Topic: Government and Politics

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Down with the “Joyful Campaign”

I have a piece running in the Federalist this week on the notion that presidential candidates should campaign “joyfully,” as Jeb Bush ever more desperately insists that he is. It’s not clear why we’re supposed to want joyful candidates, but that seems to be the prevailing norm. Hardly a week goes by without reporters needling the contestants: are you having fun yet? I wrote the column before former Senator Fred Thompson passed away on Sunday, but it occurred to me that his failed 2008 run is a perfect illustration of how perverse the cult of campaign-trail positivity has become. 

By almost any measure, Thompson had a full life: a Watergate Committee counsel whose questioning revealed the existence of the White House tapes; U.S. senator from Tennessee; “Law and Order,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Die Hard 2.” But his short-lived presidential campaign isn’t part of the highlight reel. The Tenneseean put it gently in their obituary: “Mr. Thompson underwhelmed” in his 2008 bid. The press was harsher when Thompson dropped out of the race. “You must show an interest in running for the most powerful office in the world to gain that office,” John Dickerson scolded in Slatebut “The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing. The candidate seemed like he might just show up for events in Fred08sweatpants.” “As his hopes cratered,” Politico chided, “the former Tennessee senator increasingly voiced his displeasure with a process he plainly loathed. Thompson’s stump speech became mostly a bitter expression of grievance against what was expected of him or any White House hopeful.” Ha: what a weird old grouch! I mean, the guy’s an actor, and he still couldn’t fake it! What’s wrong with him?

And yet, earlier generations of Americans would have viewed Thompson’s reticence as reassuring. As the political scientist Richard J. Ellis explained in an insightful 2003 article, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. “Presidential candidates largely stayed home in dignified silence,” he wrote, “ready to serve if called by the people….Distrusting demagoguery and tyranny, the dutiful presidency demanded dignity, reserve and self-denial from its presidents.”

Jeb Bush, Obesity, Limited Government, and Me

Before he launched his presidential campaign, Jeb Bush released his emails from his eight years as governor. Now he’s released a 700-page book of selected emails. According to Amazon’s search function, I’m not in the book. But I did have a brief exchange with Governor Bush in 2003. As a libertarian, I wasn’t convinced by his argument. But I was impressed that the governor personally answered an email that I didn’t even send to him but rather to a member of his press staff. Governor Bush announced the creation of the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic, with such goals as:

  1. Recommend ways to promote the recognition of overweight and obesity as a major public health problem in Florida that also has serious implications for Florida’s economic prosperity;
  2. Review data and other research to determine the number of Florida’s children who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight;
  3. Identify the contributing factors to the increasing burden of overweight and obesity in Florida;
  4. Recommend ways to help Floridians balance healthy eating with regular physical activity to achieve and maintain a healthy or healthier body weight;
  5. Identify and research evidenced-based strategies to promote lifelong physical activity and lifelong healthful nutrition, and to assist those who are already overweight or obese to maintain healthy lifestyles;
  6. Identify effective and culturally appropriate interventions to prevent and treat overweight and obesity;

When the announcement of this task force reached my inbox, courtesy of the governor’s office press list, I had this exchange (read from the bottom):

From: Jeb Bush [mailto:jeb [at] jeb.org]
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2003 8:05 PM
To: David Boaz
Cc: jill.bratina [at] myflorida.com
Subject: FW: Executive Order Number 03-196

David, the reason for this is that obesity creates huge costs to government. If you believe in limited government, you should support initiatives that reduce it. I know you believe that it is not the role of government to deal with these demands, which I respect, but until you win the day, we need to respond to the challenge.

Jeb

—–Original Message—–
From: David Boaz [mailto:dboaz [at] cato.org]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:30 AM
To: DiPietre, Jacob
Subject: RE: Executive Order Number 03-196

Why is what I eat any of the government’s business? This is the very definition of big government.

