Friday, March 29, 2013

Today in Social Movement Theory

Matt Ygleisas raised an interesting issue today about the possibility that a large scale victory for marriage equality might lead to the decline of the social movement that created the win:
So something I wonder about is what happens if the marriage equality battle is won very rapidly over the next few years? Lester Feder writes for Buzzfeed that gay equality movements in both the Netherlands and Canada suffered large, nearly immediate losses in donations following marriage equality wins.
If anything I'd say Matt's summation is an understatment.  According to the orginal Buzz Feed article:
"After marriage passed in the Netherlands, the movement more or less collapsed," said Boris Dittrich, the former member of the Dutch parliament who won passage of the world's first-ever same-sex marriage law in 2000. After that, it was very hard to get people to engage on other issues the movement cared about, like discrimination against LGBT seniors in nursing homes and bullying in schools.
According to the article a similar thing happened in Canada in 2004.

This is pretty paradoxical, after all how can a movement's success lead to it's collapse?  I'd argue that the answer lies in social movement theory which is an interdisciplinary study of social movements in different societies at different periods in history.  One theory that has been proposed is that social movements need a sort of constant tension between reality and lofty goals in order to continue to function in the same way they need dedicated supporters, resources and leaders.  Think of social movements as a shark that has to keep swimming or, else die.

Indeed, if you look at the history of a lot of social movements they often go into a period of dormancy, reduced activity or even dissipation after big goals are achieved.  The women's suffrage movement is a classic example of this.  After the passage of the 19th amendment there was not a huge feminist revolution in this country, indeed many scholars of various women's movements have pointed to the period between the 20's and the 60's as being "doldrums" where the political activity of women was in many ways put on the back burner.  This pattern of passionate political activism leading up to a significant achievement followed by an ebb of political activism happened around the passage of the 26th Amendment that granted the franchise to 18-21 year-olds.

In addition, when a broad based political coalition, like a social movement, achieves a major goal it can often splinter as the various groups that made up that coalition move on to pursue their own agendas.  Every president is faced, often the day after inauguration, with once ardent supporters who now feel betrayed once the ease of campaign promises meets the harsh reality of the difficulty of enacting political change.  Liberal activists could easily think issues like climate change or drone policy are more deserving of their political efforts than anti-bullying legislation, for example.

This is not to say that a big victory for marriage equality will necessarily result in widespread decline in the gay rights movement.  Indeed I'd argue that such a victory is far from a sure thing.  But there certainly is precedence for this dynamic to recur. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Oh Ye Liberals, Thine Courts Will Not Save Thee

While you weren't paying attention, the last of the great desegregation plans of American Public Education faded into history. And one of the great legal monuments of the 20th Century, Brown v Board of Education went with it. It happened in Boston, the home of JFK where later in the 60's and 70's, or as some say "some time ago" busing and desegregation was met with raw hatred. You can just watch that to 32 seconds and get a feel for the time, the first day of busing and court ordered desegregation, which was met with brick throwing and near riots, and platoons of riot police to enforce the court order.

Now things are a little different. Basically the Boston School Committee vote six to one to get rid of the last vestiges of desegregation busing program implemented in 1974, and instead focus on neighborhood schools. Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino, perhaps one of the most liberal mayors in the country, praised the plan as, "Tonight’s historic vote marks a new day for every child in the city of Boston..." This represents a remarkable change from the liberal ideals of the past, where large scale busing to desegregate schools was seen as a noble and achievable goal. While some liberals still call for this sort of the thing, the reality is that very few voters or politicians seem to care at all.

Looking back on the whole history of desegregation of public education in the past 50 years an interesting trend emerges. The liberal reforms enacted via the landmark Brown v Board of Education Decision led a short burst of radical, and highly controversial change, followed by a long period of roll back and retrenchment that has made many school systems as segregated now as they were 50 years ago. I'd argue that this was due to a fundamental flaw in the strategy that desegregation proponents advocated all those years ago. In short, they sought to bypass the problematic nature of public opinion and daily grind of politics and instead turn to a single decisive judicial decision to overturn a immoral and dysfunctional system. And while they did succeed in winning that pitched battle and getting the de jure systems of segregation formally ended they never succeed in changing the political, economic, governmental and social dynamics that now lead to de facto segregated public schools changed.

