Archive for category National Politics
The media appear to have bought, without question, the White House line that the publication of the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan was accidental.
It might have been accidental; it’s certainly the simplest explanation. Someone puts together a list of military personnel meeting with the President during his
scandal-distraction photo-op visit. The station chief, being under cover, is on the list. The guy transcribing the list isn’t really paying attention, and he writes down the name, and sends it out to the press. He has an embarrassing “oops” moment, and then sends out another list without the name, which only succeeds in drawing more attention to him. You could completely see someone who’s been promoted beyond his level of functional literacy doing this.
If so, I can understand the reluctance to throw the poor schlub to the wolves, but a man’s life has been put in danger here. He can probably find employment elsewhere doing something. Too bad for his bureaucratic career, but I wouldn’t want to place anyone else’s life in his fat-fingered little hands.
And it might have been deliberate by whoever did it. I can think of a number motivations for an underling having done so. None of these is a good reason; people have been known to do all manner of damage while thinking that they were doing the right thing.
First, and basest, the leaker may have had a personal grudge of some sort against the station chief. It’s been known to happen. It’s also pretty much the single most unprofessional thing someone could do, and deserves swift and unmerciful punishment.
It’s also possible that the leaker had a professional complaint. Perhaps the station chief was obstructing some administration policy, or proving to be an effective voice in opposition to some policy change. Perhaps the CIA operation in Afghanistan as a whole was proving to be difficult to dislodge, or to move on some question. This is localized – and dirty – bureaucratic warfare.
It’s also possible that this is bureaucratic warfare of a more generalized kind. This administration has managed to centralize control of foreign policy to a degree unusual for any administration. One organization that steadfastly and successfully resists that kind of political centralization is the CIA, largely because of its finely-tuned skeleton sensors, and talent for exhuming bodies. By exposing the name of the station chief, not only would it throw the Agency off-balance at a key time, it would also send a message to other field officers that they aren’t safe, either.
Up until, oh, January of 2009, this sort of behavior would have been unthinkable. But then, up until January of 2009, having the FEC and the Attorney General coordinate with the IRS on the auditing and prosecution of political opponents would have been unthinkable, too.
When we had a real WH press corps, they would have considered those alternatives and asked questions about who did it. They certainly wouldn’t have meekly accepted an innocent explanation – especially from an administration with a track record like this one when it comes to explanations.
For a group that derides extended quotes as “transcription,” they’ve looked a lot like a White House transcription service for about 5 1/2 years now.
Jay Cost, prize student of the history of American political coalitions, writes (among other things), the following:
Facing the liberalism of today’s Democratic party, all factions of the GOP can usually agree on quite a lot. Virtually nobody in the coalition supports the Democrats’ efforts to increase taxes or federal regulations, especially when the beneficiaries are labor unions or the environmentalist left. Yet that unity can mask a historical irony: The rise of the modern left has pushed many of the country’s old political disagreements into the GOP. The skeptics of big government might once have been Democrats in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, but now they are joined with the heirs of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, who prefer to use the power of government to promote the private economy.
Considering how hot the conflict burned between these two forces when they were in different parties—the elections of 1800 and 1832 were particularly vitriolic—it is little wonder that today’s Republican establishment and its voting base can seem to hate each other more than they do the Democrats. Yet both sides must confront a stark reality: The American left is so strong today that neither half of the Republican party can do without the other.
The GOP has poached most of the conservative voters of the Democratic party. Those who remain committed to the liberal program are so numerous that the Democrats’ share of the vote is unlikely to fall below 45 percent, barring realignment. A united GOP, similarly, can count on about 45 percent support, meaning that politics today hinges on winning the support of that disengaged and unaffiliated middle 10 percent of the country.
Among those who would currently be identified in the “libertarian” wing of the party there are those who are, simply, advocating for their preferred view on these matters. But there are others, those who cry “RINO!” or “Ogre!” or complain about “voting for what you don’t want,” or talk blithely of how unimportant winning is. They tend to be either impatient or don’t do well with ambiguity. (This tendency isn’t limited to the libertarian wing, but I tend to see more of it from there. Bret Stephens’s recent column about Rand Paul is one example from the other side.)
