Friday, December 31, 2010

A thoughtless post

Prompted  by having just read Joe Klein's provocative year-end wrap, which begins "Nothing much happened in 2010," I just thought, "nothing much happened this week" -- a much more defensible proposition, snowstorms notwithstanding.  The corollary, 'nothing much is happening in my mind," leads me to an old want-to-write trick, writing without thinking, which will never see the light of bloggy day unless thinking transpires. The best expositor of such self-stimulating tricks remains Winnie the Pooh, who, wishing to complete a half-finished hum, repeats the previous portion in expectation that the next part will present itself.

How often do most of us remember that "blog" derives from log, as in weblog, as in a kind of writer's notebook. The first blog so-named that I recall paying attention to was kept by a small business journalist, David Lidsky, and I've retained the notion I picked up from one of his introductory posts (as I remember it...) that a blog is a kind of public scratch pad, or commonplace book, the raw material that a writer of whatever kind compiles as fuel for more finished productions, albeit meant from the first to be public-ized.

My thought here was to spin out the analogy with the commonplace book of renaissance or later vintage, which I recall as a personal log of quotations that struck the author as worth remembering.  I may have first encountered the concept in a footnote (or lecture note?)  to Hamlet's exclamation, post-ghost trauma: "My tables--meet it is I set it down/That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." -- I recall this being glossed as Hamlet thinking how right he had been to have bookmarked this jewel of wisdom when he encountered it in his studies and put it in his "tables," which are like the multiplication tables minus the multiplication, i.e. a written record meant as a memory aid.

So...checking my memory of what a commonplace book is (no free association these days is free of instant fact-check...), I find, inevitably, that its relationship to the blog has already been noted, probably repeatedly, but first in Google by a certain Lisa Spangenberg, who dredges up this wonderful definition from Jonathan Swift (get the Swift link from Lisa...):
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jeffrey Goldberg gets Beinertized

I had to check what blog I was on this morning as it sunk in that Jeffrey Goldberg seems to have fully internalized Peter Beinert's fears regarding the rightward drift of Israeli society:

I've had a couple of conversations this week with people, in Jerusalem and out of Jerusalem, that suggest to me that democracy is something less than a religious value for wide swaths of Israeli Jewish society. I'm speaking here of four groups, each ascendant to varying degrees:The haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose community continues to grow at a rapid clip; the working-class religious Sephardim -- Jews from Arab countries, mainly -- whose interests are represented in the Knesset by the obscurantist rabbis of the Shas Party; the settler movement, which still seems to get whatever it needs in order to grow; and the million or so recent immigrants from Russia, who support, in distressing numbers, the Putin-like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and leader of the "Israel is Our Home" party.

This (apparently unconscious, i.e., unacknowledged) Beinertization of Goldblog extends to fears about the likely reaction of American Jewry (my emphasis):

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Embracing the process: Jonathan Bernstein's joyous cynicism

I am one of I'm sure many amateur political observers who's had his perspective widened in recent years by the entry of academic political scientists into the blogosphere.  Jonathan Bernstein is particularly bracing, as he refracts our elected officials' day-to-day  hand-to-hand combat through a lens that's a kind of PoliSci  equivalent of Everything Bad is Good for You

In A Plain Blog About Politics, Bernstein embraces the political process in all its ugly, necessary glory: the posturing, the pandering, the packaging, the parliamentary maneuvering, the horse-trading, the struggle for survival and the ambition that drives it.  His approach can alternately seem extremely cynical, in that it assumes that politicians are motivated almost entirely by the drive to amass and keep power, and the the opposite of cynical, since it embraces the process and its outcomes so cheerfully.

There's a problem, though, with this admittedly liberating enthusiasm for sausage-making. Sometimes Bernstein seems to suggest not that the ends justify the means, but that the means determine the ends, and rightly so.

There is something oddly reassuring in Bernstein's clinical admiration for the GOP's obstructionism of the past two years.  The underlying assumptions are that the game is eternal, there are no permanent winners, a rough policy balance emerges from the never-ending death match, and that  policy results, once manifest (a big open question embedded there), affect the players' political fortunes far more than the short-term spin battles. 

