Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The Obama administration is considering charging some people - it’s not clear who - with some crimes - it’s not clear which - in connection with the memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding what are and are not acceptable forms of coercion during interrogation of terrorists. Meanwhile the Congress is considering a Truth Commission regarding the same memos and other aspects of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war on terror. While the Administration appears to have taken prosecution of the interrogators themselves off the table, Congress wants to investigate at all levels.

The Administration is considering converting its preferred stock in some or all banks into common stock. This will not increase the actual amount of Federal money the banks have but it will move that money from the “doesn’t count in leverage considerations” pile to the “does count in leverage considerations” pile. That will enable the banks to look healthier without the Administration having to ask Congress for more money to prop them up. This conversion will also move taxpayer risk from the King’s square to the Pawn’s square. In this regard it bears a family resemblance to the Administration’s Public-Private Investment Program.

The Administration is reportedly going into business with Fiat and the UAW under the name “Chrysler”. There’s no word on whether this will cost taxpayers anything. At the same time, the government may be on the verge of becoming the largest shareholder in General Motors.

We are in debt up to our eyeballs for the foreseeable future. Still Obama plans to fund and implement policies promoting his Triad of Education, Renewable Energy, and Health Care. The Congress and the President are going to give us at least the beginnings of national health insurance before Labor Day and cap-and-trade is lurking in the underbrush. I haven’t heard of any specific Education initiative proposed by the Administration unless you count the probable death of the District of Columbia school choice program.

In the international arena, the President has taken an absolutely neutral stance toward every country in the world. The United States has no allies or friends, recognizes no enemies or rogues. In fact, there is nothing special about any country in the world - including the President’s own. Perhaps as proof of United States neutrality, production of the F-22 will halt and missile defense efforts will be cut back.

All this is driving conservative pundits crazy and Congressional Republicans crazier. I sympathize: none of this sounds like a good idea to me either. But you know what? Obama and the Democrats won. Obama took 52.9% of the popular vote versus McCain’s 45.7%; Obama took 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173; Obama took 28 states to McCain’s 22. Furthermore, Obama was elected President by voters who knew perfectly well that he would almost certainly be paired with a heavily Democratic Congress. The pre-election prediction that Democrats could control a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate is on the verge of becoming fact; the House is also very nearly 60% Democratic. What Obama and the Congressional Democrats are doing is what the electorate voted to have done. Working constantly to block their efforts means the Republicans are blocking the course preferred by a majority of Americans.

Furthermore - from the practical point of view - given Obama’s more than respectable poll numbers, any direct pushback against Obama is counterproductive. It just looks like the Republicans are being spiteful, won’t accept the results of the election, and all the same old tunes. Even worse, it makes the Republicans sound like the Democrats from the last eight years.

So considering both the democratic and practical points I’ve just made, here’s what I’d do if I was running the Republican side of the aisle:

I’d take the filibuster off the table* except in a few instances I’ll discuss below. The Republican leadership in the Senate must be explicit about what they’re doing and why. Say, “As Republicans we oppose Bill 123 and we anticipate most Republican Senators will vote against it. However we accept that President Obama and the Congressional Democrats were elected by a majority of the American people who can therefore be assumed to want this legislation to pass. Therefore we will not kill this bill via a filibuster. We urge all Senators - both Democrat and Republican - to vote as they see fit on this bill.” If appropriate, the Republican leadership should also offer their own version of the proposed bill.

This accomplishes two things. First, it maintains principled opposition while avoiding the “Party of No” label. Second, it holds every Democratic Senator - and by extension, Representative - accountable for their vote. It will no longer be possible for Congressional Democrats to pay lip service to bills they know will never be voted on in the Senate. Neither will it be possible for them to claim they would have done this, that, or the other if only the Republicans hadn’t threatened to filibuster.

