Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The "Amnesty" Trap

As his campaign paves the way for some statement on immigration policy, Donald Trump appears on the verge of falling into a conventional trap on immigration: making the fate of current illegal immigrants the centerpiece of any immigration discussion.  The Democratic party and its media allies prefer to focus on what to do with the "undocumented" because this issue splits conservatives and obscures other areas of immigration policy that badly need reform.

As I've long argued, immigration policy is about much more than what to do with illegal immigrants, just as tax reform is about much more than what to do with people who owe back taxes.  It's also about much more than building THE WALL or whether or not we should have a so-called DEPORTATION FORCE.  The Trump campaign has a tendency to grope toward hot-button issues (and the status of illegal immigrants is certainly one of those), but its interests would be better served by focusing on other oft-ignored--but very important--policy issues, including:

  • The size and structure of our legal immigration system (by the way, the current legal immigration system makes the legalization of illegal immigrants much harder)
  • The size and structure of guest-worker programs
  • How to improve various mechanisms of interior enforcement, such as E-Verify
  • Efforts to encourage upward mobility and integration for recent immigrants

On many of these issues, the agenda of the far Left (and Hillary Clinton) is radically out of step with the American people, so the Trump campaign would benefit from framing the discussion about immigration on these terms.

The editors of National Review and others have suggested that Trump would be far better off arguing that the question of the status of long-term illegal immigrants would be better addressed once a reformed enforcement regime is up and running.

Of course, in order to make that alternative argument, the Trump campaign (including the candidate himself) will have to be willing to discuss policy details in depth.  The shiny bright-red button of media polarization will have to give way to sober deliberation, which might be less explosive but is also often more politically beneficial.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Leaving the Cocoon

In The Weekly Standard, I dig into what we can learn from Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," a sustained reflection on the importance of intellectual charity:
Identity politics cultivates "blindness of heart" by locking us in narrow categories, but it is not the only entity that might blind us to political realities and our deeper moral obligations. Burke retains skepticism about an ideological approach to politics. Government, he writes, is a "practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians." Recent years have seen increasing public tensions in part because of a divergence of the "schemes of visionary politicians" and the actual desires of the people themselves. For instance, proponents of the European Union thought that their schemes of integration could go forward without a buy-in from the broader body politic. The success of Brexit, the increasing tensions of refugee politics throughout the continent, and the broader nationalist surge are in part due to the divergence of ideology and public will.
And looking forward, whatever the results here in the U.S. in November, conservatives and others would do well to remember these words by Burke: "to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men." If it hopes to avoid an irreparable schism, the right will need to focus on diagnosis rather than castigation.
This loss of faith goes far beyond the electoral interests of the right, however. For those interested in warding off the risk of authoritarianism, re-establishing public trust in democratic institutions is a necessary enterprise. This trust does not mean uncritical obedience, but it does entail an essential faith in the pillars of our republic. Remove that faith, and you open the door to tyranny or at least turmoil. Much could be done to restore that faith, but a key part of this restoration involves the act of having a mutual exchange, of those in power rising to the challenges of the time and collaborating with—rather than looking down on—those they govern. The citizenry of a republic are not simply to be managed, nor are they to be viewed as mere vehicles for the realization of ideological imperatives. Instead, they are agents with their own wants, desires, and beliefs. A serious republican politics recognizes this fact.
In this piece, I build on arguments advanced by Peggy Noonan, Rod Dreher, and others that part of what afflicts our civic conversation is a cocooned leadership class that blindly places its faith in a rigid ideology and unleashes scorn on those who dare to dissent from it.  The knee-jerk response to call those who disagree with current policies bigots, whiners, takers, or some other slam is not healthy for those who hope to maintain a robust civic culture, which is a perquisite for a republic.

Burke says that one of the great tasks of government is listening.  Neither "you'll get nothing--and like it" nor "you rubes never had it so good" exemplify an open ear.  Instead, those in power and those who seek to counsel those in power need to listen to their fellow citizens, inquire into the facts, and advance in a spirit of charity and humility.

