Friday, October 2, 2015

Leadership Debates

A few thoughts about the current leadership reshuffle in the wake of Speaker Boehner's resignation:

Current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy seems an early favorite to take on Boehner's job, but the other positions of Majority Leader and Whip are more up in the air.  (And according to some folks, such as Bill Kristol, even the Speakership may be up for grabs.  The fact that Jason Chaffetz is now rumored to be running for Speaker may be a sign of the race remaining in play.)  Tom Price and Steve Scalise seem to be the principal candidates aiming to be Leader, though everything still seems pretty fluid.

Some, including Ace of Spades, have used this leadership race to call for a major transformation of GOP leadership ranks.  Many Republicans seem to recognize this desire for change, but remain conflicted about how to cope with it.  As one House Republican said to NRO's Joel Gehrke, “Do we want real change in leadership or do we just want to move the deck chairs around?...I just want stability.”

Achieving that stability, though, may require some changes in policy (to put aside questions of who implements this policy for a moment).  John Boehner has been in an uncomfortable position throughout much of his term as Speaker not principally because of random incidentals but, instead, because of deeper forces.  The GOP as a whole has considerable internal tensions, which seem to have escalated in recent months.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing GOP congressional leadership is the breakdown in trust.  Grassroots conservatives, upon whom the party depends for much of its organization and many of its votes, remain deeply distrustful of party leaders, fearing that many in the Beltway hold different priorities than they do.  Whether or not this suspicion is warranted, it is real.  Pete Spiliakos has recently written a number of posts exploring this topic of trust, and the lack thereof, for Republicans, and party leaders would be wise to examine his arguments.

This breakdown of trust has aided and abetted many bouts of Failure Theater, a performance that tends to upset the base and to alienate moderates.  A party with renewed trust in its congressional leaders is one that can speak in more conciliatory tones and fight more effectively for key policy aims.

Part of the enterprise of regaining trust no doubt involves messaging, but it also demands real shifts in policy.  Vague denunciations of "Obamacare" aren't going to cut it.  Republicans can take up issues that expand the coalition.  For instance, immigration remains a key point of frustration for many conservatives and moderates, so leadership might consider criticizing anti-opportunity guest-worker programs more.  That sort of move would not only hearten grassroots Republicans; it would also appeal to working-class voters in the middle.  By focusing on policy issues that unite the right and center, Republicans can avoid getting sucked into endless procedural debates and present a more affirmative message.

As Republicans reflect on who should lead the party in the House, they should think seriously about who offers the best way forward for regaining this trust.  Republicans would benefit from a leadership that has the trust of the grassroots, an ability to advance conservative policies in a way that is inclusive and hopeful, and a willingness to explore policy innovation.

UPDATE 10/8/15: With Congressman McCarthy's decision not to run for Speaker, the Speakership is very much up for grabs.  McCarthy's withdrawal from the Speaker's race underlines the importance of imaginative policy reform.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

American Ninja Warrior: Adversity and Heroism

On Monday night's broadcast, for the first time since the series began in 2009, a competitor has won American Ninja Warrior (ANW).  For those unfortunate souls unfamiliar with the sport (and it is a sport), American Ninja Warrior is an adaptation of a Japanese game show in which contestants face an incredibly challenging obstacle course.  In the American version, men and women compete at city courses across the country.  Contestants who successfully compete the city course then head to Las Vegas to encounter a four-part finals course, which culminates with a climb up Mount Midoriyama.  This season had a very successful run over the summer, often becoming the top show for Monday nights and usually one of the top shows of the week.

Until this week's finale, no one had ever made it past the third part of the finals course.  This year, two men successfully scaled Mount Midoriyama: Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero. Because Caldiero reached the top of Mount Midoriyama a bit faster than Britten, he won the grand prize of $1 million.

A few points about ANW:

It embodies that classic American theme of assimilation and adaptation.  Not only is it an import from Japan, but competitors in ANW come from all walks of life.  A middle-aged immigrant from Cambodia (Sam Sann) competes on an equal playing field with a sprightly 25-year-old (Kacy Catanzaro).  Veterans, stay-at-home moms, stock brokers, busboys, and carpenters are all alike on the course.

It casts light on the heroism of day-to-day lives.  While navigating an upside-down climbing wall is pretty cool, the contestants of ANW demonstrate that heroism is not just for the cameras.  For instance, Houston's Abel Gonzalez adopted his brothers and helped raise them.  Utah's Michael Stanger began physical training to help care for his wife, who has a rare and debilitating physical condition.  The broadcasts of ANW remind us of our profound capacity for resilience in the face of obstacles.

It shows how challenges can help us rise above ourselves.  The biggest competition an ANW contestant faces is not others but himself or herself.  Every person who completes a given stage is guaranteed to go on to the next one, so the emphasis is not on beating the other contestants but on beating the course.  Again, until this year, no one had ever won the title of "American Ninja Warrior" or the cash prize because no one had been able to complete the whole course sequence.  The difficulty of the courses encouraged the top competitors to train throughout the year in order to master the likely obstacles.  These Americans did not wilt in the face of adversity but instead worked harder and rose to the occasion.

