Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Revisiting Holmes

So part of my summer reading list is the Oliver Wendell Holmes--Harold Laski Letters (abridged by Alger Hiss!!), which offer an interesting and not always conventional window into Progressive thought.  Laski is mildly surprising in places, such as his comment that "I think on the whole that it really is doubtful, once you regard liberty as a process and not an emotion, whether Rousseau didn't do more harm than good."

But I especially like this joke from Holmes: "Two old friends meet--'What are you doing now?'  'I'm in the legislature, but don't tell my dear old mother.  She thinks I'm a bartender.'"
Categories > History


Hard Economic Times And Big Government

Jonah Goldberg writes that recent events seem to be disproving the "rule" (by which I think he means conventional wisdom) that "hard economic times make big government more popular." Obama took over during an economic crisis and expanded the size and reach of government, but the idea of more and bigger government doesn't seem any more popular now than it did five years ago.  I think that the "rule" is mostly wrong and I suspect Goldberg does too.  I think it is closer to the truth to say that the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when hard times strike, tends to decline and the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when things get better tends to increase. The irony is that, depending on how events go, the idea that "hard economic times make big government more popular" may seem more plausible (without actually being more true) in 2012 than now. 

The historical record when it comes to "big government" and economic downturns seems pretty complicated even if you simplify by only looking at the downturns and who the public voted for in response to those downturns.  As Goldberg well knows the post-WWI economic downturn under Wilson was immediately followed by the election of the lower taxing and lower spending (and quite popular) Harding/Coolidge regime.  Now as Reihan Salam might say, there are causal density issues here.  There were lots of reasons for voters to repudiate the Wilson administration and liberals have their own self-serving narrative of pro-business stooges being elected by isolationist bumpkins, but the record is clear for those who want to see.  The voters, during a severe economic downturn, replaced a high spending and high taxing administration with one that sharply cut both taxes and spending. 

FDR would seem to prove the rule that people turn to big government in hard times, but it is more complicated than that.  The role of the actual performance of the economy and the assigning of praise and blame to public philosophies for economic events is important to understanding how FDR's administration made his expansion of government so popular and so enduring.  FDR's taking office coincided with the resumption of economic growth and increasing employment (though both from much reduced levels.)  This surely had something to do with his popularity and the popularity of his program.  Bigger government seemed to be making economic life better.  This is also a reason why liberal intellectuals worked so hard to portray the progressive Republican Herbert Hoover as a doctrinaire economic noninterventionist.  If limited government (personified in Herbert Hoover) could be tied to the Depression and big government (in the form of FDR) could be tied to the recovery, then liberals would have a rhetorical weapon whose usefulness would outlive both Hoover and FDR. 

Reagan broke the rules.  He was elected during economic hard times (stagflation) and in some ways, things got even tougher in his first year as President (inflation declined but the economy went into a deep recession and unemployment spiked.)  Reagan sharply cut taxes, slightly cut the growth of domestic discretionary spending, and supported the Federal Reserve's anti-inflation policies.  If you believed the theory that voters want big government during hard times, Reagan experience in 1982 would seem to prove you right.  Reagan's job approval rating fell to 36% by the end of 1982 (Source: "The Reagan Presidency and American Public Opinion" by James Ceaser in The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance.")  He fought the rules and the rules won - except they didn't.  The economy recovered, Reagan got a great deal of the credit and he won a huge reelection victory.  Once again, the perceptions of what seemed to fail and succeed mattered, which was why liberals in the late 80s and early 90s invested so much time and energy arguing that the Reagan recovery didn't really happen or that it was only a blip or that only greedy people noticed.  To the extent that the economic difficulties of the late 70 - to early 80s were blamed on high taxing, high spending, pro-inflation politics, and to the extent that the resolution of those difficulties were tied to lower taxes, lower spending (mostly notional here), anti-inflation politics, the terms of the debate shifted rightwards for decades.

