"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
June 30, 2014
HISTORY/WAR: Enduring Lessons From The Diplomatic Crisis of July 1914
My latest at The Federalist, which also has fairly extensive coverage of today's Hobby Lobby decision.
June 26, 2014
POLITICS: Waiting For The Wave: The 2014 Senate Map
The polling tells us that the bulk of 2014's contested Senate races are basically dogfights. So why are so many Republicans optimistic? Because it's still June, and some of the elements of the dynamics of 2014 may not be fully baked into the polling yet. How good a year this is for the GOP will depend on those factors.
If you look at the chart at the top of this post, what you pretty clearly can see from the data is that the Senate races right now seem to be sorted into three general groups (although in each group I'm including one race that is less favorable for the GOP than the rest).
Group One, three currently Democrat-held seats in deep-red territory without real incumbents, is the likely GOP blowouts. Montana and South Dakota are both looking locked up, and the South Dakota polling may get even uglier for the Democrats if the third-party support for Larry Pressler (a former Republican Senator running as an independent) fades. West Virginia is closer, close enough that a giant gaffe or scandal or something could put it back on the table, and in a different year or state a 10-point lead would not look insurmountable. But it's hard to see where that support comes from, in a 2014 midterm in West Virginia.
Group Two is the tossups, nine states that are really too close to call right now. Seven of the nine are Democrat-held seats, five with incumbents (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina) and two open seats (Iowa and Michgigan). One of the two GOP-held seats has an incumbent (Kentucky), the other is open (Georgia). The Democrats have settled on candidates in all nine, Republicans still have a primary in Alaska (the poll average here is the matchup of frontrunner Dan Sullivan against incumbent Mark Begich), a runoff in Georgia (the poll average here is the matchup of frontrunner Jack Kingston against Democrat nominee Michelle Nunn), and a "jungle primary" that will probably result in a December runoff in Louisiana (the poll average here is the runoff matchup of frontrunner Bill Cassidy against incumbent Mary Landrieu). In only one of these races, in Michigan, does the current leader have a 5-point lead; in five of the nine races the frontrunner is below 45%, and in eight of the nine (all but Cassidy in Louisiana) below 46%. While a 2 or 3-point lead in the polls in October may be meaningful, a race with a lead that size in June and 10-20 percent undecided is functionally a tossup, at least until you take into consideration the various factors (national environment, state electorate) that are likely to pull the race in one direction or another as we enter the fall.
Why do Republican analysts feel so optimistic? Because polls, as we recall from 2010 and 2012, are only as good as their ability to project who will turn out and vote, and we are probably still a few months from pollsters being able to really make accurate assessments of what the fall electorate will look like. As Sam Wang, Ph.D., has noted, the various models for predicting how the Senate races will go are predicting different things depending on the extent to which they look beyond the polls to incorporate predictive elements like the economy, the effect of incumbency, the President's approval rating, and the like. Sean Trende, here and here, offered a model based mainly on Obama's approval rating, and found even after some tweaks to incorporate a few other variables, that Democrats could be projected to face double-digit Senate seat losses if the President's approval rating was 43% or lower on Election Day.
That's just one way of skinning this cat, but right now, Obama's approval sits at 41.5 approval/53.9 disapproval, and has been trending rather sharply downward for the past month, with his approval on the economy, foreign policy and healthcare all consistently worse than his overall approval rating. (Via Ace, it's even worse in the battleground states). In that national environment, with midterm elections in general tending to produce Republican-leaning electorates, and with the historic poor performance of second-term presidents in sixth-year midterms, you really have to feel pretty good about GOP chances of winning most of those nine races. That may seem improbable, but there were basically seven Senate races that went to the wire or involved potentially big Democratic upsets in 2012 - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Missouri - and I didn't think at the time they would run the table and win all seven. They did. In a few of those, like Virginia and Wisconsin, the Senate races tracked almost precisely the outcome in the Presidential race, meaning turnout from the top of the ticket was decisive. If the national environment really does show as sour across the board for Democrats in November as it looks from today, eight-for-nine or nine-for-nine could be a possibility. If the environment (including the parties' turnout operations) swings back to a more neutral one, I'd be looking more at the GOP winning five of the nine, which would net a six-seat overall gain in the Senate, enough for control of the chamber but by a very narrow margin that might not last beyond 2016.
