Daniel Larison

What Accountability?

Perhaps Andrew has a different idea of what a healthy democracy looks like, but how does the parade of unrepentant criminals that has appeared before the Chilcot inquiry show that there is any government accountability in Britain? How many indictments of former and current members of the British government have been handed down because of their role in launching and prosecuting the war? That would be zero. This is just as many as former members of the Bush administration are facing. Going before a toothless inquiry to hold forth and give self-justifying statements is no better and offers no more accountability to the public than issuing defiant statements from the podium at AEI or on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal. Like George Bush, Tony Blair will presumably never hold political office again in his life, but that was already a given. Meanwhile, the damage has been done, and not one of the responsible parties will pay any price for his wrongdoing.

Accountability requires that there be consequences for abuses of public trust and abuses of power. As far as that goes, the Labour government has so far largely avoided the political consequences of the folly of joining the Iraq war that the GOP experienced in recent elections. When Labour goes down to defeat in the next general election, it will be Brown and the handling of domestic policy and the financial meltdown that will take all the blame. Even here, Blair will not be held accountable. The Chilcot inquiry reminds me of nothing so much as Sen. Danforth’s inquiry into the Waco disaster. For a few weeks, prominent figures go before a panel to testify that they did the right thing and had the best of intentions, but unfortunately a few things went a bit awry and they wish things had gone better. Outrageous, criminal conduct is swept aside, the prominent figures depart without any threat or danger of prosecution or sanction, and the inquiry concludes that mistakes were made. That should tell future goverments that they can do as they like with impunity. There aren’t many things worse for the health and quality of democratic government than politicians’ knowledge that they will never have to face consequences for their actions.

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Political Quietism And Religion

Despite their conservatism, Qom’s pilgrims seemed motivated not by passion for Ahmadinejad—I never heard anyone say his name, though the “Leader” Ali Khamenei was mentioned repeatedly over outdoor loudspeakers—but by a total denial of politics, and a preference for something much simpler. In Tehran the previous week, I’d heard many rumors about protests, violence, provocation. Here I saw no sign of disloyalty to the government (save one: on a campaign bumper sticker with a picture of Ahmadinejad next to the slogan Man of the People, someone had scraped out his eyes and cheeks). Instead, I felt the opposite of the idealistic flurries of this summer’s protests—the happy docility of a one-party state. ~Graeme Wood

This prompts Andrew to refer to “the real Islam” and to praise Qom’s inhabitants for their quietism:

Or rather, surely, the indifference to politics that true faith evokes.

I don’t think this is true. Faith may inspire an indifference, or even hostility, to personal aggrandizement and acquisition of power, but it is a fairly narrow definition of political life if we reduce it simply to matters concerning the government apparatus and its levers of control. Viewed most broadly, political life is the life of the community, and this typically includes the social practice of religion in a number of ways. Indeed, in an authoritarian state where conventional political participation is strictly controlled and limited, religious devotion is an important means of using public space, freely associating with others in an approved setting, and engaging in a parallel political life at least partly separate from and alongside the one acceptable to the regime. Because religion can appeal to higher authorities than the state, it can never be fully controlled. More than that, it imposes a limit on what the state can get away with doing even as it provides the state with justifications for its continued hold on power. Religious authorities and believers will often be strong supports for the government under normal circumstances, but when they determine that the government has lost legitimacy or violated religious principles (as they understand these principles) not even a centuries-long tradition of political quietism will protect the government from their attacks and opposition. In other words, whatever “indifference” there is to what the government is doing, it is conditional and can end suddenly.

Religious people who are political quietists will remain that way as long as their religion is not perceived to be under threat. What Andrew misses here is that the people he calls Christianists were political quietists for decades until they began to find the political and cultural changes going on around them seemed to threaten them and their religion. That is, they were “indifferent” to politics because they believed that the government and other major institutions largely left them to their own devices and did not bother them, which made withdrawal from the world seem like the right course of action. One reason why a self-consciously liberalizing “Green theology” would be such a disaster for the Green movement, as I have said before, is that it would provoke fierce resistance from all of these quietists who have so far effectively remained neutral in the internal political contest in Iran. They are unlikely to rally to the side of the protesters in any event, but they could very easily angrily turn against them if they appeared to threaten traditional religion.

When Wood describes the “total denial of politics,” he is describing detachment from the kind of political activity that seeks to control or change existing institutions. Quietists accept that they are not going to change or control existing institutions, and so they come to accept these institutions as they are. They are even more likely to accept these institutions if they remain convinced that the institutions are under the control of legitimate and religiously-guided authorities. It is only when they think that unbelievers and the impious have gained control of the state that such quietists are going to be stirred to direct engagement in conventional political activism.