I'd argue that the lesson here is not to blame Obama, as Thomas Sugrue does in the link above, but to accept the reality that a judicial strategy to social change is not some panacea to our social and political ills.  Indeed if you look at the whole history of our Judicial Branch you see a profoundly reactionary group of institutions that impeded reform from the founding of the country to the 1930's.  And now this same branch is considering things like ending affirmative action in higher education.

This brings me to the marriage equality case that went into oral arguments today before the Supreme Court.  First of all, most of the predictions and "analysis" you read about the arguments are no more likely to be right than you just taking your own uniformed guess.  This is because trying to get inside the heads of Supreme Court Justices is just too hard and in reality there are a multitude of different routes the Court could take including just throwing the whole issue back to the Ninth Circuit.  In the end though, the idea of some judicial Superman coming to win the political battle over marriage equality in places like Mississippi and Utah simply is not a very sustainable strategy for long term social change.  Let alone the fact that basing a political strategy on what Anthony Kennedy may or may not do is far from a sure thing.  This is not to say it was wrong to pursue this court case, indeed it might turn out to be a good idea, we'll know more when the court rules.  But as a strategy for remaking American society it, like Brown, may prove to be lacking. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Triumph of Ayn Rand

There is an interesting internet fight because noted liberal blogger and purveyor of general awesomeness Matt Yglesias is getting criticized cause he and his wive recently purchased an expensive condo.  Well sort of expensive, 1.2 million for a three bedroom three bath join in Logan Circle.  To us peasants in the Midwest this might look unseemly, but that's how ridiculous property prices are in DC (because "historical preservation" is more important that economic development, but that's another story).  But ANYWAY conservatives are outraged because Matt and his wife bought a nice home.

The interesting thing I find here is the belief from conservative blogs and news organs that this thing is some sort of hypocrisy or outrage.  How dare some liberal be rich!  Of course these are statements of profound ignorance when it comes to American History.  FDR was as loaded as you could ever wish and the Kennedy's were not far behind.  Heck even Obama is a millionaire largely do to his book deals.  So why are people freaking out about the fact that a liberal blogger bought a house instead of living in the gutter?  I'd argue that it really doesn't make much sense at all our side of the ideology of Ayn Rand.  It's completely reasonable for conservatives to argue they don't think taxes should be higher or to end things like the Earned Income Tax Credit.  But such a conservative shouldn't automatically think that all rich people must believe these items of conservative dogma.

Rand is a very important figure in the development of 20th Century conservative thought that can still be felt to this day. None other than Paul Ryan has cited her as an important inspiration in his own political career (he has walked these comments back to some degree). Back in 2009 Jonathan Chait wrote a great article linking the emergence of new types of rhetoric in the age of Obama directly to Rand:
It [tea party rhetoric] expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms--that taking from the rich harms the economy--but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.

There is another way to describe this conservative idea. It is the ideology of Ayn Rand.

I won't go into the whole story of Rand here, it's much to long and much to boring for longwalkdownlyndale, but her core belief that rich people who don't become libertarians are some sort of hypocritical "class traitors" is one of the few ways to explain the anger against Yglesias.

If you do want to learn more about the weird world of Rand, I would recommend that Chait piece or this great film about her and her relationship with Allen Greenspan and other apostles of the Church of the Free Market. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Me Me Me Me Me

I guess Andrew Sullivan reads this blog because he published a big mea culpa about the Iraq War today, I assume because he read my post yesterday. All kidding aside, it's a good piece and you should read it. It's very well written and contains a lot of self-criticism that is rare to see on the internet. Basically he admits that he supported the war for four main reasons:
1. Saddam was a wicked man.
2. His coworkers at The New Republic were mean to him after the whole election stealing thing in Florida back in 2001.
3. He was publicly humiliated after some scummy "journalists" published stories about his sex life.
4. He was horrified by 9/11.

