Sunday, March 7, 2010

An American Aristocracy

Decades ago, Louis Hartz wrote an opus on American exceptionalism - the idea that America is special because we were never marred by the disease of federalism that had plagued Europe - and without a confining social order, individualism and the American dream was born.

Watching the Oscars tonight, I wonder if we have an aristocracy that is even more powerful than all the peers of the realms that Europe ever had. Our aristocracy is not only insanely wealthy unlike the declining nobility in Europe (or the old money in our east coast), they also set the standards of beauty, morality, and even politics. When I watched the movie industry celebrate its own achievements, I was reminded that for all the human warmth and joviality of the event, the glitz and the glamour are the same escape we seek in our modern aristocracy as we found in the old.

Celebrities are not normal human beings. They are stars. Bright, shining gems far far away even though each perfomance they make seem to bring them closer and deeper into our own hearts. There were a lot of emotions shared last night, but I'm not sure that universal tears aside, an average American understands what it is like to receive or not receive an accolade to which they are not even remotely eligible and probably will never be.

They say a civilization can be judged by how it treats its dispossessed. But in a country such as ours where everyone is apparently middle-class, we are better judged by the cultural elite we have created. Our aristocracy serve the people like those in the Old World. Like the old aristocracy, they have taken upon themselves the noblesse oblige to dedicate themselves to the people. They have a duty to entertain, and it is their privilege to be loved in return. So our stars burn bright for as long as they are beloved by the people. Our aristocracy is not hereditary but quite temporary.

This is why is unclear whether Sarah Palin bestowed on Barack Obama an accolade when she called him a "celebrity" in 2008. Perhaps when now his star is no longer burning so bright, he will stop being an entertainer and become a President. Or perhaps, as the new electoral college, the media establishment will today insist, he must embrace his cultural milieu like the Gipper and Slick Willy, and give us a show.

Hartz was wrong. We did not inherit a European feudalism, but made an American one.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Health-care Reform is Making a Comeback

After attempting a pivot to jobs, the Obama administation has realized that a hanging cadence on health-care will not do. Perhaps they should never have started it, but closure is what the administration now must have. An encore after the strident audacity of hope on health-care reform was temporarily dashed after the election of Scott Brown to the Senate.

In the immediate aftermath of that election, Democrats were in danger of exchanging over-confidence for excessive humility. After Obama's historic election the year before and Arlen Specter's party switch, Democrats were overtaken by hubris that Obama's tune of change could be used to overturn Washington and to compel it toward a Progresive utopia. But just as Democrats were foolhardy to think that 60 votes in the Senate gave them invincible power, they somehow thought after the Massachussetts Senate election that 59 made them completely impotent. In the media, we hear, conversely, about the conservative comeback in hyperbolic terms. On Saturday, Glenn Beck, not Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney, delivered the keynote speech in the largest annual conservative gathering, the CPAC conference. If Beck's stardom exceeds that of the winner of the CPAC straw poll this year, Ron Paul, it is because the conservative movement, charged as it is, remains a movement in search of a leader. It is also a movement, as Beck's criticism of Progressive Republicans in his speech reveals, which is not exactly in sync with the Republican party - the only machine capable of taking down liberal dreams.

And so a Democratic comeback on health-care reform is afoot. With one vote shy of a fillibuster-proof majority, Senator Harry Reid has opened the door to the Budget Reconciliaton process that more Progressive advocates of health-care reform like Governor Howard Dean have been pushing for a while. While it is not clear that there are 50 votes in the Senate for the public option, assuming that Vice-President Biden will cast the 51st, what is clear is that Democrats are much more likely to push through a liberal bill with the veto pivot sliding to the left by ten Senators.

In the White House too, we see a coordinated move to bring Reconciliation back as an option. Obama used his weekly address on Saturday to lay the ground work when he warned that "in time, we’ll see these skyrocketing health care costs become the single largest driver of our federal deficits." He said this because in order to use Reconciliation, Democrats must show a relationship between health-care reform and balancing the federal budget.

No one in Washington believes that Thursday's Health-care Summit will magically generate a consensus when in the past year there has been nothing but partisan bickering. If so, the President is not being naive, but signalling in his Sunday weekly address that he has made a final, good-faith effort to extend an olive branch and that henceforth, he would be forced to go nuclear. "After debating this issue exhaustively for a year, let’s move forward together. Next week is our chance to finally reform our health insurance system so it works for families and small businesses," the President said. He might just as well have said that next week is our final chance to move forward on a bipartisan basis.

Health-care reform has certainly become Obama's Iraq. The question now is whether the surge which will begin in earnest next week will work.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Bad News for Dems in 2010 could be Good News for the President

On this Presidents Day, it would appear that everyone but the President's rivals for public affection are doing well in the polls.

Hillary Clinton has shed the image that she is a soft liberal and she is well poised to say, "I told you so," about her erstwhile charge that Barack Obama lacks experience and fortitude. Even Dick Cheney is doing well, with the public behind him and against civilian trials for terrorist suspects. And we just found out that Evan Bayh is bowing out, probably to escape the anti-incumbency wave on the horizon even though recent polls put him 20 points ahead of his competitors. Given that Bayh left his party less than a week to scramble to collect 4,500 signatures for a viable candidate for his Senate seat, he appears to be setting himself up for a future run as a centrist Democrat who stands up to party apparatchiks. (And here's another clue: "I am an executive at heart," Bayh told reporters on Monday.)

The only people doing worse than Obama are Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic Congress as a whole. As Evan Bayh put it, "I do not love Congress." The atmosphere now in Washington is toxic and the poison is leaking down Pennsylvania Avenue and inundating the White House. That is why I am wondering if White House strategists are secretly hoping to lose Democratic control of Congress this year.

The conventional wisdom is that whatever the President proposes, Congress delivers. But not only has this not happened, the failure of Congress to act collectively to pass legislation (especially on healthcare reform) has tarnished the name of the Democratic Party of which the President is titular head. As a result of the seeming asset of unified Democratic control of all branches of government, Barack Obama could not do what Reagan did when he too suffered from bad poll numbers in his first years in office as a result of recession - blame the other branch. The American people love to hate Congress, and unified Democratic control of all the elected federal branches has merely reinforced Americans' instinctive fear of consolidated power as the Tea Party Movement most viscerally represents. The American Presidency thrives on blame avoidance and freedom from party ties, not single-party government.

Because Washington moves so slowly no matter who is in power and when it does it invariably creates a program so sullied with pork-barrel compromises, it is often better to be able to blame someone else for failing to deliver than to have delivered anything at all. Lyndon Johnson doesn't get high marks from historians for creating Medicare. And FDR's fame did not come from the Social Security Act. If we do not judge presidential success by legislative achievements, then presidents are better off when they act unilaterally against a recalcitrant Congress. Better still if this Congress is controlled by another party because presidential unilateralism can be executed without dilemma. Barack Obama would then be free to descend from the law professor's lectern, as Sarah Palin put it, and move, as Publius recommended, with "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch."

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Republicans were Offended by Reid's Comments on Race

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has received a firestorm of crticism, mostly from Republicans, about his comments back in 2008 that Barack Obama's race was more likely to help than hurt his electoral chances because he was "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Many African Americans were rather baffled about the Republicans' uncharacteristic insistence on political correctness. As Ward Connerly writes, "For my part, I am having a difficult time determining what it was that Mr. Reid said that was so offensive." Or take it from Eugene Robinson, who wrote that Reid's comments were "crudely put, yet true." For many African Americans, as it was for Barack Obama, Reid's error was one of using "inartful" words, not of registering a falsehood or a racist belief.

So why are Michael Steele and John Cornyn so offended? My hunch is that for all the media coverage and hoopla, we are, as usual, avoiding the real topic. Republicans aren't really mad that there is (or is not) a double standard for when a Democrat or a Republican makes a racial statement. Their concern is that Reid's comments were really a back-handed criticism of white Americans, who he believed were more comfortable with electing a "light-skinned" African American than a "darker" one. Reid's comments were racist in the opposite sense (and hence resented by Republicans) - he charged some of his own race of an inability to vote for someone who looked and talked too differently from themselves.

