Thaddeus and Lydia

Thaddeus StevensOn this day in 1792, Thaddeus Stevens was born. When I wrote about him a year and a half ago, I quoted Wikipedia of that time saying, “Stevens dreamed of a socially just world, where unearned privilege did not exist. He believed from his personal experience that being different or having a different perspective can enrich society. He believed that differences among people should not be feared or oppressed but celebrated.” Of course, Wikipedia being what it is, no longer says anything about that but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make the sentiment any less true, even though we don’t exactly know what Stevens dreamed about.

Stevens was a very important Pennsylvania Representative during the Civil War. He became interested in the cause of abolishing slavery in the 1830s. Had he not have committed to that cause, he would likely have gone much further as a politician. Lydia Hamilton SmithBut he was a true believer, not just of the cause of slavery but of the cause of the powerless generally. Even though that kind of belief (then and now) tends to go along with a lot of paternalism, it is hard to think of him as anything but a good guy. And racism was not just a theoretical issue with him.

In the 1840s, Stevens hired the one-quarter African American (then as now just “black”) housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith. She became what neighbors considered Stevens common law wife. So his interests couldn’t have been too paternal. She was, however, 23 years younger, and by her photograph as an older women, quite attractive. Idealistic though he might have been, he was still a man.

Happy birthday Thaddeus Stevens!

Agatha Christie’s Poirot

Agatha Christie's PoirotRecently, I’ve been watching a lot of the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It’s the one with David Suchet in the title role. I remember watching it when it first came out; I was blown away by Suchet in the part. I was used to Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express and Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile. Although I liked both of those films, I didn’t feel that either actor captured the essence of Hercule Poirot. But Suchet really brought the character to life.

This is very important. The truth is that the plots of Agatha Christie really aren’t that interesting. They are often far fetched. What’s more, they are so mechanical. Christie had a formula and she stuck by it. The only real question from half way through one of her stories is what bit of arcane knowledge she will pull out of her bag of research to justify the conclusion. It is very rarely a surprise exactly who done it, only how they done it. And that surprise is pretty much never interesting.

What is perhaps most problematic about her plots is how Poirot’s evidence is so weak. I am almost always left with the idea that even the worst defense attorney would manage to get the murderer off. To make up for this, the plots usually involve the murderer confessing under the power of Poirot’s narrative. And this is often combined with the murderer’s suicide. All of this is brilliantly lampooned in “The Evil Voice” from The Mitchell and Webb Look:

So all we are left with to really appreciate is Poirot himself. And he is an awful character. Agatha Christie herself said that he was “insufferable” and “an egocentric creep.” And I think this is why Suchet is so great at the character. Poirot is a man who is very good at one thing, but is blessed in only valuing that one thing. So he’s perfectly happy being the very limited person that he is. And Suchet plays the character fearlessly in this regard.

So it isn’t that Poirot doesn’t care that other people look down on him for being a coward. It is that he doesn’t even know. There is only one Good and he happens to have cornered the market in it. Lucky him! Interestingly, in my travels in academia, I have met more than a few Poirot types. They are kind of sad in their very limited appreciation of the complexities of life. And so is Poirot. But we get to see him at his best.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot has been produced for almost 25 years now. They’ve made 70 episodes. Half of them are 50 minutes long and the other half are feature length. I think that speaks well of their quality. If you haven’t seen the series, you really do owe it to yourself to at least check out a few.

Rand Paul Won’t Fly in General Election

Rand PaulOver at The Cook Political Report, Amy Walter made a good point, Don’t Call Rand Paul the Frontrunner. Basically, she distinguished between candidates who get a lot of media coverage and candidates who actually win. Journalists like covering Rand Paul because he isn’t as dreadfully boring as most Republicans. And he appeals to certain Tea Party folk. But neither of these groups are that important in nominating a presidential candidate. “These ‘bedrock’ voters don’t show up at straw polls. They don’t wave signs or show up at rallies. They do, however, vote.” Or at least they do during presidential elections.

So Rand’s problem isn’t in a general election but in the primary. Or so Walter thinks. I think he has at least as big a problem in a general election. A big part of this is very general. Paul is an ideologue. There is intense attention in a general election. Compare him to, for example, Hillary Clinton. I actually prefer Paul’s view on international affairs to Clinton’s. But in the public sphere, Clinton’s realpolitik comes off as knowledgeable and serious. Paul’s isolationism comes off as the fantasies of a child.

This brings up another issue. Even though I agree with Paul about foreign affairs, I would never vote for him. Just on the most basic level, the truth is that Paul isn’t serious when it comes to foreign affairs. I don’t think he’s thought the issues through half as seriously as I have, and foreign affairs isn’t something I’m very interested in. I fully expect that if he became president, it would Bush the Younger all over again. The great isolationist candidate would turn into the great preemptive striking president.

But it’s deeper than that. While his foreign policy positions would make him seem like he isn’t qualified to be president, the issue doesn’t otherwise mean that much to voters. I would never vote for him because his economic ideas are loony. And I know from experience that libertarian rhetoric always turns into straight conservative policy. So Rand Paul would give us a smaller safety net but he wouldn’t lessen government spying on us and he wouldn’t reduce the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses.

