Daniel Larison

Goodbye, Filibuster

McCain leads in Mississippi by a margin smaller than you might expect (six points), but the real news is that all those conservative Democratic voters in Mississippi have started expressing a shocking willingness to vote for federal candidates from their own party.  Roger Wicker, whose former MS-01 House seat was just lost to the Democrat Travis Childers in the special election to replace him, is essentially tied with former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who holds a nominal lead of one point.  Some had mentioned earlier in the year that the Mississippi Senate race was going to be surprisingly competitive, and more so than Kentucky.  As it has turned out, Kentucky is also extremely competitive, which must be very worrying for Wicker, who suffers from being an incumbent without necessarily having the recognition and support statewide that incumbency normally brings.  Indeed, Musgrove apparently has higher name recognition statewide, since he has obviously been elected to statewide office before, while Wicker’s current position was through appointment to replace Lott.  The DSCC’s own polling gives Musgrove an eight-point lead over Wicker, but whatever the case incumbents with numbers as low as 46% five months before an election are in bad shape.  I hope Trent Lott is enjoying his lobbying money, because he single-handedly opened the door to the decimation of his state’s Republican delegation and made it that much more likely that the GOP will lose the ability to filibuster legislation in the Senate.

Count ’em: the GOP is likely to lose Senate seats in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, and Alaska, will have a hard time defending Oregon, Minnesota, North Carolina and is suddenly faced with competitive races in Mississippi, Kentucky, Nebraska and even Texas.  That’s eleven, and that still doesn’t take into account the trouble Collins may have in Maine.  If the GOP somehow lost all eleven, they would have the fewest Senators in the chamber that they have had since the 95th Congress (1977-79).  Even without losing the safer seats of Nebraska and Texas, the GOP will still be reduced to 40 seats and lose the filibuster.  This is actually terrible news for Obama, because it will make it very easy for McCain to warn against the dangers of unified government and increased Democratic majorities in Congress as a reason to vote for him. 

Update: As a commenter points out, I neglected the Colorado Senate race.  That’s twelve.


The Meme That Will Never Die

With Webb on the ticket, it would be much tougher for McCain to convince Americans that Obama’s foreign policy prescriptions are the product of inexperience and naiveté. ~Steve Kornacki

Why?  Consider how this plays out.  As it is, Obama stresses his superior judgement and ridicules the value of experience that leads to terrible policies such as the Iraq invasion, and then argues that there should be negotiations with various “rogue” governments, which McCain ridicules as naive and proof of inexperience.  All that is necessary for this line of attack to work and persuade many voters to be wary of Obama is for the media to treat McCain’s criticism as somehow serious (which they always do), allow him to keep repeating it without any meaningful challenge (ditto) and treat the “experience gap” as something that Obama has to address (hence endless talking up of Jim Webb as VP).  If you add Webb to the ticket, how does any of this change?  Webb was prescient and right about Iraq, and in his way so was Obama, so then what is the real difference between Obama making a claim about ending the war in Iraq and Webb making that claim?  Does Webb magically have more credibility because he served in Vietnam even though both made comparable arguments in their pre-war warnings against invading? 

Arguably, if you put Webb on the ticket with his military service and Navy Secretary experience you re-emphasise Obama’s lack of those things, and furthermore, just as I have been saying all this week, you stress that these things that Obama doesn’t have are really important and, in fact, they are so important that Obama has to use Webb to deflect criticism against him along these lines.  What you end up getting is not immunity from McCain’s attacks, but confirmation that McCain has a legitimate point that Obama is inexperienced and that this is a significant problem.  But if it’s a significant problem, why won’t McCain’s attack work and why won’t it drive voters away from Obama?  Because voters can rest assured that when the going gets tough, Jim Webb will be…second in command?  How does that reassure voters about Obama‘s judgement and his decision-making?  If he’s inexperienced, maybe he overrules Webb’s counsel and embarks on a misguided policy that Webb told him would be a bad idea; perhaps he will be reluctant to yield to Webb’s counsel if people begin suggesting that Webb is the one really running foreign policy, which could inspire him to push a bad policy to demonstrate that he is in charge.  I can’t imagine why anyone who wants Obama to win would keep pushing VP selections that seem sure to trip him up down the line. 