Not so reassuring, but often illuminating, is Bernstein's read on political calculations that may advance a party's (or individual's interest) whether or not it's at cross-purposes with the actor's own beliefs or with policy results viewed from any but the most extreme perspective. Here for example is his contrarian take on the Republican leadership's "defeat" over the New Start treaty:
However, Republicans did accomplish something by fighting on New START.  They chewed up quite a few hours of Senate floor time, a very valuable commodity in the lame duck session, and really throughout the 111th Congress.  Now, there's really no way of knowing what exactly they gained by doing that.  However, had they agreed to a quick vote on the treaty, there would have been more time for the Democrats to confirm judges and executive branch appointments; more time for appropriations bills, and perhaps to give a more sustained effort on the omnibus appropriations bill; and more time for any of the other unfinished business on the Democratic agenda.

So I wouldn't be quick to conclude that it was a mistake for Republicans to fight this one out, even if they took a (very minor) PR hit in losing.  Indeed, in understanding what the GOP was up to, I think one has to consider the possibility that treaty opposition was in part a deliberate -- and, I would say, perfectly legitimate -- part of trying to run out the clock.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Flashback: a moment of choice

Jonathan Bernstein's Republican-eye view of the battle over New Start -- a minor PR hit for the GOP that helped run out the clock on the omnibus spending bill and so positioned them much more strongly on next year's budget battles -- is sobering but true.  It's equally true, though, that New Start was one battle that Obama could not afford to lose, though he could have fairly quietly delayed the hit by deferring (and probably dooming) the ratification effort until next term. 

By picking and winning this fight, Obama arrested the fast-hardening perception that electoral defeat at home would cripple his ability to advance U.S. interests and policy abroad.  His high-stakes, highly effective full court press on New Start also marked the end of his personal post-election remission.  I can't resist a flashback to November 18, when Obama very publicly doubled down on New Start. Re-post from that day is below.

Obama Picks his Battleground

Those of us who have watched with distress a chastened post-election Obama revert to futile bipartisan gestures and gratuitous mea culpas have wondered what he would choose to take a stand on in the lame duck session, as Republicans move to stymie all meaningful action.  The Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest? Didn't look like it, though the signals have shifted a bit in recent days. DADT?  Votes to bust a filibuster probably aren't there.

Today we have our answer. There is one battle Obama can't afford to lose -- and will lose if he defers it. That is ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.  The treaty is essential to national security, future nonproliferation efforts, United States credibility on the world stage, and, by extension, Obama's ability to conduct foreign policy.

Since Kyl's betrayal on Tuesday, I have wondered why Obama has not wrapped himself round with the six secretaries of state, seven STRATCOM commanders and five secretaries of defense who have voiced support for the treaty. Today he did that. And cleverly, he brought Ronald Reagan to the table where also sat James Baker, Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, William Cohen, William Perry, Brent Scowcroft, Sam Nunn, along with his current national security team:
If we ratify this treaty, we’re going to have a verification regime in place to track Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons, including U.S. inspectors on the ground.  If we don’t, then we don’t have a verification regime -– no inspectors, no insights into Russia’s strategic arsenal, no framework for cooperation between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.  As Ronald Reagan said, we have to trust, but we also have to verify.  In order for us to verify, we’ve got to have a treaty.
I think that as with healthcare reform, Obama is going to go all out and get this one over the line.  Yesterday Dick Lugar laid out the blueprint: force senators to vote yea or nay on a treaty that the entire foreign policy establishment of the last thirty years not currently holding elective office supports:
"I'm advising that the treaty should come on the floor so people will have to vote aye or nay [even if there's no deal]," he said. "I think when it finally comes down to it, we have sufficient number or senators who do have a sense of our national security. This is the time, this is the priority. Do it."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Obama sets a clock ticking on gay marriage

In this afternoon's press conference, Obama made it very clear that he is gearing up to give way on his nominal opposition to gay marriage:
     With respect to the issue of whether gays and lesbians should be able to get married, I’ve spoken about this recently.  As I’ve said, my feelings about this are constantly evolving.  I struggle with this.  I have friends, I have people who work for me, who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions.  And they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.

     At this point, what I’ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have.  And I think -- and I think that’s the right thing to do.  But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.
How can you 'continue to wrestle' when you haven't left yourself a leg to stand on? What would Obama have us think he says to those gay friends who don't think his support of civil unions is enough?  This is someone not even trying to hide that there's nothing behind this stance but political expedience.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Profiles in cowardice, courage, and a little bit of both

Noting that as the dam breaks in favor of the New Start treaty, many Republicans now seem, in Rich Lowry's words, to be lining up to get on "the right side," Kevin Drum interprets:

In other words, a big chunk of the Republican caucus has known all along that New START was a good treaty but was holding out for strictly partisan purposes. If it had been close, and giving Obama a black eye had been a serious possibility, they would have voted no. But with that option gone, they're willing to vote yes. It's a real profile in cowardice.

