Monday, December 23, 2013

Some Christmas Groove

Apologies, readers, for the slowdown in posts. The holiday season has set me back a bit, but in the words of "Christmas Blues" writer Sammy Cahn "I've done my window shopping / there's not a store I've missed." With that completed, more posts will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, if you're looking for some Christmas groove to get you through the season and Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas, while always great, feels just a bit too familiar, then look no further than Jimmy Smith's Christmas Cookin'.

Jimmy Smith was one of the all time great organ players, recording a host of albums for Blue Note in the 50s and 60s and he kept on performing his whole life. He was asked by Quincy Jones to play for Michael Jackson when they set down Bad.

Who might need a little more B-3 organ playing while celebrating Christmas? Everybody. Don't miss "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (both versions), a swinging rendition of "We Three Kings (Of Orient Are), and "Jingle Bells."


Merry Christmas to all from The Union Marches.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chait on Obamacare

Jonathan Chait at the Daily Intelligencer offered his own take on Obamacare's end-of-November reboot:
The main questions at hand are how well [Obamacare] will muddle through. The dreaded “death spiral,” in which insurance markets are overloaded with sick, expensive customers, is highly unlikely to materialize, for several reasons: Both insurers and the administration have extensive plans to reach out to younger customers; the enrollment period lasts through the end of March, and people tend to enroll at the last minute; the law has a crucial financial backstop to protect insurers in case they get stuck with disproportionately sick customers to begin with.

Democrats will not repeal Obamacare. Even in their most panicked moments, only a handful of Democrats in the House voted for the Upton bill, which would have kept unregulated individual market plans that skim off healthy customers operating in perpetuity. The only way to repeal or cripple the law before 2017 is to muster a veto-proof majority in both chambers of Congress, a conservative fantasy that would require the support of huge numbers of liberals in Congress.

So what are we fighting about? How smoothly the law operates, and how many customers it manages to enroll by the end of Obama’s term, are open questions. Likewise up for debate is whether Obama’s approval ratings will recover. But these are not fundamentally questions about the life or death of Obamacare. They’re about how much political pain Democrats in Congress must endure. We’re not fighting over health-care policy. We’re fighting about the midterm elections.
Exactly.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Obamacare & Republican Identity

In a post about Obamacare two weeks ago, I concluded on a note of optimism that the website was improving and that, whatever happened in the Congressional elections in 2014, Obama had until 2017 to implement fixes to the ACA and make it a permanent fixture of the federal edifice. On Sunday, as they promised, the administration revealed the progress made on healthcare.gov fixes and the news was positive.

While it would be wise to be skeptical of this update coming from the White House, plenty of news outlets have confirmed that, relative to the website experience in October, the interface is much improved with far fewer error rates. Bloomberg reported that sign-ups in November numbered over 100,000. "Wonkblog" at the Washington Post wondered a week ago, "Is Obamacare Turning the Corner?" The answer, apparently, was yes, because one of today's "Wonkblog" headlines read, "Healthcare.gov will work. That means Obamacare can work too." Despite lingering and real concerns regarding the back end of the site's functionality, specifically the information delivered to insurance companies, the consumer experience for individual shoppers (i.e. voters) is working quite well. They conclude:
So there remain reason for concern. But here's what's indisputable: HealthCare.gov is improving, and fast. Or, to put it differently, HealthCare.gov will be fixed. In fact, for most people, it is probably fixed now, or will be fixed quite soon.

The repair job is likely proceeding quickly enough to protect Obamacare from the most severe threat to its launch: Democrat-backed legislation unwinding the individual mandate or other crucial portions of the law. So long as people can actually purchase insurance through the federal exchanges, congressional Democrats are likely to support the basic architecture of the legislation they passed in 2010.
Not out of the woods yet, not even close, still the Democratic establishment must be breathing a massive sigh of relief after the massive momentum swings in the last two months. Obama's summer doldrums gave way to the Republican shut down, an early Christmas gift from the Tea Party. That political advantage was squandered completely just a few days after Obamacare's disastrous launch, but now the pendulum, perhaps, has begun to swing back. Obamacare's enrollments may be sluggish and disappointing, but such scorekeeping ignores the more fundamental truth that with every new sign-up, the law becomes more indelible. This fact, reports Brien Beutler, poses a serious problem for a Republican Congress that has continually made hay passing laws to repeal Obamacare.
Now that it’s December, Republicans are facing accelerating enrollment across the country and a thinning calendar. Healthcare.gov is much improved and still improving, and the House is set to adjourn on December 13 for the remainder of the year. When it returns, the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve already successfully enrolled will actually be insured, and their ranks will be swelling.
In other words, you can't just repeal the law anymore... repeal laws will actually cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose their benefits. Joan Walsh, Beutler's colleague at Salon, offers another diagnosis of the past year in health care politics:
Still, it may turn out that the ACA troubles were a brilliant Democratic plot to distract Republicans from their demographic terminal illness, and convince them that the Kill Obamacare playbook is all they need for 2014.  Republicans have made absolutely zero progress in reaching out to any of the demographic groups – women, young people or Latinos – that the RNC’s autopsy agreed they had to, in order to stay alive as their older white base ages into that great Tea Party rally in the sky.
A brilliant Democratic plot? Wishful liberal thinking, to be sure, but the critique of the 2013 Republican political strategy (if we can even point to anything so coherent) strikes me as correct. If Obamacare survives and prospers, the Republican problem with the national electorate remains as real and as threatening to the long term prospects of the Party as everyone said it was after Mitt Romney lost last November. It might even be worse. As Walsh pointed out in a subsequent column, many of the people signing up for healthcare are older white people who are, in demographic terms, the Republican Party's Alamo. Granted, national demographics may not matter to the Congressional races next fall. Beutler argues as much:
In the months ahead the GOP will squeeze every drop of political juice they can out of every Obamacare failure and hardship they can unearth or spin into existence. But the goal won’t be repeal. It will be to channel the right’s Obamacare obsession into voter turnout in 2014 — at which point millions of people will be insured and the law will be unrepealable.

I think the hopelessness of the repeal campaign — the absence of a viable legislative vehicle, the turning tide of Healthcare.gov, the initiation of insurance benefits — is becoming clear to elected Republicans, and its dying embers will be fully extinguished by early next year.
If Beutler is right—a big if—it will leave the Republican Party in a peculiar place. So much of their identity has been constructed in the last four years as the Enemies of Obamacare, it is hard to imagine what platform they will build when that fight becomes moot. Ezra Klein wrote back in September that Republicans cannot even adopt deficit reduction, their old stand-by, as an urgent need to vote in Republicans. Deficit spending has cratered since 2008.

