I would not have thought to put the two together, but Bernstein’s argument about torture and foreign policy actually makes quite a bit of sense. Do read it in full, but the thesis is that the Obama Administration’s forgive and forget torture policy has, among other things, made foreign policy much more contentious and difficult for Obama because of the lack of accountability for people like John Yoo, David Addington, et al. I think there’s a lot of merit to the argument, but I’m not sure I agree with this part of it:
I’ve long argued that the best way out of this would have been (and would still be) blanket pardons for everyone involved in Bush torture policy, along with generous words from Barack Obama about how even when they went terribly wrong, the people involved were fine public servants reacting to a terrifying situation after the September 11 attacks—followed by a truth commission designed both to clarify exactly what happened and to show why torture was a horrible mistake that should never be repeated. Granted, that would require what many would see as a terrible injustice (letting war criminals walk) in the pursuit of a larger goal (reconciliation that included restoring the anti-torture consensus). And it couldn’t guarantee that goal, although in my view it’s the best chance, and better than the leading alternative of prosecutions.
I’ll admit that my skepticism of this solution comes from hearing the judge who presided over Pinochet’s trial speak. His argument that in the case of executive lawbreaking that trials are the only real way to move beyond it informs my thinking here. Critics can pore over the evidence of a trial, critique parts or decisions the judges made or the verdict. But the official weight of a trial makes the situation very different, and it pretty much ensures that everyone’s having the same conversation. No doubt the right would have exploded had Obama gone this far (as if, right?), but I’ve not been convinced that a truth and reconciliation commission would mean anything in the long run, not at all certain it wouldn’t have been dismissed among the right by FOX/Rush/Drudge as liberal vengeance (and therefore not as a chance to re-evaluate their positions), and pardoning lawbreakers because they’re powerful and because it would cause a disruption in the country sends a worse message than merely doing nothing, IMO. It shouts that partisan politics is enough to allow anyone to get away with any crime, that powerful people will never be called to account no matter what. At least doing nothing only whispers that message and leaves the question open, making it a slightly better decision. Also, it’s likely that an investigation and trials would actually lead to educating the public about what the law says on the subject of torture, which could be beneficial since there’s a lot of bullshit about. It’s possible that trials could significantly worsen tensions in the country. Republicans would be irate over them, but they’ve been irate over everything Obama has ever done, and many things he hasn’t. It’s also possible that such an event could undermine opposition to torture even further. But it could also be a real turning point, in a way that pardons and a commission simply wouldn’t be, since the former would have much bigger stakes. It could also, to be fair, have no effect on public opinion at all in general, though substantively full-on prosecutions would matter going forward.
Not that there’s much point of arguing which approach would be best. Obama missed the one time he could have really done something about it politically, which would have been in January 2009. He was unwilling to do it then, for reasons that are all too obvious. To do it now would invite endless questions as to his motives even if he were fully inclined to do it. I guess all we can do is hope that Republicans fall in line behind Rand Paul’s foreign policy sooner than later.