"Light-skinned" African Americans tend to have it easier in public life. Yawn. But the logical entailment of this proposition is harder to swallow: it is only because some white Americans are still racist that "light-skinned" African Americans do better than their "darker" brethren. Put this way: firestorm. No one likes to be called a racist, and that's why this controversy has raged on even though President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have readily accepted Reid's apology. Perhaps it is not principally to them that an apology is expected or demanded.

And so what was Reid's mistake? It was that in a private moment he thought would remain off-the-record, he forgot that at all times the politician's job was to flatter the people, and never to accuse them.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Howard Dean: It is 2009, not 1965

The year is 1964, the high watermark of Liberalism. Lyndon Johnson takes 61.1 percent of the popular vote in his election contest against Barry Goldwater, an electoral feat that was bigger than Franklin Roosevelt's 60.8 percent in 1936 and one that has not been surpassed in the years since. The Democratic tsunami sweeps down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where Democrats would out-number Republicans two to one in the 89th Congress, and in the Senate they take 68 seats - the biggest supermajority held by any party to this day. The era of Liberalism had entered its Golden Age.

Unified by the inspiring memory of John Kennedy, Democrats were able to enact health-care legislation that even Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern Liberalism did not have the stomach to attempt as part of his New Deal. It would be Lyndon Johnson, not Harry Truman, not FDR, and not his counsin, Theodore Roosevelt (running as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912) who would enact the single biggest health-care legislation in US history, offering single-payer, comprehensive health-care benefits to seniors over the age of 65 (Medicare) and an option for states to finance the health-care of the indigent (Medicaid) in the Social Security Act of 1965.

We remember the New Deal, and perhaps the Fair Deal, but it is the Great Society that is the apotheosis of 20th century Liberalism. And if 1965 is Liberalism’s high water-mark, then those who would stymie health-care reform today because of the lack of a robust (or indeed, any) public option have gravely gotten their decades mixed up.

There was a time when Liberals did not have to call themselves “Progressives.” That was four decades ago, when Lyndon Johnson attacked Barry Goldwater for wanting to roll back social security and openly campaigned for a further expansion of the welfare state. Times have changed. Today’s Progressives must cagily wrap their Liberal agenda with talk of choice, competition, and bending cost curves. And if the era of Liberalism as FDR, Truman, and Johnson knew it is over, The Age of Reagan lingers on in the Tea Party Movement. Despite his aspiration to build an even Greater Society than Johnson, Barack Obama’s electoral mandate is 18 percent short of what Johnson possessed in 1965; the Democratic majority is the House is much smaller; and, despite the new cloture rules post-1975 in the Senate which has reduced the fraction of votes needed to end debate from 2/3 to 3/5, Joe Lieberman et al remind us every day that the Senate is anything but filibuster-proof.

To Governor Dean and his compatriots, it is 2009, not 1965.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

On The Disrupted Sequence of Health-Care Reform

Democrats must be thinking: what happened to the halcyon days of 2008? It is almost difficult to believe that after the string of Democratic electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, the vast momentum for progressive "change" has fizzled out to a mere five vote margin over one of the most major campaign issues of 2008, a health-care bill passed in the House this weekend. If you raise hopes, you get votes; but if you dash hopes you lose votes. That's the karma of elections, and we saw it move last Tuesday.

Democratic Party leaders scrambled, in response, to keep the momentum of "Yes, we can" going, by passing a health-care reform bill in the House this weekend. But despite claims of victory, Democratic party leaders probably wished that their first victory on the health-care reform road came from the Senate and not from the House. President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have always hoped to let the Senate pass its health-care reform bill first, initiating a bandwagon effect so that passage in the House would follow quickly and more easily, and a final bill could be delivered to the president's desk.

Instead, the order of bill passage has been reversed, making a final bill less likely than if things had gone according to plan. If even the House, which is not subject to supermajority decision-making rules, barely squeaked by with a 220-215 vote, then it has now set the upper limit of what health-care reform will ultimately look like. Potentially dissenting Democratic Senators see this, and there might now be a reverse band-wagoning effect. Already, we are hearing talk from the Senate about the timeline for a final bill possibly being pushed past Christmas into 2010. This is just what Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were hoping against, by pushing the Senate to pass a bill first. Unfortunately for them, the Senate took so long that to keep the momentum going (and amidst the electoral losses in NJ and VA last week), they felt compelled to pass something in the House to signal a token show of progress.

But the danger is that the move to regain control may initiate a further loss of control. The less than plenary "victory" in the House bill has only made it clearer than ever that if a final bill is to find its way to the President's desk, it will have to be relieved of its more ambitiously liberal bells and whistles. Even though the House Bill, estimated at a trillion dollars, is more expensive than the Senate version being considered, and it has added controversial tax provisions for wealthier Americans earning more than $500,000, what the House passed was already a compromise to Blue Dogs. On Friday night, a block of Democratic members of Congress threatened to withhold their support unless House leaders agreed to take up an amendment preventing anyone who gets a government tax credit to buy insurance from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion. If even the House had to cave in some, there will have to be many more compromises to be made in the Senate, especially on the "public option."

Sequencing matters in drama as it does in politics. It is at the heart of the Obama narrative, the soul and animating force behind the (now unravelling) Democratic majority in 2009. "Yes, we can" generates and benefits from a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect that begins with a whisper of audacious hope. From the State House of Illinois to the US Senate, from Iowa to Virginia - the story of Barack Obama is a narrative of crescendo. "They said this day would never come" is a story of improbable beginnings and spectacular conclusions. The structural underpinnings of the Obama narrative are now straining under the pressure of events. To regain control of events, the President must first regain control of his story.

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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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Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Case for Bravado: A Critique of Obama's Performance at the UN

Since the 1960s, liberals have lost the American peoples' faith in their capacity to wage successful foreign policy. Look at John Kerry - who had his patriotism successfully challenged in 2004 by a man who didn't even serve in the military. Kerry lost that battle because he did not deign to fight it, and Barack Obama is in danger of repeating this mistake.

The Democratic party before Vietnam was very different from the Democratic party of 2009. The party of Roosevelt, of Truman, of Kennedy, and Johnson was the party of an aggressive anti-communism. There were isolationists in the party as well, but no more than there were Old Guard conservative isolationists in the Republican party.

The Democrats lost their appetite for war after Vietnam, and by doing so, they created neo-conservatism, whose ranks were filled by old liberals who voted for Franklin Roosevelt, as Ronald Reagan did, but who refused to stay with a party that they believed had turned pacifist. And so it has become a post-1960s electoral rule in American politics that Democrats are strong(er) on domestic policy issues, and Republicans are strong(er) on foreign policy. Put another way, the median American voter stands to the Left of the Republican party on domestic issues, and to the Right of the Democratic party on foreign policy. Durable governing coalitions in our time are determined by the ability of either party to break this stereotype.

Enter President Barack Obama, who clearly has an ambitious agenda to remake the Democratic party and to build a durable governing coalition for years to come. But last week, he went to the UN and reinscribed every conservative and Republican stereotype of the weak and morally relativistic liberal Democratic stance on foreign policy.

Obama must really believe that what he is doing is morally right, and the best way forward for both America and the world (and UN), because he has gained no politial points by speaking with a soft voice to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. If Obama was not even trying to break the old stereotype that liberals are weak on rogue nations, then at best to his moral credit but not to his political credit, he was a principled ideologue at the UN last week.

Contrast this to President George W. Bush, who aggressively tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to break the stereotype that conservatives are uncompassionate and weak on domestic issues. He made a serious effort to take on social security reform, and he even managed to declare that no child should be left behind and signed into law a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Karl Rove had dutifully informed his boss that to build a winning coalition, the Republican party could not afford to accept extant partisan stereotypes and concede the argument that the Republican party can only be strong on guns but weak on butter. So the Bush administration aggressively took on signature Democratic terrain to try to break the Democratic monopoly over them. Bush failed, but not for lack of trying!

But Barack Obama doesn't seem to be doing anything to break the stereotype that liberals love butter but hate guns. He has been quite happy to work on churning out more butter (in the form of economic stimulus bills and health-care coverage), but he has also been reinforcing the stereotype that liberals just don't get it in terms of foreign policy.

Obama doesn't even need to carry a big stick, but to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, he could gain so many political points simply by speaking in a louder voice against the likes of Ahmadinejad, Qaddafi, and Hugo Chávez. Granted that he is mired in an impossible situation of considering troop increases in Afghanistan - either way he goes someone will be unhappy - but he would have only gained and lost little had he simply adopted a harsher tone towards the universally disdained pariahs of the world. Indeed, a louder voice against Ahmadinejad would have given him at least temporary cover for using a softer stick in terms of (desisting the request for)possible troop increases in Afghanistan.