Especially in today's outrage culture, cultural criticism tends to emphasize things that upset, alienate, or depress us.  But we should also take a minute to celebrate cultural forms that affirm what is good and noble.  American Ninja Warrior is not slash-and-burn reality TV but focuses on ordinary people who do things that might cause a dislocated shoulder but that also are kind of amazing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Populism and Conservatism: A Case for Detente

The sudden surge of populist presidential candidates has occasioned a renewed debate on the right about the relationship between populism and conservatism.  Some pundits seem to take for granted that populism is essentially antithetical to conservatism.  It’s true that particular populist efforts certainly can run afoul of limited-government principles. With its government control of income, the “Share Our Wealth” program of Huey Long, for instance, radically breaks with the principles of the free market and limited government.

However, a bit of political imagination can suggest potentially a partial harmony between populist principles and conservative ones. Conservatives have at least three reasons for taking the current populist insurgency, which goes far beyond Donald Trump, seriously. As a matter of principle, thinking about how to respond to these populist energies can reinvigorate conservatism as a political approach by forcing it to think more creatively about how to respond to concrete political circumstances. As a matter of political calculation, harnessing these populist energies could help conservatives secure a stronger national governing coalition. As a matter of political circumspection, conservatives might be right to fear that, if the forces driving the populist insurgency are not addressed by any coalition, the popular anger might grow more and more intense and thereby make the ultimate populist reckoning a nuclear meltdown.

What follows below is a—perhaps overly optimistic—survey of potential theoretical areas for a conservative and populist detente.

Diffusion of power: One of the central motifs of populism is the idea of returning “power to the people.” The diffusion of power is certainly an idea that conservatives can get behind. After all, the tenets of localism to which many conservatives subscribe emphasize decentralizing power in order to get it back into the hands of local communities rather than federal bureaucrats. Where populists often go wrong is in hoping that this return of power can take place through a virtuous despot or through some centralized bureaucracy. Once power is concentrated in the hands of a supreme leader, it rarely leaves his living grasp, and massive bureaucracies can often be manipulated to reward those in power rather than the people that they were originally intended to help.

Conservatives can channel this popular energy for diffuse empowerment into an emphasis on strengthening local government and kicking off a broad-based prosperity. They might stress tax reform that prioritizes working families and regulatory reform that ensure that government regulations are less cumbersome and less in thrall to special interests.

The national: Populism in general is often derided as a “nationalist” movement. Interestingly, some on the left and the right accuse both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump of subscribing to a retrograde nationalism.  Trump’s rhetoric in particular is often aggressively nationalistic. At times, he portrays the world economy as a competition between nations, with clear “winners” and “losers” (and these days he often portrays the U.S. as a “loser” betrayed by its feckless elites).

Conservatives should not cheer a braggadocious jingoism, but they should also recognize that plenty of sober people within the American tradition (from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay to George Shultz) believed that nations do have interests and that American statesmen should advance those interests. Advancing those interests doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to enter a war of all against all, just like the practice of companies advancing their interests in the free market doesn’t necessarily lead to economic devastation.

Calls to strengthen the United States as a nation should not necessarily be seen as a dead-end tribalism; throughout history, the cause of liberty has often been assisted by the strength of the American republic (as the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War demonstrate).  Like any other political arrangement, the nation-state has its shortcomings. However, it is (so far) perhaps one of the best ways we have of securing basic rights and liberties. The idea of a republic demands having a limited body-politic with the power of self-governance, so dissolving a republic in the name of transnational utopianism would likely also mean the dissolution of self-government and the evisceration of many of our civil rights.

Competence: Populists are often associated with a kind of know-nothing insouciance to competence; the fact that something is popular—it feels right—overcomes all practical objections. Ironically, then, one of Donald Trump’s biggest applause lines on the stump is his suggestion that current governing elites are, as he puts it, “very, very stupid.” Many sympathetic to the rising populist wave believe not just that our nation has been badly governed but also that it has been ineptly managed.

Conservatives can and should take a measured approach to the topic of competence. They should note that human fallibility means that efforts to run the nation’s local affairs through Washington, DC will often lead to increased misery. No technocratic savant can, alas, save us from human limitations. But even if the federal government cannot do everything well, it can do some things well (or at least can try to do some things well). What the government can do within appropriate Constitutional bounds, it should try to do efficiently and justly. A competence reconciled with a recognition of the limits of central planning can lead to gains for limited government and human happiness. Conversely, a government that proves too inept at fulfilling its responsibilities can result in calls for an even bigger and more intrusive government; the financial crisis of 2008, for instance, was central for the expansion of government power during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Integration: A common accusation against populists is that they are xenophobic troglodytes, who blame “the Other” for tainting an otherwise pure society. Xenophobia is an ugly trait, and sensible conservatives would be wise to oppose it. But some of what motivates populists is not xenophobia but the desire for a sense of common fellowship in a nation. When that desire for social integration crosses the line into demonizing groups of people, it of course loses its moral force.

But a more benign, non-xenophobic desire for fellowship and integration can unite both conservatives and populists. As political scientist Robert D. Putnam has argued, balkanization and the breakdown of social trust come with numerous costs, including alienation from the political process, diminished interest in private cooperative endeavors, and increased personal isolation. These costs should obviously concern defenders of limited government. Where there is a vacuum of civil society, the Leviathan gains new opportunities for expansion. Now, the sense of common fellowship is not the same thing as national homogeneity. One of the great enterprises of e pluribus unum is the simultaneous courting of individual uniqueness and a reconciliation of these countless different individuals into a singular republic.