Isn’t the Obama-Webb pairing something like the idea circulated during the 2000 campaign, and regretted ever since, that Cheney would be the one guiding and advising the hapless Bush, which was why Bush’s inexperience shouldn’t trouble us too much?  How did that work out?  You can imagine McCain having fun with this, just as he did when he tore into Romney when the latter spoke about consulting lawyers and experts: “Unlike my opponent, I won’t need to rely on my Vice President to help me understand issues of national security, blah blah blah.”  Obama overcame Clinton partly by flipping everything upside down and making her (vastly exaggerated) claim of experience into a liability that tied her to the “old politics” and the status quo, and yet when faced with a major decision Obama is supposed to embrace the expectations and standards that, had he followed them during the nomination fight, would have surely meant his defeat?

Update: James has come up with a devastating counterblast:

Voters simply may not care or be thinking that hard.

This is almost certainly right, and it is even more likely to be true with respect to Veep Madness.  Meanwhile, Ross and Jim Henley have more, and Ross has a follow-up post as well.  Ross adds that “for the symbolism of an Obama-Webb ticket to work, it would have to be wedded to something more tangible than what Webb has brought to the table in the Senate – some specific policy proposals, for instance, that would allow Webb to act like a heterodox figure, rather than a guy with a history of interesting views who’s sublimated them all in service to his party’s orthodoxy.” 

But then you might have thought that for the symbolism of Obama’s hope-and-unity tour to work, he would have to have done more than co-sponsor a bill on securing loose nukes with Dick Lugar and have some evidence of his great powers of bipartisan leadership, yet so far people keep buying into it.  It seems to me that many people, myself included, liked to think of Webb as being more “centrist” (even though on the war he was to the “left” of almost half of his current Democratic colleagues), but this was as misguided in its way as the tendency to label this or that politician a “maverick.”  By and large, a pol achieves the status of a “maverick” because of the pose that he strikes or because of his personality.  The reality that admirers don’t want to acknowledge is that if a politician votes like a left-liberal, he is for all intents and purposes a left-liberal, and the fact that he used to say interesting and provocative things that he could never get away with saying today as a Democrat is actually something of a depressing confirmation that there is no room in the ranks of that party for much of the past career of Jim Webb that people on the right talk about and find so intriguing.   

Second Update: Jim Antle also responds and has an interesting post on reports that the Obama campaign is actually vetting Sam Nunn.  To follow up on one of Jim’s objections to my earlier argument about Webb, it might seem that a Webb or Nunn pick would not exactly be engaging in a “bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy,” since these two have been Iraq war opponents and have counseled the sort of responsible defense policy one once associated with Republicans (including such Republicans as Jim Webb).  But in certain respects it would appear that way, since Webb is one of the true believers that Vietnam could have and therefore should have been won had it not been for nefarious Democrats at home (a view that is not all together popular on his side of the aisle) and Nunn was, as Jim notes, not a McGovernite in a party that was and, in parts, still is (and I don’t say that as a criticism).  What I was trying to get at is that choosing a VP candidate to some extent because of his military service or past hawkishness appears to be an attempt to make the ticket seem more credible on national security, but this assumes that the one major candidate who got Iraq right doesn’t already have enormous credibility on national security, which means that everyone is still defining such “credibility” in the same way that they tend to define “seriousness” in foreign policy, which means maximal hawkishness and hegemonism.  Today’s Democrats can try to outbid the GOP here, but they will always lose.  Selecting a VP candidate to augment a supposed lack of national security credibility compels the Democrats to compete on that ground, because it accepts a conventional understanding of what it means to have credibility on national security, and that conventional understanding has been crafted by militarists and interventionists.  It is the same understanding that compels Obama’s campaign and his supporters to tout his foolish position on launching strikes into Pakistan without Islamabad’s consent (a position that, as his supporters like to boast for some reason, he shares with President Bush), and it is folly.



