Egypt's ruling class is circling the drain. President Mubarak has shut down the internet and cell phones and ordered the military to crack down on democratic reform protestors. Just a few minutes ago, Mubarak asked his government to resign and promised to appoint a new government within a few hours. Perhaps one of the fundamental problems with Mubarak is his ability to dissolve and reassemble governments at a whim.
Egypt joins Tunisia in facing public revolt over corruption at the highest levels. Is it coincidence that these nations are considered the most pro-American in the region, whereas anti-American countries such as Iran have thus far entirely failed to achieve political reform?
Obama's distance on this matter is understandable - Mubarak has been friendly toward the U.S., but his democratic credentials are suspect, at least. On the other hand, the democratic reformers could easily be usurped by the military or Islamic radicals if control of the government is up for grabs. Any formal endorsement of a specific outcome would embroil America far too deeply into Egyptians affairs.
UPDATE: While cautioning demonstrators to avoid violence, Obama has pretty clearly taken their side in the reform movement - without, however, advocating their greatest demand: the resignation of Mubarak. This speech was a pretty hardy and commendable pro-democracy speech for Obama.
Drudge is having fun again with the ongoing quest in Hawaii to find the President's birth certificate.
The irony is that the only reason there are "birthers" is that our Courts created the idea of "birthright citizenship." But soil ought not to determine citizenship, and the Constitution, as amended, ought not to be read to require it--as the dissenters in Won Kim Ark noted. English law made soil fundamental, they noted: "The tie which bound the child to the Crown was indissoluble. The nationality of his parents had no bearing on his nationality. Though born during a temporary stay of a few days, the child was irretrievably a British subject."
In the American revolution, they add, "Manifestly, when the sovereignty of the Crown was thrown off and an independent government established, every rule of the common law and every statute of England obtaining in the Colonies in derogation of the principles on which the new government was founded was abrogated."
According to Justices Fuller and Harlan (Harlan signed onto Fuller's dissent. Not coincidentally, it was two years after Plessy. The decision turns on the same principles. The same idea of equality that made segregation problematic, also made compact the basic of American government and, the foundation for our ideas of citizenship.") As they noted, those elements of the common law that could not be reconciled with the "principles on which the new government was founded" were abroated.
According to the principles of the compact, once someone becomes a citizen, any child born to him is also a citizen. The dissenters noted, "it seems to me that the rule partus sequitur patrem has always applied to children of our citizens born abroad." That maxim could be reas narrowly, suggesting the citizenship follows the father. But since we no longer discriminate on the basis of sex, t is reasonable to say that the child of any American parent is a citizen. In short, it is only the deeply problematic argument that soil is the foundation of citizenship that lets Druge and others amuse themselves with the question of Obama's birth certificate.
Some thoughts on the State of the Union Speech,
1. Let's get something straight about where there is controversy and where there isn't. There is little controversy (within the mainstream of the two parties) on some government role in funding basic scientific research on subjects like energy production. There is controversy on whether the government should subsidize energy producers that would otherwise be uncompetitive under the guise of producing jobs. Since Obama likes to use the internet as an example, let's try to explain it in internet terms. The government should have funded the basic research that made the internet possible. The government was right not to offer open ended subsidies to Pets.com. Obama was right when he said he doesn't know which companies and industries will succeed. What he said was right, but he didn't believe what he said.
2. Dave Weigel described Obama's approach in the SOTU as "He used conservative language to sell liberalism with few limits." That is fair enough. It seemed like every third word was investment, innovation, private, companies or competition. It could have been Steve Forbes on his Saturday morning FOXNEWS show. You had to listen closely to hear that he was making an argument for the government direction of capital through various kinds of subsidies. Ross Douthat described Obama's speech as "a reasonably eloquent case for center-left technocracy and industrial policy, punctuated by a few bipartisan flourishes" That is also fair enough but the relationship between the speech yesterday and Obama's agenda is similar to the relationship between the ice above the waterline and the iceberg (probably not an original formulation.) The biggest and most damaging part of the Obama agenda is just to keep us on the present course. The course involves Obamacare strangling the functioning private options for health care (except for the wealthy) and letting the entitlement funding crisis come ever closer until sudden and terrible choices necessitate far higher taxes and far greater government allocation of goods. Obama might sometimes sound like a left-of-center technocrat (and he does have bit of that in him on issues like primary and secondary education) but on the whole, he is ideologically much closer to Nancy Pelosi than Mark Warner.