Liberals should try exhibiting some chest-thumping bravado sometimes. If John Kerry had deigned to wear his patriotism (or, for that matter, his religion) on his sleeve, he may have had a stint in the White House. If partisan stereotypes are merely symbolic realities, then they can be subverted, at a relatively low cost, by symbolic acts.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Speeches are about Strategy, not Poetry: Obama's Prime-time Challenge on Wednesday

President Obama is finally attempting to take charge of the health-care reform debate with an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

It comes down to this. If he does not pass a health-care bill – whatever its provisions may look like – he will indeed face his political Waterloo, because health-care reform has become the defining issue of his 2008 campaign on which the president has staked all his remaining electoral mandate. That this is open knowledge to every member of congress does not bode well for the president, because just about the worst bargaining position one can have is the one in which everyone knows that the bargainer not only cannot have what he wants, but must make compromises to get even some of what he wants. Because everyone knows this, everyone to the left and right of Obama will make their demands, and his only hope of coming out unscathed is if one or the other side is willing to shift their bottom line (on what Democrats call the “public option” and what Republicans call “government-run insurance”.

The bargaining game ahead of the president is enormously complex, but there are few ground rules that he could follow to maximize his returns. First, he must absolutely decide in his mind if he wants a bipartisan bill or not, and there are many Democrats who don't, and will be quite happy to go the Reconciliation route, which is certainly a distinct possibility to be considered when all fails. I will assume that Obama must at least present the public facade of wanting a bipartisan bill, at least until October 15.

Second, he must pull all sides away from the fault-line of the debate - whether or not to have a "public option" - because health-care reform is rather more than just about "government-run insurance." The president must find a way for us to see the bigger picture, if only so that we do not continue our microscopic attention to our differences.

Third, Obama needs to create face-saving conditions and incentives for one or more dissident factions in the health-care debate to capitulate. It seems to me his best bet is to try to change the minds of members of his own party, in part because the president seems doggedly committed to at least a semblance of bipartisanship. (Again, he need not, but he wants to.) An electoral mandate (or whatever that is left of it) is nothing without the coat-tails effect of the president, and on this the president can try to call in a few favors in return for future ones. As I think it has become very clear during the August congressional recess, capitulation from the Republicans seems all but unlikely now. If anything, Republican members of congress have become emboldened by the president’s falling approval ratings.

Senator Olympia Snowe's idea that a public option would only be "triggered" if certain conditions are set is one such face-saving possibility for the president to try to woo the more liberal members of his party, as is the idea of a "co-op." In privileging the status quo, the conditional triggering option concedes that median congressional position on the debate has shifted to the right of where the president initially stood. But by specifying what the triggering conditions are, liberal democratic members of congress can tell their constituents (like the AFL-CIO) that they are still achieving their initial goals but with different means. If the president can just shift the debate to what these "triggering" conditions should be - and the devil will be in the details - he would have earned a significant victory. Such a compromise will not unite the country, but it could make us less divided, ironically, because no one is getting what they want.

It is too late now for the president to tell us what he wants on Wednesday, not only because he won’t get it, but also because he has allowed the debate to fester and the battle lines are now drawn. His job on Wednesday is to muddy the battle lines again, to make a global argument for health-care reform. Why we need it, not why we cannot afford not to have it. And as he is already starting to do, Obama should try to convince all negotiating parties that there should be no bottom lines, no veto points, no categorical demands. The erstwhile professor of constitutional law will have the unenviable task of bringing together what the constitution pulls asunder. Not the Great Communicator, but the Great Umpire he must be.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Justice and Politics Part Company

Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to conduct investigations on the CIA presents a serious dilemma for the Obama White House, which was at pains to point out that Holder's decision was independently made. I think the White House is being honest here, because these investigations will only be a distraction from health-care reform. The bigger problem thrown into sharp relief here, however, is that democracies' commitments to justice and the politics ncessary to deliver electoral and governing solutions do not always sit happily together.

The pursuit of justice (which is state-sanctioned retribution) is inherently a backward looking process. It most look to the past in order to establish that a wrong was committed. And to put things bluntly, even when properly meted out, justice often offers only cold comfort to whom injury was inflicted. Epecially in politics, such returns are slow in the coming, if they come at all.

If the pursuit of justice pulls us back in time, the conduct of politics pulls us into the future. Power today is a derivative of the anticipated store of power tomorrow, which is itself a function of whether today's promises are fulfilled tomorrow. Politicians (in active service) don't have time for the past, for they must protect their future. President Obama is looking ahead to the health-care battles to come in the Fall, and he does not want (nor does he need) to be pulled back to rehash a contest with the last administration in which voters already declared him a winner in 2008. Justice and Politics do not go well in this moment, and Obama knows full well that he has more to lose than he has to gain in Holder's investigation. To stay in office, he must offer a politics of solutions, and not the politics of redemption that his liberal base wants.

Strangely enough, Dick Cheney is on the side of liberal Democrats on this one, at least in the sense that he understands that democractic countries are bad war-makers. The difference of course, is that Cheney believes that war is OK, but democratic ends must be met with undemocratic means (while some liberals believe that war - the sport of kings, not democracies - is not OK). In Cheney's own words on Meet the Press in 2001: "We have to work the dark side, if you will. Spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world." Cheney's thorough-going ends-justifies-means philosophy is revealed in his interview with Chris Wallace. "They looked at this question of whether or not somebody had an electric drill in an interrogation session — it was never used on the individual," Cheney said of the inspector general's report. "Or that they had brought in a weapon — never used on the individual." This cavalier attitude towards undemocratic means stems largely from a very sharp line differentiating "us" and "them" in the neoconservative world-view, a line that takes off from a commitment to protecting the demos in a democracy and a characterization of all others as outsiders to our social contract. This line is inperceptible to the liberal eye fixated on universal justice, which presumes the basic humanity of even a terrorist suspect.

Democrats really want to go for Cheney, but they will have to settle for the CIA; Cheney wants to protect his legacy, but he will have to settle for a proxy war. The politicization of justice and the justiciation of politics are reifiying the turf battles between CIA and FBI, the very cause of the intelligence failures that led to September 11 in the first place. The mere fact that we are airing our dirty laundry in public is already having a "chilling" effect on CIA agents and both Cheney and Holder are complicit in this. Justice and Politics are friends to democracy individually, but we are better off without one of them in this case.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Why the President Needs to Re-frame Health-care Reform: What's in it for us?

The only times when words don’t matter is when events speak for themselves, especially in rare crisis moments. In such moments we are not. As a result, many Americans, who already have health insurance, feel no especial need to take a shot in the dark with President Obama on health-care reform. That is why the correct framing of the health-care reform issue is critical. By “framing,” I mean the rhetorical strategy of setting an argument out in a specific way that predisposes a listener to a preferred conclusion.

But on this crucial pre-battle of words, the Obama administration has failed. The president has told 80 percent of Americans that "if you are happy with your present insurance, nothing will change." This is a fatal error. Not only is his message lacking even the slightest hint of a call to collective social responsibility that may help influence Democrats and foot-dragging Blue Dogs, there isn’t even a concomitant sell to unconvinced Republicans about what could be in it for them. The latter error is more egregious than the former, because most citizens are not crusading social workers but consumers of public policy.

The president made a mistake by starting the debate on the defensive. Instead of making a positive case for health-care, he has focused too much on the need to keep the costs of health-care reform down. Accepting and perpetuating the metaphor of the imperative to "bend the cost curve" of federal outlays was foolish, because it accepts the metaphorical entailment that if the trajectory is untouched, the costs of a public option will automatically go up. This leaves unsaid that the costs for health-care without reform is also on an exponentially upward trend. Where is the talk of "bending the cost curve" on the consumer’s end? A public policy cannot be sold by a promise of what it will not be (expensive), but what it will be. For the grand majority of Americans who are privileged to be in possession of health-insurance, they need to know why the president wants to rock the boat. And we are only willing to share our privileges (to the involuntarily uninsured) only if those of us who are already privileged get yet some more (in terms of more affordable, quality health care.) The only way to get over an atavistic distrust of the state is to speak in the currency of consumerism - what's in it for us?