Our current elites’ embrace of identity politics and the new intolerance has taken a flamethrower to the organic bonds of social trust. By pushing back against shame politics and defending social tolerance and free expression, conservatives can help promote a common but diverse public square. They could also help by rigorously challenging the slice-and-dice identity politics that is foundational for so much contemporary public discord. But these efforts to promote integration need not be confined to the social. Efforts to promote the middle class and economic opportunity also have a role to play.

Other areas where populists and conservatives could ally include support for economic growth, a vigorous and responsible foreign policy, and a respect for law and order.  We have now experienced an economic stagnation that has gone on for over a decade. This stagnation not only inflames populist anxieties, but it also weakens the ability of the United States to influence international affairs and worsens government finances.  Populist anger at elite mismanagement applies to foreign affairs, where the U.S. has too often lurched from debacle to debacle.  A more effective foreign policy could ward off the risk of isolationism as well as advance American interests and the cause of expanding liberty and justice.  Americans increasingly fear the politicization of the justice system, which in turn damages their faith in the foundational laws of the country.  The fact that the present administration has played so cavalierly with Constitutional norms no doubt exacerbates this anxiety.  Defending, and reforming when necessary, the institutions of law and order could speak to enduring conservative principles and a popular worry about the loss of stability.

Joining conservative and populist sentiments is hardly novel. Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 Labor Day address, “The High Place of Labor,” reveals the potential for joining populism and conservatism. Throughout this speech, Coolidge emphasized the dignity of labor. He did not argue for an opening of the national borders in order to correct a supposed “skills shortage.” Instead of “men hunting for jobs,” he called for “jobs hunting for men.” A tight labor market, Coolidge argued, would lead to national prosperity as well as enrich the middle class. He did not view workers’ wages as a negative on a corporate balance sheet but as a source of national growth.

Silent Cal, perhaps one of our least demagogic presidents, offered a conception of government that could align with both populist and conservative worldviews. A similar point could be made about William F. Buckley, who had a conflicted relationship to populism but who also shared many of its disruptive impulses, Ronald Reagan, and others. While there are tensions between certain populist policy proposals and certain conservative ones, the two political approaches can also find possible alliances.

At the outset of his speech, Coolidge addressed what he took to be a central problem, one that both populists and conservatives might agree upon: 

To my mind America has but one main problem, the character of the men and women it shall produce. It is not fundamentally a Government problem, although the Government can be of a great influence in its solution. It is the real problem of the people themselves. They control its property, they have determined its government, they manage its business. In all things they are the masters of their own destiny. What they are, their intelligence, their fidelity, their courage, their faith, will determine our material prosperity, our successes and happiness at home, and our place in the world abroad.
If anything is to be done then, by the Government, for the people who toil, for the cause of labor, which is the sum of all other causes, it will be by continuing its efforts to provide healthful surroundings, education, reasonable conditions of employment, fair wages for fair work, stable business prosperity, and the encouragement of religious worship.

Coolidge did not offer the state as the magical solver of all problems. Indeed, he did not believe that the state could be a perfect substitute for the richer textures of civil society. But he did think that the state could help advance the interests of civil society through its efforts at public safety, education, a vibrant economy, and a defense of religious freedom.

The health of a republican government ultimately depends upon the principles to which it subscribes and to the conditions of the people who constitute that government. An economic recovery that reignites growth and opportunity for the middle class combined with a reinforcement of civil society could go a long way toward improving those conditions. Much of what drives the current populist insurgency is very likely the desire for renewed economic energy an­d a reinvigorated faith in the strength of the foundations of the American republic. We can deliver on both of those things in a way that is in essential accord with the principles of limited government.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Myth of "Oops"

Former Texas governor Rick Perry has now suspended his race for the White House.  In many respects, Governor Perry had an impressive record as governor.  He had assembled a worthy policy team around him, and his campaign seemed inclined to raise some innovative policy ideas for the Republican party.  But the governor's campaign never really caught fire.

In the aftermath of Governor Perry's withdrawal, many in the media seem to be spinning an interesting narrative around him: his 2012 and 2016 campaigns were destroyed by the infamous "oops" moment (when he could not remember the name of the third federal agency he wanted to close during a primary debate).  While this moment is unfortunate and easy fodder for blogging, it's hard to say that this gaffe destroyed Governor Perry's presidential aspirations in 2012, at least.

Let's look at a timeline of events.  Governor Perry exploded onto the GOP primary scene in the late summer and early fall of 2011.  According to Real Clear Politics, his national primary polling peaked at around 32 percent on September 12, 2011.  The "oops" moment occurred on November 9th.  But Governor Perry's national lead had already collapsed by then.  Between mid-September and the end of October, his support had fallen from the 30s to around 10, and he had fallen from first to fourth place.  It's true that his support fell further after the "oops" moment, but the sharpest decline was beforehand.

So what actually destroyed Governor Perry's presidential bid in 2012?  A number of forces contributed to his political decline, and media gaffes were no doubt one of them.

