Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Romney or McCain?

Well we’re back on the air after overcoming some "technical difficulties." (Let that be a lesson to you Crunchies; sometimes there are technical solutions to technical problems.)

Although no two polls from Iowa agree, it does seem that Romney is rebounding and Huck is slipping, at least among the most likely cacusers. The outcome is in doubt, but the big news will probably be that the overwhelming majority of the people of Iowa chose Huckabee or Romney. Right now it looks like the bronze medal will be given to someone (likely McCain) who finishes a distant third.

Things are looking better for McCain in New Hampshire, although apparently the famous independent vote there is leaning strongly toward Obama. He’s more "independent" of Bush than John, it seems.

All in all, many analysts seem to agree, as Peter indicates subtly below, that Giuliani, Thompson, and Huckabee have become very unlikely nominees. The real race, before even a single vote has been counted, may (may!) now be between Romney and McCain.

Although I was wrong on some obvious details, I was surely right to say that the Huck surge would benefit Mitt (as the socially conservative alternative to Huck) and John (as the authentic alternative to Huck). The Republican establishment, for no reason that makes any sense to me, persists in the shrill "anybody but Huck" mode. And that has produced the realization, as Peter suggests, that Giuliani and even McCain are insufficiently conservative. So there’s a lot of embracing, if not a lot of hearting, of Romney (see the three guys from Ohio Peter discusses below).

McCain, of course, operates best as an outsider and from behind. He clearly stunk as a front-runner and is back in business as a horse moving up from the outside. Will he stink again if he becomes a front-runner again? It’s time to take a hard look at the downsides of a McCain candidacy, just as we have a duty to continue to examine Romney critically and urge him to present himself more effectively. (Huck, too, flourished as an outsider and has been very tentative and mistake-prone as a frontrunner.)

The fact that John and Mitt are far from the best candidates ever suggests to me that Giuliani is not quite washed up yet. He could still surge in Florida and on Feb. 5. But I stand fast in my opinion that he would be the weakest of the Republican candidates.

One thing we can learn from the unexpected success of the Huckabee campaign is why Giuliani’s would fail either to energize the Republican base or appeal to the increasingly anxious members of the middle class.

The only candidates in my part of the world that have generated any enthusiasm are Huck and Ron Paul. Paul, we have to admit, is so authentic that he doesn’t worry about being authentic. In his own way, he’s the least demagogic candidate. He would, of course, be a terrible president.

Will it ever be a wonderful life?

Patrick Deneen responds to the conversation we had here.

I posed a couple of questions in a comment on his site, basically boiling down to this: if "Bedford Falls" requires something like despotism, how likely is it that it will be ruled by a "benevolent despot"? And is Bailey Park necessarily antithetical to community. The argument in Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City suggests that the suburban form itself isn’t the problem, though the sense of freedom without responsibility might be.

Success in Iraq

The recent (December 2007) DoD report on Iraq reminds us that “The strategic goal of the United States in Iraq remains a unified, democratic and federal Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself and is an ally in the war on terror.” The report makes clear that the recent improvements in security have not yet brought us much closer to that goal. A recent issue of the Economist, to which I cannot link, reports an advisor to General Petraeus as saying “the politics is going nowhere.” The economist comments “the fundamental flaw in Iraqi politics persists. The new Shia order remains loth, after centuries of oppression, to give the Sunnis a decent slice of power; and the minority Sunnis seem unable to accept second place in a devlolved state. Last week a deputy prime minister, a Sunni, denied that Shias outnumber Sunni Arabs.”

Both the DoD report and the Economist article provide information that puts Sunni cooperation with the U.S. in perspective. An important factor in bringing about this cooperation was the overreaching of al Qaeda in Iraq. The hope, of course, is that cooperation at the local level can be transformed into cooperation nationally among all Iraqi factions.