It is an open question, then, how the Republican Party will remake itself. Being a Republican in 2014 might yet entail open resentment against Obama, Obamacare, and government overreach. It is far less certain what being a Republican in 2016 will mean.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"He Had Equality In His Eye"

As the 50th anniversary of the day John F. Kennedy was slain approaches, take a few minutes to listen to The Dixie Nightingales, the group David Ruffin would sing in before going on to co-found The Temptations

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gettysburg & Pericles

Channeling Garry Wills, I will observe the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address by excerpting part of Pericles' funeral oration, offered in 431 B.C.E. to honor the Athenian dead.
I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want to show you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges, and to establish by manifest proof the merit of these men whom I am now commemorating. Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious. And of how few Hellenes 1 can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame! I believe that a death such as theirs has been the true measure of a man's worth; it may be the first revelation of his virtues, but is at any rate their final seal. For even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions. None of these men were enervated by wealth or hesitated to resign the pleasures of life; none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest. They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.

Such was the end of these men; they were worthy of Athens, and the living need not desire to have a more heroic spirit, although they may pray for a less fatal issue. The value of such a spirit is not to be expressed in words. Any one can discourse to you for ever about the advantages of a brave defense, which you know already. But instead of listening to him I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast. The sacrifice which they collectively made was individually repaid to them; for they received again each one for himself a praise which grows not old, and the noblest of all tombs, I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives, and is proclaimed always and on every fitting occasion both in word and deed. For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Obamacare: A Damage Report

Last weekend, reader MM asked me what I thought of the whole Obamacare rollout fiasco. My thinking has been: Not good. Botching the website was a disaster... for the law, for Obama's presidency, and maybe for modern liberalism. And all of it is made worse because a website is exactly the sort of thing that should not go wrong. Build it. Test it. This is the most important legislation since the Great Society, maybe since the New Deal. Just don't screw it up.

But they screwed it up.

Now Democrats are suffering through a news cycle that won't go away with the signature achievement of Obama's first term (and, let's face it, his whole presidency) taking a daily beating in the headlines. The damage may be worse. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas at "Wonkblog" have argued that "Obamacare's troubles threaten Obama's core political project." Klein, in particular, has been all doom and gloom on the website issues. In this piece, they claim that more foundational issues are at stake. Here are the crucial paragraphs:
Like many Democrats of his generation, Obama believes that the government is necessary — but that the government must be redeemed if it's to be trusted. He thinks the American people are rightly suspicious that the government doesn't do big things well. He venerates the market's capacity for innovation and efficiency even as he struggles against its ruthlessness and cruelty. And he ran for office convinced that if the American political system was going to be able to address the country's problems going forward, it would require an end to the old ideological battles and the forging of a new policy consensus.

The Affordable Care Act is the purest incarnation of these theories. It's meant to protect Americans from the predations of both the job market and the health-insurance market by making sure the poorest Americans can afford coverage, the sickest Americans can't be denied it and no one is tricked into plans that prove inadequate when health crises strike.

But it's also meant to avoid the pitfalls — both substantive and political — of big-government programs by relying on private insurers competing in tightly regulated, highly transparent, government-structured marketplaces. That's why Obama modeled the plan off of Mitt Romney's largely successful health reforms in Massachusetts. What better way to absorb Republican ideas and generate Republican buy-in then to adopt an idea from one of the GOP's leading lights?
What's immediately useful about this diagnosis is the reminder that Obama's "core political project" is the enactment of left-wing values through centrist or center-right policies. Harness the best aspects of the free market to the government's commitment to the people, and good things will follow.

Perhaps this is modern liberalism? Perhaps the great victory of the Reagan revolution was to inculcate the liberal establishment with elements of neoliberalism. The progressives' suspicion of the free market has been replaced with bland appreciation.

If that is the case, it may be not such a bad fate that Obamacare's debut has come under fire. All of the problems of the rollout have been issues of the market. Every glitch, every error screen, every frustration that has arisen has had to do with the act of shopping for healthcare among multiple plans from multiple providers across fifty states. Americans have long suffered a wholly privatized healthcare system, in which the market failed in every way possible. Relative to every other developed nation, healthcare costs were inflated, and, criminally, millions of Americans were left without insurance. Now we are witnessing the problems of a privatized healthcare system operating with a government mandate that everyone obtain insurance (a damn good thing) facilitated by a deeply flawed website (a damn terrible mistake). Here's how the whole thing could have been made easier: single-payer national health care.

It is worth noting that the introduction and early days of virtually all health care initiatives have run into some trouble. Some pundits have drawn comparisons (of varying value) to the Medicare Part D legislation passed under George W. Bush. Here, again from "Wonkblog," is a collection of headlines from the 1966 Medicare launch. Then, too, the fear was that they would not get enough people to sign up of the millions of seniors they needed. Despite it being a government operation, one heralded by the AMA as the "beginning of socialized medicine," here were the results:
On the whole, however, the enrollment effort worked. Of the 19 million seniors eligible for Medicare, 93 percent enrolled by the summer of 1966. 
If government can sometimes get things right, we can also find plenty of examples of private companies making mistakes comparable to healthcare.gov. Part of the backlash against Obamacare comes from a sense out there that real tech companies would never have botched their websites like the government just did. After all, websites, servers, visual interfaces, and virtual markets are all the things tech companies know backward and forward. As it turns out, they swing and miss too. Take two examples from the video game industry. The massive multiplayer online game, Star Wars: the Old Republic, which at the time of its release in 2011 was the most expensive video game ever made, ringing in at $200 million, was plagued by server access problems upon launch. These problems paled in comparison to the launch of the latest Simcity by gaming company Electronic Arts, where severely limited server capacity and in-game coding bugs aggravated so many players, they actually petitioned the White House to mandate a universal video game return policy when remote access to servers is defective. (Apparently, that was before Obama had lost his internet credibility. You can't make this stuff up.) Check out Simcity on Amazon... currently it has an average user rating of 1.5 stars with over 2,200 one-star reviews.

Private or public, the Simcity story tells us that bad launches in the internet age can be crippling. Obamacare may yet fall to its irresponsible, shoddy, amateur introduction. That so much of the political agenda of the left wing relies upon Obamacare's success makes this mistake inexcusable. But Obamacare may yet succeed—in fact, I'd wager there's still a better chance it will succeed than fail. Why? Because Obama is in office holding a veto pen until January 2017. Thinkprogress reports that, as the website has improved, more people have been shopping. Good signs. The administration task force bent on fixing the website reports that it has improved tremendously. On average, pages now take less than a second to load (down from 8 seconds) and the user error rate is below 1% (down from 6%). Want to find out? Check out the website functionality for yourself: www.healthcare.gov

But if the whole thing falls under the weight of poor execution, the problem of health care will still require a solution. Maybe we should look to our northern border for inspiration and old fashioned liberalism. There are a lot of myths about it (dispelled here), but here's a good primer on the Canadian health care system.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Trouble With Wikipedia

Good article, "The Decline of Wikipedia," from MIT's Technology Review. Another example of how the scope of the virtual world we frequently imagine to be limitless is just as likely to be constrained by traditional forms of power. Here's an excerpt:
Because Wikipedia has failed to replenish its supply of editors, its skew toward technical, Western, and male-dominated subject matter has persisted. In 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota and three other schools showed that articles worked on mostly by female editors—which presumably were more likely to be of interest to women—were significantly shorter than those worked on mostly by male editors or by men and women equally. Another 2011 study, from the University of Oxford, found that 84 percent of entries tagged with a location were about Europe or North America. Antarctica had more entries than any nation in Africa or South America.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

