn't hear much protest by those on the right who rail against the power of judges to overturn the popular will.)  In this case, by contrast, the court merely applied the well-understood concept that immigration is a matter that must be left largely to federal enforcement.

Perhaps those who will express outrage at the court's decision will be secretly relieved that the court has prevented some of the potentially unpleasant consequences of this statute from occurring, both political consequences as well as local law enforcement consequences.   Because you have to wonder how much this controversy was really about resolving a problem like immigration, as opposed to scoring political points about a hot button issue.   Now everyone has had a chance to score their political points and draw attention to a real problem, without actually doing anything about it that they might later regret.

California went through a similar process with the enactment of Proposition 187 in 1994, which also allowed everyone to score political points on both sides of the immigration debate, while being saved by the federal courts from the most serious consequences of their actions.  We know what needs to be done to deal with the immigration problem, and that is to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.  Maybe we can now turn our attention to doing that.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Don't Look Back

In the famous documentary Don't Look Back, there is a scene in which Bob Dylan tries to demolish the pretensions of a Time magazine reporter.  The reporter, who wants to prove how smart and well-informed he is, learns from Dylan that he actually knows nothing, and that his magazine has no idea what the truth is.   There is another scene in which Bob Dylan meets a middle-aged English lady with her awkward teen-aged sons in tow, who makes no effort to be hip or smart, but simply gushes at how delighted she is to meet Bob Dylan, how wonderful she thinks he is, and how much she appreciates him being in town to give a concert.   In contrast to his eagerness to put down the Time Magazine reporter, Dylan is completely taken aback, and has no snappy retort for her.   

I have thought about these scenes in formulating the tone for this blog.  Though I am inclined by nature to be a cynical smart-aleck, I have tried to adopt a persona here that is closer to the gushing English lady than the wise guy reporter.  I treat the Obama administration in some ways like a client, even though it is not a client.  That means I consider it my job to present evidence and arguments helpful to my client's position.  I try not to be snarky (except that I can't help letting a satiric or even a slightly negative tone seep in sometimes when discussing the administration's opponents), because snarkiness just encourages more snarkiness, whereas  I think positive expressions of admiration can be more disarming, even to those who do not share your admiration.

It's very easy to criticize or second guess.  People don't even feel the need to know what they are talking about or to show they can implement a better idea, before they offer criticism. My goal here is to be supportive of the Obama administration, not because they are perfect, but because they already have to contend with more than enough criticism from all sides.  If I were to meet the president again (I shook his hand as a candidate but did not get a chance to talk to him), I don't think I would ask him when we are closing Guantanamo or why we couldn't get stricter financial regulations.  I would just tell him that I support him 100%.

I was explaining to someone this weekend at Netroots Nation that my blog acts as something of  a cheerleader for the Obama administration,  His response: "So you drank the Kool-Aid?"  I guess I must have.  I don't think everyone should bow down unquestioningly before Our Leader.  But I do think the administration could use a little more unqualified support, and that is what I personally try to provide.  There are scary forces on the right that take advantage of any and all signs of discontent.  I have no wish to empower those forces. 

I was pleased by the way to learn that the straw poll taken at Netroots Nation this weekend gave the president an 84% approval rating.  Considering that the Netroots show a high level of snarkiness, and have not shied away from criticizing the administration since it came to power, this level of support is reassuring. With mid-term elections coming up, this is a good time to remain positive and supportive.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Buying Elections

I have a device at home that can be used to insulate myself from all forms of advertising, political or commercial.  It is called the tv remote control.  Whenever the show I am watching stops for a commercial break, I switch to another channel that is not running commercials, then switch back after a few minutes.  Or I might keep watching the second show until it takes a commercial break.  The point is, I try to avoid watching commercials of any kind.  People with DVR's have even better tools to avoid watching commercials.  It's not that I'm not interested in hearing what political candidates have to say.  I just spent three solid days listening to speeches and discussions of political issues.  (That's my idea of a fun weekend in Las Vegas.)  It's just that I don't find advertising of any kind very informative or helpful.

