State of the Union

Bill Kristol’s Tea Party Constitution

Jonathan Chait amusingly shoots at the fish in the barrel that is Bill Kristol’s recent column urging Republicans to “get off the sidelines” and prevent another rout in 2016.

Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”

We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.

I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.

In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)

Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.

For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!

A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.

I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.

Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.

Bill Kristol does not.

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Should the U.S. Intervene or End Syrian War?

Whether saber rattling or not, word is out that the White House is “rethinking its options” on intervening in the Syrian war. The collapse of John Kerry’s Geneva II talks between the rebels and regime, the lengthening casualty lists from barrel-bomb attacks, and a death toll approaching 150,000, are apparently causing second thoughts. All the usual suspects are prodding Obama to plunge in, if not with troops, at least with a no-fly zone to prevent Bashar al-Assad from using his air power.

Our frustration is understandable. Yet it does not change the reality. This is not America’s war. Never was. As Obama said, it is “somebody else’s civil war.”

Still, the case against intervention needs to be restated. First and foremost, Obama has no authority to go to war in Syria, for Congress has never voted to authorize such a war. An unprovoked attack on Syria would be an impeachable act. Last August, the American people were almost unanimously opposed to intervention. The firestorm they created was why Congress ran away from the Obama-Kerry plan for missile strikes. So if Obama has no authority to attack Syria, and America does not want a war, why, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would Obama divide his nation and plunge his country into that civil war?

What are the arguments for intervention? Same old, same old. America has a moral obligation to end the barbarism. At the time of Rwanda we said, “Never again!” Yet it is happening again. And we have a “Responsibility to Protect” Syrians from a dictator slaughtering his own people. But while what is happening in Syria is horrible, all Middle East ethnic-civil-sectarian wars tend to unfold this way. And if there is a “moral” obligation to intervene, why does it not apply to Israel and Turkey, Syria’s nearest neighbors? Why does that moral duty not apply to the European Union, upon whose doorstep Syria sits? Why is it America’s moral obligation, 5,000 miles away? It is not. The Turks, Israelis, EU and Gulf Arabs who hate Assad would simply like for us to come and fight their war for them. 

The Washington Post says we must address not only the moral “nightmare,” but also the “growing threat … to vital U.S. interests.” Exactly what “vital interests” is the Post talking about? Syria has been ruled by the Assads for 40 years. And how have our vital interests been imperiled? And if our vital interests are imperiled, how much more so are those of Israel and Turkey? Yet neither has chosen to invest the blood of their sons in bringing Assad down.

If we have an enemy in this fight, it is al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, all of which are terrorist and implacably anti-American. And who is keeping these enemies of ours out of Damascus? Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and our old friend Vladimir Putin. And who has been supplying the terrorists? Our friends in the Gulf, with weapons funneled through Turkey, our NATO ally. Read More…

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Arizona’s Discrimination Fight and the Politics of Tolerance

“Religious Right Cheers a Bill Allowing Refusal to Serve Gays.” Thus did the New York Timesheadline, leaving no doubt as to who the black hats are, describe the proposed Arizona law to permit businesses, on religious grounds, to deny service to same-sex couples. Examples of intolerance provided by the Times:

In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. In Washington State, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party celebrating the wedding of two men.

The question Gov. Jan Brewer faces?

Should Christians, Muslims, Mormons who refuse, on religious grounds, to serve same-sex couples—that photographer, that florist, that baker, for example—be treated as criminals? Or should Arizona leave them alone?

“Religious freedom,” said Daniel Mach of the ACLU to the Times, is “not a blank check to … impose our faith on our neighbors.” True. But who is imposing whose beliefs here? The baker who says he’s not making your wedding cake? Or those who want Arizona law to declare that either he provides that wedding cake and those flowers for that same-sex ceremony, or we see to it that he is arrested, prosecuted and put out of business? Who is imposing his views and values here?

What we are seeing in Arizona in microcosm is what we have witnessed in America for half a century: the growing intolerance of those who preach tolerance and the corruption of the concept of civil rights.

We have seen the progression before. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that segregation in public schools was wrong and every black child must be allowed to attend his or her neighborhood school. By 1968, the court was demanding that white children be forcibly bussed across entire cities to insure an arbitrary racial balance. Under the civil rights acts of the 1960s, businesses were told that in hiring, promotion, pay, and benefits, black and white, men and women must be treated alike. Equality of opportunity.

But, soon, that was no longer enough. We needed equality of result. Corporations were ordered to maintain extensive records of the race, gender, ethnicity and sexual preferences of their entire work force to prove they were not guilty of discrimination. And if your work force is insufficiently diverse today, you are a citizen under suspicion in a country we used to call the Land of the Free. Consider how far we have come.

