Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Civil War & Lincoln

Lincoln as Shakespeare Critic

Douglas Wilson, who recovered how Lincoln criticized and edited his speeches (link corrected, thanks, reader), reflects on his serious study of Shakespeare. Wilson notes that Lincoln knew the differences between Shakespeare's texts and the stage versions used by actors. It does give insight into his direction of America's greatest drama--the Civil War.


Free Viagra

NLT is not being spammed: In light of the president's recent health insurance coverage edict, I propose that the President require insurance corporations to make Viagra free for all males over the age of __ (subject to compromise). My man-date poses no free exercise of religion problems (the Church approves of the drug, and not of the alleged compromise). True, it might lead to grandpappy Newt and Bob Dole making up, and re-excite Chris Matthews. But this is how bureaucracy can help strengthen the family. (Not that it would be available only to married men.)

Don't go wobbly on us, Barack. Use the mighty powers you wielded for free contraceptives on behalf of free Viagra. We Medicare-constrained geezers are watching you! Will you grant us a dream older than Aristophanes, and fulfill the Economic Bill of Rights our only greater President only wished for?

Categories > Presidency


Sensible Fanaticism

Having won back a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, congressional Republicans "were in the grips of true fiscal fanaticism," which led them to approach last year's negotiations over spending cuts, tax increases, and the federal debt ceiling by "threatening the country with financial ruin unless they got their way." That, at any rate, is how the New Republic's Noam Scheiber sets the scene for last year's negotiations over the federal debt ceiling. According to Scheiber's account, the negotiations collapsed because it was impossible to split the difference between Republicans who wanted to cut spending - including spending on entitlement programs - without raising any taxes, and Democrats from the White House and Capitol Hill who thought debt reduction without tax increases was unconscionable. One congressional Democrat involved in the talks challenged the Republicans to justify "a conversation asking [Medicare recipients] to pay [higher premiums] unless you're talking about closing corporate tax loopholes and special breaks for corporate jets."

The point where the talks broke down, in Scheiber's telling, came when one GOP negotiator said, "Let me get this right. You're saying there are Medicare savings you think would be good policy. But you won't do them unless we agree to raise taxes?" The Obama administration's representatives "looked back at him stone-faced and simply said, 'Yes.'" The unearthing of that detail tells us that Scheiber is a good reporter. Since the Republican's reasonable question and the Democrats' matter-of-fact intransigence never causes him to question his framework about earnest, sensible Democrats trying in vain to deal with GOP crazies, however, it does little to enhance his reputation as a political analyst.

It's possible to make sense of his vignette in a different framework:

1) The revelation that powerful Democrats believe some policy changes would make government social programs more efficient or better targeted to the people who need them most, but prevent those changes in order to bargain for tax increases rather than make them in the interests of good governance, neither flatters them nor reassures us.

2) The most plausible explanation for this dereliction is that these Democrats have a stronger commitment to the care and feeding of the liberal coalition than to the successful implementation of the liberal agenda. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana told an interviewer, "I argue to my most liberal friends: 'You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.' And some of them actually agree." But a lot of them don't agree: The money being "squandered" on bad governance is being devoted to smart politics, buying support from public employees who administer programs and deliver public services, and beneficiaries whose needs are less acute but whose votes are numerous.

3) The tax code hasn't had a good scrubbing since 1986, and is overdue for another. After passing the Tax Reform Act of 1986, however, Congress immediately began treating the miraculous accomplishment of blowing up the accretion of bad and weird tax breaks from the past as an opportunity to start amassing new ones.

4) The template from 26 years ago, nonetheless, still deserves to be emulated. The 1986 success depended on decoupling how to tax from the how much to tax, by insisting any reforms be revenue-neutral.

5) A tax system is a useful device for funding government operations, but a poor vehicle for realizing nebulous visions of distributive justice. Even people who favor more progressive taxes, such as Clive Crook and Matthew Yglesias, believe that raising taxes on the rich is peripheral to the question of increasing opportunity and economic security for everyone else, especially the poor. Crook writes that the "US income tax system is more progressive" than the ones found in other modern nations. He cites a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, showing that those in the top decile of the US income distribution pay 45.1% of all taxes and receive 33.5% of all household income. That ratio (1.35 : 1) is higher than in any of the other 23 countries OECD examined. Sweden, by contrast, is more egalitarian in the sense that its top decile receives a lesser portion, 26.6%, of all income, but less egalitarian in terms of tax progressivity: the top decile pays 26.7% of all taxes. Yglesias agrees: Three years ago he wrote, "The United States already does about as much as any other country to curb inequality through the tax code."

