In the past few weeks, I have been pondering Arthur Schlesinger's Cycles of American History. As I recall the thesis, Schlesinger posits 30 year cycles in U.S. history, featuring 30 years of reform, and then 30 years of retrenchment or of consolidation. (We should keep in mind Schlesinger's comment that, "Britain has already submitted itself to social democracy; the United States will very likely advance in that direction through a series of New Deals."
As I see it, however, the story is different. From 1800 to 1861, the Union had, as a rule, a Jeffersonian/ Jacksonian governing coalition. That order broke down in the run up to the Civil War, and was replaced with a Republican establishment, which held sway until the late 1920s or early 1930s. (It was starting to break down during Wilson's Presidency, but the Crash killed it). And then we had a third establishment, forged during the 1930s, which remained in charge, until it started to break down in the 1980s and 1990s. That order is failing now. What will replace it, is open for debate, and for political competition. In each era, there was an underlying consensus about what a democratic republic was, and about what the constitituion meant. (In every era, however, there have been important dissents from the majority view).
A couple of recent comments reflect this reality. Nancy Pelosi's now famous, comment that elections "shouldn't matter as much as they do" reflects one of the big ideas of the Progressive establishment. Meanwhile, John Judis's lament over the "demise of impartial institutions" grows from the same ideology.
The key institutions of this establishment grew in the first part of the 20th century, Judas notes:
The Brookings Institution also dates from this period. Retired St. Louis businessman Robert Brookings, who founded it in 1916, said he wanted an institution "free from any political or pecuniary interest" that would "lay before the country in a coherent form the fundamental economic facts." Brookings's first president, Harold Moulton, was a laissez-faire economist, yet, when coal operators complained bitterly about a Brookings study in 1928 calling for the nationalization of the industry, he rebuked them for demanding that his think tank heed their interests in its research.
The key elite publication of the era was The New York Times. Prior to Adolph Ochs's purchase of the Times in 1896, most newspapers were either party organs or sensationalistic rags that had little regard for the truth. Ochs insisted that the paper be "non-partisan," that it "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect or interests involved," and that it "make of the columns ... a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end ... invite intelligent discussions from all shades of opinion."
In their heyday, both Brookings and the Times built upon the premise that there is such a thing as apolitical analysis of political subjects. That premise, combined with the idea that experts, trained as professionals, with PhDs in economics or political science (reflecting new ideas in education. The social science PhD was new then), or in schools of journalism (and there was a compliment to that idea in the law schools, and the bar), should study issues dispassionately and disinterestedly, and they would come up with the most reasonable solitions to society's (and the world's) problems. From this point of view, elections were not the defining feature of what was still called "democracy."
Strictly speaking, that was always a myth. Politics is inherently political. For quite some time, however, this establishment was new enough, and small enough, that it remained close enough to the ideas, mores, and prejudices of the common people that it was able to fudge the line. In time, however, that broke down. That is the crisis we are seeing now.
As I read it, this establishment always leaned Left, and that's because the idea of escaping politics is inherently Left, since the Left was founded during the French Revolution, with its worship of what it called "reason." But the Left tilt of that establishment did not become such a large problem until its center started to be increasingly far from the republic's political center.
Judas shows his cards at the end of his essay. He concludes:
Ultimately, the success of disinterested institutions depends on two things: the character and views of the individuals who serve them, and widespread public support for their existence. This second pillar appears to be eroding. . . .Will this challenge to disinterestedness fade with time? . . . I certainly hope so, because, if it does not, we could be looking at a political system that begins to resemble that of the late nineteenth century, with its sharp and seemingly unresolvable clashes between different groups in American society. The next big test will be the Supreme Court's ruling on Obama's health care plan. If the court rejects the plan on the kind of spurious grounds that its opponents have endorsed, then it will have abandoned its historic commitment to disinterestedness. And American democracy will be in very big trouble.
Judas notes that the establishment he praises replaced the U.S. political system as it existed in the late 19th century. Were American politics to become more open again, and the 20th century establishment to fall, that might not be so bad. There might be more liberty, and diversity in American political life.
I too worry about the consequences of the Court striking down Obamacare. (A side note: In its heyday, the Progressive establishment would not have passed such major legislation without large majorities in both houses, and bipartisan support. That the bill was pushed through with some sketchy tactics is a sign that that establishment is on its last legs)
My concern is that our Lefty establishment is so closed minded that it thinks, with Judas, that there is no good constitutional case against Obamacare. And that establishment still has a great deal of power, and can still throw quite a tantrum.
What that tells us is that we might be, once again, in an era in which there is no constitutional consensus in the U.S. Such eras are always interesting times.
1. This is a silly season. Nobody is actually casting a vote for Trump that counts and it will be months and months before real votes are cast. It will get better.
2. Trump might actually improve the discourse in the Republican primary. Since there is no point in trying to out-inflammatory Trump, it might create a primary to see who can consolidate the 75%-80% who even now won't back Trump. So the competition might be in the direction of being the anti-Trump rather than becoming Trump-lite. Good for Michelle Bachmann for renouncing the birther issue.
