Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Conservative Vote for Romney - Reluctant at Best?

One of the aspects of the Republican Party that I find interesting is that it is deemed the "conservative" party. That, I suppose, is because it is devoted to cutting taxes for the wealthy and gives sufficient lip service to various lines of conservative thought to keep the votes rolling in. But other than the tax cuts, it's history of governance isn't what I would call "conservative".

At the Volokh Conpsiracy, (libertarian) David Post summarized his views on the candidates, and was in some senses easier on both of them than I would have been. He gives "Obama maybe a B or B+", noting that Obama inherited a "global economic meltdown" from which we're recovering, adding, "For some reason I cannot even fathom, many otherwise reasonable people seem to regard this as a terrible failure on Obama’s part."

Mitt Romney? "The guy’s as light a lightweight as I can imagine – he makes Bush look like Schopenhauer. "The guy’s as light a lightweight as I can imagine – he makes Bush look like Schopenhauer." Post is concerned that he has no sense of how Mitt Romney would respond in a crisis situation, but his impression is that "reacts the way Bush reacted when something he couldn’t imagine happening actually happened... and it’s not a comforting thought".

My personal thought is that if the Republican Party were able to nominate a centrist, pragmatic, fact- and issue-driven businessperson, this election wouldn't be much of a contest. That type of candidate, I think, could pull in 60% of the vote. But thanks to the nomination process, the need to pander to certain elements of the base to get a shot at the White House, that's not going to happen. It's difficult to get somebody better than a G.W. Bush, and frankly now that the Tea Party Movement has recognized the power of the primary it may be difficult to do better than a Romney - somebody who seems to hold no core values or beliefs, and will say and do anything to advance his own self-interest.

Had Romney articulated the positions associated with his latest self-reinvention, the centrism he outlined during the debates (more or less "I'll do exactly what Obama's doing, but better - and I'll cut taxes") it's unlikley that he would have been any more successful than Huntsman - a guy who made the mistake of taking actual positions early in the primary process, and thus ended up being one of the first guys shoved out of the clown car. When you consider that the last three men standing were Romney, Santorum and Gingrich... wow. But Romney can attest that if you survive the nomination process, even if you willingly surrender your soul to achieve that goal, it's enough for most of the base to simply not be the other guy.

There's an interesting assortment of takes on "how I'm going to vote" from various flavors of libertarian and conservative at The American Conservative. Some of the comments are insightful, some are odd or shallow, some are witty, others serious, and some mix and match, offering an insight in one sentence and a head scratcher in the next. Sometimes you get to the end of the comment, read the author's claim to fame, and... "now it makes sense" - not necessarily the reasoning, but why the author is taking that particular view. For example, "Within 30 years, the U.S. will be majority non-white and will cease to exist as we’ve known it," came from a editor, and the snark, "on the economy, unemployment is too high, growth is too slow, and Barack Obama is too 'green'" came from a Fox News contributor. There's a lot of hand-wringing about, of all things, feminism and yes, the absolute horror that churches be required to offer birth control to employees of their secular operations. Okay, I can't resist taking a shot at this one:
For me, there’s never even been a possibility of voting for Obama. The Democratic Party history is one immersed in slaughter: removal and abuse of the American Indians, the desire for a national police force to return escaped slaves, and the concentration of loyal Americans of Japanese descent into camps.

Obama has embraced this wretched tradition. Indeed, no president has overseen a loss of civil liberties more dramatically than the current one since Franklin Roosevelt disgraced the once august executive office. Not only did Obama fail to close Gitmo and reverse Bush’s policies promoting “national security,” he’s not-so-slowly Gitmoizing the entire United States. As the great Robert Higgs has argued, if you don’t believe we are living in a police state, you must be blind.
Yes, it's all one unbroken history, with Obama being the worst president since FDR due to his failure to overturn the atrocious policies put into place by... George W. Bush... and due to his adherence to the Constitution when Congress - with overwhelming Republican opposition to Obama's plan - refused to fund the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Let's all sing along, "Don't know much about history...."

What's interesting is how many are unwilling to vote for Romney, declaring that they'll either abstain from voting or support a third party candidate. More than a few prefer Obama.

It's easy to get discouraged with our system and its two parties - it's difficult not to feel taken for granted, to not feel like you're choosing the lesser of two evils. I don't know what a Romney victory would mean for the Republican Party, although it's difficult to imagine that it would lead to the party being more conservative. Many of the authors on the American Conservative website are concerned that Romney is ignorant of foreign policy and that his advisers will push him to involve the nation in new, large-scale military conflicts. If anything weighs against that possibility, it would be that Romney appears to be exceptionally risk-averse. It's difficult for me to imagine that he would push the country toward war, unless the polls were telling him that the nation was eager to go there. On the other hand, given how spineless he has proved to be on economic issues, it's easy for me to imagine his pushing through his proposed tax cuts with an associated explosion of debt (but recall: he's not going to balance the budget for a decade, so he takes no responsibility for either the starting or ending points of his economic "reforms").

What bothers me most about Romney it not his foreign policy ignorance. It's how freely and easily he lies. How it doesn't even seem to bother him to dramatically change his message, his supposed core values, from day to day, from audience to audience. To the extent that his quest for self-advancement is likely to lead him down a path he believes will get him reelected, it's still difficult to take comfort in the notion that his cautiousness and focus on his own popularity might moderate his agenda. From an economic standpoint the path of least resistance is apt to look like Bush's first term. I agree with those who see the most likely lesson of a Romney victory as being "You can brazenly lie your way all the way into the White House," and I would prefer that the lesson be, "You can fudge the truth, as politicians do, you can spin, you can demagogue, but there's a point at which your deceit disqualifies you from elected office."

If Only Somebody Had Told Her....

How could she have known?
A county commissioner in Las Vegas says she regrets the board temporarily renamed a street [Paradise Road] in honor of Guns N' Roses after finding out about the band's suggestive publicity artwork.
This would be the 1978 painting by artist Robert Williams, Appetite for Destruction, first used by Guns 'n' Roses in association with their 1987 album of the same name?
Scow said she'd done her due diligence before the renaming, even listening to the song beforehand. She said she liked the line in the chorus, “Take me down to the paradise city, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.”
Perhaps she should have listened to more than one song? How do you get to be an elected official in the Vegas area while remaining that sheltered?

I suppose she can take some solace in the fact that she didn't vote to temporarily rename the Clark County Government Center "Mr. Brownstone".

People in Other Nations Don't Obsess Over Domestic U.S. Politics?

Okay, so that's not news to you, but it appears to be news to Anne Applebaum.
“Is this presidential election really the most important in our lifetime?” That was the question asked, in so many words, by a concerned Brit at a discussion here a few days ago. His words were directed at the political analyst Larry Sabato, whose countenance had been beamed onto a conference-room screen like some giant electronic guru. Sabato didn’t blink. “This presidential election,” he replied, “is definitely the most important since 2008.”

Appreciative laughter followed, but the audience wasn’t entirely satisfied.
Perhaps that should read, self-satisfied laughter followed, but the audience didn't entirely appreciate the joke? Applebaum continues,
For the British — as for most Europeans and, indeed, most other foreigners — that aspect of this election is extremely hard to understand. Is the 2012 presidential race “important”? That is, will it mark a momentous change in U.S. foreign policy and attitudes toward the world — or will its result make no difference at all?
Here's the thing: people in other nations pay more attention to U.S. presidential elections than we do to theirs, because the decisions of the U.S. President are more likely to affect them in some way than the decisions of their leaders are to affect us. It's also, frankly, a bit fun to be appalled by the low quality of one American politician or another, the crazy issues that Americans based their votes upon, and the staggering sums of money expended on the presidential race. A fair retort, in the U.S., it's unlikely that Silvio Berlusconi would have been able to buy himself into a higher office than... the U.S. Senate. A Canadian was giving me a "Mitt Romney, seriously", line the other day to which there is now an easy two-word retort, "Stephen Harper.")

Applebaum goes on to describe past elections in which... Europeans enjoyed being appalled by some of the politicians and their conduct, the money, and a larger indifference - as if they realize that the choice of President is more likely to affect our lives than theirs.
There are multiple reasons for this indifference, starting with the fact that people no longer believe, as many once did, that an American president can solve all of their problems.
You'll excuse me for asking, in what alternate reality did Europeans believe that our choice of U.S. President could result in a solution to "all of their problems"? I've lived in two other countries, have relatives who live in other countries, and have traveled internationally, and yet I've never met such a person.
The myth of America as an all-seeing, all-knowing superpower persists in a few places — ironically, one hears it most often in the Arab world — but most everywhere else it is long gone.
I have to wonder... Applebaum doesn't get out much, does she....

In my experience, people in other countries have long recognized what is only now dawning on Applebaum: That they have no say in U.S. elections and that, although U.S. elections may affect them and the policies of their own government, the primary effect of a U.S. election will be on the people of the U.S. - there, just as here, it's fun to watch the horse race coverage and make condescending comments about the candidates and system, but at the end of the day the elections they most worry about are their own.

