Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Getting Smarter?

In Florida, the legislature has approved, "a bill that would ban automatic dues deduction from a government paycheck and require members to sign off on the use of their dues for political purposes."

That will quite probably be smarter, and more popular than the efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to reduce collective bargaining privileges.  Since we reflexively call such privileges "rights," the Left has an edge. But on these issues, the public relations edge may very well flip. 

Since it will hard to balance state and local budgets without recalibrating the balance of power between government worker unions and the government, Florida may be showing the path of progress.

Categories > Politics


A Choice Not an Eco

Rich Lowry on the controversy over the incandescent bulb:

If the new bulbs are so wondrous, customers can be trusted to adopt them on their own. Are we a nation of dolts too incompetent to balance the complex factors of price of bulb, energy efficiency and quality of light on our own?

Categories > Environment

Foreign Affairs

Libya vs. Iraq?

This now viral video comparing Obama the awesome and Bush on their war-making rationales raises some serious points.  It's clear that the President can wage war without declaring it--perfectly constitutional.  A constitutionally dubious law, the War Powers Act, hedges in that power, while acknowledging its temporary use.  Moreover: as important as the discussion of constitutionality is, it is subordinate to prudence and statesmanship.  A perfectly constitutional action can also be perfectly stupid.  And the humanitarian issue is at best secondary.  But the President is obliged to explain.  It's finals. 

Primary issues:  Is this the moment for vengeance against Ghadaffi for his killing of Americans?  (We don't necessarily need civil war for that purpose.)  Can we influence his successors?  Will the oil keep flowing?  Will the European powers act in concert in a way that supports our interests?  Which regional powers will make use of a post-Ghadaffi Libya for good or ill? 

I don't exclude the possibility of Obama/Clinton making the best of a demanding situation after initial flailing (viz. Honduras), but there is little in the Obama record to inspire confidence.  One would think we are seeing a foreign policy produced by a man who is totally unrooted, completely anchorless.  Exactly what one would expect from the author of Dreams From My Father.

How appropriate that the Libya operation has been dubbed Odyssey Dawn.  Recall the first line of Homer's epic poem: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course once he had plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy."

Treppenwitz:  I had forgotten to remark that the hypocrisy concerning this issue may work to a better understanding of what it means to live in a republican (small "r") form of government.  To rule and be ruled under republican principles requires an understanding of and commitment to them.  That is the basis of loyal opposition, not opposition for its own sake.  A public person who could teach this lesson would deserve honor.

Categories > Foreign Affairs



Political scientist Carl Scott is justly furious at the grotesque hypocrisy of our unctuous clown of a Vice President, who argued that he would "lead an effort" to impeach a President who attacked another country unless the US was attacked or there was information that the US was about to be attacked.  Go ahead and watch the tape.  Soak in all the pompousness, the oozing self-love and the inflammatory partisanship.  Biden's comments are much uglier than Newt Gingrich's recent flip-flop on Libya.  Gingrich (regardless of what the polls say), is a long shot (potential) presidential candidate.  Biden is next in line for President. 

The resources for shaming Biden are few.  The news of his hypocrisy has made it all over the right-leaning media, but I'm not sure what good that does.  Could we possibly have more contempt for him or pray more earnestly for the continued good health of the current President?  We weren't voting for him anyway.  He doesn't care what we think and he already got his. 

It would take more than a bunch of speeches by Republican politicians and conservative pundits to get this story to break through.  Many liberal-leaning, but not explicitly partisan journalists will just call it another process story and wait for the next thing Sarah Palin says so they can jump on it.  On an emotional level, I think that a formal censure by the House of Representatives will end up giving Biden's hypocrisy the spotlight it deserves.  The censure could follow Carl's language about how "Hyperbolic perfectionist discourse has consequences. It means the presidency cannot logically function. It means slogans run rough-shod over actual constitutional thinking."  and name Biden by name as an offender and single him out for the damage his radicalism, hypocrisy, and partisanship do to constitutional thinking and civil discourse.  