That may be a little too cold.  There is still a choice to be made, and a month ago, Richard Lugar framed it for his fellow Republicans with brutal clarity even as he steeled Democrats' nerves for a showdown.  Immediately after Jon Kyl's bid to simply take New Start off the Senate calendar for this year -- assuring that it would never pass -- Lugar said:

"At the moment, the Republican caucus is tied up in a situation where people don't want to make choices," Lugar told reporters in the hallway of the Capitol building Wednesday. "No one wants to be counted. No one wants to talk about it."....

Lamar Alexander writes a short history of the Obama presidency

After succumbing to reason and announcing that he'll vote for the New START treaty, Lamar Alexander received a thank you call from Obama.
"It was good,” Alexander said of his talk with Obama. “I asked him how he keeps playing with basketball with people who hurt him. He said he beats them.”
I'd like to think that right there is history's verdict, circa, say, 2030, on the Obama presidency.

McConnell gets Pott(er)y-mouthed with the President

When, exactly, will the hubris of the Republican leadership boomerang? Here's Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor yesterday, impugning the President's motives in pushing for ratification of a nuclear arms treaty backed by all six living former Republican secretaries of state:
Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician's desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the first of the year.

The projection -- who's gamed the timing of this vote? -- take one's breath away. Even more so, the disrespect.

McConnell's locution -- some politician -- recalls the sneer of the rapacious banker Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, as he smears the lending practices of  the Bailey Building & Loan  -- and particularly of its president-to-be, that model of empathic probity young George Bailey:
You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money.

You might argue that an ideological caricature like Potter the banker doesn't much illuminate complex contemporary political reality.   But turn that charge around. Republicans, in their demonization of Obama, are caricaturing themselves.Why credit the fulminations of some shameless lying demagogue?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The politics of pique, redux

Do Republicans threatening to spike New START because their DADT stonewall broke down perchance remember how Newt Gingrich's confession-cum-boast that he was moved to shut down the government in part because he found himself seated at the back of Air Force One played out?
WASHINGTON (CNN) [Nov. 16, 1995] -- As the government budget standoff continued Thursday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich indicated the Republican hard line was due, in part, to a "snub" from President Clinton during their recent trip to Israel for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. White House Chief of Staff

Leon Panetta called the Gingrich comment "bizarre."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Where is Clive Crook's "center"?

Clive Crook does not understand U.S. politics. He thinks there's a contradiction between rhetorically beating up on the opposition and cutting deals with them. Here's his response to Obama's Dec. 7 press conference devoted to the tax cut deal:
Could somebody in the White House please tell Mr Obama he cannot have it both ways? Either a) Republicans are evil, dealing with them is repugnant and you do it only with a gun to your head; or b) they are fellow Americans, with legitimate views (backed for the moment by most of the electorate) and working with them (however hard they make it) is a presidential obligation. Either of these positions is coherent. Trying to maintain both is a formula for mental illness.
Crook wants Obama to acknowledge that the other side has some good ideas even though he himself acknowledges that they have none: 
Republicans are indeed an unreasonable, intransigent and reckless bunch, far better at blocking policies than coming up with their own. 

He doesn't seem to have noticed that Obama just spent two years treating the Republicans as worthy political partners -- and got nothing in return but intransigence and vilification.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rip Van Kyl

Jon Kyl wants to reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles and resume mutual nuclear monitoring between the two countries. I know, because I just visited the Senator's website:

Moreover, Russia has not been particularly helpful in the ongoing talks to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – which expired last December – with a follow-on agreement.  START, considered by many to be the most important nuclear arms reduction treaty in history, dramatically reduced the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, and provided the means for each country to effectively verify the other’s nuclear activities.

With the expiration of the treaty last year, the United States and Russia have lost key means to monitor one another’s nuclear forces.
Good news, Jon! A New START treaty has been negotiated, which, according to your party's foremost in-office expert on nuclear proliferation, provides for a fully adequate inspection regime, will further reduce stockpiles on both sides, and will have no effect on U.S. missile defense development. Oh wait..

