I hope Obama proves to be right about the long arc of history. But I fear he has been wrong too many times during his presidency for me to have that much hope for the immediate future of America in the world.
Patriotic advocates of a more restrained foreign policy should not be sanguine about the likely consequences of such an eventuality.
Half of the people have been very sure that if he were elected the country would come to an end, if the world did not. But we are inclined to believe that the Union will last a little longer, and that we shall have some good times yet, in time to come. It has been said that a “special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States.” They make so many blunders, and yet live through them, it must be that they are cared for, for they take very little care of themselves. So we are disposed to trust Providence, and not to worry.
—Editor’s Drawer” column in the December 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 14.
(Do take care to notice who was elected President in 1856, when this bit of optimism was penned.)
I endorse basically everything in this Dan Drezner piece on the question. To whit:
- The recovery of the American economy — and its significant outperformance of Europe’s — in the wake of the financial crisis was a key element in restoring America’s world position, and something the Obama administration deserves real credit for. (To be clear: the problems with distribution of the recovery are a big reason why the establishments of both parties were rebuked so sharply in the most-recent election — but that doesn’t mean the recovery wasn’t real as well, and consequential, particularly given how poorly Europe has done by comparison.)
- The nuclear deal with Iran and the climate deal with China are major diplomatic accomplishments which could be the cornerstones of a better foreign policy orientation for America, focused on extrication from the Middle Eastern quagmire and building a productive, mutually-respectful relationship with a rising China — assuming they are not shredded by the incoming administration.
- But they are likely to be shredded. Obama has been too inclined to do the rational thing, as he calculated it, without regard to how those decisions were likely to be perceived, particularly by the American public. This mismanagement of his domestic political position, particularly in his second term, left his legacy orphaned of popular support.
Drezner sums up: “Obama’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a foreign policy leader was his Zen master approach to world politics.”
I would add, since Drezner glosses over it, that while Obama clearly wanted to extricate America from the Middle Eastern quagmire, part of his “rational” approach to doing this was to work slowly and within the confines of the Washington consensus and what our allies would “tolerate,” thereby allowing that process to take as long as it naturally might. In the course of that long, slow process, he wound up by default sinking deeper into the quagmire (in Afghanistan) and getting into new quagmires to boot (in Libya, in Yemen, and to some extent in Syria) instead of getting out. Rather than play Eisenhower in Korea, he played Nixon in Vietnam.
Now it is Trump’s turn to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Whether he actually favors a more restrained foreign policy (something I highly doubt), I have no confidence that he could execute on that kind of vision — or, indeed, any kind. As often as not Trump just says he’s going to bomb the shit out of people.
So one of the risks of the incoming administration is that we will see a precipitous collapse in America’s international position, something worse than what we experienced in the late 1970s under Ford and Carter. In other words, I agree with Drezner’s conclusion as well:
Obama was more of a restorationist president than his critics realized. He came in at a low point in American power and influence in the world and helped to make America great again. However, his inattention and disdain for the politics of his job laid the groundwork for an incoming president who can tear down the very order that Obama fought hard to preserve.
Following up on my last post: I think it’s important to distinguish between identifying past mistakes and assuming you can simply undo them.
It has been abundantly clear for some time that the United States under President Bill Clinton badly mishandled the immediate post-Cold War period. We took advantage of Russian weakness in multiple ways, from corrupting its transition to democracy to facilitating the rape of its economy to transforming a previously defensive alliance (NATO) into a vehicle for American power projection, and expanding that alliance into former Soviet territory. It is not surprising that, in the wake of that experience, Russia has become deeply distrustful of America.
Russia’s interests are its interests, of course; they would want secure access to the Black Sea and the Baltic and a friendly port on the Mediterranean whether it felt threatened by America or not. Moreover, it is entirely plausible that, even had America handled Russia with greater foresight in the 1990s, an authoritarian populist leader aiming to restore Russia’s lost greatness would still have arisen after the trauma of the post-Soviet collapse. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the relationship between our countries would be on a better footing than it is now notwithstanding if we had handled things better then.