A little accountability in this direction might put future "serious" presidential and vice presidential contenders (very much including Republicans) on notice that their past statements will be remembered and held against them if they should become President or Vice President.  So some moderation or timely admission of error would be a good idea if they want to avoid congress-imposed humiliation.

I'm only half serious.  I'm not sure that the energies that could be used in such a fight wouldn't be better used elsewhere (like making the case for market-oriented health care reform, or Yuval Levin's reimagined welfare state.)  Then again, that elsewhere will probably end up being something like the fight to end government subsidies to NPR (which  I agree with, but at a low level of priority.)  So maybe censuring Biden is the way to go.     

Categories > Politics

Men and Women

True Lenten Confession

Do I ever like Camille Paglia, this time on Elizabeth Taylor.  Paglia is one of our most insightful scholars of contemporary culture.
Categories > Men and Women

Foreign Affairs

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Hugo Chavez believes in aliens. He believes Mars was once populated by aliens. And why are those Martians now extinct? They became capitalists

Categories > Foreign Affairs


The Best Statistics You've Ever Seen

Hans Rosling makes me wish that I'd studied statistics.  And that's saying something.
Categories > Economy


Are We Ever in Trouble!

Data from the Census of 2010 continues to trickle out, and this column from the WSJ has some figures on cities that have lost population.  New Orleans leads the list, for obvious reasons.  It lost 140,845 people, for a drop of 29.1% since the last Census ten years ago.  Next comes Detroit, which lost a whopping 25% of its population over the same period and without the excuse of a natural disaster.  Almost a quarter of a million people fled the motor city!   Chicago, Pittsburg, St. Louis, Santa Anna, and Baltimore are also on the list of the top ten losers, though with much smaller losses than Detroit.  But the real story is Ohio.  Cleveland is third on the list with a loss of 17.1%, which means that 81,558 people moved out in the last decade.  Then come Cincinnati and Toledo with losses of 10.4% and 8.4% respectively.   Ohio is the only state with more than one city among the top ten losers, and we have three in the top six!  That's a distinction we could do without.

Categories > Politics

Refine & Enlarge

A Boundless Field of Power

Another Letter from an Ohio Farmer is out, for your consideration. It poses this question, "Do the powers granted by the Constitution authorize the federal government to require private citizens to purchase health insurance policies?"  The debate over Obamacare shows that the question about where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate exercises of federal authority is still very much alive in the American constitutional conversation, and the Farmer thinks that is  good.  It will not surprise you that Jefferson and Hamilton are brought back into the conversation, for this is also a good thing.
Categories > Refine & Enlarge


Libya and Obama's Politics

I wrote recently on President Obama's increasingly salient ability to antagonize all areas of the political spectrum. With the Libyan situation, his fortunes in Washington continue to shift downward-- though at a much faster pace. His initial inaction, followed by his too-late and potentially unconstitutional action, accompanied with his seemingly detached mood about the issue while he was out of the country as this thing started, combined with the fact that no one knows who is in charge of the operation, what the goal is, or how long we'll be there, have raised nearly every type of politician, newspaper, and activist against the president. Indeed, an unusual expression of bipartisanship is coming out of Congress is the week following the president's unilateral decision to attack another nation without even running it by them first.

His critics include Richard Lugar and Joe Liberman, John McCain and Jim Webb, Charles Rangel and John Boehner, Maxine Walters and Buck McKeon, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Hippies and NeoCons-- "The President seems to have angered almost every major group; he's either done too much or too little or he's done it too slowly," says former Clinton staffer and current Council on Foreign Relations member James Lindsay. "The politics of this are just bad," adds former State Department official Robert Danin. Dennis Kucinich has raised the specter of impeachment in response to the president's conducting a war without the approval of Congress; Ron Paul agrees with Mr. Kucinich. The fact that this operation has the word "Odyssey" in it is also not playing well with some people, though the military has said the naming was totally random and unintentional. For his part, President Obama realized it is probably poor politics to conduct a new war while on a trip and has cut short his Latin American travels to return to Washington and get a grasp on the situation.

