Friday, January 29, 2010

"The responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

So far it seems that Republicans were unswayed by this week's State of the Union address. This is unsurprising. Minority Whip Eric Cantor went so far as to say that he didn't appreciate Obama's lecturing tone. Fair enough. Likewise, while he didn't say it in so many words, President Obama doesn't appreciate Congressional Republicans failing to act like adults who were elected to govern. Hence the lecture. Act like children, and like children ye shall be treated.

Anyways, the tone of Obama's speech suggested that he was most concerned with keeping Democrats working hard for the solutions America desperately needs and trying to inoculate them against catching a case of midterm election fright and "run[ning] for the hills." Any Republican cooperation, he seemed to imply, would be welcome but unexpected.

Here's a bit that I really liked: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

In the first part of the statement, Obama stresses that the fact that the Senate currently needs 60 votes to pass a bill has nothing to do with the Constitution. The only significance to the number 60 is that which is given to it by the Republican vow to filibuster against pretty much anything Democrats propose. As we've seen, requiring 60 votes to get something done apparently results in worse, not better, legislation, as it forces Harry Reid to pander to Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. All that political horse-trading and back room dealing that the Republicans are complaining about? All a direct consequence of their filibuster threat.

The second part of the statement, "responsibility to govern," hints at that. Again, I don't see this to mean that Obama really expects Republican collaboration on anything (with the exception of climate change; moderate kudos once again to Lindsey Graham for actually doing his job). Rather, I suspect that Obama is signaling that if the Republicans choose to do nothing except try to hold up his agenda, they will be responsible nonetheless for whatever has to happen for the legislative branch to function, whether that's the afore-mentioned horse-trading and back room deal-cutting, or using the controversial reconciliation maneuver to get around the threat of a filibuster.

So, summing up and translating what I hope Obama is saying with that statement: We have a majority in the Senate, which is all that the Constitution says we need to pass laws. If you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of that majority, refuse to contribute meaningfully to policy-making, and try to use the rules of the Senate to keep us from governing, we will govern on our own. If that means cutting deals and using the rules of the Senate to our own advantage, the ultimate responsibility for that rests with you, and we will make sure that the voters know it in November. And don't even think about trying to tell them otherwise.

So, if Republicans think they can keep up with the obstructionism and win big in November, I think they'll be badly disappointed. It's been a rough year for Obama agenda-wise, but we're talking about a smart and ambitious leader who showed during the campaign that he learns from his errors quickly. Can you name a single mistake he's made twice? Shifting his focus to job creation is a smart move that forces Republicans to explain to voters why they're holding things up, whereas healthcare put the burden on the Dems to explain what they were even trying to accomplish.

Obama is still facing a tough fight in getting his agenda through Congress, but it looks to me like he knows what he's doing. Let's not forget that as much as he's an Ivy League intellectual, an idealist, and a gifted orator, the President is also a graduate of the Chicago School of Bareknuckled Politics. He knows how to win a fight.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Barack Obama, the State of the Union, and the Winter of our Discontent

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I like Obama. In fact, I like Obama a lot. I voted for him, I gave money to his campaign, and I worked for his campaign as a legal observer in New Hampshire on Election Day. That complex and nuanced worldview of his makes me suspect he's one of the smartest presidents we've ever had. This isn't to say that I support all of his policies wholeheartedly and unquestioningly - Afghanistan is one I've been questioning lately - but given the thought processes he brings to bear on the issues, I tend to pretty much agree with his agenda.

Tonight's State of the Union address reminded me of all of this. Our president sees the big picture, how all the pieces fit together, and what we need to do to get those pieces on the table. There are definitely obstacles to such an ambitious agenda, even a really terrific speech doesn't change that. It's going to be tough - but it's doable.

Last week, taking a long view of things, it was hard to see the U.S. as anything but a superpower on the decline. But after tonight's speech, I can see another way to fit where we are now into the bigger picture. Here's what I hope the historians have to say in a couple of generations:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, America found itself in a previously unheard of position: a sole superpower, a hyperpower, even, facing a world without a single nemesis that could rival the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War seemed to vindicate the supremacy of capitalism and of American military might. America's leadership went on a deregulation binge, and in the absence of a powerful rival the old Cold Warriors who still formed the bulk of the country's military policy establishment started looking for ways to project American military power even further across the globe.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, capitalism woke up with a hell of a hangover. The military establishment came dangerously close to irreparably botching the war they'd chosen (Iraq), and found themselves even closer to disaster in the war they hadn't planned on (Afghanistan).

