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Saturday, December 20, 2008

From Naderite to Institutional Fatalist

Back in 2000, I and many other people who supported Ralph Nader and the Green Party were fond of calling the two major parties Dempublicans and Republocrats and were wont to deride the contenders with the single epithet Bush/Gore. Our critics, then and since, have caricatured our position as claiming that "the two parties are the same." I say "caricature" because such was not exactly the argument of Naderites, or at least was not exactly my argument.

If I'm not simply rewriting my own intellectual past, I believe I distinguished between the basic policy differences of the parties, but believed that the parties are largely pro-corporate, pro-business and intend very little "structural" change in society. In other words, for example, the Democratic party is largely pro-choice and the Republican party is largely pro-life, but neither is going to make aggressive efforts to either help indigent women get abortions or establish a polity that ensures support for children whose parents lack the resources to support them.

I still believe that neither party offers the "structural change" that I would have wanted back in the 1990s (or would like now). But my reasoning has changed and has become a bit more (shall I say) cynical and fatalistic. My hopes in 2000, and perhaps the hopes of many Naderites, was that Mr. Nader would garner the 5% of the popular vote necessary to qualify for federal matching funds so that, in the future, the Green party might be a challenge to the two major parties and, potentially, lead to a reconfiguration of the party system along the lines of what happened in the 1850s, when the Whig party dissolved and the Republican party replaced it. Such a view was naive (and not without a healthy dose of self-righteousness), and the analogy was not particularly apt. Still, the view was not completely unreasonable.

I am now more inclined to see the very basic similarities between the two parties as the legacy of the institutional structures of the party system and our constitutional system. The two-party system, the "first past the post" district system of elections, and the structure of government provided by the constitution and precedents lead the two parties to adopt the stances that I in the 1990s and 2000 considered so emblematic of what was wrong with our polity. In other words, I now believe that if the impossible happened and the Green party had won the presidency in 2000, very little substantially would have changed.

(I might add, in all this talk about "change" and "structural change," it is possible, even likely, to fetishize change as always something good and to use too much as a crutch the notion of "structural change" as something desirable without defining what the structures are or what the change would look like. I'll also add that I've now come to the conclusion that the same institutions that prevent change I would like to see also prevent change I would not like to see. But that's a conversation for another post.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shoe to the Chief

Readers of this blog (that is, if they sitemeter program claims that the few people who visit this site leave within seconds of reaching it....I sure wish I could speed read, too!!!) will no doubt recall that less than a week ago, Mr. Bush, at a press conference during what is probably his last visit to Iraq, suffered an "attack" by an angry Iraqi reporter who threw two shoes at him. In celebration of this event, the office mates at one of the places where I work accessed an internet site that surperimposes other items--besides shoes--being thrown at Mr. Bush during the conference. So, for example, a French person throw's "freedom fries" at the President, and then an English speaker throws a book of grammar at him. All's fair in love and war, and I guess that the US is at war; ergo, all's fair.

These courageous partisans--who are joyous to the point of near apoplexy about the election of Mr. Obama--celebrate the brave Iraqi reporter, who apparently shouted epithets at Mr. Bush to accost him for the deaths that resulted from his disastrous Iraq policy, shouting something like "this is for all the women and children you killed" or some such. (I do believe the reporter was brave, in that he had to have known that throwing a shoe would be considered an attack on a foreign head of state, which I imagine carries at least some jail time.)

What these Obamaists probably realize but don't openly acknowledge, however, is that Mr. Obama will likely choose to order the deaths of innocent people when he's confronted by an international crisis. He will do so not because he has an evil heart or because he is a hypocrite, but because he is (or will be shortly) president, and that's what presidents of a great power do. It's in their job description. It is not definitely set in stone, but if history is any precedent (and I'll be the first to admit we should be wary before trying to predict the future from history), the US or US interests will be attacked or otherwise opposed somewhere, sometime during Mr. Obama's presidency. In such a case, Mr. Obama will be faced with the terrible prospect of having to decide to use force that may and probably will cause "collateral damage." He and the military will, I don't doubt, try to make sure that as few civilians as possible suffer, but some will. There will be people who curse Mr. Obama's name because he will have effectively ordered the death of their loved ones in retaliation for something over which they had no control.

