Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Highwaymen of South Carolina

[Y]ou will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"--Abraham Lincoln, February 27, 1860, Address at Cooper Institute
Lincoln was speaking of the secessionist fire-eaters who would, with South Carolina in the lead, try to destroy the Union later that same year. Last night, that same attitude was on vivid display in the United States Congress, and once again, South Carolina played a prominent role.

All seven Republican members of Congress from South Carolina voted against Speaker John Boehner's debt ceiling bill. The bill passed the House by the bare minimum, with 22 Republicans voting against it and no Democrats voting for it. It then went to the Senate, where Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham joined the Democrats in voting it down.

Although they voted with the Democrats, they did so for different reasons. The Democrats opposed the bill primarily because it would return us to this debt ceiling nightmare again in another six months. The highwaymen of South Carolina did so because its spending cuts were not draconian enough, its demand for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution not iron-clad enough.

On the CBS Evening News last night, the four freshmen Republican House members from South Carolina (the veteran Joe "You lie!" Wilson excepted) were featured in a story about opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

They spoke with apparent sincerity about the need to make fundamental change. Jeff Duncan spoke about the potential problems of the future: "I've got three young boys ... and I don't want them ten years from now to say, 'Dad, when y'all were at the brink, what did you do?' ... I don't want to have to answer him, 'I didn't do enough.'"

Touching as that is, it shows no concern at all for the very real consequences of failing to compromise. When asked about the potential disaster of failing to raise the debt ceiling, Trey Gowdy, who is my representative from the 4th Congressional district, rather self-righteously dismissed the question: "What is one person's intransigence is another person's deeply held conviction."

What Gowdy is really saying is that he values his own "convictions" above the national interest. He will follow his convictions, and if the result is financial disaster, and another Great Depression, that's not his responsibility. He is only responsible to his personal convictions.

Gowdy's refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions is stunning, and as I've noted before (here and here), typical of the baneful influence of South Carolina's most famous senator, John C. Calhoun.

In the same speech quoted above, Lincoln succinctly summed up this mindset:
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.
This attitude is deeply, fundamentally, undemocratic. That is what is so dangerous politically about the situation in which the United States finds itself today. Above and beyond the financial dangers, we are facing a test of our political system. That system values process over any specific outcome.  Whether they realize it or not, these freshmen representatives, and the rest of the Tea Party radicals, value results over process.

There is no need for the nation to be staring into the abyss of financial chaos. Like the pre-Civil War fire-eaters, they have created a crisis, confident that they can get their way--one, by the way, which they know--they know--they cannot get through the normal democratic process--by putting a gun to the nation's head.

They blithely, like Lincoln's highwayman, tell us that the rest of us will be to blame if we force them to wreck the economy because our "deeply held conviction" tells us compromise, not blackmail, is the right way to go.

There is an extremely important principle at stake here: that the American government should not be forced to function with a gun to its head. If the highwaymen get their way, they will do incalculable damage to the nation's political system. It is well past time for leaders in both parties, not just one, to recommit to process over results, and put an end to this unnecessary, dangerous, and manufactured crisis.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Economic Equivalent of the Civil War?

I made the mistake of watching some cable news while eating lunch today, and heard Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), member of the House Tea Party Caucus, say that not only will he refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, he thinks Congress should lower it.  Andrea Mitchell was dumbstruck, and like a teacher with an amazingly dense six year old student, tried to explain to him that raising the debt ceiling was necessary to account for spending already appropriated by Congress. Broun was unmoved by this appeal to reality.

Broun seems either unaware or unconcerned that his position would require an immediate cut of about 40% in government spending. And since things like interest on the debt cannot be cut, it would really mean a larger cut on the rest of government spending. Does Broun want an immediate 40+% cut in defense spending? No? Then we have to cut even more from everything else.  Next week.

Tea Party activists gather on Capitol Hill for a 'Hold the Line' rally, June 27, 2011 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
You could not find a single economist in the country, no matter how conservative, who would tell you such a massive and instant cut in government spending would do anything but plunge the U.S. into another Great Depression in a matter of months, if not weeks.

But Broun does not seem to care. In his world, all that matters is paying down the debt. Everything else will just work itself out. He lives in a fantasy land of ideology, where facts can be made to conform with beliefs.

