Thursday, May 31, 2012

George Will’s Retelling of Citizens United

It takes a special level of arrogance—a George Will level of arrogance—to describe the Citizens United decision as “unremarkable.” One might argue that the scope and duration necessary for any controversy to be resolved by the Supreme Court definitionally renders it worthy of remark. Regardless of your preferred outcome in that case, a decision like Citizens United, one in which the Court ordered re-argument on issues not presented in the original brief, one in which the Court overturned a federal law and overruled its own caselaw, and one that was decided 5-4, is certainly worthy of remark.

Will’s mischaracterization of Citizens United does not yield there. No, Will wrongly frames Citizens United as a case over whether individuals yield their First Amendment rights when they join a corporation or a labor union. While this frame—divorced from reality though it is—allows Will to wrap himself in self-righteousness, it both obscures the reality of the decision and ignores the fact that at will employees may indeed forfeit their First Amendment rights when employed.

In fact, the Citizens United decision had little to do with individuals. Instead, the Court determined that the government “may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.” In arriving at this conclusion, the Court took a number of interesting turns, including its determination that the only present danger of corruption is that of so-called quid pro quo corruption and that there is no such danger when a corporation (or union) spends vast sums of money to get a candidate elected so long as they do not give the money directly to the candidate. You are correct: that makes no sense.

But these pesky facts do not stop Will from engaging in a polemic defense of a supposed liberal assault on free speech. While Will busily makes himself the defender of “free speech,” “political speech,” and the “First Amendment” (quoted because of the shear repetition with which Will deploys these terms) in the face of some supposed liberal assault on speech, he manages to make a hash of both history and logic.

Will labels an ABA article as false for correctly noting that Citizens United enabled so-called Super PACs (not PACs at all). Indeed, these organizations would not be possible were it not for Citizens United (with a boost from Speech Now). Will then embraces what has apparently become the Right’s favorite logical fallacy to defend Citizens United: because the Republican primary this year was long and occurred after the Citizens United decision, the Citizens United decision must be the cause of the primary’s length (in this, the best of all possible worlds). Moreover, because a long primary requires political speech, there must be more political speech this year than in previous years—and this must be due to Citizens United! Citizens United improved the quality of our democracy, silly Liberals.

The logic here is nonsense, of course. Worse, the premise is false. The Democratic primary in 2008—before the Citizens United decision— lasted several weeks (and, effectively, two months) longer than the Republican primary campaign this year. More than two times the total number of votes cast in the 2012 Republican primary campaign were cast in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign: 35,442,193 to 16,110,412. But you need not rely on 2008 to attack the premise of Will’s argument. The Democratic primary in 2000 lasted only until March 9 but there were more than 13 million ballots cast in that contest. And the Republican contest that year saw more than 19 million ballots cast! I could go on.

Citizens United, whatever Will may say, is a truly remarkable decision. It has also resulted in a tremendous increase in the amount of money spent on elections. Whether it has improved the quality of speech and debate, whether it has increased the number of voices, and whether it has improved our democracy are more difficult questions to answer. Those are questions worthy of debate—real debate, not the specious variety Will is here trafficking in. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

No One Could Predict

That over-reliance on drone strikes might undermine our long-term strategic objectives
“These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’ ” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March.
See also "No End In Sight." 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Constitutional Reform

Sanford Levinson writes in today's New York Times:
What was truly admirable about the framers was their willingness to critique, indeed junk, the Articles of Confederation. One need not believe that the Constitution of 1787 should be discarded in quite the same way to accept that we are long overdue for a serious discussion about its own role in creating the depressed (and depressing) state of American politics
Levinson's Op-Ed, highlighting several political obstacles hindering decisive action by the federal to address pressing national challenges, is interesting but its analysis leaves something to be desired. Most of his handful of suggested reforms would enhance the power of the President. Such Executive aggrandizement--by allowing the President to weight Congress; by allowing the Congress to override the Judiciary's pronouncements on the Constitution; by requiring a super majority for the Supreme Court to exercise judicial review--may lead to an Executive Branch that is more nimble and more effective in dealing with the challenges present in Levinson's mind. But that agility will be limited to those problems. And Executive strength is not something for which we want currently. 