Unless some sort of miracle happens in Libya, I fail to see how this can help the president at all. In the mean time, he should at least make sure things are done the best way and set some clear and defined goals for this new military commitment of ours.

Update: In addition to the now-famous quote by Obama on war powers, it seems Joe Biden would side with Kucinich and Paul in the "this is an impeachable offense" category. Of course I don't think the president ought to be impeached for this, but Congress should certainly do something to reassert control of their constitutional turf and to make sure that the president sets some clearly-defined goals for this operation.
Categories > Politics

Health Care

IHOP, Rasmussen on Obamacare

The Heritage Foundation has two new video interviews out. The first is with Scott Womack, a small-business owner from Indiana who runs a chain of IHOP stores and has about 1,000 full-time and part-time employees. Though he already provides healthcare to his management staff, he does not know how he'll be able to afford paying for healthcare for all of his employees; he estimates that it would cost up to 50% more than his company's earnings. One can conclude that many small-business owners may be in similar positions come 2014 if changes are not made to Obamacare or it is not repealed.

The second is with pollster Scott Rasmussen, founder of the Rasmussen public opinion polling company, and the man who once wrote that "Americans don't want to be governed from the left, the right or the center. They want to govern themselves." In this interview, Rasmussen discusses recent polling data in trying to explain and understand why the healthcare issue is so much different than any other political issue in recent memory in that it is lingering, and lingering, and lingering-- and the debate is continuing even down at a grassroots level, one year after the thing was made law. According to his polling, 54% of Americans favored repeal of the healthcare act after it was passed one year ago; today, 53% still favor repeal. This is unusual, and telling of something.
Categories > Health Care


Who Do You Trust?

According to Rasmussen Reports, likely voters continue to trust Republicans over Democrats on all the major issues. I suggest that it's the recent conservative, Tea Party philosophy of less spending / lower taxes which has generated popular sympathy for the GOP - and that they should follow the public's lead if they wish to retain their good graces.


Categories > Conservatism


Religious Extinction?

The BBC augurs the extinction of religion in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. (It bears noting that half are English-speaking.)

While the irreligious trend in most of these countries is obvious, I would hesitate to presume the demise of faith. The underlying mathematics of the study treat religion as a social network, but faith occupies a unique place in human nature. Further, a "floor" of conservative believers likely exists in most countries, consisting of those who will persevere in faith regardless of social trends. And, should religion all but disappear, it is only a matter of time before orthodoxy again becomes fashionable as an "alternative" lifestyle and enjoys a resurgence.

The residue of religion - that is, a shared morality and common ethic - persists long after the public confession of a faith. However, even this social inertia will eventually degrade. In these nine nations, we will increasingly witness the social experiment of raising children in an ever-increasingly post-Christian environment. I contemplate the social drift with trepidation.

Categories > Religion


The (Democratic) Floor Is Too Damn High!

Reihan Salam writes "My basic take on the political landscape is that President Obama's floor of political support is higher than President Bush's floor"  That is true in one sense.  Obama's Real Clear Politics job approval average bottomed at around 44% while Bush's went down to the mid 20s (yikes!)  But while Bush's floor collapsed, the Republican floor at the presidential level held up pretty well all things considered.  McCain was a weak candidate whose campaign was out organized and vastly outspent.  He was saddled with an epically unpopular President of his own party and the election was dominated by an economic crisis that left him visibly bewildered and floundering.  He still got almost 46% of the vote.  I think that is around Obama's floor too - if everything that can go wrong for him does.

