The 2013 State of the Union and the GOP Response

NoneAfter watching the State of the Union address, Sen. Marco Rubio’s response on behalf of the GOP, reading some blogs and tweets and ruminating on all of it while doing the dishes, here are some of my take-aways. 

On the economy—the issue many were predicting to be forefront of the address—the president was vague and defensive.  He highlighted that consumers were now protected while the fact that Americans still aren’t consuming hung heavy in the air.  Same with the remark that we have “cleared away the rubble of crisis,” acknowledging recovery still eludes us.  He pleaded with lawmakers to make “basic decisions” about the budget, but the basics are precisely where we’ve been stuck.  We already know the sequester would be “harsh.”  Sen. Rubio at least reminded Americans the sequester was Obama’s idea. 

I was surprised early on when the president said that cutting Medicare and Social Security would be even worse than cutting education, that these entitlements for the elderly are more important than educating our youth.  The remark earned a standing ovation from his party.

Still plenty of “fair share” rhetoric.  As readers here know, that kind of talk bothers me quite a bit because I get the sense that, for the president, wealth disparity is a moral wrong in itself.  Were he to tie the idea to tax reform, he might get me on board.  As it was, the tax reform remarks seemed designed to portray his opponents as the only ones guilty of giving favors.  I found it interesting that his most impassioned attack against corporate loopholes received only tepid applause. 

The president announced we are suffering from a crisis of crises, suggesting they were being “manufactured” by Congress.  (As many will recall, it was the president’s own chief of staff four years ago who uttered the immortal line about never letting a good crisis go to waste.)  The president seemed to be referring to Republicans’ positions on spending cuts to address the growing debt and deficit.  Far from “manufacturing” a crisis, Republicans believe the debt and deficit is already a crisis, or at least one in the making that requires prompt and meaningful action.  Moreover, as the president made clear later on with his impassioned plea to address the crisis of gun violence (“they deserve a vote!”) and climate change (we’re “all in” on clean energy!), he’s not done governing via crisis as long as it’s the right kind of crisis. 

The president did promise we would not see “a single dime” added to the deficit, and that we would not get a “bigger” government on his watch, just a “smarter” one.  This was the most conciliatory line in the address concerning philosophy of government. 

Several references to new investments, like 3D printing.  I’m in favor of necessary infrastructure investments:  so long as our economy is going to grow (an existential assumption everyone is willing to make), then roads, water, waste disposal, and other basic infrastructure is a no-brainer.  But government-as-venture capitalist in things like 3D printing and high speed rail (“ask any CEO”? really?) are far beyond what I’m comfortable having government get involved with.  The president’s awkward joke, which fell flat (“I’ve seen all those ribbon cuttings”), speaks to how well these kinds of investments have worked so far. 

I was puzzled at the president’s plea to make more funds available so that more people could buy houses.  I’m not an economist, but isn’t that how the last housing bubble got started? 

Didn’t California try making preschool available for everyone, and wasn’t it a big boondoggle that didn’t work as hoped?  I’m sure the president is right that children who start school early do better in life.  I’m also willing to bet that’s as much or more to do with the fact they have parents who care enough about education to put them in preschool.  Putting that aside, I’d put this compromise to the president:  attach school choice to a preschool funding bill and you’ve got a deal. 

Totally agree about keeping college costs down.  I’m actually impressed the president proposed that, though I guess I should wait to see what kinds of programs he’s looking to defund. 

I’ll give the president this on his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour: He’s committed to the “fairness” meme, even at the expense of opportunity.  The consensus seems to be that increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment.  And many of the people we wish to help—the people who make a living at minimum wage—don’t exist, as they typically stay at entry-level wages for only a short time.  Second household earners often work part-time, and part-time jobs are made even less available because of minimum-wage laws. 

I don’t know what the president has in mind when he says he wants to make voting “easier.”  I already worry about how ill-informed most voters are.  And how easy does voting have to be?  Perhaps I’m not allowed to pass judgment on this because I’m lucky enough to have the leisure time to engage in politics.  But here’s a reform I’d insist on in compromise:  Remove the role of secretaries of state and attorneys general in characterizing candidates and initiatives.  Just put the names of candidates without titles or backgrounds, and the numbers of initiatives.  Voters can read biographies of their candidates and the full text of proposed initiatives can be made available online, in public libraries, and in polling places.  If they don’t care enough to become minimally informed about their votes, they can self-select out.  As things stand, too many voters enter the polling place to place a single vote—for president, say—and wind up also voting for other candidates or issues based solely on the brief summaries supplied on the ballots.  And there is reason to suspect that secretaries of state and attorneys general skew those summaries for political reasons. 

And then we come to the dead children and Gabby Gifford who “deserve a vote” on gun control—apparently a legitimate crisis, in the president’s view.  I don’t have very strong views on background checks and most of the other proposals on offer, but the president’s demand for a vote was only a thinly veiled warning that a “no” vote would be tantamount to spitting on kids’ graves or something.  Also, no reference to Christopher Dorner, whose tour of terror puts a very different spin on the issue of guns and personal safety. 

I liked the president’s remarks near the end of the address about the need for and the meaning and obligation of fathers.  I also liked the remarks about the need for good citizenship, even though I suspect the president understands the “obligations” of citizenship differently than I do. 

PHOTO: U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rehearsed the Republican address to the Nation, Feb. 12, 2013.