Sully went to Oxford so he writes this in a much more fancy and better sounding prose than me, but all the points are the same:
My horror at 9/11, combined with crippling fear, compounded by personal polarization was a fatal combination. This is not an excuse. It’s an attempt at an explanation. And my loathing of the left had been intensified earlier that year by a traumatizing exposure of my own sex life by gay leftists determined to destroy my reputation and career because of my mere existence as a gay conservative.
Let me say that I am sympathetic to anyone who is willing to bare their soul publicly, especially a well known and polarizing public intellectual like Sullivan.  Let me also say that I am sympathetic to anyone who supported the Iraq War, simply because a lot of people supported it.  And I think he's a great writer with a great blog.  Let me also say that his mea culpa is frankly, bizarre.

This is a explanation for supporting (in Sullivan's case I'd say flogging) a disastrous war in which thousands of Americans died, tens of thousands were wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and millions were made homeless by recounting how people were mean to him 10 years ago.  It is in short an explanation of his support of the war in a universe in which there is no war with no consequences, there is only Andrew and his feelings.

The worst part to me is that he seems to have learned nothing from the whole experience.  He hasn't said fighting land wars in Asia is a bad idea, or trying to dominate the Persian Gulf is unnecessary or that while the American military can do many things it can't turn a post-conflict country into a democratic utopia.  He doesn't say anything about that at all, instead all we get is me: Me Me Me Me Me.

To be sure, I don't blame Sullivan for the Iraq War.  It was going to happen no matter what he wrote about it and in that sense it really doesn't matter.  But it does matter in the sense that so many of our "experts" on foreign affairs seem to have learned nothing from the war.  Sullivan is just a convenient example of this. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

You Are An Evil Hippie

Conor Friedersdorf has a nice piece at The Atlantic looking back at all the vitriolic and base hatred that was heaped on people who opposed the Iraq War 10 years ago.  It's not a very pleasant stroll down memory lane, but it's a good reminder of the actual environment that existed in the lead up to war and goes a long way to helping to explain how lots of "smart people" could support what predictably could easily end in disaster.

What struck me is how so many of the people behind both promoting the war and demonizing anyone who thought it might not be the greatest idea in the world are still very much considered experts in the world of foreign affairs.  They still write important articles, they still get to go on TV to pontificate on foreign affairs and they are still considered by nature to be more "serious" than everyone else.  After Vietnam most of it's architects like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and William Westmoreland (if you don't know who those people are, that's fine, but you probably should read more) notably left the limelight, even though some of them still had strong opinions about the war.  With the Iraq debacle the "experts" who hawked the war notably haven't.  They are still consulted as if they were ever some Oracle of Delphi, even though we know that they are most certainly not particularly insightful about the Middle East.  Richard Pearle, who posses the profound ability to never admit error to such a degree that he would have made a wonderful General in World War I, was even recently interviewed by none other than National Public Radio about whether or not the war was worth it.  He's the wrong person to ask.

The second thing I realized from a lot of these old quotes, is how much they sound like the quotes about why we should go to war in the first place.  That is they are chiefly concerned with the writer talking about their emotions and making emotional pleas or condemnations.  As Andrew Sullivan wrote:  
FABULOUSLY ANTI-WAR: No, I don't mean Madonna. I mean a group called Glamericans. These are drag queens, performance artists, and sundry others who form "a non-partisan group of funky Americans committed to non-violence and its promotion through glamorous, media-savvy, cultural events. We believe in America's potential to be a peaceful and powerful force in the world. We believe that war is bad for our country, bad for our environment and bad for our travel plans." Dammit. Let Saddam test nerve gas on political prisoners strapped down in hospital beds. Let him gas the Kurds. Let him protect terrorist groups.

The important thing is to look good in Tribeca.
Note that he doesn't even pretend to try and talk about foreign policy, that is the policy our government should have towards other countries.  No he just sort of condemns an obscure protest group for not being "serious" enough, and then makes an emotional plea that Saddam does bad things (note Saddam never had nerve gas so Sully basically just made that one up).  But why does Saddam doing bad things mean that we need to go to war?  This was, and to a large degree still is, the state of our public discussions about foreign policy and war.  Uniformed journalists giving style tips and making emotional pleas that we should go to war because, well because I'm outraged.

