Tag: Republican Party

“It is the Grating Habit of Partisans on the Winning Side to Tell the Losers How They Might Have Done Better”

And thus Bret Stephens lambasts Democrats for daring to tell the GOP to moderate its foreign policy. Stephens’ recipe for “Getting the GOP’s Groove Back“? Obama foreign policy, but with an assist from the Resolve Fairy on Iran.

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Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday

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On Interstate 71, south of Columbus; Ohio’s most famous sign

 

So it’s election time, which means CNN, etc. will be filled with pundits with only the vaguest credentials – never any PhDs Sad smile – telling you why the outcome inevitably had to be such-and-such. (Retrodiction is so insufferably smug.) And they’ll explain it as if these tired clichés are real insights and not the same flim-flam they pedal every November.

So let me predict the future: here are the five worst clichés you’ll hear Tuesday – the lamest, most recycled, simplistic, and least analytically useful (because they’re so flexible they can explain almost any outcome).

Save yourself hours of Donna Brazile and David Gergen right now; just roll these out at Thanksgiving dinner to impress the relatives:

1. Ohio, or the white, blue-collar voter theory of everything 

Every four years the media runs the same easy, generic storyline about my state (Economist 2004, 2008, 2012; FT) that goes something like this: ‘these grizzled veterans of America’s economic dislocation cleave to their guns and religion but increasingly live in suburbs and see their kids work in tech plants outside Columbus or Dayton. The large urban populations of Cleveland and Cincinnati are balanced by the church-going rural voters in the god’s country of southeastern Appalachia…’ Yawn. And it goes on like that for pages. Most of these articles make sure to cite the above picture. And yes, that sign is for real; I’ve seen it. It’s on the same road that leads to the Creation Museum (no joke either – I’ve been there), but thankfully that’s over the river in Kentucky. I guess they go to the dentist even less often than we do.

The thing is, we get all this attention for 3-4 months before every election – but then nothing afterwards. So how much can they can take us seriously as a swing state? In 2004, Rove drove up GOP turnout with the Defense of Marriage Act ballot issue and terrorism. In 2008, Clinton and Obama told us they were going to amend NAFTA and reduce illegal immigration to save our jobs. This year, Romney and Obama promise to defend us against China. If you’re keeping score, that means there should be no homosexual Mexican terrorists driving NAFTA-certified trucks on Chinese tires around Ohio. Ah yes, Ohio, that clichéd, right-wing blue-collar paradise!

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If Flip-Flopping is a GOP Cardinal Sin, How can you Vote for Romney after that first Debate?

George W Bush practically built his re-election effort against John Kerry on the idea that even if you disagreed with him, you consistently knew where he stood on stuff. That commercial above is famous. And the US right in general loves that sort of macho grandstanding on behalf of American will in the face of wimpy, carping detractors – usually Europeans, academics, and liberals, ideally combined. Remember ‘freedom fries’?

Palin and McCain struck the same pose in 2008 (‘I would much rather lose a campaign than a war’), and so did lots of Tea Party candidates in 2010 and in the 2012 GOP primary. Remember when Perry even said, “I’ll be for water-boarding until the day I die”? And Fox talks like this all the time, as if Hannity were the last bastion of American bootstrap ideals against a rising tide of liberals, illegal immigrants, and Muslims. So if the Tea Party right loves this ‘let’s-go-down-with-the-ship-on-behalf-of-principle’ posture, how can one possibly support Romney after he flip-flopped all over the place in the first debate last week?

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RNC: Don’t Speak in a Publicly-Built Facility when you Attack Government – D’oh!

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I got bogged down with NK for awhile, so I missed a chance to comment on the RNC and the US election more generally. I have some thoughts after the break, but a Democrat friend of mine wrote the following, which is a pretty good first draft of the GOP’s problems I think, in this election cycle:

On the whole, I found the Republican convention disgusting and not simply because I disagree with their policies. They substantively are disconnected from the problems of the average person. They offered nothing which will help average people and, what they do offer, is bereft of details. They said nothing – NOTHING – about the two wars they started and the one that is still ongoing. (They do however feel we should have wars, or at least brinksmanship with several other countries.) They have no narrative connecting who they were just four years ago with who they think they are now.

The narrative they do present is a fantasy beyond what even Republicans of a prior generation would present. They stand in a publicly-built convention center preaching nothing but disdain for the role of government. They parade women, Latinos and an African-American secretary of state who talk about the ‘bootstrap’ mentality of their parents with no mention of the giants of civil rights and the role of government which reformed the bigoted society which their beloved founding fathers gave us. That reformation – more than their parents – allowed the likes of Condoleezza Rice to be where she is today.
They reach out to women with symbolism and yelps of ‘I love you women,’ but want to savage Medicare and Medicaid, both programs disproportionately benefiting women (remember, Medicaid is also a program for the elderly medical class who enter nursing homes). They are utter hypocrites on things like government stimulus – Romney first supported it and Ryan voted for Bush’s Tarp and took money from Obama’s stimulus. Even by politicians’ standards, their willingness to lie about Obama’s policies and statements is breathtaking.