Senator Marco Rubio’s response was strong, particularly in light of the fact that responding to the State of the Union is an unenviable job.  He was gracious but tough with the president, highlighting differences in governing philosophy, that the president is wrong to find so many solutions in government.  He has a remarkable personal story and shared it warmly and effectively, explaining he has every intention to protecting Medicare for people like his mom, and his dad before losing his battle with cancer.  He also effectively ties in the fact that he not only sympathizes with the middle class, he still lives in his middle class neighborhood, relied on federal student loans, and just recently finished paying them off.  He uses these examples to effectively demonstrate that the new conservatism means protecting the solutions government already provides and people rely on, and that continuing to ignore needed reforms for the sake of rolling out new “job-killing” regulations and programs risks those existing programs—not to mention diminishes opportunities for middle class Americans. 

Sen. Rubio also explains how his party has gotten a bad rap, such as when they are accused of “wanting dirty water and dirty air” when resisting complex regulations, or “wanting to leave the elderly and disabled to fend for themselves” when pushing entitlement reforms.  It was heartening to imagine people listening to this genuine, reasoned response from a likely person like Rubio. 

If I had one suggestion for Sen. Rubio, other than staying better hydrated, it would have been to link the president’s call for tax reform to his repeated insistence for “fairness.”  Sen. Rubio is a darling of the Tea Party, and the Tea Party has a solid track record on attacking crony capitalism and tax loopholes.  This would have given a tangible example to illustrate how Republicans are every bit as much in favor of fairness as the president claims to be. 

Customer Feedback, Week 6

[Lay impressions on the GOP’s political messaging this week. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Slow news week last week.  A relative (and rare) calm before the State of the Union tomorrow night. 

Hagel and Brennan

Republicans are weak on the confirmations of Hagel and Brennan.  Lindsey Graham on Face the Nation yesterday said he intends to somehow block a confirmation vote of Hagel until he gets more information on Benghazi.  I’m of two minds on this.  The time for outrage on this is passed.  The Benghazi attack occurred two months before a presidential election and the people decided to give the president a pass.  I do tend to think the president is “disengaged,” as Graham says.  But unless you have a broad swell of support at least among other Republicans, Graham is mostly just providing the president and Democrats evidence for their supposition that the GOP is fractured.  Which lends support to the argument that Graham is doing this for personal political reasons, to convince his constituents in his upcoming 2014 campaign that he’s conservative enough.

On the other hand, I wonder how much deference to nominees is appropriate.  When it comes to judicial nominations, for example, it’s been accepted that contested aggressive confirmation hearings are justified given that Supreme Court sessions have become, in effect, annual constitutional conventions.  Given the great power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself in the past several decades, it’s understandable and even appropriate that the confirmation process—one of the only meaningful democratic checks on the Court—has grown some sharp teeth. 

The power and significance of the U.S. military also has swelled greatly in modern times.  Perhaps more resistance and skepticism is warranted in the confirmation process. 


John Eastman says the drones memo was improperly classified because it did not contain any tactical information.  The real reason it was held back may be because the administration is relying on many of the same grounds cited in the Bush memos, which then-Senator Obama criticized.

No matter; the public loves drones.

State of the Union

Republicans are bracing for one of the most partisan State of the Union addresses of this partisan president’s administration.  Obama is set to focus on the economy, and likely will employ his familiar device of using strawmen and hyperbole to demonize his opponents.  Last week, he told Democrats that Republicans’ position is that “the only way to replace it now is for us to cut Social Security, cut Medicare and not close a single loophole.”  Who is saying that?  Is there any elected Republican in Congress—or anywhere else—who says this? 

I’ll be gritting my way through the president’s address Tuesday night awaiting Marco Rubio’s response.  To say that Sen. Rubio is facing high expectations may be a gross understatement after last week: 

One of the memes last week was that the GOP doesn’t just need better messaging, it needs a new message.  From my perspective, this meme cannot survive without referencing leaders who badly fumble the GOP message, proving the point that the problems is in the messengers, not the message.  Rubio is far and away the most thoughtful and articulate conservative the party has seen in a very long time.  The juxtaposition of Rubio’s response to what is expected to be Obama’s most aggressive and progressive SOTU address will be a thing to behold. 

Is Progressivism a Child of the Founding? Does It Matter?

In a recent interview with James L. Buckley at Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson posed the following question:

By the time I came along, the New Deal had been enacted.  But you came along beforehand.  Of course, you were a boy, but if you look back, can you, looking over the course of your life, can you sense changes— I guess what I’m asking is, did the expansion of government habituate us to an ever-expanding government, or was there some change, was there some loss of republican virtue, that made possible the expansion of government.  Which came first? 

The question tantalizes, but the answer necessarily disappoints.  The conservative narrative—the thumbnail version, anyway—wants to answer that question in the affirmative:  Yes! Big Government sapped our drive, our initiative, our republican virtue!  But as Buckley quickly observes in his response, it takes a careful examination of history to answer the question.  These kinds of big, tectonic shifts—both in the people’s expectations of government and of themselves—occur slowly over time in response to innumerable conditions.  So of course we do not have the same relationship with government, society, and the rest as the founding generation did.  Republican virtue may or may not be lost, but it is certainly changed, and we might begin by evaluating those changes—some good, some bad, some indifferent.  Certainly not all those changes are because of the size of government.  Indeed, it was the Great Depression, widely perceived to be a failing of an under-regulated economy, that triggered that growth.  And it was the industrial revolution beforehand, that began concentrating economic activity—and thus every other kind of activity—around cities and factories and banking.  Coming to an answer of when, precisely, something like “republican virtue” was lost is as elusive as answering whether the chicken came before the egg.

Still, the idea behind the question is important for conservatives because they believe the American experiment absolutely depends on republican virtue.  The presence of that virtue characterized the success of the ancient republics, and its absence characterized their decline.  “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security,” wrote Edward Gibbon.  “They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.” 