It seems to this observer that the inability of the country to address its most pressing challenges stems not from interbranch intransigence but from a weak and dysfunctional Congress. One might accomplish more--and do so more safely--by doing away with the Senate's cloture requirement--an act whose execution requires merely the Senate and no other organs of government. 

We could also elect better representatives. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

As If To Ensure A Sectarian Character

Al Jazeera describes the massacre in Houla thus:
Houla then came under an intense artillery barrage that killed about 15 villagers. Members of the shabbiha then entered Houla from the nearby Alawite villages and killed scores of men, women and children by hacking them or shooting them at close range.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Drones Are Different—And Why They Aren’t

For the last few years, unmanned aerial systems (“drones”) have been the source of a number of sometimes overlapping debates. For example: Are drone strikes legal? When are they legal? Are drone strikes dishonorable? Are they counterproductive when used in COIN?

At the same time, a parallel debate over whether these other debates (relative merits aside) are a waste of time altogether. The question animating this corollary debate is whether drones are in fact different from the other weapons platforms available to U.S. policymakers. At heart, this debate centers around the sense that for all their virtues, drones are really just air systems. They fly. They launch missiles. They come home. Sure, drones are unmanned. But so are cruise missiles.

In general, the drones are really just air systems approach is the correct one. Drones and their operators are subject to the same law as manned air craft and their pilots, for example. Unfortunately, hewing too closely to this position tends to lead observers to ignore or discount the ways in which drones actually are different—and why these differences have caused drones to be perceived so differently by the public and policymakers alike.

Unlike manned systems or cruise missile or most other standoff platforms, armed drones are able to stay on station for incredibly long periods of time. Whereas an F-15, for example, can remain airborne for only about 5 hours without refueling, a (now obsolete) MQ-1 Predator is built to loiter over a target for 14 hours (and at least one declassified flight lasted for 40 hours) and MQ-9 Reapers are built to loiter for 24 hours.

Also, unlike manned systems, drones are expendable. Necessary support infrastructure aside, individual drones are substantially cheaper to purchase than their manned counterparts. An F-15E costs approximately $31 million dollars; an individual MQ-9 Reaper costs about $13 million. Although that price tag blows a cruise missile out of the water—depending on the version, a Tomahawk will cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million—a cruise missile delivers just one warhead and returns no intelligence.

Finally, unlike manned systems, drones are unmanned. That is, putting a drone in harm’s way does not put a pilot in harm’s way. This seems like an obvious point but the impact of it has been discounted in some circles. No, the absence of an onboard pilot does not mean there are no U.S. (or allied or proxy) personnel on the ground supporting the operation. Nor does it mean, absolutely, that the United States will not suffer casualties. One need only look at the suicide bombing of FOB Chapman in Afghanistan in December 2009 for evidence of U.S. casualties directly related to the operation of armed unmanned aerial systems over Pakistan. But U.S. personnel are not necessarily in proximity to the targets of U.S. drone strikes—in stark contrast to strikes by manned systems.* What’s more, although drones operate almost exclusively in permissive environments—those where air defenses are actually or effectively non-existent—which means that manned systems would face a low probability of being shot down in the same airspace, removing the pilot also removes the more realistic threat (in these environments) of casualties due to accidents, weather, or operator error.

Although infrequent losses of U.S. personnel due to these causes may seem relatively trivial, the impact on policymakers is clearly not. The fact that the United States is relying on drones instead of manned systems despite the limitations of drones is a prima facie indicator that policymakers in fact view drones as different from other systems. This is likely due to the fact that, as described above, drones have operational capabilities that are not matched by other standoff platforms. More compelling, the unique capabilities of drones are paired with a tantalizing ability to avoid or minimize U.S. casualties. When a policymaker dispatches drones to survey and attack a target, that policymaker need not worry about images of U.S. pilots being dragged through the streets of some God-forsaken warren in Mogadishu, Sana, or Peshawar. Nor does that policymaker have to worry about the political backlash that such images would engender.

