Monday, January 30, 2012

"Nobody Has Defined What Being Conservative Means"

Last Thursday night saw the 19th Republican debate of the primary season. It has become fairly common to complain about the proliferation of these events. How much more is there really to learn about the candidates at this point?

Many people seem to view them as sporting events (something CNN has encouraged with the singing of the national anthem at the start), and the analysis almost always uses terms from sports: who won, were there any knockouts, who hit a home run.

Speaking as both an historian (see, I've been hearing way too much from Newt) and someone who has seen most of these debates, I think there is more going on than that. Despite the superficial nature of most of the analysis (and I've been as guilty of that at times as anyone), the recent debates in particular have begun to illuminate a significant conversation among the candidates about what "conservative" means in today's American political culture.

Not too surprisingly, Ron Paul, the candidate with the clearest and most consistent ideology, was also the one to identify the centrality of that question in the last debate. We have to decide what conservative means, he said.

For Paul, the answer is fairly simple and straightforward: "Conservative means smaller government and more liberty ... not to run a welfare state and police the world."

On that last point, Paul has most effectively distinguished himself from the rest of the pack. To one degree or another, all of the other candidates have embraced the idea that the United States not only can, but should--even must--be the leader of the entire world.

Ostensibly, there is consensus among the four candidates on the first part of his formula: smaller government. But once you start getting into particulars, the waters get considerably muddied.

From a historical perspective, that's also where it gets interesting.

I see at least four different strands of domestic conservatism running through American history, all of which have appeared in these debates: libertarian, states rights, Hamiltonian activist, and, for lack of a better term, social traditionalist.

They do not consistently line up with a given candidate. The various contenders adopt a given position to take advantage of a perceived weakness in another. But the strands are there.

The libertarian strand is of course mostly associated with Ron Paul, but it also crops up in the views of the others. At the last debate, it was most clearly on display during an extended exchange between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney on "RomneyCare" and the individual mandate, which also brought out the states rights and social traditionalist strands.

Since its passage, Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act has focused primarily on the individual mandate to require all citizens to either have insurance or pay a fine. The principle behind this opposition is basically libertarian: government cannot require a citizen to purchase insurance, because it violates personal liberty and is an unwarranted expansion of government's power.

Because Romney signed a health insurance law with an individual mandate when he was governor of Massachusetts, his opponents have relentlessly attacked him. In response, he has tried to seek refuge in states rights. Back in September, Romney said:
States have the right to mandate. States mandate kids go to school. The federal government can’t do that. States mandate that you have to buy auto insurance. The federal government can’t do that.
Such a response, however, is not entirely satisfying from a libertarian perspective. If a government action is oppressive, whether the oppression comes from the state or federal government is not particularly important.

Under persistent pressure from Santorum last Thursday, Romney tried another strand, the social traditionalist:
If you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill, because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care. So we said, no more, no more free riders. We are insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care.
Romney here does a good job of making the case that, as I noted back in October 2010, the individual mandate is fundamentally a conservative idea. (Perhaps if it were known as the "no-free-rider clause" that would be more obvious.) Romney's strong argument here makes that clear: the individual mandate, with its rejection of freeloading, insists on personal responsibility--one of the cornerstones of conservative social traditionalism.

In this specific case, Santorum was taking an extreme libertarian stand, in opposition to the social traditionalist argument. On most issues, however, Santorum is a steadfast supporter of social traditionalism. While in his exchange with Romney he suggested that the individual mandate, even one implemented by a state, was oppressive ("in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated, as a condition of breathing ... to buy health insurance"), he has elsewhere argued that states should be allowed to ban birth control.

He has argued that this is a states rights issue, but it also coincides with his personal opposition to birth control (he has spoken of the "dangers of contraception" and has said that it harms women and society).

But when it comes to other issues, his social traditionalism trumps states rights. Santorum favors a federal ban on abortion and gay marriage--in other words, he opposes giving states the right to choose to allow either, even if majorities in some states approved of them, because to do so violates his social traditionalist concept of what is morally right. In such cases, he has no sympathy for the libertarian principle of personal freedom or for states rights.

Interestingly, Santorum also challenged the libertarian/free market primacy of low taxes in the January 21 debate in South Carolina:
We need a party that just doesn't talk about high finance and cutting corporate taxes or cutting the top tax rates. We need to talk about how we're going to put men and women in this country, who built this country, back to work in this country in the manufacturing sector of our economy.
Though Santorum was far from explicit about it, he was endorsing here not untrammeled free markets, but positive government efforts specifically designed to redevelop the manufacturing sector of the economy. This is a far more activist role for government than the libertarianism he embraced in the health insurance exchange with Romney.