Without a positive case for health-care reform, there has only been confusion out there about what the final health-care bill will look like. Compounded by the fact that there is still no White House plan – Obama is still waiting for Congress to hammer details out - uncertainty and poor framing have engendered the fertile soil on which doubt can and has been planted. In an informational vacuum, stories about death panels and health-care for illegal immigrants have taken hold.

No one but Obama can frame the issue right for him. Not even the “liberal” media can help him this time. Consider the fact that even outlets like MSNBC have been constantly featuring incensed questioners in Town Hall meetings around the nation, albeit with disapproving commentary. The coverage is only reinforcing the growing belief that public indignation around the nation is not contrived or orchestrated but real and widespread. There is no liberal media working in Obama’s favor this time, because the media has a different story-telling agenda than the policy-selling one that the president has. Barack Obama can take that bull-horn and reframe the health-care reform debate, or he can keep playing catch-up to a debate that has already spiraled out of control.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

How Barack Obama can Pacify the Ghosts of Anti-Federalism to Advance the Health-care Debate

As America goes into intensive partisan-battling mode this summer over health-care reform, it may be helpful for President Barack Obama and his advisors to sit back and understand the basis of the rage against their plan. An understanding of the resurrected ghosts of Anti-Federalism in today’s conservative movement may offer him some strategies for bringing the Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats back to the discussion table.

The rage that is out there among conservatives may seem excessive and irrational to liberals, but it is based on an ancient American quarrel. The differences between the "Birthers" and angry town-hallers and Obama precede the Democratic and Republican parties; they precede the Progressive, the Whig, and the Jeffersonian-Republican Party. They were there from the beginning. For the biggest fault-line in American politics was also the first political debate Americans ever had between themselves. It was the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists about the need for a consolidated federal government with expanded responsibilities.

In 1787 and 1788, Anti-Federalists hurled charges of despotism and tyranny against those who proposed the need for a stronger federal government with expanded responsibilities than was envisioned in the Articles of Confederation. Today, the analogous charges against the neo-Federalist Obama are of fascism and socialism. As Federalists reviled the Anti-federalists for their shameless populism, Obama has likened the angry protests staged by his health-care opponents as mob-like thuggery. Conservatives, in turn, have recoiled at liberal condescension; just as Anti-Federalists fulminated against the Federalist aristocracy.

The Anti-Federalists envisioned a small republic because they could not conceive of their representatives - sent far away into a distant capital and surrounded by the temptations of a metropole - would ably be able to represent their communities. The fear of the beltway and of faceless, remorseless bureaucrats directing the lives and livelihood of honest workers and farmers struck fear into the heart of every true republican (lowercase is advised), as it does the modern conservative. Death-panels weren't the first Anti-Federalist conspiracy theory.

Today's "birthers" and "enemies list" conspiracy theories are not new stories in themselves other than the fact that they reveal the visceral distrust conservatives have of Barack Obama, just as many Anti-Federalists turned (Jeffersonian) Republicans accused Alexander Hamilton of illicit connections with the mother country, England. Today's "Tea Parties" are but the modern conservative articulation that they are, like the Anti-Federalists were, the true bearers of the "spirit of '76.'"

As Cecilia Kenyon observed decades ago, the Anti-Federalists were "men of little faith." This characterization is both accurate and one-sided at the same time, so it is no surprise that contemporary Democrats have taken the same line of attack, calling Republicans the "party of 'No.'" The Anti-Federalists, like today's conservatives, cannot bring themselves to trust the federal government or Barack Obama. Conservatives are using "scare tactics" because they are scared.

But their fears are not entirely unfounded and certainly not illegitimate, because a measure of distrust of government is the first defense against tyranny and the first implement of liberty. Liberals who have been so quick to trust the federal government should not only have a look at Medicare and Social Security, but acknowledge the mere fact that with one half of the country unconvinced (legitimately or not), the country's faith in its government has been and will almost always be a house divided. This is a given fact of a federal republic; it is the blessed curse that is America. That is why in all areas in which there is concurrent federal and state responsibility - such as in education and immigration policy - lines of authority and execution are invariably confused and American lags behind almost every other industrialized country. In areas in which federal prerogative is clear and settled - that is to say in areas in which the federal government acts like any other non-federal, centralized government in the world - such as in foreign policy, the president can typically act very quickly (if not too quickly).

The conservative grassroots movement (staged or not) is a real threat to Obama's health-care plan. But if the movement doth protest too much, it should ironically also be a source of comfort to the president. That there is so much anxiety and push back suggests that conservatives feel genuinely threatened. With Democratic control of all branches of government (and the open possibility of passing the health-care bill via the reconciliation process which will only need a simple majority in the Senate), conservatives believe that the liberals can transform their America into something their parents and grandparents would no longer recognize.

Here then, is the lesson to be learnt. If the president wants to get anything done - he must strike at the heart of the problem: it is one of a fundamental, thorough-going(dis)trust. Barack Obama must convince Republican and Blue-Dog dissenters that he is one of them. Bowing before foreign Sultans and mouthing off about racial profiling did not endear him to conservatives, who only want to feel assured that the president is for them, not against them. These are minor gestures, which is why it won't be tremendously costly for the president to present them as a peace offering. And calling protesters to his health-care plan a "mob" is definitely not a peace offering. It invokes the very perception of condescension the Anti-Federalists felt in 1787, reinforcing the ancient and original "us" versus "them." To unite the country, he must transcend not only party, but ideology, and history itself. Barack Obama must break the legacy and transcend the language of our 222-year-old, bimodal politics. Quite simply, he must convince conservatives that he too can feel, and talk, and protest, and hurt, and fear, and agitate like a latter-day Anti-Federalist; and he is no less intelligent, no less rational, no less compassionate, no less constructive, and certainly no less American for trying to do so.

Update of 9/12: Representative Joe Wilson's now infamous line, "You Lie!" encapusulates the president's atavistic (dis)trust problem in two words.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Professor Gates v. Sargeant Crowley: A Rush to Judgment that Informs our Healthcare Debate

In his press conference on July 22, President Obama's knee-jerk reaction to call what the Cambridge police department did "stupid" was poor form. The president thought he was avoiding the hot spot when asked about the Gates arrest by saying that the controversy offered a "teachable moment." But having admitted that he had imperfect knowledge of the facts, he went on and assumed that this particular incident invited a lesson about racial profiling and made the very indictment that his conversational segway was intended to avoid. In so doing, Obama confirmed conservatives' belief that minorities love to whine about their beleaguered status (also another knee-jerk belief, incidentally) even if Obama could have made a case had he marshalled the evidence appropriately. Obama spoke like a liberal before he thought, and that was his mistake.

In so doing, he repeated the same mistake that Professor Gates made. Like Obama, Gates, too, jumped to the conclusion that Sgt Crowley was racist. I do not know if Sgt Crowley acted hastily in arresting the Professor for allegedly exhibiting "tumultous" behavior, so I won't jump to conclusions but simply note my suspicion that there was probably a contest of egos on both sides. Those who have rushed to Crowley's defence should ask themselves if they do not also have a knee-jerk reaction to give the benefit of the doubt to a law enforcement officer (or a soldier or a partisanly affiliated Commander-in-Chief.)

Gates, Obama, and possibly Crowley were not the only people who have been jumping to conclusions, substituting unreflected intuition for a careful weighing of the evidence. Frank Luntz and his political students are encouraging Americans to become thoughtless automatons responding to carefully researched code words like "government takeover" and "health-care rationing." The issue domain is different, but the error is the same.

It is very difficult to prove racial-profiling, for it demands an investigator to go inside the head of the alleged perpetrator. It is equally difficult to prove that the president's and Democratic Congress's plan for a "public option" is a precursor to a completely government-run health-care system. If it is not appropriate to rush to accuse someone of being racist, then it is at least premature to rush to accuse of someone of being socialist (assuming that that is a bad thing).

Those who are accusing Obama and Gates for rushing into judgment should look into the mirror to see if they too have not rushed to conclude that liberals are whiners and socialists who want a government takeover of health-care. At some level, we all have the instinct to cherry-pick the evidence to come to the conclusions we want.

