Tuesday, November 23, 2004

How the Left Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Federalism

It's all in a New York Times Magazine article here, though this has been a long time coming, and not just on gay marriage. Similar role-reversals occurred during the 2000 election fracas in Florida and over federal opposition to state medical marijuana laws. And more recently, John Ashcroft tried to go after doctors in assisted suicide cases in Oregan, where state law makes it legal.

I have to think, though, that the Left's newfound love of federalism is nothing short of opportunistic. Had Congress and the Presidency both been in their hands, I have no doubt that states' rights would have all the same stigma it did for them ten years ago. Nietzsche would have a field day analyzing this, at least in this regard: is not the push for federalism an expression of relative powerlessness in our political system? The Democrats know that aside from the occasional filibuster, there's very little they can actually accomplish on the federal level. Hence, federalism. Nice switch if they can pull it off.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Morality Play of God, Guns, and Gays: How Democrats (May Have) Lost By Playing It Safe, and What They Can Do About It

A fundamental reason why John Kerry lost is the perception, by many voters, that he is an indecisive flip-flopper who will say different things to different groups to garner their favor. He will pose as antiwar when the audience is Howard Dean supporters, but will revert to hawk when the audience consists of Midwestern moderates. One wonders if the photo-op of his duck hunt, the Dukakis tank moment of his campaign if there was one, is something that would have happened had he simply been running for reelection to the Senate in Massachusetts. Kerry, as Reason's Tim Cavanaugh put it was, "neither hot nor cold, [so] America spewed him out."

No more was this on display than with Kerry's position(s) on gay marriage. He opposed it. But he also opposed a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined his position on the issue, as well as ballot initiatives that would have forbidden courts from recognizing gay marriage. Lacking the courage of his convictions, the best he could argue was that such initiatives were divisive. We should just move on to more worthwhile topics closer to Kerry's heart, and pay no attention to the elephant under the rug.

But this isn't limited to Kerry. Here in Wisconsin, Governor Doyle takes issue with the Republican Legislature's policies, not on the basis that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are "divisive." The Legislature, Doyle has said, should focus on his priorities, which are the typical Democratic priorities of using government programs to play with the economy. The Republican obsession with "God, gays and guns" is wrong for the state. Like Kerry, he does not explicitly come and argue that the Republican positions are wrong, merely that they are divisive.

Had Democrats been in control of the Legislature in Wisconsin, and had they proceeded to pass stronger gun control legislation and gay rights measures, I somehow doubt Doyle would fault them for making "divisive" social policies. Similarly with Kerry, I doubt very seriously that if the Supreme Court mandated gay marriage under a Kerry presidency that he would have objected, and certainly not on the basis of the Court's being “divisive.”

So am I going to argue that Democrats, and Kerry, could have won last week if they had merely taken stronger, more decisive stands on these issues, especially given that they might have ended up on the losing side of the argument? No, but I do wonder if they would have at least earned more respect from voters as decisive people who don't fear taking controversial stands on issues. (Bush, for his part, didn't have that fear, even when he took positions that weren't in line with the majority. You may not like the guy, but you have to respect him for that.) Instead of Monday morning quarterbacking, I will instead offer an alternative strategy that Democrats who are skittish about gay marriage may find useful in 2006 and 2008.

Democrats need to understand that one man's “divisiveness” is another man's “decisiveness.” Strategic ambiguity may be useful in currying favor with both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, but with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, it generally doesn't win elections. (Clinton also won both presidential terms with Ross Perot Naderizing Republicans both times around. It's hard to call a 43% plurality an enthusiastic mandate of the people. And maybe it'd be more apt to say that Nader Perotized Democrats in 2000.)