Noonan on Iowa

Not deep thinking, really, just meditations, but good. By the way, I had three chance conversations with acquaintances (market, gas station, oil change) and all three said the same thing, independently of one another: The GOP field is not exciting, no one is "really" the kind of conservative each would like; all are worried about the future of the party; all dismissed Huckabee, didn’t think either Gulliani or McCain were conservative enough, and all three said they would probably end up supporting Romney. Then we talked about Pakistan for a while.

Diversity and quality education

When this U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (PDF) study, "The Benefits of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Elementary and Secondary Education", landed on my desk this morning I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading into it. Then I noticed (page 3) that the first finding of the Commission is this:

"Based on the record, the Commission issued a number of findings, including:
There is little evidence that racial and ethnic diversity in elementary and
secondary schools results in significant improvements in academic

Hillary Clinton, Affirmative Action Hire

Seven days before the Iowa caucuses and 12 before the New Hampshire primary the polls are inscrutable. We can infer, however, that things are looking bad for Hillary Clinton when her supporters begin desperately availing themselves of the weakest possible arguments on her behalf.

Kay Steiger of the American Prospect has embraced one such argument. Yesterday the New York Times examined Sen. Clinton’s eight years as First Lady, leaving the impression that they could be construed as relevant experience by voters determined to support her, but hardly compel undecided voters to accept that after seven inconsequential years in the Senate she is ready to take on the presidency. As First Lady Mrs. Clinton “was more of a sounding board than a policy maker, who learned through osmosis rather than decision-making,” according to the Times.

That’s good enough for Ms. Steiger, who rushes to gender-norm the tests presidential candidates have to pass. “Hillary Clinton has great experience for a woman. There are few women as qualified as Hillary Clinton for a candidacy.” If, like Jackie Robinson, you’re kept out of the big leagues, it’s only fair to judge you on the basis of how well you hit minor-league pitching. “There’s a smattering of female governors, a mere 16 female senators (two of whom were elected in 2006 midterm elections), and a handful of high-ranking and high-profile secretaries,” says Steiger. Clinton’s years as First Lady may not qualify her to be president, but the daunting odds against women in politics leave Steiger asking rhetorically, “If women are barely represented in high-level offices, how are they supposed to ‘qualify’ themselves for a presidential run?”

Maybe, however, the question is not so rhetorical. How are women supposed to qualify for a presidential run? The way men do – winning offices and holding them impressively. Steiger laments that “most women tend to sail into office on the coattails of their deceased or retired husbands.” She writes as if unaware that this group includes Hillary Clinton and excludes growing numbers of female politicians. Six of Hillary Clinton’s female Senate colleagues are Democrats who have served there longer than she has: Barbara Mikulski, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln. All of them held elective offices before they won Senate seats. Marie Cantwell and Debbie Stabenow, two other Democratic senators elected in 2000, the same year Hillary Clinton won her race in New York, previously served in the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi has been a member of the House for 20 years.

Thus, even if you accept Steiger’s dubious premise that it’s imperative, this year, to elect a female president, there’s no need to accept her even more dubious conclusion that Democrats have no choice but to overlook the meagerness of Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the office.

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination

PWS has already noted the bad news out of Pakistan. I was working out, with Fox on the television (my wife’s preference; I’d rather read), and caught the non-stop coverage.

What I found striking about the domestic reaction is the unwillingness of many of the candidates (Rudy and Mitt seem to have been the first out of the block, but Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were hard on their heels) to await the President’s official statement. I understand that John McCain has also already spoken, but I can’t find a link to it.

Fox’s Carl Cameron has speculated that this event will change the dynamic of the primary process, raising the salience of national security issues (thereby helping McCain and Giuliani, and perhaps Clinton). But I’ll be paying attention to whether the candidates recognize that, in a time of crisis, the President needs the field to himself.

Update: I hear on Fox (my dad’s netowrk of choice) that all the major candidates have issued statements. And I note this response from John Podhoretz (the end of our brief campaign holiday from history) and from Byron York on the campaign fallout.