Let me be clear: I'm happy that Mr. Obama won the election, and I believe he has the potential to be a good president. But the demands of his office will compel him to do some very inhumane things simply because he holds the office. This is not a new millennium, and the sooner we realize it the more healthy will be our assessment of Mr. Obama. Worse, Mr. Obama will have to live with his decisions. Like the Beatle's song says: "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight / a long time...."

How to lose the health care debate

Yesterday, I spoke with someone who allegedly worked for someone important in the failed 1993-1994 campaign for health care reform spearheaded by Hillary Clinton. He was obviously very knowledgeable, and since I very much would like universal health care guaranteed by the government, I expressed to him some of my concerns about putting a universal health care plan in practice. (I do not quote exactly, but paraphrase the conversation.)

--Might there not be constitutional difficulties?

--Well, people really want health care. It's time has come and they're fed up with it. I think they're ready for the government to act.

--But if someone takes the health care plan to court and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, will the court dismantle such a program as unconstitutional?

--In that case, the countersuit will point out that the financial system shouldn't be bailed out.

--But wouldn't a protest against the financial bailout be a separate case and not part of a countersuit?

--Well, I think there are enough precedents to justify the constitutionality of the program.

I didn't bother to ask this very knowledgeable person what those precedents were. Not being a lawyer, I don't know, but I seem to recall that constitutional concerns have shaped (and limited) the way Medicare and Medicaid were implemented. I also wonder whether the Court's New Deal precedents would stand in the face of an ambitious new program. I'm not convinced that most of the "liberals" on the court--let alone the "conservatives" (again, I think the split is more partisan than ideological)--would be comfortable with such an expansion of governmental power. Each wing's constituency, I believe, is centered on non-economic issues (although I suppose the Kelo decision might tend to contradict me). I also didn't bother to mention that even though he and I could very well find precedents to support a universal health care plan, those might not be the same precedents followed by the court, especially since neither of us is a lawyer who has good knowledge of what will pass muster.

The conversation continued, with my very knowledgeable acquaintance making a variety of arguments that tend to be strongest when used with someone who already agrees with you, including a reference to the "genius" of Michael Moore's movie "Sicko."

This is how to lose the health care debate: assume that the people who disagree with you are idiots; assume that anyone who raises sincere questions (questions which arise from a sincere desire to see a plan passed that will not be dismantled by the Courts in 5 or 10 years) is a contrarian who's not looking for an honest answer.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the way to win the passage of programs one likes is to insult the people whose support you might need in order to rally the support of people who are already on your side but might sit the fight out. It seemed to work for Karl Rove and his strategy of playing to the Republican base. So, I'm not completely against my very knowledgeable acquaintance's strategy.

Still, I'd much rather speak with an opponent of health care reform who will treat with respect people he disagrees with rather than speak with a very knowledgeable person who will just give me 14-year-old talking points.

Mr. Obama Shakes Up the Senate

The election of Messrs. Obama and Biden to the presidency and the v.p.'y and Mr. Obama's selection of Senators Clinton and Salazar to head the State and Interior departments might very well weaken the Democrats' hold on the Senate.

The Illinois seat, which might conceivably go to a Republican in the wake of Mr. Blagojevich's scandals. Even if a Democrat is named, he or she will have to face reelection in two years under the taint of corruption. Maybe if the General Assembly isntitutes an early election--effectively taking from the Governor the power to nominate the new senator--and a Democrat gets elected, that person may very well face a strong challenge come election time in 2010.