Jim Antle makes a good point in response to my last post:

But there clearly is this sort of vulnerability for a Democratic nominee, there has been in more elections than not since 1972, and it is particularly a problem for Barack Obama now with certain working-class white voters in his own party. You can say that it can’t be fixed. You can say that attempts to fix it are likely to be self-defeating and embarrassing, as John Kerry reporting for duty surely was. You can say you disagree with this critique of Obama [bold mine-DL]. But the problem clearly exists and doesn’t require Democratic validation. Democratic acknowledgement may not help, but it doesn’t seem arguable that this is a problem. It only seems arguable whether it can be solved.

It is this point about disagreeing with the critique that seems most important.  One of the reasons why the “unpatriotic” or “un-American” charges have worked against previous nominees at all is that the Democrats either did not take them seriously or actually embraced the terms of the debate being set by their opponents.  They disagreed with the critique, but often acted as if they agreed that the problem of perception was a substantial problem.  Thus Al Gore, a pro-war “centrist” himself, felt compelled to choose another pro-war “centrist” to “balance” the ticket, and Kerry did the same.  They internalised the critique of their enemies and gave the impression that they were guilty of the thing they were being accused of being, which ended up confirming the accusation in the minds of the public.  This has put Democrats in the position of having to engage in a bidding war to demonstrate their patriotism in the most heavy-handed ways, which has usually mistakenly involved trumpeting their willingness to bomb one country or another or being unusually reckless in promoting democracy and human rights abroad.  Obama’s supporters sometimes seem eager to remind the world that he would be willing to violate Pakistani sovereignty with impunity, unlike the wimp John McCain, and next they will probably laud his willingness to escalate the drug war as proof of his “toughness.” 

The point is that Democrats cannot defeat today’s GOP in a bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy, just as the GOP can never outbid the Democrats when it comes to making lavish, irresponsible promises about domestic spending.  To fight the election on this ground is a losing proposition for Democrats, and this is why efforts to out-veteran the veteran opponent, which is part of the rationale for selecting Webb, will simply draw attention to the “weaknesses” that have been attributed to Obama.  It is an attempt to beat the opposition at its own game with a candidate who is uniquely ill-suited to playing that kind of game.  Hence he has tried to frame the election in entirely different terms, because once the election is defined along tradiitional lines he probably knows that he will lose. 

Suppose he chooses Webb.  What then?  Each time someone explains why he chose Webb, the answer will come back that he had to choose someone who had served in the military (because he hadn’t) and whom Middle Americans could accept (because they couldn’t accept him), and so each time Webb is mentioned voters will be reminded of the critique of Obama.  He has negatively defined himself in ways that are particularly advantageous to his opponent.  Instead of destroying or cancelling out the critique, it would strengthen it, and simultaneously play the game of the “old politics” that Obama professes that he wants to escape.  Is there an electoral reality that confirms that Obama has political weaknesses with certain constituencies?  Of course.  The trick, then, is not to dwell on those weaknesses and not obsess over winning over voters who cannot be won over.  The larger point would be that if Obama is so unelectable that he cannot put together a winning coalition without accomplishing the impossible and winning over these die-hard anti-Obama Democrats of Appalachia and so forth, it won’t matter whether he chooses Webb or Tony Hawk.  Meanwhile, choosing Webb sends the signal that he is going to chase a will o’ the wisp and lacks confidence in his ability to win without that sort of overt symbolic pandering.  When Gore chose Lieberman, he was playing into the hands of his opponents who kept insisting that he had to distance himself from a popular administration because of its sleazy reputation, and it was indicative of a broader problem with the campaign of yielding to outside criticism and pressure that contributed to a loss of confidence in the candidate. 

Rather than changing the terms of the debate and ushering in the sort of transformation his candidacy is supposed to represent, an Obama selection of Webb would be another instance of the “defensive crouch” from the Democrat who was supposed to be willing to defend Democratic policies forthrightly as the better policies on national security.  Voters respond well to confidence and conviction.  Actions that suggest hesitation, uncertainty or base-covering tend not to help, especially when they are being made by the relatively inexperienced contender.


