Friday, July 29, 2011

Are the Republicans Learning Anything About Themselves?

Republicans have had a tough 48 hours.  John Boehner, and the House caucus members he speaks for, should have been disabused of any illusions they may have had about the Tea Partiers giving them any room to maneuver in budget negotiations. They know, once and for all, that House Republicans are incapable of credibly presenting Senate Democrats and the White House with a united front. Shouldn’t that have a substantial impact on subsequent negotiations?

Forget about the concessions respecting the balanced budget amendment that the Tea Partiers forced on the Republican leadership this morning. As of yesterday, the major bones of contention between the Boehner and Reid plans were over the reality of the spending cuts promised by Reid and Boehner’s insistence on another round of debt-ceiling negotiations before the next election. Republicans think Reid’s budget-cutting is riddled with gimmicks; Democrats think that Boehner's setting them up for another hostage crisis next January. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out where this is (or should be) heading;  Republicans need to accept more genuine spending cuts in exchange for postponing the next fight over the debt ceiling until after the next election.

What Did Pelosi Have That Boehner Lacks? (Updated)

So Boehner doesn’t have the votes. I suppose it’s possible that he’ll get them today, but it’s hard to say why having Tea Partiers “sleep on it” overnight is going to help him. That raises a good question that reader Glenn asked the other day:
“How come Pelosi could get House blue dogs to cut their own throat politically by voting for things like Cap and Trade, but it’s so hard for Boehner to get Tea Partiers to vote for his plan when it represents a victory over Obama? It doesn't make sense.”
No, it doesn’t make sense as long as you’re just thinking of a congressional caucus as a bunch of people driven only by their ideological commitments. The spectrum of ideological opinion in Pelosi’s caucus was just as wide, if not wider, than the spectrum of opinion in Boehner’s caucus. So why was she so much better at twisting the arms of reluctant caucus members than he appears to be?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Does Obama Really Have a Constitutional Option?

Suppose our elected representatives are too divided or, if you prefer, too irresponsible, to converge on a deal to raise the debt ceiling by whatever point in time you regard as zero-hour. What should Obama do? The conventional answer is that he should start prioritizing public expenditures to service the public debt first and then engage in fiscal triage, paying out congressionally appropriated funds according to the relative urgency of the public needs they meet.

Some influential liberals, including Bill Clinton and Michael Tomasky, are gravitating to a less conventional answer that Obama should raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. This view comes in a stronger and weaker version. According to stronger version, Obama has a constitutional duty to raise the debt-ceiling unilaterally under the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides in pertinent part that “[t]he validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” On the weaker version, Obama needn’t, but may, raise the debt ceiling unilaterally as much as it takes to get him through the next election. If you ask me, neither argument gets Obama out of the jam he’s in.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Craziness of Craziness-Talk

Although I disagree with Tea Partiers about a lot of politically crucial things, I tend to dismiss talk about their “craziness” as either partisan hyperventilation or a symptom of the status anxiety of smug elites. When you call other people “crazy,” you’re saying not just that you disagree with them strongly, but that they’ve lost their grip on reality. Crazy people are not just wrongheaded; they lack command of the techniques that reasonable people use to tell rightness from wrongness by showing a decent respect for other people's opinions. They’re the sort of people with whom you can’t reasonably disagree because, psychologically speaking, they're coming at you from a different world but don't know it.

On its face, the idea that any decent-sized group of people has gone crazy is possible (think of the mass suicide at Jonestown) but improbable. How likely is it that the Tea Partiers, a group comprised of millions of people who seem perfectly reasonable in innumerable nonpolitical respects and have proven themselves politically adroit enough to take over a major political party, have lost touch with reality rather than taken a contentious view of it? That thought is made more unlikely still by the fact that it’s so pleasantly self-serving to the people giving voice to it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Effective was the Speech?

Presidential speeches are pitched to multiple audiences. I can’t tell you how Obama’s words last night resonated among various categories of likely voters.  But it doesn’t look like they played that well among the White House press corps.