Long game theory

Andrew Sullivan, admitting that Obama has been known to make a mistake or two and is not "some kind of guru" or "a Jedi president," takes what you might call long game theory to a new level:
My point is rather that he has a clear pattern of behavior that is acutely tuned to the longterm. He lets things take their course. Rather than tipping his hand early and decisively, he tends to hang back, aloof, distant, watching. Only when events have occurred that have proven the pointlessness of options he doesn't favor does he forthrightly present his own. And quite often, he almost seems intent on orchestrating such public failures of others' (and his own apparent) options - even at his own short-term cost.
Well, that is creative. Success via demonstrative failure. Set up Plan A for failure so you can proceed with Plan B, which is really your own Plan A.  The Platonic ideal of Churchill's American: do the right thing after you've exhausted all the alternatives -- deliberately.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Peter Bergen got wrong about Woodward's "Obama's Wars"

The current home page of The New Republic lures the reader to Peter Bergen's rather shapeless review of Obama's Wars  with a home page teaser:  "What Bob Woodward got wrong about Afghanistan and Obama." Well, what?  I'm still not sure. Notwithstanding Bergen's omniscient narrator stance, I didn't come away from his review feeling I understood more either about Woodward's book or about U.S. AfPak policy and its prospects for success. It's not that Bergen really in any way misrepresents what Woodward is about.  But his emphases struck me as off, or beside the point, on several fronts:

1) Bergen takes a swipe at the book, in tandem with Woodward's four prior books, for not being what it's not: an in-depth look at the history and conditions on the ground in the war zone. The book is focused on what Bergen admits it does a superb job relaying: the internal deliberations of the administration and the contest between rival points of view within it, represented chiefly (according to Bergen, anyway) by Biden's minimalist "counterterrorism-plus" and McChrystal-Petraeus's fully-resourced COIN.  The beside-the-point "lack of context" slam is further marred by war zone snobbery: Bergen laughs at Woodward for professing anxiety upon finding himself on the ground in the well-fortified Camp Leatherneck.

2) Bergen dismisses Biden's approach to the AfPak conundrum, but his only real evidence that it's wanting -- or that the book's lack of external context is a serious flaw -- is in his own brief against the hypothesis that a resurgent Taliban would not welcome al Qaeda or other terrorist groups back into Afghanistan.  This  argument does have some force, based on the undeniable facts that the Taliban welcomed an array of terrorist groups when it was in power, and that various Taliban groups, particularly the Haqqani network, now share safe harbor with al Qaeda and "a menagerie of jihadist groups" in the ungoverned regions of Pakistan. But those facts cut two ways. Holbrooke and Brennan use them to argue the opposite side of the coin from Bergen:
Like Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO counties? [sic]... (170).
Later, Brennan widens the sphere of rival havens for al Qaeda:
[Brennan] said...Why would al Qaeda want to go back to Afghanistan, where the U.S. and NATO already had 100,000 ground troops.
       No, Brennan said, they needed to think about places like Yemen and Somalia, which are full of al Qaeda. And al Qaeda is taking advantage of these ungoverned spaces where there is little or no U.S.troop presence..."We're developing geostrategic principles here, and we're not going to have the resources to do what we're doing in Afghanistan in Somalia and Yemen," Brennan said (227-28).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Schlockly awe

Jeffrey Goldberg is stunned into quasi-religious wonder at the possibility that the Stuxnet virus may have seriously set back Iran's nuclear program:

If it is true, however, that Stuxnet is still corrupting Iranian computers so many months after it was introduced, it is something like a miracle. I still find it difficult to imagine that a computer virus may be able to achieve what many people thought only the American or Israeli air forces could achieve. 

It seems obvious to me that if a weaponized computer virus can seriously disrupt a uranium enrichment program, similar attacks could cripple vital systems of all kinds...elsewhere. That is not cause for celebration.

Call me risk averse (and perverse), but my reaction to news of such wondrous weaponry reminds me of how I feel when contemplating a Senate unbound by the filibuster: wait till the other side gets hold of it.

"Last of the postwar liberals"

Leon Wieseltier has a memorable tribute to Holbrooke:
On the day that Holbrooke suffered the cataclysmic collapse from which he never recovered, The New York Times reported that Henry Kissinger—the Republicans’ most accomplished Machiavellian—remarked in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Such unforgettably filthy words would never have crossed Richard Holbrooke’s lips. In government and out, not least in his groundbreaking work at Refugees International, his career was a loud and effective refutation of that chilling “maybe.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A hole in the bucket: Holbrooke's read on the AfPak strategy

We may never know the tone or real context of Richard Holbrooke's alleged final words, spoken to his Pakistani surgeon as he was beginning anesthesia: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Most likely, too, we won't know his final or dominant assessment of the strategy Obama charted in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was something of a kaleidoscope, as most people's would be, shifting with the daily flicker of events. He was by all accounts a man of extraordinarily intense will, with an optimism fed by a refusal to not succeed.

