Archives: June, 2010

You Feel Me?

The MoDo column I criticize below exemplifies the warped notion that we should view the president as a benevolent national Father-Protector.  But it’s also a good example of a related phenomenon, the apparently unquenchable yearning for Presidential Empathy.

“Once more,” she writes, “President Spock”  has “willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”  There’s a little tension between Dowd’s desire for a presidential father figure and her demand for a “Feeler in Chief.”  She seems to want a daddy who cries a lot.

But this understanding of the president’s role is hardly unique to her:

Introducing his 1996 presidential ranking survey, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared that a great president needed to “have a deep connection with the needs, anxieties, dreams of the people.” Of course, the ability to channel the collective soul of the American volk isn’t a skill that the chief magistrate needs in order to faithfully execute the laws or defend the country from foreign attacks.

Maybe so, but most public intellectuals have a much broader view of the president’s job.  Which may explain why disdain for Obama’s “No Drama” affect is so common among the chattering classes.

This president is too cool, too reserved, too professorial, they charge.  He has “a stony, cool temperament,” (Peggy Noonan);  His “above-the-fray mien… does not communicate empathy” (Richard Cohen), and he shrinks from “lead[ing] the nation emotionally” (Jon Meacham). “I wasn’t feeling it,” MoDo’s Times colleague Charles Blow grumbled after Obama insisted he was “angry” about the spill.  (Really, press secretary Joe Gibbs insisted yesterday, “I’ve seen rage from him.” He “clenched” his jaw.)

I have more than my share of complaints about this president.  But this is one that leaves me, er, cold.  It seems to me that it’s to Obama’s credit that he’s not a blubbery empath like Bill Clinton.  It’s good that he’s reluctant to play the role of podium-pounding blustery populist.  Thank God for small favors.

Over the last century, the Framers’ limited, businesslike presidency has been transformed into an extraconstitutional monstrosity that promises everything and guarantees nothing, save public frustration and the steady growth of state power.  When American “opinion leaders” join together to lament the fact that the president’s not an effective enough demagogue, it’s not hard to understand how we got here.

Needed: A New U.S. Defense Policy for Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has resigned, just eight months after leading his party to a landslide victory.  The Democratic Party of Japan meets Friday to replace him.  The finance minister, Naoto Kan, is the favorite, though nothing is certain.  The party is an amalgam of factions and the party secretary general, Ichiro Ozawa, who did the most to bring the DPJ to power, also is stepping down.

Prime Minister Hatoyama was hit by a campaign scandal—a regular of Japanese politics.  But the most important cause of his resignation was his botched handling of American bases on the island of Okinawa.

In early 1945 Okinawa became the first part of the Japanese homeland to fall as the U.S. closed in on imperial Japan.  Washington held onto the island after the war and loaded it with military installations.  Only in 1972 was Okinawa returned to Japanese sovereignty.  Despite some reduction in U.S. forces, American military facilities still account for roughly one-fifth of the island’s territory.

Okinawans long ago tired, understandably, of the burden and have been pressing for the removal of at least some bases.  The DPJ campaigned to create a more equal alliance with America and promised to revisit plans by the previous government to relocate America’s Futenma facility elsewhere on the island.

However, under strong U.S. pressure Hatoyama reversed course.  He said the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula reminded him about the value of America’s military presence.

Japan’s military dependency is precisely the problem.  American taxpayers have paid to defend Japan for 65 years.  Doing so made sense in the aftermath of World War II, when Japan was recovering from war and Tokyo’s neighbors feared a revived Japanese military.  But long ago it became ridiculous  for Americans to defend the world’s second-ranking power and its region.

Of course, having turned its defense over to Washington, Tokyo could do no more than beg the U.S. to move its base.  After all, if Americans are going to do Japan’s dirty defense work, Americans are entitled to have convenient base access.  Irrespective of what  the Okinawans desire.

Unfortunately, Hatoyama’s resignation isn’t likely to change anything.  The new prime minister won’t be much different from the old one.  Or the ones before him.

If change is to come to the U.S.-Japan security relationship, it will have to come from America.  And it should start with professed fiscal conservatives asking why the U.S. taxpayers, on the hook for a $1.6 trillion deficit this year alone, must forever subsidize the nation with the world’s second-largest economy?

Cliches about living in a dangerous world and defending freedom are no answer.  America is made not only poorer but less secure when it discourages its friends from defending themselves and when it accepts their geopolitical conflicts as its own.  To coin a phrase, it is time for a change.

And not just with Japan.  There’s also South Korea.  And especially the Europeans.  It’s not clear who they have to be defended from, but whoever their potential adversary or adversaries may be, the Europeans should defend themselves.  The Obama administration is impoverishing Americans to support a growing welfare state at home.  Americans shouldn’t have to help pay for the Europeans’ even bigger welfare state at the same time.

