Larison as always is on point:
It seems more likely that Obama’s ratings on foreign policy keep dropping because he sets goals that his policies can’t achieve, and so his policies are inevitably perceived as ineffective. The perception that a policy “isn’t working” reflects poorly on the administration and contributes to the impression that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. This is true even when the public doesn’t want the U.S. to be involved in the first place. As I’ve said before, Obama sets himself up to fail by trying to take the “lead” in crises and conflicts that the U.S. doesn’t know the first thing about resolving. The mismatch between rhetoric and action has been a persistent problem for this administration. For instance, Obama has made unnecessary declarations about the legitimacy of other leaders and governments (e.g., “Assad must go”) that would seem to require much more aggressive policies than he or the public would be prepared to support. As a result, his policy is judged against the much higher standard that he unwisely set for the administration. Pursuing more ambitious hawkish goals with limited means puts Obama in a bad position at home as well, since it invites attacks from hawks that always want the U.S. to “do more” without giving anyone else something that they can fully support.
I tend to think that Obama’s mostly-terrible second term foreign policy is related mostly to being out of touch. Obama constantly shows signs of understanding that the American people do not want anymore foreign adventures–it is how he got elected after all–but he doesn’t seem to understand how intense that antipathy is. He also seems to think there’s a much bigger base of support for liberal-hawk policies than there is–outside of the think tanks and political elites it’s trivial. So when he deploys rhetoric similar to presidents going back decades about America’s special responsibilities and evokes fear of the consequences of inaction, as he did with respect to Syria, he’s speaking to an audience that outside of the 212 area code no longer really exists. I don’t think he can get away with ignoring the preferences of elites but he should be aware of the gulf between D.C. and the rest of the country. He does not seem to.
He’s also eliminated the careful balance of actual realists and interventionists of his early years with a slate of full-on interventionists, with Chuck Hagel as the lone sorta-realist, though he also happens to be the least politically powerful member of Obama’s team, someone whose, ahem, reticence in opposing the Iraq War until it was quite safe (and then quitting politics rather than fight for his convictions) has ensured that he has no base, left or right. What’s more, his team now consists entirely of loyalists who reinforce his worst instincts, and invariably push in the direction of more conflict and more engagement. In the first term we heard a lot about how Obama, like Lincoln, had constructed a “team of rivals” to advise him. Looking at how disastrously the Syrian misadventure, say, was handled, what seems clear now is that Obama’s team is little more than a closed information loop, in which perspectives other than liberal interventionism go unheard. I think it’s time we revise the notion that Obama loves debate and different perspectives at least slightly, as there’s little evidence he does in this area.
People in general seem to be doing less of it:
A new NBC/WSJ poll notes that when asked what is the bigger cause of poverty today, 46% cited “circumstances beyond people’s control,” versus 44% who said it was due to “people not doing enough.”
First Read: “That’s a big change when the poll last asked this question in 1995, when 60% said it was due to people not doing enough, and when 30% said it was because of circumstances beyond people’s control.”
The obvious factor here seems to be generational turnaround. No matter what happens economically, people who came of age during the era of plenty after WWII–including some on the more liberal end of the spectrum–just eternally believe there’s ample opportunity out there because there always was for them. Hell, back in the 1950s they were probably right. People growing up now, however, who have had to compete with fifty people for a single opening at McDonalds know that isn’t the case. I have to admit that I thought this story would be the other way around after the recession but now I think that the inevitable 2016 Hillary campaign might actually benefit from highlighting the problems of poverty. If the trend continues, it could be a potent wedge issue considering how the GOP has positioned itself on it.