Update #2: Jim Geraghty has reasons for doubting that national security will move up in voter concerns (partly Iowa’s middle Americanness and partly that the candidates really don’t have much interesting or distinctive to say about Pakistan). Of course, voers can think about it without candidates talking explicitly about it.

Geraghty also notes Bill Richardson’s boldly stupid comments, which strike me as not helpful at all, but ultimately inconsequential unless he finds a home in a future Democratic Administration.

Here is a story about President Bush’s statement. And here’s HRC
’s statement, which has the virtue, at least, of not offering policy prescriptions.

A Real Man Fries His Own Squirrel

Huck and McCain are ganging up on Mitt for his lack of authenticity. Let me say again that I don’t think this is quite fair to Romney, while adding that it’s a natural consequence of his inability to cure himself entirely of Al Gore disease.

Bhuto assassinated

This is not good news out of Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto has been murdered.

Bailey Park, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart

. . . all represent something great about America to me. Without getting too deep about the specifics here, George Will encapsulates my sentiments about these questions with this article on McDonalds. The lofty suspicions so many of us (right and left) are inclined to harbor about franchises and suburbs and big box stores are just a bit rarefied for my taste. I guess I’m just a conservative girl born with a plastic spork in my mouth and, really, I don’t see anything wrong with that (as long as you know when to take it out!)

Boxing Day opinion roundup

Greetings from South Carolina! We pulled in last night at about 11, after spending the day with my wife’s family outside Atlanta.

Jonah G. is actually kinda glad that the holiday is putting politics in its proper place, an unintended consequence of the self-important Iowa politicos who accelerated the calendar.

The Fred Barnesian rejoinder is that, then, Jonah ought to like Obama and Huckabee, the two candidates who say--albeit not altogether persuasively--that they want to put politics in its proper place.

Tony Blankley takes a look at the past and future of the conservative coalition and offers two suggestions: first, in the future a majority coalition will have to have a substantial Hispanic component; and, second, Republicans have to address the economic anxieties of the erstwhile "Reagan Democrats," else some will no longer be able to ask "what’s the matter with Kansas?"

This is, of course, Huckabee’s territory, even if Time’s Michael Scherer can’t understand how populism can issue in conservative policy proposals.

And now, perhaps appropriately, it’s time to think about a second Christmas dinner (my mom saved the turkey for today) and about the patriotic duty of spending Christmas money.


Although the studies don’t come anywhere near agreeing, it is clear that Huck is fading some in Iowa. He may well be sharing one of Dean’s failings: Huck peaked too early, and it’s tough for an outsider to sustain the position of favorite. Those who love "change" become easily bored. And in Huck’s case: Being the favorite means being attacked incessantly and somewhat wildly by the whole party establishment. Some of the attacks are perfectly reasonable, and the new man from Hope hasn’t been able to handle them. He’s become too self-conscious and defensive and so he’s obscuring what was attractive about him to begin with. (Here’s one criticism I don’t like: He’s pardoned too many people becuase he’s too Christian. I very much prefer concerns about his foreign-policy judgment and his narcissistic paternalism, which may well reflect apolitical weaknesses in the "evangelical worldview.") It’s now pretty much anyone’s guess what’s going to happen in the Christmas-season caucus. Polls wildly disagree on who the surgers are--you can find evidence for Romney, McCain, Thompson, Paul, and even Giuliani. If the Iowa result is flat and inconclusive, all the candidates get to fight on, even Huck. (And certainly Iowa deserves to be reduced to insignificance.) Huck or Romney still might score big, and I’m guessing the real surger is McCain.

Funny Film Quotes

Here’s a genuinely impressive list of 50 from Mr. Evangelical Outpost. Take special note of the classics from the Whit Stillman trilogy and even of the good ones from the really decent Christmas movie LOVE, ACTUALLY. There’s a lot here to guide your holiday viewing, and never mind that Joe Carter is under withering attack for his connection with Huck.

Fake or real?

Rich Lowry examines the pros and cons.

