Saturday, January 19, 2013

What's Wrong With The GOP

It's not a lot of fun being a Republican Party leader these days.  Between being rejected at the polls last November and the never ending series of calamities that are befalling the GOP on Capitol Hill (think Sandy aid, Fiscal Cliff, Plan B and now their cave on the debt ceiling) the party just doesn't seem to be working very well.  In looking at this dysfunction political scientist Jonathan Bernstein recently pointed out two points that show the GOP is suffering something more than just poor leadership:
What sort of serious, substantive policy initiatives like this could Republicans push on their side? There isn’t anything. And that’s the crux of their problem.

The core of the GOP agenda remains the Ryan budget, but that had very few specific cuts and the numbers never actually added up. They certainly could continue trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they’ve long since given up on offering a replacement.

Republicans, that is, don’t actually have a program with popular items that they could run on and then pass if they won. After all, they didn’t run on their Medicare program in 2010 and 2012; instead, they called anyone who accused them of cutting Medicare a liar and instead ran against Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare. What exactly is the GOP equivalent, just in terms of swing-voter popularity, of Lilly Ledbetter or SCHIP right now? Beating up on Planned Parenthood?
And he right, there is a shockingly large policy gap between our two parties these days.  Questions about how to create jobs or improve the lot of the middle class constituencies that decide presidential elections are answered, if they are answered at all, with the same boiler plate of tax cuts and de-regulation that conservatives have been preaching for over 30 years now.  Not only do these policies have poor track records over the last 20 years but they are also unpopular with the American electorate who do support things like higher taxes on the wealthy. 

Bernstein was writing to point that the conservative commentator Phillip Klein had actually been on to something when he suggested that Republicans could learn a lot from how Democrats acted after they won control of both houses of Congress in 2006:
[I]t’s worth looking back at the Democrats’ strategy following their takeover of Congress in 2006. Despite their strong rhetoric, they ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War. This generated a forceful backlash among their base, but it also enabled them to continue running against Bush’s handling of Iraq, rather than allowing Bush to change the subject to “Democrats don’t care about our troops.” 

During this time, Democrats also pushed legislation that furthered their agenda — including an expansion of the children’s health care program SCHIP (which Bush vetoed) and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which Republicans blocked in the Senate). Both bills were quickly passed and enacted once Obama became president.
Klein is right that this is a better model than threatening to destroy the world economy if you don't get your way, but his commentary betrays another problem with the GOP.  Saying that Democrats "ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War" strikes me me as simply a new Green Lantern Theory of politics, call it the The Green Lantern Theory of Congress.  According to this theory the only thing that accounts of Congress's inability to change national policy, in this case the Iraq War, is a lack of Congressional will.  Like the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency this theory is simply not grounded in the reality of how of system of government works.  The reality is that because of the Constitutional designation of the President as the Commander in Chief of the military, the President enjoys broad latitude in the use of force internationally.  Furthermore the legacy of American involvement in two World Wars and one Cold War in the most violent century in the history of human civilization has curtailed Congresses role in foreign policy as well.  So even if the Democrats wanted to end the war in 2007 they couldn't, not because of a lack of will power, but because that not how foreign policy in the US works.  Looking at Klein's Green Lantern Theory of Congress things like the debt ceiling fight suddenly make sense.  The problem is that the GOP is trying to force policies on the nation while it only controls one half of the legislative branch of the government.  The idea that the exists some way to do this, rather than accepting that the realities of divided government entail compromises and a limited agenda, results in doing things like threatening to destroy the world economy unless your demands are met.

These two structural factors, a lack of concrete policy prescriptions and the unfounded belief that political actors are only constrained by their lack of will go a long way at explaining why the GOP has become so dysfunctional, and why it will continue to be so.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

New Words!

Andrew Sullivan once had a good thread about words with no equivalent in the English language.  Personally I've always thought American political vocabulary was a bit meager, so here are my proposed words to broaden the online conversation.  Feel free to leave your own in the comments!

Contravesty: A media sensation that purports to inform the public about a controversy but makes a mockery of the issues and/or view points involved.  Coverage of people tweeting about Andrew Briebart's death is a classic example.

Disasterporn: A news story that massively overinflated the danger of a natural disaster or other event.  British media coverage of snow often turns into diasterporn.