But surely part of what injured the Perry campaign was the counterattack launched by Mitt Romney's campaign.  Governor Romney's team hit Perry on a number of issues, especially immigration and Social Security.  Romney argued that the Texas governor was soft on illegal immigration and specifically highlighted Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  The fact that Governor Perry suggested that those who oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants did not "have a heart" probably upset grassroots Republicans even further.

Romney also slammed Perry's past remarks on Social Security.  At various points, Governor Perry called Social Security both a "Ponzi scheme" and a "failure," and Romney's team pounced on those statements.  By emphasizing anti-illegal immigration and pro-Social Security themes, Romney was able to bring Perry back down to earth.

The "oops" moment might have damaged Perry's brand over the longer term, but it certainly was not responsible for his campaign's failure in 2012.  It's worth noting this fact for a couple reasons.  At times, the media has a tendency to want to adjudicate presidential campaigns solely through the lens of verbal missteps.

However, we should be wary about judging the whole of a politician's career through a single verbal misstep.  Governor Perry's record is much bigger than "oops."  But we also should not deny real policy debate by fetishizing media optics.  Perry fell not because of "oops" but at least in part because many Republicans had doubts about his approach to illegal immigration and to Social Security.

This fact has implications for 2016.  Especially on immigration (though on other issues, too), many in the Beltway media want to avoid a real debate about policy issues.  They try to reduce the rise of various outsider candidates to political theater.  While political performance art no doubt plays a role here, part of what has set the stage for these various outsider candidates is voter dissatisfaction with current policy outcomes and a desire for a new way forward.  As I've suggested before, specific policy innovation will be important for addressing the forces causing the rise of outsider candidates.  Words matter, but political optics should not the exclusive focus of political journalism.  Policy matters, too.

Monday, August 17, 2015

On Guest Workers

In National Review, I discuss how guest-worker programs undermine conservative principles and the electoral hopes of Republicans.
Any GOP candidate hoping to strengthen the party’s demographic appeal and to reform our immigration system so that it encourages opportunity would be wise to confront the issue of guest-worker programs. These programs not only represent a betrayal of free-market, pro-civic conservative principles; they also offer a political trap for Republicans.
As they currently exist, guest-worker programs tend to be a species of crony capitalism in their creation of a caste of workers without full access to the free market. One of the defining features of a guest worker is that she cannot bargain for her labor with the same flexibility and freedom of a legal permanent resident or a U.S. citizen. This disadvantage distorts the free market and undermines the position of the average worker. Guest-worker programs allow the rich and connected to pit worker against worker in order to have an economic race to the bottom.
Read the rest here.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thoughts for the Fourth

Happy Birthday, USA!

A festival of links for the Fourth:

Noah Rothman and streiff in defense of the Revolution.

Myron Magnet on the vision of the Founders.

David French on the obligations and thrills of maintaining the Republic today.

The Declaration of Independence.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Democrats Back Away from Takei

George Takei has been an ally of many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.  However, Takei's denunciation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as a "clown in blackface" is now causing some Democrats to try to put some distance between themselves and the Star Trek alum. Former Clinton staffer Paul Begala has declared Takei's controversial comments "awful" and called upon Takei to apologize to Thomas.

The backlash against Takei's remarks has now begun to reach Congress.  As Roll Call reported in June, Democratic congressmen Mark Takai (Hawaii) and Mark Takano (Calif.) have recently formed a joint-fundraising committee dubbed the "Takaucus."  A major forthcoming Takaucus October fundraising event will feature George Takei in New York City (the fundraiser will reportedly involve a preview of Takei's upcoming Broadway musical, Allegiance).

When reached for comment about the Takei controversy, a spokesman for Representative Takano issued the following statement:
"Despite the Congressman being highly offended by Justice Thomas' opinion, as he is the son of internment camp survivors, he disagrees with Mr. Takei's characterization."
So now even close Democratic allies of Takei are trying to isolate themselves from his controversial remarks.  (At the time of this writing, Congressman Takai's office had not replied to a request for comment.)

In a later post,Takei denied that there is anything racist about calling Clarence Thomas a "clown in blackface."  This denial has not satisfied many of those offended by his comments.

UPDATE: Facing increased political and popular pressure, George Takei has now retracted his earlier remarks about Justice Thomas.  An excerpt from Takei's retraction is below:
While I continue to vehemently disagree with Justice Thomas, the words I chose, said in the heat of anger, were not carefully considered.
I am reminded, especially on this July 4th holiday, that though we have the freedom to speak our minds, we must use that freedom judiciously. Each of us, as humans, have hot-button topics that can set-us off, and Justice Thomas had hit mine, that is clear. But my choice of words was regrettable, not because I do not believe Justice Thomas is deeply wrong, but because they were ad hominem and uncivil, and for that I am sorry.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The New Intolerance

Over at NRO, I consider the works of the 1960s academic Herbert Marcuse as anticipating the vicissitudes and inherent contradictions of the current PC culture war:
If the agents of the new intolerance ever get around to “deproblematizing,” as they would put it, Mount Rushmore, they might consider adding the visage of Herbert Marcuse to the crags of the Black Hills. Much of modern “political correctness” is really a New Left cultural politics that has made an uneasy peace with material prosperity. (The trajectory of Al Gore — from youthful critic of consumerism to gray-haired centimillionaire — is instructive here.) Marcuse’s work is much more sophisticated and rigorous than the tweets of many of today’s outrage activists, but that only makes it more important to engage with his ideas in order to comprehend the foundations of the Newer Left’s cultural crusade — and to see why this crusade fundamentally fails.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Defending Hamilton

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's announcement last night that the $10 bill would be modified to include both Alexander Hamilton and a woman has caused a combination of head-scratching and cheers.  While many are happy that a woman will be included on #TheNew10, few have defended why Hamilton's bill had been revised (other than saying that the $10 was already up for redesign). Some activists had been calling for a revision of the $20, believing that Andrew Jackson's troubled legacy warranted a change.  No one had been calling for a revision of the $10.