Again, it is tempting to downplay the impact that casualties (or potential casualties) have on policymakers. Doing so is folly, however. The relative marginal effect of casualties on public support for U.S. troop deployments has steadily increased since World War II. That is, the public was more tolerant of U.S. casualties in World War II than Korea, in Korea than Vietnam, Vietnam over the most recent war in Iraq. Avoiding U.S. casualties was one of the primary drivers of U.S. decision making around the 1990–1991 Gulf War, leading both to the large (and long) deployment of U.S. forces, and the decision to curtail operations after liberating Kuwait (rather than going to Baghdad, e.g.).

Casualty-avoidance is a good thing for numerous reasons, including that it encourages the safety and protection of U.S. personnel. It also reduces the likelihood that policymakers will rely on force—or significant amounts of force—for fear of evoking the ire of the public (over U.S. casualties) and facing electoral sanction.

But offering policymakers a use-of-force option like that of drones, which promises nearly cost-free (or casualty-free) use-of-force is problematic. First, it may lead policymakers to wrongly believe that drone strikes are in fact insulated from casualties. As noted early, these strikes often involve spotters on the ground who may become casualties. We have already witnessed one suicide bombing that directly targeted drone operations. Second, it may lead policymakers to rely on force in situations where force is either unwarranted or warranted yet ultimately counterproductive to the overall mission—whatever that happens to be. Indeed, the extent of the drone campaign in Pakistan, and its growing scale in Yemen, suggests that the United States is already using force in situations it would not have previously. There are second order effects of such frequent uses of force—for instance, the frequency of drone strikes in Pakistan likely placed the United States in an armed conflict in Pakistan, making the civilian (CIA) drone operators unprivileged belligerents there. Third, the brilliance of the virtues of drones may obscure their costs, leading policymakers to rely on drones when a riskier means of using force may be more appropriate. Fortunately, in at least one high-profile situation (the killing of Osama bin Laden), the United States chose to rely not on drones (or manned air systems), but on a higher-risk deployment of SEALs.

*It is also worth noting here that manned strikes may also involve the presence of spotters on the ground. Thus the drone strikes that rely on similar spotter arrangement are, at the very least, removing one or two U.S. (or allied or proxy) personnel from harm’s way.

UPDATE: Dan Trombly kindly took the time to both link and respond to my post at his own blog. I'm (mostly) off the grid for work so I've only skimmed it. It's a solid post and I hope to respond in the coming days. In the meantime, go read it. 

UPDATE2: Buried at the end of the Joe Becker and Scott Shane's excellent piece in the New York Times on President Obama and Targeted Killings is this bit from former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair: 
Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Neoliberal Bender & Today's Hangover

Alasdair Roberts has an interesting post up on Foreign Policy blaming the American people, and our enthusiastic embrace of neoliberalism over the past 30 years, for why we find ourselves in such a political and fiscal calamity now.  There were parts I agreed with, but I think he misses a few things.