Ideologies, like sterotypes, are cognitive cues or heuristics. They help us to "think" before we get the facts. They allow us to abdicate our duty to make sense of the world with our own independent judgment. They do the easy but intellectually dishonest work of guiding our reactions to the conclusions we want without us having to do the hard work of getting to know a person or a proposed policy before we came to a judgment. The people who are reinforcing such behavior in our politics are destroying our democracy and robbing us of our first freedom - the freedom of independent thought.

So the Gates controversy is a teaching moment, and the lesson is quite simple. Look before you leap; think before you conclude. It is probably the first lesson of critical thinking, but two professors forgot it last week. If Obama wants us to learn this lesson, he should have been clearer about what the nature of his lapse was. It wasn't that the president miscallibrated his words - for the question wasn't about the intensity of what he said, but the very fact that he said something at all. Obama should have apologized for expressing what he felt and intuited without having first perused the evidence. If he had done that, he would have claimed the moral ground to shame some of his opponents in Congress into admitting that they too are doing the same thing in their knee-jerk opposition to what they call "Obamacare."

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Monday, July 6, 2009

In Defense of Sarah Palin

People love to hate Sarah Palin. I thought she was trouble on the McCain ticket, trouble for feminism, and trouble for the future of the Republican party, but I am troubled at the feeding frenzy that has continued despite Palin's express desire and efforts to bow out of the negative politics that has consumed her governorship.

The speculation about what exactly Palin is up to is itself revealing - for it comes attached to one of two possible postulations - neither of which are charitable. Either Palin is up to no good, or she is completely out of her mind. Even in surrender Palin is hounded. Either she is so despicable that post-political-humous hate is both valid and necessary or she is so dangerous that she must be defeated beyond defeat.

Even Governor Mark Sanford got a day or two of sympathy from his political opponents before he admitted to other extra-marital dalliances and referred to his Argentinian belle as his "soul-mate." Sarah Palin was accorded no such reprieve. Yes, I think gender is entirely relevant here.

Feminist scholars have studied the double-bind of woman political leaders for a while now. Women leaders are faced with a dilemma a still-patriachical political world imposes on them: women must either trade their likeability in return for male respect; or they preserve their likeability but lose men's respect for them in exchange. When it comes to women in positions of political power in the world that we know, they cannot be both likeable and respected. Unlike men, they cannot have their cake and eat it as well. This is not the world I like, but it is the world I see.

Let me draw an unlikely parallel to make the point. People love to hate another woman that we saw a lot of in 2008 - Hillary Clinton. Like Palin, she was to her detractors the she-devil to whom evil intentions were automatically assigned for every action. But unlike Palin, she was respected and feared - she was everything Sarah Palin was not. What Clinton lacked in terms of likeability she possessed in terms of respect (or at least reverent fear). No one underestimated Hillary Clinton, no one doubted her ambition. And of course, as Barack Obama put it in one of their debates, she was only "likeable enough." Clinton was respected as a force to be reckoned with, but she paid her dues in terms of likeability. Just like the Virgin Queen and the Iron Lady, she could only be respected if she surrendered her congeniality.

Palin stands at the other end of the double-bind. Where Palin was in need of respect she gained in terms of likeability. She was the pretty beauty queen loved and beloved by her base, unapologetically espousing a "lip-stick" feminism (in contrast to a grouchy liberal feminism). But what she enjoyed in terms of likeability she lost in terms of respect. If there was one thing her detractors have done consistently, it has been to mock her. She was the running joke on Saturday Night Life, and now, a laughing stock even amongst some Republicans who see her as a quitter and a thin-skinned political lightweight. Strangely enough, Sarah Palin is Hillary Clinton's alter-ego. Where Clinton is perceived as strong, Palin is seen as weak; whereas Clinton turns off (a certain sort of) men, Palin titillates them.

If we lived in a post-feminist, gender-neutral world, the two most prominent women in American politics, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, would not so perfectly occupy the antipodal caricatures of women trapped in the double-bind of our patriachical politics. That they each face one cruel end of the double binds tells us that the two women on opposite ends of the political spectrum sit in the same patriachical boat. So the next time liberals mock Sarah Palin, they should remember that they are doing no more service to feminism than when some conservatives made fun of Hillary Clinton's femininity allegedly subverted by her pant-suits.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why Obama Must Treat DOMA with Care

Presidents array themselves along a continuum with two extremes: either they are crusaders for their cause or merely defenders of the faith. Either they attempt to transform the landscape of America politics, or they attempt to modify it in incremental steps. To cite the titles of the autobiographies of the current and last presidents: either presidents declare the "audacity of hope" or they affirm a "charge to keep." If President Obama is the liberal crusader, President George Bush was the conservative defender.

The strategies of presidential leadershp differ for the crusader and the defender, but President Obama appears to be misreading the nature of his mandate. Conciliation works for the defender; it can be ruinous to the would-be crusader.

The crusader must have his base with him, all fired up and ready to go. For to go to places unseen, the crusader must have the visionaries, even the crazy ones, on his side. The defender, conversely, must pay homage to partisans on the other side of the aisle because incremental change requires assistance from people, including political rivals, invested in the status quo. Moderate politics require moderate friends.

The irony is that President George Bush, a self-proclaimed defender - spent too much time pandering to his right-wing base, and Barack Obama - a self-proclaimed crusader, is spending a lot of time appeasing his political rivals. Their political strategies were out of sync, and perhaps even inconsistent with their political goals.

Take the issue of gay rights for President Obama. The President is trying so hard to prove to his socially conservative political rivals that he is no liberal wacko that he has reversed his previous support for a full repeal of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What he may not have realized is that it may be politically efficacious for a defender to ignore his base, but the costs to the crusader for alienating his base are far graver. Bipartisanship is not symmetrically rewarding in all leadership contexts.

Consider the example of President Bill Clinton, a "third-way" Democrat. He ended welfare as we knew it, and on affirmative action he said "mend it, don't end it." Much to Labor's chagrin, he even passed NAFTA. Bill Clinton was no crusader. And if the Democratic base wanted a deal-making, favor-swapping politico, they would have nominated a second Clinton last year.

The crusader rides on a cloud of ideological purity. Without the zealotry and idolatry of the base, the crusader is nothing; his magic extinguished. And this is happening right now to Barack Obama. The people who gave the man his luster are also uniquely enpowered to take it away. (It is a mistake to think that Sean Hannity or Michael Steele have this power.) Obama campaigned on changing the world, and his base can and will crush him for failing to deliver on his audacity. The Justice Department's clumsy defense of DOMA via the case law recourse of incest and pedophilia may be a small matter in the administration's scheme of things, but it is a big and repugnant deal to the base - the people who matter for a crusading president.

This is a pattern in the Obama administration: for the promise to pull troops out of Iraq there was the concomitant promise of more in Afghanistan, for the release of the OLC "torture memos," operatives of harsh interrogation techniques were also offered immunity, in return for the administration's defense of DOMA, Obama promised to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. This is incremental, transactional, and defensive leadership. Defenders balance; but crusaders are mandated to press on. Incremental leadership works for presidents mandated to keep a charge, but not for one who flaunted his audacity. There are distinct and higher expectations for a crusader-to-be; and if President Obama is to live up to his hype, then bear the crusader's cross he must.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Health-care Reform: A Litmus Test for a President and his Proposed Epoch

Everything President Barack Obama has achieved legislatively up to this moment - even the much touted $800 billion economic stimulus bill - has been relatively easy; mostly expedited and achieved in the name of economic emergency. And the president has been upfront all along that these early accomplishments were but prologue to the health-care battle to come. Pundits have been saying for a long time that this president chooses his battles and knows well the importance of preserving his political capital. Well, the moment Obama has been saving up for is here, and the stakes are as high as the president is ambitious.

To put things more starkly - if President Obama's proposed health-care reform fails, then his presidential honeymoon is decidedly over. For all the euphoric talk of the era of Obama, if he fails to deliver on health-care, then he would have proven himself to be just another Bill Clinton. Obama would not be a reconstructive leader in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, and the era of big government will still be over.

Conversely, successful health-care reform will be legacy-making. Generations of Americans will remember Barack Obama for what he did for them, and they will remain as loyal Democratic party constituents for decades to come. Successful health-care reform will be tangible proof that the era of ("better") government is back, and it would have been Obama (like FDR 80 years ago) who took us there.