GOP Tactics and GOP Ideology

Jonathan Bernstein at Salon doesn't put much stock in a crack-up of the GOP.
The truth is that today’s Republican Party looks about as close to homogeneous as a major party in an enormous nation can get. It’s very easy to imagine its differences dissolving rapidly during the next campaign, just as they did when a somewhat similar split appeared to open up during the Clinton presidency.
Bernstein's piece is a good reminder that despite all the GOP infighting, the party itself is as ideologically cohesive as any party in American history. In my last post, I suggested that the crisis of the GOP mirrors the problems that destroyed the Whigs and split the Democrats in the decade before the Civil War. By the metrics of partisanship, rhetoric, and political tactics, the comparison holds water. But the driver of politics and extremism in the 1850s (and all the decades preceding) was the political fact of slavery and its uncertain future in a free republic. No such issue, certainly no such uniquely sectional issue, threatens the unity of the current Republican Party. That is essentially Bernstein's point. As he puts it,
I do believe that the Republican Party has become severely dysfunctional, but that matters mainly in governing, not electioneering. And I don’t think the dysfunction is really about internal differences; it’s far more about a combination of perverse incentives provided by the conservative marketplace, along with the unhappy influence of a handful of past Republican leaders.
This strikes me as a defensible perspective, but there are a couple questions raised by Bernstein's argument that might be worth pursuing. Are divisions within a political party that have more to do with tactics than policies somehow less threatening to the integrity of the party? The common sense answer, I think, is: Yes, they are less threatening. If all of the GOP opposes new revenue streams (i.e. taxes) to address government debt, then the differences by which they obstruct Democrats from enacting such taxes are probably not such a big a deal.

But common sense answers aren't necessarily useful in the current political climate. What the government shutdown demonstrated is that political tactics have become elevated to the level of ideology. For the GOP it is not enough to advocate for policy positions, like curtailing federal taxes. The political test now is the manner in which a GOPer fights for them. Consider Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man Alex Pareene argues has done more to stymie President Obama than any other Republican. His efforts to work with Harry Reid, end the shutdown, and stop the Republican freefall in the polls has earned him vigorous opposition from conservative groups intent on replacing him with a Tea Party candidate. Time's "Swampland" reported on this endorsement of McConnell's primary opponent by Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund (emphasis mine):
“Matt Bevin is a true conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country,” SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins said in a statement. “He is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare. We know that winning this primary won’t be easy. Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power. But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we’re confident Matt Bevin can win this race.”
It could be that tactics matter, as it turns out, not just in governing but in electioneering too. The other question we ought to ask is if the alignment of the GOP across major policy positions is as unified as Bernstein suggests. Surely there is no single issue like slavery cutting across the political landscape, but there are an array of issues in which the more extremist wing of the GOP has offered different legislative solutions too. Ross Douthat at The New York Times has been making this case for weeks now, most recently with this (emphasis his):
Yet at the same time, to the extent that policy differences are driving the current intra-G.O.P. fight, the populists tend to have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. Their strategy is disastrous, but their substance has something to recommend it. Which is part of the reason why it isn’t enough, for the Republicans to escape their current cul-de-sac, for the party leadership to “win” and the populist base to “lose” — let alone for the leadership to somehow jettison the base. Instead, somebody, somehow, has to both integrate and purge — leaving the Tea Party’s baggage by the roadside while continuing to speak to populist impulses and taking up populist ideas, and folding both into a strategic vision that’s more connected to political reality than what we’ve seen these last few weeks.
Immigration constitutes another fault line. GOP leadership has already made it clear that immigration reform ought to be a priority, especially coming off the exit polls of 2012's election. But in recent days hardliners have decided to scuttle attempts at immigration reform in some kind of adolescent response to losing the government shutdown fight that they had precipitated in the first place. Jonathan Chait for New York's "Daily Intelligencer" could scarcely believe what he was reporting:
It would be one thing if these sources opposed immigration reform on its merits. But they don't. They think immigration reform is a vital necessity. They believe failing to pass some kind of reform will harm America. But they want to do it anyway because they're mad about the shutdown.
All of which points to a conflation of tactics and policy into one aggregate Tea Party brand. Conservative ideology is no longer just a set of beliefs rooted in right wing principle—Conservative ideology is now a manifestation of political actions taken in devotion to right-wing principles. The more extreme the action, the more ideologically true is its author. Bernstein may still be right; that kind of dysfunction may not result in full-bore GOP civil war. Charting a new course toward centrist ideas and reasonable governing compromises may defuse the crisis of the Republican Party. It is certainly conceivable that the GOP struggles on in rump form for a few elections cycles until a new figure reinvigorates the party by banishing the crazies. In fact, I think something along these lines is the most likely outcome.

But a GOP rupture may yet be in the cards... the current attempts to purge the party of the unpure, like (amazingly) Mitch McConnell, almost by definition entails a diminishment in party numbers and, inversely, far more crazed rhetoric and partisanship. Whomever the GOP leaves behind will have to adjust somehow. If that group includes technocrats, big business, and long standing pragmatic conservatives (none of whom really want to join the Democrats), that has the makings of an immediately well-funded and nationally appealing third party movement.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fire-Eaters

It is becoming more and more common to read articles about the current political crisis and find comparisons to the Civil War. Tom Edsall for the New York Times began his most recent column with this:
These are extraordinary times. The depth and strength of voters’ conviction that their opponents are determined to destroy their way of life has rarely been matched, perhaps only by the mood of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War.
In a Salon interview with left leaning economist Doug Henwood, the question of whether a stock market crisis would finally compel the Republicans to capitulate was raised. Henwood responded:
It does seem like this group of really hardcore Tea Party types may not really be impressed. They seem to believe that the cause of justice is on their side, and that they are making some sort of glorious last stand or avenging the surrender of the South in 1865 or something. They may not listen.
 Plenty of signs ominously point to Henwood's speculation proving true. Republicans may not capitulate despite all the warning signs, not only to the economy but to the interests of their own party. In an eerily familiar replaying of the 2012 election, the right wing seems determined to interpret falling poll numbers as winning poll numbers. California Republican Tom McClintock took just this rosy view of the situation saying, "Actually the polling that I've seen is showing a rising body of opinion that rejects the no-compromise, no-negotiation stance of Harry Reid and Barack Obama."

