Daniel Larison

A Strange Plan


Jonathan Chait and Stephen Spruiell have already chewed over this a bit, but neither have expressed what I think is an appropriate amount of mystification at the idea that immigration reform, of all issues, represents the toughest possible test for Republicans, and a target of opportunity for the Democrats. This is the kind of thing that makes me seriously doubt the White House’s political acumen.

I agree. Prior to anti-bailout anger beginning in 2008, hostility to the worst-of-both-worlds immigration bill in 2007 was the one thing that could unite substantial numbers of people across the political spectrum against the Washington consensus position. The hostility was strong enough to prevent passage of the legislation and make any future “comprehensive reform” bill politically radioactive for years to come. There is almost nothing that could more quickly turn Obama’s labor allies against him and rile up public opposition faster than a push for a new immigration bill. Obama might even be able to bring Republican leaders in the House along by proposing a guest-worker scheme that would please Boehner and Pence, but regardless of what the party leaders accept there would be a rebellion in the ranks of both parties in the House. Obama would expose himself to a punishing battle he couldn’t win, and he would hand restrictionists in the GOP an opportunity to inflict yet another embarrassing defeat on their own leaders. In the process, any compromise bill that might conceivably have enough support in the Senate would include so many provisions for bringing in cheap, unprotected labor and just enough fines for illegal immigrants that it would offend most of the Democratic constituencies interested in “comprehensive reform.” Another fight over immigration policy would probably have a couple salutary political effects. It would remind leaders in both parties what a political disaster advocating amnesty is, and it would force House Republicans to choose between representing their constituents or representing corporate interests.

Like its mishandling of Arizona’s immigration law, the administration’s plan to pick an immigration fight with Republican House leadership next year suggests that they truly don’t understand that advocates of “reform” (amnesty) are very much on the losing side of the issue. As far as Obama’s political interests are concerned, pushing an immigration bill would be a strange act of self-immolation.


Republican Victory, Conservative Loss

The discussion in the comments section of my recent post on the midterms continues, but I wanted to post a couple of my responses from the thread to explain why anti-Bush, traditional conservatives shouldn’t be very pleased with the prospect of a Republican House majority.

Here is one response:

Speaking for myself, there are some movement conservatives that I have always identified as hostile to the conservatism we want to promote, and there have always been some movement conservatives that I, for one, have always regarded as “irredeemable” in the sense that they are diametrically opposed to much of what we believe and actively work to harm the things we wish to preserve. That’s nothing new.

On the whole, I don’t regard Tea Party activists as enemies at all, even if some or many of them might see me as one. In many respects, they are on the right track. It’s true that I don’t have much respect for movement conservatives who aligned themselves with Bush until things went awry, then pretended that they never treated Bush as one of their own, and have now once again identified themselves completely with Republican electoral fortunes. It’s certainly true that I am annoyed by some conservatives. These are the conservatives cheering on the current electoral wave driven by economic discontent and anxiety, but whose economic and trade policies would tend to exacerbate that discontent and anxiety in some of the very states that are about to deliver Republicans so many House seats. Do voters in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania really want to empower the party that is foursquare in favor of outsourcing and free trade? That’s what they seem poised to do, but I don’t think they’re going to be happy with the results. Do people who are furious over the bailout of Wall Street really want to make John Boehner, the pro-bailout friend of financial interests, into the Speaker of the House? If things work out as most people think they will, this is what will happen. I hope I’m not the only conservative who finds that a perverse and rather sickening outcome. I don’t consider that to be “making the same arguments the other side makes.” I consider that to be a critique rooted in conservative skepticism of state capitalism and decentralist distrust of concentrated wealth and power. Maybe I haven’t explained myself or made my arguments as well as I could have, but that’s what I keep trying to do.