Take a look (via Hot Air) at the static Jay Carney was getting at today's press briefing:

Are Republicans Crazy? (cont.)

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I’ve been arguing (see e.g., here) that the Tea Party faction of the Republican House caucus can’t really be as crazy as it sometimes appears. I have to admit that the debt-ceiling negotiations are getting to the point where they’re testing that proposition.

Consider what smart conservatives, like Yuval Levin, are saying about the contending Boehner and Reid plans for raising the debt-ceiling:

Talking a Good Game and Governing

By now, we all know about Obama’s penchant for governing by “leading from behind.” He likes to hang back, letting policy take shape in forums outside the White House, exerting influence, if at all, behind the scenes. That enables him to duck responsibility if things don't pan out.  But if it looks like they will, Obama asserts himself late in the game, or at least gives the appearance of self-assertion, so that he can put his own stamp on whatever policy emerges from the process and claim it as one of his own achievements.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is a matter of tactical dexterity in the service of well-defined objectives or a matter of his not having well-defined objectives to begin with. For my part, I think it depends on what policies you’re talking about: health care reform was pretty clearly a matter of the former while the kinetic military operation in Libya is pretty clearly an example of the latter. As to a lot of other policies—Afghanistan, DADT, letting the Bush tax cuts expire in the upper brackets—it’s hard to say.  The one thing you can say with some assurance, however, is that the more actively Obama is engaged in governance, the less you’re likely to hear about his own governing priorities.  As a rule, he doesn't talk forthrightly and govern at the same time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Who's on a Shorter Leash?

Reducing political conflicts to interpersonal affairs is a staple of melodramatic political commentary and politicians playing weak political hands. Until Obama threw up his arms in frustration at his press conference Friday, there was a lot of talk about the political fight over raising the debt ceiling being something personal between him and John Boehner. Indeed, Obama was doing his best to leave just that impression himself last Friday when he complained about how many times Boehner has left him at the altar.  Obama had thrown himself headlong in the debt-ceiling negotiations because he welcomed the chance to showcase his exemplary personal moderation and readiness to make "tough choices."

Elected politicians, however, undertake political battles not as principals, but as the agent of actual or potential constituencies. What they can get done is a function of their constituency’s capacity to act collectively. Obama's playing a jilted bride because he doesn’t want to call attention to the fact that he’d suddenly emerged as a born-again deficit hawk because he was trying to speak for enough independent voters freaked out by the public debt and runaway entitlements to get himself reelected. (See Elizabeth Drew here.) Yet he could only push things so far in that endeavor without exciting rebellion in his Democratic base. The “big” debt-ceiling deal he was seeking was a way of threading the needle.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Kicking the Budgetary Can Down the Road

Imagine that we had a multi-party parliamentary system. Given what we know about the present distribution of preferences about taxing and spending among the electorate, that would probably mean a government with a very tenuous majority on budgetary issues, if not a minority or a coalition government. Under those circumstances, would you expect a sitting government to enact budgetary reforms of the magnitude of the Gang of Six plan or the debt-ceiling deal that Obama and John Boehner are reportedly discussing?

It would be much more likely that any sitting government would call for an election that would arm either it, or the opposition, with a new democratic mandate to address big budgetary issues. That would be kicking the budgetary can down the road, but only for the couple of months it would take to install a new government. Doing anything else, I submit, would be widely perceived as politically illegitimate because it represents a cynical breach of fundamental democratic norms.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Cult of the Big Deal

For all their differences over raising the debt ceiling, there’s one thing that Obama and John Boehner agree on:  they both want a “big deal” that enables us to regain our macro-economic footing in one fell swoop. From their own separate standpoints, the only trouble is that they’re swooping in different in directions: Obama wants to agree now on spending cuts, tax increases and modest entitlement reforms that will mostly take effect in the future; Boehner wants to enact spending cuts and entitlement reforms now that will take effect now and in the future without raising taxes now or in the future.  A lot of sanctimonious pundits are telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves for not wanting them to get a big budget deal done.