But there is a constant hue to Bob Woodward's portrayal in Obama's Wars of Holbrooke's assessment of the emerging strategy, and the possibility of the U.S. securing stability in Afghanistan: gray-to-black.  Throughout Woodward's exhaustive account of the Obama team's exhausting deliberations from September through November 2009, and once more in retrospect in May 2010, Holbrooke knocks down several core assumptions regarding the rationale, progress to date, and prospects for success of U.S. attempts to stand up the Karzai regime. Below, a sampling.

The Taliban will not harbor al Qaeda (Sept. 13, 2009)
Like Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO counties? [sic]...

Astonishingly to Holbrooke, that key insight had neither been in [Bruce] Riedel's report [presented in March '09], nor had it been discussed that Sunday morning [Sept. 13]. Where was the no-holds-barred debate? The president had told them not to bite their tongues. Holbrooke had to bite his because he worked for the secretary of state, who was unsure of what course to recommend. But where were the others? (170)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Woodward's tribute to Richard Holbrooke

So sad to read of great-hearted Richard Holbrooke's untimely death.  I'm no expert on his career, but I'd just like to flag (actually repost) one rather uncanny, somewhat backhanded tribute from Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars:
In one discussion about the tensions between Pakistan and India, Holbrooke introduced a new angle. "There's a global warming dimension of this struggle, Mr. President," he said.
     His words baffled many in the room.
     There are tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops encamped on the glaciers in the Himalayas that feed the rivers into Pakistan and India, he said. "Their encampments are melting the glaciers very quickly." There's a chance that river valleys in Pakistan and perhaps even India could be flooded.
     After the meeting, there were several versions of one question: Was Holbrooke kidding?
     He was not. Holbrooke subsequently detailed his concerns in a written report. The diplomat--sensing that he was on the outs with Obama--was trying as hard as he could to say something distinctive that would impress the president (210-211).
The story segues into further evidence of Holbrooke's failure to connect with Obama. Is the irony intentional? Woodward's preface to Obama's Wars is dated July 25, 2010. The catastrophic floods struck Pakistan on July 22, 2010.

Whether the account of that conversation was a late interpolation or not, I believe that in general Woodward awards an unspoken sagacity palm to those in his account whose conclusions regarding Obama's chosen strategy are best summed up by three words he attributes to Richard Holbrooke: "it can't work."

UPDATE/postscript/epitaph: incredibly enough:
Family members said his last words before he headed into surgery were: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," according to the Washington Post.
Update 2: seems the context of those final words is uncertain, to say the least. Here's the Washington Post's account:
He underwent a 21-hour operation that ended on Saturday to repair his aorta.

As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Myths are all very well, but dreams of purity are pernicious

Andrew Sullivan, pushing back against atheist literalism that attacks religious tenets on the ground of their obvious factual inaccuracy, writes:
The Christmas stories in the Bible - and they are multiple and contradictory - are obviously myths. They are obviously not to be taken literally. They are meant as signs to the deeper, profounder truth that Christians hold to: that the force behind all that exists actually intervened in the consciousness of humankind in the form of a man so saturated in godliness that merely being near him healed people of the weight of the world's sins. This is so enormous and radical an idea that it is not suprising [sic] that early Christian writers told stories to bring it more firmly to life. But they were stories, telling of a deeper more ineffable truth. If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation.
Nothing really can be said against this. If myths are not dependent on factual occurrence, and if the myths of a particular religious tradition speak to a given individual, who is to nay-say?  Specifically, if the core of Jesus's preaching as represented in the gospels really sings in your soul, there is nothing to argue about.

Or maybe there is, a little. You can argue about the psychological and social impact of particular myths -- for example, virgin birth, which is ubiquitous in diverse mythologies and sacred texts.  In Christianity, virgin birth is bookend to the doctrine of the fall, which I regard as a really pernicious myth that fundamentally miscasts the human condition.

The intensity of my dislike of the fall meme has taken form through my ongoing if increasingly pointless internal dialogue with C.S. Lewis, whose mythopoeic force made Christianity at least partially imaginatively available to me for a few years. In his novel Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis imagines three intelligent species on a planet, Mars, that has never experienced a fall. Hence the differing social lives of the three species are uncorrupted by violence, fraud, injustice, self-inflicted suffering. The achievements are of our own society -- law, medicine, commerce, technology -- are memorably lampooned as byproducts of human depravity.