 So whenever I hear worried talk about the ability of moneyed interests to "buy" elections, I am a bit resistant to that idea.  I can't be the only person who tries to stay out of reach of candidate ads, and I doubt that most people believe everything that advertisements throw at them.  They couldn't possibly believe it all, because the commercials for each side contradict the other side.  More likely, people like to see their views reinforced in ads for the candidates they favor, and they probably tune out the commercials for candidates on the other side.  People generally know that all commercials are biased at best, and outright misleading or fraudulent at worst.  They also know that commercials can't give you a full picture of a candidate's position or qualifications in 30 seconds.  I think it's also true that a lot of advertising only exists to cancel out the other guy's advertising, so at the end of the campaign voters are not much better informed than they are at the beginning.  So I like to think that no one can buy my vote.  All they can do is spend money to try to overcome my resistance to all forms of advertising.  Nevertheless, we know that commercials work, and that sheer quantity of advertising can overcome resistance and is helpful to maintain awareness among supporters.  Some of  it can even make valid points in a powerful way.

Given that effectiveness, it is legitimate to worry about whether a candidate like Meg Whitman, for example, has too much power because she has so much money to buy advertising for herself.  It is also legitimate to be concerned about the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which held that Congress may not regulate corporate spending on political advertising.  I heard an interesting panel discussion about this decision at the Netroots conference this weekend, describing Congressional efforts to "fix" some its worst aspects, as well as a potential campaign for a constitutional amendment overturning it.  I agree with the panelists that this decision is questionable enough that it should be corrected, even though we still don't know exactly how harmful its effects may turn out to be.

But overturning Citizens United would not end all of the problems of money in politics.  Even before that decision, individuals still have the ability to spend vast amounts of money on independent expressions of their opinions.  Corporations and individuals can also still contribute to candidates or parties directly.   And while I take issue with the Supreme Court's conception of a corporation as an association of individuals--in fact a corporation is a legal entity distinct from any individual--the Court is right that human beings do direct the activities of corporations. Corporations may be inhuman, but only humans can devise political messages. Given the questionable premises of Citizens United, however, a good case can be made for limiting its effects or overruling it by legislation or constitutional amendment. Then we still need to figure out a way of eliminating  the ill effects of all forms of money in politics.

Leaving Las Vegas

I remember working on a case many years ago that partially involved the jokes Al Franken and his partner Tom Davis told at a Grateful Dead concert at Radio City Music Hall.  (I represented the Grateful Dead, I'm proud to say.)  Franken still remembers those jokes too, since he made a Grateful Dead reference in his closing speech at Netroots Nation last night.  Who would have predicted his evolution into an amazingly knowledgeable and serious Senator?   Franken started by  reminding people of where the progressive movement stood only five years ago, and how far it has come since then.  He also reminded us that right wing activists are now in the same position the left was in then, and they are already organizing and working hard to re-take power.  Hopefully those kinds of reminders will help people on the left stay focused on who their real opponents are.  But Franken also gave progressives permission to keep pushing the Obama administration to the left.  By the way, it was funny that both he and Nancy Pelosi earlier in the day told the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt saying "make me do it," to a progressive leader, except that in Pelosi's version FDR said this to Frances Perkins, and in Franken's he said it to A. Philip Randolph.  Perhaps he said it to both.  Perhaps it is a myth.  No matter.  The story empowers people on the left to keep pushing their agenda, which I guess is ok as long as they keep the tone positive.  Franken did that.

Interestingly, the central part of Franken's speech was about the fight to maintain net neutrality, which he called the most important First Amendment issue of our time.  He believes that if this principle is not maintained, we will see even more consolidation in the communications industry, in the way that television and movie studios merged after de-regulation in that industry.  This time it would be the telephone companies merging with the TV-movie studios.  Such consolidation would consolidate power in the hands of a few media entities, and could slow down access to other voices (like mine-gulp!).  Harry Reid had also talked earlier in the day about the importance of democratizing media.  I guess I will have to stay informed about this issue, and keep blogging!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Harry's Problem, and Ours

Harry Reid started his speech today appreciating the historic nature of the power of new media, represented by the Netroots audience.  He also gave a good account of Congress's accomplishments this session, reeling off an impressive list of landmark legislation Congress has passed, in the face of what he rightly called the least cooperative opposition party in history.  Yet Harry Reid doesn't excite even this generally-friendly audience the way more fire-breathing speakers like Van Jones or Alan Grayson or Elizabeth Warren do.

