Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who's being a dick?

The trivial part of today's story, which of course is the part that is getting all the attention, is the following: In describing President Obama's news conference yesterday, Mark Halperin called the president an inappropriate name on TV; they forgot to bleep it out; he apologized; and now he is suspended.

That is not the really outrageous part of the story however. The outrageous part of the story, as others such as Steve Benen have noted, was the substance of the commentary itself. Even if Halperin had used a more polite term, why on earth would he be singling out the president for criticism merely because the president called out the Republicans for engaging in completely unfair negotiating tactics? 

According to Halperin, if the president criticizes the Republican leadership for refusing to consider tax increases as part of a budget deal, and for playing a dangerous game of brinksmanship with the credit of the United States of America, he's being kind of a dick.

But if John Boehner says that tax increases must be off the table in any budget negotiations, he's not being a dick?

If Eric Cantor walks out of the budget negotiations because somebody dared to use the word "taxes," he's not being a dick?

If Mitch McConnell says we can't throw any additional tax revenue into the mix, he's not being a dick?

If House Republicans threaten to refuse to increase the debt limit, thereby triggering the first US default in history, a spike in interest rates, and possibly global recession, they're not being dicks?

I'm trying to imagine what would have happened if the Democrats in Congress during the last couple years of the Bush administration had refused en masse to vote to raise the debt ceiling (the debt ceiling was raised seven times during the Bush administration), unless the administration agreed to accept the Democratic position on some issue--taxes, spending, Iraq, whatever. And I'm not supposing that the Democrats were advocating for a compromise. What if the Democrats had said it has to be their way or the highway? That there was no way that they would accept even a tiny bit of the other side's ideas. Now suppose that President Bush had responded that he thought the Democrats were being a tad unreasonable by demanding that the Republican-controlled Senate, and the administration, must accept entirely the position of the Democratic-controlled House. Or suppose President Bush had responded that the Democrats should not be playing politics with the credit of the United States of America. Is there any chance in the world that anyone in the mainstream media would have said it was the PRESIDENT who was kind of a dick?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cheers to Judge Jeffrey Sutton!

In my continuing series of salutes to Republicans with integrity, here is a shout out to Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which today became the first Circuit Court to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Judge Sutton, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, is known for being a strong advocate of states' rights in a number of cases before the Supreme Court, and also for being a well-respected conservative legal scholar.

Judge Sutton joined in the court's 2-1 opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, and authored a concurring opinion explaining why the federal government has the power under the Constitution's Commerce Clause to penalize individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance under the law's mandate. Here's just one excerpt from his well-written opinion:
"The basic policy idea, for better or worse (and courts must assume better), is to compel individuals with the requisite income to pay now rather than later for health care. Faced with $43 billion in uncompensated care, Congress reasonably could require all covered individuals to pay for health care now so that money would be available later to pay for all care as the need arises. Call this mandate what you will—an affront to individual autonomy or an imperative of national health care—it meets the requirement of regulating activities that substantially affect interstate commerce."
The media so far has seemed to pay more attention to the couple of district court opinions holding the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional than to the majority that have upheld it. Opponents of health insurance reform will no doubt continue to argue loudly for its repeal or for overturning it in the courts. But today's decision shows that the opponents are losing the argument. And that is due to judges like Jeffrey Sutton who are more concerned with principled resolution of important constitutional issues than they are with politics.

(Previous recipients: Rand PaulJan Brewer, Kit Bond, Lindsey Graham)

UPDATE (6/30/11): See this Steve Benen column documenting the discrepancy in coverage of court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the Act vs. coverage of decisions finding it unconstitutional.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Negotiating with terrorists

"Terrorists" is probably too strong a word for the subject of this post, but what else do you call people who threaten to do something incredibly destructive if they do not get their way? I'm talking about the Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell who are taking advantage of the fact that the government is at the limit of its borrowing capacity as a lever to try to get their way in ongoing budget negotiations. These leaders know that allowing the United States to default on its obligations would not only raise interest rates, which would cost all of us many billions of dollars, but would send such shock waves around the world that we would potentially cause another credit crisis and a severe global economic downturn. They know that this is a trigger they must never pull, yet they continue to link their agreement to extend the government's borrowing authority to concessions they are demanding in budget talks--in particular Republicans are trying to link Democrats to their plans to take Medicare apart, and are refusing to consider revenue increases as part of any deal.

How do you bargain with people who appear ready to engage in mutual assured destruction? This is an issue negotiators confront frequently, whenever one side seems eager to allow a strike or a war or a lawsuit to go forward when a more rational calculation of both parties' self-interest would counsel in favor of making a deal. Democrats will need to use all available techniques to avert default and make the best deal possible.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why Conservatives Should Support Gay Marriage

Let's start by recognizing that the definition and regulation of marriage, including the enforcement of all the legal rights and obligations that marriage entails, has always been primarily a matter of state law. That means that those who argue for an expanded scope for state's rights, and who decry the growth of the federal government, should fully support the process that is leading one state after another to conclude that the rights and obligations of marriage should be extended to same-sex couples. This is federalism at work. It might be slow; it might be inefficient; but it is a process that allows states to experiment with change, and to the extent that change is gradually embraced by the entire country, allows people gradually to come to terms with new ideas. It is also a democratic process, even in states in which the courts have ruled in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, because the courts are also subject to the political process. (see Iowa)

In Arkansas or Mississippi or Texas, it might take decades, if ever, for people to accept the idea of gay marriage. But why should anyone stand in the way of New York, especially since it accomplished this result through the legislative process and not through the courts? To oppose the popular will in any state in favor of a traditional moral code seems futile. A more difficult question arises when a couple that is married in New York (or Massachusetts or Iowa or a couple of other states) decides to move to Mississippi or Arkansas or Texas, where gay marriage might be frowned upon. We might compare that situation to the days when a number of states banned miscegenation, but were asked to recognize the marriages of mixed race couples who had moved from other states where such marriages were allowed. In those situations, the legal and constitutional arguments that would require recognition of such marriages seem overwhelming.