America adjusted. Saying farewell to an attitude that promised opportunities without consequences, they elected a president who saw problems with solutions. Obama reigned in the banks and took his military policy cues from professional soldiers, like Petraeus and McChrystal, instead of civilian ideologues like Rumsfeld and Armitage. Looking at what needed to be done, he harnessed the energies of a dynamic democracy of 300 million people behind an ambitious agenda that launched America into the twenty-first century, leaving the twentieth century behind. And as the policies worked, the fearmongering of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann largely ceased to resonate with voters who were once again optimistic about their country's future.

I don't expect this all to happen just because Obama made a good speech. But the speech was a reminder that it can happen, and that for all its troubles, America remains a place with most of the best advantages that any country can have. After a speech like that, it's hard not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about the future.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thoughts on the Supreme Court

I've grown weary of the Supreme Court. Maybe part of this is just the cumulative fatigue of the two and a half years I've spent reading their opinions. Or maybe I'm just jealous that the nature of legal writing requires me to eschew adjectives and use only the shortest words I can find, no matter how unappealing they may be, while Justice Kennedy gets to write like a paid-by-the-word 19th-century novelist. And Citizens United certainly doesn't make me any fonder of the Roberts Court.

In any event, I question whether the Supreme Court is what it ought to be. Sometimes I think about the Court as a kind of Council of Elders, appointed for life to interpret the sacred writings of our forefathers and force the modern world to reconcile itself to their vision. Uniquely qualified to tell us what Madison and the rest would have thought about issues that they could not have possibly contemplated arising in their tiny agrarian republic, the Council of Elders issues unreviewable decisions based on judicial philosophies that often have little to do with the world as it is. The good news here is that there's at least a level of independence to the court under this view, since some of the underlying judicial philosophies defy easy liberal/conservative categorization. The bad news lies in the disconnect between the Court and the country that feels the effects of its decisions.

Other times I think about the Court as a superlegislature. With the power to ratify the laws it approves of and veto the rest, it is as nakedly partisan as any other branch of government. Presidents choose their nominees from the pool of people best positioned to hold the party line for future decades. The good news here is that the rules of the game, while unofficial, are known to all, so no one party is really rigging the system at the expense of the other. The bad news is that a disingenuous system like this somewhat undermines the dignity of the institution.

Yet the appointment of Justice Sotomayor is a welcome reminder that the way individual judges approach their duties can still yield positive results, even in a flawed system. Her now-infamous "wise Latina" comment bothered me at first, but having spent a lot of time thinking about the type of thinking that it reflects, I now think, or at least hope, that it signals the kind of jurisprudence that I'd like to see more of. I don't think that we gain much by expecting our judges to not be human. Experience breeds understanding, and need not be mutually exclusive with objectivity.

Increasingly I wonder whether our political institutions still have the capacity to accomplish their prescribed tasks, or whether the country has changed so much since the framing of the Constitution that our tripartite system in its current form is still up to the challenge. Judicial activism is a term with pejorative connotations, but I have a hard time opposing a philosophy that actually strengthens the connections between our highest court and the world we live in.

Striking at the Heart of Democracy? Well, Maybe...

Verne hitched himself a few inches across the desk, and stuck a large finger at Bunny's face. "Kiddo," he said, "get this straight: I can buy any officials, just the same as I can buy any politicians, or anybody else that a bunch of boobs can elect to office. And I know what you're thinking - here's an old cow-puncher, without any fine ideals, and he's got a barrel o' money and thinks he can do anything he pleases with it. But that ain't the point, my boy - it's because I had the brains to make the money, and I got the brains to use it. Money ain't power till it's used, and the reason I can buy power is because men know I can use it - or else, by Jees, they wouldn't sell it to me. You got that?"
Oil!, by Upton Sinclair

By sheer coincidence, I happened to read this passage yesterday, just a few hours after the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission hit the news.
Oil! is the basis for P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, but other than a few characters and the physical setting, there aren't many similarities between the book and the film. The main point of conflict in Sinclair's novel is between capitalism and labor. Standing in for capitalism is the massive Southern California oil industry, portrayed as an entity wealthy and powerful enough to essentially buy the American government and use it to advance industry interests abroad and at home, while running roughshod over anything standing in the way. The above excerpt is a diatribe delivered by an oil boss who has just engineered the election of Warren G. Harding, gloating over his ability to covertly keep the labor unions under control. It's a fairly bleak picture of the United States as capitalist dystopia.