We confront the world as it is, though, not as we wish it had been or how it might have been had we acted with greater foresight. In the world as it is, Russia is a revisionist power looking to improve its security position in its local area and to disrupt security arrangements that it views as potential threats. We don’t have to exaggerate Russia’s ambitions or the nature of Russia’s challenge to European security to recognize that it has ambitions or that a challenge exists.
And in the world as it is, we have extended security guarantees to the Baltic states. We can regret having done so, but simply withdrawing those guarantees because we’ve thought better of the matter has broader implications for how America’s word is perceived. Once again, the fact that advocates of an aggressive foreign policy routinely exaggerate the both the importance and the fragility of credibility does not make the concept meaningless, and if it has any meaning at all then surely it means most when we are talking about formal treaty alliances.
It’s possible that the only practical way to rebalance our international commitments and get Europe to take more responsibility for its security (which they are fully capable of doing) is the blustery, obnoxious Trump way. But if that is the case, then that rebalancing is going to involve more violence, and more damage to America’s world position, then advocates seem to be willing to recognize. I’d like to think that it is not the only practical way. But then again, I think President Obama’s overall foreign policy approach is going to be more respected, not less, in light of what I suspect is to come, so I guess I would say that.
My latest at The Week is about NATO.
In his confirmation hearing for the position of secretary of defense last week, General James Mattis staked out a position on NATO that appeared strikingly at odds with that of his prospective boss, President-elect Donald Trump. While Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and said he seeks “good deals” with Russia, Mattis called for inserting American troops into the Baltic states as a “tripwire” to deter Russian aggression.
Who is right? To answer requires asking a different question: What is NATO for, anyway?
Probably the most famous answer was given by Lord Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO. He quipped that the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
If that’s what NATO is for, then much of what the alliance has been doing for the past 20 years would have to be described as “off-mission.” So would Trump’s call for NATO to “focus on terrorism,” for that matter. But if the original mission no longer makes sense, perhaps the organization needs a new mission — or it needs to be scrapped. So: Is the original mission obsolete?
I go on to argue that no, it isn’t obsolete — it’s just not as serious a mission as it was in the heyday of the Cold War. Russian revanchism is a real problem that should be countered, but it isn’t a threat to civilization itself, and it matters much more to Europeans than it does to Americans:
Concerns that NATO allows Europeans to “free ride” on Americans are not new. Neither are concerns that America’s security guarantees are not actually credible. Indeed, Irving Kristol of all people, the very godfather of neoconservatism, mused as long ago as 1983 whether America shouldn’t withdraw its security guarantees precisely so as to prod Europe to build up its own defensive capacity, which (in his view) was the only credible way to deter Soviet aggression.
Such a conclusion applies in spades today. Estonia has no way of defending itself from Russian aggression. But Sweden and Finland would have genuine reasons to be concerned if Russia were to make a move against Estonia. That’s an argument for a collective security arrangement in the Baltics. And since the United States shares an interest in a peaceful Baltic, we would have a strong interest in bolstering such an arrangement.
But our interest, being more attenuated, should not rationally be expressed by seizing the front-line position. While conflict in the Baltic would be a bad thing, it would be madness for America to go to war with Russia over Estonian independence. For that very reason, if the only deterrent to Russian revanchism is an American tripwire, then there’s no credible deterrent at all. Collective security must be dominated by local forces that have the most to lose. Even in South Korea, where American troops act as just the kind of tripwire General Mattis suggests for the Baltics, they modestly bolster the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, one of the largest and most capable standing armies in the world.
Sweden and Finland undoubtedly cannot deter Russia alone, even if they make a robust commitment to doing so. But if they need support, they should first be getting it from their European neighbors — preeminently Germany. As the largest European economy, and with a Baltic coastline of their own, the Germans have the most to lose from conflict with Russia. That means they should be concerned about Russia’s ambitions to undermine European collective security — as they are. But it also means they should want to avoid provoking Russia unnecessarily. So it is no accident that Germany has been far less-enthusiastic about NATO expansion, or about demonstrative military deployments in the Baltics, than have many newer and more-vulnerable European states.