This Hamlitonian approach has a long conservative pedigree, going back to the 19th century Republicans, as well as the Whig Party before them. It embraces the idea that government should work deliberately and actively to produce particular economic ends in the national interest (railroads, e.g.), rather than leave that to the free market.

Santorum is not, however, consistently a Hamiltonian activist. For example, he reversed course and attacked Gingrich's "grandiose" plan for a moon base because government needs to do less:
to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to grow them.
Gingrich, not surprisingly, reverted to Hamiltonian form, and argued that government can and should do great things:
in response to what Rick said, when we balanced the budget with the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, and ultimately had four consecutive balanced budgets, we doubled the size of the National Institutes of Health because we set priorities. It is possible to do the right things in the right order to make this a bigger, richer, more exciting country. You don't just have to be cheap everywhere. You can actually have priorities to get things done.
Gingrich neglects to note, of course, that those balanced budgets came under the Clinton era tax rates, which he and other Republicans now routinely decry as socialistic due to their reflexive obedience to the party's tax-cutting dogma. Newt's grandiose, Hamiltonian schemes would require far higher taxes than he can dare propose today.

I've written recently how Gingrich's attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital reflected a social traditionalist challenge to a libertarian (in this case, free market) conservatism, so I won't belabor that here.

My larger point is simply this: Paul is right. Nobody has defined what being conservative means. All drama aside, these debates have served to highlight the ideological disarray in today's Republican Party.

With the exception of Paul himself, none of the candidates consistently represents a clear vision of conservatism for the 21st century. Each one has, for short-run tactical reasons, adopted whatever strand of conservatism promises to advance his immediate political prospects vis a vis the others.  If, as seems inevitable, any of those three gets the nomination, the definition of "conservative" is likely to remain hopelessly muddied.

[In my next post, I plan to examine the role the right's hatred of President Obama plays in this disarray, and how it threatens to turn the Republicans into a modern-day version of the Whig Party.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Newtpocalypse Now

Just as it seemed like we were about to see the Season Finale of the 2012 Republican race, we got a rerun. Newt is back. Again.

The big question is "why?"

I would like to think that Gingrich's victory was due to the fundamental questions he raised in his attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital. But everyone who saw the two debates last week knows that it was something else, something much more base and disturbing. Newt didn't win this primary with economic populism.

If Gingrich's victory in South Carolina on Saturday was in fact a Tea Party victory--and it is repeated elsewhere--then we will have to put to rest the idea that that movement is just about taxes and spending. It will be the culture war all over again.

It was, I think, extremely revealing to see Gingrich in victory. For one brief moment at the start, he actually seemed, as he said, "humbled." It didn't last long.

Within minutes, Gingrich seemed to forget he no longer had to demagogue for votes in South Carolina. But that's because the demagoguery he used here during the last week was nothing new. It was vintage Gingrich. You see, he's on a mission to save America.

As I've noted previously, Newt Gingrich is a child of the 1960s. His is not the 1960s of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, anti-war demonstrations, and the sexual revolution, however, but of the opposition to all of those things.

I thought the most telling lines from his speech were those that clearly referred to Newt's pining for a bygone, pre-1960s, era. He unambiguously dated the start of the decline he proposes to reverse. He attacked the "elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system."

The decline began, in other words, in the early 1960s. In Newt's world, the progressive changes of all the years since amount to an attack on--or even the destruction of--what he calls "the America that we love." The proponents of those changes, he sneered, don't like "classical America."

(Somehow, this does not constitute "dividing" Americans in his book--since, of course, those "others" don't love "the America that we love" and thus are not real Americans.)

This is unabashedly reactionary politics. For all his dabbling in futurism, candidate Gingrich has his gaze fixed firmly on the past.

Nothing Gingrich said better demonstrated how out of touch with modern America he is than his extended ode to the diversity of the current Republican field. "We produce leadership from an amazing range of places," he said. "I watched tonight the fine speeches of the other three candidates on our side and I was struck by how much they reflected the openness of the American system.... You look at the four of us and you see that anyone can come from a wide range of backgrounds."

Think about that for a moment. A 68-year-old white man with a net worth in the millions of dollars, looked around him, saw three other fairly wealthy white men also running for president, and saw diversity, a "wide range of backgrounds." In what world is that true? In the America of the 1950s, of course.

Certainly, there are differences among the four--geographic, religious, economic, etc. Only Romney was born to wealth and privilege. But compare that to the last primary contest in the Democratic Party, that came down to a battle between a white woman and a black man, neither of whom would have been able to vote 100 years ago. That's what diversity looks like in modern America. And Newt's coded message to his supporters was that is not "the America that we love."

The rest of the speech, as others have noted, was a long list of resentments against various kinds of "elites." If it weren't so despicable, I could almost admire how effortlessly Gingrich appeals to bigotry without resorting to the overtly objectionable terms that the progress of the last half century has driven from polite political discourse.