Broun and other reality-denying Republicans like presidential candidate Michele Bachmann insist that the debt ceiling should not be raised. Period. They are on the verge of causing a financial cataclysm.  Speaker John Boehner may not be able to pass debt ceiling his bill through the Republican-controlled House tomorrow because of them.

And it is his own fault.

Last December, in the wake of the November elections, I wrote that the GOP had become John C. Calhoun's party--the party of no compromise, of standing on principle come hell or high water, consequences be damned. I concluded then:
A decade later, Calhoun's irresponsible mindset would lead to the Civil War. Today's Republicans will not, one must hope, produce any calamity on such a dramatic and grand scale. But they embody the same narrow, anti-majoritarian, self-destructive approach to politics that the senator from South Carolina did. And the results of that will not be pretty.
Well, it has now gotten ugly. It may not be the economic equivalent of the Civil War, but it's close enough.

I noted then that Boehner had adopted the "no compromise" rhetoric of the Tea Party in his "60 Minutes" interview. That was the first sign that he would attempt to appease and co-opt rather than lead the Tea Party caucus.

Then in February on "Meet the Press," when confronted with the birther nonsense so prevalent among Republicans, he said:
It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.... the American people have the right to think what they want to think.
No, it isn't the job of a leader to "tell the American people what to think." But it IS the job of a leader to educate people about the difference between the truth and a lie. Boehner treated the question of Obama's citizenship as a mere matter of opinion. I don't believe it, he said, but it's OK if other people do. No, it isn't. Not when we are talking about matters of fact and not of opinion.

And that bring us to where we are today. Boehner's caucus is filled with people so economically ignorant that they really don't think we need to increase the debt ceiling, that we can let it go by, only pay some bills, and thereby, by default, balance the budget now. Boehner knows that this is not true, and he has said so.

But he has spent the last 8 months appeasing the Tea Party know-nothings. He has treated matters of fact as matters of opinion. He has played their game, and now that it is coming down to the wire, he cannot suddenly get them to see reality. Today a Tea Party leader called for Boehner to be replaced as Speaker for not reducing spending right now.

Boehner will have a choice over the next few days. He can either continue to bow to the Tea Party radicals who have no sense of economic reality, or he can make common cause with Democrats and pass a bill that gets us beyond this manufactured crisis and thereby incur Tea Party wrath. He can be John C. Calhoun and go down in flames, or he can be Henry Clay and put the good of the nation first, ahead of party unity and personal ambition.

I hope he chooses the latter, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Chairman Ron

Six years ago, my colleague Li Qing Kinnison and I led a group of students on a three-week trip to China during the January interim. Everywhere we went, there were signs of American corporations: McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and my favorite example of all—in Beijing, in the Forbidden City itself, a Starbucks. You could hardly ask for a clearer picture of the triumph of global capitalism.

A Starbucks in Shanghai
The other ubiquitous image, of course, was the leader of the Communist revolution, Mao Zedong. His huge portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and on t-shirts, posters, and wristwatches.

The contradiction is obvious. Mao was not just a communist, he was a particularly radical one. His hostility to any semblance of capitalist enterprise nearly destroyed China, especially in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Yet he is still venerated in China, even as the state pursues policies that would (were his body not preserved and on display) have him spinning in his grave.

So what gives? Once historical figures leave the stage, there is an inevitable tendency for the historical record to morph into myth. Memory becomes selective. We forget the part of the record that's inconvenient and elevate what is useful. So the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution disappear, and instead many Chinese remember Mao only as the leader of the revolution that ended decades of political chaos and founded the modern Chinese state.

The reason I note this now is that we are seeing a version of this, albeit a milder one, in American politics today. In the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan has been raised to sainted status. But every day, we see Republicans espousing positions and using tactics that Reagan's actual historical record directly contradicts.