In her slow recognition that the outcome of the U.S. election won't matter much to Europeans, Applebaum appears to also be suggesting that the outcome won't matter much to us. That's true to a degree - certainly true to those like her who are fortunate enough to live their lives in a gilded bubble, and it's certainly true that a change of President has no material impact on most international issues - but there are many domestic issues that will affect the middle class and less fortunate individuals in our society, and while a joke along the lines of "this is definitely the most important election since 2008" may seem funny to those who think the election is about a 3% tax increase (vs. a 20% tax cut) for the wealthy, it's not as funny if you're slipping out of the middle class, unemployed, or on Medicaid.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You Don't Bend to The Opinion Polls, Yet You Call Yourself a Leader?

If Michael Gerson were an honest man, he would admit that his former colleague, David Frum, made a valid point when he argued that the Republican Party would have benefited from making itself a part of healthcare reform rather than positioning itself as an obstacle. The Republican Party's continuing avalanche of misinformation about the Affordable Care Act is a sight to behold - as was the manner in which a contrived "activity vs. inactivity" distinction was puffed up over the course of two short years into a legal theory that almost defeated the legislation. Having lost first at the legislature and then in the courts, what's a hack like Gerson to do but double down on his party's mendacity.

Gerson was, of course, an important cog in the wheel of the Bush Administration's misinformation machine. The machine for which popular opinion was a meaningless distraction. The public is starting to oppose war with Iraq? "Well then, let's get the invasion underway - the public always comes around when the bombs start dropping." The public opposes privatizing Social Security? "Well then, let's find a different word to use. How does 'private accounts' sound?" The public wants to know who met with Dick Cheney when he was forming the Administration's energy policy? "Well, it's tempting to scoff or laugh, but let's stick with stonewalling for now."

But when it's the other guy in office, Michael Gerson is suddenly all for government by plebiscite. Gerson can't even be honest about public sentiment. He whines about the Affordable Care Act, "Change came in the form of a law that a plurality of Americans opposed", but he knows full well that the opposition was in no small part a result of Republican demagoguery and misinformation. He wasn't the worst of the bunch, but he played an eager and happy role in that misinformation campaign.

He knew then, just as he knows now, that the only significant part of "Obamacare" that polled poorly was the individual mandate - that pretty much every other significant reform element, when people understood what they were asked about, received majority support. He focuses on the bill as a whole because it advances his narrative - the lie he and his party keep telling the nation, not because they believe that the public doesn't like "Obamacare" but because they're terrified that it will succeed.

Yes, that's right, they're terrified of its success. If they believed a tenth of their demagoguery, they would allow the ACA to come into full effect and let people see for themselves how bad it is. It's easy to repeal unpopular laws. They live in abject terror of a popular, successful reform that brings insurance to tens of millions of people who are presently uninsured or underinsured. So their effort has been to keep that from happening - and to tell as many lies as necessary to provoke public suspicion, concern and opposition.

Gerson has good company in today's Republican Party, because his position is essentially that of a coward. If you're trying to advance what you believe to be good policy, or at least the best policy you can implement given political reality, and run into a political headwind, you should abandon ship, run for the hills, scurry off the sinking ship like a terrified rat. Perhaps that's how he perceives his ex-boss's abandonment of immigration reform and Social Security reform, or McCain's abandonment of immigration reform, campaign finance reform, cap and trade.... The ultimate politician is a Mitt Romney, a guy with no core beliefs, a guy who's always chasing the latest poll, a guy who will discard his most significant (and arguably only) significant political achievement in the name of winning an election. I would like to say that nobody in their right mind would confuse Gerson's brand of cowardice with leadership but... while you can't fool all of the people all of the time, Gerson and friends are happy to shoot for 51%.

Listen to Gerson's platitudinous nonsense:
Obamacare matters in the current election not only because its future is at stake but for what its passage tells us about Obama as a leader. He is stubborn, which can be an admirable trait when applied to the public interest. But on health-care reform, Obama combined stubbornness with ideological predictability and partisan ruthlessness — imposing a very conventional liberalism in the Chicago way.
Obama is "stubborn" - a good thing if it means advancing Gerson's political agenda, really that of his party, but a terrible thing if it means advancing any other agenda. To pass legislation with a significant majority in the House, a 60 vote majority in the Senate, and then to reconcile minor differences in the bill based upon majority support in the Senate? That's anti-democratic. Not at all like the Bush-era tax cuts that shot our deficits through the roof and create a lingering hangover for our nation, crammed through the Senate by reconciliation in Bush's first term based upon a series of patently false promises. Who was heading up the team tasked with spinning that sow's ear into a silk purse? Oh, yeah....

For goodness sake, "the Chicago way"? Can't Gerson try to be even a little bit creative, to try to disguise his silly and childish attacks as something other than warmed over Republican demagoguery? Is he unable to conjure up a novel turn of phrase without the help of David Frum? To find fresh poison to inject into the public discourse without the help of Marc Thiessen? (Lord, what a dream team that was.)

Gerson continues to whine that Obama failed to broker a "grand budget compromise in 2011", a failure attributed to his demand that a significant part of the balancing of the budget come in the form of tax increases, then goes on to whine about forthcoming "large issues" - "avoiding the fiscal cliff, reforming the tax code, making entitlement commitments more sustainable". Never mind that the "fiscal cliff" is of little concern to anybody but pundits and demagogues - here in the real world we know that Congress will act to prevent that "cliff" from having any meaningful impact on the economy or defense spending. Never mind that Obama's "grand bargain" proposals included significant entitlement reform, and that the very legislation Gerson rails about, "Obamacare", implements cost-saving reforms - and that it has been Gerson's own Republican Party that has demagogued against the Medicare cuts that are part of that legislation. Never mind that "reforming the tax code" is a meaningless phrase - you may as well whimper that the President hasn't spent enough time reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Gerson closes by suggesting that if Obama doesn't "become an entirely different type of leader", by which he apparently means a spineless Republican, we should conclude that "America needs a new one". I guess it's fortunate for Gerson that a man who shares his complete lack of integrity, and endorses Gerson's apparent notion that "presidential leadership" is best demonstrated by following the latest opinion poll, is presently the Republican presidential nominee.

Monday, October 29, 2012

David Brooks Rejects Moderation - Anything to Get a Tax Cut

David Brooks pens a predictably partisan "analysis" of how Mitt Romney would supposedly govern as a "center-right moderate". Not in the sense of Brooks' recent definition of "moderate", but in the sense of the guy who stakes out a position between two extremes and calls himself a "moderate".
Now let’s try to imagine the world if Mitt Romney were to win. Republicans would begin with the premise that the status quo is unsustainable. The mounting debt is ruinous. The byzantine tax and regulatory regimes are stifling innovation and growth.
Brooks told us that a moderate is informed not by politics or philosophy, but by history. What does history tell us about Republicans and deficits? It tells us that they campaign against deficits and then, once elected, run up deficit spending to unprecedented heights. Brooks may want to believe that "this time will be different", but that can only be because his eyes are clouded by his own wishful thinking and political partisanship.

Brooks is also not being honest with his readers. He pretends, "", but he knows that's a lie. He knows that a lot of government regulation that stifles innovation was created and is maintained at the behest of businesses that don't want competition. He knows that the tax code is complex, byzantine, not because it's necessary to include that level of complexity, but because a simple tax code makes it difficult for large corporations and phenomenally wealthy individuals (such as Mitt Romney) to avoid taxes. Brooks knows that Romney made his fortune by exploiting tax loopholes, by larding up businesses with debt and deducting the interest

Dos Brooks truly believe that Romney is going to take away the loopholes that allowed him to get $100 million into his IRA? That he's going to do away with carried interest, the loophole that allowed him to have his massive income taxes as capital gains? That he's going to shut down the loopholes that make private equity funds so profitable? Not in this lifetime. You need only look at who is funding Romney's run for the White House to know that there's a zero percent chance he's going to do any of that.

Does Brooks believe that Romney is terrified of disclosing his tax returns because they'll disclose his scrupulous, honest nature, his self-sacrifice, his interest in closing tax loopholes? Only if he's on crack. Most likely, Romney is concealing the fact that he took advantage of the tax amnesty on dubious offshore bank accounts - an important tool in tax avoidance and one that Romney has made no mention of eliminating.

Which tax loopholes is Romney going to close? He refuses to specify - and of the ones he's mentioned in the abstract they all inure to the benefit of the middle class. Which government spending is Romney going to cut? He mentioned PBS - but history tells us that he won't cut PBS (even if such a cut mattered in the greater scheme of things). He has talked about cutting or privatizing FEMA. I suspect that, as I type, Brooks can look out of his window and get a sense of how likely that is to happen. Seriously.