The thing that might push change even faster, and could be of some concern to conservatives, and even to gay marriage proponents who are worried about public acceptance of equal rights, would be federal courts' recognition of marriage equality under the 14th Amendment, which would force all states to change their laws. Then we might have a situation similar to when the Brown decision was announced in 1954, or when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, or when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. When the federal courts or Congress enforce civil rights, that does not necessarily end the debate. In the case of abortion, the debate is still going on almost 40 years later.  To the extent that acceptance of gay marriage may be inevitable, and the likelihood of finding gay marriage to be a protected constitutional right becoming stronger, conservatives should be pleased to see it happen in a state-by-state, gradual way.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Grown-ups wanted

Eric Cantor quit the budget talks today. Evidently, he could not get the Democrats who are participating in bi-partisan talks over raising the debt ceiling to play by his rules. "Bi-partisan talks are fine," I imagine Cantor thinking, "just as long as the Democrats give in to our demands. When they start bringing up their own ideas, I see no reason to participate." And just what ideas have the the Democrats brought up that are so awful they would drive Eric Cantor away from the bargaining table? Cantor explains: "As it stands, the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases, and I don’t believe now is the time to raise taxes in light of our current economic situation." [That response, by the way, is an actual quote from Cantor, according to the New York Times article linked at the beginning of this post. The rest of this interview is made up.]  Well, then, I want to ask, in light of our current economic situation, why is now such a good time to cut spending? Wouldn't that hurt the economic recovery just as much?

"You just don't get it," Cantor might say, "when you cut taxes you are hurting the people who create the jobs (and contribute to my campaign). We Republicans just want to create more jobs." I want to respond: So what about all the people you might be hurting by cutting spending? And how does it create more jobs to start firing lots of park rangers and court clerks and IRS agents and prison guards and thousands of  other federal employees?  It sure seems like we would be losing jobs if we did that. The people who got all the tax breaks you wanted would have to hire back all those government employees just to keep unemployment where it is now. And I haven't exactly been seeing them use all their savings to hire all the unemployed who are already out there.

"When I said jobs," Cantor explains, "I was mainly talking about MY job. If I admit that we might need to raise revenue in order to balance the budget, I might just be out of a job. And what I really want is John Boehner's job. So I have to drop out of the talks and force Boehner to talk to all those mean Democrats." So is that why you are demanding that President Obama get involved in talks with Speaker Boehner again? "That's right," says Cantor, "it's just unfair to expect me to make an agreement with people who won't play according to my rules. We need the President to get involved, so I can blame him for whatever happens, and let Boehner take some of the heat as well." But, I point out, John Boehner said the same thing you did about taxes. Boehner said: "These conversations could continue if they take the tax hikes out of the conversation." [another actual quote according to the Huffington Post]

Cantor goes on: "I heard Boehner said that, and I appreciate his support. But I figure when he gets back in the room with the President, he'll make a deal, and then both of them will get the blame, and I don't have to take responsibility."  Everybody can see right through you, I'd like to tell Representative Cantor. They understand exactly what your game is. "I don't care," Cantor would probably reply. "If I can't get my way, I'm just taking my ball and bat and going home."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tide of War

Politically, the tone and the content of this speech seemed just about right. Immediately afterwards, those who advocate faster withdrawal from Afghanistan complained that the President's plan will not withdraw the troops fast enough. Those with a more hawkish view complained that it might be dangerous to ignore the advice of some generals, and not give them all the troops they want. Perhaps that means everyone will be unhappy with the President's approach. I think it more likely that those who want to leave quickly will at least be satisfied with the general direction, even if they are frustrated with the slow pace of withdrawal. Those who want to stay and fight will at least be satisfied that we are not leaving recklessly or precipitously, even if they are worried we don't have sufficient manpower. And those who are not sure what we should be doing--which if we were honest, should be most of us--should be reassured that we are choosing a middle course. People should also feel reassured that since the President announced what we were doing in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, he has proceeded pretty much according to that plan. In other words, in conducting foreign military operations, it's important politically that we not run into any unpleasant surprises. I have watched a number of presidents from LBJ to GBW, have to tell the people that military operations will take longer or cost more than expected. And it's never a good thing for them or us when they have to do that. Since Barack Obama took office, on the other hand, we have not encountered any serious military setbacks in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or elsewhere. If you can put aside the noisy critics on both left and right, that fact should be tremendously reassuring to the vast majority of people.

President Obama used this theme of taking the middle course at another point in the speech where he contrasted his whole approach to foreign affairs with those who, on the one hand, want to isolate the United States from the world, and on the other hand, those who want to be the world's policeman. This approach probably appeals to an even broader swath of public opinion, since there probably aren't all that many of us who believe that the most powerful nation in the world can completely retreat into its own shell, and there also probably aren't that many who want to send in the troops to deal with every trouble spot in the world. Most everyone else understands that we have to choose our battles carefully.

As for Afghanistan itself, it seems clear we are going to have a presence there for a long time. And that's probably a good thing, if for no other reason that we need a good vantage point to keep an eye on many troubling developments in Pakistan. In the 1980's, we set up camp in Pakistan to assist the future Taliban in fighting the Soviet Union. Now we have set up what looks like a permanent camp in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban out of power there, and to try to prevent Pakistan from drifting further toward fundamentalism. Most people should understand that we can't just walk away--we did that once before and it did not work out well for us. And we also can't escalate too much--at some point the presence of a foreign occupying force becomes counter-productive. Therefore, it's hard to see a realistic alternative to a middle course.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Re-energizing the left

My head is still spinning a bit after listening to three solid days worth of speeches and panels at Netroots Nation, but some things have become clearer. Activists on the left are less focused on President Obama and his agenda, and have moved on to more fundamental issues. What I heard over and over again this weekend were references to the battles of Wisconsin and other states to beat back the Republican assault on public employees' right to collective bargaining; the battles on a national level over the Republican plan to modify Medicare; and the corruption of politics on all levels by corporate money. Obviously, it was the mid-term election of 2010 that brought all these issues to the fore, and the Republican resurgence in 2010 has galvanized a powerful counter-backlash centered around these issues.

