Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gingrich: Courting the Apocalyptic

The last topic in my Western Civilization class this fall was Napoleon. I always use that as an occasion to introduce students to two basic views of history: the "great man" and the "great forces" theories. It is an admittedly simplistic dichotomy, but it comes down to this: does the individual make history, or does history make the individual?

Napoleon is an easy case for discussing those ideas. Historians sometimes write of the "Napoleonic Era" as if it were the product of one man, but without the "great forces" that made the French Revolution, there would have been no opportunity for there to be a "Napoleonic Era." A more sophisticated view is that certain individuals capture the spirit of the moment, and the combination of the individual and the times makes for great changes in history.

Newt Gingrich's recent rise as the latest "not-Mitt" in the Republican race has had me thinking lately about this idea, because, as Jonah Goldberg writes in the National Review: "It’s no secret [Gingrich] sees himself as a world historical figure, the last of the great statesmen." In other words, Gingrich believes he is one of those rare individuals, like Napoleon (or for Gingrich, Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan), who uniquely understands the historical moment, seizes the mantle of leadership, and leaves an indelible mark.

Frank Bruni's piece in Sunday's New York Times on New Gingrich's massive ego nicely catalogs Gingrich's most grandiloquent expressions of his own historical significance. My personal favorite is this self-description from 1992:
"Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization

Arouser of those who Fan Civilization

Organizer of the pro-civilization activists

Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces"
I love the "Possibly"--that's as close as Gingrich gets to humility. As Bruni rightly notes, an arrogant egotism is effectively a prerequisite for the presidency, but Gingrich's variety "would make him a dangerous president."

But Bruni fails to focus on precisely why Gingrich would be dangerous. The death of Kim Jong-Il Sunday brought it into focus for me: in a delicate moment in international affairs such as this, how many people really wish we had a President Gingrich in charge?

For a conservative like Goldberg, the danger is that Newt's desire to make history might lead him--God forbid!--to make a grand compromise with liberals. But I think his ambitions are grander. Newt seeks to bestride the world.

When Bill Clinton (who in some ways is Gingrich's liberal, generational twin) was leaving office, there were numerous articles about how the soon-to-be ex-president was privately bemoaning the fact that no single event gave him the opportunity to seize greatness. He presided over largely prosperous times domestically, and in the lull between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 internationally. His achievements, one observer noted, came "in increments."

Clinton, for all the recklessness of his private life, was largely sober and prudent in discharging his office (one of the reasons he almost always bested Gingrich politically). Gingrich, I fear, would not accept change by increment. I can see him courting the apocalyptic in his search for "greatness."

He is certainly given to apocalyptic rhetoric. For example, in the foreword to Michael Reagan's recent book, The New Reagan Revolution, Newt writes: "Our generation will decide if America remains free--or if freedom goes extinct."

Or think for a moment of this comment from last week's debate: “if we do survive,” he ominously intoned, while discussing the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

As a New York Times article recently noted, "Mr. Gingrich is warning of a protracted ideological struggle — and perhaps military intervention in Iran — as part of a battle of ideas in the Muslim world."

Just as the Arab Spring is sweeping away dictatorial leaders, with Al Qaeda in disarray and decapitated by the killing of Osama bin Laden, Gingrich envisions not a potentially beneficial democratic awakening in the Muslim world, but a new Cold War with Islam.

"The United States is 'about where we were in 1946' up against the Soviet Union, he said recently." The date is not coincidental. That was the year of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, which many conservatives credit with stiffening the resolve of the Truman administration to prosecute the Cold War against the Soviets.

Like so many modern American conservatives, Gingrich belongs to the cult of Churchill (the Republican House scheduled a vote Monday on a resolution that would put a statue of Churchill in the Capitol).

Churchill certainly is due credit for the role he played in the defeat of Hitler. I always point out to my Western Civ students that it is not implausible that a different Prime Minister in the summer of 1940 might have decided that it was in Britain's interests to make a deal with Hitler. Churchill's resolute defiance mattered.

But there's a difference between admiring Churchill and wanting to become Churchill. Gingrich sees himself as an American Churchill. He longs so much for his own Churchillian moment that I can easily see him creating one if history doesn't it offer it up to him.

Referring to the Palestinians, Gingrich said last week: "Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists. It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, 'Enough lying about the Middle East.'"

This is Gingrich posing as Churchill, the prescient and bold truth-teller, warning about Hitler in the 1930s or Stalin in 1946. "I will tell the truth, even if it causes some confusion sometimes with the timid," he sneered in reply to Mitt Romney's criticism of him as a rhetorical bomb-thrower. I guess the only question is whether Newt thinks Romney or Obama is Neville Chamberlain.

The last thing this country needs is a president so intent on making his mark on the world that he is willing to precipitate a crisis just so that he has a chance to save civilization. As Sen. Carl Levin put it, in response to the comments on the Palestinians, "Gingrich offered no solutions — just a can of gasoline and a match."

The world today needs firemen. Gingrich is an arsonist.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judging Newt

When Newt Gingrich starts a sentence with "As a historian ...," I brace myself. You never know what's coming, but, as a historian, I worry.

So it was the other night at the final pre-Iowa caucus debate. When Megyn Kelly challenged Gingrich on his proposals for judicial "reform," noting that two former Republican attorneys general called his ideas "dangerous, ridiculous, outrageous, totally irresponsible," Gingrich said: "As a historian, I may understand this better than lawyers."

As a historian, I doubt it.

Let's examine Newt's case. He has proposed that judges should be impeached, or entire courts abolished, for issuing unpopular decisions. He cites Thomas Jefferson as precedent: "I’d ask, first of all, have they studied Jefferson, who in 1802 abolished 18 out of 35 federal judges?"

He's referring to the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which did in fact abolish recently created district and circuit courts, and thus the judges who sat on those courts were removed from office. But why was that done?

The Judiciary Act had been passed in February 1801 by a lame-duck Federalist Congress after its defeat at the hands of Jefferson's Republicans in the election of 1800. Maybe you remember hearing about the so-called "Midnight Judges" in your American history classes? They were a product of this act.

While the idea of expanding the federal judiciary had been percolating for years, the repudiation of Federalists at the polls gave added urgency to the issue. Congress passed the bill less then three weeks before Jefferson took office, allowing outgoing Federalist President John Adams to put Federalist judges in place before the Republicans took over the Congress and Presidency.  One Federalist reportedly said: “it is as good to the party as an election.”

The Republicans saw the act--with some justification--as a blatant, anti-democratic attempt by the Federalists to maintain power and influence in the third branch despite having been recently trounced in elections to the first two branches. The Republicans therefore repealed the act in 1802, and thus, as Gingrich notes, abolished courts and judges.

But what Gingrich proposes is different. He wants to abolish courts to get rid of specific judges who have issued decisions he does not like. He's quite up front about it. He has stated that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in particular should be abolished because of its decisions. Jefferson's 1802 act abolished all of the recently created circuit courts because they had been created for partisan reasons. Gingrich wants to target specific courts for making specific rulings which he opposes for partisan reasons.

To be fair to Newt, there also were attempts to similarly politicize the courts during Jefferson's presidency. A federal district court judge in New Hampshire, John Pickering, was impeached by the House and convicted and removed from office by the Senate in 1804. Gordon Wood writes that Pickering was "an alcoholic and probably insane," but his real sin was that he "had been violently partisan" on the bench.

In this instance, impeachment had been used "in effect as a mode of removal, and not as a charge and conviction of high crimes and misdemeanors." (Rather like the Clinton impeachment, I would argue, in which of course Gingrich had a big hand.) That success emboldened the Republicans to up the ante and impeach Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. 