But what bothers me the most is this ‘we built it’ mentality which they go on with. The US’ post-war middle class and social stability would not have existed without government. Support for college education, a redistributive tax structure, a modest social safety net, civil rights, Keynesian counter-cyclical spending, massive government infrastructure programs from highways, to the space program, to the defense establishment contributed mightily to every American’s success. This includes the success of their plutocrat leader Mitt Romney who made his money during the tech boom of the 1990s, a tech boom built on government research in computers and the internet. It includes the success of his running mate Paul Ryan whose family made much of their money building government-funded roads. 

I would add that I wonder how much ‘risk’ himself Romney has ever actually taken, given that dramatically pairing back the welfare state is emerging as the GOP meme for this election? If the Randian superman who ‘built it all himself’ is the economic ideology of the GOP, then it becomes central just how much Romney, Ryan, Cantor, Limbaugh, etc. exploit government services. Ayn Rand herself accepted Social Security and Medicare late in her life. That strikes me as fairly fraudulent, as does insisting that SS and Medicare be retained for today’s elderly but not tomorrow’s. I’m sure that the likelihood of older voters to vote GOP and younger voters to go for Obama has nothing to do with that.

For example, did Ryan try to steer government money into his district, as a congressman, as most congressmen do? If he did, isn’t that hard to justify given what he’s saying now? It seems increasingly obvious that Romney never did without in his life in a meaningful way, never went through a ‘back in grad school when I lived in a crappy apartment and ate ramen’ phase. He “refused to head up Bain Capital until Bain promised him he would get back his old salary and interest if he failed. He risked nothing.” He’s also done a fair job of using the government to make a mountain of money – whether that be fixing the Olympics, getting a sorta government bailout, using a battery of accountants to gin up such amazing tax shelters that he doesn’t want to release his returns, or working in government itself – governors get paid a lot more than most Americans. I don’t mean to begrudge Romney his success, but profiting handsomely from government while you promise to tear it down for those who come after you strikes me as fairly selfish.

More generally, I would ask how the GOP thought that a guy who’s practically a caricature of Gordon Gekko could get elected just 3 years after white shoe banking nearly wrecked the world? That just staggers me. And the scandals that continue to come out – LIBOR most recently – have made it obvious to just about everyone except Jamie Dimon that Wall Street needs a tighter regime, most obviously the Volcker Rule. Given just how much we’ve all learned about the financial industry since 2009 (in a bad way), I can’t imagine Romney – who’s so obviously steeped in the values of that class, right down to his perfect hair and willingness to say anything to please – winning. I can’t imagine Tea Partiers, who share the Occupy Movement’s disdain for too-big-to-fail banks and slick ‘masters of the universe,’ being enthusiastic for this guy either. Good lord, even Sandy Weill is now saying the banks need to be broken up. Yet in the first presidential election after the mostly-Wall-Street-caused Great Recession, we’re going to elect such an obvious product of the financial services industry? Wow. God help me for saying it, but where’s Santorum or Bachmann (at least they were honest) when you need them? It’s a measure of just how bad the economy is and just how weak a president and candidate Obama is that Romney is competitive at all.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

The dull, adventureless journey of post-college life

Dear Leader Kim Jong Un addresses the ruling party

I didn’t watch the Republican Convention last night, because I’m not getting paid to do so. I understand that conservatives think it was a hit and liberals a travesty, although the Romney-Ryan campaign’s invocation of AC/DC to prove their cool guy credentials strongly suggests the latter.

So it wasn’t until I read Kevin Drum’s blog post this morning that I saw this section of Congressman Ryan’s speech:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now….None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

To this, I have an emotional and an intellectual reaction. The emotional reaction goes like this:

To be fair to Ryan, losing his father early did seem to make him a more disciplined  young scion; to be perfectly unfair to Ryan, losing his father does not seem to have made him more empathetic or understanding of how such an event would have affected a poor family at all.

My intellectual reaction is more subtle. House Republicans have done everything they can to make my generation jobless and hopeless by cutting support for student loans, slashing funding for higher education, and refusing to raise taxes, so how dare the global-warming-denying, deficit-spending-for-the-old-and-sick but not the young-and-promising, job-killing, rape-denying legislative wing of the Wisconsin Taliban tell me that it’s Obama’s fault?

I sometimes imagine the House GOP getting together and singing their version of the Stonecutters’ Song:

Who sends you to combat zones?
Who cuts all your student loans?
We do, we do.

Who wants to turn Earth to Mars?
Who hates all electric cars?
We do, we do.

Who hates taxes for the rich?
Who tells the poor life’s a bitch?
We do, we do.

And so on.

It’s so telling that Paul Ryan’s version of a boot trampling a human face, forever, is an unemployed college graduate. Not a single mother who could never finish college. Not an army veteran who was left hobbled by injury. Not even a fifty-something dad trapped between supporting his parents and his children. No, the worst that Paul Ryan can conjure up is a rhetorical version of Failure To Launch.

