Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

The RNC, the Church of the Savvy, and Where to Make Political Donations

March 4, 2010

I’m surprised that Ben Smith’s scoop at Politico hasn’t garnered more attention. It reports on the contents of a confidential Republican National Committee fund-raising document — here is an excerpt from the piece:

The most unusual section of the presentation is a set of six slides headed “RNC Marketing 101.” The presentation divides fundraising into two traditional categories, direct marketing and major donors, and lays out the details of how to approach each group.

The small donors who are the targets of direct marketing are described under the heading “Visceral Giving.” Their motivations are listed as “fear;” “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration;” and “Reactionary.”

Major donors, by contrast, are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving.”

Their motivations include: “Peer to Peer Pressure”; “access”; and “Ego-Driven.”

The slide also allows that donors may have more honorable motives, including “Patriotic Duty.”

As I note in a reaction now posted at The Daily Beast, this is the most telling revelation about how political elites think about voters since candidate Barack Obama’s comments about rural economic losers who cling to their guns and religion. Even so, the news is so unsurprising — of course this is how the RNC operates — that writing about it violates what Jay Rosen calls the church of savvy. For example, note this comment at The Daily Beast: “None of this surprises me in the least,” Rick Goldin says. “But the press will pounce on this ‘revelation’ (as if no one knew this was the strategy all along) and wear it out for the rest of this news cycle.”

This attitude is so frustrating. Yes, the story confirms something rather obvious to many of us — that the infrastructure of our political parties are run by a bunch of deliberately deceitful cynics whose actions are motivated by wrongheaded principles at best. Allegations like these, however, require evidence, and when it is presented by reporters it shouldn’t be ignored because it is supposedly obvious. Surely there are RNC donors out there who are quite surprised by this information! That’s one problem with the church of the savvy — its implicit assumption is that news should be written for other information junkies, as opposed to an ever-changing audience that ranges from occasionally informed citizen to Marc Ambinder.

All that said, here’s the beginning of my take:

The scoop is bad news for those of us who seek an alternative to President Obama’s domestic agenda: negative campaigns yield neither policy ideas nor a mandate to implement them, even when they are successful.

But certain pages from the controversial document may prove surprisingly helpful to conservative reformers and tea partiers alike, insofar as they confirm accurate critiques of the Republican establishment in Washington DC. These excerpts show that the RNC misleads its donors, ensconces itself in the trappings of the cultural elite, and treats the conservative base with striking condescension…

The lesson for folks on the right who make political contributions: give to a particular candidate, a trustworthy advocacy organization, or a specific cause in which you believe.

And starve the RNC.

As I note later, “Political parties can be useful guides for citizens who haven’t enough time or understanding to make independent judgments about every candidate or issue. Be that as it may, political donors unable to find a worthier organization than the RNC or the DNC are better off accepting that they’re insufficiently knowledgeable to contribute anywhere without getting hoodwinked. Why willingly fund the people most adept at deliberately exploiting your ignorance?”

On American Exceptionalism and Barack Obama

February 28, 2010

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are intelligent writers whose work is normally a credit to National Review, but they’ve gone far astray in their recent essay “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity.” In arguing that President Obama “has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation,” they offer the following evidence:

Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.” (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)

In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it.

But it is misleading to offer that Obama quote as evidence that he rejects American exceptionalism when his unabridged answer is the following (emphasis added):

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

In other words, President Obama doesn’t “all but deny” that America is an exceptional nation in that question and answer session — he does just the opposite, affirming that our core values, governing framework, and democrat practices are all exceptional, so much so that we have an “extraordinary role in leading the world”! Essayists reach for the strongest examples they can find when crafting an argument. In making the argument that the current president rejects American exceptionalism, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru offer as examples a quote that contradicts their thesis, the fact that President Obama declines to defend the Bay of Pigs, a failed invasion of a foreign country that strengthened its tyrannical leader, and the assertion that “on those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wil­sonian tradition — with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design. He seeks to accelerate it.”