For most voters, economic issues trump everything else. The only way he might get some traction is to campaign like Reagan in 1980. You might remember that Reagan promised that he was going to cut income taxes by 10% for the first three years for a total of 27% cut. It didn’t work out that way. But at this point, I don’t think voters are going to buy lavish promises. All the big income tax cuts that Republicans have enacted have been overwhelmingly for the rich. And because of the way that most of the tax burden on the poor is in the form of local and payroll taxes, even an across the board income tax cut would be highly regressive.

The only issue that Paul might have is his embraces of cannabis legalization. But even on that issue, it is clear that he holds his nose. And by 2016, I’m not sure it will be that big an issue as more and more states move to legalize. Plus, if Paul becomes the nominee, the Democratic nominee will follow him on the issue. So cannabis is a pretty thin reed to hang a campaign on. Meanwhile, he’s for destroying lots of popular government programs. And he’s a racist, even if he uses pretty words to justify it. Bottom line: he’d be a bad candidate and I’d be more than happy if the Republicans nominated him.


Necessary caveat: liberals said the same thing about Reagan. But it was a very different time. We are at the end of 35 years of steady movement to the right. I don’t see people standing up and demanding that we get cracking on destroying our culture even further.

Ramesh Ponnuru Obamacare Warning to Conservatives

Ramesh PonnuruRamesh Ponnuru is a remarkable conservative writer. I’ve used him more than any writer in my Quotations posts. And earlier this week, he was in fine form, Stop Waiting for Obamacare to Implode. Reading a bit between the lines, it is a devastating attack on Republican hubris.

Basically, he’s arguing that the Republican Party should have been working on a replacement plan for Obamacare all along. “The likelihood of replacement would be higher if there was an alternative that didn’t take away people’s insurance—one that promised to cover roughly as many people as Obamacare does, or even more.” And he concludes with a clever twist on the conservative meme that Obamacare is taking people’s choices away, “Opponents of Obamacare should always have been thinking along these lines. Now they have less and less choice.”

It’s good to see Ponnuru talk about this stuff. But he’s still living in a fantasy world. And I’m really not sure if he knows it or not. There is a question I have about the smarter conservative writers: are they really as clueless as they claim to be about what conservative politicians are doing? Because reading Ponnuru you can’t escape the impression that he thinks that conservative complaints about Obamacare are substantive. I mean, even his own idea is just a small variation on Obamacare that the administration is allowing Arkansas to do. Does he really think that if the law had been written that way for all states that conservatives would back it?

There are two things that are going on. First: Obamacare is the conservative healthcare reform plan. If conservatives are against it, it is because they are against healthcare reform. That brings up to the second thing. The Heritage Foundation plan on which Obamacare is based was only put out as a way to stop single payer. This is what Jonathan Chait calls, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. He describes it thusly, “Conservative health-care-policy ideas reside in an uncertain state of quasi-existence. You can describe the policies in the abstract, sometimes even in detail, but any attempt to reproduce them in physical form will cause such proposals to disappear instantly.” So the thing is that conservatives don’t want healthcare reform at all. That’s why most of their proposals are just grab bags of policies they want for other reasons—like tort “reform.”

I think that Ponnuru, above all, is just a bit of a pragmatist. Like other conservatives, he would like to take from the poor and give to the rich because, “Freedom!” But he understands that at this point, with more people getting health insurance, the government can’t just take it away without causing a huge backlash. And thus, conservatives have to make the best of a bad situation. I’m sure he’s shouting at the wind, however. The modern conservative movement seems more interested in standing on principle than getting anything done.

That is actually entirely typical of the Obamacare legislation itself. If the Republican Party had decided to make the best of the situation, they could have gotten a bill that was more to their liking. But instead they went for it all and lost. But even as it stands, Obamacare is a conservative law. The old cliche is that politics is the art of the possible. So no one is ever fully happy with legislation. But modern Republicans apparently don’t think they can support anything unless they love it all. It goes back to John Boehner’s 2010 deal where he got 98% of what he wanted. That wasn’t enough.

So while it is nice to see Ponnuru applying a little practicality to politics, it’s depressing to watch him spend half of his article pandering to conservatives. He went through the normal things that conservatives talk about: the enrollment target doesn’t mean the program will work; it may not be actuarially stable; and it may not increase coverage of the uninsured. On that last point, we know that it actually has. But the whole thing is typical of the conservative movement. Ponnuru is a long time conservative—a senior editor for National Review—and yet he has to constantly assure conservative readers that he hasn’t left the reservation.

Of course, based on on Ponnuru’s article, I think he may be more positive about Obamacare than I am. I can’t get around the fact that there is a long line of legal challenges to the law. I tend to think that the law will muddle on through, however. The Supreme Court is dedicated to turning the United States into an oligarchy. But only three of the necessary five judges are absolutely committed to making the lives of working Americans “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So we can be grateful for that. For now.