Tag: campaign

Obama/West Relationship Status Update: ‘It’s Complicated’

Cornel West feels jilted. In an article on him at Truthdig, Princeton’s Professor of African-American Studies and Religion criticizes President Obama for being ungrateful for West’s service to his campaign.

Much of the article reads like post-breakup grumblings. West describes how Obama never calls him back, “but then a month and half later I would run into other people on the campaign and he’s calling them all the time. I said, wow, this is kind of strange. He doesn’t have time, even two seconds, to say thank you or I’m glad you’re pulling for me and praying for me, but he’s calling these other people.”

Most interesting are West’s criticisms of Obama’s presidency. Like many former supporters, Professor West feels betrayed by Obama’s “same as the old boss” policies. In order to explain this, West engages in the quixotic pursuit of pathologizing President Obama. As Ilya Somin and Jonah Goldberg point out, this is oddly reminiscent of Dinesh D’Souza’s recent book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and equally confusing. Run-of-the-mill liberal policies from a liberal president don’t need extensive and convoluted explanations.

Pathologizing political opponents is a difficult and largely self-serving task. Although there are many reasons we believe what we do, it does healthy intellectual discourse a disservice to classify opponents rather than try to refute them. Honest disagreements should not be relegated to the pages of the DSM-IV. Usually, this strategy only helps you feel better about your beliefs. While you have reason and arguments supporting your beliefs, all your opponent has is a long line of racial confusion and societal pressures.

According to West, President Obama (“my brother Barack Obama”) “has a certain fear of free black men” caused by his mixed-race background that has made him always “fear being a white man with black skin.” Obama comes from “Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive.” Thus, “he has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.”

As Gene Healy has consistently pointed out, President Obama needs no explanation. In the era of the imperial presidency we have presidents who become imperious. Big surprise. What does need an explanation, however, is why Cornel West, an unquestionably intelligent man, still finds this surprising.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. The most striking thing said by West in the article is this: “The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.” Now, I don’t expect to see Professor West at Glenn Beck rallies, but maybe his disappointment in Obama will lead him to stop believing that the problems with government are personal rather than institutional—that is, that government can be fixed if we just put the right people in office.

Or maybe he’ll just support the next candidate who returns his phone calls.

What the Tea Party Hath Wrought?

The Internal Revenue Service is investigating campaign donations to groups incorporated under 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Some in the IRS apparently hope to apply gift taxes to the contributions.

Higher taxes on an activity would generally lead to less of that activity, especially if a good substitute exists that is not taxed. In this case, donors could give money to 527 groups. Such donations are exempt from taxation. But 527 groups are subject to disclosure of donors.

The IRS investigations involve tax provisions “that had rarely, if ever, been enforced.” Why now? We do not know. But 501(c)(4) groups played in a important part in the 2010 campaign. As you know, the party in power lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010.  With the president’s re-election at stake in 2012, the administration might hope that that less money is available to fund the political speech of its opponents.

The White House has already issued a draft order requiring disclosure of political spending by government contractors. Now these investigations of donors. The IRS effort need not lead to legal complaints to be politically effective. As one expert notes, “The lack of clarity and the potential for not-insignificant taxation on these gifts will cause many of the biggest donors to think twice.”

Many people argue that mandatory disclosure of political spending has few costs and many benefits. Such laws are said to discourage few donors from funding political speech. If that is true, why is the Obama administration so interested in forcing donors out of anonymity?

Perhaps the administration believes deeply in transparency. Or perhaps the administration believes that attacking (no longer anonymous) donors will effectively discourage speech critical of the President in 2012.

The political misuse of the Internal Revenue Service should be a concern of everyone. During the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, presidents and their people decided, as John Dean put it at the time, to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Have we forgotten that history?

A New Day? Obama Faces Reality

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

The president will address this new political reality at a 1 p.m. news conference. What should President Obama say to reckon with the reality of the Democratic debacle?

My response:

What the president should say and what he will say at his press conference this afternoon are likely to be two different things. He should say that he and his party seriously misread the 2008 election results: Americans were rejecting the Bush administration’s eight years of expansive government. But he can hardly say that without repudiating the last two years: After all, he doubled down on Bush’s policies. Yesterday the vast majority of Americans said, in effect, “And we mean it!”