It was believed that republican virtue was alive again by the time of the Founding.  The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War.  But then, the narrative goes, sometime between then and now, it went missing or into hiding.  Much conservative scholarship concerns the history of ideas between Reconstruction and the New Deal, circling in on when and how, precisely, America arguably changed its mind about the founding philosophy (as conservatives understand it) and adopted a more relativistic, History-based worldview that finds the answer to so many questions of moral and civic duty in government and in powerful leaders.  My interest lies here as well. 

But what if these conservatives succeeded?  Would it matter?  That is, even if conservative thinkers succeeded in demonstrating that progressivism does indeed represent a new paradigm of thought—that it is not the American mind of the founders but something quite different—would it make a difference?  Do non-conservatives reject the premise that this republican virtue esteemed by conservatives existed, or that it had such salubrious effects as conservatives suppose? Do progressives believe they now have an answer to Gibbon?  In this, I am reminded of Michael Tomasky’s attempt in 2010, writing confidently but uncritically that

there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.

Or take Jonathan Chait’s rendition:  “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.”   As a candidate to replace the founding philosophy, the modern liberal thesis leaves something to be desired. 

You may disagree, however.  And that’s my question:  Do modern progressives much care whether their political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”?  Or is that link, though perhaps desirable politically, inconsequential to the legitimacy of the liberal/progressive project? 

Customer Feedback, Week 5: The Immigration-Education Link

[Lay impressions on the GOP’s political messaging this week. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

"The good news is, conservatism is not completely dead." This was the tongue-in-cheek reassurance offered by a speaker at the National Review Institute summit last week, as related by Mark Steyn.  On the contrary, I thought it was an encouraging week.  Marco Rubio was on the wires, and that’s always good for conservatism.  On the policy front, gun control seems to be stalling, and economic reports gloomy. But the immigration debate is buzzing. And there’s not even a “cliff”!

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“Ideological extremism is not the same thing as political ineptitude”

If you haven’t been following the conversation among William Voegeli, Geoffrey Kabaservice, Stephen Hayward, and David Frum about Voegeli’s lead article in the most recent Claremont Review of Books, you’re missing out.  (See here for some prior excerpts and discussion on these pages.  Also, if you’re interested in books, conservatism, or both, consider subscribing to CRB.)

My sentiments lie with Voegeli and Hayward, but Kabaservice’s rallies in his latest installment with this concluding observation:

The attempt to build a Republican Party that is "both principled and electorally viable" is a tricky balance, no doubt. But the GOP won’t be an electoral or governing majority again until it allows some room for moderates, regains a positive vision of government, and recovers its belief that the conservative who is furthest to the right is not necessarily the most authentic Republican.

Emphasis mine.  Indeed, my humble suggestion is that the GOP find time in its agenda of standing athwart history yelling stop to advance its positive vision.  (Marco Rubio’s been doing a fantastic job this week in carrying the water on the immigration discussions.)  Earned wealth, opportunity, economic growth, individualism, responsibility, and community don’t thrive untended.  In fact, fierce individualism and community appear at odds with one another on their face; same with opportunity and the form of economic growth that relies heavily on big, rent-seeking business.  Conservatives can advance these causes on limited government-octane, but not without some rejiggering under the hood.  Or to paraphrase Kabaservice, Republicans can advance a positive vision for conservatism and still put the government on a diet, but not if they insist on chopping off its head.

David Frum also poses some serious challenges to conservative “extremism”: 

Here it seems to me is the core problem: the big winners under the American fiscal system are the elderly, the rural, and the affluent—Republican constituencies. It’s not easy to balance the budget or shrink government spending to any significant degree in ways that don’t pinch Republican voters much harder than they pinch Democratic voters.

To escape that reality, some conservative thought leaders have constructed an alternative reality. In this alternative reality, "welfare" not Medicare is the number one social spending cost.

His point is well taken, but in fairness to conservatives, the deck has been stacked.  I wrote recently that we work within an unintelligible nomenclature—a Tower of Babel—in which we have rights to generally be left alone, but also rights to demand certain tangible things, like money, food, and health care.  Philosophically, this is nonsense:  the same word, “rights,” cannot mean both things [can they?].  One of those definitions must be incorrect.  Yet we plod ahead, trying to make sense of our president when he cites the founding philosophy of natural rights derived from nature and nature’s God to support a modern philosophy of positive rights derived from government. 

Back to Frum.  Health care, particularly for the elderly, has taken hold for now as a “right.”  Welfare, on the other hand, has not, at least not to the same degree.  So it seems unfair to insist that conservatives must rail against both equally, knowing full well that attacking the former amounts to political suicide.  A political party is encouraged to be philosophically consistent, but it can be excused for some inconsistency and prudence when it comes to policies that, for the time being at least, have become cloaked in “rights” language.  Taking a fair crack at such policies means addressing philosophical questions that make the voting public’s eyes glaze over.  And this is why Republicans are waiting for their own “The One” to come along who will capture the people’s imagination and make that philosophy-of-rights conversation possible.  That is the only way we can start asking whether we want to pay for these policies, instead of merely how to pay for them. 