The stakes then, could not be higher, and the task no more enormous. Overhauling our health-care system runs up against almost every institutional and structural pathology of American democracy: multifarious and over-zealous interest group politics, power struggles between Congress and the presidency, and the ideological chasm between the two major parties about the role of government. Health-care policy is one of those policies in which the public and indeed pundits know relatively little about. Very few people are going to peruse the hundreds of pages of bill(s) under consideration. So watch for it - this means reform will invariably be sold and criticized with generalizing slogans. The Obama administration will have to play a delicate balancing act of negotiating details with the experts on Capitol Hill and captains of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries (who are probably going to be the only groups who will be incentivized to keep track of the facts and figures), persuading lay persons with a clear and yet truthful account of what is at stake, while also deflecting the simplistic slogans dissenting organized interests will disseminate in media blitzkriegs.

Elections are just regularized signposts on the American calendar. The media focusses on it because viewers and voters like to keep up with a horse-race. But history is marked not by these regularly scheduled events, but by the passage of landmark legislation that durably alters the relationship (for better or for worse) between government and its wards. How historians will remember our era will turn on what happens in the next crucial months. As President Obama's audacity is about to be tested, so is America at the precipice of an epochal test.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Supreme Court Politics for the Sake of Politics

That the selection of Supreme Court Justices has become a deeply politicized process was one of the most invidious legacies of Franklin Roosevelt, who once tried to "pack" the Court with liberal justices sympathetic to the New Deal.

In trying to extricate himself from this legacy, President Obama has gone out of his way to nominate (what he deems to be) one of the least controversial candidates out there. It is in his interest to, because it would be unwise for him to squander political capital when the potential gain is limited. The most he can achieve in the present nomination iteration is to maintain, rather than alter, the ideological balance of the Court.

That the president has partly suceeded in preempting controversy can be seen in the fact that conservatives have not yet decided if Sonia Sotomayor is worth opposing. Moderate Republicans are especially afraid that a concerted attack on Sotomayor will alienate their party from hispanic voters. The debate is about whether or not to have a debate; the controversy is whether or not Sotomayor is controversial. Barring a startling new revelation about Sotomayor's past, this is about as good as it gets for any modern Supreme Court nominee.

Yet the fact that there is nevertheless a controversy about whether or not Sotomayor is controversial is poignant enough, a reflection of our thirst for politics and our confusion of politics as the end rather than the means for achieving nobler ends.

What is often missed is that the more intense our debate about the suitability of a particular nominee for the Court, the more we imply that Justices are incorrigibly nepotistc, and all we can do is to select someone on our side. If Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once marveled at the majesty of the law, our nomination wranglings reflect our burlesquing of the Court. Here is the paradox: even if partisans and lobbyists succeed in sending their favorite to the Court, they would aso have deprived the new justice of a measure of legitimacy s/he would have had if s/he had been admitted to the bench without their advocacy.

Perhaps the stakes are too high, as fans and enemies of every new nominee contend. But piecemeal and short-term gains can come at a great institutional and long-term costs. Supreme Court justices are no longer perceived to be women and men capable of setting aside their personal opinions or transcending their ideological biases. In politicizing the Court, we are disrupting the constitutional balance of respect, and contributing to the tyranny of the elected branches and in particular the president, who, let the record reflect, doesn't only execute the law (as the commensurate expectation ought to be if we insist judges should not make law) but also makes it in the form of executive orders and in the veto power (which is a legislative power, enumerated with Congress's powers in Article 1 of the Constitution).

So it should come as no surprise that the first president who seriously tried to politicize the court, Franklin Roosevelt, was also one intent on his particular interpretation of the constitution and having his legislative way. Kudos to any president and any citizen with the foresight and restraint to treat a co-equal branch of government as a bulwark of our constitution and not another political playpen.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama, Notre Dame, Abortion

The pro-lifers single-mindedly protesting President Barack Obama's receipt of an honorary degree from Notre Dame University have reduced the Catholic Catechism to a single issue. And it is precisely in the single-mindedness of such pro-life proponents that it can be showed that their concern is not, ultimately, about life.

The president is on the right side of Catholicism on immigration and the environment, just as previous presidents Notre Dame has honored have been on the wrong side of the Church on issues like capital punishment and support for nuclear weapons. To pick on the current president is to pick one particular issue as the litmus test of a person's contribution to advancing human excellence (the qualification for a honorary degree).

That is myopic, but worse still, many pro-lifers proffer their arguments in bad faith, or so Professor Sonu Bedi at Dartmouth argues (28:15 onwards).

If opponents of abortion want to make the State compel women to carry their foetuses to term, Sonu Bedi compellingly asks: why don't pro-lifers also demand that the State compels citizens who are uniquely situated to save a particular life to do so?

The latter are what Bedi calls "forced samaritan laws." As Judith Jarvis Thomson made clear decades ago, a law prohibiting abortion is a forced samaritan law, because a woman considering abortion would be told by the State that she must perform her duty of preserving a life.

Fair enough. Perhaps we should legislate such a world, but the truth is we have not, and are not even trying. In the Common Law of the US, there is, in general, no duty to rescue. That is to say, no person can be held liable for doing nothing while another person's life is in peril. In Vermont, one can be slapped with a $100 fine if one is uniquely positioned to save a life but fails to do so. Consider the glaring asymmetry of the law: $100 versus $2000-5000 in Texas if a woman is found to have undergone an illegal abortion.

Ah, but as the rejoinder goes, perhaps a woman has consented to sex and perhaps that is why she has a special duty to the child she helped create, and not so for the random passer-by who chooses not to save a drowning child. OK, (assuming consenting to sex is the same as consenting to procreation) why don't we talk about laws alongside abortion laws that will also exact commensurate obligations on the father who also consented to the sexual intercourse that begot the child? Why are we so quick to pin consent and duty squarely on the woman seeking an abortion? Pro-lifers who seek laws against abortion but not laws for forced samaritanism are too quick to dismiss the immense physical and emotional costs of child-bearing that women have silently borne for millenia. And if they care only about protecting one type of life (and burdening only one group of people), then surely they are not, paradoxically, truly concerned about life but about something else, such as the preservation of traditional roles in the family.

If we value life, then we should dedicate our lobbying energy to saving any life writ large that is in imminent peril, and not merely the life in the womb. The burden of being pro-life should be equally born by all. Not only by women. If we are to be pro-life, then let us be pro-all-life, not just those lives that only women are uniquely privileged/burdened to save.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

100 Days

What can the first 100 days tell us about a president's remaining days in office? Not much about the president, but a little about the expectations we have of him.

President Bush tried and achieved little of significance in his first 100 days in office. His major accomplishment in his first year, signing into law a $1.35 trillion tax cut, would occur only in his fifth month in office. No one foresaw September 11, and Bush's aggressive expansion of the National Security State as a result.

Or consider the president who preceded him. Bill Clinton tried to do a lot in his first 100 days - too many, say conventional accounts - and consequently also achieved little of significance in his first 100 days. Clinton did end up doing quite a lot in his 8 years in office, but not because he overloaded his agenda but because he learnt, after his first two years in offce, to work with congress. 100 days predicted little in both these cases.

Or how about President John Kennedy, who presided over probably the biggest fumble ever in the first 100 days of any administration - the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was able to recover from the debacle though, unlike Jimmy Carter who seemed to suffer one mishap after another even though the first he suffered during his first hundred days was quite innocuous. Carter had tried to create one of FDR's famous fireside chats, complete with blazing fire in the background in order to communicate his energy policy to the country. Carter wore a cardigan sweater rather than a suit, for which he later earned the epithet, "Jimmy Cardigan." The fact was the speech had gone down quite well at the time. The Boston Globe found it a "powerful presidential event, moving in its simplicity and significant in its reiteration of his goals." It came across, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, like "a cup-of-coffee conversation at the corner drugstore, instead of a discussion at the club." Carter's first 100 days was retrospectively slammed because he failed to make good on the promises he made; while Kennedy's early gaffe has been quickly forgotten because history never offered him a chance to deliver on his promises - suspended as he is in political martyrdom. In neither case was the first hundred days either a predictor or a path-dependent lock on what these presidents who do later on in office.

