Sunday, October 31, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Is There Such a Thing as Principled Federalism?

The commerce clause challenges to ObamaCare now making their way through the courts have reopened issues about federalism that until recently seemed settled once and for all.  Here's a (slightly edited) post about federalism from May 26 inspired by Rand Paul's public ruminations on the Civil Rights Act early in the election season:

This passage in Julian Sanchez’s terrific piece on the scuffle between Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act got me thinking about the strange place federalism occupies in our political culture. Here Sanchez’s expounding on the prevailing view of federalism in conservative and libertarian circles (my emphasis):
“Liberals and progressives, for their part, should also reconsider whether the civil-rights era's expansion of federal power ought to be seen as a norm or an exception. Faced with the enormities of history, a unanimous Supreme Court stretched the constitutional power of Congress over interstate commerce to permit an attempt at a remedy. But if we recognize the circumstances of the time as exceptional—as the exigencies of war are exceptional when we consider the scope of executive power—we should be less eager to make it the basis of a general federal license to pursue any attractive end through the commerce power. At the dawn of the 20th century, we assumed that federal prohibition of alcohol could only be accomplished by constitutional amendment. With the exception of U.S. v. Lopez, a 1990s hiccup where the court failed to find a sufficient nexus between interstate commerce and carrying handguns near schools—we now take for granted that the interstate-commerce power constitutes a blank check, not just when Congress seeks to rectify gross historical iniquity, but for such purposes as overriding state decisions to permit local cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Explaning Sarah Palin

I've always been amused by how much trouble liberals have comprehending the Sarah Palin phenomenon.  We usually expect people to have a rudimentary understanding of the things that they've created.  Here's something (slightly edited and abridged) that I posted on Februrary 11 under the title "The Narcissism of Small Differences" urging liberals to recognize their own complicity in Palin's popularity:

Imagine that you live in an otherwise well-ordered democracy in which you are the only citizen who’s not entitled to vote. You’d have every reason to be indignant because such an arrangement surely does you an injustice. But how, exactly, does it injure you? Being a subject of a polity without having a say in how it’s run is hardly an intolerable situation. Immigrants put themselves in that position all the time when they choose to live as subjects, but not citizens, in a society that affords economic, social or cultural opportunities unavailable to them in a former residence in which they enjoyed all of the rights and privileges of citizenship. Truth be told, you’re a busy person who often doesn’t get around to casting a vote anyway. Why should depriving you of an opportunity that’s usually not important enough to seize count as a severe deprivation?

It’s not that denying you the right to vote has any real impact on the extent to which the political system responds to your interests or your ideals. It may be true, generally speaking, that letting every citizen vote is the best way of realizing everyone’s preferences. But a system that lets everyone but you vote wouldn’t generate materially different results. Were you entitled to vote, your vote would make a difference only on the vanishingly small chance that it breaks a tie among everyone else’s votes. For all practical purposes, then, your vote has no effect on the system’s responsiveness to your interests and ideals. That’s why people who don’t place much intrinsic value on voting don’t often exercise their right to vote. Calculated in the currency of time and inconvenience, the cost of voting massively outweighs any of its extrinsic expected benefits.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Knowing When to Sit Down

Accomplished trial lawyers will tell you that the key to effective cross-examination is knowing when to sit down. That’s true whether the cross-examiner is winning or losing the cross. Even a great cross’ impact on the jury diminishes severely every second that the cross-examiner drones on past the point of its maximum impact. And the longer a witness holds his own during an aggressive cross, the more credibility he gains in the eyes of jurors. Sitting down is an especially hard thing for trial lawyers to do because loving the sound of their own voice is a hazard of their occupation. The best lawyers, however, have the self-discipline to do it.

I was reminded of all this when I saw the president on the Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central show. I know that a lot of the younger voters Obama needs to re-energize watch The Daily Show. But that doesn’t make it any less strange seeing the leader of the free world straining to ingratiate himself to a cable TV comedian by saying things he has said innumerable times before. You can just imagine the fun Stewart would be having at Obama’s expense if he’d appeared on, say, the Bill Maher show.

Being the leader of their party, presidents are supposed to make campaign stops in closely contested districts during the last week of the campaign. Telling the national electorate things they’ve heard before in increasingly unpresidential settings is another thing entirely. If presidential politicking is anything like making a case to a jury, Obama should have sat down a long time ago.

Re-Reinventing Government

Yesterday, contemplating Paul Krugman’s fiscal policy prescriptions, I wondered whether liberal governance is starting to exceed our institutional capacities. I was thinking of that primarily as a matter of public policy, suggesting that liberals should consider rethinking their policy agenda in light of a more realistic appraisal of how congressional decision-making really works. But the issue of governmental dysfunction has an important political dimension as well.

Here’s the new hero of the Republican right, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, making political hay out of the disparity between the promise and the performance of government in a blue state:



That’s a potent political message, expertly delivered. But why should it be exclusively a Republican message?

In a comment to the above-referenced post, reader Uncle Albert, reminds us that Bill Clinton spent a lot of political capital in the 1990s trying to persuade voters that he was “reinventing government.” At most, he succeeded in modestly streamlining a few executive agencies. There’s only so much a president can do in this connection when the governmental institution that stands most urgently in need of reinvention, Congress, is a coequal branch of government.

But "reinventing government" was still a shrewd political message for Clinton to transmit. Liberal politicians, of all people, should be reassuring voters that the government is working hard on what’s important, that Democratic congressmen know what’s in the bills that they’re passing and have thought long and hard about whether they’ll work. I don’t think you can overestimate how much doubts on this score are costing Democrats politically in this election cycle and the political price they’ll continuing paying as long as they surrender these issues to the Republicans.

If you ask me, now that he’s likely to be confronting a Republican House and will have less of a stake in soothing the egos of powerful congressional Democrats, Obama should open shop in the "reinventing government" business himself.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Another Closing Argument

Here’s one from Alexi Giannoulias, the guy trying to hold Obama’s Illinois Senate seat. Is it about serving the high ideals of the Democratic Party? Helping his good friend President Obama get the country back on the right track? Stopping the Republicans from diverting us onto the wrong track? Shoveling pork to the good people of Illinois? Warning Illinois voters that his opponent, Mark Kirk, is the spawn of Satan?

See for yourself:



Translation: Alexi Giannoulias is out of ammunition.

The Hole in Krugman’s Story

Ideologues bracing themselves for a bad election cycle are usually pretty good at coming up with consoling narratives. Paul Krugman has been telling the particularly influential story that Democrats shot themselves in the economic foot by not pushing for a bigger stimulus as the first major act of the Obama administration. The coming mid-terms  mark the onset of political gangrene:
“Could the administration have gotten a bigger stimulus through Congress? Even if it couldn’t, would it have been better off making the case for a bigger plan, rather than pretending that what it got was just right? We’ll never know.

“What we do know is that the inadequacy of the stimulus has been a political catastrophe. Yes, things are better than they would have been without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: the unemployment rate would probably be close to 12 percent right now if the administration hadn’t passed its plan. But voters respond to facts, not counterfactuals, and the perception is that the administration’s policies have failed. 

“The tragedy here is that if voters do turn on Democrats, they will in effect be voting to make things even worse.”
I’ve got nothing against consoling political narratives that point in the right direction intellectually. And I’m not the guy to tell you whether Krugman’s story makes macro-economic sense. (As it happens, I don’t think the political side of the narrative rings true even in hindsight because, as Kevin Drum has argued, given the multiplier that figured into the administration’s calculations, a 50% bigger stimulus wouldn’t have lowered unemployment enough to make a noticeable political difference.) But I understand why it consoles liberals to tell Krugman’s story to themselves. It enables them to believe that, but for a single tactical mistake, they’d still have the political juice to keep reconfiguring the political economy to their own specifications. And it inspires them to keep fighting the good fight to stop the Republican resurgence from making things worse than they have to be.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

American Exceptionalism as a Campaign Pitch

Check out this ad conveying Marco Rubio’s closing argument in his Florida senatorial campaign. I think it’s fair to say that he’s putting the Tea Party’s best face forward. As far as national politics goes, it looks to me like a far more formidable face than Sarah Palin’s:



From my standpoint, the most noteworthy thing about this spot is that Rubio has chosen to close his campaign with an unapologetically conservative celebration of American exceptionalism that could have been inspired by an article (like this one) in a doctrinaire conservative journal like National Review. That’s a little surprising since Rubio isn’t running in a state like South Carolina, where a Jim DeMint can sustain himself politically on the rightward fringe of the Republican senatorial caucus. He’s trying to hold the seat of a Republican moderate in a swing state that, by all accounts, a Democratic presidential candidate will have a good shot at winning in 2016. Now that he has this election in hand, you might have thought that Rubio would be hedging his ideological bets, trying to firm up the support of the Independents he’ll need when he’s running for reelection under less favorable conditions. Instead, he’s swinging for the fences from the right side of the plate.