3. Conservatives who are panning the speech as boring and uninspiring are right but are missing the point. Obama's goal wasn't to inspire. It was to make him seem like an unradical, unthreatening, pro-business kind of guy. I think he probably came across that way to the uncommitted who don't otherwise pay all that much attention to politics. It is a much easier trick to pull off when you aren't trying to get Congress to pass an enormous expansion in federal government spending or an enormous expansion of government power over the health care sector. He was able to pull off the nonideological act in 2008 because he wasn't really responsible for anything and he could promise everything to everybody - including a net budget cut. The combination of the ideological aggressiveness of his own program and the lousy labor market prevented him from playing the nonideological pragmatist role in 2009 and 2010. But even then his Real Clear Politics job approval rating hovered in the not-so-bad 44-46% range. He will be much tougher on the defensive ("hey I'm for a spending freeze and let's fix some of the problems with my health care reform - like the Medicare cuts!") and even tougher if the labor market improves - however slowly. He is clever, determined, principled, and has a rock solid political base. Absent a further economic slump (which is not to be hoped for), he is a damn tough political opponent.
4. The Republican response by Paul Ryan was very good. I would have leaned a little harder on the argument that if politicians don't make prudent cuts now that allow us to transition to a more sustainable system, then those same politicians are going to end up making sharp and sudden cuts that people (especially the elderly) will have a very tough time adjusting to. Prudent cuts aren't austerity. Austerity (and huge tax increases and "death panels") is what is at the other end of all these budget deficits. I've seen Ryan make this argument before, but I think it should have more prominence
5. Ryan isn't Reagan and he shouldn't try to be Reagan. Ryan has his own (all too rare) set of virtues that combine limited government principles with hunger for policy detail. That doesn't mean that Ryan and Ryan enthusiasts don't have something to learn from Reagan. Reagan was usually able to punctuate his arguments with the telling detail, the eye popping statistic or the example drawn from everyday life. Reagan worked really hard to make his arguments relatable to his audience. This isn't a criticism of Ryan's response per se. He managed to say a lot in ten minutes, but more Reagan-style argument crafting combined with Ryan-style detail work might be the ticket.
6. Oh by the way, the projected federal budget deficit for this is year is 1.5 trillion dollars.
"And so we must defeat determined enemies, wherever they are, and build coalitions that cut across lines of region and race and religion. And America's moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity. And because we've begun this work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America's standing has been restored."Of course, "freedom and justice and dignity" (like "big") can mean a lot of things in this context; none of which need have anything to do with liberty properly understood.
Ken Thomas notes the president's invocation of Eisenhower in last night's SOTU address. It's worth mentioning Ike's Farewell Address in this context as well. Last year I wrote a very short piece for the newsletter of our Masters in American History and Government program regarding how everyone remembers Ike's warning about the power of the "military-industrial complex," but ignores what he said about the danger posed by a "scentific-technological elite." I'm pleased to see that Pat Deneen has addressed this, in far more depth and detail, in the current issue of the paleocon journal The American Conservative. He writes:
No section of Eisenhower's address gives more compelling witness to this fear than his warning that the military-industrial-scientific complex's demands would require the transformation of the university. His prophecy--which has become history--not only portended the death knell of "free ideas," but the demise of the university's historic role in providing reflective cautions about the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. Instead, the academy has given itself over to forms of inquiry with the ultimate aim of overcoming human nature.
Read the whole thing, keeping in mind Heather Wilson's recent lament regarding the narrowness and superficiality of even today's best and brightest college students.
John Moser directed us below to Heather Wilson's article in the Washington Post, but I wanted to add my two cents on the subject as well. Wilson writes about how "superficial" Rhodes Scholar applicants have become. The problem is not that the candidates are frivolous or unintelligent: just the opposite--they are ambitious and serious and know a lot about their very specialized area of study.