—–Original Message—–
From: DiPietre, Jacob [mailto:Jacob.DiPietre [at] MyFlorida.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:21 AM
To: ALL OF EOG, OPB & SDD
Subject: Executive Order Number 03-196

Memorandum
DATE: October 15, 2003
TO: Capital Press Corps
FROM: Jill Bratina, Governor’s Communications Director
RE: Executive Order Number 03-196
Please find attached an Executive Order creating the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic.

As I said, I wasn’t persuaded. I’ve written that obesity is not in fact a public health problem. It may be a widespread health problem, but you can’t catch obesity from doorknobs or molecules in the air. And the idea that our personal choices impose costs on government, through semi-socialized medicine and similar programs, has no good stopping point. If obesity is the government’s business, then so are smoking, salt intake, motorcycle riding, insufficient sleep, cooking all the nutrients out of vegetables, and an endless stream of potentially sub-optimal decisions. (I was going to include drinking whole milk, but … well, you know.)

I’m glad to note that last month Jeb Bush said that a federally developed anti-obesity video game, “Mommio,” was a waste of “scarce resources.” Maybe he’s coming around.

Cruz and Paul’s VAT Mistake

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have proposed value-added taxes (VATs) as part of their tax reform plans.

I critique these taxes in National Review today, arguing that they could become engines of big government growth.

Cruz and Paul are champions of small government, and so their embrace of VATs is unfortunate, and also potentially dangerous.

Dangerous because VATs are probably the only way that liberals would be able to fund the huge projected growth in unreformed entitlement programs in coming years.

In a worse-case scenario under the current tax system, liberals would succeed in hiking income taxes, but they wouldn’t be able to seize much more money because the income tax base is so mobile in today’s global economy. The corporate income tax, for example, is a complex and damaging tax, but it is not capable of raising the government any more revenue than it already does.

China Persists in the Myth of Planning

The government of China has launched its 13th five-year plan (known as 13.5), sticking with the form if not the substance of Stalinism. But in our modern and networked world, China wants the world to understand its planning process, so it released this catchy video in American English:

The video explains how comprehensive the planning process is: 

Every five years in China, man
They make a new development plan!
The time has come for number 13.
The shi san wu, that’s what it means!

There’s government ministers and think tank minds
And party leadership contributing finds.

First there’s research, views collected,
Then discussion and views projected.
Reports get written and passed around 

As the plan goes down from high to low,
The government’s experience continues to grow.
They have to work hard and deliberate
Because a billion lives are all at stake!

It must be smart: note the picture of Einstein along with Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong (around 0:50).

More Mission Creep in an Illegal War

In the 15 months since the president unilaterally launched our latest war in the Middle East, he’s repeatedly pledged that he wouldn’t put U.S. “boots on the ground” in Syria. As he told congressional leaders on September 3, 2014, “the military plan that has been developed” is limited, and doesn’t require ground forces. 

Alas, if you liked that plan, you can’t keep it. Earlier today, the Obama administration announced the deployment of U.S. Special Forces to Northern Syria to assist Kurdish troops in the fight against ISIS. U.S. forces will number “fewer than 50,” in an “advise and assist” capacity; they “do not have a combat mission,” according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest. Granted, when “advise and assist” missions look like this, it can be hard for us civilians to tell the difference.  

Asked about the legal authorization for the deployment, Earnest insisted“Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch the authority to take this action. There’s no debating that.”

It’s true that there hasn’t been anything resembling a genuine congressional debate over America’s war against ISIS. But the administration’s legal claim is eminently debatable. It’s based on the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, the Congress passed three days after 9/11, targeting those who “planned, authorized, [or] committed” the attacks (Al Qaeda) and those who “aided” or “harbored” them (the Taliban).

Printers Shouldn’t Be Forced to Print Messages They Don’t Agree With

Hands On Originals, a t-shirt printing company in Kentucky, refused to print t-shirts promoting a gay-pride event, the Lexington Pride Festival. Its owners weren’t objecting to any customers’ sexual orientation; instead, they objected only to the ideological message conveyed by the shirts.

The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization nevertheless filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission under an antidiscrimination ordinance that bans public accommodations from discriminating against individuals based on sexual orientation. The Commission ruled against Hands On Originals, but the state district court reversed on free speech and free exercise grounds.