That attempt alarmed John Marshall, who feared what he called the "modern doctrine ... that a Judge giving a legal opinion contrary to the legislature is liable to impeachment." But even the overwhelmingly Republican Senate (they held 25 of 34 seats) failed to produce the two-thirds vote needed to convict Chase, avoiding the result Marshall feared.

The Chase trial precedent was the important one. He had committed no crime. His impeachment was transparently partisan. According to Wood, John Quincy Adams "thought that the failure to convict Chase established that only actual crimes were impeachable offenses." Jefferson himself said: "Impeachment was a farce which will not be tried again."

But Thomas Jefferson never met Newt Gingrich. As an experienced practitioner of political farce, Gingrich certainly has something to teach us. As a historian, not so much.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rick Perry's Theocratic Vision

Rick Perry's new "I'm a Christian" ad is evidence that the people he's targeting do not understand something fundamental about the American system that they proclaim is so "exceptional." The mindset expressed in the ad is nothing short of theocratic.

Perry says: “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Discussing that passage, Andrew Sullivan writes:
we get a classic non-sequitur: the notion that allowing openly gay servicemembers to serve without fear of prosecution is somehow connected to the constitutional prohibition of prayer in schools. There is zero connection between the two issues - except both are objected to by Christianist fundamentalists.
I think there is a connection between the two, beyond what Sullivan says, and that the way Perry connects the two is instructive.

Perry is really saying that government, by allowing open service by gays in the military, is thereby endorsing who they are. Defending the ad today, Perry said: "President Obama has again mistaken America's tolerance for different lifestyles with an endorsement of those lifestyles."

In Perry's mind, treating people whose conduct you personally find to be contrary to your own morality as equals in the public sphere is an endorsement--it is saying that who they are and how they act is right and good. In his mind, there is no room for saying "that's none of my (or the government's) business."

In effect, he is saying that there is a moral standard (one that is set by his own view of Christianity) to qualify for equal citizenship. It is hard to imagine anything more contrary to a foundational principle of American government, expressed in the words engraved in the Supreme Court building: "equal justice under law."

Perry then makes a comparison between open service and not allowing schools to endorse Christianity via prayers and Christmas celebrations. That's why they are connected in his mind, and in the minds of those to whom he is appealing. Government, he says, is endorsing homosexuality (which it should not do), and is not endorsing Christianity, which it should do.

The common element is the idea that government has a role to play in endorsing some moral principles and condemning others. Government should not, Perry is suggesting, treat all people equally: it should endorse some and condemn others. That is a theocratic mindset.

Perry looks at the inclusiveness that a pluralistic society demands (everyone is treated equally under the law) and the refusal to endorse one religious vision (which a pluralistic society also demands) and wants us to see a contradiction. In fact, the two things are perfectly consistent with each other--if one believes (as the Founders did) that there should be no religious test for citizenship.

Perry's problem is that he either does not understand that, or does not believe in it. He thinks government should discriminate against those whose private behavior he abhors and should publicly advance his particular religious beliefs even though they are not universally held. He is saying that failing to give Christians a superior position in American society is effectively discrimination against Christians.

In this worldview, there is no room for equal protection under the law. This is truly 1984 territory: failing to discriminate against minorities is discriminating against the majority.

It is disturbing enough that an allegedly serious candidate for the presidency in 2012 could espouse such views. It is even more disturbing that he seems to think it will appeal large number of Republican primary voters. It would be most disturbing were it to turn out that he's right.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Make Room for Daddy

I guess I should have known.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) in response to the ugly political climate in the aftermath of the passage of the health care law. Those poisoning the atmosphere with rhetoric demonizing their opponents, I argued, were “Newt’s Kids.”

Ever since, various Republican candidates for president have tried to capture the rage on the right: Bachmann, Perry, Cain. But now it has fallen to Newt, the father of them all. It was Gingrich, I argued, who wrote the Republican play book:
No cooperation. Delegitimize your political opponents. Tell the people they are losing their freedom. Smear the other side with focus-group-tested words and phrases designed to produce an emotional revulsion among the electorate.
In retrospect, it seems natural that these pretenders would have to make way for the real thing.

Consider this passage from a Gingrich speech:
This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant, quasi-leaders who are willing as people to drift into positions because nobody else is available. What we really need are people who are tough, hard-working, energetic, willing to take risks, willing to stand up in a … slug fest and match it out with their opponent.
A recent attack on Romney? No. A speech Newt made to College Republicans.

In 1978.

Yes, 33 years ago. Give him this much: Gingrich may change positions on policy as often as Romney, but his general approach to politics is the same as it ever was.

In that speech, Gingrich reduced his critique of the GOP to its essence: “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Ever since that day, Newt has followed his own advice, and has been consistently nasty.

Up until this point in the primary process, however, Gingrich has been selective about it. At nearly every debate, he has saved his nastiness for two targets: President Obama and the media figures asking the questions (with the notable exception of the last CNN debate, in which the questions originated with conservative folks from the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute).

What will be interesting to see from now on is whether he continues trying to be “the adult in the room” at the debates. Romney may attack him, Perry may feel the need to the same. And one thing we learned from his battles with Bill Clinton in the 1990s is that Newt can be bated. If he can avoid that temptation, and avoid reminding people why he became so disliked by the time he resigned from Congress in 1998, he may yet emerge as the Republican nominee.

In some ways, I think that would be appropriate. Newt Gingrich is more responsible than any other Republican today for the destructive politics that plagues us all. Barack Obama, beginning with his 2004 keynote address, through his 2008 campaign, and to this day in his conduct of the presidency, has said he wants to change those destructive politics.

As I wrote last spring, Gingrich is from a different generation than Obama. He wants to re-fight the battles of the 1960s, while Obama wants to move beyond them. There are worse prospects than a presidential election over whether Americans want a future marked by Gingrich's 1960s culture wars, "Only I can save Western Civilization" approach, or Obama's "let's reason together and find common sense solutions" style. I know which I prefer, and I suspect most Americans agree.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Overtly Covert

[The last in a series of events marking Wofford's hosting of last Saturday night's Republican debate was a post-mortem, held Thursday night. Below are my remarks at that forum.]

As I noted in my presentation last week, candidates often seem to forget that the whole world is listening. This was apparent, I thought, from the start of last Saturday’s debate. When asked what to do about the problem of Iran potentially getting a nuclear weapon, the several candidates (Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) suggested that covert action against Iran was the appropriate response.

This, it seems to me, raises a fairly obvious problem: once you say publicly that you intend to use secret methods to overthrow a foreign government, or interfere with its nuclear program, it is hardly "covert" anymore. Both Cain and Romney said that they would use unspecified covert action. Those, at least, were general statements.

Gingrich, however, not to be outdone, got specific—he wants Iranian scientists "taken out," that is, assassinated. And then he said, stunningly, that what he had just suggested was "all of it deniable." Gingrich also later said that the US should be working covertly to overthrow Assad in Syria. Were Gingrich to become president, and the things he has now suggested publicly were to happen, how then would they be "deniable"?  This is the problem with publicly saying you will use covert action—it isn’t really that covert, or deniable, anymore.

There is a nice historical parallel to this situation, from 50 years ago. On Oct. 6, 1960, John F. Kennedy called Cuba "the most glaring failure of American foreign policy," much as Romney said that Iran was "President Obama’s greatest failing."

When in 1960 Eisenhower imposed on Cuba what Time magazine called "the most severe trade embargo imposed on any nation except for Red China," JFK called it "a dramatic but almost empty gesture." This is similar to the way the candidates, when asked what they would do differently, said they would put really harsh economic sanctions on Iran, when there are already significant economic sanctions on Iran. 

In criticizing the Eisenhower administration on Cuba, Kennedy went even further, much as the candidates did on Saturday: "we must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile, and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro. Thus far these fighters have had virtually no support from our government."