Webb As Symbol


I take all her points, but it seems to me that the meme that is strongest against Obama is the usual Fox-Rove culture war stuff, a way to make Obama seem un-American.  Webb destroys that meme and remakes the landscape of the race in ways that hurt McCain.

That is one way to view it, I suppose, but more likely the selection of Webb validates the attack on Obama by acknowledging that there is some sort of liability or vulnerability that Obama had to balance out by choosing Webb.  Choosing Webb is another way of saying, “Yes, Democrats must have a military veteran with culturally conservative attitudes on their ticket in order to demonstrate their fidelity to the United States, which is otherwise suspect.”  Selecting Webb and selecting him specifically because of what he represents, rather than what he can do, accepts the judgement that Obama’s patriotism and American-ness need bolstering.  This has the risk of being every bit as self-defeating and embarrassing as John Kerry’s “reporting for duty” moment at the national convention.


Out West

Betty Ethridge, a 59-year-old Democrat wearing a denim jacket with military and POW commemorative patches, said after listening to McCain in Albuquerque that she simply trusted him more than she did Obama [bold mine-DL].

Ethridge said she objected to Obama’s “Muslim upbringing.” Reminded that Obama was a Christian, Ethridge said: “Now he is.”

His statements lead me more to believe he’s more Muslim than he is Christian [bold mine-DL],” she said. “He wants to change America.” ~The Politico

His “statements”?  Has he been starting his speeches by saying bismillah arrahman arrahim?  (Of course he hasn’t.) What on earth are these people talking about?     

Ms. Ethridge and a lot of Democrats like her in New Mexico will apparently prove to be easy pickings for McCain, who will stress his military record and his interest in Western issues of land, water and conservation, while Obama will be punished for nebulous supposedly Islamic “statements” that are never defined or explained.  This question of trust is going to be decisive.


Going West

Dan notes that Obama is planning to campaign a lot out West, perhaps hoping to exploit the spoiling power of the Barr-Root juggernaut, but it’s worth bearing in mind what Ambinder says on this point:

But the truth is the ONLY way, given the electoral college map that Obama is presented with, he can win the presidency if he loses Ohio or Pennsylvania by winning the West — by winning at least four of these states: New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Washington. He cannot afford NOT to fight for the West. If he doesn’t fight for the West, he loses.

That’s very much in line with what I was saying earlier this month.


Split Ticket

Remember how I was saying that Obama’s profound unpopularity in Kentucky would secure Mitch McConnell’s re-election?  Yes, well, that was apparently very wrong.  Rasmussen has a new poll showing McConnell at 44% and trailing Lunsford by five.  Incumbents polling under 50% are traditionally considered very vulnerable, and given the intense anti-GOP sentiment this year it is now easy to imagine that Kentucky flips along with perhaps as many as nine others (including a more long-shot Nebraska upset).  Given such hostility to GOP incumbents in Kentucky, it is all the more remarkable that Obama gets just 32% support.  There is going to be a lot of split-ticket voting this year:

Twenty-eight percent (28%) of McCain voters say they will split the ticket and vote for Lunsford. 



Which people do Sam Nunn and Rob Portman know, and how much are they paying them?  David Brooks put forward the names of these two for what seems to be the umpteenth time as possible VP selections for this cycle by one columnist or another (though usually Nunn is mentioned as a choice for McCain, not Obama), and I have yet to see anything approaching a good rationale for either one.  If competently running the OMB were a qualification for success in an elected executive capacity, Mitch Daniels should be a giant among Republican governors.  In fact, no one talks about him as a potential VP choice because he is poorly regarded in his own state and his own state is Indiana, the birthplace, as Vice President Thomas Marshall of Indiana said, of second-rate men.  Portman also has the distinction of being a former Congressman, which would make him the most underqualified VP selection in decades.  Nunn might be an intriguing choice, if reviving aged, blue dog hawkishness were a top priority of the Democratic Party and the country, but it isn’t. 