Hackdit: A pundit who's public presence largely consists of trying to win arguments on television.  A pundit who doesn't even write columns or blog posts.

Luntzism:  The belief that by using certain words or phrases conservative politicians can make unpopular policies popular.  Created by GOP pollster Frank Luntz in the 1990's.

Newt: A charlatan of a colossal and historic scale.

Sexberal: A liberal who largely focuses on issues of gender and sexuality while ignoring things like economics, foreign policy or climate issues.

Sully: To melt down in public about a purported political disaster that fails to materialize.  Named after The Great Andrew Sullivan Freakout of 2012.

Uncle Leo: A public intellectual or pundit who ascribes legitimate political or policy differences to anti-Semitism.  Named after the character Uncle Leo from Seinfeld who attributes food he doesn't like in restaurants to the chef being anti-Semitic.

Wonkabee: A want to be wonk, a person who puts on a persona of expertise but is not in fact an expert.

Zundit: A pundit who will never leave the national spotlight or be fired no matter how wrong their predictions or poor their behavior.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Don't Know Much About History (Part of a Series)

One of the things I find fascinating about the internet is that it's treated as a universal good.  People assume that because it allows the spread of information and views as never before it must be some sort of universal improvement for knowledge and democracy.  But there's a flip side to this; misinformation and pig ignorance can be spread like never before as well.  Andrew Sullivan (I don't know why I'm picking on him so much right now but he deserves it) recently made the bizarre claim that China could have become a western style democracy in 1912 if only some guy didn't get assassinated: "Hopes were dashed when Song Jiaoren, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party and a believer in "Jeffersonian ideals and admiration for Britain’s Parliament," was assassinated."

I am currently reading Barbara Tuchman's great book "Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-45" a great book about this period in Chinese and American relations told through the lens of the life of Joseph Stillwell a American solider who worked in China off and on during this period, eventually rising to command all allied forces in China, India and Burma in 1944, giving him a rank equal to then Generals Marshall and Eisenhower.  One of the main points of the books is that turning China into a Western style democracy after the overthrow of the last of the Qing Emperors in 1911 was an impossible dream. Something that was a doomed to failure as it was in South Vietnam a half century later ("Stillwell" was published in 1970 and in no small way was an attempt to add some context to why the American effort in Indochina had failed.)   Sullivan is highlighting an article in The Economist that swings from statements that sound like racial explanations for the troubles China faced at the beginning of the most violent century in human history: "The Chinese people, long yoked by Confucian tradition and insulated from Western influences, may have been unprepared for the radical terminology of liberty."  And then goes on to explain how since this assassinated fellow read various thinkers from the British Enlightenment (John Stuart Mill! Adam Smith!) and some French dudes he could have led China to a new glorious age.

In the second chapter of "Stillwell" Tuchman points out that turning China into a perfect democracy had roadblocks that Enlightment literature didn't explain how to overcome while describing the American reaction to end overthrow of the last Emperor:
Others, stirred to enthusiasm by the Revolution's promise of liberal, Western, parliamentary ideas, were more optimistic.  "We thought high and noble thoughts," wrote on American trader, "about China and the new era that was dawning."  This was the attitude, on the whole, of the American public which wanted to believe what the missionaries were always promising, that China, of the 400,000,000 was about to transform itself into that desirable and familiar thing, a democracy.  That the 400,000,000 were a people 70 to 80 percent illiterate, who on the average had no milk and virtually no other animal products in their diet, who had no sanitation, no running water, no privacy, no electricity, no vote, whose industry was still 90 percent handiwork and whose transportation was still largely conducted by human muscle, was not considered, if considered at all, incompatible with democracy.  When a rebel leader in Hankow, out of Oriental politeness which believes in telling people what presumably they want to hear, said to reporters that "the object of our revolt is to make the Government of China like that of America," nothing could have seemed more natural to American readers.
Is there something about the people of China that is incompatible with Democracy?  Of course not, no more than Germany or Japan is, but transforming a society from something other than a modern developed state into a democracy takes more that admiring the British Parliament and reading Montesquieu.  That is to say, it takes more than "One Great Man."  Especially when that state is the largest in the world, with huge chunks of it taken over by colonial powers, other chunks ruled by warlords and no functioning central government.  Sullivan was initially a huge supporter of the Iraq War, you'd think he at least would have learned this by now.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Negotiating and Training

In the wake of the "fiscal cliff" tax deal that was just passed in Congress a lot of liberals (as usual) are mad at Obama (as usual).  The basic argument goes like this: if Obama was better at negotiating he would get more of what people on "the left" want, unfortunately he's weak and/or stupid as so he keeps giving away the store.  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates made this typical argument. 

