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GOP Real and Imagined

Inter-Galactic Reform Conservatism

Ross Douthat posted what seems to me the clearest and simplest explication of what exactly "reform conservatism" is, the set of doctines being advanced by the handful of pundit-intellectuals I wrote about the other day.

Douthat's program proceeds from two assumptions and is based on six principles. The assumptions are that stagnation is our great economic problem (rather than inequality per se), and that New Deal-Great Society programs and policies make this problem worse. Fair enough. They'd hardly be conservatives if they believed otherwise.

The six bullet points range from the Ryanesque and the stuff that Ryan probably believes but was smart enough to lie about during a presidential campaign (changing Medicare to premium support; means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age) to things that are more moderate, like tax reform that reduces the burden on working parents and the middle class. On immigration, amnesty is part of the program but only after other enforcement measures are put in place. It would do nothing about climate change and would embrace but soft-pedal and rebrand social conservatism.

Douthat is a smart guy, I am grateful for his nice plug for Democracy a few months ago. And his program is fine. Not something I'd be for, obviously, but, compared to what we have today, it is slightly less hard-core in a few particulars. For example it at least acknowledges that the GOP should do something about health care, which the legislative, actual Republican Party by and large doesn't acknowledge.

What's Next

Syria: Banking on Geneva

You know, I trust, the R2P concept in international affairs--Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine formulated in recent years that calls on nation states to protect its populations from mass atrocities, and that calls on other nations to do so, possibly with military intervention, when a given nation-state has failed to do so. There may be no single person more identified with RsP than Australian politician Gareth Evans, who basically introduced the idea to the world in 2001.

So you'd think that if anyone want the West to intervene in Syria, it might be Evans. But no. He writes in Project Syndicate that that would only make things worse:

Direct military intervention to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would never win Security Council approval, and has no volunteers anyway among capable military powers – albeit in most cases because of the political and military risks involved, rather than the legal indefensibility of acting outside the UN Charter. A less partisan intervention – pouring in troops and airpower to separate the warring parties forcibly – also has no takers, no likely UN authority, and only marginal hope of causing less harm than it would be intended to avoid.

There are many more enthusiasts for a more calibrated military intervention, designed to establish one or more no-fly zones, and maybe safe havens and humanitarian corridors on the ground. In the early days of the crisis, it was argued that, given the strength of the regime’s air defenses and ground forces, even these limited objectives could not be achieved without fighting an all-out war – and thus causing a net increase in human suffering.

GOP and Immigration

White People on Parade

Let's face it. Just on the facts, Phyllis Schlafly is not incorrect to say that Mitt Romney lost because the white vote was down from 2008. She spoke on a right-wing radio show today, saying, via TPM:

"The Hispanics who have come in like this will vote Democrat and there's not the slightest bit of evidence that they will vote Republican," Schlafly said on "Focus Today." "And the people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes, the white voters who didn't vote in the last election and there are millions of them."

Schlafly told PolicyMic she believes that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because "his drop-off from white voters was tremendous" and the GOP doesn't "know how to relate to grassroots Americans." 

"The propagandists are leading us down the wrong path," Schlafly said on the radio program. "There is not any evidence at all that these Hispanics coming in from Mexico will vote Republican."

Appointments

Obama: Finally Ready to Fight?

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President Obama might be stepping up to the plate with his nomination of three D.C. Circuit Court judges. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

What Obama’s upcoming announcement of three nominees to the D.C. Circuit could mean for the future of the judiciary—and his presidency. By Michael Tomasky.

Is Barack Obama finally ready to fight? His announcement, reportedly coming this week, of three nominees to sit on the District of Columbia federal bench sure makes it look like he is. You may not know or care who fills these vacancies, but believe me, politicians care about the D.C. bench passionately—in the 1980s it was, arguably, more important than the Supreme Court itself, the instrument and cynosure of the Reagan/“originalist” remaking of the federal judiciary. Putting three names forward for that court at the same moment is a hugely aggressive play—very uncharacteristic of Obama, and maybe a signal that he’s finally finished with the overripe come-let-us-try-to-reason-together phase of his presidency.