If the 2012 elections were held under the labor market conditions of 2010, Obama would probably lose to a competent Republican opponent.  If the economy is visibly in better shape than in November 2010 (and the unemployment rate has been dropping - we'll see if the pattern continues), Obama's chances improve regardless of what the Republicans do.  He doesn't need to to move very far up from his floor to win. 

Salam is probably right that "the Democrats will run a fear-driven campaign, the central premise of which is that conservatives want to strip public workers of protections, radically shrink entitlements, etc., all to protect the interests of the wealthy."  He is super right that "the right needs to develop a more effective counter-narrative, centered on the goal of sparking a rising economic tide. But that won't be easy."  No, it won't be easy, and I am uncertain that such a narrative aimed at both right-leaning and persuadable audiences will be constructed and widely disseminated prior to November 2012.  The sooner the better, but there is also 2014 and 2016 to think about.  The reformist right needs a policy agenda and narrative that can fire up conservatives and  and win over some currently Democratic-inclined Latino, African-American, and younger voters - and maybe knock that Democratic floor down a few inches.

Yeah, I know, easier said than done.  I'm not the guy to do it, but I have some thoughts about a middle and longer term approach to increasing support for right-of-center health care reform among right-leaning and persuadable populations.  Maybe later in the week.

Categories > Politics


Pawlenty Introduces Himself

This is Tim Pawlenty's video introducing his exploratory committee.  It is better than I expected, especially the first minute tying his personal experiences of economic decline and anxiety to the current situation.  I thought the last fifty seconds or so were too heavy on the military symbolism and visuals of highly collective patriotic display (compared to the home and family expressions of patriotism in Reagan's "Morning In America" ad.)  I thought it came across a little forced and hysterical, but that could just be a matter of taste. 

One of Pawlenty's strengths is that he wants to be President so badly that he is willing to say what he thinks the audience wants to hear in order to win.  If he thinks the audience wants to be roused by a call to emulate an act of spousal abuse, then he is going to give the people what he thinks the people want.  I'm not a big fan of The Economist's American coverage but their blogger R.M. had some good lines on Pawlenty.  R.M. wrote, "It's Mr Pawlenty's shouting and aggressiveness that seems put on, not his conservatism...It's his personality that he's faking, not his platform." 

Try looking at the video again.  He comes off as pretty likeable.  He has a personality and a record.  There is no trace of the stilted, pro wrestling school dropout that gave his two CPAC speeches.  He might want to consider the idea that the best way for Tim Pawlenty to be elected President is for Tim Pawlenty to be Tim Pawlenty.    

Categories > Politics

Pop Culture

Captain Kirk Turns 80 Todoay


Categories > Pop Culture


What's News?

Until I saw this story on the first page of today's Wall Street Journal, I didn't realize that the Democrats in Indiana fled the state a month ago and have yet to return.  Shouldn't such extremism be a bigger story?
Categories > Journalism

Foreign Affairs

Russian Divisions over Libya?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has criticized the United States, NATO, and the UN for this attack on Libya, calling the UN resolution "reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came out a few hours later publicly telling Putin to be more careful with his words and defending the UN resolution and the attempts to stop Gaddafi's "crimes against his own people." Some are pointing at it as a rare clash in foreign policy that signifies a growing gap between Putin and his hand-picked successor. This may be true, but we should be careful to just assume that the two are really opposed to each other on all of these issues.

The Russians are excellent chess players; in fact, learning chess is as much a part of their school curriculum as mathematics. In chess you need to keep all potential points of attack covered, even if it appears to your opponents as if you're conflictingly positioning your pieces around the board. By issuing both statements on the Libyan situation, Putin's regime is at once maintaining its popularity with the masses in Russia and stopping any rift with the West over a very touchy issue like this. Taking into account the Russian invasion of Georgia and problems in Chechnya, they want to say that this sort of meddling in another nation's internal affairs is wrong; however, they also want to make the world think that they've taken great strides in the realm of human rights and want to seem to support stopping a madman from slaughtering his citizens as they cry out for freedom. Be careful before taking their public disagreement as real rift between the two; they could just be playing a very good game of chess with their opponents.
Categories > Foreign Affairs