Matt Yglesias put what's wrong with our foreign policy discourse quite well back in 2009:
And a lot of what goes wrong in American foreign policy commentary, I came to see, was a refusal to adopt the ethic of responsibility. Instead, people would want to orient themselves in a way that expresses a sense of moralized outrage. So if some country is bad, a proposal to do bad things to that regime must be good, because what’s right is to be on “the right side” in some maximal way. Anything less is “realism” and a betrayal of ideals about human rights and democracy. The problem is that what’s needed, from a humanitarian point of view, is a foreign policy that does in fact make conditions around the world better not a foreign policy that expresses high ideals and a grand sense of purpose.
What I see Sullivan saying is basically, "My feelings are the most important thing in the whole world, so if they demand war, then war we shall have."  I don't know that we've made much progress away from this in the last 10 years.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Iraq War Villains

Matt Yglesias has a great post about the Iraq War on his personal blog.  He points out that the "Iraq Question" back in 2002 and 2003 was fundamentally a misguied way of looking at the situtation:
On the actual policy, what holds up reasonably well from the old pre-war case is that the Clinton era “containment” policy on Iraq was crumbling. The endless sanctioning of Iraq was not a viable long-term strategy for the region. That left you with two kinds of options. One—the wrong option—was to get more aggressive. The other—the correct option—was to realize that the goal of military domination of the Persian Gulf is just fundamentally misguided. The project is motivated by fuzzy thinking about oil, and it’s been extremely costly over the decades. Protecting Kuwait from a direct and flagrantly illegal cross-border military attack is a defensible (though arguably not necessary) use of military force, but the whole rest of the undertaking dating back to long before Bush was a mistake.
I think this analysis is right on the money.  At the very least it seems to fall directly into the category of American foreign policy elite applying the lessons (or their constructed story of the "lessons") of the previous conflict to the current one.  Thus the American policy in the Middle East was obsessed with following some sort of absurd (in retrospective) "Cold War Lite" with Iraq being the Soviet Union and everyone else being poor weak Western Europe.  Indeed I've noticed a tendency among certain thought leaders and self style foreign policy experts to try and put Iran in the Soviet role over the past few years with a sort of NATO Alliance of Sunnis lead by Saudi Arabia aligned against Iran.  Obviously this didn't work, and we should have known from the start it wouldn't as the Middle East is a complicated environment with different powers vying against each other for power, a lot more like Europe in the 18th or 17th Centuries than the second half of the 20th.

I recently watched the Kevin Costner vehicle about the Cuban Missile Crisis "Thirteen Days" and one of the things I noticed was how so many people were obsessed in those days with "Remembering the Lesson of Munich" and thus were opposed to any compromises or negotiated solutions to the predicament they found themselves in.  Regardless if that is the real "Lesson of Munich" it certainly wasn't very applicable, because of course any war between the US and USSR would almost certainly destroy both countries.  Thus in the Cold War, war itself could be an enemy as much as the other side.  There's a great scene where JFK asks Dean Acheson to game out his solution to the crisis and Acheson basically says: "Your first step sir will be to demand that the Soviet begin to withdraw the missiles within 12 to 24 hours, they will refuse. When they do you will order the strikes followed by the invasion Cuba, they will resist and be overrun.  They will retaliate against another target somewhere else in the world, most likely Berlin.  We will honor our treaty commitments and resist them there defeating them as per our plans."  Kennedy then points out: "Those plans call for the use of nuclear weapons.  So what is the next step?"  And Acheson doesn't have an answer to him, only saying he hopes cooler heads will prevail at some point.  So basically applying the "Lesson of Munich" here means nuclear armageddon.  Which is a long way to say that the lessons (or the lessons we construct for ourselves in hind sight) of past global conflicts are not necessarily applicable to the present, unfortunately too many of our foreign policy elite haven't learned this lesson.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Paul Ryan Jumps the Shark Continued