For the right, charity and humility will be especially important in the months and years ahead.  Whatever happens in November, there are clearly substantial differences of opinion on the right, and purges--whether pro- or anti-Trump--will likely only worsen the problems facing the right.  As Pete Spiliakos has noted, "purge the voters and prosper" is not a strategy for success in a democratic republic.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Disruption Ahead?

In NRO today, I dig into a new report by McKinsey that explores the consequences of economic disruption for Western political systems:
A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute – “Poorer than Their Parents?” – suggests that greater instability may be on the horizon for the First World. The report outlines a broad stagnation in incomes across the industrialized world, which has strained government finances and could unsettle existing political consensuses. By raising doubts about the fiscal and political sustainability of current policies, it augurs increasing disruption in political systems across the world. 
The good news is that conservatives can meet the challenges of this economic sclerosis – and help secure themselves a governing coalition in the process.
McKinsey finds that, in much of the industrialized world, between 65 percent and 70 percent of households saw their market incomes (earnings from labor and capital) decline or stay flat between 2005 and 2014. Increased government transfers counteracted much of the decline, but about a quarter of all households still saw no income growth during this period – a marked departure from previous decades, when most households across the income spectrum saw at least some market-income growth.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Breaking the Media Narrative

In his speech in Charlotte, North Carolina today, Donald Trump continued to try to shift the media narrative of his candidacy.  In remarks in Wisconsin earlier this week, Trump emphasized reconciliation and national unity:
I will fight to ensure that every American is treated equally, protected equally, and honored equally. We will reject bigotry and hatred and oppression in all of its forms, and seek a new future of security, prosperity and opportunity – a future built on our common culture and values as one American people.
I am asking for your vote so I can be your champion in the White House. We will once again be a country of law and order, and a country of great success.
To every parent who dreams for their children, and to every child who dreams for their future, I say these words to you tonight: I’m with you, I will fight for you, and I will win for you.
Charlotte continued this theme.  He also apologized for some of his past remarks.  As Byron York noted, Charlotte represented a considerable break with many of Trump's past speeches.  This might represent a strategy on Trump's part to cast his candidacy as more inclusive, disciplined, and cooperative.

One can argue about whether this branding will be effective and whether it is too late to be effective.  But, if it's to have any hope of success, it will require incredible discipline in the coming days.  The branding of Trump as an angry bomb-thrower is set fairly deep.  The only way to reset this branding is to not give the media anything that could be construed as part of his old brand.    The media likes covering the circus and it likes Trump as the ringmaster.  It will do everything it can to keep him in the circus (and thereby help Hillary Clinton into the Oval Office).

With one crude off-the-cuff comment by Trump, the media will flood the zone.  A dismissive remark about another Republican--wall-to-wall "GOP in civil war" coverage.  With any slip, the media will be cackling over a failed "pivot."  If it wants this rebrand to be successful--from "I alone" to "we together"--Trump's campaign will have to be hyper-vigilant.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Toomey on Trade

In a big move today, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, who's facing a tough re-election battle against Democrat Katie McGinty, came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in an op-ed today.  Toomey opens this op-ed with a broad defense of international trade but then criticizes the specifics of TPP:
About 46,000 Pennsylvanians have jobs in the life science and pharmaceutical sector, making it one of our state’s largest industries. TPP will make it too easy for other countries to steal innovations that we create in Pennsylvania and take the jobs tied to those innovations.
Pennsylvania’s largest agricultural product is dairy, with about 7,000 dairy farms in the commonwealth. This sector depends heavily on exports, which means it’s critically important that trade agreements open foreign markets to our goods. Unfortunately, TPP has failed to do this meaningfully, particularly with respect to the protectionist Canadian market.
I have brought these and other problems to the attention of the Obama trade negotiators, but regrettably, they have failed to address them. As it now stands, TPP is not a good deal for Pennsylvania. I cannot support it.
A good trade deal can open up new markets across the globe and help turn around our weak economy. We must not abandon trade. Politicians in both parties who demagogue trade do a disservice to our people, playing on their economic fears, instead of promoting their economic well-being. But we should not pass a flawed deal just to get a deal done. We should dump the TPP and return to the negotiating table to get an agreement that would create jobs and economic growth here at home.
Leaving aside the debate about whether support for "free trade" is necessarily a bedrock conservative principle, it's worth noting that Toomey is still defending the overall idea of "free trade" while arguing that TPP does not live up to those ideals.  Toomey's op-ed thus represents one way that even defenders of "free trade" can make some concessions to "free trade"-skeptics in the electorate.