Kennedy was essentially calling for the US to covertly work for a revolution in Cuba. By the time he said that, however, the CIA plan, that would become known as the Bay of Pigs, was well along in its development. Kennedy evidently did not know this. Nixon was furious because he thought JFK did know, but in fact CIA director Allen Dulles, who had briefed Kennedy on national security issues, omitted the plan in his briefing.

What is interesting is how Nixon responded. Since he could not say that such covert activity was in fact going on, he decided to denounce Kennedy for the suggestion: "I think Sen. Kennedy’s policies and recommendations for the handling of the Castro regime are probably the most dangerously irresponsible recommendations that he’s made during the course of this campaign." Even after Kennedy backed off a bit, saying he only mean to "let the forces of freedom in Cuba" know that "the US sympathized with them," Nixon continued to hammer Kennedy, calling him "rash," "impulsive," and "shockingly reckless." "United States support for a revolution in Cuba," Nixon said, would be "a direct invitation for the Soviet Union to intervene militarily on the side of Castro." But in private, Nixon had endorsed the secret CIA plan to do just that.

Nixon was in a difficult position, knowing about covert action that he could not discuss. But thinking that Kennedy had knowingly politicized the matter, Nixon struck back, publicly taking a position that was the opposite of his private view, in order to score political points.

When I heard these calls for covert action against Iran, I could not help but wonder if we might have a similar situation today. Many people believe that the Obama administration has been covertly working to subvert the Iranian nuclear program. For example, it is possible that the Obama administration either was responsible for the Stuxnet computer worm attack on Iran's nuclear program or supported Israel in that effort.

But of course, if that IS happening, the Obama administration could hardly admit it publicly. When Rick Santorum returned to the topic of Iran later in the debate and made these comments, it seemed to me that he was suggested that is what is going on.

You can almost see Santorum trying to be careful, noting that covert activity is likely going on and that the US may well be behind it—even that he hopes it is. He seems to be trying to deal with the fact that it is possible that the US is already doing some of the things that Gingrich encouraged. There have in fact been scientists who have ended up dead, most recently this past July, and speculation that foreign intelligences services may be behind the killings.

The other aspect of this topic I’d like to discuss is the history of covert action by the US in Iran and the wisdom of publicly advocating it. As relatively few Americans know, but every Iranian knows, the US used covert action to help overthrow the government of Iran in 1953. The CIA helped engineer a coup d’etat that overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, who was threatening to nationalize the oil industry, and installed the Shah as a dictator.  He ruled until 1979, when he was overthrown in the Iranian revolution and replaced by the current Islamic regime. The anti-American character of that regime is due, at least in part, to that previous American covert action. That, it seems to be, might suggest that undertaking more covert action in Iran is not the best approach.

Even if you could argue that covert action in Iran would be a wise policy, saying so publicly strikes me as foolish.  Mitt Romney was critical of President Obama for not being speaking more forcefully in favor of the Iranian opposition, but in the historical context of US-Iranian relations, there is a justification for that.

Romney said that Obama failed to say he was with the Iranian protesters, when Obama has denounced Iran for "gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully," and that the Iranian people should be allowed to "express their yearning for greater freedom and a more representative government."

When Obama was pressed to insert himself into the protests in Iran, he said: "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States."

For the opposition forces to be associated with the United States could be politically toxic for them in Iran. It would be like Occupy Wall Street associating themselves publicly with Castro’s Cuba, or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. It could ruin their credentials as Iranian nationalists. Placing the United States fully on the side of the Iranian opposition might make for a good applause line in a debate, but that does not necessarily make it good policy. It could even backfire.

Lastly, it is not even clear that a regime change would necessarily produce the results the US wants regarding the atom bomb. Are there forces inside Iran that are in favor of giving up the nuclear program, or might the idea that Iran has a right to be a nuclear power have widespread appeal beyond the current government? If so, then it is at least possible that "regime change" might not affect Iran’s nuclear program, despite the presumption at the debate that it would.

If discussing covert action is so fraught with difficulties and complications, why did it receive so much attention on Saturday? I’d argue it is because of the complexity of the problem. There are not too many people outside Iran who look favorably on the prospect of a nuclear Iran, so declaring that "unacceptable," as Romney did, has appeal. But when Scott Pelley pressed Romney on whether it would be worth going to war over, Romney focused attention again on measures short of war—because given our overstretched military, few people really want another war, and air strikes might not get the job done. 

The appeal of advocating covert operations, I suspect, is that it seems to hold out the prospect of a cost-free intervention. But as I have noted, it may not be really cost free--even if it succeeds.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tweets from the GOP Debate

[I attended tonight's Republican debate on the campus of Wofford College.  While watching, I experimented with tweeting my reactions as they happened. I'll be writing something more substantive on the debate, but here, for it's worth, are my contemporaneous reactions.]

Cain doesn't answer Iran question of what he'd do that Obama isn't.

Newt just advocated assassinating scientists.

Question for Santorum. What rebel forces?

Huntsman gave the best answer so far.

Cain in over his head on Pakistan.

Perry demagogues first on foreign aid.

Bachmann first to play Israel card. Gingrich first to play Christian card.

Newt challenging moderator works its usual magic with the crowd.

Huntsman is behind a pillar from where I sit. Is he still here?

Two civilized candidates on stage both got my applause for opposing torture.

Newt went from that applause line to laugh WAY too quickly.

Was "it's murder!" during Romney's response audible on TV?

First segment, good substance. Second, not so much.

Newt advocates CIA operation in Syria. It worked really well in Iran in 1953.

Uh oh. Romney used a big word. [Hegemon]

Graham's question was about helping him get re-elected in SC.

At a liberal arts college, Romney calls for eliminating national endowment for arts and humanities. Nice.

Bachmann: US should race China to the bottom.

Cain: I have no idea. I'll ask people who do.

Romney's answer [on Pakistan] was mature and smart.

Overall, more substantive than most of these [debates] have been. Maybe the topic and the setting helped.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Republicans are Coming! The Republicans are Coming!

[Tomorrow night, Saturday, November 12, the Republican presidential candidates come to Spartanburg, SC, to the campus of my college, Wofford, for the latest of the Republican debates. The debate will be broadcast on CBS at 8 pm eastern time. I will be attending the debate, and if possible may try to live tweet from the audience (@byrnesms).

As part of a series of events leading up to the debate, I've been invited to participate in a faculty forum this afternoon and make some comments on presidential campaigns and foreign policy.  Below are the remarks I will deliver.]

Since I am a historian first and a debate watcher second, I thought I’d spend my time this afternoon giving you some idea of what a historian looks for when he becomes a debate watcher.

This particular debate is supposed to focus on national security and foreign policy, and my primary area of interest is American diplomatic history, so I’d like to talk first about how foreign policy has figured in the presidential politics of the last century.

My first point is that the rhetoric of political campaigns has often been a poor indication of how a candidate will act once elected. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” At the convention that re-nominated him, the keynote speaker listed the many instances in which Wilson had resisted pressure to intervene in the Great War, and led the crowd in a chant: “What did we do? What did we do? We didn’t go to war! We didn’t go to war!” Campaigning that fall, Wilson said: “I am not expecting this country to get into war.” But when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, circumstances changed. Less than a month after being inaugurated for his second term, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war.

A second, and related point, is that candidates for the presidency often seem to forget they are not speaking only to American voters. At least since the United States achieved superpower status, it is undeniably true that the whole world is listening. And that can have real and serious consequences.

