Hypocrisy, Obama, and War

Obama CopeSteve Benen rightly points out that there is a great deal of hypocrisy on the right regarding Syria. He quotes Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel as saying, “Does anyone truly believe that if Mitt Romney had been elected president and had asked House Republicans for exactly what President Obama is asking, that House Republicans would oppose it to the extent that they’re opposed to what President Obama wants? The level of hypocrisy is what amazes me.” Benen notes that it really isn’t true that the Democrats are hypocrites in the opposite direction. When Bush Jr was in power, Congressional Democrats were really terrible when it came to issues of war and surveillance. And now, they are really terrible when it comes to issues of war and surveillance.

I think that the situation is far worse with the Republican base. These are people who are now and forever more for war whenever and wherever they can find it. And now that Charles Krauthammer is telling them that this is a Bad War, they are all falling in line. It isn’t so much that the Republican base is hypocritical as that it is made up of a bunch of sheep who would gladly line up for castration if Fox News told them to. You can see this in a recent poll that found that 40% of Republican voters were against attacking Syria just two weeks ago and now 70% are against it.

The Democratic base is not as reliably anti-war as the Republican base is pro-war. But it is pretty reliable. It also seems that Democratic voters are less easily led. Two weeks ago 48% were against it and now 53% are against it.

But what I find most interesting is how hypocritical liberal-leaning pundits are. Steve Benen himself has tread lightly on the issue. So has Greg Sargent. Both of them—and many more like them—want to focus on the mechanics of votes and such. This is despite the fact that neither seems to think that attacking Syria is a good thing. But they are part of the larger liberal punditocracy that claims that anyone who thinks the situation is clear is not serious. This is just an apologia for the Obama administration.

This is all part of a worrying trend in the liberal media—especially on MSNBC. The idea is that it is fine to disagree with Obama, but it must be done lightly. (In quiet rooms?!) We can’t risk undermining him. This is right up their with Bill O’Reilly’s claim that after a war starts, those against it must shut up and fall in line. But that’s not how a democracy works. Democracies are messy. If you want a rigid system that maximizes a country’s (or party’s) power, you should go for something in an authoritarian government. The idea in politics is to get the best policy, not to cheer lead for whomever we voted into office.

So just to be clear: Obama has totally fucked up on Syria. I do not support him. I really do think he would kill thousands of innocent Syrians in order to avoid a minor political embarrassment. I’m glad that Russia is providing an escape route. I hope he takes it. If he doesn’t, he’s wrong. The fact that he’s better than Romney isn’t part of the calculation at all.

Afterword

A big problem with our politics is that liberals accept so little from the Democratic Party. We all worry that we will allow a Republican to get in. But doing this over the last 40 years has given us Democratic politicians who are not liberal. And we’ve gotten policy where gay people can technically marry, but in practice they can’t because they are too poor. That’s what we get from accepting that liberal social policy is enough to make up for conservative economic policy. The only way forward is to hold the Democratic Party accountable. We don’t need to worry about the Republican Party; it is doing a fine job of destroying itself.

Update (11 September 2013 12:07 pm)

Today Steve Benen writes, “The crisis in Syria is nuanced and complicated. There are plenty of reasonable, knowledgeable, and fair-minded folks on every side of the U.S. political fight, and there’s no reason to question the sincerity of those with sincere disagreements.” Sigh. He writes it to then attack those who were for war with Syria right up until Obama was. And to be clear, I don’t question the sincerity of those who argue for war. I question their intelligence. The arguments for war are exactly the same as the arguments that get us into every war. So I don’t question Jonathan Chait’s sincerity for being in favor of war with Syria. But I don’t understand how he can fail to see that the exact same justification for this war would apply to dozens of conflicts all over the world. And I don’t understand why he ignores the fact that we wouldn’t be doing anything in Syria if Assad were an ally.

Republican White House Advantage

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman reminded me of an old theory of mine. I’m afraid that Krugman looks at as a kind of conspiracy, but it isn’t that at all. At least, it isn’t a conspiracy that anyone responsible is aware of. Basically, it is a way in which Republican presidents are almost guaranteed re-election, while making Democrats much more likely to lose.

It is all based on the fact of political science that the single most important factor in the re-election of a president is the economic trend. Regardless of how good the economy is, if it is improving, the president is likely to be re-elected. If it is getting worse (even if it is still strong), the president is likely to be thrown out. Thus, if a president were really smart, he would cause the economy to tank for the first half of his term and then allow it to improve in the second half.

Of course, even I don’t think that presidents are that cynical. Anyway, they don’t have that much control of the economy. But there is a natural process that causes this effect to take place anyway. Economic policy in this country is now totally out of whack. Democrats have good economic policy ideas that range from quite liberal to quite conservative. Republicans now have pretty much all bad economic policy ideas. Basically, there are two: cut the taxes of the rich and cut spending on the poor. Now, cutting taxes on the rich isn’t terrible, but it does very little good for the economy because the rich already have more money than they can spend or invest. Cutting spending on the poor is terrible because it simply slows the economy.