On this last point, President Obama’s rhetoric so frequently contradicts their characterization that it is impossible to list every example. One need only look at the speech he gave at his inauguration to see the authors’ point was disproved on Obama’s first day in office. The text includes these passages:

+ America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

+ The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

+ Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

+ In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

In other words, that single speech contains multiple invocations of the Founding fathers, their designs, and bold statements about how the Obama Administration must preside over their continuance — “so it must be.”

Moreover, ever since Barack Obama’s introduction to a national audience at the 2004 DNC, when he invoked The Declaration of Independence and E Pluribus Unum, he has very deliberately and repeatedly placed himself in the context of American history by arguing that his story is possible only in a nation with the Founding beliefs of America. Where did this idea come from that he identifies only with a post-Wilsonian tradition when he is constantly alluding to the promise of the Declaration, and how the realization of its truths transformed his personal history in the most profound way? It is utterly false, and proving as much is as easy as reading any number of his speeches.

Near the conclusion of their piece, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru write:

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

On health care I’d much prefer free market reforms of the sort discussed here. Should the misguided Democratic bill pass into law, however, I shall not mourn the loss of what I cherish about America, seeing as how what I cherish isn’t an amalgam of Medicare, impossibly complicated state regulatory frameworks, a prescription drug benefit, and tax incentives for employer provided health plans. As for the prison at Guantanamo Bay, did I miss the moment when its operation, which commenced earlier this decade, became part of our enduring national character?

All things considered, the essay in question is unpersuasive.

People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say

February 23, 2010

In a welcome return to blogging, Jay Rosen turns his attention to the recent New York Times article on the Tea Party phenomenon, lauding reporter David Barstow’s fine work, but critiquing one paragraph.

The excerpt at issue:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Here is Professor Rosen reacting to that passage:

David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story… Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable?

Professor Rosen adds:

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so — despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

On reading Professor Rosen’s post, I thought immediately about The GOP Speaks, a Web project where I asked Republican leaders at the local level to share their beliefs about current controversies. Before the replies stopped coming back (for reasons I still can’t entirely figure out), I received 27 replies to my questionnaire. In response to my second question — “What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?” — I received replies including the following:

+ “Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty.”

+ “It appears the president is preparing to become dictator.”

+ “The unbridled horse race to Fabian socialism on the one hand, and the fact that there are avowed and unapologetic Communists in the White House being paid by US Taxpayers who are advising the president on domestic policy issues.”

+ “His swift moves towards socialism. He is moving so fast that we may not be able to counter much of what he has done.”

As it happens, I disagree rather profoundly with President Obama’s approach to domestic policy, and on foreign policy I am increasingly dismayed by his assertion of extraordinary, imprudent powers like the ability to assassinate United States citizens without judicial oversight, or his administration’s contention that the federal government doesn’t need a warrant to track the movements of any American so long as it’s done via their cell phone carrier. Put another way, I myself think that on several important issues President Obama is moving us marginally closer to tyranny, as so many recent presidents have done.

Even so, I find it preposterous that anyone believes the United States is on the cusp of impending tyranny itself, or that President Obama is uniquely bad on this metric, or methodically preparing to seize dictatorial power, or that his actions as president are somehow so radical as to be irreversible. Indeed I couldn’t believe that my more animated GOP correspondents believed these things to be true either, even when they seemed to state as much. So I followed up with some of them, pressing them about what exactly they believed, and did additional reporting among other conservative citizens as well, hoping to understand the gap separating the rhetoric they use from whatever their actual beliefs turn out to be.

