I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists -- hell, to most people who've taken an advanced poli sci course -- this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question.
Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there's a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn't here to please you," but it's amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore.
The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept.
For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear's story in the New York Times about Obama's Mexico trip. The title gives it away: "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico."
President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.
“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.'’
Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.
OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico's new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences.
One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest ... like U.S. views on Mexico. Let's not kid ourselves -- one visit and one speech alone won't do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That's a start -- and very useful example of positive presidential leadership.
The George W. Bush presidential library is having its coming-out party this week. Five years after the end of the Bush administration, it's about time for a push to recalibrate our historical understanding of George W. Bush's legacy. In the Washington Post, Stephen Knott argues that the professional historians have it in for W., and that time
will may vindicate his legacy:
In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.
There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one’s time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman’s presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation’s greatest presidents.
George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.
Meanwhile, over at the National Journal, Tom DeFrank details how the Bush library, and Bush himself, will push back against this historical bias:
This week’s two days of festivities on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater, mark his somewhat reluctant re-emergence into the national spotlight since leaving Washington in 2009. President Obama and the three living Presidents will join 15,000 guests to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The center comprises a Presidential library housing 43,000 artifacts and millions of documents from the eight years of 43’s tenure. The adjoining think tank, informally known as the “freedom institute,” will preach the gospel of Bush’s conservative vision to future generations.
The institute is also designed by Bush as the vehicle to rehab and burnish his legacy with future historians and posterity....
While time is known to heal some wounds and Presidential legacies, money doesn't hurt, either. The institute is bulging with cash, allowing its board to hire like-minded academics and pay some executives more than $650,000 a year....
“As time goes by Bush will benefit from the comparison with Obama,” Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution predicted. “If Obama had been a Bill Clinton-like figure he would have made Bush look like the caricature his opponents have suggested. But Obama has been a great gift for Bush - he’s as polarizing a figure as Bush was.”
OK, so, a few things:
1) The moment you trot out someone as partisan as Victor Davis Hanson to claim that Bush's legacy will outshine Obama's, you've abandoned the argument that Bush is merely the victim of partisan historians.
2) It's good to know that those shameful historians who abandoned dispassionate analysis in favor of a partisan agenda will overwhelmed by the forces for good -- namely, a $500 million wad of cash. And I, for one, look forward to future Knott op-eds praising the nobility of historians who suckled on this teat as paragons of unbiased scholarship.
3) That Truman analogy that Knott uses? Yeah, as Amy Zegart discussed back in 2008, that dog won't hunt.
4) Five years later, is there any dimension of George W. Bush's legacy that will improve with time? Actually, I think the answer is yes on a few fronts.
First, he's been a great ex-president. For such a polarizing political figure, it's remarkable at how successfully Bush has receded into private life. Lest you think that this was his only option, let me introduce you to Dick Cheney's post-vice-presidential path.
Second, ironically, Bush's legacy will be a bit more buoyant because the quality of post-Bush GOP thinking on foreign policy has been so piss-poor that Bush really does look good by comparison. It is worth remembering that, for all of the criticisms of Bush's foreign policy rhetoric, he kept anti-Muslim hysteria somewhat in check. He boosted foreign aid through PEPFAR, which might be his most significant foreign policy legacy. And the Bush foreign policy of 2008 looked dramatically different from the Bush foreign policy of 2003, which suggests some degree of adaptation and learning.
Third, the performance of Bush's economic team in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis probably deserves more credit than it gets. Despite being a wildly unpopular lame-duck president, Bush still was able to implement a series of international moves (convening the G-20 rather than the G-8) and domestic moves (TARP, the auto bailout) that prevented the crisis from metastasizing into another Great Depression.
All that said, however, there are some cold hard facts that cannot be erased. George W. Bush helmed a war of choice that proved, in the end, to impose powerful constraints (though perhaps not system-changing) for American foreign policy. He pursued his foreign policy aims in such a way as to dramatically lower U.S. standing abroad. He was at the helm when all of the pressures that triggered the 2008 financial crisis were building up and did next to nothing to stop them. And five years later, the GOP is still wrestling with the negative aspects of his political legacy.
At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era.
Am I missing anything?
In an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said some provocative things about the state of America's political system and how that affects our standing in the world. In particular:
If you look past the political dysfunction, the economy looks encouragingly resilient. We’ve got much more diversity of strengths, from energy to high tech to manufacturing than is true for any major economy, and people should find comfort and some optimism in that.
But the failures of the American political system are going to be very damaging over time unless they’re addressed. Although the world will give us some time to find a consensus around long-term fiscal reforms, they’re not going to give us forever. And you can’t count indefinitely on the worlds having more confidence in our political system than is justified. We have to earn that confidence. It’s going to have to produce better results from the legislative process.
So is he right?
My natural instinct is to be skeptical about claims like these. After all, the U.S. Constitution and America's great power status have co-existed pretty peacefully for the last 70 years. One could go further and argue that America's economic might has co-existed happily with the Constitution for the past century. Is it really the system that's at fault?
Perhaps a better way to frame Geithner's claim is to distinguish formal rules from informal norms. For example, the Senate filibuster has existed in its current form for quite some time, but there was a norm about not abusing this option that allowed necessary government operations to continue without significant impediments. Given rising levels of polarization, however, maybe these norms are breaking down?
I'm not sure that's it either, however. Even polarized party elites do share some common incentives not to completely destroy their reputations. If one looks at Barack Obama and John Boehner, for example, one finds two politicians with pretty different ideological starting points that are nevetheless willing to do some compromising.
No, based on what I've read over the past 24 hours, I'd wager that something else is happening. For lack of a better way of putting it, I think large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality.
Let me explain what I mean here. I'm not saying that the GOP is insane in its policy preferences. One can debate whether it's wise policy to oppose any form of gun regulation, seek massive reductions in government spending or pursue a single-minded, bellicose foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of those policies, the GOP has beeen pretty clear in expressing them. Message received.
Instrumental rationality is whether an actor pursues the optimal course of action to maximizse those preferences given structural constraints and the preferences of other key actors. And it's here where the GOP's behavior puzzles me a wee bit. Consider two examples from yesterday's news cycle.
First, Maggie Haberman reports that a new right-wing group has sprung up to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel...
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Again, I get the opposition to Hagel from some in the GOP. What I don't get is what anyone donating to these groups thinks they're going to accomplish. The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations. The most plausible story one could gin up is that by fighting the good fight now, a marker has been laid down for future nominations. Except that since the reputation for power is a form of power itself, the groups that fight this and lose won't seem terribly imposing for the next critical vote. If I was a wealthy GOP donor who cared a lot about foreign policy and national security issues, there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now.
The second data point comes from rumblings within the House GOP caucus that maybe they shouldn't risk hitting the debt ceiling. Hey, this sounds rational!! As more GOP elites and public opinion polls tell the Republicans that this is a dead-bang loser of an issue for them, it would make sense for Republicans to give Obama what he wants on the debt ceiling but fight him tooth and nail on the budget.
Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. "The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk," Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
This doesn't make any sense. If the full faith and credit of the nation shouldn't be a subject for debate, and if the GOP now realizes this is not a good arena for political combat, why kick this can down the road for less than three months? All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling. Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?
I'm not a Washington insider, but I've observed politics for a couple of decades now. Most of the time, even if I disagreed with the preferences of a politician, I understood what they were doing to try to attain those preferences. I honestly don't understand how many in the GOP are thinking about how they're gonna achieve their ends. It's like they've all flunked Backward Induction 101. Or watched this scene from Blazing Saddles once too often.
So I disagree wth Geithner. Sure, the American political system can be sclerotic. But what we're witnessing right now is something different. Like the revolutionaries in Stephen Walt's Revolution and War, the current crop of GOP elites seem to believe that loud, repeated affirmations of their preferences will simply and eventually steamroll Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the American people into acceptance of their policy platform. One would have thought that the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the 2012 election, the fiscal cliff negotiations, and the superstorm Sandy relief bill would have led to some learning. But it hasn't. And that's the scariest fact of all.
Developing.... in an utterly irrational way.
Since moving to Foreign Policy, this blog has primarily been devoted to world politics, global political economy, and American foreign policy. I don't know if I've ever blogged about gun control and gun violence (though I confess I've been enjoying my Twitter exchanges with Second Amendment absolutists immensely).
Now if that peroration seems like a windup for a big "we must do something about guns" post, you're going to be disappointed. Sure, from what I read, there's a clear correlation between gun ownership and crime, but it's far from clear that most of the policies on the table will do a whole hell of a lot to put a dent into that correlation.
However, with the Obama administration gearing up for an ambitious set of policy proposals, and with the gun lobby gearing up to fight those proposals, I do have one useful policy suggestion. If the White House is smart, they will take, verbatim, Kevin Drum's suggested policy proposals for eliminating lead from our nation's homes and topsoil.
Now, if you think that sentence was a massive non sequitur, I'd encourage you to read Drum's outstanding Mother Jones essay on the surprisingly robust connection between lead poisoning and violent crime, as well as his follow-up blog posts. Despite understandable and initial skepticism, even skeptics seem persuaded by the causal link. [Where's the international relations hook?--ed. This hypothesis holds when using cross-national evidence as well.] If the goal is to reduce violent, horrific crimes, then reducing lead exposure is a crucial part of the solution.
The brilliant thing about adding this to the menu of policy proposals is that I suspect it would actually amass broad-based support. Environmentalists will like it for obvious reasons, as will advocates of urban politics. Parents will love it because they know lead is bad for you. Policy wonks will love it because, well, the social science seems pretty rock-solid. The best part, however, is that groups like the NRA would likely support it as well -- because it makes them seem reasonable. In the wake of Sandy Hook, an awful lot of commentators have been saying things like "it's not just about guns," with a reference to meantal health or violence in the culture. The causal evidence linking lead poisoning to gun violence and violent crime would appear to be far stronger than the stuff on popular culture. So it would be smart politics for the NRA to endorse those measures.