In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower was running as a Republican trying to end 20 years of Democratic control of the White House. The unsatisfactory state of the cold war, in particular the inherently defensive policy of containment as it was then being practiced in the Korean War, made foreign policy a tempting issue. The GOP platform repudiated the “negative, futile and immoral policy of containment which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism” and pledged to achieve “genuine independence of those captive peoples” behind the iron curtain. The New Republic warned at the time of the dangers of such rhetoric: “Promises to help enslaved peoples [either] mean nothing and risk terrible misunderstandings or they mean something and risk war.”

In 1955, in a speech broadcast by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, Eisenhower said: “If any East European nation shows a visible opposition to Soviet oppression, it can count on our help.” But when unrest arose in Hungary in 1956, the Eisenhower administration did not help. “The Russians were scared and furious,” Eisenhower explained privately, “and nothing is more dangerous than a dictatorship in that frame of mind.” In other words, the New Republic was right: aid would have meant war, and that, Ike said, “is no way to help Hungary.” But Hungarians had been led to believe otherwise. A Radio Free Europe survey of Hungarian refugees later found that 87% of those surveyed had expected American aid and more than half of that group expected military aid.

This tendency to use foreign policy issues for political gain sometimes produces a rather cavalier attitude toward those issues. In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy hammered his opponent, vice-president Richard Nixon, for being part of an administration that had allowed the establishment in Cuba of “a Communist satellite 90 miles off the coast of the United States.” How, he asked, could Republicans stand up to Khrushchev when they “have demonstrated no ability to stand up to Mr. Castro.” Privately, Kennedy admitted that he could not say what he would have done to prevent Castro’s rise to power. “What the hell, they never told us how they would have saved China,” he said, referring to Republican use of the China issue against Democrats eight years earlier.

There are many more examples I could cite: LBJ’s 1964 criticism of Barry Goldwater as a warmonger mere months before he himself would dramatically escalate the Vietnam war; Richard Nixon’s promise of “peace with honor” in 1968 followed by four more years of war; Bill Clinton’s 1992 criticism of George H. W. Bush’s “coddling of dictators” in China, followed a mere 10 months into his presidency by a meeting with the Chinese president that led the New York Times to conclude that Clinton “seems to have embraced much of the Bush approach”; George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign promise that he would “stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions,” followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. But you get the drift.

Lest I leave you thinking that there is nothing to be learned from tomorrow’s debate, I'd like to make one final point. Over the last century, Republicans have often found themselves divided between internationalist and isolationist factions. In the 1919 debate over Wilson's League of Nations, GOP opposition split into two groups: internationalist reservationists led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and isolationists led by Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who argued that to join the League would be to “to abandon the creed under which [the U.S.] has grown to power and accept the creed of autocracy, the creed of repression and force.”

Twenty years later, the United States was debating involvement in World War II, and once again, stark divisions arose within the Republican party. Henry Stimson, who had served as Secretary of State for Herbert Hoover, favored aid to Great Britain and joined the Roosevelt administration as Secretary of War, while Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was dead set against any involvement in the war and said in June 1941: “the forcing of freedom and democracy on a people by brute force of war is a denial of those very democratic principles which we are trying to advance.”

Eleven years later, that same Robert Taft was one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. That prospect motivated Eisenhower, who bluntly told reporters: “I’ll tell you why I’m running for president. I’m running because Taft is an isolationist. His election would be a disaster.”

From Eisenhower through the first president Bush, internationalism dominated Republican presidential politics. The combination of World War II and the cold war seemingly vanquished traditional isolationism.

But the end of the cold war created cracks in forty years of foreign policy unity. In 1992, Pat Buchanan launched a primary challenge to that preeminent internationalist president, George H. W. Bush. Announcing his candidacy, Buchanan said: “All the institutions of the Cold War, from vast permanent U.S. armies on foreign soil, … to billions in foreign aid, must be re-examined…. we call for a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”

Buchanan is enough of a student of history to know that “America First” was the name of the leading isolationist group before World War II, and that his sentiments were harkening back to that dormant Republican tradition.

Today, with America's financial resources strained, the temptation to reduce America’s role in the world is once again present. Ron Paul forthrightly says we have “a foreign policy we can't afford” and has denounced “aggressive wars … promoted by powerful special interests that benefit from war.” By contrast, Mitt Romney harkens back to World War II-era internationalism in his call for a “new American Century,” where “America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.” In the middle is Jon Huntsman, who says we "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home." Huntsman says “fixing America first"—there’s that phrase again—“will be my most urgent priority…. right now we should focus on America saving America.”

So rather than focusing on catchy one-liners, I’ll be looking for signs that this old debate within the Republican party may be re-emerging in the 21st century, and I encourage you to think about where you stand on that very important question.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Revenge of the Progressives

Off-year elections are often fairly dull affairs. Sometimes there is the occasional governor's race that pundits examine for potential national trends. But usually they don't mean much.

Yesterday was a little different. In two different states, voters took the legislative process into their own hands and repealed laws recently passed by their legislatures. It was direct democracy in action.

In Ohio, voters repealed the collective bargaining law limiting union rights that the new Republican governor and former Fox News contributor John Kasich pushed through the legislature. In Maine, voters repealed a law that Republicans had passed which ended same-day voter registration. In both cases, recently elected governors had legislative successes decisively rebuked by the voters within months of their passage.

This does not happen that often. When it does, it deserves some notice.

In my last post, I examined whether the current Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street activism might lead to the equivalent of the bipartisan Progressive movement of the early 20th century. What strikes me about these two votes yesterday is that they are using precisely the tool that Progressives saw as the best hope of undermining the oligarchy's control of the political process: more democracy.

Progressives took it for granted that an essential prerequisite for real reform was more democracy. With both major parties seemingly in the thrall of the big trusts, they believed that enacting measures to directly empower voters (to enact legislation, or repeal legislation, or recall office holders) was the only way to make government responsive to the people again and break the stranglehold of business.

Once legislators understood that their work would be undone, or that they could be removed from office for failing to follow the popular will, Progressives believed, some balance could be restored to the political system. Then, and only then, could government be an effective vehicle to bring about the more systematic and substantive reforms that American society so desperately needed after the massive changes wrought by the industrial revolution.

Maybe what happened yesterday marks a similar awakening for our own times. Commentators usually make too much of off-year elections, and I don't want to make that mistake. Two voter-initiated repeal efforts do not a movement make. But maybe it is a start.

Maybe what happened yesterday was a fluke, provoked by unusually maladroit overreaching by two governors who misread their voters. After all, the union-busting bill in Wisconsin still stands, and laws restricting voting rights through the disingenuous voter ID provisions are being passed in many states.

Combined with the successful state senate recall elections this summer in Wisconsin, and the potential recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker next year, however, it could be more than that. Voters of all political stripes have been complaining that government doesn't hear them, that it is controlled by the lobbyists and the special interests. If those discontented voters can use the powers of direct democracy that the Progressives gave them a century ago, they might pave the way for another era of real reform like that the Progressives produced.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Coxey's Bonus Army Sit-ins Occupy Wall Street

The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box.... The people are demoralized;... public opinion silenced.... homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages... The fruits of the toils of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes: ­ tramps and millionaires. 
I've been trying to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement for awhile now, wondering where it fits historically.

The quotation above helped place it for me. It's an American political platform, but not from today's protests. It's from 1892.

Given that we've now had several years of relatively high unemployment, something like the Occupy protests is not at all surprising. When people feel this kind of frustration, when they feel their votes don't matter because the political system seems totally dysfunctional, they take to the streets.

It's happened here before.

During the depression of the 1890s, there was Coxey's Army, a group of unemployed Americans led by Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey. People came to Washington from all over the country (many of them marching on foot) demanding a jobs program. They called it a "petition with boots." Estimates are that at various points many thousands were headed for DC, but only about 500 reached the Capitol. Before the protest could even get under way, Coxey was arrested for trespassing and not allowed to give his planned speech.