I got the opportunity to meet and have dinner with Tod Kelly and commenter Mr. McSnarkSnark last night, where Tod asked me why I’d disagree with him that America is not fundamentally flawed.  We agree, after all, that America is great, distinctive, exceptional.  What is so wrong about where we are?  He has a point.  For all our problems, America is still a great country.  The problems that I complain about, and that other conservatives—including those like Voegeli and Hayward and other so-called “extremists”—complain about, are latent.  Many of the tangible problems conservatives talk about are merely symptoms.  Perhaps our economic problems will find us becoming Greece, but even that would not get to the heart of the complaints of serious conservatives.  Let me try to explain:  

If every volume of the Supreme Court Reporter burned and we suddenly were left with only the written Constitution and its amendments, many of our institutions would suddenly be illegitimate.  To some, we might say “good riddance.” Others, however, are vital if we are to sustain the modern economy and civil rights to which we’ve grown accustomed.  The point is, it is a good thing that we have these institutions that the written Constitution arguably does not permit.  But it is not a good thing that we have not formally amended the Constitution to authorize them, and instead have relied on various crises, “constitutional moments,” and Supreme Court decisions to alter our structure of government.  In so doing, the People have been deprived of the benefit of the higher law that safeguards their sovereignty and their natural rights.  To paraphrase the exchange in A Man for All Seasons, we have cut a great road through our Constitutional law to achieve arguably needed structural and institutional policies that, at the time, we perceived as too urgent to subject to longsuffering adherence to legal formalities.  But in so doing, many of our higher, Constitutional laws are now flat, and though the air is still now, could we stand upright when the winds begin to blow? 

Critics suggest conservatism places too much faith in long-dead founders and a fixed Constitution.  But the alternative is to place that faith instead in men and women now living.  Dead men and documents have certain disabilities, but among them is the inability to betray us.  If we forsake the protections they installed for our benefit as against leaders now living, what protections have we reserved to ourselves and, more importantly, to our posterity, against leaders who would breach our trust? 

Does this sound like tinfoil-hat conspiracy mongering?  Do we live in an age where the people’s sovereignty is quaint, natural rights insufficient, and an enlightened, progressive government trustworthy?  Your mileage may vary.  But it is not fair to beg the question.  Those are fundamental questions, constitutional questions, about the essence of government.  They deserve a proper vetting before we can presume to answer them differently than our founders did.  That’s the “flaw” in America today.  We purport to yield our sovereignty and natural rights by attrition, in tiny increments, such that we hardly notice.  Again, not that we haven’t gotten some nice things in return.  But we rarely examine very seriously whether it’s worth it.

Customer Feedback, Week 4: Goodbye to Stupid

[Lay impressions on the GOP’s political messaging this week. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Benghazi, abortion, recess appointments, reactions to the second inaugural.  A relatively slow news week.

“Stop Being the Stupid Party”

Says Gov. Bobby Jindal.  The Tea Party message is growing up:

Jindal’s speech — and his call to “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” — is the latest shred of a growing amount of evidence that the Louisiana governor is positioning himself to not only run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 but do so in direct (or close to it) opposition to his party in the nation’s capital.

In the speech, Jindal will repeatedly caution that Republicans in Washington have fallen into the “sideshow trap” of debating with Democrats over the proper size of the federal government.

“By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte, and Shreveport (La.), and Cheyenne (Wyo.),” Jindal is set to say at one point in the speech. At another, he will argue that “Washington has spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states,” adding: “As Republicans, it’s time to quit arguing around the edges of that corrupt system.”

I think that’s right.  Our politics does need a “party of no.”  We do need a party who insists on looking at the solvency of government programs, and who reminds us of our founding philosophy of limited government.  But the GOP also needs a constructive component.  Do we want to devolve more functions back to state and local governments?  Yes, but not because doing so will make them smaller or less effective.  Keeping functions local improves democracy, instills more civil virtue and respect for individuals and communities, and is more responsive to local and community needs.  Federalism oughtn’t be regarded as a way to punish the federal government.  And conservatism oughtn’t be just about saying “no.” 

Rep. John Campbell points out that there are 40 million people in California but only 140,000 families pay about 50% of the income taxed, so it doesn’t take a lot of people leaving to mean that the reason income tax increase translates into less tax revenue. Also, many of those people sit on nonprofit boards, school boards, and other community-oriented positions.  Republicans need to make that connection rather than counting on people to sign on to their “low tax” position on pure principle. 

In the meantime, Republicans have an uphill slot working with the president.  Bob Woodward and another member of the panel on Face the Nation last Sunday agreed that Obama does not respect Republicans and looks down his nose at them.  He is not looking to work with Republicans but to punish them.  If Republicans go toe-to-toe in that fight, they’ll lose. 

Benghazi:  “What Difference At This Point Does It Make?”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, soon to resign, will likely hear blowback of her animated retort to Sen. Ron Johnson about what her people knew about Benghazi during and immediately after the attacks.  Is it political theater?  Yeah, mostly.  But frankly, I was pretty much done with this issue before Clinton got all riled up.  The point of her appearing was to answer questions.  One hopes that “what difference does it make?” is not an acceptable response.  And remember Clinton’s “3:00 a.m. phone call”?  She walked right into that one.  If she plans to run in 2016, she’ll be hearing about this for a good while.

No, Says the DC Circuit Court of Appeal, the President Does Not Get to Tell Senate When It’s In Recess

A panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held President Obama’s use of the Recess Clause in making three NLRB appointments unconstitutional, as the appointments were not made during “the Recess” between sessions as contemplated by the Constitution.  Obama determined that the break in proceedings amounted to a recess, and that the sessions that were held were only “pro forma.”  The court rejected the notion that the president may determine when the recess is or is not in recess, and thus the scope of his own constitutional authority.  “This will not do,” as the court put it. 