It's pretty rare nowadays to come up with a policy solution that doesn't run into some partisan divide -- but this lead poisoning issue would seem to be the exception. I hope both the Obama administration and Congress exploit the opportunity.
So I woke up this morning to see that Barack Obama was re-elected with numbers that looked an awful lot like what Nate Silver et al said they would be. So, what does this mean? A few things:
1) Hopefully, political science will start to bleed into political coverage in the media in the same way that sabermetrics has successfully been grafted onto baseball coverage. This would be a very, very, very good thing. Seriously, it would be awesome if the Sunday morning talk shows actually started incorporating some political scientists into their roundtables as a matter of course.
2) A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign -- but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).
This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades. This -- combined with shifts on social issues and demographics -- will be a problem that the Republicans are going to need to address.
3) It was interesting that Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech.
4) Second-term presidents tend to pay more attention to foreign affairs, particularly as their lame duck status kicks in. Obama will be no different. Once the fiscal cliff issues are addressed, I predict that foreign economic policy will take the lead.
Your humble blogger has not been shy in stating that he now votes in presidential elections based largely on foreign policy considerations. Nor has he been shy in expressing his... er... exasperation with various foreign policy kerfuffles during the campaign. So as Election Day approaches, you might wonder -- what will Daniel Drezner do? [Oh, give me a f**ing break, just get on with it!!--ed.]
With Barack Obama, there's an actual record to judge.... and I think it would be best to call it mixed. The Economist, in its Obama endorsement, noted the following:
[On] foreign policy... he was also left with a daunting inheritance. Mr Obama has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror” more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally, see article) and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste). After a shaky start with China, American diplomacy has made a necessary “pivot” towards Asia. By contrast, with both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his “reset” with Russia, he overreached and underdelivered. Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons.
All these problems could have been anticipated. The Arab spring could not. Here Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but he has followed events rather than shaping them, nowhere more so than with the current carnage in Syria. Compared with, say, George Bush senior, who handled the end of the cold war, this aloof, disengaged man is no master diplomat; set beside the younger Bush, however, Mr Obama has been a safe pair of hands.
I think that's a decent assessment, although it overlooks what is, to me, the most troubling element of Barack Obama's first-term foreign policy legacy -- his management of the foreign policy process. As my Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks has written about in agonizing detail, the dysfunction that was talked about in Obama's first year in office hasn't disappeared along with Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, the aftermath of Benghazi puts this on full display. To be blunt, for all the GOP efforts to make the lack of pre-attack planning an indictment of the White House, consulate security in Benghazi is not the kind of decision that rises to the White House level. The aftermath of the attack is another story, however. In the past 24 hours alone, report after report after report after report shows Obama's foreign policy agencies defending their own turf, leaking to reporters in ways that heighten bureaucratic dysfunction, and revealing the White House's national security team to be vindictive and petty.
Benghazi also highlights a deeper problem with this administration -- the lack of policy follow-through. Whether one looks at the Iraq withdrawal or the rebalancing to Asia or the Afghanistan build-up or their embrace of the G-20, the story is the same. Even if the administration had demonstrated good first instincts, it has failed to follow up those instincts with either next steps or contingency planning.
So, the biggest indictment of the Obama administraion's foreign policy has been poor management. Which, as it turns out, is Mitt Romney's genuine strength, as Ezra Klein points out in his excellent Bloomberg column this AM:
Romney’s apparent disinterest in an animating ideology has made him hard to pin down -- for the Journal editorial board, for journalists, for Democrats and Republicans, for campaign consultants, even for Romney’s closest confidantes. It has led to the common knock on Romney that he lacks a core. He’s an opportunist. He picks whatever position is expedient. He is a guy with brains, but no guts.
But after spending the last year talking to Romney advisers and former colleagues, as well as listening to him on the campaign trail, I’ve come to see this description as insufficient. It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.
What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too.
This jibes with all the chatter I hear about Romney as well. Which should lead you to think that Romney might be exactly what ails American foreign policy.
The thing is, Romney's own foreign policy rhetoric makes it clear that managing foreign policy isn't enough. As he's said, the president has to be a foreign policy leader. A president has much greater leeway on these issues than on other policy dimensions. A good foreign policy president needs to be genunely interested in the subject, possess good foreign policy insincts, and rely on a core set of ideas that allows him or her to make tough decisions in a world of uncertainty. As I wrote last year:
[A] philosophy of "I won't say anything until I know all the facts" is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It's those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.
When I use these criteria to think about Mitt Romney, he doesn't do very well. Every conversation with every Romney advisor confirms the same thing: this is not a guy who has engaged deeply in international affairs. He was perfectly happy to go all neocon-y in the primary season to appeal to his base, and then tack back to the center in the general election to appeal to war-weary independents. He's not doing this because he's dishonest; he's doing this because he doesn't care. His choice of foreign policy neophyte Paul Ryan as his VP pick confirms this as well: Romney/Ryan has the least foreign policy experience of any GOP ticket in at least sixty years.
Furthermore, in the moments during this campaign when Romney has been required to display his foreign policy instincts, he's foundered badly. He stuck his beak into the Chen Guangcheng case when silence was the better option. He did the same thing in the aftermath of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, going so far as to accuse Obama of "sympathizing" with terrorists. As for his overseas trip, well, the less said, the better. All of these episodes show a guy who's out of his depth on matters of foreign affairs. And when he's been criticized in taking these stances, Romney has responded by doubling down on a bad position. His political instincts have led him to some bad foreign policy choices.
I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about as Obama as, say, Jonathan Chait, but his endorsement of the president makes an interesting point:
It is noteworthy that... the best decisions that Obama made during his presidency ran against the advice of much of his own administration.... Many of his own advisers, both economists steeped in free-market models and advisers anxious about a bailout-weary public, argued against his decision to extend credit to, and restructure, the auto industry. On Libya, Obama’s staff presented him with options either to posture ineffectually or do nothing; he alone forced them to draw up an option that would prevent a massacre. And Obama overruled some cautious advisers and decided to kill Osama bin Laden.
On foreign policy, Barack Obama might be an indifferent manager, but by making his first decision the right one, he has saved himself numerous embarrassments and reversals.
This was a closer call than I expected, and I honestly hope (and think there's a good chance) that if Mitt Romney is elected, he'd grow into his foreign policy role with time. For this analyst, however, Barack Obama is the imperfect, but superior, alternative.
And now the bitter political invective in the comments.... begin!!
Let's face it, we are at the stage in the U.S. presidential race when politics junkies like myself are feasting on the tiniest scraps of relevant information about the campaign. And, because I live next door to the swing state of New Hampshire, I'm getting bombarded with negative advertisements up the wazoo.
I bring this up because of the latest BBC poll:
A BBC World Service opinion poll has found sharply higher overseas approval ratings for US President Barack Obama than Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
An average of 50% favoured Mr Obama, with 9% for Mr Romney, in the survey of 21,797 people in 21 countries.
Here are the charts:
Now let's be honest -- this doesn't matter all that much from a foreign policy perspective. Obama scored similar numbers in 2008, and yet the signal lesson of his first year in office is that a president's personal popularity can't be leveraged into tangible concessions at the global stage.
Instead, all I see when I read these numbers are the negative taglines that could be played:
"Can we really trust a president who is super-popular in France? Of course not -- vote for Romney."
The country of Pakistan is a breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the United States -- and Pakistanis want Mitt Romney to be president. The choice is clear: vote for Barack Obama."
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own ways to twist this data into a negative ad.
Your humble blogger is not naive in the ways of punditry. He is keenly aware that the only way to move up the punditry food chain is to bemoan the crumbling state of America's infrastructure while pining for better high-speed rail, better schools, and ORDER, dammit!!
In the interest of serving the greater good, your humble blogger has decided to do the crucial pundit fieldwork necessary to adopt this position. I am therefore taking the Acela "hi speed" train from Washington, DC, to New York City, and shall chronicle every moment of import along the way in this blog post. So buckle your seat bekts -- it's going to be a bumpy ride:
8:10 AM: Part of the pundit code is getting into a local taxi and getting colorful quotes from them. Alas, my cabbie was not the chatty type. Also, despire the morning rush-hour time, there wasn't a lot of sitting around time. Oh, and his cab was clean too. Clearly, Washington DC is receiving favored treatment in its infrastructure.
8:35 AM: I get to Union Station to find much of it being renovated. There are cranes and construction equipment everywhere! What is his, Shanghai?! Of course, in the Far East, they're just building new things, whereas here in the decaying United States, we're trying to preserve our crumbling monuments to modernity [Oh, that is Pulitzer GOLD, baby!!--ed.]
8:40 AM: I want to get coffee from Starbucks, but the Acela line has already started forming. I bypass the coffee to make sure I get a good seat. Anger at stupid American regulations... rising!!
9:00 AM: On the train, I hold my breath as I try to access Acela's wifi. Many an expeletive has been tweeted in anger at this unreliable system. In my case, however, it opens with no difficulty. There is a warning page informing me that, for myriad reasons, the wifi might cut in and out and it can't access certain pages. Still, Amtrak's web service has jumped up a notch since the last time I took the Acela... or, again, the NYC-DC corridor gets preferential treatment compared with the Boston trains. Note to self: hire eager-beaver grad student to unearth Amtrak perfidy.
9:10 AM: I can't access YouTube. That's it, this is the worst f***ing WiFi service I've ever encountered. There's no WAY this would happen in China!!!
