Topic: Government and Politics

Rep. Tom Davis, Republican Brand Mangler - Er, Manager

In the opening segment of this week’s Washington Week on PBS, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) commented on the viability of the Republican party in the upcoming elections: “The Republican brand name - if you were to put this on a dog food - the owners would just take it off the shelf because nobody’s buying it.”

Davis has more than a little responsibility for these circumstances. He’s been a consistent cheerleader of the REAL ID Act, for example, the moribund national ID law. He has consistently pressed and promoted REAL ID. He claimed that imposing $17 billion in costs on state governments is not an unfunded mandate, and pretended like shaking $50 million in federal money loose made any difference. Davis saluted the final regulations when they were issued earlier this year.

In a REAL ID story including Davis, Federal Computer Week saw fit to note that he “represents a Northern Virginia district heavily populated by federal employees and government contractors.”

P.J. O’Rourke comments in the most recent Cato’s Letter: “It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years—from 1954 to 1994—to get … corrupt and arrogant, and the Republicans did it in just 12.” Being wrong on liberty, even in service to your district’s government contractors, is not good for your party’s brand, Mr. Davis.

When Would McCain Intervene?

Matt Bai has a writeup in this Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine of McCain’s vision on foreign policy. Buckle up:

McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet….

[…]

[A]s we talked, I tried to draw out of him some template for knowing when military intervention made sense — an answer, essentially, to the question that has plagued policy makers confronting international crises for the last 20 years. McCain has said that the invasion of Iraq was justified, even absent the weapons of mass destruction he believed were there, because of Hussein’s affront to basic human values. Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn’t we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning’s paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country’s recent national election? How about sending soldiers into Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest by a military junta?

“I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s because of our history in Africa,” McCain said thoughtfully. “Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa. The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism. So that’s a problem I think we will continue to have on the continent of Africa. If you send in Western military forces, then you risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism.”

The United States faced a similar obstacle in Myanmar, McCain went on, shaking his head sadly. “First of all, you’d have to gauge the opinion of the people over time, whether you’d be greeted as liberators or as occupiers,” McCain said. “I would be concerned about the possibility that if it were mishandled, we might see an insurgent movement.” He talked a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he called “one of the great figures of the 20th century,” but then wondered aloud if the American public would support a military intervention.

“It goes back to the Vietnam thing,” McCain told me. “I’m just not sure the American people would support a military engagement in Burma, no matter how justified the cause. And I can’t tell you exactly when it would be over. And I can’t tell you exactly what the reaction of the people there would be.”

Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”

Thankfully, though, the Washington Post is reporting that McCain apparently has a secret plan to win the war in Iraq by 2013.

The Gas Tax Holiday Explained

The commentariat (including Cato folks and friends) have spent the past couple of weeks sounding off on John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s proposals to suspend the federal motor fuels tax this summer. The commentary has been almost uniformly critical of the idea, and some of the harshest critics have been economists.

Unfortunately, a lot of this commentary seems to be value judgments disguised as economics. Also, much of the economic analysis makes assumptions about the market that may not be correct or that may be offset by other market conditions — but the commentators do not mention (and may even forget) those problems. Put simply, though the idea of a gas tax holiday may be flawed, many of the opinion and analysis pieces on the McCain and Clinton proposals appear to be flawed as well.

Peter Van Doren and I have put together this short paper on the microeconomics of the gas tax. Don’t let the figures and the talk of “elasticities” throw you — the ideas are easy to understand.

The upshot is this: Contrary to many economists’ claims, it’s quite possible that a tax holiday could give consumers some price relief on motor fuels. (This is an economic insight.) However, it’s an open question whether that savings is worth its cost. (Answering that question requires a value judgment.)

California: Poster Child for Poor Fiscal Management

On Wednesday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is releasing his revised budget proposal against a backdrop of a massive deficit.  In my op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I lay out the background of the “fiscal crisis” in the state (too much spending) and point out a few specific programs the governor can terminate.  Enacting a spending limit and working to increase the use of public-private partnerships would be great, but this year’s budget debate highlights the need to also eliminate programs, cut spending (not merely spending growth) and refocus the state government on its core functions. 

Not from California?  Your state has also likely forgotten the lessons of the 1990s and may have its own “crisis” brewing. 

Eternal Vigilance, Inc.

The Style section of today’s Washington Post features a terrific article about the National Security Archive, the nonprofit group dedicated to unearthing goverment secrets. The privately funded group, about 35 strong, uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect about 75,000 documents a year, which staffers analyze and then post on the website. The Archive’s greatest hits (see, e.g., here and here) demonstrate that as Patrick Henry put it, one should “never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.” Don’t trust: verify.

One of my favorite documents on the site is the Operation Northwoods Memo, prepared by the Pentagon in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster:

titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba” [the memo] was provided by the JCS to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on March 13, 1962, as the key component of Northwoods. Written in response to a request from the Chief of the Cuba Project, Col. Edward Lansdale, the Top Secret memorandum describes U.S. plans to covertly engineer various pretexts that would justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba. These proposals - part of a secret anti-Castro program known as Operation Mongoose - included staging the assassinations of Cubans living in the United States, developing a fake “Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington,” including “sink[ing] a boatload of Cuban refugees (real or simulated),” faking a Cuban airforce attack on a civilian jetliner, and concocting a “Remember the Maine” incident by blowing up a U.S. ship in Cuban waters and then blaming the incident on Cuban sabotage.

Sounds like tinfoil-hat stuff, I know, but thanks to FOIA and the National Security Archive, you can check for yourself [.pdf]. But if Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had had their way, you couldn’t. As top aides to Gerald Ford 34 years ago, they urged the president to veto amendments strengthening FOIA (he did, and Congress overrode his veto). The Archive has the documents on that too.

(cross-posted on genehealy.com)

Politics Corrupts Everything

The president of West Virginia University, Michael Garrison, is hanging on after the school’s faculty voted 77 to 19 to demand his resignation. Faculty members are outraged that Garrison retroactively awarded an MBA to a friend, who is the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin III. The Washington Post reports:

Garrison’s critics note that he is a former classmate of Bresch’s. He once worked as a lobbyist for Mylan Inc., where Bresch is an executive and whose chairman is one of WVU’s biggest donors. They also note that Garrison was chief of staff for former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D).

The Post failed to add the detail that Garrison served on Manchin’s transition team when he succeeded Wise. So yes, when you hire a lobbyist and political operator to run a university, you can expect some favors for politically connected friends.

Antiwar Republicans Win in NC

Over at The American Conservative blog, Jim Antle points out that Rep. Walter Jones, an antiwar Republican incumbent, as well as another antiwar Republican, B.J. Lawson, won big in last night’s North Carolina primary.

Although the Republican establishment in Washington seems to have sacrificed every other governing principle at the altar of reckless militarism, it appears that a contingent of Republican voters haven’t. Maybe Bill Kauffman is onto something