I very much agree that:
Americans wanted "a minimum of government authority," Ronald Reagan said while campaigning for the presidential nomination in 1976. "Very simply, they want to be left alone." And that was exactly the program enacted over the next quarter-century: Marginal tax rates were reduced, especially for the wealthy; social programs were restricted; controls on commerce and finance were removed. By the time 2000 rolled around, Reagan was remembered as one of the greatest presidents in modern history.
By then, the project of restricting government and liberating market forces was a bipartisan one. It was a Democrat, President Bill Clinton, who famously conceded in 1996 that the era of big government was over. Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and a trade agreement with China in 2000, saying that this was "the only way we can recover the fortunes of the middle class in this country." He also signed laws that loosened federal control over the financial sector, promising they would actually "enhance the stability of our financial services system." 
But these moves, to remove government out of the lives of business and increasingly out of citizens' lives had consequences:
Unfortunately, the decades-long neoliberal project had a price, which became increasingly obvious in the new millennium. The removal of trade barriers put U.S. jobs at risk, while lowering top tax rates and loosening the social safety net aggravated problems of inequality. Lighter regulation encouraged overexpansion and recklessness in the financial sector. Even before the 2007-2008 crisis, Americans were uneasy about the effects that followed from policies they had once enthusiastically endorsed. In 2004, according to an ABC News poll, a majority of Americans believed that they were no better off than when Reagan was inaugurated. In a 2006 CBS poll, two-thirds of respondents doubted that the next generation would be better off than they were. And in an April 2007 Gallup poll, a similar share said that wealth in the United States was unfairly distributed.
What was seen as a good thing for our capitalist system, wasn't always a good thing for the individuals living in it and the elimination of social programs left people exposed to the harsh reality of laissez faire economics.  We instituted policies that did little to stifle the widening income gulf and we did little to redistribute wealth.  That notion was considered a dirty term (and indeed one I know will be questioned in the comments). So we find ourselves when Americans are feeling less optimistic about the future their children will face and a growing sense that income inequality is becoming a larger problem for the country.  In these moments, a polity will often look to their government for recompense, but cue the cognitive dissonance:
Popular attitudes about the handling of the crisis also reflected a deep ambivalence about the role of government in economic life. There was widespread anger at not just the rating agencies, predatory lenders, and fat-cat bankers, but also at the apparent cost of bailouts for the financial sector, along with opposition in principle to interventions like the takeover of General Motors. And as the government took on these onerous, unwanted economic necessities, many also worried about the rising federal debt. But there's little doubt that the public would have been equally outraged if the Obama administration had actually followed a strict neoliberal path of nonintervention and deficit reduction. It would have been seen as cruel and inhuman.
The government found itself in a true "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. And so this is where we find ourselves now and as Roberts closes he poses a challenge as a question to the American people:
[N]ow the limitations of the neoliberal project have become painfully clear. At that time, most Americans approved of smaller, more hands-off government. The question now is whether they will accept the consequences.
And this takes me into my critique and comment.  It is no secret, I'm a proponent of a strong federal government, but some of what Mr. Roberts says isn't quite right and some of the big drivers for our current conundrum aren't addressed.  The first and most easily dismissed is that people got a "smaller" government.  If you look at the chart for federal spending since Reagan, whom Roberts marks as the starter of this movement, we never get below 18% as a percentage of GDP (perhaps targeting a revenue level of 18% of GDP is to encourage chronic deficits).  Basically what I'm saying is that government, even if it was largely more hands off in the business (and I believe it was), it wasn't really smaller.

But if government wasn't smaller, but also wasn't doing as much, what was going on?  In this CBO report, you'll see in Table E-6 that mandatory programmatic spending as a percentage of GDP is growing very rapidly, but discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP was actually at the lowest level since 1971 in 1999 and 2000.  This would reinforce the argument that government was more hands off, even if on the whole, not that much smaller since discretionary spending is where the reach of government beyond Medicare and Social Security is captured. And then following on to Table E-10, you'll see spending on Social Security as a percentage of GDP has largely been flat for the past 30 years, while spending on Medicare and Medicaid have been reaching upward.  During this period we also saw defense spending that was consistently 20% of all government expenditures.

So the neoliberal experiment took a lot of government out of people's lives as discretionary spending declined.  We found ourselves with a surplus in 2000 and determined that the best thing to do would be to cut taxes, but this decision was based on flawed observations and followed up by fiscally calamitous decisions.  First, the decision to cut taxes ignored that our mandatory spending commitments, on two very popular programs, were continuing to grow.  Second, the tax cuts were followed by two wars financed entirely by debt.  As our deficits yawned ever wider we were hit by the worst recession since the Great Depression.  The government took decisive and expensive action to prevent the economy from backsliding, a move quite apart from the preceding decades.  And to some degree those moves worked.  Like a boxer that just took a thundering cross, our economy is stumbling around the ring, but still on its feet.

But here's the rub, a lot of people have learned the wrong lessons.  The cost of Medicare and Social Security continue to grow and now discretionary spending is also on the rise to help people deal with the economic downturn.  Instead of considering that the Bush tax cuts were ill-advised, that the revenue brought in is insufficient to pay for the programs the government does run and that are quite popular, we hear that this is in no way a revenue problem.  These wrong lessons are reinforced by the cognitive dissonance that leads to letters like this, where people demand government stay out of their Medicare.  Those wrong lessons lead to a stage full of GOP presidential candidates to reject a deal that would guarantee $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue.

