Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Party Name Misnomer

“Voting doesn’t make you a better citizen, comprehending the issues makes you better. Voting without that makes us all suckers.”
 —Actor Richard Dreyfuss, writing in PJ Media
While perusing discussion boards like Democratic Underground after the first Republican debate, I was surprised to detect a running theme of envy.

No, of course, the people posting were not the least bit envious of the caliber and quality of the field of Republican primary candidates. Unsurprisingly, they consistently thought they were all losers. But there was a palpable frustration that the Democrats were not having their own debates and that all the political and media focus was on the GOP and its issues.

Now, that frustration has begun to be noticeable to the mass media, with several outlets reporting that Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz was heckled at the New Hampshire state convention over the weekend by people in the audience calling for “more debates.” Currently, the Dems have scheduled six debates—the first on October 3—compared to the Republicans’ eleven.

It’s worth pondering why there is such a groundspell for more debates. After all, presumably the top priority for rank and file Dems, like all politically engaged people, is to see their side victorious. And their frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is not only a virtual a lock to get the nomination but stands a better than even chance of being being elected president next year. In a situation like that, more debates would mainly benefit her primary opponents—which is almost certainly the reason why so few were scheduled in the first place. So what is more important to these people than a sure-as-possible shot at a rare third consecutive White House term?

Maybe these people take the name of their party seriously and would like to see it be more… democratic. They may see the GOP primary field as a bunch of bozos driving around in a clown car, but the fact is that the two debates so far have revealed a wide diversity in many positions among Republican subgroups, which tend to get obscured in mainstream media coverage. Viewers have also gotten a much better sense of the various personalities and character of the candidates. Yes, mostly one in particular, but even he has a silver lining for Republicans. His mere presence has driven up viewing numbers, thereby making more people aware of the other candidates.

As for the more demographically preocuppied among Dem voters, it cannot be going unnoticed that the debate stage for the supposedly angry-old-white-guy party includes a female (the same exact number as in the Democratic field), an African-American and two Hispanics. Three are under the age of 50 (not counting the departed Scott Walker). Only two are over the age of 65. It has to be grating to see the other side exhibiting more diversity than their own side, and the term “token” tends to sound hollow when it gets hurled too many times. The fact is that all of these candidates have their own followings within the Republican party, and that says more than any of the nativist claptrap bandied about by the current frontrunner.

Why is the Republican field so large while the Democratic race seems preordained? Could it be that the Dems happen to have a candidate who is so far above anyone else in the entire country in terms of talent, intellect and experience that there is no point in having primaries? Yeah, right. If that were true, she would have been nominated eight years ago when she was only running against a freshly elected freshman senator. The inescapable fact is that Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite more than a year before the election because she and her husband have exerted their considerable resources and influence to lock potential rivals out of any serious fundraising. Even someone as high-profile as Joe Biden, if he gets in, will have a hard time scraping together enough cash to make a competitive go of it.

Yes, big money donors are crucial on the Republican side as well. But the difference is that virtually anyone currently on the GOP debate stage could actually hypothetically clinch the nomination. Yes, some candidates are more way likely than others, but you cannot say that any of them have virtually no chance. In other words, Republican voters will actually have a say.

Maybe that is why so many Democratic voters are feeling deep down that the way their party works is not all that democatic.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Moral Abdication

“And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
 —President Obama, in a New Republic interview, January 27, 2013

“I have this remarkable title right now—President of the United States—and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop by drop,’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story.”
 —President Obama, addressing the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation dinner on May 7, 2014
Last weekend I came across one of the most devastating indictments of the Obama administration’s foreign policy that I have read in some time. It was all the more notable because it did not come from one of the usual sources of carping about America’s flagging stature in the world, such as The Weekly Standard or other conservative media.

It was a column in The Washington Post by the paper’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt. His thrust, spurred by the current wave of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries, was that the president has been presiding over a period of moral abdication.

“More than a quarter-million [Syrians] have been killed. Yet the ‘Save Darfur’ signs have not given way to ‘Save Syria,’ ” writes Hiatt. “One reason is that Obama—who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature—has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy.”

What is particularly interesting about Hiatt’s take is that someone other than a raging neocon is rejecting the notion that America is right to withdraw as much as possible from the region.

He writes, “When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state.”

Reflecting back on the president’s assertion four years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Hiatt observes that “few imagined the extent of the catastrophe: not just the savagery of chemical weapons and ‘barrel bombs,’ but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.”

He might well have added that Obama’s miscalculated declaration of a “red line” over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons was ultimately resolved by outsourcing the issue to Russia, which has done everything it can to keep its client Assad in power and has thereby prolonged the conflict. Hiatt details the repeated instances of the president pledging action on Syria—training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border—that fell far short of what was promised. He adds that the presence of people in the administration like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have strong records on humanitarian issues, only lends “further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.”

“This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies,” muses Hiatt sadly, “not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”

Of course, Democrats have a ready answer for those who are dismayed by the chaos in the Middle East and Northern Africa. All the blame, they say, should go to the Bush-Cheney administration. If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003, goes their reasoning, everything would be fine—or at least much better—in that region. Unfortunately, that argument would stand up better if President Obama and Vice-President Biden had not personally touted Iraq as a great success story as American troops were pulled out of the country four years ago. And, in any event, it is hard to see how the destabilization of Iraq, which strengthened the hand of Assad’s ally Iran led to the civil war in Syria. And it certainly doesn’t explain the chaos in Libya, which is the direct result of an ill-advised U.S./European intervention in 2011.