What history indicates is that Romney will follow the path of George W. Bush. He ran on a promise to cut taxes, those who paid for his campaign are going to want him to deliver on those tax cuts, and he will do so without regard for the deficit or national debt. To the extent that people remind him of his pledge to cut spending to offset the tax cuts, history says he'll talk about growth and cuts to occur in the future - it's a ten year plan, remember? And history tells us that ten years later when, just as with G.W.'s tax cuts, the Romney plan turns out to be bunkum and to have put the nation into an even deeper fiscal hole, you can expect David Brooks to be telling us to vote for the next Republican because "he's going to govern from the center-right and this time he really will balance the budget."
Republicans would like to take the reform agenda that Republican governors have pursued in places like Indiana and take it to the national level: structural entitlement reform; fundamental tax reform.
You'll excuse me for asking, but how many Republican governors are there in the state of Indiana? Last I checked, Indiana followed the crazy model of only having one governor at a time. And what is the gist of Indiana's tax reform? To limit property taxes and overcome the loss of revenue by increasing the state sales tax? How in the world does Brooks propose to translate that type of reform to the federal government? Does Brooks even understand how taxes work? And other than jumping on the money-losing "drug testing for welfare recipients" bandwagon, what "structural entitlement reform" are we talking about?

I recognize that as a Republican partisan Brooks is happy to pretend that conclusory statements and platitudes constitute policy proposals, and is happy to suggest that "We'll balance the budget by doing things we're not going to tell you about" is an actual plan to balance the budget, but get real.
These reforms wouldn’t make government unrecognizable (we’d probably end up spending 21 percent of G.D.P. in Washington instead of about 24 percent), but they do represent a substantial shift to the right.
Recall how, when pressed for specifics about his tax reforms, he announced that his solution was to just "pick a number" - an entirely random number?
And so, in terms of bringing down deductions, one way of doing that would be say everybody gets -- I'll pick a number -- $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use. Your home mortgage interest deduction, charity, child tax credit, and so forth, you can use those as part of filling that bucket, if you will, of deductions.
That's not even close to serious. On top of that, Romney is promising massive increases in military spending. History tells us that when Republicans promise to cut taxes, they cut taxes. When they promise to increase spending, they increase spending. And when they promise to balance the budget... it never happens. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Romney will reduce government spending. He may shift it around, he may make life even easier and more lucrative for those at the top, but cut it? Sorry, David, those were numbers, not beams of sunshine, that Romney pulled out of his posterior.
At the same time, Romney would probably be faced with a Democratic Senate. He would also observe the core lesson of this campaign: conservatism loses; moderation wins.
But if Romney wins, that won't be the lesson of the campaign. The lesson will be that you can lie your way into the White House, all the while being enabled by columnists like David Brooks, because you promise an agenda that they like - one that keeps them and their peers, and the even richer elite they so admire, in their positions of wealth and privilege. You'll note that Brooks isn't pointing to anything Romney has said or done to paint his portrait of what's likely to happen, and he's intentionally ignoring history. Why? Because honesty loses elections, and Brooks wants Romney to win.

Only a few days ago Brooks was lecturing us that "Moderates start with a political vision" derived from history and "is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there". Yet now we're suddenly to regard as "moderate" a "center-right" Mitt Romney who gets legislation through the Senate by staking out a position between the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate and asking, "Is this a good enough way to split the baby?"

This is funny, as well - and false:
Romney’s prospects began to look decent only when he shifted to the center.
This election has been close from the outset. While Romney did dip in the polls after the Republican National Convention, his subsequent "bounce" has been much more a return to the baseline than anything else. And yes, his latest reinvention of what he believes and what he stands for seems to have helped him move back to the status quo ante, I think it's much more fair to say that his demagoguery, his race-baiting surrogates like John Sununu, and his exploitation of the financial crisis and mendacity about the recovery have helped him build what is in no small part an anti-Obama vote. He can't win as Mitt Romney, so he's running as "But I'm not Barack Obama". To the extent that people believe Romney stands for something, it's wishful thinking - "For no good reason, I'm sure Romney agrees with me on issue X, and that the dozens of other positions he's taken on the subject were all self-serving lies." A Romney victory would be a sad indictment of our political system, and frankly also of how it is covered by people like David Brooks.
A President Romney would look at the way Tea Party extremism had cost the G.O.P. Senate seats in Delaware and Nevada — and possibly Missouri and Indiana.
Even before his latest reinvention of himself, candidate Romney was aware of the dangers of being too closely identified with the Tea Party movement. But again, Brooks is forgetting his history. The Tea Party movement isn't a new thing - on the whole it's little more than a new name for a faction of the Republican Party that has been around for decades. Republican presidents have a long history of making broad promises to that faction, while being pretty modest about advancing that type of ideology when in office. Why? Because, as Brooks knows, the presidency is a national office. While Romney may represent a new extreme in how far a party nominee may go in pandering to an extremist element when seeking the nomination, then adopting a contradictory agenda when running for office, the rest is par for the course.

Brooks fails to mention that the danger the Tea Party poses to the Republican Party comes not at the level of the White House, but at the level of the primary. In states that have a significant Tea Party movement, candidates like Rick Santorum seem viable. Even long-term senators like John McCain start trembling in their shoes at the thought of a Tea Party-driven primary challenge. An honest Brooks would acknowledge that the newly center-right Romney may well be able to peel off some Democrats to support his agenda, but if he strays too far from the Tea Party line he's apt to lose as many Republicans, perhaps more. That could be paralyzing for any "moderate" or "centrist" agenda.

You know what else? Whether they win or lose in certain state races, the Tea Party has never been closer to having its agenda implemented by the Republican Party. There's no reason to believe they're going to back off.
To get re-elected in a country with a rising minority population and a shrinking Republican coalition, Romney’s shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate.
"Romney’s shape-shifting nature".... What a description. It's the description of a man with no core, a man with no backbone, and yet Brooks seems excited at the prospect of his becoming President. Let's take another look at history, shall we? Twelve years ago we had a Republican President who was going to usher in immigration law reform - he saw the handwriting on the wall, and was going to build ties with the Latino community.

We had a prominent Senator who also favored immigration reform and championed the DREAM Act - one John McCain. Let's recall, shall we, how much the President accomplished toward immigration reform.... He made immigration more difficult. And what of that Senator? Eight years later he was running against the immigration policies he once championed, and as time has progressed he has moved further and further away from his former positions. He also used to champion campaign finance reform... fat chance that he or President Romney are going to get behind that idea.

Seriously, it's safe to say that a man like Romney - a man who appears to care for absolutely nothing but advancing his own interests - will govern in a manner he believes is likely to result in his being reelected. But history is instructive, and there's far less reason to believe that Romney wants immigration reform as compared to Bush, and there's no reason to believe that Romney will succeed where Bush failed. Beyond that, what does Brooks imagine Romney will do to appeal to "a country with a rising minority population"? Apologize for all of the race-baiting he and his surrogates have engaged in during his campaign?
To get his tax and entitlement reforms through the Democratic Senate, Romney would have to make some serious concessions: increase taxes on the rich as part of an overall reform; abandon the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget; reduce the size of his lavish tax-cut promises.
Brooks is, in essence, repeating himself. And we're back to this notion that the Republican Party is going to break with history and suddenly prioritize balancing the budget over cutting taxes for the rich. I mentioned the head count in my last post, 236 out of 242 Republican Members of Congress, and 40 out of 47 Republican Senators, have signed Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. The numbers may change slightly after the next election, but not significantly. Also, there is no reason to believe that Romney is going to decide that the best way to win reelection is to tell his largest donors, "You know what? Obama was right about taxes as well." Some degree of compromise may be required for him to get his tax cuts through a Democratic controlled Senate, but he will make it a priority to keep of that promise to his donors (and, frankly, to himself).

As for "the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget", Romney has already abandoned them. When it comes to how he'll balance the budget, he won't get more specific than cutting PBS. Romney and Ryan are both cowards - they have both failed to explain who would feel the bite from their proposed cuts. And while Ryan proposed turning Medicare into a voucher program, and Romney proposes to push forward with that idea, the cowards have pushed the implementation of that reform so far into the future that they'll be long out of office before anything changes. They are not serious about balancing the budget and as much as Brooks attempts to fool himself - or is it only others that he's trying to fool - they will not hesitate to run up the deficit and the national debt. And when they do so, they'll claim "It's all Obama's fault."

You gotta love this:
The bottom line is this: If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis; if Romney wins, we’re more likely to get bipartisan reform.
All of four days ago, Brooks was telling us about the difference between being "moderate" and being "bipartisan", in that column and at the start of this one Brooks told us that Romney's latest reinvention of himself involved advancing a "moderate and sensible agenda", and yet here he is, admitting that his favorite spineless pretzel of a politician is not advancing "moderation", but is embracing the shallowest form of "bipartisanship", "finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting [him]self there".
Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama.
Yes, Brooks sees that as a good thing - a basis for endorsement. "You can't trust a word out of his mouth and you'll never know what he stands for (other than himself), so vote Romney."
He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans.
You'll excuse me for asking, but what evidence can Brooks offer that Romney will have any influence over House Republicans?
He’s more likely to get big stuff done.
If by "big stuff" you mean "tax cuts for the rich", yep. If you mean addressing any of the nation's most serious problems, Romney is expressly campaigning on a platform of leaving the hard stuff for the next guy - even if he serves a full eight years. He'll start the country on the path to have the budget balanced... in ten years. He'll start the process of privatizing and voucherizing Medicare and the first people who get vouchers instead of insurance will receive them... in ten years.