The Obama administration's decision to revise U.S. currency has been criticized by people on the left and the right.  Even at Vox, Matt Yglesias writes that Treasury should have changed the $20 rather than the $10.  (It's worth mentioning, though, that, if Harriet Tubman is added to the $10, it would be appropriate because both she and Hamilton were opponents of slavery.)

However one feels about this currency change, a happy side-effect is that it has caused numerous writers today to come out in defense of Alexander Hamilton and his legacy for the United States.  A good place to start reading is Quin Hillyer's cri de coeur: "When it comes to American money, Hamilton is our history."

Over at The Federalist, defenses of Hamilton are pouring out. Ben Domenech celebrates Hamilton's heroism:
Had Alexander Hamilton died taking Redoubt Ten at Yorktown, bayonets fixed and muskets unloaded, he would have died a more significant American than his fellow Columbia student Barack Obama, who has now deigned to displace him from the ten dollar bill. To charge across that field under the flash of British artillery, rush into a hail of British musket fire, leap first over the parapet yelling for his fellow Patriots to follow and fight and by so doing win their freedom would have been enough for the man who had no father but became ours. He did not need to write and curate The Federalist; he did not need to construct the Constitution; he did not need to establish the U.S. Mint; he did not need to save the nation from financial calamity; he did not need to, in the aftermath of the 1800 election and in his dying act, destroy the political fortunes of the conniving traitor and would-be tyrant Aaron Burr.
Mollie Hemingway slams the administration's decision to focus on revising currency at this troubled time:
Yes, as the world burns from Ukraine to Iraq to the South China Sea, as we face a catastrophic seizure of data on all of our military and federal personnel, as the country faces real civil unrest and discord, the Obama administration has decided to turn its focus on the “problem” of a great immigrant Founding Father’s presence on our currency.
And Robert Tracinski outlines four reasons why Hamilton deserves a place on U.S. currency:
Alexander Hamilton was a classic American immigrant success story. Born in the West Indies, he was orphaned at about 11 years of age. As a teenager, he distinguished himself as a clerk for local exporters until friends raised money to send him to be educated in New York, where he quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of American independence.

Within months of the British withdrawal from America, Hamilton became the founder of the Bank of New York, which today is America’s oldest bank, and he became the central figure in the new nation’s financial center.
One of Hamilton's major causes after the Revolution was strengthening the union in part because he believed that a strong union was necessary to ward off foreign threats and to keep from internal chaos.  He worked to create a vibrant economy and a strong military in the belief that a vigorous nation would be one more likely to defend its liberty.  As the nation continues to struggle with economic stagnation and foreign-affairs debacles, that's an example the Obama administration would do well to learn from.


Mark Krikorian reflects on the political implications of visual choices for monetary design.

Jay Cost cries, "Leave Hamilton Alone":
Though he died at the young age of 49, he did more than even the best among us could do in three lifetimes. He was George Washington’s indispensable man during the Revolutionary War. He was a key behind-the-scenes player in the movement for a Constitutional Convention. He defended the new Constitution with remarkable erudition and sophistication in theFederalist papers, of which he was the most prolific author. During his brief tenure at Treasury, he not only righted the nation’s teetering public finances, he also formulated policies that became the backbone of our political economy for the next century. He even saved the country from an economic panic in 1792 by initiating a prototype of what the Federal Reserve calls open market operations.
Above all, he was the first statesman to grasp the full potential of the new nation. Somehow, he could see beyond these thirteen fractious, misbehaved states of 1788 to a future where America dominated the world. As he wrote at the conclusion of Federalist 11: “Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!”

Stephen L. Carter praises Hamilton's opposition to slavery:
Perhaps most important is the matter of his abolitionism, shaped by the horrors he witnessed in his Caribbean boyhood. Hamilton was a co-founder of one of the first non-Quaker anti-slavery societies. Ron Chernow, in the excellent biography that has inspired a Broadway musical, writes: “Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton.” Adds his admiring biographer Forrest McDonald: “In one crucial respect ... his attitude never changed: he always championed liberty and abhorred slavery.”