Democrats are at a fork in the road now. They have three or four options, though they probably only see two of them. One is to continue with their strategy of whining that the “God, guns, gays” of the Republicans is divisive, and that they'd rather talk about some other issue that doesn't put them in the minority or require them to flip-flop. (One that they will not consider, for various reasons, is to march lock-step with the Republicans. I will not consider the merits of that possibility here.) Another option is embrace the more forthright approach of Howard Dean, and grow more radical. This option solves one horn of the dilemma – Democrats would have an unambiguous, decisive platform to run on, but it would run the risk of further alienating the blue collar types that Kerry tried to win over with his official opposition to gay marriage and his duck hunt.

I suspect that Democrats will take one or the other strategy, and suffer the disadvantages accordingly. The third option that, if they want to win, that they should take is to innovate, and confound Republicans with positions that are strong and decisive, yet which break the mold of the issue and make it impossible to be pigeon-holed into a liberal extremist stereotype. This requires creativity, something the Democratic Party hasn't shown much of since deciding that they could only run the same welfare statism that worked for FDR and (sort of) for Kennedy. Even Clinton's meager success came by winning back a few Reagan Democrats by running as a “New Democrat.”

I'll even give the Democrats a huge favor and outline what their strategy should be on gay marriage. It just so happens to be my own position on the issue, coincidentally enough. Republicans could also embrace it to their advantage, though I suspect that with their victory, they may not be as worried as Democrats about coming up with new, innovative approaches to issues to change the political landscape.

I've written out my position on this issue elsewhere. But to recap the essentials here, my suggestion is that Democrats form a larger agenda aimed at removing the government from people's bedrooms and family life by removing its role in marriage altogether. That is, no local, state or federal government agency should recognize marriage – they should be blind to marital status, in the way that they are supposed to be blind to racial status. (The gay marriage issue, which exposes the limitations of a single definition of marriage, is analogous to a similar problem in affirmative action, which is the tricky question of how to define a disadvantaged minority racial group. As race is an arbitrary cultural and political designation, so too is marital status).

Much has been made of the problem Democrats have had in taking the concerns and issues of middle America seriously. And I don't disagree – it's hard to want to vote for someone who thinks you're a bigot or an idiot for believing and living the way that you do. This approach is one of the best ways that Democrats could take middle America's concerns seriously. Democrats should explain to middle America that they are right – no judge should define a cultural institution like marriage for everyone else, and certainly not giving the idea enough time to gain enough popularity to be properly approved by standard political means on its own. But we only have this problem because marriage, like reproductive health before it, was deemed at some point as the legitimate business of government. Removing government recognition of marriage levels the playing field, making everyone and every family equal in the eyes of the law. No longer is it one-size-fits-all; marriage becomes more personal. It is something that exists between you, your family, your community, and your conception of God, if you have one. No more marriage penalties, no more special treatment for the married over the unmarried. Government is kicked out of the bedroom, and Democrats can run as the party of small, unintrusive government (at least, on this one issue).

This preserves the right of Billy Graham to deny recognizing RuPaul and his girlfriend as a married couple like any other, while not granting to married heterosexuals any special privileges denied to gays and lesbians. The 14th Amendment's Privileges and Immunities Clause is given its proper due, and religious conservatives aren't dealt a blow in the cultural wars – the government, in essence, refused to take a stand. It's a separation between state and marriage. The law would only involved insofar as it facilitates affidavits, contracts, pre-nups and wills, as it already does for gays and lesbians who wish to “marry” without legal recognition.

This would go a long way to actually giving something new for Democrats to run on, instead of the same tired script they've run on for decades. Innovation goes a long way with Americans, however “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the term) their reputation may suggest. Democrats could sell this particular innovation to gay marriage opponents as a way to protect marriage once and for all from the clutches of an unelected judiciary – it would, in effect, remove their jurisdiction entirely, placing it squarely in the hands of God alone. What could Republicans possibly say in response – that an institution ordained by God demands involvement and approval from Caesar?