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Apparently, Centrism Cannot Die

And yet what our genius centrists are calling for, in effect, is to hand over even more authority to these least popular and least successful elements of the Obama administration. They are basically telling Mr. Obama that the way to court alienated blue-collar voters is by extolling entrepreneurship and toning down the administration’s occasional anti-Wall Street rhetoric. It is like suggesting someone kick smoking by going from one pack a day to two. ~Thomas Frank

Frank’s column from earlier in the week covers much the same ground as I have in the last ten days since the Masssachusetts Senate election. Whether or not one agrees with his advice, his analysis seems right. Progressives are now discovering again the frustration of being blamed for policies over which they have had little or no influence. Just as conservatives, or at least dissenting conservatives, were arguing for years under Bush, policies of corporatism, imperialism and insolvency did not represent our views, and it was unfair and wrong to associate these things with conservatism properly understood.

Frank is appalled by the return of the Rubinites, and well he might be, and populist conservatives are appalled by the unending grip of the cult of Greenspan-Bernanke on our monetary policy. Centrists are thrilled by both. Almost everything that progressives and populist conservatives reject, albeit for different reasons, is the product of a centrist establishment consensus, which might best be typified by the idea of a “McCain-Lieberman party” and all that this stands for. It may disappoint Scott Brown’s new admirers that it is precisely these two embodiments of self-important, unprincipled, priggish, warmongering centrism that he cites as his contemporary political role models and friends. These are the ones who effectively prevailed on January 19, even though the voters definitely intended something very different.

I am quite willing to grant that the Obama administration has been dominated by so-called centrists, and I agree that it is what these centrists represent that makes so many voters angry and disgusted. It is Obama’s inclusion of centrists in his Cabinet and his White House, and his pursuit of a basically centrist foreign policy as well as watered-down domestic legislation, that keeps him from breaking with his predecessor on issue after issue. It is also this centrism that I suspect many Obama voters thought they were replacing with something else. This was always a mistake, as I tried to say so many times during the campaign, but perhaps it was inevitable.

Ryan Lizza memorably observed that the greatest misconception anyone could have about Obama was that he was a revolutionary. Of course, he is a cautious establishmentarian, and I doubt very much that he could have become President had he been anything more interesting than that. The trouble for Obama may be that everyone expected him to be much more interesting and revolutionary than he was ever going to be. Of course, this suit his partisan opponents just fine, since they had been flinging wild accusations of his radicalism almost from the beginning, but they also misunderstood him. Having portrayed him as a radical, they began to believe their own story, and they actually came to believe that other people believed it as well. Therefore, whenever Obama meets with any political difficulty, they have a ready-made, extremely convenient explanation: he is too radical, too left-wing. It never made much sense, and it makes less sense every day, but it is all they have.

When it turned out that he was going to be a cautious manager and strict adherent of Washington consensus views, this undoubtedly disheartened many supporters. Amusingly, his enemies could not acknowledge what was happening, and so they resorted to portraying the continuation of the dreary centrist status quo as more crazy radicalism. Legions of lazy pundits were ready to accept and repeat this nonsense. Then again, who is there to stop them from doing this?

In a way, Obama had already set the stage for the misinterpretation of the Massachusetts Senate election over a year before it took place. There were many factors at work in the election, but it is hard to deny that the financial crisis solidified Obama’s electoral chances and absolutely ensured Republican defeat. In the wake of the financial crisis, the popular backlash against the bailout, and the general disgust with the central bank, Treasury and all of the authorities who were responsible for overseeing the financial industry and utterly failed, whom did Obama make his Treasury nominee? Tim Geithner, someone who had been at the heart of the entire disaster and who symbolized everything that was wrong with the collusion between government and financial interests.

Proper, centrist conventional wisdom praised the selection. The markets rallied. Obama was already governing “responsibly.” That is, he was hewing to the centrist line. Despite disastrous failures by all these eminently centrist establishment figures, these were the same people called upon in the wake of the disaster to repair the damage. Even Bernanke has survived more or less unscathed, perhaps because there was some recognition that ousting him would change nothing and the Fed would continue to mismanage monetary policy as it has done for decades. Nassim Taleb was constantly pointing out in the fall of ’08 and in early ’09 how the personnel and policies remained fundamentally unchanged after the crisis, none of the right lessons had been learned and all of the problems with the system remained in place, but once the immediate crisis had ended no one was interested in what Taleb had to say anymore.

Despite Frank’s best efforts to make the argument, though, centrism did not die in Massachusetts, because it has not been perceived to be the thing voters were repudiating. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the thing voters were repudiating, but it means that very few in the media and the political class are willing to believe it. Frank cites all of the right data to make his argument, but something I have realized during the last couple of weeks is that no one of consequence is interested in correctly assessing what the public wants. Republicans have their ready-made narrative that they are going to tell to anyone who will listen, and most Democratic politicians seem to be reacting as if they still lived in the mid-’90s or even earlier. They remain terrified of being associated with real liberal convictions. The instinctive impulse to retreat, cower, fall back and give ground to more assertive Republicans has not been beaten out of them yet, and perhaps it never will be.

