Thursday, December 30, 2010

Liberalism and Illegal Immigration

We all know that, generally speaking, Democratic politicians are likely to be much more sympathetic to the interests of illegal immigrants than Republican politicians. That’s readily explicable in terms of electoral dynamics—the Latino voters to whom the interests of illegal immigrants matter most are an integral part of the Democratic base. It’s smart politics for Democrats to give illegals a relatively easy pathway to citizenship because it pleases people who already vote for them and promises to grow the future population of likely Democratic voters.

Mickey Kaus argues, however, that there’s a crucial respect in which Democrats' relative tolerance of illegal immigration belies their egalitarian professions. He thinks liberals who really care about equality should be a lot more attentive to the impact of illegal immigration on the well-being of working-class legal residents whose wages are driven lower as a result of labor-market competition from illegals:
“If you're worried about incomes at the bottom, though, one solution leaps out at you. It's a solution that worked, at least in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton, when wages at the low end of the income ladder rose fairly dramatically. The solution is tight labor markets. Get employers bidding for scarce workers and you'll see incomes rise across the board without the need for government aid programs or tax redistribution. A major enemy of tight labor markets at the bottom is also fairly clear: unchecked immigration by undocumented low-skilled workers. It's hard for a day laborer to command $18 an hour in the market if there are illegals hanging out on the corner willing to work for $7. Even experts who claim illlegal immigration is good for Americans overall admit that it's not good for Americans at the bottom. In other words, it's not good for income equality.

“Odd, then that Obama, in his "war on inequality," hasn't made a big effort to prevent illegal immigration--or at least to prevent illegal immigration from returning with renewed force should the economy recover.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Huckabee and Palin

Here’s CNN discussing a poll it conducted on the 2012 presidential race under a title (“Obama and Palin Going in Different Directions?") calculated to reassure anxious Democrats and demoralize Tea Partiers:
"‘Among liberal Democrats, 85 percent say they want to see the party re-nominate Obama in 2012,’ says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. ‘Among moderate Democrats, his support is almost that high.’

"In the battle for the GOP presidential nomination, the survey suggests Palin may have some work to do if she throws her hat in the ring. Only 49 percent of Republicans say that they are likely to support Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008 for the Republican nomination in 2012.

"‘That's a huge 18-point drop since December of 2008, when two-thirds of GOPers said they were likely to support Palin. It also puts her well behind potential rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, and a bit behind Newt Gingrich as well,’ adds Holland.”
This is just the latest sign that Palin can’t, and probably won’t try to, win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  The breeze you’re feeling is the sigh of relief coming from the army of Palin’s detractors, including the battalion inside the Republican establishment. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Federalism as a Presidential Campaign Pitch

Everybody knows that Mitt Romney has a daunting political problem. When he was Governor of Massachusetts he signed into law the health care reform bill we now call RomneyCare, which bears a striking resemblance to the national legislation we now call ObamaCare. Above all, both laws provide for an individual insurance mandate that penalizes people for not buying health insurance in the private market. When Romney was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, he never tired of telling Republican primary voters that RomneyCare showed that he had the right stuff to be a conservative president.

How times have changed.  Now Romney finds himself trying to secure the Republican nomination when the party’s base has decided that ObamaCare’s individual mandate is an abomination in at least three respects: (1) it’s legally objectionable because it contemplates an unconstitutional expansion of the power of the federal government; (2) it’s morally objectionable because it’s an unwarranted assault on individual liberty; and (3) it’s inadvisable as a matter of public policy because it won’t prevent the rest of ObamaCare from driving up healthcare costs.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Politics of Intelligence

That Juan Williams hit an ideological nerve yesterday comparing Barack Obama's and Sarah Palin's intelligence says something important about the state of play in today’s culture war (my emphasis):
“Fox News contributor Juan Williams said Sunday that Sarah Palin ‘can't stand on the intellectual stage’ with President Obama.

“Williams, in his role as an analyst on Fox News Sunday, was breaking down the Republican presidential field, which he saw as weak.

"'There's nobody out there, except for Sarah Palin, who can absolutely dominate the stage, and she can't stand on the intellectual stage with Obama,’ Williams said.”
Liberals think this comparative assessment of Obama’s and Palin’s intelligence goes without saying. But they enjoy hearing it said anyway, especially by a Fox News contributor. Naturally, Williams’s words vexed a lot of conservatives and all Palinites. For one thing, they think that Obama’s ineptitude in office belies all the media hype about his intelligence. For another, they think that only a liberal could summon up the arrogance and obnoxiousness it takes to belittle Palin’s intelligence.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

More Liberal Nostalgia

I’ve commented before about the strangeness of the fact that so many of liberals, like Paul Krugman, are waxing nostalgic about the 1950s these days. You might have thought that self-styled “progressives” would be the last people pining for a bygone era in which, by any reasonable standard, disadvantaged Americans were much worse off then than they are today. But here’s Frank Rich doing Krugman one better in today’s New York Times. A celebrated home movie commemorating a middle-class family’s 1956 trip to the newly opened Disneyland, entitled “Disneyland Dream” has him wiping a wistful tear from his eye (my emphasis):
“‘Disneyland Dream’ was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. . . . The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. . . .

“Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the ‘giant TWA Super Constellation’ propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route. . . .

“‘Disneyland Dream’ is an irony-free zone. ‘For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,’ Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of ‘one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true’ and is ‘forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this.’”

Friday, December 24, 2010

What the Census Says About Taxes

You can almost see the conservative smirk on Michael Barone's face as he contemplates the fact, revealed by the latest census,  that people are voting with their feet for state governments with low taxes. 
“[Population] growth tends to be stronger where taxes are lower. Seven of the nine states that do not levy an income tax grew faster than the national average. The other two, South Dakota and New Hampshire, had the fastest growth in their regions, the Midwest and New England.

“Altogether, 35 percent of the nation’s total population growth occurred in these nine non-[income] taxing states, which accounted for just 19 percent of total population at the beginning of the decade.”
The eroding tax base and threatened insolvency of high-tax states, of course, is the other side of the same coin.  That sounds to conservatives like a pretty good reason why every state should lower its tax rates to the level of the states that are gaining population.  As far as I can see, the best counter-argument goes something like this:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Now?

ake a look at Obama and a bunch of Democrat legislators celebrating the repeal of DADT:

When was the last time you saw Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party looking this good? It’s a spectacle that Democratic partisans and a lot of independent voters would have enjoyed seeing before the mid-term election when it might have done Democrats some political good. So why did they have to wait for a lame duck session of congress for this photo-op?

A Study in Democratic Legitimacy

Although he’s reliably partisan and, from my point of view, reliably wrong, John Kyl has always struck me as an intellectually serious and unusually articulate senator. He put both his seriousness and his fluency on display explaining his vote against DADT-repeal on this video (as did Dick Durbin explaining his vote in favor of it):

Here is Kyl again, after the smoke from the DADT vote had cleared: "'No, I don't have any plan in place,' he told Fox News Monday when asked if he had a plan to repeal the repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

RINOs Getting Religion

Remember when Lindsey Graham was John McCain’s RINO protégé, nursing a sprained wrist from reaching so insistently across the aisle on immigration, judicial appointments and climate change? Well, listen to him now calling out his Republican colleagues for their ideological capitulations over the last week:
“Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lashed out at fellow Republicans Tuesday for a ‘capitulation ... of dramatic proportions’ to Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the lame-duck Congress.

“Graham said Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for allowing ratification of the New START Treaty and other legislation in the period before new lawmakers are sworn in in January.

"‘When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch,’ Graham said on Fox News radio. ‘This has been a capitulation in two weeks of dramatic proportions of policies that wouldn't have passed in the new Congress.’ . . .

"’I can understand the Democrats being afraid of the new Republicans; I can't understand Republicans being afraid of the new Republicans,’" Graham lamented on WTMA radio. ‘They're not opportunities to take everything you couldn't do for two years and jam it. It's literally what they're doing, across the board. And after a while, I stop blaming them, and I blame us.’"

Iraq Has a Government

Well it only took nine months, but Iraq has a government. Here’s the CNN report:

Maybe this is a stupid question, but can someone explain to me why it takes that long for Iraqis to negotiate the terms and conditions for a minority government? I know that the divisions between the Iraqi Sunni and Shiite communities run especially deep, and that lots of Iraqis have both the means and the inclination to try and settle their differences through extra-parliamentary means. But that doesn't explain why it takes them so long to form a government.  If anything, it makes it all the more mysterious because the costs of not forming one expeditiously are so high.

Obama and the Not-So-Lame Ducks?

With START ratification looking like a good bet before year’s end, you might start to get the impression that Obama is getting the hang of his job. Here, for example, is how things look to a level-headed liberal like Kevin Drum (my emphasis):
“Hmmm. So Obama will have a tax deal, repeal of DADT, a food safety bill, approval of New START, and (maybe) the 9/11 first responders bill to his credit during the lame duck session. On the downside, the DREAM Act and the omnibus budget bill failed.

“If this is how things turn out, that's a helluva lame duck session. Maybe we should have more of them?”
Feel a new master narrative about the Obama presidency setting in? You know how it goes because it's being dusted-off from the Clinton presidency: a brilliant liberal president, brimming with youthful idealism but lacking in worldly wisdom, sets up shop in Washington. He immediately starts trying to remake the political economy to his ideological specifications only to be humbled in the mid-term election. Being a quick study, however, he soon figures out that, if he wants to get along with a successful presidency, he’ll have to start going along with the ways of Washington. Before you know it, the upstart starts looking like an accomplished tactician, prying major concessions out of the sweaty hands of befuddled Republicans.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Taking McCain Seriously

Like most Americans, and nearly all liberals, I’ve long since regarded DADT-repeal as a matter of simple decency. I know that there are Americans for whom it’s a matter of simple indecency. And I’ll concede that there might be enough of those Americans serving in our military forces to raise a genuine question as to whether DADT repeal jeopardizes our national security by compromising solidarity among our fighting men and women.