9:20 AM: Well, the Acela reveals itself to be erratic, as it starts to slow down from its pathetically low "hi speed" -- oh, it's stopoing st the BWI station. Never mind.
9:33 AM: Sure, I could have opted for the quiet car, but I wanted to mix with "the people," get a sense of what they're talking about amongst themselves. So far, they're talking about... PowerPoint presentations. There's a column in here somewhere...
10:00 AM: So far, the train has been on time, the WiFi has worked, and even the non-quiet car has been pretty sedate. Friedman's Rage is not building. [Bye-bye Pulitzer!!--ed.] No, wait, the train ride is kinda bumpy. Very bumpy at times. Kind of like... like... the American body politic!! [Atta boy! You're back in the game!--ed.]
10:20 AM: The WiFi cut out for, like 10 minutes south of Wilmington. How sad and pathetic for America. Why, if this had happened in, say, Chongqing, at least one train bureaucrat would have been executed and one British hedge-fund manager would have been poisoned to set an example for other trains.
10:39 AM: The WiFi is becoming erratic again, causing additional mutterings from other passengers in my car. One of them says "This would never happen in Michael Bloomberg's America!!" #notreally.
11:35 AM: The train has arrived in Newark. I look around. God, I miss China.
11:45 AM: Your pundit's long morning nightmare has come to an end on a gorgeous day in Manhattan. I learned a lot about America on this trip, but even more importantly... I learned a lot about myself. [Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Aaron Sorkin!!--ed.]
There are a lot of concerns rumbling around the wonkosphere that the United States is headed for a "fiscal cliff" at the end of this year. Unless Congress acts, all $300 billion of the Bush tax cuts will expire, the $200 billion Obama payroll tax cut will expire, and $100 billion in spending will be automatically cut as per the debt deal from the summer of 2010. Now, unless you reject Macroeconomics 101, you know that $600 billion in fiscal retrenchment in this economy practically guarantees a double-dip recession.
Of course, Congress could change this if it acted in bipartisan fashion. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! I kid, of course. Except I don't -- any politial action to avert the fiscal cliff really would require some kind of bipartisan compromise.
Earlier this week Josh Marshall posted an intriguing hypothesis about how the Democrats are thinking about this situation:
For years and years now, the Democrats have been a much more fiscally responsible party than the Republicans. (Here, fiscally responsible means that they try to pay for the federal programs they support, not fiscally responsible in the way Republicans define it, where social spending programs are “fiscally irresponsible” even if they’re paid for.)
Republicans, by contrast, have intentionally drawn up big deficits with massive tax cuts, so that popular programs they don’t really like will eventually have to be cut. This is more or less the central organizing principle of the conservative movement, and the main way the conservative movement exerts control over the GOP. It’s no coincidence that when Republicans came back to power in 2011, they made deficits a huge legislative priority, and insisted on reducing them by cutting social programs alone.
The Democrats’ counter-strategy is a bit more subtle, but has essentially been to find ways to make it very uncomfortable for Republicans to maintain such a rigid anti-tax orthodoxy — to ultimately force Republicans to break their anti-tax pledges and badly splinter their party. That’s what the Buffett Rule is about; that why Dems insist they won’t dismantle the so-called “sequester” — big cuts to defense and even to Medicare — unless Republicans agree to tackle deficits in a balanced way, i.e. by supporting significant new tax revenues.
The results have been mixed. They’ve won a small number of GOP votes here and there, and vulnerable members are nowadays more likely to trash or dismiss Grover Norquist in the press than they were last year. But at a very high level within the Democratic Party, there’s a recognition that breaking the GOP on taxes is an absolutely crucial strategic imperative for defending safety net programs over the long term. Getting the revenue in a passive way is a second best option.
Now, if Marshall is correct, what's interesting is that the Democrats have a powerful ally in this push to get the GOP to shift away from their anti-tax orthodoxy -- Wall Street:
Now that the US is facing the possibility of another budgetary showdown with potentially even higher stakes – the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year – Wall Street lobbyists are preparing an aggressive campaign to stop the political brinksmanship.
"The experience of last year taught everybody to be ... focused on it earlier and not assume that this is business as usual,” said one bank lobbyist based in Washington. “People who had relied on government to respond eventually were surprised when it didn’t.”...
Different business sectors are preparing for the looming fiscal cliff with varying degrees of urgency. Among the most aggressive in pushing for a deal are defence contractors who would bear the brunt of the planned cuts to the Pentagon budget. Medical providers would also be hit hard by the automatic cuts. Companies that pay large dividends – such as utilities – would be slammed if the tax rate on dividends rise as scheduled from 15 per cent to more than 40 per cent.
But financial services companies also have a huge amount at stake. The question is how to influence the political process that remains gridlocked ahead of the November election....
Then there are tactical considerations. Though one bank lobbyist partly blamed a faction of congressional Republicans for last August’s debt ceiling showdown, saying they were “willing to go off the cliff with all flags flying”, it is unclear whether it is in Wall Street’s interest to take on some of their traditional allies on Capitol Hill by pushing them to accept higher revenues or tax increases in any deficit reduction deal, as Democrats are demanding.
The fiscal cliff is still a long way off in political time, but is the strategy having any effect? Sort of. We're starting to see gravitas Republicans -- real ones, too, not just MSNBC media darlings -- calling for compromise. Calls that are annoying Grover Norquist.
And look -- here's a real live GOP Senator speaking tax heresy!
[Senator Lindsay] Graham says the debt crisis is so severe that the tax pledge — which says no tax loopholes can be eliminated unless every dollar raised by closing loopholes goes to tax cuts -- has got to go
"When you eliminate a deduction, it's okay with me to use some of that money to get us out of debt. That's where I disagree with the pledge," said Graham....
Graham said eliminating some deductions should free up money to lower tax rates — but also to pay down U.S. debt.
"I just think that makes a lot of sense. And if I'm willing to do that as a Republican, I've crossed a rubicon," said Graham.
This puts Graham at odds with his party's leadership.
And look! Real, actual negotiations in the Senate are taking place! So, does this mean the Democrat/Wall Street strategy is paying dividends? Will Tom Friedman and David Brooks soon be able to wax poetic about "statesmanlike" politicians cutting a Grand Bargain?
No, not really.
Jeb Bush is not an elected official any more. Lindsey Graham is, but he likes to talk iconoclasm every once in a while, so I'm not sure how much weight it carries (if it was Jim DeMint uttering these words, I'd be more convinced). And let's look a little closer at the New York Times story on the Senate negotiations, shall we?
Republican leaders remain largely on the sideline. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican, applauded what he called “grass roots” negotiations, but conceded that neither he nor other party leaders had been directly involved, aside from efforts to stave off automatic defense cuts. Still, even he is making conciliatory comments on raising taxes, the issue that has kept Republican leaders from the table.
And this is on the Senate side -- what really matters is whether the House GOP caucus will agree to any of this.
In some ways, the next six months will be an excellent test of the roles that money and ideology play in current American party politics. If money is the honey, then a deal will be cut, and well before December. As the myriad articles suggest, what freaked out business wasn't just the rank partisanship during the last debt deebacle, it was how close things got to a breakdown. They don't want to see that happen again.
If ideology is what counts, however, then the House GOP won't budge, if at all, until the last minute. They don't want to see taxes go up, but I'm not sure that they would be willing to make a compromise that would permanently eliminate tax deductions in order to preserve the status quo in income tax rates.
What do you think?
I think it's safe to say that your humble blogger has been mildly critical at times of the House GOP's negotiating tactics, as well as some of the foreign policy musings of House majority leader Eric Cantor. Matt Bai's forthcoming budget story, for example, places a lot of the blame on last year's debt deal fiasco on House Speaker John Boehner's inability to compromise because of the ideological rigidity of his caucus. Not surprisimngly, House Republicans can claim the lion's share of the credit for Congress' current levels of historic unpopularity.
Every once in a while, however, a story comes along in the mainstream media that provides just a smidgen of sympathy for what the House GOP is trying to accomplish. In that sense, Jonathan Weisman's New York Times story about the relationship between business supporters and House Republicans accomplishes the seeimg impossible: it paints a positive picture of Cantor and the House GOP:
Big business groups like the Chamber of Commerce spent millions of dollars in 2010 to elect Republican candidates running for the House. The return on investment has not always met expectations....
House conservatives are pressing to allow the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which has financed exports since the Depression, to run out of lending authority within weeks. The bank faces the possibility of shutting its doors completely by the end of May, when its legal authorization expires.
And a host of routine business tax breaks — from wind energy subsidies to research and development tax credits — cannot be passed because of Republican insistence that they be paid for with spending cuts.
Business groups that worked hard to install a Republican majority in the House equated Republican control with a business-friendly environment. But the majority is first and foremost a conservative political force, and on key issues, its ideology is not always aligned with commercial interests that helped finance election victories.
“Free market is not always the same as pro-business,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the conservative political action committee Club for Growth....
To conservative groups, fresh eyes on issues have produced fresh, small-government thinking. The Export-Import Bank, for instance, wanted a new, long-term authorization with an expanded loan limit and broader authority. Instead, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia is drafting a 13-month reauthorization that would demand the Obama administration begin international talks to phase out export-lending subsidies globally, force the bank to be more transparent in its lending practices and rein in its loan portfolio. (emphasis added)
Props to Cantor: his policy rider makes some sense. National export credit agencies are throwing around hundreds of billions of dollars to facilitate trade. At least one World Bank study suggests that export-lending subsidies misallocate credit -- they tend to provide financing for firms that would have exported anyway. There are instances when such subsidies might be useful, and, it should be oted, the OECD does some of the things that Cantor wants to see at the global level. That said, Cantor's suggestion for broader international collaboration and transparency make sense. Indeed, Cantor now has common cause with some unlikely NGO allies.