Nothing could represent a more frontal assault on cherished Democratic values than the Republican attacks on collective bargaining rights and Medicare. When the Republicans came after these most basic cornerstones of the Democratic program, they should have expected a major fight. And they are getting one. So in a sense we have moved backwards, from thinking about the new politics of working together to devise consensus solutions for the common good represented by the Obama administration, to good old fashioned knock-down, drag out fights to preserve the most important achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society many years ago.

Meanwhile Barack Obama is still trying to work the new politics by playing golf with John Boehner. I applaud this effort to establish a better working relationship with adversaries with whom the Democrats must deal in order to move forward on the budget and other issues. But the image of these two powerful men playing golf together probably rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and President Obama's tactics seem somewhat irrelevant to the plans of the Democrats I was spending the weekend with here in Minneapolis. They are busy plotting a return to the old bare-knuckled tactics that may be necessary just to preserve the gains Democrats previously made. I see no reason why the new politics cannot coexist with the old. Sometimes you need to make war and make peace at the same time, and that is what may be  happening now.

(Video: Rep. Keith Ellison closing speech)


The left has a long history of infighting. Some of this negativity is on display at Netroots Nation, as illustrated by my previous post. That makes me feel somewhat ambivalent about being here, as I don't feel much in common with the Obama bashers on the left.

But today Van Jones brought everyone to their feet with a rousing speech about the need to unify the left around a common vision. Although the left managed briefly to unify during the 2008 campaign under a common banner, or what Jones, trying to stay current with tech-speak, called a meta-brand, namely the Obama campaign, that coalition has splintered to some extent. Meanwhile, the right has managed to unify a number of interest groups under the banner of the Tea Party. Ironically, the right preaches an individualist philosophy, but uses a collectivist strategy to promote it. The left, on the other hand, which preaches a more collectivist philosophy, breaks down into individualistic strategies to promote it. The other noteworthy thing about the Tea Party, Jones noted, is that it does not exist, in the sense that it has no headquarters, and does not require any particular leader to survive. Instead it is simply a banner under which many organizations unite.

When we are talking about broad themes such as reducing inequality or providing opportunities for all, there is no disunity. Jones's proposed solution is to create a new banner for the left, which he calls the American Dream Movement. Whether this organization goes anywhere I can't predict. Whether it is a good idea to unify around an idea instead of around the re-election of President Obama I'll reserve judgment on. But as for the idea of reducing infighting, and trying to rally around a positive message, I support that 100%.

Watch live streaming video from freespeechtv at

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dan Pfeiffer Grilled at Netroots

Herewith a summary of the interview this morning by Kaili Joy Gray of White House Communications Director Daniel Pfeiffer. I was there, so I can vouch for its accuracy. The actual interview appears below. (Amanda Terkel's version is here.)

Q: Why doesn't the president put forward a jobs bill?

A: The president has put forward a number of initiatives for creating jobs.

Q: Yes, but why aren't you calling that a jobs bill?

A: I guess you don't have an obligation to explain what you mean by a jobs bill, and you don't have to worry about how to get it passed through Congress.

Q: Well, why should we help Obama get re-elected if he can't get a jobs bill passed?

A: I guess you prefer the Republican jobs bill.

Q: Don't you think there is a war on women?

A: The president has not used that phrase. But he has actually accomplished a lot for women's rights.

Q: Oh we're so tired of hearing about everything the president has accomplished. But don't you think there is a war on women?

A: I guess it is important to you that everyone uses your phraseology.

Q: So why hasn't President Obama closed Guantanamo like he promised?

A: Because Congress passed a law that prevents us from doing that. Were you absent from fourth grade civics class the day they explained how Congress works?

Q: Excuses, excuses. If we can't get everything we want even when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, then don't you think we might as well stay home and let the Republicans run everything all the time?

A: You're right. We still can't get everything we want done even when we have a majority. That's the way it works in a democracy. But if you think you'll have more success when the Republicans have a majority of Congress and a Republican president, then by all means you should stay home and not support the president's re-election.

Q: I still can't get over that the White House went along with extending the Bush tax cuts.

A: Do I have to explain that thing about how a bill becomes a law again? We didn't have the votes to extend only the tax cuts for the middle class. Get over it.

Q: Well what about gay marriage? How can we possibly support the president if he won't come out for gay marriage?

A: This president has done more to advance the cause of gay rights than any president in history.

Q: Why should gays support the president for re-election just because he has done more than any president in history to advance the cause of gay rights?

A: If they would prefer that the Republicans take back the White House and re-institute don't ask, don't tell, and repeal everything else we've done, then by all means they should vote Republican.

Q: What are you going to tell the President about this interview when you get back to the White House?

A: I'm going to tell him that I should get a raise for having to put up with this kind of stuff from people who are supposed to be on the same side.

Watch live streaming video from freespeechtv at

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blogging Netroots

Netroots Nation is where progressives go to re-charge their batteries to prepare for upcoming political work in their communities, said Raven Brooks, one of the organizers. That seems to be the case for this gathering in Minneapolis, where there is a lot of energy. One of the odd things about the conference is that it is shadowed by a similar conference of right wing bloggers, which takes place at the same time in the same city. We gather to listen to liberal heroes like Russ Feingold, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Al Franken, and Howard Dean. They have Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Andrew Breitbart.

Of course suspicion and rivalry exists between the two events, but also some interaction. Because I'm all for dialogue between right and left, I was interested to go to a cocktail party at which attendees from both conferences were invited. I met some journalists covering both conferences, as well as a few right wing bloggers. Unfortunately, there were not as many righties as lefties at this party, I think mainly because the Right Online event doesn't really get going until tomorrow, whereas Netroots was in full swing this morning. But I can report that no fights broke out that I could see, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

I also heard some interesting discussion of the Citizens United case today, both at a panel where a lot of people were urging a campaign for a constitutional amendment to repeal it. One panelist, John Nichols, suggested that such a campaign has political value even if it takes many years to succeed, or never succeeds, just as the campaign to overrule Roe v. Wade has political value for those who advocate a right to life. In Russ Feingold's keynote speech, which was mainly about campaign finance reform, the former senator also talked about how all the efforts to limit the corruption of money in politics are now threatened by corporations taking advantage of Citizens United. Feingold was more optimistic that this decision could actually get overruled if President Obama gets the chance to make another Supreme Court appointment, replacing one of the five conservative judges. If anybody needs another reason to re-elect the president, that one is as good as any.