Partly this is due to his quiet manner and halting delivery.  But I attended another panel right after Reid's speech that suggested other problems with Democrats getting their message across.  A group of campaign professionals explained that a laundry list of accomplishments, no matter how substantive and impressive, will not overcome people's feelings.  So if voters this fall feel that the economy has not recovered sufficiently, and they have not seen much impact on their own lives from Congress's impressive legislative session (and may even be worried that government has made these problems worse), their feelings are not going to be overridden by hearing somebody recite a laundry list. As I discussed in an earlier post, a fair number of people find this blog by looking for a list of Obama administration accomplishments, which means that a lot of people must think that lists can be persuasive.  Like the panelists, however, I doubt whether people who are unsympathetic to whatever cause the list is supposed to support are going to be persuaded by the recitation of a list.  Congressional leaders like Reid rightly take pride in their accomplishments.  But they are not going to be able to persuade many skeptics by reeling off a list.

To persuade people, you have to appeal to their emotions, as well as the logical parts of their brains.  That means incumbent candidates like Reid have to find a different way to get out the message about the value of the legislation they passed, such as by telling stories about how these changes have affected people's lives.  One effective moment, for this audience at least, came when Senator Reid at first refused to accept Lt. Dan Choi's West Point ring, then agreed to keep it until "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been repealed.  (video here)  That is the kind of story that moves people.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Keeping Hope Alive

Van Jones was a timely choice to give a keynote address at Netroots Nation, given the recent Shirley Sherrod episode. (video here)   Jones might be expected to be bitter in light of his own Sherrod-like experience, but instead seemed to have recovered well from what he described as six months of self-pity after he felt compelled to resign from his White House position.  He delivered a very positive message, and one quite sympathetic to a White House that has faced a barrage of attacks from the right since coming to office in 2009.    Jones reminded outsiders, like most of the bloggers attending this convention, that it is a lot easier to have the freedom to choose your battles, as opposed to having to respond to constant incoming missiles as the administration must do.  My hope is that this message might inspire the bloggers here, some of whom have tended to be a bit harsh toward the administration they helped elect, to be a little more kind and understanding.

As Jones reminded us, we should not have been surprised at the intensity of the backlash that has developed against th Obama administration.  We would have been naive to expect that as soon as a more progressive administration came to power, opposition would melt away.  He compared the ongoing struggle to the three part Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This is an epic saga we are in the middle of, and the Orcs are not fading quietly away.  Instead they are gathering their forces for counterattack.  In another nice analogy, he compared President Obama to the captain of the Titanic, whom we elected after the ship had already struck the iceberg, and who is attempting to steer the ship forward with a gaping hole in its side.

Jones also recalled that he was born in 1968, the year the dream was assassinated, and he only realized the momentousness of what occurred that year when a fellow student asked his kindergarten teacher about Bobby Kennedy and she immediately started crying.  I was 14 in 1968, and the events of that year had a profound impact on me as an impressionable teenager who was something of a political geek.  As Jones said, it took 40 years to pick up the pieces and resurrect the dream again.  We have to maintain hope and keep working for change, because we can't allow the dream to die again for another generation.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Live from Las Vegas!