Even more relevant would be the 1932 Bonus March. At the depths of the depression, thousands of World War I veterans went to Washington, DC and camped out, demanding that Congress pay out immediately the bonus they were eventually entitled to by law. They spent weeks camped out before they were forcibly removed, first by Washington police and then Army troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur. The spectacle of current soldiers forcibly evicting former soldiers further tarnished President Hoover's reputation only months before the 1932 election.

In both cases, dire economic circumstances prompted demonstrations demanding action by Washington. What strikes me as most interesting about what is happening today is that the focus is not on Washington, but on what the protesters consider to be the true source of our problems: Wall Street. That suggests, I think, a desire to focus not on a specific political solution, but to change the public's perception of the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. They see the problem as the growing power of an unaccountable economic elite. (Though I also suspect that they doubt the answer is in Washington.)

I find the use of the word "occupy" interesting as well. It invokes the military metaphors of Coxey's Army and the Bonus Army, while also emulating the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement. Despite efforts by some commentators to dismiss the protests, I suspect there is something rather significant going on today, something that has been building not just over the last three years of hard times, but the last thirty years of growing income disparity.

In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song, "There's something happening here, what is, ain't exactly clear."

But I think it is becoming clearer.

It was easy, and tempting, to dismiss the initial protest. As the movement in New York has grown, and more importantly, has spread, it has become much harder. Those who wanted to stereotype it as a bunch of lazy hippies have had to deal with the sheer growing diversity of it, exemplified by things such as this past week's stirring impromptu lecture to the police by a Marine Sergeant named Shamar Thomas, a veteran of Iraq whose parents have also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a group called OccupyMarines.

James Sinclair's diagram from his blog
And then there is the Tea Party. Yes, the agendas are different. But I also agree with this post by James Sinclair, which persuasively makes the case that there is a fair amount of overlap. This venn diagram may not be scientifically accurate, but there is some truth here. There are common sources for the angst each expresses.

The more I think about this historical moment, the more it reminds me of the emergence of the Populists in the late 1880s and early 1890s. They too could be both radically left and radically right. The quotation above is from their 1892 platform, in which they called for nationalizing the railroads (the biggest businesses of the day) and limiting immigration; they wanted a graduated income tax and fiscally conservative government finances; they supported "the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor" and opposed bailouts or "any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose."

Perhaps the biggest thing the Populists had going for them was the sense that neither political party was addressing the most pressing issues of the day--the crushing debt of farmers, the pressures of massive immigration, the growth of the corporate trusts. Their 1892 platform stated:
Controlling influences dominating both ... parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise any substantial reform ... They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the alter of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.
But then they were co-opted by the Democratic Party in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan stole their signature issue, silver coinage, and the Populist Party went out of existence.

But it did not end there. In many ways, the Populists were the John the Baptist of the Progressive Era. By the early 20th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that the nation needed meaningful reform, many of which the Populists had first called for 10 and 20 years earlier. Under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Republicans instituted their variety of Progressive reform. Then Woodrow Wilson presided over 8 years of Democratic Progressive reform. Together, they created the regulatory state: the idea that the federal government had to play a role in limiting the power of corporations in the economic and political interests of the public.

The Progressives of both parties created the regulatory state because they came to a common, central understanding: that the industrial revolution had created a new form of power--private economic power--that the Founders never anticipated. That power was unchecked. A democracy, to survive, needed to find a way to check that power. For a time, they did.

When the inevitable backlash came and laissez-faire made its return in the 1920s, and the president crowed that "the business of America is business," taxes were cut, regulators became the creatures of the regulated, and the depression came. Then FDR came in, and with the help of progressive Republicans, triumphed over the "economic royalists," and established reforms that prevented another depression for over 60 years--because both Republicans and Democrats supported the regulatory regime.

I would like to think that eventually the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could together create a similar bipartisan commitment to reform on the part of both major parties. Maybe they will. But I am bothered by that diagram. Sinclair focuses on the overlap in the center.

I keep seeing the dichotomy.

The Populists of the 1890s saw business (Wall Street) as an enemy, and politics (Washington) as the solution. There is no such unity today. The Tea Party blames Washington, the Occupy movement blames Wall Street.

Ever since Ronald Reagan demonized the federal government in this inaugural address ("Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem"), the disaffected in America have had competing targets for their rage: both Wall Street (primarily Democrats) and Washington (primarily Republicans).

For thirty years, Republicans have claimed the federal government can do little well, and when they have controlled it, they have done their best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have diminished not the size of government, but its efficacy. They have reduced taxes to the lowest level in 50 years, all while convincing voters that they are intolerably overtaxed. They have used government to empower and enrich the wealthiest, they have dismantled as much of the regulatory state as they could. And when the lack of regulation led to the economic crash, they of course blamed the very government that their ideology had disarmed. When a Democratic president tried to use government to solve the problem, they obstructed every step of the way and claimed that the continuing poor economy showed government cannot work. For them, government is always the problem, its reduction always the solution.

So it was not surprising last week to hear the new Tea Party favorite, Herman Cain, say both that the poor and jobless have no one but themselves to blame, and that they should blame Washington. We were supposed to have a regulatory system to prevent the financial obscenities Wall Street engaged in, but most Americans probably have no idea that safeguards that worked for decades had been dismantled. So they blame Washington.

And Washington does deserve some blame. For thirty years, both parties have bowed and scraped before the new robber barons, competing with each other to cut their taxes, ease their way, and enhance their riches--Republicans because they believed in it; Democrats because they'd been cowed by Reagan into thinking they had to go along to survive politically. Washington ended the bipartisan consensus that protected the average person. And so some, like members of the Tea Party, therefore see Washington as the problem.

In the current situation, however, the Tea Party has it wrong, and Occupy Wall Street has it right. The Progressives knew that the only way to check organized economic power is through the democratic political process. They knew that more democracy was the answer. The referendum, recall, and primary, were all attempts to break the stranglehold of corporations on the political system. So was the the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of Senators. (These were all also first proposed by the Populists.)

The Tea Party today argues for the repeal of the 17th Amendment. It supports the union-busting efforts of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. It supports the disenfranchisement of voters via these so-called "voter ID" laws that have suddenly sprouted nearly everywhere. In a variety of ways, even if sometimes unknowingly, the Tea Party serves the interests of Wall Street, and undermines the only real hope for lasting change: a government truly responsive to the many, not the few.

Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in changing the political conversation. Changing our politics will be a lot harder.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Huntsman's "America First" v. Romney's "American Century"

My previous post took Mitt Romney to task for his foreign policy address. The crux of my objection was not policy, it was politics: Romney cast doubt on the president's patriotism.

Romney said:
This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President.

You have that President today.
Contrast Romney's language with this line from Jon Huntsman's foreign policy address this past week:
President Obama’s policies have weakened America, and thus diminished America’s presence on the global stage.
Both are critical of the president. But Huntsman was careful to talk about policy, not intention. He talked about results of policies. This is the difference between a statesman and a demagogue.

I think Huntsman is wrong on the substance. But I respect the fact that, unlike Romney, he did not pander to those Chris Christie called "the crazies."

On policy grounds, Huntsman's speech is interesting for the way it tries to negotiate two different strains within the Republican party: cold war era internationalism and pre-World War II "America First" isolationism. Ultimately, I think he comes down more on the side of the latter.

Hunstman offers "five planks which will comprise my administration’s foreign policy." It is more than a little note-worthy that he starts with this statement: "First and foremost, we must rebuild America’s core."

Hunstman does not equivocate here: domestic strength comes first. Not only that, he also uses a phrase few Republicans (beside Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan) have recently uttered: "fixing America first … that will be my most urgent priority."