I should say, I don't have any confidence that this particular approach on this particular issue would win any new votes for Democrats. There's a good chance, but I could be wrong. Given how many people voted both for Democrats and for anti-gay marriage referendum both, it may be people are happy enough with the status quo to shy away from innovation on this issue. But this is the kind of innovation Democrats need to come up with to gain traction. If people keep rejecting what you're selling, the thing to do is not to curse your customers for being too foolish to see the beauty of your product (especially when your chief selling point is how rotten the other guy's product is). Nor should you whine that your opponent's product is too “divisive.” Rather, the thing to do is go back to the drawing board, and give them something fresh.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

David Brooks and My Good Graces

I've said before that I've never really cared for Brooks, in that he's obnoxious, represents the anti-libertarian wing of conservativism, and a host of other reasons. That said, I'm very surprised to find myself in agreement with him for once. Mark the date.

This is from his autopsy of the election.

Much of the misinterpretation of this election derives from a poorly worded question in the exit polls. When asked about the issue that most influenced their vote, voters were given the option of saying "moral values." But that phrase can mean anything - or nothing. Who doesn't vote on moral values? If you ask an inept question, you get a misleading result.

The reality is that this was a broad victory for the president. Bush did better this year than he did in 2000 in 45 out of the 50 states. He did better in New York, Connecticut and, amazingly, Massachusetts. That's hardly the Bible Belt. Bush, on the other hand, did not gain significantly in the 11 states with gay marriage referendums.

He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror.

The fact is that if you think we are safer now, you probably voted for Bush. If you think we are less safe, you probably voted for Kerry. That's policy, not fundamentalism.

This dovetails very nicely with boffo's theory about why the election turned out the way it did:

The conventional wisdom that is beginning to coalesce around the election is that Bush won by firing up his base on social issues, especially gay marriage. I'm skeptical of this explanation, because it smacks of the media/left saying "We lost because the evil people were being evil."

I tend to think that Bush won for two reasons:

1. People didn't think they could trust Kerry on national security, which both swung moderates and fired up the base.
2. The noxious behavior of many of those on the left turned off moderate liberals and fired up the conservative base.

I have my own little analysis, and proposal for Democrats, that I'm working on now, and should have posted here soon.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Morning in America

Tomorrow, barring another recount mess, we will have a president-elect. I can't tell you his name, but I can tell you a few things about him. He wanted George Bush to have the authority to launch a war in Iraq, and he probably would have invaded whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction there. He thinks the Federal Election Commission should strictly regulate political speech, and he thinks the Federal Communications Commission should strictly regulate non-political speech. He supported the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and he will not be parsimonious with the public purse. He's a child of privilege who acquired great wealth without earning it in the marketplace. And I didn't vote for him.

Thought for election day from Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine.

Iraq as a Mirror

I've been sitting on this for nearly a month. Given the proximity of the election, I decided it was now or never. I cleaned up the end a bit, so it should feel more like it has a proper conclusion now...

I've actually been meaning to write this up for quite some time, but I've been ultra busy, so it's been on the back burner. Briefly – I've found myself dissatisfied with the debate over how well things are going in Iraq.

If I may indulge my literary license to exaggerate just a tad for dramatic effect: On one side, you've got people convinced that Iraq is teetering over the edge of chaos, that it is an utter Hobbesian basketcase, and lest we forget, It's All Bush's Fault ©. We shouldn't have even gone there, the Iraqis would've been much better off with Saddam still in power. On the other side, people argue that things in Iraq are just peachy, what with new schools and roads and public works being constructed left and right, an election that will duly take place in January, and that aside from a few bumps on the road, the Iraqis are on the verge of a Jeffersonian democracy.

Like I said, that's an exaggeration of the cluster of opinions you find on this very polarizing issue, though if you listen to how the two sides characterize each other, you'd think that this was, in fact, the nature of the debate. Like many issues, the Iraq War is subject to profound misunderstandings of the other side, and what is worse, partisans on both sides wearing blinders to alternative opinions that do not neatly fit into this either-or perspective. There is an emotional investment here too. Pro-War partisans invested a great deal in their (sincere, I believe, all the way up to Bush himself) desire to see freedom triumph in the Middle East, not only out of the same concern Americans typically feel for oppressed peoples, but also out of the hope that a free Iraq would generate counter-memes to the Islamist fundamentalism meme that proliferates throughout the region. This investment, unfortunately, makes it difficult to process the real difficulties of their adventure. It's one thing to keep one's eyes on the prize; it's quite another to ignore the stumbling blocks.