Spending the weekend with 2000 or so political geeks at Netroots Nation makes me wonder if I am one of them.  I guess I must be, since I'm here, but I don't get quite as worked up by the fiery rhetoric of Ed Schultz as many of these people did tonight.  This crowd represents the committed progressive base, which works to elect "better" Democrats to Congress and state government.  I am not as keen on drumming moderate and conservative Democrats out of the party, and still hold onto the fading hope for a more post-partisan kind of politics, but at the same time I have to respect what these people have accomplished.  One of the panels I attended, that was more in tune with my interests,  discussed how to channel the anger of Tea Party dissidents.  One of the speakers, Mark Mellman, highlighted some  recent polling showing that both Tea Partiers and committed Democrats can be united in favor of policies to encourage American manufacturing.  Another member of this panel, Annabel Park, helped found the Coffee Party, which also seeks to find issues on which Americans of different views can find common ground or at least conduct a more civil dialogue.  Yet another speaker on this panel, Dave Johnson, gave some interesting examples of how to communicate with right wingers, and perhaps break through on some issues.

But Markos Moulitsas does not seem to take as much interest in opening a dialogue with conservatives as he does in defeating them.  He believes that the Tea Party may be crushed when they do not capture the Congress this fall as many of them are expecting.  Markos, whom I heard speak in person for the first time today, represents an interesting combination of a forward-thinking, new Democrat, and an old fashioned political warrior whose greatest joy is to purge the Democratic Party of its most notorious right wing elements.  I have to admit that the spirit of this group is infectious, and their activist zeal to promote progressive causes and candidates is impressive. In many situations, as with a group of climate change activists I also heard today, I cannot fault them for adopting a strategy of organizing protest actions when attempts to achieve necessary change within the system do not seem to be getting results.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Salute to Lindsey Graham

Below is a video of Senator Graham explaining why he is the sole Republican Senator on the Judiciary Committee to support the Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court.  If he can make Democratic Senators like Dick Durbin re-think the way he might approach Republican nominees in a future Republican administration, hasn't Lindsey Graham done more for his party, while at the same time doing more for the spirit of bi-partisanship, than the lockstep obstructionism shown by most of the Republican members of Congress?

Meanwhile, the State of West Virginia had to scramble to appoint a replacement for Senator Byrd, just so that the Senate could get the votes needed to overcome a filibuster against extending unemployment benefits.  It seems to me that if you want to oppose extending unemployment benefits, fine, an argument can be made for that.  But is that a matter of principle that justifies a filibuster?  We need more of the spirit of cooperation and respect that are shown here by Senator Graham, because that is the only way that Congress is going to be able to function effectively in the future, regardless of which party is in power or the extent of their majority.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What People Want

The Senate passed major financial reform legislation yesterday, but do the people care?  That was the way the story was portrayed by some of the media, which eschews any kind of triumphalist reporting of the administration's many triumphs, instead expressing the mounting dissatisfaction of the American people about just about everything.  It seems the administration just doesn't understand what the people want, otherwise they would easily be able to fix everything.

It's simple really.  Americans want to punish Wall Street, but we don't understand this financial reform bill.  So that makes people perfectly qualified to criticize the bill both because it doesn't go far enough to punish Wall Street, and also because it creates too much government interference with the private economy.  Just like Americans want the government to improve the economy, but we don't want to increase the deficit.  We want the government to reduce unemployment, but we don't want to spend money on any bills to create jobs.  Just like we want the government to make sure health care is available and affordable for everyone who needs it, but we don't want to be required to pay for health insurance until we get sick.  As far as foreign policy, the task is equally simple.  Americans want the world to be made perfectly safe for Americans, but we don't want to make any sacrifices to achieve that goal.  On the environment, the Administration's marching orders are also clear.  Americans want clean air and clean water, and we don't like big oil spills polluting our beaches, but we do not want to pay more for gasoline, and we don't like to be told to conserve energy.  In fact, gas prices should be lower, and Americans should be able to drive as much as we want.  Americans also want to eliminate crime, but we don't want to pay for more prisons.  We want to send our kids to the best schools, but we don't want to pay teachers more.  We want to make the government smaller, but we don't want to cut Social Security or Medicare or the military.  We hate the whole idea of raising taxes, but we also don't want to cut any government services that affect us.  Did I mention that we also don't like deficit spending?

