Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reince Picks Up The Pieces

Reince Picks Up The Pieces

Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States last November.  While this this remarkable fact has apparently not yet reached the United State House of Representatives, thankfully, someone was able to contact Mitt Romney before he made the trip to Washington. 

Also with his ear to the ground was one Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and the man charged with snagging the shoes of the fisherman and placing them on the correct feet.

Priebus, despite the 2012 fiasco, is actually a pretty smart fellow.  He commissioned an RNC study to determine what went wrong, and last week, he presented an extensive critique of the GOP’s response to technical, nominating process, philosophical, and demographic challenges.

The technical issues are the easiest to resolve, and it seems fairly clear that anything that can be solved with time, expertise, and money, will be accomplished.  By 2016, the GOP should have in place all the digital tools it needs to match Mr. Obama’s 2012 performance.  The party’s base may not believe in science when it comes to global warming or evolution, but the party pros believe in it as necessary to win.

As to the nominating system itself, what Priebus really wants is a partial return to the old-time smoke-filled back rooms where the insiders make the safe, conventional, and “electable” choices.  He wants to shorten the process on both the front and the back ends: fewer debates, a more concentrated schedule of primaries, maybe even regional primaries, and an earlier convention.  This is smart for at least a couple of reasons; the more debates, the more the possibility of gaffes.  Perhaps more importantly, although Priebus can’t really say this: the longer the nominating period the greater the temptation and even the competition to play only to the base.  That doesn’t always go over well with the general electorate; even if you buy the Republicans core argument that the country is center-right, it is not hard right.

Enacting these reforms could be difficult.  Priebus was careful not to offend the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.  They won’t want to lose their disproportionate influence.  But any return to the back-room, or even a significant reduction in debates, offends true outsider or insurgent candidates who will have less of an opportunity if they aren’t afforded a platform. This outsider-victim mentality is a new development. Culturally, the old Republican Party always liked order; you could never imagine anything like the 1968 Democratic Convention.  Now, many hard-right conservatives, particularly Tea Party types, thrive on adrenaline-soaked high-wire acts. 

Priebus is also shrewdly focused on the changing racial demographics; by 2016, well over 30% of the potential electorate is either going to be African-American, Latino-American, or Asian American.  But, for each of the three ethic groups, the problems the GOP faces are different.

With Obama in the White House, the GOP has played jujitsu with the African-American vote; even Colin Powell’s endorsement was derided as “identity politics.”  In 2016, however, with Mr. Obama off the ticket, both the more blatant aspects of this and the more subliminal will no longer play a role.  The GOP is anticipating a large gain by virtue of the expected drop-off in African-American turnout.  What they haven’t taken into account, however, is whether any of the old-fashioned, more traditional voters who were not ready for a Barack Obama would be willing to return to the Democratic fold with a more conventional candidate.  This redistribution might not be the windfall the GOP hopes for; much of the African-American vote is concentrated in big-city Northeastern and Midwestern states (already Blue) and in the deep crimson South, so a slight reduction in minority turnout may have no impact on outcome.  It is even possible that this swapping of votes could turn out to be a net positive for the Democrats.

As for Asian-Americans, the math is substantially different, and more complex. The Asian-American community is profoundly dedicated to personal advancement through education.  Families sacrifice every material comfort to provide maximum opportunity to their children.  Their children, in turn, disproportionately fill places like New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, as well as universities such as Cal Tech and MIT.  The Santorum wing of the GOP is deeply anti-science on a number of levels.  To a group that values education as much as the Asian community does, this near-mania for Flat-Earthism shows Republicans to be unserious, and, as a result untrustworthy with power. 