But I don’t expect everybody to embrace my standards of decency and concur with my judgment that their national security worries are misplaced. That’s why we have elections. And it says something that our elected representatives have just repealed DADT even though, under Senate rules, preferences against repeal carried a lot more decision-making weight than preferences in favor of it.

That, however, isn't good enough for John McCain. I won’t add my voice to the chorus of disparagement he’s getting from the left over his stubborn opposition to DADT repeal. I’m perfectly happy to concede that any former presidential candidate who endured five years of captivity and torture as an American prisoner-of-war is entitled to our respectful attention on this matter. So I don’t buy the liberal complaint that McCain is just a sore loser who can’t get over having lost the presidency to a liberal upstart. I presume that there’s a serious idea behind his extraordinary lament about DADT’s imminent repeal from the Senate floor:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekend Rerun: The Morality of Process

With the repeal of DADT, this Congress finally inspired a little moral satisfaction.  At the decisive moment, the Senate dispensed with its normal parliamentary shenanigans and put a morally charged issue up for a straight up-and-down vote.  The result was something that this Congress hasn't often achieved, a decision that was not only a right from a liberal standpoint, but incontestably legitimate from a democratic standpoint.  That calls to mind this post from March 4, when the legislative fate of  ObamaCare was still up in the air:

You can usually count on E.J. Dionne for a lucid application of the principles of common-sense liberalism. Here he’s channeling Ted Kennedy to cut through Republican noise—emitted in this case by Orrin Hatch—about the immorality of using the reconciliation process to pass ObamaCare (my emphasis):
“It was Kennedy, you'll recall, who insisted that health care was ‘a fundamental right and not a privilege.’ That's why it's not just legitimate to use reconciliation to complete the work on health reform. It would be immoral to do otherwise and thereby let a phony argument about process get in the way of health coverage for 30 million Americans.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Judges and Ideology

When I wrote this post on May 11 about Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court, it hadn't occurred to me that a constitutional challenge to ObamaCare might succeed.  That makes the issues it addresses all the more timely:

Peter Baker’s “news analysis” about the Kagan nomination in today's New York Times doesn’t leave much room for doubt about which side has been winning the ideological battle about the courts over the last twenty-five years (my emphasis):
“The selection of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the nation’s 112th justice extends a quarter-century pattern in which Republican presidents generally install strong conservatives on the Supreme Court while Democratic presidents pick candidates who often disappoint their liberal base.

“Ms. Kagan is certainly too liberal for conservatives, who quickly criticized her nomination on Monday as a radical threat. But much like every other Democratic nominee since the 1960s, she does not fit the profile sought by the left, which hungers for a full-throated counterweight to the court’s conservative leader, Justice Antonin Scalia. . . .

“Along the way, conservatives have largely succeeded in framing the debate, putting liberals on the defensive. Sonia Sotomayor echoed conservatives in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year by rejecting the idea of a ‘living’ Constitution that evolves, and even President Obama recently said the court had gone too far in the past. While conservatives have played a powerful role in influencing Republican nominations, liberals have not been as potent in Democratic selections.

“In that vein, then, no Democratic nominee since Thurgood Marshall in 1967 has been the sort of outspoken liberal champion that the left craves, while Justice Scalia has been joined by three other solid conservatives in Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. By all accounts, Mr. Obama did not even consider the candidates favored most by the left, like Harold Hongju Koh, his State Department legal adviser, or Pamela S. Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor.”
What explains the right’s success in moving the whole spectrum of respectable opinion about judicial politics in its direction? Here’s a provisional answer.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Specter Haunting the Conservative Imagination

A specter is haunting the conservative imagination. You might have thought that, in the wake of the last election, conservatives would be easing serenely into the holiday season. Yet the tax deal that passed the House last night despite the opposition of liberal Democrats, has conservatives sensing the ghostly presence of Bill Clinton emerging from a shallow political grave in 1995 to snatch political victory out of the jaws of ideological defeat. The spectacle of Clinton’s political resurrection drove Gingrich Republicans off the deep end. The memory of it is still vivid enough to have conservatives bracing themselves for another round of Clintonian jujitsu.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

More on Liberal Equality

I’ve complained from time to time on this blog (see e.g., here) that an obsession with the precipitous rise of relative income inequality is diverting liberals’ attention from what really matters, viz., the prospect of sustainably improving the well-being of people at or near the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy in absolute terms. All other things being equal, the fact that people at the top are getting to be much better off than people at the top used to be, is a good thing.

A lot of liberals seem to have gotten in the habit of presuming that, morally speaking, other things are never equal because rich people being absolutely better off causes poorer people to be absolutely worse off.  But that presumption isn’t just unfounded, it’s empirically false.