We (reluctantly) went fake a few years ago, mostly for economic reasons. The trees we like--noble firs--are very expensive and, given the distance we are from the source, not in terribly good shape when they get here. If we lived in the Pacific Northwest, we’d probably still have a real tree.

Once again, Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

That says it all.

Wehner on Huckabee

My sentiments exactly. If the title of the op-ed mystifies you, read this.

Update: Ramesh Ponnuru offers a criticism of the politics of Huckabee’s campaign. I’d add: it’s probably not possibly for any Republican to do better than GWB among evangelicals, but it’s easily possible for someone to do worse with other parts of the coalition, not to mention the general electorate.

Will it continue to be a wonderful life?

Patrick Deneen meditates on the significance of Bailey Park. Must we choose between slums and suburbia? Who can afford community these days?

As If You Weren’t Already Confused . . .

Here’s another primary scenario. . . this time with Fred Thompson (?!) the triumphant tortoise. Hey, at this point I think it’s safe to say that nothing will surprise me.

Kesler on ’08 and the Search for Conservatism

What is the most obvious question to which the 2008 Presidential election points but, it appears, we’ve all been too timid to ask? Charles Kesler is not afraid to tell us in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

The reason it seems that Republicans cannot make up their minds about who to choose for their nominee is simple:

Republicans lack a clear criterion by which to make up their mind. Not so long ago, that standard would have included a definition of conservatism—ragged at the edges, but still serviceable. But American conservatism’s meaning, even in its heyday never uncontroversial, is less clear today. And the implications of that meaning—where conservatism should go from here—are more up in the air than at any time since the movement’s founding in the 1950s.

Kesler argues that conservatives have lost focus since the end of the cold war and have been turning inward . . . trying to resolve those unanswered questions from our "founding." This has left us with a cache of candidates trying to "reinvent" conservatism or "recast" it in terms that appeal to today’s conservative voter (whatever that means). The problem is, we don’t much like their offerings--at least not in numbers sufficient to give us a clear front-runner. As Kesler puts it:

The problem is that Republican voters don’t recognize any of these trial versions of conservatism as the real deal, a distillation of American principles for our time; and they’re right.

The problem is that we’re fighting each other . . . it is a fight that, perhaps, was inevitable and maybe even necessary. It’s come to a head because we’re not focused enough on a common enemy. Why we’re not so focused is, in a sense, beyond me. It’s not as if we don’t have one (or a dozen). But convincing some people that there are bigger problems in this world than neo-conservatives or, even, paleo-conservatives (!) is not so easy to do. This is not good . . . because (as Kesler also notes) "[i]n the meantime . . . there is a president to nominate and elect."

Huckabee’s populism

Terry Eastland spends some time on the Huckabus, and shows that the "we" rhetoric I noted here can be deployed "populistically" as well.

Update: See if you can pass this quiz, though I suspect that the contexts would be revealing.

Presidential Christmas messages

Claremont’s John J. Pitney notes some past presidential Christmas greetings. So far as I can tell, Herbert Hoover was the first president to send a formal Christmas greeting to disabled veterans and an informal one to the nation as a whole (though we’ve had a national Christmas tree since the Coolidge Administration). The practice seems to have been formalized by FDR in 1933 with this message:

For me and for my family it is the happiest of Christmases.

To the many thousands of you who have thought of me and have sent me greetings, and I hope all of you are hearing my voice, I want to tell you how profoundly grateful I am. If it were within my power so to do I would personally thank each and every one of you for your remembrance of me, but there are so many thousands of you that that happy task is impossible.

Even more greatly, my happiness springs from the deep conviction that this year marks a greater national understanding of the significance in our modern lives of the teachings of Him whose birth we celebrate. To more and more of us the words "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" have taken on a meaning that is showing itself and proving itself in our purposes and daily lives.

May the practice of that high ideal grow in us all in the year to come.

I give you and send you one and all, old and young, a Merry Christmas and a truly Happy New Year.