Maybe that’s just a matter of Rubio’s responding prudently to the peculiar circumstance of this election, viz., the fact that he can win in a purple state with just red voters because Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meet are splitting the bluish votes. Or maybe Rubio’s a conservative conviction politician in a purple state (like Rick Santorum in Pa. in 2006) who cares more about ideological purity than political longevity.

Liberal Democrats better hope that it’s one or the other, because the remaining possibility is genuinely depressing: maybe Rubio's a politically adroit conviction politician who has figured out that the ideological center of Florida politics is moving so decisively in his direction that he’ll do well politically by doing good (by his own lights) ideologically.

Liberal Nostalgia as a Campaign Pitch

Now that I’ve started commenting on ads from the California gubernatorial campaign, I can’t stop. Yesterday, I was having some fun contemplating Jerry Brown’s suggestion that Meg Whitman is just another Arnold Schwarzenegger, promising yet again to shake things up in Sacramento. If you really want to shake things up, Brown argues, elect a candidate who isn’t making tiresome promises about shaking things up. Here’s the positive side of the same message:



Translation: things didn’t suck in California back when Jerry Brown was governor so, if you want them to stop sucking, bring back a career politician who knows how to make liberal government work.

When you think about it, that’s an awfully strange pitch for a liberal candidate to make at any time, especially in these times. Liberalism has always been a progressive creed.  I've commented on liberal nostalgia before, but I never thought I'd see it figure so prominently in a campaign pitch.   Even a triangulating New Democrat like Bill Clinton (having just declared that the “age of big government is over”) sold himself as the guy who’d “build a bridge to the 21st century.”  Brown’s offering himself up as a symbol of public sobriety in an inebriated age, as just the guy to take Californians back to a time before the rot had set into California state government.

Can that really work as a campaign pitch at a time when people across the country are rebelling against Obama/Pelosi/Reid liberalism and Californians are seriously considering retiring Barbara Boxer in favor of Carly Fiorina? Brown’s betting that California voters don’t hold him responsible for the hand his ideological descendants (like his former chief of staff, the recalled governor Gray Davis) had in California’s dismal fiscal condition, its exploding unfunded pension liabilities, its higher-than-average unemployment, the capital flight to lower-tax states, etc.

The message seems to be working.  Is that because things other than ideology are driving the election, or because California is an ideologically distinctive state?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Meg Whitman: "An Unhappy Choice"

As long as we’re looking at California gubernatorial ads, here’s Meg Whitman’s latest which implicitly answers the Brown ad we considered here.



Here’s the pitch: Being a billionaire, I’m not going pretend to speak with the populist authenticity of a Sarah Palin. But don’t confuse me with Arnold Schwarzenegger either. He’s a Hollywood action-hero who has been playing a political outsider as if California were a studio sound stage. Jerry Brown is as much a political illusionist as Arnold, just the man to preside over the long-running theatrical production in Sacramento conjuring up fantastic images of good government. You can trust me to change things because I made my billions making real things happen in the real world where voters reside.

You’d think that, given California’s sad state, and the extent to which Jerry Brown is implicated in the long-running failures of its government, that Whitman's message would have more resonance than recent polls suggest it's having, especially given all the dollars she's putting behind it. Maybe it’s not because people on Main Street think that billionaire businesswomen are illusionists too.

Coping With Mad Men Withdrawal

This is a tough time of the year for me. My team didn’t make it to the World Series. And Mad Men—the only thing I’ve been moved to write about consistently other than politics—is over for the year. I’m in desperate need of something to distract me from these depressing political times. This is a cry for help.

Here's a question for Mad Men devotees:  Is there anything on the cultural horizon that has enough of Mad Men’s dramatic intensity and intellectual heft to be worth watching and writing about?

California: The Eternal Recurrence

Everyone knows that California is going down the tubes in large part because its governing class has performed miserably. So you might think that Meg Whitman would be just what the doctor ordered, someone from the business world who could extricate the state from the death-grip of career politicians. By the same token, Jerry Brown, the oldest of political old boys, is the last guy you’d expect to rectify a generation of political malpractice.

The point of this Brown ad is to remind Californians that they've already tried turning the page by recalling Gray Davis and electing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who has the stomach to go through that again?



Knowing that he could never convince Californians that no one as old (in politician years) as he is could ever be new again, Brown’s arguing that anyone who looks new is really old anyway. So it’s time for Californians to turn the page on turning the page by electing the guy who was governor before it ever occurred to their parents to think about turning the page.

I'd say a little prayer for my not being a Californian if I didn't live in New York.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Weekend Rerun: The Rule of Law vs. the Rule of Judges

Since the site of the KSM trial still hasn't been determined and flow of empty rhetoric about the "rule of law" never subsides, I thought I'd rerun this slightly amended post from March 6 (please excuse my lack of prescience about Eric Holder):

If this Washington Post report that the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) case will be referred back to a military commission is true, the Obama administration has resigned itself to yet another political humiliation on national security issues. That probably means the end of the road for Eric Holder as Attorney General. So drastic a change of course by the administration will surely be regarded by liberals, in any case, as a stab in the back. American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero’s reaction (as reported by Josh Gerstein) typifies their likely reaction (my emphasis):
“If this stunning reversal comes to pass, President Obama will deal a death blow to his own Justice Department, not to mention American values. . . . If the president flip-flops and retreats to the Bush military commissions, he will betray his campaign promise to restore the rule of law, demonstrate that his principles are up for grabs and lose all credibility with Americans who care about justice and the rule of law.”
The view that trying alleged terrorists before military commissions is inconsistent with “justice and the rule of law” is held so viscerally, and upheld so reflexively, in liberal circles that liberals seldom bother to defend it. But it’s worth stepping back and asking: why is it so vital to the rule of law that people like KSM be tried before Article III courts?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Krugman's Baffling Certainty

Here's another effort by Paul Krugman to expose not just the error, but the profound irrationality, of people who disagree with his prescription for another round of fiscal stimulus.  I'm not the guy to tell you whether he's right about macro-economics, although you'd be crazy not to put a lot of weight on anything a guy with his credentials says.  But Krugman's extraordinary condescension toward his professional peers calls to mind a post from July 6:

David Brooks thinks that we ought to be mindful of, and make some sensible hedges against, the uncertainty that surrounds our understanding of our current economic predicament. So like a lot of us, although he’s duly impressed by the argument for another round of economic stimulus made by Paul Krugman and others, he can’t bring himself to forget the number of highly credentialed dissenters:
“[M]any prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?
That’s not a rhetorical question for non-economists. Brooks is responding to the same impulse that moves us not to go ahead with the surgery prescribed by our doctor until we've gotten a concurring second opinion from another similarly credentialed diagnostician. When it comes to evaluating expert opinion on a subject as to which we lack expertise ourselves, we normally treat unanimity among credentialed experts as weighty evidence that their shared opinion is correct, and disagreement as weighty evidence against the correctness of any single opinion.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Welcome to Nevada, Mr. President"

A couple of days ago, I compared Sharron Angle and Harry Reid’s closing arguments in their Nevada senatorial contest. Each candidate was making an argument to Nevadans about Nevada. Here’s another version of Angle’s closing argument from an organization called “Friends of Sharron Angle” with bigger fish to fry:



Wow.  I can’t recall ever seeing anything quite like this in a state-wide election. The people who made this ad aren’t just attempting to “nationalize” a Nevada election by tying an ineffectual and/or corrupt senator to an unpopular president. They’re trying to “ideologize” it by portraying Reid as an all-too-effectual lieutenant taking orders from General Obama in a generational ideological war while a faceless mob chants in the background. The Nevada election's just a local skirmish. Substitute facts about the national economy for the Nevada-specific facts and you have the sort of ad Republicans will probably be running in 2012.

