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Robert Kagan’s absurdly long hawkish treatise is generally not worth reading–it’s as leaden and arrogant (“Americans have been Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders. They can be forgiven for feeling the temptation to put it down.” Really Bob? Oh Jeepers, thanks for giving us permission!) as one might imagine, and riddled with factual inaccuracies ranging from misinterpretations to flat-out whoppers (implying that U.S. power critic Reinhold Niebuhr is an antecedent to Kagan’s own views, for example). What is interesting about it are two things. Firstly, that it exists. Admittedly, publishing an insanely long article that’s mostly history we all know is as smarmy as one can get, but the obvious intent to crush readers under a ton of words tells us something about where he thinks things are at. Secondly, that it bends over backward to try to be nice. Kagan goes out of his way not to use the “isolationist” smear–in fact, he goes out of his way to rebut the charge. He avoids the easy slurs and cliches. He’s as nice as can be, and at times he even manages to reasonably simulate affect.

However, while hawks can pretend, Walter White style, to be decent, humane people who just care about the world and stuff for a short time, the inner Heisenberg can’t wait to burst out and start scaring the shit out of people. Fear is the only real way to talk the American people into continuing a foreign policy that is both morally unsatisfying and substantively unsuccessful. The only real criterion as to whether a hawkish argument is successful is in how much fear it generates in the audience. How does Kagan do? Not. Well. At all:

But who is to say that Putinism in Russia or the particular brand of authoritarianism practiced in China will not survive as far into the future as European democracy, which, outside of Great Britain, is itself only a little over a century old?

A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power. Putin seeks to impose his view of a world order, at least in Russia’s neighborhood, just as Europe and the United States do. Whether he succeeds or fails will probably not be determined merely by who is right and who is wrong. It will be determined by the exercise of power.

“Putinism” is an empty phrase, as it implies that Putin is an ideologue, which he is not at all, though Kagan clearly thinks he is. The politics Putin represents–nationalism, populism, the authoritarian ethos conservatives tend to mean when they refer to “strong leadership” in a person–is not novel. It is, in fact, extremely common in particular circumstances, circumstances hardly unknown in the West. The irony is that the recent European elections have empowered people across the continent with similar politics. Kagan sees a world in which American power is what keeps the next Hitler at bay. I see a world in which the global middle class keeps the next Hitler at bay–economics, not warmongering, being key. Europe’s far-right has become empowered as much of the continent has seen depression and the middle classes have been gutted there, which leads to furious anger, going after scapegoats, instability joined with violence and the corresponding desire for order, administered brutally. America has seen something similar, though so far on a lesser scale. There’s simply no precedent for a prosperous, successful country with good income distribution electing anyone in the neighborhood of a fascist. But countries that had a vibrant middle class and lost it? That, dear sir, is where these folks are bred. With respect to Russia, anyone who knows the history of post-Soviet Russia knows that the Yeltsin Administration’s goal of creating a stable middle class never happened due to terrible economic advice from the U.S. Treasury Department and other international finance bodies, and after the failures of Yeltsin’s rule on many fronts but particularly in terms of economics–culminating in the country’s debt default in 1998–autocratic rule was inevitable. People were tired of the violence, tired of the lack of positive change, tired of irrelevance and impotence. In fact, it had inarguably begun before Putin–Yeltsin’s shuttering of opposition newspapers, shelling of the Russian Parliament building and his bombing of Chechnya were signs of increasing authoritarian tendencies. I’m no Putin fan but I do have some inkling of what he offers to Russians: he’s globally assertive (though vastly less so than the former USSR), he’s done a better job managing economic growth, and he’s done a better job of maintaining order. That he’s done this by destroying nearly every vestige of democracy in his country is deeply sad, though given that democracy and capitalism in Russia basically meant oligarchy and cronyism amidst a backdrop of tragic poverty, it’s hard to judge the Russian people for making this trade. I don’t think they’re special, in any case, as it is human nature. Plenty of other countries have responded similarly to similar situations, not the least of which was Weimar Germany.