Romney is a coward, and he'll govern as a coward. If that makes Brooks comfortable, I am hard pressed on that evidence to believe that Brooks cares about anything other than getting a tax cut.

David Brooks and his Milquetoast Moderates

A few days ago David Brooks wrote an interesting column about an imaginary brand of "moderate voter". Oh, not completely imaginary, but certainly rare enough not to be a factor in any given election, certainly not the type to be duped by the partisanship Brooks dribbles into his column. I'm left wondering, did Brooks write this column because he wants to flatter low-information voters who, even at this stage of the game, are undecided and would prefer to embrace the conceit that their inability to decide which candidate to support results from their being deep thinkers wrestling with deep issues? Or is it that he truly believes that there's a significant class of undecided "moderates" who fit his definition, and nonetheless condescends to them in a manner their certain to see through? My guess is that, as with Douthat, it's the former. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to see a major pundit reject the Beltway conceit that "moderate" politicians advancing "bipartisan" ideas are the cure to our nation's woes. Brooks is correct that merely seeking out the "midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there" does not make you a moderate. Regrettably, Brooks' notion of what it means to actually be a moderate is not much better than the conception so often advanced by his peers.
Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.
Part of that is fair: a moderate of this stripe would be something of an intellectual, and thus would look to and attempt to learn from history. But how in the world does Brooks come to the idea that you can understand the history and underpinning philosophy of our country while rejecting philosophy. Does he think that the thinkers who influenced the path of post-Revolutionary America, for example Montesquieu and Thomas Paine, were historians? That the Federalist Papers are studies of history? What in the world does it mean to "revere" as "fact" the concept that "we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream" devoted to meritocracy and advancement? And how would Brooks have us reconcile that so-called "fact", which is in fact a philosophy, with... the actual facts on American economic mobility? Brooks continues,
This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.
So a moderate is like... a feng shui interior decorator, always trying to seek harmony and balance? Less concerned with whether a solution is right or wrong, but instead about whether the chairs and tables are correctly positioned? Why... yes, that does seem to be how Brooks views moderation:
The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced.
So a moderate, having embraced the concept that "we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream", would confront the anti-immigrant sentiments in states like Arizona and... what? Attempt to seek "balance" between his core belief in immigration and people who want to close our borders to pretty much any immigration? A moderate, having embraced the Horatio Alger myth as an American ideal, would confront the facts of inequality and a Mitt Romney-type attitude of "If you don't pay federal taxes, you don't matter to me," by... what? If in fact the moderate embraces the core beliefs described by Brooks, how does he advance "balance" when a political party or candidate openly rejects those core beliefs? Brooks never makes clear what a moderate would do in the present political environment. But he does contend that Romney's latest revision of his core beliefs, his attempt to distance himself from his anti-immigrant, anti-equality rhetoric of only a few months ago, is an aggressive appeal to moderate voters. Well, no, not unless they're stupid. Brooks continues,
[A moderate] understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.
By that measure, President Obama led the nation as a moderate, only to be rebuffed by the opposition party. President Clinton's triangulation, arguably, would also be recast as moderation; or would that be the staking out of the middle ground that Brooks rejects? One way or another, it appears that Brooks has little regard for how moderation of one form or another plays itself out in our political system.
Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve kept a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power. At any moment, new historical circumstances, like industrialization or globalization, might upset the balance. But the political system gradually finds a new equilibrium.
But that balance certainly is not because our nation has been governed by moderates. It's much more the result of our system of government having incorporated serious impediments to dramatic change, and a constitution that forces a significant degree of balance between state and federal power. There's a reason that Brooks does not give one concrete example of a moderate of his conception having led the nation through a difficult time. One who has led our nation at any time. Even one name. It's because Brooks' brand of moderation is a form of intellectualism that does not stand up well to politics. You don't take a policy white paper to a politics fight.

Brooks did qualify his statement about moderation, expressing that in "most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view". But let's take a step back and look at how that played out through American history. For much of our nation's history, it might have been accepted that opponents of slavery "had a point", but we nonetheless maintained and legally enforced chattel slavery. For almost a century afterward, opponents of legally enforced racial segregation "had a point", but we nonetheless maintained and legally enforced racial segregation. Proponents of women's suffrage "had a point", but the larger societal view was that women shouldn't vote.

If somebody were to now advance the position that slavery should be reintroduced or that women should be stripped of their right to vote, Brooks would likely say that those arguments fall outside of the sphere for which there are two partially true points of view. But that's not because of a victory of his brand of "moderate" - the type who would have sought to bring into balance the two competing philosophies. It's because people with what were then extreme political positions worked hard, often at significant peril to themselves, to advance those agendas until they won the public debate, brought about massive societal change, and created a context in which what was once acceptable is now viewed as unacceptable.

Brooks' "moderate" is more of a philosophical traffic cop:
The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.
But sometimes you need to climb off the fence and take a side. Sometimes the "new equilibrium" is what you achieve after upsetting the apple cart, not the sort of careful balancing that Brooks proposes. Sometimes if you embrace that form of "moderation" you end up holding society back or perpetuating a wrong. Sometimes the conceit that you are a "moderate" and "above the fray" is a rationalization or excuse used by somebody who has not though through the issues well enough to pick a side.

Brooks compounds his error,
The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right.
If that's true, Brooks' moderate is a moral coward. Given that Brooks clearly thinks of himself as one of these "above-the-fray, all-seeing, soloution-seeking moderates", that would certainly be quite a condemnation of self. But if Brooks admits the obvious truth - that there are policies that, once implemented, make it obvious that the policy that came before was wrong-headed, even destructive, his conceit collapses.

Somebody might respond that you need to separate social issues from legal issues - that you can be a political "moderate" of the type Brooks describes while adhering to social views driven by something other than fact or history. The problem with that is, the key problems of our time are driven by an attempt to balance social and economic interests. If you say that reproductive freedoms are a social issue, you're taking the position that the government can pass laws that principally restrict the rights and freedom of women. And how far can one push such a distinction before we're back to talking about segregation or slavery. If you take the position that society owes no duty to the poor, not even to poor children, there's no discussion to be had on how to balance those interests against a balanced budget or low taxes.

Before making that absurd claim, Brooks retreats a bit to his conception of the moderate as an intellectual:
The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.
That's reasonable enough. A moderate would attempt to find solutions based upon fact, not upon ideology. You don't start with the assumption that your solution will fix whatever's wrong - you look at the problem and then try to identify the best tools to fix it. While Brooks goes a bit soft with his notion of balance - this notion that a good "moderate" is always trying to restore and maintain equilibrium rather than rejecting an idea that should be properly placed in history's trash heap, there are issues for which the best we can do is seek some sort of balance suitable to the era. Brooks lists "equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism"; again, those sound arguments largely informed by philosophy, but history will often give you a sense of what is likely to work or to be accepted by the public.

Also, are "equality" and "achievement" actually in tension? Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush could certainly attest to the fact that starting from a position of privilege helps you achieve far beyond what you would be likely to accomplish from the starting point of a typical American. Of the three, George H.W. Bush might even admit that obvious fact. Brooks laments "inequality" in America, but makes no case that you cannot decrease inequality without also reducing "achievement" - one could argue that creating a more equal starting point, not dragging down the top but giving a boost to capable people at the bottom, will significantly increase achievement. But I overanalyze - it appears that Brooks is talking about affirmative action, but wants to tiptoe around the subject matter rather than attacking it directly. (I doubt that he's talking about legacy admissions - those, after all, reflect parental "achievement", right?)

For those of us who favor seeking good policy solutions to chronic problems, there's certainly appeal to the argument that you should start by looking at the facts and then try to find the best solution that's likely to get past the legislature and be signed into law - I'm not certain that Brooks can be arm-twisted into admitting it, but that's how we ended up first with Romneycare and later with Obamacare.

Alas, Brooks cannot resist his usual partisan nonsense,
For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.
That is to say there is a "certain sort of conservative" who rejects fact-based solutions in favor of ideology, namely the type who would sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. That would be about 236 out of 242 Republican Members of Congress, and 40 out of 47 Republican Senators. You may as well say "The Republican Party". On the other hand you have this "liberal [who believes that] tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer" who... appears to exist solely in David Brooks' imagination. If Brooks wants us to believe that he, personally, favors fact-driven analysis in pursuit of balance, he certainly picked odd examples.