I don't know about you, but if I've run up a lot of debt, I tend to thinking making more money is a good way to try and get out of that hole.  The GOP is pretty keen to wrap themselves in common sense.  Common sense would dictate we need more money to pay for our current obligations and pay down the obligations we already made.  Our neoliberal bender has led to a hangover and its led to an important choice for the country.  Do we take the "hair of the dog" approach and double down leading to some sort of libertarian vision where the federal government is starved and budgets slashed?  Or do we take the Vitaminwater approach, realize we made some bad choices and embrace the changes we need to get ourselves right and preserve the programs we want?

The critiques I have of Roberts' piece are all around the edges.  I think we agree on the overriding point.  The American people didn't want as much government and didn't want to pay for a well funded federal government, but wanted the stuff the federal government provides.  That approach has failed.  It's clear if we want stuff from the government, we will have to pay for it.  This summer a Pew Research Center poll found that 60% of respondents want to keep the benefits of Medicare and Social Security as they are.  That's a convincing majority, but we have to pay for it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In re Lebanon and Proxy Fights

A good example from the AP today on how not to describe the civil war in Lebanon:
The violence is a reflection of Lebanon's political dysfunction, a legacy of years of civil war when the country became a proxy battleground for other nations. Lebanon walks a fragile fault line over Syria, which had troops on the ground here for nearly 30 years until 2005 and still has strong ties to Lebanon's security services.
As I noted last week, the better way to view outside involvement in Lebanon's protracted civil war is to recognize that would-be sponsors were more often than not captured and manipulated by their supposed proxies. Outside actors like Syria and Israel had little or no control over the conflict. Instead, they were frequently thrown over by their proxies for a better deal with a new sponsor. The Lebanese militias drove that conflict and not foreign states. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Drones & Accountability

After a back-and-forth with Dan Trombly on Twitter last night, I thought this paragraph from the conclusion of a draft chapter I'm writing might be appropriate:
The United States’ current accountability system for use-of-force decision making is imperfect. Unmanned systems are not the source of these imperfections but when policymakers rely on drones for both overt and covert uses of force, they take advantage of and exacerbate existing flaws in the accountability system. The primary advantage drones offer is that they allow policymakers to choose force without risking U.S. casualties. The absence of casualties dramatically lowers the political costs associated with resorting to force, making it easier for the President to choose force and undermining Congressional incentives to enforce supervisory accountability. The absence of casualties also allows the President to use force overtly and for long periods without triggering the WPR—even if the President acknowledged its Constitutionality. Although cruise missiles and in some environments manned aircraft afford policymakers casualty-free—or nearly casualty-free—use of force, these systems cannot match the precision, persistence, or flexibility available through drones. In combination, these features dramatically lower the barriers to using force. By doing so they increase the likelihood that policymakers will rely on force and that those uses of force will escape accountability.

All of this comes out of an article I'm in the midst of writing—a very rough draft of which is available on SSRN—and a talk I gave at the Patuxent Defense Forum in early May (that I should be reprising at the Center for International Intervention in July). 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Spilling Over Into Lebanon; Lebanon Spilling Back.

For Lebanon watchers, the fighting in Tripoli over the last week was all but inevitable. As the conflict in Syria dragged on for months, the likelihood that that conflict would spillover into Lebanon only increased. Now that likelihood seems to be on the verge of realization.

The nearly 15-year long Lebanese Civil War was one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history. Numerous militias, straddling various sectarian, political, and ethnic cleavages fought over neighborhoods in Beirut, villages in the countryside and even mountains. These militias often found state-sponsors and protectors but, for much of the conflict, the Lebanese managed to turn supposed proxy relationships on their head. Often, it seemed, the Lebanese controlled the sponsors rather than the sponsors regulating the Lebanese. And, as you might expect, the militias frequently abandoned one state sponsor for another. More importantly, though, the civil war in Lebanon managed to draw in the entire Middle East and much of the West. In fact, in many ways, the civil war in Lebanon was a realism sandbox for IR theorists; if one were to treat the Lebanese militia as states—not a difficult stretch given they controlled territory and populations, and replaced some nominally state functions—the machinations of the militias and their allies represent archetypal power politics. It is unfortunate that so often the civil war is viewed through a sectarian lens; doing so ignores the largely non-sectarian moves and counter-moves among the militias and the outside powers that really fueled the conflict. 

But I digress.