In all seriousness, if the House GOP could communicate that bolded message better to the American people, it might have a better approval rating. Of course, there is nothing in that message that is inconsistent with the House doing its job on matters like passing budgets and so forth. So I expect we'll have to wait until 2013 before another positive mention of Cantor appears in the paper of record.
Earlier this week moderate Henrique Capriles Radonski won a primary election to challenge Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez for the presidency in October. The New York Times notes that Capriles is the most popular opposition candidate in quite some time.
This popularity seems to have caused both Chávez and the Venezuelan state media to turn things up a notch. The Guardian's Rory Carroll explains:
President Hugo Chávez on Thursday called the opposition's presidential candidate a "low-life pig", signalling a caustic start to Venezuela's election campaign.
The socialist leader vowed to crush Henrique Capriles in October's vote, branding him an agent of imperialism and oligarchy hiding behind a mask of moderation.
"Now we have the loser, welcome! We're going to pulverise you," he told an audience of medical students. "You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears, you snort like a pig, you're a low-life pig. You're a pig, don't try and hide it." He avoided calling Capriles by name, referring instead to "el majunche", slang for "the crappy one".
The speech, which all radio and television stations were obliged to broadcast live, followed Capriles's victory last Sunday in opposition primaries. The state governor won almost two-thirds of 3m votes cast, a higher than expected turnout which jolted the government.
Since then state media have launched multiple accusations at the wealthy 39-year-old challenger, calling him, among other things, a mendacious gay Nazi Zionist (emphasis added).
Your humble blogger cannot confirm that last claim -- it's possible that the Guardian just mashed together a long litany of insults against Chávez. Still the hard-working staff here at FP needs to pause for a moment and gasp in awe at the bolded insult above. I mean, compared to "mendacious gay Nazi Zionist," calling Captiles a pig seems pretty tame. That combination of adjectives is just so... so... contradictory that, on some da-da level of absurdism, one has to admire it. The next thing you know, Chávez and his media cronies will accuse Capriles of being a "warthog-faced buffoon" or a "scumbag f***face d**khead" or having a father who smelled of elderberries or one of a hundred other insults.
One would hope that Capriles and the opposition would match Chávez's level of insults, but, alas, it appears that he is taking the "high road" and decided to talk about "issues" and stuff. So, for quality invective like this, we're going to have watch the Venezuelan state media more closely.
I'm worried, however, that the Chávezistas might have peaked too soon with "mendacious gay Nazi Zionist." In the interest of adding yet more priceless insults to the toolkit of over-the-top political rherotic, I therefore call upon all of my readers to help out the Venezuelan leader. In the comments, try to suggest insults that, somehow, can top what Chávez and his allies have delivered to date.
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
In general, I like the bulk of Politico's coverage of campaigns -- as someone who's not a DC insider, I learn a fair amount from their coverage. Every once in a while, however, Politico betrays a worldview that political process is always more important than substance. As someone who appreciates process, there are still limits on this formulation.
Exhibit A for this is today's Jonathan Martin story on What Went Wrong with the Herman Cain Train. This part stood out:
It was in Milwaukee, of course, where Cain struggled to recall his talking point on Libya and served up what’s bound to be one of the campaign’s enduring YouTube moments.
Cain’s unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn’t figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block (emphasis added).
I'd go off on a rant right here, but Jonathan Bernstein has done it for me:
Um, no: the underlying problem is that a candidate for President of the United States doesn't appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn't embarrass a strong high school student. That isn't Mark Block's fault.
As I noted before, both Rick Perry and Herman Cain were done in by their own incompetencies -- not their staffs. For Politico not to get that is disturbing.
Tonight's CBS/National Journal debate was the first to be on broadcast television, and was devoted to national security and foreign policy. Out of a sense of duty to you, dear readers, your humble blogger
downed a lot of vodka watched the whole thing, and is ready to offer my grades.
Before talking about the individual candidates, I'll say this -- I've been rather harsh on the GOP 2012 field, and, to be honest, most of them did better than I expected in this debate. I didn't expect much, but still: kudos to the campaign staffers, because everyone seemed better briefed on foreign policy than in past debates (On the other hand, I note that none of the candidates said a single good thing about Barack Obama's foreign policy. I wasn't expecting hosannahs or anything, but the man is polling at 60% approval on this front).
A big fail to CBS and National Journal for having a 90-minute debate that was only aired for 60 minutes on television. The webcasts were bad, with lots of glitches on both sites. As for Major Garrett and Scott Pelley, they did OK, but John Harwood and Maria Bartiromo outclassed them this week.
In alphabetical order:
Michelle Bachmann: She kept her crazy pretty contained for much of the night, but it escaped for two big whoppers. The first was when she said, "The table is being set for a worldwide nuclear war with Israel." The second was when she expressed a desire for the United States to adopt China's welfare system (or lack thereof). Grade: D.
Herman Cain: The worst debate performance of the night. Slow, rambling, evasive, and contradictory. His answer on torture contradicted itself inside of 30 seconds; his Pakistan response was a total dodge. His solution on Iran -- energy independence! -- would be like suggesting that the appropriate response to a rising China would be to move all Americans to Mars. Both activities will take the same length of time. Grade: F.
Newt Gingrich: He had a pretty good answer on Pakistan, and was consistent -- albeit disturbing -- on the assassination of Americans working for Al Qaeda. That said, Gingrich's "I'm smarter than everyone else" schtick wears thin fast. I say this as someone who encounters academics on a daily basis. Gingrich gives off the same insufferable mien of academics who think they're much smarter and more knowledgable than they actually are. Grade: B.
Jon Hunstman: Not surprisingly, the former ambassador gave the clearest and most coherent answers of the evening. He pushed back the others on staying in Afghanistan, and correctly pushed back Romney on taking China to the WTO. If foreign policy was really important to the GOP, he'd be the frontrunner, and it wouldn't be close. Grade: A.
Ron Paul: The contrast between Paul and the rest of the field was magnified during this debate. As someone who thinks that Paul is too dovish at times, I thought he did a very good job, and got quite passionate on questions of torture. Also -- and I think this is a first -- he got through the entire debate without mentioning the Federal Reserve. Grade: A-.
Rick Perry: Compared to his other debate performances, it was OK. Compared to what I'm expecting a commander-in-chief to demonstrate, it was again way below the bar. Perry proposed zero-based budgeting for foreign aid and a lot of other areas of the government; I wonder if he knows that the first president to embrace that idea was Jimmy Carter. Then there were odd word choices. China has to "change their virtues"? He invented the word "forewithal." And he was lucky that the end of the telecast cut off his attempt at an answerr on the euro, because it was not going to go well. Grade: C.
Mitt Romney: Romney has perfected the art of sounding firm and resolute in his first sentence of any response on foreign policy, and then, with the next sentence, inserting enough hedges and qualifications to give himself tremendous wiggle room. He demonstrated decent knowledge for the most part, and had another strong debate. Grade: B+.
Rick Santorum: I can recall quite clearly that Santorum have a decent answer on Pakistan at some point. Beyond that, all I can remember was his whinging about not getting asked enough questions. Grade: C+
Offer your own grades/assessments in the comments.
Nicholas Kulish has a New York Times front-pager on the rise of networked protest movements in consolidated democracies like India, Israel, and Greece. I hereby officially accuse Anne-Marie Slaughter of hacking into the NYT website and writing these paragraphs:
Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.
In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.
The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.
“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”
Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.
As a social scientist, I must acknowledge that this is a powerful prima facie data point in favor of Slaughter.
And yet, it's worth pushing the NYT thesis a bit. What happens when the coalition of like-minded individuals stop being of like mind? These sorts of protests can be very powerful on single-issue questions where a single policy change is desired. Maintaining this level of activism to affect the ongoing quotidian grubbiness of politics, however, is a far more difficult undertaking. Even if people can be mobilized behind the concept of "Policy X is Stupid!" getting the same consensus on "Policy Y is the Answer!" is harder. Over time, these kind of mass movements have an excellent chance of withering away or fracturing from within. See, for example, the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt.
Another thing, and this is important: unless the people in these movements actually vote in elections, then their agenda will be thwarted in the long run. Even if these kinds of networked movements are new, the political imperative to get elected and re-elected is not. If they don't vote, then officials have a pretty powerful incentive to curry favor with the people who do vote, don't take to the streets and
don't like these young whippersnappers with their interwebs have different policy preferences.
This gets to a point that I have been
fumbling trying to make in the Great and All Powerful Slaughter-Drezner Debate: that at times we might be debating past each other because we have different time horizons. Anne-Marie can point to networked social movements that have an immediate impact on conventional politics. For foreign policymakers, the here and now is what matters. What I want to see is whether these movements can sustain themselves over time. For international relations theorists, the persistence of trends matters too.
Over at CFR, James Lindsay pushes back on my previous GOP debate post on the general worlthlessness of foreign policy campaign promises:
Dan’s argument would be more persuasive if his example [of Bush not honoring his campaign promise of a humble foreign policy] proved his point. It doesn’t. Candidate Bush said he didn’t like nation building, and President Bush tried to avoid doing it in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s one of the reasons both occupations went badly. Beyond that, Bush carried through on much of what he said during the 2000 campaign. He didn’t like the ABM treaty, so he withdrew the United States from it. He thought that the Clinton missile defense program was inadequate, so he ordered the construction of a more robust one. He expressed skepticism of treaties and international insititutions, said he intended to provide firm American leadership, and vowed that the U.S. military’s true mission was “to fight and win war.” Sound familiar? September 11 changed Bush’s foreign policy agenda, but it didn’t change the core of his worldview.