But, will come the anguished cry, if we let Obama and the Congress do everything they want it will be disastrous and we’ll never be able to fix it. Balderdash. With a few exceptions, none of the moves Obama and the Democratic Congress want to make are irreversible. After all, Margaret Thatcher made sweeping changes which reversed the policies of earlier administrations. We ourselves reformed welfare however briefly. The argument that the United States could not recover from four years - or even eight years - of bad government is preposterous on the face of it; such an argument denies not only the validity of democratic choice but also the country’s resilience - which is surely a large part of what makes America exceptional. If Obama and the Democrats implement their policies, they are as disastrous as conservatives claim they will be, and the country returns the Republicans to power with significant majorities, then almost everything can be fixed.

You’ll note I said the Democratic actions were reversible “with a few exceptions.” When it comes to those exceptions, I would - if I ran the Republican Party - fight tooth and nail to stop Obama and the Democrats. What are those exceptions that approach irreversibility?

First, Supreme Court nominations. There’s no way President Obama is going to nominate a conservative for the Court; he may not even be willing to nominate a moderate although I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. So what Republicans have to be willing to accept is someone who is Left-leaning but not so judicially activist that rolling back the Obama policies becomes legislatively impossible. If the Republicans are smart, they’ll start now to compile a list of nominees they could live with and Obama would like. No one is going to speculate on replacements while the originals are living and breathing but a quiet short list is an excellent idea.

Second, the 2010 Census. Republicans must do absolutely everything in their power to insure that the census is fair and complete. Is there any chance it won't be? Well, I'm not happy about the rumors that a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party - ACORN - will play a part in the the Census. Similarly, I have read that illegal immigrants will be counted and that they will be included in the numbers used to determine which States gain seats in the House of Representatives. It’s an excellent idea to include them in the count but absolutely unacceptable to allow that count to impact reapportionment.

Third, amnesty for illegal immigrants. If Obama and the Democrats manage this they’ll have created a huge block of new voters. Although there’s no reason to believe those voters’ interests will line up with the Democrats forever, loyalty may well give the votes of these new citizens to the Democrats for a generation.

Fourth, the Fairness Doctrine. Letting the Democrats strangle a major Republican media outlet like talk radio would be suicidal.

Furthermore, there’s one positive step I’d fight for with all my might: full information. Who is the Truth Commission calling and why? Who are they not calling - and why? Where is the money that’s supposed to help the banks going? How are the banks really doing? Who’s participating in PPIP, what did they buy, how much did they pay? Was what they paid more than the mark-to-market would have been? Were there bottom-feeders who would have bought the toxic assets more cheaply? How much money went from the taxpayers to Fiat and the UAW as part of the Chrysler deal? How is the government deciding how to vote as the largest GM shareholder? Is the debt load increasing faster than the Administration predicted? Are the assumptions Obama’s budget makes about unemployment proving correct? What kind of tracking mechanism is going to be set up to see how the new health programs are working? Who will run cap-and-trade, how will it be priced, who gets to buy and sell, how much will it raise the cost of energy? How much are teachers getting paid and how well are their students doing? How much administrative overhead do schools have?

So that’s what I would do if I ran the Republican Party. If I were a Republican Congressman or politician or a conservative pundit, I’d work very hard to oppose without attacking. Let’s say I was asked about Obama’s apologies for previous American foreign policy. I’d say:

That’s not how I would have proceeded. I believe that in the array of nations the United States has consistently striven to behave in a way that defends its valid national interests while at the same time doing much good in the world. We’re not perfect but we’re head and shoulders above most of the other countries in the world. Furthermore, I believe most nations whose interests conflict with ours are more likely to be deterred by strength and clarity than they are to be softened by apologies.

Nonetheless, President Obama was elected by a majority of Americans and I therefore accept that his foreign policy is what those Americans want to see from their President. I sincerely hope that his approach bears the fruit he hopes for.