I found a few things of interest. Foremost is that extreme words like tyranny are almost always useless if the goal is figuring out what on earth someone actually thinks. Five people might tell you that their biggest worry about Barack Obama is his tendencies toward tyranny. Buzz words like this tend to spread. On further questioning, you’ll find one guy means he’s upset that the president might seek a tax hike, while another is literally worried that he’s building secret prisons to house American patriots. The former invocation of tyranny is by far more common, and it doesn’t strike the people who use it as imprecise because they marinate in a political culture of hyper-adversarial cable news, Barnes and Noble bestsellers with hyperbolic titles, and talk radio hosts who cast the political battles between American conservatives and liberals as an epic battle between liberty and tyranny. As the volume of political rhetoric gets turned up, folks eventually lose perspective, and having listened to their very loud stereo for hours, it doesn’t occur to them that on talking to folks outside the room they seem to be shouting. Pin these folks down on their actual beliefs, concerns or objections, however, and often as not they are basically reasonable people whose opinions are no more or less grounded in fact than anyone else.

In the comments to Professor Rosen’s post, Paul Davis writes:

I don’t need a reporter doing Barstow’s job to tell me that the views of the tea party “movement” are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn’t need to write “Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America” – what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world.

I’d go a step father: Mr. Barstow, who wrote an excellent story as is, could’ve improved upon it by telling us not just why Tea Party advocates believe we’re on the road to tyranny, but what exactly they mean when they say tyranny. In some cases, their answers will betray a factual misunderstanding of the world, at which point it’ll be appropriate to respond as Professor Rosen would like. Other times, however, they’ll explain that by impending tyranny they believe, for example, that the combination of America’s growing debt and its imploding financial sector mean that Wall Street elites and creditors in China are going to wield ever increasing control over the material well being of American citizens. In other words, fear of “impending tyranny” is sometimes going to be less easily dismissed than Professor Rosen imagines.

I do think Professor Rosen’s observations about the desire of journalists to be innocent in reporting on controversial subjects is often accurate, and that it frequently causes them to refrain from offering relevant information to readers who’d benefit from it. All I can conclude at present is that extra reporting on what exactly participants in political debates believe mitigates the problem. The higher the level of abstraction, the harder it is to judge whether something is a matter of fact, interpretation, or opinion. Would you rather disprove that Barack Obama aims to be a tyrant or that he’s coming to take your guns?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings

January 20, 2010
BOSTON - JANUARY 17:  U.S President Barack Oba...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.

I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.

Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.

On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.

I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.

Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.

When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.

So it goes.

Why I Write About Sarah Palin, and Other Critics Should Too

November 20, 2009

Damon Linker:

No one who cares about the health of American political culture can be pleased about the emptiness of the whole Palin phenomenon, let alone the prospect of such a cipher running for president. But how to respond? Most Palin critics (from the casual to the obsessive) have done what one would expect: they have hit back, pointing out her lies and deceptions, mocking her mediocrity and unsuitability for high office.

Criticism has its place, of course. And yet, on Palin I’ve come to favor a different approach—one that refuses to collude with the media-driven farce. To respond to an opponent, even harshly, even rudely, is to accord her a certain respect—to treat her as worthy of a response. But Palin is worthy of no such thing. She stands for nothing beyond her own self-promotion. She craves attention, and negative attention is a form of attention. Even ridicule can be a form of flattery. Better to bow out, to decline the provocation, since responding to her perpetuates and legitimates the illusion that she’s a serious player in our nation’s politics. I, for one, refuse to play that silly little game. And I wish more of her critics felt the same way. Instead of wasting their analytical and polemical talents on the topic, they could work to change the subject to something more substantive and deny Palin what she most greedily craves: the spotlight.