John Eastman points out that for the first 80 years of U.S. history, no recess appointments were made other than during the recess between sessions.  During the next 50 years, recess appointments were made just three times during the longer adjournments during a sessions like the month-long August or Christmas recesses.  Most recently, Democrats held “pro forma” sessions to prevent President George W. Bush from making recess appointments.  In President Obama’s case, he sat on appointments for months in order to make recess appointments on the eve of the Christmas recess.  During the so-called “pro forma” session, Senate passed a payroll tax reduction that the president signed into law.  Yet the president then claimed that this same session that had passed a bill he himself signed was not actually in session. 

This is an important victory for proponents of separation of powers.  It also signals a potential problem with the recess appointment of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau established by Dodd-Frank.  The director of the CFPB is vested with enormous power with few checks.  Unlike other regulatory agencies, the CFPB is not run by a bipartisan commission or board but by a single director.  The director determines the agency’s budget, funded by Fed earnings, which can be as high as 12% of the Fed’s operating expenses—roughly half a billion dollars based on the Fed’s 2009 Annual Report adjusted for inflation.  Congress is precluded from reviewing the director’s budget. 

Observing Roe v. Wade

This week, we observed the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the nearly 56 million lives lost since then.  Tim Carney reminds that even left-of-center legal thinkers agree that, irrespective of the outcome, the opinion is poorly reasoned.

This piece by Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon this week was bizarre, but also challenging.  In it, Williams admits that “abortion ends life” but that “all life is not equal,” and that a woman’s “life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.”  Pro-choice activists won’t acknowledge this because “We’re so intimidated by the wingnuts” who “believe that if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder.”  It’s an interesting admission that challenges us to consider that hiding behind labels like fetus and zygote and a “bunch of cells” is a disingenuous dodge.  Williams is certainly wrong that a woman’s “circumstances” “automatically trump” the acknowledged life “always.”  But otherwise, there’s an invitation here to engage the real issue:  What justification is there to end the life, and what justification is there to keep a woman from ending the life inside her?  Is it justified to end a life because the woman’s life is at risk?  What about if she would rather wait a year or two until starting a family?  What if she wanted a boy instead of a girl?  What if medical science makes it possible and even convenient to remove the unwanted life such that it can be incubated and survive without the mother?  Is it her prerogative to kill the life instead of letting it live without her?

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez speaks at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on August 29, 2012. Archbishop Charles Chaput remarked that the most effective way of pressing the pro-life cause is through women.  As descendants of the Enlightenment, we might hope that ideas would be evaluated on their own merits, but our passions and empathy and biases do still play a very strong role in such questions.  This is probably true with the Republicans’ message in general.  Condoleezza Rice on Sunday talked about the lack of diversity in the Republican Party, when in fact Republican leadership is far more diverse than Democratic leadership.  Republicans are going to depend on the diversity of its leadership to convey their message of opportunity. 

Have a great weekend!

The Second Inaugural’s Attempt to Re-Found America

While repeatedly announcing his fidelity to America’s founding principles, President Obama’s second inaugural announces a very different vision of America.  Near the beginning of his speech, the president states:

What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So far, so good.  But then he says this: 

Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.

This strikes me as imputing a veneer of contingency over what are supposed to be “self-evident” truths.  The president seems to be announcing a philosophy of Historicism in which the ideas—even “self-evident” ones—change over time.  If so, then these truths are not “self-evident” at all—they are evident only through the lens of History.  This is confirmed in the very next line of the speech, when he says:

For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.

As we’ll see a bit later in the speech, individual freedom has been remade from an end of government to a means, a contingent idea that must yield to circumstances.  Individual freedom is sufficient only to guarantee opportunity, not the kind of outcome that modern Progressives believe everyone should have as a baseline.  Thus, individual freedom must be limited to the extent that government can first ensure that baseline.  This may be a laudable goal, but it is not a “self-evident” one. 

The president goes on, again announcing fidelity to our founding principles:

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

He then immediately delivers another defense of History: 

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.

Strawmen aside, the president offers no explanation how we can still pledge “allegiance” to “self-evident” truths if we also accept his vision that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”  At the founding, individual freedom was itself an end.  Their usefulness will depend on the individual and the circumstances, and may in some cases be limited indeed.  But that was largely beside the point—the idea that government should be remade to ensure a minimum “cash value” of individual freedom is of recent vintage.  The freedoms granted by government are the ones that have cash value. 

Through the lens of History, individual freedom could and should be reprovisioned as the means of “progress.”  Progress toward what is the perennially begged question.  As Jonathan Chait attempted to explain, “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.”  “And so on…what? Where?” William Voegeli asks.  “‘And so on’ suggests continuation in a defined direction, the application of a general approach to new particulars. But there are only political particulars for Chait—generalities have no bearing on the business of governing—so there’s nothing to be said about how liberalism will move from one issue to another. The implication is that since liberalism doesn’t really have a theory, it will acquire all its meaning in practice.” 

Having reprovisioned individual freedom as a means towards that famously open-ended project of Progressivism, the president goes on to say:

But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

Again, through seemingly anodyne statements, the president announces profound changes to traditional American principles.  “Effort and determination” have never been the touchstone of “reward.”  For if “effort and determination” have become our touchstone, there is no basis for A-Rod to earn more than his average fan.  As Hayek recognized,

“Any attempt to found the case for freedom on this argument is very damaging to it, since it concedes that material rewards ought to be made to correspond to recognizable merit and then opposes the conclusion that most people will draw from this by an assertion which is untrue. The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.”  “Reward according to merit must in practice mean reward according to assessable merit, merit that other people can recognize and agree upon and not merit merely in the sight of some higher power. Assessable merit in this sense presupposes that we can ascertain that a man has done what some accepted rule of conduct demanded of him and that this has cost him some pain and effort. Whether this has been the case cannot be judged by the result: merit is not a matter of the objective outcome but of subjective effort. The attempt to achieve a valuable result may be highly meritorious but a complete failure, and full success may be entirely the result of accident and thus without merit.”  “If we know that a man has done his best, we will often wish to see him rewarded irrespective of the result; and if we know that a most valuable achievement is almost entirely due to luck or favorable circumstances, we will give little credit to the author. We may wish that we were able to draw this distinction in every instance. In fact, we can do so only rarely with any degree of assurance. It is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy and persistence, etc.” 