Perhaps McClintock has access to in-house polling that shows something different from national polls, because nothing in national polls suggests good news for Republicans. Sam Wang, the statistician and analyst behind the Princeton Election Consortium, yesterday published a post arguing that, based on a recent set of PPP polls, the GOP majority was in jeopardy. (Wang is not irresponsible; he offers numerous caveats in his post, not least that the election is a year away, but the takeaway is that the politics of the shutdown are seriously hurting the Republicans.) PPP surveyed 24 GOP-held Congressional districts. Wang interprets the results (and references a graph on his blog) as follows:
The swing was toward Democrats for 23 races (below the red diagonal) and toward the Republican for 1 race (above the diagonal). The key piece of information is the gray zone. If more than half the points are in that gray zone, then that predicts a swing of >6% and a Democratic takeover. Currently, 17 out of 24 points are in the gray zone.
This sort of bad news is exactly why a few conservative pundits are questioning the wisdom of this GOP-born catastrophe. In The New York Post, John Podhoretz authored a column entitled "Suicide of the Right," which notes some uncomfortable truths: that Obamacare is unpopular but not overwhelmingly so; that "the US Congress is viewed favorably by... 11 percent of Americans"; and that "Republicans look considerably worse" in this showdown. These facts are not lost on Obama, who has been getting increasingly sharp as the crisis has escalated. (It's a guess, but I am 99% certain people in the White House were reading Sam Wang's post after it was published—Wang is as highly regarded (or moreso) as Nate Silver.)

But these same facts don't matter to hardliner Tea Partiers. Greg Sargent's morning post crystallized the current crisis as a problem not of negotiation over the debt, because both Democrats, including Obama, and Republicans have already said they want to negotiate, but under what circumstances such negotiations ought to take place. Right wing extremists who seem to be running the GOP only want to negotiate in a crisis atmosphere, because that gives them the only leverage they have with Obama. We know this because the GOP refused to negotiate earlier this year when the Senate passed a budget, and they are refusing Obama's offer to negotiate after opening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

In other words, John Boehner has watched as a radical wing of his own party has manufactured a crisis, escalated it, and forced him to extract as much political influence out of it as possible. Now there is a good chance his Speakership will be consumed by it. He is living out his own little French Revolution and the Committee of Public Safety will come for him sooner or later. As Tom Edsall noted,
John Boehner is just the kind of Republican leader the hard right dislikes – a deal maker, a compromiser. The Republican primary electorate, with its hold on a solid block of Republican representatives and its ability to recruit and promote challengers, now has Boehner trapped. 
All of which begs the question, what can a normal Republican do under such circumstances? On this question, I think the period of the Civil War offers an illuminating parallel. In the 1850s, the strain of ideological politics was too great for the party system. The Whigs crumbled by the middle of the decade. The Democrats survived, but split into sectional factions in 1860, which (arguably) set the table for Lincoln's electoral victory. At the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the delegates could not agree on the issue of slavery in the territories. Some die-hard Southerners demanded a plank endorsing the Dred Scott decision. Stephen Douglas, the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, had built his career on the policy of "popular sovereignty," which he had last defended in his 1858 debate with Abraham Lincoln at Freeport. He and his supporters refused such a plank. The Southerners, called "Fire-Eaters" for their belligerent extremism, (a moniker far more appropriate to the current right-wing of the GOP than "Tea Partiers"), walked out of the convention. Weeks later, most Democrats reconvened in Baltimore to nominate Douglas. The Southerners met separately in Baltimore and elected John C. Breckinridge. Here's what Douglas's home town newspaper had to say about it:


The modern GOP seems headed for just such a split. Consider what Podhoretz had to say towards the end of his column about the far right of the GOP:
When I interact with these conservatives, they say they don’t care about the GOP; what they care about are conservative ideas.

They’re right not to assign special glory or power to a political organization and to hold ideas above party. But here’s the condundrum: There is only one electoral vehicle for conservative ideas in the United States — the Republican Party
Exactly, there's only one electoral vehicle... at the moment. But it may prove to be that the bonds holding the Republican Party together will break, if not in this crisis than in the next crisis they create. I used to think the Tea Party might break off from the GOP and form their own right wing party. Now I don't think so... why would they? They have already demonstrated their superb ability to control the GOP as it currently exists. Now it seems more likely that moderate Republicans would split and form their own independent or center-right party. Harold Meyerson suggests just such a possibility in the Washington Post. The major threat all moderate Republicans fear at the moment is getting primaried. Filing as an Independent could go a long way to erasing that threat.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shutdown Politics and The Princess Bride

Like everyone else, I've been watching the course of events leading the government into shutdown with that strange mixture of disbelief and utter lack of surprise. I can't believe we're at this point, but of course I can believe were at this point. Critical government dysfunction is what happens when extremists drive politics. And by "extremists" I don't just mean those 40 or so right-wing members of the House of Representatives; I mean the grassroots organizations that have offered critical support to these candidates and the right-wing voters who have sent them to Washington with their blessing to end government as we know it. James Fallows is quite right when, in a recent post, he noted that this isn't another story of "Washington Dysfunction." It is the decades-long story of one part of the entire electorate moving steadily towards reactionary radicalism.

Fallows, by the way, recently argued the same point I made in starting this blog:
In case the point is not clear yet: there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. It is radical, and dangerous for the economy and our process of government, and its departure from past political disagreements can't be buffed away or ignored. If someone can think of a precedent after the era of John C. Calhoun, shown above in Mathew Brady's famous portrait, let me know.
Dark times. The repercussions of the shutdown are serious enough and the threat to the debt ceiling is even scarier. Yet (and I ask your forgiveness in advance for the rest of this post)... I can't help but find some levity in the buffoonish manner in which the Republican players in this drama have gotten themselves stuck. It's like they all got into the clown car (dragging the country with them), and now they're so tightly jammed inside no one can open the door.

Jonathan Chait wrote a sobering piece for the "Daily Intelligencer" about the shutdown, the debt ceiling, and the consequences when someone takes hostages without a plan. He likens the current crisis to the Coen brother's classic Fargo:
Boehner resembles William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, who concocts a simple plan to have his wife kidnapped and skim the proceeds, failing to think a step forward about what happens once she’s actually seized by violent criminals. He doesn’t intend for her to be harmed, but also has no ability to control the plan once he’s set it in motion. In the end, Boehner's Speakership is likely to end up in the wood chipper, anyway.
It's a wonderful comparison, particularly since Boehner's pathetic desperation is mirrored in every William H. Macy facial expression, but I've been thinking of parallels to a different hostage movie: the Rob Reiner classic that every child of the 80s knows by heart, The Princess Bride. Republicans in Congress have a lot in common with the trio of hostage-takers in that film. Like the hapless (though likeable) characters Inigo and Fezzik, many GOPers are well-intentioned career politicians dragooned into this crazy right wing crusade not because they believe in it, but because events swept them into a plot beyond their's (or anyone's) comprehension. The GOP adversary is the Man In Black, an antagonist whose identity is a matter of some debate, even among them: is it Obamacare? the federal debt? the Government? the Democrats? Obama himself? or is he just some local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise at night in eel infested waters?