I find it hard to get enthusiastic about Republican gains this year because they are wholly undeserved, and because they seem more than likely to result in the re-empowerment of all the same people who supported and enabled Bush’s agenda as if nothing had happened. Is it really beneficial for movement conservatives for their most visible elected political leadership to be John Boehner and Eric Cantor? I have been arguing that Boehner should be replaced for years, so I’m hardly going to become giddy at the thought of him as Speaker of the House. Has all of this clouded my judgment and made me hope that this rather appalling scenario (i.e., Boehner as Speaker) doesn’t come to pass? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

I assume that the activists who really are on the right track are going to be sidelined or marginalized at the first opportunity by a party leadership that is perfectly content to exploit their energy and then cast them aside. The “Pledge to America” has already told us that this is what will happen. On the policy front, I am concerned that some things, such as the arms control treaty, will be scrapped in the wake of the election, and that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the broad, near-universal hysteria about Obama’s foreign policy coming from movement conservative think tanks, pundits, and activists. Far from correcting for the foreign policy errors that helped drive them from power, the most influential movement conservatives have become even more misguided.

Maybe it is counter-productive to point out that there is majority support for additional stimulus spending. I don’t point this out because I agree with that view, but because I see the denial of public opinion on this point to reflect a bad habit of wishing away inconvenient realities. When I see people claiming that there is a majority in favor of health care repeal, I become skeptical that this majority actually exists because it doesn’t really make sense to me, and I am even more skeptical that it exists for the reasons pro-repeal conservatives like to think that it does. When I see conservatives telling themselves pleasing fictions, it bothers me, since more than a few of our problems have their origins in such self-deception.

Ultimately, I see concentrations of wealth and power as the real enemies of conservatism as I understand it, and I see a lot of conservatives and Republicans aligning themselves with both in the service of getting themselves back into power, so I can’t say that I see that as conservative success. I am under the impression that the “centrists” dedicated to protecting centralized power and concentrated wealth are the real enemies of the bulk of both “Blue” and “Red” America, and I suspect that competitors within the political class want to keep pitting us against one another as a way of winning our support against their political class rivals while neglecting the interests of the rest of us.

Here was a follow-up response:

“I fail to see how it conceivably benefits us for the GOP to perform worse than expected.”

Well, it might depend on what we mean by “us,” but let me try to explain why it may be better for “us” broadly speaking (i.e., Republicans and conservatives) if the GOP does not win a majority in the House. I won’t pretend that I’m a good team player by the standards of Red Team vs. Blue Team (I’m not), but take this for what it’s worth.

First, a word about expectations. The expectations game was lost a long time ago. At this point, anything less than Silver’s projected 53 or Sabato’s projected 55 seats will be seen as underwhelming, and when you now have people breezily invoking 1942 and 1938 (!) as points of comparison there is almost no way that the GOP can’t underperform even if it does very well. I would like to point out that I have been arguing against raising unrealistic expectations for most of this year. Whether or not the GOP wins a lot more seats than I have predicted, it made sense for their leaders and supporters to make modest claims about likely gains. They chose to do something else and seem to have grossly exaggerated them.

A Republican House majority starting next year most likely makes Boehner and Cantor “our” spokesmen and the ones responsible for advancing “our” agenda. This is the political equivalent of getting out of a car that had just been driven into a telephone pole by a drunkard, finding a new car, and then handing the keys to the drunkard for another spin around the block in the hope that something different will happen. “It’s been five minutes, so he must be sober by now! He knows to watch out for telephone poles now.” It would be one thing to have trustworthy leadership that deserved respect trying to advance our agenda. They might succeed, or they might not, but we could assume that for the most part they were not actively conning us and abusing our trust. We could assume that they were actually working for our agenda rather than serving interests that have nothing to do with it. If the GOP falls short, it is hard to see how the current leadership remains in place. House Republicans could then make up for lost time and replace them.

For a while, I had assumed that the path to “victory” began with the discrediting of Bush Era party leaders and Bush loyalists in the conservative movement. Perhaps this was foolish of me, but I had assumed that the near-total, staggering failure of the Bush administration and movement conservative complicity in that failure would force significant changes. From there, working through the movement would at least be worth trying. Instead, what we are about to get is the re-empowerment of unreformed, unrepentant Bush Era Republicans with some Tea Partiers in tow, and we all understand that the latter are not going to be allowed to have much influence on legislation.