Toomey's shift has some interesting implications for the Pennsylvania Senate race as a whole. Katie McGinty has opposed TPP and other trade deals in a very strident way--and had slammed Toomey for his prior openness to TPP.  Toomey's opposition to TPP weakens those attacks.

Recent moves by President Obama to defend TPP further complicate the electoral dynamic. Politico recently reported that the administration is stepping up its pro-TPP efforts:
Administration officials including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Agriculture Undersecretary Alexis Taylor are touting the deal across the country in meetings with business and agricultural leaders in a bid to generate positive local headlines. Lew met with Fortune 500 executives in Minneapolis earlier this month, while Taylor will promote the deal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the National Corn Growers Association grass-roots leaders’ summit.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, meanwhile, appeared Aug. 3 with Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, one of 28 Democrats who supported fast-track authority last year, talking about how the administration is responding to the water crisis in his drought-stricken Central California district. Later that day, she was in Rep. Susan Davis’ San Diego district, touring a guitar factory with the trade-supporting Democrat. The next day, she stood alongside Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, another Democratic supporter of fast-track authority, shaking hands with startup entrepreneurs among his increasingly tech-centric, liberal constituency.
In Pennsylvania, the Obama administration is now on the opposite side of TPP compared to both the Republican and Democratic Senate nominees.  This puts McGinty in an uncomfortable situation.

Over and over again, the McGinty campaign has hammered Toomey on trade.  For instance, here's what McGinty had to say about Toomey's record on trade:
“Despite the fact that bad trade deals have devastated thousands of Pennsylvania families, Pat Toomey continues to support trade agreements like the TPP that will cost us tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
“Pat Toomey never remembers that he’s supposed to work for middle class Pennsylvania families, not Wall Street profits. He should change course and put our families first, before his allegiance to high finance, bad trade deals, and his former Chinese bosses.”
In another statement, McGinty further lambasted Toomey on trade:
“Families are working as hard as they can work,” said Katie McGinty. “People are working two and three jobs and they still can’t make those ends meet. This is about showing Senator Pat Toomey: it is time to reverse course. We are joining together here today to ask Senator Toomey to stop voting against the American worker.
“We’re here to tell Senator Toomey that we need somebody who’s going to fight for our jobs, for our companies, for our families. Stop pushing these bad trade deals that push our jobs overseas. And stop sticking up for the Chinese, who don’t follow the rules, at the expense of our hardworking women and men, and our companies, who are being left behind."
McGinty seems to view TPP as terrible policy, and yet Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, is campaigning heavily for TPP.  And McGinty isn't trying to distance herself from President Obama: he's at the very top of her endorsement page.

So Katie McGinty has spent all this time attacking Pat Toomey for supporting TPP, even though he now opposes it, while allying herself to Barack Obama, who defends it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Finding the Middle Ground

One of the key debates of the present moment is the role of the nation-state.  Two recent pieces suggest that there's a way of reconciling the nation-state with a proactive role in international affairs.