I also want to mention another interesting panel I attended about how to talk about the economy. Generally I am skeptical of talk that one faction or the other's political problems are the result of their inadequate framing of the issues, but this panel raised some good points, backed up by linguistic research conducted by Anat Shenker Osorio, one of the panelists. Anat suggests that people on the left need some better metaphors to talk about the economy, because the right is winning the war of words by describing the economy as if it were a body that should not be punished by taxation or regulation so that it will get back to health. Or describing the economy as some kind of God that makes moral judgments on us, a metaphor that can be used to justify the current vast disparities in wealth in our society. Instead, liberals might try talking about the economy as some kind of machine that needs intervention by people in order to function properly, or as a vehicle that will take people on a life journey. The idea of the economy as a made-made device also has the virtue of being true, in addition to being a more conducive metaphor to justify the kinds of policy prescriptions that liberals favor.

Anat Osorio made another point backed up by cognitive research. That is too avoid assertions which someone resistant to one's ideas will simply block. Thus, instead of asserting something like "Government plays a critical role in regulating the market," a statement that is likely to be resistant to those in the sway of free market ideology, try pre-supposing that point, by saying something like "When government reins in excessive speculation, the market functions effectively."  This last point is good to keep in mind in thinking about how to be persuasive. It might also help promote more civil discussions between people of opposing views, instead of the kinds of arguments where people are just butting heads. As I can attest from my right-left cocktail party this afternoon, alcohol and a friendly setting can be helpful for that purpose also.

(Howard Dean photo by moi)

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Hampshire Republican Debate

For those who did not have time to watch the Republican candidates debate tonight, here is a transcript of some of the highlights.

Q: What is the Republican plan to create more jobs?

Romney: We need to cut taxes and reduce burdensome regulations.

Q: But when we tried that under the Bush administration, that almost caused the whole economy to collapse.

Pawlenty: That's because we didn't cut enough taxes or reduce enough regulations. When I'm president, we will root out all vestiges of taxes and regulations and we will not rest until we get rid of them all.

Cain: Under my administration, we would pass a law against even talking about taxes. So the only tax the federal government could levy would be on people who used the word "tax."

Bachmann: Under my administration, we would abolish the EPA. Clean air and clean water are overrated anyway. And we would repeal Obamacare.

Gingrich: Under my administration, we would abolish the NLRB. If you want to join a union, move to Europe or some other socialist environment.

Santorum: Under my administration, we would abolish the national parks and turn them over to the oil and gas companies.

Paul: Under my administration, we would abolish the Federal Reserve.  And also the Post Office.

Q: But isn't the Post Office specifically mentioned in the Constitution? I thought you loved the Constitution.

Paul: Well most of it. I have to say I'm not too crazy about the clause that says Congress has the power to regulate commerce, either.

Romney: I will acknowledge that Congress has that power. But that doesn't mean Congress has to use it. Can I also mention that Romneycare in Massachusetts is entirely different from Obamacare. For one thing, in Massachusetts we did not call our health care law "Obamacare."

Bachmann: Whatever you call it, on my first day in office, we will repeal every bit of it. Health insurance is not something we can afford. Except for seniors of course. Did you know that Obamacare wants to save money on Medicare and use some of those savings to fund Obamacare? But under the Republican plan, we will simply abolish Medicare AND Obamacare. And that means we can attack Obama for taking benefits away from seniors, while at the same time we will start making seniors pay for their own Medicare. And if you didn't understand that, then that's good.

Paul: Did I mention that paper money is the root of all evil? 

Q: Governor Pawlenty, don't you think your economic plan, which assumes an annual growth rate of 5%, is a bit optimistic?

Pawlenty: If China can grow at a 5% rate, how dare you question whether America can do it too. Are you some kind of communist?

Cain: I'll see your 5% and raise you 5%.

Paul: You two are such pessimists, When I am president, our economy will grow at 20% a year. All we need to do is abolish the Federal Reserve.

Q: What specifially would you do to reduce the deficit?

Santorum: I would abolish the Department of Energy. And the Department of Education. And any other department that starts with an "E" for that matter. After that we would go to work on "H."

Bachmann: Did I mention that I was the first person in Congress to introduce a bill to abolish Obamacare? And also to abolish all the new financial regulations. And I want to reiterate the importance of cutting taxes, especially the kinds my friends pay, like capital gains taxes and corporate taxes.

Cain: I'm a businessman. And I can tell you from my experience of many years in business that paying taxes is a major drag. You can't trust all these politicians to cut taxes as much as I would.

Paul: My copy of the Constitution has the word "tax" crossed out wherever it used to appear.

Gingrich: I know all about cutting taxes. When I was in Congress during the Reagan administration, and we cut taxes, revenue actually increased.

Bachmann: Wait a minute Newt, I used to be a tax lawyer for the IRS, so I know that when people don't pay taxes, that means the government doesn't get the money.  And I thought we wanted the government to be smaller anyway. Which will happen as soon as we repeal Obamacare.

Romney: Stop acting so smart, Michele, you'll make the rest of us look bad.

Q: While we're on you, Governor Romney, weren't you entirely wrong about the auto industry bailout?

Romney: Not at all. When I said the government should not bail out the auto industry, what I meant was that they should actually do what I recommended, which was to put the companies through bankruptcy. Of course, if they had done what I suggested, it probably would have been a liquidation instead of a reorganization, but I'm guessing you won't be smart enough to ask me a follow-up question about that.

Q: That's right, because I have to talk as quickly as possible and just leave all these superficial answers standing. Speaker Gingrich, what about the space program?