The Darkest Cloud on Obama’s Political Horizon

The political trajectories of Reagan and Clinton presidencies suggest that, as bad as things have been for Obama lately, he still has a pretty good chance of regaining his political footing going into 2012. When it comes to a president’s management of domestic affairs, public opinion can turn around abruptly as long as the economy cooperates.

It may be, however, that the presidencies of Truman and Johnson present a more pertinent comparison. In each of those cases, an unpopular war deprived a Democratic president of his shot at reelection even though, viewed objectively, things were getting better militarily. Public opinion about long wars seems to generate irresistible momentum. Once the public sours on a war, even spectacular military success—think of Bush’s surge in Iraq—can’t turn things around.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Disciplining the Democratic Left

Have a look at what liberal Rep. Peter DeFazio's saying about the tax deal:

Assume that DeFazio’s being straight with us. Would someone who really has Obama’s best interests at heart disclose the desperate-sounding pitch that the president’s allegedly making privately to the House Democratic caucus? No wonder the White House cut House Democrats out of the tax-deal negotiations.

I’m not the guy to tell you whether Obama’s political viability really turns on the swift enactment of the tax deal. But I suspect that his prospects for a second term will turn on his being able to make people like DeFazio pay a political price for saying things like this.

Is Harry Reid Shameless or Just Unashamed?

Say what you will about Harry Reid, but he’s no hypocrite. Voter disgust at the way the Senate does its legislative business under his supervision almost cost him his seat, and his party control of the chamber, in the last election. By all the accounts, Senate and House Democrats have paid a steep political price, not only for voter disapproval of the content of their legislative output, but for the widespread perception that it lacks democratic legitimacy because of all the procedural corners they cut passing it. Under the circumstances, you might have expected a gesture or two on the part of an experienced politician like Reid signaling that he and his Democratic colleagues would be changing their ways.

Well think again. Perhaps you’re already shocked that Reid isn’t ashamed to push proposals through a lame duck Senate, like START ratification, DADT repeal the Dream Act, that he didn’t dare to bring to the Senate floor when voters could have held Democrats accountable for their votes in the mid-term election. But if you’re like me, you never dreamed that Reid had the stones suddenly to unveil a $1.2 trillion, 1924-page omnibus spending bill with over 6,000 earmarks in it and urge his colleagues to pass it (rather than a plain vanilla continuing resolution) in the next two weeks before they have much of a clue about what’s in it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Romney’s Authenticity Problem

The 2012 election season must have started because Mitt Romney is already posturing for Republican primary voters by repudiating the tax deal that Obama negotiated with Senate Republicans. I’m less concerned with the merits of Romney’s argument than the skepticism in conservative circles that he really believes what he’s saying. This tweet from John Podhoretz about the Romney op-ed is representative of a lot of conservative opinion: “And the Mitt Romney, Most Inauthentic Politician in America, Drive to the Presidency continues.” We’ll be hearing a lot about Romney for the next couple of years, so it’s worth remembering how his authenticity problem arose and why it persists.

When running unsuccessfully for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney was obliged to rebut the charge that his Mormonism inclined him to a social conservatism that was out of step with his prospective constituents. To that end, he proclaimed his commitment to abortion rights in no uncertain terms, and reaffirmed it even more emphatically when he ran successfully in the Massachusetts gubernatorial election of 2002. Yet in 2006, having decided to offer himself for the 2008 presidential nomination of the staunchly pro-life Republican Party, Romney started telling conservatives that he’d lately gotten in touch with his inner pro-lifer.

This presented Romney with a formidable rhetorical challenge: how was he to explain his belated change of heart in a way that would convince social conservatives in the Republican base that he’d be a trustworthy protector of unborn life? He might have gotten some points for honesty had he conceded that he’d always been pro-life but had kept it to himself in order to ingratiate himself to Massachusetts voters. But we all know that’s the sort of thing that no one running seriously for the presidential nomination of a major party can afford to say.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Constitutionality of the Individual Mandate

Today, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson ruled that ObamaCare’s individual mandate requiring all adults to purchase health insurance is unconstitutional because it exceeds the enumerated powers of the federal government. Conservatives in general, and Tea Partiers in particular, are unfurling their “Don’t Tread on Me" Flags in celebration because they think Judge Hudson struck a blow for individual liberty and limited government. That, at any rate, is what the guy who brought the suit, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is saying: "This case is not about health insurance,” he insisted “It is not about health care. It's about liberty."

But, strictly speaking, it isn't. The question before the District Court wasn’t whether government as such has the constitutional authority to compel people to buy health insurance, but whether the federal government does. The government of Massachusetts is already enforcing an individual mandate that is identical in all material respects to the one contemplated by ObamaCare. That hasn't provoked a constitutional challenge because, as far as I know, there’s no colorable legal argument to the effect that individuals have a constitutional right not to buy health insurance. To find such a right, a judge would have to scan the penumbras cast by various provisions of the Bill of Rights in an exercise of judicial activism that would have made William O. Douglas blush.