Sarah Palin exits her tour bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 18 (Bill Pugliano/Getty)

Sarah Palin exits her tour bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 18 (Bill Pugliano/Getty)

Though I find myself wanting to be persuaded by this argument — and despite wanting to read Damon Linker on 6 dozen topics before I’d even suggest that he write about Sarah Palin — I think the arguments he presents here are flawed. Many of Ms. Palin’s critics aren’t “responding” to her, they are making arguments about how fellow citizens judge her. Political discourse overflows with examples of responding to folks who deserve no respect. Were critics of Joseph McCarthy saying anything by criticizing him except that he had power and abused it? Ms. Palin isn’t a sitting senator, or a despicable McCarthyite, but whether critics write about her or not, she will remain a force in present political debates. Her words, disseminated through right-leaning media and her 1 million Facebook followers, are as influential as anyone on the right. And she is a possible presidential nominee for the Republicans in 2012, something that might not bother a liberal like Mr. Linker, since she’d almost surely lose, but that does bother someone like me, who’d love to back a viable, responsible Republican alternative to Barack Obama, a president with whom I have substantial disagreements.

Ms. Palin’s political critics can no more deny her the spotlight than they can stop her appearances on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, or demand that Oprah’s producers ignore her, or remove the book displays at Barnes and Noble. Insofar as unfair criticisms of Ms. Palin cause Americans who’d otherwise tune her out to rally around, critics can diminish her influence by refraining from wrongheaded attacks and unfair arguments. But denying her the spotlight wouldn’t be within our power even if we could all coordinate our actions, which we can’t.

Do I think that we should obsess over Ms. Palin? I do not. Mr. Linker alludes to her staunchest critic, my former colleague Andrew Sullivan. When he decided that The Daily Dish would go silent for a day to delve into Going Rogue, I wished that he hadn’t — I admire the impulse to pull back from immediately publishing on complicated matters where you’ve got a deep emotional investment, in favor of gathering and analyzing facts and hashing things out with colleagues who dissent from your own viewpoints, but I want to read The Dish’s take on Iran, see reader accounts of their health care experiences, get links to exceptional arguments elsewhere in the blogosphere, etc. There are all sorts of issues that matter more than a former Alaska governor’s quixotic attempt to… well, what she’s doing is a subject for a different post.

As one of the opinion journalists who has written about Ms. Palin in the past, and plans to do so again in the future, I do want to make a case for my approach, and explain why I don’t merely ignore her. The column I’ve filed this last go ’round is a piece at The Daily Beast that is written partly in response to Matthew Continetti’s stream of recent articles about how Ms. Palin might actually turn things around and win the presidency in 2012. His advice — to sum up two lengthy articles in a few words — is that she adopt a free market friendly populism, and do various things to burnish her image as a serious voice on various issues of domestic policy.

Though I object to political books that tell people presently unqualified for higher office how they might achieve it, I recognize that Mr. Continetti is an elegant writer whose intelligence and persuasive abilities aren’t to be underestimated. He is the leading intellect offering his advice to Ms. Palin. What I found striking, both in his articles and general discussion about Ms. Palin’s chances in 2012, is that the former Alaska governor’s defenders aren’t troubled by her utter lack of foreign policy experience — or to be precise, they aren’t sufficiently concerned to advise that boning up on foreign policy be included in her preparation for a 2012 run. This seems to me unusual as a matter of political advice. Would Americans be comfortable with Ms. Palin as Commander in Chief given her current dearth of experience or serious thought on foreign policy? It also reflects a peculiar irresponsibility among her backers, who are touting the political future of a woman who is utterly unprepared to shape our foreign policy, guard our homeland security, or lead our military.

As a voter, I tend to privilege foreign policy above all other matters in presidential elections. It just strikes me as the most important thing. Certainly it is a major responsibility of the office. So as I watched the debate over Sarah Palin’s political future take place, with neither side (and no one I saw in the media) pointing out what I regard as her biggest failing as a potential candidate, or even acknowledging that foreign policy preparedness is a relevant metric — I thought, hey, Ms. Palin’s supporters and journalists like Mr. Continetti who are offering her advice should be called out on this apparent failure to grapple with foreign policy. Hence this column.

It did pretty good traffic judging by the number of comments.

Hopefully, its impact on public discourse is to persuade some readers, “Wow, Ms. Palin’s foreign policy problem really is being ignored here.” I hope it undermines the case being made by her defenders by pointing out a glaring weakness, and makes it marginally less likely — obviously the effect of any one piece like this will be quite small — that she, or future politicians bereft of foreign policy bonifides, will be successful candidates for national office.