In 1935, FDR had this to say:

We are gathered together in a typical American setting in the park here in front of the White House. Before me and around me is an American assemblage—men and women of all ages, youths and maidens, young children who know nothing about the cares of life—all jubilant with joyous expectation.

The night is falling and the spirit of other days, too, broods over the scene. Andrew Jackson looks down upon us from his prancing steed; and the four corners of the square in which we are gathered around a gaily lit Christmas tree are guarded by the figures of intrepid leaders in the Revolutionary War—Von Steuben, the German; Kosciusko, the Pole; and Lafayette and Rochambeau from the shores of France.

This is in keeping with the universal spirit of the festival we are celebrating; for we who stand here among our guardians out of the past and from far shores are, I suppose, as diverse in blood and origin as are the uncounted millions throughout the land to whom these words go out tonight. But around the Manger of the Babe of Bethlehem "all Nations and kindreds and tongues" find unity. For the spirit of Christmas knows no race, no creed, no clime, no limitation of time or space.

The spirit of Christmas breathes an eternal message of peace and good-will to all men. We pause therefore on this Holy Night and, laying down the burdens and the cares of life and casting aside the anxieties of the common day, rejoice that nineteen hundred years ago, heralded by angels, there came into the world One whose message was of peace, who gave to all mankind a new commandment of love. In that message of love and of peace we find the true meaning of Christmas.

And so I greet you with the greeting of the Angels on that first Christmas at Bethlehem which, resounding through centuries, still rings out with its eternal message: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to men."

In 1941, he had these words for us:

Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies-more than any other day or any other symbol.

Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.

It is in that spirit, and with particular thoughtfulness of those, our sons and brothers, who serve in our armed forces on land and sea, near and far- those who serve for us and endure for us that we light our Christmas candles now across the continent from one coast to the other on this Christmas Eve.

We have joined with many other Nations and peoples in a very great cause. Millions of them have been engaged in the task of defending good with their life-blood for months and for years.

You can listen to the remarks of Roosevelt’s special guest on that occasion here (#17)

The tradition was upheld by successive presidents, with Eisenhower offering the following message in 1953:

For us, this Christmas is truly a season of good will--and our first peaceful one since 1949. Our national and individual blessings are manifold. Our hopes are bright even though the world still stands divided in two antagonistic parts.

More precisely than in any other way, prayer places freedom and communism in opposition, one to the other. The Communist can find no reserve of strength in prayer because his doctrine of materialism and statism denies the dignity of man and consequently the existence of God. But in America, George Washington long ago rejected exclusive dependence upon mere materialistic values. In the bitter and critical winter at Valley Forge, when the cause of liberty was so near defeat, his recourse was sincere and earnest prayer. From it he received new hope and new strength of purpose out of which grew the freedom in which we celebrate this Christmas season.

As religious faith is the foundation of free government, so is prayer an indispensable part of that faith.

A few years later, he offered this "natural law" gloss on the meaning of Christmas:

The Christmas Message of "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men" is not alone an ideal of Christianity. It is a basic aspiration of Christian, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist alike--of every person in the world who has faith in an Almighty God.

It is not limited to us as Americans or even to people of the free world. It is matched in yearning in the innermost thoughts of all peoples. It is a universal, divine spark that lights the soul of mankind.

I could go on and on and on. I won’t say that the messages are all theologically coherent (here’s a particularly bad one). But only a few (see these Nixonian examples) have been relentlessly secular. (Ronald Reagan, as this example shows, was thoughtfully inclusive.)

I’ll leave you with these two messages from the current occupant of the Oval Office.