In other words, I can’t see a path to “victory” for any of the things we want so long as that first step hasn’t been taken, and it most definitely has not been taken. One reason it hasn’t been taken is that the GOP appears for the moment to be recovering politically without making any substantive changes. A Republican majority confirms that the GOP can succeed simply by being what it was during the last decade, and as long as it is succeeding in this way it will be as resistant as ever to our arguments. If Republicans fall short of a majority in a year when they’re certain they’re going to win, it may force them to start re-thinking.

Of course, I welcome challenges to Boehner, and have been calling for his ouster for years. I was agitating for getting rid of him after he presided over two massive consecutive defeats. What is the argument for removing Boehner after what it supposed to be a spectacular political triumph? The time for getting rid of Boehner was two or four years ago. The conference didn’t want to get rid of him, which should tell us plenty about the membership of the conference.


New Israels, Continued

I think Daniel makes an important point that any group conceiving of themselves as a “New Israel” would be more likely to have ambivalent feelings at best, hostile ones at worst, toward any group calling themselves “Old Israel.” Christianity itself provides an excellent example. So saying that Americans have an affinity for Israel because we think of ourselves as a New Israel does leave something out.

What it leaves out, I think, is that the State of Israel is also a “New Israel_ – it’s both a settler society and a reborn nation. I doubt very much that Americans would have a similar affinity for Israel if neither of these things were true, if Israel were, say, a Jewish version of Armenia. This is a point I made in my dialogue with Ross Douthat this past summer.

I’m also slightly surprised to hear Daniel disparaging the argument that there is a cultural affinity between the United States and Israel, or that this impacts our foreign policy, because an argument very like that was the basis of his criticism of a personal favorite piece of mine from early 2009. ~Noah Millman

I appreciated Noah’s comments, but he may be misremembering what it was I said in response to his imaginative counterfactual. What I was trying to argue then was not that “there is a cultural affinity between the United States and Israel,” but that there would have been no cultural affinity with Noah’s imagined Angevin settler state. Noah was suggesting that America would support this Angevin state largely because of cultural affinity and because they would be seen as part of “who we are.” My point is that Americans would regard an Angevin state, well, rather like most Americans regard Armenia. That is, they would be indifferent or possibly even hostile because Americans would not recognize them as “who we are.”

What I was trying to argue in the two previous posts on this subject was not that there is no cultural affinity between the U.S. and Israel. I am saying that this affinity does not necessarily make Americans more receptive to arguments in favor of American Israel policy. I would also stress that the affinity that does exist today has been amplified and expanded especially over the last forty years by steady repetition that Israel is a reliable ally, that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” (which always conveniently forgets Turkey), and more recently that Israel is a “front-line state in the war on terror.” Obviously, there was some foundation on which to build up an affinity, but there has certainly been a lot of construction work done in just the last few decades to make affinity between America and a state created by a secular Jewish nationalist movement seem like a natural or even inevitable product of American culture. That such an affinity can exist and not really shape U.S. foreign policy is fairly easy to show, since U.S. policy in the region in the 1950s and early 1960s was significantly different from what came later.

One reason I am spending this much time on this is that I find the “explanations” for current U.S. Israel policy offered by Mead entirely unconvincing and designed to shut down discussion before it begins. A less obvious, but no less important reason I am discussing this at length is that I have no patience with historical arguments that stress broad, sweeping cultural and/or religious factors at the expense of discernible, specific causes. That partly informs my impatience with claims that jihadists attack Western governments because of “who we are” rather than what those governments do. When we want to avoid understanding the realities of terrorism, we simply say, “Their god compels them,” and leave it at that. What is most bothersome about this is that it doesn’t actually take cultural and religious factors seriously at all. On the contrary, it ignores the actual significance of cultural and religious factors by distorting them beyond recognition and using them as the framing for essentialist arguments that are designed to perpetuate conflict and facilitate vilification of other peoples. Such arguments pretend to pay attention to deeper causes, but in the end provide the most superficial analysis dressed up in condescending rhetoric. Instead of explaining a phenomenon, they are intended to explain it away.