One thing that is very frustrating about this dynamic is that it greatly aids in the perpetuation of corporatist, militarist centrism as represented by the likes of McCain and Lieberman, and it ensures the perpetual marginalization of any remotely coherent or consistent conservatism. Conservatives effectively pay tribute to a centrist establishment that has nothing but contempt for them and their interests, and so then end up tying themselves to this establishment and defending its interests against left-populists with whom they probably have much more in common.

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Blair’s Monstrous Consistency

But the failure to achieve a second, explicit, U.N. resolution was a political problem, not a legal obstacle. Few of the anti-war movement care to recall that the Kosovan War was, if anything, predicated upon a flimsier legal case than the Iraqi intervention. ~Alex Massie

One of the reasons why I keep revisiting the illegality and immorality of the intervention in Kosovo long after most people have forgotten about it is precisely because so many opponents of the Iraq war don’t want to acknowledge that Kosovo was every bit as unjustifiable and wrong as Iraq was. By endorsing the war in Kosovo even now, as Obama did again in Oslo, many opponents of the Iraq war have opened themselves up to the attack that Iraq hawks were using from the beginning. If someone pointed out that invading Iraq would violate international law and not have U.N. sanction, the hawks would throw the precedent of Kosovo in his face. Unless he was a principled progressive or antiwar conservative, the opponent of the invasion was always at a loss to respond. If invading Iraq was based on phony or exaggerated intelligence about WMDs, Kosovo was based on lies about preventing genocide and protecting human rights. Unless you are among the fairly small percentage that opposed both, the odds are that you are outraged over invading Iraq in inverse proportion to how outraged you were over bombing Serbia.

Inexplicably, Kosovo is remembered across much of the spectrum, especially the center-left, as a great success, despite having been disastrous for the very people it was supposed to help and despite being based on lies every bit as blatant and outrageous as the invasion of Iraq. As it hapened, Blair was Prime Minister during Britain’s participation in both wars of aggression. As far back as 1999, he has been the chief proponent of liberal interventionism aimed at subverting the normal protections of international law afforded to sovereign states, and he continues to be an outspoken advocate for killing foreigners for their own benefit. What is disheartening about all this is not just that Blair will never be held to account for his responsibility for the war in Iraq, but that he has never had to answer for or defend his decision to support an unprovoked, unnecessary war of aggression against Serbia.

Even though the air war led to the expulsions of Albanians from Kosovo it was meant to prevent, and even though the “negotiations” at Rambouillet involved delivering an intolerable ultimatum designed to start a war, this criminal operation continues to enjoy support or indifference from most Westerners. There were no allied casualties, and the war was brief, so there was little time for the publics in NATO nations to grow weary and disgusted with their criminal leaders. The war was over relatively quickly, so the media lost interest in the false atrocity stories that the Clinton administration used in its war propaganda, and the previous decade of constant anti-Serb coverage made the public receptive to whatever lies the administration wanted to tell.

What I can say about Blair is that he has been quite consistent. State sovereignty and international did not matter to him in 1999, and they didn’t matter to him later in 2002-03. Given his remarks at the Chilcot inquiry about Iran, I am quite sure that he would have no difficulty supporting and even joining in an illegal attack on Iran were he still a minister in the British government. This makes him one of the most unabashed, unapologetic advocates of aggressive war alive today, and I’m not sure that this requires much courage when there have been and continue to be absolutely no consequences, legal or otherwise, for his actions.

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No More “Rogue States”

The idea of “the rogue state” assumed the existence of an international community, united behind supposedly universal Western values and interests, that could agree on who the renegades are and how to deal with them. By the late 1990s this community was already dissolving, with the rise of China, the revival of Russia, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Turkey as real powers, all with their own interests and values. Today it’s clear that the “international community” defined by Western values is a fiction, and that for many states the term “rogue” might just as well apply to the United States as to the renegades it seeks to isolate. ~Nader Mousavizadeh

Mousavizadeh’s article is a timely one, as it appears soon after Secretary Clinton’s foolish threat against China that the latter risks “diplomatic isolation” if it fails to cooperate with Iran sanctions. The threat and the policy behind it take for granted that there is still some united international community that is ready and willing to impose isolation on “rogue states” and their allies. As far as Iran is concerned, such a community does not exist and has not existed for over a decade. Aside from the Gulf states and Egypt, concern over Iran’s nuclear program is purely that of major Western industrialized countries. No one else cares, even if their governments publicly profess boilerplate concern over nuclear proliferation. Almost all of Iran’s neighbors do not see or treat Iran as a “rogue,” nor do many of them regard Iran as much of a threat to them. For that matter, most European governments are not all that interested in isolating Iran, much less Iran’s more powerful allies. We have an Iran policy designed for the 1980s or early 1990s, and it is absolutely ill-suited to the world in which we now live.