6) Crook and Yglesias agree, further, that if American liberals want the U.S. to more closely resemble social democracies around the world, the big change required is a more generous welfare state. "In most industrial countries," Crook contends, "social benefits such as unemployment insurance and other cash supports are easier to get and more generous than in the U.S. - and typically two or three times more powerful in reducing inequality." (He notes in passing that "American liberals find high incomes more upsetting than poverty. It's an instance of how distorting the preoccupation with inequality can be.")

7) The indispensable fiscal requirement for Swedenizing America's welfare state would be to raise taxes, considerably, on most Americans, not just on the top decile or percentile. Americans who care about inequality, according to Yglesias, should ensure "that there's enough tax revenue to finance generous public services" by emulating Scandinavian social democracies, where "a cradle-to-grave welfare state [is] financed largely through regressive taxation..."

8) In a democracy, that fiscal necessity engenders a political one: The people committed to a much bigger welfare state must explain its virtues to the voters in a way that will attract wide support, or at least acceptance, for the large, broad-based tax increases need to pay for such a welfare state. "The politics of this approach are tricky," Yglesias writes, with considerable understatement.

9) The politics have been made far trickier by liberalism's sins of omission and commission. Liberals have devoted much energy over many years to encouraging the belief that a big welfare state that benefits almost everyone can be paid for by a highly progressive tax system that burdens almost no one. To clear up, at long last, this teensy misunderstanding will require liberals to draw on credibility they've squandered and overcome skepticism they've earned. It will, further, require them to assure taxpayers that the additional funds they surrender will be put to their best and highest uses - spent on weak claimants rather than weak claims, as David Stockman used to say. This will require a liberalism that is obsessive, rather than reluctant and conflicted, about making sure that a welfare state dollar that could help a poor person is not being squandered on government workers' pay and benefits, or on beneficiaries whose needs are not especially, or even vaguely, acute.

The Obama administration officials Scheiber describes rejected entitlement program changes that were cuts, but also improvements, unless they were paired with tax increases that had little to do with increasing the government's revenue stream and everything to do with the optics of "shared sacrifice." The Republicans who negotiated with them had no incentive to make liberalism more coherent, candid, or successful, but inadvertently offered them just that opportunity. Their failure reveals that liberals are more interested in painting themselves into an even tighter corner than in finding a way out of it.
Categories > Politics


From Obscure Blogger to Campaign Wordsmith

How to build your resume by blogging: Tim Seibel, who blogged on Santorum the Servant, provides material for Foster Friess's introduction of the GOP aspirant at CPAC today. (See my post here on his original.)  Tim explains the mix of purpose and serendipity that led to his posting.

BTW, Tim comes out of University of Dallas and Claremont Graduate School and currently resides in Colorado Springs.

I knew someone who got a job with then-EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas by writing letters to the editor of prominent newspapers and articles for the Claremont Review of Books.

Update: And while we're touching on CPAC, note Paul Ryan's speech, which contained this great line: "The only class warfare that threatens America comes from a class of bureaucrats and crony capitalists rising above society - calling the shots, rigging the rules, and securing their places of privilege at our expense." Cf. this NLT post decrying the use of the phrase "class warfare" by Republicans.

Categories > Presidency

Pop Culture

Iowahawk Revisits "Halftime"

It made my day. "Halftime in America"--"Goddammit, somebody get me a throat lozenge."

Update: This one is my favorite (obscenity alert)--Obama does Henry V.

Categories > Pop Culture


Moral Rhetoric

Our old friend Bob Reilly explains the need for a Republican moral rhetoric that can beat Obama's. "Political language is inherently moral, not managerial. It must convey visions, not just plans. It must explain why some things are good and others bad." A moral rhetoric is not a moralizing one, either. And it is essential for survival, too:

If you cannot articulate the cause for which you are fighting in moral terms, you will lose. Because they cannot do this, businessmen suffer from a sense of illegitimacy when they come to Washington. When your opponents scent this vulnerability, they go in for the kill.

Categories > Presidency


Desperate Or Confident?

The proposed federal rule that would force religious hospitals and social service agencies to cover contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations strikes me not only as wrong, but as politically interesting. As a matter of policy, President Obama is well on the far side of the pro-choice spectrum.  He is for the legality of partial birth abortion on demand. It was Obama's good luck that the circumstances of the 2008 election worked to prevent an extended review of Obama's abortion position.  The McCain campaign was more interested in identity politics "hockey mom" posturing than in any domestic policy issue that mattered and in any case the financial crisis sucked up all the political oxygen.  As President, Obama has been patient and prudent in how he has advanced his social liberalism.  When he had an overwhelmingly Congress, Obama spent his political capital on getting Obamacare rather than the Freedom of Choice Act.  He has appointed two young liberal Supreme Justices Court Justices and he only needs a second term and a vacancy among any of the five not-consistently-liberal Justices to make a Supreme Court with a decisive and aggressive liberal majority. 