But, Wilson says, "our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study. This narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism." For example, "[a]n outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president's health-care bill but doesn't really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn't really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral."
The students are, in short, not being asked to dig into the big, permanent questions of human life and society. They don't get anything like a liberal education--one designed to cultivate free human beings who can think for themselves about the great questions. They are what David Brooks once called "The Organization Kid".
Here at Ashland we're trying to do things differently with the Ashbrook Scholars. It starts the day they arrive as freshman, when they have a seminar with Peter on a great text from a statesman (Churchill's My Early Life this year). They talk about big questions like "What is education?" "What is justice?". It continues through their education in US history, Western Civilization, ancient and modern political thought, and American political thought. And it culminates in their senior year, when they write a thesis on some important question that really matters to them as a person and a citizen.
Wilson says that the Rhodes Scholarship is "looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership." Whatever others do, we at least are trying to cultivate just that kind of student.
From the President's SOTU:
So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
The GOP House should use the Ike standard (Obama wants to be FDR's Ike, preserving his neo-New Deal) to eliminate all federal agencies since the Ike years that merely provide pass-through money to typically leftish groups (sorry, NEH). That would gut Labor, Education, and Transportation (among others), end HUD, and shrink the federal government.
Paul Ryan gave an effective response (though I am in principle opposed to partisan responses to what should be the President's non-partisan speech). For a brief statement he expressed the principles of constitutionalism well:
We believe, as our founders did, that "the pursuit of happiness" depends upon individual liberty; and individual liberty requires limited government.
Limited government also means effective government. When government takes on too many tasks, it usually doesn't do any of them very well. It's no coincidence that trust in government is at an all-time low now that the size of government is at an all-time high.
I wonder whether rule of law, constitutional government, or self-government aren't better terms than "limited government." His point after all is that big, bureaucratic government is ineffective and in fact weak in vital areas (e.g., national security). Big government violates the rule of law because it doesn't protect the individual rights that are the basis of any legitimacy it might have.
The models for effective speeches explaining crises are FDR's map speech and his fireside chats, especially his speech on banking. These go to the most elementary level. (I like the Map Speech, because it makes demands on his audience--"Look at your map," he orders.)
I was home with a sick baby today and I caught a little bit of Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on FOXNEWS. I get the feeling that she is quite bright, but she seems to have taken upon herself the role of popular narrative builder and issue framer for social democracy. I've seen her do this same act several times now. She goes out with the most audacious left-of-center focus group-tested lines and repeats them relentlessly and with no interest in their inherent truth. She is better at it than most.
Today she was talking about the Republican Study Group's plans to cut domestic discretionary spending. Wasserman Shultz argued that the spending cuts represented a " white flag" (I remember those words pretty clearly) in competition with China. Now depending on how the RSG's cuts are structured (and it probably won't get that far because no way is this proposal clearing both houses of Congress), this proposal could have multiple negative consequences, but it is tough to see how eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and cutting subsidies to Joe Biden for his post-Vice Presidential Amtrak rides will prevent us from competing with China. I know those only represent a tiny fraction of the proposed cuts, but that is the point. Wasserman Shultz doesn't tell us which cuts to which programs will inevitably lead to nightfall in America and why. Wasserman Shultz's purpose was to trade on what she (and I suspect much of our political class) perceives to be the pervasive public fears of decline, defeat and humiliation at the hands of China. Her entire argument was based on the premise that people would react mindlessly whenever those fears are inflamed. Therefore expect to hear a lot about how government "investment" (including investments to make sure that there is an Amtrak stop near Joe Biden's house) will make America competitive.
