"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 31, 2012
POLITICS: A Further Response To Avik Roy on Establishments
My original essay on the current divide between the GOP "Establishment," on the one hand, and the Tea Party and other anti-Establishment factions, on the other, sought to explain the leading issue (the growth of spending and the size of government relative to the private sector), the proximate cause (the loss of trust that the GOP Establishment would make a serious effort to stem this tide) and the underlying history that led to the wide fissure currently visible in the party and the movement on the Right. As I noted in my followup essay, the loss of trust in the Establishment over spending is by no means the only such divide, but it's the one that has brought longstanding tensions out in the open and has overcome the natural tendencies of Republicans and conservatives to defer to authority, hierarchy and gradualism. The break is not a sudden onset of irrationality, as some would have us believe, but an entirely rational response to a long and depressing history of failure to check the growth of federal spending, the federal entitlement state, and federal regulation, leading us to the point where our private sector can no longer carry the burden of a perpetually growing public sector.
This observation has led me into an argument with Avik Roy, a senior healthcare fellow at the Manhattan Institute, professional healthcare analyst and healthcare writer at Forbes and National Review, who insists that conservative voters who have lost faith after some six decades of unkept promises by Republican candidates to stem the tide of growth in government spending and regulation should continue to trust that this time, the promises of such politicians will be different because they have white papers and proposals that would lead to "entitlement reform" (note that Roy nowhere promises that any such reforms would actually reduce the ratio of public expenditure to private production). Roy relies on a false comparison: the fact that not all anti-Establishment candidates for office have offered substantive solutions to the growth of entitlement reform, whereas an ideal Establishment candidate would do so.
This is a straw man argument, and one that continues to ignore history, Congressional dynamics, the basics of negotiation and the actual facts of the current Presidential race. In fact, Roy's analysis is impractical and detached from reality. The practical reality is that, without pressure and leadership from the anti-Establishment wing of the party, nothing will get done. And the long and dolorous history of prior efforts to restrain spending, entitlement spending and regulation amply justifies the mistrust of Establishment figures who offer purely theoretical solutions and refuse to take political risks to make them a reality.
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Here is how Roy frames his preferred approach to reducing spending:
The ideal candidate, in fact, combines thoughtful policy proposals, persistence in the face of partisan opposition, wisdom in picking the most productive political battles, and the ability to persuade moderates and liberals to join the cause.
This sounds good in theory - I might phrase it rather differently, but that's not far from how I'd formulate the best way to get major legislation passed - but the problem, as I have noted previously, is a persistent GOP failure to follow through on doing this to reduce federal spending.
In response to my point that Republicans have only once (in the case of welfare reform pushed by Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s, accompanied by reductions in federal spending as a percentage of GDP) ever actually made any headway in doing anything of the sort, what does Roy choose as his example of how his preferred approach would work in practice? Obamacare. I swear I am not making this quote up:
Did President Obama loudly campaign for single-payer health care in order to pass Obamacare? Quite the opposite: he sought to reassure voters that nothing would change for them. What succeeds in politics is to persuade moderates of the moderation of your positions, while laying the groundwork for longer-term structural reform.
The most cynical Democratic partisan would have difficulty coming up with a more tendentious retelling of the passage of Obamacare. As anyone who followed politics in 2009-10 could remind you, Obamacare was passed on a strict party-line vote, in an act of pure political muscle over the objections of an outraged citizenry, via a combination of procedural shenanigans, obfuscation of the contents of the bill, and bald-faced bribery. Nor did Obama obtain the large majorities needed to enact this show of political force by the methods Roy suggests; his victory in 2008 was triggered primarily by a financial crisis having nothing to do with health care, by public fatigue with his predecessor having nothing to do with health care, and by appeals to the "historic" nature of his racial identity as a candidate having nothing to do with health care.
There are three basic models for pushing major legislation. At one end of the spectrum is cooperation, which happens when both sides of the aisle have a common goal, and must put aside partisanship and mutual suspicion to work towards it. At the other - represented by Obamacare - is annihilation, which happens when one side wants something the other cannot possibly agree to, and wins by gaining sufficient power to make changes without the other party's consent (this is not necessarily improper - elections have consequences - but it becomes problematic when fleeting majorities are used to enact permanent changes). But a lot of legislative business falls in the middle ground: negotiation, what happens when the two sides have opposing interests but it is not impossible to move one or the other off their intractable opposition.
Roy seems to believe that reductions in federal entitlement and other spending can be achieved through cooperation, but this has no basis whatsoever in reality. Anything that reduces federal spending is diametrically opposed to the interests of the Democratic Party. Oh, you may be able to find the odd Democrat willing to offer bipartisan cover, but look at how the party responds to Ron Wyden's tepid efforts at outreach:
[H]is critics - and they are legion in Democratic ranks - say he's a political opportunist promoting himself at the expense of the party and its values.
At the opposite end, I would agree with Roy that annihilation of the Democrats' power of resistance on Medicare reforms is unlikely and not even necessarily desirable, as the example of Obamacare suggests how unstable a program can be when the opposition party, backed with majority public support, remains dedicated to overturning the result.
That leaves negotiation, which is ordinarily how the sausage gets made in Washington and most state capitols: one side has the votes to get close to the goal line, then uses a combination of public pressure, threats and inducements to drag out enough bipartisan support to get a bill passed. Roy's analysis, in addition to ignoring history and the current situation on Capitol Hill, fails to grasp the essentials of how a negotiation works.
As anyone who has ever participated in a negotiation knows, you bring the other side to the table by having positions that are both strong (you stand firmly on something clear and defensible) and credible (it's believable that you would go to war for your position). Maybe you get everything you want, but if you don't, standing on principle is a position of strength. It's a truism of political brinksmanship that candidates who campaign on principle deliver compromise; candidates who campaign on compromise deliver squat. If you advertise your willingness to take a deal, any deal, you get what George H.W. Bush got in 1990: the tax hikes Democrats wanted, and a bunch of illusory promises in return about meaningless budgetary firewalls. The historically minded will remember that it was this deal that catapulted Newt Gingrich to prominence as a critic of Bush's betrayal of his "read my lips" pledge.
A candidate who is unwilling to make the case for a principled position on the campaign trail is unlikely to convince anyone in a negotiation that he will stand on that position - he will get rolled the same way Mitt Romney got rolled in the health care negotiations in Massachusetts. Which is precisely how my argument about trust relates to the current presidential race. On the one hand, you have Newt Gingrich, who has a record of actually accomplishing entitlement (welfare) reform; Newt had his successes and his failures negotiating with the wily Bill Clinton, but he at least has has the experience of not coming away from the bargaining table empty-handed. (As Erick has noted, George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir that the Clinton White House was within 24 hours of caving to Newt on the government shutdown when Bob Dole caved and cut a deal for a separate peace.) Newt has been willing to talk about his substantive proposals on the stump, and despite the many reasons why a Newt campaign seemed implausible, his audiences have come away impressed by his substantive policy detail.
On the other hand, you have Mitt Romney, who campaigns in gassy generalities, recites his favorite patriotic songs on the stump, is quick to attack from the left any opponent who has the temerity to suggest entitlement reforms, and promises his audience:
"I understand a few of you here are on Medicare. Is that true? [Laughter]
This is not exactly how you build a mandate for entitlement reform.
Roy somehow manages to survey this landscape, ignore the actual records in office of Romney and Gingrich, ignore both candidates' behavior on the trail, and pronounce that "[o]f the four Republican Presidential candidates who remain standing, the one who most comprehensively lacks the qualities [needed to accomplish spending cuts and entitlement reform] is Newt Gingrich." Roy seems to have forgotten his own critique of Ron Paul, a critique I agree with: "Ron Paul votes against everything, knowing that he can, because his votes are inconsequential. Indeed, Paul actively detracts from true entitlement reform by claiming that we can balance the budget solely by slashing defense." But even that aside, the fact that Romney is unwilling to sell voters on the need for, or benefits from, entitlement reform is proof positive that he is the candidate least likely to muster any popular consensus for anything other than massive tax hikes to prop up the system. At least Gingrich has a record of getting things done on Capitol Hill, a realistic sense of how to do so, and a willingness to take his case to the voters.
Roy's proposed recommendation for conservative voters unwilling to trust Romney's approach is to talk about Mitch Daniels, who is not even running. I like Mitch Daniels and respect what he's done in Indiana, although I soured on him as a presidential candidate because he didn't seem interested in running (and ultimately didn't run), because he had a tin ear for major factions of the party such as social conservatives, and because his monotone delivery seemed unlikely to keep the public engaged in listening to him. If we're talking hypothetical candidates, it may be my Northeastern-Irish-Catholic-lawyer speaking, but I'd prefer the approach of Chris Christie, who tells hard truths bluntly and confrontationally and wins the public's respect by his willingness - like that of Newt, and unlike Romney - to engage in substantive argument about both policy and political philosophy.