Alexandra Petri notes (well, exclaims) Hamilton's virtues:
Hamilton is a hero. Hamilton built this country with his bare hands, strong nose, and winning smile. He was the illegitimate son of a British officer who immigrated from the West Indies, buoyed by sheer force of intellect, and rose to shape our entire nation. His rags-to-riches story was so compelling that if he hadn’t existed, Horatio Alger would have had to make him up. Hamilton gave us federalism and central banking and the Coast Guard! He served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. He fought in the Revolutionary War. He started a newspaper. He weathered a sex scandal! He saved us from President Aaron Burr. He successfully imagined our country as the federal, industrial democracy we have today and served as an invaluable counterweight to Thomas Jefferson’s utopian visions of a yeoman farmers’ paradise. He founded the Bank of New York! He was so good at what he did that the Coast Guard was still using a communications guidebook he had written — in 1962! He was a redhead! He should be on more currency, not less. He should be on all the currency!
Hot Air digs into the Obama administration's possible psychology behind this change.

Chris Matthews contrasts Hamilton's and Jackson's economic philosophies--and finds in favor of Hamilton.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Excommunication, Really?

On Twitter and elsewhere in the conservosphere, you sometimes see righties arguing or implying that, of course, there are no serious conservative reasons to oppose Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  For the record, I do not have in mind here measured conservative defenses of TPA/TPP (for instance, this piece by Matt Lewis or these remarks by the editors at National Review*).  There are valid arguments on behalf of TPA/TPP, and conservatives should not be afraid to make them.

However, there are also valid arguments against TPA and TPP from a conservative perspective--and these arguments go well beyond how much we can trust Barack Obama.  So I think it premature for some on the right to try to excommunicate TPA/TPP dissenters from serious conservatism.

First of all, it is unclear whether unequivocal "free trade" is a sine qua non of conservatism.  If conservatives want to say that, they will have to cast figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan out of the conservative narrative.  Lincoln and Coolidge, after all, were major proponents of tariffs, and, while Reagan talked about opening up trade, he also took steps that many conservatives today would decry as "protectionist" (and even decried then as "protectionist").  As Alan Tonelson relates, Reagan did things like impose quotas on imported cars from Japan.  That's hardly free trade.

Secondly (and perhaps more pressingly), it is far from clear that TPP will actually promote free trade.  As I've suggested before, much of what goes by "free trade" in contemporary political discussions isn't actually free trade but instead the creation of internationally administered systems of managed trade.  Now, perhaps those internationally administered systems of managed trade are helpful and worth advancing, but they are certainly not free trade.

Moreover, these administrative systems set up international bodies that can have influence over U.S. domestic policy.  For instance, the U.S. House voted this week to no longer require meat producers to disclose the country of origin for meat.  One major motivation for this was the threat of retaliatory tariffs enabled by the World Trade Organization.  As the Wall Street Journal reports:
Wednesday’s 300-131 vote repealing the country-of-origin labels for meat follows a series of rulings by the World Trade Organization finding the labeling discriminates against animals imported from Canada and Mexico.
Canada and Mexico won a final WTO ruling in May, and are now seeking retaliatory actions valued at a combined $3.7 billion a year. Canada has threatened trade restrictions on a range of U.S. products, including meat, wine, chocolate, jewelry and furniture.
Maybe this repeal of country-of-origins labels is a good thing; maybe it isn't.  But the fact remains that an international body (one not elected by or accountable to the U.S. voter) helped usher along this change in domestic policy.  The establishment of international bodies by so-called "free trade" agreements could very legitimately concern small-government conservatives.  These bodies might at times undermine the principles of the market and of national, republican governance.

Again, there are plausible arguments on behalf of TPP and TPA--but it would be a mistake to write off all conservative critics of these measures as charlatans and cranks.  I respect many of the proponents and many of the opponents of these measures, and it's better to have a respectful conversation.

(*Disclosure: I contribute to National Review.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Gaming out the TPA Vote

At the moment, it still seems as though House leadership is struggling to find the votes to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).  TPA would give President Obama the ability to negotiate trade agreements and send them to Congress, which could not filibuster or amend these agreements.  Passing TPA would likely be the first step for the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Currently, most House Democrats are opposed to TPA, so the Obama administration is relying on the support of House Republicans, especially leadership, to pass TPA.  Speaker Boehner's leadership team is working hard to minimize the number of Republican defections on TPA.  According to Politico, the Speaker's team hopes that around 190 of the 244 House Republicans will back TPA; the support of 30 or so Democrats would then allow TPA to pass.

At the moment, this certainly seems like an achievable goal.  According to a helpful whip list compiled by The Hill, only about 30 Republicans are currently leaning against or outright opposed to TPA.  110 Republicans are in favor of TPA or leaning that way, while another 100 or so are undecided (or at least haven't announced their intentions).  Meanwhile, 20 Democrats seem to be leaning in favor of TPA.  If 20 Democrats have already come out in favor of TPA, 30 is a very doable number for the Speaker and the White House.  No doubt, there are numerous Democrats waiting in the wings who would prefer to vote against TPA but will vote in favor of it if the president needs their vote.  So some of the Democrats who are publicly undecided or only leaning against TPA will certainly switch to back it if the vote goes down to the wire.

I would guess, then, that opponents of TPA would need about 60 Republicans (possibly more) in order to stop the bill.  The fact that the House has not yet held a vote on TPA suggests that that number is not totally impossible, but it could be a hard slog to get there.