Two observations:

First, an ad like this will surely enlist some Nevadans in the broader ideological war, but it probably will also excite a backlash from Nevadans who resent outsiders butting into their local affairs. I wonder how that nets out.

Second, the last time conservative Republicans tried something like this, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole (who went reluctantly along for the ride) got their heads handed to them by Bill Clinton. It looks like conservatives are betting that things will be different this time around.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Know Thyself

Democrats’ dire prospects in the coming election have George Packer taking stock of the sad state of liberalism. After the last election, he was rhapsodizing about the intellectually vigorous “new liberalism” that was growing into the space in our political culture vacated by intellectually exhausted conservatism. In his eyes, Obama personified that ideological ascendency.  Now Packer concedes that he was letting hope triumph over experience (my emphasis):
"As for 'The New Liberalism' [the title of a piece Packer published back in 2008], a question mark at the end would have been more prudent. We’ve seen several pieces of landmark legislation, including the most important social reform since the Great Society, health care, which is also the first significant blow to economic inequality since the trend started in the late seventies. But there’s no new or revived ism to sustain the values and ideas behind these achievements. Obama has no larger movement behind him; the one he had ended on election night. After all the analysis of his political flaws and tactical mistakes (I’ve engaged in this cheap spectator sport myself), here is the heart of his political weakness. F.D.R. had the labor movement; L.B.J. had the civil-rights movement. Obama had Obama for America. His campaign was based on the man more than any set of ideas or clear vision of the future. Everyone knew what Reaganism stood for. No one knows what Obamaism means, which has allowed his enemies to fill in the blank.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can Harry Reid Survive?

Reading the polls like everyone else, I have no idea who will win the Nevada Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle.  But let's pretend we're hard-nosed political strategists. Here are the messages the candidates, or people acting in their behalf, are putting out over the internet today. Each, I suspect, is a pretty fair representation of the candidate’s closing argument.

The Angle ad says, in effect, things are so bad that you have nothing much to lose by voting out a hack like Harry Reid:



The Reid ad says, in effect, that you’re far too well-off to risk voting for a kook like Sharron Angle:



Is there any doubt about which message is more compelling in a state with double-digit unemployment and a housing market overwhelmed by foreclosures?

An Ideological Retreat

I have no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom that Democrats are going to lose, and lose big, in the coming election. Yet that still looks to me more like a symptom of continuing electoral volatility than the beginning of an enduring realignment. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to election guru Charlie Cook contemplating available polling data: “What this means,” he observes, “is that we will likely have our third wave election in a row this year, and the bigger this one is, the more likely that there will be a countervailing wave in either 2012 or 2014."

Let’s assume that Cook’s right about Democratic prospects of regaining electoral ground in coming elections. Does that mean that liberals will hold their ideological ground in the war they’ve been waging with conservatives for the allegiance of the mean voter since Reaganites took over the Republican Party in the 1980s?  Not at all inasmuch as it may turn out that the only way for Democrats to hold their own electorally is to surrender ground ideologically.

We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that things are headed in that direction. It never dawned on most liberals six months ago that Democratic congressmen who were celebrating the passage of ObamaCare as the crowning achievement of their political careers would be trying to pretend that it never happened on the campaign trail.  The spectacular unpopularity of Nancy Pelosi is still more impressive evidence that Democrats will be staging an ideological retreat. Here’s Gallup:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More on Anonymous Political Speech

I’ve always admired Robert Reich for, among other things, his readiness to tell his liberal comrades things about the political economy that they’d rather not hear. Now, when liberals are stocking up on the hard stuff to get through a long election night, he’s telling them a consoling fairy tale (my emphasis):
A relatively few Americans are buying our democracy as never before. And they're doing it completely in secret.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into advertisements for and against candidates -- without a trace of where the dollars are coming from. They're laundered through a handful of groups. Fred Maleck, whom you may remember as deputy director of Richard Nixon's notorious Committee to Reelect the President (dubbed Creep in the Watergate scandal), is running one of them. Republican operative Karl Rove runs another. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a third.

“The Supreme Court's Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission made it possible. The Federal Election Commission says only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.

We're back to the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators. The public never knew who was bribing whom.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Anonymous Political Speech

I’ve argued before that we should worry a lot about the influence of money on the political process when it clandestinely shapes the menu of options that are put before the electorate, and not very much about money that’s used to finance political speech—even when the source of the financing is undisclosed. I can’t see how hearing anonymous or pseudonymous speech impairs the autonomy of voters. And it can convey information that makes voting preferences a more accurate expression of the voter’s real interests and ideals.

In this respect, the folks over at Reason TV and I are on the same page (click on image to enlarge):

Mad Men: Anna’s Bequest

The first time we saw Anna Draper, she was standing in the makeshift office of a small-time used car salesman, determined to find out why he was impersonating her husband. It would have been natural for someone in her place just to call in the cops on grounds that the guy pretending to be Don Draper probably had something to do with her husband’s disappearance. Anna couldn’t have known, or much cared about, what Dick Whitman was escaping from. And she couldn’t have been bowled over by the magnetism of the guy we’ve come to know as Don Draper because he didn’t yet exist. Anyone else in Anna’s place would have exposed this imposter for what he was.

Anna’s decision to let Dick keep being Don was an act of unfathomable generosity. This used car salesman didn’t have the wherewithal to buy her silence—the California house Don would eventually buy for her was a token of their friendship, not the cause of it. Yet Anna didn’t have the heart to stand in Dick’s way after she’d intuited how desperately he needed to become Don.  She must have realized that continuing to be Dick would have sucked the life out of him.

You have to figure, however, that Anna was also looking out for herself. For her own inscrutable reasons, she’d realized that she too had a stake in Dick’s becoming Don. By the time she was dying of cancer, Anna had come to see Don’s life as a continuation of her own. That’s why she bequeathed him the ring that he would have given to her had he really been the original Don Draper. She wasn’t just reaffirming that Dick Whitman had her permission to keep being Don Draper, she was exhorting Don to get on with living the life they’d jointly envisioned by finding someone new to take Betty’s place.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Glenn Beck's CPAC Keynote Address

Everybody’s always talking about Glenn Beck. Since I’ve always felt a little inadequate for having nothing much to say about him, I’ll rerun the one thing I managed to say on February 22:

Neither being in the choir he’s preaching to, nor being quite as alarmed by the Tea Parties he’s helped inspire as an upright liberal is supposed to be, I’ve never paid much attention to Glenn Beck. I’ve never heard more than isolated snippets of his commentary because I have neither the time nor the inclination to tune into his show during business hours. So when I came upon a live broadcast of Beck’s CPAC Keynote Address on Fox while I was flipping idly through the channels Saturday, I welcomed the opportunity to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I was amazed in two respects by what I saw.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Is ObamaCare a Political Tipping Point

Watching Democratic congressional candidates run away from their health care votes puts me in mind of this post from last March 24:

High-stakes political contests have a distinctive psychological dimension. They excite extraordinary ideological passions not just because the contestants disagree pointedly about a particular public policy issue, but because they agree that resolving the issue one way or the other will bring us to a political tipping point. To those trying to remake the status quo, losing means squandering a rare, and possibly the last, opportunity to right a grievous political wrong. To their political opponents, losing means surrendering to a political change they think is irreversible and profoundly for the worse. Both sides throw everything into the fight because they’re sure that they’ll never be able to recover lost ground.

