Democratic Doldrums

Much has been made about the enthusiasm gap between the two major parties in the lead up to next year’s midterm Congressional elections. This presents a very real problem for the Obama administration as well as Congressional Democrats. It may also present problems for incumbent Democratic governors facing reelection, though I would argue that the more pressing danger for them is related to the general unpopularity of governors during fiscal downturns. No one likes state budget cuts, no matter how much they profess support for limited government.

The Democrats are in a bind of their own making. Sure, economic conditions are hurting all incumbents and will continue to do so. But there are other specific factors that are driving this malaise. Though Obama and the Democratic Congress each face apathy and discontent, their solutions are somewhat divergent. I explain below.

President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. He committed himself to ushering in a new day in Washington, DC. Gone would be the stereotypical insideritis that plagues DC. This rhetoric is what attracted millions of people to his side. They were voting not just for a man, but for a movement. In creating such a movement-type campaign, Obama created certain expectations fueled by his supporters’ idealism.

However, what they have received has not been the type of government they expected. The president has had his share of successes, but unlike in his campaign where he tore up the rulebook, Obama has governed in a very traditional DC manner. The broad vision seems to be gone, and the politics of governing has been far too small-minded. The administration caved on the Stimulus, and we’re seeing the results of a too small package in intractable unemployment. They punted health care reform to Congress, and as a result we will likely see a very unambitious final bill. Contrary to campaign rhetoric, DADT is still on the books and there has been no effort to repeal DOMA. And the administration has offered no real leadership on cap and trade.

Now, supporters of the President will, and have, claimed that now is not the “right time” to push for all of these proposals. But that is letting DC conventional wisdom dictate administration policy and priorities. Obama was elected to change this small-mindedness.

Sure, the President has to work with a fairly dysfunctional Congress in which the opposition party has vowed to oppose everything and many members of the President’s own party exhibit the type of terminal political cowardice that can only grow in DC. But this does not absolve the President from his very real duty to lead. What the administration needs to do is take back the mantle of dynamic change.

This can happen in a couple of different ways. The President can propose his own plans for reform on health care or climate change, rather than give some broad parameters that the Congress will inevitably screw up. He can also make his case more forcefully to the American public. Take a page from the Gipper’s playbook, get the public to support you and put pressure on Congress to get their job done. It is clear from past experience that the most valuable asset to Team Obama is Barack himself. Perhaps his political team is afraid of spending what they perceive as limited political capital. Again, this is myopic DC thinking, fueled largely (I would guess) by Rahm Emanuel. The reality is that Obama earns more political capital the more he is in front of the American people.

In some ways, what I am suggesting is that Obama may be best served by distancing himself from Congress. And potentially running against them in 2012. Of course he cannot be too forceful in his criticisms of Congress now, as the future success of his administration depends on having Democrats in control of the House and Senate.

The Democrats in Congress face a potential reckoning in 2010. After retaking the reins in 2006, Democrats in Congress said that they needed stronger majorities in order to pass progressive legislation. They were given a supermajority in the Senate and increased their hold on the House in 2008. Yet, eleven months into Democratic dominance there is very little to show- a weak Stimulus bill, no cap and trade, no health care reform (yet), etc. It is no wonder that the Democratic base may stay home next year.

Unlike their counterparts in the GOP, Congressional Democrats have all the discipline of a toddler. Conservative Blue Dogs threaten to upend the will of the leadership, and of the people, on important issues like health care and cape and trade. Senate “centrists” derailed any hope of a large enough Stimulus package. Many Democrats in DC have the terminal political cowardice spoken of earlier.

The most galling part of terminal political cowardice is that it reflects Beltway conventional wisdom, as opposed to actual polling data. We have all read the nonsensical statements by Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman for why they oppose a public option. The opinions of those at Georgetown cocktail parties or at the Washington Post carry more weight than the voters of Arkansas or Connecticut.