Obama seems to be combining the experiences of both Reagan and FDR.  Taking over during the worst recession since the Great Depression, Obama got Congress to pass both a huge stimulus bill and the first step in the government takeover of the health care sector.  He took over two of the Big Three American auto companies.  He petitioned Congress to pass a combination of taxes and subsidies that would increase government power over the energy sector.  The result has been a slow and steady decline in his job approval rating.  Even though Obama has tried to act like a junior FDR, the labor market's performance has more closely resembled what happened in the first half of Reagan's first term.  Reagan's job approval rating in the July of his second year was 42%.  Obama's job approval in Real Clear Politics polling average has been between 46.3% and 48.0% for the July of his second year.  FDR's party gained seats in Congress during his first midterm elections.  Obama's party (like Reagan's in 1982) will almost certainly lose seat in 2010.

But that doesn't mean that Obama and the conventional wisdom that  "hard economic times make big government more popular" won't both make a big comeback.  If the labor market recovers even a little (down to the low 7s) by the summer of 2012, we can expect, absent some kind of unforeseen disaster, for Obama's job approval ratings to rise.  Perhaps more importantly, there will be a powerful narrative pushed by the Democrats and liberal-leaning media to ascribe the improvement in economic conditions to the stimulus, Obamacare, etc. and establish that big government is what people want during tough economic times, and that even bigger government will lead to even more growth and that the next economic downturn will require even bigger big government.     
Categories > Politics

Health Care

It Wasn't Rand

Reihan Salam points us to an old column by Mark Thompson post in which Thompson argues that conservatives usually failed to offer effective health care reform proposals because they were in thrall to the radical antistatism of Ayn Rand.  I think that is false and could lead to confusion about the course of the debates (over decades) that led to Obamacare.

I'm going from my personal experiences both as a consumer of right-leaning media and from conversations with conservatives over the last twenty years, but my impression is that the reason radically reforming health care has not been a huge priority for most conservatives (as opposed to some wonks and members of Congress) is because most conservatives were mostly happy with the existing system.  It seemed like a private system.  You worked for a private company that contracted your insurance to a private insurance company.  You went to your doctor who was not a government employee.  The system of tax subsidies and regulations that made this somewhat unnatural system  the default was mostly invisible.  You had access to timely and very high quality care.  You heard stories about lines and waiting lists in the socialized medical systems of Britain and Canada.  America had a system of private health care and it was the best system in the world.  Rand had little or nothing to do with it.  In fact, if you were to try to get all Randian and eliminate the tax subsidy for employer-provided health insurance for most conservatives and also Medicare for their parents (not replace them with other, more consumer-driven systems that include government subsidies, just get rid of them as Rand would want) most of these same conservatives would try to tear you apart - politically of course.

The system had problems.  For one thing, premiums seemed to be going up to quickly.  Both the left and right had explanations and likely suspects for the rise in premiums.  The suspects included greedy insurance companies, greedy trial lawyers, greedy pharmaceutical companies, illegal immigrants, and uninsured people who were clogging up the high-cost emergency rooms.  People mostly weren't told by conservative popularizers and mostly didn't want to hear that much of the spike in premiums was inherent in the system of comprehensive employer-provided health insurance that conservatives were defending from liberal attempts to "socialize" medicine.

That  isn't to say that conservatives weren't in favor of some changes or that the changes weren't worthwhile.  They were in favor of tort reform, regulatory changes to make it easier for small businesses to work together to buy insurance at lower rates, and regulatory changes that would allow people to buy a wider range of insurance products (including high deductible/lower premium plans) and bypass state-level regulations that were driving up the cost of health insurance.  I remember some mentions of Health Savings Accounts, but not in any detail.  But the conservative reforms weren't really the priority on health care policy.  Stopping the liberal Democrats from destroying America's best-in-the-world private health care system was the priority.  Oh, the Democrats are filibustering health care reform?  That just shows that the Democrats are in the pockets of the trial lawyers and don't really care about real health care reform.  Lets move on to cutting marginal tax rates.