The current debt ceiling debate is a case in point. As president, Reagan requested 17 increases in the debt ceiling. Not only that, but in doing so he spoke in terms indistinguishable from those used today by President Obama. On November 16, 1983, Reagan wrote to the Senate:
[T]he Treasury Department cannot guarantee that the Federal Government will have sufficient cash on hand on any one day to meet all of its mandated expenses, and thus the United States could be forced to default on its obligations for the first time in its history….The full consequences of a default—or even the serious prospect of a default—by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate … the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.
In his diary, he was more direct:
Last night the Repub. Sen. very irresponsibly refused to pass an increase in the debt ceiling which is necessary if we’re to borrow & keep the govt. running…. I sounded off & told them I’d veto every d--n thing they sent down unless they gave us a clean debt ceiling bill. That ended the meeting. (The Reagan Diaries, p. 192)
In 1987, Reagan wrote in his diary:
If we don’t have an extension of the debt ceiling by the 15th we will have to sell gold or default on bonds.  D--n their hides (the Cong.), we’ll default for the first time in our history. Something has to wake those d--n prima donnas up. (The Reagan Diaries, p. 365)
On his radio broadcast that year, Reagan said:
Congress consistently brings the Government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits.
Reagan could not have been clearer: playing political games with the debt ceiling was highly irresponsible. Yet today’s Republicans, who claim to venerate Reagan, are doing precisely that, and some even call President Obama a liar for saying the same things Reagan did. Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois said:
President Obama, quit lying. You know darn well that if August 2nd comes and goes there is plenty of money to pay off our debt and cover all social security obligations. And you also know that you and only you have the discretion to make those payments.
The reason we have no deal is that Republicans refuse to entertain any compromise that includes any increase in tax revenues. But Ronald Reagan signed 11 bills raising taxes (more times than he cut them). Republicans today insist that no deal that raises any revenues, in any way, is acceptable—even if it is eliminating tax subsidies for corporations, even if those new revenues get in return tremendous spending cuts.

In 1982, writing in his diary of Rep. Jack Kemp’s opposition to one of those tax increases, Reagan said: “He is in fact unreasonable. The tax increase is the price we have to pay to get the budget cuts.” (An American Life, p. 321)

Reagan, for all of his conservative principles, was an inveterate compromiser. In his autobiography, he denounced the "radical conservatives" when he was California governor for whom "'Compromise' was a dirty word." He was impatient with their zealotry:
they wouldn't face the fact that we couldn't get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don't get it all, some said, don't take anything…. If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later. (An American Life, pp. 170-171)
Reagan's description fits well the deal Obama offered Republican Speaker John Boehner: $4 trillion in deficit reduction, with $3 trillion in spending cuts and $1 trillion in new revenue. He offered Republicans 75 percent. They said no, they wanted all or nothing. And they continue to raise the specter of a default that Reagan regarded as irresponsible.

Reagan's record as president would make him utterly unacceptable as a Republican candidate for office today, because Republicans today venerate not Reagan, the historical figure, but Reagan the conservative icon. The latter bears only a passing resemblance to former, and is being used in ways that the historical Reagan explicitly rejected.

Well, it could be worse. He could be on public display in Washington. At least Reagan, unlike Mao, gets to spin in his grave.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Tea Party's Real Founder

In my last post, I compared the current debt ceiling crisis to the political paralysis that led to the Compromise of 1850. It was the last slavery crisis that was resolved peacefully. The spirit of compromise was exhausted. The difficulty of resolving the issues in 1850 was a harbinger of the utter inability to find a compromise a decade later.

The most interesting part of that crisis was South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun 's final address to Congress. Calhoun's 1850 speech was historical foreshadowing, indicating that Southern Democrats were ceasing to be "normal" (as David Brooks would put it). Ten years later, the mere election of a president without Southern votes would appear to them reason enough to destroy the Union.

The most prominent part of the address is Calhoun's utter rejection of compromise. And that makes him the Tea Party's real Founding Father.

Speaking of his section, the South, Calhoun said: "She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make." He insisted that if the Union were endangered, it was not because of the atrocious institution of slavery that he spent most of his career defending, but due to the "agitation" of the opponents of slavery.

Having himself raised the specter of secession, Calhoun demanded that the North show that it loved the Union by surrendering unconditionally to southern demands.

Calhoun's tone finds its modern parallel in the current uncompromising attitude of the Tea Party Republicans on the debt ceiling. The crisis of 1850 was a crisis because slaveholders threatened secession if they did not get their way. Today the debt ceiling is a crisis because Tea Party Republicans have decided to take the previously uncontroversial vote and use it for leverage to impose an ideological agenda.

Southerners in 1850 were in the minority, but stood in the way of everything, blocking majorities from passing legislation of which they did not approve. Today, Republicans control the House, but are in the minority in the Senate and do not control the Executive branch. Yet they insist on a one-sided deal and threaten to cause default if they do not get their way.