Either the president does not understand this, to his discredit, or he does—in which case, we should expect him to champion greater redistribution, government control over every level of the economy. 

The president’s challenges can be argued on the merits, but they represent a much different view than the “self-evident” truths underlying the American founding.  If he is to lead us toward his vision, he should have the courage to say so. 

Customer Feedback, Week 3

[Lay impressions on the week’s politics for the benefit of hypothetical GOP leaders looking to know whether and how the week’s political messaging went over. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Reactions to this week’s political messaging, particularly concerning House Republican leadership:

GOP Dysfunction and Brinksmanship

Ezra Klein wonders how much it matters.  After all, Democrats didn’t mind their party’s twisting the rules to give them health care reform they wanted.  Nor did they care when Obama took support from super-PACs.  As Rahm Emanuel said, “Voters don’t give a [blank] about that stuff.”  As long as they pass the bill, he should have clarified.  When this ugly process works, it’s called progress.  When it doesn’t, it’s just dysfunction.

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Customer Feedback, Week 2: “Where Are the Republicans?”

[Lay impressions on the week’s politics for the benefit of hypothetical GOP leaders looking to know whether and how the week’s political messaging went over. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Reactions to this week’s political messaging, and lack thereof with respect to messaging from House Republican leadership:

The Debt Ceiling “Cliff”

Last week, Byron York reported that Republicans knew they didn’t have the public with them on taxing the rich, so they tabled entitlement reforms during the debt-cliff negotiations until they’d have public support on fiscal responsibility during the debt-ceiling negotiations. 

The Republican strategy is more than just positioning. It’s the right thing to do. Everybody knows Obama’s tax increases will do little to reduce deficits in coming years; they’ll add about $60 billion in revenue a year, turning a $1.2 trillion deficit into a $1.14 trillion deficit. And everybody knows entitlement spending is on its way to eating the entire federal budget. It has to be reduced or disaster awaits.

Actually, the $62 billion in revenues reportedly are offset by $67.7 billion in tax credits for favored businesses.  There’s a difference of opinion on how quickly entitlement spending will increase, and whether and when we will enter the “red zone.”  But the basic message is unassailable:  Spending is getting away from us.  To waive it off as no biggie would require a level of faith in leftist economics that cannot fairly be presumed to enjoy consensus.  In the “back room deals,” the president reportedly became irritated with the Speaker’s insistence that we “have a very serious spending problem,” replying “I’m getting tired of hearing you say that.”  It’s still too early in the debate over austerity vs. stimulus to be tired.  (California’s experiment with raising taxes already isn’t working out as planned.)

What is needed to help bring us out of the “red zone” is to signal the markets that we will increase the debt limit, but at the same time, we have to bend the cost curve down. Social Security can be fixed, but Medicare is in serious trouble as we only pay one-third of the total benefit that we receive. The program cannot be fixed through minor adjustments. Even Paul Ryan’s plan, unpopular with the left for its strident changes to Medicare, was also unpopular with conservatives who felt that a ten-year time horizon to solvency fell short of the signal markets needed to see to restore their trust in our fiscal responsibility. (The realistic political problem here, as Hewitt points out, is Americans’ attention span:  “It just gets so doggone boring talking about Medicare all the time.")

Rep. John Campbell spent two hours on Hugh Hewitt’s show early in the week explaining in very rough terms how a debt crisis could happen.  When the tread is wearing thin—e.g., when you’re talking seriously about printing trillion dollar coins to avoid default and spending cuts and—investors tend to get nervous when they see lots of selling they don’t understand.  This could cause them to start dumping stock, which may cause another to do the same.  Computerized trading, which may pick up the trend, could add to the snowball effect, until very quickly there is a rush on the markets and the inception of a crisis.  We are in the “red zone,” Campbell says.  And to fix the problem with tax increases only would require every federal tax across the board to increase by a staggering 30%.  Tax increases aren’t going to do the trick. Not even close.

This messaging is critical in light of this observation from The Economist:

The latest twist is a poll showing that Americans also oppose allowing the government to raise its debt ceiling in order to borrow the money to pay for the goodies it has bought for them, in the absence of taxes. By deductive reasoning, we might conclude that Americans want the government to steal things from contractors and not pay for them. But the more likely conclusion, as Jonathan Bernstein argues, is that Americans don’t yet understand that "do not raise the debt ceiling" means "default on America’s debts, stop cutting Social Security and Medicare checks, don’t pay contractors for work performed, and crash the stock market". As the media explains this over the next month or two, public views on this question are likely to shift.

Harry Reid also opposed increasing the debt ceiling in 2006, in fact.  Now he’s urging the president to raise it even without Congressional approval!  So much for Republicans being uniquely guilty of partisan gamesmanship.  And it turns out that the public is in favor of lower tax rates, even for the rich, than those that existed even before the fiscal cliff deal

The iron was hot this week, GOP leaders!  Time to strike with a proposal for sensible and necessary entitlement reforms!  Public opinion on the debt ceiling is yours to lose.  Cement it with any one of a number of decent messages.  We have just until February 15 to get a deal—not a lot of time. 