So why is the Obama administration picking this fight now? In the last few years, when Democrats have latched onto abortion/mandated contraception issues in the course of a heavily contested election, it has been because they were losing.  When Virginia Democrat Creighton Deeds was losing the debate on the economy, taxes, and public sector efficiency to Bob McDonnell, Deeds tried to change the subject to abortion in the hopes that this would help Deeds get elected governor.  In 2010 Martha Coakley was losing the debate over Obamacare to Scott Brown. She tried to change the subject to Scott Brown supporting a conscience exception that would have allowed Catholic hospitals to opt-out of providing emergency contraception to rape victims while referring them to other medical providers.  Deeds and Coakley both lost so it must be said that these strategies failed.  But Deeds and Coakley were losing anyway.  Changing the subject to abortion and contraception was a Hail Mary play.  And as the New England Patriots will tell you, that play usually doesn't work.

So is the Obama administration's mandate that religious hospitals cover contraceptives a desperation play?  I doubt it.  The timing is off.  Deeds and Coakley only tried to switch the subject to abortion/mandated contraception when it was obvious that they were losing to an opponent who had defined himself as within the mainstream of American politics.  If you are Obama, and you want to change the conversation to these issues, you don't announce this policy in February when the media is focused on the Republicans clawing each others eyes out.  I think the Obama people know that this policy announcement is a net negative to his reelection.  I think they announced this mandate because they think it is good policy and because they thought it wouldn't be much of a voting issue in November.  They might be rethinking that second assumption.  I think it shows that they are pretty confident that they will beat any of the current Republican candidates.  It is also just a taste of what we can expect in an Obama second term.          
Categories > Politics


Recalling Reagan

On his 101st anniversary of his birth, consider this reflection on Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural, and compare it will these thoughts on FDR's First Inaugural. You will see encapulated the contrast between liberty and the desire for security. We also realize how difficult it is to make the case for conservatism--to ask for liberty means to undertake responsibilities, and Americans seem to grow weaker by the day.

Note how FDR asks Americans to trust him with extraordinary, even extra-constitutional power. By contrast, Reagan honors ordinary Americans by returning liberty to them.

Categories > Conservatism


Tired Of This Campaign

Sorry I haven't been around.  I'm trying to keep my Republican horserace thoughts off this blog, but the race has been monopolizing my thoughts on politics. I don't think that is health and am working on it.

1.  I think there is less distance between Ken and I than this post might indicate.  I agree that the debates exposed Perry's weaknesses along several dimensions.  Perry wasn't conversant on national issues.  He couldn't make a coherent case against Romneycare after he was challenged on his scripted two minute answer.  Perry also couldn't effectively defend his past statements on Social Security.  Perry went into the race without a good understanding of how the dynamics of public opinion in the national Republican Party were different from those in the Texas Republican Party.  This wasn't simply a left/right "Texas is more conservative" thing.  It took him too long to figure out that, on illegal immigration, the national Republican electorate was more restrictionist and less accommodationist (on matters like in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students) than the electorate Perry was used to winning over.  Perry was just devastated by his early debate performances and never caught up in talking fluently about national issues.  He mostly seemed to resort to identity politics gestures (comparing himself to Tim Tebow, and asserting that he would be on the gun range at 10:30 PM on a Saturday night - it really happened during one of the debates.)  The debates did expose Perry's weaknesses and it was good thing.  If you can't make the case against Romneycare to a Republican electorate, how are you going to make the case against Obamacare to the general public?

The case of Santorum and the debates is a little tougher.  He was too whiny and hostile during the early debates and it hurt him.  It was one of the reasons why there was a Cain boom before there was a Santorum boom.  He looked like he belonged in the last couple of Iowa debates.  He is the only Republican candidate who has drawn blood with his attacks on Romneycare.  He is the only candidate who has manged to make a real argument for moving toward a more consumer and patient-centered health care system and how Romneycare moves us farther away from that goal.  But then he was swamped by the coverage of Gingrich's tiffs with the moderators.  Still, Santorum is the best thing that has come out of the debates.  My biggest worry about Santorum is that not one of the Republicans I most respect (Mitch Daniels, Bob McDonnell, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush) have endorsed him.  Still, in a constrained choice, I prefer Santorum to the rest of this crew.  But...