More evidence of my theory that Paul Ryan has "Jumped the Shark" emerged when that reliable mouth piece of beltway wisdom Dana Milbank wrote a column in the Washington Post that could have been written by Paul Krugman back in 2011.  Here's the money quote:
There are so many blanks in Ryan’s budget that it could be a Mad Libs exercise. But this is not a game. It’s black-box budgeting — an expression of lofty aims, with binders full of magic asterisks in lieu of specific cuts to government benefits. If this were a fitness plan, Ryan, a former personal trainer, would be telling Americans that under his revolutionary program, they could lose 50 pounds in 10 weeks without dieting or working out. 
Now of course this has been true of all of Ryan's budgets, the difference here is not so much that the new budget is "worse," it's that beltway pundits are finally starting to write about it this way.  Indeed, the Milibanks of the world were outraged when Paul Krugman described Ryan as a flimflam man way back when, and now they are actually using that word! "Tuesday’s flimflammery began when Ryan and his fellow Budget Committee members took the stage."

Again, I think this has more to do with pundits getting bored with Ryan than with any sort of moments of clarity appear in the minds of pundits about how his numbers really don't add up.  And too be sure, Milibank is criticizing Ryan, not ignoring him so I suppose Ryan could always make a comeback into the light of seriousness and BipartisanThink, stranger things have happened in Washington.  But from where I sit, it doesn't look good for him.   

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Paul Ryan Jumps the Shark

Jonathan Bernstein pointed out an interesting controversy brewing over Paul Ryan, Steve Kornacki has argued that being the VP on a losing ticket is bad for your career while Ed Kilgore argues that's not the case.  It's an interesting argument and like all arguments that involve different courses in history it's fundamentally about a lot of things that are unknowable.  I'd probably come down on Kilgore's side and say the two main problems with Kornacki's argument is that he ignores Ed Muskie, whose later career was in many ways based on his VP selection in '68 and looks at "political careers" in the wrong way.  You can label someone a "failure" (insert a nicer word if you'd like) if they persue the White House and never make it there but that's not fair at all, the vast majority of people who seek the Presidency never succeed but that doesn't mean they flopped, it just means becoming president is really hard.  So if you take any sub-section of that group of office seekers, and most people who are on a national ticket for the VP slot have sought the Presidency, most are going to not succeed in the end.  Again because wining is hard, not because it was a bad choice.  Add in the fact that most people seek the Presidency in their political prime and by definition go into decline after that and you get a recipe for it looking like the spot on the loosing ticket did them in, but that's just not the case.

Throat clearing aside I'd say that Kornacki's piece made me realize something else, especially this passage:
On the plus side, he [Ryan] remains a very relevant figure in Washington and in his party. On the downside, you’d never know that just a few months ago he was the nominee of a major political party for the second most powerful office in America. Watching his latest budget rollout, there’s no evidence Ryan enjoys any additional clout or stature thanks to his vice-presidential campaign. He’s playing the same role he played before Mitt Romney drafted him onto the GOP ticket last summer. In fact, if his V.P. bid is affecting him now, it’s probably a net-negative, with some in the press taking a more critical view of his plans than in the past.
What struck me about this passage had nothing to do with failed VP bids, no what struck me is it looks like the first crack in the damn of Ryan's invincible reputation of past!

We, and reporters, like to think of Washington as this great palace of decision making and political intrigue.  It is of course both of these things, but I've always felt that is also influenced by the same whims of being "in" and "out" that play out in Hollywood or high school cafeterias.  People having been writing for a while about Ryan the flimflam man and for those years he's shown a remarkable tendency to never get stuck with with the fact that his math doesn't add up, his plan lacks specifics and his "deficit reduction plan" doesn't, ummm, actually reduce the deficit at all.  Lots of liberals got incredibly frustrated at this fact over the past two years.  But now a new threat to Ryan's career has emerged and it's worse than those three problems combined.  Paul Ryan has caught a much more dangerous Washington affliction: he's boring.  As Alex Pareene pointed out in Slate:
...everyone please just continue hammering away at Ryan and his ridiculous regressive fantasy budgets, but I think it’s worth noting what the non-liberal liberal media was paying attention to today [March 12th].