We saw a lot of this during the Balkan Wars, when fairly lazy journalists declared that the conflicts between Serbs and Croats or Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s went back centuries and were the product of ancient hatreds that modern Westerners could barely fathom. In reality, the roots of the conflicts in the 1990s could be traced almost entirely to WWII and not much earlier. Invoking medieval origins for modern Balkan conflicts was one way of saying, “These conflicts are inexplicable and opaque to Americans,” and it was also a good way to impute irrationality to the peoples of the Balkans as a prelude to claiming the role of enlightened interventionists for ourselves. It was also a way of avoiding real understanding of the political movements the U.S. eventually supported. Worse than that, it was a concession to the mythology of one or both parties to the conflict.

It seems to me that enough Americans already embrace the mythology of one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without adding on another layer of mythology about Americans’ inherent cultural sympathy for the State of Israel.


The Sanctification of the Status Quo

The cable-TV loudmouths who dismissed Obama right off the bat were unfair in certain particulars. But, on the question of whether Obama, if elected, would be more liberal or more conservative than his campaign rhetoric indicated, they arrived at a more accurate assessment than those of us who pored over his speeches, parsed his interviews and read his first book. ~Christopher Caldwell

It is this kind of claim that makes me distrust the rest of what Caldwell has to say. I was one of those people who pored over his speeches and parsed his interviews, and that was how I came to my assessment of him as a rather dull, conventional center-left Democrat. In a Culture11 article that has since vanished into the ether, I wrote this:

An apt description of what the next President will actually represent was penned, in a different context, by columnist Robert Samuelson, who once described Obama as the “sanctification of the status quo.” Though his lifelong search for stability and rootedness are frequently lost in the polemics and panegyrics about his life, close study of his biography reveals a desire for consensus and accommodation to structures already in place. Assimilation to the norms of the American cultural and political elite makes Obama seem alien mainly to those who feel great alienation from most national cultural and political institutions where Obama has thrived (i.e., conservatives), but the very elitism that they (correctly) perceive is also evidence of Obama’s aversion to challenging established norms and introducing radical change.

This will reassure most of his enemies as much as it disheartens many of his friends. If you have a high opinion of the Washington establishment and bipartisan consensus politics, Obama’s election should come as a relief. If you believe, as I do, that most of our policy failures stretching back beyond the last eight years are the product of a failed establishment and a bankrupt consensus, an Obama administration represents the perpetuation of a system that is fundamentally broken.

Two years ago, Republican partisans engaged in election-year misrepresentation were bound to get this wrong, but almost two years into Obama’s first term there is really no excuse for Caldwell’s misunderstanding. If one insists on mischaracterizing the legislation Obama has signed as being to the left of what he campaigned on, one will continually make the error that Obama governed from the left of his party and conclude that the “loudmouths” were right about him. In fact, almost every bill he signed was less to the liking of progressives than his original campaign positions. He hasn’t really been “more conservative” than his campaign rhetoric suggested. He has instead being more or less exactly what one should have expected given his campaign rhetoric and his political career.

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The TARP and the “Surge”: Two Failures That “Worked”


TARP may have saved the United States from 15 percent unemployment, but it also implicated our government in the kind of crony capitalism you’d expect from a banana republic. If it was necessary, it was also un-American. If it worked, it did so while doing grievous damage to the credibility of Wall Street and Washington alike.

This is a fair description of a main reason why so many people were and still are profoundly hostile to the TARP. At the heart of hostility to the TARP is the conviction that there was something inherently dangerous and outrageous in handing over money and ceding unaccountable power to part of the executive branch. It seemed even more dangerous and outrageous at the time, since the administration being entrusted with this power had already shown on many occasions how it would abuse vaguely-defined powers in the absence of strict oversight. There was also a visceral reaction against rewarding failure and directing taxpayer money to financial institutions that did not deserve public assistance.