Leaving aside the folly of the Iran policy that Clinton is advancing with this threat, as a matter of our relationship with Beijing this sort of talk is reckless. It’s almost as if our government had threatened the USSR with diplomatic isolation because of its support for Cuba, but it is actually much more ridiculous than that. Maintaining stable, good relations with Beijing has to be an important priority for the administration. It seemed as if the administration understood that during the President’s visit to China. Now it is unclear whether they really do understand that the U.S. has no leverage, diplomatic or otherwise, to make China do anything it does not want to do. The Chinese government probably sees Clinton’s threat as the sort of empty, desperate bluster that it is. Unfortunately, this is now what passes for a statement of administration policy towards Iran: making empty threats against a major power on which we have become financially and economically dependent. The good news is that it may have minimal effect on U.S.-Chinese relations because it is an empty threat. The bad news is that it reduces Washington’s credibility that much more in the eyes of all other states.

Mousavizadeh observes, “Conventional American leadership, it is now evident, is as unwelcome in the person of Barack Obama as in George W. Bush.” Of course, it would be. The problem was never the person or the manner in which U.S. policies were carried out, but it was first and foremost the substance of those policies. Obama has followed his predecessors in continuing U.S. foreign policy much as it has been carried out since the end of the Cold War, but he is faced with a world that neither wants nor has to put up with it as often as it once did. The best approach for a real, sustained engagement policy begins with recognition of the way the world is now.

There are multiple centers of power, their interests will sometimes diverge from ours, and the issues that we have declared to be global issues in which all states have common interests often do not matter to other major powers or these conflict with their interests in a significant way. In the future, other powers will become even more capable of advancing their interests and ignoring our demands. This means that Washington has to begin reassessing which interests are genuinely vital to U.S. security and prosperity, and which are extraneous or left over from the Cold War and the last twenty years of activist policy. Once the government does this, it should reach the conclusion that halting or limiting Iran’s nuclear program is not worth damaging or wrecking relations with major powers.

Washington should also realize that it will never begin to get any of the concessions it currently wants from “rogue states” by pursuing the dead-end of sanctions and isolation. Mousavizadeh points out how completely this approach has failed:

The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights.

Of course, one presumes this was not the goal of cutting Burma off from the West, but it has been the result. This is what everyone should have expected when one applies the rationale behind the medieval treatment of lepers to the practice of foreign policy. There is an idea at the core of every sanctions regime that “rogue states” are morally tainted, impure and not to be touched. Furthermore, there is an idea that these states can somehow pass this contagion on to states that enter into normal relations with them. This idea endures despite considerable evidence that it is through diplomatic contact, normal relations and trade that “rogue states” begin to be influenced by other nations and new ideas, which can ultimately lead to regime collapse or at least some beneficial internal changes.

Mousavizadeh’s attention to the Western failure of isolating Burma should make us remember that Western governments are now considering pursuing the same useless approach with respect to Iran. Burma today is what we can probably expect for Iran in 20 or 30 years if the pro-sanctions crowd has its way: a government more firmly in control, a nation more fully under the influence of other major powers, a people even more powerless, and even less Western influence than there was before.

Mousavizadeh writes:

This is not to say that the sanctions haven’t had an impact—only that they have been entirely counterproductive. In a series of recent conversations with civil-society leaders, businessmen, and foreign diplomats in Rangoon, a grim picture emerged: a middle class decimated and forced into exile; an educational system entirely unable to develop the country’s human capital; a private sector hollowed out, with only the junta’s cronies able to profit from trade in the country’s natural resources.

This has consistently been the pattern in authoritarian regimes sanctioned by and cut off from developed nations. This is what advocates of sanctions on Iran will produce if they are at all successful in imposing a new round. The lesson is a simple one, but for many Americans it seems not to have sunk in: imposing sanctions on a state to punish the government does far more to punish the people in that country and helps to keep the people weak vis-a-vis their government. Not only do sanctions not compel targeted regimes to change their internal or external behavior, but they actually free up the regimes to become even less responsive to outside influence and grievances.

