Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Core Values"

In his last press conference, Barack Obama said that he would enter political debates only when "our core values may be at stake."  In the aftermath of President Trump's new executive orders, the former president is now wading back into public debates.

However, it should not be surprising to see Barack Obama trying to inject himself in political debates, nor for him is "core values" a particularly limiting principle.  After all, in 2006, he had the following to say about Samuel Alito: "I think Judge Alito, in fact, is somebody who is contrary to core American values, not just liberal values, you know." If a mainstream conservative like Justice Alito is "contrary to core American values," you can rest assured that Barack Obama would be declaring almost any Republican president eventually an enemy of "our core values."


I'll leave the in-depth analysis of President Trump's executive order on refugee policy to more competent legal minds than my own.  But a few general points:

Many of the most prominent attacks on this order have been overly broad (by ignoring the historical history of refugee policy, making claims that the United States has no right to limit refugees, and so forth).  While it has whipped up partisan enthusiasm, this excessive rhetoric has hurt the argument against the president's actions.  If the choice becomes framed as the Trump EO v. open borders, the executive order would probably come out on top in a public opinion poll.

We need to attend to the real (not the sentimentalized) history of immigration law and refugee policy in order to see where the Trump EO breaks from standing norms and where it falls within them.  Falsifying history is a dangerous political tactic.

If federal appointees can declare themselves willing to nullify duly passed laws and regulations at whim, we have not a democratic republic but anarchy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Defending the Conventions of Politics

On Twitter, Diodotos (whose feed often includes some provocative thoughts) had some points about what it takes to defend the conventions of republican life.  I thought it worth reproducing a few of them below.

I think he here hits on an important theme: political life requires an acceptance of incompleteness and a willingness to engage in conversation.  A healthy republic debates an acceptance of some kind of political heterogeneity and openness for disagreement.

Identity politics--or identitarianism--instead calls for political rigidity.  One has allegiance to a political tribe and surrenders individual judgment to the collective.  By locking us into rigid identity groups, identity politics threatens the openness and conversation that is one of the cornerstones of healthy political life.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture

Over at NRO this morning, I argue that, in discussing President Trump, we need to continue to pay attention to the context in which he rose to power:
Popular narratives to the contrary, Trump’s election is less a cause of our current crisis than a sign of it. In the months ahead, then, we need to attend to the conditions that have led to such a radical disruption in our politics. Normally, radical outsiders don’t win the presidency. In looking for a president, the American people usually balance a taste for novelty with a respect for experience. So it’s telling indeed that Trump is the first person elected to the presidency without any prior experience in elected office or other government service. Only when the mandarins of consensus have proven both so parochial and so inept could such an outsider have smashed his way into the White House. A series of institutional failures led to President Trump’s ascendancy. We have been treated to the spectacle of an elite that has promised too much and so often failed so spectacularly. Our public rhetoric has been frozen by nostalgia and an elite reliance on what Josh Barro has called “no-choice politics” to enforce a narrow consensus on immigration, trade, and other issues. Trump’s campaign was powered by denunciations of various debacles over the past decade, whether in foreign affairs, the economy, or national security.
You can read the rest here.

I think that there's an especially grave risk in working to overthrow existing political norms in order to "resist" President Trump.  The politics of paranoia and excommunication from polite society can be a dangerous enterprise.

Along similar lines, Ross Douthat warns the press about the danger of sacrificing ethical standards in reporting on President Trump, and Mickey Kaus takes a probing look at "1934ism."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

I'll have some reflections forthcoming on the inauguration and the circumstances around it.  For today, here's a transcript of President Donald Trump's inaugural address.

The Hamiltonian might smile at the pageantry of the presidential inauguration; the Puritan might scowl (at least a bit).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

President Obama

I've had my disagreements with President Obama, and I believe that in many ways he has failed to live up to his potential as a leader.  Yet, despite it all, he nevertheless has been the president for the life of this blog so far.  The presidency is a noble office, one with great responsibilities.  No doubt the duties of the office have weighed on him.  And there have been moments of grace in his administration, too.

In this time of great tumult, we should nevertheless try to recognize the importance of major constitutional offices and to wish the best for those who hold them.

Parade Controversies

This afternoon, reports surfaced that members of the Trump transition team had inquired about using tanks and missiles as part of tomorrow's inaugural parade.  This immediately caused a media furor, with many pundits suggesting that the use of such heavy military gear in an inaugural parade is somehow outside American norms.

But it isn't.  Past inaugural parades featured both tanks and missiles.

For instance, here's FDR's inaugural parade in 1941, featuring a line of tanks.

Eisenhower had tanks in his inaugural parades in both 1953 and 1957.  His 1957 inaugural parade also featured a giant missile.

JFK also had missiles and tanks in his inaugural parade.