CNN spent the day talking about the pope. Joe Scarborough and his chums seemed more interested in the soda ban. Politico was still fixated on Obama’s “charm offensive.” The Senate Democratic budget actually got more play. Hell, the National Review Online devoted more digital ink to the pope election today than to Paul Ryan and his 10-year plan. I think the apex of mainstream Beltway press attention was when Luke Russert live-tweeted his own reading of the budget for like a half-hour.

I think — and let’s all hope I’m actually right and not just being incredibly hopeful — this finally confirms that Ryan is “over” as a figure the Beltway press treats with incredible reverence.
I really couldn't agree more with Pareene.  We can't be sure as of yet, but it's looking more and more like no one cares what Ryan thinks or says.  He had his day in the sun and now journalists will look for more interesting topics than Ryan's quest to radically remake American society and massively transfer American wealth from the poor to the rich.  Just imagine how much more massive a story about Chris Christe getting stomach staple surgery would be that anything Ryan could ever do at this point.  This is the way a career ends, not with a bang but with a deluge of pope jokes on twitter.   

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What Does "Worked" Mean?

Over the weekend I read the best rejoinder to the argument that the "surge" or the Iraq War as a whole worked.  It was written by former Army officer who served in the Vietnam War named Andrew J. Bacevich who is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  As he pointed out:
The importance attributed to the surge by devotees such as McCain distracts attention from matters of far greater significance. It’s the equivalent of using the Battle of New Orleans as a basis for evaluating the War of 1812. Of course, in contrast to Petraeus, Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated his adversary. When the shooting stopped, it was the surviving Redcoats — not the surviving Americans — who packed up and left. Still, take your cues from Johnny Horton, and you might conclude that Jackson single-handedly redeemed an entire war. Take your cues from McCain, and you might conclude that, two centuries later, Petraeus did likewise.

In reality, the heroics at New Orleans proved irrelevant to the outcome of the war, which the Treaty of Ghent had ended two weeks before. The most that can be said for Jackson’s victory is that it distracted attention from the egregious failures of political and military leadership that had marked James Madison’s War. So, too, for a time Petraeus’s victory (if that’s what it was) might do the same for George W. Bush’s War, likewise marred by glaring errors committed at the top. It’s the oldest technique in the campaigner’s playbook: Inflate a glimmer of good news to divert attention from all the bad.
Exactly.  The idea that the Iraq War can be judged a success because the US Army decided to pay off Sunni militiamen so they'd stop fighting Americans and focus on even more extreme foreign fighters (the main strategy of the surge) misses the entire point.  Iraq was suppose to be made into a democratic and free market oriented utopia by the war, it wasn't.  And this failure occurred in spite of terrible losses to America and Iraqi society.  Indeed this strategy of American support for so called "Awakening Militias" was a direct result of earlier failures of the war.  The American Military had long since given up on the idea of creating a secular democracy and instead resorted to a tried and true method of feudal politics: if someone is causing you a problem bribe them to stop.  This might result in a reduction of roadside bomb attacks in your sector, but it's basically acknowledging that the plans for a democratic society with things like the rule of law are dead.   

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Curious George

James Fallows has been writing great stuff about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War and you should really check it out. He argued that Bush was such a terrible president, especially in the 18 months between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War because:
I believe that the temperamental combination he brought to the presidency was lethal. I think of the big three elements of this mix as ignorance, incuriosity, and decisiveness.

-Ignorance was his low level of pre-existing knowledge of the complexities of the world.
-"Incuriosity" was his apparent lack of passion about learning what he didn't know.
-Decisiveness was his desire, nonetheless, to make big, sweeping choices quickly -- for instance, ten years ago that it made sense to invade Iraq.

In these matters of temperament, completely apart from political beliefs, you can see Bush as the opposite of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and also of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I argued nine years ago that even if George W. Bush served only one term as president, his legacy would be large and disastrous.
I like this analysis, especially the idea that Bush was bad because of a combination of traits made him completely unsuited for the modern Presidency. So much criticism of Bush seems based on the idea that he is "stupid," or "evil" and this is pretty shallow. However, I'd argue that the curiosity or lack there of is the wrong way to think about these sorts of things.