Brooks tells us more about his brand of "moderate" - being a moderate does not mean being "tepid" and can mean simultaneously pressing for hard change in two directions. It's a "distinct ethical disposition" (ethical, but not philosophical?) suspicious of imbalance not only in others but in herself. (Introspection = good.) Brooks' moderate is suspicious of "passionate intensity and bold simplicity" and admires "self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise". Brooks' moderates either don't mind or prefer to be categorized as feminine (I don't specifically recall a column in which Brooks so conspicuously and consistently references his subject as "she")... which, frankly, makes the column seem a bit like a push for undecided women to vote for Romney - the politician he purports to now be "pander[ing] to the moderate mind-set". I guess that's his form of balance - vote for the candidate who has taken every position on every issue and assume that it all averages out?

Brooks tells us,
There are many moderates in this country, but they have done a terrible job of organizing themselves, building institutions or even organizing around common causes.
You could say the same thing of libertarians, except that we can point to actual people who organize as libertarians and say, "That's what a libertarian looks like". For Brooks' brand of moderates, you can assume that David Brooks would be able to at least find himself, but... if he possesses the level of introspection he insists defines his brand of "moderate", he appears to be excluding even himself. More to the point, to organize politically you need to have a common set of beliefs or values, and "everybody else is wrong" isn't going to work. A group of Brooks' moderates might have a wonderful coffee house debate over the issues of the day and where balance properly lies, but they're unlikely to leave their debate having reached a consensus. And by Brooks' definition, at the very next meeting whatever agreement was previously reached goes out the window, because the balance point is constantly shifting.

As with the forces that led to the financial industry deregulation that contributed to the financial industry collapse, sometimes things are already pretty much in balance when one side starts arguing for an extremist position, and it's all too easy for a Brooks-style centrist to believe he's staking out a new middle ground when he's in fact embracing a policy change that throws the system out of balance.

Brooks also embraces the conceit that his form of "moderation" can be played out in words, starting weeks or days before an election, and that if a politicians words feel good as they slither down your ear canal you should ignore all that came before. What actual moderate, informed by history, would trust such a politician? And why, given that Brooks so recently rejected the notion that moderation leads to success in Washington, is Brooks pushing the notion that Romney is a moderate, or at least is suddenly and conveniently putting on a moderate's clothing?

I have no objection to the notion that our system would be more effective if it were more intellectual, more focused on policy, more willing to reject ideology that gets in the way of good policy formation, and to some degree Brooks endorses such a vision. I don't have a problem with the argument that there is a point at which we must balance what we should do against what we can do - that a cost-benefit analysis must come into play. Alas, although one could argue that those philosophies are part of what Brooks argues, he ends up endorsing a sort of fence--sitting, balance-seeking, mythology-driven centrism, uninformed by either a coherent philosophy or an accurate view of history, and in essence endorsing polite acquiescence in a status quo that may in fact be immoral or otherwise unacceptable.

Michigan Voters - Preview Your Ballot

Go to Publius and find out exactly what's on your local ballot.

The ballot is ridiculously long this year - if you're going to try to work through the lesser-known offices and the nonpartisan ballot, and don't want to spend a lot of time at your polling place trying to figure out what each of the ballot initiatives is about, Publius allows you to do all of your thinking in advance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Romney's Foreign Policy Blunders, Laid Bare By His Defenders

Twelve years ago we were told not to worry about voting for G.W. Bush, even though he had little interest in or aptitude for foreign affairs, because we could assume he would surround himself with foreign policy geniuses who would give him the best possible advice and guidance. We weren't voting for a President - we were voting for a team!

Five years later, G.W. had learned enough to fire most of his initial advisers, and to ignore Dick Cheney, but the nation is still trying to dig its way out of Bush's first term disasters. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is pushing upon us another candidate who quite obviously has little interest in or aptitude for foreign affairs - one who has been running for President for six years, after positioning himself for that run over a period of decades - and we're supposed to be reassured because some of his advisers are drawn from Bush's second term, or something like that.

But you know what we're not hearing? We're not hearing an honest defense of the Republican Party's choice of candidates, or an honest explanation of why we should trust a foreign policy ignoramus to again serve as President. We're instead told that if the candidate, visibly sweating and stumbling every time he goes off script, does not diverge too far from memorized talking points, he should be deemed to have "passed" a test of his foreign policy credentials.

During the debate, Romney attempted to equate naval strength with the number of ships in the fleet. By Romney's standard, a kid in a bathtub could conceivably have a stronger Navy than the U.S. There's a lot more to naval power than a raw ship count. One of the defenses of Romney that has gathered some traction among his low-information adherents is an attempt to fact-check Obama's successful joke about Romney's measure,
You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
Really, when you are so desperate to dig your candidate out of a hole that you try to fact-check the punch line of a joke, you may as well cash in your chips and go home. You can fact check my bath tub joke above, if you like - you can explain that bathtub toys aren't Navy ships and that Romney was talking about ships. But the larger point holds.

On top of that, the "fact check" is pretty pathetic - back when bayonets were essential to combat they were in high demand and short supply, but now that most of the services no longer use them in combat we have heaps of them, used at times for training or for ceremonial purposes. And at times military officers still wear sabers. As a comeback, that's called missing the forest for the trees.

Romney made another comment that gained him immediate Internet attention, that "Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea." People got out their maps and noted not only that Iran is not landlocked, it shares no common borders with Syria. When asked to explain Romney's statement, his campaign replied,
“It is generally recognized that Syria offers Iran strategic basing/staging access to the Mediterranean as well as to terrorist proxies in the Levant. This is a large reason why Iran invests so much in Syria.”
Which, of course, does nothing to rehabilitate the assertion.

If you step back and look at Romney's history of foreign policy statements, you will find that he says a lot of things that don't make much sense or don't fit with the facts. Why? Because he knows little about the subject, and is primarily reciting poll-tested, scripted sound bites that are meant to make him look informed and serve as ground from which he can attack the Obama Administration's record. With some of his positions, such as the mythic "apology tour", given that Romney is not a stupid man he knows he's lying. But with some of his more bizarre, low-level errors, it's reasonable to infer that it's a scripting (or, if you prefer programming) error. He misremembers a talking point, but it's a relatively minor issue so nobody notices or corrects him, or if they do it gets lost in the noise of more substantive issues.

I'll grant, there is a third possibility, one we saw play out in the second presidential debate when Romney fell flat on his face while trying to attack the President on Libya. Some of his advisers don't seem to get outside of the bubble. Romney delivered his attack line as scripted, and what a delivery it was, but he and his advisers had the facts wrong.

I suspect what happened with the "route to the sea" comment is that somebody gave Romney a talking point about how Iran was smuggling arms through Iraq to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and as a result has influence on terrorist groups that those groups could potentially attack communities on the Mediterranean Sea" and, with apologies to Gary Larson, Romney heard something along the line of "Iran, blah blah blah, smuggling, blah blah blah, Syria, blah blah blah, sea", or perhaps that's all that stuck. And thus it came out as "[Syria is] their route to the sea."

So you have a statement that makes no sense on its face, and an explanation from the Romney campaign that sheds no light on its meaning. With no punch line to "fact check", what's a partisan to do? The Volokh Conspiracy's David Kopel gives it his best shot.
  1. A poorly written, unattributed online article, published six years ago, purports that Iran's initial vehicle for delivering a nuclear warhead would have to be by sea. Unless I somehow overlooked the canal between Iran and a port city in Syria, though, that claim has no relevance. If the idea is that Iran would have to build the nuke into a ship and sail it into a port, concern about that form of delivery has been around for a long time. But if you presuppose that Iran can smuggle all of the necessary parts and components of a nuclear device out of the country by land and air, and assemble the device at a remote location, Syria would be an incredibly poor choice of location.

    Kopel extrapolates from the article, adding any number of leaps of his own, "Syria is Iran’s route for the projection into the Mediterranean Sea (and from there, the Atlantic Ocean) of conventional naval power, and, perhaps soon, of nuclear weaponry." Leaving aside the fact that having zero naval vessels in Syrian ports makes for a weak projection of conventional naval power (even Romney and Obama can agree that zero ships makes for a weak navy) there's nothing in Romney's language that would suggest Kopel to have correctly identified his thought, it's not actually supported by Romney's chosen words, and there is no reason to believe that Romney was talking about this particular issue.

  2. Kopel found a claim from March of this year that Iran had sent a tanker to China filled with Syrian oil, "to evade the economic sanctions on Syria". Kopel appears to believe, based upon that single, reported incident, that if Iran provides Syria with sea access in order to avoid sanctions, the reverse must also be true. He also seems to believe that oil tankers project "naval power".

  3. Kopel then switches gears, turning to a fact check by Glenn Kessler that, after consultation with experts, had Kessler conclude that Romney had served up word salad. Kopen focuses on the passage, "Tehran certainly uses Syria to supply the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, but that has little to do with the water. The relationship with Syria could also effectively allow Iran to project its power to the Mediterranean and the border with Israel. But does that really mean, 'a route to the sea'?"

    It's not "a route to the sea", though - "their route to the sea". Nonetheless, Kopel contends that Kessler's conclusions are wrong, and that Romney was really talking about "Syria as the base for the projection of Iranian naval power", while using words that... say nothing of the sort. Kopel does not explain how you can project naval power without a naval presence.