So our fascination with the first 100 days of a presidency is a statement not about our ability to assess presidencies, but a mirror unto our expectations of them. The fact is few presidents are judged by what they achieved in their first 100 days in office. Only those on whom are laid great expectations become the object of great scrutiny. Few, if anybody, asked what President George W. Bush achieved in his first 100 days. A report card this early in a presidency is only required when the American people give a mandate to their president for swift and decisive action. And George W Bush had no mandate, having won less than half of the nation's popular vote. While most presidents spent the two months before Inauguration preparing their transition teams, George Bush spent much of this time contesting Al Gore's claim to the presidency.

Our fascination with scoring the achievements and failures of President Obama's first 100 days is a reflection of the expectations we have of him. The scorecard says more about the scorer than anything specific about the future of the Obama presidency. All we can observe is that with great expectations come opportunities for great success or failure. Very few people expect Barack Obama to be a middling president, and that's all we know right now.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

President Obama's Latent Realism

If there was one message President Obama wanted to send to allies in his trip to the G-20 Summit in Europe, it was to say that he is not George Bush, and the era of arrogant American unilateralism is over. In Strasbourg, France, the President said, "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening ... when we show some element of humility."

Does humility engender respect or does it evidence weakness? This week in Europe, President Obama was applauded and cheered, but this soft power didn’t seem to translate to much. The score is 0-1 in Round One of Liberalism versus Realism. I think the President knows this, and is merely waiting to cash in the store of goodwill he banked this week. As the major decisions of the presidency are made quietly behind the desk at the Oval Office, not in international summits, we should not mistake Obama's courtesies as the prologue of things to come.

The President could not have missed the setbacks he encountered in this trip. Sure, he successfully mediated the disagreement between Chinese President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy so that the G-20 would "take note" rather than fully endorse a list of rogue offshore tax havens. But the American president's newfound respect for the world did not engender newfound cooperation or an increased willingness to take America’s lead. (And we should not have expected otherwise, for courtesies are exchanged only up to the point when conflicting interests are at stake.) Europe was not malleable to the president’s call for a larger global stimulus package, and far from enthusiastic at his call to welcome Turkey into the European Union. NATO allies only agreed to sending 5,000 more non-combat troops to aid the US war effort in Afghanistan. And of course, the President stood before a crowd of 20,000 people in Prague painting a utopian portrait of a nuclear-free world just hours after North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile launch.

President Obama’s European trip was a very well orchestrated and executed photo-op. There is no doubt that Europe is feeling the love, but it is unclear if she is returning it in real ways that matter. The dance of diplomatic and royal protocols may have thrilled the public and the media, but on things that matter, the president squarely confronted the limits of symbolism and gesture.

After all, the president did let slip in the same speech in which he was extolling humility that “when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer.” In the end, (even ) the Liberal Way is still the American Way. And I expect, as Theodore Roosevelt once counselled, the president's soft voice will soon be amplified by a big stick.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Slovenly Words and Foolish Deeds

President Barack Obama's first press conference was serious, measured, and according to Mark Nikolas (, three grade levels more complex than President George W. Bush's first press conference.

A cursory glance at readers' comments to Nikolas' post reveals sharp disagreements about both the empirical claim and its implications. Since I have used the Flesch readability scale to score the rhetoric of every president since George Washington, I will venture to offer some observations to suggest that George Bush and Barack Obama aren’t all that different.

Superficially, they couldn’t be more different. While the former president is a self-styled cowboy who has rejected his northeastern roots in favor of a Texan down-home speaking style, the current one is a former professor of constitutional law who (if one recalls his speech on race in Philadelphia at the height of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco) will not demure from pontificating on things complex and controversial. I doubt many people will argue that Bush was a more sophisticated speaker, but people disagree about whether or not his simple sentences were delivered at the expense of complex thoughts.

Complex thoughts can be simply expressed, his defenders contend. But Einstein also said that "things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Consider John Robert's question to President Bush in his first press conference in 2001: "I'm wondering what message he (the Secretary of State) will take from this administration to leaders of the Middle East in the area of sanctions that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime?"

President Bush answered in his inimitable style: "I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese. That meant that they weren't very effective. And we're going to review the current sanction policy and review options as to how to make the sanctions work. But the primary goal is to make it clear to Saddam that we expect him to be a peaceful neighbor in the region, and we expect him not to develop weapons of mass destruction; and if we find him doing so, there will be a consequence."

President Bush dedicated little time to "review options" on improving the efficacy of sanctions on Saddam's regime. And the conditional clause "if we find him (Saddam) doing so" (developing WMDs) was far from satisfied before the President rushed to war. The fact is it was by our president's slovenly words that we were led to do rather foolish things, as George Orwell warned.

Yes, we need a president who connects with the people. Simple words can conceal complex thoughts. But that is exactly the problem. If we allow presidents to sweet talk us with simple platitudes, and assume that complex negotiations and deliberations are going on behind the scenes and outside of public earshot, we abdicate our role as citizens to adjudicate the direction of public policy. A seduced citizenry cannot hold their executive accountable. Eloquent platitudes generate applause, not reflection. As a component of democratic discourse, they are, like Swiss cheese, utterly inadequate.

Lest this may sound like a partisan post, let me say that Obama is not immune to the draw of anti-intellectualism. The President's and Secretary Geitner's messages on the economic stimulus package and especially TARP 2 have thus far been woefuly lacking in detail. The President is back to being the Poet-in-Chief, taking his message on road as if he never left the campaign trail. The stock market takes no partisan sides, and it has not taken kindly to the president's eloquent generalities.

Life is like a box of chocolates, Mama Gump once told Forrest. Profound truths can be simply said, but what we need now are concrete solutions, not quotable verses. President Obama may be speaking at a higher grade level than President Bush, but so far, he appears no more adept at offering us precise answers. The President can use his words – simple or complex – to educate or to obfuscate. The choice is his.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama's Honeymoon Continues

The unity and clarity of message exhibited by the Republicans this past week seemed to suggest that they have found their role as loyal opposition in minority. This may be, but Republicans have an uphill battle before them. This week in politics, it was the President who won.

Bipartisanship only became a governing keyword in the 20th century because of the frequency of divided party control over the different branches of government. The fact is there is no need for bipartisanship when a majority exists in the Congress, and the Republicans know it. This is why they have tried to make a virtue out of bipartisanship as an end in itself, decrying the way in which the economic stimulus bill was passed.

Yet Republicans were complaining about a 1,100 page bill that nobody had perused at the same time that they were arguing that it was a bill of pork and spending. Here’s the problem: the more Republicans made a stand against the process by which their input was stymied, the less credibility they had making a stand against the substance of the bill. So the wisest Republicans focused most of their attack on the process, because accusing the Democrats for not consulting with them is a face-saving strategy on the off-chance that the stimulus package actually works. In 2010, we shall see if their gamble paid off.

The truth is it is not easy being in the minority. In the run-up to the passage of the bill in the Senate, everywhere we heard that 60 was the new 50. But this may have been a higher bar than was necessary for the Democrats to cross. The fact is 50 may well have been enough, given the high political cost the Republicans would have had to bear if they fillibustered a bill in a moment of perceived economic emergency. As it is, Democrats are already accusing the opposition party for becoming the obstructionist party.

The President has only stood to gain from the Democrats’ victory in Congress. When the revised conference bill passed in the House, Congressional Democrats lavished praise on the president, even though they were the ones who had crafted and delivered on the bill. All the president did was go on the road in the final days before passage to sell it. This is hands-off leadership that has benefitted him, because the cries of foul from the Republican aisle are mostly being leveled on congressional Democrats, not the president. But Obama’s gain does not come without strings. Both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid know that he needs them, so it is unclear for how long he would be able to stand above party in his hitherto futile effort to chase the ghost of bipartisanship.

For now, President Obama has won the battle, and the honeymoon is still his to enjoy. The stimulus package may have more spending than tax cuts in it, as Republicans assert, but congressional majorities agree with him that such spending is necessary. Without income support (making up $100 billion of the bill), unemployed workers would be forced to reduce spending, thereby causing a vicious contractionary circle. If the federal government did not offer support to cash-strapped state and local governments (making up $250 billion of the bill), more jobs would be lost, or so modal opinion seems to hold. No surprises that some Republican governors are on board with the stimulus. The Daschle and Gregg nomination embarrassments reveal the danger of making lofty promises on the campaign trail that the reality of government may not permit, but they also pale in comparison to the significant achievement of passing the biggest economic stimulus package in US history. If the president’s fortunes tell us anything, they suggest that the Republican minority have not yet found their footing.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

On Barack Obama's "Pragmatism"

What is a pragmatist? Someone who is unmoved by cookie-cutter ideological commitments and is flexible with the means to achieve certain ends. S/he can be contrasted to the ideologue, who is steadfast in his/her commitment to certain fundamental values and their policy instantiations.