Meanwhile, Daschle makes for a more amusing possibility, but he is such a dedicated Obamaite that his selection would do nothing for party unity.  Pawlenty is a far more credible choice, since he at least has some executive experience, and would fit the bill of aiding McCain in governing far better than Portman.  Portman’s name keeps coming up, I suspect, because the GOP is desperate to find an Ohioan who isn’t deeply unpopular or under indictment who could stand to be associated with them, and they know that they need Ohio in the election, but as a matter of how McCain will govern after the election selecting Portman makes little sense.


5,400+ Posts And Counting

Since January, Eunomia has had an additional six hundred posts, which makes for about 1,900 in the last year.  My thanks to the editors here at TAC for taking Eunomia on board the magazine’s site and thanks to all of my loyal readers, commenters and blogging colleagues who have made working on Eunomia such a pleasure these past three and a half years.  As always, I hope to keep making Eunomia a source of worthwhile commentary and discussion, and I look forward to working on the next 5,000 posts.


Caesarism Will Do Just Fine

One thing is certain: neither the editors at Newsweek nor George Will has a clue what “Caesaropapism” means.  Unfortunately, it seems that this error derives from Gene Healy’s well-received book, The Cult of the Presidency, which I have heard from many people is an excellent and vitally important critique of the imperial Presidency.  It is unfortunate, then, that it should be marred by the use of such a glaringly irrelevant and inappropriate term. 

Here’s Will:

Healy’s dissection of the delusions of “redemption through presidential politics” comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d’être, “agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility.” Liberals think boundless government is beneficent.  Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls “Caesaropapism” as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor [bold mine-DL].

No doubt as a description of the constitutionalism of convenience espoused by many mainstream conservatives, this is quite right, but what I can’t understand is why Healy would have chosen Caesaropapism as the term to describe it.  It is just Caesarism.  There is no “papism” of any kind involved, because it does not concern doctrine, religion or anything pertaining to the realm of the sacred and clearly because it is has nothing to do with any ecclesiastical office or the usurpation thereof.  Then again, those most often accused of Caesaropapism, Byzantine emperors, never engaged in it, either, so it makes even less sense in the context of describing a secular American office.  This seems to confuse the modern therapeutic state and the President’s assumed role of Therapist-in-Chief with a claim to sacred or religious authority, which gives the therapeutic state too much credit and inadvertently invests the Presidency with an aura of sacrality it does not possess. 

The use of this term is troubling on many levels.  As someone who works on Byzantine history, I am constantly concerned to explain, as many in the field have done already, why the word Caesaropapism is terribly misleading, a product of an earlier age in which confessional and secular historiography alike wished to portray a corrupt Oriental empire in the worst possible light.  Of course, it derives in part from a liberal and Protestant historiography in which flinging the accusation of “Papism,” which included the alleged excessive meddling of the Papacy in secular affairs, was considered appropriate and even progressive.  If the Catholics were supposedly guilty of “Papism,” Orthodox have supposedly been guilty of “Caesaropapism.”  Never mind that it was the settlement at Augsburg and the Protestant states of northern Europe that created actual state churches in which some measure of Caesaropapism did exist–blame the Greeks and Slavs instead.  The accusation of “Papism” was mostly code for describing all Catholic societies as backward, regressive and dangerous to freedom; it has been a shorthand for all of the hang-ups expressed in the Black Legend and the anti-Catholic hysteria of 1688 and afterwards.  Likewise, Caesaropapism is a term of abuse intended to belittle the most Christianised society in the ancient and medieval world, and it is deployed by moderns, usually liberals (broadly defined), for whom disestablishment or what we have come to call the “wall of separation” was an obvious and necessary good.  For early secular historians of Eastern Empire, Christianity ruined the empire but then in turn became compromised by ties to the state, while for confessional historians from the West emperors such as Justinian typified a system in which the emperor supposedly ruled the Church.  This was all a lot of nonsense, since the emperor did not rule the Church and could be chastised and challenged by it, but that hasn’t stopped it from living on into the present day. 

Healy correctly notes the blasphemous language of many Presidents, a trend that became very common starting with Lincoln and continuing after him, in which they describe their role in quasi-prophetic and salvific terms.  However, this is also not Caesaropapism, but simply the creepy appropriation of Biblical language by the executive to justify its own agenda.

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