The enactment of ObamaCare is a case in point. Liberals are congratulating themselves for seizing what might have been their last chance to redeem the egalitarian promises of the New Deal and the Great Society. Conservatives are checking the fine print on what they fear is a one-way ticket to European Social Democracy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

More on Obama and DADT

Here (via Jane Hamsher with video) is Obama’s answer to a question about Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell at the MTV Town Hall (my emphasis):
“I have said very clearly, including in a State of the Union Address, that I am against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and that we’re going to end this policy. That’s point number one. Point number two, the difference between my position right now and Harry Truman’s, is that Congress explicitly passed a law that took away the power of the executive branch to end this policy unilaterally. So this is not a situation in which, with the stroke of a pen, I can simply end the policy.

“They Heard Us, Yet They Ignored Us”

Here’s an ad put out by Colorado senatorial candidate Ken Buck that, according to conservatives over at Power Line and National Review, hits the nail squarely on its head:



Let’s step back from the partisan fray far enough to ask ourselves why conservatives think “they heard us, yet they ignored us” is so powerful a message. Buck’s words invite a pretty obvious response from Democrats: “Of course we ignored views with which we disagree; that’s our prerogative after winning the last election.” To understand why that answer not only doesn’t satisfy, but infuriates, a lot of voters, you have to appreciate the difference between disagreement and disdain.

Suppose Bill and John are having an argument at a bar. Bill says X, and John says not-X loudly and insistently enough that other people start giving him strange looks. Bill puts his arm on John’s shoulder and tells him that he should settle down because the liquor has gone to his head and he’ll regret having said not-X in the morning. Bill’s not only disagreeing with what John said, he’s telling John that he just said something so outlandish that, upon reflection, he’ll disagree with it too. Bill’s not just saying that John's wrong, he’s saying that his present opinion about X doesn’t count.

Depending on the circumstances, Bill’s words to John might be a praiseworthy, or at least an excusable, act of friendship. Maybe Bill knows John well enough to be pretty sure that he doesn’t really mean what he’s now saying and that he really will regret having said it in the morning. So Bill’s ignoring what John said now out of respect for his unimpaired judgment. We all need a little paternalistic supervision occasionally and rely on our friends to provide it when we do. Or maybe Bill’s trying to be good a friend to John, but is mistaken in this case about whether not-X is John’s considered opinion. In the morning, John might still be a little pissed-off at Bill, but forgive him anyway because he meant well.

Yet Bill could also be expressing disdain for John. That would be a fair inference on John’s part if Bill always tries to preempt disagreement by putting a patronizing arm on John’s shoulder. Under those circumstances, John might reasonably resent Bob’s condescension even if, in this particular instance, John finds that he really does believe X upon reflection.  Being wrong is embarrassing, but being treated with contempt is intolerable—even when you’re wrong.  Under the circumstances, you couldn't blame John for finding a new drinking companion.

If “they heard us, yet they ignored us” resonates not only with Tea Partiers, but with a substantial number of Independents, it’s probably because they all feel the sting of the Democrats’ disdain. They're tired of being told that, although they don't yet realize it, they're really going to love what the Democrats have done over the last two years when they reflect on things dispassionately.  It’s possible that at least the Independents among them could still be persuaded that the Democratic agenda makes as much sense today as it did two short years ago.  But they've stopped listening.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Liberals Don’t Get About Earmarks

It drives liberals crazy to hear Eric Cantor tell us that “the long climb to fiscal responsibility must begin with a few smaller, but necessary, steps” and that getting rid of congressional earmarks is one of them. Here’s Kevin Drum, in characteristically fine form, translating Cantor’s spin about earmarks into plain language:
“If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.

“These are big things — but proposing cuts to these programs would be an electoral disaster. If Republicans proposed real federal spending reductions we'd get our hats handed to us in November. So we're not going to do it. We're just not. And we're not going to do anything serious about cutting spending after the election either. Instead we're going to distract the rubes with some chatter about a problem that even I admit is trifling. They'll eat it up. I might be pandering here, but that's sure better than the alternative."
Let’s stipulate that the impact of earmarks on the federal budget, and thus the viability of big-ticket entitlements, is trivial. Does it follow that Cantor’s just blowing smoke? Not at all, and the presumption that it does follow marks a blind spot in liberals' field of vision.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Obama’s “Excruciating Trap” on Gay Rights?

One of the many challenges facing Obama this election season is having to contend with the cognitive dissonance generated by his Department of Justice’s ("DoJ") stance toward the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) and Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell (“DADT”). During his presidential campaign Obama didn’t pull his punches; he opposed, and promised his best efforts to get Congress to repeal, both laws. Now his administration is defending them both in court. That leaves Obama, according to Andrew Sullivan, struggling to extricate himself from an “excruciating trap” (my emphasis):
“So once again, we will have the political prospect of the Obama administration simultaneously legally defending the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell in court, while politically saying they oppose both. There is a case for such a position, and Obama's insistence on orderly executive defenses of laws passed by Congress is constitutionally sound. But in the arc of history and morality it is an increasingly perverse and bizarre one. It could also mean disaster for gay servicemembers. . . .

“[I]n the short run, it could very well mean that this awful policy [DADT], opposed by 75 percent of the country, that imposes intolerable burdens on servicemembers risking their lives for us ... could be in place for the indefinite future. And Obama will be the commander-in-chief enforcing it.”

“Yes, the GOP is the main party to blame. But no, this does not excuse the extra-cautious, gays-are-radioactive mindset of the Obama administration.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“Chris Coons the Taxman”

As long as we’re looking at political ads today, take a look at the latest from the Christine O’Donnell campaign:



If you don’t like taxes, I presume that you’ll like this ad. And if you think there are things that the government should be doing (if only paying down the public debt) that it’s not doing for the lack of public funds, I presume you won’t. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good ad from a very bad candidate

But here’s my question: does the ad’s effect on you change according to the identity of the people who funded it? If not, why would its having been funded by some people rather than others undermine our democracy?

Does This Sort of Campaign Ad Work?



I’m no expert on political advertising. I can only assume that the DNC wouldn’t be making ads like this one without having polling data indicating that it will mobilize the Democratic base. But won’t the ad also energize rank-and-file Republicans by insinuating that they're a bunch of stooges, unknowingly responding to stimuli clandestinely transmitted by Karl Rove and sinister foreigners? I wonder how that nets out.

And what about persuadable independents? Is the DNC really doing itself any good with them by inviting charges (like these from Rich Lowry over at National Review)of McCarthyism? Could you blame independent voters for coming away with the idea that the people who made this ad think they're stooges too?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men: Kicking the Habit

In Mad Men's first episode, watching Don Draper thrash around during business hours with Midge Daniels on an unmade bed in a Greenwich Village walk-up was the first indication that he’s a character who lives behind masks. We’d first seen him as the buttoned-down, hard-charging advertising executive, dressed to the nines, sipping a cocktail at a fancy bar while ruminating over the next Lucky Strike pitch. Later, we watched Don during his working day rubbing elbows with people like Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, to whom the ways of Madison Avenue are second nature. When he wasn’t at work, Don was usually in Ossining, doing his best to persuade Betty that their house was his home.  It was only in his afternoons with Midge that Don dispensed with pretense.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Constitutional Conservatism

I guess you can’t blame conservative intellectuals for strutting their stuff when Gallup is finding that 54% of the people likely to vote in the mid-term elections identify themselves as conservatives. On February 18 of this year, I noted that the conservatism elites are now selling is not their father’s conservativsm.

Yesterday, with great fanfare, an assemblage of movement conservatives issued the “Mount Vernon Statement.” In at least one respect, it’s a strange document. It consists mostly in an anodyne recital of constitutional principles. Who would dispute that the Constitution: “applies the principle of limited government based on the rule of law”; “honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics”; or “encourages free enterprise”? I suppose liberals might get their back up a little at the suggestion that the Constitution “supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny” or “informs the conservative defense of family, neighborhood, community and faith.” But in each case, the verb I’ve italicized is too weaselly to make the proposition worth contesting. On its face, "The Mount Vernon Statement" isn’t an ideologically provocative document.