The fact that Sinclair engaged in a fair bit of hyperbole and oversimplification doesn't greatly undermine his point, and I think that it remains a relevant one. Right now, the Obama administration is struggling to pass what ought to be common sense reforms in the wake of the financial crisis, and currently doesn't have anything much stronger than moral suasion to get the financial world to change its ways. In the face of intense populist anger and high unemployment, the big firms still feel secure enough to give out bonuses that strike many as obscene. All of this begs the question, who exactly is setting the agenda? I'm not sure I'd go as far as Sinclair did in venturing an answer, but in the midst of economic devastation and political confusion, Wall Street is still going strong, and Wall Street looks pretty confident that they're going to get off with little more than a congressional slap on the wrist for transgressions that call for significantly more than that.
Cui bono?

Bottom line: with a capitalist system as robust as ours, the amount of money that can be amassed behind a particular agenda is staggering, and the court's ruling has only made it easier for monied interests to do what they've already been quite successful at doing. Frankly, I'm not sure that this is ultimately likely to significantly alter the status quo. Our elected officials in both parties have been getting hefty support from big business for decades, and in return they've gone to bat for those interests in Washington. Need examples? Look no further than Chuck Schumer and Wall Street, Joe Lieberman and insurance, Lisa Murkowski and oil, and Robert Byrd and coal (although to his credit, Byrd has recently
changed his tune somewhat.) While The New York Times characterized the ruling as "strik[ing] at the heart of democracy," I question whether this decision truly reflects a change in substance, or merely a change in form. This is not to suggest that the court's ruling is really consistent with the ideals of democracy, but it doesn't appear to be wildly inconsistent with the way things have been getting done in the United States for some time.

As for the Supreme Court's reasoning, I'm not sure it's even worthwhile for me to have an opinion on it. If you want to know how I feel about the Supreme Court in general, check back in a couple of days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

We Might Not Win This One

Lately I've had this vague sense that future generations of historians will look back at this era and say that the United States had the misfortune to face a number of threats to its existence at the very moment that it was least equipped to deal with any of them. One party is trying to govern, the other is opposing nearly everything that party does, and independents apparently don't have enough faith in either one to give them more than a year or two to produce results.

In the electorate, the body that's been charged with the not insignificant task of choosing our leaders, it is almost impossible to make out anything meaningful in the cacophony of what passes for debate today. The media has transformed politics into a spectator sport, where you score points by kneecapping your opponent, not by governing. Yes, politics has always been, and always will be, a necessary feature of the process of governance. It's inescapable. But it has become an absolute monster, devouring time, energy, and money, and leaving our elected officials with time for little else.

Most of us alive today can't remember a time when the United States wasn't going strong. Even in our rough spots, we were better off than pretty much any other country on earth. Economic slumps came periodically, but the economy always bounced back, stronger than ever. Even our biggest foreign policy setback, the Vietnam War, bloodied our nose, but it didn't knock us down. To some extent, America is a victim of its own success. Our track record has given us a collective sense of invincibility. Indeed, there is a shocking degree of complacency among Americans today, a sense that it's all right to ignore the facts and vote with a gut full of misguided rage at the changes we're all living through, because we'll all muddle through in the end, because we're America.

But that's not how it works. We don't get to win just because we're America, and the American Century didn't happen by accident. History isn't some scripted drama, where the United States sails through various crises, always destined to emerge victorious and lead the world, no matter what else happens. In every major crisis we faced and emerged from, the outcome was in doubt, and without strong leaders, we might not have come out on top. We got to where we were at the end of the 20th century through sound policies and solid leadership, not by taking our cues from talk radio and Fox News.

But Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are the symptoms, not the problems. Maybe it's a failure of education, or maybe the amount of information that we're saturated with on a daily basis has left us largely incapable of abstract thought. Or maybe the pace at which the world is changing scares people so much that they reject the uncertainty of meaningful inquiry and cling to political dogma and the comfort that it offers. Whatever it is, it is frightening and widespread.

Let's not kid ourselves. We're looking at a devastated economy, a strong and resilient Taliban, and an Al Qaeda that is still very much a threat. In short, we are facing a national crisis, and the United States has become borderline ungovernable. Yes, we're America, and yes, we tend to come out on top. But we might not win this one.