All the President and the Congress have to do is give us what we want, and we'll stop complaining.  Is that so hard?

(photo from Washington Note)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Heat Wave

Climate change deniers are sure to be pointing out that this summer's record temperatures don't prove the theory of man-made global warming.  And I would agree with them.  A few days or weeks of record heat don't tell you much about long term trends.   The only trouble is that earlier this year when some parts of the world experienced severe winter conditions, the deniers were quick to point out that those snowstorms proved that global warming was not occurring.  So let's be consistent.  Maybe we can all agree that today's weather report is not as relevant as long term trends.  Those trend lines are kind of scary, however.

In addition to not hearing much lately about how today's forecast disproves global warming, you also don't hear too much about those East Anglia emails that supposedly disproved the science of climate change.  Now that five independent investigations have concluded that nothing in those emails casts any doubt on the fundamental scientific conclusions behind the theory of man-made climate change, you would think some of the loudest voices attacking those scientists would retract some of their more inflammatory statements.  Instead, media critics have noticed that the reports exonerating the scientists have gotten a whole lot less play than the original stories reporting on the "scandal," and supposedly responsible media outlets continue to play this story as if there were some controversy about the science.   By next winter, we'll have forgotten about the heat, and  the climate skeptics will again be reassuring us that we have nothing to worry about.

(For scientific proof refuting the theory of man-made climate change, go here.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More on Freeways to Parks

A couple of months ago I did a post on the movement to deck over urban freeways and cover them with parkland.  My opinion was that this movement was not imaginative enough.  Instead of simply covering the freeway with a park and allowing the traffic to pass underneath, I thought cities should give more consideration to simply removing some freeways entirely and replacing them with parks, streets, stores, apartments, schools and other useful amenities.  Today on Marketplace I heard a report about architects and urban planners proposing exactly that.  Imagine, for example, the beauty of the views that would be revealed if the FDR Drive and adjoining structures near the Brooklyn Bridge could be torn down and replaced by a park.

Such suggestions always run into the problem that people cannot imagine how we would all get around without the urban expressways we are accustomed to.  As the Marketplace report points out, however, every time a freeway gets torn down, people are always surprised to find out that the cars that used to take that freeway just somehow . . . disappear.  Very little of the expected congestion seems to materialize.  Traffic is dissipated to other roads, or people just find alternative modes of transportation.  Meanwhile, everyone else benefits tremendously from the peace, quiet and beauty that abound once the highway is removed.

The former mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, who is now a big proponent of removing urban freeways, and who tore down a freeway through downtown Milwaukee, is quoted in the report as saying that you don't hear many people complaining that "Milwaukee was a great place till that freeway got torn down."   I think the same could be said about a lot of urban highways.  If they were removed, people would wonder how we ever put up with them.

(Illustration by Terraform and Michael Sorkin Studios, from Marketplace website)

Post-Partisanship in Sports

Last night I was privileged to attend my first All-Star game, which was really fun, and the game was better than I expected, and I was happy to see the National League win for a change.  But I was surprised at the negativity displayed by some of the fans, when some of their team's rivals were introduced or came up to bat.  Since this was Angels Stadium, the loudest boos were reserved for their hated rivals the Yankees of course.   I understand that sports presents a great opportunity for national and local pride.  I think it's great that fans get excited about the performance of their national team in the World Cup.  I have no problems with feelings of local pride that bring fans out to cheer for their city's baseball or basketball team.  And maybe it's harmless good fun to hate your team's rivals, as when the Giants come to play in Dodger Stadium, or the Celtics play the Lakers.  That hate is the flip side of fans' devotion to their local team.

But this was the All-Star game!   Couldn't we put aside some of that hate for one night and just enjoy the performances of the game's best players from both leagues?   I understand cheering for your favorite players or teams.  I was cheering myself whenever one of the Dodger players came up or pitched.   But it didn't seem to me like the night to be making rude remarks about other teams or players.  So I wondered: Why are Angels fans booing when Derek Jeter comes up to bat, just because he plays for the Yankees?  He's a great player and tonight, he's on your team!  If he gets a hit, it actually helps the team on which your beloved Angels are playing.  Is it so hard for fans to put aside their hate for the Yankees and accept them as teammates for one night?  (I might add, especially on the day after George Steinbrenner has died.)  A little respect would not be out of place.  The players seem to enjoy the company of their rivals.  Why do many of the fans still need to behave like an angry mob?