There are others singing a siren song of purity, sometimes from outside the party, sometimes from inside. By focusing on disagreements, they would have others believe that Mitch McConnell has more in common with Barack Obama than with Ronald Reagan. (Come the fall of next year, they’ll be saying the same thing about Scott Walker.) Drawing sharp distinctions, using the old political sleight of hand that 99 is no better than 0, is useful if you’re drawing a line where more people are on your side than the other. Democrats do that, to keep the race-based portion of their coalition in line, by pretending that since personal color-blindness is impossible, the only alternative is to write race-obsession into law.
I don’t see much utility when it’s the difference between leading a party of 25% of the electorate and leading one of 45%. Of course, if you’re interested in “influencing” without the responsibility of governing, that might have some appeal; don’t count on too many people staying around more than a cycle for that party.
There are plenty of disagreements and frustrations within the Republican party. There are too many Republicans who aren’t willing to roll back the errors of the Left, and others who have compounded those errors with unforced errors of their own. But the main difference – between the grassroots and the establishment – goes back to the party’s origins. It’s reasonable to take the current Democrat party at its word, that it represents ideas meant to fundamentally transform America away from its founding ideas. As Cost writes, the internal debate within the Republican mirrors many of the historical divisions within the country as a whole.
Pretending that Henry Clay has more in common with Karl Marx than George Washington isn’t a route to being trusted with government.
Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton made a campaign appearance on behalf of
his wife the Clinton Global Initiative on the Jimmy Kimmel show. It was vintage Clinton, folksy charm on display even as he says the worst about his past, present, and future political opponents.
Kimmel: Do you think that this current climate, where the parties are so divided, and really have a difficult time working together on almost anything, is a temporary situation?
Clinton: I don’t know. But I think – here’s what I do believe. <pause> You know, I had a Republican Congress for six of the eight years I was president. And I had some of the same problems the president has.
One of the problems with young people, and with lower-income working people that have kids and trouble voting, is that they’ll show up in a president election, and if their candidate wins, they think that’s all they need to do. So then they don’t show up in midterms, when the Congress is elected – a third of the Senate in off-year elections, and all of the House of Representatives, and most of the governors, and state legislatures. So then they wonder why nothing happens.
So we have – the president and I – have talked about this a lot, about how the number one thing we gotta do is try to get voting up in the non-presidential years.
But I think it was easier for me to get cooperation in my second term, and remember, they were trying to run me out of town. And I just kept showing up every day like nothing had changed, and I just kept knocking on the door, and just kept trying to work with them, because that’s what people hire you to do, to get something done.
But it is – when you have economic adversity – and people are pessimistic and frustrated with their own circumstances, it is easier to polarize the voter. And I think you see that in other parts of the world too, that…
Like when the Arab Spring started in Tahrir Square in Cairo. All the young people that were in Tahrir Square were among the most impressive young people I’ve ever seen in my life. But the vast majority of people who live in Egypt live in rural areas, and were having a hard time keeping body and soul together, and the only organized political force there was the Muslim Brotherhood. So they won the election, and the young people never gave any thought to how they should form a political party, go out and campaign, have a program.
And that’s what happens in a lot of places. The young people Ukraine, in the square in Kiev, were immensely impressive, and they want a modern country that is not – despite what President Putin says – against Russia, but gets along with both Russia and Europe, and is a bridge between the two, which is what they want. But, the power brokers say no, you gotta be on our side or theirs.
That’s not what people want. But all these people, who have these feelings, who want to build modern, cooperative, prosperous societies have got to understand that no matter how distasteful they find politics, if you don’t play it, somebody will, and you will lose if you sit it out. And it always happens. You gotta suit up and play the game.
This is Clinton at his best/worst. He appears to blame situations rather than people, even as he then turns around and blames his opponents for creating the situations. And don’t be fooled by the dramatic pause and sigh at the beginning of his remarks. He knows exactly what he plans to say before he starts to say it, before he even walked out on stage.