Right now, the House Republican opposition to TPA includes an interesting assortment of insurgent conservatives and establishment-friendly voices.  For instance, Dave Brat (Va.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Ted Yoho (Fla.), and Don Young (Alaska) are all part of the anti-TPA coalition.  House Republicans face major pressure from donors and those in the conservative movement who have an ideological commitment to "free trade," so there is considerable incentive for Republicans to back TPA.  Meanwhile, opponents of TPA have emphasized the dangers of presidential overreach and cast doubt on whether TPA/TPP actually advance market principles.  This conflict explains why many House GOPers are keeping their options open.

According to a Politico story, a couple dozen House conservatives are negotiating with leadership.  This faction, led by Ohio's Jim Jordan, are thinking about supporting TPA if leadership agrees to certain conditions: "that the charter for the federal Export-Import Bank...not be given a reauthorization vote; that rank-and-file lawmakers be given more power to reject future trade deals; and that aid for workers displaced by free trade be separated from the trade legislation."  The support of this faction would help leadership get to 190 votes, but apparently leadership is concerned that this deal could endanger the bill as a whole.  As this single set of negotiations suggests, there are a lot of moving pieces here.

Below, I offer a haphazard (i.e., far from complete) list of House Republicans whose actions may bear watching in the coming days:

Raul Labrador (Utah): Labrador is an up-and-comer with many allies in the Tea Party.  At the moment, he seems to be leaning against TPA.  If Labrador takes a stand against TPA, he could help rally support among conservatives.  But, if he moves to back it, that could be a sign that opponents of TPA are on a sinking ship.

Jim Jordan (Ohio): As the leader of a major conservative faction, Jordan plays a pivotal role here.  He's currently leaning no, but, if he can strike the aforementioned deal with leadership, he could end up backing TPA.  His faction's support for TPA would likely be the death knell of opposition to the measure.

Trent Franks (Ariz.):  Franks is known as a conservative, and he's expressed his doubts about TPA in the past.  Currently undecided, he could be a good indicator of where House conservatives are leaning on the bill.

Kay Granger (Tex.): A respected voice among House Republicans, Grander is currently undecided.  She's backed TPA before, but now she's expressing concerns about presidential overreach.  If she does end up opposing TPA, that would be a major win for the bill's opponents.

Trey Gowdy (S.C.):  Gowdy's been a loud critic of the abuse of presidential powers during the Obama administration, but he also has many allies in leadership.  Currently, he's undecided on TPA.  Obviously, both sides would like his support.

Bruce Poliquin (Maine):  The rest of the Maine delegation in both the House and the Senate opposes TPA, and Poliquin likely faces a tough re-election race in 2016 (he first won his seat in 2014 by 6 points).  He's currently undecided.  Probably, the politically safe vote for him is against TPA.  If he votes in favor of it, it might be because leadership really needs his vote.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Thinking about Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

If Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a huge trade compact) pass, they will do so because of overwhelming Republican support in Congress.  Only 14 Democrats supported TPA in the Senate, and few House Democrats seem inclined to back TPP, so the ball is in Republicans' court here.  As House leaders scramble for votes to give the president Trade Promotion Authority in hopes of formulating some Trans-Pacific Partnership, here are four interlocking questions that Republicans and conservatives should keep in mind:
  • Are TPA and the TPP good for the nation?
  • Are TPA and the TPP in accord with conservative principles?
  • Will TPA further disrupt the already unsettled Constitutional balance of powers between the president and the Congress?
  • Are TPA and the TPP good for the Republican Party?
I will leave to the side for the moment the question of the economic benefits of the TPP.  In part, these benefits can't be ascertained because we don't know the details of the TPP.  But I will mention in passing that numerous trade agreements over the past few decades have fallen well short of the promises of many of their proponents.  For instance, the 2010 trade agreement with South Korea has led, according to the Economic Policy Institute, to an increased trade deficit with South Korea and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs--all for a 1.8% growth in exports over the first three years (the trade deficit almost doubled during that time period).

Likewise, without knowing the details of the TPP, we can't say whether the TPP is in accord with conservative principles.  However, it is also worth noting that, on the whole, much of what has been called "free trade" in recent decades has actually undermined the principles of the market, as I've suggested before.  The media has interestingly shifted from describing supporters of the TPP as "free traders" to "pro-trade," which is probably a more accurate description--because the Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to be an international agreement about managed (not free) trade.  Perhaps that managed trade will be in the national interest (and perhaps not), but we shouldn't call it "free trade."

Regarding presidential power: Trade Promotion Authority does give considerable authority to the president.  Under TPA, a trade agreement submitted to Congress can't be amended or filibustered, which substantially limits congressional influence.  It's true that rules like TPA have been in effect in the past.  As the Congressional Research Service noted in its very helpful write-up of TPA, presidents since FDR have used increased authority to negotiate trade deals.

The current administration, though, has tried to push presidential authority to extreme lengths.  The Obama administration has attempted to rewrite laws using regulatory agencies and claimed its right to nullify laws at policy whim.  The mammoth TPP could contain passages that a president--including Barack Obama's successors--could use to further aggrandize his or her power.  Moreover, the language of the TPP could have loopholes that could allow the executive to take even more direct control of domestic policy.

A close attention to legislative language will be crucial in trying to keep an executive in check.  Congressional allies of the TPP have advocated for TPA, but many of these TPA/TPP allies have apparently not even read the evolving draft of the TPP.  A lack of trust surrounds negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has not been helped by the secrecy of the Obama administration.  Moreover, while many congressional Republicans have proclaimed how little they trust the administration, many of these same Republicans are now working to pass TPA, which would give the president increased authority and realize one of his key second-term ambitions.

