Topic: Government and Politics

Obama and Original Sin

After the 1992 election, the philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote:

Those who assert that the cultural questions somehow got put behind us in 1992 because economic matters were first and foremost the issues and themes of the presidential election are pushing an illusory hope. The cultural questions — abortion, family values, drugs, and race relations — were all joined in 1992, often in language that underscored just how much people of all political persuasions still look to government as the remedy for every ill, personal and political.

The problem with such reliance is this: democratic politics can reasonably offer hope, but it cannot promise deliverance. Yet deliverance, a dramatic and rapturous sea change to bring in the new and sweep out the old and corrupt, is what loud voices and dominant groups on both the left and the right seek.

The very gridlock that the two major parties and Ross Perot’s angry, antiparty protesters all decried is generated by their own actions in promising deliverance and in deepening cultural cleavages rather than alleviating them by removing some questions from government’s purview, or at least from government’s control as the final arbiter.

One might wonder why the government can offer hope if it cannot provide deliverance. But some things never change.

Among the presidential candidates on offer, Barack Obama most clearly offers deliverance as well as hope. His mixing of religion and politics was clearly on view in a recent debate when he called money “the original sin of politics.”

Should he be elected, Obama will not provide “a dramatic and rapturous sea change to bring in the new and sweep out the old and corrupt.” That is, he will not provide deliverance because doing so is beyond the power of the government or at least beyond the ambit of a constitutionally limited government. Should Obama succeed in ridding politics of “money” (that is, of private financing of campaigns), we will live in a world where the government and its officials control all financing of political struggle. Some would find therein deliverance. Most would not.

In Obama’s defense, you can say that he no doubt truly believes he can bring deliverance to “the people.” And some voters no doubt are demanding deliverance through public financing and other, more coercive forms of the Lord’s work. But Obama is a thoughtful man, and I wonder why he does not realize that his promise of deliverance will frustrate his larger hope to restore faith in government.

As Elshtain suggests, Obama’s inevitable failure to provide deliverance will foster more distrust in the federal government. And rightly so. Such distrust is warranted at any time, not least because promises of deliverance through coercion inevitably violate individual rights. Still, it is puzzling why a thoughtful man like Obama does not conclude with Elshtain that “removing some questions from government’s purview” might be a better way to offer hope,  if not deliverance.

“Why Are You Trying to Give Away the President’s Power?”

Jack “I’m Not a Civil Libertarian” Goldsmith has more on the thirst for power inside the executive branch in excerpts from the book in Slate today.

[Counsel to Vice President Cheney David] Addington once expressed his general attitude toward accommodation when he said, “We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.” He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president’s strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies. They believed cooperation and compromise signaled weakness and emboldened the enemies of America and the executive branch. When it came to terrorism, they viewed every encounter outside the innermost core of most trusted advisers as a zero-sum game that if they didn’t win they would necessarily lose.

More here.

Still Conservatives?

For those of us who experienced the revival of Britain during the Thatcher years, the dismal plight of the British Conservative party under a series of post-Thatcher leaders has been startling and increasingly dismaying.

Short-lived Tory leaders have been intent on ditching the classical liberal principles that Thatcher and her inner coterie foisted on the party – principles that gave the Tories their finest years of the 20th century and ones that pulled Britain out of decades of economic failure. David Cameron, the current no-doubt short-lived leader, has been as determined as his recent predecessors to distance himself and the party from the Iron Lady and all that she stood for – from low, or at least lower, taxation, to expanding individual choice and on to a healthy skepticism of government.

Now at last one Tory grandee has had enough of the retreat from Thatcher principles. The former Thatcher cabinet member, Michael Ancram unveiled this week an alternative manifesto [pdf], entitled “Still a Conservative,” to the Cameron agenda, one that calls for a return to the core values that won four successive elections for the Conservatives. He warns that the British public perceives that the party lacks “an overall sense of vision and direction.” And he argues that the party should support lower taxes, leaving people with more of their own money to make their own decisions. By contrast, Cameron wants to match the Labour government’s public spending and has turned his back on lower taxes.

And there is much else in Ancram’s manifesto that would please libertarians and classical liberals, especially his call for the regulatory state to be turned back and his advocating of widening the areas of life left to individual choice rather than government diktat. There are things, though, in the manifesto that are unappealing – from his over-defined Euro-skepticism to his rejection of treating gay civil partnerships equally with marriage when it comes to benefits and taxes. He says there are other long-term relationships outside marriage which should be welcomed for their commitment, but “for Conservatives there can be no fudging the issue of marriage.”

It is a great pity that he overdoes the Euro-skepticism and is prepared to treat gays unequally – for at heart Ancram’s alternative manifesto places classical liberal principles front and center.

And how has Cameron and his supporters responded? Not much of a welcome: they have told him to hold his tongue. A party spokesman said: “This is just a blast from the past. Just as Britain has changed, the Conservative Party has to change along with it.” And a former cabinet colleague of Ancram’s, Michael Portillo, said: “I was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher but to invoke Thatcherism now, a phenomenon which is 25 years old, just makes the Tory party look old-fashioned and, of course, divided.”

Well, apparently that isn’t the viewpoint of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who like his predecessor, Tony Blair, realizes that Thatcher is still a name to conjure by. This week he spoke of his admiration for the Iron Lady. “I think Lady Thatcher saw the need for change,” he told a press conference. “Whatever disagreements you have with her about certain policies – there was a large amount of unemployment at the time which perhaps could have been dealt with – we have got to understand that she saw the need for change.”