Happening at the same time are three more executive-branch appointments. Obama is going to spend the summer pushing, and the Senate tussling over, those. That’s six big nominations coming up all at basically the same time. Democrats need to win five of them and secure a change in Senate rules at least with respect to executive-branch nominations. All this will be happening while Congress is considering the immigration bill. So the stakes this summer are high, and the result will set the tone for the closing years of the Obama presidency—whether he’ll be in a position to wrest some concessions from the Republicans, or whether the stalemate will continue (or, worse, descend into crazed efforts to either remove him from office or at least besmirch his historical reputation).

The D.C. Circuit has leaned right, as I noted, since Reagan. It was a hot little nest of vipers at its height, back in the Clinton era, when its judges were allegedly parts of plots to destroy Clinton and when they parted the waters for special prosecutor Ken Starr to find any dirt he could on Clinton. Now it has four Republican-appointed judges and, as of last week, four Democratic-named ones, since the Senate confirmed (unanimously, I note) Sri Srinivasian, who sat in limbo for months.

There are six more “senior” judges who are retired but are sometimes randomly assigned to cases, and five of those are conservative, so there is still ground to be made up. The court happens to have released several conservative opinions of late, including a key decision against an SEC rule that was an important part of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, and another curtailing a president’s (“a president’s”—funny, isn’t it, who happens to be the president right now!) ability to make recess appointments.

Too Cool

Maureen Dowd Can Be Right, Too

I had a go at Dowd a few weeks ago over a deeply silly column of hers in which she argued that if Obama were only either scarier or (perhaps paradoxically) nicer, e.g. drinking more bourbon with GOP senators, he'd have gotten the six votes he was shy of a successful background check bill.

Now she is back with a new variant today, but this one actually makes more sense. Today's critique is that he isn't even nice to Democrats; his own people. This, I think, does matter. The idea that he could have gotten six more GOP votes with more back-slapping is preposterous. But the critique that Obama appears to hate the small gestures and rituals of politics, and that that hatred in turn makes his own side less likely to rally around him, strikes me as an entirely different argument, since fellow Democrats should indeed be highly susceptible to presidential charm offensives. Dowd:

By 2011, Obama’s insularity was hurting him with Democratic donors, elected officials and activists, Alter writes, adding: “Democratic senators who voted with Obama found that their support was taken for granted. Many would go two or even three years between conversations with the president, which embarrassed them (constituents were always asking about their interactions) and eventually weakened Obama’s support on the Hill.”

It was not only powerful committee chairs and many Cabinet members who rarely spoke personally to the president, Alter notes. It was only in his second term that the Obamas invited the Clintons over for dinner in the White House residence.

So Michele Bachmann isn’t running for Congress again. Here’s her rather interminable, eight-minute (!) explanation of why. Of couse, it has nothing to do with the ethics investigation into her 2012 presidential bid!

Watch Michele Bachmann's 'rather interminable' announcement.

It’s easy to make fun of her, and I’m certainly not above that. Any member of Congress who calls for an investigation into the loyalty and American-ness of her colleagues, as Bachmann famously did on Hardball in 2008, deserves a mountain of ridicule. I also made the opposite mistake with her: I took her presidential candidacy more seriously than it deserved to be taken. I thought she had the potential to get into the position Rick Santorum eventually got into, where it came down to her and Romney, but she didn't capitalize on her 15 minutes in the limelight.

To me, the most important thing about what Bachmann represents is the profoundly undemocratic impulse of adopting a world view that took her own personal life experience and attempted to impose its lesson on the rest of us. This all seemed apparent to me in everything she did, but it really came through clear as a bell in Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile of her in 2012.

Lee and Other Scoundrels

More South-Bashing!

Did you all see Jamie Malanowski's provocative op-ed in the Times over the weekend arguing that we should rename the 10 US military facilities currently named after Confederate generals? After all, he writes, they were traitors of the US of A and killers of United States soldiers:

Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills. Yet, as the documentarian Ken Burns has noted, he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo. John Bell Hood, for whom Fort Hood, Tex., is named, led a hard-fighting brigade known for ferocious straight-on assaults. During these attacks, Hood lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga, but he delivered victories, at least for a while. Later, when the gallant but tactically inflexible Hood launched such assaults at Nashville and Franklin, Tenn., his armies were smashed.

This base-naming is part of a much larger problem, of course, which is the North's (and Lincoln's) overly forgiving posture, the insistence on the idea that we must become brothers again. Now, it's certainly true that the North occupied the South. And you had the carpetbaggers and all that, but as occupations go, it wasn't so brutal. In important ways, Southerners were welcomed back into the union.