UPDATE: Andrew (see thread below) is right: The movie is anti-communist, anti-Christian, and anti-Islam (anti-both the Biblical God and the God that failed), and somewhat conventionally opposes brains and guts to right-wing moralism. Real men and real women aren’t priggish when it comes to drink, sex, and so forth, and their morality comes from hating all threats to their liberty or the liberty of others. (Real men and real women are also somehow basically decent in spite of it all, and in their own way know how to treat women [or men] as they really want and deserve to be treated.) The true or lovable America doesn’t depend at all upon and in fact is mucked by Christian values. But the film does give right-wing Christian wackos credit for being on the right side on communism, if for the wrong reasons, and the Julia Roberts character (right-wing Christian rich lady who still sins [wink, wink] a lot) is the one who spurs Charlie to action. It’s a left libertarian movie that separates today’s [still pro-Israel] Hollywood elite from McGovernites and implicitly criticzes Bush I and Bush II for their incompetent lack of devotion to liberty properly understood. My verdict: The movie is pro-Hillary and even suggests what a Ms. Clinton foreign policy would be like. Yes, it’s still really good and you should see it.

It Depends on the Meaning of "Good Faith"

NLT readers might be interested in this exchange I’ve had with Josh Patashnik of the New Republic. It began when he posted the following on TNR’s "The Plank":

Mark Schmitt has a terrific piece up today (joining Jonathan Alter’s from earlier in the week) responding to Paul Krugman’s "Obama-is-naïve" column). Schmitt, in particular, does a very good job of explaining why Obama’s decision to make unity and partisan reconciliation such a central theme of his candidacy is itself a strategic decision. (As Obama told Noam Scheiber, "I’m not interested in good government for the sake of good government. There were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out. ... That’s not true anymore. When I say I want to change politics, it’s precisely because I want to make sure people have health care.") Schmitt discusses the mechanism by which this works:

"What I find fascinating about his language about unity and cross-partisanship is that it is not premised on finding Republicans who agree with him, but on taking in good faith the language and positions of actual conservatism--people who don’t agree with him. ... One way to deal with [conservative] bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows."

I think this is right. If there’s common ground to be found between good-faith liberals and conservatives, Obama’s approach will find it; if Schmitt is correct and there isn’t, Democrats are in a much stronger position to take their arguments to the voters. It’s unclear what the downside is. And it’s also true that polarization isn’t ideologically neutral. As Obama recognizes, it favors conservatives--or, rather, favors a certain cynical, nihilistic strain of conservatism that wants not only to limit the size of government, but (for reasons almost passing understanding) to impair its capacity for performing even governmental functions broadly recognized as necessary. In a political system that is (appropriately) biased toward the status quo, polarization--which makes it all but impossible to develop the consensus required for any important policy change--plays into the hands of those who rejoice at the thought of a paralyzed, ineffective federal government.

I replied:

I’m a conservative who would be interested in finding common ground with liberals. The fear is that the only way to demonstrate to Mr. Patashnik that I’m a good-faith conservative is to be an unconservative conservative. No sooner does he extend an invitation to sit down at the big table and bargain in good faith than he dismisses Bill Kristol’s 1994 rejoinder to Hillarycare as cynical and nihilistic. The scorched-earth barbarism Kristol advocated included making health insurance more portable, limiting insurers’ ability to deny coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, and reducing paperwork costs by creating a standardized claims form. Decent and reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or adequacy of such proposals. They can hardly do so, however, if the price of the ticket to participate in the debate is to first confess that we conservatives are all either ideologues or stooges for rapacious corporations. If Patashnik wants to see good faith, he’ll have to show some.

Josh responded:

Thanks for your response above--I think it helps illustrate what I regard as the difference between good-faith and bad-faith political behavior (though this is straying a bit from the original topic of my post). I assure you I do not believe that "the only way to demonstrate to Mr. Patashnik that I’m a good-faith conservative is to be an unconservative conservative." Here’s what I think constitutes good-faith negotiation: one takes a public position and then sits down at the bargaining table representing that position, making a genuine (though not necessarily successful) attempt to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties. The outcome of the negotiation will depend entirely on the preferences of the actors involved. Someone like Ron Paul, for instance, could engage in good-faith negotiation and still almost never reach agreement with anybody.