The strange thing is that accomplished ideological infighters like Ed Meese, Grover Norquist and Richard Viguerie clearly think that they’re lending their names to a conservative manifesto.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Weekend Rerun: On the Creepiness of John Edwards (Updated)

This piece by Diane Dimond about the investigation of John Edwards by a North Carolina grand jury calls to mind something I posted back on February 1st of this year:

Last Friday I watched the one-hour interview of Andrew Young on ABC’s 20/20. The interview, like the book it promotes, recounts the story of Young’s rise and fall, from John Edwards’s high-minded factotum in the 1990s, to a trusted aid on Edwards’s senatorial staff, to a powerful operative on Edwards’s 2004 presidential and vice-presidential campaigns, to the keeper of Edwards’s dark secrets and the chaperone of his pregnant mistress during the 2008 presidential campaign. The story culminates in Young’s public claim to have fathered Edwards’s child after Edward's relationship with Rielle Hunter was disclosed by the National Enquirer. Having been abandoned by Edwards and squandered his last vestige of personal dignity, Young was left with no recourse but to market his book and himself on national television.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ideological Memory

This poll has John Dingell, of all people, running 4% points behind his Republican opponent. That’s shocking. We don’t normally expect to see a 28-term incumbent in a competitive race against a political nonentity. Dingell’s political troubles point to an anomalous feature of the present political landscape: today’s liberals, self-styled progressives, have longer ideological memories and a much deeper psychological connection with their ideological ancestors than today’s reactionary conservatives. That may go a little way toward explaining liberalism’s recent political troubles.

Recall how, a year ago, Obama prefaced his health care address to a joint session of Congress. He described how, at the beginning of each of the last twenty-seven Congresses, Dingell has resubmitted the health care reform bill that his father drafted and regularly submitted before him when he occupied the same seat. Obama didn’t want us to forget that his own health care proposals were a direct descendent of the elder Dingell’s. It was touching to see the gratified expression of an 83-year-old, serving his 55th year in congress, in a seat that he and his father had occupied for 77 years, contemplating the fulfillment of a 70-year-old political aspiration. That night, Dingell was the living embodiment of ideological memories that still animate the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

When Politics Meets Baseball

Another confession:  baseball and politics (in that order) are my two favorite spectator sports. So I can’t resist estimating a politician’s electoral prospects according to how he throws out the first pitch at a baseball game. (I’ve never seen a female politician try, but I'd bet she'd do herself a world of good by throwing a strike.) I think this conclusively confirms what I’ve been thinking about Charlie Crist.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Defending Liberalism vs. Defending Liberal Policies

In response to this post, reader Scrooge McDuck writes (my emphasis):
“I think that something happened--since the 70s-- in the liberal mindset. Conservatives are able to make a full-throated defense of their views on purely normative terms. I don't believe in the conflation of markets and freedom, but I fully understand how someone could.

Liberals don't defend liberalism any more, as a world view: they defend policies. And if, in defending policies, they undermine liberalism, they seem to be able to live with that.

The Liberal Obsession with Messaging

Have you ever noticed that asking a liberal why the present electoral prospects of Democrats are so bleak invites a disquisition on Obama’s limitations as a messenger? Listen, for example, to Michael Tomasky, one of the most perceptive liberal pundits out there (my emphasis):
My own answer to the question of how things got this bad has less to do with whether Obama should have been more liberal or more centrist than with his and his party’s apparent inability, or perhaps refusal, to offer broad and convincing arguments about their central beliefs that counter those of the Republicans. This problem goes back to the Reagan years. It is a failure that many Democrats and liberals hoped Obama could change—something he seemed capable of changing during the campaign but has addressed rather poorly once in office. . . .

"One result is that we have a new faction, the well-financed Tea Party movement that has been able to arrogate to itself practically every symbol of Americanism and to paint the President, his ideas and policies, and his supporters as not merely un-American but actively anti-American. In a Newsweek poll released in late August, nearly a third of Americans actually agreed that it was “definitely” or “probably” true that Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”2

"In the face of all this, it seems not to have occurred to a single prominent Democrat, from Obama on down, to say something like: We love our country every bit as much as they do, and we believe patriotism means expanding access to health care, protecting the environment, and imposing effective new rules on Wall Street.”
I always presume that there’s something to what a smart guy like Tomasky says—although, in this case, his messaging strategy sounds to me a lot like the one that didn’t work for Democrats in 2004 when they were ranting on about John Kerry’s war record and how Karl Rove should be ashamed for questioning their patriotism. But I’m more interested in the fact that smart liberals contemplating Democratic electoral defeats always seem reach for an explanation that turns more on how Democrats sell their agenda to voters than on what the content of their agenda is.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Question for Indignant Liberals

I’ve gotten a lot of intelligent and impassioned push-back from liberal readers for confessing (e.g., here, here and here) that I don't share, and can’t quite fathom, their indignation at the way Republicans have opposed the Democratic agenda since Obama’s election. It’s not that I support Republican opposition on public policy grounds. But I'm unable to summon up the conviction that Republicans ought to be ashamed of themselves, not only for being pigheaded, but for being civically irresponsible. Since when do opposition parties have a civic obligation not to oppose the other party’s legislative agenda?

Here’s another way of putting my point that came to me in the course of a running exchange with an anonymous commenter on this post.  It turns on a little recent political history.

On the morning after Bush’s reelection in 2004, it looked like he’d won a surprisingly strong mandate that extended not only to the way he was prosecuting the Iraq war, but to making good on his promise to move us toward an “ownership society.” The first step Bush planned for us to take down that path, and the principal legislative priority of his second term, was creating self-funded private Social Security accounts as to which each taxpayer and his family would be the exclusive beneficiaries.

Like most liberals, I thought that was a bad idea. The point of Social Security was to insure every working family against the vicissitudes of a volatile economy. To the extent Social Security was privatized, daunting risks would be put back on the shoulders of people who lacked the wherewithal to insure against them privately. Granted, a system with private accounts could conceivably raise the expected rate of return on Social Security contributions and mitigate the political risk to younger workers that a future Congress will cut their benefits by giving them each a property right to the money in their private account. Those advantages had induced some Democrats, including one as influential as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to express cautious support for the idea of partial privatization in the 1990s. But to the extent Social Security was privatized, contributors would have to bear the substantial risk that their expectations would be disappointed by a down market when they were obliged to liquidate the securities in their private account.

Of course, blanket opposition or abject acquiescence weren’t the only options open to Democrats. They could have accepted Bush’s open invitation to compromise by letting Republicans have modest private accounts in exchange for an increase in the rate of payroll taxes for higher income-tax brackets, or a widening of income-base to which the present rates apply, means-testing benefits, etc. Yet congressional Democrats refused the invitation to negotiate for at least two reasons: first, they feared that consenting to even small private accounts would put them on a slippery slope to an ownership society; and second, they sensed Bush was politically vulnerable because he’d misinterpreted his electoral mandate.

I remember being pleased to see Democrats united in intransigent opposition to the Bush plan and not being bothered seeing some Democrats retract their prior support for private accounts. In hindsight, I can’t help being mighty impressed by the political acumen of the Democratic congressional leadership. You might even say that the political defeat they administered to Bush was his Waterloo.

I’m sure everybody knows by now where I’m heading: As far as civic responsibility goes, how is what Republicans have done to Obama over the last two years any different from what the Democrats did to Bush in 2005?

Scenes from a Marriage

Shankar Vedantam has a terrific piece up on Slate comparing the relationship between conservatives and liberals to that of a couple undergoing marriage counseling:
“Couples in marriage therapy invariably have loads of evidence to justify their feelings. If you could haul liberal and conservative America into a counselor's office, the left would produce loads of evidence showing that conservatism is regularly anti-intellectual when it comes to questions of evolution or global climate change. Sarah Palin really did evince a limited knowledge of foreign affairs during the 2008 election. George W. Bush really did say "misunderestimate." Conservatives would tell the counselor about how liberals are always slow to see threats to national security, always "blaming America" and always quick to support international institutions such as the U.N. and the International Court of Justice.

