Sunday, January 31, 2016

Does it Matter That Ted Cruz is Disliked?

A thread on Twitter began with a post questioning why Cruz being disliked would matter if he was president with an expression of doubt that senators would actually block him out of spite. A following tweet, pointed out that all Republicans would have self-interest in cooperating. And finally that while there was disagreement over tactics there was agreement on policy.

Now all of this is true up to a point, but as argument to wave away the issue of animus directed towards Cruz by his colleagues (and I would guess it goes beyond the Senate) this fails to convince. Are we really supposed to believe that being strongly disliked doesn’t matter in politics? If so, then politics is truly alone in human endeavors.

Yes, at the general level there is policy agreement, but probe a bit and real differences emerge. Tactics in politics are hardly a matter of little importance. The extent to which cooperating conforms to self-interest doesn’t exist in the abstract it is determined.

And we need to consider why Ted Cruz isn’t liked. To some extent it is that he is intent on shaking things up and this I take to be positive. But another aspect is that he is thought to have made some serious tactical blunders (see the shutdown) that have cost the party, and to be concerned with Ted Cruz well beyond anything else. You’re really trying to tell me that this is of no account? That it won’t in anyway impede Cruz’s ability to get things done as president?

To be considered a successful conservative president, Ted Cruz will have to persuade his colleague’s and the people to go beyond what they are comfortable with; to trust him and his judgement. Everything else being equal or near equal, I’ll take the guy who is generally liked and charming over the guy who is despised.

Friday, January 29, 2016

When is the Past History

I recently finished reading The English and Their History by Robert Tombs. If you are interested in English history it is well worth a look, but it does, I think, go wrong by going too far. By which I mean that by taking his narrative to 2014, in a history book published in 2015, Tombs has gone beyond what I would consider ‘history’.

Now, I think we would agree that while the paragraph above was typed in the past that action or the thought behind it is not history. It is something like a present-past. And I would argue that when the subject is a people and a nation, history, as a distinct mode of thought and inquiry ends and journalism begins well before we get to two years ago.

Walter Bagehot argued that it took a generation to evaluate a reform. If anything, I’d say Bagehot was an optimist. If we consider what is currently going on in our colleges—dominated as they are by sixties activists and influences-- it strikes me that we can, at best, only make a tentative statement about that decade. Nor is the historian considering that period likely to have anything like the detachment that one would wish for as it is still too ‘present’.

I don’t have an answer or even know if the above is on the right track. But in reading Tombs’ history I noted a certain arc. To start there wasn’t enough material or enough complexity in the activity to make it fully engrossing, the book got better as both those conditions became less of an issue, but then at some point it starts to decline again as the present starts to take over and what is truly ‘historical’ in the past begins to recede.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Let's Not Oversell A Cruz Presidency

In a piece on Donald Trump, Roger Kimball by way of explaining the beltway Republican support for Trump, writes:

“As Rush Limbaugh put it, the GOP establishment hates Trump, but they fear Cruz. They are right to do so, because were he elected the gravy train that is business-as-usual in Washington really would come screeching to a halt.”

Welllllllllll, color me skeptical.

One of the causes of the Trump moment is that conservative politicians running for office have promised to end business as usual in Washington. Duly elected, they failed to deliver engendering disillusion or a search for someone who really means it. That Trump emphatically doesn’t mean it is beside the point. It’s the disillusion, stupid.

But for some reason conservatives can’t shake the habit. A Cruz presidency will probably mean a Republican majority in both House and Senate, but it probably won’t be filibuster proof. That the democrats will fight with tenacity to defend the current system should go without saying. If actual cuts are made the media will be sure to present them in apocalyptic terms.
A Cruz presidency will be different than Obama’s, hopefully significantly so. But there won’t be any screeching halts. K Street will go on being K Street. Sorry. The first step in political recovery is to distinguish and accept the possible from the impossible.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jeb's Run for President Was Always Irresponsible

In last few days, besides Jay Costs tweets, there have been two pieces critical of Jeb Bush pointing to the irresponsibility of his campaign. Liam Donovan’s is here and in the Weekly Standard Steven Hayes

The common thread is that Jeb has found it impossible to promote himself in the race so he’s opted for a strategy of destroying all the alternatives to Trump but himself in the belief that faced with no alternative voters will turn to him. Having raised a great deal of money Bush has been successful in stopping better candidates--$20m against Rubio—and that this is a dangerous, irresponsible game he’s playing.