Health Care

When You've Lost the Washington Post

I'm pretty critical of WaPo for their liberal bias, but today they dished it out to the Democrats. In a post titled "Gifts of bogus statistics for the health-care law's birthday," the Post reports:

House Democrats held a birthday party last week for passage of the health-care law. ... Both Democrats and Republicans can pick and choose numbers and studies to make their case, but we found that generally McConnell did not exaggerate or use bogus figures. In fact, he correctly described a Congressional Budget Office analysis suggesting a potential reduction in employment of 800,000 jobs.... By contrast, House Democrats appear to show little hesitation about repeating claims that previously have found to be false or exaggerated.

WaPo then damningly fact-checks Pelosi and the blue-boys on job creation, debt reduction and increased health coverage.

Categories > Health Care

Foreign Affairs

Law and Superheroes

Given, to speak of lawyers and superheroes might seem to repeat one's self - but while all of the former are also the latter, not all of the latter are also the former. But, no fear, there is now a blog devoted to Law and the Multiverse.

If there's one thing comic book nerds like doing it's over-thinking the smallest details.  Here we turn our attention to the hypothetical legal ramifications of comic book tropes, characters, and powers.  Just a few examples: Are mutants a protected class?  Who foots the bill when a hero damages property while fighting a villain?  What happens legally when a character comes back from the dead?

The web site is searchable by superhero or area of law. For the lawyer-geek in all of us, this is a black hole of time-depleting awesomeness.

H/t: NPR [I said they should be defunded of tax-payer subsidies - I never said they shouldn't be on the air. Today they hit a jackpot!]

Categories > Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

Not a laughing matter

But Robin Williams' take on Quaddafi from 1986 is still amusing.
Categories > Foreign Affairs


Americans Are Stupid Peasants Incapable of Self-Government (And Europeans are Smarter Because they Don't Pretend to Like Self-Government)

Alright, maybe that's a bit inflammatory.  But I think it rather sums up the substance of the point the author makes in this dumb article from Newsweek.  Of course, I join him in his dismay over the results of the poll he cites.  Americans are woefully lacking in their understanding of American civics.  But instead of faulting the culture or the education establishment or poor teaching or a lack of curiosity (perhaps due to decadence) or any number of things that could be cited, this guy attempts to blame . . . the civics!  You see, American civics is just too darn hard:  

Most experts agree that the relative complexity of the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up. In many European countries, parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to "share power with a lot of subnational governments," notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics. In contrast, we're saddled with a nonproportional Senate; a tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies; and near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, and so on). "Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote," says Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen. "You know you're going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more." 

Why we can hardly blame people for not knowing what was at issue in the Cold War  (73% don't) or what was debated at the Constitutional Convention.  Our system of government is just so complicated and confusing that we despair bothering to try to understand it.  American Civics is tough, man.  Thanks a lot, Jimmy Madison!  Of course, Madison isn't the only culprit here.  Newsweek also asserts that the superior performance of Europeans on these tests can be traced to their smaller immigrant populations (perhaps, true . . . but an interesting observation for Newsweek to make) and because the governments over there fund and support more of the media.  Government funded media makes "smarter" citizens, you see.  Just ask NPR. 

Of course, if we're going to decry the poor influence of "market-driven programming" perhaps a good place to start might be with . . . um, Newsweek.  Oh, wait . . .
Categories > Education


Pawlenty is First Out of the Gate


Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is set to declare that he is opening a presidential exploratory committee, a step that formalizes a campaign for the Republican nomination that he has been pondering for more than a year.