And what does Ryan propose? The usual. Maybe we’ll voucherize this or privatize that. But for an allegedly sophisticated policy-maven ideas’ man, Ryan is so intellectually thin that he’s the Kate Moss of innovation: pretty from one angle, insubstantial from any other. How would a Romney-Ryan administration address joblessness among twenty-somethings? Presumably they’ll wave their tax stick at the economy and ignite a fire of innovation that will create a tide that lifts all boats; more likely, their administration would play out like a slightly more cheerful version of the W. Bush years, in which employment and wages stagnate for everyone whose parents didn’t own large corporations.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Least Experienced Foreign Policy Ticket — Ever?

One of the defining features of the current era of globalization is the rise in uncertainty and complexity in global politics. There are more actors, more transactions, and more challenges as a result. In the face of this, the United States continues to spend more on national security – the military, intelligence, and homeland security – than almost all other countries in the world combined. And, yet it’s clear that as the world is becoming increasingly more complex, the United States’ ability to influence outcomes – as demonstrated by the Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global economic crisis among other issues – is clearly constrained.

Despite this, the Republican Party has just put forward one of the least experienced national security tickets by a major political party in history. With the possible exception of Harding/Coolidge in 1920, it’s hard to name a ticket in history that has less knowledge, practical experience, or specific, articulated vision of national security and global affairs than this one does. The general rule has long been that if the Presidential nominee has limited experience, he has chosen a running mate to offset the deficit. Romney didn’t do that.

I’m not suggesting that this means a Romney/Ryan administration would be a failure – we’ve had plenty of disasters with highly experienced Presidents and Vice Presidents. It’s just that going in to the fall, their combined lack of experience means that there are a lot of conflicting interpretations of Romney’s (and Ryan’s) worldview. Some have suggested that Romney and Ryan are close to traditional Republican internationalists, others don’t see any real gap between Romney and Obama, while others see the team as becoming more aligned with neoconservativism. Even conservatives – in their many shapes – disagree on what Romney and Ryan stand for.

So what might all this mean?


I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Saunders Leaders At War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions and Stephen G. Walker and Akan Malici’s U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes. Both books revisit the extensive literature on psychology and foreign policy and remind us of the importance of leaders’ perceptions and beliefs in their foreign policy decisionmaking. Saunders argues that how presidents decide when and where to use force and how to use that force comes from their interpretations of the origin and nature of threats. If the threat is seen as internal – inherent in the regime — she finds that presidents are inclined to use force for ambitious strategies such as regime change. If a president sees threats as emanating from the international or regional security environment, force is likely to be used to advanced a more restricted vision of strategic interests, but not regime change. For her, how a president interprets threat comes from the president’s deeper causal beliefs about the nature and source of power and history – much of which she argues can be discerned from analysis of the president’s belief systems prior to coming into office.

Smith and Malici similarly focus on the role of leaders’ belief systems and argue that most foreign policy mistakes occur when leaders misperceive the “power relationship between self and others” which “leads to mistaken calculations of costs and benefits regarding alternative strategies of statecraft and thereby to policy failures.” Again, leaders often cue the decisionmaking biases and the mistakes to which they are prone through their world views and causal belief systems.

If we think about these arguments with respect to the Romney/Ryan ticket we’re left with a puzzle: With their limited combined track record, we don’t really know what they believe.

To be sure, Romney clearly has given us a lot of platitudes in his speeches: “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.” And, both Romney and Ryan support the general Republican fare on American exceptionalism and that the U.S. military budgets need to be stronger, Israel needs more support, and Obama is weak.

But it’s not clear what these really mean or how their various speeches, or in the case of Paul Ryan his Congressional votes are likely to translate into specific, real-world policy responses to the global challenges out there.

Romney has been running for office for seven years now. Yet, in both the 2008 and the 2012 campaign, Romney has really tacked away from foreign policy discussions – he hardly mentioned the Iraq War in 2008, today he hardly mentions the war in Afghanistan. His October 2011 policy paper and his August VFW speech emphasize American exceptionalism and the potential challenges associated with China’s rise and with Russia, but aside from the elevated rhetoric it’s not clear what would be different on Iran, Russia, or China. We haven’t heard him articulate a position on what should be done in Syria. If we consider all of his promises and speeches, it’s not clear what we really get.

His highly touted foreign trip in July was, with all due respect, astonishingly amateurish. And, his more recent gaffe on Japan suggests that both the candidate and the campaign are still struggling with basic diplomatic and rhetorical protocols.

Much of the problem is that foreign policy and national security have been an afterthought for Romney. This isn’t really a surprise – we all know that this election will turn on the economy and his experience and skill set play to his vision for changes in U.S. economic policy.

But it is striking at how he’s essentially conceded the issue — at least to date. Organizationally, his campaign staff runs the day-to-day management of foreign policy development. He does not have an established, senior foreign policy advisor traveling with him, advising him on a daily basis or talking to the press. As a result, the organization, the substance, the message, and the candidate have lacked cohesion and vision.

He isn’t helped by the intra-party feuding that continues within the Republican Party. Romney’s campaign has assembled a broad circle of advisers that includes neoconservatives and Republican internationalists. Their only reported joint meeting apparently ended in an argument about the future of Afghanistan. The campaign’s response was that Romney encourages active debate among his advisers. But, George W. Bush lost control of his national security decisionmaking process because he wasn’t able to control the feuding between the two camps.