Virtually all decisions to hire, fire, promote or punish employees, to oversee the sale and rental of housing, to ensure that all minorities have access to all restaurants, hotels and motels, are under the jurisdiction of these minions who are right out of Orwell’s 1984. Scores of thousands of bureaucrats—academic, corporate, government—are on watch, overseeing our economy, patrolling our society, monitoring our behavior. Read More…

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Why the Web’s Fight Fizzled

Google's homepage on January 18, 2012
Google's homepage on January 18, 2012

Two years ago, it looked like online activists and tech companies were forging themselves into a Fifth Estate. Silicon Valley startups had disrupted and remade industry after industry, and now, they had set their sights on lobbying. Their protests one year ago against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act killed both bills dead. Tech companies like Google, Wikipedia, and others joined activist organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a day of activism. With Google dedicating its homepage doodle to the effort, the message had a reach that any campaign strategist would envy.

But, two years later, an attempt to repeat their success with February 11th’s “The Day We Fight Back” fell flat. Although 6,000 websites hoisted banners in support of the movement, and nearly 200,000 people sent emails to Congress, all that sound and fury seemed likely to have as much effect as the petition demanding Adelina Sotnikova’s gold medal in singles figure skating be revoked and awarded to Kim Yu-Na instead (currently just shy of 2,000,000 signatures).

So what went wrong for the netroots?

The SOPA/PIPA protests and blackouts were tightly focused. The tech groups and their supported wanted those bills voted down or vetoed. But, during The Day We Fight Back, the ask was much more diffuse. According to the press release, this was a “Day of Action in Opposition to Mass Spying, Honoring Aaron Swartz and SOPA Blackout Anniversary.” The email for participants to send to Congress was a little more specific; it urged them to pass USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361/S. 1599), but also to amend and strengthen it before passage. However, the push didn’t make reference to any specific amendments.

SOPA/PIPA also benefited from urgency. The activists were trying to stop something, and all they had to do was lock in enough “no” votes to succeed. But, in trying to pass a bill, the privacy activists ran straight into Congressional gridlock. The slow pace of recruiting cosponsors and votes doesn’t match the breakneck pace of mainstream media, who want to declare a win or a loss within 24 hours. It also saps the enthusiasm of the people making the phone calls and emails, who are hoping for a payoff a little more exciting than, “The bill became slightly more likely to go to the floor.”

It’s nearly impossible to script a bill and shepherd it to passage just from the grassroots. Activism without direct engagement with the usual suspects (Congresspeople, lobbyists, etc.) can look a little like Twitch Plays Pokemon—the anarchic, crowdsourced game of Pokemon that’s been running online for the last two weeks. Anyone with access to the channel can input text commands, which the player’s avatar will implement in the order received. (He’s been walking into walls a lot).

Twitch Plays Pokemon settled into quasi-stability when the game let players vote for the game to be run on one of two modes: anarchy or democracy. In anarchy mode, the game executes every move inputted, but, in democracy, the game’s avatar takes whatever step is currently most popular among users. The tech lobby needs to make a similar shift.

Silicon Valley and the privacy advocates they’ve allied with have already started funneling their mass enthusiasm into more centralized activism. In a December technology summit at the White House, meant to troubleshoot the shambles, technology leaders turned the conversation with the President to their concerns about surveillance.

The power of their grassroots (and the size of their market capitalization) bought these web companies a seat at the table. Now, in order to fight back, they’ll need to become just as adept at building old-fashioned, smoke-filled room social networks as they are at building casual ones online. The next time they organize a Day of Action, it might be to push through a bill their lobbyists helped draft.

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Liberalism’s (Un)Limited Government

Why is it that today’s liberals have become the most ardent cheerleaders of arbitrary monarchy? Wasn’t liberalism born of the effort to limit arbitrary rule of a single, unelected ruler?

No, I’m not suggesting that the Left has suddenly decided that they regret the American Revolution. But, in nearly every leading liberal magazine, newspaper and blog, there is a growing excitement and hope that Pope Francis will change the Roman Catholic Church’s “policies” on birth control, male celibate priesthood, homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce and (some, at least, though far fewer) abortion. They have celebrated the appointment of Pope Francis as a sign that the Church is finally going to join the modern world, and fervently hope that he will simply declare that those teachings are no longer valid and embrace today’s accepted orthodoxies. They yearn for executive fiat.

