Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Return of the Old Guard

One little-noted aspect of the recent elections is that it restores American government to what most of our elites, particularly the political and intellectual class, considers to be the norm--rule by Democrats. Perhaps the best example of this idea is Peter Jennings’ remark after the 1994 elections that "The voters had a temper tantrum last week."

Most of the people who staff government agencies in Washington (and most government employees throughout the republic) are Democrats. Similarly, most of the people who work for national media organizations are Democrats. These people tend to have attended the same group of colleges and universities and read the same newspapers and books, and listen to the same radio. They are trained to think of themselves asour governing class. Now that the Democrats will be in charge of the House, Senate, and the Presidency, they should, in theory, think that the proper state of affairs has returned. The Republicans held Congress long enough, and have held the Presidency regularly enough for the past forty years, that some of that presumption has broken down.

The glaring exception might be Congress. This week’s news that the Democrats in Congress will repeal several of the reforms that Republicans made in Congress when they took over in 1994--notably term limits for committee chairmen--suggests that the situation President Obama faces will be complicated by the return of the old guard. Many of the major powers that be in the House particularly, but also in the Senate, first took office when those were Democratic fiefdoms. The Democrats controlled the House, virtually without interruption from 1933 to 1995. They controlled the Senate from 1933 to 1981. To them, the period of Republican control was an interregnum, not part of the normal state of affiars in a nation with a two-party system. Hence we should not be surprised if we see Congress trying to reassert power, and making life rather hard for President Obama. They will not be grateful for Obama’s victory, and hence defer to him, because all they now have is what, they think, is properly theirs.

Old School

Davy Crockett on the role of government.

Two Problems with the Revival of Pump-Priming

...are discussed by a notorious left-wing author in THE NATION. First, experts disagree on how much or even whether it worked before. Second, the problem of the early thirties was simple by comparison. People were broke and often jobless, but they usually weren’t in debt. Thanks to all the bankruptcies, lots of debt was just swept away, and the economy was a kind of tabula rasa. Today people, corporations, and governments are increasingly both broke and have mega-debt. Our author, with one historical piece of evidence, reminds us of the alternative of just allowig bankruptcy to run amok, eradicating all the debt, and starting over. He knows, of course, that the results today would be horrible, and that ain’t going to happen anyway. This article has the merit of reminding us that the bipartisan consensus--which includes lefty and many libertarian economists--on the huge stimulus package is a big-time Hail Mary pass.

Young Man Lawler on Neuhaus

Ivan the K dug out this article I wrote on Richard’s two most important books over twenty years ago. Some of it makes me cringe, but there are a few places where I learned something from myself.

The Error of Big Government

Mexico’s Social Security agency wins national award for the worst red tape in the nation.

Free Frank’s Exit Questions for the President

These questions are friendly, tough, and conern genuinely perplexing matters. If there’s a single question, it would be something like: "Mr. President, why did you repeatedly let it seem that you were more clueless than you really were." There was a time or two, though, when we have ask why he was so clueless, as well as some some real moral lapses that undermined the basic decency of his intentions.

Robertson v Princeton

Frederic J. Fransen neatly sums up this extraordinary case, the largest donor-intent lawsuit ever filed. The short of it is that Princeton misused a donor’s large gift. (Although Princeton doesn’t admit this)

The Robertson family went after them for over six years and, I think, they were going to win their case in the courts, so Princeton negotiated a settlement. Although there is some satisfaction here for the Robertson family--and those of us who are serious about these matters are forever in their debt for making this extraordinary and costly effort--I regret that Princeton still profited so, and that the slap on the wrist wasn’t a pop on the nose. Still, well done to the Robertson family!

George Weigel Remembers Richard John Neuhaus

... whose great influence on the moral, political, intellectual life of our country was all to the good.

Soylent Heat?

Here’s a new wrinkle on alternative energy from--where else?--Europe:

Dead People Will Provide Heat to Crematorium Facilities. (Didn’t the Germans already think of this 70 years ago?--Ed. Behave yourself.)

Responsible for what?

Earlier today, President-Elect Obama spoke of our need to return to the idea of responsibility. He criticized, "an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington.”

The question we need to ask is whether it is possible, in the course of human events, to teach people to be responsible when we seek to minimize the consequences of failure or even of bad luck. Might it be that the more hand-outs we have the less reasonable it is to be responsible?

PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE

Here are three fine article/symposium ideas from Ivan the K. Each, in a way, was ripped from the pages of NLT:

1. The legacy of Samuel Huntington

2. Rat Choice Theory (Ratzinger/Benedict) and American Liberalism.

3. The 50th anniversary of the publication of WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY?

I’m looking for a few good men and women to volunteer along these lines.

There’s Nothing Like a Great Laugh

Some people say that they can tell all they need to know about a person by looking into his eyes. As shortcuts go, I think that’s not a terrible way to go. But the problem is, you still have to know what to look for in the eyes and, even then, it is easy--as Bush so ably demonstrated with Putin--to be misled. If our own eyes can play tricks on us, how much easier is it for the eyes of another--willfully or not--to trick us? That’s why, when shortcuts are all that are available to me, I depend more upon the laugh.

It’s very hard to lie in a laugh, just as it is difficult to suppress a laugh when it demands to be set free. We’ve all choked on tears and also (with much less success, I’ll wager) managed to smother chuckles. Whereas tears seem to come on with a thunder strike, they have a way of dissipating when put down--even if it is only until a more convenient time can be arranged for their release. A suppressed laugh, however, tends only to engorge the recesses of the soul--at least it has always been so for me. It, like a needy child or another of nature’s calls, demands attention. And if it cannot be set free, it will burn and tickle and play havoc with your comfort until you can release it.

Now, all laughs are not equally good--and some are simply not good at all. Some are wicked or just plain vicious and others are weak, limp and pathetic. Some laughs are vulgar or rude. Some are mechanical or forced. Others are melodic and sweet--but not particularly memorable. The best laughs, however, are a deep and expressive kind of soul kissing--particularly when they are shared with the people who mean the most to us and understand us the best. And, as the clip above richly shows, the disposition toward such soul-kissing laughter is a gift and it reveals itself early in life.

Whatever else they may be, laughs are telling both as to when they come and as to how they show themselves. The eyes of a laughing man do not lie as readily as those of a man who may appear to be grave or grief-stricken or circumspect and biting on his lower lip.

I’m no expert in the craft of acting, but I imagine that it must be easier to summon convincing tears on cue than it is to summon convincing laughter. I’d also guess that the laughter of most good actors is most often real (if not always in response to what is supposed to be funny in the production).

It’s Better to Underpromise and Overdeliver than the Reverse

This is what James Pethokoukis argues Obama seems to have learned from the political mistakes of the Bush administration. While I appreciate Peter Lawler’s hesitation about commenting overmuch on a man who is not yet President and who has not yet taken any formal presidential actions beyond appointments, it’s not exactly tea-leaf reading to take note of some of the signals he’s providing. Based on these signals, Pethokoukis thinks Obama’s political strategy will be to continue to wax pessimistic about the economy’s immediate prospects, run a continuous commentary on the enormity and the difficulty of the task before him and, subtly (or not) work to "Hooverize" Bush in the process. It’s not a bad plan if you are Obama, but Pethokoukis does not think it will be as easy for Obama and his supporters to Hooverize Bush as it was for Roosevelt and his compatriots to Hooverize Hoover. Of course, this is not owing to any special lingering feelings of affection for Bush but has to do, rather, with what Pethokoukis sees as a kind of impatience in the American electorate that he sees no reason to believe will subside in the next four years.

Pethokoukis thinks that if the prognosticators are right and an economic turnaround is still a distant hope, Obama will have to "own" this bad economy regardless of the blame may or may not cling to Bush. A better lens through which to view what is likely to happen in 2012, Pethokoukis argues, is the elections of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton on the heels of recession and the rejection of the incumbent presidents presiding over the downturn. It’s also pretty clear that Pethokoukis thinks many of Obama’s proposals to "fix" the economy will actually work to prolong recovery and, thus, seal his fate.