Why I regard Kristol’s infamous health-care memo as an example of bad-faith politics is that he urged Republicans specifically to avoid this kind of bargaining. He did so not primarily because he believed Democrats had bad ideas about health care (which, obviously, is an entirely reasonable position and one that could be represented in good faith at the negotiating table), but because, as he wrote, he opposed even consensus-based health-care reform on the grounds that if the government demonstrated an ability to respond well to the health-care crisis, it would restore middle-class faith in the efficacy of government, harming the long-term political prospects of Republicans. This is the essence of bad-faith politics: one refuses to engage in substantive negotiation, even when agreement might be had, for reasons unrelated to the policy issue at stake--valuing gridlock for its own sake. (Democrats can be, and have been, guilty of it too.)

The problem with this type of behavior is that our system of government accords substantial power to political minorities to thwart the will of the majority; minorities abuse this power when they oppose legislation on non-substantive grounds.


Thank you for clarifying and elaborating your ideas. It appears that before liberals and conservatives can have good-faith negotiations over policy issues, we need to have good-faith meta-negotiations over what distinguishes good-faith from bad-faith negotiating. According to the 1994 Bill Kristol essay you link to, his position was that "the passage of the Clinton health care plan IN ANY FORM" would "guarantee an unprecedented federal intrusion into the economy" and "signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy." To say that such a position is an example of bad-faith politics (not to mention cynical and nihilistic) is to say that Kristol’s viewpoint was not merely wrong, but illegitimate. You’re banging the gavel and ruling him out of order: We’re here to make a "genuine attempt to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties" regarding national health policy, not to talk about the proper size and scope of government. Since that question is "unrelated to the policy issue at stake," Kristol was guilty of "valuing gridlock for its own sake."

Obviously, the power to limit "what we’re here to talk about" is very important. Saying that those of us who dispute the chair’s rulings about what we can and can’t discuss are negotiating in bad faith is a dubious way to encourage constructive engagement around the big table. Conservatives and liberals should have equal rights to object to what they regard as a camel’s nose under the tent. Kristol’s opposition in 1994 to Clinton’s health care plan in any form was identical, in this regard, to Democrats’ opposition in 2005 to privatized Social Security accounts in any form. If I understand your position correctly, however, Kristol demonstrated bad faith when he encouraged Republicans who had minorities in both houses of Congress and had just lost a presidential election to refuse to yield on the basic question about expanding the scope of government, but Democrats who were in the minority in both houses of Congress and had just lost a presidential election were acting in the only honorable way they could by refusing to yield on the basic question of reducing the scope of government.

Josh, perhaps one way of shedding light on this question would be to expand your statement that Democrats, too, have been guilty of valuing gridlock for its own sake. You regard the Democrats’ posture on Social Security in 2005 as a non-example of such intransigence. What would be a good - and, therefore, illuminating - example?


Bill: I think your last question gets to the heart of the matter. There are some Democrats (I am not one of them) who believe Social Security is just fine and doesn’t need to be changed; for them to refuse to engage with the Bush administration in 2005 was perfectly acceptable, since they had no interest in any reform in the first place. (Similarly, there are some conservatives who simply do not believe the state has any role to play in expanding access to medical care; for them to refuse to negotiate with Democrats is fine--there’s a clear contrast there and one can take the issue to the voters to settle.)

What is potentially troubling to me is Democrats who agreed that Social Security needed to be reformed, but still refused to sit down at the negotiating table because they thought gridlock would be to their political advantage. I think one has to distinguish between conversation-broadening (which seems perfectly legitimate) and refusal to bargain (which does not). That is, I think it would have been acceptable for Democrats to say, "We won’t agree to reform Social Security unless you (for example) agree to expand health-insurance coverage and the Earned Income Tax Credit". Similarly it would have been acceptable for Republicans in 1993 to have said, "We won’t agree to spend more on health care unless you cut spending on programs X, Y, and Z." This is how bargaining in politics should work.

