State of the Union

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz: The Breakup That Wasn’t

The recent war of words over foreign policy between senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz—both potential 2016 nominees—has many on the right bemoaning the rift between the two. But it’s no shock to those of us who’ve paid attention over the past two years. “What breakup?” we wondered. “When were these two ever similar candidates?”

As recently as last month, conservatives were making the two seem almost interchangeable. On his radio show, Glenn Beck mused that if he had to choose a GOP nominee right now it would be Cruz or Paul. Sean Hannity, his guest, agreed.

Perhaps “anti-establishment” is an accurate way to describe both Cruz and Paul. But foreign policy was something that no observer could ignore for as long as most did. Cruz claims to be somewhere between John McCain-hawkishness and the “other end” of the spectrum, which he describes as Senator Paul. Putting aside whether it is accurate to imply Paul’s foreign policy is on an extreme end, is Cruz himself “in the middle”? How quickly we have forgotten Cruz’s nigh maniacal fits over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Was there a fiercer hawk in the room? McCain, as a matter of fact, was more subdued on the matter.

As for Cruz’s opposition to intervention in Syria, it was most likely adopted for the same reasons many interventionist-minded rank-and-file Republicans were suddenly sounding like Ron Paul himself: because Obama was for it, which meant they were against it. Lest there be any doubt, Cruz told The Weekly Standard this week that “he would have been open to aiding Syrian rebels if the administration had been able to identify nonjihadists among their ranks.”

How about Cruz’s #StandWithRand on Senator Paul’s anti-drones filibuster? No true, self-respecting hawk would worry about drones, so essential to today’s interventionist adventures. Yes, Cruz did stand with Paul—but the Texas senator attended, at best, due to an overall interest in civil liberties; at worst, to snag the spotlight.

In other words, Cruz has shown no actual noninterventionist leanings. Contrast that with his consistency on Iran or his recent statements on America’s role in the world. If foreign policy is a major issue for a voter—and for many it is and unquestionably should be—there can be no “Eh, I could go with either Paul or Cruz.” They were never together, thus there was never a breakup.

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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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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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The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics

As a shrewd cultural critic, Alan Wolfe is always worth reading. Recently though, he made an unfortunate diversion into the realm of necromancy, raising the shades of  unwanted and unneeded dead theories. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe discussed how far Richard Hofstadter’s theory of the Paranoid Style could be applied to contemporary US politics. It would be sad if Wolfe’s imprimatur inspired any revival of a fatally flawed, but long influential, theory.

Richard Hofstadter was a Columbia University historian, whose best-known books were Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). The title essay in this latter book originally appeared in Harper’s at the time of the 1964 election. A classic JFK liberal, he used his historical skills to analyze what he saw as the political menaces of his day. He described the beliefs and rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and what he termed the radical Right with about as much balance and intuitive sympathy as an al-Qaeda spokesman expounding US policy in the Middle East. Hofstadter located contemporary Right-wing views in a deep-rooted and ugly tradition of hatred, xenophobia, Nativism, and racism, traceable to colonial times. (He always spoke of the Right: conservatism might in theory be acceptable, but America, in his view, had no “true” conservatives).

Hofstadter saw no point in trying to comprehend Rightism as a system of rational political beliefs. Rather, it was based on paranoid fantasies—delusions of persecution, visions of conspiracy, and messianic dreams of absolute victory in a future that would vindicate all present excesses. Only the word “paranoia” “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” All these views, ultimately, were grounded in irrational fears, of projections of the troubled self. Drawing on the faddish therapeutic creeds of the time, Hofstadter presented Rightism as a pathological disorder. “Paranoia,” in his usage, was not just a rhetorical label, but a certifiable personality disorder.

For Hofstadter, America’s political choice in 1964 could be summarized readily: we are liberal; you are mentally ill. Read More…

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“Strange Bedfellows” Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance

Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.

Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.

The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.

Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.

In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.

No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”

The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?

Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”

If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”

With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.

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How the Tea Party Becomes a Force for Big Government

There are three kinds of victories that Ted Cruz and his Tea Party admirers might have won in the government shutdown. The first is a victory in policy—defunding or delaying Obamacare or else securing significant cuts to government.

The second is a victory in the court of public opinion—coming out of this with the electoral prospects for small-government conservatives enhanced.

The third, a victory that might be salvaged from the wreck of the other two, is psychological—a strengthening of the Tea Party’s own willingness to fight and win another day.

Take an objective look at the score.

The shutdown did not extract policy concessions from Obama. The Affordable Care Act is funded and in effect. Instead of shrinking government, the shutdown grew it, directly costing taxpayers $3.1 million. “Although furloughed workers will get their back pay, taxpayers won’t see the products,” ABC News notes. Whatever projects the furloughed workers were undertaking are still being pursued, of course, only now the workers have had a paid vacation, albeit one that most of them would rather not have had.