There’s a flip side to that coin as well. Tunisia has been the only Arab Spring revolution that seems to have worked out. As soon as Ben Ali was deposed, Tunisians swiftly went about the business of setting up democratic institutions. It has not been an entirely smooth process at all, but it’s nearing a fairly successful completion. What’s more, the country defies the neoconservative assumptions completely. Both the Afghan and Iraq Wars were sold in part on helping the women there, though without much in the way of results. In Tunisia, though, women make up a larger percentage of legislators than the United States and abortion is legal. Women actually hold power and exercise it there. This is a tremendous accomplishment, a decided contrast to the tragic, endless setbacks in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan, all countries in which U.S. power has been deployed to varying levels. America had nothing to do with Tunisia’s transition into a very promising democracy. Why is that? Could it be perchance that Tunisia is a middle-class country with only moderate levels of income inequality, while the other four are not? Couldn’t be. After all, “Putinism” has to be defeated by freedom bombs, because as we know, the best way of dealing with ideas is with arms. If a country’s political orientation can basically be predicted by its fundamentals, what role does that leave for navel-gazing proponents of endless war like Bob Kagan? Because let’s be honest, nobody in the MSM is publishing twenty pages of ruminating on other countries’ GINI indexes.

I have to say, much as I hated Kagan’s piece, I mostly just found it sad. His theory of how the world works is just so inadequate, so impossible to square with the real-world disasters that have resulted from its use, in need of so many caveats in order to deal with all the outliers it can’t cover. While his fellow hawks–whether dressed up in conservative or liberal clothing–still believe in the old creed completely, the fear is quite simply gone in the people. I have no doubt that elected politicians will lag behind where the public is for some time, but fundamentally, this is an ideology that is sentimental, wrongheaded and deeply dangerous, and the preconditions for its continued existence are eroding fast. Within a few decades it’ll be as embarrassing as Rudyard Kipling’s worst output. One wonders why Barack Obama keeps hoping to associate himself with it.

Your Benghazi! Democratic panel members:

The Democrats chosen were Mr. Cummings, who clashed repeatedly over Benghazi with the chairman of the Oversight Committee, Representative Darrell Issa of California; Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; Adam B. Schiff of California, a member of the Intelligence Committee; Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a decorated and severely wounded combat veteran of the Iraq war; and Linda T. Sánchez of California, the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee.

Wow, this team is impressive. Each member is restrained, knows something about the issues involved, and would be exactly the sort of people you’d want investigating something like the attacks on Benghazi, which is exactly why they are utterly wrong for the panel investigating Benghazi! Seriously, Nancy? This not only legitimizes the whole panel, but it creates exactly the sort of spectacle the Republicans want. Aside from possibly Cummings these kinds of quiet, workmanlike Democrats are exactly who Tea Partiers like Lynn Westmoreland and Jim Jordan eat for breakfast. It’s received wisdom that sober statesmanship for liberals beats Republican fanaticism but I really don’t think the case for that is there. Republicans know exactly how to make these kinds of Democrats look foolish and weak, how to press their buttons. It’s sort of like every liberal guest spot on FOX News. At the very least it would have been amusing to see Republicans try to handle Alan Grayson.

Sorry Nancy, you blew it. You took the question of staffing this panel seriously, rather than giving it the contempt it deserved.

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Lev filed this under: , ,  

Hey all, I voted today! By which I mean I mailed my ballot, the less-glamorous but more convenient way that my state makes it easy to do. Probably the most interesting vote I made was for a Republican, Tim Donnelly, for governor. What are you, insane? You might ask. After all, this is the guy who just alleged that one of his opponents (an Indian-American Republican, FYI) supports imposing that perpetual bugaboo of the insane right, Shari’a law. That’s right. Tim’s a very special politician, the kind of guy who says the sorts of things that conservative radio hosts say but that GOP politicians generally don’t say aloud, especially in blue states. He’s also a former Minuteman and is the wonderful piece of humanity behind this short-lived piece of trans panic:

Seriously, you don’t have to go too far to figure out this guy is a walking melange of Tea Party id, someone who wears his contempt for anyone different on his sleeve and uses flamethrower language with abandon. So I voted for this guy?