More than that, the North gave the South the post-war narrative, as historian David Blight has shown, so that throughout the 1880s and 1890s and into the 20th century, the rebs were able to propagate all that Lost Cause nonsense that still really continues down there today. I was reading Josh Marshall earlier today, and he got an email from a guy who, having been raised down South, didn't even realize he'd been on the wrong side of the Civil War until he got to college. Not entirely clear whether by "wrong" he meant losing or morally wrong, but of course it was both anyway.

Conservatives

The GOP’s Pitiful Reformers

A group of pundits is supposedly trying to inject some new thinking on the right. Michael Tomasky could not be less impressed—with their ideas or with their chances of success.

Over the weekend, Bob Dole delivered the opinion that he couldn’t make it in today’s Republican Party. And not just him: “Reagan couldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, ’cuz he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.” His words put me in mind, as a disturbing number of things do these days, of the so-called conservative reformers, the half-dozen or so male pundit-intellectuals on the right who have, through some clever prestidigitation that I have yet to comprehend, come to be known as reformers. They are very smart fellows, and they can be interesting to read. But they are “reforming” the Republican Party in about the sense that Whitney Houston’s hairdresser was helping her by giving her a great coif. Houston’s problem in life wasn’t her hair, and what’s wrong with today’s GOP—what Dole was talking about—isn’t going to be fixed by figuring out exactly what kind of “base-broadening” the tax code needs.

Dole Hospitalized

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole looks to the stage during an event honoring Dole and Howard Baker at Mellon Auditorium in Washington, March 21, 2012. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The men often named in this group include David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Avik Roy, and a few others. Josh Barro is sometimes included, as are David Frum and Bruce Bartlett. But these are errors: Frum and Bartlett have been so outspoken—courageously so, I note—in their contempt for today’s GOP that they have sort of taken themselves off the roster. Barro, a young Bloomberg View columnist, is (it seems to me) more than halfway down the Frum-Bartlett path.

There has been lots of interesting writing on my side of the fence about these men lately. Ryan Cooper wrote a big Washington Monthly piece with short bios of all of them and a rating system assessing their zeal for reform and access to power. Jon Chait profiled Barro in The Atlantic. Policy analyst Mike Konczal assessed whether their policy proposals really constitute something new that isn’t being said by elected officials within the party. Paul Krugman has weighed in as well.

Foresight

In Praise of Barbara Lee

With the global war on terror officially over, it’s worth recalling that she was probably the most prescient person in post-9/11 Washington, says Michael Tomasky.

Now that the “global war on terror” is officially over, as President Obama declared yesterday, I think back to those fevered days after September 11 and wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t ridiculous or worse. Back then, if you didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, you were written off as a nutcase, an abject pacifist, or a freedom-hater. But 12 years later, who can seriously say that the war was such a great idea? Maybe fighting terrorism should have been a “police matter” all along. Two things are for sure. The first is that the country and the world would be a hell of a lot better off if we’d followed Barbara Lee’s advice instead of Paul Wolfowitz’s. And second is that the foreign-policy establishment of Washington, including loyalists of both parties, will never, ever, ever, accept the first fact, which dooms us to unending expense, death, and tragedy.

Rep Barbara Lee

Jim Young/Reuters, via Landov

Who’s Barbara Lee? She’s the Democratic congresswoman who represents Berkeley. On September 14, 2001, with the World Trade Center ruins still asmolder, the House of Representatives considered House Joint Resolution 64, the authorization of the use of military force against the terrorists involved in 9/11 plus their aiders and abettors. It passed 420 to one. Lee was that one.

Of course she was mocked at the time. Mocked? Worse than that. For a spell, she needed around-the-clock bodyguards. Such was the atmosphere created by the Bush administration, the right-wing agitprop media, and, one might add, the craven opposition that accepted nearly all of Bush’s war on terror premises.

The IRS Scandal

Just Say No (Special Prosecutor)

Naming a special prosecutor would destroy Obama’s presidency, says Michael Tomasky.