Not only did the shutdown not get the policy results its supporters wanted, but Cruz’s tactic itself wasted millions of dollars of other people’s money. In public opinion, meanwhile, the shutdown plunged Republicans to record-low approval ratings. That won’t cost someone like Cruz his seat, but it also won’t make other politicians more eager to support his positions in the future.

That leaves the question of psychology. There lies the biggest defeat of all because Cruz’s actions turned the Tea Party against its own small-government ideals. Read More…

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Conservatives Are Suffering From Radicalism Envy

I’m beginning to notice a pattern among the anti-crony-capitalist set.

They’ve adopted a view of the interaction between government and business that is manichean at best, New Leftism in conservative drag at worst.

National Review’s Jonathan Strong passed on this thought from Rep. Raul Labrador:


Wonderful!

Now there’s no middle ground between being in the pocket of big business and not blowing up the global financial system.

And yesterday, Forbes’s James Poulos mused that Sen. Ted Cruz was waging a quixotic battle against both Big Finance and Big Government:

Orderly non-default would go a long way to prove to Americans that our complex financial-political system does not need to run things. Who needs the Fed? We don’t even need to raise the debt limit! You can imagine the fallout. It seems impossible to me that Wall Street and the world’s key money elites would ever even consider throwing in the towel on this level. If the financial elite loses the popular perception that they and their ways are essential to basic economic order, the jig is up. And if you can bet on one thing, it’s that the financial elite isn’t going to opt for the jig to be up.

That’s why I rate it extraordinarily likely Cruz and Company will be whipped and the debt limit raised. They thought they could take on big government and big business without any radical-left allies. My expectation is that, come the end of this non-crisis, that was their only miscalculation that mattered.

Again, this notion that preventing a default on our national debt is some kind of sop to Wall Street. By all means, let’s have a debate about the financialization of the American economy. But let’s do so without bringing the system to ruin and hurting millions of ordinary participants of the real economy, shall we?

The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, bless his conflicted heart, wrote a column recently lamenting that a repeal of Obamacare’s medical device tax was the only concession Republicans would win in the shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. He acknowledges that the tax is “bad,” and that “Congress is correct to repeal it”—but then spends the rest of the column making a nearly airtight case for why the tax should remain in effect. (Read the piece from the sixth paragraph on, and tell me I’m exaggerating.)

The libertarian-populist take on the medical device tax was shared by enough Republicans that language to repeal it was actually stripped out of the House leadership’s final attempt at a bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Finally, this morning I made it about a fourth of the way through Kevin D. Williamson’s piece on the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over the closing of national monuments during the shutdown. He writes, jauntily, “Every American has a little sedition in his soul, and this is a very good time to give it free rein.” To be charitable, Williamson has in mind Thoreauvian civil disobedience here, not outright sedition, but all the same, I find the whole tone utterly disturbing.

RedState’s Erick Erickson actually wrote the following sentence with a straight face: “Mitch McConnell is the single obstacle we have this week to taking our country back from the death spiral instigated by Obama and his merry band of community organizers.”

This talk of death spirals, storming barricades, of cleaning the Augean Stables of K Street, of exposing the naked emperors of Wall Street, of constitutional conventions—it seems painfully apparent to me that many folks on the right are suffering from radicalism envy. They are drama queens of the apocalypse.

Movement conservatism has always been half-crazy.

Lately it’s more like three-quarters crazy.

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Can This Divided Government Agree to Do No More Harm?

Austin Chamber / Flickr.com
Austin Chamber / Flickr.com

I’m now old enough to remember two federal government shutdowns.

Both turned out poorly for Republicans.

The difference this time was that every sane observer strongly suspected it was going to work out poorly for Republicans.

In the end, they won’t even get peanuts. They’ll get the discarded shells of peanuts.

The most infuriating, tear-out-your-hair reaction to the House GOP implosion  came from Reps. Thomas Massie and Joe Barton, Republicans of Kentucky and Texas respectively: that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” No deal? Seriously? Ponder that for a moment: A faction of House Republicans, at the not-so-secret urging of Sen. Ted Cruz, noisily insisted on a foolish confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House. Once that confrontation ended fruitlessly—as critics predicted it would—this faction skulked away and left its leadership dangling and embarrassed.

This is akin to goading a friend into a bar fight and then watching helplessly as he’s kneed in the crotch.

Make no mistake, though: the GOP leadership isn’t completely blameless. It had planned, too, on a dangerous confrontation over the debt ceiling. There is little reason, now, to believe that such an effort would have ended differently than this one.

What next?