It is difficult to see a path for the Democrats in Congress to regain the enthusiasm of the base. Passage of health care reform will help, as will a rebounding economy (assuming that happens in the next 10 months), but there will still be a sizable portion of the base who simply will not ever trust their leaders again. The only place that I see real enthusiasm in the base is where an actual progressive is running. A sizable portion of the base simply feels that it is no longer their duty to elect Democrats.

But the enthusiasm gap affects not only the base, but all of those hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new or first time voters from 2008. They put their faith and hope in a new leader, who they believed would work with a Democratic Congress to address the big issues. And what they have gotten instead has been the same Washington style micro-politics. They were told that if they gave the Democrats the power in DC their lives would improve. And many of them now feel they were sold a false bill of goods. Who can blame them?

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The Morally Glib

All too often, our public policy debates are infused with more than a little bit of moral glibness. It is all too easy to forget that policy affects people’s lives. Perhaps it is because many of us who study and work in public policy or politics are, to a large degree, unaffected by many of these policies.

Generally speaking, most politically active individuals come from middle to upper middle income families and possess at least a four year degree. Certain areas of public policy seem to bear no direct impact on our lives. Sure, we would all like good roads and public schools (if we have children) and a low crime neighborhood. But what about poverty reduction programs or decisions on war? Absent some direct impact on our lives, it is unlikely that we will maintain a deep passion about such matters. Even within our own areas of expertise, we sometimes fall victim to losing perspective. I cannot say how many times I have glossed over the impact of certain budget allocations, focusing only on the numbers themselves.

Even those with the best intentions fall victim to glibness from time to time. However, there seems to be a subset of the population who are terminally glib. I realize that this example is a bit overused, but it still resonates with many- armchair warriors. These are the people who insist the United States must invade country x or y or z, without any analysis of the costs. By costs I mean not only financial, but the personal costs for our own military and their families and for the civilians in whatever country we are about to invade.

This is not to say that war is never the answer, but rather that we must endeavor to make an honest calculation of our wars’ costs. It is simply wrong to send our soldiers and marines into harm’s way without considering the impacts. It is wrong to subject civilians to the brutalities of war without a just cause.

I do not wish to turn this into a diatribe against the Iraq War (a war that I initially supported), but it serves as the prime example of moral glibness. There has been an endless parade of armchair warriors, with no skin in the game, leading the charge into war and glossing over the very real costs to our military and to the civilian population of Iraq. These same folks have also been beating the war drum for Iran and an escalation in Afghanistan.

I can’t claim to have the answer for Afghanistan, but it would be an enormous folly to seek the counsel of those who were phenomenally wrong on Iraq. Those individuals should have been laughed out of the public sphere, but for the weird way in which our discourse works- no matter how wrong you are in support of militaristic action, you can never be held accountable. That these same people are still regularly featured on Sunday morning talking heads programs is a testament to the moral glibness of our discourse.

What does it matter if your recommendations resulted in the deaths of thousands of US soldiers and marines and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians? What if you lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? It simply does not matter, because being a hawk means never having to say you’re sorry. And in failing to hold these people accountable, the media only further reinforces the value of moral glibness.

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

Getting this one in just before Thanksgiving is officially over here on the East Coast. This year, two things in particular stick out as things for which to be thankful. Most importantly, I am thankful to have a President who makes me proud to be an American. Related to that, I am thankful that after years of slouching towards Bizarro World, some within the GOP are finally realizing they have a base problem. I am grateful that people like Conor, Larison, Frum, the guys at the League and other dissident and/or wonky right of center folks are taking it upon themselves to reform the GOP and/or the conservative movement.

From the Archives

This might flesh out a bit more about me than my simple about section and what people can glean from my writings. It’s from my original blog.

… I do not, and have not, hidden the fact that my political career began in the GOP. In fact, all of my paid political jobs have been on Republican campaigns, with the last being in 1998 for a statewide race in Massachusetts.

My journey started with the 1988 Bush campaign, as a campus volunteer. From there I got involved in the Massachusetts GOP and especially the local party, where I served on the Executive Committee. In my first few years I worked on state legislative races as well as local races. I was elected myself at the age of twenty to the school board in my home town. At that time, I was considered to be the Republican bomb thrower in a town government full of Democrats.