The imaginative depth of Lewis' depiction of three distinct species with different talents and personalities, none of which exploits any of the others, is really remarkable. Utopias that actually make a just and peaceful society imaginable -- and desired by the reader -- are rare and to be treasured. (Another one, underpinned by an equally if oppositely misguided ideology, is Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed.)

Yet what's behind this dream of an effortlessly just, God-honoring society? An answer lies in a fictional footnote to the novel, added by the hero ("Ransom") in a letter responding to the narrative produced by his friend ("Lewis") who has written up his story.  Ransom notes, among other facts of life pertaining to the species he lived with, "that their droppings, like those of the horse, are not offensive to themselves, or to me, and are used for agriculture" (p. 169, Macmillan edition, 1946).

So. An unfallen species would presumably not be inhabited by bacteria -- or maybe only by good bacteria that smelled like roses.  The conditions of our evolution and the fundamental realities of our biological being are causes for guilt, because we deranged them in our collective past ("mythical" or not). (Pair with this an earlier detail: the hrossa are not only completely monogamous, but mate only for a relatively brief season.  That's presumably because, as CSL explains elsewhere, the fact that human beings don't attend gastronomic stripteases in which dishes are seductively uncovered proves that something is fundamentally wrong with our sexuality.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Obama, the bully pulpit, and the battleship

For those of us juiced by the prospect that Obama might make comprehensive tax reform a focal point of the remainder of his term -- kicked off, as eloquently urged by William Galston, by a vision laid out in the upcoming State of the Union address, Matt Yglesias tosses some cold water in the soup ("juiced?" "soup"? -- never mind):
It sounds silly to call for less presidential leadership, but I think the evidence suggests that what’s needed here is actually a very vague and generic endorsement of the concept of tax reform plus some themeless pudding. Frances Lee’s important book Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate argues persuasively that what happens when a president tries to “lead” on an issue like this is that a dynamic of partisan polarization kicks in. What you really need to get tax reform is for some hard-working members of congress from both parties to take the initiative in hammering out a framework and building support on the Hill. If such a thing happens, the White House should of course try to play a constructive role. But jumping all over the issue and a creating a dynamic where tax reform becomes “a key priority for the Obama administration” that opportunists on the right want to kill for the sake of a political win would not be a constructive intervention.

That is food for thought (and I've ordered Lee's book). In rebuttal, I would point out that political vets seem in any case to be assuming that getting a tax overhaul enacted will be at least a three-year process, and that while "polarizing" the debate early by "presidentializing" it may slow that process, doing so may also a) help Obama politically, and b) improve the ultimate outcome, since his approach to revenue-raising, federal spending, and tax burden distribution is far more reality-based than the Republicans'.  Not that I'm saying Yglesias is wrong - who am I to game out political strategy?

I do think that Lee's observations go a long way toward explaining Obama's policymaking approach up to this point, however.  Obama's abdication of bully pulpit "leadership" at key moments has been so pointed that I think there's got to be a method behind it. The battle of the Bush tax cuts is the most recent example. Ever since the news of Obama's deal with the Republican broke, and I took in the list of stimulative goodies for the nonwealthy piled up on Obama's side of the ledger, I've suspected that the president may not have wanted the tax cuts for the top 2% to sunset right now. His silence when effectively invited to promise a veto of any bill extending those cuts has been deafening at least since September 9, when George Stephenopoulos asked him four times, and he demurred four times. Ever since the Republican landslide become a strong likelihood Obama may have been desperate to buy whatever stimulus he could while he could -- and the sunsetting tax cuts were his only currency.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Leadership alert: Obama's salute to Liu Xiaobo

To paraphrase (and mangle) Michelle Obama, every now and then I'm still proud of my country.  As in, this morning a little before 8:00, with a glance at the lede to this Statement by President Barack Obama:

One year ago, I was humbled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - an award that speaks to our highest aspirations, and that has been claimed by giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice. Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was.

What a two-stroke. The Chinese authorities call Liu Xiaobo a criminal. Obama raises his stature above that of the President of the United States.

The rest of the statement shows an equally agile, subtle, forceful approach to criticizing the Chinese government in public:

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bipartisan glimmers

This is very good (if unsurprising) news:
President Obama is considering whether to push early next year for an overhaul of the income tax code to lower rates and raise revenues in what would be his first major effort to begin addressing the long-term growth of the national debt.
Not surprisingly, given the emphasis of the deficit commission, the administration's nascent tax planning focuses on reducing "tax expenditures," i.e. the huge array of targeted tax breaks such as the mortgage deduction or, say, College 529 plans. Doing so would enable increasing revenues while lowering rates. (Obama suggested that he would eventually want to do this with corporate tax rates way back in June 2008.)