Latinos, of course, have been in the bulls-eye for some time. I don’t intend to minimize the real problem of illegal immigration, which is a serious one.  But, what Priebus has, in effect, acknowledged, is that the GOP has not been able to frame the immigration debate as a legal and economic one, as opposed to a merely racial one.  The report itself says “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” 

What Priebus does want is for the GOP to embrace some type of immigration reform that provides an easier path to legal immigration and deals humanely with the illegals already here.  Marco Rubio wants that as well, as does Jeb Bush, when he’s not changing his mind.  They have support for some of this from the pro-business wing, which wants more visas for economically useful immigrants.  Just this past weekend, Thomas Donlan, in Barron’s, made an excellent case for opening the door to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers.  Notwithstanding those influences, it’s fairly clear, that for now, the Rush wing of the party has no interest in it, and the Rush wing has control.  This is a gift to the Democrats: a slightly different GOP should have no problem attracting Latino votes; they are a group much closer to David Brooks’ “communitarian conservatism” than traditional Northeast liberalism. 

Philosophically, the bigger tent Priebus is suggesting is a very hard sell.  On “moral” issues, the evangelical wing of the party is sincere in their beliefs and is not likely to be more accommodating.  Ohio Senator Rob Portman just revealed that his son was gay and endorsed same-sex marriage.  If you will excuse the pun, Portman hasn’t exactly led a rush to the altar.  In North Dakota, the Republican dominated government has essentially banned abortion, and in Arkansas, the legislature has come close.  Several prominent Republicans, including Rick Santorum, oppose birth control. Countless school districts insist on teaching creationism.  And, politically, if what went on in CPAC is any guide, looking for a broader worldview than just Fox/Rush/Laura Ingram isn’t going to happen any time soon.  It was telling that Dick Morris (he of the 325 vote Romney landslide prediction) was a featured speaker.  The CPAC crowd just isn’t ready to hear any opposing views.

What does the future look like? The “philosophical” issues bring us back to demographics, and particularly, age.  If the GOP is the party of older whites, the country is moving in the opposite direction. It is not merely getting less white, but, inevitably, the older voters (of all races) are being replaced by the younger, and younger people think differently. Their view on ethnicity, on the role that gender should play in the workplace, and on personal choices is very different, and far more tolerant. This is not a condemnation of the older generations, merely an observation of context. The world they knew is passing.  In the new, the young don’t relate to the demands of the culture warriors and don’t share some of the more dated attitudes. 

Here, I think, is Priebus’s greatest opportunity, because if the GOP can find a way to be more tolerant, they may have a generation willing to listen to them on economic issues.  However socially liberal younger voters may be, they are not New Deal Democrats.  This was vividly demonstrated to me this past weekend.  On Saturdays, I run in the park with a group that’s mostly about half my age.  One of the leaders grew up in the Midwest, served in Afghanistan, and now is stateside and trying to make his way in the sometimes unforgiving world of New York.  After the run, he talked to me a bit; he holds down three jobs and plays in a band, and never gets enough sleep.  He was tired of always trying to keep up; he wanted the system to respect his work. I inserted some well-meaning Northeastern liberal claptrap.  My mistake. He wasn’t asking for anything beyond understanding. Nor did he feel that he should support others who weren’t willing to make the same efforts that he did. If I had taken the time to listen more closely, instead of staying in my own middle-aged sure-of-myself comfort zone, I would have realized that. 

To that end, I was struck by a report  by David Remnick in The New Yorker about remarks Mr. Obama made during his  recent trip to the Middle East.  Instead of addressing the Knesset, he chose a younger, more liberal, more sympathetic group.  He spoke more intimately, touched on the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, about dignity, and the two-state process.  In his words, peace comes “Not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. And let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Mr. Obama has an oft-derided gift for pretty words, but this time he was right on target.  That young crowd, more open-minded and accepting than the older generation of hard-liners who had fought several wars, would either have to accept the choices made by their elders, and the consequences, or push for a different future—their future.

I better go back to my running group next Saturday and open my ears and my mind.  I hope Reince Priebus doesn’t get there first.


