Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Politics is Not Local

As we follow the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, and the special election for the 23rd congressional district in New York (NY23), the debate has overwhelmingly been about whether or not these races are wind vanes for the electoral weather to come.

So some thoughts in this vein, before the main point of this post. Obama is campaigning hard for NJ Governor Jon Corzine because he needs to show errant Democratic members of Congress that he still has coat-tails. If Corzine pulls off his re-election bid, members of Congress seeking a presidential endorsement in 2010 will at least think twice about voting against the president in 2009. If both Creigh Deeds and Corzine lose (and in the former's case, it is practically a foregone conclusion) in their respective gubernatorial races, then the rationale for party unity suffers and it is every politician for her/himself here on out. If this happens, Obama will face an even more recalcitrant Democratic aisle of Congress than he does now.

Meanwhile, with the exit of Dede Scozzafava from the race in NY23, the conservative movement looks set to shake up the Republican establishment, as Sarah Palin has promised. The soul-searching of the Republican Party continues; may the most powerful faction win.

Notice that none of these observations pay any attention to local concerns and local consequences. The significance of these races is entirely predicated on their potential impact on the balance of power in Washington, DC. When the punditry agrees without acknowledging that they do, their consensus is worth examining. There was a time when all politics was local. When the media establishments were not yet centralized in a few major outlets and the coverage of issues nationalized. A time when voters came out to vote for candidates at the local and state levels. Such races did not depend on huge television advertising budgets or endorsements by nationally elected officials, and they were not seen merely as divinizing tea leaves for the future but as important contests in their own right.

Today, voter turnout for local and state elections is paltry, and turn-out for off-year elections is abysmal. An army of national media, however, has descended in Virginia and New Jersey and even in upstate New York, to cover the races not for the benefit of local and state residents, but for the impact it will have on the balance of power in Washington. Even conservative, states-rights oriented politicoes understand that all local politics is national. (The revealing contrast is the high turnout for national elections in Europe and the low turnout for elections to the European parliament owing to the different balance of power between the center and its confederal parts in Europe.) Power resides in Washington, not in states, cities, or communities, because Washington's potential reach into every state and locality is extensive. Even those who want to invert this balance of power have been compelled to concentrate their attention and energies to the Federal City. We are all Federalists now.

Politics is no longer local because the return to turn-out is minimal at the state and local levels. In the 19th century, local party workers toiled to get the vote out because there were patronage jobs to be earned if their candidate won. Parades, torch-light processions, rallies, barbeques, banners, buttons, and insignia got people worked up and ready to go to polling booths. Contrast this level of enthusiasm for a 22 year old voter in Virginia who had voted for Obama last year. "Politics is boring," he said. "I know Obama is making changes, but it takes so long to make things happen." And that is why he is probably not going out to vote next Tuesday.

The lesson to be learnt in next week's contests is not what they will predict about the future, which will be endlessly debated even if only time will tell, but what they reveal about the transformation of American democracy, which time has already told.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sarah Palin Goes Rogue in New York

Last Thursday, former Governor of Alaska endorsed Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over Republican Party candidate, Dede Scozzafava, in New York's 23rd Congressional District's special election.

This is a pre-book launching publicity stunt, leaving no doubt that Sarah Palin is Going Rogue. She has now erased all remaining speculation that she retains personal political ambitions, at least within the Republican Party.

Ironically, it is not Barack Obama who has become a self-centered celebrity, but Sarah Palin, who is wowing the conservative crowd with her personal, anti-party appeal. Celebrities are most popular when they stand beyond and outside party - consider the sharp dip in Oprah Winfrey's popularity when she campaigned for Obama - and this is exactly what Palin has done. On Facebook, she explained her endorsement of Hoffman:

"Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of "blurring the lines" between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket."

Palin must know that her support of the Conservative candidate will split the Republican vote, and could end up giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. If she had wanted to play the endorsement game without stepping on anyone's shoes, she could have thrown in her support for the Republican candidates in the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, but she hasn't. Instead, she has become the Frankenstein maverick the McCain campaign created, biting the very hand that fed her. Here is how she concluded her Facebook note: "Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual." Palin doesn't so much stand for Doug Hoffman as she stands against "the Republican esablishment," fanning the conservative sentiment that the Republican Party performed poorly in 2008 not because it had become too conservative but because it wasn't conservative enough. She left out, in her account of Reagan, that his 11th commandment was thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. Hers is the anti-median-voter theory of elections, better read as the ideological theory of losing elections.

Palin is going to drive the legitimacy crisis of conservatism if she continues on this road. Harold Hotelling and Anthony Downs have showed us that in single-member districts moderate parties targeting median voters win elections. This is a mathematically provable proposition. That is why Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty are not yet weighing in on the New York race, because they are trying to do exactly what Sarah Palin is accusing the Republican Party of doing - blur the line between conservatism and Republicanism so that they can appeal to as many potential primary voters as possible should they choose to run in 2012. Ideologues (and celebrities) are too intoxicated by their ideas (or themselves) to care about winning elections, and Huckabee and Pawlenty want to keep that option open.