The spillover into Lebanon that the fighting in Tripoli represents indicates that the Syrian civil war is beginning to pull in the region. It is not the first sign. Reports indicate that the United States has begun to facilitate the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States into the hands of Syrian rebels. Clearly, these states have picked sides and are attempting to exert a sponsor’s influence over the widening Syrian conflict. However, just as clearly, the diffuse, locally-oriented, and shifting nature of the Syrian rebels suggests the emergence of a Lebanon-like militia structure. This point is underscored by the inability of either the Syrian National Council or the Free Syrian Army to rally local units to their banners and become true umbrella organizations.

At this point, the conflict appears to be mainly one of the Syrian state (and its minority adherents) versus the diffuse anti-Assad militias, with Islamists spoilers thrown into the mix. Importantly, Syrian minorities have remained on the sidelines and not reportedly taken to arming themselves. That greatly reduces the complexity of the conflict but has clearly not removed from it a clear sectarian milieu. It is also no assurance that they will continue to remain on the sidelines—particularly with the United States reportedly encouraging the Syrian Kurds to open a second front against Assad. Although that may hasten Assad’s departure, it will likely aggravate Turkey and encourage the Turks to back their own horse, increasing specific but not general support. 

And that potentially takes Syria a step closer to the Lebanon scenario. When fractious militias are armed and they are backed by different powers (regional or otherwise), the potential for a lengthy conflict that draws in Syria’s neighbors increases. There is no incentive to stay out of the mix when your neighbors (read: rivals) are able to improve their regional position through a Syrian proxy. With outside players willing to provide arms, intelligence, and logistical support to specific militias merely to improve that outside player’s regional standing, there is every incentive for local militias to abuse that willingness and cut the best (temporary) deal possible. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Forgetting DOMA

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama endorsed marriage equality. While his endorsement has been much touted, it strikes this observer as something of a half-measure. The President staked out a "personal" position and does not believe the federal government should get involved but, rather, the regulation of marriage should continue to be--as it has always been--a matter of state regulation. He highlighted both of these as well as his administration's refusal to enforce one of the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act. But juxtaposing DOMA and the President's belated acceptance of the need for same-sex marriage is revealing.

DOMA contains two important provisions. One--the one the President does not enforce--defines marriage for federal purposes as that between a man and a woman. The other, more important provision, exempts states from extending "full faith and credit" to same-sex marriages that are valid in the states in which they are entered. It is this provision--and the failure of the Obama administration to move for its repeal--that undermines the importance of President Obama's personal belief that homosexuals should enjoy equal rights. You see, the U.S. Constitution contains the Full Faith & Credit Clause (Art. IV, Sec. 1), which requires each state to give "full faith & credit" to the public acts of each other state. FFC means that should I sue you in Virginia and win a money judgment, that judgment must be enforced against you by Mississippi. Similarly, should I validly marry in Rhode Island, New York must recognize that marriage. The Constitution also empowers the Congress to regulate the implementation of FFC. Enter DOMA. 

The genius of the second provision of DOMA is that it turns FFC on its head. Whereas, prior to DOMA, should same-sex marriage have become legal in Massachusetts, then every other state would have to recognize as valid all same-sex marriages entered into in Massachusetts. The impact of this is, basically, that with a few provisos, a handful of states could have effectively forced upon the whole of the United States recognition of same-sex marriage. What DOMA does is nullify the power of FFC, leaving us with a state-by-state fight for equal civil rights for homosexuals. In effect, DOMA's architects have perverted both FFC and the notion of states' rights. It is stunning, really. More importantly, the federal government has no role in enforcing this provision of DOMA. Thus, the President's "refusal to enforce DOMA" does nothing at all to change the state of marriage disability for same-sex couples.

So, this observer gives the President credit for coming out in favor of same-sex marriage. Doing so from his podium lends it incredible weight and import. But, until the administration pressures its allies in Congress to repeal DOMA's FFC provision, the endorsement can be little more than a half-measure.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sen. Lugar's Final Lesson

Sen. Dick Lugar lost the GOP primary on Tuesday which effectively ends his political career.  Matt Yglesias tweeted "Genuinely odd that a dude as old as Lugar preferred humiliating defeat to a dignified retirement."  Perhaps calling it a humiliating defeat was a bit harsh, especially once you read Sen. Lugar's concession speech.  It's the last roar of a political lion, or as Foreign Policy described him, "The Last RINO."