Military iconography has a long-standing tradition in American inaugural parades.  The fact that some disagree with that norm doesn't mean that the norm doesn't exist.  There's a difference between arguing about what current norms should be and arguing that someone is outside existing norms.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Choices, Choices

In The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty reflects on the sudden escalation of concern many policy-makers have had about Russia in recent months.  I don't necessarily agree with all of Dougherty's claims, but he hits on a telling point here:
The problem is, America's NATO war guarantee is wrapped up in a larger ideological status quo across the West. Trade liberalization, political liberalization, increased migration, sexual and cultural liberation from Christian traditionalism, the further political integration of the E.U., and the expansion of the Western alliance to the borders of Russia are all wrapped together in the minds of policymakers. And so, every reversal for any part of that project is seen by the guardians of the policy consensus as a demoralizing reversal for the Western alliance and, consequently, a gain for revisionist Putinism.
The international institutions that have been left to us have evolved from a certain set of geopolitical circumstances and partake of certain policy presumptions.  It seems (to me at least) that many of these institutions have done considerable good, but the question before us isn't whether they've done good in the past but how to preserve and revise these institutions so that they can do good in the future.

That's one of the major reasons why ideological nostalgia has been so toxic for the enterprise of looking forward for both foreign and domestic policy.  This nostalgia has made many current leaders resistant to--and perhaps even ignorant of--the fact that we no longer live in 1989.  For instance, for years, public skepticism about the European Union has been simmering throughout Europe.  And yet policymakers nevertheless plunged ahead with an integration that became less and less tenable as time went on.  And now many of these policymakers are now shocked, shocked that some voters might be having second thoughts about the "European" project.  Taking a more moderate approach to integration (especially in terms of immigration and currency.) and responding more to immigration could have helped solidify the EU.  Instead, a reckless integration threatens breaking it apart.

The importance of attention to present-day realities has implications beyond the EU, of course.  In defending international institutions, policymakers need to think of the world not as it was or as they would like it to be but as it is.

We can have either a robust international order or ideological nostalgia--but not both.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Repeal and What?

In my NRO piece earlier this week, I warned about the political dangers of Republicans repealing the Affordable Care Act (well, actually only repealing the provisions of the ACA they can repeal without a filibuster-proof majority) without following up with a replacement relatively soon.

There have been a couple updates today on the fate of the repeal-and-delay strategy.  At his press conference today, Donald Trump argued that replacing the ACA should follow very soon after the repeal of the measure.  Meanwhile, some GOP senators who had been pushing for an amendment to delay a vote on health-care repeal have now said that they're going to drop this amendment.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Resisting Ideological Nostalgia

In NRO today, I argue that the GOP should learn from the last time a political party took full control of the federal government.  In 2009-10, Democrats made certain choices that set the stage for a multi-cycle liquidation of the part.  In order to avoid that fate, the GOP will need to respond to the demands of the moment and resist ideological nostalgia.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hacking the Vote

In reporting the hacking of the email messages of prominent Democrats during the 2016 election, the press has by and large settled on a rather intriguing shorthand: "election hacking."  (See examples here, here, and here.)  Because of its vagueness, this shorthand risks conflating the hacking of emails in order to influence the election in some way (which there is some evidence of) and the hacking of the election results themselves (which there is no evidence of).  "Email hacking" or "DNC hacking" or "Podesta hacking" or "hacking of Democrats" would seem more precise but also less likely to inspire paranoia in the American public.  "Election hacking" may offer a kind of argumentative figleaf for those who want to delegitimize the election results without openly saying that some nefarious entity actually went in and hacked the vote totals to swing the election to Donald Trump.

That's not to say that some folks won't try to argue that the election results themselves were hacked.  In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, a publication I enjoy, Michael Tomasky argues that we will never really know whether a foreign entity (in his case, Russia) hacked the election:
But if their reports are accurate, what this amounts to at the very least is that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the election in Trump's favor. Whether it managed to determine the outcome by meddling directly in the actual voting is something we don't know and will likely never know.  To arrive at such a conclusion would require a thorough forensic investigation of vote tabulations in at least the three states where Trump's margin over Clinton was less than one percent--Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin--and other steps; but this is not going to happen.
A belief that Russia hacked the actual election results has some popularity on the left (according to one poll, 52 percent of Democrats believed that it did), but there is absolutely no evidence that any such vote hacking did take place.  U.S. officials have affirmed the accuracy of the voting results, and state recounts have uncovered no evidence of vote hacking.

While it might assuage Democratic feelings to keep alive the evidence-free narrative that Russia hacked the election results, it's damaging to our body politic in general.  If that election was hacked and if we can keep alive that hypothesis without any concrete evidence, why not say the same thing about other elections?  How do we know that any elected official actually won his or her office?  If Russia can hack the election results without any obvious evidence, how do we know that other entities also have not hacked this election or other elections?  Electoral paranoia destroys the public trust that our republic is built upon.

Moreover, if it were true that Russia hacked the election results (again, there's no evidence for this), that perhaps is the biggest indictment of the Obama administration imaginable: on its watch, its policies allowed a foreign entity to destroy the democratic process.  Thus, it would be hard simultaneously to support the notion that Russia hacked the election and to hold the belief that President Obama was anything other than the worst president since James Buchanan, maybe ever.  The left can have Barack Obama as a noble president or the proposition that Russia hacked the election results--but it can't have both.

We have more than enough real challenges at the moment.  We don't need paranoia to invent more.