Gingrich: Now that my entire campaign staff has deserted me, I find I have plenty of space in my own office to explore.

Bachmann: Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bachmann Overdrive

In honor of my upcoming trip to Minnesota for Netroots Nation, perhaps some thoughts about a prominent Minnesota politician are in order. Not one I am likely to see at the conference, however. Yesterday I saw a story about Michele Bachmann in which she was quoted as favoring drastic cuts in corporate and capital gains tax rates, as the same time supporting an increase in rates for the working poor. Naturally I started composing in my head a satirical interview with Bachmann in which she would explain how poor people have way too much money, and the rich don't have enough. Yet another example of how Republicans are getting our problems exactly backwards. And I still think that is a valid critique.

But then I went back and read the full Wall Street Journal interview with Bachmann, from which these quotes about income taxes were taken, and realized there might be a more important point to make about Bachmann. Namely, that it would be a mistake to under-estimate her. This woman claims to read some serious economics texts. She takes tomes by Ludwig von Mises to the beach. She can speak intelligently about the reasons for the banking crisis that came to a head in 2008. In addition, if you do a little basic research on Bachmann, you find out that she has a masters degree in Taxation in addition to her law degree; she worked as a tax attorney for the IRS for five years; she served in the state legislature in Minnesota for four years, and in Congress for three terms. In addition, she has raised five children of her own, as well as an unbelievable 23 foster children.

On the other hand, Michele Bachmann has in recent years hitched her wagon to the Tea Party, made some outrageous statements, and some spectacular gaffes. And I'm not saying she is an intellectual or that she is any match for Barack Obama. All I'm suggesting is not to dismiss her too quickly as some kind of lightweight or nutcase, and not to lump her together necessarily with certain other female potential Republican presidential contenders. Michele Bachmann is a canny politician, and I would take her seriously. And by debating her ideas seriously, we might even find that they are a bit more nuanced and sophisticated than appears from the persona she displays at Tea Party rallies. Perhaps Michele Bachmann's identification with some of the simplistic ideas of the Tea Party will hurt her with the broader electorate. But she might have made the calculation that embracing the Tea Party could catapult her, as did Ronald Reagan's embrace of the most extreme elements of the Republican Party in the 1970's, to the front ranks of contenders for the Republican nomination for president or vice-president. And she might be right about that.

(Minn. Post photo)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Redistricting in California

The work of the California citizens redistricting commission, which just released its first draft maps of new Congressional and state legislative districts, gives everyone a chance to reflect on just what the right to vote truly means. The commission based its work on a different set of priorities from those the legislature has used in the past for drawing district lines. Instead of protecting incumbents, the commission has tried to maintain the integrity of communities, however those might be defined. That seems like an important shift, since it speaks to the rights of voters, rather than the job security of legislators. But it's also very complicated to try to figure out how best to protect the rights of voters. Some voters might even think they are best served by being represented by a very experienced legislator who doesn't have to worry too much about raising money for re-election, and who has a lot of clout by virtue of seniority. Putting a lot of seats in play, which will likely result from re-districting, raises the danger of subjecting representatives to the corruption of money. On the other hand, these new districts may empower more voters to affect the outcome of elections, and that is a big gain for democracy.

Early reaction so far, as might be expected, focuses on the likely political outcome of these new district lines--whether Democrats will gain more seats, whether Latinos will gain or lose representation, etc.  Those are important questions, but they miss the point of the whole citizen re-districting process. We should pay less attention to those kinds of outcome questions, and more attention to whether the new district lines will empower more voters.  The goal should be to allow each and every voter to exert some influence on the political process, as well as to be represented by someone who will be responsive to some extent to their concerns. Not necessarily that every voter will be able to elect a representative from their party, or from their ethnic group (that is of course impossible in any districting system) but that each voter has the sense that they can have some impact on the selection of candidates and representatives. That is not only the appropriate goal under political theory, but is also the appropriate legal standard under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. (I actually studied this area extensively in law school.) That goal becomes more attainable when we understand that we can't view the composition of the electorate in simple two party terms, whether that means Democrat or Republican, or black and white, or whatever sort of us vs. them composition might make sense in each district. There are a lot of political independents who don't fit comfortably in either party; and there are many gradations of ideology within each party; and there are ideas of representation beyond ideology. So, for example, in a district with a majority of Democrats, but with a heavily Latino population, the Republican Party might still succeed sometimes in winning an election by running a Latino candidate. Or in a district with a large proportion of independents, both the Democrats and the Republicans might have more success in running more moderate candidates. By forcing those kinds of calculations, all voters in a district can gain a feeling of influence.

The first thing I did when I saw these district maps, as I'm sure many California residents did also, was to look at what happened to my Congressional district. The change is dramatic. If my district were a dog, I live near the end of its tail. The dog's body is in South-Central LA. Which might explain why I used to be represented by Diane Watson, and now by Karen Bass. Years ago, this same part of town was part of Henry Waxman's district on the West Side of LA. Next year, however, it looks like the tail will be chopped off and attached to another district based in east LA, which means that it is more likely I will be represented by a Latino congressman. Does it matter? What is so interesting is that you can draw the lines in so many different ways to connect my family to the black community or the Latino community, or the Jewish or Korean or Armenian or some combination of all of the above. I haven't moved in 20 years, but my district has shifted from West LA to South LA, and is now heading to East LA. Will my vote count more or less in the new district? Too soon to tell.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gingrich Abandons Reality.

After the mass departure of his top campaign staff, I figured it was a good time to catch up with Newt Gingrich and ask him about the next phase of his presidential campaign. Here is a guaranteed verbatim  transcript of my imaginary interview:

Q: How will your campaign survive the loss of your entire senior campaign staff?

A: My campaign is now moving into a higher, non-corporeal plane of existence in which we will have no need for the typical accoutrements of old-fashioned reality-based campaigns.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Look. This conversation you and I are having is not taking place in reality, right? Same with my campaign. The most important part of my campaign will no longer take place in the real world. It has evolved to a virtual state.

Q: And how does that work in practical terms?