Another round of negotiations over long-term budgeting, to be held between now and Dec. 13, will commence once this deal is enacted. Is there any hope for it? It’s hard not to be pessimistic. The eternal snag is as it always has been: there is no appetite within the GOP for exchanging higher tax revenues for entitlement reform. And contrary to Fox News pundit George Will, I think there’s little chance that President Obama will trade entitlement reform for sequester relief. As Jonathan Chait has noted, Democrats are unlikely to accept permanent cuts to mandatory spending in order to temporarily increase discretionary spending.

So we’re left the question, Can this divided government live with the status quo at least until the midterm elections?

Can it agree simply to do no more harm?

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Here’s How Republicans Could Have Stayed Out of This Mess

CNN reports on a potential thaw in the fiscal standoff:

On Wednesday, GOP leaders appeared to shift their focus from efforts to dismantle Obama’s signature health care reform, the initial driving force behind the shutdown, to securing spending cuts elsewhere. …

Meanwhile, GOP leaders were distancing themselves from demands by tea party conservatives to also make dismantling Obamacare a condition for agreement.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Republican negotiators secure actual spending cuts or, rather, some kind of a framework in which subsequent negotiations will take place. But the tabling of Obamacare represents half the battle for the Obama administration.

It’s worth stepping back to look at the Spinal Tap sandwich that Republicans—because they could not agree on tactics—have put Obama in: The House leadership, plus Rep. Paul Ryan, now seek nonmaximal budget concessions from the administration. But all along, they’ve eyed the most dangerous hostage—the debt ceiling. The kami-cons, meanwhile, sought a maximal concession—the defunding or delay or Obamacare—but eyed a lower-value target: the continuing resolution to keep the government open.

Obama won’t bargain on the debt ceiling.

And he won’t bargain on Obamacare.

Two separate factions of Republicans tried to make him do both—and for different reasons.

Clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right.

There is a deal to be had now that Obamacare is again on the backburner and a short-term debt ceiling increase is apparently in play. The mismatch of demands and leverage points is coming back into balance. And so we’re left to wonder what House Republicans could have accomplished had they retained a sense of proportion and sought reasonable concessions without attempting to seize the highest-value hostage. A repeal of the medical device tax, plus sequester-level budget caps? The Keystone pipeline? More?

Instead they’ll get peanuts, and an even more badly damaged national brand.

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It’s Time to Throw the Tea Party One Ring into Mount Doom

Robert Costa reports this morning:

In the coming days, the House will likely consider legislation that would establish a bipartisan negotiating group to resolve the current fiscal impasse. It’d include select members from both chambers, and once passed, it’d start immediately.

This sounds alarmingly similar to 2011’s deficit-reduction supercommittee, which could not reach bipartisan agreement of any kind and whose miserable failure led indirectly to the creation of the budget sequestration that nearly everyone hates, but is kept in place by Republicans who enjoy mutilating their nose to spite their face.

It seems increasingly clear that the House leadership is playing out the string in the hopes that Obama or Senate Democrats will crack.

Yet consider another report (also from the indispensable Costa) on the implacability of the Houses kamikaze-cons:

“They may try to throw the kitchen sink at the debt limit, but I don’t think our conference will be amenable for settling for a collection of things after we’ve fought so hard,” says Representative Scott Garrett (R., N.J.). “If it doesn’t have a full delay or defund of Obamacare, I know I and many others will not be able to support whatever the leadership proposes. If it’s just a repeal of the medical-device tax, or chained CPI, that won’t be enough.”

Representative Paul Broun (R., Ga.) agrees, and says Boehner risks an internal rebellion if he decides to broker a compromise. “America is going to be destroyed by Obamacare, so whatever deal is put together must at least reschedule the implementation of Obamacare,” he says. “This law is going to destroy America and everything in America, and we need to stop it.”

Does this sound to you like there’s even a remote possibility that any deal, big or small, could pass muster with both Senate Democrats and 218 Republicans? If not, why are we putting the country through this? Why are Republicans inflicting real, immediate, and tangible harm on the economy in order to accomplish the impossible (delay or defund Obamacare) address an abstract future threat (debt) or merely to save face? Why isn’t the majority of the House majority isolating its rightmost faction and ending this pointlessly asinine pissing match?

Contra the conventional wisdom, I maintain that no one in leadership will lose his job. The very nature of Tea Party opposition, whether it issues from the likes of Bazooka Ted and His Gang in the Senate or the unappeasable Jacobins in the House, is to throw weight without consequence. They evince no interest in actually wielding power from the inside, which would require restraint, conciliation, and moderation. They are hysterics on the brink of utter demoralization. The danger they pose to democratic norms, institutional comity, and political functionality is precisely why they can’t be bargained with; they must be marginalized.

It’s time, Republicans: it’s time to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom.

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