Not everywhere, to be sure, but look at the House map this morning: It’s almost all red, with scattered pockets of blue. Obama should recognize that reality, but to do so would be to abandon the dream, and he is nothing if not a dreamer. Throughout this campaign administration apologists kept saying that the problem was not in the product but in the packaging – in the delivery. No. It was the product. Americans didn’t want it.

So Obama will doubtless give lip service to yesterday’s results and talk about the need for all to work together “to solve America’s problems” – as though we were all on some grand collective mission. But in his subsequent actions he will likely turn to the elites in those isolated urban and academic blue pockets on the map to try to fashion a comeback consistent with his dream, because a Bill Clinton pivot would be wholly out of character with a man who branded opponents as “the enemy.” We’re probably in for two years of gridlock before we can return to fundamental principles of limited government, and that’s good.

Yes, We Do Bribe Kids!

While politicians probably support many policies for college students in part because they think the policies will be educationally or otherwise beneficial, vote buying is no doubt also important. Of course, it’s hard to find a politician who will actually cop to the latter. On this morning’s Today show, however, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine came about as close to doing that as you could possibly hope for. 

Responding to interviewer Ann Curry’s observation that President Obama has aimed a lot of campaigning at college students lately, Kaine noted that young people voted for Obama in record numbers in 2008, and “the message to young voters is pretty simple… we’ve done the largest expansion of the student loan program in American history… we’ve done a health care reform that allows youngsters to stay on their family insurance policy until age 26, and we’ve done important credit card reform that has helped young voters. So we have their attention….” 

Translation: Kids, vote the right way, and keep that free stuff coming!

It’s Time for the Coalition to Step Aside

Today’s Washington Post reports that residents of Gizab, a village in southern Afghanistan, reclaimed their territory from the Taliban. One U.S. commander called it “perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year.”

Gizab may eventually turn back to Taliban control, but at least for now, we can try and postulate as to why local residents successfully defended their territory, achieving what the coalition has been trying to do for years throughout the country but to no avail. Here’s a thought: allow Afghans to fight the Taliban themselves and slowly back away. Unfortunately, this story may reinforce the atrocious ”One Tribe at a Time” formulation, a strategy that entails coalition troops “going native” and unilaterally choosing tribes to side with against the Taliban–of course, without any proper understanding of tribal or community dynamics beforehand.

As I wrote several weeks ago, “merely increasing our knowledge of Afghanistan’s local politics will not guarantee success; presuming we can simply learn what ethnicities and communities can be ‘peeled off’ from militants does not necessarily mean we will reach the ends we seek or yield the outcomes we want.”

Many moons ago, Christian Bleuer over at The Ghosts of Alexander wrote about the follies of following the ”One Tribe at a Time” formula. “Seriously, go out and try to find the ‘tribal leadership.’ You will find that there is no clear, stable leadership. Things are in flux, and always have been. Especially since 1979. You will end up with a bunch of squabbling locals trying to call in air strikes on their rivals…. Please don’t let this anecdote draw away attention from how bad Gant’s paper is when considered in its entirety. The blind embedded, hyper-localized ‘adopted son’ mentality he shows should be a warning to all. Anthropologists do their best to not ‘join the tribe.’ So should soldiers.”

Indeed, Judah Grunstein wrote a while back in Small Wars Journal about this very same issue. “What’s also overlooked – by Gant [author of “One Tribe at a Time”], but also by more conventional COIN theory – is the fact that intervening in a social system creates both winners and losers. COIN bases its methodology in large part on the assumption that losers will shift loyalties in order to compete for the benefits on offer. Again, the lessons from the helping professions show that this is far from a foregone conclusion. The resulting power imbalances within the indigenous structure can instead lead to increased – and rigidified – resentment and hostility toward the helping professional.”

Most analysts in D.C. are waiting for that silver bullet, that one strategy that will help America “win.” But Afghans can “win” without our help, as villagers in Gizab have shown. It may not be easy, and Afghans will surely encounter setbacks, but coalition forces cannot continually recalibrate policy to accurately predict which areas of Afghanistan will prefer the corrupt centralized government we back and which ones will not. It’s time we get out of the way and let Afghans decide their future, Taliban or no Taliban.