There’s a natural reluctance among liberals toward outright sabotage of the Republican Party. The attempt to try to salvage the political career Thad Cochran (with argument summed here) is an example. But I think that there are enormous upsides to getting rid of these guys: their replacements tend to be less adept at spin, inevitably have less institutional memory, and have ideological and attitudinal attachments that sabotage the accomplishment of valued ideological goals by the conservative side. For example, here’s newly-minted House Majority Leader (and my former Congressman, once upon a time) Kevin McCarthy:
“The Senate has not moved anything. They never send something to the president’s desk. So, how do you even negotiate with the president if he doesn’t have a bill on his desk?” McCarthy asked, explaining that the Democrat-controlled Senate blocks bills and keeps the House bills from the President.
Keep in mind that this is the second-most powerful Republican in the House now, and one of the most powerful in the country, and this is the best he could come up with? The argument is that gridlock is the Senate’s fault because the Senate won’t “allow” House bills that almost certainly can’t get a majority through (before being vetoed by the president)? How is that an obstacle? It might be an obstacle toward more efficient blackmailing and crisis generation, if that’s what he means, but it almost doesn’t. Also, once the bill is on Obama’s desk there’s very little to negotiate over. This is a serious step down from Eric Cantor’s spinning abilities, though it’s perfect if all you’re trying to do is to get FOX News to show a clip because to do that you just have to give people a little target for a minute or two’s hate. And the more of the “establishment” types that go down means more people like this, or like Ted Cruz, who lack any kind of skill set for media relations, whose audience is only FOX/Rush/Drudge.
Of course, the other possibility is that McCarthy actually believes this, but I tend to discount that.
How many times have we been told by Republicans that, regardless of how poorly viewed their party is nationally, how ineffective and unpopular their congressional wing, how lame their 2016 prospects are (Rand Paul? Marco Rubio? Jeb Bush?) or poorly the future landscape might seem demographically for the GOP, all of that, we should simply look to the governors. The Governors! How perfect, leadership experience without a D.C. taint, and typically they’re blank slates on foreign policy so Bill Kristol can, 28 Days Later-like, infect them with his views and create new neoconservative zombies. Yes, yes, it has to be a governor, as everybody knows, it’s their only chance. Here’s a representative such argument, Mitt Romney’s 2013 CPAC speech:
Perhaps because I am a former governor, I would urge you to learn the lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories: the 30 Republican governors.
Yes, they are winning elections, but more importantly, they are solving problems. Big problems. Important problems. Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia secured a constitutional amendment to expand charter schools. Governor Rick Snyder signed Right to Work legislation—in Michigan! Several secured tort reform. Many turned huge deficits into surpluses. Republican governors reached across the aisle, offered innovative solutions and have been willing to take the heat to make tough decisions.
We need the ideas and leadership of each of these governors. We particularly need to hear from the Governors of the blue and purple states, like Bob McDonnell, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Susanna Martinez, Chris Christie, and Brian Sandoval [emphasis mine] because their states are among those we must win to take the Senate and the White House.
Yet another reason to thank your lucky stars that Mitt Romney wasn’t elected president: he is a horrible judge of ability and character. This is an incredible list in retrospect, one shot through with sleaze. Shall we count them up? McDonnell has already been indicted. Walker is now in the hottest water of his tenure, implicated in what sounds like illegal SuperPAC coordination, and this is a crisis that won’t be fixed by his cocoon of angry talk radio hosts and exurban Milwaukee warriors unlike his others as it is not ideological, like his prior controversies, but legal. Martinez’s tenure has been criticized heavily–the article outright compares her to Sarah Palin–and she has her very own recent “aide pleads guilty in open court” story. Seriously! She must be really thankful that her fellow Republicans are taking the heat off of her. And Christie–we know all about him. Increasingly it looks as though his days are numbered, and it’s not a very large number:
Esquire reports that [US Attorney] Fishman is, to some degree, faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing which charges to level against Christie allies and potentially the governor himself. “Christie’s Port appointees — not only [David] Samson, but former [Port Authority] Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and his oddball sidekick David Wildstein — all face near-certain indictment and are being pressed to hand up Christie,” Esquire claims.