  4. What better way to top off a serving of weak tea, than with a large side order of umbrage. Kopel references an unsourced post by somebody on Yahoo! Answers, sneering, if "you find yourself being outclassed by Yahoo! Answers, perhaps it’s time to rethink your assumptions that you’re much smarter and better informed than Mitt Romney". The same author answers questions of constitutional law - perhaps the Conspirators should invite him to join their blog.

    The Yahoo comment claims, "Although Iran is indeed located on the seacoast of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the international trade sanctions have restricted and impeded its ability to transport armaments and other goods through its own seaports. To defeat these trade sanctions, Iran has resorted to using its air transportation to transport goods through an air corridor in Iraqi airspace into Syria and its seaports, such as Latakia." In other words, Kopel is endorsing the position that Syria is smuggling... consumer goods?... by air, over Iraqi airspace, into Syria, where they are loaded onto ships and exported to nations eager for Iranian manufactured goods at any price. Because if you're going to try to export your goods in violation of international sanctions, the best approach is to pick the most expensive means of getting them out of the country (air transport) into a nation with... ports operating under similar international sanctions.

I gave Kopel far more attention than he deserves. A shorter version of Kopel's defense of Romney,
  1. Romney made a statement that he has made on several prior occasions and, at first blush, is both wrong and nonsensical.

  2. If you ignore Romney's words and his campaign's explanation of those words, you can pretend Romney was talking about something else.

  3. Once you substitute your speculation about what Romney may have meant for what he actually said, you can contrive facts that make the pretended argument somewhat defensible.

  4. If you disagree with the contrived explanation of the reinvented comment, you're dumb and uninformed.

I wish we could go back to the "good old days" when G.W.'s backers were reasonably honest about his foreign policy ignorance, not because I'm comfortable having a president who shows little interest in or aptitude toward foreign policy, but because I would like the voting public to know that's the choice they're making. Why aren't we being offered that choice, this time around, despite the similarities between Romney and G.W.? Because the Republican Party fears the comparison. And with the help of people like Kopel, they hope that people won't figure out the full extent of Romney's ignorance until after the election.

For now, ask yourself... if Romney's foreign policy expertise were defensible, why is he offering such a weak defense? Why isn't he explaining what he actually meant instead of cowering and hoping nobody asks follow-up questions?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Romney Leads a Revival of Domestic Manufacturing.... Sort Of

For four years his party's factories have been sputtering, but Romney came along, tuned them up, and we're now the world's leading exporter of manufactured outrage! Sure, you can argue that he's making the same mistake as the "The Change Bank",1 and perhaps confuses "volume" with "amplification", but he's hoping for a different type of profit.

John McCain, for example, is outraged that the President mocked Romney's talking point about Naval strength. And being a naval aviator himself, and thus presumably aware of the advent of aircraft carriers, and the son and grandson of admirals, who better than McCain knows how little has changed in the Navy over the past century.
"Frankly, I don't understand why the president wants to take these kind of cheap shots -- bayonets and horses, what's that all about?" he said. "You know, when I debated then-Senator Obama I didn't criticize or belittle his lack of experience on national security issues. And he seemed to take these kind of cheap shots. ... I kind of resent it."
He resents it? Because he never took any cheap shots and the prima donna celebrity lightweight during his own campaign? He and his campaign argued that Obama was weak, inexperienced, wrong and dangerous, and has been continuing to push the "Obama is weak" line through the present, but no cheap shots... on that subject during the actual debates? [Added: "I didn't criticize or belittle his lack of experience on national security issues"... not so true.]
Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America's veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge.
I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.
Hm. Those sounds like a cheap shots to me. Maybe McCain means "I made no cheap shots on that subject during the debate, just before, after and by proxy."

McCain would have been better served by pointing out to Romney that his talking point was really, really weak, even if it got laughs or applause when tossed out like red meat to low-information Republican voters, and that when you carry a weak talking point into a debate you should expect your opponent to be ready for you. Or, if McCain suddenly prefers rational, reasoned debate, being in a position to defend Romney's claim on its substance. Would McCain dispute this: In a theoretical sea battle, if you put the U.S. Navy on one side and all of the other navies in the world on the other, the U.S. Navy would prevail?2 Does McCain think it's good for the U.S. and its projection of power to pretend that the Navy is weak?

If something truly is a "cheap shot", it should be easy to refute on the facts. The "weak navy" cheap shot is easily refuted on the facts - Obama's response was shorthand for what, to somebody like McCain, should have been obvious from the day Romney started reciting that line. John McCain should be in an excellent position to explain why Romney's point holds.

The fact that McCain, like so many Republican partisans after the past three debates, is resentfully pounding the table about "cheap shots" and the like rather than explaining how Romney's claims make sense comes pretty close to an a collective admission of Romney's substantive weakness. Romney and Ryan do best when they are reciting poll-tested claims that they believe will sound good to his intended audience, despite having little to no relation to fact, calculated to make the President look weak or ineffectual. I'm surprised that McCain still needs this explained, but sometimes your opponent fights back - and when you telegraph your punches, sometimes you make that easy.

In fairness, if you are of the school that the best defense is a strong offense, sputtering rage about how unfair things were to your candidate may seem like a reasonable response to his having lost two consecutive debates.
1. The gist of the skit:
Change Bank: "We make change for you. You got a $1, we can give you 20 nickels. Or we can give you 5 dimes, a quarter, and 25 pennies - its all up to you."

Customer/Narrator: "How do you make money?"

Change Bank: [deadpan] "Volume".
2. That's not what the modern Navy is designed to do, so I'm not putting that forth as a definitive test of naval strength, but if you want to compare "then and now", it seems like a fair measure of relative strength.

"But The Rules Don't Apply to People Like Me"

Is it possible for Romney to get through a presidential debate without arguing with the moderator that the rules aren't fair and should not apply to him?

If we're lucky, we'll never find out.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Highly Informed, Highly Engaged Voters Won't Be Fooled by Douthat

It's reasonable to infer that when a partisan Republican columnist laments that he has "sympathy for the undecided", his column is going to attempt to explain why undecided voters should break in favor of his candidate of choice. Alas, Ross Douthat has not polished his skill at making this form of argument to the extent of his colleague, David Brooks, but he gives it his best shot.

Douthat's first tactic, flatter his audience. People make fun of undecided voters, Douthat laments, but you, his undecided reader are part of a "rarer species" than the undecideds who are subject to ridicule - you are "the highly informed, highly engaged, yet still conflicted voter."
Whatever partisans on both sides may insist, there are good reasons that a high-information voter with views somewhere near the American median might still regard this November’s decision as a harder-than-average call.
Rarer than rarer than rare, you're not only a highly informed undecided voter, you're one whose views coincide with the latest opinion polls. I guess Douthat credits you with enough intelligence to recognize that Romney's latest positions are poll-driven, and that you cannot trust that he has departed from the similarly poll-driven positions he took in his past campaigns because the only thing you can trust about the man's political positions is that he'll say what he thinks it takes to get himself elected. No, who am I kidding, Douthat's not crediting you with that much intelligence - if he were, he would write a different column.

So what, to Douthat, is "one of the biggest issues the campaigns are arguing about", the only one he writes about so presumably the one he believes will most influence the vanishingly small group of highly informed independent voters whose views align with the latest opinion polls? The standard Beltway obsession, "the question of how to bring our spending in line with our revenues". Douthat presents a statement he knows to be false, but who cares about facts when you can fall back on platitudes?
Conservatives think we tax too much and liberals think we spend too little, but the present combination of relatively low middle-class taxes and relatively generous entitlement spending is one that most Americans would happily maintain in perpetuity.
Let's see... on the one hand, we have a party that is promising a small tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, and the hope that through economic growth and spending cuts we can sustain the present system. On the other hand we have a party that is promising a $4-$5 trillion tax cut to be paid for by spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes, but refuses to get more specific about how that will be achieved than "We'll defund PBS", and is simultaneously proposing a $2 trillion increase in the military budget. As for spending less? The only specifics, turning Medicare into a voucher program, are pushed off a decade into the future - everything stays the same for now.

It is perhaps not an unfair simplification of those different visions of our future budget as "Conservatives think we tax too much and liberals think we should balance the budget before we talk about tax cuts," but it is absurd to pretend that Romney's budget-busting military spending and refusal to commit to even a single meaningful spending cut constitutes anything but thinking we spend too little. And if you look at the history of Douthat's party, going back to Reagan, the whine going into the election has been "liberals tax and spend too much" and the policy coming after the election has been to go on budget-exploding spending sprees - the problem is with taxation that brings the budget closer to balance, not with the spending.