If you ask me, Obama, Boehner and the pundits are all succumbing to a consoling illusion, like desert travelers who, having improvidently used up their water supply, drag themselves toward an alluring mirage. My reasons for saying that have a lot in common with Paul Krugman’s dour outlook on the debt-ceiling negotiations (my emphasis):
“If I seem sort of quiet on the debt ceiling stuff, it’s because (a) I have no idea how the political brinkmanship will play out (b) I believe that any deal like the Gang of Six proposal or whatever, even if enacted, offers little guide to what will actually happen starting after next year’s election. If it’s a Republican sweep, they will quickly dissipate any spending cuts with another round of tax cuts. If Democrats hold the White House and possibly even regain the House, they might conceivably turn to a solution that makes sense."

“So does this mean that I regard the president’s enthusiasm for a big deal as foolish? Yes.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Politics of Condescension

“I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”
Those are Republican Representative Allen West’s words, posted by him on the Internet. Liberals in the blogosphere seem to be having a hard time taking them in. Take Charles Lemos: this “bizarre tirade” leaves him wondering "just how demented” West really is:  not “boorish,” mind you, but “demented.”

But why the wonderment and the reflexive reach for an explanation sounding in clinical psychology? It’s not like liberals aren’t used to being insulted by conservatives; liberals get vilified for their lack of patriotism and moral fiber all the time. But moral and civic condescension are one thing, intellectual condescension is something else. Evidently, liberals are unprepared to have their intelligence impugned by a conservative politician.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Playing Hardball

Republican senators are refusing to confirm an Obama appointee to head the Consumer Protection Board unless changes are made to the underlying statute on the grounds that they don’t like it any better now than they did last year when the Senate passed it with a bipartisan majority. Any way you look at it, this is a pretty outrageous tactic.  Republicans aren't at all embarrassed willfully to disregard key terms of a legitimate public decision reached only last year.

That moves Jonathan Bernstein to the following observation:
“GOP practice, for the last twenty years or so, has been to play the "game" of politics in part by looking through the rule book for strategies that go beyond the norms of politics but are allowed under the literal reading of the rules. Examples include mid-decade redistricting, the recall of a California governor for no particular reason, and impeaching Bill Clinton. And, most notably, filibusters in the Senate as a routine measure. The idea is that in a normal, healthy, political system there's always going to be some gap between the written Constitutional and statutory rules on the one hand, and norms and practices on the other. A clever political party can gain occasional short-term advantages through exploiting that difference. . . .

The New Gorbachev?

"Like it or not, Obama is not the new FDR, but the new Gorbachev: a man forced to preside over the demise of a political system he desperately wants to save.”
The first time you hear them, these words from Richard Miniter sound like typical Tea Party hyperbole. But before you dismiss them out of hand, consider the arc of the Obama presidency so far, as seen through liberal eyes.  I confess that this is substantially the way I still see it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Watching the Debt-Ceiling Watchers

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding these interminable debt-ceiling negotiations more tedious by the day.  But it's still pretty interesting watching liberals watch them. What they see is a function of where they think the action is and their psychological investment in the personal fortunes of Barack Obama. Consider two accounts of what’s going on from center-left observers:

Bryan Jones is focused on the poker game between Obama and John Boehner in their private communications. And he’s concluded that Obama has played his cards so well that Boehner has already folded a winning hand:
“It is always possible that Obama will capitulate to a ‘cuts only’ strategy, but that is (and probably always was) highly unlikely. Indeed, he has increasingly bound himself to a ‘balanced plan’, including spending cuts and revenue increases, an option that polls extremely well among Americans. It has dawned on Republicans, and on Democrats as well, that Obama’s victory is more likely to be a rout than a Democratic surrender. The best Republicans can hope for, absent a change of mind among their radical wing, is to be blamed for playing games while the economy deteriorated.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cynicism about the Debt Ceiling