Rather than accepting that their minority position meant that they were in no position to dictate, Southerners turned their weakness into a strength. They were willing to bring the house crashing down if they did not get their way. If the North did not give the South everything it wanted, Calhoun said, it would mean that "her love of power and aggrandizement is far greater than her love of the Union." This, coming from a man who raised the prospect of secession in the very first sentence of this speech!

For Calhoun, his support of slavery had become an inviolable principle. Any limit on the growth of the institution was, for him, a deal-breaker.

So it seems today with taxes and the Tea Party. Rep. Tom Graves, Republican and self-identified Tea Party Congressman from Georgia, said: "You know, when we hear the word 'compromise' on Capitol Hill, that's what got us into this mess over the last several decades…. This is no time for compromise."

Conventional wisdom has it that Speaker John Boehner wants a deal, and that fear of the Tea Party caucus is what prompted Majority Leader Eric Cantor's temper tantrum when taxes were raised in the bipartisan deficit reduction talks. It seems that Speaker John Boehner had to back away from a "grand bargain" this past weekend because he could not sell the Tea Partiers on a deal that included any increases in revenue.

Calhoun sought leverage in the South's willingness to destroy the unity of the nation over the issue of slavery. Today's anti-tax fanatics find leverage in their willingness to push the nation to the brink of financial disaster and debt default.

Being so committed to principle that you would prefer disaster to compromise is liberating, if reckless and irresponsible. Calhoun finished his address, and his political career, with these words: "I shall have the consolation let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility."

The next two weeks should tell whether Tea Party Republicans prefer flirting with disaster to governing with responsibility.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Impending Crisis

Washington, D.C. is full these days of talk of impending crisis and "grand bargains." For an American historian, those terms inevitably are reminiscent of the great compromises of the pre-Civil War era, all of which had something to do with the great divisive issue of the day, slavery. Can those crises tell us anything about today's events?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be "no." Slavery divided the country along sectional, not party, lines. But there are aspects of those crises that do provide some insight into the Republican, or more accurately, Tea Party approach to the debt limit.

And that pattern involves raising issues of policy to matters of dogmatic principle.

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that if the Republicans do not take the deal that the Democrats are currently offering, it will mean that they are no longer a "normal" party. Yesterday, David Frum argued that the

coming vote [on the debt ceiling] is one where almost every House Republican will want to be on the losing side. But if they all get their wish – then they win. And of course … the country and the world loses, and loses horribly.

This idea of a compromise where everyone wants to be on the “losing side” is reminiscent of the Compromise of 1850, which preceded the Civil War by little more than 10 years. The difficulty of resolving the issues in 1850 were a harbinger of the utter inability to find a compromise a decade later.

The mindset today is similar to the one that prevailed in 1850.  This morning on NPR's "On Point," Major Garrett of the National Journal said that the idea now is for a "too big to fail" or "big bang" deal; i.e., if everything is included, if all outstanding issues are addressed, then members of Congress will have to vote for it.

That was how Congress initially approached the problems of 1850.  The "Great Compromiser" Henry Clay, leader of a special Senate committee, proposed what was called an "Omnibus" bill.  According to James McPherson, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, "this package was designed to attract a majority from both sections by inducing each to accept the parts it did not like in order to get the parts it wanted."

It sounded like a good idea. The problem was, "as the legislators labored through the heat of a Washington summer" (sound familiar?), most congressmen "signified their intention to vote against the package in order to defeat the parts they opposed."  Clay's Omnibus bill was defeated.

It is not a stretch to see the same thing happening to any "too big to fail" deal today. Republican leaders like Speaker John Boehner have been saying that a deal that includes any increase in tax revenue cannot pass the House. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday reacted strongly against any agreement that cut Social Security or Medicare.

So the prospects are not bright.

But there was a Compromise of 1850. Perhaps that holds out some path forward? Sadly, probably not. 

After his bill was voted down on July 31, Clay left Washington in despair, fearing that the failure of his bill would mean disunion. Stephen Douglas, as McPherson puts it, decided to "pick up the pieces" and pass the bill--"in pieces." He divided the Omnibus into five parts, and then assembled ad hoc majorities for each of the five parts. This allowed most members of Congress to vote against the parts they did not like, while voting for those they did like.

In 1850, there were enough legislators willing to oppose the pull of sectional loyalty to make compromise possible. It is questionable whether such a strategy could prevail today. As stunning as it may be to say, today's uncompromising attitude, particularly coming from Tea Party types, seems even greater than the sectional stubbornness of 1850.