In the other seats, a Democrat will likely be named. However, it is a risky proposition whether the person so named will have the sort of constituency that will enable him or her to retain the seat. Such is possibly most likely in Colorado, where Mr. Salazar--a rather conservative Democrat--may be difficult to replace. I don't know enough about New York (Clinton) or Delaware (Biden), but it seems at least not at all implausible that the Democrats there might face certain challenges.

The first midterm election afte the inauguration of a new president can be either an affirmation or repudiation of that president's policies. At least, it can be read that way: cf. 2002 and 1994. Even beyond the first midterm, Congressional elections tend to run against the party in power. My point is that if Mr. Obama is as aggressive at pursuing his plans as he claimed he would be during the campaign--and if he actually tries to pursue those plans--he might very well need to weather a political reaction in the next two to six years (i.e., the Senate elections are staggered). And now, four senate seats are potentially up for grabs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Institutional Constraints and the End of History

A recent article I found on Yahoo news recounts "liberals'" fears about Mr. Obama's imminent presidency. These fears are fueled by his recent cabinet choices and by his apparent reluctance to implement the tax plans he promised during the campaign. To quote from the article:

Now some are shedding a reluctance to puncture the liberal euphoria at being rid of President George W. Bush to say, in effect, that the new boss looks like the old boss.
(I'd like in passing to point out that I referenced the relevant Who song long before the Yahoo article did. But I probably stole the idea from somewhere else, so I oughtn't be smug.)

My argument--you (that mysterious "you" who reads my blog....i.e., me) guessed it--is not that Mr. Obama is a "sellout" or a moderate in "liberal's" clothing. Rather, it is my contention that the presidency imposes institutional constraints on he (or she, I guess) who holds the office. The president, largely by virtue of the fact of being president, is going to end up making choices that approximate the choices of his predecessors. There is wiggle room and there are extenuating and exceptional circumstances--such "wiggle room" and circumstances are, along with a president's personality and policy inclinations, what marks presidential administrations as different from each other--but each presidential administration must work within its history.

As I pointed out not too long ago (although perhaps long ago enough), my formulation risks being tautological in that it's true from its logical form alone: the main test of the correctness of my theory is what the president does: any novel action is seen as redefining the confines of the presidency and creating institutional pathways for later presidents to follow or repudiating a portion of other presidents' precedents while any not-so-novel action is seen as conforming to preexisting institutional pathways. If my formulation is indeed tautological--and I think it might be, or at least I acknowledge that it's possible to carry it too far--then its value lies as an explanatory mechanism. My main concern is to check the hysterical tone of some, both critics and supporters of Mr. Obama, who would have us believe that the end of history, for good or ill, is at hand. Maybe the world will end tomorrow, but the facts in evidence, by themselves, do not support that it will.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Darling, My Tautology

I have, in previous posts, made much of the argument that the presidency is bound by "institutional constraints" and that while it does matter who occupies the office, it matters less than one might think, given the imperatives of the office and the pathways carved out by previous presidents. (See here and here.)

The problem: isn't my insistence on the salience of these constraints tautological? If Mr. Obama does something similar to what Bush has done, I can call it a legacy of institutional constraints whereas if Mr. Obama differs, I can say he has "worked within" those constraints (unless, of course, he unilaterally--and successfully--abolishes the presidency and the constitution (and constitutional arrangements that have evolved since 1789) altogether....a move that is unlikely).

To my eyes and ears, this all sounds tautological because all conceivable evidence proves my argument about institutional constraints and therefore no evidence really disproves it. In that sense, it's like the theory of evolution (no matter the petitions signed by "progressive" religionists that say evolution is an "established, scientific fact.") But like evolution (to borrow from an article I read by an undergrad, even though I forget the author and title of that article), my argument about institutional constraints is a useful tautology. It demystifies the dangerous hero worship of Mr. Obama, who, I'm convinced, is an actual human being with the strengths and frailties of a human being. It also helps put in perspective and calms down the self-righteous and not entirely consistent denunciations of Mr. Bush as the "Rove-incarnate."