3.  Run Mitch Run

4.  I get the sense that running for President is becoming a fulltime job earlier.  I was a kid at the time, but I think I remember Democratic presidential candidate forums held in calender year 1987.  Still, it seems like most candidates running for President are spending more of their time visiting the early states, debating and giving campaign speeches a full eighteen months before the election as compared to 1988, 1992, and 1996.  If true, this would seem to be a major advantage to candidates who had no real job or had a job that could be easily neglected (like Senator.)  Then again, Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, and Mondale in 1984 were basically unemployed guys who had been professionally running for President for years (even though they were unannounced for much of the time.)      
Categories > Politics


Romney's Sell-Out Potential

"Given the increasingly likelihood that Romney is on his way to the GOP nomination," Steven Hayward has begun "Deconstructing Romney" over at Power Line. The theme of his first post contemplates his hope that, while Romney is far from a conservative star, "maybe he'll sell out to us."

It's a somewhat sad commentary on the times that the conservative movement must hope that our soon-to-be standard-bearer will betray his ostensible principles and pursue conservative policies. Obama was a far-left liberal who pretended to be a moderate during the campaign and subsequently governed as a far-left liberal. Nothing surprising there. Romney is a moderate running as a conservative - the manner of his actual governance is completely open to speculation.

Hayward (and the writers to whom he links) has a plausible argument that Romney will stay the rightward course. But wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need to speculate over plausible arguments?

Categories > Elections

Foreign Affairs

Germany's Eastern Policy ... in Central Europe

The Economist runs an article citing that "Germany's eastern policy has never been stronger." I've long been an advocate of a New European reorganization which promotes Central Europe as a pro-American, fiscally-responsible political bloc between the Old Europe of the west and Russia's continuing sphere of influence in the east. I thus find it promising that Germany - the unrivaled engine of the European economy - "trades more with Poland's healthy economy than it does with Russia's sickly one" and that "once-communist countries such as the Czech Republic are closely linked to German industry's supply chains--more so, in fact, than some 'western' neighbours like Belgium or Denmark."

Of course, the nations of an emerging Central Europe are diverse and often raise competing interests - as the article aptly notes. But of particular interest is this note on influences across Europe:

Also waning is American power. The Obama administration's explicit reorientation towards Asia and military withdrawal from Europe is eroding old Atlanticist loyalties.

The result of America's power vacuum is that it "gives Germany more diplomatic space." And insofar as German entanglements continue to shift eastward, the strengthening center of Europe could prove greatly to America's interest. This is a win-win situation for the U.S., which can take a laissez-faire approach to Europe and still end up with a pro-American result. All we must do to seize this opportunity is to not actually antagonize our would-be allies - a feat which has thus far proved beyond Obama's ability.

P.S. The title of the article is "Love in a Cold Climate." Fittingly so. Here is Prague:


Categories > Foreign Affairs


The Debates and the Nomination

Pete, we miss you, though this may go too far: "The debates have been basically worthless other than for showcasing the weaknesses of the various candidates." But wasn't it important for us to see some significant sifting out (e.g., Perry)? And true, as Pete points out, the debates kept alive candidacies (in his view, Newt and Cain) that should have died out much sooner or never even have been taken seriously. Yet what does the example of Rick Santorum show us? He excelled at retail politics in a friendly market and had a distinctive voice in the debates, but he clearly lacked the money and the national experience that Romney has. The debates gave Santorum exposure he wouldn't otherwise have had.

Pete is right that it is impossible to run a state effectively (at least in times like these) and run for president--thus closing the door to perhaps the GOP's strongest candidates among governors Reagan, Bush I, and, it appears, Romney are two examples of those able to run full-time without the encumbrance of office (that is, significant office); Clinton and Bush II had friendly capitols.

Categories > Presidency


More on Obama's War on Catholics ... and Civil Society

Ross Douthat's op-ed, "Government and its Rivals" picks up on Jonathan Last's theme in my post below and accurately frames Obamacare's assault on the Church within the context of liberals' war against communities and aspects of the civil society which are not either liberal or pet agencies of the government.

WHEN liberals are in a philosophical mood, they like to cast debates over the role of government not as a clash between the individual and the state, but as a conflict between the individual and the community.


Critics of the administration's policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what's at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House's decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn't share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.

Douthat has also quoted and responded to his critics on the issue in a rejoinder titled, "Liberals and Catholic Hospitals."

It is impossible to speak intelligently on this subject without confronting the practical issues and principles raised in these two articles (and several of the articles to which they link). 

Obama's attempt to weaken and destroy Catholic institutions is both morally and socially repugnant. On the first prong, he is abusively employing the power of the government to force liberal social policies on private groups (whose "diversity" and liberty is apparently of little value to Obama). Secondly, the result of Obama's campaign would be to weaken America's social services for the poor and needs, who are presently served in large numbers by Catholic charitable institutions. It is no coincidence that liberal policies are both unprincipled and socially harmful.

Categories > Religion