We learned yesterday that the National Security Agency (NSA) obtained a top-secret court order that forces Verizon to hand telephone records of millions of US customers over to the government. […] The Guardian, which uncovered and published the secret court order, today detailed the White House’s response. The Obama administration, while declining to comment on the specific order, said the practice was “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.” […] The court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forces Verizon to give the NSA “all call detail records or ‘telephony’ metadata created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The order, which covers a three-month period ending July 19, means the government is receiving data such as “phone numbers of both parties, the duration of the conversation, the time of the conversation, location data, telephone calling card numbers, and unique identifiers pertaining to the phones,” as we noted yesterday. […] Such call detail collection also occurred during the Bush administration. US officials say it is allowed under the Patriot Act passed in 2001.Hmm, why does that bolded bit above sound familiar…? Oh, that’s right:
Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials. […] The Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States, the officials said. Defenders of the program say it has been a critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States.For fun, let’s harken back to those halcyon days of the 2008 campaign. Here’s campaigner Obama, talking about Bush’s oh-so-evil warrantless wiretapping program:
Under an Obama presidency, Americans will be able to leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and “wiretaps without warrants,” he said. (He was referring to the lingering legal fallout over reports that the National Security Agency scooped up Americans’ phone and Internet activities without court orders, ostensibly to monitor terrorist plots, in the years after the September 11 attacks.)And how many of us forgot this gem from last year:
President Barack Obama has signed into law a five-year extension of the U.S. government’s authority to monitor the overseas activity of suspected foreign spies and terrorists. […] The law allows the government to monitor overseas phone calls and emails without obtaining a court order for each intercept.Never did any President meet an executive power he didn’t like…
I’ve been getting progressively more alarmed at all of the shameful stories coming out lately on the spread of high-stakes testing into so much of our public school system. The simplistic argument underlying it smells exactly like most of the other simplistic bullshit Republicans incessantly excrete*:
The Bible for opponents of high-stakes testing is a 2010 book called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, perhaps the nation’s preeminent education historian. Ravitch, who grew up in Texas and attended Houston public schools, was once an advocate of both high-stakes testing and charter schools. She served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush and was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to head the National Assessment Governing Board. […]
“Like everyone else,” she told me during a stop in Austin in February, “I was drawn to the idea that schools might benefit from a business sensibility, that we should set goals and then reward high performers and punish low performers.”
Throw our children into the cutthroat world of private enterprise and profit maximization? What could go wrong?
One of the key things that pisses me off when I read yet another story about the harm all of this is causing is that it seems to be the millionth recent example of trying to treat the symptoms without dealing with the underlying disease:
“The number one determinant of how well kids will do in school is socioeconomic background,” Ravitch told me. “It’s not how good your teacher is or which school you go to.” Ravitch makes a convincing case that those pining for a lost golden era of American education are misremembering. Sixty years ago, black and Hispanic kids weren’t allowed to attend public schools—or at least, not real ones—and most didn’t even go to high school. Kids with disabilities were excluded as well, and there were far fewer recent immigrants enrolled. Comparing that system with the one we have today makes no sense.
Why would we want to throw any additional money at alleviating poverty or child hunger, when we can just throw countless $billions at dubious, unproven band-aids that probably aren’t doing much of anything to cure just one of the dozens of symptoms of poverty and child hunger?
Read the whole article from which I took the quotes above. It will make you angrier than anything you’ve read recently.
* And yes, Democrats (the “Me too!” party) have, true to form, signed onto the same bullshit.
Yglesias makes a sharp point here:
One possible explanation for [Bush’s failures] would be that he’s dumb. Or alternatively that he’s incredibly lazy. The president of the United States has a tough job, after all, and it’s totally possible to imagine a person with roughly correct ideas to nonetheless screw it up through incompetence and blundering. But if conservatives want us to believe that the United States blundered through a major terrorist attack, two major failed military adventures, dismal economic performance, and then finally an epic economic collpase all while under the watch of a very bright and attentive leader then it seems like a much deeper failure of the movement.
Intelligence and ideology were major causes of Bush’s disastrous reign, though there were many others.
I actually think it’s possible to make the scope argument here: that the presidency has grown so ridiculously large and unwieldy that it’s impossible not to find several areas to specialize in and pay only cursory attention to the rest. I definitely think you see this with the Obama Administration, where some areas of public policy are just completely delegated because there’s too much to do. Problem with that is much of that growth has been due to shifts in the scope of foreign policy since WWII, and Bush was absolutely horrible at managing foreign policy. Apart from the wars that sapped any post-9/11 goodwill in the Arab world, Bush managed to tank relations with Russia and much of Europe (with the exclusion, of course, of Poland), allowed Hamas to gain official power in Gaza, and so on. Bush had little foreign policy preparation before entering office–substantially less even than Barack Obama, with those couple years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–and while he seemingly spent more than the appropriate amount of time on that subject for a president, to the detriment of domestic policy. What with the floods and bridge collapses and all that.