The Republicans are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or both corrupt sides in Ukraine, manipulating the rubes who don’t know anything other than their own desperation. It’s a supremely patronizing view of the American people. And this, from a president of the party that has practiced unceasing class warfare and ethnic balkanization for well over a generation.
Remember, this is the president who blamed talk radio for the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton also hosted the gala retirement party for Julian Bond, who later famously referred to the Tea Party as the “Taliban wing of American politics,” so it’s fair to say he knows something about polarization and demonization.
He’s picked a couple of the most incendiary examples in recent world politics, which makes the comparison absurd. American political categories almost map onto British or Canadian ones, match up poorly with traditional European ones; they’re like fitting round pegs into watermelons for almost anything else. If he really wanted to make a political point, there are plenty of examples from American political history he could have drawn from.
Of course, it’s part of a pitch to get young people to vote this year, presumably pro-Obama, although recent polls have shown the bloom off that rose, especially among his youthful former supporters. Being forced to buy products they don’t want at prices they can’t afford will do that to people. Clinton will eventually say that it’s the mission of young people to vote, to rescue us from the curse of polarization.
Clinton has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and here he’s true to form. Young people and working class families with children “have a hard time voting,” when in fact, voting has never been easier. His timing here was off, although I suppose it’s not his fault that his appearance was scheduled for the day that North Carolina revealed that tens of thousands of its citizens had found it so easy to vote, they did so more than once. Egypt is not overwhelmingly rural; about 56% of its population lives in rural areas, although it’s true that that’s where the Muslim Brotherhood had been organizing for decades.
Perhaps the biggest whopper was one we’re going to hear a lot of, that Democrats lose mid-terms because young people don’t turn out. Moments before, he had been reminiscing about the Republican impeachment attempt of 1998. That was an off-year election, and Democrats picked up seats, in the 6th year of his presidency, and election that usually poisonous to the party in power. I guess his memory last night wasn’t any better than it was under oath.
While routine appearances by sitting presidents on late-night talk shows cheapen the office, appearances by former presidents serve to emphasize the Cincinnatus-like qualities of the office, since they appear as private citizens. They also show us, I think, that the presidency doesn’t usually change people, it just brings out their core personalities. And it’s often helpful to be reminded exactly what those personalities are.
Alan Grayson (D-Cloud Cuckooland), has long been given to weird and outrageous comments. A cursory search reveals many of them, including his speech in favor of Obamacare, claiming that Republicans “want you to die quickly.” Presumably this is to differentiate them from the Democrats who want to place in charge of your health care, a bureaucracy utterly indifferent to your fate.
Yesterday, he delivered one of the more stunning apologias for tyranny that I’ve been privileged to witness since the end of the Cold War, in his defense of Putin’s wrenching of the Crimea, and most of Ukraine’s Navy, away from Ukraine.
Now, you may say that he (Yanukovich) was thrown out of office for good reason. There are allegations against him that he was corrupt. There are allegations against him that he used the military against his own people to stay in power. But the fact is that from the perspective of the Crimeans, their leader, the one that they placed in charge of their country, was thrown out of power.
So it should come as no surprise, as Secretary Kerry recognized, that the Crimeans had had enough, and they wanted to leave this artificial entity called “The Ukraine.” Now, in fact, the Russians did assist. They assisted by disarming the local Ukrainian Army and Navy, that’s what they did, and they did it virtually bloodlessly. They did it so the Ukrainian Army and Navy could not interfere in the referendum that was held.
That’s the fact of the matter. Why are we pretending otherwise? Why are we speaking about “naked aggression?” Why are we speaking about “stealing Crimea?” Why are we speaking about bullying, or the new Soviet Union, or thuggery, or audacious power-grabbing, or “Bully-Bear Putin,” or Cold War II? I’m surprised that Judge Poe didn’t tell us that he was saddened that the Iron Curtain had descended over Sevastopol.
This fact is, as the Chairman has recognized, this is not some new Cold War that is occurring. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. We should be pleased to see – pleased to see – when a virtually bloodless transfer of power establishes self-determination for two million people somewhere in the world, anywhere in the world.