This brings us to the question of whether TPA and the TPP would be good for the GOP.  Obviously, partisan concerns pale before the national interest and ethical/philosophical obligations, but electoral consequences are at least worth thinking about.  The fact that the president is of the opposing party is not a sufficient reason for Republicans to block a major administrative objective; a policy measure that is good for the country and in accord with sound principles would be worth supporting no matter the party of the president.  But, if a piece of legislation is more mixed, Republicans should be far less enthusiastic about it.

In the wake of the failure of 2012, many Republicans thought that the party should do more to reach out to the middle and working classes.  A trade agenda that further undermines the working class would run afoul of this aim.  Moreover, it seems fairly likely that the hollowing out of the nation's industrial workforce over the past few decades has been electorally problematic for the GOP.  The growth of economic uncertainty in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio has made these states much harder for Republicans to win at the presidential level.  Policy measures that would further damage the economic interests of American workers could put Republicans farther away from a sustainable governing majority.

Polling on the TPP and TPA is surprisingly sparse, but these polls suggest that many voters--especially in the Rustbelt (which the GOP could stand to do much better in)--have serious doubts about the current trade regime.  Polling suggests that many voters are skeptical about giving more trade authority to the president.  A PPP poll finds that voters in Ohio are rather hostile to the TPP (nearly two-thirds oppose it).  Many in the grassroots left oppose TPP/TPA, but opponents of these measures on the insurgent right include Laura Ingraham, Michelle Malkin, many Breitbart writers, and the Conservative Review team.

Ultimately, I think that there are legitimate reasons both to oppose and to support TPP/TPA (Ramesh Ponnuru has been one of the more persuasive conservative supporters).  As Republican House members consider whether or not to support TPA, they should not be afraid to ask tough questions.  Nor should they buy the idea that skepticism about the TPP or TPA is the product of economic ignorance or intellectual weakness.  Legislative due diligence often demands a tough-minded resistance to inherited dogma.

In the Popeye universe, the character Wimpy would famously promise, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."  In many respects, Trade Promotion Authority offers a similar deal: allies of TPA want us to give the president increased executive power today in exchange for potential economic growth tomorrow.  That growth may or may not come, but the expansion of presidential power is guaranteed.  Perhaps that's a deal worth making, but we should be honest about the uncertainties of that trade.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Two Links

A couple brief points:

In NRO, I look at the toxic combination of weaponized of cultural politics and mob violence.

In another piece, John Fonte celebrates what he terms "the conservative populist breakout."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why So Angry?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's comments about legal immigration, reported earlier this week by Matthew Boyle, have raised a semi-ruckus on the Net. This paragraph in particular seems to have ignited howls of outrage and yelps of pleasure:
In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying—the next president and the next congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages, because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to Senator Sessions and others out there—but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today—is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.
It's interesting that some should view as controversial the idea that protecting the American worker should be an important consideration for immigration policy. But some apparently do. Mark Krikorian outlines some of the vituperative attacks directed at Walker's comments (even some Senate Republicans are grousing).

But some of these attacks lack argumentative clarity. For instance, this Talking Points Memo story breathlessly warns that Walker "shows openness to limiting legal immigration," which it portrays as some hardcore right-wing viewpoint. TPM is not alone in its suggestion that limiting legal immigration is somehow beyond the norms of acceptable political debate.  However, current immigration law already limits legal immigration (setting particular caps on it), and very few politicians are running on pure open borders. Barack Obama has not called for removing all limits on legal immigration, and neither has Hillary Clinton. Are they now rabidly right-wing?

For the record, only 7% of Americans want immigration levels increased, so supporters of unlimited legal immigration are a tiny minority.  And, if we are going to have limits on legal immigration, what standard should we use?

The intensity of the attacks on Governor Walker's remarks suggests how some in the Beltway want to avoid having a real debate about how to ensure opportunity for all and how to integrate immigrants into the American body politic. Many in the elite want to foist a narrow vision of immigration "reform" on the nation (basically, window-dressing enforcement, instant legalization of illegal immigrants, and expanded guest-worker programs). But they do not have a monopoly on "reform."

As I've suggested earlier, conservatives and Republicans should not be afraid to put forward immigration reform that helps immigrants succeed in the American economy and become full members of the American body politic. Part of the defense of the wages of the American worker includes the defense of the wages of legal immigrants, so seeking to defend the American worker is hardly anti-immigrant. We can have an immigration policy that is both pro-middle class and pro-immigrant.  And I think it is at least arguable that one of the key ideas of this immigration policy would include defending the ladder of opportunity so that immigrants and the native born (which often includes the children of immigrants) have a chance at prosperity.

Governor Walker's exact policy proposals for immigration are still evolving (as Mickey Kaus reminds us), but these remarks hint that he might at least be thinking about how to forge an immigration policy that encourages opportunity and civic integration.  Far from being a right-wing pander, that kind of policy vision should be of interest to people across the political spectrum.

UPDATE: For more along these lines, see these remarks by Jeffrey H. Anderson, Ross Douthat, Ian Tuttle, and Ramesh Ponnuru.