In regard to Samson, a Christie mentor and former attorney general of the state, one source tells Esquire that the septuagenarian — who reportedly has Parkinson’s disease — “got sloppy, arrogant, and greedy” during his time as Port Authority chairman, awarding contracts to various firms with ties to his legal practice. “Samson will want a deal,” the source tells Esquire. “This way, he’d get one or two years. He’d have a future on the other side. He won’t want to die in jail.”
Samson is most definitely one of those “knows where the corpses are buried” people. And keep in mind that this isn’t a mafia movie, these are all men that have a hell of a lot to lose and nothing to gain by going to jail for the tainted governor. The odds of them all standing tall are not so good. Also remember that six months ago, this guy was being touted as the frontrunner.
How embarrassing is this: 2/3 of Romney’s list–which is pretty much everyone’s list of GOP presidential frontrunners–already have dirt under their fingernails, and this is before even modest vetting has begun. Two thirds–and these people knew they were being mentioned in such contexts. They knew they should keep their noses as clean as possible, but they didn’t. They took shortcuts, broke laws, and created cultures of lawlessness. Amazing! Kasich and Sandoval seem relatively clean so far, but both have really big negatives that might complicate a presidential run (Kasich’s past running Lehman Brothers could cause problems in the primary and general elections, while Sandoval’s social moderation on abortion and other issues makes him a nonstarter in a primary). This really complicates 2016, doesn’t it? Republicans seem unlikely to select a congressional leader, but their once-vaunted lineup of gubernatorial now ranges between unappetizing and criminal. This doesn’t really seem like a crew that’s ready to take on Hillary Clinton, does it?
This is a little different from the usual stuff we do here: a close friend of mine who works under the aegis of education reform (though as part of an organization that focuses on fixing the administrative part of the equation, rather than any sort of Rheeist teacher-bashing sort of business) who reads the blog got in touch and wanted to contribute an informed view of her little corner of this particular area. Since this is often generalized about as a subject, I agreed. Below are her thoughts.
My non-profit occupies a strange place that is both part of and also transcends what everyone knows as the “education reform” movement. My personal idea of education reform is increasing the number of schools, the number of teachers, the prestige and support of the profession, and the power of unions. The orthodox “education reform” movement does not share these characteristics. I find myself working for a politically neutral organization allied simultaneously with organizations that have diametrically opposing objectives. We work with some of the hardest struggling public school districts in the nation along with some of the most odious, billionaire-funded organizations seeking to eliminate public schools. We supply the people, you figure out the ideology.
Working here has provided unusual insight into the world of K-12 education, its organization as an economic sector, and the education reform movement. When I started, I didn’t realize “education reform” was a specific term referring to the overhaul of public education, usually implying replacing public schools with portfolio districts or charter schools. I naively interpreted it as a general term meant to achieve substantive equality and improve the unfortunate conditions of so many low-income schools. This movement has much more diversity, intelligence, sweat, heart, and sincerity than I ever imagined, and much more than is typically included in public discourse. The unique experiences I have gained from nearly one year in this world have introduced me to some of the most intelligent and passionate people I’ve ever known and the increasingly depressing revelation that so little of it actually matters.
My first surprise relates to diversity. Most popular media outlets and even some of the more thoughtful, long-form journalistic publications characterize education reform as an enterprise of wealthy white people attempting to side-step the meaningful problems of inequality by feel-good, “boot straps” mentality solutions that reinforce the status quo. Or even worse, they increase their own advantage by making education more corporate. I’ve seen a good amount of this attitude in some of our more undesirable associated organizations, people who think education should just “work better” as if people were machines and the complicated social and historical fabric of our lives could be so easily changed. While there is an incredible amount of truth to these claims, publications about the education reform movement almost inevitably ignore the people staffing these organizations, working for the billionaires or, in my case, working for a former teacher who passionately believes great people will make education great too. In my organization these people are often high-achievers who are passionate about inequality, some from ivy league institutions, some from the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, some from other countries, and many from poverty. My organization’s serious commitment to diversity in its staff as well as its recruits means that we have an eclectic group of fascinating people, and I’ve encountered others in related education organizations with equally diverse backgrounds. While they may be statistical minorities in many different ways, my coworkers’ presence in this movement matters and their experiences and motivations matter. Similar people working underneath the billionaires and their organizations have more diversity and integrity than typically appear in survey articles about education nonprofits.