In case you missed it, Ramesh Ponnuru anticipated and lauded this move in a recent National Review cover titled, "Pawlenty to Like." Ponnuru rightly notes that Pawlenty's "main problem is simple: Most Americans have never heard of him." I assume that is why he is getting out in front of the crowd. Ponnuru also opines that Pawlenty "may just be the Republicans' strongest presidential candidate for 2012. Compared with his competitors, he is either more conservative, more electable, or both."

Let the games begin.

P.S. Ponnuru's take on the match-up between Pawlenty and other GOP contenders is worth reproducing here.

Pawlenty is more electable than Palin, who is on the wrong end of a two-to-one split in public opinion; or Huckabee, who has never demonstrated any ability to win votes from non-evangelical voters; or Gingrich, who has enough baggage to open a Louis Vuitton store; or Haley Barbour, who, as a former lobbyist for tobacco companies and the governor of Mississippi, combines several Republican stereotypes to damaging effect. Electability would probably hand Pawlenty the nomination in a one-on-one race against any of these contenders.

He would probably beat Romney in a head-to-head race, too. Like Romney, Pawlenty was elected governor of a blue state in 2002. But there are at least five big differences between them that primary voters may find tell in the Minnesotan's favor. First, Pawlenty was elected as a conservative whereas Romney ran as a moderate. Second, Pawlenty pursued a more confrontational strategy: He didn't cut any grand bipartisan deal, as Romney did with Ted Kennedy on health care. Third, and as a result, Pawlenty's record does not include anything as likely to offend conservative voters as Romney's Massachusetts health-care law, which made the purchase of health insurance compulsory. Fourth, Pawlenty won reelection in his blue state, even in 2006, which was a slaughterhouse of a year for Republicans. Romney, by contrast, left the governorship after one term: He was unable to position himself as a conservative for a presidential run while staying popular in his home state. Fifth, Pawlenty has an ability to connect to blue-collar voters that Romney has never demonstrated.

Governor Daniels could be competitive with Pawlenty in a side-by-side comparison. But Pawlenty is in some respects a more impressive political figure. Indiana is a red state that will almost certainly vote for any Republican nominee in 2012; Daniel has never had to win over blue-state voters as Pawlenty did. And Pawlenty has better relations with social conservatives than Daniels does.

Categories > Presidency

The Family

Fear of Hypocrisy and Ignorance of Right

Jennifer Moses asks the question in today's WSJ:  "Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this--like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves--but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?"

I think she also gets pretty close to the answer in noting that the current generation of MOTs (Moms of Teens) is also the first generation to have grown up with the new rules and lack of old-fashion standards.  As she puts it: 

We are the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn't have to worry about getting knocked up. We were also the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputations but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom. Not all of us are former good-time girls now drowning in regret--I know women of my generation who waited until marriage--but that's certainly the norm among my peers.

Therefore, our greatest earthly fear (since the vast majority of us have been taught to understand that "old-fashion standards" are rooted in irrational prejudices and bigotry rather than reason, protection of personal happiness and the good of society) is that of being called a hypocrite.  Just as some ex-hippie parents felt sheepish about scolding their kids for trying (or even, using) illegal drugs, many of today's mothers (who grew up mimicking the antics of Madonna) feel sheepish about scolding their daughters for an appearance that our grandmothers would have called "slutty."  Besides, we mastered the eye-rolling over that appellation long ago when Grandma scolded us.

I'd add to Moses's list another fear.  It is not just that we fear being called hypocrites or that we don't have a firm grasp on right and wrong.  There is also the problem of that eye-rolling.  If, as girls, we felt "peer-pressure" to look and act in a way that was in accord with the new pop-culture norms, at least it was mainly coming from our peers and semi-rational or moral girls could, therefore, more readily (and successfully) question it.  Moreover, the mothers of my mother's day could count on some support from a large number of other moms and grandmothers when they took a stand against an obstinate teenager.  Today, the eye-rolling is coming from all quarters.  It's not just Hollywood and the music industry combined with surly, slutty teens.  It's also coming from other mothers and, even, grandmothers!  The scolding mother and grandmother is becoming more and more rare as fear of hypocrisy and guilty consciences guide the standards.  Or, to be more precise, the scolding that is likely to be handed down is not directed at the teen, but rather at the mother for being "too controlling."