Yes, I absolutely did, and so should you.

Really, the importance of Donnelly’s getting into the top two cannot be overstated for progressives because a Brown vs. Donnelly race would almost certainly lead to an enormous Brown landslide and coattails for other Democrats in the state. Yes, it would also be a black eye for the GOP, though Donnelly basically believes the same things they do, he just says them plainly instead of elliptically. Really, the supreme hateability of Donnelly among, well, all the groups previously mentioned (who happen to make up much of the Democrats’ base here) would result in a gigantic Jerry Brown landslide. Donnelly’s tendency to be mouthy–which he’s shown neither the capacity nor the inclination to restrain–would make him an epically terrible candidate for the state’s top job, an office that Republicans have been able to win in recent times when they’ve run candidates attuned to the politics of the state. Donnelly either is deluded about these politics, as failed gubernatorial candidate and ex-Rep. Dan Lungren was, or he simply does not care and just wants to get more media attention, perhaps in order to parley his political career into a future in the conservative-media complex much like Herman Cain’s presidential “run” last time. Considering California’s term limits, I can’t entirely blame him. In any event, Donnelly isn’t even trying to be a credible threat to Brown, he’s just being himself. And nobody (and I do mean nobody) sees him as electable.

Why does this matter? Because CA-GOV isn’t the only important race for California Democrats this fall, as it is a foregone conclusion and only the margin is at stake. What is not a foregone conclusion is whether Democrats are able to maintain our 2/3 supermajority in the state legislature. If we fall below 2/3, then Republicans will once again be able to cause trouble, though no longer will they be able to stop budgets–the voters took that power away from them in 2010. They can, however, still create problems on taxes. Thanks to Jerry Brown and the state’s legislative leadership, the state’s economy is looking up, but more importantly, state government has gone from crisis-ridden and irresponsible to streamlined and professional. That this occurred during the period where Republicans lost virtually all their power in the state is no coincidence, and while the old days are gone for good, doing anything to fix the admittedly ridiculous state tax system will be impossible without 2/3. We have here extremely high income and sales taxes but no taxes whatsoever on services, and famously low property taxes that primarily benefit realtors by keeping housing prices high, and large businesses who are still operating on assessments from decades ago in some cases. It’s nobody’s idea of a sensible, efficient tax system and a full-on overhaul is long overdue. One suspects that Brown’s tangential role in screwing it all up in the first place by supporting Prop 13 would make him eager to fix these problems, which could foster economic growth and create new revenues. Not possible without the supermajority.

Also, there’s the problem of the nation’s legislature. Republican control of the U.S. House has led to the strangling of numerous popular bills, even ones that managed to get out of the Senate with bipartisan support. Immigration reform, ENDA, energy, take your pick. Counting on bipartisanship and mutual understanding didn’t work in Sacramento and it hasn’t in Washington either, taking away Republicans’ power was the only way to make things work here and is the only option there. Looking over the state’s House races, the 31st District is a sure flip from red-to-blue, but the 21st and the 10th will be tougher–both are Obama-won districts that sport non-insane, talented Republican incumbents. However, in a base election either or both could fall. And if it gets really bad, the SoCal seat vacated by Buck McKeon and the one held by Rep. Ed Royce could conceivably (if not necessarily likely) come into play. What is very likely, though, is that none of these people relishes the idea of sharing a ticket with an impolitic extremist like Tim Donnelly. At the very least, they’ll have to work harder, use more resources. That’s less money getting kicked back to the NRCC, to be used elsewhere.

So, ultimately, it’s strongly in your interest as progressives to vote for terrible person Tim Donnelly in June and for Jerry Brown in November. Do it. Hoist the Tea Party by its own petard!

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote that Republicans are obsessed with Benghazi because they think it’s Obama’s Watergate, and now here comes proven dum-dum Darrell Issa going ahead and ruining everything by making it explicit. As I wrote before, Watergate was caused more by the media than anything else, by a generation of media folks who were happy to keep secrets for powerful people (which made them, in turn, more powerful themselves) and were happy not to tell the voters things that in their mind would unduly worry or hurt them. Bad as our present-day media can be, they’re nowhere near as arrogant and obsequious as in those days. Nowadays, nothing stays secret. The filter just doesn’t exist. Reporters write and file stories they have, because if they don’t, someone else will, and nowadays competition is much fiercer in every way.