The first is by James Poulos, who argues that we don't have to choose between "nationalism" and "globalism":
It was the Cold War that first made this clear. Right-wing critics of the patriotic internationalist vision of William F. Buckley and his allies saw deep and insidious costs to the U.S. defining itself as the great all-or-nothing adversary of worldwide communism. Beyond the evident risks and burdens, they saw the Cold War as one more step down the road that changed the U.S. from a national republic to a global quasi-empire, one whose unaccountable, cosmopolitan regime would inevitably infect every aspect of life here at home, not just in the far-flung imperium.
Fatally, that change wouldn't defeat the progressive left, but rather give it untrammeled power in the homeland. After all, it was Woodrow Wilson who first proposed that American nationalism demanded globalism — a doctrine designed to fundamentally transform America into an all-but-anti-nationalist country, a proving ground and laboratory for the global regime envisioned by the post-Wilsonian progressive elite.
To be sure, for Buckley and Co., there was a risk that elements of the left could push such an agenda. But there was a certainty that neither radical globalism nor reactionary nationalism were acceptable doctrines — because neither squared with the dual identity that has always been in America's cultural and political DNA. For traditional mainstream conservatives, American exceptionalism is defined as much by our nationality as by our unique and indispensable role in the world — however its contours and character may be colored over time.
The second is by Andrew A. Michta.  Michta notes some of the broader disruptive tendencies currently working their way through Western political systems.  Many advocates of globalization have also called for a transnationalism, but an anti-transnationalist backlash seems to be building.  Contrary to the assumptions of some transnationalists, Michta argues that the nation-state actually helps reinforce the broader global order:
Notwithstanding the many volumes written on the alleged arrival of a post-Westphalian era, globalization and the persistence of strong nation-states are in fact not contradictory: The former defines the current stage of capitalist development, while the latter is the territorial political unit that organizes land and population. The past three decades have been marked not only by the opening of national markets but also by fierce competition between nation-states. If anything, strong states ensure the stability that is critical to the smooth functioning of the global market, and perhaps here the globalists and the nationalists could actually find room to compromise. Yet part of the problem is that our elites seem unable to divorce the idea of nationalism from the historical narrative of fascism. Though seemingly counterintuitive, this accounts for their inability to recognize that the current wave could in fact be a positive restorative force reasserting the unity of Western democratic nations, provided we begin to seek a genuine consensus on the importance of common reference points in society. To do so would invalidate the most established and often cherished narratives about the direction of global change that envision and celebrate a world in which nation-states continue to surrender sovereignty to international norm-enforcing institutions and supranational projects. Simply put, the vision of a postmodern Europe in particular, as defined over the past three decades, cannot be reconciled with the experience of 21st-century nationalism, for the former envisions societies where national identities rooted in a shared culture and history are replaced by a generic concept of citizenship bridging between multiethnic and multicultural societal enclaves. A compromise would require some affirmation of a larger national culture, and most importantly a movement away from ethnic group politics in order to arrest the centrifugal forces that have balkanized Western societies for decades.
The point he makes about the role of national fellowship as a way of countering "ethnic group politics" is especially worth considering.

Friday, August 12, 2016

I Alone

At least some of the source for Donald Trump's struggles on the campaign trail can be traced to this line from his convention address: "I alone can fix" the problems facing the country.

Leaving aside the ideological implications of this line, it reveals the tendency of the Trump campaign to fixate on the persona of the candidate.  In its media strategy, the campaign often seems to have the goal not be pounding home some policy message or rallying the troops for races up and down the ticket but instead grabbing headlines for Donald Trump.  Over this past week, for instance, rather than focusing on the economic policy laid out in Detroit, he instead has pivoted to throwing rhetorical bombs.  As Rich Lowry noted the other day in Politico, Trump has been following a strategy of personality-driven media saturation that could help a media figure solidify a brand--but might be less helpful in actually winning an election.

In the primary campaign, the strategy of personality-driven media saturation probably helped Trump.  It gave his campaign media oxygen, and Trump's combative personality help him gain the support of Republicans alienated by the party establishment.  However, now that he's the Republican nominee, getting coverage is not nearly as important; he's guaranteed that coverage by virtue of his position.  Of course what he says will be covered--he's a major-party nominee!  What's more important now for the campaign is that this coverage advances his long-term electoral interest.