It is striking to witness this palpable longing in juxtaposition of the absence of any real concern on the Left about possible abrogations of the rule of law arising from President Obama’s decision to suspend the “employer mandate” until 2015, and general support of the President’s assertion that in the face of Congressional opposition that he has recourse to the “Pen and the Phone.” And, after a season of accusatory lamentation about Pope Benedict’s authoritarian treatment of the “Nuns on the Bus,” there has been deafening silence from the Left over the Obama administration’s decision to go to court to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their conscience in accepting provision of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization.

Liberalism was born, the story goes, as a reaction against arbitrary and unlimited rule by monarchs. Yet, today’s liberals seem to adore executive power when it’s used to effect their preferred ends, even hoping that one of the only remaining “monarchs”—the Pope—will single-handedly change the “rules” of the Church. They wish to exchange “fiat” in the sense of “let it be done” to “fiat” in the sense of “do as I say.”

(Of course, “conservatives” don’t escape from this general inclination—they tend also to be ardent supporters of expansive executive power when one of their own is in office, and it is generally conservative intellectuals who have been most interested in developing theories about active executive power.)

What happened to limited government, you might ask? I answer: exactly what liberalism promised. For, liberalism was never about “limited” government, but the pursuit and exercise of potentially limitless power toward seemingly “limited” ends of securing Rights. Read More…

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A Painean Policy Proposal from a Beltway Burkean

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Last week, just as the East Coast descended into a terrifying world of ice and snow, Norm Ornstein proposed “A Plan to Reduce Inequality: Give $1,000 to Every Newborn Baby.” As Ornstein described the details:

It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman as cosponsor. The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child’s life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000.

By reviving a Democratic communitarian policy proposal from the 1990s, Ornstein, a resident scholar at AEI, would probably wind up pegged in the camp of what Ben Domenech branded the “Beltway Burkeans” in an essay last summer. Domenech said, “The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years.” Domenech argued this Washington-centric view could hobble Republicans by disconnecting them from the populist opportunity that the Tea Party uprising afforded them. To Domenech, “A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda.” Paine is the Republican future, not Burke, then. And to the small-government populists, Ornstein’s closing sentiment, “If the cost, in the end, were even $20 billion a year, that is chump change in a $17 [tr]illion economy—and, of course, money that would all be invested in America,” is anathema.

Yet if one thumbs back through history, Tea Party favorite Thomas Paine proposes a roughly similar policy agenda. In his 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Paine makes the Rousseauean natural law case that “The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized. … Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state.” While acknowledging the property right of those who have improved the land and thus created wealth from it, Paine held that those landowners owed the community a “ground rent” for the value of the land before improvement, which belonged to the whole human race equally. So Paine sought to remedy civilization’s poverty, by providing out of that ground rent (collected as a 10 percent estate tax as the improvers of the land turn over) a sum of 15 pounds sterling to every person upon reaching their 21st birthday. Read More…

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Is the Tea Party’s Dream an Illusion?

“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

With some such thought in mind, Speaker John Boehner strode to the floor of the House to offer a “clean” debt ceiling bill and relied on Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to pass it. They did. ”Surrender” and “betrayal,” are among the epithets coming the Speaker’s way.

Yet Boehner was holding a losing hand. Had he added a GOP wish-list bill to the debt ceiling, Harry Reid’s Senate would have rejected it. President Obama would have denounced it as putting at risk the full faith and credit of the United States. Big Media would have piled on. The markets would have been rattled. The Dow would have begun to swoon. Corporate America, cash cow of the Republican Party, would have begun to howl. A clamor to pass a clean debt ceiling bill or risk a new recession would have arisen. And the House Republicans would have caved, as they finally had to cave on the budget bill last fall.

Rather than play Lord Raglan and lead his cavalry in another Charge of the Light Brigade, Boehner chose to withdraw to fight another day on another field. Yet, the Tea Party has a right to feel cheated. When does the Republican Party, put in power by the Tea Party, plan to honor its commitment to halt the growth of the Federal monolith and bring the budget back into balance? Is there is any hope things will be different, should the Tea Party help produce a GOP Senate in 2014? If the Tea Party is in some despair, is it not understandable? For while there are countless proposals and plans to cut back on federal spending, from Simpson-Bowles on, it is impossible today to see in either party the political will to do the surgery. Read More…

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Why Obama Shouldn’t Fear a GOP Senate, Ctd.

I was pleased to see Howard Kurtz respond to my post on why President Obama shouldn’t fear a GOP Senate, even as he thinks I’m “all wrong.”

Writes Kurtz:

An all-Republican Congress can make life miserable for Obama and, by extension, for Hillary Clinton if she runs. The notion that the GOP will suddenly function as a cooperative partner totally underestimates the poisonous atmosphere in Washington.