The Liberal Cult of Personality

I understand why the Obama-McConnell tax deal disappoints liberals. They’ve spent most of the last ten years submitting the Bush tax cuts for the rich as Exhibit A in their case for Republican political cynicism and social irresponsibility. So you can hardly blame them for cringing at the sight of a liberal president lending his diminishing authority to their extension. From any recognizably liberal standpoint, it’s lamentable that a liberal president has decided that he has no politically viable choice in the matter. Obama hasn’t hidden the fact that he too is disappointed by current political realities.

I’m having a harder time, however, processing the widespread conviction in liberal circles idea that, by consenting to the extension of those tax cuts, Obama has somehow betrayed his liberal base. Maybe Obama hasn’t played his political cards as well as he might have. But there’s no denying that he was dealt a weak hand—if Reid and Pelosi had the votes to let the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts expire, they would have brought the issue to a vote before the mid-term election. It’s hard to see why Obama’s disinclination to bet on his pulling an inside straight at this late date should cast doubt on his liberal authenticity.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Weekend Rerun: The Democratic Party's Oedipal Politics

Watching Bill Clinton in the White House press room yesterday making Obama look like a pimply teenager who just had his allowance cut puts me in mind of this post from February 16 originally entitled "A Thought About Evan Bayh's "Retirement"":

I don’t pretend to sophistication about electoral politics. So don’t look to me for bright ideas about the hardheaded political calculations behind Evan Bayh’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection to the Senate. I was struck, however, by how it dramatized the generational politics within the Democratic Party.

I’m using “generational” in an ideological rather than a biological sense. For present purposes we can divide Democrats into three generations, depending on the circumstances of their coming of age ideologically. There are:
Grandparents—think of Henry Waxman or Chris Dodd—who came of age in the 1970s when Democrats were exacting political retribution for Vietnam and Watergate while they extended and consolidated the Great Society;

Parents—think of the Clintons, Chuck Schumer and Mark Warner--who emerged during the 1990s when the Clinton administration was trying to achieve liberal objectives while sharing power with Gingrich Republicans;

and Kids—think of Robert Gibbs and the Daily Kos crowd--who came of age contesting the legitimacy of the Bush presidency over  the 2000 Florida election recounts and the Iraq war.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Good Point from Peggy Noonan

A lot of people, like Dan Rather, are saying that the tax deal Obama cut with Republicans over extending the Bush tax cuts will provoke a primary challenge against him from the left. Maybe so. But if it does happen, Peggy Noonan reminds us, it will be crucially different from the formidable primary challenges of recent memory:
“[T]he president's position would be without parallel.

“When Pat Buchanan challenged an incumbent president in his party's presidential primary in 1992, he was going at George H.W. Bush from the right. Mr. Bush's base wasn't the right, it was the party's center. His support came from people who said not "I am a conservative," but "I am a Republican." Mr. Bush wasn't challenged from his base.

“When Ted Kennedy challenged a sitting president of his party in 1980, he was going at Jimmy Carter from the left. But Mr. Carter's base wasn't the left, it was more or less in the party's center.

“When Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president of his party in 1976, he was going at Gerald Ford from the right. Like Mr. Bush, Ford's base wasn't the right, it was the party's establishment. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 the same—he challenged Lyndon Johnson from the left, while Johnson's base within the party was the establishment.

“Modern presidents are never challenged from their base, always by the people who didn't love them going in. You're not supposed to get a serious primary challenge from the people who loved you. But that's the talk of what may happen with Mr. Obama.”
The Reagan, Kennedy and Buchanan challenges each did a lot of political damage to an incumbent president. But they still left the challenged incumbent with a fighting chance of prevailing in the general election. If Noonan’s right, a serious primary challenge from the left will leave Obama dead in the water.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

House Democrats Throw Down the Gauntlet

This can’t have been what the White House had in mind:
“Defying President Obama, House Democrats voted Thursday not to bring up the tax package that he negotiated with Republicans in its current form.

"‘This message today is very simple: That in the form that it was negotiated, it is not acceptable to the House Democratic caucus. It's as simple as that,’ said Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen.

"‘We will continue to try and work with the White House and our Republican colleagues to try and make sure we do something right for the economy and right for jobs, and a balanced package as we go forward,’ he said.

“The vote comes a day after Vice President Biden made clear to House Democrats behind closed doors that the deal would unravel if any changes were made.

"‘Wow did the [White House] mishandle this,’ a senior House Democratic Source told CNN. ‘Breathtaking. Members have major substantive concerns and they should have gently guided people to the finish line.’

“Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon said: ‘They said take it or leave it. We left it.’"

Obama the Triangulator?