As I said, I'm all for national and local pride, and enthusiasm in sports, politics and life.  I'm not trying to be a killjoy.  I just like to see all that enthusiasm channeled in a positive direction.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

No Room for Moderates

There is an interesting piece in today's New York Times assessing the position of Arnold Schwarzenegger near the end of his governorship.  The article points out how deeply unpopular Schwarzenegger has become, and compares him to other political independents who have found themselves without any friends in either party.  Schwarzenegger had the bad luck to serve during one of the state's worst budget crises.  Instead of being given credit for patching things up in a way that may enable the state to emerge from the crisis, he is blamed for the continued political breakdowns that make it nearly impossible for the state to get its fiscal house in order.  Despite the common perception of Schwarzenegger as a failure, however, the article points out that he will still leave a legacy of some notable reforms, including reforming the primary system and instituting non-partisan redistricting, as well as significant reforms in the prison system and workers' compensation. 

Political independents and moderates decide elections at the national level, and often at the level of governors' and Senate races as well.  But politicians representing the middle of the spectrum have difficulty getting elected (because of the primary system), and rarely emerge as successful once they are in office (because they have few supporters from either party).  Schwarzenegger is a good example of a politician who was supremely popular as a candidate, but probably would never have gotten nominated for the first time in a Republican primary, and whose shifting allegiances during his governorship make him distrusted by both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.   Other politicians who have tried to follow this path include Jesse Ventura, Joe Lieberman, Lowell Weicker, Michael Bloomberg, and John McCain.   All found success as independents or moderates, but all found that when the going gets tough, they have few allies.

Barack Obama has also faced these difficulties to some extent, promising to govern in a post-partisan manner, but then angering Republicans as well as his Democratic supporters when he tried in office to steer what he thought was a middle course.  Republicans still denounce him as a socialist, while the left wing of the Democratic Party believes he compromised too much to satisfy the financial industry, the militarists and the health insurance industry.   I think Obama understands, however, that he needs to keep his feet planted firmly within the Democratic Party, while continuing to try to govern as a consensus-builder.  That is why we will see him making frequent campaign appearances at partisan rallies this fall, while approaching Congress even more pragmatically with the looming prospect of a smaller Democratic majority in Congress. 

(New York Times illustration)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Guns and the Constitution

The Supreme Court last week issued the long-awaited opinion in McDonald v. City of Chicago, holding that the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms (held only two years ago to imply an individual right to own handguns, but only applicable against the federal government) also applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  That means that henceforth every state's and municipality's gun restrictions are subject to constitutional review in federal court, and that no state or city can simply ban guns outright.

I understand how a lot of people believe that gun ownership is a fundamental aspect of their view of personal liberty.  Personally, I don't feel the need to own a gun to celebrate my freedom, but I understand that others do feel that way.  And I think it might be possible to reconcile at least to some extent, the interests of both advocates of gun owners' rights and advocates of gun control by recognizing gun owners' rights while at the same time imposing strict rules on registration and training for gun owners.  The right to travel is also fundamental, but we accept pretty strict controls on car registration and drivers' licenses.  Where to draw the line with respect to gun owners' rights will now be the subject of continuing controversy in the courts.

I have commented before that we seem to read the Bill of Rights in a different way depending on the issue.  Conservatives claim to be strict constructionists of the Constitution, except when it comes to certain issues like guns, when they suddenly become liberals.  At the same time, liberals like to read the Bill of Rights broadly to protect the right to an abortion or other aspects of personal liberty that are not specifically mentioned in the text, but become strict adherents to the Constitutional text when it comes to gun control.  It would be nice if Justice Scalia admitted that he is not such a strict constructionist when he has to decide cases involving guns or election recounts, or if Justice Breyer acknowledged that he is not such a liberal when it comes to protecting the rights of gun owners, but that never seems to happen. 