Even so, there can be a temptation to overstate the doom and gloom and it ought to be resisted, when possible.  There are always pockets of decency and good sense, for one thing.  Another reason to speculate hopefully is that if the popular culture has actually reached a level of saturation in smut and indecency, it is likely that there will be some backlash . . . if for no other reason than ordinary teenage curiosity and rebellion.  I noted a couple weeks ago that Ross Douthat saw some reason for cheer about the current generation of teens. 

For my own part (and mind that I am still learning on the job) I have always tried to mimic an understanding of fashion handed down in George Washington's primer on the "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."    (See rule #52.)  Not that I would admit this or explain it like that to my daughter!  At her age, her suspicions would be justly fortified if I cited Washington as an expert on fashion to her!  "Powdered wigs are soooo 18th century!" after all.  But the rule about accommodating nature and bending, with prudence, to the times and one's peers is a good one.  The extremes in the debate over appearance can cause a person's head to spin and to despair that appearance is, after all, only appearance.  Substance of character would be a better subject for contemplation, of course.  But we cannot forget that appearance, while not everything and not even necessarily definitive, is--in this world--still an important part of substance.  Fashion ought to be a mother's first lesson in politics to her daughter . . . and the lesson is that in politics as in fashion, "perception is often reality." 
Categories > The Family

The Civil War & Lincoln

The Conspirator

I see about three movies in movie theaters per year. Yesterday marked 1/3 of my yearly quotient. I saw "The Lincoln Lawyer," and, ironically, the most memorable part of the experience was a pre-movie trailer for another film with a Lincoln theme: "The Conspirator."


The synopsis reads:

Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.

Director Robert Redford seems to indicate that Surratt was innocent - whether for dramatic effect or historical revision remains to be seen. While I would reserve full judgment until opening night, expect cheap shots at military tribunals and indictments of American sexism. Nonetheless, anything which begins a conversation of Lincoln cannot be all bad.

Foreign Affairs

Who Wields the Sword?

I previously criticized GOP complaints that Obama did not seek a formal declaration of war or permit congressional debate on the issue. However, I did not intend to address the propriety of Obama's having failed to seek any form of congressional approval. Obama's decision to forgo the sort of legislative mandate which George W. Bush sought and received has puzzled many - especially in light of Obama's own words on the subject from 2007.

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

A commenter on this site suggested:

Obama doesn't feel he needs Congressional authorization when he's just received authorization from a source he deems more legitimate, id est, the United Nations.

It does seem to be inescapably obvious that approval by the Arab League and United Nations was sufficient for Obama to conduct military action. U.S. approval was deemed unnecessary. Unless Obama's views on the inherent war powers of the presidency have evolved, he must either believe that there was no time to consult Congress or intended to demonstrate the authority of international law within the context of the American Constitution.

The latter would be the most serious political declaration of the Obama presidency. 

Categories > Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

Even More On Libya

1.  So the Arab League seems to be in retreat from its support of the no-fly zone.  The Arab League is in a tough position. Most member governments have very limited democratic legitimacy.  When the Gaddafi regime starts claiming that Western governments are killing Arabs, such claims will tend to undermine those regimes if they don't condemn the killing of Arabs by the US, France, etc.  It doesn't mean they don't want Gaddafi gone, but it does mean they will talk out of both sides of their mouth.  It also means that Gaddafi's use of propaganda to portray the coalition as anti-Arab combined with the Gaddafi's regime surviving this situation will tend to strengthen Gaddafi's appeal outside Libya.  More reason to end this as quickly and decisively as possible.