And in fact, what we’re seeing here, instead, is the vilification of Putin, the vilification of Yanukovich, the vilification of anybody who we try to identify as our enemy. Before that it was Saddam Hussein. Before, and since then, it’s been Assad. This does not help. The basic principle here is self-determination, that’s what’s happened in the Crimea, and it’s not for us to determine otherwise.s
These comments are best described by Mary McCarthy’s critique of Lillian Hellman’s writing. Others, such as California’s Dana Rohrabacher, opposed sanctions on the grounds that they wouldn’t serve US interests. That’s a debatable proposition, but at least it’s debatable, and the people putting it forward appear to live in the same universe as the rest of us. Grayson appears to have been starring in a trailer for an upcoming science fiction movie involving travel between worlds.
As noted before, Grayson has a history of this sort of nonsense, usually directed at Republicans, so it barely causes a ripple. If we had an actual media, they’d ask every Democratic member of Congress about Grayson’s absurdities, but there’s little hope of that.
There is, however, some hope that the voters of Florida will rid us of this turbulent representative. He was first elected, somewhat narrowly, Florida’s 8th District, in 2008, and then crushed by Republican Daniel Webster in 2010 in the same district. Redistricting seems to have given him a new lease on political life, as it put Webster in the 10th, and Grayson in the 9th, where once again, he was returned to office. Perhaps, after November 2014, with Obama having turned from aid to anchor, Grayson will once again have to find gainful employment outside of the public payroll.
At his Defining Ideas blog at the Hoover Institution, Richard A. Epstein has an important piece discussing the differences between classical liberals such as himself, and hard-core libertarians like Rand Paul. He does this in order to draw some important intellectual distinctions, but also to identify some areas where libertarians appears to be sidelining themselves on policy discussions:
The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design….
…Again, strong libertarians are on solid ground in defending (most) private contracts against government interference…. Yet the hard-line libertarian position badly misfires in assuming that any set of voluntary contracts can solve the far larger problem of social order, which, as Rothbard notes, in practice requires each and every citizen to relinquish the use force against all others. Voluntary cooperation cannot secure unanimous consent, because the one violent holdout could upset the peace and tranquility of all others.
The sad experience of history is that high transaction costs and nonstop opportunism wreck the widespread voluntary effort to create a grand social alliance to limit the use of force. Society needs a coercive mechanism strong enough to keep defectors in line, but fair enough to command the allegiance of individuals, who must share the costs of creating that larger and mutually beneficial social order. The social contract that Locke said brought individuals out of the state of nature was one such device. The want of individual consent was displaced by a consciously designed substantive program to protect both liberty and property in ways that left all members of society better off than they were in the state of nature. Only constrained coercion can overcome the holdout problems needed to implement any principle of nonaggression.
(I don’t think the ellipses have done any violence to the main thrust of Epstein’s argument, but of course, you’ll want to read the whole thing.)
This is neatly encapsulated by Walter Russell Mead’s statement that having the Interstate Highway System makes us freer. Epstein then goes on to provide concrete examples of the three classes of problems he cites above. On taxes, for instance:
The classical liberal thus agrees with the hard-line libertarian that progressive taxation, with its endless loopholes, is unsustainable in the long run. At the same time, the classical liberal finds it incomprehensible that anyone would want to condemn all taxes as government theft from a hapless citizenry. The hard-line libertarian’s blanket condemnation of taxes as theft means that he can add nothing to the discussion of which tax should be preferred and why. The classical liberal has a lot to say on that subject against both the hard-line libertarian and the modern progressive.
Hard-core libertarians will retort that classical liberalism as espoused by Epstein hasn’t done anything to arrest the historical drift in the wrong direction. I’d respond that the hard-core libertarians provide True North; indeed, it’s probably what Reagan had in mind when he famously said that libertarianism was the “heart and soul” of the Republican party. It anchors the discussion, and acts as a conscience in some ways to classical liberals by constantly asking, “How much freedom are you trading away, here?”