When presidents first get into office, they have their greatest power. Normally, their big proposals are passed in the first two years or even the first year. This means that Republicans get in and enact policies that harm the economy. But two to three years in, the economy adjusts and finally starts to grow. This happens just in time for the Republican presidents’ re-election campaigns. Remember: it doesn’t matter how bad the economy is, only that it be improving! Thus Republicans have a distinct advantage in this regard.

Democrats, on the other hand, enact policies that improve the economy. So things really do get better the first couple of years of their presidencies. But during the last year or two, the effects have run their course. There may be lower unemployment as the president faces re-election, but it will likely be stagnant or even going down a bit. Thus, for all the good work the president did on behalf of the economy actually works against him.

It is hard to see this effect directly because the Federal Reserve has an enormous impact on the economy. But look at the following graph of civilian unemployment since 1972:

Civilian Unemployment

The beginning is complicated. Ford really should have won in 1976; I think we can blame that loss on Nixon. The 1980 election was changed because the Fed created a recession to get inflation down. But when the Fed lowered interest rates in 1983, it made Reagan look really good and assured his re-election in 1984. Bush Sr road the Fed wave into office, but then lost partly just because of cyclical effects, but also because he stopped spending like a drunken sailor. Clinton does his thing. Bush Jr stole the election. (Just look at the graph!) But Bush is the best example of this effect. His policies make things worse but the harm stops when he is up for re-election. Obama gets the same free pass into the White House that Reagan did. But the crisis was so bad that he managed to slide into a second term.

This was the main reason that I feared Romney getting elected. I was sure that he was going to have this kind of effect on the economy and that he’d get re-elected because things were finally getting better in 2016. But it might not have worked out that way. Romney might have had a Democratic arc. After all, the economy was still terrible in January. He probably would have made the Bush tax cuts permanent and that would have been good for the economy. The Republicans are always against Keynesian stimulus when a Democrat is in the White House, but they love it when a Republican takes his place. So maybe Romney would have been a one term president too. Things are so bad, all bets are off.

The main thing is that Republican economic ideas are generally bad and Democratic economic ideas are generally good. And this means that Republicans have a distinct advantage in controlling the White House.

Colin Firth and Mr. Darcy

Colin FirthOn this day in 1659, the British Baroque composer Henry Purcell was born. Here is his In vain the Am’rous Flute:

Architect John Soane was born in 1753. The father of pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce was born in 1839. Expressionist painter Marianne von Werefkin was born in 1860. Physicist Arthur Compton was born in 1892.

Animal actor Rin Tin Tin was born in 1918. And the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was born in 1941.

Golfer Arnold Palmer is 84 today. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is 81. Singer-songwriter Jose Feliciano is 68. Speaking of animal actors, Bill O’Reilly is 64. He is a truly awful person. Actor Amy Irving is 60. One of the worst film directors ever, Chris Columbus is 55. And another not very good film director, Guy Ritchie is 45.

The day, however, belongs to actor Colin Firth who is 53 today. I like him well enough, but I give him the day only because he is one of Andrea’s crushes. I still maintain that Matthew Macfadyen makes a much better Mr. Darcy than he does. But he’s still very good:

Happy birthday Colin Firth!

Working Kitten

The Daily ShowLast night, The Daily Show discussed the New York mayoral election by looking at the Republican candidates. But the only issue involving the Republican mayor’s race that anyone outside of New York has even heard of is the kittens. This happened two weeks ago when two kittens in the subway shut down train service for a couple of hours. Republican candidate Joe Lhota caused a bit of a ruckus when he said the kittens should have been allowed to die. His spokesman said, “‘It’s not up to the mayor, it’s a decision of the MTA, but Joe does not think it’s appropriate to shut down an entire train line for an extended period for this purpose.'”

Even since then, he’s been backtracking. At a debate on Sunday, he claimed to only have said it wasn’t a decision for the mayor. He added that he was not the “anti-kitten candidate.” A campaign has really gotten out of control when you have to say that. After all, even people who don’t like cats love kittens. Kittens are about the cutest things on the planet. Jon Stewart noted, “That is a cold-hearted stance to take about an innocent kitten who is just trying to get to work.” And then he displayed the following image that is all kinds of cuteness:

Working Kitten

That tie is way too wide for that kitten.

Belligerent Rhetoric Didn’t Help in Syria

John KerryOver at The Guardian, Mark Weisbrot reminds us of something important, If There’s a Syria Diplomatic Deal, Thank Congressional Resistance to a New War. The article is mostly about all of the uncertainties in the case for war that liberals and conservatives in Congress have been pushing. The point is well worth making because the administration—especially Kerry and his minions—are arguing that the negotiated settlement regarding Syrian chemical weapons is only happening because they’ve been so belligerent.