For now, that's still a big if, not reflected in polls showing voters not really ready to commit to either side in most of those races. It's why Republicans are waiting for the wave. But it's also a reminder that those races won't win themselves - Democrats ran the table in 2012 by fighting all the way to the whistle in every race with every resource they had. One thing helping the GOP may be the Governor's races: for example, Rick Snyder is now comfortably ahead in the polls in Michigan, and the Colorado GOP dodged a repeat of the 2010 trainwreck by picking Bob Beauprez over Tom Tancredo; Beauprez may not beat John Hickenlooper, but he'll give him a tough race without Tancredo's divisiveness.
Finally, there's Group Three, the races in which the polling shows the Democrats safe for now - but, depending on the national environment, maybe not safe enough just yet to declare those races over. Incumbents Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire all have leads around 10 points, and Mark Warner in Virginia has a sixteen-point lead on Ed Gillespie. (It's also always possible some other races could come on the board; there hasn't been much in the way of general election polling in Mississippi or New Mexico, for example. But we'll have to wait and see). But none of them are regularly polling above 50%, the usual rule of thumb for a safe incumbent.
Realistically, those are "reach" races that only go on the board if things really get ugly for the Democrats. Oregon is, I would guess, the best hope for the GOP relative to its present polling given the Cover Oregon fiasco, New Hampshire the toughest of the OR-MN-NH trio due to Shaheen's personal popularity and the likelihood of a landslide win for the Democrats in the Governor's race (the other two will have tight GOV races). Also, Al Franken has a huge warchest, so his race with self-funder Mike McFadden could get ugly and expensive. Virginia, of course, is the longest reach, but Gillespie should be sufficiently well-funded and anodyne to take advantage if Warner slides into the neighborhood of actually being vulnerable.
Predictions? Anybody who's predicting the fall elections in June with too much certainty is nuts. But right now, Republicans have a lot of opportunities in the Senate. If Obama's approval rating keeps tanking, the GOP avoids any major campaign-killing gaffes, and the Democrats don't come up with a magic turnout bullet, the swing in the Senate could be bigger than anyone is realistically talking about right now. Don't count your chickens; this is just the optimistic scenario. But it is not, from the vantage point of late June, an unrealistic one.
LAW: A Good Day For The Rule of Law
It is not the job of the court system to tell us what is right, or just; to make policy for us or govern our lives. But it is the job of the court system to police the basic rules of the road that keep our various elected officials, administrative agencies and lower courts from exceeding the powers the People, in the Constitution and laws, have entrusted to them. And today was a good day for the rule of law and a bad one for abuses of power:
1. The Supreme Court held 9-0, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, that President Obama abused his recess appointment power by unilaterally appointing members of the NLRB withouut asking the Senate. The Court split 5-4 on exactly how broad the recess-appointments power is, but all agreed that the President cannot just unilaterally claim that the Senate is in recess (for purposes of bypassing it) when the Senate itself (even Harry Reid) says that it is not in recess. That renders many of the NLRB's acts over a period of years invalid (although proper appointments were eventually made). So much for Obama's vaunted status as a Constitutional scholar; even his own appointees didn't buy his nonsense.
Justice Breyer left some wiggle room, however, for future debates over exactly when the Senate is recessed:
Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito, would have gone further in scaling back the recess power. Scalia reminds us of a favorite point of his, that separation of powers is the true backbone of Constitutional liberty:
2. The Court also held, in a 9-0 loss for Martha Coakley (now running for Governor of Massachusetts) that Massachusetts abused its power under the First Amendment by a blanket ban on protests within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. As Chief Justice Roberts observed, this ban was so draconian that it prevented women entering the clinic from being exposed to peaceable forms of persuasion:
Petitioners are not protestors. They seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to inform women of various alternatives and to provide help in pursuing them. Petitioners believe that they can accomplish this objective only through personal, caring, consensual conversations. And for good reason: It is easier to ignore a strained voice or a waving hand than a direct greeting or an outstretched arm....Respondents point us to no evidence that individuals regularly gather at other clinics, or at other times in Boston, in sufficiently large groups to obstruct access. For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution.
Justice Scalia would again have gone further, noting evidence that the buffer zones were deliberately intended to discriminate against pro-life viewpoints:
This is an opinion that has Something for Everyone, and the more significant portion continues the onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence.
3. Meanwhile, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, by a 6-1 vote struck down former Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Big Soda ban in a challenge brought by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The court concluded that the agency that passed the ban was not entitled to create policy-making legislation (a common feature as well of President Obama's agencies). A few key excerpts explain why unelected executive agencies (like courts) should not set policy:
Indeed. A good day for a government of laws, not of men.