The good news for the people of Iran is that fewer and fewer states around the world accept the goals and methods of pressuring Iran. Mousavizadeh continues:

As the U.S. narrows its view of Iran to focus exclusively on nukes, the rising powers see the nuclear issue as only one facet of their relationship with Iran. In Burma and Iran—no less than among the other rogues states—decades of Western sanctions have achieved a perfect storm of deprivation for the people, wealth and job security for their rulers, and strategic influence for those countries unmoved by complaints about human-rights abuses. Indeed, in isolating repressive regimes, the West often hands them an excuse to block the forces of reform most likely to undermine their rule, and even to rally their people behind a hated government in the name of opposing foreign intervention.

What continues to baffle me is why the U.S. does not approach Iran in the same way that rising powers have been. Even if one wants to insist that the nuclear program is a major issue, it cannot be the main or sole issue defining the relationship with Iran. What is even harder to understand is why the administration has given up on engagement so quickly when the failures of policies of isolation are countless.

Whenever engagement with Iran is raised, there are the usual objections that the current Iranian regime needs anti-Americanism too much to ever give it up, which supposedly means that Tehran will never make a meaningful deal with our government. It has always seemed odd to me that the people who say this are also the ones most intent on seeing the current regime overthrown. One would think that nothing could be more fatal to regime propaganda and its deployment of anti-Americanism than a U.S. policy towards Iran that offers full normalization of relations, commercial and educational exchange and an end to thirty years of isolation. Few things could be more useful to the current regime than being able to portray the U.S. as it sees fit and to be able to point to ongoing U.S. policies aimed at cutting off Iran from the outside world. Not only have sanctions not worked, and not only have they made the regime stronger than it would have been otherwise, but they are an impediment to pursuing the one course of action that has some chance of undermining and/or changing the Iranian government. This change is what many in the pro-sanctions crowd always say that they want, but they have chosen one of the worst ways of achieving it.

As a political matter here at home, such extensive and full engagement with Tehran is naturally a non-starter. Too many Americans in and outside the political class remain wedded to a model of global order in which Washington proposes and the rest of the world is supposed to fall in line. Anything other than this is viewed as capitulation, weakness or appeasement. Eventually, Washington will be unable to ignore that the world does not work this way, but that may not be before our government plunges into yet another disastrous conflict or embarks on dead-end policies that will continue to strengthen all the “rogue states” it is trying to punish.

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Boldly Going Nowhere

Now, space exploration is grand but it’s hard to argue that it’s a pressing priority in times of fiscal difficulty. And committing billions simply so a handful of astronauts can see a pretty picture of the earth seems a reasonably extravagant use of the public purse. For that matter, if the idea is that visiting Mars represents a triumph of the human spirit and mankind’s boundless curiosity then the nationality of the astronauts doing the exploring can’t matter very much except in terms of national chest-swelling… ~Alex Massie

Massie is answering this post, in which one Jeffrey Anderson complains that Obama is insufficiently willing to waste taxpayer money on fruitless exercises in sending a handful of people to uninhabitable, dead worlds. For good measure, he puts in a plug for all the jobs these useless programs provide that are now in jeopardy. Just so we’re clear, stimulus spending is unnecessary and wasteful unless it goes to the Pentagon or NASA to be frittered away in more dramatic fashion.

Anderson finds Krauthammer’s 10 year-old call for a return to space exploration worth citing. For whatever reason, Krauthammer has been preoccupied with the limitations of our space program for years. It seems that every year he has to register a complaint that we are not living out the dream of Airplane! 2. The long article for The Weekly Standard from ten years ago was just the fullest expression of this.

Perhaps nothing else captures Krauthammer’s imagination like outer space, which he dubbed “an arena for splendid, strenuous exertion.” If there is one thing that runs through all of Krauthammer’s writings, it is the longing to have government led by willful men who will impose heavy, unnecessary burdens on the public to engage in projects of collective self-glorification. Apparently it brings back memories of the good old days when the government mobilized massive resources to embark on large-scale projects of minimal benefit to the public. Of course, absent competition from the USSR and the associated desire to demonstrate American technical abilities, there would have been little or no interest in the program and similarly little political support for massive government outlays to pay for it. If there had not been some strained geopolitical argument for the space program, it would probably have never been developed as much as it was.

Krauthammer’s explanation always comes back to questions of will and resolve. This is his constant and favorite theme. In the 2000 article, he asked plaintively, “Where is the national will to explore?” In reply I would answer, “What is to be gained by exploring that anyone should want to do it?” Let’s understand something about exploration here on earth: the reason that governments subsidized overseas expeditions during the 15th and 16th centuries was to find trade routes, markets, resources and sources of revenue. Space exploration might theoretically offer access to untapped natural resources, but acquiring and transporting these resources would be prohibitively expensive and absolutely not cost-effective. As far as anyone knows, there is no one with whom we could trade even if we could reach them in a reasonable amount of time. There are no habitable worlds within the practical range of our spacecraft, so there is not even a realistic argument for promoting human colonization of other planets. There is no definable public interest in returning to the moon, much less sending some poor souls on a long, dangerous journey to the frozen Red Planet. This is why advocates for moon and Mars landings are reduced to appealing to nostalgia and sentiment.