One only has to look at recent political polls to see that this flood-the-zone media strategy has not been effective.  In fact, a personality-driven campaign plays in many ways into the hands of Hillary Clinton.  Secretary Clinton is running on an extremely left-wing platform, and her personal reputation is marred by scandals.  The last thing she wants to do is talk policy or have the spotlight be on her.  Her favorability ratings are low, but they are often higher than Donald Trump's.  In many ways, the more Donald Trump makes this election about him alone, the better it is for Hillary Clinton.

Moreover, bomb-throwing makes it harder to coordinate with other Republican candidates, who fear associating themselves too much with an unstable campaign.  As a result, Trump often finds himself running an isolated campaign, which might work in a primary but is much more problematic in the general election.  Contrary to the myths of President Obama and other apologists for presidential absolutism, the president alone can't pass major legislation.  There's this thing called Congress that actually has to do that.  Without strong support on Congress, a President Trump agenda would not have much hope.

Media messaging is far from the only challenge facing the Trump campaign right now, but it does highlight some of the broader structural challenges facing the campaign: a lack of discipline, a fixation on crude dominance, and a confusion of notoriety with electability.

In a democratic republic, I alone gets you only so far.  American electoral politics are a team sport--especially at the level of a presidential campaign.  Often, it's not in a candidate's best interest to grab headlines (and it's often not in the president's interest, either).  A presidential candidate needs surrogates to help reinforce a policy message.  He or she needs the trust of party members running in down-ticket races.  A presidential campaign just can't be about celebrating the strengths of a candidate or the perfidy of his or her enemies; it instead also has to talk about the needs, aspirations, and possibilities of the nation as a whole.  People might tune into to a TV channel to watch a controversial figure, but they very likely won't vote for him for president.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Not So Free

A recent story by Bloomberg casts light on some of the distortions of the current trade system.  U.S. aluminum producers are under increased economic pressures caused by falling aluminum prices.  The People's Republic of China has recently been increasing output, flooding the global market and lowering aluminum prices.  American manufacturers, among others, have been squeezed by this market shift.

Bloomberg focuses on the travails of Century, one of the last major American manufacturers of aluminum:
Century, with three plants in the U.S. and one in Iceland, has about 1,778 employees, some 25 percent fewer than in 2014. Hawesville, which at its peak produced 252,000 tons annually and employed 750, has dropped to a staff of 300 and cut capacity by 60 percent.
However, it might be premature to chalk this shrinking employment up to "free trade."  American producers have argued that the Chinese government heavily subsidizes its domestic aluminum manufacturers.  These subsidies mean that these companies can afford to produce aluminum for much less.  Maybe that artificially "cheap" aluminum is good for the global market or not, but its price has not been determined by free-market capitalism.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Moving Beyond the Paralysis

Three pieces this week intertwine to present a picture of the broader challenges facing the political right at the moment: Matthew Sheffield's important study of the conservative media, Peggy Noonan's Wall Street Journal column about the Trump campaign, and this New York Times story on the future of reform conservatism.  All three touch on the crisis of paralysis facing the Republican party.

Many have focused on Sheffield's broader argument that conservatives should not confuse the reach of the right-leaning media with that of the media in general.  However, he also notes that there is a gap between some standard Republican policies and the appetites of the broader public:
More center-right media outlets could also have been able to detect that the GOP’s economically libertarian message has little to no popularity among average Americans. Since these journalistic structures did not exist, however, the popularity of Donald Trump’s abandonment of that orthodoxy took the Republican elite completely by surprise. It shouldn’t have.
Sheffield argues that support for globalization, more tax-cuts for upper-income-earners, bad-faith open borders, cuts to Social Security, and other policies have minimal support with the public, including much of the Republican base.  Some of those policies might be good ideas, but unpopular proposals can't form the policy foundation for a political party that hopes to be successful in a democratic republic. Running on ending capital-gains taxes, increasing the number of guest-worker programs, cutting Social Security, and cheerleading TPP does not seem a likely route to Republican electoral rejuvenation.