Now that we’ve been through the first round of hearings on the IRS matter, it’s apparent that there are a few things Barack Obama should do. Yes, he should move to fire Lois Lerner. I wrote on May 13, the day of the press conference at which he first addressed the matter, that he should vow that some heads would roll. He should also—and this won’t placate the right; far from it, in fact, but so be it—explain to the American people the reasons this controversy is being overblown. But there is one thing that he absolutely must not do, and that is pay the least bit of attention to these calls for a special prosecutor. That will be the end, either literal or metaphorical, of his presidency, because of the ceaseless bad faith of the people trying to elevate this thing to Watergate proportions. Just say no, and say it firmly.

IRS Political Groups

Ousted IRS Chief Steve Miller, left, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman arrive on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Finance Committee. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

In substantive terms, this “scandal” consists of bureaucratic bungling, and apparently really stupid bureaucratic political tone deafness. But a conspiracy organized from the White House? Please. The Treasury Department Inspector General report that came out May 14 said that of the 296 “potential political cases” reviewed up through December 2012, the dispositions were as follows: 108 applications approved, 28 withdrawn, 160 left open for a lengthy period of time, and zero denied. That’s right. Zero. Now, you could say that there’s a problem with those 160, and I wouldn’t deny it. Something was broken, something needs fixed. Everyone acknowledges that. But what sort of conspiracy to silence Tea Party groups ends up denying zero of their applications? It’s an absurd claim.

Now we get to the politics. Darrell Issa claims election-season cover-up. But he knew about the IG probe in the summer of 2012, and then received a letter in July confirming it. So one aspect of this that greatly confuses me is why Issa didn’t go public with his accusations then. His spokesman, whom I emailed over the weekend, told me that it was because Issa kept asking the IG for more information, but the IG didn’t give any. Fair enough. But that still strikes me as an unusual degree of discretion on Issa’s part. He needed to know all the details before going public with something that might have helped his party’s presidential candidate in a pretty big way? If that’s the case, he is an unusual Republican indeed.

Help, Quick!

Message to Bill Keller's Psychiatrist

It's a hearty competition out there for most insane thing ever written by an educated person (and I understand that some of you might nominate me), but as of last night we have a new, thundering, hands-down winner in Bill Keller of The Times, who actually appears to have written the following words:

Republicans are howling for President Obama to name a special prosecutor to investigate the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups. The president should call their bluff.

The president should announce that he has told the Justice Department to appoint an independent investigator with bulldog instincts and bipartisan credibility. The list of candidates could start with Kenneth Starr, who chased down the scandals, real and imagined, of the Clinton presidency.

As an idea, this doesn't rise to the level of deserving a serious parsing. Did Starr's actions in 1998 really suggest to Keller than he can an impartial and reasonable prosecutor? He was so drunk with prosecutorial power that he shouldn't have been allowed to drive.

Hard Times

An Unforgiving America

The dissolution of our civic culture isn’t an easy subject for a journalist to successfully tackle, but in his new book George Packer mostly pulls it off, says Michael Tomasky.

How does a writer tell the story of America since the meltdown? No, not just since the meltdown, but since the unraveling first started, really—since deindustrialization, 50 percent divorce rates, the culture wars, the red-blue split, the era of the Wall Streeter or athlete worth more than some countries; since the evanescence, through these means and countless others, of the old common civic culture?

HURRICANE IVAN MSPI

Rogelio Solis/AP

It’s a big job, and a dangerous one. If the writer’s intent is lamentation for the purpose of awakening his countrymen to the moral precipice on whose edge society teeters, the work product can turn mawkish and sentimental in a hurry. And even sympathetic readers can be forgiven for feeling they’ve heard this before. The writer of such a chronicle sets a very high bar for himself. What separates a work of true moral seriousness from, say, a lachrymose TV news magazine feature about a community’s devastation when the plant pulled up stakes?

George Packer, the New Yorker writer who’s written powerful nonfiction books about the Iraq war and the tribulations of modern liberalism as well as two novels, mostly surpasses that bar in The Unwinding, and sometimes does so magnificently. The unwinding of his title is the dissolution of those old civic bonds, and the steady work and ticket to middle-class security they provided for two or three post-war generations of Americans. The unwound, so to speak, are some citizens he found and spent time with, people from a range of backgrounds and regions who symbolize this American nightmare.

Double Standards

The Right’s Scandal Hypocrisy

How can people who just a few years ago were defending executive privilege suddenly become such ferocious advocates of presidential transparency? By Michael Tomasky.