The basic problem here is that, while there might be some more details to be uncovered that make the Obama Administration look bad, the wilder conspiracy theories are almost certainly untrue simply based on the fundamentals, and Issa is basically setting conservatives up for disappointment when Obama leaves the White House on schedule and free of legal complications, most likely with high approvals. Obviously anything is possible but the fundamentals of the situation make vast presidential conspiracies far less likely than in prior eras. For one thing, presidents are much more closely observed than ever before. There are more observers and more people willing to talk, even former cabinet officials. The rapidity of today’s news cycles and the new media types ensure that the competition is fiercer than ever before for juicy material. Given the approach of the pre-Watergate media, one can see how Nixon’s crazy schemes happened, why the public was initially sold on Vietnam, and so on. The scrutiny simply wasn’t there. Now it’s all there, all the time, excessively so, to our detriment. Republicans would do better to investigate the rule-making process in the executive agencies than to keep on this white whale, if they actually cared about stopping corruption. Would probably do more to make the president look bad too.

Lev filed this under: ,  

I liked Ed Kilgore’s post on politicians that just make a person see red. Here are a few for me, leaving aside the ones mentioned in the post and obvious ones, as well as people who no longer hold office (so no Lieberman, sorry):

  • Susan Collins and Scott Brown, both of whom pretend to be moderates but jump when the party says to, and who then turn around and bemoan the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. They are not usually called out on this. Collins at least is a self-made figure with an against-the-odds career and deserves some respect, while Brown is just some random shmuck who won the lottery in 2010 and proved himself to be an endlessly vain, self-mythologizing hack. I can’t tell you how much his year of disastrous choices and embarrassment has gratified me.
  • Rahm Emanuel. That’s right, this here’s a bipartisan list! Emanuel is embodiment with all that’s wrong with Democratic politics and, indeed, American politics. Emanuel runs the city of Chicago as a strongman for the one percent and barely even pretends otherwise. I’m not really sure that this is a viable political strategy even given this era’s increasing resemblance to the Gilded Age, though given how crappy the Illinois Democratic Party is, and how even bumbling and unpopular politicians like Pat Quinn seem to repel primary challenges there and get re-elected, we’ll just have to see.
  • Gavin Newsom. Once upon a time he was the Mayor of San Francisco, in which capacity he was barely able to keep the city running and unable to keep himself out of the tabloids, all the while setting back marriage equality with dumb stunts and smug statements. Then he ran for the position of Lieutenant Governor because nobody wanted it, and won it unimpressively. Now he’s made it known that he’s bored with the job and obviously just wanted it to move up in the future, which is pretty dishonorable if you think about it. I don’t entertain many ideals about politicians at this point but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they actually find some honor and pride in being public service, that they see it as a privilege and their service as valuable. Newsom clearly does not. This is great:

    Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to shorten state employee workweeks should start with the Office of the lieutenant governor. Apparently, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom dislikes “boring” Sacramento so much, he only shows up to work there one day a week. Newsom dismisses his $160,000 government job as do-nothing, insignificant and irrelevant. Yet, voters felt he was a perfect fit.Looking at Newsom’s home page, the last entry was May 9, remarking on President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. Prior to that, Newsom had done or said nothing since Feb. 28. He has abandoned the job. For a guy who does and says so little, Newsom’s new job on Current TV is a conflict of interest with his elected office. California state employees shouldn’t moonlight on second jobs, particularly ones that compete with their day jobs. If Newsom doesn’t have enough to do as lieutenant governor, or feels the office is beneath him, he should resign his elected office. 

    I mean, on one level he’s right, his job is pointless. But it’s not like he didn’t know that when he ran for it. Newsom is one of the robots for whom the entire process is mechanical, a politician who gives the rest a bad name, who only cares about power and advancement fame and all the trappings. I will never vote for him so long as there are other Democrats on the ballot.

Who else?