What constitutes bad faith, in my opinion, is when one refuses to engage in this process in the first place, either publicly or privately. In my view (perhaps I’m wrong; this version of the story has sort of attained the status of lore on the center-left), this is what Kristol was urging Republicans to do in 1993, because he thought it would help Republicans politically. To the extent that Democrats in 2005 refused to even discuss what they would demand in exchange for making changes to Social Security, they deserve equal condemnation.

I guess I should also clarify that I’m not so hopelessly naive as to expect that government would ever really function according to these rules--I’m just trying to establish how I think the process ought to work in the abstract.

Voegeli, in what is, so far, the final entry in this dialogue:

Josh: It’s an interesting and important question, no? When politicians sit down to negotiate about a particular public policy question they are always going to have three other things in mind. First, there will be other policy questions. The positions you take and the deal you strike over Issue A could affect your negotiating position over Issues X, Y and Z, often in ways that are difficult to foresee but important not to be surprised by. Second, there will be ideological questions about whether a particular deal or position strengthens or weakens a general disposition to a whole range of policy issues. Third, there will be electoral questions about how your negotiating position will help you and your party win the next election and the ones beyond it. Furthermore, not only is the public policy issue on the table related to each of these other kinds of questions, but they are all related to one another. So it’s always complicated.

The ethical question is at what point a politician’s or activist’s attention to all these related questions causes his conduct in the debate over the public policy issue on the table to cross the line from being realistic and legitimate to being cynical and illegitimate. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that the center-left legend is true, and Bill Kristol really did urge Republicans in 1993 to refuse to avoid any constructive engagement with Pres. Clinton on health care for the sole purpose of helping Republicans win subsequent elections. I don’t think such a posture is self-evidently nihilistic. Politics ain’t beanbag, and everything a politician wants to do or prevent will be aided by winning elections and gaining power, and harmed by losing elections and power. Furthermore, since everything is ultimately up to the voters, there was nothing to prevent the Democrats from counterpunching against the Kristol position, appealing to the voters to punish the Republicans for being obstructionists, misrepresenting the Clinton plan, and offering no alternatives of their own. It’s not Kristol’s fault that Democrats either didn’t make or couldn’t sell this argument.

There is one asymmetry worth noting. It’s much harder, politically, to dissolve an entitlement program than to create one. Republicans knew that if they offered to make "health care that’s always there" a social insurance obligation in exchange for spending cuts in other social welfare programs, the new entitlement program would exist forever, while the spending cuts would be ephemeral. The Republicans who took Kristol’s advice in 1993 had these other policy battles and ideological and electoral issues in mind. Realism verges into cynicism when every policy question is refracted into an electoral one, so that governance is completely devoured by politics. At that point, everything in politics is reduced to winning elections, and the only reason to win elections is to win more elections, which is a clear-cut example of nihilism. I don’t think the 1993 Republicans’ efforts against Clinton’s health care proposals were circular in this way. They wanted to limit the socpe of government and prevent an expansion that would be politically irreversible and would promote the expansion of the welfare state in other ways. That’s a contestable political objective, but not an illegitimate one.

A Question for John Edwards . . .

Doesn’t your own family story (however embellished) speak against your prescriptions? Does it never occur to people like John Edwards that mill workers bringing babies home to a two room house have a powerful incentive to improve their own circumstances with hard work and industry? And doesn’t the fact that John Edwards’ own father took the initiative to move his family out of that house within a year of little Johnny’s birth impress him? Instead of pointing to my humble beginnings in a shack to impress you with what I didn’t have, I think I might be more inclined to say, "Look at what I’ve been able to achieve for myself now!" and point to his . . . what DO you call a house like his? Mansion doesn’t quite capture it . . . But then, maybe Edwards is embarrassed by how much he’s been able to accomplish without much hard work or industry (at least in comparison with the hard work his father undoubtedly put forward).

Edwards sees a set of facts and draws conclusions that are exactly backwards. I see his story as cause to celebrate the greatness of our country . . . he sees cause to decry its injustice.