A: This new phase of my campaign will allow me to free myself of mundane, earth-bound concerns such as campaign staff, polls, organization, strategy, or any of the trappings of traditional political campaigns. Although I probably will be giving some speeches. I like giving speeches.

Q: Does that explain why you took a two week vacation to Greece while your staff was telling you that you should have been busy campaigning?

A: That trip was no vacation. I was investigating what would happen to a country that goes into a so-called default with respect to its debts.

Q: What did you find out?

A: Greece is still beautiful and the people are very friendly. Therefore, this whole default crisis is just something the bankers have to worry about. That gives me hope for America.

Q: How could the Greek situation apply to this country?

A: Very directly. You have to understand that the debt ceiling under which the government is operating is something that only exists in reality. But once you evolve into a higher state of being as I have, it is easy to blithely tell people they no longer have to be concerned about it.

Q: How does your new-found disregard of reality fit in with the program of the Republican Party?

A: First of all, I object to your saying that my evolution beyond reality is anything new. The fact of the matter is that I have not had a firm grasp on reality for many, many years. And my understanding of spheres of existence beyond the real world fits in perfectly with the Republican Party platform.

Q: Wait. You're saying the whole Republican program is not based on reality?

A: Of course not. Let me share some history with you. When Ronald Reagan came into office, we started telling people that the more we cut their taxes, the more revenues would increase. How much further from reality can you get? But people believed it. Or at least they seemed to like the fact that we were cutting their taxes. So we just kept repeating it, no matter how divorced from reality it seems.

Q: But how are you going to compete with the rest of the Republican field, while they are running campaigns grounded in reality?

A: Are you kidding me? Did you read Tim Pawlenty's tax plan? Have you listened to Mitt Romney try to explain how mandatory health insurance was a good thing for Massachusetts, but is a bad thing for the rest of the country? Did you hear Herman Cain try to explain how people flipping pizzas have more important jobs than teachers or firemen? I'm proud to say that the entire Republican field is completely out of touch with reality. But only I have figured out how to conduct a campaign that is lacking in any physical dimension.

Q: And how do you think any Republican can win on a non-reality-based program?

A: We've been doing it for years. Look at what happened in last year's election. In 2008, Obama inherited the worst mess handed to any president in my lifetime. But look what he does in less than two years. He's a goddamn miracle worker. He pulls out of Iraq without any problems; he gets the economy to start growing again; the stock market almost doubles in value; he saves the financial system from collapse so they can pay back all the TARP money; he saves the entire American auto industry from collapse; he enacts health care coverage for all Americans, something the Democrats have been trying to do for 100 years; he enacts major financial regulatory reform. And still we beat him in the Congressional elections last year.

Q: That is impressive when you think about it. How do you explain that?

A: Well it wasn't based on anything happening in reality, I can tell you that. It was pure scare tactics. We got people riled up about the deficit that we created, and then we made them think that by extending health insurance coverage to all Americans, Obama was actually taking people's health insurance away.

Q: Do you think those kinds of tactics can work in the presidential campaign next year?

A: Well it isn't going to be easy. People are starting to figure out, once they unveiled this crazy Ryan plan, that it is actually the Republicans who are taking people's health insurance away. And we can't play the soft on terrorism card, since Obama killed bin Laden. But don't worry. We'll find something to scare people about, and it doesn't have to be anything real.

Q: Do you think the Republican program has a future?

A: Our program  works extremely well for the top 2% of Americans, and we are very proud of that. The rest of the country we're not helping so much, but we get enough of them to support it by playing to their traditional values, and telling them that we are cutting their taxes, and giving them hope that maybe they can be rich too, and then our program will work for them as well. And then whenever anything goes wrong, we blame the Democrats. Since some things are sure to go wrong, we always have a chance.

Q: Now that assessment is starting to sound very grounded in reality.

A: That proves my point, that candidates who exist in pure fantasy-land can actually have success in the real world. That should show the scoffers and the doubters that I have a chance.

Q: Well, good luck with your campaign, Newt.

A: Thank you, I'm off to another dimension now.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ann Coulter's Private Life

Here is Ann Coulter on Piers Morgan's show, refusing to answer any questions about her private life:

Since clamming up was the advice I gave in my last post to all politicians facing questions about alleged scandals, I can't fault her for refusing to answer. And yet this response seems a bit disingenuous in her case. After all, a big part of the reason Ann Coulter constantly gets invited on TV talk shows has to do with her carefully-cultivated persona--the long blonde hair, the bare-shouldered, short black dresses, her whole unique look. It is the shock of hearing such seriousness-- and viciousness--come from someone who appears to be a fun-loving party girl that draws attention.  Coulter's refusal to provide more details about her personal life also adds an air of mystery that must be part of the image she is trying to project. If Ann Coulter's life were more of an open book, if she dressed more conservatively, if she did not wave her long blonde mane around, it seems unlikely she would attract as much interest as she does. So she can't very well complain that people show an interest in her personal life, when she has gone to such lengths to draw attention to her personality.

Coulter's insistence that Morgan stick to the ideas expressed in her book seems a bit phony, considering that there is nothing particularly original about her ideas, and she has no special expertise in her chosen subjects. It is only the way she provokes and demonizes her opponents that makes her the least bit interesting. (Her latest book, Demonic, which argues that liberalism is based on mob psychology, is a prime example.) Ann Coulter is not the person you invite to a TV interview if you want to have a calm and rational discussion of intellectual issues. If you want that, you would invite a university professor. If you invite Ann Coulter, you know you are not going to have a serious debate. She is not going to listen carefully and take into consideration anything anyone else has to say. She is just going to roll her eyes and smirk until it is her turn to speak, and then she is going to start throwing bombs at her opponents. I guess that is what makes for good television, where people generally do not go to have their minds opened to new ideas. We watch TV for the comfort of having our existing ideas confirmed, and Ann Coulter suits that purpose admirably. She is as divisive and provocative as she can be. She does not attempt to make her ideas palatable to anyone who doesn't already agree with her. She does not try to win anyone over. She already knows who her fans are, and she likes to throw them red meat. As for her adversaries, attack rather than dialogue is her style.