An Open Letter to Jonah Goldberg

November 3, 2009

Dear Jonah Goldberg,

I’m writing this letter as a fan – I’ve tremendous respect for the pioneering work you did at National Review Online, your attempts to inject humor into political writing, and the enjoyable debates you’ve done with Peter Beinart. But I’m also a friendly critic, here to challenge your take on the current state of the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country. Perhaps I can persuade you that certain of your positions are wrongly held, though I’d be as satisfied were I moved by counterarguments.

It is actually surprising that the gulf separating our attitudes is so deep. As a native of Orange County, California, the people I most respect in this world – my parents and two sets of grandparents – are all self-described conservative Republicans. My involvement in politics began in response to what I regarded as grave flaws in leftist campus politics at Pomona College, and the dubious actions of Democrats during the Gray Davis era in California, when I witnessed giveaways to public employee unions that were arguably the most fiscally irresponsible measures in state history. The political writers I’ve read whose work most resonates are Burke, Hayek, and Milton Friedman. The bulk of President Obama’s domestic agenda strikes me as ill conceived at best—I worry about the unabated growth of the federal government, America’s perilous fiscal situation, and an approach to governance that relies on the enduring wisdom of elected and appointed officials.

But try as I might, I cannot muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party, I am profoundly disillusioned by the state of the conservative movement, and though my background and political beliefs ought to make me a lock for GOP presidential candidates – were they running, I’d certainly prefer Ford, Reagan, George Bush Sr. or Bob Dole to a second Obama term – I am a solidly undecided voter as 2012 approaches.

Since I sometimes write for right-of-center political sites, this results in my being labeled an “apostate” or “dissident” conservative (or a RINO traitor, despite my never having claimed to be a Republican), though I’ll bet that you and I have as many positions in common as I do with Reihan Salam, or Ross Douthat, or Ramesh Ponnuru, let alone the average Democrat. Whatever my label among pundits, however, I submit that the GOP is in trouble if it cannot convince voters like me that they’re the best choice at the ballot box.

Why can’t I muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party? The core reason is my suspicion that were they returned to power tomorrow, things would turn out exactly as they did when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House. It’s a concern you addressed a year ago in a Los Angeles Times column titled “The GOP Looking Glass: Does the Defeat of George W. Bush Mean a Defeat for Conservatism?” You and I agree that President Bush’s worst failures weren’t particularly conservative, and shouldn’t reflect badly on that political philosophy.

But I think that your column – like the rest of your writing – elides the significant responsibility that the conservative movement bears for the candidacy, election, policy agenda, and grave failures of the Bush Administration, and the Republicans that controlled Congress for much of his tenure. You wrote, as apologia, “Dissent from Bush was muted for years, in large part because of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Conservatives, right or wrong, rallied to support their president, particularly in the face of shrill partisan attacks from Democrats who seemed more interested in tearing down the commander in chief than winning a war.”

I see that as damning. The conservative movement’s reaction to an ongoing war and shrill attacks from partisan Democrats is to rally around a Republican president, even as he pursues ill-conceived agenda items – and the problem this augers for the future is that when a Republican is next elected to the White House, there are inevitably going to be an ongoing war on terrorism and shrill partisan attacks from Democrats. Is there any evidence that the conservative movement has unlearned its damaging habit of meting out loyalty in direct proportion to the ferocity of liberal attacks? I’d argue that there isn’t, and cite Sarah Palin as exhibit A, though there is other evidence. Take the pop-up ad on the American Spectator’s Web site, where Mark Levin says that it’s one of his favorite publications, not because it’s well reported, or right on the merits, but because “it drives liberals crazy.” Fox News and Human Events use this same trope. Too often the right’s actions are determined by the passions of the most vitriolic folks on the left, a reflex that hasn’t served conservatives well, but that I’ve seen offered as a defense of the right more than as a self-criticism of it.