Oprah Winfrey, Political Power Broker

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey is making a million-dollar contribution to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And despite all the campaign finance restrictions of the past 30 years, it’s perfectly legal. That’s because Oprah is making her contribution in the form of time on her television show, appearances with him on the campaign trail, and other uses of her celebrity. But if a rival media mogul, someone like Sumner Redstone or John Malone, wanted to make a contribution of more than $2,300 to a presidential candidate, that would be illegal. Because, you know, it’s corrupt to make a large contribution. Wouldn’t want the next president to be indebted to a businessman who gave him a $10,000 contribution.

This Saturday, “Winfrey will host her first-ever presidential fundraising affair on the grounds of the Promised Land, her 42-acre ocean- and mountain-view estate in Montecito, Calif. – an event that is expected to raise more than $3 million for Obama’s campaign.”

Matthew Mosk of the Washington Post outlines some of the other ways Winfrey might help her preferred candidate.

Among the weapons in Winfrey’s arsenal: the television program that reaches 8.4 million viewers each weekday afternoon, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers. Her Web site reaches 2.3 unique viewers each month, “O, the Oprah Magazine,” has a circulation of 2 million, she circulates a weekly newsletter to 420,000 fans and 360,000 people have subscribed to her Web site for daily “Oprah Alerts” by e-mail.

More than that, though, the Nielsen tracking data show that her most loyal viewers are women between 25 and 55 – a group that also votes in large numbers in Democratic primaries.

Oprah’s well aware of her power:

The fundraiser may be only the start. The Winfrey and Obama machines have maintained silence on the exact nature of their talks over what her role will be, but the idea of her appearing in television ads and other appeals is very much in play. She offered during a recent interview with CNN’s Larry King: “My money isn’t going to make any difference. My value to him – my support of him – is probably worth more than any other check that I could write.”…

Winfrey said in an audio Web chat last week that, this year, the Obamas will be her only political guests.

Campaign finance reform was promised as a way to make everyone equal in the political process, to squeeze out the power of big money. But one of its effects is to make some rich people more equal than others. If Oprah–or Rupert Murdoch, or Donald Graham–decides to use his or her resources to help a particular candidate, that’s legal and very powerful. But the rich man who runs a software company is forbidden to use any significant part of his financial resources to help a candidate.

All power to journalists and celebrities in the reformed political process.

The Republicans’ Post-Election Personal Pork Party

At The Hill, I have an article about a little-known dip into the pork barrel: big bonuses for congressional staff if there’s money left over at the end of the year, especially if the money will fall into the hands of the other party at the end of the year.

How can there be money left over when the government is running multi-hundred-billion dollar deficits? Well, you might ask. But each department has its own appropriation, and those accounts often have “money left in the budget” as the end of the year approaches, necessitating the famous end-of-the-year spending spree.

In the congressional case, I found examples like this on committee staff budgets:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee showed similar patterns. In 2005, when the Republican leadership was spending its “own money” on year-end bonuses, several staffers received less than 10 percent of their annual salaries, while a few lucky staffers received extra payments of as much as 17 percent.

But when GOP Energy and Commerce bosses faced losing their chairmanship after the 2006 election, they decided to leave no dollar behind for the Democrats. Lucky staffers then got windfalls of 31 percent on a $35,000 salary, 30 percent on a $50,000 salary, 18 percent on a $100,000 salary, and so on. At least 15 committee staffers got bonuses of between $11,000 and $17,600.

And I concluded, cheekily:

Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they choose, up to an annual ceiling, so there’s nothing illegal about year-end bonuses, even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses.

But this pattern illustrates a big difference between the private and public sectors. In the private sector, if your customers become dissatisfied with your product, you tend to make less money. In the public sector, you get a couple of months to double-dip before you lose control of the money. For participating in a Congress that voters booted out of office, these bonuses are a handsome parting gift.

A big tip of the hat to Cato interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod for poring over payroll records, and to LegiStorm for making such information about Congress public and accessible.

The Republicans’ Magic Budget Machine

In an article on the 2007 Virginia legislative elections, the Washington Post reports:

GOP candidates will also make the argument that if the party retains control, it would mean lower taxes, controls on development and more education spending.

Lower taxes AND more spending on good stuff – it’s hard to beat that combination. And it’s worked so well at the federal level. But it may be harder to deliver in a state that’s required to balance its budget.

America’s “Public Squalor” Versus Europe’s “Social Justice”

A British member of the European Parliament urges approval of the new European Union constitution (now being called a reform treaty in an effort to preclude a referendum), arguing in the Guardian that it will promote European-style solidarity rather than the American-style squalor. Yet according to both the IMF and the World Bank, per capita GDP is $8,500 higher in the United States (nearly $13,000 higher according to the CIA and $9,800 higher according to the OECD) than it is in the United Kingdom. As for the less fortunate, a left-wing think tank published a report last year showing that poor people in America have more income than poor people in the U.K. (see Figure 8D). The international data suggests that the European social model does a good job preserving the self-interest of the political class and a crummy job helping people improve their lives:

The reform treaty will explicitly commit European governments to defend and strengthen the European social model. It will enshrine the values of social justice, full employment and solidarity in the EU’s “mission statement” and commit the EU to “a social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress”. Similarly, the treaty emphasizes that the EU must work to “combat social exclusion and discrimination”, and will be legally required to promote social justice, gender equality and solidarity between generations. It is values such as these that clearly differentiate the EU from the American model of capitalism that allows private wealth and public squalor. …The overwhelming majority of our socialist colleagues across Europe support the reform treaty, despite some reservations, precisely because it will enshrine the European social model.