It recent weeks it appears that when push has come to shove between these camps – which it almost always does – Romney and his campaign are turning more and more to the “Cheneyites” and the neocons. His selection of Robert Zoellick last week was seen by some as a measured response to the wavering ship – to add some foreign policy heft and traditional Republican internationalist moderation to the foreign policy team, but the announcement was met with such intense and critical push-back from the neocons that the campaign went to great lengths to portray Zoellick as simply helping with the normal pre-election transition vetting process and to re-assure the critics that there is a firewall between Zoellick and the campaign’s policy development.

So we are left with this. As we enter the fall campaign, Romney’s foreign policy views are being shaped not by a coherent, long-standing world-view or causal beliefs about the nature of power, the utility of force, or the nature and source of threats, but by political expediency. His foreign policy views appear to be emerging out of campaign strategy – with the singular goal of distancing himself from President Obama. The gist of all of this is that we really don’t know what we are likely to get. Would a Romney/Ryan administration embrace the neocons’ view of the world – with their focus on the ubiquity of existential threats, their belief in the efficacy and utility of force, and their ambitions for U.S. support for regime change in places like Iran and Syria? Or would a Romney/Ryan administration be more likely to embrace more traditional Republic internationalism relying on existing institutions and a wider range of instruments of statecraft to manage American interests?

All things considered, and in light of the foreign policy mistakes over the past decade and the challenges that lie ahead, these are pretty big questions to still be lingering this late in a campaign.

Reflections on the Ryan Pick

Another victory for Team Wonderbread.

 Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) means that he has scored a PR coup and won the all-important mid-August weekend news cycle. What can you say about the pick but the obvious? Ryan is the most inspiring vice-presidential candidate since Jack Kemp helped Bob Dole win in 1996, the most ideologically pure candidate since George Wallace chose Curtis LeMay in 1968, and the most boyish sidekick since Batman adopted Robin.

Republicans are strangely jubilant today, as are Democrats; we should remember that vice-presidential picks almost uniformly do not matter, unless they are disastrous (Eagleton, Palin) or give us catchy slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!”). But the current flood of punditry suggesting VPs don’t matter is badly wrong. True, vice presidents don’t matter in the election. But Robert Caro’s new LBJ biography offers a powerful and sober reminder that America’s vices often become their chiefs, as happened in 1974, 1963, 1945, and 1923, and as should have happened in 1919 and nearly happened during Eisenhower’s heart attacks in the 1950s (imagine Richard Nixon as president in the 1950s!) and Reagan’s near-death in 1981. From time to time, presidential incapacitation as defined by the 25th Amendment means that contemporary vice presidents serve as Acting President, with all the awesome powers of the actual chief magistrate. Indeed, Dick Cheney twice served as commander-in-chief during the Bush years under this little-used constitutional provision (which just seems ripe for a Seven Days in May-style abuse). In all, fourteen vice presidents have served as president out of a total of 47 (there are 44 presidents but 47 vices since some VPs, like Hannibal Hamlin or John Nance Garner, have been fired).

There are other reasons why Ryan matters besides the fact that Mitt Romney may still be elected president, and Paul Ryan thus has a shot at being president. (If we put p(Romney elected) = .3, then Paul Ryan has approximately a 9% chance of being president sometime in the next four years (.3 * p(presidential succession = 14/47 = .3); remember this means that Joe Biden has about a 21% chance (.3 * .7).)

The first is that Romney will now have to define himself on policy. Some are suggesting that Ryan will fall in line behind Romney, but this assumes a standard campaign in which the chief has well-defined views and the second banana is malleable (think Reagan-Bush ’80). That is not the case here. Moreover, by choosing a siting congressman–the first on any ticket since Geraldine Ferraro ’84 and on a GOP ticket since William Miller ’64–Romney loses some ability to distance himself from the House Republican majority and the, um, Ryan budget. Is Romney, the flip-flopper nonpareil, going to ask Ryan to disavow those policies? It beggars belief.

Second, Ryan is now the frontrunner for the 2016 nomination. Republicans are allegedly more hierarchical than Democrats in choosing their frontrunners, and although the track record of losing VP candidates in subsequent presidential nominations is somewhat mixed (Dole, ’76 nominee, failed in ’88; Palin, ’08, failed in ’12; Kemp, ’96, didn’t try) in the absence of any other strong national figure Ryan will benefit immensely from the exposure he’s about to get. He’ll benefit all the more so because his pick was clearly a sop to the party’s ideological and pundit base, and those are the precise power-brokers and activists who play a disproportionate role in anointing presidential candidates (e.g.).