3. What are the odds that the whole Trump thing is a footnote by November of this year? I'd say at least 50/50.
David Brooks is trying to figure out the secret of Donald Trump's high poll ratings. I think Brooks makes some plausible points, but I think there is something else there too. Donald Trump has become the Howard Dean of the 2012 presidential campaign. There is a certain minority fraction of center-right leaning Americans for whom expressions of loathing and suspicion of Obama are the most salient issues. They might rationalize it as being willing to "fight" or "talk straight", but it is mostly the satisfaction of hearing Obama insulted and diminished (he isn't an American citizen, he didn't write his first book, etc.) in the most extravagant terms.
This happens across the ideological divide. Howard Dean got to be the Democratic presidential frontrunner almost eight years ago. It wasn't just that Dean was against the Iraq War from the beginning. Dennis Kucinich's credentials were at least as good. Those of us who met Howard Dean supporters also know that Dean's record as a budget balancing, NRA-friendly governor didn't account for much of his support. Dean's strength was that he spoke of President Bush will sincere contempt and his loathing of Bush was so intense that it seemed to ripple under his skin. This approach always had its limits and Dean wasn't going to be the Democratic nominee even if Dean's underlying emotional instability hadn't erupted on the night of the Iowa Caucuses.
Just like Dean tapped into a vein of Bush loathing and hatred, Trump has now tapped into a similar vein of Obama hatred and suspicion on the right. In one sense, Trump has already won the Obama hatred primary among prospective Republican presidential candidates. The paradox is that Trump's rise to prominence in the Obama hatred primary is related the underlying absurdity of his candidacy. He can outbid all the other Republican candidates in appealing to the Obama-hatred-above-all demographic because he isn't worried about losing elections or becoming a national joke.
Howard Dean was actually running to be elected President. This put a limit on the kinds of things he could say about Bush - even if he was personally inclined to say them. Newt Gingrich is no more likely to be elected President than Trump, but he seems to have some interest in maintaining a degree of respectability. Gingrich tried to make a play for the Obama hating demographic, but in a way that didn't cut Gingrich off from the rest of the center-right. He talked about Obama's "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview (not really American you see.) Trump does Gingrich two better. Not only does Trump question Obama's very citizenship, but also asserts that Obama's first book was written by a terrorist. Gingrich probably thought he was being quite clever by restricting himself to calling Obama foreign in mentality. How timid and pale Gingrich seems compared to Trump.
Trump is going for attention and that creates a different dynamic. The Trump dynamic is closer to that of a pro wrestling heel than a candidate for office. It is okay if he stirs up more opposition than support - as long as the opposition and support are both passionate. This allows Trump to adopt the birther issue and the Ayers issue. There is a market for such things (though not one big enough to win the Republican nomination), and there is vast publicity in the media pushback. Either way people are talking about him, and that is the point. Since he isn't trying to win a presidential election, he can't lose.
Rich Lowry is wondering whether the Medicare cuts in Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity will sink the plan. You can look at the public polling and conclude that restraining Medicare spending is a lost cause, but not so fast:
1. Reforming Medicare is a comparative issue. It is (or ought to be - if the Republicans are minimally competent) a choice and not a referendum on one particular approach. We aren't really arguing about Medicare cuts. We aren't even arguing about Medicare cuts vs. tax cuts. President Obama has already cut Medicare by hundreds of billions. He has now proposed to cut Medicare by over a trillion more. He has proposed to give a panel of unelected bureaucrats the power to impose service cuts. So our choice is a market-oriented reform in which seniors would have more options (and maybe more disposable income) and a centralized government system in which the government slams the door in your face when and how the government decides. Even so, the Republicans could still lose this argument because...
2. The Republicans still need a better plan. As Josh Barro wrote, they need more credible funding proposals for Medicare. Keeping a defined contribution version of Medicare FFS would be good politics and good policy. As Capretta and Miller pointed out, there will be circumstances where a defined contribution Medicare FFS would offer the best product at the most competitive price. This would also reassure some fraction of the public that Medicare FFS would still be there, but within a system that encourages health care providers to orient themselves to patients rather than bureaucrats and would give patients choices between different provider networks that competed on extent of services (past the government-mandated minimum) and cost.
Ross Douthat writes:
Asking a population that's increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in (the projected ratio in the 2030s) promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.
Wouldn't it be more accurate to say, they will receive "roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they have paid to benefit those who have retired before them"?
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As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expence by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expence, but by vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the Debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your Representatives; but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseperable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the Conduct of the Government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining Revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.
A reinforcement of the existing provisions for discharging our public Debt, was mentioned in my Address at the opening of the last Session. Some preliminary steps were taken towards it, the maturing of which will, no doubt, engage your zealous attention during the present. I will only add, that it will afford me, heart felt satisfaction, to concur in such further measures, as will ascertain to our Country the prospect of a speedy extinguishment of the Debt. Posterity may have cause to regret, if, from any motive, intervals of tranquillity are left unimproved for accelerating this valuable end.