Anti-War partisans, likewise, have an investment in seeing the failure of the enterprise. Many, I suspect, would love to be proved wrong about their opposition to the war, but I think far more comb the headlines looking for vindication of their views. It's not that they consciously want to see failures in the forms of causalities, beheadings, and bombings, but rather something more basic to many of us, regardless of ideology – confirmation that they were right all along. What news out of Iraq conforms to that picture is what they take to be the essence of the current situation, just as the pro-war partisans mostly see what news conforms to their pre-formed views. I'm thinking of something very Kantian here, where the partisans on both sides process their perceptions according to how their minds are wired before the war ever happened, rather than for what the situation actually is in itself.

I don't think this is a very controversial overview of that debate, at least, among people who aren't really committed to either sides of the pole, who are just observing the debate as one would observe the back and forth of a tennis match. But the question remains – how are things really going in Iraq? What's my perspective?

One of the factors creating so much ill-informed opinion and debate about this issue is that the partisans lack perspective. And by that, I mean something a little more profound than it probably sounds at first glance. Judgments of “good” and “bad” are relational judgments at their most basic. If I hang out with midgets, I will be judged “tall.” If I hang out with the Houston Rockets, I will be judged “short.” Such a judgment depends on the frame of reference. And for something like “good” and “bad,” we would need some criteria by which to judge the success or failure of the war, as well as some theory of value. By what standard do we judge the war's success or failure?

And this is one reason why this debate gets divisive and polarizing. Although some common ground is shared between partisans on both sides, my sense is that there are very different standards of value that frame the evaluations of the war. On one hand, one can value peace as an end in itself, or at the very least as a value instrumental to other important values like safety. On the other, one can hold that tyranny is never to be tolerated, and that war can be a potent force for good when it challenges the perpetuators of tyranny. Thus, the capture and imprisonment of Saddam Hussein becomes thrilling news to pro-war partisans, to be celebrated. The same event illicits reactions ranging from shrugs of indifference (as in the case of Howard Dean) to bitter cynicism on the other side, which sees only a corrupt President using images of a humiliated, unnecessary foe to his own political gain.

Although this may ostensibly cast the anti-war partisans in a negative light, given that their pessimism can be traced to the same “peace at all costs” mentality that guided this century's pro-war whipping boy, Neville Chamberlain, there is a sense in which this casts both the pro-war partisans and the Bush Administration itself in a very bad light. Of course, people may have opposed involvement in World War II for any number of ideological reasons – sympathy for the Nazis, belief in appeasement, America-First-ism (at least, before Pearl Harbor). So you'd expect a similar breakdown along ideological lines on whether the war is going well or badly. But with World War II, there is a sense in which one could put ideology aside and look at the basic tally of who is winning which battles, and track the progress of the Axis and Allied powers in gaining and losing ground. Once France was fully liberated from the Nazis, and the Battle of the Bulge turned back, even anti-war partisans would have to concede that the war was going well for the Allies. They might bemoan what they'd characterize as unnecessary carnage and loss of life on both sides, but judgment could be rendered on non-ideological lines in terms of who was winning.

The thing I find troubling about the Iraq War is that there is no simple way to gauge the war's progress in such non-ideological terms. On one level, you could argue this puts the pro- and anti-war partisans on an equal footing, but on another, this creates a special challenge to the pro-war side in the same way that people who affirmatively propose new policies or changes have the burden of proof that their plans will work. It is a distinct disadvantage of the Iraq War as a pursuit that there are no obvious, decisive standards by which to judge whether the US, Great Britain and their allies are winning in Iraq, which leads to the conclusion that the ends and goals of the war were poorly thought out. I can grant the argument that everyone was fooled into thinking Saddam had WMD – hell, I recall quite distinctly even many anti-war partisans using that “fact” as reason to not go to war, because those WMD could be used against our troops. But with the absence of WMD, whomever's fault that whole mistake was, one major standard of measurement and evaluation is now gone. We can't gauge our success by how many WMD's we find and destroy.