Other reactions:

Finally, a hobbyhorse: Nobody cares about foreign relations in this election. Ryan is a domestic politics guy; Romney clearly doesn’t know anything beyond talking points on the subject; and neither the president nor vice president are investing much effort in the matter. And so, for those few people who think that the chief executive of the unipole affects global governance, the content of Web pages such as this is extremely dispiriting (what, exactly, does Abraham Lincoln have to do with foreign policy? Is Romney pledging to keep the British out of Richmond and the French out of Mexico?) but actually much less depressing than the fact that the Obama campaign’s “foreign policy” section is labeled “National Security“, as if the two were synonymous.

A program here, a program there, pretty soon you’re talking a whole government

My GOP gone by, I miss it so.

Conservatives are fond of the saying widely, but probably falsely, attributed to Everett Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Of course, the saying hasn’t kept up to date with inflation or with the growing size of the federal budget–in 1962, a billion dollars was just under 1 percent of the entire budget; these days, it would be well under 1/1000th of a percent of the federal government’s outlays.

Nevertheless, one party continues to apply the same kind of logic to justify cutting trivially small programs that benefit U.S. policy, academics, or good policymaking. Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) invoked a particularly trifling version of the Dirksen proverb yesterday:

It’s not every day that Congress debates whether to spend $1 million — given that current federal spending is just over $4 trillion. But the House voted Friday 204-203 to approve an amendment by Rep Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, which strikes $1 million from a 2013 congressional funding bill intended to cover closing costs for the Open World Leadership Center. …Scalise explained why he’s going after such a relatively small allocation. “It’s $1 million less than we’ll be borrowing from China and at some point they say $1 million here, $1 million there, pretty soon you are talking about real money,” Scalise said.

It is literally impossible to argue with that kind of logic. 


To be clear, the Open World Leadership Center is already being closed. This was money that would have enabled buying out staff contracts and the like–normal shutdown costs. Special bonus right-wing lunacy: Scalise added, “How many small businesses across the country that have been facing these tough economic times are given a $1 million check by the federal government to close down?” 


It is bad enough when people argue the government ought to be run like a business; it is beyond belief when congressmen argue that the government ought to be run like a small business. (Notably, political-science bete noire Tom Coburn has taken the penny-ante politics a step further by calling on Congress to stop funding subsidies for public transportation for staff members–a routine employee benefit in all large cities.)

After a while, it becomes hard to attribute recent GOP efforts to terminate the American Community Survey, NSF funding for political science, federal funding for the US Institute of Peace, and so on to ignorance. Instead, it becomes more likely that the representatives in question know exactly what they’re doing and are hardly willing to listen to any arguments to the contrary. 

One more datum in this series comes from the fact that in the same session where Scalise’s amendment went through, the House cut an equivalent amount from the Congressional Research Service, presumably on the grounds that expert research is the antithesis of leadership. Fortunately for America, the committee did find $200,000 to print new pocket Constitutions for members and staff.

Some Things are Best Expressed in an Eldritch Tongue

This survey of American households has been around in some form since 1850, either as a longer version of or a richer supplement to the basic decennial census. It tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on. 

It is, more or less, the country’s primary check for determining how well the government is doing — and in fact what the government will be doing. The survey’s findings help determine how over $400 billion in government funds is distributed each year. 

But last week, the Republican-led House voted to eliminate the survey altogether, on the grounds that the government should not be butting its nose into Americans’ homes. 

“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation. 

“We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” he continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

Via PM.

Sunday Nerd Blogging

 A monologue from Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson’s fascinating novel of post-scarcity America:

You might want to consider your tone of voice, Private Commongold. May I offer you a lesson in Civics? There are three centers of power in the modern Union, and only three. One is the Executive Branch, with its supporting host of Owners and Senators. One is the Military. And the last is the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. They’re like the tripod feet of a stool: each supports the other, and they work best when they’re equal in reach. But you’re not a propertied person, Mr. Commongold, as far as I know; and you’re certainly not a Clergyman; and the Army in its wisdom has put you in the lowest possible rank. Your position doesn’t entitle you to an opinion, much less the loose expression of it.

Upon reading this, all I could conclude was that Rick Santorum had read this passage and decided to take it literally.

Primary Politics and Foreign Policy: Super Tuesday Edition

This is cross-posted from the University of Texas website.

As the March 6 Super Tuesday Republican primary looms, foreign policy issues understandably are likely to play a marginal role in the decisions of most voters. Since the middle of 2008, Gallup pollshave found that more than 60 percent of voters identified economic issues as the most important problem facing the country. In their February 2012 poll, for example, less than a half a percent of Americans identified either terrorism or conflict/war in the Middle East as their top concern.

Does that mean that foreign policy concerns are unimportant in the primary and the general election? Not exactly. With Osama Bin Laden and a number of other top-level terrorists dead, Democrats are hopeful that President Barack Obama has made foreign policy a non-issue. However, both the nature of the GOP primary and events may yet bring both foreign policy issues and a variety of “intermestic” (part international/part domestic) issues like gasoline prices to the fore.

GOP Primary Dynamics and Foreign Policy
All the Republican hopefuls are saying things about foreign policy on the campaign trail to try to appeal to the 8-10 percent of the party faithful that have turned out in the primaries thus far (even less in caucus states like Maine where less than 1 percent of the electorate turned out).  It doesn’t appear that these primary-goers are any more concerned about foreign policy than the rest of the public (the economy dominates the exit and entrance polls as the top concern), but they certainly tend to be conservative on average. In South Carolina, 68 percent of the voters self identified as very (36 percent) or somewhat conservative (32 percent). In Iowa, that combined percentage was fully 84 percent.