But the week came and went without a peep from the House leadership. In the meantime, it is a foregone conclusion among Democrats and the media that the Republicans are anxious to drive America off another cliff.  The messaging has been less than clear.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a spotty showing on Meet the Press.  He repeatedly insisted that the president had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to the table, but he failed to address the charges that Republicans were holding the economy “ransom” in the debt ceiling negotiations.  After the interview, David Gregory pointed out that, by failing to rebut the claim, he tacitly admitted it.  Leader McConnell could have picked one of several responses that would have been better than ducking the question.  He could have taken Rep. John Campbell’s suggestion and framed the issue in terms of a big cliff versus a little cliff. Or probably even better, take Larry Arnn and Newt Gingrich’s advice and just serve your constitutional function:  Stop worrying about what the president is doing.  Let the president worry about the things he has to worry about from his perspective.  Stop worrying about what the other house is doing.  The Senate and the House each needs to worry about itself.  This is what divided government is all about: not back room secret deals that are for the removed from the people.  Pass a Republican bill and let the President and the Democrats sweat over whether they want to take the heat for a cliff for a change.  As Ramesh Ponnuru said this week, “For Democrats to say that no conditions should be attached to the [debt ceiling] bill is to attach a condition.”  Correct.  This is on the President and the Democrats as much as it is on Republicans.  And the President wanted these negotiations in the first place

Patterico is right—angry, but right:

You [Boehner] have the House. You have the spending power. Obama is blaming YOU for not exercising it wisely.

And he’s right.

So raise the debt limit. And then pass what YOU think is a defensible budget.

If the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Democrat president won’t pass it, that’s on them.

The debt ceiling is not a way to make a stand because it’s suicidal and you know it. So raise it.

And then, pass exactly what you want. If they’re going to blame you, then you vote only for a bill you feel comfortable taking FULL responsibility for.

Dammit. Take a stand for once in your life. Why are you doing this job if you’re not going to take a stand?

(Incidentally, after the debt-cliff negotiations, John Boehner said just this, that he was done with back room deals. But the message didn’t seem to carry very far.)

On Meet the Press, Carly Fiorina made a good point that, no, we don’t want to fool around with the debt ceiling, but on the other hand, if we don’t get spending in line with revenues, we may still very well face a credit downgrade. So once Republicans pass a slate of cuts that bring spending and revenues back in line, then assuming Democrats block it, they’re the ones holding our good credit “ransom” and threatening to take us over “the credit rating cliff.”

The Trillion-Dollar Coin

A cadre of lefties think it’s a plan.  Don’t let Jonathan Chait hear you call it “silly”—he’s miffed over Jon Stewart’s jokes about it, and tries to rehabilitate the coin by pointing to the example of that revered, though notoriously unserious thinker, FDR.  But even those who think it’s legal, like Josh Barro, seem to be pushing a message to the effect that “as dumb as you think this is, we’re only keeping the idea around in case Republicans are dumb or evil enough to take us over the cliff.”  Which is a cynical and bad faith message, it seems to me.  (Or it would be if the GOP put out an entitlement reform proposal already.)  If we don’t get spending and revenue in line, we’re going to have serious fiscal issues, coin or no, debt ceiling or no.  Again, that premise is debatable, but it’s got a pretty fair shot at carrying the day. 

But Kevin Drum continues to think it’s a “horrible, lawless policy”: 

Is this really the road liberals want to go down? Do we really want to be on record endorsing the idea that if a president doesn’t get his way, he should simply twist the law like a pretzel and essentially do what he wants by fiat? My recollection is that we didn’t think very highly of this kind of thing when we thought George Bush was doing it.

Tyler Cowen joins, and comments on the upshot for Republicans:

let’s say that — somehow — the whole thing miraculously worked out well from start to finish.  The testier Republicans would in fact get exactly what they want.  They would receive isolation from any negative consequences from brinksmanship, and a new narrative about how President Obama is a fascist incarnate.  Keep in mind that since the coin would bear the sparkling image of Sayyid Qutb, there are even some members of the American electorate who would find such charges plausible.

(I assume the Qutb part is in jest.)

Ezra Klein has concerns that “something will go wrong” with minting the coin.  In a column Thursday, he explains that the coin cliff might begin to signal that the U.S. is flirting with banana republic-style policies:

But there’s nothing benign about the platinum coin. It is a breakdown in the American system of governance, a symbol that we have become a banana republic. And perhaps we have. But the platinum coin is not the first cousin of cleanly raising the debt ceiling. It is the first cousin of defaulting on our debts.

As with true default, it proves to the financial markets that we no longer can be trusted to manage our economic affairs predictably and rationally. It’s evidence that American politics has transitioned from dysfunctional to broken and that all manner of once-ludicrous outcomes have muscled their way into the realm of possibility. As with default, it will mean our borrowing costs rise and financial markets gradually lose trust in our system, though perhaps not with the disruptive panic that default would bring.

Sadly, none of that actually is a reasonable argument against the platinum coin. The fact that we wish we were not a banana republic witnessing a full-blown meltdown of our treasured system of governance does not mean we are not, in fact, a banana republic witnessing a full-blown meltdown of our treasured system of governance.

The argument against minting the platinum coin simply is this: It makes it harder to solve the actual problem facing our country. That problem is not the debt ceiling, per se, though it manifests itself most dangerously through the debt ceiling. It’s a Republican Party that has grown extreme enough to persuade itself that stratagems like threatening default are reasonable. It’s that our two-party political system breaks down when one of the two parties comes unmoored. Minting the coin doesn’t so much solve that problem as surrender to it.