Tea Party Defeats Palin in Idaho

State Rep. Raul Labrador walloped Republican establishment favorite Vaughn Ward in Idaho’s 1st District congressional primary. Idaho native Sarah Palin campaigned for Ward, who had worked in the McCain presidential campaign in 2008. Labrador drew strong support from Tea Party activists. According to Politico, “Ward’s defeat also came despite his high-profile support from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who did more to assist Ward than she did for almost any other House candidate. Last Friday, she headlined a rally and fundraiser for Ward, and her parents and in-laws were supporters of Ward’s campaign.”

Lots of Republican incumbents lost their legislative seats, too, suggesting the continuing power of Tea Party activism and general populist unrest.

Lawrence Lessig’s Constitutional Amendment

Lawrence Lessig has proposed a constitutional amendment in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.  It reads:

“Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power to limit, though not to ban, campaign expenditures of non-citizens of the United States during the last 60 days before an election.”

In Citizens United, the Court said that the First Amendment concerns speech rather than speakers. Congress has no power to discriminate against speakers; hence, a source of speech - people organized as a corporation - could not be prohibited from speaking (or funding speech).

Professor Lessig hopes to introduce a discrimination among speakers into the First Amendment. His proposed discrimination will not lose a popularity contest. He wishes to allow Congress to control the speech of non-citizens.  He follows two lines of argument in support of his amendment, one less rational than the other.

The less rational line of appeal to the reader is both implicit and predictable. The Chinese are invoked along with the Chamber of Commerce. A denial of xenophobic intent follows immediately, and “We the People” appear near the end. Carl Schmitt would recognize the rhetorical construction of “friend and enemy.” Rather cleverly, Lessig manages to equate the foreign devils with the internal demons of the liberal mind. Corporations (including the Sierra Club?) and the Chinese (or other foreigner) are on one side of political struggles while “We the People” are on the other.

Lessig’s more rational line of argument: “elections are private. It is we - citizens- who are to select who is to govern us. And it is completely appropriate for us to protect the debate we have about that selection by limiting disproportionate spending by non-citizens.” He later suggests the propriety of “protecting elections against undue influence by non-citizens.”

Notice Lessig moves from an widely-held premise “only citizens should select those who govern” to conclude “we should protect elections against the undue influence of non-citizens.” His idea of “dependence” relates his premise to his conclusion. Allowing spending by non-citizens would make voters dependent on them and thus preclude select of the our rulers by “us.”

What is missing here, oddly enough, is the citizens themselves. After all, the non-citizens do not simply give money to voters. They spend money to create and communicate political speech. Voters are the intermediaries between that speech and the selection of government officials. Citizens decide how much influence political speech of all kinds should have.  Lessig’s concern about undue influence seems to be a concern that voters will be fooled by internal or external foreigners to the detriment of our nation. But the Constitution says that citizens, whatever their failings, are the best filter of speech.

Lessig’s amendment would substitute the judgment of Congress for that of citizens at least in regard to the speech of non-citizens.  Congress would decide how much spending on speech is “due” and how much would lead to “undue influence” by non-citizens. A court would then be called upon to decide whether the limits chosen by Congress constitute a de facto ban on speech. This process of legislating and litigation would yield how much speech citizens are allowed to hear.

Keep in mind that not all the ideas of foreigners are inimical to the people of the United States. Liberals did not seem to mind the support Barack Obama received from cheering crowds in Berlin. Perhaps Americans should hear about the suffering caused abroad by trade protectionism. It is also true that the interests of foreigners are sometimes at odds with the interests of Americans. Who should decide which ideas espoused by foreigners are good for the nation and which inimical? Should Congress decide or citizens?

We might also wonder whether Lessig’s amendment would even apply to corporations. The corporation is a product of contracts among owners and others. These contracts provide for agents who run the corporation and decide many things including whether to fund political speech on behalf of the enterprise. All of this, contracts included, are the actions of real people, most of whom will be citizens. Would a court define “non-citizens” as a group of citizens who associate together in the corporate form?

Lessig invokes the framers of the Constitution to support his concern about non-citizens. Here he has some historical warrant for his arguments. The founders were concerned about foreign influences undermining the new republic in favor of monarchy. But the United States is now much older and more stable and aptly open to foreign influence through investment and trade. If anything, its citizens are too concerned about the dangers coming from abroad. That is all the more true when the non-citizen or “the foreigner” is identified as other Americans who happen to be associating in a corporate form.



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