In any analysis of how most conservatives acted on the health care issue from 1993-2010, I don't think you can overstate the investment of most rank-and-file conservatives to the existing system.  There were good (or at least understandable) reasons why the Republican congressional leaders offered a plan of tort reform and interstate purchasing of health insurance rather that the Ryan health care plan as their alternative to Obamacare.  That is where most conservatives probably are, and any plan that will destroy the system of employer-provided health insurance (which the Ryan plan would) will face intense public skepticism - including from conservatives who now get their health care through their employers.  And this gives some idea of the demands of finesse and public education that conservatives wonks and politicians will face in advancing the cause of free market-oriented heath care policy.

Categories > Health Care

The Family

Natural Purposes v. Inherent Preferences

You can't miss this powerful (and powerfully sad) account of one man's realization that though his homosexual yearnings were (and, probably, are) innate and, therefore, part of his particular "nature," they are not "natural" in the sense of serving his deeper, higher, and more compelling nature as a man.  That is to say, he made a decision--at some point in his life--to nurture feelings, inclinations and preferences and, from that habit of mind and of body, he lived as a homosexual and became one.  A realization concerning the nature of true love, however, shakes his very core and stirs long neglected and uncultivated longings in his heart.  As he takes note of the love between a father and a son while in a barber shop one day, a painful absence overwhelms him.  He realizes that however we artificially alter the inconveniences of the universe, this kind of love will elude him on his current trajectory.  Without Utopian expectation of his own fortitude (though perhaps with some overestimation of connection between deserving reward and also getting it) he vows to change.  I wish him well--though I am more grateful that he opened up his painful story to public view on the off chance that it might serve as a cautionary tale to those who imagine happiness can be achieved when Nature is ignored.  No matter how stubborn your own "nature" . . . Nature is an even less retractable and stubborn mistress.
Categories > The Family


Hey, Lefty . . . You Ain't All That!

Imagine you're a true-believing lefty who, since your "enlightenment" at university, has been laboring in the trenches of left-wing American politics for a good while.  Maybe, like Al Gore, you've got friends (and, perhaps, benefits) among the beautiful people.  And, of course, in general you've got friendly allies in the press.  But in your heart of hearts you know these people don't really understand anything.  Though useful to your purposes at times, they aren't reliable in a pinch.  As for the American people in general, you know . . . they're fickle and unsophisticated and, mostly, you don't much like them.  They don't know what is good for them. 

None of this, of course, precludes your perverse interest in being loved by these people.  You're not popular . . . but, gosh, you want to be.  Still, taking that as more or less impossible, you've contented an consoled yourself by clinging to a group of like-minded and similarly situated individuals who enjoy self-congratulation.  Then, wonder of wonders (!), one of your number breaks out!  He begins making strides toward that elusive popularity you've been after.  You hitch your wagon to his star and, for once, you permit yourself to imagine the impossible.  Maybe the American people are not as impossibly backward and stupid as you've been taught to believe.  They love him!  (Or, at least, they did . . . for awhile.)  Will they, in turn, love you?

It turns out the answer is, uhh . . . "no." 

Jonah Goldberg writes a compelling account of the Democrats' "lament."  But, for a spectacularly entertaining version of the thing at work and in action, you can't miss this extended whine from left-wing commentator, Bill Press.  That is an even more tasty morsel for this conservative's appetite for Liberal woe than the implosion of David Axelrod I discussed here.  In it you will see, especially, the predictable wannabe's response when rejected by the popular kids, to wit: "You ain't all that, anyway!"  Yeah.  Sure. 

The trouble with that resent-laden response is that this isn't high school and the object of American politics is not to stroke the self-esteem of the unpopular.  In American politics the American people are all that.  Public sentiment, as Lincoln knew (and lefties--at least since FDR--never have understood) is everything.  Short of force, you cannot make other people think as you think or act as you think they should act.    One has to persuade them and that entails more than a few pretty words and the fawning adulation of the beautiful people.  The American people have never been a cheap date . . . at least not for long.