June 5, 2014
WAR/POLITICS: Yes, It Matters That Bowe Bergdahl Deserted
Does it matter whether Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was a deserter, or worse, a traitor? In evaluating President Obama's decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban terrorists for Bergdahl, it absolutely does.
Given the public-relations fiasco around the Bergdahl deal, liberal commentators are circling the wagons. Their latest argument, designed to compartmentalize the pieces of the controversy so they can't be considered as a whole, is that the President's calculation of what it was worth giving up to get Bergdahl back should not have taken consideration of the facts of Bergdahl's conduct and disappearance, specifically his abandonment of his comrades and mission under circumstances suggesting a deeper betrayal than simple desertion. This argument (which is summarized here by Brian Beutler at the New Republic, although it's been coming from people all over the left side of the commentariat the past two days), goes more or less like this:
1) Either you believe the military should have an ethos of "leave no man behind," or you do not.
2) Either you believe deserters should be court-martialed, or you do not.
3) You can't have a court martial until you've brought Bergdahl back.
4) If you believe in 1) and 2), you should want Bergdahl back first before deciding if he deserted, which is a matter for the court martial system, and he is presumed innocent until then.
As Beutler put it on Twitter, "this standard of rendering verdicts against POWs while they're in captivity and using them to oppose rescue is disgusting."
There are two related problems with this syllogism that illustrate its dependence on simple-minded sloganeering in lieu of sober judgments of reality. First, it confuses purely military decisions with major national security decisions. For soldiers, "leave no man behind" is more than a slogan - it's part of the deep ethos of military service, the knowledge that your comrades have your back even if you get lost or wounded or just screw up. It's the second-highest value the military has, and it's why commanders won't think twice about rescue missions that may put the lives of more soldiers at risk than those that are being rescued. Of course, there's a fair amount of bitterness at Bergdahl's desertion - his decision to leave everyone behind - among his former Army comrades and especially those who lost loved ones trying to get him back. But nobody really argues the point that the military should make efforts like that to get guys like him back.
But an exchange of high-value detainees is not a purely military decision. It's a national-security decision of precisely the type that has always been reserved, not to military men according to their military code, but to the elected civilian political leadership that makes the really big decisions with an eye beyond today's battlefields to the greater interests of the nation. After all, the military's highest value, even higher than its commitment to the lives of its men and women in uniform, is the mission itself - and it's the civilian leadership that sets the mission and chooses what sacrifices we ask of them. There are serious downsides to making ransom deals with terrorists, including setting dangerous men free and setting bad precedents and incentives for the future. Even President Obama had to admit that we could live to regret this deal in terrible ways:
"Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely," Obama told a news conference in Warsaw.
The existence of downsides, even grave ones, may not convince us to adopt an absolute rule against deals with terrorists; national security decisions often involve a choice among lesser evils, and if your foreign policy can be summarized on a bumper sticker, you will probably get in a lot of accidents. But they illustrate why the pros and cons and competing values need to be weighed carefully, rather than letting one motto ("leave no man behind") or another ("we don't negotiate with terrorists") do our thinking for us. Our principles, as always, must remain a compass, not a straitjacket. And once you concede that the decision involved weighing competing values rather than blindly following a single overriding rule, you have to take consideration of the fact that - while of course we all wanted Bergdahl back - retrieving him was not as compelling a value as retrieving a soldier who did his duty as best he could and unquestionably remained loyal to his country.
Which brings me to the second problem with the syllogism being proposed: that it asks the President of the United States to make vital national security decisions while wearing lawyer-imposed blinders as to the facts. Yes, as a legal matter under U.S. criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Sergeant Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty of desertion or any graver misconduct. But every day of the week, every hour of the day, Presidents make decisions on matters large and small, in the national security area and other areas, affecting the lives of many people, based on facts that have not been litigated in court. The idea that the facts of Bergdahl's disappearance could simply be wished away or pretended not to exist, simply because no court-martial had been convened, is ridiculous and juvenile. It's not as if we could get the five Taliban back if we tried Bergdahl and found him guilty, after all. Presidents make decisions based on the best information they have. Sometimes, that information doesn't come from sources that conform to the legal rules of evidence, or from sources that could ever be disclosed in a courtroom. And sometimes, facts come out later that show that the President was misinformed - but those facts arrive too late for a decision to be made. These are the adult realities of the Presidency, and only an appallingly misguided legalism can lead President Obama's own supporters, in the sixth year of his presidency, to remain blind to it.
The military owed Bowe Bergdahl its promise to try to rescue him, even if he walked away. The nation did not owe him an agreement to compromise national security by surrendering five high-value prisoners without asking what we were getting in return.