I think the other factor, aside from intelligence and ideology, that led to Bush’s disastrous tenure was character. Bush was no judge of it in others, and his flaws were so apparent that it made it easy for tougher, cannier men in the White House to handle him and turn him to their views. I’ve written in the past that you can make the argument that Bush grew a little bit during his time in office, and that he eventually learned his lesson and stopped letting Rove and Cheney and Rumsfeld jerk him around so much. But ultimately, a president who hadn’t been born to George and Barbara Bush would never have been able to rise to the top without finding ways to keep those flaws in check. Dubya basically went from nothing to a weak governor job to president, and never had to confront his own failures and make changes. There’s no real substitute for it in growing personally and careerwise. This is, perhaps, why the Bush years were so frustrating, because the guy had never really had to grow up.
Remember this from 2004?
President Bush proclaimed his election as evidence that Americans embrace his plans to reform Social Security, simplify the tax code, curb lawsuits and fight the war on terror, pledging Thursday to work in a bipartisan manner with “everyone who shares our goals.”
Bush staked his claim to a broad mandate and announced his top priorities at a post-election news conference, saying his 3.5 million vote victory had won him political capital that he would spend enacting his conservative agenda.
“I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” Bush told reporters. “It is my style.”
Bernand Finel provides context for last night’s walloping:
Bush “won” in 2000 with 271 electoral votes. In 2004 he upped that to a massive 286.
Obama underperformed his 365 from 2008 to end up with, likely, 332.
If Bush ever won a “mandate”, Obama just won a doubleplusgood muthafreakin mandate.
Update: Oh, Dickbag Morris, when will you be right about anything:
I’ve got egg on my face. I predicted a Romney landslide and, instead, we ended up with an Obama squeaker.
Obama’s win being a squeaker is like me being a ham sandwich.
From Townhall, naturally:
What we find is that the recovery from the bottom of the recession in January 2009 through June 2009, the official end of the U.S. recession, can only be attributed to policies implemented during the Bush administration, as no policy implemented by the Obama administration could have had any meaningful effect upon the economy during these six months.
That trend of improvement then continued during much of the period of overlap between the times when policies implemented during either President Bush’s or President Obama’s tenures in office could have affected the monthly employment data. In fact, if this were a trend in a stock price, a technical analyst would have been screaming to go “all in” at the time because of its upward momentum!
However, we see that the trend of improvement established during President Bush’s administration dies out toward the end of that overlap period, as the trend in the employment situation in the U.S. during the period where only policies implemented during President Obama’s time in office would have a stronger and stronger effect.
I thought Mitt Romney said we were supposed to consider the amount of jobs created since January 20, 2009, which proves once and for all that Obama is a job-killing failure.
ONCE AND FOR ALL!
Oh, yeah, about that…
I’m betting that the debt ceiling deal will pass Congress today. I don’t really have much to say about it, I don’t think it’s a very good deal and Jon Chait is persuasive when he says that it wouldn’t be a bad complement should Obama be ready to play hardball on the Bush Tax Cuts next year. But, like Chait, I think Obama has misjudged and mishandled the GOP far too often to have any real hope of that working out.
But, aside from that, this episode makes me wonder if Obama really has any real strategy for his domestic policy legislation. I’m beginning to seriously doubt it. Of course, if you look at it on a high level, what Obama’s doing doesn’t look that different from what George W. Bush did domestically in his first term (and failed to in his second), or from what Bill Clinton’s first term was supposed to be. In each example here, the president in question pushed two major policy initiatives, one of which was aimed at making the base happy, and the other of which was aimed at the moderate/independent axis. Here’s how it went:
- In ’93-’94, Bill Clinton pushed universal healthcare for the left, and NAFTA for the centrists. He failed at the first and succeeded at the second, which made business happy but pissed off labor and liberals, leading to the disaster of 1994.