Krauthammer’s argument took more than a few odd turns along the way. At one point, he lamented the inward orientation of modern culture and wrote:

The “Seinfeld “era is not an era for Odyssean adventures.

Mind you, the Odyssean adventures recorded in the epic poem were a series of disasters visited upon a hubristic man whom Poseidon wished to punish for his arrogance and presumption. That doesn’t exactly seem like an encouraging example to cite when urging Americans to set out on journeys into space.

The best part is when Krauthammer began attacking skeptics of space exploration as interplanetary McGovernites and “earth-firsters” (no, really!). This reminds us that this urge to put men on the moon and Mars remains bizarrely tied into the obsession with projecting power ever farther outward. Just as there is usually no good argument for U.S. involvement in the affairs of so many other countries, Krauthammer showed that there really has not been any good argument for an ambitious space program in a very long time. He wants to know: how can we not be moved by “the grandeur of the enterprise”? I have a better question: why should we expend our resources on an enterprise simply because its scale is impressively large? Oh, yes, “because it is there.” That’s very compelling, very persuasive stuff.

Apparently, Anderson believes this is the sort of thinking that the administration should be embracing. Fortunately this is another instance when the administration is capable of recognizing and eliminating unnecessary, wasteful spending. Scrapping the moon and Mars missions is similar to the cancellation of the missile defense program in central Europe in that it is an attempt to avoid frittering away resources on completely unnecessary projects of dubious value. As with that decision, this one has provoked much the same irrational reaction, complete with weepy nostalgia for Cold War Presidents who have been out of office for decades and Cold War projects that have no place in the modern world.

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Sending Signals

The NBC/WSJ poll that came out earlier this week has some interesting results. The midterms are just over nine months away, so it seemed worth checking the questions related to the elections. The generic ballot shows a Democratic edge of 2 points, 44-42, but we should bear in mind that the RCP average for the generic ballot continues to show the GOP ahead by 3. More interesting, only 27% of respondents said that they would be casting their votes to send a signal of opposition to Obama. 37% said they will be signalling support for him, and 38% said they will not be sending any signal about Obama. That does not exactly fit the picture of a public recoiling in horror from Obama.

Contrast this with a comparable question about Bush in ’06. Throughout 2006, anti-Bush voters had the edge over pro-Bush voters by 15-18 points. Prior to the 2002 and 1998 midterms, when the presidential party gained seats in the House, pro-Bush and pro-Clinton voters edged out the opposition voters by 12 points in ’02 and 5 points in ’98. What distinguishes the ’02 and ’98 results from ’06 and this year is that in the earlier elections there were far more neutral voters for whom the President was not a direct factor. Nonetheless, as the ’02 and ’98 results suggest, when there are more pro-presidential voters than anti-presidential voters the presidential party tends to have better-than-average midterm elections. Interestingly, Obama’s numbers here are almost a reverse of Bush’s ’06 numbers: where 37% wanted to show opposition to Bush and just 22% wanted to express support, 37% want to show support for Obama and 27% want to express opposition. While this is just one result, it wouldn’t seem to herald the collapse of Democratic majorities caused by massive anti-Obama sentiment sweeping the land.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats aren’t going to lose many seats this fall. They will. However, it does suggest that most voters’ frustrations right now are not a product of their dissatisfaction with Obama. It is possible that these numbers could change and the anti-presidential vote could increase, but if we look at the ’06 numbers we see that the levels of support and opposition were locked in over a year earlier and barely changed at all between the end of ’05 and the election. After everything we have been hearing about Republican successes and the administration’s approaching doom, what is interesting here is that there are relatively so few respondents in this poll that want to express opposition to Obama in the midterms.

Part of this has to be a result of the public’s assignment of blame for current problems. 48% assign either a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of blame to Congressional Republicans, 41% to Democrats in Congress, and just 27% to Obama. One reason why Obama keeps coming back to the claim that he inherited most of the problems beforehim is probably that he and his advisors assume that the public continues to believe that others are far more responsible for our current predicament. Until these numbers change, we can expect to hear more from Obama along these lines for many more months to come.

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Mike Pence, Republican Man Of Ideas

Nestled in the list of small-business initiatives that President Barack Obama announced in the State of the Union address was a measure providing incentives to small firms that hire employees and raise wages.