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I wouldn’t say that:

The reforms are ingeniously simple. There is no more gerrymandering in California… District lines are now drawn by an independent commission to reflect actual community borders… Second, primaries are now multipartisan: the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off against each other in the general election… Schnur and his colleagues may have actually created an electoral system that favors centrists rather than politicians who play to their party’s base.

The basic result of eliminating gerrymandering was to end Republican power in the state of California. This was inevitable. Absent Democratic hacks short-sightedly writing district lines solely to protect incumbents, gaining 2/3 of the legislature was fairly easy. And this has indeed ended the rancor and acrimony of partisan fights in Sacramento, but not because a new class of moderate officeholder has prevailed to seek bipartisan solutions. It’s because Democrats don’t bother fighting Republicans anymore because there is no need to, and no point in it. You could also fold in the 2010 voter-mandated removal of the 2/3 rule for budget passage as a clear precursor. By taking away considerable power from the state GOP, there suddenly was much less to fight about, and therefore less fighting. That is the obvious takeaway from the “California miracle” of the past year and a half, but unsurprisingly it isn’t being portrayed that way by Joe Klein.

And FYI, the top-two system hasn’t been much more than a sideshow up to this point, enabling the pointless spending of resources in intra-party standoffs, tying up money that could be better utilized than over ego-fests with minimal stakes. But one suspects that Washington pundits approve of that.

Lev filed this under: ,  

This article is seriously flawed, and continues a very annoying trend of explaining away bad candidacies as failing because of ideology where there are very few palpable ideological differences between the candidates. I don’t really see the case for Allyson Schwartz as a centrist martyr, even admitting that left-liberals might well have opposed her candidacy and criticized her associations and connections, it’s very difficult to argue that this is what destroyed her candidacy. That was probably her (and Rob McCord’s) campaign’s decision to save money by not answering Tom Wolf’s early and effective introductory ads. It’s often true that early spending in political races can wind up being an utter waste once people start paying attention, but this seems to be an exception to that rule. Voters didn’t really know any of the candidates in the field at first, and then they knew one, and liked him. While I suspect Wolf will be a poorer candidate than either Schwartz or McCord, Tom “Penn State” Corbett is pretty much doomed so it’s sort of academic. And none of the three is even close to a Bill de Blasio.

I get that there are those out there who weep for people like Schwartz and Christine Quinn, but let’s talk about the latter for a moment. The two women are similar but not in the ways the article says. The ideological divides between the candidates in the NY Mayoral field were ultimately fairly minute. de Blasio was a bit more liberal than the others but not by a whole hell of a lot. He didn’t even promise to fully abolish stop-and-frisk, lest we forget! The big difference there was that de Blasio simply ran a much better campaign. He released clear, detailed plans for the policies he wanted to pursue, policies that people liked. He created clear themes that represented a nuanced, accurate reading of the electorate: one that was conflicted about the Bloomberg years but that ultimately wanted to turn the page, while the other candidates (John Liu excepted) all presumed that the electorate wanted a kinder, gentler Bloombergism. And, importantly, de Blasio ran some of the best ads in recent history, which humanized and defined how the voters viewed him brilliantly, that used innovative and indirect ways to create his public image. Quinn, while undoubtedly a brilliant back-room brawler, paid insufficient attention to her image and thus was painted primarily as an unprincipled accepter of corrupt bargains, a Bloomberg lackey who was incapable of leading. She clearly thought that being Bloomberg’s heir apparent would be enough, while her opponents hammered every single compromise she made in order to get his support and destroyed her image. It’s entirely possible to imagine an alternate reality where de Blasio rather than Quinn wins the Council Speaker job, and de Blasio cooperates on term limits with Bloomberg to get his backing. But that’s beside the point. Quinn failed to put forward a case for herself and was outmaneuvered by a savvier, less-compromised pol. There are some aspects of ideology to the story but that’s by far the biggest fundamental difference. And, while the race isn’t over in Pennsylvania, it looks like the same thing happened there. This isn’t about ideology so much as image, and frontrunners being out of touch and assuming their fundamentals were much stronger than they actually were.

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