Like most young people, I saw the world in absolutist terms. This black and white world view animated me and led me to help found the Students for Life chapter at my college campus. And, it moved me to volunteer for the Buchanan campaign in 1992. I even heckled VP Quayle when he was in Boston with taunts of “how does it feel to be on the ticket with a liberal?”

Somehow I was able to overcome the Buchanan experience and I landed paid positions as a consultant to a Congressional race and later as a field director to a US Senate race, both before I was twenty four years old.

But things changed for me in 1994. I went away to law school (the first time) and made my first close gay friend. Although St. Louis was a small city, it opened my eyes to a much larger world around me. And with that bigger world came all sorts of shades of gray. In the fall of 1994 I even endorsed Ted Kennedy for re-election to the US Senate. Although I was not quite ready to leave the GOP, it seemed as though the time had come to reassess my outlook.

Shortly after January of 1995, as I digested more about the Contract with America and that election’s changes in the make up of the GOP leadership, I realized the time had come to leave the Party. Sure, there was a part of me that wanted to stay and fight the dominance of the South and Midwestern religious conservatives, but it seemed to be a losing battle. The Rockefeller Republicans of the Northeast had seen a waning influence in the GOP for years. The Contract and the Gingrich Revolution merely cemented the status of religious conservatives as the leaders of the modern Republican Party.

At the same time that I left the GOP I had also left St. Louis and law school to return to Massachusetts. Over the next few years I would work with suicidal children, kids with emotional and behavioral disorders and in a public school. These experiences provided me with even more insight into how other people lived. As an upper middle class white kid growing up on Cape Cod, I just did not have those sorts of experiences.

Blah, blah, blah.. then I went to graduate school. Then worked for the Ways and Means Committee of the New York State Assembly. Then back to law school…

So.. where am I today? What made a former solid Republican into a Democrat? And what exactly do I believe?

Well, my discomfort with the Religious Right has always been there. I left the Students for Life chapter over disagreements about contraception and masturbation. Most of the members were staunch Catholics. Because the Church opposed contraception, masturbation and sex education the group did as well. This flew in the face of reason, given that preventing pregnancy was the best means to reduce abortion, and a rather heated argument between myself and the other board members ended with my comment about going home to “have sex with my girlfriend who is on the pill.”

Beyond that particular disagreement, I became more politically pro-choice. The libertarian in me found it offensive for the government to dictate to a woman what she could and could not do to her body. Sure, I wanted to reduce abortions (I hope we all do!), but I did not want to do so by legislating morality.

My libertarian side (or my economics background) also leads me to positions that are contrary to those of the Democratic Party. I tend to favor market solutions as opposed to government solutions to problems. I oppose universal government health care; I am skeptical about minimum wage laws; I oppose rent control; I support using trade-able pollution credits as a way to diminish emissions; I oppose hate crimes laws.

So why do I vote Democratic? Well, I put it this way to a former political colleague- I think it is easier to get the Democrats to see the light on economics than it is to get the Republicans to see the light on social issues. Of course, it is not that simple. I could go on about my disdain for the theocratic politics of the GOP or the attempts by some in the GOP to prevent people with brown skin from voting or the GOP’s use of wedge issues to divide the country, etc.

A lot has changed over the past sixteen years, and a lot has not. My values remain the same as they were, the same as they were instilled in me as a child. It is just that those values lead me to a different political conclusion. But, let’s be honest here, liberal-conservative, left-right are merely ways to avoid thinking about complex issues that face us.

Down here in Atlanta, and also to some degree in St. Louis, I was considered a liberal. Back in Massachusetts and New York they call me a moderate or conservative. But no matter where I am, I’m the same person with the same values.

(Obviously, I am no longer in Atlanta, having moved back to Massachusetts in the fall of 2007.)

More Thoughts on Punishment

This recent paper on changes to the Model Penal Code with respect to sentencing and desert deserves a bit more discussion. Ristroph makes the argument that the Code is at its worst when it uses the language of desert. And while she makes a reasonable argument I think she falls short of capturing why desert is a complicated matter for criminal law.