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Sunday, March 17, 2013

CPAC: The Parody And The Ecstasy

CPAC: The Parody And The Ecstasy

Every March, good conservatives from all over the country put on their finest wacko bird plumage and swan their way down to the annual three-day debutante ball known as CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The sponsoring organization of CPAC is the American Conservative Union.  The conference is open to anyone who wants to register; $195.00 will get you General Admission, $1,000.00 the VIP Package.  The guest list of speakers, however, is a Mrs. Astor’s 400 list of acceptable conservatives.

In with a bang this year was Rand Paul, fresh off his filibuster triumph.  Returning hero Marco Rubio was given a prime-speaking slot.  Also hot, Ted Cruz, the freshman Senator from Texas who seems to personify slashing partisanship.  And new star Ben Carson, the Johns Hopkins surgeon who broke protocol at the non-partisan National Prayer Breakfast by sharply criticizing Mr. Obama.

Out were large-bodied, large personalities with Joisey accents.  Also out, interestingly, was Virginia’s quite conservative Republican Governor, Bob McDonnell.  His sin was backing a roads and transportation bill with tax revenue.  Christie didn’t come.  McDonnell was asked by evangelical right leader Ralph Reed to give a few remarks at a small private gathering as a consolation prize.  Also out, very out, but very much in attendance, was Karl Rove, who was hissed at multiple opportunities.

So, what do all these folk actually do at CPAC?  What do they talk about?

Remember, first and foremost, that the Conservative movement is one of ideas.  So there are a lot of highbrow, deeply intellectual books about the philosophical underpinnings of modern Conservative thought, often placed in a gemütlich setting.  At “Muffins and Mimosas With the Honorable Ken Cuccinelli” you can meet the great man and pick up his “Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty.”  Other worthy titles include Obama’s Four Horsemen; The Disasters Unleashed By Obama’s Reelection and The Communist, The Untold Story of Frank Marshall Davis, Barack Obama’s Mentor.  For some outrage at the mainstream media, there is Spin Masters How the Media Ignored the Real News And Helped Re-Elect Barack Obama and Fast and Furious, Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and its Shameless Cover-up.  For those interested in economics, Stealing You Blind.  How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You.  And, from the Dale Carnegie wing of the party, Bullies, How The Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America as well as Ann Coulter’s heartfelt plea for tolerance, Mugged; Racial Demagoguery From the Seventies to Obama.

Not in the mood to read?   Who could be, with all those luminaries in town? Buy them all and take your significant other (opposite sex, please) to a flick.  Popcorn and raisinettes included.   Woo her with the rom-com “Hating Breitbart.”  Get her to snuggle with the scary “2016: Obama’s America” or “Hillary The Movie.” Show her your caring, humane side with “Occupy Unmasked; A Shocking Indictment Of One Of The Most Controversial Movements in American History.” Or your depth with “Generation Zero: The Debt Crisis That Obama And the Left Ignore at the Peril of the Nation.”  

Too much fun? There was some serious talk, and some policy.  Mitt Romney made a mellow, low-key presentation, showing a previously well-hidden graciousness, which was fairly warmly received.  Paul Ryan gave a wonky and boring speech, outlining, with his customary lack of detail, how the Conservative revolution would finally get the government off the backs of the downtrodden 1% and liberate the poor and the elderly from the moral burden of dependency.  The NRA sponsored a workshop on how to protect the Second Amendment (no word on free samples.) There was an anti-abortion film presented by Mike Huckabee and a session on how to become a conservative journalist, and some obligatory climate change debunking 

OK, maybe those are a bit of a snooze. But big thoughts, and big personalities abounded, although not necessarily in the same people.  

For pure entertainment value, Donald Trump came wafting into town under a luxuriant head of hair; he trashed Obama and demanded that Latinos never be given citizenship because they might vote Democratic. Sarah Palin brought her special brand of just-plain-folks-stick-the-knife-in, and the crowd went absolutely nuts.  Wayne LaPierre made ‘em laugh when it came to gun control, alternately mocking, jeering, smirking. 