But I would contend that this charge of irresponsibility which ends up circling on Bush’s inability to win the nomination and or win the presidency doesn’t go far enough. Even in best case scenarios Jeb’s campaign was irresponsible.

First, if Jeb won the nomination but lost in the general you would’ve had what is perceived as a establishment candidate losing after the McCain and Romney losses. The result of this would be I think the breakup of the Republican Party, which in the abstract doesn’t sound so bad, but its replacement could be just about anything or things and it would almost certainly hand power to the Democrats for a decade or more. So Jeb wins the nomination and there’s something like a 50:50 chance the party is destroyed. Not good.

But what if Jeb won the general and became President? Then it’s—policy differences aside—all good, right? Ah, no. In that case we’d have the following sequence: Bush I-Clinton-Bush II-Obama-Bush III with the loser in the race being Clinton II. That simply can’t be, if the idea of a democratic republic is to hold, and most conservatives know it.

Alone among commentators Jonah Goldberg has insisted that in the Hillary e-mail scandal the server IS the smoking gun. Similarly, I would insist that insist that the irresponsibility of the Jeb campaign was inherent, was present at the beginning. Before he announced Barbara Bush let slip that she didn’t want him to run. The lesson, as always, listen to your mother.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Popular Two Lane Theory is Wrong and Hurting Rubio

On Sunday the NFL’s AFC and NFC champions will be decided pitting two teams in each conference against each other. And yet all season, I don’t recall hearing a single comment about there being two lanes to the championship, aided no doubt by the actual existence of four divisions in each conference.

But in politics where just like football the prize inevitably comes to down to two opponents there is no comparative objective marker to guide thought and so we get the two lanes framework. This concept is both ubiquitous and I believe wrong. At the end of October I had the following lanes which I still think is reasonably accurate:

Establishment/Old Guard: Bush, Kasich, Pataki

Young Guns/Reformers: Christie, Fiorina, Jindal, Perry, Rubio, Walker

Social Conservatives/Populists: Huckabee, Santorum

Purists/Reform Radicals: Cruz, Paul

Outsider/Outsiders: Carson, Trump

And as I pointed out at the time, it doesn’t follow from no one emerging from a particular lane that it didn’t exist.

Why care? Because as someone once pointed out, ideas have consequences. In our current race the idea of two lanes has I believe hurt Rubio. The same pundits who point to his being a tea party backed senator who is not very different from Cruz have consigned him to the prison of the ‘establishment lane’.

Rubio isn’t a, my way or nothing, conservative like Cruz, but he is no ‘establishment’ candidate either. That is being lost sight of because the over-simplified two lane concept is needlessly concealing important distinctions. $20M in negative ads directed at him is hurting Rubio. So is the two lane theory of nomination races.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Comment on a Ponnuru Column in Regard to Republicans and Immigration

Over at BloombergView Ramesh Ponnuru had a smart piece on why immigration has become a much bigger issue for Republicans this cycle.

 I would like to address his second point because I think it’s the most important. Ponnuru writes:

Demographic changes among Republicans. If Republicans are more concerned than they used to be about the wage pressure that immigration puts on the low end of the labor market, it’s partly because more Republicans work there than in the past. The party has become more dependent over time on white voters without college degrees. These Americans, who are more exposed to competition from immigrants than white voters with more schooling, have seen their economic prospects stagnate or decline.

I have no reason to doubt that it is in fact demographic change that is driving this, but it shouldn’t be. Ultimately, a national political party and philosophy needs to be national and complete in its outlook. It is shortsighted to allow the current makeup of the party to determine its outlook.

It seems clear that the American economy is moving in the direction of requiring ever greater skill to be successful. The big challenge is how to find a place for those who inevitably will be on the lower end of the curve. This has to be a concern and a focus for conservatives beyond the immediate demographic.