I may be reading her incorrectly, but I take Ristroph to be making the argument not that desert is inappropriate for criminal law per se, but rather that it is a poor tool for enforcing notions of proportionality. Put that way, it is difficult to disagree. Desert is highly subjective, not only between judges and the lay public/jurors, but even within each group. Determining moral desert rests on very personal notions of ethics, forged not only by moral teachings and education, but by personal experiences. To think that there is one objectively correct desert for a particular criminal act is naive.

This is why the Code rightly incorporates what I would term a hybrid approach to sentencing. By tasking sentencing commissions with collecting and analyzing data in order to determine presumptive sentences, the Code recognizes the need for some reference point for justice. A criminal law system devoid of some anchor, where sentencing is unique to the act, actor and victim creates too much potential for wildly disparate sentences, which may not make sense to society. It is crucial to justice’s legitimacy for the public to view the system as impartial and predictable. One could also make the argument that disparate sentences for similar acts cuts against the effectiveness of deterrence.

The Code does recognize, however, the importance of judges’ role in determining more precisely what justice demands. A system of strictly uniform sentences would do violence to our notions of justice. Thus, judges are empowered to depart from the presumptive sentences issued by sentencing commissions.

But is such a system one in which desert is not a central theme? I would argue that desert continues to play a foundational role in any system of justice and that is as it should be.  Yes, desert is subjective and is thus not a good check on proportionality. But the notion that criminal actors ought to receive moral desert for their acts is, I believe, an inherently human impulse.

Republican Sanity in Massachusetts

GOP candidate for Governor Charlie Baker has selected Senator Tisei to be his running mate in next year’s election. Because Massachusetts law does not provide for a ticket until after the primaries, this is largely a symbolic move. However, there are some campaign finance advantages and it is in keeping with past GOP gubernatorial races.

Massachusetts not only has a primary, but also a convention. In order to be placed on the primary ballot, a candidate must receive 15% of the delegates at the convention. And while there will surely be some grumbling from the rightwing, I fully expect Tisei to make it to the primary and eventually win.

Tisei brings 25 years of Beacon Hill experience to the ticket, but also some baggage (at least in the eyes of some of the GOP base). You see, not only is Tisei openly gay, but he has supported same sex marriage in the legislature. Now, some within the GOP are fine with gays, so long as they are either (a) in the closet or (b) at least oppose equal marriage rights. Further, Tisei brings a fairly moderate record to the table. He did not support all of the Romney tax cuts and opposed the ill-fated income tax repeal.

Baker himself is much more in the Weld-Cellucci strain of the MA GOP. He evinces no great conservative leanings. Most would describe Baker as socially moderate to liberal and fiscally conservative, which is in keeping with recent successful GOP gubernatorial candidates (Romney significantly played down his conservatism when running in MA, only to flip-flop when on the national stage).

Next year’s race should be rather entertaining as not only does it feature an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but Baker has a credible opponent in his primary, and Democrat turned Independent State Treasurer Cahill is also running. It’ll be interesting to see where the far right goes. Baker is clearly not one of them, but neither is Mihos except on his fairly insane (and inane) tax and local aid proposals. [Let me detour a bit here- Mihos both wants to slash the sales tax to 3%, from its current 6.25%, AND promises to provide 40% of all state revenues to cities and towns in local aid. So that means subtract the $633 million raised from this year’s sales tax increase plus take away roughly $1.6 billion by reducing the rate from 5% to 3%.  That means Mihos would be eliminating over $2 billion in state revenue. Thus, cities and towns get 40% of a much smaller pie and the state would have even less money in a time when it’s already slashing human services budgets.]

It would seem as though Cahill may have some daylight to run a John Silber type of campaign- to the right of the Republican nominee. Silber was not successful, but that was in a two person race against Bill Weld. Weld held most Republicans while picking up Independents and some Democrats.