(You don't need Christie's eloquence to follow this model; Scott Walker has gotten a lot done in Wisconsin by a willingness to take large political risks and the iron resolve to back them up at the negotiating table).
What's more, Christie illustrates the real difference between getting significant reforms passed in a naturally red-leaning environment and a more politically difficult climate. The hardball of Washington today, where annihilation has made cooperation nearly extinct, is far more comparable to the challenges of governing a state as fractious and divisive as New Jersey than it is a state that has voted for a Democrat presidential candidate just twice since 1940. There are many things to like about restrained leaders of the past - but as politics has become more combative, and the press more willing to peddle falsehoods for their favored side, their utility on the national stage has decreased. I'm uninterested in a candidate who brings a white paper to a gun fight.
I have no doubt that Roy believes, in good faith, that simply embracing thoughtful written proposals and working with the same old personnel is sufficient to bring about bipartisan compromise in the nation's best interests. But six decades of American political history argue that his solutions are doomed to grief without significant changes in the GOP's willingness to do political combat to restrain spending. Anti-Establishment voters may not always have candidates equal to that task, but they nonetheless represent the last, best hope for forcing our political system to face the crisis at hand before it is too late.
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January 25, 2012
POLITICS: Establishments and Our Money: A Response To Avik Roy
Following my essay on the nature of the Establishment vs Tea Party or Outsider divide on the Right as driven primarily by a divide over whether and how we can roll back the seemingly endless growth of spending and the size of government, a number of people offered criticisms. Some noted that there are longstanding divides between the DC-based professional class (officeholders, staffers, pundits and journalists who have a direct stake in particular people having political power) and those outside. Which is true and a contributing factor (as any student of public choice theory could tell you), but not new, and in any event self-defeating definition: if the people in power are definitionally opposed to those without, then new elections are purposeless exercises. History tells us otherwise: the professional class may restrain and co-opt, but there are always those officeholders (new and experienced) who are willing to stick their necks out for genuine changes in the long-term trajectory of public policy. Others pointed to the cultural divide such as the one that Angelo Codevilla identified in his 2010 essay distinguishing between a Ruling Class and a Country Party. Codevilla's analysis is certainly a useful part of the debate, and is another longstanding fault line that laid the groundwork for the current schism. But it doesn't really reflect why now, at this time, conservatives are willing to lock horns with the organs of Republican and conservative leadership that, in the Bush years, commanded a good deal of loyalty from the rank and file - willing enough to line up cheering throngs of responsible citizens behind the most unlikely of 21st century populist champions, Newt Gingrich.
The most sustained critique comes from sometime National Review contributor Avik Roy, writing in Forbes. Roy calls Redstate a "bastion of populist conservatism," which is true even if I'm not exactly anybody's idea of a populist. He says that Ben Domenech is "one of the best conservative writers on health care issues," which is certainly true, and faults the rest of us at RedState for not developing "serious proposals for entitlement reform," in contrast to NR's columnists - which should be unsurprising to Roy if he thinks about the fact that most of us have day jobs, to say nothing of the fact that RedState's principal role is activism rather than think-tankery.
Roy seems most upset at my references to National Review, which is a shame, because as I said I have nothing against NR, and I agree with Roy that NR as a whole still provides an awful lot of good punditry, analysis and advocacy (and I remain a big fan of many of its long-time writers); I was just trying to explain precisely why so many people on the Right were agitated at it. In any event, Roy misses some crucially important points that undermine his entire argument.
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To begin with, Roy completely ignores everything that has happened on Capitol Hill since, well, ever. There's a reason I started by citing the Boehner-McConnell divide as the front lines of the current schism, yet Roy doesn't even bother to discuss the current dynamics in Congress, let alone the long and dolorous history of efforts to get Congress to restrain the growth of spending, entitlements and the size of government.
This is related to the larger failing in Roy's analysis, which is to equate having position papers with being serious about reform:
National Review has been the leading source of detailed conservative proposals and thoughtful conservative opinion on entitlement reform. People like Yuval Levin and Jim Capretta, who write regularly for NR, have effectively dedicated their careers to the cause of entitlement reform.
The rhetoric of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum may be less inflammatory, but it is backed up with real proposals that stand a chance of getting passed by an actual Congress.
As anyone with a passing familiarity with Republican politics over the past four or five decades knows, conservative magazines and think tanks have been making detailed entitlement reform proposals for most of those years, and Republicans running for offices high and low have been running on platforms of reducing the size and cost of government for just as long. And then nothing happens.
That's why Congress' battles over the debt ceiling and related issues provide such a potent example. Basically all Republican Senators profess to be in favor of smaller government, and yet so few are willing to go to the barricades to make it a reality. Now, I'm a realist - there are limits to how much we could expect even a completely united GOP to bring home as long as Obama is the President and Harry Reid the Senate Majority Leader. But the repeated spectacle of leading pundits and Beltway Republicans tut-tutting Boehner and company for even trying to use their leverage to exact real concessions is a sign that the message Republican voters have been sending is not getting through to everyone.
(I will leave aside for the moment the detailed arguments over policy alternatives, except to make the obvious point that, to the extent Roy is framing of the debate as one about deficits and how to "fix Medicare" and "compromise with the dastardly forces of statism" with plans like Ryan-Wyden rather than how to reduce the overall footprint of public spending in relation to the private sector economy, he is illustrating rather than responding to my argument.)
The related point here - and one that says much about why RedState has put so much energy into intra-party primary battles rather than the production of white papers - is that personnel is policy. The ideas are already there; what is lacking is the necessary corps of people with the will to fight for them. As the other presidential contenders have faded by now, in the case of the presidential race I'll focus at this point on Romney (the candidate who unquestionably has drawn the most loyal support from elected officials, NR editorials and other spots on the commanding heights of Republican politics) and Gingrich, who I previously identified as a sort-of-Outsider (albeit not as fundamentally as Rick Perry) and who has (like Perry) drawn a disproportionate amount of scorn from people who you might think of as allies to his cause.
It's true that if you plow through Romney's gazillion-point plans you will find things worth fighting for. The problem is convincing anybody that Mitt Romney, of all people, would actually go to the mattresses to get them done. Besides noting that "Romney is saddled, as we know, with Romneycare," Roy gives the element of leadership short shrift, yet it is at the center of the disquiet with Romney and his actual record in office. It's why it is troubling to see talk from Romney backers about replacing rather than repealing Obamacare, and positively alarming to see senior Romney advisor Norm Coleman say
"We're not going to do repeal. You're not going to repeal Obamacare... It's not a total repeal... You will not repeal the act in its entirety, but you will see major changes, particularly if there is a Republican president... You can't whole-cloth throw it out. But you can substantially change what's been done."
Gingrich, as I have noted before, is an odd fit with the anti-Establishment movement he now finds himself leading, not only because he is so long inside the Beltway and so steeped in its ways (albeit with a nearly endless list of enemies there) but because he's not fundamentally a small-government guy. But the anti-Establishment, Outsider, Tea Party movement appears to be rapidly consolidating behind him as a vessel to stop Romney for reasons that are hardly irrational: Newt is a fighter and an iconoclast by temperament and a powerful spokesman for conservative ideas, but he's also a guy with an actual record. As Newt loves to note, the 1996 welfare reform is the closest we've come to actual government-shrinking entitlement reform in living memory. Newt spearheaded a national reform that took millions of Americans off the welfare rolls, cutting caseloads in half by 2000; Romney created an entitlement to add about 400,000 people to the taxpayer-subsidized pool in Massachusetts alone. And, as Josh Kraushaar notes, Newt on the stump is a good deal more substantive in his presentation than Romney. (This is one reason why Newt won out over Rick Perry, an experienced and knowledgeable governor who was never able to communicate his accomplishments and understanding of public policy to voters). Voters may be looking skeptically at campaign promises as opposed to records in office, but they very rationally view a candidate's willingness to verbalize strong positions as a necessary predicate to carrying them out.
Roy goes on to say:
Conservatives have a well-earned suspicion of anything that comes out of the Northeast, and of Ivy League-educated coastal elites in general. The thinking goes that, since most Northeasterners and Ivy Leaguers are liberals, the so-called conservatives who come out of these places must be liberals also. Conversely, conservatives who come out of red states must be true conservatives.
As a lifelong New Yorker and Wall Street lawyer with an Ivy League law degree, I may not be the best target for Roy's caricature, but even aside from that, it's pretty clear that most Tea Partiers understand perfectly that the ability to fight for real change is not about what state you come from but what you do to move the needle in the place you serve. Chris Christie, though basically a moderate Republican, has become a cult hero for his willingness to play hardball with public employee unions; ditto Scott Walker in the Land of LaFollette. I'm hardly alone among current Newt supporters in having once backed Rudy Giuliani for President, because Rudy made major, lasting changes in New York City's liberal governance that made the city a better place to live - Rudy may have unraveled as the 2008 campaign wore on, but his status for much of 2007 as the national polling frontrunner based on his actual accomplishments in office implies a more nuanced view of the movement that has now swung, at least for the moment, behind a Ph.D. historian.