It’s pretty rich, isn’t it, to see conservatives, not so long ago such ferocious guardians of presidential prerogative, suddenly acting as if they’d all interned at Common Cause when they were in college and thumping their chests about presidential transparency? I bet we could count on one hand—or more likely, on no hands—the number of conservative commentators who were insisting that the Bush White House should come clean about what Scooter Libby did in relation to the Valerie Plame matter. But now, suddenly, Barack Obama must come clean on all particulars, or he’s, you guessed it, the dreaded Nixon! Of course, Nixon wasn’t always the dreaded Nixon, because to the conservatives of the early 1970s who agreed 110 percent with Tricky Dick’s claims of executive privilege, he was the heroic, stalwart Nixon. It’s only when a Democrat is in, apparently, that democracy itself is on the line.

130520-right-obama-hypocrisy-tomasky-tease

President Obama faces criticism from the GOP about lack of transparency in his administration. (Pool Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar)

Democrats and liberals do the same thing to some extent when the situations are reversed, sure. But only to an extent. The ease of movement from sarcophagal stonewalling to high dudgeon is a peculiarly right-wing trait, because it’s the right that started the modern-day sense that you’re either on the team or in the shithouse. You might think in some dark, private space that Benghazi is mostly smoke, but if you’re trying to make your bones as part of the right-wing noise machine, you know to keep those doubts to yourself.

I can name you a number of liberal columnists who thought in 1998 that Bill Clinton had disgraced his office and who wrote absolutely scabrously of him, even calling for his resignation. The late, great Lars Erik Nelson called on Clinton to resign (even while making it clear that he thought that impeaching the president over a lie about sex was loony-bin material). Chris Matthews, now embraced by tout liberalisme, used to gut Clinton on a nightly basis. Frank Rich, then on the Times's op-ed page, wrote vicious things about him—and later about Al Gore, columns that actively helped George W. Bush. I could name many more. They were not excommunicated. But among conservatives, uh-uh. Once you leave the reservation, you’re not invited back.

Months after his state was ravaged by extreme weather, the New Jersey governor is now publicly denying climate change. Expect more of that kind of idiocy as he gears up for 2016.

So now Chris Christie is a climate-change denier. He was at a ceremony Monday, just a few hours before Moore, Oklahoma, got pounded for the sixth time in recent years, doing the sort of thing governors love to do—pounding the ceremonial final nail into the rebuilt boardwalk in Lavallette, New Jersey. A reporter from WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio asked him about her stations’ investigative report on the state’s extreme lack of preparedness for Hurricane Sandy. Should state agencies, he was asked, have made preparations with climate change in mind?

Superstorm Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering May 16 in Sayreville, New Jersey. He says there has not been proof that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change. (Mel Evans/AP)

Well. It wasn’t so long ago that Christie spoke like a rational person on these matters. Campaigning for his first term, he got the endorsements of some environmental groups, like the New Jersey Environmental Federation. In August 2011, just a few months into his term, he said that “climate change is real” and “human activity plays a role in these changes.” As recently as February, Mother Jones was optimistic enough to run a piece speculating that Christie could lead the Republican Party to a sane position on the issue.

Back in February, Christie was still fairly fresh off his post-Sandy Obama hugfest. He didn’t say anything then accepting that climate change was real to him. He said he didn’t have time for such “esoteric” questions and might ponder them later. Well, later has arrived. Something else that has arrived, just a week ago, is the devastating WNYC/NJPR report by Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein showing that New Jersey’s preparations for Sandy were a joke compared with New York’s.

IRS Probe

When Did Obama Know?

That is the question of the day, it seems. I can actually understand people who don't like the guy not believing that the White House counsel knew about the IRS inspector general probe, and even the President's chief of staff, but not the President.

However, as a few former chiefs of staff said in this morning's Wall Street Journal report (admittedly all of them Democrats), this is exactly the kind of thing you don't tell the boss. From the article:

Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel under former President Bill Clinton, said Ms. Ruemmler's office acted correctly in not sharing the information directly with the president.

If she had instead gotten "involved and called people over to the White House for a full briefing to know all the details, you know what we'd be talking about now? We'd be talking about whether she had tried to interfere with the IG's investigation," Mr. Quinn said.

About the Author

Author headshot

Michael Tomasky

The Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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