As for the partying, these folk actually know how to have a good time.  On Thursday, there was an “Alan West Guardian Fund Happy Hour” and a  choice between a “Presidential Dinner Sponsored By Newsmax.”  and a “VIP Presidential Dinner Reception Sponsored By The National Rife Association,” which, true to form, was by invitation only.  Friday brought the classy “Ronald Reagan Dinner Sponsored By Judicial Watch.”    

The one event I would have liked to have had a FISA-court approved webcam on was the “Walking Dead: Obama Zombies On Parade” which apparently was “a speed networking party for future conservative power players.”  The American Conservative Union, Sixty Plus, and the US Chamber of Commerce sponsored that little gem.

Saturday was a doozy.  The sun rose on Steve King, the Iowa Congressman who wants to emulate Todd Akin in next year’s election for Tom Harkin’s Senate seat.  He was followed by Scott Walker, the union busting Governor of Wisconsin with the smile of a juvenile assassin, who politely put off but did not deny talk of a 2016 Presidential run (Scott Walker???)  The crowd loved Walker.   Those two were the table setters for Newt (introduced by Calista, of course) and then Michelle Bachmann.  All that by 10AM.   Noon brought Sarah, and from the other side of the age and appeal spectrum, Phyllis Schlafly.  12:30 was “Ten Conservatives Under 40” although it’s unclear whether that was a seminar, or a head count. The weekend’s pleasantries were brought to a close by the announcement of the Straw Poll winner and then a late afternoon meal fit for a carnivore.  Ann Coulter followed by Ted Cruz, with each outdoing themselves in chest beating.

So, what did we learn from this experience? Well, at CPAC, it’s the “severely conservative conservatives” who are in charge.  John McCain was booed, several times.  Karl Rove was taken to task by none other than his former colleague at Fox, Sarah Palin, who suggested he go back to Texas. Conservatives seem to be looking for a good time, either with the matinee idols or the bad boys.  Jeb Bush was dull.  Marco and Rand and Ted were not.  Rand Paul said it best “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered…. I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?”

No, I don’t think we need to name any names.  The crowd knew.  In the Straw Poll, Paul and Rubio were first and second, with 25% and 23% respectively, and no one else was higher than Santorum’s 8%.  And last summer’s fling died a quick (possibly temporary) death.  Paul Ryan was at 6%.  Some of those un-named names? Jeb asked to not be on the ballot, and none of the rest even registered.  Even Sarah only got 3%.

So, what do all these people stand for in their gut?  What do they feel emotionally?  What does CPAC tell us about the inner tuning fork of a conservative? Why would you waste your time reading all those screeds, or watching dark-hued portentous movies of a coming apocalypse instead of trying to find ways to persuade new recruits? And, more importantly, why do conservatives persist in thinking the failures of McCain and Romney to beat the despised Mr. Obama was because of a lack of purity and a lack of passion, and not a lack of appeal of their ideas?  Without being too blunt, can any rational person think that any conservative would have voted for Barack Obama in 2012, much less than the roughly 2,500,000 that would have been needed to switch the popular vote result? 

I have to admit that I am too center-left to get it.  Of all the posts I have written on Syncopated Politics, I found this one the most difficult.  I was stymied when trying to describe what appears to be a visceral article of faith.  I read reports in news links across the political spectrum and felt no closer to understanding. 

Then, a little ray of insight (and maybe a little hope) from a piece by Chris Good on the ABC News site:  “I came here to meet a nice conservative girl, but I think I’m only gonna meet crazy conservative girls,” one lovelorn young man, wearing a red tie, remarked to his friend on the opening day of CPAC.”

Now, that, I can get.  He was speaking a universal language that anyone could understand.

Crazy conservative girls.  Agony without the ecstasy. I feel for that man.