The U.S. should maintain a strong defense.  Of America.

Washington should stop subsidizing the defense of prosperous and populous allies.  When the Constitution speaks of “the common defense,” the Founders meant of Americans, not of the rest of the world.  A good place to start ending foreign military welfare would be Japan.

Daddy Issues

My Washington Examiner column this week looks at the bipartisan conniption over President Obama’s “responsibility” for the Gulf oil spill:

It’s “taking so doggone long,” Sarah Palin wailed, for Obama “to dive in there” (literally?). “Man, you got to get down here and take control!” James Carville screeched. “Tell BP, ‘I’m your daddy!’ “

When Hurricane Katrina hit, liberals who had spent years calling President Bush a tyrant suddenly decided he wasn’t authoritarian enough when he hesitated to declare himself generalissimo of New Orleans and muster the troops for a federal War on Hurricanes.

Now the party of “drill, baby, drill” – the folks who warn that Obama’s a socialist – is screaming bloody murder because he’s letting the private sector take the lead in the well-capping operation. It’s almost enough to make a guy cynical about politics.

“Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?” is an understandable reaction from an 11-year-old like Malia Obama.  Grown-up pols and pundits have no such excuse, however, and when they confuse the chief executive with an all-powerful father-protector, the results are likely to be bad policy and an increasingly imperial presidency.

Right on cue, as I was finishing the column, came Sunday’s New York Times with a pair of cringe-inducing opeds illustrating the perils of presidential “daddyism.”  According to their bios,  Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd are 57 and 58 years old, respectively. You’d never guess it from their columns.

Friedman urges Obama to “react to this spill as a child would.” (Aren’t plenty of people doing that already?)

Like a chirpy, earnest kindergarten teacher, Friedman insists us that

Kids get it. They ask: ….Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?

That is what a child would want to know if he or she could vote.

And if you think a surfeit of political maturity is our major problem these days, maybe we should expand the suffrage to grade-schoolers.

On the opposite page, Maureen Dowd echoes a theme she struck back in January, when she complained that with his calm, sober reaction to the failed Christmas bombing, Obama missed his “moment to be president…. to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders.”  As I wrote at the time, “Could there be a more infantile conception of the chief executive’s role?”

In Sunday’s column, MoDo whines that Obama’s acting like “President Spock,” instead of our “Feeler in Chief.”  How, she asks, can we possibly survive with a chief executive who  ”scorns the paternal aspect of the presidency”?

I don’t know, maybe we could… grow up?

Race to Deceive

So busy have I been preparing for today’s release of, and Cato forum on, national curriculum standards, that I completely forgot that yesterday was the deadline for states to apply for round two of the Race to the Top. Of course, the Race is precisely what’s gotten many states to sign on to national standards.

In the end, from what I heard last night, 35 states and the District of Columbia applied for round two. Adding the two first round winners to that number means that 13 states decided applying for round 2 just wasn’t worth it. That actually says a lot bad about RTTT, considering how hard it is for state politicians to turn down federal dollars, which after all come from their citizens.

Look into the realities of round one, though, and this anomaly becomes easier to understand. I’ve already linked to a lot of the tough analysis of the first round, but just stumbled on this very insightful “reality check” on RTTT from the Center for Education Reform. CER’s concise guide is well worth reading, and along with the other reality-based critiques of RTTT paints a far different picture of the Obama administration’s signature education move (aside from colossal status quo bailouts and attempted bailouts) than anything the spinmeisters at the Education Department have been furnishing.

So RTTT, for the most part, has been much more PR stunt than driver of real reform. More ominously, it might also just be the warm-up act for the national-standards headliner.

War and the Intellectuals

Apologies in advance for the epic-length post.

There’s been a fair bit of wailing and garment-rending about war on the op-ed pages.  In addition to the cloying and tiresome Mark Helprin piece to which David links below, E.J. Dionne, Glenn Greenwald, and Fred Hiatt have all touched on the subject in recent days.  One common theme is the idea that Americans are insulated from the costs and benefits of war, and that this is a problem.

To their credit, some of the writers offer proposals for redressing matters: Helprin suggests American citizens should force congressional declarations of war characterized by “extraordinary, penetrating debate” in order to ensure that decisions to go to war have been “ratified unambiguously by the American people through their constitutional and republican institutions.”  (Do we also owe the troops good decisions?)  Further, citizens must recognize that it is “unacceptable” to “starve the means to fight” in order to defray the costs of war.  “If the general population  must do with less, so be it, for the problem is only imagined.”

What planet does Helprin live on?  The ways in which citizens and legislators behave when it comes to war are shaped by the incentives each group faces.  Helprin – and the other writers – should try to think about those incentives if they actually care about solving these problems.