The next few weeks should tell us whether we are in worse shape than we were in 1850. Most Republicans in Congress (41 in the Senate and 236 in the House) have signed Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise any tax ever. Perhaps they will revolt, as some did in the recent vote on ethanol subsidies, and show themselves to be a "normal" party. But if not, there will be no "grand bargain."

[In my next post, I will examine the similarities between the Tea Party's demonization of compromise and the mindset of the leading opponent of compromise in 1850, John C. Calhoun.]

Monday, July 4, 2011

Michele Bachmann and the Frozen Founders

Michele Bachmann's insistence that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founders produced a lot of sniggering last week.  As many people have pointed out, the younger Adams was all of eight years old when the Declaration was signed 235 years ago.

The George Stephanopoulus interview was not the first time.  Speaking in Iowa back in January, Bachmann said

we know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began, we know that was an evil, and it was a scourge and a blot and a stain on our history. But we also know that the very founders who wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time we recognize the contribution of our forbearers [sic] who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.
Whenever a political figure insists on defending such a self-evidently wrong statement, it makes me wonder what lies beneath it. This isn't just ignorance. There is an ideological imperative she's obeying.

First, let's give Bachmann her due. John Quincy Adams was indeed an opponent of slavery. The problem is that his truly "tireless" activity on the subject came during his post-presidential career in Congress in the 1830s and 1840s. He was a figure of the second generation of American political leadership, not the first.

The irony is that there are many examples of people during the founding generation working against slavery.  As Matt Yglesias has noted, actual Founders such as John Jay did fight slavery. The era of the revolution did see real progress on slavery--all of the northern states passed legislation for the gradual end to slavery within those states. So why not cite that actual history?

Because it is complicated, and Bachmann is looking for simplicity. To talk about the movement to end slavery in the northern states inevitably draws attention to the reality that the southern states not only did not follow, but over time grew more committed to maintaining slavery. The reason later generations had to work so "tirelessly" against slavery is that other Americans were working so tirelessly for it.

The reason the Founders did not end slavery in their new republic, one born with the phrase "all men are created equal," is that to insist on an end to slavery would have insured an end to the United States. As Robert Middlekauff writes in The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, "white people in the North and South decided that for the time being at least the union that protected republican government was more important than a full-scale dedication to equality."

A truthful account of the Founders and slavery has to acknowledge this fact. They were something today's Tea Partiers say they abhor: compromisers. In the Constitutional Convention, they compromised on everything, most notably on slavery.

Another reason those later generations had to work so tirelessly to end slavery is that the Constitution so well ensconced slavery in the United States. Arguably the Constitution was the largest impediment to ending slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell." He burned a copy of the Constitution in protest.

So to speak honestly and accurately of "the Founders" is to confront that messy reality.

Bachmann prefers her Founders simple, god-like, and unchanging. Since the Tea Party ideology deems the Constitution a sacred document, inspired by God (remember, it was Bachmann who enlisted the fraud David Barton to teach Constitution classes to Congress), those who wrote it must be responsible for all that is good. Thus she cannot be accurate. She cannot say some of the founders worked tirelessly against slavery while others defended it.

And since all good things must come from the Founders, she cannot note later Americans like Garrison who denounced the Constitution's compromises on slavery. No, abolition must trace back to "the Founders." All of them. She does not want real, fallible human beings. She wants icons, created in her own image and then frozen in time.

The alternative is simply not acceptable: she cannot admit that the Declaration, with its statement of great principles, was only imperfectly embodied in the Constitution. Because if we accept that the principles of the Founders expressed in the Declaration are renewed and reinterpreted by later generations, that the institutions we adopt to implement them change over time and are made "more perfect" in application, then the foundational idea of the Tea Party is nonsense.

Which, of course, it is. We cannot reflexively ask what "the Founders" would do or say, as if there is one objective answer to that question. The Declaration, whose adoption we celebrate today, is not only a gift to future generations. It is a burden. "The Founders" did not give us all the answers. They showed us the important questions, and challenged us to work out the answers for ourselves.

On this Independence Day, to truly honor their work, we should stop pretending we can lazily rely on them to tell us what to do, and instead take up the challenge of finding what it means in our times to strive for what "of Right ought to be."

Happy Fourth.