Of course, you’d be right to say that some conservatives criticized George W. Bush rather consistently—though none who are running in 2012, insofar as I know—and you might even argue that some of the anger on the right these days, though directed at Barack Obama, is as much a release of pent up frustration from the Bush years. Several folks said as much at Tea Parties earlier this year. You’ve even written that the race in New York’s 23rd Congressional District is significant insofar as it shows that a community of Republican moderates are now rallying behind a conservative candidate.

I’m agnostic on the implications of that race. What I fear, however, is a narrative on the right that explains away George W. Bush’s failures by saying that his compassionate conservatism was suspect from the beginning, that now we know better, and that the right will finally see dividends if only it elects real conservatives to Congress, rather than RINOs.

It isn’t that I don’t understand why some are adopting that theory. It surely resonates if you’re a member of the conservative base who is at a loss to explain how the right accomplished so little, and harmed so much, during its time heading all three branches of government.

But if the base imagines that the problem was insufficiently conservative political leaders, and that the solution is getting rid of “squishies,” they’ve mis-analyzed the past.

The late-is-better-than-never laments about George W. Bush never seem to acknowledge that the missteps of the last 8 years were also the fault of people like Tom Delay, a guy you’d never hear called a “compassionate conservative” or a RINO, but who bears significant responsibility for the fiscally reckless prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the K street project, damage done to the GOP by the Jack Abramoff scandal, etc. Even a cursory look at the main players behind the scenes during the Bush Administration demonstrated that the problem wasn’t grounded in political beliefs – earmarks aren’t “compassionate conservatism,” and Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter weren’t leading the legislative agenda – it was grounded in corrupt, largely conservative partisan Republicans whose indefensible acts went unchallenged by much of movement conservatism, because Ronald Reagan commanded that Republicans should never attack each other, or the Democrats are worse, or political winners don’t unilaterally disarm themselves, or the angry liberals were so unhinged that I felt I had to defend my guys, or Okay, I see your point, but this isn’t the time.

When is the time?

Despite the last 8 years, which should’ve taught the lesson that wrongheaded behavior must be challenged – even when your political allies are engaging in it – I see ample evidence of the same old attitude throughout the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Yes, the attacks on President Obama and Congressional Democrats are increasingly effective. Perhaps there is even resurgence in principled conservatism among some GOP voters.

Even so, electing Republicans, or even conservatives, isn’t an end in itself – it’s supposed to be a means to the end of improving the country by governing better than any of the alternatives. As Michael Brendan Dougherty recently noted on Twitter, the conservative movement “has failed to shrink scope of government (besides some taxes) for 70 years.” It is “good at feathering its nests, not advancing its agenda.” Should it take power again, can we expect “more bailouts? More unwinnable wars? I’m serious. How is it different this time?”

These are vital questions. I pose them as someone who wants to vote for a resurgent, functional conservatism that finds its political home in the GOP, but I think the only way you get there is by routing out intellectual and financial corruption within the movement, developing a successful strategy for actually governing if you’re elected, tempering ideology with pragmatism, and obliterating the impulse to sycophantic partisan loyalty that did so much harm during the Bush Administration. Is there evidence I’m unaware of that these kinds of reforms are happening? Because I haven’t seen any, and I can certainly point to ongoing intellectual corruption, financial corruption, and sycophantic loyalty within the conservative movement (criticism that still results in the messenger being labeled a traitor).

This isn’t to say that I won’t keep encouraging Congress to pass the kind of health care reform I’d prefer, as opposed to what President Obama favors, or that I won’t vote for any Republicans – I will if I regard them to be the better candidate – or that “the Democrats are better” (though at present I think they are less inclined to involve us in unnecessary foreign wars – you’ve gamely admitted that the Iraq War was a mistake in hindsight, but how many among the 2012 contenders will say the same thing? Isn’t that disconcerting?).