The second surprise that probably should not have blindsided me as much as it did is the role of consultants. Consultants are everywhere. Especially for small non-profits that cannot afford to hire full time staff members but who desire expertise to achieve their goals in the best way possible, consultants appear to be an attractive solution to these difficult problems. Consultants are also ridiculously expensive. My own organization spends too much money on them. Some former employees of my organization have become consultants themselves, advising similar education non-profits with a desire to change the world in the best practices of non-profit management and business necessities. They are making money hand over fist, all of which could be going into classrooms. The role and utility of consultants is complicated; if you want to create a non-profit to supplement and assist the education establishment that lacks the resources to perform the services your organization provides, it absolutely makes sense that you want that organization to run the best possible way. If you don’t have personal expertise in organization management, or even if you do and want to push yourself to do better, hiring consultants makes sense. There are thousands of crucial, mundane tasks necessary to make an organization run (administrative work, technology maintenance, managing the office space, etc.). Behind what appear to be extravagant wastes in overhead – not just consultants, but also staff retreats and team building activities – are mostly people trying to do the best they can with a single-minded focus on making the best possible contribution they can. Time isn’t free, and people find it logical that the best consultants charge the highest fees. Everyone pockets the money with clear eyes and full hearts, convinced they’re playing a crucial role in saving the future for children.
Sincerity is the third surprise I’ve encountered in the trenches of education reform. The staff people working in these organizations absolutely care. Sharing difficult personal histories in a public setting is a cultural mainstay of many education reform institutions, and you’ll hear stories of harrowing struggle and deep commitment to learning, to knowledge, and to passing those hard-fought opportunities along to others. One colleague of mine absolutely believes that abolishing public education is the best way to improve the spread of knowledge and increase opportunity. She devours literature on child development, successful anti-poverty programs, pedagogy, and education trends. Her sincere beliefs sound like the cynical marketing ploys of billionaires who want to eliminate the “problem” students that struggle in public education as we know it. While a small minority of people I’ve encountered in this world are condescending children of privilege that don’t understand why poor people won’t just “work harder,” most are breathless with idealism and certain that they’re changing lives.
After the diverse staff members of these education reform organizations share their heart-wrenching struggles of overcoming barriers to get their educations, after they do all of the mundane necessary things that need to happen to keep an organization afloat, after they pay the consultants and collect their own paychecks, and after they return from a day or week of team-building activities meant to increase their job satisfaction to keep them in the fold, not much changes. All of these brilliant, ivy-league graduates working as consultants or doing “entrepreneurial” education work in the name of social justice could be in classrooms. They could be in the trenches engaged in the business of educating children instead of the larger business of the education industry. Instead, many feel contempt for teachers for not fixing these broken children who do not perform tests on command or transcend difficult circumstances on their own, with inadequate support. Smart people with a sincere desire to help, many of whom have left the classroom or don’t see it as the place for them, are making a living for themselves and soothing their consciences and working long hours doing the same business-like cubicle work they could do anywhere in the name of education. In my naivety, my largest surprise has been how little of a difference it actually makes.
I’ve been reading a lot about Russian history over the past few months. I’ve long been interested in the culture, but recently I’ve felt like there is something there that can be instructive to me intellectually somehow. Right now, I’m smack dab in the middle of Edvard Radzinsky’s Stalin, which I couldn’t recommend more, though it’s certainly a thick book it’s very approachable. And it’s taught me that so much of the received wisdom about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, et al. couldn’t be more wrong.