Whatever animal you want to describe him as, his remarks are a great warning to the nation.  He acknowledges the cyclical challenges he faced:
The truth is that the headwinds in this race were abundantly apparent long before Richard Mourdock announced his candidacy. One does not highlight such headwinds publically when one is waging a campaign. But I knew that I would face an extremely strong anti-incumbent mood following a recession. I knew that my work with then-Senator Barack Obama would be used against me, even if our relationship were overhyped. I also knew from the races in 2010 that I was a likely target of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other Super Pacs dedicated to defeating at least one Republican as a purification exercise to enhance their influence over other Republican legislators.
He talks about some of the unpopular votes he made:
I knew that I had cast recent votes that would be unpopular with some Republicans and that would be targeted by outside groups.
These included my votes for the TARP program, for government support of the auto industry, for the START Treaty, and for the confirmations of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. I also advanced several propositions that were considered heretical by some, including the thought that Congressional earmarks saved no money and turned spending power over to unelected bureaucrats and that the country should explore options for immigration reform.
It was apparent that these positions would be attacked in a Republican primary. But I believe that they were the right votes for the country, and I stand by them without regrets, as I have throughout the campaign. 
And he talks about how he never seriously considering becoming an independent, and always was and always will be a Republican.  He finally turns to his opponent, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.  He confirms he wants Indiana represented by a Republican come January 2013, but he also has some pointed advice for his opponent and Indiana's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it. This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. 
This is an stinging indictment to many candidates who enjoy the support of the Tea Party.  Clearly Sen. Lugar assigns some importance to compromise and bi-partisanship.  Two words that are anathema to the Tea Party agenda and two words that likely resulted in Sen. Lugar's defeat.  Sen. Lugar continues to address what he sees as a lack of comity in Congress across aisles and provides a stirring defense of the bi-partisanship:
Too often bipartisanship is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.  
He continues:
Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader. I hope that as a nation we aspire to more than that. I hope we will demand judgment from our leaders.
I hope so too.  To take this back a bit and apologies for quoting so much of his speech directly, but in the comments section of this blog our friend and tormentor Colin has often questioned the importance of bi-partisanship.  He's questioned its necessity and desirability in government.  It's a position that's rankled me for some time but previously I couldn't put my finger on why.

Within the last couple weeks, and forgive my feeble brain for not remembering a source, but I heard or read a comment about how the U.S. political system can not endure hyper-partisanship the way a parliamentary system can.  It's an obvious point, but to draw it out.: in a parliamentary system, in simple terms, a party appeals to the populace with their agenda.  A party wins a majority or a majority is cobbled together from a coalition of parties.  That majority rules until they receive a vote of no confidence or until the next election, and while a coalition must work to maintain itself, bi-partisanship is entirely unnecessary.  

Now consider the U.S. system.  Our system is defined by the need for bipartisanship.  Simple majorities are not enough, given cloture rules in the Senate, to move legislation.  Additionally, as a two party system, the different stripes and severity of Republicans and Democrats within a single party is very diverse.  It's a system that requires compromise, especially to do the big things, because there's never the clear, operational electoral mandate that a party receives in a parliamentary system.  That's why bi-partisanship is important in the U.S.  It is a necessity to do the big things.  And as Sen. Lugar so succinctly said, "Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle."  It is the required comity, it is the judgement we should demand from our leaders in a representative democracy.

Sen. Lugar's time in the Senate is nearly done, but he has left us with an important warning on where our democracy is heading and an essential reminder that to comprise is to lead.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

David Brooks' False Choice

We all know that New York Times columnist David Brooks has a propensity for patting himself on the back.  You've seen him on Meet the Press being the last standing "adult" of the Republican party.  But sometimes this indulgence leads to misguided columns like the one he penned yesterday.

You see Mr. Brooks sees two completely different debates going on about economic policy.  On the one side, lefties that think this is entirely a demand problem and if the government would only spend more, which would require more deficit spending, then we could get this economy restarted.  On the other side, in a number Mr. Brooks believes includes "some on the left but mostly in the center and on the right,"  (Conveniently, Mr. Brooks declares "I'm one of them.") are people who believe the issue with the economy is structural and that we should be working to fix those structural issues instead of "papering over them with more debt."