The chief contribution of Obama's deficit commission was to demonstrate that there is at least some potential to get some Republicans to sign onto the idea of raising revenue while cutting rates by reducing expenditures. Conservative senators Tom Coburn and Michael Crapo voted for the plan.

What may defang the idea of raising revenue somewhat for at least some conservatives is the possibility of considering tax expenditures to be what the name suggests they are -- spending.  As I noted while the commission's ideas were being floated, conservative commentator Heather MacDonald referred to cutting out tax breaks as cutting spending:

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Obama misrepresents his deal a little

I must say, as ballast to my applause burst for Obama's press conference defending his tax deal, that there is something false in the way he's framed the choice that faced him  - in his statement last night, in his press conference today, and his message to supporters cut for OFA.  His claim is that Democrats did not have the votes to break a Republican filibuster against sunsetting the tax cuts for the wealthiest, and that the only alternative to cutting a deal was to let taxes go up for tens of millions of Americans.

That is probably not true. Democrats have felt betrayed because it has seemed clear that if Obama had made it plain to Democrats in Congress that he would not countenance extending all the cuts, and if he had promised publicly to veto any bill that extended the cuts for the top two percent, that he would have prevailed -- and that if a standoff did ensue and all the cuts had sunset, a deal would have been struck about ten minutes into the next Congressional session. His "I had no alternative" plea does not ring true.

The real question, I think, is this. If you told Obama in, say, July or September, that he could have his way with the tax cuts, full stop -- or extend them for two years while extracting from the Republicans 13 months of unemployment benefit extension, a payroll tax cut, extension of his stimulus tax cuts for tuition and the earned income credit, and accelerated equipment investment writeoffs for businesses, which would he have chosen? A clean tax cut victory with basically no further stimulus to the still-sputtering economy, or hundreds of billions in relatively efficient stimulus at the price of $100 billion plus in inefficient stimulus?

I suspect that he did choose. Earlier than the current political narratives would have us think.

From placation to implacability

In quick peeks this afternoon, I skimmed news accounts of the president's press conference and of progressives'  heads exploding as Obama lambasted the "purism" and "sanctimony" of those who reject the compromises he's made. On paper, that attack did look cold and seem gratuitous.

I've just watched the whole conference, though, and I thought the whole was the best performance of his presidency.  If you crave fight, if you crave lines in the sand and statements of principle and defense of his record, it's all there.  There were at least three -- no, four -- macro-messages:
  1. Republicans' "holy grail" is tax cuts for the wealthy -- that passion defines the party;
  2. his own top priorities are (short-term) generating growth and jobs and alleviating the struggles of those harmed by the recession and (long-term) funding the linchpins of sustainable growth (education, R&D, infrastructure);
  3. his "compromises" to date have advanced those goals, which cannot be reached by seeking policy "purity";
  4. those goals can't be advanced long-term if Republican tax priorities become permanent policy; and
  5. because he understands and can articulate (has just articulated) all this, he will win the deferred tax cut battle in 2012 (or, I might interpolate, strike a grand tax deal before that deadline that constitutes the kind of "compromise" he defended).

Monday, December 06, 2010

Bringing home the borrowed bacon for the dispossessed

Like most progressives, I have been bitterly disappointed by Obama's refusal to use presidential power to force the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%.  It has seemed simple: had Obama announced in August, September, or even immediately after the election that he would veto any bill that extends the tax cuts for income over $250k per family/$200k per individual, Republicans would have either had to cave now or start over -- fast -- to salvage what they could of the expired tax cuts early next session. The notion that the GOP would then be able to blame Obama and the Dems for "raising taxes" seemed ass-backwards.

While Obama could have won the short-term optics, though, its appears that with the deal just cut with the Republicans he is betting, both substantively and in a two-year political play, on getting whatever he can to jolt the economy and relieve those who are hurting most. Further tax cuts for the top 2% -- and large cuts to the estate tax -- are inefficient, unjust, negligible stimulus. But 13 months of unemployment insurance extension is not. Nor is a payroll tax cut, or a continuation of the stimulus's tuition tax credit and expanded earned income tax credit, nor accelerated writeoffs for businesses' equipment investments.