Inasmuch as NATO keeps Germany “down” (while the EU helps raise Germany “up” in the economic sphere), this allows the Germans to have their cake and eat it too, counting on Americans to shoulder the burden of collective security and leaving them free to posture as a more reasonable interlocutor with the Russians. It is difficult to see how this is in America’s interest — unless NATO’s primary purpose is not in deterring Russia through collective security, but preventing the rise of a European rival to American power, and providing America with a force-multiplier for its own adventures.
So I have some sympathy for Trump’s position in his current spat with the Germans. But I am much less sympathetic for the notion that, because Russia is no longer the threat that it was in Soviet days, we should find a new mission for NATO other than preserving stability in Europe:
If we still care about NATO’s mission, then, we need to focus on properly defining it and then how best to achieve it. If NATO’s mission remains collective security in Europe against the threat of a revanchist Russia, then that mission needs to be defined clearly, and undertaken primarily by Europeans themselves. America should remain “in,” but Germany, far from remaining “down,” should be expected to play a leading role. And the contours of the alliance should be fixed rather than subject to continuous expansion. Mattis’ own stated objective of deterrence would be better served by a policy of firmness and restraint than one of wild swings between overtures to cooperation and reckless provocation.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what refocusing NATO to combat terrorism would really mean. An expansive military alliance with America is hardly necessary for cooperation on intelligence or even effectively patrolling the Mediterranean. And defeating ISIS requires brokering cooperation between Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states more than it does any action by countries bordering the north Atlantic. Chasing shiny objects hasn’t served NATO well in the past few decades. There’s no reason to think Trump’s preferred shiny objects would be any different.
Read the whole thing there. And while you are there, read Michael Brendan Dougherty on the same subject.
Larison lacerates President Obama for a legacy of “continuing U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and . . . the ability to start, escalate, and join wars at will without Congressional authorization” (and he might have added the routinized deployment of flying robot assassins), and blames that legacy on a lack of opposition from either left or right. Myself, I focus on one reason for the failure of Obama’s promise in this regard: that we’ve forgotten what it means to hold up peace as an ideal in the first place.
One might well say, who doesn’t wish for peace? But for that wish to be other than idle, one must accept that peace is sometimes more important than other values. Peace cannot merely be the greatest reward of victory. It must be, at least in some circumstances, more important than victory. To say that a lasting peace can only be constructed on a foundation of fundamental agreement and a consonance of interests is to say that a lasting peace is impossible. And even if such a peace is indeed impossible now, merely to hold it up as an ideal requires saying that some differences will not be resolved, and yet even so we will still not fight.
This is a crucial point. It is true that the surest foundation of peace is justice. But justice is very much in the eye of the beholder — and so in a deeper sense, the surest foundation of justice is peace, that is to say, a mutual agreement to respect a process that all sides know is unlikely to give them total victory even if they believe that they are absolutely right.
I’ve written about this before in the context of the diplomatic agreement with Iran. If you assume that peace is what you get when interests are aligned and differences are resolved, then whenever you have materially differing interests between parties you’ll anticipate conflict, and eventually war. If you think that order can only arise from a monopoly of violence, you will want to be pretty sure that you hold that monopoly. So if you assume that we can never be at peace with Iran until it presents no challenge to American interests, then you should expect never to have peace. But if you think that conflicting interests are normal, and yet that the pursuit of peace is noble, you will seek ways to resolve those conflicts when possible, and to live with them unresolved when it is not. And you’ll wind up signing something like the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, peace as an ideal has been orphaned at home as well as abroad — and it’s not all the fault of the outrageous and obstructionist right:
If peace has been in short supply internationally, the same, unfortunately, holds true in the domestic sphere. The ideal of progress is a noble one, of course. Moreover, President Obama should be applauded for pursuing that ideal in a reasoned, measured, and generally responsible manner, in the face of opposition that, too frequently, anathematized the very idea of compromise.