What Ross’ column does not do is carefully analyze the claim that the TARP “worked.” I understand this is partly for reasons of limited space and partly because of the structure of his argument (i.e., “it worked, but at great cost”), but it really is vital to the debate. It’s one thing to say that opponents of TARP showed a healthy distrust of the outrageous way in which the program was forced down the public’s throat, and it’s quite another to say that their opposition to the program was sound on the merits. If TARP supporters can console themselves with the pleasant fiction that the program was vitally important and successful, they can dismiss the backlash to it as ignorant yahooism (as they have been doing for years) and congratulate themselves on their wise, statesmanlike ability to do what is necessary despite popular resistance. More to the point, in future moments of panic they will be certain to charge ahead with similar outrages in the confidence that they were right to insist on the TARP in late 2008. If we assume instead that a lot of this is self-serving twaddle, we will be a lot closer to the truth than the claims that the TARP “worked.”

People credit the TARP for having “worked” because they conclude that it had a lot to do with the stabilization of the financial sector. If the financial sector seems stable and most of the TARP money has been repaid*, they reason that the TARP must have worked. Never mind that financial institutions were being stabilized in other ways, and the accounting rule that had saddled them with enormous liabilities had been changed. In the meantime, TARP funds were being doled out to Detroit and were specifically not being used for their intended purpose of purchasing “toxic assets.” Yet somehow, magically, the TARP “worked.” Most of the banks that were forced to take TARP money didn’t need it, didn’t want it, and could fairly easily pay it back. It is small comfort that the TARP didn’t end up costing the public anything when the money wasn’t really needed in the first place. The major financial institutions were forced to take the money as a group because Paulson didn’t want to reveal the very shaky positions of a few major banks.

Whenever I read that the TARP “worked,” I am reminded of the many claims that the “surge” worked. What this means is that there was a dangerous, unstable situation in Iraq that later became more stable almost entirely for other reasons, and Washington claimed that it was the particular intervention of sending a few additional brigades on a temporary basis that was decisive in bringing about that stability. Nowadays it is common for more people to be skeptical of the claim that the “surge” worked, because more critics have been judging the “surge” by the standard set by the Bush administration that ordered it. If more people would judge the TARP by the standard of why it was supposedly necessary and what it was supposed to do, everyone would be able to agree that the TARP didn’t work at all. Indeed, as critics of the program said at the beginning, no one had any idea how to make it “work,” which is why the Treasury early in the Obama administration simply gave up on trying to make it work.

* The banks’ repayment isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. As this contribution at Naked Capitalism explains:

And how did the banks pay back TARP? First, we got rid of mark-to-market accounting, changing their balance sheets overnight, and then the banks have been borrowing from the Fed at ZERO and earning the spread on Treasuries or anything else they wanted to put the money in. The effect of this process is a transfer of wealth from savers (who depend on bank CD’s) and pension funds (who are often required to invest in goverment bonds) to the same banks that took money through TARP. This cost amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars each of the last two years. And TARP had negligible costs?

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The Hangover

Yet neither the Democratic ascendancy nor the Republican humiliation meant the country had made a fundamental shift to the left. People had fired Tom DeLay’s congressional majority and quit on President Bush, but they had not become latter-day McGovernites. In fact, the opposite. A July 2009 Gallup report noted that by a 2–1 margin, people said their views had become more conservative in recent years.

Republicans, independents, and even Democrats had all moved to the right, although Democrats just barely so (34 percent had become more conservative, 40 percent hadn’t changed, and 23 percent had become more liberal). Gallup noted that “the results are conspicuously incongruous with the results of the 2008 elections.” Incongruous, indeed. ~Lowry and Ponnuru

The results seem incongruous partly because the ideological self-identifications in the survey have been divorced from questions of policy. Most Americans claimed in mid-2009 to have become more conservative in their views in recent years, but whatever “more conservative” meant for many of the respondents it does not obviously translate into support for political or ideological conservatism. Lowry and Ponnuru take respondents’ subjective assessments of “becoming more conservative” as proof that the electorate actually shifted right in recent years. A year after these “incongruous” results, Gallup found that majorities favored additional stimulus spending, “regulating energy output from private companies in an attempt to reduce global warming,” and “expand government regulation of major financial institutions.” If Americans have actually become “more conservative” in their views in recent years, that still leaves a majority in favor of a number of things that political conservatives abhor. That suggests that the electorate has been moving left, and possibly started moving left well before the 2006 and 2008 elections.