With a conservative leaning electorate and foreign policy concerns only weakly salient, the default position for most of the Republican candidates appears to be the old stand-by of being strong on defense. In practice, this means opposing any cuts to defense spending, supporting continued military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and potentially backing a new military conflict with Iran.

Front-runner Mitt Romney has used the charged language of “appeasement” in describing the Obama administration. Governor Romney’s language seems to be emblematic of the wider GOP field’s effort to use harsh rhetoric in describing President Obama. Perhaps the candidates feel compelled to make up for the enthusiasm gapthat has emerged as Republicans survey the candidates they have before them.

Ultimately, I think this hyperbole on foreign policy will ultimately fall flat in the general election. For the first time in recent memory, the GOP enjoys a semi-serious anti-war candidate in Congressman Ron Paul. At a time when even Republican primary voters overwhelmingly are concerned about the state of the U.S. economy, it’s unclear whether pledges by the leading candidates to ratchet up defense spending and sustain expensive military engagements are popular with the party base.

Events:  A Week is A Long Time in Politics

Even if foreign policy seemingly is a secondary concern in the upcoming election, events on the world stage may change that calculation. Among the issues, the situation in Iran in particular threatens to bring foreign policy front and center.

Relations over Iran’s nuclear program have deteriorated such that observers are increasingly talking about whether or not Israel will launch an attack on Iran, potentially drawing in the United States.

Bipartisan legislative efforts have sought to restrict the President’s room for maneuver with respect to Iran. One piece of legislation in the Senate rejects any containment policy of a nuclear Iran, which would make it almost impossible for the U.S. not to go to war with Iran if it did in fact possess nuclear weapons. These maneuvers and others may box the president in, making conflict more likely or triggering some other effects that could upend the country’s fragile recovery.

For example, the sanctions bill that passed the Senate in late 2011 was intended to force the president to cut off any public or private institution from access to the United States if it does business with Iran’s central bank. The president was to decide by the end of February whether to impose these rules, subject to some discretion about the volume of oil in the market and whether states have reduced their oil transactions with Iran.  Just last week, the administration deferred actionpending further investigation.

With Europe to begin an embargo on Iran’s oil by July 1 and Iran saber rattling about cutting off oil supplies to other European countries, oil prices may spike.  As the U.S. economy has shown signs of recovery, the Republican candidates have pivoted to talk about rising gas prices as one of their key issues. Soaring gas prices may pose both a threat to the recovery and the president’s re-election. Newt Gingrich, in an effort to energize his faltering campaign, has pledged to restore $2.50 a gallon gas.

So, even as domestic issues loom large, the nature of the Republican primary and world events over the summer may make foreign policy a more pressing concern come fall. We’ll have to see how it all plays out.

Some IR Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

Here were my first, domestic politics thoughts on the GOP debate-run, particularly the competitive, extreme position-taking forced onto the candidates by the audience reactions. But I thought the debates actually taught us very little directly on foreign policy (beyond bombast, or just watch the vid above you francophile, cheese-eating traitor to the heartland). Instead, most of my cues were indirect, such as audience reaction:

4. We (and the world) learned a lot from the audience behavior. I don’t think anyone anticipated this, but the GOP audience demographic (aging white evangelicals), plus its hoots and hollers (for torture, against the Palestinians, for executions, for war with Iran) communicated a lot of information in itself. It showed just how captured the GOP is now by a hard right Christianist ideology that comes off as more than just angry, but downright belligerent, if not scary. And for IR, this is important too. Foreigners will see this stuff and hardly believe that American hegemony is ‘benevolent’ or ‘benign.’ I’ve said this before, but this Tea Party radicalism is washing downstream to the rest of the world; a few years ago, my students here (Korea) were asking me in amazement why Americans were comparing Obamacare to the Nazis, and I just ran out of lame excuses. Foreigners do pick up on this stuff, Fox News execs. You can’t talk like this and be a superpower at the same time. Foreigners do think we are fairly bonkers, and don’t even start with that ‘bound to lead’ schtick (more like unfit), when so many Americans muse that Obama might be the Antichrist or a Muslim non-citizen.