But a politics that charts by progress as its only star can never rest — and so can never know peace. If it does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, progress must seek them at home. A more perfect union sounds like a wonderful thing to devote one’s life to bringing about. But a world in which we must struggle ceaselessly to make the union more perfect by our own lights — lest our opponent perfect it by their lights first — is to condemn society to an ever-escalating ideological arms race.
This is also something I’ve written about before, in the context of another Obama speech, and again, I don’t intend to ascribe blame for our state of social agitation primarily to the progressive left. My point, rather, is that without peace as an ideal, our politics only has meaning when construed as a battle, whether that’s a battle for progress or for some other set of ideals. We have to be able to talk about peace as an ideal to make its pursuit seem like a laudable goal rather than a pathetic compromise.
This is perhaps a strange message for MLK Day, whose core ideal was justice and who was very willing to disrupt peace in its pursuit (which did not contradict at all his commitment to non-violence). But perhaps that’s precisely why I do want to stress it again today. The very extravagant hopes invested in the Obama Presidency are, in part, a testament to our failure to understand what peace is. On the right, peace is conflated with order; on the left, it is conflated with justice. But peace is a thing in its own right, and the only reason we don’t remember that is that we’ve experienced so little of it.
If we want to recover it, we had best remember.
The first fracas of 2017 provides a useful template for how politics is likely to proceed in the Trump era.
On Monday night, in a vote taken behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference decided to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, eliminating many of its powers and putting its successor entity under the control of the House Ethics Committee (which is staffed entirely by members of Congress). The uproar was fierce and immediate, not only from the Democrats (who created the body in 2008 in response to the escalating ethical problems of the Hastert/DeLay era), but from reform-minded conservatives and independents as well.
With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
Lo and behold, Congress got the message, and by mid-day Congress had scrapped its plans — at least for now.
But what exactly was the message?
Well, consider how the drama has affected the various players.
Donald Trump looks like a champion of clean government (though the OCE would have had no power to investigate his Executive branch) and the interests of the people, while still suggesting that he understands the motivations of those who voted to undermine the office. If the House GOP had any intention to hold Trump to account for corruption, they just made it that much harder for themselves.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, an average Republican Congressman from a safe Virginia seat, is going to have his name in the papers for a while as the poster boy for lax ethics enforcement. But his colleagues — many of whom understandably have little love for the office he aimed to cripple — will remember him as the fellow who stood up for their interests. He’ll make friends, not lose them, as a consequence of his actions. The members who voted with him, meanwhile, won’t ever be known unless they want to be.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, officially opposed the measure, but was overruled by his own caucus. Then, when the measure passed, he defended the proposed changes that he had opposed in conference. And finally, after Trump’s twitter attack, he saw his caucus fold in the face of popular opposition from both the left and the right. He is exposed as somebody unable to convince his people to follow his political advice, while Trump looks fearsome — not least because he is capable of coopting Democratic criticisms without being deemed treasonous.
Ryan’s caucus members know, in other words, where the power really lies, and it isn’t in the speaker’s office. And Ryan knows that as well.
Most fundamentally, the message was a reminder to Republicans in Congress that they owe far more to Trump than Trump does to them — and that he can safely do them far more damage than they dare to do to him. That Congressional Republicans gave Trump such an easy opportunity shows how much they still have to learn about the shape of politics in the Trump era — or how confident they are that they can always offer their Speaker as a sacrifice if the winds begin to turn.
As for the Democrats, the lesson is that the GOP Congress is more exposed than Trump is. Their best chance of winning back a share of national power in 2018 will come from fracturing the fragile alliance between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now we’ll see who learns to play by the new rules first.
I don’t highlight the role that ordinary citizens played in the fracas, but that is also important. Individual legislators got thousands of angry phone calls from constituents about the ethics vote, and that clearly was vital. That doesn’t really change my analysis, though, for two reasons.