"America First." I think Huntsman is too smart to have done this inadvertently. He seems to be consciously evoking the group led by Charles Lindbergh in 1940-1941, which opposed active American participation in the war in Europe.

Then, however, Huntsman seems to evokes the rhetoric of the neo-conservatives of recent years: "Today, we need a foreign policy based on expansion." That resemblance, however, strikes me as fleeting only, because Huntsman goes on to explain that this particular "expansion" means "the expansion of America’s competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements."

In short, it is rather like the attitude of the early Republic: that American engagement with the world should be primarily economic, not political and military.

When Huntsman goes on to argue that Americans "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home," it is clear that he is for effectively abandoning the neo-conservative democracy-building project of the George W. Bush years:
Only Pakistan can save Pakistan.
Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan.
And right now we should focus on America saving America.
Finally, much like many midwestern Republicans did the in pre-World War II and early cold war eras, Huntsman focuses on Asia. This is hardly surprising, given that he is fluent in Mandarin and was the American ambassador to China during the first two years of the Obama administration:
I have come to believe that we are embarking on a Pacific Century … in which America must and will play a dominant role. By almost any objective measure – population, economic power, military might, energy use – the center of gravity of global human activity is moving toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Huntsman is undoubtedly right here. Huntsman seems to grasp the larger picture: that we are entering a new era in world history.

By contrast, Romney's vision seems limited to little more than the potential Chinese military threat:
will they go down a darker path, intimidating their neighbors, brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific, and building a global alliance of authoritarian states?
In this instance, I see a major clear-cut difference between Hunstman and Romney. The former sees challenges in the world, while the latter sees mostly threats. Romney's address is a list of potential dangers (whose main purpose seems to be to create a sense of alarm), the answer to which is disappointingly simplistic: a "strategy of American strength."

Strength is not a strategy. Strength is a means, not an end. And what is Romney's end? Another "American Century."

This is remarkably superficial for someone who wants to be president. While Huntsman correctly notes that Americans already "spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined," Romney talks about a larger navy--without offering any strategic doctrine that explains the need and utility of that larger navy.

Romney gives lip service to the idea that the world has changed since the end of the cold war, but shows no sign that he's thought much about what that means practically. Huntsman sees a need for change:
We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-Cold War infrastructure. It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st Century world, and the growing asymmetric threats we face.
Finally, the shallowness of thought in Romney's speech is perhaps best exemplified by this statement: "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable." Again, this is not a strategy. How would Romney prevent it? He does not say. He simply declares it "unacceptable." Evidently the mere existence of a bigger American navy will take care of that automatically.

By contrast, Huntsman said in his address: "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would consider the use of American force, it would be that." While I have grave doubts about the utility of force in solving this particular dilemma, at least Huntsman faces the logical consequence of declaring a situation "unacceptable."

This comparison of these speeches by Huntsman and Romney is dispiriting for those of us who believe foreign policy should have a central place in a presidential campaign. The more substantive speech comes from the candidate who can't seem to gain any traction in the polls, while the supposed front-runner's address is a crude mix of demagoguery, pandering, and jingoism. The more thoughtful candidate also seems to want to return to an earlier era in which the United States did not have to pledge to "bear any burden" internationally. The shallow candidate seems to want the United States to play a leading role in the world, but seems incapable of imagining a way for it to do so that entails anything other than more spending on weapons.

If this is the best the GOP can do, President Obama looks better all the time.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mitt Romney and Questioning Belief

Mitt Romney went to the Citadel on Friday to trash the commander in chief.

Romney was ostensibly there to make a major address on foreign policy, a subject which, as the New York Times pointed out Saturday, has been woefully neglected in the Republican presidential campaign. As a student of American diplomatic history, I welcome attention being paid to the subject. A serious discussion of the role of the U.S. in the world is a good and useful thing.

But that's not what Romney was doing Friday. Instead, he was attacking the president. Not his policies--which would be legitimate--but his beliefs.

Romney began with a deliberate distortion of the President's words: "The other day I heard the President say that Americans had gone 'soft.'" This line, appearing in what was billed as a foreign policy speech, being delivered at a military academy, suggests that Obama was talking about the military. He was not.  He was talking about the American economy, saying it had lost some of its competitive edge over the last few decades.

Moreover, Obama went on to say he "wouldn't trade our position with any other country on Earth" because we "still have the best universities, the best scientists, and best workers in the world. We still have the most dynamic economic system in the world."

Romney either didn't bother to find out the correct context of the president's remarks, or deliberately distorted them.  And that set the tone for the whole address.

This is what passes for a foreign policy vision in Romney's speech:
But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world.
The phrase "American Century" was coined by Henry Luce of Time magazine back in 1941, so it is hardly original. In Romney's hands, it becomes a means of smearing of Barack Obama. Not on policy, but on what Romney believes the president believes: that Obama does not want America to be strong.

Romney says: "As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America."

This is a common refrain for Romney, and it is based on the common right-wing trope that Obama has "apologized" for America. Put aside for the moment the not unreasonable question of whether or not the country might, on occasion, have something to apologize for. Let's assume, as Romney evidently does, that the United States is, and always has been, perfect.

This charge, that Obama apologizes for America, is the subject of an exhaustive report by PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize winning website.  Its conclusion: "There’s a clear difference between changing policies and apologizing, and Obama didn’t do the latter. So we rate Romney’s statement Pants on Fire." PolitiFact has been saying Romney's charge is demonstrably false for months, and he has continued making it.

Another favorite Romney attack is that Obama does not believe in "American exceptionalism."
I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world. Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.
That too is a deliberate distortion of Obama's words, one Romney has been peddling for months. As Greg Sargent points out, Romney's
statement is a direct falsehood, one that’s founded on a highly dishonest reading of remarks Obama made in April of 2009. In those remarks, Obama did not make the relevant claim about American exceptionalism "derisively" at all.
Romney's claim that Obama thinks "there is nothing unique about the United States" is simply a lie. In the same answer Romney refers to, Obama said:
I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.... we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
That's what Obama actually said. But Romney knows what the president really believes.

Most reprehensible, however, is how Romney ended his address:
An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender.
I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President.
You have that President today.
This is rank demagoguery. It is one thing to argue that the sitting president has pursued policies you find unwise or mistaken. It is quite another to attribute beliefs to him that you know full well he does not have. This is Romney pretending to know what is in the president's mind and heart, and saying he has secret, anti-American beliefs.

Sure, Romney suggests, Obama would never say that he does not want America to be the strongest nation in the world. But I know what he really believes.

Romney's campaign slogan, with which he ended his speech, is "Believe in America."

The implication is clear. Romney believes in America, Obama does not. Romney is a real American, Obama is not--regardless of what he says.

The crowning irony is that on the very same day Romney was smearing Obama, he was himself the victim of exactly this kind of attack. A pastor introducing Rick Perry at the so-called "Values Summit" called Perry "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ" and then, in case anyone missed the point, said Mitt Romney "is not a Christian."

Later that day, when asked directly by Chris Matthews if Romney was a Christian, Rick Santorum said Romney "believes he is a Christian." When Matthews called him on that hedging, Santorum retreated: "I'm not an expert on Mormonism ... if they say they're Christians, as far as I'm concerned, they're Christians."

This is a variation of the Republican weasel words on whether or not President Obama is a Christian. "I take him at his word" is how they tried to avoid directly challenging the president while winking at bigots who insist he is not a Christian. And now the same smear is being used against one of their own. What goes around comes around.

When I heard the smear against Romney, my natural reflex was to sympathize with him. The bigotry of that pastor has no place in our politics. But given what Romney himself had done that day, my sympathy was decidedly limited. He played the same slimy game in his Citadel address.

You reap what you sow, Mitt.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Acting President

I spent much of the month of September playing Franklin Roosevelt in the Spartanburg Little Theater's production of "Annie." Having mimicked FDR for decades, it was great fun to actually play the role.