- In ’01-’03, Dubya pushed tax cuts for his base, and Medicare Part D for the middle. Both were successful, and the result was a second term despite tepid popularity.*
- In ’05-’07, Dubya wanted to do Social Security privatization for the base, and immigration reform for the center. Both failed, and his party lost big in both 2006 and 2008, though there were other factors at play there for sure.
(*Also, there was No Child Left Behind in there, but that was more a mishmash of bad ideas left and right so it’s sort of sui generis.) This is just sort of how presidents usually behave these days–they try to give the base something they really want, and they try to give the mushy middle something they really want. Rarely are these the same thing–Bush’s tax cuts were (and are) quite unpopular with the public, particularly the upper-income cuts. Bush even lost a few Republicans by pushing so hard. But conservatives loved the tax cuts, and so they were willing to hold their noses at Medicare expansion and the like. Bush pushed hard for as much as he could get on tax cuts, which helped solidify his coalition. The result was a disaster in many ways, but not for Bush and the Republicans. At least, not then.
It’s hardly unlikely that Obama was trying to do the same sort of thing here–getting healthcare in the first two years for the left, and then a big deficit reduction package for the center. In fact, that might even be smart politics if it had been executed smartly. But it wasn’t, at least in the first part. Healthcare didn’t feel like a big win for the left, as many of the parts they cared the most for were bargained away behind the scenes but still appeared in limbo during the discussions, which led to a demoralizing debate in which the public option was killed a number of times. Financial reform was inadequate and mistimed, a B- bill after a Grade-A meltdown. The stimulus was too small and too heavy with unstimulative tax cuts to feel like anything other than the muddled (and self-consciously centrist) compromise it was. That they all were, ultimately.
Now, I’m the last person to say that healthcare wasn’t worth doing, even in compromised form. People made a bit too much of the public option in terms of the policy impact it would have had, which would by all indications have been modest. But had Obama really pushed for it, and nailed Joe Lieberman’s hide to the wall to get it, he’d have had much more latitude to do deficit reduction than he has now. Of course, Bush’s tax cuts were compromises, too. But they were the minimal possible compromises needed to pass the thing. Obama was completely inured to what the public option battle meant to the left, treated HCR like every piece of legislation as another way of showing moderateness/reasonableness/compromise, which in retrospect just seems foolish. It presumes that independents follow every legislative debate closely, that they award points for every gesture of moderation, or that getting bold on occasion is a dealbreaker. In other words, it’s Village thinking, to the extent that’s not an oxymoron. And paying attention to politics proves that. Back during my Republican days, I knew a lot of Republicans who were frustrated with this or that with respect to George W. Bush, but they always came back to those tax cuts for a reason to support him. It’s a wrinkle in the game that Obama appeared not to understand–being stridently to the left on even just one issue and winning a big victory can make the job so much easier with your base–and can consequently create more latitude to go after the center with them behind you. Bush did this exact thing with the right, keeping his base intact while compiling one of the least right-wing domestic policy profiles imaginable. It’s interesting to imagine how the past year would have played out had Obama staked out one of the three major issues–stimulus, healthcare, and financial regs–and just throttled it with the base. Healthcare is the most blindingly obvious one of the three to have done so with. I doubt Obama’s standing with the base would be as strong as Bush’s was with his circa 2003–liberals are a much more fractious bunch than conservatives–but I strongly doubt the Republicans would have 240 seats in the House right now if he had. If the strategy really is to use every piece of legislation as a way of telegraphing reasonableness, it shouldn’t be surprising if the results are very tepid approval among core supporters. Just imagine how Republicans would have seen Bush had he done everything the same but had unilaterally dropped half the tax cuts he wanted to woo Democratic Senators, and I can easily see it being like Obama’s present situation, though probably worse.
So that’s that. This is o/t, but I saw Steve Coogan’s The Trip at the theater this weekend, and if it’s in your area, do go check it out. Some truly great improv comedy with a great concept and real heart. Here’s a great scene from the film:
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