You can argue that trying to cover government spending through tax revenues is a horrible thing, and certain Republicans love to defy math, logic and history by purporting that tax cuts can be presumed to "pay for themselves" by producing economic growth... never mind how G.W.'s tax cuts were followed by sluggish growth - much less impressive than growth under Clinton - propelled in significant part by a housing bubble, and culminating in economic catastrophe. (Yes, Clinton's economic boom was driven in part by a different bubble, the Internet bubble, but at least he didn't squander the tax revenues.) A highly informed undecided might say, "I'm undecided because I want to vote for a guy who prioritizes long-term fiscal responsibility, someone whose budget priorities are first to balance the budget and only then to discuss what we might do with an assumed future surplus," but they're not going to fall for Douthat's oversimplification.

If we are to actually assume that Douthat's undecided voter is in fact highly informed, that voter knows this: Democrats are more likely to balance the budget when economic times are good, but are less likely to call for cuts in social spending when the economy is faltering or in recession. Republicans are going to call for tax cuts, inuring principally to the benefit of the wealthy, no matter what the economic conditions are, when in power are likely to adopt the Dick Cheney philosophy of "deficits don't matter", would prefer to cut and privatize Social Security and Medicare, but have balked at serious reform because they don't want to alienate the important voting bloc of seniors who receive, or are about to start receiving, those benefits.

The highly informed undecided voter is aware that Romeny is trying to "split the baby" by promising that nothing will change for anybody over 55, but that the promise likely translates into "nothing getting done" because ten years from now somebody else will be in the White House, that President will be as terrified as Romney at standing up to seniors, and that any budget proposal that doesn't go into effect for a decade whil have no impact on the budget, debt or deficit during the next eight to ten years.

At this point, Douthat's highly informed, undecided voter is no doubt wondering, "Why do I bother reading this guy's columns," as they understand that on the issue Douthat deems of highest importance, Romney offers nothing but snake oil and Douthat's nonetheless attempting to argue that it could in fact be a cure-all.

Back to "Beltway wisdom":
Unfortunately, the status quo can’t actually continue: the combination of the baby boomers’ retirement and rising health care costs means something has to give.
Social Security is a big expenditure, certainly, but as Douthat knows, it is not in imminent fiscal peril and can be rendered solvent for many decades to come through some relatively minor adjustments. Granted, the wealthy balk at increasing the FICA cap, and both older Americans and the political left oppose raising the retirement age or cutting benefits, but it has been done before and can be done again. Douthat knows that the only President to present a serious proposal on this issue, to make the same type of adjustments that were put into effect under Ronald Reagan is President Obama. And, one must assume, so does his highly informed yet undecided voter.

Medicare is a more pressing issue, not so much because of its present size but because of its projected growth.
The White House is arguing that we can limit health care spending largely by bureaucratic fiat, by empowering experts to change the way doctors and hospitals spend and treat and charge. But we’ve tried variations on centralized cost control for years — “Medicare Whac-A-Mole,” Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman has called it — without reaping anything like the promised benefits.
Douthat's highly informed voter can see through Douthat's charade. This voter knows that there is nothing unique in the government's effort to try to steer patients toward the most cost-effective care and to reduce waste - that private insurers do that as well, sometimes with a very heavy hand.

The highly informed voter is probably also thinking, "The best Douthat can come up with to back up his rhetoric is a columnist for Reason magazine? Isn't that a bit like inbreeding - one columnist who knows little to nothing about the subject matter attempting to support his political case by referring to another guy who who knows little to nothing about the subject matter but has a similar political philosophy?" They might click through to the article and see that it opens,
House Republicans, you may have heard, are trying to “end Medicare as we know it.” And well they should—Medicare as we know it is the nation’s biggest fiscal disaster.
And recognize that it's not going to attempt balance. They might wonder, "Does Douthat think that marrying Megan McCardle gave Sunderman a bachelor's degree level understanding of economics by proxy?" Or, "Why is Douthat citing as an expert a guy who is part of a political debate about Medicare, but is not part of the actual discussion amongst experts on Medicare reform - the year-old column of a non-expert is the best Douthat can come up with?" They might pause for a moment and wonder, "Has Douthat ever challenged Romney's pretense that a couple of off-the-cuff blog posts constitute 'studies' that prove his mystery budget can work?" and again wonder, "Why am I still reading this guy?"

Seriously, resorting to Sunderman is fine if you oppose Medicare, don't believe that the nation should provide comprehensive health insurance to the elderly as a matter of policy, and don't mind a somewhat inconsistent narrative explaining how the program is an affront to libertarianism. But if you're the highly informed centrist that Douthat proposes, one who wants to continue Medicare as a meaningful program, you're apt to find Sunderman's article to be long but ultimately unconvincing. You already know cost control is difficult and that past efforts have resulted in uneven benefits, and Douthat presupposes that you nonetheless want to keep trying to find solutions that will allow Medicare to continue more or less in its present, highly popular form.

Douthat, as usual, goes from there to worse:
The Republicans are arguing for a more competition-driven approach, which would allow private insurers to compete for Medicare dollars, and hopefully bid down the cost of coverage. There are studies and pilot programs that suggest this kind of structural change might lower costs.
The highly informed voter sees right through Douthat's word salad: "The Republicans want to turn Medicare into a voucher program, have the benefit shrink in value over time relative to medical inflation, and put much more responsibility for health care costs onto seniors while simultaneously providing a massive transfer of wealth to participating private insurance companies." They also can see for themselves that Douthat's pretense that "studies and pilot programs" support the viability of vouchers is false - they know that Medicare came into existence because private insurers did not want to insure the elderly at an affordable price, and know that Medicare Advantage participants needed a subsidy in order to compete with Medicare - and are probably thinking, "Douthat at least linked to a libertarian screed to support his last argument - why no link for these purported 'studies and pilot programs'?"

Douthat continues,
But there isn’t a large-scale example that conservatives can point to as the template for the United States to follow.
At least, nothing that has worked. If you look for "large-scale examples" of approaches to health insurance that reduce cost and control inflation while preserving choice of doctor, quality of care and quality of outcome, you can look around the world and find many - all of which would be decried by the Republican Party and people like Sunderman as "socialized medicine". You will find that those programs were implemented largely as a response to the faltering or failure of market-based alternatives. You will find that "single payer" is not prerequisite to success, and that it is possible to rely upon private insurance companies to provide coverage under a national health insurance program.

What you will find when you look for "a large-scale [or small-scale] example" is that the most market-based country in the world, the United States, has not only repeatedly failed to demonstrate the superiority of "a more competition-driven approach", its approach has made health care exceptionally costly without an associated improvement in outcomes. If you want to take it on faith that one more experiment will disprove decades of failure, there's nothing wrong with adhering to your philosophical principles, but if you are a highly informed voter attempting to perpetuate Medicare while realizing significant cost savings you know up front that voucher proposals are just another round of snake oil.

On to the hollow man:
That same skeptic’s eye would also tell our hypothetical undecided that neither side is being entirely honest about the costs of its approach. The Democrats are pretending that taxing the rich can pay for almost everything. The Republicans are pretending that neither today’s taxpayers nor today’s seniors need bear any of the burden. The high-information swing voters are basically left to decide which dishonesty is worse, and which unacknowledged cuts or tax hikes they’d rather risk having to bear.
The fact is, "The Democrats" are not claiming that a modest tax increase on the rich will balance the budget, certainly not that it will "pay for almost everything". Douthat probably knows that his claim is untrue - after all, he can read - and no doubt any highly informed voter who has not yet given up on his column knows the claim to be untrue.

But what of the criticism of the Republican Party? It's a point that even Douthat found it hard to gloss over, the aforementioned fact that the Romney/Ryan Republican approach is, "We'll kick the can down the road a decade, at which time Medicare will be a voucher program." Douthat apparently would like to see Medicare immediately tranformed into a voucher program - his criticism is not of its substance but of its timing. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, that his mention of the fact that the Republicans have promised to spare "today's seniors" of any pain is an actual criticism, not a reminder to seniors who might be reading his column that they don't have to worry about voting for Romney.

But Douthat's highly informed voter, seeing the hollow man on one side of the scale - a position no Democrat has actually taken - weighed against the postponement of any action on the other side of the scale, might be wondering, "Why did Douthat present that hollow man argument in the first place, rather than presenting a simple, honest criticism of his own party. He knows I'm an informed and intelligent person - does he seriously think I'm going to fall for that?" I jest - I expect that by now the "high-information swing voters" to whom Douthat is supposedly speaking have long given up on the column.

Douthat next picks up his fiddle and starts singing about Rome:
If you want to think well of swing voters, and imagine them as wise Athenians rather than a Colosseum-going mob, you could see the improving odds for what once seemed like an unlikely 2012 outcome — a Romney victory in which Democrats hold the Senate — as a nod to the necessity for bipartisanship, and an attempt to make a significant change in Washington while also forcing both parties back to the negotiating table.
The highly informed swing voter, though, knows that the Republican problems with their Senate races emerge in no small part from the radicalism of some of their Senate candidates, and how their dream boys (like Scott Brown) haven't held up as well as they anticipated when running against competent, well-funded opponents. They know it has nothing to do with a fantasy that "bipartisanship" will magically start working just because one party controls the White House and the other controls the Senate.

