Why Term Limits Are Bad

Term LimitsI made the mistake of posting a kind of silly comment on a Google+ political post. That meant that I got updates on every comment made to the post and it wasn’t pretty. And I wasn’t interested. It was a comparison of Obama and Bush the Younger, and as you can imagine, there wasn’t a great deal of thought on either side. But one person on the Republican side made a comment about the need for Congressional term limits, and I lost it: I replied. I actually went out of my way to be nice, so no one responded. But it got me thinking about the issue of term limits and I figured that now is as good a time as any to explain my thoughts on the matter.

In general, terms limits are something that appeals to both conservatives and to people who don’t think much about politics. The reason is that it is built on the idea that governing isn’t a skill; anyone can do it! Well, we in California got a chance to try that out. We made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor for four years. Say what you will about the man, he is smart and capable. And he was a disaster. Then in came Jerry Brown—a career politician—and he showed how it is done. Politics is a skill. And we need as many skilled professionals in government as possible.

Imagine having the equivalent of term limits for auto mechanics. After eight years—generally when someone has finally become really good at his job—we don’t allow him to fix cars anymore. That would make no sense. Yet that is what we do with politicians, even though they get better at representing their constituencies over time. Yet, in the recent Mississippi Republican primary, a big argument against Thad Cochran was exactly that he was good at bring federal money back to his state. That’s nonsense!

I understand the corruption issue, of course. But that isn’t solved by term limits; that’s solved by taking money out of politics and not turning our politicians into corporate whores. If anything, term limits make politicians more dependent upon campaign money. At least established politicians have high name recognition. But what conservatives are really concerned about is “ideological corruption.” What they don’t want is for politics to be politics. They want politicians to stay ideologically pure so that no compromises are ever made. This is not the problem what most people worry about.

What’s more, inexperienced politicians are more dependent upon lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). So the question really is, who do you want writing your laws: career politicians and their own trusted support staff, or special interest groups who are totally unaccountable. Additionally, politicians who know they are out after two terms (or whatever), have a huge incentive to do special favors for people who can give them good paying jobs after they are out of office. And yes, yes, yes! This problem too already exists, but term limits would only make it worse.

Above all, the problem with term limits (and I’m against them even for president) is that they are anti-democratic. They are a way of limiting the voting choices of other people. Congress is rightly disliked. But most people are pretty happy with their own members of Congress. So there isn’t a single reason that Congress is disliked; in fact, the reasons are largely completely at odds with each other. Republicans don’t like Congress because the Democrats control the Senate and Democrats don’t like Congress because Republicans control the House.

The way I see it is that I want representatives who work for the interests of my district and my state. If voters in Mississippi feel differently, that’s fine: throw the bums out. But making me throw out my representatives just because you think they are bums sounds a lot like tyranny to me. But even if it isn’t quite that bad, it is anti-democratic and it promotes bad government.

Martin Longman Has a Bad Day

Martin LongmanI’m very fond of Martin Longman. He is an excellent writer and commentator. But he is having a bad day today over at Political Animal. First, he completely misread Ron Fournier’s recent National Journal article, “We Don’t Suck As Much!” a Motto Your Party Can Honestly Embrace. Longman actually gave Fournier credit for making some progress on false equivalence, The Democrats are the Least-Lousy Party.

Fournier had written, “To those on the far right and far left who will accuse me of ‘false equivalence,’ I beg your pardon and say, OK, the other side sucks a bit more. Feel better? The rest of us don’t.” Far from making progress, Fournier is embracing false equivalence. He’s saying that’s something that only extremists think about and all the good people like himself in the “middle” know that the Democrats and the Republicans are equally bad.

What I find interesting is that false equivalence coming from Fournier is an indication of just how bad the Republicans are. As you can see from his Wikipedia page, Fournier is a consistent Republican with a history of bashing Democrats from a supposed centrist position. One commenter called him a “Republican apparatchick.” I don’t think that’s quite right, because apparatchicks didn’t pretend to be disinterested centrists. Fournier is something far more loathsome. And the fact that the best he can say is that “both sides suck” shows he doesn’t have anything real to complain about the Democrats nor anything good to say about the Republicans.

So Longman messed that up. It happens. Doing a blog is a lot of work, and as the “weekend guy” at Political Animal, I don’t think he gets an editorial help. And to be fair, Fournier’s article does claim that on the boarder crisis, Obama was “a little less bad than the Republicans.” But the point of the article is broadly: both parties are exactly the same! After I read the article, I was just going to discuss Fournier with a hat tip to Longman. But then I read a later article.

Longman wrote, Movement Conservatism is Dead as a National Ideology. This is where we get into dangerous territory. As I discuss a lot around here, Ted Cruz or even Michele Bachmann could become president under the right economic conditions. Many liberals were thrilled when the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980 because of his extremism. The truth is that the Republicans could have nominated anyone that year and he, she, or it would have been elected.

This is why I found it so upsetting when Longman wrote:

Both John McCain and Mitt Romney might have won the presidency if they had been allowed to run as moderates, but they both had to sacrifice that label to win the nomination.

No. No. No! There is absolutely no way that any Republican could have won the presidency in 2008. The economic conditions for a Democratic victory in 2008 are the best of all races back through Carter-Ford in 1976. And that’s just because I haven’t looked any further. The case for 2012 is not as strong, but it is still quite strong. Romney’s problem was not that he ran as a movement conservative; it was that he ran on the economy. If you are the challenger and the economy is improving, you don’t run on the economy. See Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters for details.