This argument reminds me a lot of what the Bush Administration and the Iraq Hawks said when they talked about "training" as a way to solve Iraq's problems.  It became apparent to me that "training" didn't mean so much teaching Iraqis how to deal with known tasks security personnel or civil servants would have to perform, like how to shoot a machine gun or how to search a house, but rather something else, something almost mystical.  I'd define training as the Bush people used it as "A magical process in which Iraqis are turned in to American military personnel, civil servants and police officers." That is they constantly thought that they could teach Iraqis not just how to fight or provide security better but could teach them to fight for the type of society that Americans would prefer to see in Iraq.  Training would somehow make Iraqis ignore sectarian divides; focus on the betterment of the nation as a whole rather than the group, tribe or family unit and it would teach them to respect the rule of law.  Of course this didn't work very well.  Iraqi leaders stole money meant for rebuilding their society (western contractors did a lot of this as well.  Soldiers used their military training to form death squads and kill other Iraqis.  Everyone ignored things like the rule of law and even the execution of Saddam Hussein turned into a bizarre cell phone video of people cheering for Muqtada al-Sadr, the extremists cleric the US Army had labeled a terrorist.  The failure of "training" to turn people in different societies into Americans who would behave like Americans (or how we thought Americans ought to behave) goes back a very long way in our history.  It's happening in Afghanistan as you read this, it was a hallmark of the American experience in Vietnam, a huge part of our failures in foreign policy in Latin American in the 20th Century and a feature of our failed effort to support the Nationalists in China from the Revolution of 1911 to the triumph of the Communists in 1949.  Training is simply no panacea for political and social problems.

Unfortunately liberals seem to be treating "negotiating" just like how so many American strangers in a strange land treated "training."  A lot of very intelligent liberals seem to be arguing that the reason Obama cuts deals that they don't like is because he's somehow "bad at negotiating."  To be sure, most people who make this point, like Coates, don't really define their terms or explain what they mean very well but what they seem to be arguing is that there does exist a way for Obama to get Republicans to agree to Democratic priorities and vote for Democratic policies, Obama just doesn't know how to do it.  Or can't do it well enough  To start with this is a very problematic way of thinking about the Presidency in general and seems to be a version of what Political Scientist Brendan Nyhan calls "The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency".  Nyhan was writing in 2009 about liberal anger over the death of the public option and how lots of liberals blamed it on Obama, not the fact that a number of Democratic Senator's decided they were opposed to it:
What he identifies here is nothing less than a Green Lantern theory of the presidency in which all domestic policy compromises are attributed to a lack of presidential will. And, like the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, this view is nonfalsifiable. Rather than learning from, say, the stimulus vote that Obama faces severe constraints in the Senate, liberal GL proponents have created a narrative in which all failure and compromise is the result of a lack of presidential willpower.
Just substitute "negotiating" for "lack of presidential will" and you got a pretty good description of what's wrong with these arguments.

Negotiating skills matters of course but things like the Constitution, the agendas of political parties and purposes political leaders set for themselves matter a lot more.  Anyone who still thinks the problem is negotiating skill needs to watch this clip from Game of Thrones Season 2 a dozen times until it sinks in.  In it the younger brothers of the dead King Robert are both trying to succeed him and become King.  It might help on the margins if Stannis (the bald guy) was less ornery, if Renley (the younger brother) didn't mock his brother and if Lady Catelyn Stark was a "better negotiator" (she's the woman trying to broker an alliance against their common enemy.)  Ultimately the problem is both of these men want to be king and there can be only one king, no amount of chummy small talk or flattery is going to change that.

The funny thing to me is that while so many people have been criticizing Obama John Boehner has declared he won't ever negotiate with Obama again.  Does that sound like the actions of a man who thinks he just "rolled" the president?