This is amazing when you consider that if it had been up to Kerry, we would have attacked Syria a week and a half ago. They are also claiming that Syria’s acceptance of the deal proves what we didn’t know before, namely, that Syria definitely has chemical weapons. Just hold the phone! The one thing the administration has claimed throughout this whole thing is that Syria’s chemical weapons were not open to debate. We absolutely, positively knew that they had them. This wasn’t like Iraq where intelligence sources simply believed there were WMDs. But it turns out that in addition to everything else they’ve been lying about, they’ve been lying about this too.

So we get it coming and going. We knew Syria had chemical weapons before a negotiation was under way so we were right to threaten an attack. And once the negotiation is under way, we were right to threaten an attack because it proves Syria had chemical weapons all along. By this logic, there is no conclusion other than that Kerry was right about all his chest pounding and foot stomping.

What it really all means is that if a country has a very big military, other countries will try to appease it when it starts talking war. So if the United States starts talking about nuking Venezuela, other countries really will step in and see if they can calm the situation—even providing America with goodies that it wants. But that doesn’t mean that America is right to go around threatening countries that it doesn’t like. What’s more, if an equal amount of effort had been applied to negotiation, the Syrian civil war might be over by now.

At this point, the Obama administration appears to be taking the Russian deal very seriously. This leads credence to my opinion that Obama simply blew it and found himself in a situation where he felt he had to do something because of his careless talk of “red lines.” But I still don’t know what to think of Kerry who sounds as belligerent as John McCain. I don’t think it’s fake. I no longer think he is just being the “good soldier” in the administration. And I certainly don’t think this Russian deal was planned. I think he just wants to be on the front political lines of a “blood good war.” How the mighty have fallen.

Michael Bloomberg Was No Moderate

Michael BloombergJonathan Chait wrote a very interesting feature about Michael Bloomberg over at New York Magazine, The Dashed Dreams of President Bloomberg. It gets at a very important point to me. A lot of pundits (most notably Thomas Friedman) think that what America really wants is a moderate president. What is so exasperating about this idea is that for the last two years, the Democratic Party has given the American people moderate after moderate. But the Republicans have defined these moderates as extremists and the pundits have gone right along. And when it comes to liberal economic policy, the people mostly love it. But the national politicians don’t. In fact, pretty much no one on the television does either. It just isn’t acceptable policy for the Smart Set.

Bloomberg seems to have made the mistake of believing the pundits. He thought that he could be a moderate and the people would rise up and make him King of America. But Chait makes a mistake in his discussion of this. He correctly notes that Bloomberg is a social liberal and half admits that he is an economic conservative. But that doesn’t make him a centrist or a moderate. What it makes him is a typical politician who only cares about what is good for his class. He has friends who are gay. He knows women who have had abortions. Some of his best brokers are black! These are all great things, but they don’t make him a centrist. In fact, by American standards, they put him fairly far to the left on social issues and very far to the right on economic issues. So he’s an extremist—just in a slightly unusual way.

Chait tries to lighten the case by noting that Bloomberg wanted to allow all of the Bush tax cuts to expire. This is not a liberal position. People often mistake it for one because Obama was for it. But Obama really is that vaunted moderate, although he too is mostly socially liberal and economically conservatives—just not as much as Bloomberg. Raising taxes during an economic downturn is a bad thing. It is bad for workers who have jobs and bad for workers who do not. It puts debt concerns well ahead of unemployment concerns. And the way that Bloomberg wanted to do it would have hurt workers both because it would have caused a bigger economic hit (the tax increase would have been bigger) and it would have taxed the poor more. That’s not liberal economic policy!

But perhaps the worst thing about Bloomberg is that he is an authoritarian when it comes to the poor but a libertarian when it comes to the rich. The poor are not healthy? Stop them from smoking in bars; ban trans-fats in restaurants; eliminate the Big Gulp at 7-11! None of these are the worst ideas that a politician has ever come up with. But they are all authoritarian. They are all things that the government shouldn’t have much say in because there isn’t a compelling social interest. (The smoking in bars is perhaps an exception.) But after a huge financial crisis when the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save the banks, Michael Bloomberg was Wall Street’s greatest defender! We needed no regulation. It was the libertarian ideal for the banks (and socialism whenever they got themselves into trouble).

Chait summed up Bloomberg’s paternal attitude nicely:

In a valedictory interview with the Atlantic, Bloomberg uttered the single phrase that best encapsulates his worldview. Following the polls, he said, is not only “not ethical” but ineffective politics, “because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest.” They need the Bloombergs of the world to scrutinize the data on their behalf and figure out what is in their interest. And then, even if he does something for them that they think they don’t want, they’ll appreciate him in the end.

In my many conversations with normal conservative and liberal voters, the one thing they tend to agree on (at least in the abstract) is economic populism. Even Paul Ryan uses that rhetoric. Everyone understands and dislikes the fact that individuals and small businesses have great constraints put upon them, but big businesses get whatever they want. But our politicians are beholden to these large business interests. And Michael Bloomberg is the poster child for this kind of thing. And he doesn’t even want us to be able to buy a really big soda to drown our sorrows in.