Whatever the answer, the hardliners keep pushing the Inigos and the Fezziks among them to employ some nasty tactics to destroy the threat, and that doesn't sit well with them. When Peter King of New York heard about Ted Cruz's absurd idea to deep-six government funding, he argued
I still think we should try to repeal the bill. But you repeal it the same way you passed it. You get bills through both houses of Congress, and you get the president to sign it. The only way we are going to do that is by electing more Republicans and winning the presidential election.
Or is he a Rat of Unusual Size?
To use Fezzik's vocabulary, yes that "would be more sportsmanlike." But King isn't in a position to author any plan. Ted Cruz is the crazy Sicilian, Vizzini in this scenario, the "mastermind" behind the hostage crisis. Each time one tactic failed, he thought up a new and more desperate one on the fly. As The New York Times reported:
The Republican leaders’ seat-of-the-pants strategy also left some Republicans baffled. “You would have to assume there is a strategy here,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California.
Nope. Not so much. Inconceivable, right? And now they are at an impasse, just as eventually Vizzini and the Man in Black are stuck facing one another in their "battle of wits to the death." Who will drink the poisoned wine? The House right-wing extremists keeps pretending to have leverage in this wacky confrontation, what Brian Beutler calls the "dumbest extortion attempt ever." They keep gesturing, shouting, and rearranging the goblets as if any of that means anything. But they, and some of their less astute defenders in the press, don't seem to realize what everyone else already knows: that every glass on the table is poisoned and the Democrats are immune. It is of no small significance that the entire Democratic caucus has not exhibited one sign of disunity. The Republicans cannot say the same.

It's also worth noting that even after Vizzini drinks the wine and croaks, we'll all still be caught racing through the Fire Swamp, but maybe we shouldn't pursue the movie parallel too closely. This one probably doesn't have a fairy-tale ending.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Asylum Update

Congress has had its fair share of crazy moments, but this week something extraordinary has happened even by Congress's standards. Facing zero chance of success, absolutely zero chance, House Republicans have passed a CR to fund the government without any funding for Obamacare. This is not in and of itself stunning news—the GOP has made a habit of wasting everyone's time with ineffectual votes. More interesting are the rifts that have been exposed between right wing House and Senate GOPers. Representative Peter King, for instance, did not mince words about Senator Ted Cruz:
When Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Mike Lee fail in the Senate next week, maybe finally we Republicans will have ended their influence. We as House Republicans should stop letting Ted Cruz set our agenda for us.
King's frustration stems from Ted Cruz's near constant harping about repealing Obamacare from his consequence-free post as junior Senator from Texas. Because such bills have to originate in the House, Cruz's ideological tantrums are effectively commands for the House to keep attacking the health care law.

It gets weirder. Cruz, called out by his House colleagues, has to do something about this funding bill that will somehow live up to the unrealistic demands he himself has been spouting for months. But he knows that if the bill comes to a vote, it'll get defeated leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with the ability to cut out the House provision eliminating funding for Obamacare. So here's his plan:
I hope that every Senate Republican will stand together and oppose cloture on the bill in order to keep the House bill intact and not let Harry Reid add Obamacare funding back in.
Yes, Cruz's only option is to filibuster the very House bill that ultra conservatives wanted passed in the first place. Well... it may be his only option. Other reports suggest he won't even be able to launch the filibuster.
We won’t have an opportunity to filibuster,” a Senate GOP aide, presumably to one of the Republicans behind the repeal push, told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York. “It’s going to be a simple majority vote.
The whole course of events has led to a good deal of confusion for other GOP Senators. Lindsay Graham had been talking against the absurdity of the House bill for some time leading up to it. But today Graham tweeted that he supported the bill. Is it a reversal? Possibly... or maybe Graham just wants to get the charade over with as quickly as possible. His aide defended the switch as a continued play against Cruz.
"You don't get the situation we now find ourselves in. Senator Cruz and Senate Conservatives Fund now want to filibuster the House-passed bill," the aide told TPM. "You can't pass defund Obamacare legislation by filibustering defund Obamacare legislation."
Perhaps the best GOP line was reported by the National Review:
“I’ve not heard anyone dare to articulate, here’s what we really want at the end of the day,” said Representative James Lankford, the fifth ranking member of GOP leadership as policy chairman.
No doubt, no doubt.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Would Russia Help?

Fred Kaplan has written a piece about the sudden diplomatic intervention of Russia into this Syrian crisis that has led to a deal struck just as the United States was on the verge of taking military action, one of those 11th hour 59th minute developments that makes everyone scratch their heads and wonder why. Is Russia to be trusted? Why do this when they have supported Assad and funneled him weapons all along?

The answer, according to Kaplan, is that confiscation of Assad's chemical weapons is in the best interest of Russia:
Putin must have seen this distinction as confusing at best, duplicitous at worst. War, after all, is by nature political; military strikes always have political objectives. This is why he had so firmly opposed any talk of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons: He figured that U.S. airstrikes in Syria would be a pretense or prelude to deeper intervention and “regime change.”

However, when Kerry said that dismantling the weapons might halt the juggernaut of U.S. military action, Putin saw an opening. He took the narrowest slice of Obama’s rhetoric literally: that the coming airstrikes were strictly about Assad’s chemical weapons. OK, then, Putin replied: I’ll help to remove those chemical weapons, and you call off the airstrikes. End of story.

And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals—but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics. A win-win-win for Putin.
I'm hoping, of course, that Kaplan is right, but I think there's a better than halfway chance he is right if only for this piece of reasoning he offers later in the piece: that is Putin had other designs than the actual removal of Syrian chemical weapons, there was no reason for him to act before the vote in Congress that Obama looked sure to lose. Putin could have waited for Obama to get embarrassed, and then offered a half-hearted gesture toward diplomacy to make Russia look a bit better on the world stage, a gesture that would almost certainly have led to no real action. The likeliest reason to make this international deal now is that they want to get it done.

It brings to mind the words of John F. Kennedy in his speech at American University in June, 1963:
We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.
The biggest variable now is not Russia, but Assad himself. What will he do, now that his great benefactor Russia has struck this deal with his great enemy, the United States?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Solving Syria With Trial And Error

The news that hit the homepage of the New York Times this morning was the that the United States and Russia have agreed on a deal regarding Syria's chemical weapons. The article states in the fifth graph the unprecedented nature of this plan:
Security will be a major worry for the inspectors who are tasked with implementing the agreement; no precedent exists for inspection, removal and destruction of a large chemical weapons stockpile during a raging civil war.
But the challenge of policing an active war zone and extracting dangerous chemical weapons has not yet worried American editorial observers nearly so much as the status of American diplomatic strength in a multilateral world. Perhaps the most anxious of the hand-wringers is Times columnist Roger Cohen. About ten days ago, after Obama had decided to put this question of intervention to Congress, he wrote how "'red lines'... have been a foundation of the post-1945 world order." Then earlier this week Cohen wrote this of the administration's haphazard diplomacy:
The sight of a president who draws a red line on chemical attack and then says “I didn’t set a red line” (the world did); who has Kerry plead a powerful case for military action only to stall; who defers to Congress but seems happy enough with Congress ambling back into session more than a week later; who notes that for “nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security,” and then declares “America is not the world’s policeman” — the sight of all this has marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless.
I have not been especially impressed with Obama and Kerry in the past few weeks, though my disappointment has less to do with their decision making than the appearance of their decision making. The United States has appeared at many moments to be rudderless and it is the job of the executive branch to present a more resolute face to the world. That said, a lot of people confuse the quality of being "resolute" or "strong" with an inflexible course of action, which is a far more irresponsible line to take. Having a firm hand on the rudder does not mean a ship never turns; shifting direction is in fact the purpose of the rudder.