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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Filibusters and Folly

Filibusters And Folly

On April 8, 1826, John Randolph, Senator of Virginia, and Henry Clay of Kentucky, then Secretary of State, and once and future Senator, met, with their seconds, on the field of honor. 

Dueling was illegal at the time in Virginia, but, since Senator Randolph insulted (quite definitively) Secretary Clay, a gentleman’s only alternative was to duel, with pistols, at an absurdly short distance. 

Randolph was upset with Clay’s support for John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in the four-way (Adams, Jackson, Clay, and William Crawford of Georgia) 1824 Presidential election.  Jackson got the most popular and electoral votes, but not enough for a majority, and the deadlock went to the House of Representatives. There, Clay threw his support behind Adams, whom he thought would be more sympathetic to Western interests. Adams became President, and then appointed Clay Secretary of State.  This enraged Randolph (a man easily enraged) and he conjured up a conspiracy between Clay and Adams, calling it a “corrupt bargain” and Clay a “blackguard.” For good measure Randolph accused Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.”

Clay had to respond with a challenge, and official Washington worried because Randoph was considered a crack shot and Clay indispensible.  By 1826, Clay had already been the youngest Senator in American history, Speaker of the House three times, and was instrumental, with Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, in brokering the Missouri Compromise and averting a constitutional crisis between North and South. 

Both men’s first shots missed. At this point, Thomas Hart Benton, Senator of Missouri, tried to stop the duel, but neither man’s honor seemed satisfied.  Clay's second shot also missed, passing through Randolph’s cloak, and, by the code, he had to wait to receive Randolph’s return fire.  Clay and the onlookers waited, for what must have seen like an eternity.  And then Randolph raised his pistol above his head, and fired into the air. 

I always thought this was a fascinating story.  Three of the great figures of the first half of the 19th Century together for what could have been a history-altering event.  Randolph, known for his vile temper and sharp tongue, and Benton, for his prodigious appetites and extraordinary oratorical skill, were both known to be able to hold the floor for hours, or even days, on legislation they opposed.  In 1825 Randolph talked for several days in opposition to a series of measures proposed by Adams that, in his view, favored the emerging trading and industrial powers of New England at the expense of the more agrarian South. This series of speeches was considered the first Senate filibuster.

Last week, another Senator from Kentucky, Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, mounted his own filibuster of more than 13 hours, garnering plenty of attention and more than a little admiration.  Paul sought to delay the nomination of John Brennan as Director of the CIA until he got an up or down answer from the Obama Administration as to whether drones could be used on American citizens on American soil.   Senator Paul got his answer, stopped the filibuster so a cloture vote could be taken, voted for cloture, and then against Brennan’s nomination, which passed anyway.  

What made Paul’s effort so interesting was that he actually filibustered.  He went to the well of the Senate, and like Jimmy Stewart, he talked, and talked, and talked some more.  Not much of what he said would be compared to Randolph, or Benton, but he did something that Senators had been avoiding for quite some time.  He actually put his mouth where his money was.

Rand Paul is now a bit of a rock star, and a lot of the electorate is either bemused or admiring.  But he also took the lid off of another and far more pernicious practice, that of filibustering everything you don’t agree without actually making any more of an effort than an “I object.”

Why is this a problem, and, haven’t there always been filibusters?  Yes, although in the past, you actually had to do what Senator Paul did; take the floor and not yield it (except to a friendly Senator who would yield it back) until the legislation you opposed was withdrawn, or you dropped to the floor, Jimmy Stewart-style, in a faint. 

Given that in the past, we always got the real stuff, there must have been a lot of orating and a lot of fainting?  Not as much as you might have thought.  While it is impossible to track every filibuster and every Senatorial hold (the cheap, anonymous filibuster that literally takes no effort beyond telling your caucus’s leader you object) we can count Cloture motions.  From the 65th Congress (beginning in 1917) through the 91st Congress, ending in 1970, there were a total (total) of 58 Cloture motions filed, or barely more than one a year.  Things got friskier from the 92nd to the 101st Congress (1970-1990), where there was an average of about 18 a year.  During the Clinton years, the average rose to about 36 per year, and that stayed reasonably constant during the first six years of the Bush Presidency.  There tend to be more filibusters in Presidential election years, because the party controlling the Presidency likes to push through as many of their own as they can, while the party out of power hopes for electoral success and their own appointees come January.  Mr. Bush’s last two years in office showed another spike.