What this amounts to is a messy, inefficient, hugely expensive extension of the stimulus -- the Times puts the price tag at $900 billion over two years.  But what Obama's won is some genuine stimulus -- and hence an enhanced shot at decent economic growth prior to the 2012 election, not to say income boosts for the middle and less-than-middle class to offset the latest giveaway to the wealthy.  None of that would have happened had he "won" the battle of the sunset.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

President, opposition leader come to terms on international pact

A distant echo of President Obama's struggles to get the New Start treaty ratified in the lame duck session without caving completely on Democratic domestic priorities can be heard in the deal struck on November 23,1994 between President Clinton and Senate majority leader-to-be Bob Dole to expand the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). 

Dole had by this point already told Clinton privately what Mitch McConnell recently proclaimed publicly: that his party's top priority was defeating the president's reelection bid. But the calculus on this issue was different from that of New Start.  At stake was expanding free trade, long a top Republican priority -- because also a top priority, as populist America-Firster Pat Buchanan pointedly noted, of their big business paymasters.  Today, by contrast, the goals advanced by New Start -- advancing nonproliferation, securing Russian nukes, assembling effective international coalitions and inhibiting Iranian nuclear weapons development -- are matters of apparent indifference to Republican leadership. A nearer analogy would be with the free trade agreement Obama just struck with Korea - presumably even the next Senate won't block that.

Still, the contrast strikes me as worth looking at on a few fronts. First, the GATT expansion contained a core provision -- subjecting the U.S. like all member nations to the international group's jurisdiction on trade disputes -- that today's GOP would doubtless demagogue to death, never mind the free trade pressures. Second, notwithstanding Gingrich's then-unprecedented radicalism and level of ambition for an opposition Congress, the "tone in Washington" was less extreme then than now -- the possibility of genuine negotiation still taken for granted and was in fact fulfilled.  There were, the Times reported, genuine concessions on both sides:

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Making the lenders pay

While Steve Randy Waldman's immediate target here is German bankers, the passage also suggests that Obama and his economic team deserve a measure of the voter disillusionment that just swamped them:
Those who overconsumed have mostly faced consequences for their misbehavior — they are either deeply in debt, or they have endured foreclosure or bankruptcy. But the people who invested absurdly, especially “savers” who lent money but permitted themselves ignorance and indifference to how their wealth would be mismanaged, have not suffered the costs of their recklessness. Instead, they have been almost entirely bailed out. It is lenders and investors more than any other group who determine the patterns of our macroeconomy. There are always people willing to overconsume or gamble on foolish enterprises. We do and must rely upon those with resources to steward to ensure those resources are used wisely. They did not, and their recklessness has brought us to catastrophe. But rather than condemn them for negligence and permit their claims to be appropriately devalued, we applaud them for “prudence” and let government action be bound by commitments to sustain their destructive and ridiculous claims.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The next Republican president

About fifteen years ago, as I've recounted perhaps one time too many, I read a biography of Eisenhower and it dawned on me that a) for Democrats to win every election was not only impossible but undesirable, and that b) my political perspective had hitherto been rather limited, since I not only had never voted for a Republican for president but could not imagine doing so. I began mentally testing myself: could I vote for a Republican? Under what circumstances? (Asking myself the same question now, looking back on my life as a voter, I could make a strong case for George H.W. Bush -- who expertly helped feather down the Soviet Union, rolled back Saddam's Kuwait grab, and took a major step toward the balanced budget achieved in the Clinton years.)

My timing was spectacularly bad.  I don't recall if this little epiphany occurred before or after the 1994 election and the full Gingrichization of the GOP.  But in the intervening years, the GOP has hardened into the party of unlimited tax cuts and unlimited deficits, reckless unilateral warmongering, relentless immigrant-bashing and destruction of core civil liberties.

In recent weeks, as I've watched Obama go into post-election remission while the Republicans seize the whip hand on the Bush tax cuts and shamelessly hold New Start hostage, a kind of mirror-mantra has taken shape: the country can't afford another Republican president.  That is, not until the GOP has been chastened by further electoral setbacks and forced to acknowledge a few elemental truths: you can't fix the structural deficit without increasing tax revenue, democracy can't survive nonstop further concentration of wealth, the U.S. can't remain the world's sole wealthy country that fails to offer universal healthcare or afford to leave medical inflation untamed, our response to every threat abroad can't be a unilateral preemptive strike, and our civil liberties can't survive long-term when the government sanctions torture and shreds the fourth amendment (Obama has helped sustained the latter outrage, but as long as Republicans bay relentlessly for terrorist blood, Democrats will never roll back  the all of Bush's infringements).