To return to Cohen's point, this new awareness that the world is now a chaotic and dangerous place because it is no longer "anchored" by American values and American power strikes me as a tilted way of understanding history after 1945. There were plenty of moments when America exerted its might and reversed destabilizing developments—Cohen mentions the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance. On the other hand, there were plenty of times when crises went unaddressed, ignored, or exacerbated by the United States. Was it an "anchorless" world when the US refused to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda? Did Latin America become more or less chaotic when Reagan chose to illegally fund the Contras and their terrorist insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? What good did any previous "red lines" do to deter Iran from seizing hostages in 1979?

Cohen is implying that we are in some new Wild West era of global politics compared with civilized foreign order of the Cold War. I'm unconvinced and much more inclined to side with Timothy Egan, whose recent column has called out all those pundits who want foreign policy to operate like a chess match with the United States playing fifteen moves ahead. Egan argues that to cherish constitutional democracies is to become reconciled to messy and unpredictable policy making. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, even if it seems unsettling. Eventually good ideas find their time and get adopted, a better outcome than when a nation clings stubbornly to a bad idea, just because it was the first idea. Egan writes of Syria:
The net result, accidental or not, is that Syria is no longer just an American problem. They say they will give up the poison gas that, wink, wink, was never used. The principle, as Obama said, “that with modest effort and risk we stop children from being gassed to death,” is there on the table for a world that preferred to look the other way. And, added bonus: the neocon warriors are gone, homeless in both parties. All of this is a hugely positive leap from where we were a week, a month, or a year ago.
It is also, as Emily Bazelon for Slate argues, a victory for international law. That, of course, is exactly what is driving the Republican into apoplexy. They are split between those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully intervening, and those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully not intervening. The former group, the neocons, are running into the problem of the legacy of Iraq. The latter group, Tea Party neanderthals, is running into the problem of logic.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Music Tuesday

Classes started today at my school. I was trying to think of an appropriate album to kick off the academic year. Music that is lofty and inspiring. Music that represents high ideals, that encompasses the joys of teaching and learning. Music that reveals the capacity of human scholarship as well as the human spirit. And I remembered that I have just such an album...



Monday, September 9, 2013

If Congress Says No To Syria...

I've been spending this week reading up on Syria, for obvious reasons, and the English Civil War, for a class I'll be observing this fall. One boon to studying 17th century England is that it provides a useful reminder of just how bloody and disruptive has been the history of the West. The widespread contemporary view of the Middle East is of backward nations propped up by brittle political structures and rent by religious strife. That was England in the 1600s: kings held power with fluctuating, sometimes dubious authority; religious sects challenged the Church from conservative and radical postures; a titanic civil war unseated the king and resulted in his beheading; attempts to institute a stable political system failed, as power resided with the victorious army and its captain; and persecution of nonconformists and ethnic others occurred frequently. It was, as Christopher Hill once wrote, "A Century of Revolution."

This is not to suggest that there are specific and illuminating parallels stretching between England then and the Middle East today—just an observation that sometimes the sweep of history presents broad patterns that can teach us humility if nothing else. I should also say that in reading about Syria and England this week I have become acutely conscious of how much the word parliamentary looks like the word paramilitary to groggy morning eyes. Take my word for it, that can make some sentences confusing.

But what to make of Syria? To ignore for a moment the moral implications of the violence in Syria or a potential military strike by the United States, it is fascinating how the prospect of military action has cut across the familiar political fault lines in Washington. Tea Partiers, libertarians, and progressives find themselves on the same side opposing intervention, while establishment liberals, neoconservative cretins, and Republican hawks believe intervention is essential to preserve American prestige and the integrity of international law. I'm not sure what to think, though there is a handy rule of thumb which says when in doubt perhaps not going to war is the responsible course of action.

Most people have been writing about how Obama has painted himself into a corner and now is in danger of losing the upcoming Congressional vote on military action after having squandered his chance at the G20 for marshaling an international coalition. I suppose he has, but I'm not convinced the consequences are so dire as, say, Ross Douthat claims in his latest column:
Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says — that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.
But the United States hasn't made a commitment yet. Oh, there's all that talk about the "red line" comment of Obama's, etc. etc., however the President chose last week to link action in Syria to a Congressional vote. He did not have to. Should Congress vote the measure down (which looks more and more likely), Obama can defend American inaction quite truthfully as the will of the people, reserving to his office the judgment and power to act in the future. A collapse of the global system is not at stake here. The implications of a no vote, I think, are these:
  1. It will reaffirm that shocks to the global system are mitigated through coalitions using the mechanisms of international organizations. Although the world operates day to day using the old (possibly outdated) model of the sovereign nation-state, multi-lateral endorsement of military actions across borders has for a long time brought legitimacy, and therefore a semblance of order, to the community of nations. This is why the UN, NATO, and even the Arab League are important despite their numerous detractors. Even the neo-cons in the Bush administration knew this, which is why they scratched together the "Coalition of the Willing." (Don't forget Poland.)
  2. If we do nothing in Syria (which, it bears repeating, might be the right course of action), the critical reason will not be Obama, or the UN, or even the Tea Party. The parts each of them have played in this saga are, of course, impossible to ignore, but they are all swept up in the more powerful historical current that is the legacy of the Iraq War. This moment is one of the many costs of the Iraq War. The international community has refused to follow America down another sandy rabbit hole in the Middle East after the decade-long debacle that began with accusations and sketchy intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, the specter of Iraq loomed over the vote in the British Parliament—not to be mistaken for the British paramilitary, which does not vote nearly so often—and had Parliament voted to endorse action, the subsequent debate in Congress would have followed a different narrative altogether.
  3. There is another potential casualty at stake, and that is Obama's domestic agenda, which has already become imperiled. The no-vote on Syria (indeed, the very time it will take to conduct the vote) will spare virtually no time at all in the legislative calendar for something like immigration reform. That subject is not quite so desperate as the current crisis in Syria; nevertheless lives are at stake there too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Music for Labor Day

 Woody Guthrie, "I Ain't Got No Home"
I ain't got no home, I'm just a-roamin' 'round,
Just a wandrin' worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

Was a-farmin' on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker's store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
'Cause I ain't got no home in this world anymore

Now as I look around, it's mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin' man is rich an' the workin' man is poor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"What We Demand"

Today every news outlet in America, and most other places too, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" Speech
The March

The speech is one of those living artifacts in the history of American progressivism that the right wing has been trying with wretched desperation to coopt for the last three decades. Feel free to surf on over to The National Review to get a quick sense of the conservative prattle about "color-blind societies," "race neutrality," and "negative rights," mixed with a lot of anodyne "American values" talk. The implication in virtually every one of these pieces is that King's advocacy for civil rights was rooted in something universally admirable, whereas (the turn in these commentary pieces can be spotted a mile off) contemporary civil rights and progressive policies are contentious, divisive, and un-American.