He doesn't use racial epithets, he calls President Obama a "food stamp president" who wants "your children to have a life of dependence." He doesn't call him a communist, he says Obama isn't inspired by American exceptionalism but by "the radicalism of Saul Alinsky" and the ideas of "people who don't like the classical America." And, of course, Obama has "extremist left-wing friends in San Francisco."

This is not about taxes and spending. Those topics were barely mentioned by Gingrich. He has no real answers to our economic woes, other than the tired Republican bromides of cutting taxes and abolishing regulation. So, in the grand old reactionary tradition, he rails against imaginary threats like the "growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites."

That line worked in South Carolina, but will it work outside of South Carolina? Perhaps this state will prove an aberration, and Gingrich's reactionary culture war will not play elsewhere. The answer will be telling.

No doubt, part of Gingrich's strength was due to Romney's weakness. Back in November, before the Republican debate here at Wofford, a CBS News reporter asked me about the contest here:
"If you look at politicians who've done well in South Carolina historically - Strom Thurmond, Jim DeMint - generally speaking, they're people that at least the public perceives as straight shooters," Byrnes said, "I don't think a lot of people feel comfortable that they know who [Romney] is."
I think the results Saturday reflect that fact. Romney, bless his heart, tries to tap some of the same cultural anger and resentment that Gingrich does. Saturday night, he again said that this election is a fight "for the soul of America." But to most voters here (and elsewhere, I suspect), Romney comes across as someone without a soul--or, perhaps, as someone who would sell his soul for the presidency.

By contrast, when Gingrich turned his wrath on Juan Williams and (in the disgusting words of supporters here in South Carolina) "put him in his place," he seemed all too sincere and real.

"I articulate the deepest held values of the American people," Newt solemnly intoned. For anyone remotely familiar with the facts of Gingrich's life, that assertion was jaw-dropping. "Yes, you just don't live them!" is the only reasonable response.

But as I noted last month, Gingrich sees himself as a world-historical figure. His utter shamelessness comes from that conviction. Gingrich holds himself to a different standard. "It doesn't matter what I do," he told his second wife when she called him on his hypocrisy. "People need to hear what I have to say."

He believes he is above conventional morality, because only he can save civilization. He truly believes that. That conviction served him well in South Carolina, particularly when contrasted to Romney's self-evident falseness.

The irony is that the combination of "authenticity" and willingness to place ends over means was typical of the '60s leftist radicals Newt disdains. As George Will nicely put it, Gingrich "would have made a marvelous Marxist." Tactically, he is one.

Gingrich's portrait of Obama is a fantasy, a left-wing mirror image of Gingrich himself. The Manichean divide Newt presented Saturday night exists only in his mind--because, for him, it must exist. His reactionary ideology demands it. He needs Obama to be the embodiment of everything he despises, so that he can save America from disaster.

Last week, David Brooks observed: "I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

Gingrich's speech last night was the primal scream of that receding roar, and his current rise in the polls suggests that he and what he stands for will not go quietly.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mitt Romney, Andrew Jackson, and the "Humble Members of Society"

Pundits are understandably fixating on Mitt Romney’s admission Tuesday that the tax rate on his income is “probably closer to the 15 percent rate” and that the over $370,000 he made in speaker’s fees last year was “not very much” of his income.

Much of the coverage has, I think, been misguided. For example, on NPR’s “The Takeaway” Wednesday morning, the anchor said Romney has been criticized for only paying 15 percent. I can’t speak for others, but I don’t think that’s the problem. No one I've heard has argued that Romney did anything wrong or illegal. No one is suggesting these are ill-gotten gains.

The point is one of economic justice.

The question is not “Is Romney doing something wrong?” but “Is this the right policy?” Romney simply presents a particularly stark example of the policy. And he happens to be running for president.

This is a man who, as he jokingly put it, is “unemployed.” He has been running for president for the last 5 years, but his investment income last year was somewhere between $5.5 and $37.3 million. (Some reports state that he receives $26 million a year from Bain, even though he has not worked there in over a decade.)

As Romney explained, “my income comes overwhelmingly from investments made in the past, rather than ordinary income or rather than earned annual.” In short, Romney’s money is making money, and that gets taxed at the lower, 15 percent rate.

According to our tax laws, such income—that which comes not from work but investment—gets preferred treatment in our tax code. Should it?

The standard defense of that policy is a practical one: if we want to encourage investment, we should tax income on investment at a lower rate, thus producing more investment and (hopefully) more economic activity.

The objection, on the other hand, is moral: is it right for government to give preferential treatment to income that comes not from daily labor but from the inherent advantage that accrues to those who already have money?