The point of my essay was not to denounce anyone, but to explain the history and depth of the current popular distrust on the Right of leaders who seem unwilling to lead. The battle to restrain runaway government spending is so much smoke and mirrors unless the people who profess to support it in word are dedicated to it in deed. No wealth of position papers, endorsements and Power Point presentations can demonstrate that. Voters and activists who have figured this out are rightly skeptical of those who don't seem to "get it". And they are more than willing to embrace flawed champions - even such a creature of the Beltway as Newt Gingrich - if they demonstrate the willingness to actually do something to stop the runaway train of federal spending. Every time some Beltway figure calls Newt or some Tea Party candidate crazy, voters think again, "he might actually be crazy enough to upset some applecarts to get things done."
The world of the Right is not divided into pure heroes and villains on this issue, and more than a few people and institutions with as many or more accomplishments in the movement as Newt Gingrich have fallen out of favor (as Newt himself did more than a decade ago), for growing too comfortable with an overgrown Washington - they've lived long enough to see themselves become the villain, and the voters have moved on.
Because it's not about heroes and villains. This is democratic self-government, not theater. It's about results.
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January 24, 2012
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson at Radio City Music Hall, 1/21/12
I try to write up here every concert I go to. I've written more than enough about pop singer Kelly Clarkson lately (most recently here; 2009 concert review here), so I will be brief; my wife and I saw her show at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night.
Radio City, if you haven't been there - I'd previously only been there for the Christmas show - is a fantastic concert venue, at least if you prefer good sightlines and great acoustics and comfortable seating to intense, sweaty mosh pits. It's probably second only to Jones Beach among the concert venues I've attended. Like the Empire State Building, Radio City has retained the style of the 1930s, to the point where you feel like you're in an old movie stepping through its doors - a perfect fit, in some ways, for Clarkson's retro nature as a wholesome entertainer and traditional vocalist; the theater is built like the inside of a 1930s-era radio. Clarkson overflowed with kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm for playing there, openly whooping and hollering at how excited she was and mentioning that she'd never even been inside the place before.
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The Opening Act
Clarkson had one rather than two opening acts this time around, pop/rock singer Matt Nathanson, who is touring with his first album since 2007's Some Mad Hope. My wife had that album and I listened to it and only liked a few songs, so I was pleasantly surprised when he opened with the one I did like, To The Beat of Our Noisy Hearts. His new material includes more upbeat stuff in that vein, to the point where we'll probably pick up the album. He was talkative and at ease, and yet another reminder how even many male singer-songwriter types these days are influenced by Bono as vocalists.
The Main Event
It's never possible to recapture the magic of the first time you see a musician in concert, and this show was different in a number of ways from the Clarkson show we caught in 2009. The overall presentation was much more upscale and professional, losing along the way some of the rough charm of Clarkson's sweaty, bare-bones rock show on the last tour. The crowd, given a weekend show in a larger, pricier venue, was heavier with families, although as with the last show we were surrounded by a number of large, burly gay men. The stage was well-lit this time, including a blinding strobe light for Let Me Down, the song off her latest album with a John Bonham-sized beat. The horn section and DJ were gone (I missed the horns, but they didn't go as well with this album's material), replaced by a third backup singer, and Clarkson was a little thinner and better dressed, but still as chatty and self-effacing as always. She joked about still being single as well as making reference to her penchant for feuds and hell-hath-no-fury songs, noting that I Forgive You, one of the songs off her latest album, is clearly one she could not have written. Clarkson, typical of her attitude towards criticism, entered to a series of graphics of harsh media and internet jabs at her, including immediately preceding her entrance with huge red lettering declaring her "FAT," something I'm quite sure other female pop stars would not embrace.
It's a mark of Clarkson's confidence in the depth of her setlist by now, almost a decade into her career, that she played one of her biggest hits, Behind These Hazel Eyes, as the show's second song, and her signature hit, Since U Been Gone, as the third. On the whole she ended up playing 7 of the 17 songs on her new album (my wife was rather miffed that there weren't more) off her new album, Stronger, which may well be her best and certainly her most 1980s-influenced. That includes her hit country duet with Jason Aldean, who appeared as a 15-foot-tall hologram.
Clarkson has matured tremendously as a vocalist over the years - on the whole, maturity suits her well - and she put that and her famous versatility to great use doing a variety of covers: rock with Florence and the Machine's Heavy in Your Arms (on which Clarkson's voice is a great improvement from the dreary Florence Welch), country with a heartfelt, bluesy version of Carrie Underwood's ballad I Know You Won't, Broadway with the Funny Girl tune My Man (Clarkson's taking requests on this tour over Twitter, and got a request to sing something Broadway), and a special tribute to the recently-departed Etta James (whose standard At Last Clarkson had sung 10 years ago in her original American Idol audition), with a cover of her blues song I'd Rather Go Blind. And as usual, she reworked some of her own stuff, redoing the blazing rocker Never Again as an anguished piano ballad. And she also offered an unreleased track, You Still Won't Know What It's Like, that she'd written on a trip to a South African orphanage.
I'd Rather Go Blind:
Heavy In Your Arms:
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January 23, 2012
POLITICS: Rush Limbaugh: "Newt is a vessel"
If you want to understand what Republican primary voters are thinking in flocking suddenly to Newt Gingrich, nobody is closer to those voters than Rush Limbaugh. I highly recommend you read Rush's explanation of what the voters are seeing in Newt right now and what he has to do in order to seal the deal with them going forward. Sample:
Let me tell you why Newt Gingrich won South Carolina. Let me tell you why he's coming on. It is 'cause he is able to articulate conservatism, nothing more. John King, Juan Williams, could have asked any other Republican the same questions they asked and they would have shriveled away in abject fear and defensiveness. If any of the Republican candidates had the same life story as Newt, or had said the same things about food stamp president and all that, Juan Williams' question to Romney wouldn'ta helped Romney. John King setting up Romney, if Romney had three ex-wives and one of them was saying he wanted an open marriage, would not have mattered. It wasn't those questions. It was that they asked somebody who can articulate conservatism.
Which is a large part of why my preferred candidates - Pawlenty and Perry - fell by the wayside; Pawlenty wasn't willing to take the fight to Mitt Romney face to face, and Perry was seen as unable to properly communicate. Of course, Newt doesn't just have rhetoric; he has a record, with real accomplishments both political and legislative, and the scars to show for it. That's a point I've made repeatedly: voters can and should want candidates who have proven the willingness and ability to put themselves out there and take heat for their positions. Newt's record has - as Rush notes - plenty of flaws in it as well, but as Phil Klein neatly summarizes, the difference between Gingrich and Romney is that Romney really has no such earned good will to fall back on.
UPDATE: Ace has some wise words for Romney.
January 22, 2012
POLITICS: Three States Down, 47 To Go
The basic dynamics of the 2012 GOP nomination battle remain unchanged: the bulk of the GOP electorate doesn't want Mitt Romney, but isn't really sold on an alternative. Iowa's voters broke late to Rick Santorum as the conservative alternative; South Carolina's broke late, and much more decisively, to Newt Gingrich. It remains up to Newt now to prove he can hold together the conservatives going forward, as Santorum was not equipped or financed well enough to do.
It's worth noting here the raw numbers. While the categories don't perfectly describe the candidates or their supporters, it has been generally true that Romney and Jon Huntsman have appealed to the more moderate Republican primary voters; Gingrich, Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to the more conservative voters; and Ron Paul to the libertarian voters. What we see in the first three states is that in South Carolina, as in Iowa, the conservative vote was a majority:
Iowa: Conservatives 53%, Moderates 26%, Libertarians 21%
There will be other states - possibly including delegate-rich California and New York - that will more nearly resemble New Hampshire's profile; there will be states where Newt is not on the ballot (Virginia), where Romney has a home-field advantage (Michigan, Massachusetts, Utah), or where the confluence of caucuses and a large Mormon population favors Romney (Nevada). But at the end of the day, regardless of desperate efforts to prop up Santorum, it is hard to see any of those structural/organizational factors overcoming the core question: either Newt will unite the conservative vote, or Romney will have to earn a share of it away from him. Which has always been how we needed to pick a nominee. However you describe the GOP "Establishment," our nominee can and should only be one whom the primary voters - however reluctantly - have decided after reflection and stress-testing to nominate.
Florida won't be the last test of this, given Romney's money and organization advantages there, but it will be the first serious one. In Churchill's phrase, South Carolina was not the end, or the beginning of the end; it marked the end of the beginning.