Why, for example, has the U.S. Congress, since its last declaration of war (against Romania during World War II), insisted on “delegating” the prerogative to go to war to the Executive in spite of its clear obligation under the U.S. Constitution?  Because it’s in their interests to do so.  In this way, Congresspeople can position themselves to take credit when wars go well but blame the Executive when they go badly.  The requirement that Congress declare war was designed in part to force the hand of the legislator, to put him on the record, in an effort to localize the costs and benefits of wars on those launching them.  But then Congress ingeniously figured out that it could shirk this responsibility by delegating authority up to the Executive, at which point it could claim credit for victories and point fingers after defeats.  (Recall the Democratic legislators who absurdly claimed of the Iraq war resolution that they didn’t think President Bush actually intended to use the congressional resolution to take the country to war…)

And what about the voters?  Greenwald writes that

One significant cause of America’s indifference to the wars we are waging is that those wars have virtually no effect on the overwhelming majority of Americans (at least no recognized effect), while they impose a huge cost on a tiny sliver of the population:  those who fight the wars and their families.

Rational choice theory has taken a beating in the wake of the financial meltdown, but it would be dumb to throw its central insights.  Helprin, Hiatt, Dionne, et al, should think about the views of a notional Rational Voter.  Why should he or she care enough about America’s wars to do something about them?

I care about U.S. foreign policy a lot, and I think it’s deeply mistaken and destructive.  But even I would have a hard time telling most utility-maximizing Americans why they should care enough about our military spending and our wars – rather than other political issues – to mobilize their elected officials to do something about them.  As the Beloved Founder of one of America’s most vital institutions has been known to remark, the U.S. tax code “treats us like so many gerbils. Do this and you’ll get some sugar water. Do that and you’ll get an electric shock.”

And it turns out people really like sugar water and hate electric shocks!  If you want a voter to respond, either zap him or give him a coke.  (Politicians seem to prefer the latter, as do voters.)  For most voters, the implications of the wars are neither refreshing and delicious nor directly painful.  Given this, how could war and peace possibly become as salient as other policies that directly impact people’s lives on a daily basis?  Unemployed?  Have a mortgage?  Taxes too high?  Poised to collect Social Security or Medicare?  Employed in or consuming health care or financial services?  Can the intellectuals above get their rhetoric cranked up high enough that they can make people put aside these sorts of direct material concerns in order to carry on a sustained and probing debate about foreign wars?

As this discussion demonstrates, the problem for non-interventionists is how to get voters to care enough about America’s crazy foreign policy to stop it.  Keep in mind that it’s unlikely that material constraints will force us to rein in our ambitions any time soon.  America is blessed by geography and an economy that seems impossible to defeat, despite our rulers’ best efforts.  Given the unlikelihood of severe costs like conquest or bankruptcy, in all likelihood the American Goliath will keep lumbering along.  And the pundits will keep carping.

Global Warming Plaintiffs Hoisted on Their Own Petard

We have reached a denouement of sorts in the “blame XYZ companies for causing global warming which caused Hurricane Katrina which damaged my property” lawsuit that I’ve previously discussed and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  When last I blogged about this, the Fifth Circuit had apparently lost its en banc quorum – a late judicial recusal left only 8 of 16 judges available to hear the appeal – and was figuring out what to do. 

Well, on Thursday the court issued an order determining that it lacked a quorum, but that the panel opinion – the one that allowed the tendentious causation claims to proceed – remained vacated.  The money quote: “In sum, a court without a quorum cannot conduct judicial business… .  Because neither this en banc court, nor the panel, can conduct further judicial business in this appeal, the Clerk is directed to dismiss the appeal.”  This means that the district court opinion dismissing the suit stands, though plaintiffs are free to seek Supreme Court review.  Not surprisingly, the three judges on the panel dissented from this order (which means that the order was decided by a 5-3 vote).

The upshot of all this is that the plaintiffs ended up botching their strategy of suing companies whose shares are owned by Fifth Circuit judges.  This clever legerdemain successfully removed seven judges, but that left a quorum of nine.  Of course, had the late-recusing eighth, Jennifer Elrod – who would’ve been expected to rule against the plaintiffs – recused when the first seven did, the court could not have vacated the panel opinion in the first place.  We’ll never know what happened after the court’s prior decision to grant rehearing that caused Judge Elrod to recuse, but at least we’re left with the second-best result: no strong decision from an important federal appellate court, but the reinstatment of the correct decision below.

Tuesday Links

When Hurricane Katrina hit, liberals who had spent years calling President Bush a tyrant suddenly decided he wasn’t authoritarian enough when he hesitated to declare himself generalissimo of New Orleans and muster the troops for a federal War on Hurricanes.

Now the party of “drill, baby, drill” – the folks who warn that Obama’s a socialist – is screaming bloody murder because he’s letting the private sector take the lead in the well-capping operation. It’s almost enough to make a guy cynical about politics.

  • Rethinking Darfur: A new study examines policy proposals to helping a devastated land.