Nobody should invite Ann Coulter on television if they are interested in sharing ideas, solving problems, or reaching consensus. But if you are interested in creating controversy, sowing divisiveness, and inflaming passions on both sides of any issue, then Ann Coulter is your woman. I probably shouldn't be giving her any attention either, because Coulter's style and purpose are exactly opposite to what I'm trying to create. In my defense, I might say that Ann Coulter is not really the subject of this post. This post is about the media, and its relationship to us. Why are they (and we) more interested in heat than light? Why are they so ready to give a platform to hate and fear? Why do they pander to people's interest in politics as a sport, instead of politics as a means of improving people's lives? As for Ann Coulter's personal life, I just feel sorry that a smart woman has allowed herself to be turned into a clown just to sell books and attract media attention.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Big Weiner Story!

Why are political sex scandals in this country always such big news? Each time one breaks, we act shocked--shocked!--to find that such things are going on here, even though we are familiar with sex scandals from the time of the Old Testament, to the most recent one about two weeks ago (Schwarzenegger, remember?). How do we manage to get freshly outraged each time? Are we really that innocent?

In the case of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, is it an issue of sexual morality? If so, how many of us are really in a position to throw the first stone? One benefit of this story might be to remind us all to think twice about fooling around online, but really, so much of this sort of thing is going on nowadays that it seems to represent some kind of national pastime.

Well, what about the possible misuse of government facilities or property? That will no doubt be investigated thoroughly, but it seems unlikely that a serious breach will be found.

How about hypocrisy? That is the justification many Democratic partisans have relied on to attack Republicans accused of sexual misconduct. But in Weiner's case, he was never the kind of family values religious conservative against whom the charge of hypocrisy would stick. Anyway, hypocrisy seems even more widespread than sexual misconduct. As a parent, I am used to being accused of hypocrisy on an almost-daily basis, and probably with some justification.

Maybe it's all just a political game. Republicans are happy when they can knock out a Democrat with a scandal, and Democrats are just as glad to see some Republican lose their seat for whatever reason. Don't both sides realize, however, that in the long run, nobody gains by this process?

So of course it must be the lying. And in the case of this scandal, it does seem rather outrageous, and incredibly stupid, for Congressman Weiner to have concocted a story that he should have known would not hold up, to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. On the other hand, we know from the Clinton example, and numerous others, that lying about sexual misconduct is about as common as the misconduct itself. When caught, it seems that the first impulse of almost everyone accused of an embarrassing sexual act is to lie about it rather than suffer the shame and humiliation of being caught.

Many would draw the lesson from this scandal, and others: just lay out all the facts right away. Don't try to cover it up! We all know since the Nixon impeachment process, that it's the cover-up that gets you, not the crime. So come clean immediately, many pundits advise.  I have another suggestion. Why don't politicians just start telling people who inquire into their private lives, that it's none of anybody's goddamn business? You want to accuse someone of some act of immorality, fine. They don't have to deny it, but they don't have to admit it either. They can just tell you that it's their private life and they don't feel like talking about it. If a crime has been committed, that's something else. Investigate and prosecute, if that is justified. But until the misconduct rises to the criminal level, people can be as interested as they want, but the accused should not be under any obligation to respond in any fashion.

Back in the day when we had a real playboy president--I'm talking about John F. Kennedy of course--the media was discreet enough not to ask. Nowadays, when every aspect of everyone's private life seems to be fair game, something has to be done to restore some boundaries. If we want to allow public officials to enjoy some semblance of a private life, we should encourage them to tell all of us to just buzz off. That way they don't have to lie, and we don't have endure the public spectacle of watching the public official confess, the media gloat, and the pundits endlessly scold, a tiresome routine that seems to happen about every other week, and doesn't seem to serve much useful purpose other than entertainment.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hot Air

The other night I had the chance to hear Adam Hochschild at the LA Library ALOUD program talking about his new book To End All Wars, which is mainly about the conflicts between pro and anti-war leaders in Great Britain during World War I. The first World War is a particularly hard war to justify or glamorize, since it cost so many millions of lives, in such pointless slaughter. Part of the reason for that was the state of technology of the time. Offensive charges led by cavalry, the formula for success for hundreds of years, were rendered useless by machine guns and barbed wire. Until the invention of the tank, armies could no longer mount an effective offense. But the warring parties persisted in the attempt, spurred on by their outmoded ideas of how to fight, leading only to the sacrifice of millions of lives in exchange for no territorial gain. Another part of the reason that the First World War seems so pointless is that we have trouble discerning its causes and purposes.  Hochschild pointed out that before World War I, the countries and heads of state of Europe were getting along remarkably well. Then suddenly, they were engaged in existential conflict. Perhaps because the causes of the war are so elusive, and because victory on the battlefield was so difficult, the outcome could not produce any real resolution. At the conclusion of World War I, the participants were all left worse off in every conceivable way, and the war mainly resulted in sowing the seeds for World War II.

Hochschild focuses on the war resisters, mentioning how torn some of them were between their belief that the war was wrong, and the pressure they faced to support the cause. In response to a question about the kinds of rhetoric that we all hear during international conflicts, Hochschild talked about how inflamed both sides became in demonizing the other, and the extent they used some of the new media of the time to disseminate propaganda. Both sides equated their cause with the need to preserve civilization as they knew it, or national honor, or numerous other justifications for fighting. The war itself then became its own justification, as deaths of soldiers inspired others to make sure they had not died in vain. In order to understand the real issues involved in the conflict, Hochschild said, you need to cut through all of the hot air being spewed by both sides that was used to justify continued conflict. Once you do that, it becomes apparent that to the extent there were real conflicts between the participants, they involved territory and conflicting colonial ambitions, probably not the kind of stuff that would have inspired so many to lay down their lives.

How many of our political conflicts--both domestic and international--cost us more than we gain, as in World War I, and how many are worth fighting? Hochschild was of the opinion that probably 80% of wars should not have been fought, and that sounds about right to me, but even if you think it is more or less than that, we would all probably have to agree that there is a lot of unnecessary conflict in the world.  In politics, the one thing that people of all political stripes should be able to agree on is that there is more than enough hot air. Just watch cable news for a couple of hours and the room will be filled with it. We should also recognize that a lot of this hot air tends to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it.