One way or other the problem is going to have to be addressed. To argue that the economy overall benefits from immigration is to miss the point. It seems to me that to significantly reduce immigration—I am emphatically NOT talking about deporting the illegal immigrants already here-- is the least intrusive, least disruptive way to help the employment prospects of the less skilled. If conservatives do nothing on this front under the banner of maximizing GNP or we’ve always been a nation of immigrants they’ll have to deal with far less attractive approaches to the problem.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The State of the Union is Divided

The State of the Union speech last night could’ve been very short. We are deeply, deeply divided. And it’s fair to ask whether the level of division at this point doesn’t trump (no pun or allusion intended, honest) our military strength and GDP, if such are really the measures of national strength.

It’s tempting to focus on political rhetoric and the actions of specific politicians and public personalities but this is to look in the wrong place. A far better place to start is President Obama’s statement “that government is the word we give to those things we do together.”

Add the word “compelled” and the statement is essentially correct (it leaves out that the burdens quite frequently are not shared). But it cuts in a way the President and his followers don’t acknowledge. America is a vast nation comprised of a highly diverse people. It has been argued that fragmentation is one of, maybe THE, defining characteristic of the modern world. And yet onward we go finding new and more encompassing activities and it is fair to say beliefs that we must all do together.

We are who and what we are, in and through society. The notion of the solitary individual, even extended to the family, is a dubious abstraction. But like porcupines forced to huddle too close together, continually pricked by the quills of our fellow citizens, it shouldn’t surprise that tempers have gotten rather short.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Cologne, Immigration to Europe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“If you believe that an aging, secularized, heretofore-mostly-homogeneous society is likely to peacefully absorb a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference, then you have a bright future as a spokesman for the current German government.
You’re also a fool.”
                - Ross Douthat, Germany on the Brink

In the wake of the NYE violence in Cologne and other European cities the go to intellectual has been Michel Houellebecq and his dystopian novel Submission. But if you read Rousseau’s The Social Contract you can’t help but think of modern Europe and the path it’s chosen in recent decades.
Rousseau asks how we can exchange our ‘natural liberties’ and remain free. His answer is by submitting to a Sovereign who governs according to the general will, the will of all when they are willing correctly. The lawgiver is saying what everyone would say and so the citizen is simply obeying himself and thereby isn’t constrained.
Now it isn’t hard to see the authoritarian overtones in this, especially as Rousseau gets tagged for the French Revolution (dubiously in my very non-expert opinion), but it is interesting to note the many qualifications to this that appear in The Social Contract.

For one, while he has complete faith in reasons ability to ascertain the General Will he isn’t a Rationalist in the manner of Bentham confidently writing constitutions for all the nations of the world from his study. Unlike the philosophes, Rousseau is critical of Peter the Great for trying to make Russia like France. And there is an element of timing as when he notes the “French teacher who turns out his pupil to be an infant prodigy and for the rest of his life to be nothing whatsoever.”
Second, Rousseau’s models are not nations but the great city states of history, Sparta and Geneva for example, and he looks with promise not to France but to Corsica. To be sure, much of this has to do with his regard for direct, participatory government. But if I have not completely misread him, I think Rousseau is also saying that you can’t have a general will if you don’t have a shared understanding. Absent a common understanding we are back to either the precarious freedom of the state of nature, which is no freedom, or the chains of being ruled.

The point is nicely summarized at the end of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s Sovereignty:
“’Whenever the general will makes its voice heard easily, because beliefs and sentiments are deeply felt in common, it is possible for men to live under laws which are not felt as a burden because they correspond with the personal judgements of the subjects. When, on the other hand, the process of disassociation has set in the only expedient left is ‘Hobbism’ at its most complete.’…Rousseau attaches so much importance to the unity of beliefs that he goes so far as to say, notwithstanding his own protestant outlook, that the introduction of protestantism into France should, if possible, have been prevented—in his mouth a most revealing statement and one whose significance has been insufficiently realized.”

As another philosopher points out the ‘worth’ of philosophy is in the questions raised and the arguments not the conclusions (like math with the instruction “to show your work”), and that while it can’t tell us what to do it can clarify our thinking. One doesn’t have to go all the way to the end with Rousseau to accept the power and validity of his thought, to find The Social Contract a fascinating work of philosophy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is untenable as philosophy, but it does mark a Rousseauian, practical politics stop on speculation.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Donald Trump Doesn't Think Very Much of You

I still remember Murray Kempton’s appearance on Firing Line. Buckley asked him why supporting communism wasn’t considered as serious an offense as supporting fascism and Kempton replied that it was because communism was never a large enough force in America to matter. And then you heard off camera him say “I’m afraid that’s not a very good answer.” I started to look for my wallet and keys on the assumption that a modest public intellectual was worth checking out (and the book, Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, is very good).