In my opinion, having Cahill in the race is a boon to Governor Patrick. He splits the anti-incumbent vote with whoever the GOP nominee is, and if it is Baker/Tisei he might also pick off some socially conservative Republicans and Democrats. Regardless, I do not see a role for Cahill aside from spoiler. It’s no wonder Baker’s people were trying to get Cahill to join his ticket as number 2.

A Baker-Patrick mano-a-mano would be a difficult race for Patrick to win. Baker is no wingnut; he has solid experience in managing the state budget and in health care. If this becomes a race decided solely upon experience and capability, Baker wins. Deval Patrick is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but he suffers from two huge problems- the economy and the cuts it has forced in the state budget (and sales tax increase); his ineffectual performance. Patrick has very little to show for nearly three years as Governor. A good portion of that blame lies with the Legislature, but voters do not usually make that sort of fine distinction. Also, even if they did, some may think that a Republican Governor would be more forceful in his dealings with a recalcitrant Beacon Hill establishment.

As I said earlier- this is going to be very interesting.

What Do We Owe One Another?

This is perhaps one of the fundamental questions of any society. Its answer informs not only our relations with one another, but also the structure and scope of our social institutions, including our government. Though it may not be stated explicitly, this question underlies our health care reform debate as well as all other discussions of social safety net programs.

Another way to approach this question is to ask- what would you be willing to give up, so that others might have? Asked this way, the question becomes less theoretical and more grounded. Specifically, what medical care would you be willing to forgo in order that someone else was provided with basic medical care? What amount would you be willing to pay, in taxes, in order that our society did not count nearly 50 million people without access to health care (no, Tom Coburn and others, ER’s do not count)?

There are two approaches to answering these questions that I would like to explore here. One is based upon the work of John Rawls, specifically his veil of ignorance. The other relies much more on religious teachings, specifically the synoptic Gospels.

In his Theory of Justice, Rawls describes the veil of ignorance. Essentially, the choice of society (laws, rules, norms, institutions, etc.) that is most just is that which we would choose should we be making those choices behind a veil of ignorance. In other words, we would have no knowledge of our station in life, our relations, etc. Such that the choices we made would not be biased by our own notions of personal gain.

Applying this notion to health care reform- which policies would we select if we did not know whether we were rich or poor; insured or uninsured; etc. Those policies that we would pick in that situation are the most just. Now, imagine if you were behind this veil of ignorance. You do not know if, when the veil is lifted, you will have insurance or the money to purchase insurance or health care. Would you select our current system or would you instead choose one that insured everyone?

Most people would take the latter option. It is only when we are free from our own personal attachments that we can objectively make right decisions. Unfortunately, humans are very selfish and are largely incapable of imagining themselves in any position other than their own.

What of religion, though? Perhaps it can serve as a check on our selfish impulses. I cannot imagine anyone reading the canonical Gospels, particularly Luke, and not coming away with a very strong sense of responsibility for others. Whether one looks to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke) or the Great Commandment (Mark and Matthew) or the story of the rich man (Mark), there are abundant examples of Jesus teaching us to care for one another and to place love ahead of material wealth. This is also fundamental to the cures and miracles performed throughout the canonical Gospels. Their purpose was not merely to display his divinity, but to provide powerful examples of man caring for man.

Care of the poor is a core feature of Christ’s teachings and the foundation for the Catholic Church’s social justice mission. These values are on display every day at shelters, hospitals and clinics run by Catholic Charities and other faith communities. Yet a sizable number of self-described Christians have not only ignored these important teachings, but subscribe to the notion of the undeserving poor.

Nevertheless, what I have presented here are two forceful arguments for taking care of others. One is based on a liberal interpretation of the just society, while the other is rooted in Christianity. Though flowing from two different founts, each comes to the same place- that we do owe one another something. That there is some amount of care- be it services or shelter or income- that a moral/good society does ensure for all of its members. When two disparate streams of thought converge in such an important place, it speaks to the gravity of their finding.

We may never agree what it is that we owe one another. There may always be debates over the merits and desirability of certain social safety net programs. But what we ought to be able to come together on is the underlying principle that we do owe each other something. It’s at least a starting point.