Douthat's back to his historic practice, pretending to be a wise man, perched upon a fence, but unwilling to come down clearly on one side or the other. His highly informed voter long ago figured out the side upon which Douthat falls - why is he afraid of admitting it?

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Lethal President?

Same as it ever was.

It's not that I don't appreciate the concerns raised by those who question the targeting of a secret list of enemies of the state, whether by drone or by commando raid. Those concerns are for the most part well-founded, and the issues will only become more pressing.

Drone technology will continue to advance. It's easy to imagine a future in which drones the size of birds or insects can be used to strike somebody who has been declared an enemy of the United States, with minimal chance of damage to anything or anyone beyond the target. But such an advancement would not resolve the question of who should be placed on a "kill list" or why, what due process should be available to a targeted individual, or how accurately the government determines who should be on the list. Similarly, the U.S. military is likely to increasingly rely upon special forces, and small, targeted raids, rather than full-scale land invasions.

As these trends continue, some questions wil become more pressing. Will improved drone technologies inspire a rapid escalation of the use of drones and the circumstances under which they're deemed appropriate? As drones continue to take the place of boots on the ground, will the temptation be to rely upon drones to kill people who could or should have been taken prisoner? Will the margins blur in relation to who is an appropriate target - terrorists and their sympathizers vs. the political leaders of rogue or enemy states? And as drone use is legitimized and expanded, what happens when other nations inevitably gain similar technology and start applying it to contexts that they deem equivalent to ours?

History implicates all of those questions, and then some, in relation to pretty much any protracted conventional or asymmetrical conflict, anywhere in the world. When under threat, developed nations with well-educated populations tend to tolerate, accept, even applaud the use of tactics that they once deplored - and perhaps continue to deplore when exercised by other nations. Indefinite detention without trial? Torture? Dismissing the Geneva Conventions as outdated relics? The Bush Administration's decisions on those issues were in many ways regrettable, but the U.S. was far from the first nation to rationalize that actions we used to describe as crimes and human rights violations were necessary to achieve the greater good.

Cato Institute Policy Scholar Jason Kuznicki's reaction to "kill lists" and drone strikes is about as strident as you'll find. He points out that the President's "kill list" can include U.S. citizens, even minors, "including within the United States. Including children sleeping peacefully in their homes."
If Obama wanted to, he could put all of Mitt Romney’s delightful, gingham-clad grandkids on the kill list, then send commandos to kill them (or drones, it hardly matters). He wouldn’t need to show any cause, and no one could stop him or tell him otherwise.

Do not say that he wouldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t. The problem is that someone else might. And that’s enough.
Kuznicki declares,
Yet the very act of claiming the power also calls into question anyone’s good judgment. How exactly does someone conclude that he, personally, deserves the unchecked power of life and death? I couldn’t. I would be ashamed to show my face in front of you or to call you my equals. I might be a god or a beast, but not a man in a society.
I'm not going to argue that it's a job I would want. It isn't. But although the mechanism has changed, what Kuznicki is describing has been part of the President's job from day one. Every armed conflict, domestic or abroad, involved strategic decisions that may prioritize destroying a block of buildings or even a town or urban area in order to harm the enemy's ability to produce weapons, mobilize, feed its troops, or may even be justified by the belief that a "high-value" individual is in the targeted area. You want to talk about the deaths of children sleeping in their beds? There's a reason that allied commanders were concerned that fire bombing raids in Germany and Japan might be deemed war crimes.

We are presented with a modern myth of surgical warfare, collateral damage is minimized, civilians aren't harmed, our soldiers are less likely to be killed. There's a disturbing sequence in the movie, Waltz With Bashir, in which a series of efforts to target militants result in the deaths of civilians, presented in the manner of a comedy montage. The film also highlights how a thin veneer of rationalization can help somebody who might otherwise be wracked with guilt decide that his role in an atrocity was marginal or excusable. I'm not trying to argue that an individual citizen or soldier will change the course of history by speaking up, but it's much easier to disregard our role if we think of ourselves as noble heroes, at least trying to do good and minimize harm, offloading responsibility for collateral damage or atrocity onto local forces or our enemies.

Kuznicki knows our nation's history, so he knows we have a long history of legal presidents and generals, deciding from a distant war room what military measures to take, estimating losses to their forces, our forces and civilians, drawing up lists of individuals who should be captured or killed, dispatching special forces and snipers to capture or kill specific individuals. He knows that the Constitution was drafted with that lethality in mind - the Constitution's suspicion of standing armies, preservation and reliance upon state militias, placing a civilian President in charge of the military, and attempting to create a system of checks and balances to rein in excess. Yet Kuznicki writes of the President,
We know that no one gets to review his decision. Ever. The ones who might do it have all abdicated the responsibility.
Kuznicki, in essence, declares that he is never again going to vote for a candidate who has a realistic chance of winning the presidency because Congress and the courts aren't doing their jobs. Frankly, I would view skeptically even the most sincere promise of a third party candidate to change the practice if elected, not only because presidents tend to accept any expanded powers achieved by their predecessors, but also because he'll have to directly face and address the consequences of a policy change.

I don't want to overstate the role of the courts, as Congress hasn't provided either the courts or prospective litigants with much of a framework for these issues, but their overall history is to defer to the executive on issues of national security and to quietly regret any mistakes only in future decades. The branch of government that has been least willing to do its job in this context is Congress. You'll find Republicans like Darrell Issa angrily demagoguing about issues of embassy security, but when there's hard work to be done - when they are asked to take ownership of their own failings - you'll find excuses ("Our refusal to fund increased embassy security has nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't increased") or silence. You can get objections out of Republicans like Issa over drone and cruise missile strikes - if they produce favorable media coverage; "The President did that to distract you from domestic politics, wag the dog, wag the dog!" But that type of reaction is not a substantive objection - its a politically calculated claim that relates only to timing.
We don’t need an elected beast-god with a kill list. We need to end the system that proposes, every four years, to place one of our human equals into that role. A role any decent human would refuse. And this election just isn’t going to do it.
This election won't do it, the next one won't either, nor the next.... To prevent Presidents from having this power, we would need a constitutional amendment. And as long as Congress pretends that this is not an issue, and the general public reaction is to accept the notion of surgical strikes with no collateral damage (the key rationalization, if you're innocent you won't be near the target, right?), and the media at large treats the issue with a collective yawn, nothing will change.

In Esquire, addressing the fine line that can exist between targeted killings and murder, Tom Junod argues that, unlike his predecessors, President Obama "had to answer an additional question before you took the job. Other presidents had to decide whether they could preside over the slaughter of massed armies, and the piteous suffering of whole populations." But again, that's more a question of degree, and of technology, than it is of fact. Sure, Ronald Reagan had to launch a significant air raid on Libya to try to kill Gadhafi. George H.W. Bush had to indvade Panama to capture Manuel Noriega. Clinton, though, sent cruise missiles to try to kill Osama bin Laden.

One could argue based upon that history that the new way is better - that as technology has advanced, in many contexts we can avoid the type of massive collateral damage that results from a full-scale invasion, even if we won't have to subsequently occupy the nation whose leader we've toppled. It's possible to point to the history of "boots on the ground" in nations like Somalia, and argue that the President can get at least as much cooperation from local warlords by making them aware of the possibility of a targeted drone strike, without putting large numbers of soldiers into the nation at great expense and considerable risk to their lives.

One could reply that history doesn't yet demonstrate that those possibilities are now reality, but the come-back would presumably be that a failed intervention by drone will cost far less in terms of money and lives than the cost of a failed intervention by land. If the choice is to "try drones and special forces" or "do nothing", what does an advocate of "humanitarian intervention" do? If the choice is between attempting to achieve a surgical victory, even if the surgery will be a lot less precise than the government or media are likely to admit, and a massive on-the-ground assault, can we really presuppose that the latter will be less lethal to civilians, more precise, or more likely to bring about and sustain the outcome we want?

A rather compelling objection to targeted killings, particularly in the context of asymmetrical warfare or a distributed target organization, is that the strategy can degenerate into trying to fight a hydra - cut off one head and two grow back. There was a period under Bush during which it seemed like a month wouldn't go by without a successful strike taking out the #2 or #3 man in al Qaeda. Either the strikes were a lot less accurate than the Bush Administration let on (and in some cases we know that to be the case - with the targeted individual turning up alive at a different location) or the U.S. was encountering the same level of "success" as nations have traditionally achieved by capturing and killing "terrorist" leaders - they're pretty easily replaced, and sometimes "martyring" the leader helps with recruiting efforts. Also, while collateral damage may seem modest and acceptable to somebody sitting in the U.S., you can rest assured that the populations hit by those attacks don't share our detachment when it's their loved ones who are being killed.

If Kuznicki wants change, he has a decent platform from which to advance his opinions in the public sphere. Far better than most. But if he wants to influence a political actor, rather than refusing to vote for the President and implicitly urging others to follow, he should be attempting to turn up the heat on Congress.