2.  I'm not aware of any really credible reports that Libyan civilians have died as a direct result of coalition bombings, but we should be ready for the inevitable irony that innocent civilians will die from the effort to prevent the massacre of civilians by the Gaddafi regime.  It is only a seeming contradiction as those losses must be set against those who would be killed in reprisal by the Gaddafi regime.

3.  The Obama administration needs to get its story straight regarding its goals in Libya.  On Friday, Clinton said that the long-term goal was getting Gaddafi out of power (I checked it again on YouTube to make sure I hadn't misheard.)  Today, Admiral Mullen is saying that Gaddafi staying in power is one possible outcome of the operation.  Could we get some clarity here?

4.  This whole rationale of protecting civilians is maddening in its pointless vagueness.  There might be circumstances of highly localized ethnic conflict where removing a state's power over one part of its territory is sufficient to deal with the human rights problem at hand.  That doesn't seem to apply here.  If Gaddafi remains in power in any part of Libya, doesn't it mean he has the power to abuse whatever luckless civilians are under his thumb?  Does it make any sense to leave him in power in Tripoli (where there were substantial anti-Gaddafi demonstrations) if protecting civilians is the goal?  Is the rationale of protecting civilians itself insufficient (in the sense of needing to be supplemented) to the present circumstances? 

5.  I hope the Obama administration knows what it is doing, but I sense that the entrance into, and conduct of, this intervention has been poorly thought out and is still being improvised.

Categories > Foreign Affairs


Czech Village, USA

Today's NY Times profiles the Cedar Rapids neighborhood known as "Czech Village," which was severely damaged during recent floods and is now struggling to "restore a connection with a country few of its residents have visited, a language that fewer speak, and a culture that has already grown increasingly foreign." Czech Village is a splendid microcosm of the perpetual American tension between assimilation and fidelity to familial ancestry.

Little Italy in Manhattan has now been nearly eclipsed by the expansion of China Town, just as my grandfather's Italian community in Ohio has increasingly blended into the surrounding environment. While Italians may lament the fading of a distinct community, it has been the cost of economic and social equality. Having acquired the America dream, Italians are now at leisure to pursue and reclaim their heritage. That's the beauty of America.

As a land of immigrants, America is a truly unique nation in the world. While adamantly holding to a number of fundamental beliefs, America has accommodated (more or less tolerantly) every culture and people on the face of the earth. I applaud the Czechs for their commitment to heritage - may they enjoy the best of both worlds.

Categories > History

Foreign Affairs

Egypt Votes

A referendum in Egypt has overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments which allow for parliamentary and presidential elections within the next few months. However, as was feared, the Muslim Brotherhood and former ruling party were the most aggressive advocates for quick elections, believing their comparative organization will hand them solid victories. As the first government will likely adopt a new constitution, Egypt is on the brink of becoming an intolerant Islamic republic - poised to wipe out the liberal democratic movement which swept Islamic fanatics into power.

This is the test everyone - particularly conservatives - has feared for Egypt. Will they follow the moderate American model of liberal democracy, or the first French convulsion which ended in renewed tyranny? Tyranny and oppression in the West over the past several centuries have usually been the result of radically secular regimes coming to power - the Islamic Middle East suffers precisely the opposite trend. The capacity of moderate Egyptians to organize and act rationally in the next few months will likely decide their fate for the next decade.

Categories > Foreign Affairs


Keeping Radiation in Perspective

One of the reasons there's so much fear of nuclear energy is that to most people (myself included) the world of nuclear physics seems completely incomphrensible.  Likewise, the term "radiation" is awfully scary, but as in the case with so many other things, the poison is in the dose.  This chart is helpful in maintaining a sense of perspective.  Note that close proximity to the Fukushima facility on March 16-17 exposed people to only slightly more radiation than women do every day getting mammograms--and to considerably less than they would in having a chest CT done.

Here's an interesting tidbit--one is exposed to more radiation by eating a single banana than one is by living for an entire year within 50 miles of a normally-functioning nuclear power plant.

Categories > Technology