However, as Epstein shows, right now it’s engaged mostly in discussion with itself, and it runs the risk of isolating itself from broader policy discussion by being unable to talk in concepts that 90% of the country uses. This is what happens when hard-core libertarians insist that there’s “no difference” between the two major parties. Of course, there’s a difference, and libertarians know it. But for rhetorical effect, and to maximize their own leverage, they end up in effect arguing that there’s no practical difference between Progressive Leftism and Classical Liberalism, which is absurd. Some people end up buying this, but in the end, it’s self-limiting, because they’re just not using the same political categories as everyone else.
Listening to Ezekiel Emanuel try – on Obama’s behalf – to weasel out of the president’s infamous promise about our being able to keep our insurance and keep our doctors brought to mind this thumbnail sketch from Witness, Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography and exploration of the mentality of the Left:
…if that person fell from grace in the Communist Party, Harry Freeman changed his opinion about him instantly. That was not strange; that was a commonplace of Communist behavior. What was strange was that Harry seemed to change without any effort or embarrassment. There seemed to vanish from his mind any recollection that he had ever held any opinion other than the approved one. If you taxed him with his former views, he would show surprise, and that surprise would be authentic. He would then demonstrate to you, in a series of mental acrobatics so flexible that the shifts were all but untraceable, that he had never thought anything else. More adroitly and more completely than any other Communist I knew, Harry Freeman possessed the conviction that the party line is always right.
To some extent, all party loyalists are at risk of falling into the trap of defending something they had attacked before, or vice-versa. It is well that very few possess the ability to do so with full awareness of what they’re doing, and an utter lack of shame in doing it.
In 82 BCE, Sulla returned to Italy, and touched off three years of Civil War. By the end, he had killed tens of thousands of people, entered Rome by force, butchered thousands in civic buildings, and ordered the deaths of perhaps 5000 of the most prominent Romans. He not only broke the taboo against using legions against Rome itself, he killed pretty much any Roman who had even thought to oppose him, and many who hadn’t. As a result, he was able to leave office voluntarily, and wander the streets of Rome unprotected by any bodyguard. His reforms took Roman governing law back to the rules it had operated under prior to the rise of Tiberius Gracchus about 60 years earlier, while still trying to deal with the land and military issues that led to Gracchus’s rise in the first place.
Sulla used radical means to achieve arch-conservative ends. And yet, in the end, it was the radicalism that endured and the restoration that was forgotten.
To listen to the Denver Post, you’d think that the Colorado recalls were a similarly seminal moment in the destruction of our Republic. And some Democrats agree.
Whatever the merits of using unconventional, if perfectly Constitutional, means to achieve politics ends, the Democrats have no room to complain.
The Democrats are the party that invented changing the rules in the middle of the game, and it didn’t start with Harry Reid and the Magical Disappearing Rulebook, or the Florida Supreme Court’s creative ballot accounting.
This is the party that has, here in Colorado, weaponized vote fraud this past year. They’re the party who, in 2004, sued to allow anyone to vote a full ballot, non-provisional, in any precinct, without ID.
They’re the party that is suing its own citizens to overturn a 20-year-old Constitutional Amendment in order to raise their taxes without end. It is the party that filibustered its own redistricting bill because it preferred its odds in court to having to negotiate Congressional districts with the other party.
The Democrats are the party that passed out of the State House a bill to overturn the Electoral College, by joining an interstate compact without Congressional sanction. They cheerfully accepted out-of-state money for a popular referendum to apportion our Electoral votes proportionally, which would have reduced the value of winning the state from nine votes to one.
They sued to get an ineligible school board candidate declared “duly elected,” in order to have her disqualified, so that a favorable committee could appoint her successor.
It’s not as though Colorado Dems invented this game, they just learned it from their brethren elsewhere. They’re the party that popularized the recall election in Wisconsin, after occupying the state capitol failed to achieve the desired results. (I have half a mind to just blame this tantrum on recall-envy, given the different parties’ relative success in making the tactic stick.) There, too, they politicized a state Supreme Court election, in an effort to overturn the laws that caused the uproar in the first place. Most Wisconsinites weren’t aware that Supreme Court elections were partisan affairs, complete with allegations of physical assault.