My own view is that Pethokoukis is seeing only one of two possibilities here . . . and maybe this gets back to Peter Lawler’s hesitation about speculative commentary. I think he’s right to note the impatience of the electorate with a bad economy and it’s likely (though not yet certain) that many of the steps Obama takes will work substantially to make recovery less immediate. Depending on how bad it gets and on how convincing of the Democrat’s share in the blame for this the Republican party can be in the midterm elections, Obama may have a serious electoral problem in 2012. But it is still a stretch, right now, to imagine that continued frustration with the economy or the substantive truth of an Obama Adminstration’s role in that continuation will, by itself, readily translate into a change in our current political reality. Even with that frustration and a substantive critique of Democrats, a change in GOP fortunes is going to require a much more concentrated and serious effort at persuasion than Republicans have been either capable of giving or inclined to put forward in recent years. As I argued below in response to Jonah Goldberg’s column about the coming Democrat branding, neither side has effectively persuaded the vast majority of the American electorate of anything. So, it’s true: the electorate may grow weary of Obama. Having said that, is there any indication (or is there merely a hope) that they’ll be any less weary of Republicans?

Random Observations

1. I continue not to have much to say, because I’m reluctant to criticize Obama before he actually does anything as president.

2. I’m also not outraged by the senatorial outcomes in IL and MN. If the state is controlled by the Democrats and the senate is too, I guess the Democrat is going to prevail in a race that’s obviously too close to call. And in IL, I don’t see the problem in seating the boring old guy as a placeholder, who was appointed according to the law of the state, as far as I can tell. Neither of these issues has legs or even toes. (And I’m only slightly less indifferent to Princess Caroline getting the NY seat. Obama’s victory was for the stylish and inexperienced young, and they deserve a voice to balance all those Clinton retreads.)

3. It’s above my paygrade to know what kind of government stimulation of the economy would be least likely to be counterproductive. I certainly agree with Dick Morris about the danger of getting a lot more Americans out of the habit of paying federal taxes. Although I’m not usually losing sleep over the injustice of thecapital gains tax, maybe giving it something like a holiday would lure more rich guys back to taking stock-market risks. But a tax cut for the rich won’t play well now. I think I agree with Sowell about the difficulty of knowing what the real ecomonic effects would be of stimulation through infrastructure. So maybe the best thing is to give every taxpayer 5K--like in the game Monopoly--and let him or her do what he or she pleases with it--making it crystal clear this is a one-time-only thing. There is no right to stimulate or be stimulated, even in our erotically challenged time. But government spending does need to go up--maybe in stimulating ways--in certain areas, such military/weapons modernization, "subsidiarity"-based programs for the permanently disabled and the frail elderly, and some genuine infrastructure concerns.

4. A REAL ISSUE: We need new ideas for articles and symposia for PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE. I’m disappointed that nothing has come in on the election or the Obama "regime change." And I’m very disappointed that bold and impetuous young (and old) authors of brilliant but strange essays on politics, literature, and philosophy haven’t been calling or writing in big numbers either. Let me hear from you (plawler@berry.edu). Reent authors include Mark Lilla, Delba Winthrop, Mary Nichols, Mary Keys, Ty Tessitore, Yuval Levin, Ivan the K, Eduardo Velasquez, Ralph Hancock, and Dr. Pat Deneen.

5. Pat is now dispensing his excellent and adventurous blogospheric wisdom at the "postmodern conservative" blog of Culture11. His first entry is a tough (too tough, I think) criticism of the constiutional conservatism of Peter Berkowitz praised, with some justice, below.

Is Obama Avoiding a Bush Mistake on Foreign Policy

Michael Feaver says so here on this new Foreign Policy blog, making the same argument David Tucker made on this site more than three years ago.

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

Senate Democrats, folding in less than 24 hours on seating Burris. I wonder how Lyndon Johnson would have handled this? (Actually you don’t wonder at all--Ed. Of course I don’t.)

Statistuc du Jour

Courtesy of Dick Morris

"Today, the bottom 50 percent of US taxpayers pays a total of $30.6 billion in federal income taxes on a combined income of about $1 trillion. So about 3 percent of all federal income-tax payments come from the poorest half of the country. (The top 1 percent pays 40 percent; the top 25 percent pay 85 percent of the federal income tax.)"

Morris adds, commenting on the proposal cut taxes on the bottom 50% further:

In 1980, the bottom 50 percent of the nation paid 7 percent of the national tax bill, after refund and credits. It now pays 3 percent; under Obama’s plan, it would pay less than nothing (that is, it would net a profit from the IRS). In 1980, the top 1 percent paid 19 percent of the income-tax burden; now it’s 40 percent. Taxes have become the province only of the rich.

Of course, the shift in tax burden also mirrors the incredible increase in incomes of the wealthy in the last 30 years - the top 1 percent earned only 8 percent of the total national income in 1980; now it earns 22 percent. And the poorest half has seen its share of national income fall from 17 percent in 1980 to only 12.5 percent today.