Jonathan Bernstein puts his finger on the GOP’s priorities in the debt-ceiling negotiations: "Republicans, apparently, care so much about not raising the debt limit that they are willing to give up deficit reduction to get it.” I have no quarrel with his view that, as a matter of budgetary policy, that’s “madness” on the part of a committed conservative.  And I appreciate Bernstein's characteristic sympathy for professional politicians trying to channel the passions generated by their political base into responsible (or at least not too irresponsible) government while they’re playing partisan politics:
“[The] real, honest principle here is that the limit must be raised with only Democratic votes, and that for that principle they're willing to give up reducing the deficit. To be sure, that sounds like an incredibly cynical, self-serving position for GOP Members of Congress to take...but in fact one might argue that it is the position being forced on them by the grass roots.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Playing Vicarious Chicken

As far as I can tell, the idea that the debt-ceiling negotiations are a matter of “playing chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States” originated in a White House talking point meant to allege irresponsibility on the part of Republican politicians. Yesterday, I argued that’s a misleading comparison in two pretty obvious respects, both of which inclined me to believe that a budget deal of some sort is in the offing before August 2.

First, chicken is a game that consists in a single play with four possible outcomes—either one player, the other player, both players or neither player swerves off their collision course. Yet the people negotiating over the debt ceiling today know that they’ll be negotiating with each other about something else countless times in the future. That means that, insofar as they’re rational, both sides will worry about how their conduct in this negotiation will affect future negotiations. That ought to make them more circumspect about forfeiting the other’s trust and good will.

Second, chicken is a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains are the other side’s losses. Yet the parties negotiating over the debt ceiling are trying to secure a mutually advantageous outcome where each can measure the extent to which it has promoted its own budgetary objectives in dollars and cents. That gives each side the incentive to conceal their readiness to compromise for the time being, but to become more flexible as the August 2 deadline approaches.

The fact that none of this is rocket science raises a question: why are so many spectators acting nonetheless like they’re watching a game of chicken, waiting breathlessly to see which side will betray its timidity by swerving off the collision course? We can extract the beginnings of an answer out of reports (see the links collected here) that Obama walked away from the bargaining table in a huff yesterday to show his displeasure with Eric Cantor. That we know about this “fact” at all owing to the zeal of Cantor and unnamed Democratic sources to run to the press to tell us all about it is as important as the “fact” itself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Who’s Calling Whose Bluff?

Always desperate to find something to write about, denizens of the blogosphere have a hard time resisting the temptation to over-estimate the import of the day’s events. Consider the “contingency plan” Mitch McConnell presented yesterday if the debt-ceiling negotiations break down. Within minutes, liberal bloggers were giddily celebrating McConnell’s abject surrender, while conservatives were reeling from yet another betrayal by the Republican establishment. If you ask me, both sides need to take a deep breath.

Jonathan Chait, for example, compares McConnell to a player folding his cards in a high-stakes two-handed poker game because he lacks the nerve to find out whether his opponent is bluffing (my emphasis):
“Yesterday morning, Mitch McConnell gave away a key tell when he said he had a contingency plan to ensure the debt ceiling gets lifted. Today he showed his hand and it's a fold. The plan announced by McConnell today is highly, and intentionally, convoluted, but the details don't really matter. The essence of it is to abandon efforts to force policy concessions in return for lifting the debt ceiling, and instead set up a bunch of show votes to embarrass the Democrats. In other words, it's a reversion to the old status quo, before President Obama and the Congressional Republicans turned the debt ceiling vote into a high stakes hostage crisis.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More on Dodging Undemocratic Bullets

I’ve been complaining lately about how undemocratic and civically irresponsible it is for Obama and the Republican congressional leadership to be making snap decisions about the future of the welfare state and the tax code in the course of secret negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. If you ask me, decisions that momentous should be the subject of protracted public deliberation. Of course, the counterargument is that, at this late date, violating important democratic norms may be the only way to avert an economically catastrophic default on public obligations.