This brings us to Peggy Noonan's perceptive column in the Wall Street Journal.  The first part of this column analyzes some of Trump's recent missteps.  But the end of it examines some of the blind-spots within the GOP as a whole:
From what I’ve seen there has been zero reflection on the part of Republican leaders on how much the base’s views differ from theirs and what to do about it. The GOP is not at all refiguring its stands. The only signs of life I see are among young staffers on Capitol Hill, who understand their bosses’ stands have been rebuked and are quietly debating among themselves what policy paths will win the future.
Beyond that, anti-Trump Republicans treat his voters like immoral enablers of a malignant boob. Should Mr. Trump lose decisively in November they’ll lord it over everyone, say “I told you so,” and accept what they imagine will be forelock-tugging apologies. Then they will get to work burying not only Mr. Trump but his issues.
That’s where the future of the GOP will be fought, and found: on whether Trumpism can be defeated along with Mr. Trump.
Noonan here touches on a broader tendency of the GOP in this electoral cycle: its surprising paralysis.  Rather than adapting to the rise of Donald Trump, many of his rivals (with the possible exceptions of Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum)* simply hoped that Trump would flame out on his own.  One of them would be the last candidate standing in the "non-Trump" lane, and he would cruise to victory over The Donald.  That obviously did not happen.

One of the things that prevented an anti-Trump alternative from rising either inside or outside the GOP is the fact that the easiest way to defeat Trump would have been taking on some of his issues--on trade, immigration, entitlements, and so forth.  But taking on these issues might have involved compromising and moving on from some of the current conventional verities of the Beltway. It would not necessarily have involved abandoning all the tenets of movement conservatism, but it would have required some imagination and a willingness to address some populist concerns. Thus, paralysis took the place of a proactive policy evolution.

Some perhaps hope that Donald Trump is simply a sui generis, black-swan phenomenon; in that case, conservatism could switch back to its regular programming after a Trump defeat in November (if, that is, Clinton does win in November).  However, there is no reason to believe that the populist forces that elevated Trump will simply disappear on November 9.  And it would be a grievous mistake indeed to think that the proper response to Trump's rise is more of the same (perhaps with an extra pinch of transnationalism and more identity-politics pandering).  A broader paralysis on policy has hampered the GOP's quest for a governing presidential majority and threatens the prospects of limited-government conservatism in the 21st century.

One possible way out of this paralysis has been advanced by reform conservatives.  The New York Times today notes how "reformocons" hope that the dis-Trumption gives an opening to new ideas about how conservatives can adapt to the present and govern.  The Times outlines some key ideas supported by some reformocons:
• Reject additional tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year, but expand breaks for low- and middle-income workers through tax credits for children, the earned-income tax credit or a new wage subsidy using tax dollars to bring low wages toward the local median level.
• Promote the benefits of global trade agreements, but help displaced workers.

• Rule out privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and reassure workers they will be exempt from cost-cutting.

• Acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, but push for market-oriented changes.

• Disavow mass deportations and promote the economic benefits of legalizing longtime workers who are in the country illegally, but reduce the legal entry of less-skilled immigrants.
Whether or not one agrees with all these proposals, they do perhaps begin to address some of the concerns of those voters who have elevated Trump.

Many voices have been calling for the GOP and conservatism to embrace the spirit of intellectual adventure and inquiry--to escape the deadening paralysis that has proven harmful for both Republicans and the nation as a whole.  As these three stories indicate, those calls have become more pressing than ever.



*Cruz adapted his policies somewhat to the populist currents, and Santorum has been talking about blue-collar issues longer than many of his Republican colleagues.

(Crossposted at Praxis)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Price of a Populist-Conservative War

Just a few thoughts on the risk of a war between conservatives and populists on the right:

Conservatism has a long tradition of  pluralism, so the attempt to purge all dissenters might at once run afoul of conservative tradition and be politically counterproductive.  You can still be a conservative and oppose TPP (and even "free trade" in general--unless Calvin Coolidge doesn't count as a conservative anymore).  Likewise, you can still be a conservative and support "amnesty" or "comprehensive immigration reform" or the Gang of Eight bill.