It has been pointed out that the Supreme Court opinion presents what is called a voting anomaly.  While agreeing 5-4 on the result, the Court could not produce a majority for any rationale for its decision.  Only four justices held that the right to own guns is guaranteed by the due process clause, and only one justice believes that the right is guaranteed by the privileges and immunities clause.  This problem may be of interest only to legal scholars, but should also be troubling to everyone, because the lack of a coherent legal rationale for the decision suggests that it has been reached in a lawless and result-oriented manner.  That raises another troubling aspect of this decision.  As mentioned above, I don't have a big problem with viewing the right to self-defense as an aspect of personal liberty.  What makes me nervous, however, is the elevation of the Second Amendment beyond the freedom to own a gun to protect one's own family from intruders, to some kind of political ideology that ties gun ownership to the right of citizens to arm themselves against their own government.  This kind of talk, which you sometimes hear of at tea party rallies, and NRA literature, seems dangerous and anti-democratic to me, as I have recently commented.  If the Supreme Court is cutting corners, and being disingenuous and incoherent in the rationale for its decision, that makes me worry about the extent to which the Supreme Court is adopting a lawless and even anti-Constitutional basis for its interpretation of the Constitution, one that encourages factions to seize power in anti-democratic ways or resort to violence to accomplish political goals.  I try not to be paranoid about those tendencies, which have cropped up from time to time in our history, but I think it is a good idea to keep exposing the illegitimacy of violent insurrection in a Constitutional republic.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Prospects for Immigration Reform

Is it possible to have a rational debate on immigration?  It is such a highly charged topic that people can't seem to help dividing into pro and con camps and shouting their talking points at each other.  Politicians who try to propose solutions to this problem seem to have their efforts judged solely on political points scored (or lost).  This happened to President Bush, who had some fairly reasonable suggestions on dealing with immigration, but saw his efforts go nowhere in Congress because not enough of his own party supported them, and the other party did not trust him.  President Obama seems likely to run into some of the same problems.  The President launched an effort to reform the immigration system through a  speech at American University this past Thursday.  The media has largely responded by analyzing the president's initiative almost wholly in political terms. (example: this article in the New York Times, which gives immigration reform almost no chance of passing Congress this year, and therefore assumes the entire effort is meant to score political points)

Granted, this is a touchy subject to raise in a midterm election year, and obviously there are political costs as well as benefits to raising it, and most likely the prospects of passing a bill this year are rather slim.  Nevertheless, instead of assuming that the whole effort is a show, why not instead look at it as placing on the agenda an issue that nearly everyone agrees is important, and that the president promised during the 2008 campaign to try and solve.

Like some other hot button issues--e.g., abortion, gun control, gay rights--the problem with the immigration debate is that both sides are right.  Because both sides can advance strong moral, legal, or economic grounds for their positions, no one can win the debate.  If you can't win an argument, you need to approach the solution to the problem in a different way.  It would probably help if those who advocate more "liberal" solutions would acknowledge that illegal immigration makes a mockery of the system, and rewards people who crash the gate over people who play by the rules.  On the other hand, it would also help if those who advocate stricter enforcement would acknowledge that illegal immigration is a fact; we can never seal our borders completely; and we need to deal in a constructive way with the 12 million or so people who are present here without proper documentation, and who for the most part are productive members of society.  They came here to seek a better life for themselves, and they came illegally, for the most part, because we were not offering them a way to immigrate legally.  Illegal immigration undoubtedly carries economic costs, but it also produces benefits.  Again, we probably won't get very far by arguing whether the costs outweigh the benefits, but it would probably help to acknowledge both the costs and the benefits.  Only by addressing the legitimate concerns on both sides of this debate will we be able to produce a better system.  The prospects for that kind of debate do not appear favorable however. 

(Doug Mills/New York Times photo)