First, we don’t know that only left-wing or Democratic-leaning voters were complaining. After all, liberal good-government groups weren’t the only ones expressing outrage; Judicial Watch also slammed the GOP Congress for its move. And the representatives in question are Republicans, most of whom represent conservative districts, so it makes sense that they would care more about hearing from constituents who could defenestrate them than from folks who would never vote for them in the first place. To an extent, then, the rapid public backlash against the House GOP mirrors or reflects the dynamic Trump’s rise in the first place, which was very much aimed against the GOP as it previously stood.
Second, it is entirely plausible that one reason Trump intervened against the House GOP is precisely because he saw or felt the public outrage. In other words: public pressure affected Trump before it could affect the House GOP directly. This is precisely what I mean by saying that if the Democrats want to score wins, they need to recognize that Trump and the GOP House can be easily separated — because Trump is much more interested in his own personal power and popularity than he is in either the success of the party or any particular policy outcomes.
Anyway, read the whole thing there.
I try to avoid getting on the outrage bandwagon. Most outrages turn out to be outright fabrications, like the hate hoaxes that we seem to be endlessly plagued with, or considerably more complicated than they are presented as being.
But sometimes you should be outraged by the genuinely outrageous. Which means you need a good filter to help you figure out what’s worth being outraged about.
For the issues with which he’s most concerned, Norm Ornstein is one of my filters. And he’s pretty outraged about the Republican gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics:
I have rarely been more angry or dismayed at the conduct of Congress than I was Monday night with the unconscionable, deplorable, underhanded move by Representative Bob Goodlatte to eviscerate and undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and his counterpart Nancy Pelosi indicated weeks ago that they would continue OCE, the reform community—left and right—breathed a sigh of relief. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, had seen the value to the integrity of the House of the office, which has been a stalwart of bipartisan and nonpartisan comity and independence. That makes this bait-and-switch action even more outrageous.
Some have pointed out the relatively recent vintage of the office — it was created in 2008 — as a way of suggesting that its removal merely reverts to a reasonably-functioning prior system. Ornstein rips the stuffing out of that objection: the OCE was created specifically in response to the escalating seriousness of ethics problems in the Hastert/DeLay years (remember them?) and succeeded because both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner wanted it to.
And Ornstein isn’t buying Paul Ryan’s claims that he tried to preserve the OCE but was overruled by his caucus:
Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker. Make no mistake about it: Despite public reports loudly proclaiming his opposition, it’s hard to believe this would have happened had Paul Ryan really tried to stop it. And do not believe Goodlatte’s risable assurance that this strengthens OCE. It has been muzzled and hamstrung, defenestrated and castrated. If Speaker Ryan really is opposed, he can demand a separate vote on the OCE provision when the whole House votes on its rules. If he does not, he owns it, plain and simple.
I’m not at all surprised that stuff like this is happening first. Any time a new party takes power, it makes sense for them to push their highest and most difficult priorities first. When President Obama prioritized health care reform over a more aggressive response to the foreclosure crisis (or, for that matter, climate change), that told you both what he and his party thought would be the hardest sell (do your toughest stuff first), and what would pay the most long-term dividends (in terms of constituents who benefitted from the action).
Republicans would be crazy to do something like this in the run up to an election. So they are doing it immediately after an election. And, as well, they presumably see a strong and independent body policing Congressional ethics as a material obstacle to their individual and collective advancement, such that removing that watchdog will pay dividends down the road.
I suspect the GOP caucus knows what they are doing. I hope advocates of the public interest know how to respond.
UPDATE: well, right after I posted this, the House Republicans backed away from their own proposal in the face of criticism not only from Democrats and independent reform groups but from President-elect Donald Trump.
That doesn’t mean the proposal is dead — Trump’s own tweets against the measure suggested the problem was more the timing than the substance. But nonetheless: it’s a pretty clear message to the GOP House about where the power lies right now. It sure doesn’t look like it’s in the Speaker’s office.