Would things now be better if the Obama administration had not in 2011 abandoned the status-of-forces negotiations initiated by the Bush administration with Iraq?

We will never know, but it is hard to imagine that it could have turned out any worse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Money Magnetism

“What’s clear by now is that this family enterprise was set up as a global shakedown operation, designed to finance and nurture the Clintons’ continued political ambitions. It’s a Hillary super PAC that throws in the occasional good deed.”
—Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal column, June 5
In all my ponderings last week of what could explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, I neglected to mention one possible explanation that a lot of people go to immediately. The man is very, very rich.

Presidential campaigns are massively expensive but, as a billionaire, Trump is one of a select few who can credibly finance his presidential quest out of his own deep pockets.

This gives fuel to those who chant continually that there is too much money in politics. You hear the refrain over and over. It is not even a matter of debate. Recently I heard an extended and articulate recital of this view on the BBC World Service. Fordham University law professor—and failed Democratic challenger for New York governor—Zephyr Teachout was a guest on a business program, talking about her book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. She is an advocate of public financing for political campaigns.

As I understand the argument for public financing in particular and for campaign reform in general, it goes something like this. Money keeps pouring into political campaigns in ever increasing amounts and this corrupts the process. Some progress was made with the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which regulated the financing of political campaigns. But then, in a travesty of justice, McCain-Feingold was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2010 in a case called Citizens United and now things are worse than ever. That’s the narrative anyway. You hear Hillary Clinton and lots of other Democrats retell this story often. President Obama even famously chided Supreme Court justices directly to their faces as they sat in the audience of one of his State of the Union addresses.

What exactly did McCain-Feingold do anyway? It basically did two things. First, it limited the amount of money political parties could raise or spend. Second, it banned corporations and organizations from funding issue advocacy ads mentioning a candidate’s name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

The first of those two things was not affected by the Citizens United vs. FEC decision. Spending by political campaigns is still regulated. But it did strike down the second thing. The reasoning was that the Constitution proclaims a right to free speech and that a right to free speech is pretty meaningless if people are forbidden to pay to get their speech heard. The plaintive, Citizens United, is a non-profit organization that lobbies for conservative causes. It appealed to the Supreme Court because the DC District Court ruled that McCain-Feingold did not allow it to advertise a film it was screening called Hillary: The Movie.

Personally, as a strong free speech supporter and a middling film blogger, I get very, very nervous when the government uses its power to suppress the making or screening of movies.

So is Citizens United the reason—or one of the reasons—that there is too much money in politics? Well, not really, but it is one part of the reason that American politics have gotten so screwy. Because the Supreme Court left one part of McCain-Feingold intact but struck down the other part, we now have a situation where political parties—and by extension candidates—are very limited in how they can raise and spend money. But corporations, unions, organizations and private citizens can spend all they want. This means that campaign money is flowing to people other than the ones who are actually running for office. No wonder it is so hard for the candidates to control their messages when their own resources are dwarfed by super PACs and advocacy groups. In other words, the problem is not so much the Citizens United decision but the fact that McCain-Feingold was passed in the first place.

And, of course, the more money restrictions that are placed directly on candidates, the more advantage it gives to wealthy candidates like Donald Trump who can self-fund.

The McCain whose name figures in the commonly used moniker of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is Senator John McCain, and it is worth noting how he fared as a presidential candidate. A longtime and sincere campaign finance reformer, he hewed scrupulously to the letter and spirit of the law that bears his name and relied on public financing for his 2008 presidential run. Consequently, he was massively outspent by Barack Obama, who was able to raise much more money by eschewing public funding. In the current election cycle, Hillary Clinton is on track to break all kinds of fund raising reccords. And Obama and Clinton are two of the most vocal complainers about too much money in politics! One suspects that, when people say there is too much money in politics, what they actually mean is that there is too much money supporting candidates and causes they don’t like.

We can see that the McCain-Feingold law and the Citizens United decision have a lot to do with why primary candidates get so much pressure from people with extreme positions, but they don’t really explain why there is so much money in politics in the first place. The answer to that question, though, is pretty obvious. Money in politics has ballooned in proportion to the size, influence and power of government. The more control the government has over the economy and our lives, the more money flows to campaigns and to lobbyists in attempts to influence decisions. You can pass all the campaign laws you want, but the money will find a way to get to the decision makers somehow. If you can’t give the money to the office holder or candidate directly or even to a friendly super PAC, then you will just have to make a big contribution to the politician’s family foundation or pay a horrendously huge fee to the politician’s spouse for giving a speech.

Would completely publicly funded political campaigns, as Professor Teachout advocates, solve the problem?

It all comes down to the golden rule. Those who control the gold… rule. Publicly funded campaigns essentially mean putting all the control over who can run for political office—and how much they can raise and how they can spend it—into the exclusive hands of the government. If you really think that this would be good for democracy, well, then you are living in a completely different reality than I am.