“What couples learn in counseling is that their conflicting visions are accurate, but accurate in the way caricatures are accurate. They miss nuance and fail to see how different underlying dreams prompt each side to value things differently. Surely underlying personality and different upbringing have much to do with the desire among so many liberals to see a president who is, first and foremost, smart, and the desire among so many conservatives to have a president who is, first and foremost, a patriot?”
“If marriage research were a guide to politics,” Vedantam concludes, “we could say that the scripts of the right and the left do us all harm—and that the left may be doing more harm to the relationship than the right.” In a nutshell, that’s because while conservatives think that liberals are wrong, liberals hold conservatives in contempt. Disagreement, even when it gets nasty, is compatible with the mutual respect that sustains a marriage, disdainful condescension isn’t.

Good analogies illuminate as much where they break down as where they hold up. Marital discord is different than ideological jousting in at least one crucial respect. Modern marriage is an at-will relationship between two parties.  That means any marriage can sustain itself only as long as there is a durable meeting of minds between them. No spouse committed to saving a marriage can afford to be indifferent to what his or her spouse thinks about it.

Representative democracy is a relationship among many people, most of whom aren’t doctrinaire ideologues. It holds together as long as a critical mass of citizens are ready, and known by each other to be ready, to discharge their civic obligations to each other despite their disagreements. Citizens don’t have to care about what a less-than-critical-mass of ideologues think about the state of the union. Ideologues marginalized by their own socially corrosive attitudes are easy to ignore.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Christine O’Donnell Campaign Spot

Here's Christine O'Donnell's latest campaign add:




And here’s Jonathan Chait, proving once again that nobody dishes liberal derision better than he does:
“For the record, the accusation is not that she is a witch, but that she ‘dabbled in witchcraft.’ And, actually, this isn't an accusation but her own admission. Given that nobody is claiming she is currently a witch, it's interesting that O'Donnell is bringing up the charge herself. It suggests a guilty frame of mind.”
Let’s translate what O’Donnell and Chait have said into plain terms that facilitate a meaningful comparison of their respective messages.

She ’s saying to voters that, since I’m a lot like you in pertinent respects, the people calling me an airhead also think that a lot of you are airheads with political views that are beyond the pale. Isn’t it time we all stopped listening to these assholes?

He’s saying that, if hearing O’Donnell’s confession about “dabbl[ing] into” witchcraft didn’t convince you that she’s an airhead, her efforts to convince us that she isn’t prove beyond all doubt that she is. Can you believe that this airhead would actually run for the Senate and there are a lot of airheads in Delaware who will actually vote for her?

I’m still chuckling, appreciatively at Chait’s words and derisively at O’Donnell’s because, like most of the people reading this blog, I’m a lot more at home viewing the world from his standpoint than from hers. But note the possibility that they're both saying things that are perfectly defensible from their respective standpoints.  Can someone explain to me why Chait’s (and our) standpoint is any less parochial than O’Donnell’s?

Spot the “Real” Liberal

Ideology has both a deliberative and an expressive aspect.

Its deliberative dimension is a matter of the degree to which it sets forth a reasonably coherent set of ethical and political principles and a political agenda that answers rationally to them. If ideologues are occasionally annoyingly doctrinaire it’s because they’ve taken the trouble to figure out what their political priorities are and how best to realize them. As I’m using the term, having an “ideology” is no guarantee of political rationality, but not having one betrays a lack of political seriousness.

At the same time, visibly adhering to an ideology is an ideologue’s way of saying something important about himself. Our political commitments aren’t branded on our foreheads for all to see. So ideologues need a protocol for spotting each other in a crowd as a prelude to deliberating together. Publicly taking a politically correct position is an expression of a political identity that stakes a claim to membership in an ideological community.

When an ideological community is firing on all cylinders as an engine of deliberation, intellectual seriousness and communal solidarity point in the same direction. Showing your comrades that you’re deliberating seriously about how best to promote commonly held values draws you closer to them. You know that an ideological community needs a tune up, however, when displays of intellectual seriousness drive erstwhile comrades apart.

Here’s an episode from a couple of years ago that I’ve pieced together from newspaper articles here, here and here.  I make no claims about its typicality. The incident interests me because it's a clear example of liberalism’s deliberative and expressive aspects pulling in opposite directions. As such, it challenges liberals to learn something about the current state of liberalism and themselves by asking who in the story are the real liberals.

The story begins in 2004 with UCLA law professor Richard Sander’s publication of a provocative law review article arguing that, if the principal aim of affirmative action in law school admission is the integration of the legal profession, it’s been a self-defeating policy (see “A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action at American Law Schools," 57 Stan. L. Rev. Vol. 57 367-482 (2004)). He hypothesized that affirmative action programs that introduce minority candidates into schools for which they are not, or only marginally, prepared so demoralize their intended beneficiaries as to make them less likely to enter the legal profession than they would have been had they attended less exclusive law schools. On the basis of fragmentary empirical evidence, Sander estimated that affirmative action in law school admissions and law firm recruitment may have decreased minority representation in the national legal community by roughly 8 percent.

From all appearances, Sander didn’t undertake his research to serve some reactionary agenda.  He’s a longstanding member of the liberal community, a former Vista volunteer and a fair housing advocate.  If he’s a racist, he has an odd way of showing it, having an African-American son and having been an energetic political supporter of Harold Washington, Chicago’s only African-American mayor.   I’ve no reason to doubt him when he describes himself as having "been a civil rights activist most of [his] life" who “deeply believe[s] in the idea of fostering integration and greater equality of outcomes in our society . . . [but has] grave doubts that affirmative action in higher education is the way to do that.” 
Sander is the first to admit that, owing to the limited data at his disposal, his research to date is inconclusive. That’s why he petitioned the California Bar Association to grant him access to the “perfect data base” to test his hypothesis, its voluminous bar exam records which include the race, gender, academic credentials and bar scores of candidates for the California Bar over a thirty-year period.  The Bar Association’s release of the data raised legitimate issues about confidentiality. It had been compiled from questionnaires that the respondents completed on the understanding that their answers would be held in confidence and used only to test the fairness of the California bar exam. Sander, however, was more than willing to work with the Bar Association to redact any information that would reveal the identity of the respondents. If scrubbing the records wasn’t sufficient, he even offered to submit his research protocol to the Bar Association so that it could crunch the numbers itself without releasing the data to third parties. The Bar Association still turned him down on the implausible ground that the confidentiality issues were intractable.

Five members of the formally nonpartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at least some of them vocal conservatives, urged the Bar Association to comply with Sander’s request. Even if you think their position served a reactionary agenda, it’s hard to see that it gives liberals much to argue with. You might have thought that they, of all people, would want to know if one of their favorite techniques for promoting racial integration and rectifying a history of discrimination is not only ineffective, but counter-productive. Yet there was a considerable amount of liberal opposition to Sander’s submission to the Bar Association from inside and outside the Civil Rights Commission that was intemperate in tone and conclusory in content.

One liberal Commission member spoke for many of his comrades when he dissented from the Commission’s majority position in these inflammatory terms: "To follow the reasoning of the majority, we might as well hang a sign saying 'blacks and other minorities need not apply' on the doorways of Yale, Harvard and other elite schools."

Other liberals who joined in the debate made no effort to hide the fact that they opposed Sander’s research principally because they feared it would reveal politically inconvenient facts. Society of American Law Teachers co-Presidents Eileen Kaufman and Tayyab Mahmud couldn’t have been more forthright: “If it turns out that individual bar exam scores are used to indicate that minority applicants have not 'learned the law' as well as their white counterparts at similar schools," they cautioned, "then the California State Bar may unwittingly contribute to the misperceptions already confronting minority bar applicants and attorneys." They didn’t explain why research conscientiously undertaken by a highly credentialed social scientist subject to peer review would feed rather than dispel “misconceptions.”