You know how it goes because we've seen this movie starring Bill Clinton before: Behind the screen credits, we see him running for the presidency in 1992 as a New Democrat who learned the painful lesson in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion that the McGovernite liberalism he’d grown up with is self-defeating both politically and as public policy. But when he first gets to the White House, he forgets himself and surrenders to the centripetal forces generated by a Washington Democratic establishment that hadn’t yet learned that lesson. Clinton pays for his forgetfulness when his party loses control of Congress two years into his first term.

But, just when we're losing hope, we begin to see that the “comeback kid” still knows how to mount a comeback. Clinton revives his presidency in the movie's invigorating second half by casting himself as the referee in the ideological prize fight between the Democratic base and the Gingrich Republicans. He calls on a figure from his past, a cantankerous Dick Morris, to help him relearn and perfect the art of political triangulation.

Things don’t go smoothly at first; the Democratic base reacts to welfare reform in roughly the same way it’s reacting to Obama’s tax deal now. But Clinton's record of unspectacular but steady achievement, and the fact that Gingrich scares liberals half to death, wins the Democratic base back.  (Clinton's having the foresight to get himself impeached didn't make it into the movie’s final cut.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More on Liberal Pragmatists and Progressive Saviors

In my last post, I doubted that Obama’s complaints about “sanctimonious liberals” at yesterday’s press conference mean that he’s given up on being what David Kurtz calls a “progressive savior.” I pointed to the differences between him and Bill Clinton in this connection to corroborate my doubts. Here, via Ezra Klein, is a passage from The Clinton Tapes that underscores my point by projecting the voice of a real liberal pragmatist without illusions about saving liberal souls (my emphasis):
"[Clinton] said Rolling Stone's founder, Jan Wenner, had come to the White House with author William Greider, a former Washington Post editor whose books included a populist critique of the Federal Reserve banking system. They had agreed not to discuss NAFTA because of Greider's implacable opposition, and the president said all went fine until Greidier brandished a photograph of a destitute-looking American to mount a sudden, dramatic attack.... Greider confronted him saying here is one of the countless poor people who looked to you for leadership -- you were their last hope. Now they feel utterly disillusioned and abandoned. Can you look into this face and name one thing you have done to help? Or one principle you won't compromise? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for?

Pragmatists and Progressive Saviors

Everybody’s thinking that Obama’s surprising petulance in yesterday’s press conference reveals something important about the man as an ideological specimen. Although presidents don’t usually resort to such nakedly partisan rhetoric when announcing that they've signed onto a bipartisan political transaction, it wasn’t all that surprising hearing Obama calling his Republican counterparties “hostage-takers.” That’s the sort of thing he’d been saying throughout the last election campaign.  Obama's complaints about not getting enough credit from “sanctimonious” liberals, however, were more than a little jarring.

David Kurtz has a particularly interesting take on what Obama thereby revealed about himself (my emphasis):
“Obama's press conference this afternoon will be seen as a turning point if not in his Presidency then in how we understand and perceive him and his approach to politics. . . .

“What we saw and what I think we'll see borne out by subsequent events is Obama revealing in a very public way the choice he has made between the two political personas he has simultaneously inhabited throughout his candidacy and his presidency. He has tried to be both pragmatist and progressive savior. And even when he stopped trying to be the savior after he was elected, he was at a certain level content to let supporters continue to project that persona on to him.

“Today, he very clearly and loudly said: that savior persona is not me. I am the pragmatist. And you know what, I don't have a whole lot of patience for the idealists. I share their ideals, but I don't share their approach and I'm not going to get bogged down in recriminations over not living up to some abstract ideal.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Revolt of the Aging Left?

Yesterday I commented on the surprising vehemence with which liberal opinion-makers like Frank Rich and Dan Rather are starting to denounce Obama. I’m still inclined to dismiss such talk as the usual grumbling you hear from the doctrinaire ideologues in the party of a sitting president, not the early signs of a revolt like the one Ted Kennedy led against Jimmy Carter in 1980. On the face of things, it seems awfully unlikely that liberals would really turn their backs on the first African-American president, the guy who led us out of the political wilderness two short years ago and courageously staked his presidency on health care reform when people around him were losing their nerve.

Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the rhetorical inflections of some disaffected liberals. It’s one thing to be disappointed by a president for not measuring up to rigorous ideological standards. Presidents obliged to govern never do. It’s something else, however, to shower an ideologically sympathetic president with contempt for betraying shared ideals. There’s more than a little of that coming lately from the Democratic left.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Are Liberals Really Turning on Obama?

There’s nothing unusual about sitting presidents disappointing their more doctrinaire ideological comrades. I remember conservatives speculating about Reagan’s senility while he was negotiating arms reductions with Gorbachev, liberals shaking their heads when Clinton signed a Republican welfare reform bill into law and conservatives reaching for the Valium when Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.  But nothing has prepared me for the unconcealed contempt that liberal media heavyweights are starting to shower on Obama.