This is an old question in American politics. Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans have debated the relative virtues of various means of making a living, and whether government policy should prefer one over another.

Andrew Jackson is perhaps the best example of an American president with a clear, unequivocal preference on that score. Newt Gingrich got boisterous applause from the South Carolina debate audience the other night when he said that Old Hickory’s attitude toward enemies of the US was “Kill them!” Had he cited Jackson’s attitudes toward workers, I suspect he would have gotten a rather different response.

Shortly after leaving office, Jackson wrote that unless “labor prospers, commerce and manufacturers must languish and the country be distressed. This is a government of the people, for their happiness and prosperity, and not for the sake of a few, at the expense of the many.” For Jackson, it was clear: the well-being of workers was paramount.

Jackson had a life-long disdain for people (especially bankers) who made money with money (though he was not above some land speculation himself), and for government policies that rewarded them:
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes…. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.
It is this question that we should be discussing: what economic policies produce justice? Newt Gingrich inadvertently began such a discussion with his attacks on Romney’s time at Bain. He has now backed off, due to the nearly unanimous condemnation of the GOP establishment, and switched to the evidently more "respectable" racial dog whistles.

This one form of income, capital gains, disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans. Alec MacGillis notes in The New Republic: “Half of all capital gains in the past 30 years have been claimed by the top tenth of a percent of taxpayers. (No, that's not a typo.)” Is this not an example of a law that undertakes to add an artificial distinction that makes the rich richer?

By shutting down any such debate in the primaries, the Republican Party in all likelihood is ceding this ground to President Obama in the fall campaign. They are poised to nominate a man who says, with all sincerity, that over $370,000 a year in speaking fees is “not very much” income, who proposes to lower the tax on that income from 35 percent to 25 percent, all while keeping the tax on his millions in investment income at 15 percent.

As I wrote last August, during the kerfuffle over Mitt’s new house: “the problem is not that Romney is rich. It is that he is rich and advocates policies that primarily advance the interests of the rich.”

Not only does Romney not have a good answer to the question of whether it is right to treat capital gains differently from earned income, he does not even understand the question. In his world, no one would even ask it. It is just as perplexing to him as the questions about Bain’s business tactics. Both seem self-evidently good to him, and people who challenge his views are merely envious.

Such an opponent might tempt Obama, who has already tried to claim the memory of the Republican Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, to channel Andrew Jackson, too.

As the first Democratic president, Jackson praised the “labouring classes” for taking “a noble stand against the corrupt money power.” In that, Jackson saw “ample proof that the peoples [sic] eyes are opening to the corruption of the times—the danger of their liberties from the mony [sic] power, and their determination to resist it…. Fear not, the people may be deluded for a moment, but cannot be corrupted.”

Romney, in his words, in his business record, and in his policy proposals, is emerging as the modern-day embodiment of the money power, leaving the "humble members of society" ripe for the electoral picking.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The "All-In" Mentality

I'm not much of a poker player. For a few years, I played in a friendly local game, low stakes: the most anyone could lose in an evening was $10, and if that happened, you got to play for free until you won a hand. The games were often high-low, which encouraged you to play out your hand, no matter how bad it might initially seem.

On a couple of occasions, I've also played some Texas Hold 'Em. It's a different kind of game. Often, the smartest move is to fold right away and hope for a better deal on the next hand. Alternatively, you might want to go "all-in," and bet everything you have.

Now, I was never a good Texas Hold 'Em player, so I might get this wrong, but it seemed to me there were basically three reasons you might go all-in: 1) your read of the cards tells you there is a really low probability that anyone else has a better hand; 2) your read of the players is that they can easily be bluffed into folding, even if they have better hands than you do; or 3) you are desperate, and figure you've got nothing to lose.

On the day when Jon Huntsman folded his campaign, the "all-in" mentality came to mind. Huntsman, in my reading, was not an all-in kind of candidate (though I suppose one could characterize his singular focus on New Hampshire that way). When Mitt Romney reduced the America's China policy to a simple matter of getting tough in the last New Hampshire debate, for example, Huntsman answered with a more nuanced approach, citing the complexities of the US-China relationship, and said (in Mandarin!) that Romney simply didn't know what he was talking about.

These Republican primaries are no place for that kind of candidate. It's a year for going all-in.

Take Rick Perry's ridiculous comments recently about the disgraceful video of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Perry condemned the Obama administration for "over-the-top rhetoric ... and their disdain for the military." Note the mindset Perry betrays with that remark. For him, criticizing the actions of any servicemen for even a reprehensible act shows "disdain for the military." (He repeated those comments at last night's Republican debate, in which he also said that desecration of American corpses is "despicable" while desecration of Afghan corpses is a "mistake.")