-Efforts to prop up Santorum to help Romney, here and here
January 17, 2012
POLITICS: What The Republican "Establishment" Really Means
There's been a lot of talk, maybe too much talk, about the struggle between the GOP "Establishment" and "Outsiders," sometimes - but sometimes not - meaning the Tea Party, however defined. There are many fault lines, wheels within wheels, that divide different groups on the Right, but it's time to clarify the core issue that has people of perfectly conservative temperament and ideology scratching their heads at their own constituents. After all, we're conservatives: establishments are a good idea, a necessary intersection of tradition and meritocracy, giving undue weight to neither and co-opting dangerous ideas about revolution and radical change. What's so bad about that?
The answer is a simple one: it's almost entirely about spending. The current trajectory of American government spending is one in which spending by government in general, and by the federal government in particular, just keeps on growing as a share of the economy, further and further crowding out the space occupied by free private citizens and businesses in the private sector. Worse, much of this happens automatically, without the consent of the governed in any but the most perfunctory way: discretionary spending is designed to grow because budgets are set by using the prior year's spending as a baseline, and entitlement and public employee benefit spending - which consume a far larger share of spending - grows by itself in the absence of any affirmative legislation to stop it. The federal government has not passed a budget in nearly 1,000 days (President Obama's State of the Union speech will mark the 1000th), yet spending has continued to grow, and will continue to grow as far as the eye can see - a dramatic change in our country taking place on auto-pilot - unless dramatic action is taken in response to stop it. Jack's magic beans have nothing on public spending.
And the growth of spending bleeds over into every other issue. Federal spending comes with strings attached, and those strings reduce the independence of the states and burrow the arms of the federal octopus ever further into the area of social policy. Institutions like churches, schools, and hospitals become hooked on federal money, and have to dance the federal tune. Spending gets earmarked and targeted to favored people, businesses and groups, making society less equal and government less ethical. Spending distorts energy markets, housing markets, and markets for higher education, creating bubbles and inefficiency. And that's before we even get to the metastatic growth of federal regulation. And eventually, runaway domestic spending saps our ability to adequately fund our national defense.
There is general philosophical agreement among both Republicans and conservatives about all of this. Where the fault line lies is in exactly how far we are willing to go to do something about it. Many people who got into politics as good conservatives, and still think themselves good conservatives constrained by the limits of practical possibility, are at a loss when it comes to meaningful ways to tame Leviathan. For reasons, some good (the need to use political power to protect national security, preserve control of the courts and restrain regulatory overreach), some less so, they have thrown in the towel on the central issue of the day. That is who we speak of as the "Establishment." Others - not always with a sense of proportion or possibility, but driven by the urgency of the cause - seek dramatic confrontations to prevent the menace of excessive spending from passing the tipping point where we can no longer save room for the private sector. They are the Outsiders, the ones challenging the system and its fundamental assumptions. The analogy of a Tea Party is an apt one: the Founding Fathers had much in common with the Tories of their day, but disagreed on a fundamental question, not of principle, but of practical politics: whether revolution was needed to protect their traditional rights as Englishmen from being eradicated by the growing encroachments of the British Crown. As it was then, the gulf between the two is the defining issue of today's Republican Party and conservative movement.
In short, the real "Establishment" and "Outsider," "anti-Establishment" or "Tea Party" factions are not about who is conservative or moderate, or who is inside or outside the Beltway or public office, or who has fancy degrees or a large readership/listenership or attends the right cocktail parties or churches, or even necessarily who has or has not supported various candidates. The term "Establishment" is used and abused in those contexts, but invariably describes only a division of passing significance. The real battle between the Establishment and the Outsiders is between those who urge significant changes in our spending patterns as a necessity to preserve the America we have known, and those who are unwilling to take that step. It is, in short, between those who are, and those who are not, willing to take action in the belief that the currently established structure of how public money is spent is unsustainable and must be fixed while it still can if we are not to lose by encroachments the all the other things Republicans and conservatives stand for.
In a way, the division between confrontation and accommodation with the growth of the public sector is one that dates back to the 1950s, and the historical origins are useful in understanding why National Review, in particular, has found itself caught in the crossfire between its editors and its readership. The great GOP debate of 1933-1956 or so was how to react to the New Deal: try to moderate its excesses, or assault its premises. Dwight Eisenhower, in the long run, won the battle within the party in favor of the former; William F. Buckley, jr., in the long run, won the battle within the conservative movement in favor of the latter (hence the slogan "standing athwart history, yelling 'stop!'"). Yet even Buckley and his magazine spent more effort combatting the status quo in national security policy than on the size of government.
From Goldwater's failure in 1964 to Reagan's victory in 1980 and Newt Gingrich's victory in 1994 and failure in 1995-96, the common thread has been that conservatives win arguments about cutting taxes and restraining domestic discretionary spending, but lose arguments about dismantling the entitlement state created by FDR and LBJ and the auto-pilot budget-bloating processes of the 1970s. George W. Bush cemented this consensus in 2000-05: he could get the public behind cutting taxes and (sort of) restraining the growth of discretionary domestic spending but couldn't get the public behind Social Security reform and was only able to get elected in 2000 by promising - then delivering in 2003 - a pricey new Medicare prescription drug entitlement. It seemed at the time that conservatives would have to content themselves with winning battles on taxes, national security, social issues/the courts and occasionally discretionary spending, but couldn't challenge the status quo on the entitlement state and its compulsory collectivist impulses.
Then we got the multiple whammies of 2006-2011, which collectively pushed a lot of people on the Right from a position of accepting that they might be naive about how much change was possible, to being determined that the Establishment was naive about how long the old system could stand:
1. The Congressional GOP got swamped in the 2006 and 2008 elections, casting doubt on the long-term electoral viability of a strategy of modest ambitions in restraining spending, as well as spotlighting the ethical hazards of co-existing with massive federal spending.
2. The U.S. financial crisis left the federal and state governments in an immediately and visibly horrible fiscal position, bringing a renewed focus to the fact that entitlements (both citizen entitlements and public-employee benefit entitlements) would have brought us to this pass eventually and were only getting worse - a fact that otherwise-moderate public officials like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels were able to exploit to get significant public support behind rethinking the social contract between government and its employees, if not its constituents.
3. The U.S. fiscal crisis paled in comparison to the fiscal crises of Europe. The horrible position of Greece in particular was a radicalizing event, as observant Americans were presented with a vivid example of how an entitlement state unravels. And the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in the summer of 2011 cracked the complacency of those who assumed such things could never happen here.
4. More broadly, the financial crisis shook the faith of people throughout American society in our leading institutions, public as well as private. It made many people less trusting of experts, and less easily soothed by appeals to the status quo. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its own way, underscored the fact that the center was fraying from both sides. The growth in support for Ron Paul is likewise a symptom of this dynamic.
5. Barack Obama got elected and pushed the most dramatic expansion of the universal-entitlement state in memory on healthcare, destroying the illusion that Republicans could hold the line by being reactive and awakening many previously sleepy citizens to the danger of comprehensive, compulsory national policies dictating the details of our daily personal lives.
6. The war - the glue that had held together Bush's coalition - first turned politically toxic in 2006 and then began to recede in importance, almost immediately after both parties chose their presidential nominees in 2008 primarily on the basis of their positions on the Iraq War. Without the war as a unifying political force, it was no longer possible to convince spending hawks to set their concerns aside for the greater good.
7. The success of some - but by no means all - Tea Party candidates in the 2010 elections laid bare the fact that a lot of voters out there were open to the idea that possibly the whole structure of the federal government's relationship with the voters was unsustainable.
Where do we go from here?
The Establishment vs Outsiders dynamic has manifested itself most clearly in the various battles John Boehner - to his credit, despite being temperamentally and by experience a classic establishment figure himself - has attempted to wage on budget issues, most of which have ended with him surrounded and outmaneuvered by a de facto alliance of the Obama Administration, Harry Reid, and most depressingly Mitch McConnell. A line of battle is only as strong as its weakest link, and Boehner has repeatedly gone into battle without being able to depend on McConnell and the Senate GOP to hold his end of the line, making his negotiating position untenable. For the most part, the House-Senate divide has not been about ideology, but about tactics, and the Senate Republicans simply have not been willing to go as far as the House. This is precisely what I mean by "Establishment."
The small but determined Outsider faction in the Senate, led by men like Jim DeMint and Ron Johnson, will need reinforcements, and all the moreso if - as discussed below - we end up with Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee and possibly the next President. This is why I have stressed, here and here, the importance of continuing to build a counterweight within Congressional GOP to whatever emerges from the presidential race, in particular unbeholden to Romney, and with particular focus on wresting control of the Senate GOP from its current accomodationist leadership. The results thus far have been mixed, although Jim DeMint's refusal to endorse a candidate before the South Carolina primary is at least a start.