None of this is to say that campaign speeches and debates tell you everything you might like to know about a candidate’s foreign policy views. No debate question or stump speech can ever anticipate all the situations a president will face. Dan is certainly right that presidential candidates sometimes say things about foreign policy that they have no intention of doing, as looks to have been the case with Obama’s 2008 pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. And Dan is equally right that presidents sometimes repudiate the foreign policy promises they make on the campaign trail, as Bill Clinton famously did with his opposition to favored-nation-trading status for China and Barack Obama did on Guantánamo Bay. (Though both presidents reversed themselves only after they tried and failed to implement their campaign pledges.)
But campaign speeches and debates do provide insight into how candidates think about issues.
Lindsay's point is well taken: candidates do say things that they wind up doing as president. My original point was intended to be narrower than that -- presidents do not get politically damaged by reneging on foreign policy campaign promises the same way they do if they renege on domestic policy promises. But as a rough guideline to a candidates' assumptions and style of foreign policy thinking, campaign speeches, essays, and yes, even debate responses can be useful.
Which is why, if I could ask one question at tonight's debate, I'd like to ask each of the candidates exactly how their religious devotion guides their foreign policy thinking. Oh, hell, let's be more specific -- I'd like to ask Rick Perry exactly how, as president, his statement that, "as a Christian [I] have a clear directive to support Israel" will affect his direction of the nondenominational blood and treasure of the U.S. government in the Middle East.
This is important. Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that "the Christianists haven't got a prayer" in reasserting their former prominence in American society, and he's by and large he's correct in that assumption. In terms of foreign policy, however, Perry's language was something new in the post-9/11 world. Slate's William Saletan explains why:
Whoa. That's something George W. Bush never did. Bush never said he had a Christian duty to stand with Israel, because to say such a thing would have been stupid and dangerous. By framing U.S. foreign policy in terms of a religious alliance between Christians and Jews, Perry is validating the propaganda of Islamic extremists. He's jeopardizing peace, Israel, and the United States.
Bush understood that the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 wanted a religious war. The key to defeating them wasn't to wage that war, but to refuse it. That's why Bush constantly praised Islam, emphasized American freedom of religion, and dismissed Osama Bin Laden as a renegade killer of Muslims....
Go back and look at Bush's comments about Israel. In eight years, he never mentioned his Christianity as a basis for his policies there. He defended Israel as a democracy and an ally. When he mentioned Judaism and Christianity in this context, he always included Islam. "The Middle East is the birthplace of three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Bush said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee a few months before 9/11. "Lasting peace in the region must respect the rights of believers in all these faiths." In 2007, Bush told Al Arabiya: "I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. … I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace." Again and again, Bush affirmed: "If you're a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you're equally American."
Perry has trashed this legacy. By declaring that "as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel," he has vindicated Bin Laden's narrative.
If the next president's religious vision is going to be his primary source of guidance for conducting foreign policy in the Middle East, yeah, that's something I'd like to know sooner rather than later.
American politicians are super-mad at Standard & Poor's for downgrading U.S. debt even after the debtopocalypse was averted earlier this week. These same politicians seem torn between pointing out that S&P sucks at math and blaming the other political party for the S&P screw-up.
I really don't care about that as much as the debate over whether S&P got its political analysis right. Here's the key paragraphs of the actual Standard & Poor statement:
[T]he downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011....
Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.
Felix Salmon, thinks that this analysis is spot on:
[T]he US does not deserve a triple-A rating, and the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with its debt ratios. America’s ability to pay is neither here nor there: the problem is its willingness to pay. And there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it’s just itching to pull the trigger. There’s no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point.
David Weigel concludes that the S&P political analysis is fair:
This is not crazy.This what Republicans imply about the supercommittee -- they will not accept plans that increase taxes, and despite the fact that they've agreed to let the Bush tax cuts lapse on January 1, 2013, they are making noises about not accepting a return of the rates. The best possible scenario, if we assume that stance, is what I wrote about today -- tax reform plans that start in the supercommittee and win over a committed Congress.
Kevin Drum, however, thinks that S&P's political analysis is way off:
S&P shouldn't be in the business of commenting on a country's political spats unless they've been going on so long that they're likely to have a real, concrete impact on the safety of a country's bonds. And that hasn't happened yet. There's no serious macroeconomic reason to think Americacan't service its debt and there's no serious political reason to think the Tea Party has anything close to the power to provoke a political meltdown in which wewon'tpay our debt....
[S&P]should care only about the safety of U.S. bonds, and for the moment anyway, there's no legitimate reason to think either that we can't pay or that we won't pay. The bond market, which has all the same information as S&P, continues to believe that U.S. debt is the safest in the world, and in this case the market is right. S&P should stop playing dumb political games and stick to its core business.
I side, mostly, with Drum. It's totally fair for S&P to factor politics into their assessment of sovereign debt. Indeed, a key trend in sovereign debt analysis over the past five years has been the recognition that political fundamentals can matter as much as economics. That said, if ratings agencies are going to do this, then their political expectations can't just be retrospective -- they need to do some actual forecasting. Instead, they looked at recent weeks and extrapolated into the future.
There are three factors that should give S&P pause before assuming that political dysfunction could lead to no increae in tax revenue. First, as Drum points out, despite all the displays of ideological inflexibility, in the end the debt ceiling vote secured a strong majority of the GOP House caucus. Some Tea Party members were willing to risk a crisis, but not actually go and perpetuate one. It was not a Great Moment in Democracy, but in the end a deal was done. You can't dock for intransigence without noting the outcome.
Second, unlike the debt ceiling, deadlock in late 2012 means that the Bush tax cuts expire. Either a lame-duck Obama or a newly-re-elected Obama will be able to make that fiscal decision (no way any faction in Congress musters the 2/3 vote necessary to override). As Jonathan Chait has repeatedly observed, that dynamic is the opposite of the debt ceiling episode, in which case paralysis led to bad fiscal outcomes. If S&P thinks partisan gridlock will persist on Capitol Hill, then the conclusion to draw is that taxes will go up.
Third -- and this is pretty important -- S&P has failed to observe the political aftereffects of the debt deal. As I argued previously:
[T]he thing about democracy is that it has multiple ways to constrain political stupidity and ideological overreach. The first line of defense is that politicians will have an electoral incentive to act in non-crazy ways in order to get re-elected. The second line of defense is that politicians or parties who violate the non-crazy rule fail to get re-elected. So, in some ways, the true test of the American system's ability to stave off failure will be the 2012 election.
The first line line of defense has been breached, but the second line of defense looks increasingly robust. Public opinion poll after public opinion poll in the wake of the debt deal show the same thing -- everyone in Washington is unpopular, but Congress is really unpopular and GOP members of Congress are ridiculously unpopular. At a minimum, S&P needs to calculate how the current members of Congress will react to rising anti-incumbent sentiment. If they did that analysis and concluded that nothing would be done, I'd understand their thinking more. I didn't see anything like that kind of political analysis in their statement, however.
In the end, I suspect Moody's and Fitch won't follow S&P's move, so this could be a giant nothingburger. Still, if these guys are going to be doing political risk analysis, it might help to actually have some political scientists on the payroll. Based on their statement, S&P is simply extrapolating from the op-ed page, and that's a lousy way to make a political forecast.
Am I missing anything?
My favorite campaign novel remains
Anonymous' Joe Klein's Primary Colors, and one of my favorite exchanges in that book takes place in the early part, when a campaign flack is trying to get a New York Times political reporter to cover a policy speech that would ostensibly contain a shot at a rival candidate:
[The reporter says,] "Do you think this election is going to be about welfare reform?"
"Well, that's part of it," I said. "The folks seem interested. What do you think it's going to be about?"
"What it's always about," he said. "Sex and violence."
And he was right: this was about violence.
I bring this up because Jonathan Martin's story about Jon Huntsman's dysfunctional presidential campaign in Politico is all about the violence -- in this case, the internecine warfare between Huntsman's longtime friends and his campaign manager John Weaver.
Now, Huntsman's chances of winning the nomination were pretty slim to begin with, so you might be wondering why your humble blogger is writing about this particular story [STOP PRE-EMPTING ME!!!!--ed.] I think there are three reasons.
First, I'd expect decent odds that Huntsman would be the secretary of state in any incoming GOP administration (quick, name me an alternate candidate with sufficient gravitas). Even if he's a sideshow to the current GOP nomination, he wouldn't be if a Republican won in 2012. A story like this, on the other hand, might not help his chances to land a cabinet post.
This leads to the second interesting question, however, which is whether we can jettison the implicit correlation between assembling a well-run campaign and a well-run government. By all accounts, Hillary Clinton's campaign was even more dysfunctional in 2008, and at least one veteran of that campaign admitted to flashbacks after reading Martin's story. That said, there hasn't been that much criticism of Clinton's management of the foreign-policy machine. Maybe managing a campaign is just a wee bit different from managing a political bureaucracy, or negotiating with other actors in world politics.
The final note is, oddly, reassuring. From Martin's story:
Huntsman’s early staffing was so bare-bones that the campaign didn’t even have a policy director, or standard white papers. It left Huntsman himself relying on papers prepared by the American Enterprise Institute to bone up on the issues....
[T]he campaign has suffered early organizational challenges -- and not just with departing personnel.
With no policy director initially, Huntsman was relying on position papers from the American Enterprise Institute to serve as his briefings.
On June 25, four days after the former governor’s announcement, but well after he had put together his basic campaign infrastructure, [disgruntled former campaign aide David] Fischer sent the candidate a blunt note.
“I am concerned about the slow pace of assembling your policy team,” Fischer wrote. [Finance consultant] Jim McCray called me today and he mentioned that donors often ask for a specific policy white paper. We don’t have them.”