In New Jersey, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg was only Senator at all because the party got a judge to agree that even though the law said they couldn’t replace Bob Toricelli on the ballot within 30 days of the election, it didn’t really mean it.
The Democrats will claim that this is just politics as usual, that the game is played by trying to change the rules on the fly. If so, it reduces the Republicans’ sin to one of not being sufficiently shameless.
In other words, of not being enough like Democrats.
Evelyn Gordon, at Commentary:
Answer: Never, as proven by Exhibit B–the administration’s silence in the face of an anti-Semitic slur against some even closer allies that same week. I’m referring, of course, to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s outrageous assertion that lawmakers are siding with Israel against Obama on Iran not “from any careful consideration of the facts,” but “from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”
Not only is this another classic example of the anti-Semitic “Jews control the world” trope, but many of the lawmakers whom Friedman accused of blindly obeying Jewish dictates rather than thinking for themselves are President Obama’s fellow Democrats, who have loyally shepherded his domestic agenda through Congress. Yet even so, the administration couldn’t be bothered to utter a word in their defense.
When an administration doesn’t see fit to condemn anti-Semitic slurs even against its closest allies–its negotiating partner abroad and congressional Democrats at home–you know anti-Semitism has attained the height of respectability. My only question is when all the American Jews who voted for this administration are going to wake up and start objecting.
This isn’t exactly the Coolidge Administration. Obama, Holder, and their underlings have no problem popping off on just about any subject they care about, so their silence here isn’t accidental – it’s carefully calculated to marginalize Israel, and if that means marginalizing Jews or readmitting anti-Semitism to polite company, it’s just eggs and omelets. Not like the President spent decades attending the sermons of an obviously anti-Semitic preacher, or anything.
It’s a commonplace to remember that William F. Buckley led the charge to rid conservatism and the Republican party of its anti-Semitic and paranoid elements, perceiving not only that they weren’t helping the cause, but that they were morally wrong. It’s long past time for some Democrat or visionary on the Left to do the same thing. The problem is, it’s hard to do this with a Progressive President in power, and when doing so would evidently offend so many other important client groups.
And unfortunately, we won’t hear much from Jewish Democrats about this. Too many of them have already decided they’re more Democrat than Jewish.
Harry Reid (D-Mendacity) continues the abdication of Senatorial privilege and responsibility to the executive with his mid-session revision of the Senate rules regarding nominations:
The partisan battles that have paralyzed Washington in recent years took a historic turn Thursday, as Senate Democrats eliminated filibusters for most presidential nominations, severely curtailing the political leverage of the Republican minority in the Senate and assuring an escalation of partisan warfare.
Saying that “enough is enough,” President Obama welcomed the end of what he called the abuse of the Senate’s advise and consent function, which he said had turned into “a reckless and relentless tool” to grind the gears of government to a halt.
While “neither party has been blameless for these tactics,” Obama said in a statement to reporters at the White House, “today’s pattern of obstruction . . . just isn’t normal; it’s not what our founders envisioned.” He cited filibusters against executive branch appointments and judicial nominees on grounds that he said were based simply on opposition to “the policies that the American people voted for in the last election.”
“This isn’t obstruction on substance, on qualifications,” he said. “It’s just to gum up the works.”
I can’t add much to what the redoubtable Dan Hannan said almost immediately afterwards during an interview on Fox News. He remarked that the president was lacking in one of the most important qualities of public service – the humility of the knowledge that you are passing through institutions that are bigger than you, and that changing the rules because you don’t get your own way is paving the way for what the Founders would have called arbitrary rule.
Of greater interest to me is why the President of the United States has anything at all to say about Senate rules is beyond me. I understand this is a president who feels the obligation to opine on just about anything, down to and including local criminal cases. (The singular exception to this garrulousness seems to have been the Iranian democracy movement in 2009.) But this is more than that. This is collaboration with Senate leadership to transfer more and more power to the executive branch. Over time, the Senate will find itself less and less able to exercise its role as part of a co-equal branch of government.