There was a time when liberals were proud to be liberals, and that spelt the beginning of liberalism's end. Pride and ideological purity drove liberalism's legitimacy crisis, as will be the case for modern conservatism's demise. Democrats, folllowing the lead of the "third-way" Bill Clinton, learned after the excesses of the War on Poverty not to stand on ideology alone - which is always extreme and uncompromising - but also on programmatic commitments that could appeal to the median voter.

Sarah Palin would not remember it, but there was a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when "conservatism" was a bad word coterminous with "stand-patting." She is in danger of recycling history, not that she cares, because she has a personal agenda, not an institutional one. She said it best herself - she is self-consciously Going Rogue. When a party allows those who do not care about winning elections to speak for its base, it courts trouble. Behind every anti-Republican establishment hurrah Palin provokes is a voter ready to Go Rogue on election day. Republicans, beware.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the Balloon Side Show, the Infotaining Media, and Representative Democracy

Last week, America came to a stand-still as we stood enraptured by television images of a runaway balloon carrying, so we thought, a six-year-old boy. Flimsy as the silver contraption appeared, we gladly suspended all disbelief that the balloon contained enough helium to be carrying a boy within so we could enjoy the side show. (Just as we did for Pixar's animated movie, "Up," which featured an old man who used balloons to move his house to a South American paradise.) So for almost two hours, most of the major news networks displaced all coverage of "hard" news to cover what Latimer County Sheriff Jim Alderman has now concluded to be a "publicity stunt." And I'm going to argue that this was not a bad thing.

As the Balloon Boy story continued to dominate the weekend news cycle, the president and his advisors continued to deliberate on whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, and Senators worked behind the scenes to reconcile two different bills on healthcare. So let it be said that our "watchdog" media will switch its attention as soon as it is thrown an infotaining bone. But this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we are clear-eyed about the media's priorities. Instead, I think there is something strangely comforting that we allow ourselves such trivial pleasures. If we do not need an ever-vigilant watchdog, it is because we believe - by revealed preference - that government will mind government's business, and we can tend to our own. Better no coverage of "hard" news than bad coverage, I say.

And this is exactly what the media did at least momentarily last week even as the President and Congress debated world and country-changing policies. Instead of another round of predictable punditry, or fact-checking of the CBO's estimates of heath-care reform, we were fed images of a helium-filled balloon shaped like a UFO traversing the Colorado landscape. As we are with car chases, we, and therefore the media, were drawn to the balloon chase like flies are drawn to a light. We weren't so much interested in the outcome - indeed knowledge of the outcome would have waken us up from our trance - as we were in the process, which was visually enrapturing.

For over a year we have watched a presidential campaign turn into a permanent campaign, and the American public is fatigued. We see this in Barack Obama's dwindling approval numbers; and we also see it in our captivation by a drifting balloon. We are tired, and we are withdrawing from the public poltical sphere. The infotaining media detected this, and gave us a welcome reprief.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Ours is a representative, and not a direct democracy. We vote and delegate; they, the elected officials, decide. The constitutional calendar is very clear that the people speak only every 2, 4, and 6 years. As far as the US constitution is concerned, our voices do not matter when we speak at any other time at the federal level. (Though our voices do matter at the state level where such devices as recall and refederanda are sanctioned by state constitutions.) If we didn't believe this, than we have to deal with the conundrum that if last year's elections were held in the second week of September, John McCain would have won. Clearly then, what you and I believed on November 4, 2008 matters much more than what you and I believe in October, 2009 (or September, 2008). Opinion polls may capture majority or minority sentiment at any moment in time, but these sentiments (should) have no import on constitutionally sanctioned officers exercising their delegated powers.

The deliberation of troop increases and health-care reform involve complex proceedings in closed-door war room meetings and conference committees reconciling details many Americans know and care little about. Such decisions make bad television, so maybe we shouldn't try to force a message into an unreceptive genre lest we alter the message. Maybe those we put in charge should simply be let alone to do their job, for our constitution envisioned and sanctioned a low-effort, Rip Van Winkle approach to citizen participation. Sometimes we care a lot and we participate, but other times we tune out; and perhaps that is just as it should be. Last week, as we sat enraptured by the alleged antics of Balloon Boy, we embraced the implicit satisfactions of a representative democracy.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Paradox of Love: Why Some Campaign Promises Matter more than Others

There is a growing consensus that President Barack Obama needs something to show for two years of campaigning as candidate and nine months of talk as president. But in a speech at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) this weekend, he felt no need to defer to this consensus and offered no more than a rehash of his campaign promises in 2008. It is probably true that Obama has bigger problems to deal with than ending DOMA, but there is a more interesting explanation for his foot-dragging.