Yet, tasty as these morsels are, they don't yet sit well.  Goldberg hints at the reason for this in his closing paragraphs when he suggests that Republicans ought to contemplate the long-term benefits of trimming a little at the margins of sweeping victory this November by calling Obama's bluff and offering a real (which is to say, difficult) choice.  They need to remember that the object of American politics is persuasion and they ought to take advantage of Obama's crisis by recognizing the opportunity it presents for this project.  A sweeping victory won't mean anything if it is hollow.  There ought to be a real and fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans in this:    Republicans ought to love the American people enough to understand that winning their momentary affection is not the same thing as earning their love.  Love is born out of respect and respecting the right of self-government demands governing by persuasion rather than by deception followed by scolding.  
Categories > Politics

Foreign Affairs

Iran and Missile Defense

We don't have a missile defense that can handle threats from Iran.  So warn former CIA Director James Woolsey and Rebeccah Heinrichs.  The Bush Administration was building one, but Obama scrapped it, replacing it with one that "offers no added protection for the U.S. until 2020. That's almost certainly too little too late."   Moreover, might the new Obama strategic arms agreement with Russia limit our sovereign right of self-defense?

Rebeccah Ramey Heinrichs is a former Ashbrook Scholar.   A former manager of the House Bipartisan Missile Defense Caucus, she is now an adjunct fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.   (She is also officially a DC  beautiful person, a status she indeed holds by nature.)

Categories > Foreign Affairs


Was THIS guy ever any good, either? Axelrod & the Dems' Strange Strategery

Sunday evening, while out to dinner with the family at a local cafe, I happened to catch David Axelrod attempting to mount a defense against the coming electoral tide with CNN's Candy Crowley.  That the cafe's television was tuned in to this sad demonstration made for a hazardous dining experience as, the longer I listened, the more choking became a danger.  It was not that I was having difficulty swallowing Axelrod's spin.  I've tasted that spin before and I know better than to pretend it's edible, forget nutritious.  Even so, I could not help but savor the edges of his "argument,"--because, like a cheap gum one takes when offered but never bothers to buy--it hinted at a flavor that promised to resemble something tasty even though it would quickly lose all taste and I'd have to spit it out.  In this case, Axelrod's flavor was double-down lefty mint--touting the causes of Obama's coming electoral nightmare as reasons he should be celebrated. 

Axelrod proudly noted the bailouts that have produced economic stagnation, prolonged the recession, and prevented job growth; the passage "after 100 years of trying" *choke!*--ed. of health care reform; and, most important *really? MOST important?!*--ed. Obama is going to put an end to DADT and after that he's going to push for "comprehensive" immigration reform.  Now, this is not my regular fare, to be sure, but it was surprisingly tasty in this context.  Why?  Because it tells me which voters Axelrod means to impress.  And why is it that Axelrod--this late in the game--is worried about impressing . . . who, exactly?  Lefties?  He's worried about bleeding lefty votes?  The chef is focused on cooking for the regulars because his problem right now is not so much that he's not bringing in new customers (though he's certainly not), the real danger is that he's losing the old ones.  He can't be bothered right now with seasoning the dishes in ways that appeal to the masses.  Right now he's got to focus on making sure that what he's been serving up all along is cooked.

Axelrod's menu appeared to be reduced to the caveman-like proportions:  find meat, kill meat, cook meat.  No sauce, no flair, no sweeteners or sides. 

Indeed, the leftward tilt of Axelrod's defense of Obama was something to behold.  For in addition to revealing their desperation, it also revealed something of their anger and complete lack of understanding when it comes to the mood of the national electorate.  His message seemed to simmer down to this:  we've set a full table--laid out our whole menu here for your eyes to behold and your tongues to taste . . .  Why don't you like it?  It seemed to me that Axelrod's attitude was more one of anger and disbelief with the electorate for their ingratitude and, of course, lack of appreciation at Obama's great culinary efforts over the course of many hot days in the kitchen when, after all, everyone knows that George W. Bush broke the air-conditioning. 