We already saw some of that during the 17% “shutdown” of the federal government, which affected so little of its functions that President Obama found it necessary to go out of his way to inconvenience citizens in order to remind them that there was actually a “shutdown” in progress.
There is no reason at all to believe that this is a temporary change. Since it can only be changed by the majority, it is hard to imagine circumstances under which the majority would cede additional power to the minority. Indeed, since the Senate minority’s leverage in any negotiation derives almost exclusively from its ability to filibuster, the incentive will be for the majority to continue to roll back the filibuster from more and more cases.
The one bright spot is that three Democrat senators, Manchin (WV), Levin (MI), and Pryor (AR) voted with the Republicans. Since the Senate has traditionally operated in a less party-line fashion than the House, there’s some hope than in a future negotiation, some majority members might be persuaded to restore nomination filibusters as the price for votes on some other issue. If the Republicans don’t take the Senate back in 2014, though, we’ll be looking at a Decade of Reid, and an increasing number of younger senators who will long not with nostalgia, but with contempt, at the more collegial days gone by.
Harry Reid has been consistently willing to shrink the Senate as a body in order to cede power to a friendly president. He may have responsibilities to a president of his party. Even in the 1950s, Allen Drury would write in Advise and Consent that the Senate Majority leader’s job was, in part, to pilot the President’s program through the Senate.
But Harry Reid is not Prime Minister. He’s Majority Leader of the US Senate, elected by the Senate Majority, with responsibilities to that body that extend beyond any transient partisan advantage he can gain by ceding them to the President.
Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. There will be a great deal written about the speech itself, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack.
In 1982, Jacques Barzun was invited to give the Annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, on the anniversary of the Address, to Gettysburg College. His topic was “Lincoln’s Philosophical Vision,” and he broke it down into three parts: everyday life, ethics and morals, and man’s place in the universe. I can’t find the whole speech online, but there is much in it that is relevant to today’s politics.
The fanatical temper on either side springs from the philosophy opposite to perspectivism – the philosophy of absolutism: according to it, once an important purpose has been adopted, nothing must stop its immediate carrying out – and damn the consequences. Such thinkers are proud of their “principle” and they forge ahead thinking it is the only principle in the case.
Lincoln was a man of principle, too, but he understood how to handle principles – in the plural – in a world of actuality. Just one year before the war broke out, he plainly told his first great audience in the east that he thought slavery wrong and that there was “no middle ground between the right and the wrong.” But he went on to say: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?” Lincoln wanted to stiffen resistance against the compromisers such as Senator Douglas, who was “groping” for “sophistical contrivances” that would in the end perpetuate slavery.
The lesson here is to beware of what absolutists call principles. Principles necessarily take the form of abstract words… Such words…lack contents you can name, concrete reference to the world of fact and behavior. That is the reason why the great English writer Dorothy Sayers said, “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.” Her conclusion follows from the absolutist temper…Of such stuff are made the idealist, the crusader, the revolutionist. He not only wants instant gratification, but he is also ever-ready to believe that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly; he is incapable of saying with Lincoln, “the southerners are just what we would be in their situation.”
And, as importantly:
One more word must be said about pragmatism by way of introducing the second part of Lincoln’s philosophy. The word pragma, a Greek root, means “the thing done,” the upshot. Pragmatism therefore means the doctrine that all human thought is fundamentally directed at doing, at some desired action, now or in future. The pragmatic test asks: What concrete difference would it make if this idea or that idea, this policy or that policy, were taken as the true one? It is the test that mankind has used for thousands of years in accumulating what we call the truths of experience.
Lincoln was above all a practical politician, who wanted to work within the existing political system to effect change, but wasn’t willing to let its limitations be its demise. He was also one who sought to understand where the other guy was coming from, even as he understood the profoundly moral nature of politics.
The deep irony of the current age is that President Obama, who pretends to Lincoln’s mantle, has based his entire political outlook on believing that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly, and being willing to say so, loudly and longly.
At the same time, there’s a small but loud group of Republicans who reject Lincoln’s pragmatism in the name of principle, without realizing that life often consists of sorting out conflicting principles.
The anniversary of that short, profound, complex speech couldn’t come at a better time.