Deborah Waire Post, a professor at New York's Touro Law Center did them one better. She argued that Sander’s research is beneath consideration, apparently on the ground that anyone who even contemplates that affirmative action is ineffective must be an out-and-out racist. It must have come as a shock to Sander when she revealed to the world that he “is not studying affirmative action or diversity policies, he is marshaling evidence to show that blacks do not belong in elite schools or elite firms." If that wasn’t enough, Post compared his work to pseudo-science from "the late 19th and early 20th century when this country was beset by 'scholars' and 'scientists' who constructed theories of racial inferiority to justify the subordination of African Americans." Sanders has to be stopped before he "constructs" again.

You can give yourself a quick ideological Rorschach test by asking yourself which characters in this story are the real liberals, Sander or the people anxious to excommunicate him from the liberal church.

When I pose that question to myself, Sander is the only genuine liberal left standing. I’ve always thought, and still hope, that being a liberal is essentially a matter of being genuinely committed to realization of egalitarian values in the real world. That entails caring about whether the public policies you employ to promote equality really work. So I can only regard Sander’s critics as people who care more about looking like a liberal than actually being one.

Yet the fact that so few liberals rushed to Sander’s defense doesn’t inspire confidence that I’m right. Granted, most self-identified liberals probably wouldn’t have been as hard on Sander as the people I’ve quoted above. But that doesn’t change the fact that Sander’s critics trashed him from secure institutional perches within the liberal community without inhibition. That suggests that, in liberal circles, it’s not particularly bad form to impugn the ideological authenticity of someone like Sander.

What do you think?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mad Men: The Survival of the Fittest

This Mad Men season began with a reporter  flummoxing Don by asking: "Who is Don Draper?" The reporter didn’t have to ask what Don Draper does because his meteoric rise in the advertising industry was already a matter of public record. The point of the question was to locate the secret of Don’s success somewhere in his underlying character. Don couldn’t come up with an answer to that question because he wasn’t much given to thinking about himself, and didn’t have much of a self to think about. This Mad Men season has mostly been about Don’s starting to ask himself whether that’s a worthwhile way to live and not having a ready answer.

We already knew that the real secret of Don Draper’s success is his extraordinary capacity to recast himself to the dimensions of the social space he aspires to fill. The combination of his revulsion at the prospect of following in the footsteps of his cruel and dissolute father and the unlikely turn of events that ended his military career in Korea enabled Don to choose not only what he wanted to do, but who he wanted to be. That’s what prepared him to take advantage of every opportunity to move up a rung on the social ladder, from a bewildered soldier in Korea to a hustling used-car salesmen in the big city, from the guy able to find Roger Sterling just the right fur for a demanding new mistress to the high-powered advertising executive who’d pushed Roger aside professionally.

Dick Whitman’s impersonation of Don Draper is an artful metaphor for the social, psychological and commercial dislocations of the 1960s. Last night’s episode showed us which characters had it in them to keep their footing when the ground beneath SCDP shifted with the loss of the Lucky Strike account. Pete and Peggy managed to maintain a precarious balance because they share some of Don’s restless desperation. Roger didn’t because his desperation is of an entirely different order.

Pete’s never had Kenny Cosgrove’s natural flair for charming clients. But he’s still been driven to prevail over Kenny professionally (note how Kenny reports to him abut Lucky Strike) out of the oedipal disgust he feels for the father who never forgave him for not taking his prescribed place in the legal profession. Now Pete’s missing the birth of his first (legitimate) child because he’s trolling for clients with Don at the funeral of a prominent ad man. Watching the blank expressions on the face of the shamefully neglected widow and daughter while eulogists drone about the sacrifices that the deceased was willing to endure to get a client reminds both Don and Pete how much their professional ambition has cost them.

Peggy came to Sterling Cooper determined not to be anything like her cantankerous mother or her cowering sister. She started off trying to follow in what she thought were Joan’s footsteps by coming on to Don on her first day as his secretary and by sleeping with Pete during her first week. She’d soon find an alternative avenue of escape from her past when Freddie Rumson gave her a chance to write some advertising copy. Following that path has cost her plenty along the way, but it’s also what prepared her to fill Don’s shoes at SCDP (despite some misplaced lipstick) while he’s out of the office trying to drum up new business.

Roger’s been losing his balance since Mad Men’s first season. When we first met him he was the consummate ad man whose capacity to capture and hold onto clients was matched only by his capacity to hold his liquor. We soon found out that the liquor part was an empty pretense when Don maneuvered him into depositing both his liquor and several dozen oysters on the feet of a prospective client. This year we found out what we’d long suspected, that Roger’s only major account, Lucky Strike, was inherited from his father.  Roger has managed to hold onto it over the years only by sucking up to Lee Garner, Jr., another dissolute son who’d inherited unearned commercial stature from his father. The emptiness of Roger’s professional pretenses has been dramatized this season by his humiliating failure to get his memoirs published—the advance copies that his wife presented him with at the end of last night’s episode looked like they’d just come off the vanity press.

All of this was driven home last night in another perfect Mad Men moment. Although Roger had known that the Lucky Strike account was lost for weeks before his colleagues found out about it, he’d kept the news to himself in a pathetic display of vanity. When his colleagues find out and confront him with the bad news, Roger pretends for their benefit to be pleading SCDP’s case with Lee Garner over a phone that he’d secretly disconnected.

Here in a single image, Roger Sterling is revealed as the antithesis of Don Draper. We've spent nearly four seasons watching Dick/Don be the consummate ad man while he impersonates another man. Now we see Roger revealing his unvarnished self by impersonating an ad man.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Is this a Center-Right Country?

Steve Bennen wants to hear answers to the following questions: “is this a 'center-right' nation? What's the appropriate metric to even consider such a question?” I had something to say on this topic on July 28:

Conservatives never tire of saying that this is a center-right country with which Obama and the Democratic Party are increasingly out-of-step. Liberals like to point to the last two national elections as proof that, when conservatives say such things, they’re letting wishful thinking get the better of them. But liberals are too demoralized today, and have lost too many elections they think they should have won over the last forty years, to resist the dispiriting suspicion that conservatives may be right.

A recent Pew study about how registered Republicans, Independents and Democrats situate themselves and the political parties on the ideological spectrum won’t quiet that suspicion. Here’s how Pew summarizes its findings:
“[M]ore voters view the Democratic Party as very liberal than see the Republican Party as very conservative (26% vs. 18%). As a result, the average rating for the Democratic Party's ideology among all voters is somewhat farther to the left than the Republican Party's is to the right. The Republican Party's rating also is closer to voters' average ratings of their own ideology, which is slightly to the right of center.


"These average ratings reflect sharp differences between how Republican voters view the Democratic Party and how Democrats view the GOP. More than eight-in-ten Republican voters (83%) say the Democratic Party is liberal (34%) or very liberal (49%). By contrast, a smaller majority (61%) of Democratic voters view the GOP as conservative (33%) or very conservative (29%).”

Smart center-left bloggers have done their best to explain Pew’s results in a way that doesn’t oblige liberals to concede that they’re surrendering contested ideological ground. Matthew Yglesias, for example, speculates about a “psychological anchor phenomenon” generated by the way the mainstream media have decided to describe the Tea Party movement. And Paul Waldman and Jonathan Chait think it’s a matter of Republicans and conservatives getting their news from propagandistic outlets like Fox while liberals and moderates still get most of theirs from outlets that at least pretend to political objectivity. All these explanations leave open the possibility that Democrats are just the victims of ephemeral economic distress and their own inept messaging.

I don’t doubt that there’s something to each of these explanations. But I want to take a couple of steps back to contemplate the conceptual grid of the Pew study. It works by asking a sample of registered voters to identify themselves as Democrats/Republicans/independents, and then to describe themselves and the parties as either liberal/conservative/moderate or very liberal/conservative. A numerical value is assigned to each answer so that an average ideological score can be computed for each group of respondents. The ideological spectrum this generates is an artifact of that mathematical operation. That makes the Pew study turn on at least two widely employed oversimplifications.

The first is the assumption that all political commitments can be plotted somewhere along a single ideological spectrum without serious distortion. It doesn’t take much self-examination, however, to discover that our political commitments are multi-dimensional. Most of us, for example, have somewhat considered views not only about what our government should decide to do, but about how it should decide what to do.