The details of the initiative, which Mr. Obama is expected to highlight when he visits Baltimore today, include a $5,000 tax credit for every net new employee in 2010 [bold mine-DL]. This credit would be retroactive to the beginning of the calendar year and could be received on a quarterly basis, if the business so chooses. In addition, employers would receive a tax credit to cover Social Security payroll taxes on wage increases. ~The Wall Street Journal

Pence called a White House plan to offer tax credits to small businesses the “Jimmy Carter tax credit,” arguing that it could provide incentives for employers to lay off employees [bold mine-DL]. Although Republicans have criticized Democrats for doing too much too fast, Pence called the plan a continuation of the “small ball” economic policies from Democrats in Congress and the White House.

“I don’t think we should be looking to the economic policies of the Carter administration to get us out of the worst recession in 25 years,” Pence said. ~Politico

Yesterday I said that the GOP remains just as intellectually bankrupt and unimaginative as ever, but I need to amend that in light of Pence’s comments. If possible, the GOP has somehow managed to become even worse than it was in previous years. How else can you explain the desperate bid to reframe tax credits for small business as a job-killing measure? It is tax credits similar to these that the Republicans normally advocate as a matter of course, and it was this sort of thing that Republicans were demanding more of last year during the debate over the stimulus bill. Instead of recognizing this and trying to claim that the administration has adopted one of his party’s solutions, Pence is reduced to the absurdity of claiming that possible tax reduction on businesses that hire new employees is some revival of the dreaded Carter years.

Pence does not attack these credits for being insufficient, nor does he attack them for being unaffordable. He doesn’t even resort to the old favorite of complaining that the tax code is already too complicated and needs to be radically simplified. To make a coherent critique of the measure, Pence could have said any of those things. Instead, he started talking about someone who’s been out of office almost thirty years and who has nothing to do with the current proposal. Plus, he is arguing that tax reduction creates disincentives for growth.

Remarking on Obama’s upcoming meeting with House Republicans, Pence said:

There has been a perception greatly propagated by the majority in Congress and many in the administration to suggest that we are the party of no ideas.

Who could have given them that impression? It certainly couldn’t have been Mike Pence and his heroic resistance to Jimmy Carter tax credits!

Let’s remember that Pence is not some minor member of the minority. He is the House Republican conference chair, the third highest-ranking Republican in that chamber, and he recently decided not to pursue a Senate bid against Evan Bayh in order to re-build a Republican majority in the House. If this is what he has to offer in his current role, perhaps it would have been better for the GOP if he had tried his luck back home in Indiana.

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Derailed

For the last year, Republicans have worked, assiduously and effectively, to derail the Democrats’ legislative agenda. This, in fact, was a constant in Axelrod’s remarks. “They made a decision they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed, that the country failed.” It’s been an inarguable success for the Republican Party. Health-care reform is on life support. Republicans just won a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Election experts are beginning to talk about a potential Republican takeover in November. There is no case to be made that the GOP is in a worse position than a year ago. ~Ezra Klein

It occurs to me that the arguments for recent GOP successes are rather like Republican arguments concerning our wars abroad. Bear with me. What I mean is that Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning. This is how many Republican hawks have approached problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in Iraq, the strategy has always been unclear, unrealistic or even non-existent, so there is great emphasis on finding tactics that “work” to make a basically incoherent policy seem successful on the surface.

The Republican glorification of the “surge” is a case in point. A change in tactics was widely hailed on the right not only as a “new strategy,” which showed that the people saying this did not understand what strategy was, but most Republicans took it to be a vindication of the entire war. Tactical success later matters more to them than the strategic folly they committed earlier. It is almost as if resisting Obama tooth and nail counts for more to them than the utter failure of their time in government, and they fully expect to be rewarded with a new chance at governing on account of their blocking maneuvers. As time goes on, however, the limits of this approach become clear. Having no understanding of strategy and no definition of the long-term goals to be achieved, they are ultimately not going to succeed in any remotely enduring way. Tactical victories simply delay the final reckoning and prevent the recognition that the policy or agenda is bankrupt and useless.

So Klein is right that as far as short-term, tactical success is concerned the last few months have been very good for the GOP. However, nothing could be worse for the GOP than the illusion of success under present circumstances. Worse than learning nothing from the last two elections, the GOP has learned the wrong things. Republicans made up a self-serving story that the public turned against them because of excessive spending. This permitted them to ignore the real reasons for their defeats. Aggressive foreign policy and loose monetary policy, among other things, remain as sacrosanct and beyond reproach in the GOP as they were in the early Bush years. Not recognizing their past errors, the GOP will make them again and again in the future, and they will attempt to cover these mistakes with temporary, tactical solutions that simply put off the consequences of their terrible decisions until someone else is in office. They will then exploit the situation as much as they possibly can, pinning the blame for their errors on their hapless inheritors and hoping that the latter are so pitiful that they retreat into yet another defensive crouch.