Obama does not need to court the LGBT community because, as a member of the audience exclaimed even before Obama began reciting his prepared remarks, "We love you, Barack!" Because love is forgiving, and it is blind, political love is often taken for granted. And Obama knows that he can play the prodigal son for as long as he needs, as long as he comes home on the eve of his re-election campaign, when he will be welcomed with a robe and a ring, and feted with a fatted calf and HRC shall chat, "he was lost, and is found." Thus, even though the president remained committed to the HRC's agenda, he made no effort to demonstrate that its agenda is high on his list of priorities. "My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians," he tepidly assured 3,000 guests at the black-tie event. The prodigal son need not tell Dad when he'll come home.

HRC cannot issue a credible threat that the LGBT community will throw their support behind a Republican candidate in 2012. Perhaps the bigger problem is that it does not even want to. In an email sent out to supporters of the HRC, Joe Solomonese gushed, "It was an historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the President of the United States. It's simply unprecedented." And so, like labor, African Americans, and environmentalists to the Democratic Party, the HRC is less powerful as a lobbying group than it could be because it has been too quick to profess its love and too loyal to consider a break-up. Liberals ask why the President seems bent on courting Republicans for their support on a health-care bill without realizing that the answer is staring at them right in their face: the President realizes that he does not need to court those who have already swooned.

This is the paradox of democratic politics. The undecided decide elections, and the loving are unbeloved. The more astute leaders of lobbying groups, like the AARP and the Independent Women's Forum, understand the value of (at least professed) independence. Even the National Rifle Association devotes a fifth of its campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. Size and efficiency of organization matters, but so is the ability to switch sides.

We extol the importance of debate and diversity of opinions between different demographic and issue groups in America, but we have scarcely understood the value of dissension within them. Michael Steele is a sell-out, and so are the Log Cabin Republicans, I hear liberals say; so too is Arlen Specter and Andrew Sullivan, conservatives opine. But in politics, unconditional love begets unrequited love, and groups seeking political influence in Washington should learn to play hard to get.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

A Defense of Armchair Generals


Pictured: The chair George Washington used at the Philadelphia Convention to which Ben Franklin observed as the delegates were appending their signatures to the Constitution: "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."


Sarah Palin is not the only person going rogue these days. In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last Thursday, General Stanley McChrystal advocated for an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan by 40,000, while rumors that the General would resign his command if his request was not honored remain unquashed. A week before, McChrystal appeared on CBS's "60 minutes" to spread the word that help is needed in Afghanistan. And before that, he, or one of the supporters of his proposal, leaked a confidential report of his petition to the president to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, which published a redacted version of it. These are the political maneuverings of a General who understands that wars abroad must also be waged at home.

But, the General fails to understand that the political war at home is not his to fight, and his actions in recent weeks have been out of line. No new command has been issued yet about Afghanistan, but General McChrystal has taken it upon himself to let the British and American public know how he would prefer to be commanded. As it is a slippery and inperceptible slope from preemptive defiance to actual insubordination, as President Harry Truman quickly came to realize about General Douglas MacArthur, President Obama needs to assert and restore the chain of command swiftly and categorically.

As Commander of Special Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2008, McCrystal was given free reign to bypass the chain of command. This leeway allowed McCrystal's team to capture, most illustriously, Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war. But it may have gotten into his head that the discretion Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney granted to him has carried over to his command in Afghanistan. No doubt, McCrystal has been emboldened by supporters of a troop increase in Afghanistan, who have recently chastized President Obama for not having had more meetings with McChrystal. Others, like Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) have on CNN accused the "people in the White House ... (as) armchair generals."

Those who assault the principle of civilian control of the military typically and disingenously do so obliquely under the cover of generals and the flag, for they dare not confront the fact that the constitution unapologetically anoints an armchair general to lead the military. It is worth noting, further, that in the same sentence in which the President is designated "Commander-in-Chief," the Constitution states, "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments." The President may require the opinion of any cabinet secretary should he choose to do so, but he isn't even constitutionally obligated to seek the opinion of the Secretary of Defense, to whom General McChrystal's superior, General David Petraeus, reports via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General McChrystal has spoken out of turn even though his chain of command goes up quite a few more rings before it culminates in the person seated on an armchair in the Oval Office, and yet I doubt he would take kindly to a one-star general speechifying against his proposal for troop increases in Afghanistan.

Dwight Eisenhower, when he occupied the armchair in the Oval Office, wisely warned of the "Military Industrial Complex" because he understood that it was as much an organized interest as was the Liberal Welfare State, Wall Street, or what would become the Healthcare Industrial Complex. No "commander on the ground" will come to the President of the United States and not ask for more manpower and resources, and Eisenhower understood that the job of the armchair general was to keep that in mind.

Let us not rally around military generals and fail to rally around the Constitution. Inspiring as the Star Spangled Banner may appear flying over Fort McHenry, we will do better to stand firm on the principles etched on an older piece of parchment. As Truman wrote in his statement firing General Douglas MacArthur,

"Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution."

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