5. The debates showed how little foreign policy counts, beyond self-congratulatory nationalist bluster about how exceptional we are, or lust for stomping on our enemies (Ron Paul excepted). I suppose in the first post-Great Recession election, this was inevitable, but the debates show just how dominant domestic policy really is. Foreign policy was a minor bit, and then overwhelmed by simplistic, manichean soundbites in which just how ‘exceptional’ the US is became a major issue. Bleh. There is a reason why US political science departments are staffed over 50% from just one subfield (American) –  because we couldn’t care less about foreigners. Call it the luxury of being a superpower. They need to worry about us, but we don’t about them. I see this in Korea all the time. IR is a much bigger chunk of political science here, the two Korean-published SSCI journals I know of are in IR, and foreign policy is much more in the news and politics. Whenever foreign students (especially Chinese) tell me that America should pay more attention to this or that part of the world, I always tell them, you are lucky we care at all – just look at our pathetic foreign language acquisition rates, the wildly inaccurate American belief that we spend huge amounts on foreign aid that should be cut to zero, that we routinely deny foreigners judicial rights in the US that we howl about when it happens to our nationals overseas (Amanda Knox), or that Romney refuses to admit (!) that he speaks French, because the Tea Party will call him a wimp or a traitor or something (watch that vid above). Wow. In most places in the world, foreign language is a highly prized skill, but I guess not in NASCAR-land. To my mind, that tells you an awful lot about the contemporary GOP’s foreign policy: if you are not an American, you are probably mentally ill or something.

6. There was almost nothing on the Asia pivot; it was all about the Middle East, because of its central religious importance to hardcore GOP voters. If you actually looked at what was covered, it was almost all the ME, basically Israel and Iran. It seems like the GOP has basically out-sourced US ME policy to Netanyahu. Issues like the BRICs and other second world risers, the terrible effects of the drug war in Latin America, NK and Burma’s transitions, the euro crisis, even China barely got any attention. If the euro meltdowns, it will impact Americans a lot more than an Iranian nuke, but that’s boring economics. The Tea Party doesn’t care; foreign policy is the war on terror and clash of civilizations in which Christianized American exceptionalism must endlessly re-affirmed. Instead of coping with rising states, we just chest-thump that America is not in decline and that Obama is an appeaser. Whatever. This is just fantasy, which in itself is rather important information for the rest of us, so again, the debates served a useful purpose in an oblique way.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Some Political Science Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

So it looks like the GOP debating season is over. Wow. I don’t study American politics, but I can’t remember a marathon run of debates like that ever before. (Can anyone speak to that point, btw? This is something very new, right?) I think there will be much discussion in both parties about whether or not to run this sort of marathon schedule again in 4 years. Like most people I watched bits and pieces of them, and I concur that they should probably come with a drinking game like the State of the Union does. I zoned out a lot when it got (often) insider-y about who voted for which earmarks, but there were some good insights. On foreign policy, ironically the best insight is how little it interests Americans as measured by how how little it was discussed.

So here are some other political science-y thoughts after 6 months of these things:

1. The debates were good, because they forced the candidates to function in unscripted environments. I worked for a congressman and volunteered on some campaigns back in the 90s, and my strong impression was that candidates love TV buys and friendly, highly-scripted forums (the Rove formula, I suppose). No one likes to go door-to-door, and no one likes to explain themselves. By contrast, I thought the debates really pushed the candidates. It forced them to get out there in (relatively) unscripted environments and answer off-the-cuff. This is when the most useful gaffes (ie, honesty break-throughs) happen, which tell you a lot about what candidates really think (Romney’s 10k bet, Perry’s ‘oops’ meltdown, Gingrich’s ‘the Palestinians don’t exist’). Gaffes and other slips are often the most revealing information about candidates who are otherwise ‘constructed’ by consultants and media groups (Romney’s robo-slipperiness being the most obvious example in this cycle). So the more the candidates are forced to be themselves and answer without a script, the more you learn their real beliefs and prejudices. That in itself is valuable in the Rovian world of stage-managed everything.

2. So many debates were bad, because they egged on the candidates to take more and more extreme positions to satisfy the audience. It was a like a domestic politics version of the ‘audience costs’ problem behind deterrence and the domino theory in IR; i.e., credibility concerns before an audience pulled the candidates into more and more extreme positions they didn’t really want to take. The downside of so much audience participation was that otherwise decent candidates were forced to competitively outflank/’out-hawk’ each other more and more to the right, saying sillier and more extreme stuff they almost certainly don’t believe. Perry’s ‘I’ll support waterboarding till the day I die’ strikes me as the most obvious example of this. Perry seems like a fairly congenial guy, who was not a bad guv but then got way out of his depth. He didn’t really know what he was doing and so found himself backed into saying ever more absurd things, like closing down this or that department with no forethought, or waterboarding forever. Romney too clearly doesn’t believe Tea Party ideology, which is why he keeps gaffing; he’s not a movement conservative, no matter how hard he pretends. I am sure Ron Paul believes in the gold standard, and Bachmann that the ACLU runs the CIA, but a lot of these guys have been in this business long enough to know how much Tea Party ideology (climate change and darwinism as liberal academic conspiracies, eg) is bunk. The most depressing thing is that no one will take a stand against it. Instead of trying to pull the GOP back to reality (at the very least so that it will be competitive this fall), the candidates are pandering their way toward 1964-style unelectability. It’s not good for a biparty democracy when one of its just two parties implodes into fringe paranoia like this.