It is to say that if I’m going to prefer Republicans as a general matter, or identify with the conservative movement – as opposed to the political philosophy of conservatism – I’m going to need to see evidence that I’m not signing up for a repeat of 2000 to 2008.

Instead I am seeing Sarah Palin cited as the preferred presidential candidate among the base in 2012, never mind concerns about her inexperience, because she’s “authentic,” and she “excites people,” and she “understands what we’re up against in the War on Terror,” and because “she’s been treated worse by liberals than any other politician, and that must mean she is doing something right.” I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.

That’s why I am sympathetic to the “conservative dissidents,” despite my many policy differences with them. Unlike the base, I don’t think politicians who are squishy on substance did in Republicans. I think what brought down the right is a corrupt conservative movement, without insufficient capacity for constructive criticism, and beset by heretic hunters who denounced anyone engaged in critical thinking. Long live the dissidents. Long live debates. Long live partisan and ideological disloyalty if it means routing out corruption.

Am I wrong?


Conor Friedersdorf

A Blogger's Lament

October 1, 2009

…but someone is wrong on the Internet!

In a comment about politics, Kevin Drum writes, “I sure feel crazier these days. How about you?” Yes, I think I do feel crazy, because almost every day lately I am flabbergasted by a subset of people for whom all political conversation is treated as if it’s some kind of kabuki dance. It frustrates me to no end, and if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll offer an example.

There is one necessary piece of background information — the depressing Web site Newsmax published a column by a guy named John L. Perry outlining all the reasons it would make sense for the military to depose Barack Obama, all but advocating that it happen.

Now set that aside and consider something I wrote yesterday:

…readers ask who I think would be a successful Republican candidate in 2012. I take this to mean “someone who could plausibly defeat President Obama’s bid for re-election.”

My somewhat uninformed guesses: David Petraeus and Colin Powell (who’d have all kinds of difficulty winning the primary). These accomplished generals share one related trait: deep credibility as men who are serious about national security, enabling them to run as sane, experienced stewards, rather than bellicose idiots so desperate to seem toughest on terrorism that they spend the primaries calling for “doubling Gitmo” and competing to see who would torture in more contrived ticking time bomb situations.

They’re also both post-partisan figures of the kind that Americans seem to like, haven’t got long voting records to be picked apart, and can nevertheless credibly claim more executive experience than President Obama. I’m sure there are other candidates who could also mount a credible challenge, though I don’t know who they are.

Obviously there is a difference between saying “David Petraeus is the man with the best shot at beating President Obama in 2012,” and saying, “I want David Petraeus to run for president and win in 2012.” As it happens, I very clearly said the former, and I don’t actually know who my ideal candidate in 2012 is, or whether I’ll vote for President Obama or whoever runs against him, or even whether I’ll cast a ballot at all.

But okay, some folks took my post as a statement that David Petraeus is my ideal 2012 candidate — probably due to analysis I offered about the likelihood that he’d run on a saner foreign policy platform than other Republicans. I don’t particularly mind that mistaken assumption. It is in the nature of blogging that some nuances get lost, whether due to sloppiness by the author or the reader. I am guilty on both sides all the time.

What I mind is the blogger Doug J at Balloon Juice, a reasonably popular blog, who read the post I excerpted above and wrote this:

Maybe I’m way off base on this, but in my opinion, the Conor Friedersdorfs and Nicole Wallaces of the right aren’t so different from coupmeister John L. Perry. The idea of David Petraeus sweeping in and becoming president in 2012 isn’t unethical or unconstitutional, but I can’t help but think that Friedersdorf and Wallace simply want an institution they see as Republican—the military—to depose a Democratic president they dislike. (Friedersorf’s other preferred candidate is Colin Powell.)

The desire to depose Obama runs much deeper on the right—even the so-called moderate right—than anyone is willing to admit. The Perry piece wasn’t any kind of outlier.