Here, for example, is what Frank Rich had to say about Obama in his column in yesterday’s New York Times:
“THOSE desperate to decipher the baffling Obama presidency could do worse than consult an article titled ‘Understanding Stockholm Syndrome’ in the online archive of The F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin. It explains that hostage takers are most successful at winning a victim’s loyalty if they temper their brutality with a bogus show of kindness. Soon enough, the hostage will start concentrating on his captors’ ‘good side’ and develop psychological characteristics to please them — ‘dependency; lack of initiative; and an inability to act, decide or think.’”
And here’s what Dan Rather had to say today on MSNBC about what the deal over tax cuts being worked out between the White House and congressional Republicans portends for Obama’s political future:

Could it really be that a substantial part of the Democratic base is prepared to abandon the sitting Democratic president who passed the most ambitious social policy reform of the last 45 years over a deal on the Bush tax cuts?

Refreshing Honesty About Taxes

I spend a lot of time commenting on what Paul Krugman says because he isn’t coy. Given half a chance, he’ll tell you the things liberals really think—or, by his lights, should think—but are afraid to say openly. Taxes are an issue as to which Krugman’s candor is especially refreshing because, since Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaigned crashed and burned over his promise to raise tax rates, liberals have gotten into the habit of speaking so strategically about tax policy they’re having trouble remembering what they really do, or should, think.

It’s hard to say, for instance, whether Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008 campaigned on middle class tax cuts in deference to the liberal principle of making the tax code more progressive or as a political concession to illiberal constituencies.  The same question arises in connection with the Democratic Party’s current support for extending the Bush tax cuts for families making less than $250K/year but resisting their extension to people in higher tax brackets.  If you ask me, liberals are so invested in the notion that Republicans are holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for the rich that they've forgotten what liberal tax policy is all about.

So you have to hand it to Krugman for coming right out and saying that, despite what Obama apparently thinks, it would be better from a liberal standpoint to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire than to extend them across the board:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Are We Sitting on a Political Tinderbox?

Here's something from March 26 posted under the title: "What's Eating At Peggy Noonan?":

Peggy Noonan tries harder than most pundits to step back from the partisan fray far enough to assess the state of the union with dispassionate common sense. So it’s a little disturbing that she’s so freaked-out by what she sees:
“Responsible leaders on all levels of American life ought to stop, breathe in, and see the level of anger and agitation that’s rippling through the country. Both sides should try to cool it, or something bad is going to happen. In fact I am struck now by how, when I worry aloud about this and say to a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, that I fear something bad is going to happen, no one disagrees. No one says, ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing.’ They say—again, left right and center: ‘I’m afraid of that too.’

“What I keep thinking of is a beehive. A modern, high tech, highly politicized democracy is a busy beehive, and sometimes the bees are angry, and sometimes someone comes by and sticks a big sharp stick in the hive. The biggest thing Washington should do right now is stop it, stop poking the stick.”
Who could resist the suggestion that politician should “stop poking the stick” in the “beehive”? Let’s stipulate that it’s a bad idea for democratic politicians to incite violence under any circumstances so that we can turn our attention to a different question: what makes Noonan, and the people she talks to, so certain that circumstances are now so extraordinary that we’re suddenly sitting on a political tinderbox? To me that sounds more than a little over the top.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Weekend Rerun: A Thought About the State of the Union Address

Now that everyone's talking about whether and how Obama can get his mojo back, it's worth remembering how he looked when he started visibly losing it.  Here's a post from Janunary 28 about the 2010 State of the Union Address he'd delivered the night before:

You don’t tune into a SOTU address because you’re expecting the president to say fascinating things. The laundry list of presidential proposals is bound to be a little tedious. But it’s usually interesting to figure out which audience the president most wants to speak to. Is it the elected representatives seated before him, the elite opinion-makers preparing tomorrow’s commentary, the historians who will define his legacy in the distant future, the voters?

The most memorable things Obama said last night were addressed to people in the room: he told the Democratic majority in Congress that it should get ready to tackle “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; he told Republican Senators that they shouldn’t be so quick to filibuster everything the majority proposes; he told the majority of the justices on the Supreme Court that they shouldn’t have stuck their nose into campaign finance regulation. Sometimes Obama sounded tough, sometimes he was inspiring. But he was mostly trying to intimidate and inspire politicians by speaking their dialect.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Who’s Acting Like a European Ideologue?

David Brooks is an interesting guy, not only because he has interesting things to say, but because he’s an interesting ideological specimen. He’s a journalistic graduate of conservative publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard. But, while he still retains the intellectual respect of his (erstwhile?) conservative comrades, he has turned himself into liberals’ favorite center-right pundit. In that capacity, he’s uniquely positioned to explain Obama’s liberalism to conservatives, and conservatism to liberals. So we should listen to what he has to say.