Compare that with the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey: “Actions like those are not only illegal but are contrary to the values of a professional military and serve to erode the reputation of our joint force,” Dempsey said

Perry is either too stupid or too blinded by his all-in mindset to understand that criticism of such egregious acts, even calling them illegal, does not show disdain for the military. On the contrary, it is Perry who is truly showing disdain for the military by downplaying the incident, and suggesting that it is not unusual. He tried to minimize the incident, saying "there’s a picture of General Patton doing basically the same thing in the Rhine River." Perry evidently doesn't know the difference between a river and a human corpse.

This is what the current tribal politics of the Republican Party produces in dim bulbs like Perry: an absurd reflex to condemn any criticism of the "core values." If the military is good, no criticism can be broached; all criticism signals "disdain."

Others are just as guilty. Take Romney's repeated assertion that every question about the business practices of Bain Capital constitutes "putting free markets on trial." Effectively, he is saying there are no legitimate questions, and asking one makes you an enemy of capitalism. He evinced the same attitude when asked if any questions about income inequality in America were legitimate, and he dismissed them all as "envy." At last night's debate, Romney said he would not negotiate with the Taliban, because you never negotiate with people who are trying to kill you. "Unconditional surrender" was US policy in World War II, but by that standard, most of the other wars in human history would never have ended.

All of these are conversation enders, and are meant to be. There is no interest in actual debate, a real give-and-take that might illuminate and enlighten. There is no desire to learn or deepen understanding (one's own or anyone else's). The discourse has all become about who can seem to be the most vociferous defender of the faith, and the most zealous persecutor of the heretics. (On that score, Gingrich was at his demagogic best in last night's debate.)

That's why I continue to believe that Gingrich's attempt to challenge Romney's business record, and Ron Paul's persistent questioning of the rest of the field's foreign policy myopia (particularly on Iran) are both valuable. Primaries should not be about unthinkingly reaffirming dogma, but unfortunately that's what this "all-in" campaign has been about, far more often than not.

So what does this "all-in" mentality tell us about this year's GOP field? It's possible that the candidates really, truly believe that they hold the best hand: that Obama is so unpopular, and that their core values are so in tune with the electorate, that they don't really need to examine them.

If they think that Obama can be bluffed into folding, well, they have not been paying attention for the last four years.

But I suspect the real reason is, in fact, desperation. The dogma being defended is indeed passionately held by the Republican base. That base, however, is shrinking. With the evidence and consequences of income inequality growing daily, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by promising to cut the taxes of the wealthiest yet again. With the war in Afghanistan now in its eleventh year, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by promising ever-continuing war. With America growing ever more diverse, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by pandering to racial and ethnic resentments.

There were two candidates, I think, who understood all that. One dropped out yesterday, and the other is routinely ridiculed as having no chance of getting the nomination because of his views.

Today's GOP is going all-in. Deep down, I think they know they're holding a losing hand.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Romney, Bain, and the End of the Reagan Coalition

Listening the last couple of days to the Republican crack-up over Mitt Romney and his time at Bain Capital has been fascinating. Conservatives have pounced on Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for their harsh criticisms of Romney. Perry, for example, has said: "We need more venture capitalism, and less vulture capitalism."

This is an attack from the "left," observers left and right have said. It is not conservative. Rush Limbaugh sputtered in exasperation: "My gosh, that's what the people who indict capitalism say ... this sounds like left-wing social engineering." Gingrich, Rush said, "sounds like Elizabeth Warren."

I couldn't disagree more. This isn't an attack from the left, it is an attack from within the unstable marriage that has been the Republican Party for at least the last thirty years. What's happening, I think, may be nothing less than the disintegration of the Reagan coalition.

The idea that the critique of Romney and Bain is "left-wing" is only true if you conceive of modern American conservatism in extremely narrow terms. By any reasonable definition of the word "conservative," the critique (especially as made by Newt Gingrich) is in fact deeply conservative.

What we are seeing here is the tension, if not outright contradiction, between two strands of modern American conservatism. On the one hand, conservatives value tradition. They talk about small-town values: family, work, religion. But the other strand is unrestrained free-market capitalism, the single most progressive force in history. The essence of capitalism is incessant change. Everywhere it has enjoyed free rein, it has undermined traditions and traditional values.

Ever since Herbert Hoover, the Republican Party has tried to maintain a coalition that includes both strands. Hoover was the epitome of both small town values and capitalist business success: born in the heartland (Iowa), he was orphaned at age 9, overcame being shuffled around for several years, attended Stanford, became a mining engineer, sought his fortune abroad, and became a self-made millionaire. As president during the depression, he warned against the moral degeneracy of dependence on the state.