I don’t agree with his characterization of the GOP’s position that it’s “extreme enough” to believe that “threatening default [is] reasonable.”  As I mentioned above, there is no basis to suggest that the president and the Senate are not just as responsible.  If they reject the entitlement reforms the GOP propose (consider this your cue, House Republicans), the debt cliff is on them. 

Mickey Kaus has a good suggestion for the GOP.  They don’t want to flirt with the debt ceiling and all the political fallout that may bring.  They’d rather cut spending in less existentially-threatening circumstances, like the looming self-inflicted budget “sequester” on March 1 and the “continuing resolution” to keep the government funded later that month.  But those issues come up only after the debt ceiling has to be addressed.  So it’s a no-go, it appears, until:

Come now the Democrats with just such a solution: minting a huge-denomination dollar platinum coin, a fabulous gimmick now endorsed by Paul Krugman. Depending on value of the coin, it could postpone the ceiling deadline for months or  years. Republicans could then ask for their spending cuts against the less irresponsible backdrop of … other spending cuts, or a standard, non-cataclysmic government shutdown, without being branded “terrorists.”

If that failed there would always be a ceiling fight down the road. But there are reasons to think it might succeed–Obama has called for a “balanced” approach, meaning spending cuts and tax increases–and he’s gotten his tax rate increases. So … ?  Time to come across with the cuts, no? When Obama can’t charge “blackmail” his rhetorical advantage will almost vanish ….

Of course, if Republicans asked for a six month postponement of the ceiling, or tried to pass it, the Dems probably wouldn’t let them have it. But if they can trick the Dems into minting the coin ….

Chris Hayes points out that “Money is nothing more than a shared illusion.”  So it is.  Magic coins—not only minting them, but just talking seriously about doing so—go a long way to popping that illusion. 

What I don’t understand about the magic coin is this:  Sure, a trillion bucks would give the government more cash to spend.  But if the debt ceiling isn’t increased, it’s still statutorily prohibited from spending it, right?  The only way around that is if the trillion is counted as revenue.  Is it?  Wikipedia is stumped, too

I’ve read a lot of insistence that the sudden appearance of $1 T will have no inflationary effect.  Amazing!  Unbelievable, in fact.  Anyway, Peter Schiff has an interesting video segment on inflation and how CPI is underestimating the actual rise in prices in recent years. 

Gun Control

Obama says we need “urgent and immediate action.” But why?  To “curb” mass shootings that are already in decline? 

Piers Morgan and Ben Shapiro had it out the other night.  Shapiro takes the “doomsday provision” approach, but I don’t know if I was thrilled the way it was presented in Shaprio’s truncated, 200-words-a-minute delivery.  But he is a very sharp advocate, and I think he clearly got the better of Morgan, who wouldn’t even answer Shapiro’s question whether he advocates banning all guns—he waited until Shapiro was off-camera before admitting he does.

Sam Harris has some interesting comments on gun control—excerpts via Andrew Stuttaford.

I don’t know if I like requiring gun owners to buy insurance, but I do like to focus on individual liability.  Why isn’t the GOP coming up with ideas like this? 

The Hagel Nomination

He’s relatively tepid on Israel and wants to talk with people some Republicans don’t think we should be talking to, doesn’t take a hardline on Iran’s acquisition of nukes, and wants to cut the military budget.  Sounds like the kind of nominee Obama would pick.  I think Republicans would be much less upset if Hagel weren’t a Republican, since Obama probably thinks, probably correctly, that this will give him a lot of extra leeway.  Republicans are going to lose political points opposing him. 

The Lew Nomination

Jack Lew seems more natural to oppose—he’s a hardened partisan who can’t even get Bernie Sanders’ support.  He made $2 million during the financial crisis, including a $945,000 bonus from Citigroup after its $45 billion taxpayer bailout.  Speaker Boehner reportedly found Lew extreme, unwilling to get to yes.  The Lew nomination begins to challenge Obama’s reputation as a moderate

Democratic Populism

Rob Morse raises a point with at least a grain of truth to it

The administration wants to get rid of all of the rich people except for a few who behave badly.  The administration can use the remaining rich people as scapegoats so the poor citizens have someone to envy and the politician has someone to blame for the unbelievably large government debt.

This reminded me of a passage from Luigi Zingales’ new book, A Capitalism for the People:

In response to the uncertainty stemming from today’s populist backlash, companies have begun to demand special privileges and investment guarantees. Witness the Public-Private Investment Program announced in March 2009 by Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, in which major private investors essentially received a subsidy of $2 for every dollar they put in. Such privileges and guarantees stoke the public anger that generated the populist backlash in the first place by confirming the sense that government and large-market players are cooperating at the expense of the taxpayers and the small investors. Then, to avoid being linked in the public mind with the companies they are trying to help, politicians encourage and even take part in the populist assault. No longer certain they can count on contracts and the rule of law, legitimate investors then grow scarce. This, in turn, leaves troubled businesses little recourse but to seek government assistance, thereby reinforcing crony capitalism. I saw this happen in Italy: a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to escape.

Conservatives on Incarceration Policy

An encouraging report on the non-“extremist” wing of the GOP’s evolving views on incarceration in America

Take Newt Gingrich, who made a promise of more incarceration an item of his 1994 Contract with America. Seventeen years later, he had changed his tune. “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Gingrich wrote in 2011. “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

None of Gingrich’s rivals in the vicious Republican presidential primary exploited these statements. If anything, his position is approaching party orthodoxy. The 2012 Republican platform declares, “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.” What’s more, a rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex. They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett—even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council. Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.

Postscript: This project clearly is getting away from me.  Future installments will be far less exhaustive.

Enjoy the weekend!