Topic: Government and Politics

Welch on McCain

After his meeting yesterday with the Republican nominee, President Bush told the press that John McCain would be a “President who will bring determination to defeat an enemy, and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” That sounds just swell, if your model for the president is Aslan, the mighty and compassionate lion king from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But perhaps a more grown-up approach to presidential character assessment is needed. If so, you could hardly do better than Matt Welch’s new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick

Welch’s book provides plenty of reasons to worry about a McCain presidency, often using McCain’s own words to raise questions about the Arizona senator’s ideology and temperament. On the latter, Welch devotes a whole chapter to the issue of the McCain temper, beginning the chapter with a quote from McCain’s 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: “During an otherwise tranquil early childhood, I had quite unexpectedly developed an outsized temper that I expressed in an unusual way. At the smallest provocation, I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” In 1999 McCain told the LA Times: “I do everything I can to keep my anger under control. I wake up daily and tell myself, ‘You must do everything possible to stay cool, calm, and collected today.’” Arguably, a little temper is a good thing in a chief executive, but before handing over the keys to the world’s most powerful military, one would like to be sure that the CINC has his anger well in hand.     

As for the ideology that motivates McCain, in Welch’s telling, it’s 180-proof National Greatness Conservatism. After a McCain adviser handed the senator a stack of David Brooks essays in the late ’90s, Welch writes that “it became difficult to determine where the Weekly Standard’s imagination ended and McCain’s stump speech began.” Welch quotes a May 27, 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech he mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” No, God forbid. 

In the late 1990s, McCain looked out upon peace, prosperity, and American irreverence towards government, and he saw a country in crisis. We could only be saved with government activism — whether that took the form of speech-restricting campaign finance laws or “rogue state rollback.” After all, as Brooks put it in his 1997 “Manifesto” on National Greatness Conservatism: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” If you think the country needs more of that approach, then McCain may be the man for you.     

(D) All of the Above

As an advocate of free trade, I feel slightly vindicated by reports that the Obama campaign quietly assured the Canadian government that the Senator’s strident words about NAFTA in last week’s debate were merely political rhetoric. We’ve long been saying that opposition to trade is mostly an artifice of politics. But the story begs the question: Is Obama (a) economically illiterate; (b) dishonest, or; (c) naïve. The answer is (d), all of the above.

Obama blames faulty trade agreements, like NAFTA, for the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. But one can check that claim easily by turning to page 280 (Table B-46) of the Economic Report of the President, 2008 [.pdf]. There one will find that in the 14 years since NAFTA took effect, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs declined by 2.7 million. In the 14 years prior to NAFTA (between 1979 and 1993) the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 2.7 million. No difference at all. In both periods, there was a decline of 193,000 net manufacturing jobs per year.

Although U.S. manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 and has been trending downward since, there was an uptick in employment in the first few years after NAFTA took effect. Between 1993 and 1998, 500,000 net jobs were created in manufacturing. Did NAFTA create those jobs? I wouldn’t make that claim, but it certainly has more empirical support than the opposite claim—that NAFTA cost jobs.

Three million jobs lost since 2000? Look again [.pdf]. During the pronounced manufacturing recession of 2000-2003, there was a precipitous drop of 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, but it’s hard to blame NAFTA for that. Manufactured imports from NAFTA countries were flat during that period: imports in 2000 were higher than the average for 2001 through 2003. Again, if you must blame NAFTA, look to the export side of the equation. U.S. exports dropped 11 percent from 2000 to 2003.

And for the record, since 2004, there has been a decline of 300,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide. That rate of 100,000 per year (vs. the rate of 193,000 per year during the entire post-peak period of 1979-2007) suggests that even the basis for the political rhetoric is about five years too stale.

That Obama asserted he would take a “sledgehammer” to NAFTA because it is broken and then say just kidding to the Canadians is dishonest. Some are cynical enough to excuse that as par-for-the-course pandering, but I don’t. The reason that there is a backlash against trade – that there is even a debate – in this country is that lies like those are uttered with such frequency that they are believed. Those myths are all the more reinforced when spoken by someone as apparently likeable and charismatic as Senator Obama.

Finally, the attempt to smooth things over with the Canadian government raises questions about the candidate’s naïvete. Did it not occur to him that a conservative Canadian government might favor a McCain presidency and might make political hay out of the “disregard-the-NAFTA-belligerence” comments?

At least Senator Clinton knows enough to wait until after Ohioans vote before winking at our NAFTA neighbors.

Midnight in the White House

That Hillary Clinton ad about the need for an experienced president – “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing…. Who do you want answering the phone?” – reminds some commentators of a very similar ad that helped former vice president Walter Mondale hold on to his lead over the dashing young senator Gary Hart in 1984. It reminded me of John McCain’s jibe at George W. Bush’s inexperience in 2000, recorded by Dana Milbank in his book Smashmouth (page 313):

But when the scouting reports come in, there is only one lonely man in a dark office.

Are They the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?