I've heard some other commentators speculating that the frustration of those on the American Left these days--especially from within the Obama Adminstration--is stemming from the realization that they've got their fingers on all the right buttons now and, yet, things aren't working out as they imagined they should.  Their ideas do not yield the results (particularly not in the economic realm) that their ideology has taught them to anticipate.  That may be true as far as it goes and with respect to a defined group of practitioners on the Left and in the Administration.  But I think that's over-thinking the thing and does not explain the broader phenomenon.  More likely, it seems to me, is that they really did not anticipate the kick-back coming from the American people.  It is not enough for the American Left to win some elections and set their pet projects into motion--they are still pining for the energy, affection and excitement they experienced during the courting phase of their relationship with voters in the 2008 campaign.  In its place they are finding a demanding, nagging, results-oriented  spouse who is repeatedly asking pointed questions about what they've been doing with themselves all day. But the Left is beyond trying to please these voters at this point.  Their anger has moved them to the point where they shout back, "You don't understand what I've been dealing with!" and "You never appreciate anything I do for you!"  This resent-laden self-defense that they're now mounting can only appeal to the most far-gone among the infatuated.

So for now, I'm chewing on this gum and enjoying the show.  I don't expect this flavor to last for very long, however.  They can't be this self-destructive, can they?
Categories > Politics


Even a Brit Gets It: Will GOP Senators?

Accumulating Lincoln quotations, Tony Blankley spotlights Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's dismissal of the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence for understanding the Constitution.  Will indignant Republican Senators rally around the principles of their Founder?   Alas, what makes one think they will this time? 

Blankley:   "Without those rights, the body of law is a corpse - a soulless, purposeless, manipulable, disposable, dead, material thing. If Ms. Kagan does not know that, then she knows nothing of our law."  Again, the same condemnation can be made of politicians of all parties.  Moreover, does any law school teach the proper respect for the Declaration of Independence?  In that sense, former Harvard Law Dean Kagan has a bipartisan following.

Here's a poignant cinematic reminder of an earlier Brit's Lincolnian devotion to American principles.  (Charles Laughton's Ruggles is a British servant won by a Westerner in a poker game abroad.)  

Categories > Courts


I'll Have What He's Drinking

I don't know what has got into Walter Russell Mead, but whatever he's having I want it.  Today he delivers another thunderous beatdown of the climate campaign.  Sample:

Not since the incident at Chappaquiddick derailed the Ted Kennedy for President boomlet of 1969 has a political movement imploded so fast and so messily as the green crusade to stop global warming. . .  The greens, it is increasingly clear, bet the ranch on the Copenhagen process.  That horrible meltdown, perhaps the biggest and most chaotic public embarrassment in the history of multilateral summits, turned climate change from global poster boy to global pariah.

Add to this Newsweek's story out yesterday that "Green Is Not Longer a Surefire Political Winner," and the Washington Post article yesterday that "Historic Oil Spill Fails to Produce Gains for U.S. Environmentalists," and it looks like my long-predicted rout of the greens is on, big time.

By the way, where is Al Gore?  My AEI colleague Ken Green yesterday suggested: "He must have reached his Tipper point."
Categories > Environment

Ross Douthat

is on fire today. 

Was This Guy Ever Any Good?

E.J. Dionne continues to indulge in spin and New Deal nostalgia in his latest column.  His analysis that the problem is that people are tired of the fighting in Washington (rather than persistently high unemployment, a gigantic debt, an unpopular health care bill, and a stimulus that does not seem to have stimulated) is about as sound as his solution that the President ought to focus blame on Republican obstructionism by listing Republicans whose last name begins with B.  Is there anything in Dionne's column that could not have been written by an intern at any liberal-leaning message shop?

Literature, Poetry, and Books

The Pox and the Covenant

I was prowling around a bookstore on my way to Philadelphia yesterday and spotted Tony Williams' new book, The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic that Changed America's Destiny.  I've known two people who gave up perfectly good teaching careers to devote their time and effort entirely to writing; they have both succeeded.  The other was Jerry Pournelle (see also this one.)  Well done Tony!