But the Republican political leader who best combined these strands was, of course, Ronald Reagan. Like Hoover, he came from humble origins. But unlike Hoover, he became "the Great Communicator," a politician who never lost the common touch. The key to his political success was winning over the so-called Reagan Democrats: white, middle-class voters who had become disaffected with 1960s liberalism, and whose economic interests had suffered in the stagflation of the 1970s.

Modern American conservatives, however, have sometimes had trouble maintaining the coalition Reagan forged, and in Romney's Bain experience, we have a stark example of why it can be so hard.

When faced with the recent criticisms, Romney has relied on the power of the free market strand of conservatism. He claims that all of the attacks on him are meant to put "free enterprise on trial." In that, he has the support of Ron Paul, conservatism's purist defender of laissez-faire capitalism: “Bankruptcy and restructuring are very important principles in free markets.”

Free markets always create the correct, and moral, result according to this doctrinaire view. If people get fired in the pursuit of greater profits, so be it. The greater economic good counter-balances whatever harm may have been done by the invisible hand.

But we all know that unemployment is socially corrosive. When people lose their jobs, families suffer. It puts tremendous strain on them, sometimes they break up. When a company goes bankrupt, it can destroy an entire community.

That is the thrust of the devastatingly effective video put out by the pro-Gingrich Super Pac.

What  makes it so powerful is the testimony of real people put out of work by Bain. These are the Reagan Democrats. They come off, as Andrew Sullivan notes, not as "envious," as Romney condescendingly puts it. "They come off as bewildered, betrayed and sure that Romney's goal in all this was merely, solely to make money for himself - the kind of money that most Americans cannot even compute."

Newt's real apostasy here is that he is pointing out the contradiction that has always been there: the market is not inherently moral. The workings of free enterprise can be entirely legal and also immoral.

And, believe it or not, Gingrich is making the moral argument.  Here's how he put it on MSNBC Wednesday:
A company Bain had invested $30 million in, they took $180 million out -- that's 6 to 1-- and the company went bankrupt. And you have to ask yourself, if you're going to get a 6 to 1 return when the company's going bankrupt, gee, what if you'd only taken  3 to 1? ... Just because you have the right to do something, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
This is the traditional values argument: doing the right thing. In the video, we see families harmed, we see good people who want to work unable to support those families. We see them sincerely question whether what Bain did was morally right.

This is a conservative case, one that harkens back to an older, pre-capitalist, communitarian ethos, one that values the stability of the community, one that seeks a balance between the interests of the individual and those of the whole.

For advancing this line of attack, Republicans and other conservatives are roundly condemning Gingrich. The president of the right-wing Club For Growth has accused Newt of engaging in “economically ignorant class warfare” and making an "attack on a basic tenet of economic freedom."

Newt has rightly countered: "Criticizing one businessman for one set of practices is not an assault on capitalism." Of course that's true. But there's a good reason today's conservatives cannot agree to that. They're all in. They have fully committed to the free market strand of conservatism.

Note how John McCain put it to Fox News: "To go after [Romney], on really what is the essence of what we Republicans believe about economy, is a serious mistake.... There's an alternative to how Bain does business. It's called communism."

In other words, the distinction Newt makes -- between the ideal of capitalist competition and the predatory practices of Bain -- simply does not exist for today's Republican Party. It is either unrestrained free market, with all of its excesses and destruction (both "creative" and not), or it is communism. There is no middle ground.

Republicans and conservatives cannot acknowledge the conservative moral legitimacy of the Gingrich critique because they have been damning it for at least the last three years. To say that Gingrich has a point would invalidate their entire critique of Barack Obama: it would expose the "Obama is a socialist" line for the idiocy that it is.

It is Obama who has been making the conservative critique of capitalism. It is Obama who has been criticizing specific businessmen and specific business practices. It is Obama who has championed Wall Street reform and consumer protection -- not because he doesn't believe in capitalism (as Republican demagoguery would have it), but because, like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt before him, he sees that capitalism is in crisis and needs to be saved from its greatest and most self-destructive excesses.

There is no room for such a view among the power elites of the Republican Party and conservative movement. They have forgotten that the moral component of conservatism was never merely lip-service opposition to abortion or gay marriage. At its best, it has been much more than that.

Reagan knew that. As Obama has adroitly noted, his so-called "Buffett Rule," far from being "class warfare," was Reagan's idea.  In 1985, Reagan said that tax loopholes "sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying ten percent of his salary, and that’s crazy.... Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more in taxes than the bus driver or less?"

That same year, Reagan said the following:
I told some people ... of a letter that I just received ... from a man out here in the country, an executive who's earning in six figures -- well above $100,000 a year. He wrote me in support of the tax plan because he said, “I am legally able to take advantage of the present tax code -- nothing dishonest, doing what the law prescribes -- and wind up ... paying a smaller tax than my secretary pays.” And he wrote me the letter to tell me he'd like to come to Washington and testify before Congress as to how that's possible for him to do and why it is wrong [emphasis added].
Legal, nothing dishonest -- but wrong. Reagan knew the difference, and knew how important that difference was politically. Today, in his political desperation, Newt Gingrich also knows it matters politically.