These are logically independent commitments in that one’s view of the first issue doesn’t commit one to any particular view of the second. When a democratic political system is functioning properly, the what decision and the how decision are also psychologically independent in the minds of people across the political spectrum, in that most people are visibly prepared to constrain their partisanship in deference to the shared civic norms. When partisans disregard or tailor their interpretation of those norms to their partisan agenda, however, they're drawing down on the reservoir of public trust that enables a democracy to reach legitimate public decisions.

That means that the Pew results conflate the respondents’ attitudes about substantive ideology and their attitudes about what counts as good democratic citizenship. Judging from the results of the 1998 mid-term election, a lot of people disapproved of the way the Gingrich-conservatives misused the impeachment process for the purely partisan end of bringing Bill Clinton down. The only way that disapproval could have been registered in the Pew study was by liberals and moderate voters disparaging the Gingrichites by calling them “very conservative” and somewhat conservative voters trying to put some space between themselves and the Gingrichites by identifying themselves as “moderates.”

Strictly speaking, however, disapproval of the Clinton impeachment had almost nothing to do with substantive ideology and almost everything to do with public perceptions that Gingrichites weren’t being very good citizens. Substantially the same dynamic seems to be animating the Tea Party movement. Its members like to call themselves “constitutional conservatives” because they’re as troubled by the democratic legitimacy of measures like ObamaCare than by their public policy content. None of that registers independently in the Pew results.

The second noteworthy feature of the Pew study is that it’s a snapshot taken at a particular point of time. But voters, especially ideologically minded voters, have memories that they bring to bear on their understanding of their own and other people’s ideologies. They remember enough about what Democrats and Republicans used to believe to be able to place them on the same ideological spectrum on which they situate today’s political players and themselves. When they do, you’d expect them to recall the innumerable respects in which Obama’s governing agenda puts him to the right not only of LBJ and Carter, but of Republican presidents like Nixon and Ford. You’d expect at least some voters to remember, moreover, that today’s mainstream Republicans embrace policies, like the repeal of the estate tax, that are too right-wing ever to have occurred to Ronald Reagan.

Political memory goes some of the way toward explaining why, on average, Democrats think that the Democratic Party is ideologically moderate. It sure looks that way when you compare it to the party of LBJ. But if we assume that Independents and Republicans have comparable memories, the Pew results are all-the-more startling. Despite the Democratic Party’s spectacular move to the right on domestic policy over the last forty years, Independents and Republicans still think on average that it's “liberal” and “very liberal” respectively. That goes to show how far the entire ideological spectrum has moved to the right since LBJ was building the Great Society.

That’s what should be keeping liberals up at night.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Why Isn’t My Heart Being Warmed?

Here’s a story that’s supposed to lift your spirits.

At the end of a high school football game, the coach of the team that was being blown out calls a time-out to ask the other team’s coach privately to have his players let an autistic kid catch a pass.  He'd been practicing with his team all year without ever getting into a game.  The opposing coach, with the enthusiastic support of all of his players, happily agreed not only to let the kid catch the pass, but to run 60 yards for a touchdown after he caught it. The players on both sides apparently did a pretty good job of making it look like an authentic play--they played their parts convincingly enough, it seems, to fool the autistic kid into thinking in the heat of the moment that he was really scoring a touchdown. When he raised his arms in triumph crossing the goal line, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cheering crowd.

I don’t doubt for a moment that all of this was well-intentioned or that it’s worthwhile for people to go out of their way to promote the self-esteem of handicapped kids. But am I crazy to think that, despite their best intentions, the people in on this ruse were grotesquely assaulting this kid’s dignity? It’s not like he won’t figure out what was going on--he’s a senior in high school who aspires to be a football player! Is he really going to be cheered by the memory of his having been snookered into momentarily thinking he’d really managed to accomplish something when everyone on the field and in the crowd but him knew that he hadn’t?

We should promote the self-esteem of handicapped kids because they might not realize that they’re genuinely estimable, not because we're looking for some self-esteem of our own.

Weekend Rerun: Goodbye Rahm

Rahm Emanuel’s departure from the White House brought to mind this post from March 3 entitled:  Ideologues, Pragmatists and Machiavellians.

Pundits have lately been paying a lot of attention to Rahm Emanuel’s standing within the Obama administration. Smart liberals like Michael Tomasky are losing patience with his zeal to subordinate ideology to practicality:
“Obama needs an Emanuel-like figure around him. And he needs operate within political limits, at times. But at other times, he needs to do the right thing and not worry about what Lindsey Graham is going to say. Leaks like those in this article establish a narrative in which the right thing is by definition the naïve thing. That may be good for a certain category of Washington conventional-wisdom arbiter, but it isn't good for the country.”
Smart conservatives like Jonah Goldberg see the administration’s failure to heed Emanuel’s advice as proof of its liberal naiveté:
“[T]he real reason the Milbank column [about Emanuel] has enraged so many left-wing bloggers and liberal columnists is that Emanuel’s understanding of the political landscape puts him in the reality-based community. And that is a community the Obama cult refuses to join.”
Such observations exemplify how conventional political wisdom is generated by the application of stereotypes. Pundits turn presidential administrations into melodramas with stock characters. Two familiar character-types figure crucially in Tomasky’s and Goldberg’s analyses:

The ideologue is indisposed to compromise with the political opposition in deference to controversial standards of political morality or sound public administration. His ideological comrades tend to think he’s admirably principled. His ideological opponents tend to regard him as being regrettably doctrinaire.

The pragmatist is unwilling to let doctrinal perfection be the enemy of good, but uninspired, policy. When they’re feeling irritable, his more doctrinaire ideological comrades are apt to disparage him as a cynical opportunist. His political opponents are grudgingly impressed by his realism.

It’s noteworthy that we’re hearing nothing about a third stereotype in recent discussions of Emanuel, viz., the Machiavellian. His commitment to core values is as unconditional as the ideologue’s, but his more refined sense of their relative urgency makes him less equivocal than the ideologue when it comes to trading one valued objective off against another. That enables him to combine the pragmatist’s flexibility as to means with the ideologues’ unswerving commitment to ultimate ends. Machiavellians tend to be revered by their ideological comrades and demonized by their ideological components.

Every administration has a mix of ideologues and pragmatists: The G.H.W. Bush administration had Jack Kemp and James Baker, the Clinton Administration had Robert Reich and Robert Rubin. That neither of those administrations contained a prominent Machiavellian was a sign of their ideological timidity.

It testifies to the much greater ideological ambition of George W. Bush’s administration that it gave such prominent roles to genuine Machiavellians like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. It needed to give them a relatively free hand if it was going to commit generations of Americans to the prosecution of an unprecedented War on Terror and march the country toward an ownership society with privatized social security, healthcare financed largely though health savings accounts, no estate tax, etc. Cheney and Rove’s influence receded as those ideological ambitions were thwarted in Bush’s second term.

We’ve seen something like that eight-year process telescoped into a single year during Obama’s administration. When he was cautioning liberals soon after Obama’s inauguration never to let a good crisis go to waste, Emanuel was auditioning for the role of Machiavellian-in-chief in an administration determined to complete the work of the New Deal and the Great Society. This terrific article by Noam Scheiber recounts how Emanuel aspired to fill that role by doing whatever it took to push comprehensive healthcare reform through by August of the administration's first year.

Now, alas, Emanuel has been reduced to staking his claim to being Obama’s pragmatist-in-chief. That’s bad news for him, and worse news for liberals.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Barack Obama, Dean-Speaker

Yesterday, I described a style of political rhetoric I call “Dean-Speak.” One of its essential features is that it appropriates the moral rhetoric that liberals developed in connection with real outrages of earlier times for everyday use against Republicans.  I observed in passing that Dean-Speaking isn’t part of Obama’s political brand.

Maybe that judgment's out-of-date. Take a look at what Obama’s now saying on the campaign trail about the moral urgency of voting for Democrats in the coming mid-term election.  I guess the idea is that the same well-chosen words can fire up the Democratic base and immobilize the opposition by provoking hysterical laughter.