Of course, the pedantic historian in me had to struggle mightily to refrain from pointing out how absurd the storyline involving FDR is. For those who don't know the story (I didn't before being cast), Annie accompanies Daddy Warbucks to a meeting with FDR in December 1933. FDR and his advisors are in despair over the depression, but Annie's sunny optimism rallies them and inspires the New Deal.

Needless to say, this isn't terribly accurate! The phrase "new deal" was first used by FDR in his July 1932 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. The famous first hundred days, beginning in March 1933, had already established the tone of the New Deal.  And, as far as I know, an adorable, red-headed, 11-year-old orphan girl had nothing to do with it!

The way the play employs FDR as a dramatic device, however, got me thinking about how we perceive our presidents. At the last performance, one of my Wofford colleagues saw me on his way out of the theater, and said "Good old American optimism prevails again!"

And that really is the message. The ubiquitous "Annie" theme "Tomorrow" is the epitome of sunny optimism. So of course the play uses FDR. The image most Americans maintain of FDR is the one shown here: big grin, cigarette holder jauntily titled upward. It practically oozes optimism.

This is the "character" FDR that we recall. He is, of course, based on reality. "Annie" has FDR twice repeat the most famous line from his first inaugural: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But more important, I'd argue, is what FDR says before that famous line: "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today."

FDR's was no mindless optimism. It began with a sober assessment of the real and daunting problems the country faced. It was not mere exhortation, it was a promise: "This Nation is asking for action, and action now." FDR promised action, and delivered. Even when some of those actions failed, people credited him for the effort.

The other hovering presidential presence in "Annie" is Herbert Hoover. He isn't a character, but there is a sarcastic song called "Hooverville." A group of homeless people sing, "We'd like to thank you Herbert Hoover, for really showing us the way... You made us what we are today."

The caricature of Hoover is as complete as that of FDR: he is the dour presence who failed to end the depression. What most people forget is that Hoover was relentlessly optimistic in his rhetoric, too.

In May 1930 Hoover said: "While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover. There is one certainty of the future of a people of the resources, intelligence and character of the people of the United States—that is, prosperity."

In October 1932, as the depression was approaching its worst months, he said: "the tide has turned and ... the gigantic forces of depression are today in retreat."

The American people expect optimism from their leaders, but optimism is not enough. They expect results.

Today, President Obama is trying to capture FDR's optimism, but history suggests that won't be enough to win re-election. Yes, the public likes to hear that "tomorrow, there'll be sun," but optimism is not a good election strategy.

Maybe the Republicans will nominate a candidate too extreme for independents to stomach.

Maybe the public will blame the obstructionist Republicans in Congress for preventing action.

Maybe the electorate will go for Obama again, even if the economy hasn't turned around.


But I wouldn't bet my bottom dollar on it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel”

Unquestioning support for the policies of the government of Israel (whatever they may be) has become an article of faith on the Republican right. Last May, when the right was in a frenzy over what should have been entirely uncontroversial comments made by President Obama about the shape of a peace settlement between the Israelis, Mitt Romney said that the president had "thrown Israel under the bus."

As I wrote at the time, Romney's remarks showed his utter ignorance of the most basic concept of foreign policy: that a nation pursues its national interests, and does not subsume those interests to those of another state. Romney thinks otherwise. He said that "a first principle of American foreign policy ... is to stand firm by our friends," evidently entirely unaware that George Washington said precisely the opposite in his Farewell Address in 1796.

Now Rick Perry has (predictably) gone Romney one better.  While criticizing the president yesterday, Perry said: “As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel.”

I heard only one very brief reference to this incredible remark on the news today. When I first heard Chris Matthews say it, I thought he must have gotten it wrong and went searching for evidence to find out the facts.

But Matthews did not get it wrong. Perry actually said that. Moreover, it is not the first or only time he's said it. This was no mistake.

This comment is so remarkable in its radicalism, so completely inappropriate for someone who presumes to become president, that it ought to disqualify Perry for the office.

Perry was effectively saying that he would let his personal religious convictions dictate his foreign policy. Think about that for a moment. He offered unquestioning, unqualified support of another country, premised not on American national interests, but on his own religious beliefs.

Imagine if, in 1960, John F. Kennedy had said: "As a Catholic, I have a clear directive to support Vatican City." It rightly would have been the end of his candidacy. (In fact, JFK explicitly opposed even sending an American ambassador to the Vatican.)

What Kennedy actually said in his famous speech in Houston, was quite different:
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision ... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.
That is the one and only proper standard for a president when making policy: the national interest.

No doubt Perry would say that American national interests and support for Israel are in no way contradictory. That may be. But it is not inconceivable that a situation could arise where they would not be. It has happened before.

In the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel cooperated with Britain and France in attacking Egypt, President Dwight Eisenhower resolutely opposed Israel. At the height of the cold war, he worked with the Soviets against not just Israel, but America's two closest European allies, and used the U.N. to force them to withdraw.

The U.S. and Israel have a close relationship, one which most Americans support. But if Israeli and American interests diverge, an American president must choose American interests. Someone who honestly believes that his religion directs him to support another nation in all circumstances has no business putting himself forward as a candidate for president.

JFK also considered the question of a conflict between personal religious belief and national interest in that speech:
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
With this remark, Rick Perry has shown that he does not deserve to ever be in that position. He has already told us all we need to know.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visions of 9/11

It was like a slap in the face.

I pulled the Sunday paper out of its plastic sleeve, opened it, and was hit by a photo, taking up the entire top half of the front page, of the explosion as the second plane hit the second tower. The decision by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal to run this picture was sensationalistic and tasteless. Thrusting that awful image once again before its readers was a small gift to the twisted minds that conceived of and carried out the horror of that day.

Front page of the
New York Times, 9/11/11
The New York Times did so much better. In the same place on its front page was a beautiful photo of the new memorial in New York. In subdued tones of blue and grey, it shows the engraved names of some of those who died, with raindrops splattered across the surface like so many tears.

I turned the first photo face down, and kept the second in my field of vision as I read the papers.

I did not watch the coverage of the services. I listened. It's my instinct--I'm a morning radio person. Growing up, my parents always had the radio on (WNEW-AM, 1130 in New York) as we ate breakfast. But this was a conscious decision. I thought of turning on the TV. But Saturday night, when I put it on, it was already set to a channel showing a 9/11 retrospective, and I recoiled from the images.

As I listened, Paul Simon's beautiful and moving rendition of "The Sound of Silence" explained my reaction to me:
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
I didn't need to see any visions. So many are planted in my brain.

The first is returning to my office after teaching my first class of the day. I was in only my second week at Wofford, still learning my way around campus.

While I had been in class, the first planes had hit New York. I learned what had happened from an email from my best friend, who was in his office in Newark, NJ, across the river. I can see the desk, the computer, the wall and doorway behind them. They seemed to swirl together as disorientation set it.

The next is being gathered in a classroom with other faculty and students, watching a TV sitting atop a rolling cart, as the first tower crumbled. For several moments, I simply refused to believe what my senses were telling me. This is not happening. This is NOT HAPPENING.

The college gave professors the personal option of canceling or holding classes the rest of the day. I decided to meet my one o'clock class, not to talk about the scheduled topic of the Renaissance, but to discuss what had happened.

That choice was reinforced by the third vision of the day. I was with some colleagues having lunch in the college cafeteria, eyes glued to the TV in the corner of the room. By that time, all of the horrors of the day had already occurred: the towers had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit, Flight 93 had crashed, the towers had fallen. But we did not know at that point if that was all. We were waiting for the next hit.