Unlike Hitler, who ultimately lives down to the generalizations made about him, Stalin doesn’t. What I’ve found most surprising is just how smart he was. He was not an intellectual, but of all the smart people in the Bolshevik Party, he was the smartest of them all. He out-thought everyone else, both within the country and without. And while most authoritarian regimes still operate under constraints and involve various degrees of delegated power and often have multiple power centers, Stalin was able–really to an unheard of degree–to hold absolute power without any real constraints or any meaningful opposition for decades, due to his intelligence and his near-inhuman capacity for work. This is a unique accomplishment.
Stalin wasn’t paranoid or psychotic. Stalin didn’t have many friends but did have some, and was apparently capable of performing in that role (though it wouldn’t stop him from killing those people when he felt he needed to). His killings were done with a minimal amount of drama or equivocation. In fact, Stalin seemed to be entirely at peace with himself, which to me makes him much scarier than Hitler. To be able to throw lives away, even the lives of friends and loyal supporters that he did care about (and would mourn) without any real intervention from conscience is terrifying when you think about it. His faith in the bright Soviet future that would come after all of it was steady and sure, one which absolved him of any wrongs. Not that it’s difficult to find people around today with the same lack of scruples, though he was much more effective at it than almost anyone else.
It is also interesting to learn how many of the myths about him were simply wrong. Stalin never trusted Hitler, nor vice versa. Stalin was in fact planning to strike Hitler first and closely watched a lot of obscure German economic indicators–like the prices of complimentary products to sheepskin, the Reich’s preferred winterwear–which to him showed that Hitler was not planning an attack. His analysis was logically impeccable, but Hitler mounted an insane attack that took Stalin quite by surprise, and marked one of his rare mistakes in reading people. And so much of his relationships with the early Bolsheviks gets it wrong: Lenin did wind up as his opponent, though only because Stalin undercut his authority and built a power base for himself without Lenin’s knowing. Lots of people (George Orwell apparently included) liked to think that Trotsky was better than Stalin, but between the three of them, the only disagreements they had were over power. Trotsky was an intellectual unlike Stalin and lost in the internal power struggles, but he was on board for the greatest atrocities of Stalin’s reign–agricultural collectivization, the “liquidation” of the Kulaks–as was Lenin. Would either one have committed to the purges as Stalin did? Maybe, maybe not, though all approved of the means of terror to keep the people in line. Stalin was the Bolshevik ideals taken to their most logical conclusions, but the germs of those were just as present in Lenin and Trotsky.
Oh, and he was probably going to start World War III, except that he was murdered just in time to stop it from happening. Not out of some cinematic confrontation by one of his allies who worried about what his plans would bring–his top guys were a largely pathetic bunch, there just to carry out his orders. But rather out of self-interest from likely future purge victims. I find there to be some poetic justice in that.
For whatever reason, I kept imagining Bryan Cox’s take on Hannibal Lecter from Manhunter while reading about Stalin. Obviously brilliant, talented, and utterly missing any recognizable form of conscience. It was good to have all of the myths corrected, though one wonders why so much of the received wisdom is so off. Probably some combination of discomfort and inscrutability is my guess. That he just wasn’t troubled by any of it. That he could mourn some of the people he sent to death with apparent sincerity. Obviously there are others like him, though few as smooth or successful.
And not too many people seem to feel all that bad about its completion.
The biggest takeaway is: this is great news for John Boehner. Without Cantor, the anti-Boehner forces lose their most plausible alternate Speaker. They might not feel the need to try to take the king right after getting the queen, you take down one leader and it’s a rout, you take out too many and it’s chaos. And many of the next level of ambitious Republicans are going to be so busy with the races for House Majority Leader and Whip that trying to eliminate Boehner couldn’t be further from their minds.
The next biggest takeaway is: this is great news for Democrats. The Tea Party is essentially a self-created virus taking away ever-increasing amounts of know-how and ability and leaving in its wake obvious grifters like Ted Cruz. This is not a bad thing from my viewpoint.
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