The White House
The presidential race, of course, has been a great disappointment. Of the remaining five candidates, the two Texans are truly anti-Establishment, but one (Rick Perry) has struggled to get traction and is not (despite his impressive record) a particularly persuasive spokesman, while the other (Paul) is limited by the many other ways in which he is unacceptable to the Right and unworthy of significant office. The two Northeasterners are classic Establishment figures on spending: Mitt Romney's entire career (like that of his father) embodies the Eisenhower-era approach of accommodation, complete with his signing of a huge, costly new entitlement in Massachusetts; while Rick Santorum is in many ways tempermentally more of a populist outsider, his career ended as part of the Senate leadership that lost its way and then its offices in the run-up to 2006. Both have attracted vocal, overlapping cheering sections dedicated to arguing that the tiger must be ridden. In the middle we have Newt Gingrich, who as I have written before, is a mixed bag on these issues; Newt is a believer in finding less confrontational ways to start unraveling the entitlement state, but he's not fully a small-government guy, and your view of the weight to be placed on his successes and failures in this area may vary.
The contrast can be illustrated by the responses at last night's debate by Santorum and Romney to Gingrich's plan to offer voluntary private accounts as an opt-out of the Social Security system for younger workers. Santorum:
[Newt's plan is] irresponsible. And I say that against Newt because there's nobody for the last 15 years that's been more in favor of personal savings accounts than I have for Social Security. But we were doing that when we had a surplus in Social Security. We are now running a deficit in Social Security. We are now running a huge deficit in this country.
Rick is right. I - I know it's popular here to say, oh we could just - we can do this and it's not going to cost anything. But look, it's going to get tough to get our federal spending from the current 25 percent of the GDP down to 20, down to 18 percent, which has been our history. We've got a huge number of obligations in this country and cutting back is going to have to happen. I know something about balancing budgets.
Santorum and Romney plainly both recognize that Newt's proposal would be good for younger workers, but Santorum argues that we need to keep them trapped in the current system to pay for other people's current benefits, which of course is the self-fulfilling cycle that keeps the system impervious to reform. This is the rationale of Romneycare and Obamacare - compelling individuals to subsidize a collective program - and why such programs are so hard to uproot once they have been in place for a while. More crucially, what both Santorum and Romney are missing - both with regard to Santorum's pleas for delay and Romney's offering of an alternative savings system on top of Social Security - is that we already owe benefits to current recipients, no matter how we fund them, but an opt-out system would prevent us from accruing further obligations to younger workers who would then be self-financing their retirements, changing the system gradually from a defined-benefit to a more actuarially sustainable defined-contribution system, as most private employers have in the past few decades and as even state and local governments are beginning to realize they must (Romney, surely, would recognize this if he was dealing with a private business). This is the fundamental philosophical argument that needs to be made if we are going to persuade the American people not only that the spending and entitlement crisis is real - something the public is prepared to accept - but also that the GOP has a more sustainable long-term answer to fixing it so it does not recur.
At present, with Romney in the lead, it seems highly likely that whatever the outcome, the 2012 presidential election will be an enormous lost opportunity to educate the American public on the nature of the crisis and build a mandate for confronting it.
Perhaps even more depressing has been the extent to which conservative commentators in general, and National Review in particular, have seemed eager to join not only the pro-Romney faction but the counterreaction more broadly against the "Outsiders" and their effort to shake the status quo on spending and entitlements. Thus, we get suggestions that Romney as President should raise taxes on the middle class by "lowering the floor for the top tax bracket" and preserve parts of Obamacare within a new comprehensive national system rather "than to have an emotionally satisfying but probably unwinnable fight over repeal per se." This would be disastrous in many ways, not least symbolically: no federal entitlement program has ever been repealed wholesale, and the fact that a repeal of Obamacare would be shocking to the system is precisely why - in addition to its fiscal impact - it would be such significant progress in beginning to regain control over the system. And even worse than the economic and partisan impact of a GOP-sponsored middle-class tax hike is the extent to which raising taxes is official Washington's longstanding solution to avoiding facing the spending problem. NR still employs a number of wonderful conservative and/or Republican writers who serve an important purpose in the world of political journalism, but that purpose is no longer the one that many of its readers so clearly want: a sustained and serious voice of resistance to an Establishment that is unsustainable. Which may say a good deal about why RedState's following has grown apace these last few years: our corps of mostly volunteer contributors generally can't match the resources and output of NR or The Weekly Standard (which to be fair has never positioned itself as an anti-Establishment outfit), but we're giving voice to a message a lot of people want and need to hear and act on.
The future, if Washington (in particular the Obama Administration) doesn't cut off its freedom of movement entirely, lies in the states, in the example of greater or lesser reforms pursued in Wisconsin, Ohio, Louisiana, Florida, Indiana, and to some extent New Jersey (where the problems are worse) and Texas (where there was less to reform). The states can provide models not only on the wonkier question of how to fix government's finances, but on the far more significant underlying question of how to win and lose battles to persuade the public that meaningful change can wait no longer. The front lines in the states are primarily battles over public employee pensions, but important as those battles are, they are a dress rehearsal for the larger and more bitter fights to come over entitlements.
The specific outlines of those changes will continue to be debated, but the Republican Party will continue to be riven internally by a collision between the Establishment and the Outsiders until we have resolved the fundamental question of whether or not we are truly serious about spending and entitlements. If you know where you stand on those questions, you know which group you belong to.
January 13, 2012
POLITICS: The Romney Reader
I keep meaning to update and summarize my 2007 opus on Mitt Romney, but for now, here's a bookmark post that collects the links.
The five part 2007 series on Romney:
From 2008: Why I backed McCain over Romney
From 2012: On Romney, Bain and Keeping Your Integrity
January 12, 2012
HISTORY/WAR: Iran 1953
Amir Taheri brings some perspective to the myths surrounding the CIA's involvement in Iran in 1953, one of the talking points most cherished by Communists, Islamists and Chomskyites these past several decades (all of whom use basically the same propaganda script), and most recently Ron Paul and his acolytes. One of the key points is the extent to which Mohammed Mossadeq precipitated the crisis - much like the crisis a few years back in Honduras - by taking a variety of extralegal steps that presented a grave threat to the existing legitimate government of Iran.
January 11, 2012
POLITICS: An Open Letter to Jim DeMint
Dear Senator DeMint:
By the numbers, we are yet very early in the presidential primaries. 1144 delegates are needed to sew up the nomination, and depending how you count these things, Mitt Romney has maybe 13 delegates after finishing Iowa in a de facto tie with Rick Santorum and thumping Ron Paul in New Hampshire last night. But presidential primary races are often about perception: like wars, you more often win them by convincing the other side that further resistance is futile than by total, to-the-last-man annihilation. And so the coming South Carolina primary is widely recognized as the last realistic chance to stop Romney, or at least visibly slow his momentum and eliminate the divisions among conservative candidates that have thus far precluded a unified opposition. Romney has been lining up endorsements (including SC Governor Nikki Haley), money and favorable press from conservative journalists to create an air of inevitability that he hopes will end this race by Florida, if not South Carolina. I think it is fair to say that a great many grassroots conservative activists view the prospect of a Romney candidacy with varying shades of dismay.
We may yet, indeed, be stuck with Romney. And I know you were one of a good number of conservatives to endorse him in 2008 as a tactical move to stop John McCain, so the pull of some consistency (as well as longstanding disagreements with Rick Santorum) must be drawing you back to support him again. But even if we do end up with Romney - indeed, especially if we do - it will be terribly damaging for the conservative movement if you endorse or in any way assist him while there is still a race on. Let me explain why.
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President George W. Bush was perhaps the third-most-conservative president of the past century, behind Reagan and Coolidge, and he commanded significant conservative loyalty for his wartime leadership, tax cuts and social conservatism. But we knew going into his nomination in 2000 that Bush was no friend of small government. In the shadow of war and later a financial crisis, Bush was able to pressure many otherwise conservative Republicans in Congress to back a lot of most un-conservative measures, most notably the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. In this, Bush has the help of GOP leadership, as men of conservative inclination and accomplishment like Santorum and Tom DeLay twisted arms to get conservatives to fall into line. Even if these moves were individually defensible under the circumstances, collectively they badly corroded the GOP's small-government brand, contributing significantly to the loss of Congress and many Governorships in 2006 (including Santorum's 18-point loss and Romney's unwillingness to stand for re-election that year). What was needed, and what only began to emerge with your leadership late in Bush's term, was some voice inside Congress standing up for small government within the GOP.
We have made great strides since then together; the Tea Party movement has sent many conservative reinforcements to Congress, some of them at the expense of long-tenured Republican officeholders. But the battle even within the GOP for smaller government and entitlement reform is far from over.
Mitt Romney, as well all know, is not and never has been a Tea Party or small government conservative; indeed, his signature achievement in his one term in public office was passing a Ted Kennedy-backed universal health care plan that moved the most Democratic state in the nation to the left on healthcare and laid the groundwork for Obamacare. For Romney to win election against Barack Obama, something else will need to be done to motivate the grassroots activists who make up the Tea Party and related movements inside and outside the GOP. And for anything positive to be accomplished in getting our financial house in order during a Romney presidency, there must be an independent body of conservatives not beholden to Romney to apply pressure on him to pull him to the right. If there is one thing we know about Romney is that he is responsive to external pressures in making political and policy decisions. But if Romney's position in the party is secure and unchallenged, he will never have to give conservative concerns another moment's thought, and will look - as he did in Massachusetts - leftward.