Nowhere in my post did I suggest that the GOP would “suddenly function as a cooperative partner.” I made a narrowly focused prediction that “things may actually improve slightly”—most likely on the issue of immigration, concerning which Kurtz argues:

Republicans are highly unlikely to be passing immigration reform in 2015 even if they win the midterms. The base hates it, and more important, we’ll be in the opening innings of a presidential campaign in which the party’s contenders will be pulled to the right, as Mitt Romney (he of “self-deportation”) was in 2012.

Kurtz here is just projecting the status quo into the indefinite future. Yes, the base “hates” the idea of amnesty. But guess what? 1) The base cannot deliver a Republican president in 2016. 2) The Romney campaign sucked; and the GOP establishment is not anxious to repeat its mistakes (the “self-deportation” rhetoric was a particularly and self-evidently disastrous mistake). This is why I believe there’s at least a sliver of a chance of compromise over the issue. With unified control of Congress, the GOP will very likely be able to present to Obama a bill with tough enforcement measures and no path to citizenship. It will be able to declare victory on a major issue on its own terms, not the Democrats’, and it will have laid the groundwork for a campaign that courts Latinos afresh. And as I noted in my original post, Obama will have little choice but to accept whatever cards the GOP deals him on immigration.

Kurtz takes, issue, too with my argument that “Republican Congress” will make for juicy target for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign: “Two years of a Republican Congress won’t be much of a 2016 target, if things aren’t going well, compared to eight years of the Obama administration. As a bogeyman, John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich.” Well, yeah, true. But I never made such a comparison. The Republican nominee will run against Obama’s eight years no matter which party controls the Senate. And Hillary won’t need a neo-Newt bogeyman. She will instead sow fear of unified Republican control of the federal government. Of a return to the mismanagement of the Bush years. Of unchecked power.

Kurtz’s final point:

If they control the Senate machinery, Republicans will be able to launch twice as many investigations as they can now by holding just the House. They will be able to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction. They will be able to bring bills to the floor, while Harry Reid watches helplessly, solely for the purpose of forcing Democrats to cast politically dangerous votes that can be used in attack ads. They can cut the budget in the name of deficit reduction. They may even be able to force Obama to veto legislation that suits their purposes. In short, the White House will lose the bulwark of a Senate that ensures all conservative legislation dies in the House.

I will concede that a Republican Senate could make life for Obama marginally worse than the carnival barker Darrell Issa already has. But the rest of the paragraph is almost adorable. “They will be to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction [emphasis mine].” No kidding? I’d say Obama is fairly used to that kind of thing by now. “They can cut the budget in the name of deficit deduction.” You don’t say? And good luck getting legislation to the floor. There’s this thing in the Senate about invoking cloture. I hear it’s really difficult to do lately. And about “conservative legislation dying in the House”: I was around in the late 1990s when complaints from House Republicans about their lamentably milquetoast brethren in the Senate were routine and vociferous. Such may be the case again in 2015. With a Republican Senate, “conservative legislation” won’t die in the House. It will die instead in conference.

Kurtz’s scenario of Republicans’ eliciting embarrassing vetoes on show-me bills (“legislation that suits their purposes”) is outdated. Obama’s not running again. There will be no painful vetoes for him—only gleefully satisfying ones. And if, as a consequence, Hillary needs to run to Obama’s right because of something he vetoes, so much the better for her. If legislation that’s sufficiently moderate does miraculously make its way to his desk—most likely, and probably exclusively, an immigration bill—he will sign it.

That’s all I’m saying. There will be no “Kumbaya” around a campfire.

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Eric Cantor Picks the Right 40 Yard Lines

Center-right wonks are increasingly optimistic that the next Republican nominee will have a real agenda to promote—one that’s attractive to all voters, not just white owners of capital.

There’s the focus on overhauling antipoverty programs from Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan. There’s the family-friendly tax plan of Sen. Mike Lee. There’s the brave gesture in the direction of prison reform from Lee and Sen. Rand Paul.

To be sure, this agenda is still bones and no flesh.

In the meantime, an equally important development is underway.

Byron York reported from the recent House Republican retreat:

At the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on GOP lawmakers to take a new approach to the nation’s economic anxieties. Dividing his remarks into four categories — Obamacare, jobs and economic growth, the middle-class squeeze, and opportunity — Cantor’s goal was to try to identify specific problems middle-class families are facing and spark discussion on conservative solutions that might help those families.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cantors presentation was that it included a recognition that in the past Republicans have focused more on the nation’s employers than employees, have talked about small business owners and entrepreneurs to the exclusion of the far greater number of Americans who don’t own their own businesses.

“Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else,” Cantor said, according to a source in the room. “Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn’t their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family.”