When the pollster asks more specific, policy-oriented questions, it becomes clear how limited or even meaningless the other result is. The second poll was taken just four months ago, and shows majority support for three things that Lowry and Ponnuru are telling us the majority ought to oppose or scorn. Unfortunately for their argument, it shows majority support for increased regulation of financial institutions when they insist that opposition to regulation is at an all-time high. Many respondents might be confused or have conflicting views on the subject, or perhaps their answers are shaped to a large degree by the phrasing of the questions. Lowry and Ponnuru are assuming that the public’s views are coherent, and they assume that ideological self-identification is a meaningful statement about policy preferences. These assumptions are doubtful.

What is strange about Lowry and Ponnuru’s article is that they are doing nothing that the people the target for mockery didn’t already do in the wake of the 2008 election. Like Carville and Tanenhaus, they have taken a transitory political moment to declare the public’s permanent or enduring support for their preferred politics, they are attaching ideological meaning to temporary changes in fickle, malleable public opinion, and they are arguing that their opponents’ political failures have resulted from failing to heed public opinion. To answer the charge that conservatism is dead, they have produced the claim that conservatism was never really sick and was actually growing stronger all this time. One of their concluding claims is one that we have heard so many times since 2006:

The public in the late 1970s had turned on liberalism. Today’s public had merely turned on Bush.

One can make the argument that a genuine, sane conservatism and the ideological conservatism of Bush’s supporters had nothing to do with one another, but that is not what Lowry and Ponnuru are arguing. They want to claim that 1980 represented the repudiation of a reigning ideology, but that 2008 was just a rejection of Bush. Of course, on the eve of the 1982 election one can imagine liberals making the claim that 1980 was just a rejection of Carter (who was in any case not one of them). Indeed, after the 1982 midterms that is what quite a few liberals did believe. If liberals were foolish to hype 2008’s long-term significance, this article is simply delusional.


What If “The Biggest Tent” Falls Short? Worse For Republicans, What If It Succeeds?

The 2009-2010 cycle has produced the kind of facts on the ground that Republicans could only dream about. Thanks go to Obama and congressional Democrats. The political environment created by their unpopular policies has produced what Republicans couldn’t on their own—a united party. ~Fred Barnes

Unfortunately for the GOP, some of them are still dreaming. It is a fantasy to believe that the political environment was created by “unpopular policies.” It is almost entirely the result of economic weakness and economic anxiety. It is absolutely a fantasy to imagine that the reaction to Democratic policies has been driven by a straightforward rejection of “out-of-control-spending,” as Barnes claims later in the article. Aside from high unemployment, the most important factor in explaining Democratic weakness is that they have lost significant support among elderly voters. This probably would have happened at a time with much lower unemployment, but they have not lost this support because of “out-of-control-spending.” On the contrary, the reason so many elderly voters have turned against them is to express their anger at proposed cuts to Medicare. That doesn’t fit in very well with the argument that “out-of-control spending” has been the catalyst when the single-largest shift among voters came from a backlash against proposed spending cuts. Barnes writes that the “heart of the comeback in 2010 is the Rust Belt,” but he shows no awareness that this is driven almost entirely by the reaction to the more severely depressed economies across the Midwest and Pennsylvania.

