31 December 2010

Year in review

This will be our 87th and final post of 2010.

The story of the year is, without a doubt, the Republican takeover of the House and the near-takeover of the Senate. We warned against the Republicans reading the election results as a mandate and instead termed it a "revolt." We lamented the exit of Russ Feingold, the last great civil liberties crusader.

We officially discarded our John McCain Fan Club cards.

We applauded the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission.

In case there was any doubt that President Obama's policies are largely an extension of the Bush administration's, it was erased with this astonishing theory of executive power. While we slammed his abhorrent conception of the state secrets privilege, we gave a thumbs-up to START. We tried to crystallize our thoughts on Iraq -- still a work in progress.

It seems like ages ago, but healthcare reform -- if you want to call it that -- passed back in February. Our thoughts in opposition here. On Memorial Day, Israel killed 19 civilians aboard a tiny ship floating toward Gaza. A month earlier, we had begun to unpack our instincts as to why Israel isn't entitled to unbridled deference from the U.S. government.

We eviscerated Elana Kagan, Arlen Specter, Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist, Chris Dodd, Glenn Beck, and of course, Sarah Palin.

I've begun to long for the 1995-1998 period, when a Republican Congress teamed with a centrist Democratic president to comprehensively reform welfare, make markets freer, cut the size of the federal bureaucracy and balance the budget. Will Obama follow President Clinton's lead? Or will he and the GOP back into their respective corners and continue the food fight that consumed most of 2009 and virtually all of 2010?

Here's to finding out in 2011.

20 December 2010

Why Republicans are wrong on START

Virtually every high-profile congressional Republican has come out against the New START treaty, which will reduce the arms arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia and most critically, put into place a verification regime to track Russian nuclear material -- which has been completely unaccounted for since the end of the Cold War.

Led by Arizona's John Kyl, many conservatives have announced their opposition to the treaty. Never mind that if it was 2007 and President Bush had negotiated its terms, New START would have the support of virtually the entire Republican caucus.

Mitt Romney's position is particularly offensive. Daniel Larison pounds him here. But what I'm most interested in addressing is Romney's laughable comparison of our current missile defense system to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

Romney's position -- no doubt, culled from Kyl and others -- is that we cannot give up our missile defense shields throughout Europe, simply because President Reagan refused to budge on SDI in 1985. In 1985, SDI was merely a glimmer in Reagan's eye, but he instructed Defense officials to move forward on trying to create a defense shield that could shoot down Soviet missiles from outer space.

But it's important to realize why Reagan refused to give up SDI -- because it's something Romney, Kyl and the rest of the conservative national security apparatus appears to completely miss: Reagan didn't budge on SDI because missile defense is in and of itself inherently sacrosanct; rather, Reagan didn't budge because he knew that the Soviets didn't have the technology. The tone of Gorbachev's negotiating style at Reykjavik -- initially making enormous concessions, and closing with a sly caveat that all Reagan had to do in order to secure these obligations from the Soviet government was to promise to abandon SDI -- indicated to Reagan that the Soviets were stunned by the concept of a space shield. When Gorbachev demanded he scrap SDI, Reagan famously walked out.

Comparing START in 1985 to New START in 2010, it is obvious that the Russians have the exact same technology as the U.S. Reagan was unwilling to halt SDI because he knew that America had a critical technological advantage; 25 years later, SDI has been consigned to the ash heap, and what is at issue is a missile defense shield of the same type that the Russians already possess.

Ronald Reagan was abhorred by sophisticated weaponry and believed that the biblical prophecy of Armageddon would eventually come about as a result of a nuclear arms race. Once you actually take the time to read about Reagan, it's impossible to overstate how frightened he was of nuclear weapons. Deep into my third book on Reagan, I am convinced that the Gipper would have supported New START.

It seems that Reagan's longtime Secretary State agrees. In this Washington Post op-ed -- co-authored by Jim Baker (Reagan's chief of Staff and President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State), Lawrence Eagleburger (a longtime Reagan and Bush State Department official, who briefly served as Bush's Secretary of State after Baker's resignation), and the incomparable Colin Powell (who also served under both Reagan and Bush) -- George Shultz sets out what he calls the Republican case for START.

Romney, et al. seem to only invoke Reagan when it's convenient for them.

Much like the tax cut debate and the deficit reduction commission's recommendations, the question is not whether New START is a perfect treaty, because by that lofty standard, virtually nothing is worth voting for. Rather, the proper question is whether New START will make us more secure and whether it is preferable to doing nothing.

The answer is an obvious yes.

15 December 2010

Does Gary Johnson know better?

The 2012 dark horse and libertarian favorite comes out against the bipartisan tax cut extension because -- wait for it -- the Bush tax cuts aren't made permanent.