Republicans need a (hopefully more rational) counter narrative. This narrative will have to include an explanation of how government debt at all levels is creating a burden that will both crush the economy under enormous new taxes and lead to sudden, sharp and stupid cuts to government services if we don't start making some prudent spending decisions right now. Nobody is better than Paul Ryan at making that argument but Republicans need more. Republicans need a populist growth agenda and could do a lot worse than a pro-family, pro-growth tax reform that increases the take home pay of most working parents and frees up money for investment through the market rather than having members of Congress and unelected bureaucrats choosing winners and losers based on a combination of ideology, cronyism, and political horse trading. Republicans also shouldn't talk too little about what the government should be doing. As Henry Olsen has pointed out, the voters expect the government to deliver some important public goods. That means that Republicans will have to be credible on issues like education (which doesn't necessarily mean more federal money), transportation and health care policy. Republicans need to be able to point to examples where Republican policies have maintained (or even improved) core government services while balancing the books. The best examples of such a responsible pro-solvency, pro-effective but limited government agenda would be governors like Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell.
Since this blog is associated with a center which is associated with a college, I'll beg your forgiveness for offering this companion exercise for today's state of the union address: The State of the Union Drinking Game.
Of course, I only recommend reading the instructions for the humor of the "Every time he says...." list.
Regular NLT commenter Art Deco brings some perspective to the subject of American violence and the attempt of certain people to pin the recent Arizona attack on their political opponents.
"Clearly, the nation's founders serving in the 5th Congress, and there were many of them, believed that mandated health insurance coverage was permitted within the limits established by our Constitution. The moral to the story is that the political right-wing has to stop pretending they have the blessings of the Founding Fathers as their excuse to oppose whatever this president has to offer. History makes it abundantly clear that they do not."
Well, what do you think?
Former congresswoman and Rhodes Scholar Heather Wilson has for the past twenty years served on selection committees for Rhodes Scholarships, so she's come into contact with some of the nation's best and brightest students. What she says about the one's she's encountered in recent years will surprise few who frequent this blog. "Even from America's great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago." One wants to fight for the recent health care legislation, another for eliminating nuclear weapons, another to serve his country abroad, but cannot offer an adequate response when asked why. And consider this:
When asked what are the important things for a leader to be able to do, one young applicant described some techniques and personal characteristics to manage a group and get a job done. Nowhere in her answer did she give any hint of understanding that leaders decide what job should be done. Leaders set agendas.
In other words, the nation's elite colleges and universities are producing graduates with vast technical knowledge, but no appreciable wisdom. In a way this has been the dilemma of the entire modern age, but it grows steadily worse.
The historical premise of Dolen Perkins-Valdez's novel Wench: "The land for Ohio's Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private historically black college, where [W.E.B.] DuBois had once taught, at one time had been part of a resort - a place called Tawawa House, where wealthy Southern slaveholders would take their slave mistresses for open-air 'vacations.'"
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey's views on his successor, Attorney General Eric Holder, are laid bare in a Weekly Standard interview with Jennifer Rubin. Murkasey "candidly asserts that Holder's conduct in several key respects has been 'amazing.' That's not meant as a compliment."
The imagined abuses of the Bush era DOJ were relentlessly pursued by the media (to little credible effect), whereas brazen violations of ethical boundaries in Obama's DOJ have garnered scandalously little attention. Witch-hunts for conservatives, negligence in the war on terror, reverse discrimination and political interference in individual cases have marked this administration's Justice Department. There is shame in such abuses, as well as insight into the character of the abuser.
Ramesh Ponnuru lists some of the ways that Obama has moved to the center since the midterm election. Obama isn't really moving to the center. He is moving into a consolidationist phase. Obama talked about how he admired Reagan because the Gipper "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Well Obama has changed the trajectory of the US, and unless the trajectory changes, the center-left is in a good position to control the terms of debate.
The knowledge that he has already won the biggest fights and that he has put in place a set of political institutions and incentives that will tend to strengthen his side even after he has concluded a second term gives Obama a lot of room to move. It isn't that tough to sound and look moderate if you aren't actively trying to get Congress to pass bills that will shift the policy environment to the left. So you hire the Daley fellow as your White House Chief of Staff and you get some nice words from the Chamber of Commerce. You agree to extend the 35% top marginal income tax rate for a couple of years and you refuse to blame the opposing party for a madman's shooting rampage. You get some good headlines and you haven't given up anything important (and Obama has a much better sense of what is important in advancing left-of-center politics than many of his allies.) Obama is building fortifications around his biggest policy accomplishments.
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