And then came Mr. Obama, for whom the GOP has the greatest difficulty accepting as anything more than a “community organizer” for whom every year is a “last year.”  Despite his two decisive electoral wins, the GOP simply cannot bear to allow him to appoint his own Cabinet, or exercise his Constitutional right and duty to appoint judges to the Federal Courts.  In Mr. Obama’s four years and one month in office, there have already been 257 Cloture motions filed.  53 Cabinet and Judicial nominations have been blocked, or more than twice Mr. Bush’s total in eight years.  And these don’t even count the nominations that remain bottled up in committee.

The reasons?  Well, they range from piqué to political posturing to what appears to be outright mendacity.   In some cases, like the President’s attempt to nominate B. Todd Jones to head the ATF, or Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the GOP blocked the nominee because they don’t agree with the laws creating the agencies.  Since they lack the votes to repeal the legislation (and since they oppose regulations of firearms and consumer safety) they hamstring those organizations to keep them from functioning.  In others, such as Cabinet nominees Hagel and Brennan, they were held hostage to demands that the nominees agree with Republican policies, or the Administration give more information about Benghazi.  And, in the most egregious, the GOP continues to block the nomination of Caitlin Joan Halligan to be a Judge on the influential DC Circuit.  What’s wrong with Ms. Halligan?  To start with, she is opposed by the NRA, who apparently gets a veto on all nominees.  But there is more to it than that.  Ms. Halligan has been nominated for a seat in an influential circuit which is currently dominated by Bush appointees, and which has consistently ruled against Mr. Obama (including, most recently and controversially, on recess appointments that every President has made since time immemorial.)  Now, what makes this even more fascinating is that there are four vacancies on that court, and the GOP will not let Mr. Obama place anyone on there.  So, did all four retired judges suddenly up and leave at the same time?  Not really.  Ms. Halligan’s seat was previously held by none other than John Roberts--yes, that John Roberts, who, as you know, has been otherwise employed elsewhere for several years.

As for one of Mr. Obama’s other nominees for a seat on that court, Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan, presently the Assistant Solicitor General, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said of his nomination. “I thought it was wonderful….He was a splendid law clerk and a fine lawyer. He does thorough research and I think he’s a splendid choice for an appellate court position.”

Of course, that’s just Sandra Day O’Connor.  What does she know about judging when the Wall Street Journal and National Review oppose the nomination? 

It does make one a little nostalgic for the days of big figures, warts and all, dueling it out on the Senate floor (or, sometimes in an open field with pistols at 30 paces.) 

After Randolph discharged his gun harmlessly, Clay approached him, “Mr. Randolph are you hurt?” No, Mr. Clay.” replied Randolph, “But you owe me a new coat.”  “I am thankful the debt is no greater” replied Clay, and then the men shook hands.

Randolph died in 1833, aged 60, of tuberculosis.  According to his attending physician, his last thoughts were to be certain his slaves were freed.  In 1819, Randolph provided in his will for the manumission of his slaves after his death. He wrote, "I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one."

Clay went back to the Senate, ran for President twice more, in 1832 and 1844, helped broker a settlement to the Nullification Crisis in 1832, and, even more critically, the Compromise of 1850, which helped keep the Union together at a time of high tension between the slave and free states.  He, too, died of tuberculosis, and like Randolph, freed all of his slaves on his death. 

In 1852, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois State Senator, eulogized Clay in the Hall Of Representatives: “Mr. Clay's predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty -- a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.”