At this point, it appears that Republicans will gain 35 seats. If all of the toss-ups broke for the Republicans, they could realistically gain 41, which would be just enough, but all of them are not going to break their way. The most certain pick-ups are pretty well-known, but I’ll list them here: LA-03, TN-06, KS-03, AR-02, CO-04, FL-24, IL-11, IN-08, MD-01, OH-01, OH-15, TX-17, TN-08, VA-02, PA-03, NH-01, PA-11, VA-05, FL-08, NY-29, and AZ-01. The likely pick-ups include: NM-02, M1-01, IN-09, IL-14, FL-02, PA-07, IL-17, PA-08, WI-07, OH-16, WA-03, and WI-08. The least certain pick-ups are AR-01, ND-AL, OH-18, MI-07, NH-02, NV-03, and SC-05, but I am still assuming Republicans win these. Democratic pick-ups will include the three everyone expects in LA-02, DE-AL and IL-10, and will most likely include Hawaii’s First District and Florida’s 25th.

If that’s right and Republicans come up five seats short of a majority, all this talk of “miraculous comebacks” will seem rather silly. Obviously, people pushing the “1994-but-bigger” argument will have some explaining to do. Gaining 35 seats in the House is impressive, and it will be the second-largest turnover in my lifetime, but after the overhyping of Republican chances for the last year it will seem anticlimactic and unsatisfying. The reality that gaining 35 won’t be enough to win a majority serves as a reminder just how far down the GOP had sunk in the last four years, which should remind us that the GOP deserved to be so far down. It should also make us realize the gains the GOP makes this year are largely unmerited. Right now, everyone in the “biggest tent” is working together and setting aside disagreements for the sake of winning the election. What happens if Republicans don’t win? The round of post-election recriminations will be that much more severe and bitter when it becomes clear that the party failed to take advantage of one of the most favorable election years in decades.

If Republicans do manage to eke out a House majority, the electorate won’t have provided them with even the illusion of a mandate, and their leaders have already made clear they have no desire for fiscal responsibility. Riding an entirely negative electoral wave created by a weak economy, Republicans will see that they have not have been elected for any particular reason. They will devolve into their usual time-serving habits even faster than before. It will probably be a very bad outcome for the Republicans to return from the political wilderness before they have learned something from the public’s rejection of them in the past.


Communists For Austerity

James Fallows noticed this remarkable Citizens Against Government Waste ad. As should be clear to anyone who knows anything about Chinese economic policy, putting American fiscal conservative rhetoric into the mouth of a professor from the PRC is simply bizarre. As Fallows writes:

And if you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries — all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.

I understand that the ad is supposed to tap into American anxiety about the size of the debt and Chinese holdings of U.S. debt, and I understand that viewers are supposed to react viscerally against a future in which China is economically dominant, but isn’t it a rather glaring problem that most of the undesirable debt was not produced by any of the policies singled out as the causes of (future) American decline? According to the fictional professor’s telling, great nations fall because they abandon the principles that made them great, which is a nice moralizing tale that would satisfy nostalgists of every era, but how does stimulus spending fit into this narrative? Has it been a long-standing American principle during America’s time as a major world power not to engage in stimulus spending?

The problem isn’t just that it is absurd to imagine a professor in the PRC saying this now or twenty years in the future, but that it is absurd to blame the size of the current debt on policies adopted in the last year and a half. CAGW seems to be trusting that the audience doesn’t know this. The makers of the ad hope the audience will conclude that policies that half the country dislikes have something to do with creating our massive debt, and that they will also conclude reversing or repealing these policies will therefore have some significant impact in reducing the debt.


New Israels and U.S. Israel Policy

AIPAC would likewise wield much less influence inside the 21st-century beltway if the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts hadn’t thought of themselves as reenacting the exodus of the Hebrews from bondage in ancient Egypt. ~D.L. at Democracy in America