Furthermore, there's room for conservative-populist compromise on a variety of issues.  The current populist surge points to the blind spots of contemporary political debates.  One of the jobs of political movements is to identify and to speak to underlying problems, so people who want conservatism to live as a political movement have a great incentive to address these challenges.  Luckily, conservatives can indeed address them.  Conservatives have a lot to contribute to discussions of wage-growth, national self-government, the restoration of competence, civil alienation, and other issues.  The tradition of limited government, civil society, intellectual modesty, and personal liberty can very much provide a grounding for a search for solutions to contemporary problems.

Indeed, there are possible harmonies between some conservative and some populist principles (though there are tensions, too).  On issues such as empowering local communities and defending the idea of the nation-state, populists and conservatives can certainly much get along. Reigniting wage-growth and strengthening a sense of civil integrity, for instance, could both soothe populist anxieties and advance the aims of limited-government conservatism.

Moreover, if they're interested in gaining political power, populists and conservatives very much have an incentive to work together.  Ronald Reagan's majorities were built of both readers of Burke and lunch-bucket workers in Fishtown (and those categories are not mutually exclusive).  It might be chic to denounce one's opponents as knuckle-dragging losers and it might be comforting to just scream, Burn it all down!  But defending a limited-government republic demands a much more thoughtful and responsive approach to politics.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Of Course They Did

So, over the weekend, the Democratic leadership of the Massachusetts legislature, including Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, refused to allow a vote on a bill that would strengthen due process in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (it would have limited the ability of the Attorney General to potentially outlaw guns on a whim).

By blocking debate on this measure, Speaker DeLeo and Senator Rosenberg were able to keep their fellow Democrats from being on the record about whether they support increased executive powers for the Attorney General.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Will the Massachusetts legislature punt on due process and separation of powers?

Earlier this month, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey implemented a sweeping new revision of the Bay State's regulation of firearms.  Supposedly aimed at cracking down on so-called "copycat" assault weapons, these new rules are actually incredibly vague and have caused a host of headaches for local businesses and private citizens alike.  It's not clear exactly which guns will be banned under Healey's new rules, and this massive uncertainty has had a number of unforeseen outcomes (including causing a spike in gun sales).  Moreover, her sweeping ruling could open the door to banning semiautomatic firearms in general.

Healey's decision has large (and potentially unconstitutional) implications for the Second Amendment, but it also has a bearing on the stakes of due process.  The Massachusetts state legislature did not pass any law giving her new powers; instead, she simply invented them herself.  This ruling, then, sets a precedent that goes far beyond the Second Amendment.  Under the Healey precedent, an attorney general can declare actions legal or illegal at a whim.

Because of the significant constitutional implications of Healey's ruling, voices across the Massachusetts political spectrum have risen up against her decision.  A bipartisan coalition of state legislators wrote a letter condemning Healey's decision.  Charlie Baker, the Commonwealth's popular Republican governor, has also raised concerns about it.

Massachusetts State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr has authored a bill, the "Act to Protect Due Process," that would roll back Healey's ruling and make clear that the state attorney general does not have the authority to invent new gun regulations.  Tarr's bill would also ensure that individuals who bought guns legally cannot be later classified as criminals for owning these legally purchased guns.

Massachusetts is currently in the last few days of its legislative session, and some Democratic leaders in the legislature (both the lower house and the Senate have strong Democratic majorities) have resisted bringing this bill up for a vote.  Perhaps desire to avoid a vote on a due-process bill comes from a wish to spare Healey political embarrassment and to ensure that elected representatives can avoid being on the record about Healey's decision.

The Speaker of the legislature, Bob DeLeo, has refused to bring up a due-process bill because he argues that there isn't enough time to vote on the bill.  DeLeo's decision sends a signal to the executive branch that, if it wants to expand its authority, it should do so near the end of a legislative sessionn.

Now, attention turns to Stan Rosenberg, the head of the state senate.  Rosenberg has long campaigned on the idea of transparency in government.  Rosenberg faces a tough decision: live up to those principles and allow a vote, or scuttle discussion on a bill that defends the ideals of due process and separation of powers.  Opposition to Healey's decision is not a partisan issue, but partisanship might help block a vote on a bill to repeal her decision.