A while ago political scientist Johnathan Bernstein (sorry I couldn't find the link) made a comment on his blog to the effect that one of Bush's worst flaws was that he didn't care about politics or policy outside of a narrow contest of "winning." Usually it took the form of winning the next election, hence the introduction of the Iraq War Resolution in the lead up to the 2002 elections to put Democrats on the defensive and try and shift the issues to Bush's "toughness" rather than the poor economy. As Frank Rich pointed out in his 2006 book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold:
To track [Karl] Rove's role, it's necessary to flash back to January 2002. By then the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan had succeeded in its mission to overthrow the Taliban and had done so with a death toll that the American public could accept. In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rover for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections. Candidates "can go to the country on this issue," he said, because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America.
Any student of history, hell any baby boomer, should know that a long protracted occupation and war in a foreign country can destroy a Presidency, but Bush seemed to not even consider this concept. He wanted to "win" in November just like "winning" in Iraq seemed to be composed of getting to Baghdad with no plan for what comes next.

The "winning" factor explains a lot. Bush pushed massive unpaid expansion of Medicare through Congress to make a "permanent majority;" he saw his Attorney General try and base US Attorney positions on ideological loyalty to "win" the Justice Department; he tried to respond to Katina with photo ops and congratulating the reliably conservative idiot who oversaw the carnage with "you're doing a heck of a job Brownie" and seemed to think for much of his time in office that since Cheney was on "Team Bush" he must be right and by supporting him they could "win" together. This list could go on for pages.

Curiosity can be a helpful trait in office, whats in this bill I'm about to sign is a good question for a president to ask. Nor does a president doesn't need to be motivated by altruism to be effective, Johnson supported Civil Rights because he thought doing so would make his reputation that of a second Lincoln for as much as anything else. What a President does need to care about is if policies will work and if their political strategy will be sustainable. If they just care about winning the next election, disaster looms.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Political scientist Seth Masket pointed out yesterday that while it is a shame Obama foolishly mixed up the Star Wars and Star Trek universes in his press conference the other day, the bigger folly was the silliness of the question. To review:
Q Mr. President, to your question, what could you do -- first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So --

Q But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t --

THE PRESIDENT: I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government. The Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate and all those folks have responsibilities.
Masket goes on to point out that the "leadership" Jessica Yellin is calling for is problematic to say the least:
So what did she mean? Did she mean that the President should literally invite the Speaker of the House into the Oval Office and physically prevent him from leaving until an accord is reached, violating the law and the Constitution in the process? Are we to believe that that's what Reagan or LBJ would have done? Is holding people against their will part of "leadership"?
Or did she mean this figuratively? If so, what would that mean? After all, if you only figuratively prevent people from leaving the room, you're not really preventing them from leaving the room. Which means that if they decide it's not in their interest to be in that room, they can leave. Which is exactly where we are right now.
I have to agree, this is a terrible question on the merits, but I do think it points out how a lot of journalists think about the Presidency and politics in general, or at least how they chose to report it to us.  I've written before about how the office and powers of the Presidency are misunderstood and this obsession with "leadership" as a way to get the GOP to compromise is a great example of what some people call "The Cult of the Presidency."

In addition, I'd guess that there is another reason why reporters and pundits are calling for arm twisting like "refuse to let them leave the room" because you have "leadership" as a good way to get out of this impasse.  It seems to me that everyone in Washington is obsessed with image and wants appear to be smart and "in the know."  A great way to appear "in the know" seems to be going around referencing big scholarly tombs, that you haven't read, that supposedly support your argument.  The guys who wrote "Game Change" kept referencing all sorts of Washington insiders in 2007 and 2008 being obsessed with appearing to have read Doris Kerns Goodwin's Team of Rivals so they could argue the fact that the Clinton campaign was plagued by mismanagement and infighting was a sign of their genius, just like Lincoln!  When the movie Lincoln came out (based on Team of Rivals) there seemed to be a resurgent of referencing the book by beltway insiders.  As well as the idea that Obama could ply legislators with food and drink, or something.  Who knows if that's true about Clinton, but it does certainly seem possible to me.  