Say what you will about the “contingency plan” that Mitch McConnell revealed today on the floor of the Senate, but at least it frees us from the Hobson’s choice with which we’ve been presented. Up until now, Republicans have been trying to turn Obama’s need for a substantial increase in the debt ceiling into leverage to secure spending cuts that Democrats would otherwise find intolerable. Obama has adroitly applied counter-leverage by insisting on substantial tax increases in exchange for spending cuts that are more substantial than those the Republicans originally bargained for. That has brought us to an impasse that leaves the prospect of avoiding a government default looking pretty remote.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Looking Glass War

I’ve commented before on the fact that the NATO coalition that's supposed to be prosecuting the war in Libya is coming undone because its members can’t agree on what they’re trying to accomplish and whether they’re acting under the color of international law. The Italians, for example, are already bailing out on the ground that they signed up for a short-term humanitarian mission to protect civilians, not to take sides in an extended Libyan civil war. They’re no longer willing to pretend that cashiering Gaddafi is encompassed by the UN Resolution authorizing the use of military force by member states to protect Libyan civilians.

Until now, however, the French and British have been forging ahead with the campaign to unseat Gaddafi (with our material support) while they strain to uphold two ever-more unlikely fictions: first that they’re driving Gaddafi from power in behalf of NATO; and second, that NATO, in its turn, is executing a resolution of the UN Security Council which says a lot about protecting Libyan civilians, but not a thing about regime change. And if that wasn’t enough fiction for one splendid little war, the Obama administration is pretending that its material support for the “NATO” operation doesn’t amount to its participation in “hostilities” of the kind that require congressional approval.

Dodging Another Undemocratic Bullet

So the big debt-ceiling deal, $4 trillion in spending cuts (including entitlement cuts) for $1 trillion in new tax revenues, isn’t going to happen.  If you hadn't heard, John Boehner walked away from the bargaining table he’d been sharing with Obama over the weekend. The breeze you're feeling is doctrinaire liberals and conservatives emitting a sigh a relief:  liberals because they feared Obama was about to sell them out yet again, and conservatives because they thought Obama was setting a political trap for Boehner. You can decide for yourself whether to subscribe to either of those cynical narratives. If you ask me, there’s more than a little truth to both of them.

I’m more interested, however, in a third narrative that’s circulating among people who think of themselves as being above mere ideology. On this view, a golden opportunity to get on with the necessary work of reforming entitlements and getting the deficit under control has been frittered away.  The centrifugal forces generated by rapacious ideologues in the party bases overwhelmed the centripetal force that Obama and Boehner were trying to generate through high-minded statesmanship.

Friday, July 8, 2011

An Ideological Tipping Point?

Let’s admit to Socratic ignorance at the outset. When it comes to the secret negotiations over the debt ceiling between Obama and the Republican congressional leadership, the one thing we know for sure is that we know practically nothing about what’s really going on. Reports that Obama is upping the ante by putting substantial entitlement cuts on the table in exchange for substantial revenue increases might just be a ploy to steal the high ground from Republicans by offering them a reasonable-sounding deal that he knows they won’t accept.

You can’t blame straight-laced liberals, however, for fearing that Obama’s about to prove once and for all that he isn’t the ideological comrade they once thought he was. Glenn Greenwald has already passed from fear to resignation. It sounds like Paul Krugman is traveling the same path (my emphasis):
“[L]et’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of -what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Michele Bachmann, Unity Candidate

Maybe I’m naïve when it comes to Republican politics, but I wasn’t prepared for Michele Bachmann’s first Iowa spot. You might have thought that, addressing Republican Iowa Caucus voters known for their extreme social conservatism, Bachmann would be outflanking Romney on the right, insinuating that he's just another northeastern Republican-in-name-only ("RINO"). Instead, she's trying to appropriate the subtext of the Romney campaign for herself by calling herself "the unifying choice that will beat Obama."  The results are positively Orwellian.  Take a look for yourself:



Democrats and democrats

One of this blog’s running themes is that Democrats should be more scrupulous democrats. The good news that Obama and John Boehner may have broken the impasse on raising the debt ceiling is more grist for my mill.