Huntsman has since added a policy director to the campaign. (emphasis added)
It's very easy to become cynical about presidential campaigns and conclude that it's all about the
dirty tactics opposition research. Discovering that early backers and donors actually care about, you know, policy substance, is kind of encouraging.
Unfortunately, Martin's story itself will likely make it that much harder for Huntsman to assemble a decent policy shop. Policy advisors want to glom onto campaigns that are ideologically palatable but also have a decent chance of winning. Any undecided policy wonks who were Huntsman-curious will read this story and run to Mitt Romney's campaign.
For those readers not keeping close tabs on the debt ceiling negotiations currently under way in Washington, here's how each participant views them:
There's been a lot of online debate about this question. Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal thinks this is just a matter of re-election motives, but I don't think it's that simple. As Nate Silver points out, "there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones." Furthermore, many of the House GOP freshmen were elected in swing districts, so it's not as if they're representing only ultraconservative portions of the country.
I'd attribute the strategy of the House GOP caucus to two factors. The first is rhetorical blowback. It's simply impossible for elected representatives to say "we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling..." and then actually raise the debt ceiling. And they really can't agree to the Mitch McConnell plan of "raise the debt ceiling with no concessions and then blame Obama." They can't agree to any "grand bargain" on austerity because any such bargain would have to include tax increases and there's that darn pledge not to. Politicians do occasionally go back on flat-out pledges not to do something. The example of George H. W. Bush to current GOP House members is not a good one, however. With blowback, it doesn't matter whether a member of Congress really and truly believes what they're saying or whether they can't reverse course without exposing their political backside. They're just as screwed.
The second factor is even simpler: to date the current Tea Party strategy of "no retreat, no surrender" has worked like political gangbusters. Recall that the conventional wisdom in Washington in early 2009 was that the GOP was going to have to be in the wilderness for a couple of election cycles before moderating their positions and winning at the polls again. The exact opposite of that scenario has occurred (see Erick Erickson on precisely this point). The Tea Party movement has been built on uncompromising hardline positions, and has led to significant electoral and political victories. As Joshua Green explains, even the exception proves this rule for Tea Partiers:
Unless and until the Tea Party wing of the GOP pays a political price for its positions, they have zero incentive to change their strategy.
Am I missing anything?
As FP's indefatigable Josh Rogin reported yesterday, GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty will " deliver a major address on foreign policy on Tuesday in what his top aides are billing as a rebuttal to what they see as President Barack Obama's flawed May 19 speech.
Your humble blogger will be listening in -- live!!-- and will provide real-time updates on the blog and on Twitter.
I'll be looking for two things from this speech. First, how does Pawlenty straddle between his more neocon-friendly foreign policy approach with the stronger streak of retrenchment rhetoric that permeates the current GOP primary voter? Will he at least sound isolationism-curious, or will he conclude that the Tea Party's influence is waning? As I said before, my money is that he'll cozy up to this wing by sounding protectionist trade themes. The foreign policy pickings of Pawlenty's website are pretty slim.
Second, will Pawlenty score any Trumpie nominations? He came veeeeery close during the New Hampshire debate with his casual assertion that the United States could grow at 5% a year for a decade because China and Brazil had done it -- ignoring the vast differences in economic development between the United States and those two BRIC economies.
The speech will begin at 9:30 AM, so tune in
so my life has meaning so you can learn what a GOP candidate thinks about the world!
[UPDATE] Live-tweets below, summary analysis at the bottom:
9:33 AM: Pawlenty starts by praising CFR #itsbeensoooooolongsinceIheardarepublicandothat
9:34 AM: T-Paw on U.S. in Middle East: "now is not the time to retreat from freedom's rise."
9:36 AM: T-Paw ain't coddling Tea Partiers -- bashes members of GOP for "out-isolating" Democrats.
9:37 AM: T-Paw: "History teaches us there is no such thing as stable oppression."#haveyouheardofthedarkages
9:38 AM: T-Paw blasts Obama for being silent during Iran's 2009 Green Movement, cutting democracy aid to Egypt during same year.
9:42 AM: T-Paw has four categories of ME countries. Category 1: emerging democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq. US must support democracy.
9:43 AM: T-Paw makes shrewd point that revolution in Egypt has caused a populist rejection of economic reforms that Mubarak instituted in past decade
9:44 AM: On Libya, T-Paw rejects "leading from behind" (GASP!!) recognizing TNC, and using full weight of U.S. force to ensure regime change.
9:45 AM: T-Paw's second category -- the monarchies. Claims Jordan, Morocco are engaging in "real reforms" Paging @blakehounshell
9:46 AM: T-Paw observes that U.S.-Saudi relaions are a a new low, but NOT because of Arab Spring. Apparently due to Obama cozying up to Iran. Hmm...
9:48 AM: T-Paw's Category 3: anti-US states of Iran, Syria. Blasts Obama for staying too close to Bashir Assad for too long. #fairpoint
9:49 AM: T-Paw's Category 3: anti-US states of Iran, Syria. Blasts Obama for staying too close to Bashir Assad for too long. #fairpoint
9:50 AM: T-Paw argues for "more forceful sanctions" to push business elites in Syria away from Assad regime #yeahthatwilldoit
9:52 AM: On Iran, T-Paw also calls for new, tougher sanctions as a policy solution. #sanctionsarenomagicbullet
9:52 AM: T-Paw's Category 4 is.... Israel!!! "Nowhere is Obama's lack of judgment clearer"
9:53 AM: T-Paw: Obama's Israel-Palestinan obsession is absurd - Arab Spring shows that conflict is NOT at the heart of the Middle East
9:54 AM: T-Paw: Peace will only come to Israel/Palestine when everyone in the region recognizes the US totally has Israel's back
9:57 AM: T-Paw: "America is exceptional, and we have the moral clarity to lead the world."
9:58 AM: T-Paw says that everyone should listen to David Petraeus the most on Afghanistan
9:59 AM: T-Paw goes off on Republican isolationists, arguing that one party focusing on decline & retrenchment is enough.
10:00 AM: Jon Meacham is moderating the Q&A. His first response to T-Paw: "Withdrawal? Decline? Retrenchment? Really?"
10:05 AM: Pawlenty acknowledges that autocracies can't be converted into democracies overnight, "takes generations."
10:08 AM: T-Paw: War on Terror will require a long, "episodic" commitment
10:10 AM: Asked about worse possibilities after Assad, T-Paw responds, "No one ever asked who would follow Hitler."
10:11 AM: BREAKING: Pawlenty pledges US will not invade every Middle Eastern country. #phew
10:15 AM: BREAKING: Pawlenty really does not like "cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all" foreign policy strategies #anticookieist
10:19 AM: Pawlenty: U.S. should "not necessarily" use military force in Syria.
10:21 AM: Pawlenty thinks Obama "dithered for a month" at the moment when U.S. force could have pushed Khaddafy out.
10:27 AM: James Traub from @FP_Magazine asks what to do about elections leading to anti-Israeli leaders in ME. T-Paw: start early, think long-term
My final assessment: Pawlenty successfully skirted a Trumpie nomination -- he exaggerated Obama's cozying up to Iran, but that's pretty much GOP boilerplate at this point. Pawlenty was also quite outspoken in attacking "isolationists' within the GOP as well.
The occasionally overheated piece of rhetoric aside, this was a reasonably coherent speech that placed way too much faith in the ability of more sanctions to force out regimes in Iran and Syria.
What do you think?
There was something about the TSA body scans/patdowns
mass elite backlash that I agreed with on the specifics but found vaguely disconcerting for some reason.
In this post, Tyler Cowen goes a long way towards explaining those reasons. His glosing paragraphs:
The funny thing is this: when Americans insist on total liberty against external molestation, it motivates both good responses and bad ones. It supports a libertarian desire for freedom against government abuse, but the same sentiments generate a lot of anti-liberal policies when it comes to immigration, foreign policy, torture, rendition, attitudes toward Muslims, executive power, and most generally treatment of "others." An insistence on zero molestation, zero risk, isn't as pro-liberty as it appears in the isolated context of pat-downs. It leads us to impose a lot of costs on others, usually without thinking much about their rights.
The issue reminds me of the taxation and spending debates; many Americans want low taxes and high government spending, forever. For airline security, at times we want to treat it as a matter of mere law enforcement, to be handled by others, and one which should not inconvenience our daily lives or infringe on our rights. At the same time, so many Americans view airline security as a vital matter of foreign policy and indeed as part of a war. We own and promote this view and yet we are outraged when asked to behave as one might be expected to in a theater of war.
The main danger to liberty here is not the TSA but rather a set of American attitudes which, at the same time, take our current "war" both far too seriously and also not nearly seriously enough.
Overall, I'd like to see less posturing in these debates and more Thucydides.
The most painful time for a book author is that interregnum between handing in the completed book manuscript, knowing that the text is locked down for good, and the book's arrival on the bookshelves. That's because stuff happens during these months that would be awesome to put into the book, but alas, it's too late.
Fortunately, there are blogs to write.
With the success of AMC's The Walking Dead (don't worry, that show got into the introduction; oh, hey, did I mention that you can now preview the introduction online? And that the endorsements are glowing?), pundits are now falling all over each other to try to use zombies as a political metaphor. Late last month, Jeremy Grantham entitled his third quarter investment letter "Night of the Living Fed," with a pretty amusing cover graphic:
Grantham's effort, however, pales besides New York Times columnist Gail Collins, however. Her op-ed today posits that the revived popularity of the zombie genre is a bad omen for politics:
Zombies are in. This cannot possibly be a good sign....
What’s the attraction of zombies? They don’t really do anything but stagger around and eat raw flesh. The plot possibilities seem limited. Zombies come. Humans shoot them. More zombies come. Humans hit them over the head with shovels. Nobody ever runs into a particularly sensitive zombie who wants to make peace with the nonflesh-devouring public. (“On behalf of the United Nations Security Council today, I would like to welcome the zombie delegation to the ... aaauuurrgghchompchompchomp.”)