Donald Trump is the polar opposite of Kempton. His every utterance is terrific, as he is only too happy to tell you. Trump went to the best (read toughest) schools and got terrific grades. He has made tremendous, JUST TREMENDOUS, amounts of money. The Trump candidacy isn’t about anything really except that he is the ubermensch.

And what’s amusing about Trump’s supporters is that, apart from their adulation, Trump would have nothing to do with them. Unless you’ve made a couple billion in the marketplace, won world championships in athletics, or agree with Donald Trump on everything, it’s pretty likely he would regard you as a loser. And if there is anything that is clear about his philosophy it is that the world is made up of winners and losers.

Trump the candidate brings immediately to mind the famous Whittaker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged:

“The news about this book [read, candidate] seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. …

I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber–go!’”


I suspect Chambers is taking a bit of license with Rand—but then that’s probably why it comes to mind—and it isn’t quite fair to Trump either. But Chambers has it seems, even prospectively, a better handle on Trump than far too many who are experiencing him live.



Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Big Ten Loses Another Rose Bowl

I grew up in the Midwest and attended a Big Ten school (two of them actually) so take this for what it’s worth. But there’s a reason why I concluded decades ago that the Rose Bowl was the surest bet in sports—always take the Pac 10 team—and it wasn’t because I thought the Pac 10 was simply the better conference.

Put simply, the traditional Rose Bowl matchup pits a warm weather conference school against a cold weather conference in warm, ideal conditions. It’s also a home game for the Pac 10; literally for UCLA, more or less for the other schools. Arguably the likely worst weather locations in the Pac10 is better than the best weather locations in the Big Ten (leaving Maryland out of it). No surprise then that Big Ten teams tend to be of the run the ball variety while their counterparts out west are more balanced between run and pass.

And I would guess the differences are even more significant if we looked at high school football in the respective territories. Fall Friday nights in California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington are a little more congenial than they are in say Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin. It would be astonishing if the pool of quarterbacks in the West wasn’t deeper than it is in the Midwest.

The point, if indeed I actually have one, is usually made on Sundays. After New Year’s Day the call goes out that Big Ten football isn’t very good. Then on Sunday, the Packers play and we are informed that no one wants to face them in the playoffs in Green Bay because January, Green Bay. If the Rose Bowl was played in say Soldier Field and The Polaris Bowl was played outdoors in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 we’d probably see the Big Ten winning more often.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Chicago: A Touch of the Middle East in America's Midwest

June 2, 1787

“Mr. Dickenson moved that the Executive be made removeable by the National Legislature on the request of a majority of the Legislatures of individual States. ‘It was necessary he said to place the power of removing somewhere.’”

                                                Madison’s Notes, Constitutional Convention

Another damning report on events in Chicago, this one providing details into the sequence that resulted in a payoff to keep the Laquan McDonald shooting under wraps followed by predictions that Rahm was done. He may be, but still the most important detail to emerge in this whole scandal is that Chicago doesn’t have a procedure for removing a Mayor. As such a provision would seem rather obviously necessary in a democracy it’s telling that one doesn’t exist in Chicago.

In truth, the focus on Rahm misses the point. The case in Chicago, with due allowances made, is rather like our foreign policy problems in the Middle East. The easy part is removing the current strongman who’s suddenly been rendered vulnerable. But the essential question is how to bring about some measure of good government when the institutional norms and support structure for self-government are absent.

Rahm ousted will still leave the people in place who went along with the payoff. The activists asserting themselves in this controversy, are they better or worse than the leaders they are shoving aside? You could clean house and start from scratch, but what makes you think the voter’s would choose any more wisely than they have to date? Rahm’s disgrace is well earned and he deserves to go. But then the same could be said for Mubarak and Gaddafi.

UPDATE: this is both a good column and also what I have in mind when I say the point is being missed.