Against the anti-war partisans, it should be noted that pointing to a given terrorist action or a beheading also fails to offer any coherent standard by which the war should be judged. This is what I will call the “Timothy McVeigh Factor.” A foreigner could easily look at the United States during the 1990's, and judge that between the Rodney King riots in LA, the Columbine shootings, the Unabomber's campaign and the Oklahoma City bombing, things in the United States were rapidly going downhill. Such a judgment would be incorrect by most standards. Crime rapidly declined in the 90's, and by and large most people were far safer walking the streets of LA or New York in 2000 than in 1990.

A similar principle is in effect with judging how well things are going in Iraq, with holistic judgments about the well-being of Iraqis across the entire country being obscured by the sensationalistic, symbolic acts of a tiny few. Those few, it should also be noted, understand the implications of this principle, which is largely why they do it. They lack the means and support to pull off a large scale attack against US forces, or to undertake any actions that would make it remotely conceivable that they could seize control of the country. So instead, they go for the small scale stuff that inspires massive media attention, and get far more bang for their buck by driving support for the war down, increasing the likelihood of a pull-out, creating the perception of a worsening, hopeless situation, even while their material support and military prowess are laughable.

I think there are standards, ultimately, that pro- and anti-war partisans can point to to justify their opinions. But the whole discourse, to the extent there really is one and not just a bunch of people talking past each other and living in their own worlds, is impoverished precisely by the lack of such a standard. And this standard needs to be made explicit. I have to wonder if this isn't at least a strong part of the reason why when writers, intellectuals and leaders within both parties actually visit Iraq, they return with a more nuanced, better understanding of Iraq, but almost never do I hear of anyone changing their mind. Sean Penn did not suddenly drop his opposition, realizing that the Iraqis were happy that Saddam was finally gone. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens post-visit is just as pro-war as ever, even if it is a more informed pro-war stance. This is why I think the Iraq debate is 95% framed by people who look at Iraq and see what they want to see. One's stances on how well the war is going will probably tell you far more about that person than about how well the war is actually going.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Spanish Prisoner

Apparently early translations of the new Osama bin Laden missed this threat to Bush-supporting states. Perhaps Osama has become quite the Michael Moore fan, deciding Moore was right when he wrote, on September 12, "If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes' destination of California--these were places that voted against Bush!"

Here is the meat of the article, which includes the translated text:

The tape of Osama bin Laden that was aired on Al-Jazeera [1] on Friday, October 29th included a specific threat to "each U.S. state," designed to influence the outcome of the upcoming election against George W. Bush. The U.S. media in general mistranslated the words "ay wilaya" (which means "each U.S. state") [2] to mean a "country" or "nation" other than the U.S., while in fact the threat was directed specifically at each individual U.S. state. This suggests some knowledge by bin Laden of the U.S. electoral college system. In a section of his speech in which he harshly criticized George W. Bush, bin Laden stated: "Any U.S. state that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security." All here.

And it should go without saying - this shouldn't really make a difference in how you vote. Voting for Bush in order to defy Osama is just as much allowing him to influence you as it would be to vote for Kerry out of fear. The same would've been true for the Spanish voter, though I admit it's troubling that al-Qaeda and other Islamists view that election as a sort of victory for them. Still, remember the old story about the non-conformist who is every bit the slave to fashion and the opinions of others as the supposed conformist. An analogous principle applies here.

Would it be inconsistent, I wonder, for me to admit that it would bring me much joy to deny bin Laden and Moore their dream outcome?