One by one, the organs of conservative journalism and activism and the leaders of Republican officialdom have begun placing themselves in Romney's orbit. If they will not stand up to him now, how will they do so later? And how can we convince dispirited activists that their concerns will still be represented in Romney's Washington?
The answer, if we end up resigned to Romney, is that they will look to you. For now, we can still sell a message to the grassroots: elect more conservatives to the House and Senate, and they will keep Romney honest - with conservatives like Jim DeMint as their leaders. The goal of doing so will help us all: it will keep not-Romney activists motivated to vote and organize and donate at the House and Senate level, most of whom will then hold their breath and vote Romney as well, knowing they have done their part to provide a meaningful counterweight.
But the more those activists see interviews in which you seem to be feeding the pro-Romney inevitability narrative - much less actually endorsing the man - the more they will conclude that you are ready to play Tom DeLay to Romney's Bush, and that the lessons of 2006-10 will be completely forgotten in the new Washington. That would be a terrible shame, and poisonous to our ability to keep alive an independent movement that stands for something besides Mitt Romney's political advancement. Don't surrender your independent credibility when it will be needed most. We are ready to continue the good fight, but we can't do it without leaders.
« Close It
January 10, 2012
POLITICS: On Romney, Bain and Keeping Your Integrity
We're far down the rabbit hole of primary season right now, and that inevitably means that charges and counter-charges are flying so fast that the news cycle can change dramatically from morning to afternoon. Naturally, when things are moving this quickly and emotions are running high, people get carried away. This happens to everyone. A lot of people who sit on the sidelines are too quick to say, "oh, so-and-so totally lost credibility with me by making that argument." But candidates and pundits in particular are making arguments all day long, day after day; they're going to grab hold now and then of a story they should know better than to believe or an argument they should know better than to make. Like anything in life, the test of character is not the occasional stumble but the long sweep of your record over time - whether you back off when you've dug into an untenable position, whether you learn from mistakes.
This comes to mind with yesterday's confluence of attacks on Mitt Romney's business record at Bain Capital and his ill-timed quip that "I like to be able to fire people." To varying extents, the Gingrich and Perry campaigns and their supporters jumped all over him on both counts. A pro-Newt SuperPAC is rolling out a 27-minute documentary attacking Romney's Bain record; as Erick notes, Perry's campaign has been pushing a more modest line of attack against the Bain record, but still one that has something of a whiff of desperation about it. Perry's camp also pushed a downloadable ringtone of Romney's "fire" line. With time and some context, both campaigns backed off hitting Mitt on the "fire" comment: Perry's people pulled the ringtone, and Newt told Fox News that the line had been taken out of context.
The "fire" comment is the easier call. Romney was making a completely valid point: that people should be able to fire service providers like insurance companies if they're not getting good service. That's one of the pro-consumer aspects of the conservative message, and where we part company from liberals who think first of protecting entrenched interests at the expense of consumer choice. That being said, the comment fed directly into the most damaging narratives about Romney, and was emblematic of how he's much like Rick Santorum in terms of his tendency to use cringe-inducingly tin-eared language when he's making even valid points.
The Bain storyline is a little more complicated, in part because there are a lot of angles to Bain's business; while Romney's record, as Jim Pethokoukis notes, includes a lot to be proud of, as Jonathan Last notes, you don't have to necessarily take that business record as a whole if there are aspects worth defending and aspects worth criticizing. A fair amount of what businesses like Bain do is to step in and take over businesses that are in bad shape. We have an ongoing debate in this country about what to do with failing businesses, but denying they're failing is not an option - either you shutter or restructure them or you prop them up, and that raises the question of who gets stuck with the bill for propping them up. One of the great scandals of the past 5 years, which has given rise to the Tea Party and to some extent the Occupy Wall Street movement as well, has been the extent to which the answer to that question has been the taxpayers.
So, I don't like seeing pro-free-market Republicans attacking the concept of what Bain does, any more than I liked seeing Romney attack Rick Perry from the left on entitlements. But just because the role of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists is a crucial and necessary one does not mean that they are likely to be popular candidates in today's general election environment. Criminal defense lawyers, for example may be crucially necessary to our system of justice, but if they have represented a lot of unpopular clients, they are not likely to be politically viable. I continue to think that Romney's business record is an under-explored political vulnerability (one Ted Kennedy used against Romney in 1994, but didn't even use all the ads he cut) that the Democrats will exploit ruthlessly. And Romney's existing defenses of that record are fairly weak. We should not be caught unawares by this in the summer and fall when it's too late to pick another candidate. In many ways, it's like the swift boat story. You'll recall that the centerpiece of John Kerry's electability argument in 2004 was his military record - not any policy proposal on national security, mind you, but the simple fact of his biography as a war hero. Given that Kerry had decades-old enemies from his activties as an anti-war protestor, it was unwise for Democrats to assume that this biographical narrative alone would go unchallenged in the general election. But that's exactly what they did, and the Swift Boat Veterans' ads (especially the ads using Kerry's own Senate testimony from 1970) did terrible damage to Kerry.
Romney's story is much the same. There's no serious argument that Romney's record of supporting free enterprise and job growth in his single term as Massachusetts governor is better than the records of Perry, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman; his claim to be a job creation specialist is grounded in his record at Bain, and just like Kerry's war hero biography, this claim is bound to attract scrutiny. It would be foolishness in the extreme for Republicans to demand that nobody talk about this during the time when we're choosing a candidate. The harder question, for free-market Republicans, is how to have a serious debate on this point without compromising our integrity and our principles.
The fear that Bain, and Romney's wealth (by birth as well as his business wealth) will be a political liability is hardly fanciful. Look back over the years at the list of wealthy Republican candidates who put their wealth ahead of their limited records in public office. The California GOP has had the worst record: Bill Simon, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Michael Huffington, and Bruce Herschensohn all flopped. The positive example is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proved a disaster for California conservatives in office. Simon, a good and decent man and fairly conservative, faced an opponent with approval ratings so terrible on Election Day that he was recalled just months later - yet the Democrats tore Simon limb from limb with attacks on his private business record. Republicans in other states or at the national level have often found such candidates to be electoral failures or totally unreliable in pursuing our party's principles in office: Herman Cain, Mike Bloomberg, Carl Paladino, Linda McMahon, Jack Ryan, Pete Coors, Pete Dawkins. (Ron Johnson and Rick Scott being rare exceptions, and Scott only won after a searing campaign against his business record). An understanding of private business is a valuable thing for public officials, but it's no substitute for experience pursuing good public policies; Jon Corzine was a success in business before he ran New Jersey into the ground, and the most successful businessman ever to be president was Herbert Hoover. It's entirely valid for Republicans to ask whether we are buying ourselves a similar set of headaches with Romney.
The other point I would make about integrity is that it goes close to the core of why a Romney nomination worries me so much: because we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about 8 years' worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue of this campaign. Yes, Obama is bad, and Romney can be defended on the grounds that he can't possibly be worse. Yes, Romney is personally a good man, a success in business, faith and family. But aside from his business biography, his primary campaign has been built entirely on arguments and strategies - about touting his own electability and dividing, coopting or delegitimizing other Republicans - none of which will be of any use in the general election. What, then, will we as politically active Republicans say about him? I was not a huge fan of John McCain's record, but I was comfortable making honest points about the things McCain had been consistent on over the years - national security, free trade, nuclear power, public integrity, pork-barrel spending. There were spots of solid ground on which to plant ourselves with McCain, and he had a history of digging himself in on those and fighting for things he believed in. But Mitt Romney's record is just one endless sheet of thin ice as far as the eye can see - there's no way to have any kind of confidence that we can tell people he stands for something today without being made fools of tomorrow. We who have laughed along with Jim Geraghty's prescient point that every Obama promise comes with an expiration date will be the ones laughed at, and worse yet we will know the critics are right. Every time I try to talk myself into thinking we can live with him, I run into this problem. It's one that particularly bedeviled Republicans during the Nixon years - many partisan Republicans loved Nixon because he made the right enemies and fought them without cease or mercy, but the man's actual policies compromised so many of our principles that the party was crippled in the process even before Watergate. We can stand for Romney, but we'll find soon enough that that's all we stand for.
The problem is not entirely without its solutions; one of those is that the only real mechanism conservatives would have for keeping Romney honest is to pour efforts into getting more conservatives elected in the House and Senate, and in particular targeting primary challenges at people who have supported Romney. But that's a desperate measure, and it still doesn't answer the question of how we make the affirmative case for Romney without losing our integrity. Which is precisely why we need a hard look now at what we're getting in return.