In his segment on Romney's Bain problem Wednesday night, Lawrence O'Donnell put it beautifully:
The freedom to choose our occupations, the freedom to choose what we will do for money, requires us to check, not just if it's legal, but if it is the right thing to do.... What we do for money, and what harm we do while doing it, goes a long way to define who we are.
O'Donnell is a liberal, but that is a fundamentally conservative statement: freedom is not license, freedoms come with responsibilities, and we are responsible not just to ourselves, but to others and to our communities.

This debate over Romney and Bain is not about Republicans sounding like Democrats, or about both parties trying to be economic populists: it is about the moral dimension of our politics. It's something that a significant number of Republican voters value, but that the radical individualists among the Tea Partiers and libertarians either reject or flatly deny, and the corporate elite don't even understand.

Gingrich is, of course, primarily motivated to make these attacks by personal animus to Romney due to the negative ads that killed Newt's chances in Iowa. But one of Newt's (few) political virtues is that he does sometimes see a bigger picture. In this case, he knows that the Republicans, if they nominate Mitt Romney, are handing this potent political issue to President Obama, and with it, possibly, an essential component of Republican political success over the last 30 years.

If Obama can take advantage of Romney's moral blindness and regain a significant number of Reagan Democrats, he will win re-election. If he can go further and recapture the mantle of the moral dimension of politics, he can realign American politics and fracture the Reagan coalition.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paul & Huntsman: "Bring 'em Home" Republicans

Back in November, before the GOP debate here at Wofford, I noted that one of the interesting things to look for in the debate, whose ostensible topic was foreign policy, was how large a role the historical internationalist v. isolationist split in the GOP would play: "I’ll be looking for signs that this old debate within the Republican party may be re-emerging in the 21st century."

Last night, I could not help but note that the primary in New Hampshire produced a 40% vote for two candidates who explicitly call for the US to get out of Afghanistan: Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Granted, Mitt Romney, who called for "overwhelming military superiority," won the primary with 38%, and if one adds in the 20% that went to the combination of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, that means that about 60% of voters went for candidates whose foreign policy is much more aggressive and interventionist.

It is also worth noting that voters don't generally vote on foreign policy, and this year that is probably more true than it usually is. So one can't take that 40% as a necessarily isolationist vote.

Nonetheless, it does seem fair to say this: for that 40% of New Hampshire Republican primary voters, the foreign policy views of Paul and Huntsman were not disqualifying. That is significant. 

It is practically impossible to imagine that just four years ago. Then, there was only one candidate calling for such a foreign policy: Ron Paul.  And he got only 7.7% of the vote in 2008. He tripled that last night.  Something interesting is happening among Republican voters.

Several observers have noted the absence in this campaign of references to the last Republican president, George W. Bush. For some, that's due to the perception that he was a "big government" conservative who let spending get out of hand. But it may also be that some Republicans are recoiling from the aggressive, regime-change, nation-building foreign policy that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld pursued.

Listening to the jingoism of Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum (especially on the topic of Iran), it is clear that the animating spirit of the Bush foreign policy is far from dead. It is also not going unchallenged.

Those two things combined add up to a meaningful split in the foreign policy consensus in the Republican Party. That makes it all the more interesting that Romney's victory speech in New Hampshire focused as much as it did on foreign policy.

He accused Obama of an "appeasement strategy" and said the president  "doesn't see the need for overwhelming military superiority." If Obama is an "appeaser," then what do we call Paul and Huntsman and their supporters? Clearly, Romney is not interested in appealing to the Paul and Huntsman voters on foreign policy.

Certainly, no virulently anti-Obama voter is going to vote against Romney in the general election on foreign policy grounds. But those who find appealing the "bring 'em home" sentiment expressed by Paul and Huntsman will have no place call their own in a Republican Party led by Romney. In the long run, that could spell trouble for party unity.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Andrew Sullivan Gets Eisenhower Wrong

Andrew Sullivan has an innovative video feature on his blog, The Dish, now at the Daily Beast. In "Ask Andrew Anything," Sullivan gives video replies to reader questions. These replies are an interesting way of expanding blog content, but today's installment gets some history quite wrong.

The question was "Why do you think Eisenhower was the greatest president of the 20th century?" I agree with the general thrust of the reply, which echoes the revisionist case that Ike was far more effective than people at the time realized.

However, comparing Ike to JFK, Sullivan says: "You can certainly say this thing: that Eisenhower would never, ever, ever have done the Bay of Pigs in a million years.... and I doubt would have gotten us entangled in Vietnam either."