Kevin Drum has a weird post up about how there are no big lessons of the 2016 election (at least not at the presidential level), because nothing much actually happened:
Everyone wants to draw big, world-historical lessons from this election. That’s understandable, since the result was the election of an unprecedentedly dangerous and unqualified candidate. But the data just doesn’t support any big lessons. Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by 2.1 points. That’s less than a two point difference, despite the fact that Obama is unusually popular and Clinton had to run after eight years of Democratic rule. In the end, she did slightly worse than Obama, which is about what you’d expect. Unfortunately, a little too much of that “slightly worse” happened to be in three must-win states.
Nevertheless, the identity politics critics insist that the lesson for Democrats is to ditch identity politics. The economic lefties say the lesson is that Democrats need to be more populist. The Bernie supporters are sure that Bernie could have won. The DNC haters think it was a massive FUBAR from the Democratic establishment. The moderates blame extremism on social issues for alienating the rural working class.
These have one element in common: All these people thought all these things before the election. Now they’re trying to use the election to prove that they were right all along, dammit. But they weren’t. This election turned on a few tiny electoral shifts and some wildly improbable outside events. There simply aren’t any truly big lessons to be drawn from it.
On one level, this is very true — but it also proves way too much. If nothing matters at all, and the electorate is so partisan that either party could nominate a headless chicken and come pretty close to what econometric models predict, then why bother having elections in the first place? It’s more an argument against democracy itself than against over-interpreting the 2016 election specifically.
And 2016 is a pretty weird year to describe as featuring “just a few tiny electoral shifts.” After all, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by running against essentially the entirety of his party’s leadership. And his main competition was another guy running against the entirety of his party’s leadership. The overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters opted against everybody contending for support of the party leadership. That’s not a meaningless fact. Then Trump went on to win an electoral college majority in spite of never uniting his party leadership behind him, being massively outspent, and being opposed by essentially the entirety of the media establishment, and a chunk of the conservative counter-establishment. That’s not meaningless either.
Had Trump lost his three key midwestern states by the same narrow margin that he won them, nobody would be saying, “see? we told you Clinton had this in the bag.” They’d be saying, “holy crap — that was way too close!” Republicans would be furiously debating whether someone less outrageous than Donald Trump but running on a Trumpian platform could win in a walk, or whether they should return to the true Reaganite faith. Democrats, meanwhile, would be fretting about erosion of support in the Midwest and whether they need to shore it up by moving left on economics and/or ditching identity politics, or whether they should focus on “flipping” North Carolina and Florida to compensate for their inevitable losses of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020. Everyone would be debating what the very obvious and meaningful changes in the electorate portend — and in very similar terms to the way they are now.
What is probably a waste of time is focusing too much on the small-ball “lessons” of the Clinton campaign’s arrogance and incompetence. This article about how they lost Michigan is instructive in that regard:
Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.
They started prepping meals and organizing hotel rooms.
SEIU — which had wanted to go to Michigan from the beginning, but been ordered not to — dialed Clinton’s top campaign aides to tell them about the new plan. According to several people familiar with the call, Brooklyn was furious.
Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.
Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.
“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”
Flip Michigan and leave the rest of the map, and Trump is still president-elect. But to people who worked in that state and others, how Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and lost by 100,000 in states that could have made her president has everything to do with what happened in Michigan. Trump won the state despite getting 30,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost it in 2004.
The article goes on to detail exhaustively how Clinton’s campaign in this crucial state ignored all the evidence that it was slipping from their fingers. It’s a hugely damning indictment, and the people who manage and run the next Democratic presidential campaign had better read it.
But it’s not an adequate explanation for Clinton’s loss. Because the Clinton campaign put huge efforts into GOTV in another crucial state — Pennsylvania — that they did see was at risk. And those efforts paid off — Clinton’s vote total was just a whisker shy of Barack Obama’s 2012 winning total in the state, or John Kerry’s winning 2004 total.
And Trump won Pennsylvania by a larger margin than he won Michigan.
The point of an explanation isn’t to provide predictive power, but to help determine what to do next. A predictive model doesn’t need to explain why anything happens, and therefore need not provide any guide to action. “Fundamental models say this election will be close” doesn’t tell you what ground the election will be fought on, or how to maximize your chances of victory fighting on that ground.