January 9, 2012
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame 2012: My Ballot
The results of the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot will be announced this afternoon at 2, and expectations are that Barry Larkin will be the sole candidate elected. There being no pitchers on this year's ballot worth discussing that I haven't beaten to death in years past (short summary: no on Jack Morris, no on Lee Smith), let us a take a look at the non-pitchers.
I've already laid out my case for Tim Raines by comparing him to the other tablesetters in my December 2007 Hardball Times column here and for Barry Larkin and against Alan Trammell in my January 2007 THT column on the middle infielders here. I touched on Javy Lopez, new to this year's ballot, in my January 2009 column on the catchers. In my first column in the series, in January 2006, I discussed the case for Fred McGriff and sort of for Bernie Williams, and against Tim Salmon, Dale Murphy, and Don Mattingly. To complete the picture you can check out my April 2010 column on the third basemen, which endorses the Veterans Committee's latest selection, Ron Santo.
Utiliizing the same methodology from those columns - that is, excerpting the "prime" seasons for each hitter and translating them into a common offensive context (you can get the details explained in the THT columns), let's put the whole lot of them in a chart with a number of of the other sluggers of the past 30 years (I included some but not all of the tablesetters, third basemen, middle infielders and catchers for additional context). They are sorted by the "Rate" metric (using the context-adjusted numbers, I multiplied SLG * OBP * Plate Appearances per 162 scheduled games) - obviously you then have to modify that with the things not included in the Rate (baserunning, double plays, fielding, and team/postseason successes) as well as bear in mind how many seasons each player is rated on and how many other more modestly productive years he had. It's a rough metric, but the basic concept of rating Hall of Famers mainly on their prime years is one I feel strongly about.
For most of these guys, picking the prime years is easy - in a few cases, like Palmeiro, Manny, and Sheffield, you could debate going a year or two more or less, but it doesn't affect the analysis much. But a couple of the candidates can be sliced in different ways. Raines and McGriff both had the same career pattern: a slightly shorter 8-9 year peak of superstardom, followed by a long tail of being a good but not great everyday player, followed in Raines' case by a 3-year coda with the Yankees as a successful and productive platoon/role player on a championship team. This has the unfortunate effect, especially since both players' latter years were much higher-scoring, of people forgetting how dominant they were at their peaks. Bagwell's career path is a better version of the same, with his best 8-year stretch being out of this world. Then there's Edgar, who was an absolute offensive monster for 7 years; the two years after that were good enough that I included them above, while the prior 5 included some great work (his 1991 batting title) but also a lot of time lost to injury. I include 3 different cuts on Edgar so you can judge for yourself.
My short answer is that of the 14 or 15 serious candidates (I say 14, discounting Tim Salmon), there are 2 no-brainers: Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. I realize Raines doesn't stick out as well on this chart as when you compare him to the other tablesetters, but when you roll in his very high-value base thievery, few GIDP and longetivity, I think he clears the bar easily. There's one more to me who is a fairly easy call: Fred McGriff. As I've said before, among the shortstops I go with Larkin and not Trammell, and among the pre-1994 sluggers I find Mattingly's and Murphy's prime years too short,
Then you get to the PED-era sluggers. Realistically, there's actually not a huge gulf between a number of the guys on this ballot who make it, and those who don't. Some just were healthier, more durable, in circumstances more suited to their talents than others. And that's precisely why the PEDs are such a big issue.
A brief digression, since the issue is unavoidable. I'm sort of in the middle on a lot of steroids debates. I reject the simplistic argument that steroids are of no help to performance in baseball. I find something suspicious in, especially, the unique aging pattern of Barry Bonds, and there is no question that Mark McGwire in particular used PEDs to help him get healthy again in the second half of his career. And while I understand why people expect more of baseball players, I accept the argument that there's never been a true age of innocence in Major League Baseball. And I'm sick of the agendas on all sides of the debate. In the end, for a variety of reasons, I say we ignore PEDs, put in the guys who got the job done on the field, and let the arguments follow.
Setting that aside, I start with Palmeiro, who was a paragon of consistent productivity for 12-13 years. To me, the fact that his teams could bank on his performance is a huge factor.
At the other end you have Juan Gonzalez and Larry Walker, Gonzalez with Hall of Fame power, Walker with a more complete package of skills. But you see them even below the less glamorous Tim Salmon on the chart because neither had the in-season durability over their primes. So, an easy no on Gonzalez, Walker and Salmon.
That brings us to the three hard cases: McGwire, Edgar and Bernie. I do think setting them next to the other sluggers of that era is helpful - whether we know it or not, we're already setting the stage for what we will do when Thomas, Thome, Helton, Manny, Giambi, Sheffield, Sosa, Griffey and Edmonds get on the ballot. Poor Albert Belle already got stampeded off the ballot, despite the fact that his offensive prime tops any of those guys but Thomas and Bagwell by this measurement.
Bernie, like Griffey, gets a leg up for being a center fielder (a good one, albeit with a bad arm), and of course for being one of the core players on a legitimate dynasty. I'm inclined to vote yes on Bernie, even though that means a very crowded list of Yankees from that era (Jeter and Rivera will go in, Torre probably will, Raines, Posada and Mussina should, Sheffield should, Clemens and A-Rod will unless the writers are really ridiculous about PEDs, and that's before you get to Giambi and Pettitte, to say nothing of the not-so-far-off-the-pace guys like O'Neill, Ventura, Strawberry, Knoblauch, Gooden, Cone and Justice). But really all that is on 9 years' worth of prime production, not an especially long stretch for a guy who was never dominant.
I'm really conflicted on all three. McGwire strikes me as a Hall of Famer due to his amazing power numbers and great OBPs over a 13 year span, and gets some credit for playing for a team that won 3 straight pennants and a championship. But his injuries put him at the back of this pack, although by this measure he still stands ahead of Edgar over their 13/14 year primes.
Edgar is also a very tough call. Elite, Hall-quality hitter, no doubt. But even aside from the negatives we incorporate here (high-scoring offensive context, durability issues), Edgar has everything else going against him: zero defensive value, slow baserunner, played for teams that consistently underacheived despite an amazing talent core, a career mark of .156/.239/.234 in three ALCS (compared, to be fair, to .375/.481/.781 in four ALDS). I certainly would not be offended at including a guy of Edgar's elite status as a hitter, but the case for him seems much weaker to me than it seems to a lot of sabermetrically-inclined folks who tend to total up his career numbers and ignore the injury-driven holes in his playing time.
The thing that struck me the most is that when you set aside their mystiques and the offsetting virtues of Edgar's high batting averages vs Big Mac's homers, what you see is that their cases are quite similar. That doesn't mean you can't reach opposite conclusions based on the factors at the margins, as I do with Larkin and Trammell, but it does suggest that just writing one of the two in and the other one out should not be done without a thorough analysis. If forced to vote, I'd pull the lever today for Bernie and McGwire but not Edgar, but I could easily be persuaded to the contrary for any of the three. That leaves us:
* - First time candidates. Also no on the rest of the first timers, of which the best is probably Ruben Sierra.
Finally, for what it's worth, below the fold is another quick set of metrics on the career numbers.
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B/O is a basic bases/outs (including SB, CS & GIDP). Adj B/O is B/O divided by park-adjusted league OPS (bear in mind this is not high science here). B/O+ is (bases * plate appearances)/(outs * park-adjusted league OPS). The latter metric favors the guys like Palmeiro, Raines, McGriff and Bagwell who had long, consistent careers. At the end I tacked on their raw, career percentages and Runs/RBI totals.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:20 PM | Baseball 2012-13 | Baseball Studies | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)
January 6, 2012
POLITICS: A Scurrilous Race-Baiting Attack on Newt Gingrich
It's silly season, I know. But that doesn't mean we need to tolerate left-wing nonsense thrown at our candidates.
If you're familiar with his stump speech, Newt Gingrich routinely argues that Obama is a food stamp president and he'd be a paychecks president - that his economic plan would get more people to work so they wouldn't be stuck relying on government aid. It's one of his favorite one-liners about how Obama's economic policies have failed. This is not an attack on food stamp recipients, especially since one of Newt's core messages is to tout how he drove welfare reforms in the 1990s that provided more incentives to get work. Newt generally makes the point without referring to the race of the people getting food stamps - indeed, he called it "bizarre" when David Gregory last year argued that it was racist to mention food stamps:
GREGORY: First of all, you gave a speech in Georgia with language a lot of people think could be coded racially-tinged language, calling the president, the first black president, a food stamp president.
Another of Newt's favorite themes is that he'll go anywhere and talk to any audience - which of course he will, because talking is what Newt does best.
But when Newt combines these two points and says that he'll take that jobs message to the NAACP if they'll have him and try to convince black voters that they ought to expect more from Obama - paychecks, not food stamps - he gets branded as racist. The charge is utterly scurrilous and made in bad faith. It's a textbook example of fraudulent use of the race card.