Though I realize that this isn’t any more egregious than all sorts of stuff that gets published each day in the blogosphere, and that I may be trying the patience of readers by highlighting it at such length, I can only say that for whatever reason I feel a particular contempt for that post, and were its author sitting in a dunk tank right now I’d forgo throwing baseballs and just use my fist to depress the lever so as to reciprocate his sense of fair play.

Imagine it! Writing that David Petraues is the guy who’d enjoy the most success were he to run on the Republican ticket, and being told as a result that deep down you want the military to depose President Obama — a notion that the bulk of Balloon Juice commenters accept as sound analysis.

There is, in truth, zero desire on the moderate right “to depose Obama,” an absurd assertion all its own, but what bothers me here is the ease with which a literate person considered worth reading by his fellow citizens jumps to the most absurd conclusions about someone — me in this case — because I am on the right. Insofar as conversations across ideology are necessary for a healthy polity, it is depressing to see how many erroneous assumptions his orthodoxies of thought so quickly produce — that I dislike President Obama, that I am a Republican, that I see the military as Republican, that I harbor desires about the 2012 election that I will not admit, and that I want the president deposed, if you care for a list.

Art Requires Integrity

September 30, 2009

Kevin Drum questions my recent commentary on the NEA conference call. I wrote:

…the call wasn’t about furthering controversial elements of President Obama’s agenda, but it was about deliberately politicizing art — that is to say, encouraging artists to advance particular public policy goals rather than enabling them to spend their time and energy creating works of truth or beauty to the best of their ability….It is that effort that I find objectionable, as should anyone who values art or the autonomy or creative people.

Mr. Drum replies:

So if this conference call had been with, say, a bunch of educator types, urging them to promote public service among schoolkids, would that have been OK? Or how about law enforcement groups? Or veterans groups?

Because I don’t quite see the difference. Artists don’t exist on some kind of pristine plane of their own and they don’t do their work in a vacuum. They’re all part of the same culture as the rest of us, and they react to it and try to influence it just like everyone else.

Look. Were high school civics teachers asked by Department of Education bureaucrats to tweak their lectures and pedagogical material to make volunteering seem cool, I’d object to that too — though if a “volunteering outreach czar” independently encouraged a bunch of teachers to promote service opportunities by hanging pre-printed posters on bulletin boards within their classrooms, I’d likely count myself untroubled.

In the former example, the actual job of the teacher — educating children based on facts and sound pedagogy — is corrupted. It is made subservient to a propaganda effort. Even worse, that effort is being coordinated by administrators who ought to count educating as their sacrosanct, undiluted goal, one that is incompatible with pushing propaganda efforts on the side.

Perhaps my interlocutors can better understand my concern if I use a journalistic example. Imagine that the Queen of England and President Obama are touting a new effort to reduce the rate of smoking. Via government officials close to those leaders, the heads of the BBC and NPR are informed of the effort, and asked to coordinate a conference call to include all journalists in the news organizations. On the call, the reporters are encouraged to make smoking seem uncool in their stories. Does everyone agree that it is inappropriate for the head of a news organization to abet that type of request, and that insofar as it is honored, the journalism produced — and the core reason for the news organization’s existence — will have been corrupted?

Artists aren’t uniquely apolitical people, nor are they so fragile that they demand kid gloves, but there is a relevant quality at stake here that is common to art, education, journalism, and science — all are pursuits that require integrity if they are to maintain their worth. It is in society’s interest to preserve this worth — indeed it is so valuable that people are always trying to co-opt it for their own ends.

Just as the university operates on the proposition that it is valuable to preserve places in society where truth and knowledge are pursued for their own sake, the NEA exists in part for the sake of uncorrupted art. The university administrator would undermine his mission if he asked his leading professors, “In the course of your social science scholarship, could you play up the importance and coolness of volunteerism?” So too, the NEA administrator undermines his mission when he asks, “In the course of making your art, could you make volunteering cool?”