“We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” Cantor continued, according to the source, “which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze.”

This shift in tone and emphasis is key to any hope of a Republican winning the White House again. It is a not-so-subtle rebuke of the disastrous Romney campaign and its self-satisfied and divisive “Yes, I did build that!” rhetoric. It’s the human-interest frame in which to hang the Ryan-Rubio-Lee-Paul reform agenda.

After Ryan’s 2012 convention speech, I wrote:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

There’s an old saying that American politics is fought “between the 40 yard lines.” This is half-true. It skips over the matter of which football field we’re playing on. For the last five years, we’ve been fighting between the 40 yard lines on the football field of low inflation and deficit reduction—spending cuts vs. new tax revenue. What, if anything, to do about long-term unemployment and underemployment is another field altogether—and we barely play on it.

The field on which elite Republicans would like to fight is that of cheap labor, tight money, balanced budgets, hawkish foreign policy and low taxes on capital. On this field, amnesty and gay marriage are between the 40 yard lines.

Not to single her out, because there are all too many Republicans like her in Washington, but this is Jennifer Rubin’s field.

It’s the way to defeat again in ’16.

Cantor’s advice to his Republican colleagues is a critical first-step in ensuring that, for the next campaign, the GOP is between the 40 yard lines and on the right football field.

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Why Obama Shouldn’t Fear a GOP Senate Takeover

Conventional wisdom says the Obama administration is effectively toast if Republicans capture the Senate this fall. I’ve peddled it myself, and I’m not certain it’s wrong. But here are a few reasons why it might be:

His agenda is dead anyway. What the moral-equivalence mainstream vaguely calls “dysfunction” is really a poisonous dynamic in which compromise, the mere scent of it, politically lifts Obama and splits Republicans. Of immigration, Carl Hulse writes this morning:

Republicans knowledgeable about the issue said immigration was not yet completely off the table. Instead, they said, reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.

This is why new gun regulations were never going to pass. Or tax reform. Or tweaks to Obamacare. Or an extension of unemployment insurance. Looking back, it’s obvious that Congress would pass nothing of any significance after November 2010. This is a pitfall of divided government. You can blame James Madison if you like. (Garry Wills once made a provocative case that our notion of Madisonian checks and balances is so much mythology—an argument for another day.)

Arguably the only thing that President Obama and Congress have accomplished since the GOP House takeover is a sharp reduction in short-term budget deficits. Neither party has benefited politically from this accomplishment. Nor has the economy improved appreciably. Rather, it has probably been dragged down. (One day, historians will look on the period of 2011-13 and unanimously conclude it was utter madness.) Consequently, both sides have wisely given up on debt and deficits for the meantime.

There is the issue of judicial and executive branch appointments. But the heavy lift on those probably has already taken place.

Things may actually improve slightly under a unified GOP Congress. Look at it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, their next prize, obviously, will be the White House. That’s a different ballgame altogether—a bigger, browner electorate. Suddenly the imperative to obstruct the Obama agenda begins to recede. A different incentive structure will take shape: the party will have to govern, or at least appear as though it’s trying. As Hulse writes in the Times, some Republicans “believe it would be smarter to wait until after the midterms and pursue immigration in 2015 leading up to the presidential election,

when Republicans will be more motivated to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters. If the midterm goes their way, they will be strengthened in Congress.

The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP desperately wants an immigration bill. Obama desperately wants an immigration bill. With control of both the House and Senate, the GOP could write a bill that’s more to its liking than the dead-in-the-water bill the Senate passed last summer. And Obama will have no choice but to sign it. It’s the last feather in the cap of his legislative legacy, with the White House now set to pursue the Podesta strategy on unilateral executive action.

If it takes losing the Senate to pass immigration, Obama should welcome it. Come 2017, he’ll be working on his memoirs and running a foundation.

Speaking of the next presidential campaign…

“Republican Congress” will make for a juicy target in ’16. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had great fun turning the moderate Sen. Bob Dole into the sidecar villain of Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s little reason to think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or, ahem, she turns out to be, won’t be able to repeat the trick.

If, however, the trick proves unrepeatable—if the attack line that Republicans are extremist refuseniks loses its punch—it will have been due to some kind of thawing in the great cold war between Obama and Republicans. It will have been due to something like, say, the passage of immigration reform (see point two above), plus one or two other major compromise measures. Which, as far as Obama is concerned, would be all to the good.

Put it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, the prospects for getting something through Congress may brighten for Obama. And if they don’t brighten, his frustration—and the country’s—will ultimately redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who is faced with a uniformly depressing and horrendous array of potential GOP contenders.

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