As the distilled essence of Mead’s argument about the reasons for pro-Israel attitudes in America, this captures quite nicely just how silly it is. It must be that South Africa’s Nationalist government was also interested in developing a close diplomatic relationship with Israel during the 1970s and 1980s because Calvinist Afrikaners also thought of themselves as a New Israel. When we put it that way, it’s clear how ridiculous it is. Can I just point out that Reformed Christians who identified themselves as a New Israel were making a statement that is necessarily not really compatible with enthusiastic support for Jewish self-determination? National and religious groups claiming to be a New Israel are not more likely to feel strong sympathy with Jewish political causes; they are more likely to be indifferent or antagonistic. If a national or religious group believes it is a New Israel, they are not saying that they are natural allies of the people of Israel. On the contrary, they are saying that they are a replacement or successor in God’s providential design. They are appropriating Israel’s claim to being the People of God. It is hardly shocking that Protestant colonial settlers in new, unfamiliar lands drew on the examples of the Israelites coming into Canaan for consolation and guidance. These were the examples that were most familiar to them and most relevant to their experience as settlers in a new country. So the “broader history of identification with Israel in the American imagination” didn’t and doesn’t necessarily translate into ready American support for Zionism, and it certainly doesn’t automatically cause unflinching support for a close military and political alliance with the modern State of Israel.

I would never say that the religious culture of a nation is irrelevant to its foreign policy, but it does not shape a state’s foreign policy in the way D.L. and Mead describe. Even when there is something in a nation’s culture to be exploited by a government, such as a shared ethnic or religious heritage with another country, it is the government that exploits and mobilizes it to build support for a policy that it already wants to pursue. Russian Pan-Slavism did not create Russian strategic goals of weakening the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and seizing Constantinople; Pan-Slavism emerged at a time when Russia was already pursuing those goals and the government was trying to rally support for Russian intervention in the Balkans. In Mead’s version, we have the exact reverse, which is a combination of crude cultural determinism with a strangely naive belief that foreign policy is a product of democratic consensus.


Austerity and Defense

The Strategic Defense and Security Review released this week by Prime Minister David Cameron is bad news for anyone who believes that a strong Britain is a vital bulwark of liberty. ~Max Boot

I can’t be the only one who laughed at this sentence. Hawks often make the claim that any and all military spending is essential for defending freedom or guarding liberty, and that significantly reducing any military spending must mean a reduced ability to protect “liberty.” This takes the basic claim that a military deterrent can protect a reasonably free society from external threats and exaggerates it beyond all recognition. Reducing Britain’s ability to launch overseas expeditions has no real relationship with political liberty, except possibly to increase it in Britain by making British participation in unnecessary foreign wars less likely. This must make Boot feel particularly gloomy, since he is one of the few truly unabashed neo-imperialists around with a gauzy view of the British Empire. This is what he was writing a month after 9/11:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.

Aside from more sharp pangs of nostalgia for the Empire that they must be causing him, the real problem Boot has with Britain’s military spending cuts is that it will make it much harder for Britain to participate in and lend political legitimacy to the next unnecessary war that Boot and other hawks are interested in starting. This is what Boot euphemistically calls “the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World,” which has nothing to do with defending the “Free World” and everything to do with projecting power to various corners of the globe for mostly dubious or bad reasons.

Britain’s ability to defend itself is not being endangered. The coalition government is proving that it is interested in a strong defense. What it is not willing or able to pay for any longer is the ability to intervene on the other side of the planet in wars that don’t actually have anything to do with British security. In Boot’s world, where 9/11 was the result of “insufficient assertiveness,” the unwillingness of U.S. allies to waste their resources on neo-imperial missions abroad is scandalous. Obviously, the coalition government is going to continue honoring the commitments of previous governments to the war in Afghanistan, but it has given notice that there probably won’t be significant British involvement in other wars in the near future.

Boot is also concerned that the Republicans may be so inspired by the coalition government’s austerity measures that they will take an axe to some of the Pentagon’s budget, but here his fears are even more unreasonable. Everything we have been hearing from Republican leaders before the election makes it clear that there will be no serious consideration of military spending reductions. Unlike the Tory-led coalition, the GOP pretty clearly has no intention of being a responsible party of government. That would involve making hard, unpopular decisions to reduce the debt in ways that will make no one happy. Besides, the hawks’ pre-election positioning over military spending has probably all been for nothing, since it is still far from certain that Republicans will take control of the House, much less both houses. Even if they wished to make significant cuts, Republicans will be in no position to threaten cuts to military spending or to anything else.

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