Of course, all this assumes that - as I said above - “Obama and the Democrats implement their policies, they are as disastrous as the Republicans claim they will be, and the country returns the Republicans to power with significant majorities.” There are other possible outcomes. Here are three:

First, Obama and the Democrats implement their policies and they work: after four or eight years, the United States is economically healthy and largely at peace in the world while its citizens are happy, healthy, and productive. I consider this extremely unlikely but it’s possible. In this case, the Republicans have lost but the country has won. I know that there are those who will argue that this sort of success will mean that the United States has lost its soul, has lost what made it so special, and they may be right. But the whole point of living in a democracy is that the majority gets to choose - even if you believe they’re choosing wrong.

Second, Obama and the Democrats implement their policies, they are as disastrous as the Republicans claim they will be, and the voters want to keep them anyway. I consider this fairly likely. It’s entirely possible that the United States will be economically distressed and globally threatened and its citizens will be unhappy, unhealthy, and unemployed, and yet decide to stay on the same path. So long as the Democrats provide most citizens with at least a minimum of food, shelter, and medical care, a significant number of Americans may decide that’s better than a different approach that offers the possibility of more private opportunity but the certainty of less government help. Combine those with the Americans who will continue to believe that it’s better for the United States to be less powerful and less well off than it is for it to return to a more capitalist, exceptionalist outlook and you will quite possibly have a majority of voters who want to maintain the Democratic status quo however bad it is.

Third, Obama and the Democrats implement their policies, they are as disastrous as the Republicans claim they will be, and the voters turn to a new, third party instead of the Republicans. Emotionally and ideologically, I consider this extremely likely; practically, I consider it extremely difficult. Let’s face it: the Republicans have not covered themselves in glory over the last eight years. Bush’ deficits are nothing compared to Obama’s and I know he had a war to fund but not only did he not balance the budget he doesn’t appear to have made strenuous efforts to do so. Republican Congressional spending was a disgrace.

Most damning of all, the Bush Administration left us with the economic meltdown. Yes, the Democrats bear a lot of the responsibility for it - perhaps even the lion’s share - but when you examine the individual elements that led to it - everything from the repeal of Glass-Steagal to the criminal negligence of the rating agencies to Fannie and Freddie to ludicrously low interest rates to whatever - you’ll find bipartisan fingerprints all over everything. What makes it so much more damning for the Republicans than for the Democrats is that it happened on a Republican President’s watch. And the final nail in the Republican’s economic coffin is that, in the end, a significant number of Republicans voted for TARP, the first of the bailout bills, the one urgently requested by a Republican President. That badly undercuts any current Republican opposition to spending sums of money larger than the human mind can comprehend.

So if the Democrats crash and burn, I believe the voters will want to find an alternative other than the Republicans. It just may be difficult practically: so much of our political system assumes the two political parties we already have. Plus most of the current alternatives are what I would consider fringe parties in the ideological sense as well as the practical sense; a viable third party would have to be cut from whole cloth.

This means, of course, that if the Republicans can oppose without attacking and can avoid becoming the “Party of No” by finding a coherent policy voice with which to present realistic proposals of their own, they have a good shot at re-establishing themselves as a reasonable alternative to the Democrats. Sadly for those of us who expect to very much want such an alternative in the near future, the Republicans seem unlikely to follow that path.


*If an individual Republican Senator wants to filibuster a bill that would certainly be his or her prerogative but the Senator would have to mount a real filibuster, not count on the Republican leadership in the Senate to threaten a veto which then takes the bill off the table.

Footnote: I’ve almost been overtaken by events. This post has been rattling around in my head for about a week. I started writing this version (my third attempt) Tuesday morning planning to argue that Republicans should use their ability to filibuster very, very sparingly. Then came word that Arlen Specter has switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. This means there are 57 Democrats in the Senate and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, giving them 59 votes. If - as seems likely - Al Franken finally wins the Minnesota election, he will become the 60th Senate vote for the Democrats which means the Republicans will not be able to filibuster anyhow. That assumes, of course, that the Democrats can hold all 60 votes in any call for cloture which is not necessarily the case. And even if it is the case, there’s something to be said for making a virtue out of necessity. Or, if you prefer, being a gracious loser.