So maybe the new hot scholarly tombs to associate yourself with, but of course not actually read, is Robert Carro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  Carro is great with the anecdotes about Johnson's strong arm tactics and such, but of course the larger lesson of the Johnson years is that those tactics only really work against your own party and while they may work out in the short term they will ultimately destroy your presidency.  Which, along with Vietnam (which was started via strong arm tactics in many ways) was exactly what happened to Johnson.  Anyway, that might explain why Yellin thinks "leadership" or more properly "Leadership!" involves locking people in rooms. 

Party Factions and Protests

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice piece looking back on the 10 year anniversary of the Iraq War.  However, I think he gets a major lesson about the war wrong when he lionizes the original anti-war protestors a decade ago:
In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, "No. Not in my name." It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism...And finally it meant the election of the country's first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.  I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness -- my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn't deserve my hard thinking or hard acting, my cynicism. I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every "sensible" and "serious" person you knew -- left or right -- was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.
While he is right that the protestors may have been right about some things (they were wrong about others) he completely misses the story of how the war actually ended.  It's pretty clear that neither the Iraqi Government or some other third party could have ejected us from Iraq and that because the war was financed by deficit spending and fought by an all volunteer military that an ongoing presence in Iraq was completely possible.  Indeed John McCain campaigned on a promise of US troops in Iraq through 2013 at least.  Furthermore, the Presidency of George W. Bush shows us that a determined political party, the GOP, could keep an unpopular war going for years.  In short, public protests and public opinion neither stopped the war nor shortened it, making their effectiveness pretty doubtful.

So why did the war end?  Well the answer is that a determined faction inside the Democratic Party made opposition to the Bush's Iraq policies a mandatory position for elected Democrats to stay in good standing in their party.  This in term meant that the election of a Democrat in 2008 ensured the end of the presence of American Armed Forces in Iraq.  As I recall, in the lead up to the war there were three main faction inside the Democratic Party, Hawks like Joe Lieberman who supported war, Doves like Paul Wellstone who opposed it and people who punted like then House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt who refused to vote categorically against a war but didn't seem to care too much one way or the other and deferred this matter of foreign affairs to the Presidency.  Between 2003 and 2004 it was the Deaniacs that advanced the anti-war cause by making opposition to the war a viable position for a Democratic presidential nominee, even though Dean lost for othereasons.  After that it was the anti-Lieberman people who turned support for the war into a political liability rather than a political strength (remember who voting for the authorization for use of force in 2002 was seen as the "smart" political move?)  So that by the time the race for the 2008 nomination was on, all the major candidates for the Democratic nomination were for some withdrawal strategy.  We might remember that Obama was anti-war as opposed to Clinton but in reality their positions on how to move forward were very similar, even if their record from 2002 was not.  In short, what ended the war was a faction of a political party working inside that party to make their views, end the war, the position of their party through the daily grind of politics and elections.  That's about as unradical as you can get.      

Friday, March 1, 2013

Andrew Sullivan: Forever Is A Long, Long TIme

Andrew Sullivan has a post where he basically calls for the Supreme Court to overturn the Voting Rights Act because:
I have to say I am not one of those who thinks that this kind of federal oversight, essential once, must necessarily be essential for ever. And I cannot quite grasp the logic of liberals’ insistence that the bigotry of 1964 is no less a danger today. It’s obviously a much less bigoted society with respect to race than then – in part because of the very Act that liberals are rightly proud of...Societies change. It’s crazy to take no notice of this, and wherever possible the government, in my view, should be race neutral.
I suppose he's right in the narrowest sense possible, yes societies do change but what on earth does that have to do with the Voting Rights Act?  As a reminder, this law was passed because for 100 years certain places in this country responded to freed slaves and their descendants trying to vote with thing like this.  The point isn't that the South is bad, its that this legacy is very much real, and historically we are in fact much closer to these sort of events than the Freedom Riders were to the the passage of the 13th Amendment.  No one is arguing that the South "can't be trusted" or is somehow inherently evil, what they are arguing is that this history is very much real and any gains we have made exist in the face of the reality of the problem that hasn't vanished because Barack Obama won some elections.  As Faulkner says, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."  Having the Voting Right Around "forever" is something completely different than having it around for another 15 years.  Forever is a long, long time.