Witness Jennifer Rubin, who continues to get paid for making no sense, offer a ludicrous comparison between King and Obama.
MLK’s great achievement was to make civil rights an issue for whites and blacks; Obama manages to heighten racial animosity with every pronouncement (e.g. professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Trayvon Martin case).
Is she suggesting here that King did not heighten racial animosity? Or that it was Obama that made the Trayvon Martin case a flashpoint for race relations? More to the point, why is she comparing these two men anyway? One was a civil disobedient social justice theologian; the other a professional politician with a background in constitutional law who became president. That they are black men in the public eye seems to be the only basis for Rubin's comparison; she might just as logically write a column comparing George W. Bush to Reinhold Niebuhr or Bobby Jindal to Gandhi.

It is more useful and honest to look to the March itself to understand King's agenda and the specific kind of "Dream" he had in mind. Because the organizers were canny, organized, and forward thinking, they helpfully provided just such an agenda on the second page of the day's program:


And here are just a few reasons why remembering this moment is so important. Of the ten "demands" for progress made by the organizers, many remain unfulfilled, contentiously debated, and consistently stymied by right wing politicians and laissez-faire ideologues. Consider (using the program's numbering):

1. The call for voting rights in 1963 was answered with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has since been severely curtailed by the conservative majority on the Roberts court.

3. School segregation has not only persisted since the 1950s, but in some cases has become more entrenched. (For further reading, look here, here, here, and here.)

4. The centrality of the 14th Amendment to the pursuit of racial equality and social justice has been routinely assaulted by opportunistic Republican politicians seeking its repeal.

5. Though significant progress has been made (scroll down to the graphs here), housing discrimination has survived as well.

7. Two graphs from the Post's Wonkblog on the history of black unemployment:



8. The demand for a national minimum wage of at least $2 would be, in today's dollars, a minimum wage of $15.27. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 and all recent attempts to raise it have been voted down by Republicans. (Matt Yglesias argues for a guaranteed basic income over a minimum wage as an even better fulfillment of the standard of living demand.)

Memories of the March bring inspiration, yes, and collective obligation as well. These are burdensome days, these anniversaries. King knew that all too well as he stood beneath Lincoln's watchful gaze.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Music

Returning home from a vacation can be a wonderful feeling, especially after suffering the seemingly interminable horrors of domestic air travel. Even so, the first day at home is full of challenges, exhaustion, all that laundry to do, a vastly depleted supply of Honey Nut Cheerios. In my experience the right music can really help set the tone for first day back. Sure it's tempting to put on something soothing, but you run the risk of giving in to jet lag and taking that nap on the sofa too soon. That's when you wake up 14 hours later with sleep-induced neck trauma and all your clothes still unwashed. The music has to keep you going while easing you back into the routine of home. It's the groove that matters.

Naturally there are plenty of good options. Springsteen is never a bad idea. Nor is some uptempo jazz. But, with groove in mind, my recommendation this week is Van Lear Rose, the collaborative work of country legend Loretta Lynn and rock auteur Jack White. Everyone praised this album when it was released in 2004. New York compared it to Johnny Cash's best work. Rolling Stone wrote "Loretta Lynn hasn't made an album this rich since her 1977 concept tribute to Cline, I Remember Patsy — an album recorded when Jack White was two years old." Hell, the Wall St. Journal loved it.


And what's not to love? White's mad scientist production skills and guitar work stretch Lynn's songs in every direction from Lynn's Appalachia to his own Detroit rock roots, but by some miracle of musical alchemy the album is all country. There's hard drinking, love lost, one night stands, disfigured children, cheap floozies, pink limousines, righteous women, infidelity, prison, and God. If there was ever an antidote for vacation, this is it. If you're looking to rock out, "Portland Oregon" is the answer; if the blues is on your mind, then it's "Have Mercy"; "God Makes No Mistakes" is the dark side of country; and my personal favorite, the artfully opaque spoken-word reminiscence of Lynn's childhood, "Little Red Shoes."

Remember... sloe gin fizz works mighty fast when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

More on Syria...

In an opinion editorial in today's New York Times, Edward Luttwak makes many of the same points about Syria that I made in my last post. I observed that "The long drawn out struggle in Syria between Assad and the rebels might have had any number of outcomes that would not have demanded American intervention." Luttwak writes more specifically:
Things looked far less gloomy when the rebellion began two years ago. At the time, it seemed that Syrian society as a whole had emerged from the grip of fear to demand an end to Mr. Assad’s dictatorship. Back then, it was realistic to hope that moderates of one sort or another would replace the Assad regime, because they make up a large share of the population. It was also reasonable to expect that the fighting would not last long, because neighboring Turkey, a much larger country with a powerful army and a long border with Syria, would exert its power to end the war.
I spent quite a bit of time criticizing Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin for her vague disapprobation of Obama's inaction, asking "What is Rubin's plan for ending violence in Syria?!? Her grandstanding about intervention makes no mention of what work would be required to build a coalition, launch the invasion, and sustain a stable government the West (and Israel) would be satisfied with. How does Rubin plan on paying for what would almost certainly be nation building?" Likewise, Luttwak writes at the end of his column:
Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.
Well, Jennifer Rubin has come out today with another policy-free column attacking Obama for not intervening in Syria. Read it through and you'll see she only flirts with specificity about possible US action in one paragraph:
Reports suggest the United States is formulating options for military action against the Syrian regime, despite Gen. Martin Dempsey’s absurd warnings that a force akin to the Normandy invasion would be required. We suspect that if action is taken it will be well short of measures needed to end the conflict and avoid sustained protection of civilians by imposition of no-fly zone.
Setting aside that these "reports... formulating options for military action" would seem to run counter to all her previous criticisms of inaction in the piece, Rubin only hints here at what she believes is needed. Perhaps she knows that if she came out and said what Luttwak has made clear, that the measures necessary to satisfy Obama's foreign policy critics would involve a full-scale invasion, she would lose what little credibility she has left. Instead she is content to take cheap shots at Obama, Clinton, and Kerry while cowardly avoiding the real-world implications of her own cotton candy recommendations.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egypt, Syria, & the Eternal Disappointment of Jennifer Rubin

Returning from a week offline, something akin to a postmodern monastic experience, I have been catching up on politics and world events only to learn what anyone could have predicted two weeks ago: Syria and Egypt are horrific places to be at this moment. The question we are asking daily is quite straightforward: what is America's responsibility in these nations, whose governments by any reasonable assessment have abrogated their right to sovereignty by slaughtering innocent civilians in great numbers.

Straightforward questions bear the attractive qualities of focus and concision, but they're only useful if the answers are suitably complex. That is particularly true of foreign policy issues, where contingent factors are so numerous and significant that they dwarf the kind of influence people tend to associate with American power or the American presidency. "Superpower" is one of the most dangerously abused words in the American political lexicon, conveying a false notion of global strength and control. That connotation is a relic of a Cold War mentality that was itself not true. America could rarely do what it wanted to do or what it professed to do even during the period of its nuclear dominance in the 1950s.