Not because it would add to the short-term deficit. Not because the unemployment benefits aren't being paid for.

I really hope the former governor of New Mexico knows better.

Johnson said that Americans sent a message last month that the problem is government spending, not government revenues. Ostensibly, Johnson believes that Congress will be happy to find a trillion dollars to cut somewhere in the federal budget.

I'm sorry, but this is fundamentally stupid position as we've pointed out innumerable times before in this space. If the Bush tax cuts expire, taxes will go back to Clinton-era levels -- during which America enjoyed years of balanced budgets and the largest peacetime boom in history. I'm genuinely confused as to what is so objectionable about this.

I suppose I'm a realist in this regard. Even the greatest president of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, wasn't able to engineer balanced budgets -- and in fact, doubled the size of the national debt in eight years -- by cutting taxes and crusading against wasteful spending. While Reagan certainly transformed the way most Americans view the regulatory apparatus of government -- and arguably set the table for the Clinton-era reforms that slashed the federal bureaucracy by 20 percent -- the cuts in spending (again, largely discretionary) weren't nearly enough to offset the massive cuts to federal revenues.

The "starve the beast" theory many conservatives hold -- which argues that Congress will necessarily cut spending if lower tax rates force it to tighten its belt -- has been proven false time and again. Anyone who argues to the contrary has spent the last 30 years with his head up his ass. This has never happened, period. Most legislators are focused on the near-term, and it's much more politically palatable to both cut taxes (or at least, prevent tax rates from going up) and not cutting anything of substance, or, more critically, adding new programs without paying for them.

Furthermore, as we've noted in this space, many conservatives' unyielding fight to protect the Pentagon's wasteful, bloated budgets -- which are now nearly triple 2003 levels -- gives them little to no credibility on fiscal issues.

Back to Gary Johnson: I get it. I don't want taxes to go up either, especially during the early stages of a fragile economic recovery. But anyone who argues that tax rates -- which have literally never been lower -- can't go up on anyone is fundamentally ignorant about the size and scope of our long-term fiscal issues and blind to the way Congress operates.

10 December 2010

Reflections on Rudy

Daniel Larison contemplates a Gary Johnson primary bid in 2012 and assesses whether an apt comparison is Rudy Guiliani in 2008. Larison notes that both men are pro-choice, which in any Republican primary, is a tough road to travel. More critically, here's what doomed Rudy:

First, Guiliani built his entire candidacy around the fact that he happened to be the Mayor of New York City during a catastrophic terrorist attack. While the country appreciates Rudy's leadership, that didn't automatically qualify him to be president. Second, he wasted his frontrunner status by ignoring the first three primaries and instead focusing all his energy in Florida. McCain's victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, plus Huckabee's victory in Iowa and near-miss in South Carolina, swung many millions of Republicans toward one of those two candidates. Each of McCain and Huckabee made a compelling case for his presidency to either one side of the party or the other. Third, McCain's voting record and quixotic blend of economic conservatism and -- at the time -- western libertarianism -- captured the vast majority of Republican moderates. Even when his campaign was nearly bankrupt, McCain hit the pavement and the town hall circuit making the case for his candidacy. Rudy stayed home, and those (like me) who wanted a more moderate Republican nominee ended up falling in line behind McCain. Fourth, it's tough to build one's candidacy around being tough on terror when, again, the primary opponent is John McCain.

So what can Johnson learn from Rudy's mistakes? First, start campaigning NOW. It's a fool's errand to pin one's hopes on a primary further down the line and allow opponents to gain press coverage, supporters and money. Johnson needs to shoot for a top-four finish in Iowa and then angle for a top-two finish in New Hampshire. Second, don't become a caricature. Joe Biden noted that every sentence Rudy utters includes "a noun, a verb and 9/11." Guiliani, the only real social liberal in the Republican field, apparently believed he had to tack hard to the right on everything else, and he came off as inauthentic. In 2012, I suspect a third way may be more popular than it was in 2008. Third, explain to GOP voters that while you might be personally pro-choice, your view of constitutional jurisprudence is the same, so there would be no difference in the judges you'd appoint. Fourth, and most critically, begin to line up endorsements from the likes of Ron and Rand Paul. Ron, in particular, has suggested he won't run if his friend Johnson does in 2012.

Will Gary Johnson be the Republican nominee in 2012? Probably not. But his candidacy would be a blast to watch, and I think he would make a terrific president.

07 December 2010

Compromise kudos

An "attaboy" to President Obama and congressional Republicans for agreeing on the framework of a deal that will both extend the Bush tax cuts for an additional 2 years, and extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months.