In Mr. Brooks attempt to be the adult again, he's presented us with a false choice.  Paul Krugman, perhaps the most high-profile Keynesian on the planet, has been saying that this is a demand problem for a long time.  But he also hasn't denied that issues of government debt aren't a concern, they just aren't a concern right now.  He points to the continually low interest rates on U.S. government bonds throughout the recession as proof, and he's absolutely right.

Right now, today, the issue is demand and the government can take up some of the slack in that demand.  Further out, there are debt issues we need to resolve, and we need to set ourselves on a path to fiscal solvency, but we don't need austerity right now.  We need to do both, but the hair-on-fire invocations that DC will erupt like Athens are overdone and at the moment just plain wrong.

Somewhat ironically, Brooks admits the false dichotomy later when he says "Running up huge deficits without fixing the underlying structure will not restore growth. "  I haven't heard any Keynesian suggest that any of that statement is incorrect so why does Mr. Brooks find it necessary to divide the debate along this line?

And then there's the "structural" challenges Mr. Brooks cite which includes, "globalization and technological change" and "the decline in human capital."  I wouldn't disagree that all of those are issues, but to later say "Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan understand the size of the structural problems, but their reform plans are constrained by the Republican Party’s single-minded devotion to tax cuts."  Funny that Rep. Ryan's budget and Gov. Romney's policies would seek to undermine government funding of education and national investment in science and technology.  It makes any contention that they "understand...the structural problems" sound a bit ludicrous given the goal posts Mr. Brooks has laid down.

And then there's the comment that, "the current model, in which we try to compensate for structural economic weakness with tax cuts and an unsustainable welfare state, simply cannot last." Lest we forget that Mr. Brooks earlier included "the right" in the number of people who want to solve the structural problems despite their dogged and unrelenting advocacy for tax cuts upon tax cuts, but it's "the left" that's having the wrong debate.

On the whole, this is the column you expect Mr. Brooks to write.  He's attempting to be the adult. He's implicating Republicans, while exonerating the right.  He's lauding solutions that fail to address the problems he lays out.  He's giving us a false choice and dressing it up in the trope of small government.  It's an alluring argument and it prays on "us vs. them" but it fails the sniff test.

We can and need to do both.  While the rates are good the government should double down in the sort of infrastructure investment that will propel the nation's economy forward.  The government needs to better fund higher education, research, and basic science.  And the government needs to address the long-term fiscal issues we are facing, even if the day of reckoning is some time off (and it is).  I'm disappointed that Mr. Brooks doesn't feel like we can do both.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Signature Strikes" and DPH

Human Rights First's Daphne Eviatar has an op-ed in Politico making the point I made last week about "signature strikes" and direct participation in hostilities but more forcefully. She is damning of the Obama administration:
In fact, though Brennan left out many important details, he did say more than other administration officials have in the past. And at least some of what he said suggests that Washington has adopted an interpretation of its right to use drones to target suspected terrorists that is dead wrong on the law.
Go read it for yourself.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mission Actually Accomplished

One year ago, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. force who raided his home in Pakistan. Those U.S. forces were dispatched by the President of the United States, Barack Obama. He, the President, made an incredibly difficult and courageous decision when he ordered those forces into Pakistan. Had they failed, as David Frum notes, or had the mission ended as Operation Eagle Claw did, then he, the President, would have suffered the blame.*

For the Republicans who are, today, bemoaning the President's rightful claim of credit, please see the image below. Your dishonesty and lack of perspective are infuriating because you are wrong, because it is dishonest, and because some of us still remember the 2002 congressional campaigns and the 2004 presidential campaign. Now go away.

* It is appropriate to here note James Fallows' piece in The Atlantic regarding the Romney attack line comparing President Obama's decision to go after bin Laden to President Carter's decision to launch a rescue attempt for the Iranian hostages. That, too, was a very gutsy call. It went awry. And President Carter suffered the political consequences of its failure. How Carter has been remade into some sort of coward by the Republican party is bizarre and tremendously unfair.