Of the Clay-Randolph duel, Thomas Hart Benton later said it was the “last high-toned affair” he ever witnessed. 

“High-toned” might be an archaic term, but the idea of coming out into the sunlight to fight for something you believed in, and, when the matter concludes, returning to the task you were elected to do, is never archaic.

Rand Paul, for one moment, showed that.  Pity more of his party doesn’t follow him. 


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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Royalty, Rights And Rachmones

Royalty, Rights And Rachmones

This past week, we experienced the first truly wrenching, monumental governmental crisis of the 21st Century.

I refer of course, to Washington Post Columnist Bob Woodward’s kerfuffle, or contretemps, or spat with the White House.  Mr. Woodward apparently had a less-than-pleasant exchange with Gene Sperling, President Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, over an opinion piece that Woodward was about to publish in the Washington Post.  The editorial placed the blame on sequester squarely at the feet of Mr. Obama.  Sperling disagreed, voices were raised, and then emails exchanged.

Mr. Woodward, apparently, felt fear, as a wrathful White House was poised to rise up and smite him.  To keep his mind off his abject terror, he promptly gave interviews to everyone in sight, including one to Sean Hannity, who showed a previously unsuspected and quite remarkable delicacy of spirit.  Poor Bob!  Bad White House! The echo chamber clocked in with similar comments, noting, as they did, that while Woodward wasn’t their cup of tea (Watergate) it was a matter of freedom of the press, pure and simple, and these folks were all about freedom.  The usually temperate Kathleen Parker compared Mr. Obama to Richard Nixon.  The less temperate used less pleasant imagery. 

That Mr. Woodward was prepared to take this as far as he did (he added some gratuitous but perfectly non-partisan comments to the effect that Mr. Obama should just give the Republicans whatever they demanded and that Mr. Obama was endangering national security) is probably a good indication that he wasn’t waking with night-sweats.  Mr. Woodward had an agenda that included a lot of attention, selling books, and giving policy advice, and he used his undeniable stature and special position as both reporter and opinion writer to advance that. Woodward’s timing was a little suspect (the ground-shaking “fact” he uncovered was 18 months old) but, given that sequester was the ostensibly the topic du jour, it was fair game. 

Of course, when the full text of the emails between Sperling and Woodward were revealed, they did appear (to journalists on both sides of the aisle) to be quite chummy, leading Dylan Byers of Politico to go with a post titled “Press Corps To Woodward: Really?”  So, perhaps Woodward ginned it up, which would show that while Sperling should have acted like a pro and kept his anger to himself, Woodward was a pro, and knew how to throw a good sucker punch.   

Woodward can do these things because he’s Royalty, and like Royalty he knows his term is for life, short of doing something absurdly egregious.  Only a few hours after the Byers piece, Woodward followed up by insisting he never said he was threatened.  It was a little like Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather II insisting he had never heard of the Corleone Family. 

Meanwhile, not very far from the White House, the Supreme Court was hearing a challenge by Shelby County, Alabama, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and specifically to Section 5.  That provision requires nine states and assorted jurisdictions in seven others to win Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. The law places a burden on these “covered” jurisdictions to prove the changes won’t adversely affect the right of African Americans and other minorities to vote.  Shelby County argued that the pre-clearance requirement infringes on Alabama’s sovereignty.

When the law was initially enacted, suffice to say, minorities were not exactly welcome to vote.  Poll taxes, “literacy tests” that a classics scholar couldn’t pass, and myriad other tricks of the voter suppression trade were the rule.  The law was reauthorized four times, the last in 2006.  Now, however, there may be five votes on the Supreme Court ready to strike it down.  Most people would say that we have come a long way in fifty years; perhaps the law needs amending, however, one particular line of argument made by Justice Scalia I found fascinating.  In 2006, the vote to reauthorize was 390-33 in the House, and 98-0 in the Senate.  Justice Scalia was not impressed, and mused openly that many of those “ayes” were somehow not true expressions of belief, but simply because “they better not vote against it.”