3. If you want democracy to be more democratic and participative, then the frontrunner’s dislike of the debates is too bad. I was disappointed to hear of Romney’s rejection of the next two debates, but not surprised. The debates give the also-rans a chance to fight back. This is one reason I liked them. For as frightening as Santorum and Bachmann are, at least they believe what they say. Its nice to see passionate underdogs push back against Organization Man’s money and TV. The debates and the circulating roster of challengers have really forced Romney to work, although his response has, sadly, been to just pander rather than distinguish himself. One of the big problems of mass democracy is that you never really get to know elected officials. You see them on TV, you seem some campaign literature. I think this is why so many action movies (Air Force One, National Treasure, ID4) show the president as a regular guy who can be an action hero. We desperately want to identify with him. Well the debates give you a little more access and make the process a little more participative and less distant. That’s good in itself.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Blondie

If you are running for the nomination of the Republican Party for President, there are a few


indispensables – you have to hate welfare recipients, oppose gay marriage, and have fired a gun at an animal at some point. (But apparently you no longer have to support a robust military presence overseas. Or have fired a gun against another person in a foreign war. That has not been a requirement since Eisenhower.) But it seems there is another sine qua non. If you are a man, you need a blond wife.

Here are pictures of the wives of all the major contenders for the Republican nomination for President. You will notice a similarity. They are not all skinny, or pretty, or young. But they are all blond. Even Ron Paul’s wife. You can want to legalize marijuana but do not, under any circumstances, marry a swarthy woman.

This inspires so many questions. Why is a blond wife such a necessary accessory? Is blondness just white skin in hair color form? Or are blond women a kind of status symbol, the diamonds of hair color because blond hair is relatively rarer?

Do male politicians in training go looking for a blond wife before they run for office for the first time? Or is there an endogeneity problem with that explanation – that is, do they realize after they marry a blond woman that they might have a productive career in politics? Are these women all blond to start with? Or do they change their hair color to suit their husband’s ambitions. That would be quite sad.

But it appears to be something of an iron rule. Here is the wife of Tim Pawlenty, who was the first to drop out before the race really began. Notice something – brunette. Brown, but still.

It does seems though that Herman Cain got an exception. His wife is not blonde. After all, nothing would upset Republican primary voters more than a black man with a blond woman. Oh, yeah. That’s what sunk him.

Many Republicans pinned their hopes on this guy, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. But those hopes were false. Look, she’s dark-haired. It does beg a completely different question though. Why is Chris Christie meeting the Queen?

Gingrinch

I never, ever, ever thought I would write a blog post about Newt Gingrich’s chances as Republican nominee for President, except perhaps to laugh at him. Yet here I am.

The Republican establishment is lining up against Gingrich, claiming that he is not conservative enough. This is laughable and a red herring. As opposed to Mitt Romney? Instead we should listen to those who were swept into office and/or positions of power with him in the revolution of 1994, like Joe Scarborough. They know him well. Gingrich’s problem is hardly being conservative enough. Rather the real objections center on two other faults. First, he is a blowhard pseud0-intellectual in love with his own ideas and himself. Second, he is an asshole, and I mean that in the most rigorous, social scientific way possible. These are not unrelated, but the latter is I think what explains his rise in this particular climate. Allow me to explain.

If Gingrich gets the nomination, the media is going to make a huge deal of the egghead vs. egghead presidential race. That is silly. Gingrich’s intellectualism is the intellectualism of a precocious 16 year old who just read the Fountainhead — shallow, capricious and grandiose. Next year he/she will have gone goth, or something else. So it is with Gingrich, although though he probably won’t go goth. I think people overstate Barack Obama’s intelligence too. He is smart but not brilliant. Rather what seems him look so smart is his ‘cognitive complexity,’ as I wrote about in one of my first posts here, and is so rare in politicians these days. He can see multiple sides of an argument. But be warned — this will be the narrative if he wins the nomination.

But his ‘intellectualism’ is not why Gingrich is so popular today. I think Gingrich is picking up the votes of the real Tea Party people — those who resent what they imagine to be enormous sums of their tax dollars going to finance what they imagine to be the profligate lifestyles of those on Aid to Families of Dependent Children or Medicaid or both. We call this ‘economic conservatism’ but it is not a belief in the free market. It is a belief that we owe nothing to anyone else. In political psychology we know it has a strong association with a particular personality trait — disagreeableness. In short, Tea Parties are meanies before they are anything else.

Social conservatives score much higher on other personality traits like conscientiousness. They are not nearly so uncaring. They might deny family planning services to unwed mothers, but this is because they think they are doing the right thing by not putting ideas into impressionable girls heads — that it is OK to have sex. Of course this makes them likelier to get pregnant and have abortions. But it comes from a genuinely good if misguided intention. They are mean by accident, indirectly.

Newt’s rise has to be attributed to his performance in debates, since, as was the case with Cain, there is nothing else to explain it — no money, no organization, and only negative name recognition. What has he done at these debates? He has no gimmick, no 9/9/9 plan. He flips around all the time. But every time he shows up on camera, we see the same thing — contempt, scorn, meanness. For everything. Newt is tapping into how nasty these nasty people feel. To others, and at previous times, this would have seemed unpresidential. But these are the times we live in. Newt Gingrich is an asshole, and many Republicans love him for it.

Bolt down your Christmas trees everyone. And for all the Muslims out there, get an alarm system.

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