So it is both fair and sensible to give the poor a tax break and to draw the bulk of federal revenues from the rich. But to exempt the bottom half - a majority of the voters - from paying any taxes and to award them refund checks instead would dangerously alter the fundamental balance of national politics. For the economically well off, it could effectively become taxation without representation - which, as the founders of our nation warned, leads to tyranny.

Big Hollywood

On the premise that conservatives underestimate the importance of popular culture in the preservation of freedom, Andrew Breitbart today launches Big Hollywood. It promises to offer more than simple criticism of the current popular culture. There’s no shortage of that coming from conservatives, after all. What Breitbart aims to do is nothing less than to "change the entertainment industry" and to return Hollywood "back to its patriotic roots." I applaud this aim. The title of his announcement, "A Million Stories to Tell" says more, I think, than the announcement itself. America is teeming with fascinating and inspiring stories and characters that today lack the genius of a truly American storyteller. A truly great American artist is one who, like Twain, can admire, can scoff but--in the end--find what is finally lovable and worthy in his friends and fellow citizens. Here’s hoping for an American Renaissance of this sort.

Shades of 1929

German billionaire commits suicide over investment losses. We’ve already seen one such suicide connected to the Madoff mega-scam, and I suspect it won’t be the last.

Speaking of which, the Madoff scam is supposed to be the obvious predicate for "more regulation." But the existing regulators at the SEC looked several times and missed it every time. Question: Why is it that, whenever government regulation is shown to have failed, the default position is that we need more and better regulation? If our More and Better Regulators really got close to unraveling Madoff, wouldn’t he just get a couple of Senators to intervene, the way Charles Keating did with bank regulators in the 1980s? What do we pay these senators for, anyway?

It’s Branding Time for the Dems

Jonah Goldberg writes a lively column in today’s USA Today in which he suggests that the coming ascension of the Democrat Party to the summit of their power will be fraught with difficulties . . . for them. Essentially, their problem is similar to the one that confronted Republicans during the last eight years: they haven’t really persuaded the American people of anything. Republicans used the "conservative" brand, Jonah writes wittily, "like a cheap rented car." It was a good vehicle to get them where they wanted to go but, once they got there, they decided that really liked their limousines. Convincing people to admire their solid, but much less cushy, rental was too much work. Democrats will have a similar problem. Yes, they’ve got a mandate of sorts. But, beyond fixing the economy (and can any political party really do that?), what exactly is that mandate? Depends on who you ask.

Most Democrat talking-heads believe that this mandate is for one or another form of Liberalism--although even this is offered in varying degrees by various pundits. But I wonder: Do the majority of American voters really see it this way? My guess is that they do not and, if Democrats really want to stay in power, they’ve got a whole lot of persuading to do (which is a very different thing than what either party tends to do in elections--and certainly different from what they did in this last one). The American electorate remains fairly divided, I think, less out of actual polarization than out of simple confusion about the purposes and the possibilities and limits of free government.

Obama once seemed poised to move in and settle this debate--at least for all practical purposes--by winning it. And, though I believe that this remains his lofty ambition, I am less and less persuaded that he will be able to do it. As Jonah ably demonstrates in this article, there are just as many jackasses as there are elephants who thoroughly enjoy their limo rides.

Reid and Burris

So am I missing something here? I don’t normally agree with Harry Reid, but his claim that the Senate can refuse to seat Roland Burris, the man that disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Barack Obama’s election as president, seems to be on the mark.

As I recall, during the Civil War the Senate and House refused to seat the congressinal delegations from the newly reconstructed states of Louisiana and Arkansas because the radicals in both houses disagreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy. If they could refuse to seat members whose credentials they questioned, why can’t the Senate refuse to seat Burris? Perhaps the constitutional lawyers out there can explain why Reid is wrong.

A Joke With Its Own Punchline

United States Senator Al Franken.

If his lead holds up, I hope he speaks early and often in the Senate, and appears nightly on the cable food fight shows. He will likely be a great asset for Republicans.

News You Can Use

A helpful roster of writing mistakes.

Man Bites Dog Big Time

Or, to mix metaphors a bit, the ice really is breaking up when the Puffington Host. . ., I mean, Huffington Post, runs a stinging article questioning the orthodoxy of global warming and attacking Al Gore.