UPDATE: Of course they punted.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Rhetoric and Reality

The last few nights of the Democratic National Convention had some stirring images and worthy turns of phrase.  For instance, President Obama raised some valuable points here:
We are not a fragile people, we're not a frightful people. Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don't look to be ruled.

Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that we the people can form a more perfect union. That's who we are. That's our birthright, the capacity to shape our own destiny.
And one might be cheered by the displays of optimism and patriotism in Philadelphia.

Commentators on the left and the right suggested that Democrats were trying to appeal to the middle and to disaffected Republicans through the imagery of the Convention.

However, this project of outreach ran into some headwinds when Hillary Clinton came out to speak.  Clinton's speech focused on three things: a broad sketch of an optimistic vision for the United States, personal attacks on Donald Trump, and the vague outline of her policy agenda.  That third component caused those headwinds to climb above 30 knots.  On free speech, immigration, taxes, health-care, abortion, and other issues, Hillary Clinton is running far to the left.  Democrats might like to run as the party of optimism and unity, but the progressive record has all too often been one of paranoia, division, and disappointment.

The narrative of hope, integration, and limited government championed in the rhetoric of the DNC unfortunately runs counter to much of the legacy of the Obama administration and the projected plans of Secretary Clinton.  It's telling that, at the DNC, Democrats did not run on the autocracy of the pen and the phone.  Nor did they spend much time celebrating the president's divisive record on a host of issues.  Instead, they attempted to divorce rhetoric from policy reality and to cast Donald Trump as a totem of all that is reactionary, angry, and pessimistic.

In order to counteract this Democratic narrative, Trump's campaign will need more specific and disciplined policy messaging.  With targeted and specific policy discussions, the Trump campaign could puncture the gauzy narratives sketched out by Hillary Clinton.  However, it won't be enough to show how Clinton's policies would hurt the United States; that would only play into the narrative of Trump as too "dark."  It will be imperative for the Trump campaign to explain in depth how Trump's policies can help the United States.  By pivoting to policy specifics, the Trump campaign can seize the standard of optimistic change.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Just Limits of Competence

One of the subtexts of the populist revolt roiling American politics is the accusation that current governing elites have failed.  Certainly, we have seen a number of failures over the past decade--in foreign affairs, in the regulation of the financial markets, in the realm of national security, and so forth.  The Obama administration even struggled to roll out the website for its signature initiative (the Affordable Care Act).  In dealing with the challenges ahead, we need to take a balanced approach to the role of competence.

Yes, competence does matter in terms of running government.  One needn't be a radical technocrat to believe that it does.  Furthermore, competence can be an ally of limited government and individual liberty.  When the government fails to do that which is in its proper purview, it opens up the door to social and political disruptions that in turn create an opening for big-government pseudo-solutions.  For instance, if the mortgage and financial sectors had been more astutely regulated, the great meltdown of 2008 could have been avoided or at least lessened.  That meltdown paved the way for the stimulus and other bureaucratic overreaches of the Obama administration.

One could make a case that recent years have witnessed the following feedback loop: administrative incompetence leading to the growth of government bureaucracies, which in turn compounds the later bureaucratic failures.  This pattern has been damaging to both the nation as a whole and the enterprise of limited government.

However, competence by itself does not solve all problems.  We live in a flawed human world, so there will be challenges and setbacks no matter how skilled we are.  We can't expect perfection from any government actor--or any human actor at all.  It's because of this lack of perfection that we should be skeptical about assigning over all power to a single entity or to a narrow group of entities.  By diffusing power, we can lessen the likelihood of major crippling mistakes.  Technical competence also cannot simply adjudicate some of the deeper questions of politics (such as the best social organization, the ideals a society should embody, what exactly constitutes the good life, etc.).

Strongmen are no substitute for a responsible and limited republican politics, but, if republican leaders do not act responsibly, they also undermine the broader grounding of limited government.