Brooks is a diligent student of the consensus historians (like Louis Hartz) who argued that, compared to the ideological diversity of respectable opinion in Europe, the differences between American liberals and conservatives are superficial. So he bristles at the notion that Obama Democrats are the ideological cousins of the European social democrats determined to change the terms of the American social contract.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Your House of Representatives

Having just been censured by his House colleagues by a vote of 333 to 79, Charlie Rangel gets up and tells them that their collective judgment about him doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. And what happens next? Rangel’s Democratic colleagues, most of whom just voted to censure him, give him a standing ovation. See for yourself:

Stacking the Institutional Deck Against Liberalism

Readers of this blog already know that I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of liberal. In my darker moods, I worry that Obama’s first two years in office showed that liberalism, as we’ve traditionally thought of it, now exceeds our institutional capacities. As I’ve argued before, now that signature liberal public policies like Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their present form and new liberal policies have to be paid for with borrowed public funds, liberal governments need to make much more discriminating policy judgments than ever before. Yet our public-decision-making process is looking far too unwieldy to enable us make the finely calibrated trade-offs required for effective liberal policy-making.

That was painfully obvious watching ObamaCare make its way into law. The bill that emerged with just a few votes to spare from a Democratically controlled House bore at least a casual resemblance to the intricately designed proposals of liberal policy wonks. But no one was eager to claim authorship of what emerged from the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority in the Senate because it was a parody of liberal health care reform.  That's what happens when every Democratic Senator is positioned to extort concessions by threatening to withhold the sixtieth vote. ObamaCare was only put back into a form that was even arguably worth passing from a liberal standpoint by changing the decision-making rules in the middle of the game by making an unprecedented use of the Senate reconciliation process. And Democrats paid a steep political price for doing it.

Extending the Bush Tax Cuts

Conservatives never tire of telling you that modern liberalism is the expression of envy. Liberals, they say, like making better-off people worse-off even if it doesn’t make worse-off people any better off.

There's no denying that envy is an unwholesome passion, but I’ve always thought that this is a bum rap. Liberalism, as I understand it, is fundamentally about devising social structures that enable worse-off people to be as well-off as possible. If doing that enhances the prospects of people farther up the economic ladder, all the better. Clear-thinking liberals aren’t puritans when it comes to sex or economics. However eager they are to redistribute social benefits and burdens, they take no satisfaction in punishing the rich.

But take a look at this internet spot about extending the Bush tax cuts from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee: 

Exactly what solemn promise is Obama being urged not to betray? Notice that there’s not a word about bringing down the deficit, or doing anything else to make disadvantaged Americans better-off. You might get the idea that the betrayal in question is depriving liberals of the intrinsic satisfactions of sticking it to the rich.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Will Obama Face a Primary Challenge?

Ed Kilgore’s argument about Obama’s invulnerability to a formidable primary challenge in 2012 is pretty convincing until you get to this (my emphasis):
“Above all, primary challenges to incumbent presidents require a galvanizing issue. It’s very doubtful that the grab-bag of complaints floated by the Democratic electorate—Obama's legislative strategy during the health care fight; his relative friendliness to Wall Street; gay rights; human rights; his refusal to prosecute Bush administration figures for war crimes or privacy violations—would be enough to spur a serious challenge. And while Afghanistan is an increasing source of Democratic discontent, it’s hardly Vietnam, and Obama has promised to reduce troop levels sharply by 2012.”
We forget that, experienced in real time, Vietnam was “hardly [the] Vietnam" we remember in hindsight until suddenly it was. I doubt, for example, that many people thought in December 1966 that the war would excite a primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson or that Eugene McCarthy would be a formidable enough challenger to drive him out of the 1968 presidential race.

A New Front in the Culture War

I just got back home last night after more than a week away. One of the chores I had to attend to was sorting through a backlog of unwatched DVR’d TV shows that included the week-old episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”   Never having seen the show before, I resisted the reflex to punch the delete button so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. When I did, I came away with a much greater appreciation of Palin’s generalship in the culture war.

The centerpiece of the episode was “stunning the halibut.” In case you’re as out of the loop as I am, here’s how it works: Halibut fishing boats lays out long lines with baited hooks. When they’re reeled in, a succession of these gigantic flat fish are hoisted onto the deck. Left to their own devices, the halibut flop around the deck so violently that they reduce their market value by bruising their flesh. So, soon upon their arrival on the deck, some hearty fisherman has to club them between the eyes with sufficient force to immobilize them and then slit their gills to drain them of blood before it stains the meat.

The dramatic center of the show was Sarah imparting a life lesson on Bristol by enthusiastically taking on the role of “stunner-in-chief.” As you might expect, once the fine points of stunning were explained to her, Sarah turned out to be natural, dispatching fish with a single stroke of her club. Bristol, however, was a little squeamish at first. She’d raise the club over her head vigorously enough only to find that she couldn’t follow through when looking into the fish’s glassy eyes. But with a little motherly encouragement she was soon bashing fish brains with the best of them. The show ended with a Palin-family contest over who could cook the tastiest halibut on an open fire—as usual, Sarah complained, Todd won.