What most bugs me about this idea that the Republicans might have won if only they had moderated their views is what it implies about the Democrats. Now I’ve been reading Longman for a long time and I know he doesn’t think this, but it implies that the Democrats have won the presidency because they have moderated. The standard line is that Clinton and Obama won because they are New Democrats—you know, economically conservative Democrats. And this just isn’t the case.

Just look at how stupid the Democratic Party is. In 1980, when the economy said the Republicans were certain to win, they nominated their most conservative headline candidate. In 2008, when the economy said the Democrats were certain to win, we nominated a milquetoast moderate. And what do we get for not sticking it to the Republicans as they stuck it to us? Cries of “Socialism!” and “Tyranny!”

Like I said, Martin Longman is an excellent writer and commentator. But he’s only human (despite his image above). He just had a bad day.

Update (20 July 2014 8:05 pm)

Longman noticed my tweet. I still don’t know how that happens. Anyway, it turns out that yesterday, he wrote, My Day Could Have Gone Better. It is about his mistake of buying baseball tickets for his son and him, but for the wrong day—a work day. And so it ended mostly with sitting in traffic. It sounds a lot worse than discovering my little article. But how bad could this article be when I twice refer to him as an “excellent writer and commentator”? Dave Weigel should get such plaudits!

Pessimistic Conservatives

We Are Doomed!This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote, Why Optimism Is Still America’s Greatest Strength. Basically, I agree with him. Cynicism and pessimism don’t generally lead to reform. But a mixture is important, because there is a dark side to optimism; it can cause complacency. I want to talk about optimism from a different perspective, however.

The traditional conservative take on liberals is that we are pessimistic and think America is weak and evil. I think this is kind of a contradiction. For one thing, evil in the weak doesn’t really matter. I think that the United States is extremely powerful and that we often use that power to do great evil. But I am surprisingly optimistic about the future. Most of the time I think that the arc of history bends toward justice. But for the last almost four decades, it has been bending decidedly toward injustice.

On the other side, the conservative take on themselves is that they are optimistic and think America is powerful and good. But this isn’t really true of conservatives—today anyway. In particular, they only think we are strong in terms of our military. I guess that is to be expected, because to a conservative, power is only manifested in terms of bending others to your will. Regardless, they do not think we are powerful when it comes to anything else. In their eyes, America will always be less than some mythical America they apparently got from watching Leave It To Beaver.

What’s more, they are permanently pessimistic on the domestic front. Crime is always out of control, regardless of how much it falls. The Federal Reserve is powerless to help the economy, but it just might destroy it. We can’t take care of the poor because we are too far in debt. (Note: we are never too far in debt to fight another unnecessary war.) We can’t provide anything even close to equality of opportunity because rich children must be given better schools than poor children. In the conservative mind, we can’t do anything because times are bad and they are only getting worse.

The weird thing is that they are right to think this. Any given conservative is just a snapshot of the movement at a particular time. But if you go through American history, you will see that the conservatives lose basically every battle they fight. A conservative may be someone who stands athwart history, yelling, “Stop!” But history mows them down and moves on to younger conservatives yelling stop about something else. Conservatives were for the monarchy. Conservatives were for slavery. Conservatives were against women voting. Conservatives are always on the wrong side of history.

So conservatives are right to be pessimistic. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Conservative opinion only has a shelf life of a generation.” Today they celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, but at the time they hated and feared him and claimed he was a communist; they were at best apologists for Jim Crow. (And don’t bring up liberal Republicans from the past, because the parties used to not line up that well ideologically.) But as Corey Robin has argued at great length, conservatives will always be against expanding rights and so will always see the country slipping further and further from their ideal.

Of course, it is the conservatives who are always out there chanting, “We’re number one!” And that has always struck me as the kind of thing done by really insecure people. And I think this is why. Barring a fascist takeover of the United States (and I won’t rule it out), history will continue to run them down. And in addition to everything else, they’ll have to pretend that, “Of course I was always for same sex marriage!”—and everything else they were against when it mattered.

Max Liebermann

Max LiebermannOn this day in 1847, the great German painter Max Liebermann was born. I’m actually not that fond of his work. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I’m not that fond of his impressionism, which often strikes me as bad Manet. His portraits are rather interesting. And his one religious painting indicates that he really should have done more historical painting, although it wasn’t really the thing at the time.

If you want to be an artist, it really does help to have rich parents. I’m not talking Fred Koch rich, of course; that seems to just create spoiled brats who think the world ought to kneel down before them like David and Charles Koch. But high bourgeoisie, which gives you a good and worldly education, decent connections, and not so much money that you think it is all that matters. That’s exactly what Liebermann got, and perhaps somewhat more. He also had the advantage of being born in Berlin and not Texas.

Below is Liebermann’s one religious painting, The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple With the Scholars. It caused quite a stir at the time. I guess it was blasphemy for a Jew to paint Jesus? Regardless, he didn’t like the uproar and never again did anything terribly exciting—and he had over 50 years to go.

The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple With the Scholars - Liebermann

Liebermann died at the age of 87 in 1935. By that time, the Nazis were in power. So even though he was quite famous, no mention of his death was made in the media. Over a hundred people came to his funeral, even though it was apparently illegal. It was only 1935, after all. The Nazis hadn’t fully systematized their hate. So Liebermann died at the right time.

Happy birthday Max Liebermann!