Both of those speculative statements are contradicted by the historical record.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in which CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried to overthrow the Castro government, took place less than three months after Kennedy took office. The planning was not a Kennedy initiative, but had begun a year earlier during the Eisenhower administration, when the president approved a National Security Council paper calling for covert action to overthrow Castro. The specific Bay of Pigs plan was approved by Eisenhower after the election, in late November 1960. Kennedy inherited the operation from the Eisenhower administration. It is simply wrong to say "Eisenhower would never, ever, ever have done the Bay of Pigs in a million years." Ike approved it. It was Ike's plan.

Now, some might quibble that JFK didn't actually implement Eisenhower's plan because he did not supply American air cover. Without delving into the morass of that particular controversy, let me simply say that Sullivan's argument is based on the premise that Ike was prudent and cautious, a president who "presided," while Kennedy was rash and "radical." Ike's approval of a more provocative step than JFK took is hardly evidence of that.

On Vietnam, Sullivan might seem to be on stronger ground--his claim is less absolute ("I doubt") and since Ike was not president, we'll never know with absolute certainty.

But we do know what Ike advised LBJ to do in 1965. Johnson knew that the prestige Eisenhower enjoyed could be a politically effective tool in garnering public support for escalation. When Ike was briefed on Gen. Westmoreland's recommendation for escalation in June 1965, Eisenhower reportedly said "We have got to win."

More conclusively, thanks to LBJ's telephone conversation recordings, we have direct, irrefutable evidence of Eisenhower's thoughts. Johnson spoke to the former president on the morning of July 2, 1965. Ike said: "You've got to go along with your military advisers ... My advice is, do what you have to do." He advised LBJ to say to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese: "Hell, we're going to end this thing and win this thing.... We don't intend to fail." His final word to LBJ? "I would go ahead and ... do it as quickly as I could."

We don't have to guess what Ike thought about escalation in 1965. Sullivan's view initially seems plausible, given Eisenhower's own decision in 1954 not to bail out the French at Dienbienphu. Less than a year after ending the Korean War, Ike had no interest in getting into another land war in Asia.

But (and this is what Eisenhower admirers overlook) he did commit the United States to maintaining an independent South Vietnamese government. That commitment, the one LBJ always said his policy was meant to keep, was Eisenhower's commitment. When it came down to it, Eisenhower supported troop escalation in 1965 to keep the commitment he himself had made.

There was much that was prudent about Eisenhower's presidency. He did end the Korean War, he did avoid direct American involvement in the French war in Vietnam. But he also endorsed what in retrospect were clearly counterproductive and even reckless covert operations in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, and those "successes" gave rise to the hubris of the Bay of Pigs. He made the ill-advised commitment to South Vietnam, leaving his successors to make good on it. In neither case do his actions fit Sullivan's admiring portrait.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Santorum and Mussolini

Rick Santorum wisely saw his post-Iowa speech as a chance to introduce himself to the majority of Americans who had not previously paid much attention to the presidential race. He told a quite effective story about announcing his run in the town where his immigrant grandfather lived. He related how his grandfather had fled Mussolini's Italy in 1925, and come to America for freedom and opportunity.

So far, so good.

But then he veered off course. He said that we face the same situation today:
[The Democrats want] to talk about raising taxes on people who have been successful and redistributing money, increasing dependency in this country, promoting more Medicaid and food stamps and all sorts of social welfare programs and passing Obamacare to provide even more government subsidies. More and more dependency, more and more government — exactly what my grandfather left in 1925.
That's right. He actually compared Obama to Mussolini.

Now, for the Republican primary electorate, this probably won't hurt him.  But for more rational people, it is hard to believe that most won't find such a comparison offensive.

By 1925, Mussolini, who had begun his career by working through the electoral process, had seized dictatorial powers and had come close to completely dismantling Italian democracy. Political parties (other than his Fascists) effectively had been stripped of power. They would be banned totally in 1928. His opponents were sometimes gunned down in the streets gangland style. Newspapers were censored.

It goes without saying that nothing about today's American resembles that. Comparing American today to Mussolini's Italy in 1925 is nothing short of delusional. But in the contemporary GOP, is is far from unusual. Today's conservatives, as I have noted before (here and here), seem to have a marked tendency (whether they mean to or not) to denigrate the actual tyranny suffered by other peoples. They claim they are the guardians of freedom and the enemies of tyranny. But they diminish the meaning of that term when they equate the passage of policies they don't like, such as the health care law, with real tyranny.

Up until that point, I really admired Santorum's speech.  But that jarring, ahistorical demagoguery reminded me who he really is. Despite his attempt to introduce himself to the American people as a mainstream figure, he slipped. Those who were paying attention saw behind the pretense to what lies beneath.