Additional Reading:

Here are articles that didn’t exactly fit into this post as hyperlinks but that I found interesting:

The prophets of doom - A Salon list of notables who are critical of Obama’s handling of the economy

Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools? - A brutal little essay on killing the DC voucher program:

[Duncan] ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Obama's house of prosperity may yet be a castle in the air - Unlike neoneocon, I read this as a damning indictment of Obama primarily through a comparison of President Obama’s response to crisis with that of Prime Minister Thatcher.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

First, do no harm

When I was in my mid-teens I heard a report on the news about some small, underdeveloped country somewhere - probably Africa or South America - where the government needed workers for some project. To fill their needs they had entered a remote village, rounded up all the able-bodied men and boys and marched them off to work. Their families did not know where they had gone or when - if ever - they would be back. I believed passionately that that story was horrible. The world is full enough of dangers and disasters that separate family members from each other: it was utterly unconscionable that a government would deliberately set out to do something so cruel to its own people. A government’s first and most important function, after all, is to protect its citizens to the very best of its ability.

In my 20s I read Ayn Rand’s We The Living - or at least I attempted to. I found the book so sad and so upsetting that I could not finish it. Unfortunately I have never been able to forget the part of the book where the heroine and her beloved end up living in one room because the government has decided that is all they need or deserve.

Now comes the news of the suicide of David Kellerman, CFO of Freddie Mac. I do not believe Mr. Kellerman killed himself solely because of his job: he - unlike the villagers in that original news story and unlike Rand’s fictional heroine - had other options and if his only problems were his work problems he would have taken one of them. Furthermore I’ve never been all that enamored of the idea of a slippery slope: surely rational human beings can decide to go just so far and no further.

Nonetheless, reading this story, it’s hard to ignore that my government - my government - was delighted to have Mr. Kellerman work around the clock to help it out while at the same time inciting the populace to hate him for his “outrageous” compensation. My government - my government - bullied Mr. Kellerman to violate not just his professional ethics but his fiduciary duty while at the same time reserving the right to decide - in its infinite wisdom - how much of his promised salary it would allow - allow - him to receive for the work he’d already done. No, it’s not on a par with dragging him off to a work camp or confining his living space to one room. But it’s not exactly an example of the government protecting its own either. And it is most emphatically not how I want my government to operate.

A five-year-old daughter, for God’s sake. Why didn’t Mr. Kellerman just tell them all - all the dishonest Obamas and Geithners; all the malign Franks and rats-in-the-belly Schumers and other criminally irresponsible, grandstanding Congressmen; all the sleazy regulators and pitchfork wielding villagers - to go to Hell?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Secede! Secede!

Keith Olbermann made me laugh last night. I was walking through the living room on my way to somewhere else and my husband was flipping through channels and had hit Olbermann talking to Howard Fineman about the Tea Parties. I stopped to listen and at the end of their discussion, Olbermann (in a brief aside that is not in the video at his site) sneered at Texas Governor Rick Perry for advocating for secession while dishonestly claiming he wasn’t seriously contemplating it.

I cracked up. This has nothing to do with dishonesty and everything to do with being Texan. I lived in Texas during the 1970s. Texas was furious with most of the rest of the country - especially the North and I think especially Michigan - during that period for reasons I no longer remember clearly: something to do with them using petroleum like there was no tomorrow and at the same time saying ugly things about the oil and gas industry. The oil embargo was a source of great hope for Texans - despite the fact that we had to wait in the same long lines as everybody else - because we figured now the rest of the country would realize that Texas’ oil and gas were valuable commodities rather than the root of all evil. (Obviously we were wrong about that.)

Anyhow true to form, Texans went big with their unhappiness. A columnist for the Houston Post (Lynn Ashby if I remember correctly) suggested (facetiously, humorless people on the left) that Texas increase its power within the country by exercising its right to split into five different states - and that it do so by splitting into five concentric Texas-shaped states. And I personally owned a T-shirt with the Texas flag on the front on it stamped: Secede! Secede!

Chill, Keith. This is just Texas being Texas.