The most important lesson of 2016 is not “the country is so partisan that nothing matters” but rather “fundamentals matter way, way more than campaigns.” Trump, after all, made just about every mistake you could possibly make in his campaign. But here we are litigating over which mistake Clinton made that cost her the election, or whether it wasn’t her fault at all but instead the fault of the FBI or the Russians.
But that doesn’t mean that campaigns don’t matter. It means that what matters most about campaigns is whether they understand the fundamentals. The next election will be fought on the ground shaped by the fundamentals of the Trump era. If those fundamentals are meaningfully better than they were in 2016, then it will be an uphill battle for the opposition. If they are stagnant or worse, then the ground will be more favorable. But the fundamentals will determine the shape of the ground, and if the Democrats don’t prepare to fight on that ground then they will not maximize their chances of winning.
Any debate about what the ground looks like and how to fight on it is worth having.
My latest column at The Week is about Trump’s Russia policy and the panic about Russian hacking. In a nutshell:
Russia’s alleged actions are entirely unsurprising and far from unprecedented. They are not only the kind of thing that Russia has done before, they are the kind of thing that we have done before — including in Russia’s neighborhood. Russia’s actions may well deserve a response — but the most important response would be to make cyber security a significantly higher priority. They certainly don’t merit panic about Russian intentions, or about the fragility of American institutions.
By contrast, the opacity of Trump’s financial relationships does remain a serious problem, and the possibility that he is personally subject to Russian “influence” because of financial liabilities held by Russian banks could taint any attempt to improve relations between our countries. And of course if the Trump campaign actually coordinated with Russia on dirty tricks, that would be a crime amply deserving investigation, and potentially impeachment.
But at this point, there is no evidence at all of that kind of wrongdoing. That ought to matter. And it ought to be possible to investigate the possibility of corruption or criminal collusion without indulging in scaremongering about the Russian threat. Indeed, advocates of a friendlier relationship with Russia should be the first to call for such scrutiny — because an opening to Russia will only be durable if the American people believe that it rests on a solid institutional foundation and genuine mutual interest.
Meanwhile, those arguing that Russia undermined the integrity of the American electoral system need to take a good look in the mirror. Nothing Russia did or didn’t do can come close to the damage that will potentially be done by exaggerating the extent and impact of that influence, much less creating a constitutional crisis in response.
Read the whole thing there.
Having a poor opinion of Trump’s overall capabilities, it is pretty easy for me to explain the incoherence of Trump’s choices for his national security team.
Trump likes guys who strike him as tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. He sees himself as a man of that mold, and he likes the idea of being surrounded by such men. Retired General James Mattis and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson are not only perfectly cast for those roles, they actually are tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. You can agree or disagree with their views about this or that matter, and you can fret about having a recently-retired general in charge of Defense or someone with such deep corporate ties running State. But in terms of individual capacities it would be hard to find more capable stewards of their respective departments.
But Trump also likes extremist crackpots with a penchant for conspiracy theories. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories himself, and he seems to associate extremism and crackpottery with open-mindedness and a resistance to political correctness. I suspect listening to them makes him feel smart in a way that listening to proper intelligence does not, because proper intelligence trades in probabilities and possibilities while the crackpot offers certainty. Retired General Michael Flynn and Ambassador John Bolton are about as cracked a pair of pots as you are likely to find at their level of experience, and they will have ample opportunity to pour their chosen poison into the President’s ear. The amount of damage they could do is hard to fathom.
How could the same individual make both sets of appointments? It makes no sense at all if you assume that it’s an informed strategy of some sort. But it makes perfect sense if it’s just a matter of psychology, of how they make the boss feel.
Now we have to hope that the tough, practical types have a strategy for isolating, undermining and ultimately disposing of the crackpots. My only comfort is that they both probably know that this is a key part of their job descriptions, as well as their patriotic duty. My fear is that the crackpots know just as well that their job is to undermine their boss’s confidence in the sober men’s loyalty, and that it’s a job they know they are good at.