Here's how the AP report opens:
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Thursday he is willing to go before the NAACP and urge blacks to demand paychecks, not food stamps.
To the AP's credit, it notes the fact that these are both standard, separate themes of Newt's. Yet we get people like Martin Bashir on MSNBC blaming the totally unrelated murder of a teenager on Newt: "Let's cut out the food stamps rhetoric right now before things get any worse." TPM, which is driving this appalling story, got comment from the NAACP, which predictably groused that "It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country."
What's next - making it racist to discuss unemployment at all?
January 2, 2012
POLITICS: The Conservative Race In Iowa
There are 2,286 delegates awarded in the GOP primaries and caucuses; the nomination thus requires wrapping up 1,143 delegates. Between them, Iowa and New Hampshire award 10 delegates; South Carolina and Florida, the other two states voting later this month, award 75. By contrast, three states (California, Texas and New York) award a combined 422 delegates, more than a third of the total needed to win. So, the race is far from over after New Hampshire, and as long as there is credible opposition, it can go on for quite a while after South Carolina and Florida as well.
That said, the early states are traditionally a test of strength that helps winnow the field to the more serious contenders, especially those with the fundraising ability and appeal beyond a narrow niche to make a serious effort to win the nomination. But three of the seven candidates now in the race are pretty much guaranteed to go beyond Iowa. First, Mitt Romney: Romney would like to win Iowa, and could be embarrassed if he finishes third (lower is very unlikely), but no matter what happens, Romney's money, his appeal to the moderate wing of the party, and his establishment support will carry him to New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored to win easily. Second, Ron Paul: Paul could do well in Iowa as a protest vote if there are a lot of independents and Democrats re-registering tomorrow on caucus day, but his hard core of support and idosyncratic appeal guarantee that he will be in the race as long as there's a race, regardless of how he does in any contest, yet with no chance of ever winning. And third, Jon Huntsman: Huntsman has placed all his chips on New Hampshire and already plans on finishing a distant seventh in Iowa. The only effect Iowa has on Huntsman is indirect: if Romney looks weak coming out of Iowa, Huntsman can ratchet up his efforts to convince New Hampshire moderates that Romney is fatally flawed.
Where Iowa could matter a lot, however, is in sorting out the four candidates running as the field's conservatives: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. (Let's leave aside for the moment the arguments over who can claim the term "conservative"; clearly this is the role in the field all four are pursuing). They represent a caucus-within-a-caucus, and even though they are likely to be separated 1-4 by a relatively small number of votes, their order of finish could have an outsized impact on the race, eliminating anywhere from 1-3 of them from the field.
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The reason for this is the basic dynamic of this race: after six years of running for President, the polling and anecdotal evidence is quite clear that Mitt Romney is the preferred choice of only about a quarter of the GOP electorate, and at least two-thirds would clearly prefer a more reliably conservative candidate. Paul, for a variety of reasons, can't present that alternative, and Huntsman won't. But just as clearly, Romney can win the nomination by a strategy of divide and conquer: keep the conservative wing of the party from putting its votes and money behind a single alternative. His campaign has pursued this strategy craftily, focusing fire on whoever looked likely to dominate the conservative vote at any given time, and more recently by his allies talking up Santorum, an alternative Romney clearly feels he can defeat. It's a strategy that has relieved Romney of the need to make any sort of positive argument on anything other than the faults of various conservative Republicans. But it will be his undoing if, as the race proceeds, he fails to prevent the majority faction within the party from uniting around a standard-bearer.
Of the four conservatives, Bachmann is now the most vulnerable to a poor showing in Iowa, assuming that she's running out of self-interest and not - as some have suggested - as a stalking horse for Romney. Bachmann was born in Iowa, hails from a neighboring state, won the Iowa Straw Poll, has spent a bunch of time in the state, and led the RCP polling average in the state most of the summer with support as high as 27% (higher than Romney has ever polled in Iowa; he's never cracked 23% after winning 25.2% in 2008), and her social-conservative, evangelical background and message should resonate well in Iowa. Yet, she's collapsed to single digits and sixth place in most polls, has suffered key organizational losses, she doesn't have a ton of money in the bank, and - not to be overlooked - unlike the other candidates besides Paul, she actually has to run for re-election in a not-entirely-safe district this fall. If Bachmann finishes fourth of the four, it is hard to see how she justifies staying in the race.
At the opposite end of the scale are the two guys Romney fears: Gingrich and Perry. Newt surged to national and Iowa poll leadership in December on the basis of his massive name recognition and excellent debate performances, and his role as a former Speaker of the House and leader of the 1994 conservative revolution still give him a lot of credibility and goodwill on the Right. Newt could, despite his many vulnerabilities, sustain a campaign with sufficient funding and earned media exposure to beat Romney if he could unite the Right; while polling is somewhat stale at present, he was last seen with significant leads on Romney in South Carolina and Florida, both states in which the other candidates haven't polled in single digits. Ideally, Newt wanted to beat Romney in Iowa, so he could build the argument that he was the man to stop Mitt. But Newt's support, much of it cannibalized from the early December collapse of the Herman Cain campaign, is not deeply rooted, and the not-Romney aspect of that support could desert him quickly if he's shown to be unable to either outpoll Romney or unite the Right. Newt's poll support in Iowa has dropped in the RCP average from 31 to 13 in a little over two weeks of ceaseless negative TV ads from Romney allies, he's currently polling fourth, and it's questionable if Newt has the organization on the ground to capitalize even on that much support. If he finishes far behind Romney and behind Santorum - worse yet, behind Perry as well - Newt's supporters in the southern states may start taking a harder look at alternatives. It's hard to see Newt leaving the race without being forced out, but then he's clearly bitter at Romney right now over the negative barrage; were I Perry (whose last book Newt wrote a forward for), I'd work overtime in the aftermath of a poor Iowa showing by Newt to try to convince Newt to step aside and focus the field.
Then there's Perry. Let me go out on a limb: if Perry finishes third in Iowa, he'll be the nominee. He's the guy best suited by money, organization and resume to capitalize on a strong Iowa showing, which is why Romney's media allies have been talking up Santorum's momentum instead. I don't expect Perry to finish third; he's polling fifth, and is probably most likely to finish fourth behind Romney, Paul and Santorum. Perry can afford that, if it's a respectable fourth: if Newt and Bachmann end up out of the race, Perry can make a solid argument that he's still the only credible alternative to Romney, and his style is clearly more suited to running in southern states like South Carolina and Florida. Perry's debate stumbles buried him for a while, but more than one candidate in this race has gotten a second look as the wheel continues to turn; but he needs to show that his hard work in Iowa of late has yielded some sort of progress. A fifth place showing behind both Newt and Santorum will put him on the ropes - not out just yet, perhaps, but with a much more complicated road to climbing over both to win South Carolina.
Which brings us to Santorum, the spoiler, only finally drawing attention (and scrutiny). Santorum has almost no campaign outside of Iowa, where he's spent vastly more time than anyone else in the race, doing endless, weary retail events touting his social conservatism. It's much harder to envision Santorum scaling up to a national race against Romney than it is with Newt, and just as Newt bears the scars of the GOP's failures in the 1996-2000 period, Santorum bears those of 2006, a more recent loss when he - as a member of the Senate GOP leadership - lost the Senate majority, lost his seat by 18 points to a colorless opponent, lost the support of party conservatives over his endorsement of Arlen Specter, lost the party's credibility on spending, and became a lightning rod for gay activists over his various foot-in-mouth moments on social issues. Santorum is an ex-Senator with no executive experience, and Senators are famously terrible presidential candidates, as we saw in basically every primary and/or general election since 1964 (think of McCain, Kerry, Goldwater, McGovern, Dole, Hillary, Kennedy, Bradley, Biden, Tsongas, Muskie, Edwards, Gramm, Dodd, Byrd, Gore, Brownback, Baker, Bayh, Glenn, Harkin, Hatch, Hollings, Hart, Kerrey, Lugar, Specter, Bentsen, Church, Cranston, Bob Smith, and Scoop Jackson) - the only way a Senator can win a presidential election is against another Senator, as Obama did by beating Hillary and McCain. While there may not be time to ventilate all of Santorum's problems, the greatest of which is his legacy as a loser in 2006, there is little doubt that Romney could and would destroy him once he's no longer useful in denying oxygen to more capable adversaries. But a top-3 showing in Iowa makes it impossible for Santorum to go away before South Carolina.
The clearest outcome in the conservative primary in Iowa would be for Perry or Newt to win it. The second clearest would be Santorum first and Perry second, which largely deflates Newt and takes out Bachmann. The worst plausible case is Santorum-Newt-Perry-Bachmann, which probably eliminates Bachmann but leaves Newt and Perry both wounded and regrouping for a messy South Carolina showdown.
We'll finally know more tomorrow.
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