Well, we are almost all pragmatists then. Even George Bush and Ted Kennedy have been known to compromise on education and immigration policy. To use "pragmatic" as an explanatory label is entirely unhelpful and quite misleading, because it implies that if only other people weren't crazy ideologues, Washington would be in agreement all the time.

It's not just the fundamentalists that are an obstacle to political consensus. "Pragmatic" people disagree on means and ends all the time, because everyone has his or her own vantage point and interests or constituents to protect and there is no built-in incentive for anyone in Washington (except the president, who is the only official elected to serve a national constituency) to appreciate the electoral imperatives of someone else. Our constitution was written as a Newtonian system in which every elected official has been incentivized to care only about his/her institutional and electoral priorities such that governmental solutions emerge via the invisible hand of political contestation and negotiation. The winning politician isn't just a pragmatist; s/he must understand and deal in the coinage of his/her opponents' and collaborators' self interest.

Calling President-elect Barack Obama a pragmatist relegates (at least some of) his political interlocutors to hard-headed fanatics. It underestimates the political challenge all presidents must undertake to bring together a nation of self-serving political strangers. It isn't irrational knavery that prevents consensus in Washington. In fact the reverse is exactly true: everyone is looking out for his/her state, his/her district, his/her department, and for good reason, because their job depends on it. American politics is a frustratingly complex web of good intentions projected toward different and often contested ends.

So let us stop saying Obama is pragmatic. It tells us nothing that he is or is not, and it obfuscates the reality that even if he were not committed to any preexisting values, he still might not have his way with those that disagree with each other. Few people are really ideological in politics (they are the talk-show hosts), but everyone is self-interested. The self-proclaimed pragmatist seeks to confuse the two, and to accuse those as self-interested as s/he is as fanatical ideologues in order to delegitimate their points of view. If politics were so easy our national anthem would be the Kumbaya.

"Centrist," "bi-partisan," "post-partisan," "independent," belong in the same family of unhelpful words as "pragmatic." What does it mean to stand in the center - not have any beliefs? Presumably a bipartisan politician believes in Life and Choice. Post-partisanship seems to imply that our disagreements are trivial and we should just get over them as quickly as we can coin a new word. And what is it to be independent? It is nearly impossible to expect any politician to be free from his or her instinct to do whatever it takes to get (re)elected. Now that's pragmatism, but it is exactly the kind of pragmatism that ensures dissensus and havoc in Washington, not the misconstrued pragmatism Obama's panglossian supporters believe he can change the world with.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

In the Short Run Keynes is Right

President-elect Obama's big stimulus package is getting bulkier and more complex by the day. No longer confident that the Congress would be able to move quickly to deliver legislation for the newly sworn in president to sign, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has tampered expectations by rejecting a "false deadline" for such a delivery.

As is always the case in Washington, we are scheduled for a clash of ideologies even as we seek a solution to our current economic woes. The Republicans want deliberation (or delay) and fiscal restraint and the Democrats want, well, big government. Cognizant of this, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already registered his wariness of "very big systemic changes" proposed in the stimulus package. Republican leaders have taken to calling the proposed $800 billion stimulus package a "trillion dollar" package even though about 40% of it will pay for tax cuts all sides agree on.

But Democrats are likely to prevail in this battle not only because of their store of electoral goodwill locked into congressional majorites, but also because economic history is presently on their side. Traditional monetary policy becomes increasingly ineffective as interest rates fall (because rates cannot fall below zero). The fact is that the banks are still not lending enough. Just in the last three months, cash holdings in banks have tripled to over 1 trillion dollars, according to the Federal Reserve. Other drivers of growth are also unavailable to us this time round. Inventory rebuilding was a powerful engine of growth in 1976, as was residential construction 1992, while consumer spending helped in 2002 (recall President Bush's invitation for Americans to go out and shop after Sep 11). The private sector in 2009 is moribund.

This is why Fed officials and economists have come out in support of a fiscal stimulus package. “If ever, in my professional career, there was a time for active, discretionary fiscal stimulus, it is now,” said Janet Yellen, San Francisco Fed president. According to Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in New York, “When we do recover, the engine will be government spending, not home building or the consumer.” John Maynard Keynes, not Milton Friedman, is the dead economist du jour.

Since the September 2008 Wall Street crash, the S.& P. has moved more than 5 percent in either direction on 18 days. There were only 17 such days in the previous 53 years, according to calculations by Howard Silverblatt, an index analyst at S.& P. If the invisible hand of the market cannot calm its own nerves, then government must.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Referee and the Great Equivocator

Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way (PFAW) has strongly denounced President-elect Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the upcoming Inauguration ceremony. She wrote, “We strongly agree with President-elect Obama that everyone should have a seat at the table, but only those who treat others with respect should get a seat of honor.”

Liberals are annoyed that even though the Republican brand was so soundly rejected this year, Obama is not permitting them any schadenfreude. He wants it known that everyone deserves a place at his table and Kathryn Kolbert and others will not have any of it. Kolbert and her allies are putting Obama in a difficult and unenviable position. He can run from the problem they have presented to him, but he cannot hide.

There are two ways a president can try to unite a country to avoid conflict between opposing camps – but on issues on which people fundamentally differ, both are merely delay tactics. A president can either choose to take no position, or he can actively embrace the opinions of those that disagree with him. In performing the former, he becomes a Referee, holding back his views, or perhaps even disciplining himself to have none. The president becomes an impartial interest broker with no explicit stake in the outcome of politics. In performing the latter, the president becomes the Great Equivocator. Though he has an opinion and it may be public, he embraces the legitimacy of other views and attempts to make them consistent with his own. Abraham Lincoln tried, unsuccessfully, to be the former, and Barack Obama is attempting to be the latter.

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address played the first role of Referee, saying, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." The Abraham Lincoln of 1861 did not take a stand, and he did not take sides. He has been criticized for this, perhaps unfairly, because the Referee is really no different from the Great Equivocator.

No president can get by today by playing Referee. We demand that our leaders take a stand. Ironically, in forcing our presidents to take a stand, they have become our Great Equivocators. Great Equivocators do take a stand, but the content of what they stand for has become so diluted and neutered that they might as well have taken no stand at all. Exactly what Barack Obama’s stand is as regards gays and lesbians remains unclear despite his deceptively assertive tone. When asked to defend his invitation to Warren, he seemed upfront, saying, "let me start by talking about my own views. I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on, and something that I contend -- intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”

The president-elect doth protest too much in his declaration that he is “consistent” and “intend(s) to continue to be consistent.” Why repeat the obvious unless it is not? Rick Warren has similarly commented on Obama’s invitation with a platitude of equally confounding proportions, telling reporters that "you don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand." He “loves gays and straights” alike, he continued. In a synergistic moment of mutual love, Warren and Obama have swept their differences under the rug with meaningless words.

While these empty statements communicate nothing, they reveal quite a bit. For Rick Warren, his words reveal an understandable vainglory. Few pastors would turn down an invitation to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration; the honor is probably worth the heresy. Obama, in extending the invitation to Warren, is signaling that Warren’s views on gays and lesbians are not repugnant enough for him to be ineligible for the invocation job. In this Obama is saying that Warren represents a legitimate and reasonable point of view. We should not be fooled to think that this represents a solution of the problem. Setting up two opposing worldviews in legitimate contrast to each other is only the overture of a contest of values to come. At some point, the clash must and will occur.

Like the first president who invited a team of rivals to form his cabinet and tried impartially to referee opposing points of view, Obama is merely buying time in his equivocation. But a house undecided cannot stand. In taking a side but also embracing another, Obama is attempting the impossible and liberals are calling him out on it. It takes a while for political impartiality and argumentative elision to dissipate, but in time, the people - of diametrically opposing opinions, one should add - will demand an answer from their government. Both the Referee and the Great Equivocator are politicians playing the highest (or the lowest) arts of politics, but these tricks can only buy time. For better or for worse, the expectations of leadership shall be foisted on Obama. At some point, he will have to take a real and politically consequential stand on matters that divide our country.

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