Now, that is interesting, especially when one is talking about protecting one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy, the right to vote.  Justice Scalia seems to be suggesting that   the Court go beyond looking at the Constitutionality of a law and also try to divine the hidden motives of the people who voted for it. Presumably, since he wouldn’t have supported the Act, anyone else who did had to be acting under duress? I think we would all agree that it is fortunate that he is not seen as a liberal.  Otherwise this little exercise would have set off another round of outrage over “legislating from the bench” or, even worse, “judicial activism.” 

Justice Scalia likes to be a provocateur, and his choice of language may simply an expression of his personality.  Justice Roberts, however, referring specifically to Section 5 asked a better question of Solicitor General Verrilli: “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”

Justice Roberts gets to the heart of it, but in the end, he too is off base if the result is to declare unconstitutional the entire Act (Justice Thomas has already indicated that would be his preference.)  It isn’t racism that is the issue; it’s a free country and we are all at liberty to hate whomever we want.  It is institutional racism that expresses itself in government actions that have the effect of circumscribing the rights of certain classes of people.

Another member of Washington Royalty, George Will, took up that point in his own special way.  Mr. Will is turning into the Cheshire Cat, leaving, instead of a smile, a pair of glasses, a mop of hair, and a bucket of dyspepsia.  After expressing the usual perfunctory contempt for Progressivism, Social Security and Medicare, he turned to voting rights:  (O)bviously, the political class’s piety about the act has extinguished thought about its necessity. But one reason for judicial review — for active judicial engagement in the protection of constitutional rights and arrangements — is that the political class, with its majoritarian temptations, cannot be trusted to do so.”

I rather like that, those nasty majoritarian temptations just can’t be held back in a democracy. It is a clever turning on its head of the very thing that these “covered jurisdictions” were doing; having a majority white vote succumb to the majoritarian temptation of making sure minorities did not vote. In the Will construct, Section 5 and the entire Voting Rights Act has no relevance any more, it is “pernicious silliness.”  Of course, it was applied to stop Florida’s Governor Scott from cutting voting hours in minority districts, but that was way back in the Fall of 2012.  It is already March of 2013.  Florida has evolved.  Mr. Will, obviously, has not. 

This, no doubt, is why we send people to Washington; to fight over bruised egos and engage in sophisticated conversations about how to suppress the votes of people we don’t agree with.  How could we ask for more?

The Ancient Greeks valued four virtues; wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance.  I would add a fifth, the quality of rachmones.  My parents often used that word, which is loosely translated from Yiddish as pity or empathy.  But rachmones is more than that. It is, instead, sensitivity to the needs of others, the capacity to place yourself, and your actions, in a larger context, and acceptance of a responsibility beyond simply fulfilling your own needs.  And, it is a world-view that permeates the Judeo-Christian heritage and expresses its best instincts.  Rachmones is both a divine attribute, and a personal responsibility. It is neither Right nor Left, nor Democratic nor Conservative.  It is not antithetical to success or to capitalism.  David Brook’s “communitarian conservatism” expresses it, a mindfulness of the greater good.

Right now, there seems to be an acute rachmones shortage.  Tune in and all we see is dueling press conferences, the blame game, the finger-pointing, the attention on the silly, the dirty tricks, the vacuous ultimatums and the “for-show” votes. Our leaders, from the President on down, have solved nothing, the Sequester has started, the clock is ticking, and the meat-cleaver is swinging.

And, right now, there are teenagers huddled with their parents wondering what college to go to and whether they can afford it.  There are small business owners worried about investing, or whether to take on a new hire.  There are young couples deciding whether this is a good time to buy a new house.  There are hardworking people living paycheck to paycheck, who simply can’t afford unpaid furloughs.  The inaction in Washington is unacceptable.

We often wish our leaders would show more wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance.

But, for now, I would settle for a little rachmones.