In discussions of foreign policy we tend to see the world in terms of friends and foes, bad guys and good guys. The Communist menace used to provide a rationale for many foreign policy actions; now it is terrorism or Arab fundamentalism. These enemies are real, but their power is sometimes exaggerated, and their aims are sometimes distorted, to justify continued conflict. On domestic issues, we also see the tendency to demonize opponents, and paint policy disagreements as much more elemental clashes of right and wrong than they might be in fact. For example, we had fearsome debates last year over whether the top marginal income tax rate should be 35% or 39%, with each side claiming that the position of the other constituted a threat to our most fundamental values. But all we were talking about was the difference between 35% and 39%.

One of the promises that the Obama candidacy and presidency represented, at least to me, was its call for a new kind of politics in which we would try to work together to solve problems, rather than struggle against each other in such a destructive way. I think one of the reasons that elements of both the right and left have been disenchanted at times with President Obama is that he refuses to see politics as an epic struggle between good and evil. Instead he is always searching for common ground with adversaries. Many people cannot understand how you can give ground to the enemy in that way. It seems to be part of human nature to view the world in Manichean terms. We resist seeing the world instead as involving groups of competing interests, all of which may have some validity, and which can be accommodated to varying extents in ways that will allow all of us to get along.

Certainly we are going to have policy disagreements, and some of those positions can and should be fiercely held, but we still ought to try to reduce the over-heated rhetoric, and the demonization of the other side, that characterize so many political debates. If we exaggerate the effects of other people's positions, or treat them as the enemy bent on destroying our way of life, when they merely have somewhat different interests and beliefs from us, then we risk engaging in epic battles that are not worth their cost, as we did to our regret in World War I. Instead we should be making efforts to tone down those kinds of conflicts.

(See also the discussion of this same topic on my mediation site.)

Friday, June 3, 2011


Naturally, everyone is disappointed in the May jobs figures. But to those who want to blame President Obama's policies for the slowing jobs growth, and call for a policy of cutting government spending and keeping taxes low, I would suggest that they take a closer look at the numbers.

Here is Austan Goolsbee's summary of the data:
Overall payroll employment rose by 54,000 in May. Solid employment increases occurred in professional and business services (+44,000) and education and health services (+34,000). Sectors with employment declines included local government (-28,000), retail trade (-8,500), and manufacturing (-5,000). Despite the decline this month, manufacturing has added 238,000 jobs since the beginning of 2010, the best period of manufacturing job growth in over a decade.
Private sector employment increased by 83,000 last month. Still not as good as anybody would like, but quite a bit better than the overall number of 54,000 added jobs.  And what is the reason for the difference? Primarily cuts in local government spending (which caused a loss of 28,000 jobs).  In other words, those who are calling for government austerity (translation: firing more government workers) would actually be contributing to declining jobs growth.  And those who are blaming Obama's policies for the lack of better jobs growth should actually be blaming themselves for calling for more cuts in government spending.  Advocates of more austerity should not be citing the 54,000 number.  They should be citing the 83,000 private sector number, because the 54,000 number factors in the effects of government austerity at the state level.

And to put things in even more perspective, look at the overall record of the last several years (also from Goolsbee's post):

Why on earth would anyone be calling for a return to the policies that gave us job losses in the hundreds of thousands, just because we are disappointed in the rate at which we are re-gaining those lost jobs? Instead they should be calling for an expansion of the policies that are gradually pulling the economy out of its slump, so we can get the numbers back up faster.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Debt Limit Negotiation Update

Just leaked! A partial transcript of today's session in the ongoing budget negotiations between Republican Congressional leaders and the President and Treasury Secretary at the White House:

Obama: I still don't get how you guys are suddenly all concerned about the debt, after all of you voted to double the national debt during the Bush administration.

Boehner: Well for one thing, back then we didn't have these damn Tea Party people breathing down our necks. Those folks are crazy!

Obama: I sympathize. But what do you want us to do? You don't have a plan to balance the budget this year. That means you either have to raise the debt limit or you have to raise taxes.

Boehner: What we want, Mr. President, is for you to propose a solution, so we can attack you for it. It's not fair that people expect us to solve all their problems just because Republicans have taken over the House of Representatives. It makes me want to cry.

Obama: The White House had to come up with all the solutions for my first two years in office, and all I got was criticism from all sides. Now it's time for you to step up to the plate.  Representative Cantor, would you mind taking your fingers out of your ears while I'm talking?

Cantor: Sorry sir, it's just an involuntary reaction I have whenever somebody says the "T" word.

Obama: I'll try not to talk about taxes then. But that means we have to talk about your insane Medicare plan. You can't be serious about it. It's going to cost you the 2012 election.

Ryan: We don't mind talking about Medicare. I just wish you'd stop calling my plan to replace Medicare with vouchers a voucher program. It hurts my feelings.

Obama: All right, Paul, what would you like us to call it?

Ryan: How about calling it Medicare Lite?  I think people would like the sound of that.

Obama: We'll take that idea under advisement.

Boehner: Mr. President, we have here a list of 150 economists who think we should require massive cuts in federal spending. How about that?

Obama: That's nice John. I have here a poll showing that if you actually implemented all of those cuts, the Republicans would lose about 150 seats in the House next year.

Boehner: We know this stuff isn't popular. That's why we want to force a bunch of Democrats to vote for cutting popular programs so we don't get the blame next year.

Obama: You think we're stupid enough to fall for that?

Boehner: You might have no choice. I have a lot of members who just might be crazy enough to cause the United States to default on its debts to prove a point.

Geithner: We'll stop sending Social Security checks to your constituents in Ohio before we allow that to happen.

Boehner: Thank you for the meeting, Mr. President. We have to go outside and call a press conference now so we can complain about you.

Obama: Just don't walk on the grass on the White House lawn on your way there.