Barack Obama’s soaring campaign continues to roll, this time with the release of a bilingual music video by musician will.i.am. In it, celebrities such as Jessica Alba, George Lopez, Ryan Phillippe, Malcolm Jamal Warner, and Macy Gray sing the praises of Obama and repeate his line “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Certainly I know that I have been waiting for Jessica Alba and Ryan Phillippe to lead our nation at last.

Libertarians for Obama?

At Freedom Communications, the media company founded by the tenacious libertarian publisher R. C. Hoiles, which is still largely family-owned and freedom-oriented, they had an internal lunch debate on presidential politics the other day. According to Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, their corporate philosopher Tibor Machan advocated voting for the Libertarian Party. But the company’s CEO, Scott Flanders, had a different view:

But there was a hush as Flanders reasoned that Obama is the best candidate to work on four top libertarian reforms: 1) Iraq withdrawal, 2) restoring the separation of church and state; 3) easing off victimless crimes such as drug use; 4) curtailing the Patriot Act.

As it happens, a few days earlier I had talked to a leading libertarian writer, who told me that he supposed he’d vote for Obama on the basis of the Iraq issue.

Libertarian voters should be up for grabs this year, the Republicans having done such an effective job of pushing them away. But the Democrats don’t seem to be making much of a pitch for them. At the last Democratic debate, Clinton and Obama spent the first 30 minutes proclaiming their devotion to socialized medicine and protectionism. But maybe issues of peace and civil liberties — combined with the Republicans’ loss of credibility on fiscal and economic issues — really will push some libertarians into the arms of the Democrats, especially if the Democratic nominee is not self-proclaimed “government junkie” Hillary Clinton.

Obama and Clinton Threaten to Bully Our Neighbors over Trade

When they weren’t jabbing at each other over health care and Iraq, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent a good chunk of their debate last night arguing over which of them is the strongest critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both declared that they would withdraw the United States from the agreement if Canada and Mexico did not agree to inserting “enforceable” labor and environmental standards into the agreement.

Talk about a non-starter. It is unlikely that our two neighbors would agree to reopen a 14-year-old agreement that has worked well for all three nations. [You can read my assessment of NAFTA here.] In effect, Obama and Clinton will be asking our two neighbors to bend their national labor and environmental standards to the demands of the U.S. Congress under threat of trade sanctions. Where exactly is the upside for Canada and Mexico in such a request?

Of course, there is no upside. So the only motivation will be the threat that the United States will unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA. That, of course, would result in the re-imposition of tariffs on trade with our two most important trading partners. And because Mexican tariffs on imports from the rest of the world are significantly higher than U.S. tariffs, U.S. exporters to Mexico would face a much steeper tariff increase than Mexican exporters to the United States. By withdrawing us from NAFTA, the Democrats would transform what has truly become a “level playing field” of zero tariffs into one tilted against U.S. exporters.

And even if the U.S. government were able to demand that Mexico impose new and tougher environmental and labor restrictions on its producers, there is little reason to believe that goods now made in Mexico would be soon be produced in Youngstown, Ohio, and elsewhere in the United States. The far more likely scenario is that producers in Mexico would shift production to China, Vietnam, and other lower-cost producers.

Finally, consider the foreign policy implications of threatening to withdraw from NAFTA. The Democratic candidates have been critical of the Bush administration for its checkered record of winning friends abroad. But have the Clinton and Obama campaigns considered how our friends in Canada and Mexico will react to the heavy-handed demand that they re-write their domestic labor and environmental laws under threat of face tariff retaliation from Uncle Sam?

This would confirm the worst fears of our closest neighbors.

Cato Scholar Comments on Breakup between Bush, U.S.

A lot of my colleagues here were really excited when The Onion, to my mind America’s premier fake news source, cited the work of our colleague Dr. Adam Stogsdill recently. But now Brian Whitaker has also made it onto The Onion’s pages to comment on another important story.

WASHINGTON—Amid allegations that his thoughtless and insensitive decisions have damaged his relationship with the nation, President George W. Bush vowed Monday that he would, starting now, “make everything better.”

“This time I’m serious,” Bush said. “I am ready to make a fresh start if we can just put the past behind us. I promise.”

[…]

Despite Bush’s seemingly conciliatory stance, public response to Bush’s promises has been frosty at best. Cato Institute policy scholar Brian Whitaker echoed the sentiments of many Americans, calling Bush’s recent overtures “too little, too late.”

“We want to believe that he’s finally going to be the president we always wanted, but we’ve given him so many chances,” Whitaker said. “I don’t think we can handle another disappointment. Maybe it’s time to realize that President Bush will never be the head of state we need him to be.”

“Then again, maybe our expectations are unfair,” Whitaker added. “He seemed so sincere this time. He wouldn’t abuse his executive powers if he didn’t care about us, right?”

Whitaker predicted that the nation will likely move forward and try to forget Bush, though it may be difficult for Americans to ever trust a president again. He said the current crop of presidential contenders offers little in the way of an alternative to Bush, but maintained that “at least Barack Obama listens to us.”

Wow, congrats, Brian. A lot of folks in the building are bound to be pretty jealous today.