The situation in which I now stand, for the last time, in the midst of the Representatives of the People of the United States, naturally recalls the period when the Administration of the present form of Government commenced; and I cannot omit the occasion, to congratulate you and my Country, on the success of the experiment; nor to repeat my fervent supplications to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and Sovereign Arbiter of Nations, that his Providential care may still be extended to the United States; that the virtue and happiness of the People, may be preserved; and that the Government, which they have instituted, for the protection of their liberties, maybe perpetual.
Please read Steve Hayward's terrific article on Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is a damn shame that the words "insecurity, bordering at times on an inferiority complex" can accurately be used in describing someone of Moynihan's talents and accomplishments. It is very human.
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NY Times trash talks the Wall Street Journal: "The [Pulitzer] awards this year included other notable firsts. The Wall Street Journal won its only Pulitzer since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 2007." The WSJ won this year for its Obamacare editorials, written by 28-year old Joseph Rago.
Murdoch lives to destroy the NY Times, and it knows it. The WSJ is now clearly the daily paper of intelligent readers.
Among other prizewinners, the LA Times won an award for its investigation of the Bell, California city government salary scandal, and Ron Chernow won for his bio of George Washington. In a setback to Lincoln scholarship, Eric Foner won for his book on Lincoln and slavery.
Ben Boychuk had this interview, last November, with Chernow.
1. Howard Kurtz is right that Republicans should hit IPAB as centralized rationing really hard. The biggest weakness of Obama's demagogic speech last week wasn't its tone, but his suggestion of using IPAB to cut over a trillion from Medicare. This is just a down payment on trillions more IPAB-directed Medicare cuts if Obama is reelected. They should also follow Kurtz's advice in arguing that Obamacare puts all Americans on the road to IPAB rationed health care and higher middle-class taxes. I would stay away from the socialist stuff. The policies are bad enough without bogging down into abstruse arguments about what is and isn't socialism. The correct tack is that they are terrible policies no matter what you call them.
2. Josh Barro's City Journal article is something that should be read by every Republican presidential candidate whose primary interest is something other than promoting a reality television show. Conservative need to come to terms with constructive criticism of Ryan's Path To Prosperity and come up with better policy proposals that can withstand scrutiny. Unlike Barro, I'm for getting rid of IPAB and replacing it with a purely research-oriented body that is attached to the HHS bureaucracy - then again I'm for a different Medicare reform than Ryan's. Republicans are going to need a proposal that includes realistic funding levels for Medicaid and especially Medicare and adjust their tax proposals accordingly. If Republicans include proposals that don't add up (and especially if they seem to shortchange Medicare), they are going to pay the price and the price will almost certainly be another Obama term and the kind of socialism that Kurtz outlines. Now you might think that Republicans will be able to get by with Medicare proposals with major weaknesses. After all, Obama got away with promising just about everything to everybody + a tax cut for most + a net budget cut and got away with it (politically.) There are several reasons I don't think a similar strategy will work out for Republicans in 2012:
a. Obama is a far more competent candidate than McCain, and will run a ruthless and obscenely well funded campaign. If a right-leaning wonk like Barro thinks that the Republican plan is too optimistic in its Medicare cuts and will lead to near-term care reductions, then so will every last (formerly) persuadable voter.
b. The media that persuadable voters consume will cover these issues extensively and without mercy (though not always with malice.) That doesn't mean that Republicans can't win the argument, but they need well thought out, and well articulated answers that stand up to scrutiny. Evasive or misleading answers on an issue as personal as health care will be fatal unless...
c. The Obama administration could be so discredited that none of this matters as long as the Republican plan has the barest shred of credibility and the Republican candidate doesn't show a Joe Miller-type desire to simply undo the federal welfare state. I doubt this kind of circumstance will attain in 2012. In Fall of 2008, Bush's Real Clear Politics job approval average varied from 32% to 25%. The only circumstances where Obama's job approval falls to that level by November 2012 is if the living envy the dead. Even when the unemployment rate was around ten percent and Obama was losing the debate over the enactment of Obamacare, his RCP job approval average bottomed at 44%. I guess it is possible that a commodity shock will send the economy into another recession within the next year but I doubt it. At best, Republicans will be facing economically ambiguous circumstances in which the persuadable populations of the public might be disappointed in Obama, but still listening to what he says, and know that major changes are needed, and are leery of any big changes proposed by the Republicans.
3. It isn't online (outside of a firewall) so I can't link to it, but you should read Ramesh Ponnuru's article in the April 18, 2011 issue of National Review on replacing Obamacare. It points to a politic and incremental strategy for moving towards a more sustainable and market-oriented health care system. It is much more prudent than the more radical health care reform strategy that McCain put up on his campaign website and then ignored.
4. The crux of the argument over health care policy will be over whether market-oriented changes can bring down the cost of health care while maintaining access to high quality care or whether bureaucrat-directed rationing is the best we can hope for. The less theoretical this argument this is, the better. I won't shut up about this. It would do Republicans a world of good if their 2012 presidential nominee has a record of saving the government money on health care, maintaining access to high quality care, and even increasing the disposable income of some health insurance clients.
5. Run Mitch Run.