Liberals are -- somewhat understandably -- upset by what they believe to be Obama's capitulation to the GOP on the tax cut issue. To be fair to our liberal friends, Obama ran on the premise that he would support a middle class tax cut but that he would strongly oppose any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Some Democrats -- namely, Chuck Schumer and Anthony Weiner -- wanted Obama to frame the debate in a different way. Instead of allowing Republicans to -- correctly -- argue that hundreds of thousands of small businesses who file as S-corporations would see a tax hike at the end of the calendar year, Weiner wanted to exempt all small businesses from the hike and instead target the tax increases at individuals. SImilarly, Schumer suggested that the debate be framed as a "millionaire's tax" -- that is, if you make less than a million dollars, you'll keep your rate under the Bush tax cuts. Both the Schumer and Weiner ideas would have, admittedly, been savvy political maneuvers that would probably have won both the left and the middle -- but it's not clear that Obama would have been able to extend unemployment benefits by January 1.

And, with Republicans threatening to hold up unemployment benefits unless tax cuts were extended across the board, I'm guessing the president felt his hand was forced.

He certainly looked defeated during his press conference yesterday afternoon.

(By the way, can these things even be called "press conferences"? It seems that Obama is even slipperier than George W. Bush when it comes to taking reporters' questions. When was the last Barack Obama press conference, anyway? 2005?)

By engineering this deal -- which is, I think, a straight-down-the-middle compromise -- the president avoided a major fight and secured the extension of unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months. With the unemployment rate sitting at 9.8%, this was no small feat. Unemployment benefits, as has been astutely noted, are almost always pumped dollar-for-dollar back into the local economy for necessaries such as food, clothing and housing, so there is at least a modest stimulative effect to such an extension.

On the other hand, it would have been an abysmally terrible idea to impose a tax increase as our country continues its slow climb out of a recession. I'm not sure what liberal Democrats who pushed for across-the-board tax increases think will happen if hundreds of thousands of small businesses see tens of thousands of additional dollars go out the door in taxes. THEY STOP HIRING! AND THEY FIRE PEOPLE!

One final word: Republicans cannot expect to be taken seriously as the party of fiscal responsibility if, in two years, they argue for a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. I wanted to address this in a future post, but it bears mentioning now. There is an implicit argument made by conservatives that if taxes go up -- for anyone -- then the economy will immediately fall into a recession. But that certainly didn't happen during the Clinton presidency, when taxes on the top 5% of wage-earners rose from 36% to 39.5% -- instead of a recession, America enjoyed the longest peacetime economic boom in history. And yes, those tax increases set the table for a series of balanced budgets that were promptly obliterated by Bush and the Republican-controlled Congresses of 2001-2006.

01 December 2010

Scarborough annihilates Palin

My favorite conservative goes after my least-favorite. I love it.

The column is absolutely a must-read, and simply recapping or doing a large-scale copy-and-paste job won't do it justice. Just go read the thing.

We've slammed Palin's ignorant, hysterical, faux-folksly, patronizing brand of anti-intellectual populism here many times before. I was content to just let sleeping dogs lie.

But like Scarborough, Palin crossed a line for me when she referred to President Reagan -- the greatest president of the 20th century and the intellectual figurehead of the conservative movement -- as "an actor." He wasn't just "an actor." He was the president of the Screen Actors' Guild for six years. He spent eight years after that as GE's ombudsman, traveling the lecture circuit and meeting with tens of thousands of employees. He not only served out an entire full term as California's governor (gasp! A full term!), but ran for a second and was re-elected easily. He nearly took down an incumbent president in the 1976 presidential primary, and outperformed a stellar, crowded field of candidates to earn the 1980 nomination and, of course, become the 40th President of the United States. While so doing, Reagan invented modern conservatism and turned American politics on its head for the first time since the New Deal. He created the modern conservative movement.

For any Republican to criticize Reagan for anything other than the deficit or Iran-Contra is an unforgivable sin, and to dismiss this great man as an "actor" is offensive.

Palin also attacked George H.W. and Barbara Bush as "blue bloods." As Scarborough notes, this also is absurd, considering the former president voluntarily enlisted in the military shortly after his 18th birthday, and spent his entire adult life dedicated to the service of his country. He is a man of grace and integrity from whom a know-nothing like Palin has much to learn. For Palin to attack good and decent people like the Bushes is inexcusable, petty and unbecoming.

Palin's recent remarks are further evidence that she is nothing more than a cartoon, spitting tinny, cliched lines at crowds she doesn't really understand, singlehandedly furthering the intellectual decline of modern conservatism, and feebly attempting -- and failing -- to burnish her own laughably thin resume by taking shots at two of America's greatest leaders.

Sarah Palin is a disgrace.