Maybe that’s the whole point. Our horror movies are mirroring the world around us. The increasingly passé vampire story is about a society full of normal people threatened by a few bloodsuckers, some of whom are maybe just like you and me, except way older. It was fine for the age of Obama. But we’ve entered the era of zombie politics: a small cadre of uninfected humans have to band together and do whatever it takes to protect themselves against the irrational undead....
I have three responses to this.
First, I wish
her minions Ms. Collins had taken a deeper bite out of the zombie canon in researching her op-ed, because, as I discuss in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, there is the possibility that the undead would follow the George Romero narrative arc and learn over time. From p. 42-3 of the text:
Even in Night of the Living Dead, Romero's ghouls demonstrated the capacity for using tools. In each of his subsequent films, the undead grew more cognitively complex. The zombie characters of Bub in Day of the Dead and Big Daddy in Land of the Dead were painted with a more sympathetic brush than most of the human characters. Both Bub and Big Daddy learned how to use firearms. Bub was able to speak, perform simple tasks, and engage in impulse control-that is, to refrain from eating a human he liked. Big Daddy and his undead cohort developed a hierarchical authority structure with the ability to engage in tactical and strategic learning. In doing so they overran a well-fortified human redoubt and killed its most powerful leader. It would take only the mildest of cognitive leaps to envision a zombie-articulated defense of these actions at the United Nations (emphasis added).
If you buy the book, you'll see some sweet artwork depicting this very possibility.
Second, Collins repeats a point that others have made in the past -- that the persistence of the zonbie genre seems aesthetically puzzling because the zombies themselves are such uninteresting characters. That misses the point, however -- what makes the zombie genre interesting has less to do with the ghouls themselves than with how humans respond to them. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead are exactly the same -- it's the human responses that evoke such different responses to those films. Sure, it's quick and easy to label one's political opponents as brain-dead zombies -- what's intriguing is how one responds to that possibility.
Third, it is noteworthy that both conservatives and liberals are using the zombie metaphor to advance their aims. They both think the other side is brainless. This doesn't sound good for political discourse -- but it might just lead to a cultural consensus.
Ten days ago,The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibbard pointed out the ideological split in TV-watching. Both sides like a lot of quality TV shows, but different ones: Democrats lean towards Mad Men, 30 Rock and The Good Wife; Republicans go for Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and The Amazing Race. I'm willing to bet, however, that The Walking Dead appeals to both sides of the partisan fence, precisely because they imagine the other side as the zombies.
This leads to an interesting prediction. Politicians, pundits and professors like to use pop culture references to explain a concept to the widest possible audience. If zombie TV is one of the few remaining places where an ideologically diverse group, however, then we're going to see a lot more uses of the zombie metaphor in politics over the next few years.
I see I wasn't the only one to muse about the effect of the midterm elections on American foreign policy. See Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, James Lindsay, Daniel Larison at various other parts of the interwebs, as well as FP's own Phil Levy, Marc Lynch, Peter Feaver, and Steve Walt.
Reading all of this accumulated wisdom doesn't change my mind all that much. For example, I don't disagree that a more conservative Congress will be even more obstreperous in blocking Obama's foreign affairs appointees than it was previously. To be sure, this has a profound effect on individual lives and careers -- but it doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. The cumulative effect might be problematic, in that a more obstructionist Congress might lead to some policymakers staying in office for a longer-than-optimal period of time.
On the other hand, I find the notion that a resurgent GOP will contribute to a more adventuresome foreign policy in the Middle East to be pretty absurd. First, to repeat, the administration holds almost all of the policy levers. Sure, Congress can sanction Iran -- again -- but it's not like that's going to change anything.
In his post, Lynch implies that Congress can browbeat Obama into supporting regime change in an echo of the Iraq Liberation Act. I'd point out that it's not 1998 anymore -- Obama is unlikely to fall for the same trap that befell Clinton. Oh, and by the way, the American public is really sick of the current wars, ain't looking for a new one, and clearly wants Washington to focus on the economy and job creation. Republicans know that they didn't get elected because of their foreign policy views. If they start making noise about Iran, I'd imagine the administration lambasting them for taking their eye off the economy.
No, the more I think about it, there is one obvious effect and one longer-term effect that the midterm swing will have on American foreign policy.
The obvious effect is that gridlock will make it that much more difficult for Washington to get a grip on long-term policy problems like debt reduction and global warming. There's no way that any climate change legislation will get through, and I'm pessimistic that the deficit commission will trigger a grand bargain on getting America's financial house in order. None of this will matter much over the next two years, but it will start to matter more over the next two decades.
The more subtle, pernicious effect is that paralysis in the elected branches will lead to more populist outrage at the unelected portions of the U.S. government. Consider, for example, the Fed's decision yesterday to engage in $600 billion more of quantitative easing (translated into plain English here). In today's Washington Post op-ed explaining this action, Ben Bernanke had an interesting comment in his closing section:
The Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy's problems on its own. That will take time and the combined efforts of many parties, including the central bank, Congress, the administration, regulators and the private sector.
He's right, but think about this for a second. If Congress and the administration can't agree on anything, then the only public actors capable of taking concrete action on the economy are the central bank and the regulators. These institutions are already ridiculously unpopular. Being forced to take imperfect actions because of elected branch paralysis won't help matters (compared to fiscal and tax policies, there's only so much that quantitative easing can do to stimulate the economy). If you think hostility to elected elites is high, wait until the focus switches to unelected elites.
Note that all of this is contingent on the economy continuing to stink. Robust economic growth will ease populist anger, which will blunt some of the effects I just discussed.
So, in the short term, I still don't think U.S. foreign policy will change all that much. The long-term effects of gridlock combined with a persistently sour economy, however, could be very worrisome.
I also know that even if this turns out to be a big "wave" election, things aren't really going to change all that much on the foreign policy front. This is for the following two reasons:
1) Congress doesn't have too much sway over foreign policy. Sure, things like foreign aid and treaty ratification rely on the legislature, and the election results will affect those dimensions of foreign policy. But think back to 1994 and 2006, in which both houses of Congress turned over to the opposition party. Was there any real change in U.S. foreign and security policy? The Clinton administration was still able to send troops to Bosnia, and the Bush administration was able to launch its "surge" strategy.
Foreign economic policy might be an exception. After both of those elections, the president found it harder to get trade deals through Congress. Given that this president hasn't been all that keen about trade anyway, I don't think the midterms will matter all that much -- though the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) might finally be put to a vote with the hope of securing GOP support.
2) In a sour economy, presidents don't get much of a bump for foreign policy successes. The best foreign-policy president of the past four decades was George H.W. Bush. How many terms did he serve? [Hey, this sounds familiar! -- Ed. Click here to see why. The only things that have changed since that post simply reinforce my thesis.] See Aaron David Miller's FP essay for more on this point.
Enjoy watching the returns, poll-watchers -- I'll be going to bed early, secure in the knowledge that U.S. foreign policy will persist in its current form.
Trying to pick the most offensive campaign ad of this election season is not easy -- there's a long and distinguished list of truly offensive ads out there. However, my award for Most Offensive Ad goes to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with this attack ad on Pennsylvania Republican senatorial candidate Pat Toomey:
I'll give credit to the DSCC: Not everything in the ad is offensive, just 98 percent of it. By far, however, the worst part is the DSCC's suggestion that Pennsylvanians not vote for Toomey because he thinks that "it's great that China is modernizing and growing." Using that logic, apparently the DSCC supports doing everything to keep China backwards and impoverished. Which, if you think about it a little bit, is really disgusting.
I'd love to say that this is the only anti-globalization ad of this election cycle, but that's obviously not true. In another ad, the DSCC blasts Toomey for -- God forbid -- spending part of his career overseas. Forbes' Shikha Dalmia points out, however, that both sides have been throwing up mercantilist ads as fast as they can produce them:
Virg Bernero, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, where I live, has dubbed his opponent, Rick Snyder, Chief Executive Outsourcer (ha, ha). Mr. Snyder's crime is that he is a successful businessman who invested in a semiconductor company that once employed five -- five! -- people in Shenzen to sell its products in China. In other words, it is no longer a sin to buy from China. It is also a sin to sell to China! (Where did Bernero get his views on trade theory, anyway? The Kim Jong Il School of Autarky?)
Nor is Bernero alone in the Democratic Party: California Sen. Barbara Boxer is accusing her opponent Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, of outsourcing thousands of jobs to "Shanghai instead of San Jose"; Senate Speaker Harry Reid is calling Sharron Angle "a foreign worker’s best friend"; and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Attorney General running for Senate, who lied about serving in Vietnam, has the temerity to attack his opponent, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, for "outsourcing" American jobs because her company got toy action figures manufactured in China instead of America.
Hostility to trade is par for the course for Democrats perennially beholden to Big Labor, but what is the excuse of Republicans -- the alleged believers in free markets? In race after race, they too are hitting China to beat Democrats. In West Virginia, Spike Maynard, a Republican running for the House is airing ads against his opponent, complete with Asian music in the background, castigating him for giving stimulus money to a Texas company that happens to be buying windmills from China. Meanwhile, in Virginia Republican Robert Hurt is accusing Rep. Tom Perriell of supporting tax breaks for foreign companies "creating jobs in China."
Well, it's not that surprising to see this. Americans think about trade through a mercantilist, relative gains lens, as opposed to the radical concept that trade can generate win-win outcomes. The Obama administration has abetted this mindset with a trade policy that careens between an
idiotic exclusive focus on exports and complete radio silence. And, of course, China has been taking steps in recent months in order to perfect their role as economic bogeyman.