Obama’s reportedly willing to contemplate $3 trillion in spending cuts, including cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and Boehner’s reportedly willing to contemplate raising as much as $1 trillion in additional revenues. Say what you will about the merits of a deal along these lines, but we should all be breathing easier insofar as the fact that Obama and Boehner are entertaining it means they’re disinclined to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States. Let’s leave the merits of the deal aside so that we can concentrate on the democratic integrity of the political process that will have brought us there if it gets done.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Playing Chicken with the Constitution

I pay particular attention to what Michael Tomasky says because I regard him as a pretty reliable guide to the state of informed and intelligent opinion in liberal circles. So I can’t help but notice that he thinks  (along with some other liberals like Matthew Yglesias) that the debt-ceiling negotiations are reaching a point at which it makes sense for Obama to up the ante by threatening to provoke a constitutional crisis. The president would now announce that he’s going to keep borrowing money without congressional consent on the theory that the plain language of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids Congress from doing anything that prevents the executive branch from discharging obligations that the federal government has already incurred.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Are the Republicans Going Crazy?

A lot of people who aren’t known for flying off the handle (like David Brooks, Megan McArdle and Jonathan Bernstein) are afraid the Republican Party has gone crazy. Here we are, coming down to the wire on the debt ceiling negotiations and, if this New York Times report is to be believed, Democrats are ready to make substantial cuts in entitlements without raising tax rates in exchange for a few face-saving gestures about closing tax loopholes. That sounds like a deal that's too good for sensible conservatives to pass on.  Yet lots of Republicans are they're still making sounds indicating that they’re unwilling to take “Yes!” for an answer.

Getting the Message

In the middle of every president’s first term, political insiders start floating rumors that he’ll dump his vice-president in favor of a rising star in his party who can make up for deficiencies in the president’s first-term record. It even happens when the vice-president plays as crucial a part in a presidency as Dick Cheney played in George W. Bush’s.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re hearing such talk about Obama’s dumping a vice-president with Joe Biden’s reputation for affable buffoonery. That doesn’t mean that we should put much stock in rumors that Biden’s days are numbered. The forces of inertia in these circumstances are formidable enough to protect people who bring as little to a ticket as Dan Quayle brought in 1992.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Know Thyself

If the current debate over the debt ceiling reveals anything it's that Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, are either a lot less able or a lot less willing to enunciate their governing priorities than Republicans.  That presents us with one more occasion to ask ourselves whether Democrats are keeping their priorities to themselves for tactical reasons or whether they're so flummoxed by the present state of the political economy that they've lost track of what their priorities are.  This post from 10/21/10 reminds us that this isn't the first time that we've had to ask ourselves this question:

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 ascendancy. Now Packer concedes that he was letting hope triumph over experience (my emphasis):

Friday, July 1, 2011

Is the Case Against DSK Falling Apart?

There shouldn’t be anything particularly surprising about reports that, owing to the alleged victim’s lack of credibility, the criminal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn ("DSK") is unraveling. Criminal prosecutions unravel all the time for just that reason. The interesting thing is that I, and I’ll bet a lot of other people, are experiencing so sharp a pang of disappointment at hearing the news.

The story of DSK’s guilt is too perfect: a world-class sexual thug, and a card-carrying member of France’s unbearably smug ruling class, being brought low by the anguished testimony of a hotel maid while his friends in high places sputter in incomprehension of our democratic ways. Professor Jacobson reminds me that DSK case bears a more-than-trivial resemblance to the Duke Lacrosse case that had all those gasbags on the Duke faculty taking such unseemly pleasure in seeing a lot of rich white kids being brought low by the testimony of an African-American exotic dancer. In both cases, litigation was expected to bear the weight of an ideological narrative.