All of which brings me to this point about Egypt and Syria: when a bunch of political Monday morning quarterbacks complain about foreign policy inaction, my skeptic's antennae go up. When people start writing with frightening certainty about what Obama ought to do in Syria and Egypt, it is far too easy for them to imagine a course of events that is strikingly benign compared with the present blood and darkness in those places. Here's a quick example from a Meet The Press ten years back of how that kind of speculation can get dangerous:
Vice President Cheney: Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. And the president's made it very clear that our purpose there is, if we are forced to do this, will in fact be to stand up a government that's representative of the Iraqi people, hopefully democratic due respect for human rights, and it, obviously, involves a major commitment by the United States, but we think it's a commitment worth making. And we don't have the option anymore of simply laying back and hoping that events in Iraq will not constitute a threat to the U.S. Clearly, 12 years after the Gulf War, we're back in a situation where he does constitute a threat.

Mr. Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

Vice President Cheney: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who's a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he's written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
So I am not particularly keen on pundits who have pronounced with absolute certainty how Obama has totally blown opportunities to oust Assad, save Egypt, encourage the Arab Spring, and remake the Middle East. I should qualify that I'm the furthest thing from an expert on the Middle East and I'm more than happy to read nuanced criticism of Obama's foreign policy, but anything that smacks of neoconservative "clarity" is difficult to stomach. So when Bret Stephens, a member of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page conservative brute squad, writes that US intervention in Egypt to quickly assist the army in defeating the Muslim Brotherhood is essential, I'm skeptical. When it's couched in language like this, I'm super skeptical:
It would be nice to live in a world in which we could conduct a foreign policy that aims at the realization of our dreams—peace in the Holy Land, a world without nuclear weapons, liberal democracy in the Arab world. A better foreign policy would be conducted to keep our nightmares at bay: stopping Iran's nuclear bid, preventing Syria's chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, and keeping the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt. But that would require an administration that knew the difference between an attitude and a policy.
Pursuing a foreign policy that "aims at the realization of our dreams" is one of the scarier formulations I've heard. It is exactly what Dick Cheney and company did in 2003, and what a bang-up job that ended up being. Stephens, I should note, deserves some small acknowledgment for consistency since he has also advocated for intervention virtually everywhere else, including Darfur. But that's just the point... Stephens believes that American military power has immeasurable reach and power, and it's ability to overcome military challenges is matched by its ability to transform social and political realities. Yikes.

Even less credible is John Bolton, George W. Bush's ambassador to the UN who, not coincidentally, hated the UN. Bolton has since made a living at the AEI grooming his mustache and criticizing Obama. He's also discussed running for president in 2016, a prospect with much the same hope that I have of winning the Kentucky Derby. Bolton just wrote an op-ed in the WSJ demanding that the Obama administration side with the generals in Egypt. He offers three reasons, which I can sum up: 1. the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't uphold the Camp David Accords with Israel; 2. if Egyptian forces lose control of the Sinai peninsula, Hamas and other terror networks will occupy it and smuggle arms to Gaza and Syria; 3. the Suez Canal must remain open.

This is more pragmatic than Stephens, assuredly, but it's not an analysis worthy of the specific moment. I am hard pressed to conceive of any democratic movement taking place in Egypt that would not endanger all three of these strategic grails. Any newly elected government might reconsider Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords; any new government's military policies might weaken the Sinai; and any new government might restrict access to the Suez. Bolton is simply delineating a recipe for perpetual military control of Egypt. He (like other neoconservative dreamers out there) might speak of grand ideas of liberty and freedom, or waiting for a moment when the military in Egypt can hand off power to a democratic regime which promises to respect a relationship with Israel and maintain crucial American interests. But that is the absurd idealist underbelly to Bolton's faux realpolitik. Observers of the real world don't expect Middle Eastern autocracies to suddenly embrace democracy and reject Islamist traditions or policies.

Cynicism may best describe my attitude toward Stephens and Bolton, but I have reserved the better part of my disdain for Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. Irresponsible, dim, and a knee-jerk Obama hater, Rubin is all the more pathetic because she is hopelessly unaware of her own deficiencies. She just published a column on Syria titled, "Obama's foreign policy leads to hundreds killed by WMDs" in which she argues that Obama's "spineless" refusal to intervene in Syria brings the moral culpability for their deaths to the doors of the White House. Here's how she concludes (italics hers):
The part about national security that isolationists don’t understand is that sooner or later we must act. But by delaying, excuse-mongering and refusing to act sooner rather than later we erode our moral standing, allow great evils to unfold and make eventual action much more complicated. Syria is the quintessential example of why the Obama-Rand Paul national security view is dangerous and leads to heinous results.
This is both wrong and stupid. First, there may be plenty of folly in isolationism, but the wisdom it does offer us is the understanding that we don't always have to act and that sometimes it is better not to. (See Cheney, Dick above.) The long drawn out struggle in Syria between Assad and the rebels might have had any number of outcomes that would not have demanded American intervention. Even now, when some of the horrors of what has happened there have been unearthed, it is unclear what options the US has for intervention. Rubin is operating within the same fantasy world as Stephens, a world in which the United States can do what it wants in other places and therefore it can be an irrepressible force for democratic progress in the world so long as it maintains a strong moral compass. If the impact of foreign policy were based on moral intentions, it would be a hell of a lot easier. It's not, so building foreign policy based on Jennifer Rubin's assessment of American "moral standing" is ridiculous.

Second, lumping Rand Paul and Obama together is a foolish slander. Obama was against the war in Iraq and determined to end the war in Afghanistan for pretty sound reasons, but he is not an isolationist. He just has other priorities. Rand Paul doesn't want America to do anything anywhere because he thinks the government is evil.

Third, like other supporters of the Iraq War and the surge, Rubin has carefully avoided acknowledging the most glaring of the contingent forces restricting US involvement in the Middle East. Had we not blown somewhere between $2 and 6 trillion dollars on the Iraq War and exhausted the American public's tolerance for war, intervention in Arab Spring nations might be more politically viable and financially sustainable. How (and why) would Obama attempt another major military operation when Republicans in Congress refuse to raise taxes to pay for the last war? Or demand dollar for dollar reductions in the budget from domestic entitlement programs without touching the defense budget? Simple arithmetic and passing awareness of Republican Congressional insanity would tell us that every dollar Obama would spend in Syria or Egypt would be paid for by reducing Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, or Pell grants. (Now, Rubin has suggested that the US intervention in Iraq contributed to the Arab Spring, but that is hard to justify with any evidence.)

Fourth, what is Rubin's plan for ending violence in Syria?!? Her grandstanding about intervention makes no mention of what work would be required to build a coalition, launch the invasion, and sustain a stable government the West (and Israel) would be satisfied with. How does Rubin plan on paying for what would almost certainly be nation building? What will America's moral standing look like if, even after an American deposing of Assad and the building of a new government, the only viable options are a military dictator who responds to Western leverage or an Islamist regime supported by the people?—in other words, what will Rubin say if Syria presents the same dilemma as Egypt?

Read her columns... she offers nothing but bland condemnations free of subtlety or analysis. That is probably why Patrick Pexton, the former ombudsman of the Post, offered this free advice to Jeff Bezos about the state of the paper. Splitting the news up into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he dedicates all of Ugly to Rubin and why she should be fired.

But if your looking for better material to read on the Middle East, try these guys.