Yet it seemed to me, looking at the students around me, that they had not grasped fully what had happened. For many of them, I thought, it seemed like just another day. At least with the students in my class, I could try to help them understand it.

So I went to class, and did my best to explain what Al Qaeda was, what was known, what was unknown.

The last vision of the day is a student's face. Her name was Karen, she was a first-year student. Bright, serious, engaged, sitting up front, as such students tend to do. Her eyes wide, her countenance exuding concern, she asked me: "Are we going to war?"

Yes, I think so, I told her. I can't imagine this would not provoke a military reaction. And I saw the fear in her eyes.

I could not foresee that day that ten years later, we would still be at war. That on the morning of the tenth anniversary, I would hear the news that 77 American soldiers in Afghanistan were wounded by a truck bomb.

How we got here is a topic for another day. Today is for those names, for that new vision of the memorial, now planted in my brain.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Third Party Bid for Palin?

Observing what he calls "Palin's Populist Twist," Andrew Sullivan writes:
I wonder if she's contemplating a populist third party campaign. Or if this anti-establishment message is what she will bring to the GOP contest. Or whether she is just trying to recast her celebrity image a little. Well, we'll soon find out.
I had the same third party thought when she gave a speech that seemed meant to hit Obama, Romney, and Perry all at once. But if she does intend to do a third party challenge, we may well not soon find out.

I can see her saying she’s not in the GOP race, and then dangling the tease about a possible third party bid if the nomination contest results in a candidate who doesn’t offer a real choice. Since she has made it clear that she does not intend to not run according to traditional rules, she can take a long time to decide on that—maybe until there is an actual Republican nominee.

She may be so narcissistically deranged that she thinks her base would be enough to get her an electoral college win. Or maybe she is as shrewd as Sullivan says and realizes that, with her high negatives, the only way she could win is in a three-way race.

There is precedent for a candidate reviled by a large section of the public being elected president: Abraham Lincoln. He was despised in the South, but was elected president with less than 40% of the popular vote because he won heavily populated Northern states in an election with three or four major candidates (based on your definition of "major").

In 1912, in the midst of an era of Republican domination of the presidency, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with 41.8%, because the Republicans divided between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt.

These two examples, however, show the problem Palin would face if she did launch an independent bid for the presidency.

Lincoln's advantage was that his vote was concentrated exclusively in the populous Northern states with lots of electoral votes. His inability to garner any votes in the South did not hurt him. Wilson's advantage was that he was running against two Republicans (though TR rebranded himself as the "Progressive" Party candidate that year). Wilson could rely on a loyal and united Democratic base.

Palin would have neither of these advantages. Her supporters are geographically scattered, and even if she portrayed herself as an independent or "Tea Party" candidate, she would be remembered by voters as the Republican vice-presidential candidate from 2008. Her vote would be drawn from those Republican and "change" votes that would otherwise go to the Republican nominee.

In other words, she'd be more likely to be the 2012 equivalent of Ross Perot, who got nearly 19% in 1992 and  8.4% in 1996.

But if Palin really burns to be president (as opposed to merely using the possibility of a run to rake in cash), a third-party bid is probably her only chance.  In a poll that asked not favorable/unfavorable but gauged enthusiasm for and against candidates, an abysmal 58% said they'd never vote for Palin.

However, she also scored 15% on the question of who would vote for "enthusiastically." That doesn't sound great either, until you notice that the only other Republican who scored as well was Mitt Romney, also with 15%. Another 24% said they'd "consider" voting for Palin.

With those numbers, there is simply no way Palin could win a two-way race. However, in a hypothetical Obama-Romney race, Palin may well believe she could enter as a self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate, mobilize the Tea Party base, get votes from those not enthused about Romney, and squeak out a narrow victory.

I think that scenario is extremely unlikely, even delusional. But I also think neither of those things would matter much to Palin. And it is the only way she could win a presidential election.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Obama Should "Welcome Their Hatred"

It's Labor Day, and on Thursday President Obama is scheduled to speak to a joint session of Congress  about the ongoing jobs crisis. Many on the left are urging the president to "go big" and push Congress for a New Deal-style jobs program.

The attraction of the FDR model is obvious. The economy created no net jobs last month (due to continuing government layoffs that totally offset private sector hiring), making it clear that the very weak recovery that was underway has now stalled.

But as I argued over a year and half ago, the circumstances of Obama's administration are significantly different. FDR took over at the absolute depths of the depression in early 1933, while Obama's administration began in the equivalent of 1931 and helped prevent the recession from becoming another Great Depression.

Moreover, Obama's political circumstances are radically different. FDR brought in huge Democratic majorities with him in the 1932 election, and the remaining Republicans were pliant and did not represent meaningful opposition to his policies. The 1934 election enlarged the Democratic majority in the Senate to 69-25 and in the House to 322-103. With those numbers, FDR could largely get Congress to pass whatever economic recovery measures he proposed.

Obama, by contrast, has from day one faced an obstructionist minority in the Senate that has effectively created a minority veto over all legislation by abusing the rules of the Senate, and now faces a Republican majority in the House.

There is, however, one aspect of FDR's early presidency that is often overlooked by his supporters: its failure to bring about quick improvement in the economy, and FDR's political response to that failure. And here, Obama may find some instructive lessons.

The signature policy of what is often called the "first New Deal" was the National Recovery Administration, the NRA. It was a decidedly pro-big business idea, whose premise was that the main problem in the economy was over-supply of goods. The NRA suspended the anti-trust laws and created what were, for all intents and purposes, government-sanctioned cartels in major industries to limit production.

It was an abysmal failure. It combined the worst aspects of government bureaucracy with the complacency of monopolistic business. By the time the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 1935, FDR was glad to see it go.

Politically, by 1935, FDR was under increasing pressure from the left to do more, and especially to give up trying to work with big business. Dr. Francis Townsend proposed giving the elderly $200 a month, and the popularity of his plan helped push the adoption of Social Security that same year.

Louisiana Senator Huey Long proposed the "Share Our Wealth" plan, which would have capped personal fortunes at $50 million and yearly income at $1 million. Long would then have redistributed the income among the poor. FDR feared the populist appeal of Long's plan might lead the Senator to challenge him for the presidency.

FDR believed people wanted jobs, not relief or redistribution, and in response proposed to Congress the largest single peacetime appropriation to that date: the Works Progress Administration, the WPA.

Its initial appropriation was $1.4 billion, the equivalent of about $1 trillion today. It eventually employed 8 million Americans. It never solved the unemployment problem, but it did significantly improve it.

It is the WPA people have in mind when they tell Obama to "go big."

The problem, of course, is Congress. Republicans would block any such proposal by Obama, and, given his pragmatic bent, he seems unlikely to propose something he knows will fail.

In trying to get anything at all through Congress, Obama faces roadblocks FDR simply did not have. But politically, the advantages of following FDR's approach are clear.

By 1936, the depression had not ended. Unemployment was still perhaps as high as 16-17%. But it was down from the 25% of early 1933. FDR's resounding re-election in 1936 was not because happy days were here again--it was because things were getting better, and, most importantly because people who still had not benefitted from the recovery knew Roosevelt stood for them.

In a powerful speech on the eve of the election, FDR drew the contrast with his opponents clearly:
Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.... We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
FDR spent the first two years of his administration trying to placate business interests. In return, he got nothing but their enmity. By 1935, he gave up trying to win them over, and began trying to defeat them.

That is what Obama needs to do.

What FDR said in 1936 is as true today (maybe more true than) it was then.

Obama cannot make Republicans bent on his political destruction pass policies that will put people to work. He won't get from Congress what he asks for Thursday. So he might as well tell the people of this country what should be done. When Republicans say "no," as we all know they will do, he can make sure the public knows who wanted to help, and which party believes "Government is best which is most indifferent."