Is the GOP in a worse position than a year ago? On the surface, no, it isn’t. Once we get past the surface, however, the same stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, unimaginative party that brought our country to its current predicament is still there and has not changed in any meaningful way in the last three years. Why would it? The party’s leaders have no clue, its pundits are reveling in the luxury of opposition, and its rank-and-file has been whipped into such a state of agitation over their own impotence that they cannot see that they are led by people who will ignore and abuse them the moment they are no longer needed to win elections. It may seem that the GOP has derailed the majority’s agenda, but in reality it is the GOP that went off the rails long ago and has yet to begin to recover.

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This Is Not 1974

Last week, Michael Barone compared the GOP win in Massachusetts to the 1974 special election to fill Gerald Ford’s House seat in Michigan, which was at least an interesting comparison, but now he has concluded that this is another 1974. In January 1974, Nixon’s approval rating had fallen to 23%. By the time of the midterms, Ford’s approval was still 47% even after the pardon, but the damage to the party had been done. Lawbreaking, scandal, cover-up and disgrace dragged the GOP down. That is what the bottom falling out looks like. It should be pretty easy to remember what it looks like, because this is also what happened to Republicans in Congress for the last two elections.

This analysis of the relationship between presidential approval and midterm House losses is useful, but it can also be misleading. It includes the ’74 loss among those elections when presidential approval is under 50% when determining the average number of House seats lost. Technically, this is correct, because Ford was President by then, but the reason for the ’74 blowout was obviously the unpopularity of Nixon and the association of the party with Nixon. 1974 was also the sixth-year midterm election in the second term of a deeply unpopular President, which would seem to make it nothing like this upcoming midterms.

Even the GOP under a very unpopular Bush during the worst stage of a very unpopular war did not lose more than 30 seats in one cycle. Thanks to more precise methods of drawing up gerrymandered districts, incumbents have become harder to defeat over the last few decades. This is why the GOP didn’t lose more than 30 seats in either of the last two elections despite continuing to embrace one of the three most unpopular Presidents of the last century. 2006 wasn’t another 1974, either, and there were many more reasons to think that it would have been that bad for Republicans. So Barone’s comparison with 1974 seems wrong in several ways.

According to the RCP average, Obama’s rating is currently 48.7/46.8, which is higher than Reagan’s was at a comparable point. So how can Barone conclude that Obama’s party is about to experience a 1974-style repudiation? Judging from his earlier article, he has concluded that the Massachusetts election has great meaning:

The Republican victory in the current Democratic heartland of Massachusetts sends the message that Americans are repelled by Barack Obama’s big-government programs, backroom deals and oversolicitude for those who want to destroy us.

This is simply speculation. Not only does Barone present no evidence that this is why Massachusetts voters backed Brown, but there is good reason to think that the average Obama/Brown voter is not repelled by what Obama is doing. Of course, McCain/Brown voters are repelled, which is why they didn’t vote for Obama in the first place. Indeed, Obama voters who supported Brown may have cast their ballots without intending to send any message to Obama. According to that Post poll, he was not a factor in the decisions of half of Brown’s voters. To the extent that Obama/Brown voters were repelled, it seems to have been “dealmaking” and a lack of transparency that offended many of them. While the comparison with Ford’s House seat thirty-six years ago catches our attention, the reasons for the two losses are very different.

The GOP was voted out of power a little over three years ago, and it was battered again during a presidential election in which the opposing candidate won more than 50% of the vote. Is there any precedent for a party that has gone through two terrible elections, lost its majorities in both houses in one of them and then rallies to win back control of one or both houses in the third? There is one that I can find, and that was 1954, but the GOP majority going into those midterms was eight seats, not seventy-eight as the Democratic majority is today. Eisenhower managed to bring the GOP into the majority very briefly and by a narrow margin, so it only took a modest, normal midterm correction for the Democrats to win back the majority. For the same thing to happen this year, we would have to see an unprecedented swing in public sentiment towards the GOP after the public had barely finished punishing them.

Has a presidential party lost its majority two years after their President won with more than 50% of the vote? Again, the only example I can find is Eisenhower, who won a landslide victory that was just enough to create a slim Republican majority that vanished two years later. I cannot find any precedent for the immediate repudiation of a presidential party with such large majorities in the first term of a President who won the majority of the popular vote. It simply doesn’t happen. If the majorities were considerably smaller, Democratic loss of control might be conceivable, but they have too much of a cushion that they have built up over the last two cycles.

Update: Checking more closely, I see that there is another example of a President winning over 50% of the vote and then losing the House in the next election. The last time that happened was in 1910 when the Democrats took control of the House after Taft’s 1908 victory over Bryan. An important difference between now and then is that the Democrats were coming off of a number of electoral defeats dating back to 1900, and Republicans had held an uninterrupted majority in the House since 1894.

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