I'd love to say that if the Obama administration mounted a full-throated defense of trade liberalization, this mindset would go away. The thing is, I don't believe that. As the Gallup data suggests, even decent growth rates won't eliminate the zero-sum mindset that people have when it comes to free trade.
Developing… in a thoroughly depressing manner.
Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.
This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season.
[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?
The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.
The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…
No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.
It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of.
Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue.
In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate.
Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.]
If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late.
Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties.
The Troubled Assets Relief Program expired yesterday. I've blogged about how this program was both cost-effective and a pretty significant policy achievement. This appears to be the expert assessment as well. The Wall Street Journal's Deborah Solomon and Naftali Bendavid explain:
It will ultimately cost far less than the initial $700 billion price tag that stunned a nation. Major banks are profitable and can raise capital. Credit spreads -- a key measurement of risk -- are down to pre-crisis levels.
The White House now projects TARP will lose at most $50 billion, down from $105 billion projected earlier this year. Privately, Treasury Department officials say the U.S. may not lose a dime, and could ultimately make money depending on how some investments fare, in particular American International Group Inc. and General Motors Corp. In a $14 trillion economy, $50 billion is less than 1% of economic output.
"The incredible irony here is that TARP probably succeeded wildly beyond anybody's imagination," said Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economist who co-authored a paper crediting the administration's economic policies with preventing a second Great Depression. "Suppose the original TARP bill had been to spend $50 billion to avert a catastrophe. Would anyone have blinked?"
Or consider the Financial Times story by Tom Braithwaite:
[A]ll of the consequences have to be judged against late 2008 and early 2009 when fear stalked the markets and nationalisation of the biggest US banks looked a possibility.
Making a play on a famous MasterCard commercial, Mr [Lee] Sachs outlines what the country got in return for its investments in the banks. “Dividends? Five per cent. Equity warrants? Two per cent. The economy not turning into the second Great Depression? Priceless.”
Despite this fact, however, TARP is ridiculously unpopular with the American people.
Oddly enough, this might be a very good thing, for two reasons. First, the likelihood that the latest financial reform bill will prevent a future financial crisis is exactly nil. There will be moments down the road when the financial sector will come crying to Washington.
TARP's biggest problem, however, was that it badly exacerbated the moral hazard problem. If banks know that they are insured against catastrophe, this gives them an incentive to act in a more risk-loving manner to maximize profits -- thereby increasing the probability of a catastrophe. While this might be a good thing in some sectors of the economy, finance is not one of them.
TARP's political unpopularity, however, could help to eliminate the moral hazard problem. As Solomon and Bendavid observe:
Perhaps the biggest fallout from TARP is that it precludes another TARP. Should the financial sector run into trouble, the chances of another government bailout are essentially nil. For many on Capitol Hill and beyond, the end of bailouts is a good thing. But some worry TARP's legacy could be a more devastating financial crisis down the road.
"The greatest consequence of the TARP may be that the government has lost some of its ability to respond to financial crises," concluded the Congressional Oversight Panel, which oversees TARP and has been one of its biggest critics.
Now, truth be told, I'm not sure this is entirely accurate. Sure, rescue packages are unpopular now -- but let the Dow Jones Industrial Average fall 800 points and politicians might react differently. If, however, the political perception is that no more bailouts from D.C. will be forthcoming, then it might condition financial players to act in a more prudential manner.
In other words, the Tea Party activists on the right and the netroots activists on the left might be the political lobbies that do the most to preserve the integrity of the U.S. financial system.
I'll be spending the rest of the day savoring this irony. I welcome commenters trying to burst my cognitive bubble, however.
Political scientists have a ton of explanations for why good policy might be bad politics, and vice versa. There are limits to that perverse correlation, however. A common-sense narrative is that is a policy actually yields concerete and positive results, then it should be perceived in a more favorable light. I mean, that's pretty straightforward, right?
The Troubled Asset Relief Program is widely viewed as the original sin of the Obama administration -- though it was put together under President George W. Bush and succeeded far beyond expectations. It’s widely seen as the tipping point for disgust with elites and insiders of all kinds -- though it could also be seen as those insiders' finest moment, a successful attempt to at least partially fix their own mistakes....
"It's become demonized on the left and the right by screamers -- Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow -- who have no interest in the facts; they’re just interested in hyperbolizing and generating attention," lamented New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a key player in guiding the measure through the upper chamber and one of the few Republicans willing to talk about TARP in positive terms.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Gregg is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year -- or that hardly anyone from either party is joining him in praising TARP....
The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse. That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.
A study this summer by former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi was representative of that consensus. They projected that without federal action -- TARP and the stimulus -- America’s gross domestic product would have fallen more than 7 percent in 2009 and almost 4 percent in 2010, compared with the actual combined decline of about 4 percent.
"It would not be surprising if the underemployment rate approached one-fourth of the labor force," they wrote of their scenario. "With outright deflation in prices and wages in 2009-11, this dark scenario constitutes a 1930s-like depression."
Despite this policy success, public attitudes towards TARP are pretty hostile. Of course, part of that is due to some ignorance over the content of TARP itself:
Polls suggest the public has only the haziest view of what TARP was. It's often conflated -- not least by politicians who voted for it and now seek to muddy the waters -- with the stimulus, a piece of policy whose supporters and foes have fallen into a much more familiar debate about the role of government and public spending....
Even Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle at one point referred to TARP as "the stimulus." And few Americans seem to know that the banks at the center of TARP have paid the money back -- with interest.
Pollster Ann Selzer asked voters this summer, "Do you think the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, was necessary to prevent the financial industry from failing and drastically hurting the U.S. economy, or was it an unneeded bailout?"
Fifty-eight percent of Americans said TARP was unneeded. Only 28 percent called it "necessary."
Smith is correct to point out the myriad ways in which TARP has been lumped in with the other bailouts and stimulus programs that got enacted in 2008 and 2009. No doubt the mass public would not necessarily be able to pick, choose and evaluate each individual bailout/stimulus program.
Still, it's very troubling to see a manifest policy success get almost no love whatsoever from its creators. Over the long run, good policy should translate into good politics. The failure of that to occur in this case could lead to some very perverse policy outcomes after the midterms.
We've hit the eighteen-month mark of the Obama presidency, which means that articles like this one are going to start appearing with more and more frequency:
Linda Douglass slept nearly 12 hours the day after she left her job as a communications aide at the White House. And the day after that and the day after that. It took two weeks until she finally felt rested.
“I got to the point where I was almost traumatized by how hard I was working and how much stress I was feeling all the time,” Ms. Douglass recalled.
When she resigned, she said: “I felt like a real burden was lifted from my shoulders. I was really surprised how exhausted I was when I left.”
Eighteen months into President Obama’s term, some of the first-generation team that arrived with him at the White House are moving on. One by one, usually with little fanfare, they have turned in White House badges and BlackBerrys to rejoin the outside world, some eagerly seeking the exit, others unhappily shown the door.
Even in calmer times, the White House is a pressure cooker that can quickly burn out the most idealistic aides, but it may be even more so in an administration that inherited an economic collapse and two wars — and then decided to overhaul the nation’s health care system for good measure. Add to that the nonstop, partisan intensity of the e-mail-Internet-cable era, and it takes a toll.
The article focuses on White House officials in particular, but this problem extends to the cabinet departments as well. Executive branch burnout is a bipartisan phenomenon (no matter what Victor David Hanson thinks), and as the article notes, the real-time news cycle is only making things worse. This is particularly true on the foreign policy beat. Even if it's 3 AM in Washington, it's 6 PM somewhere else, and someone is doing something that will require an American response.
In my experience, most normal people can survive this kind of policy pressure cooker for 18-24 months before losing it just a little bit. From selection effects, we know that high-ranking policymakers on either side of the aisle
can process greater quantities of coffee more efficiently than the rest of us are mentally and physically prepared for longer terms of service. Still, after four years, even policy principals will find their brains going to mush (as one professor-turned-policy-principal put it to me, your stock of intellectual capital starts to erode the moment you enter public office).
On its own, this phenomenon wouldn't be that big of a deal -- indeed, some personnel churn is likely a good thing, prevents groupthink and all that. The problem is that this trend is intersecting with another one -- the increasing length of time it takes to appoint and confirm high-level personnel (and I'd just like to thank the Senate for making my point today). With greater fixed costs involved in vetting and sheparding people through the confirmation process, presidents will be exceedingly reluctant to let these people go, which means that many of them will stay on for longer than perhaps they should.
There's no magic bullet here, but it's a problem that's going to fester until some cabinet official decides that they've had enough and take the emergency exit.
UPDATE: James Joyner wonders how much of the burnout problem is self-inflicted, a West Wingization of the West Wing:
Some of this is, I think, a spillover from the “West Wing” television program. It reinforced the mindset that, if you weren’t killing yourself, you weren’t working hard enough. And it’s just nonsense.
National Security Advisor Jim Jones was getting sniped at in the press by subordinates annoyed that he clocked out at a reasonable hour most nights and had the temerity to go for a run during his lunch breaks. His retort, basically, was that anyone working 12 hour days was probably pretty inefficient.
I’m with Jones (disclosure: formerly my boss’ boss). Sure, there are legitimate crises that require burning the midnight oil. But, contrary to the mythology of Washington, every damned thing isn’t a crisis.
But, alas, we have a mutually reinforcing arms race where staffers compete with one another to see who can get in earliest and stay latest. And the culture also dictates that, if the boss is there, no one else can go home. That, even if the thing the boss is doing doesn’t require additional staff support.
The upshot of all this isn’t just burnout but bad decision-making.
Joyner might be right, but I'd point out that based on first-hand accounts of pre-West Wing West Wing staffers, this is not a new problem
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Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.