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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: anti-intellectual presidency, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 35
1. Obama’s State of the Union Address

By Elvin Lim


Obama’s speech last week was an attempt to be as partisan or liberal as possible, while sounding as reasonable as possible. “Why would that be a partisan issue, helping folks refinance?” the president asked as part of this strategy. The Republican Party continues to suffer an image problem of being out of the mainstream, and the president was trying to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. There is broad support for preventing the budget “sequester,” on minimum wage legislation, and a path to citizenship for children of immigrants — the president knows it, and he is leveraging public support to try to secure compliance from errant members of Congress.

As he showed in his Second Inaugural Address, this is not a president willing to mince his words any more. To talk about climate change and the “overwhelming judgment of science” is to take a clear, uncompromising position. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations,” he said, “I will.” Presidents at least since Theodore Roosevelt have painted themselves as active problem-solvers, as opposed to bickering members of Congress, in order to justify a muscular, even unilateral executive branch. Conservatives who are quicker to see this pattern in liberal presidents should remember the perils of presidential bravado in the next conservative administration; liberals who are enjoying their president pulling his weight should pause to consider if they can consistently stomach the same unilateralism in a different time for different purposes, when it is a conservative president who proclaims, “Now’s the time to get it done.”

Get it done. They deserve a vote. Send me a bill. But the Constitution doesn’t work like that. The televised address makes it look like the president is legislator-in-chief, but he is anything but that. He can only execute the law; but to make the law he wants to execute, he needs Congress. So it may be a stroke of luck that a day after Obama’s speech, the news cycle is still consumed with the Christopher Dorner story, suggesting that Americans are tired of politics and political news after the previous year of campaign mud-slinging. Obama’s supporters want him to get on the permanent campaign, but some forget that doing well on the speech circuit could well generate congressional resentment and mobilize the “party of ‘no’” against him. There is a time for splashy, public campaigns; but look out for silent strokes of executive action in the days to come. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch” are and remain the hallmarks of the executive Publius defended in Federalist 70. Obama has already signaled unabashedly that he will make the tough decisions. He appears to be doing so very publicly, but there is a secret side to transformative agendas. When the going gets tough and Congress doesn’t get going, expect Obama to be traversing his agenda with much despatch. His State of the Union address this year constitutes full disclosure, if we care to parse it carefully.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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The post Obama’s State of the Union Address appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

By ELvin Lim


Conservatives hate it; liberals love it. His Second Inaugural Address evinces Barack Obama coming into his own, projecting himself unvarnished and real before the world. No more elections for him, so also less politics. He is number 17 in the most exclusive club in America — presidents who get to serve a second term. Yes, there’s still the bonus of a legacy. But the legacy-desiring second-term president would just sit back and do no harm, rather than put himself out there for vociferous battles to come.

For better or for worse, Barack Obama believes that the constitutional compact from whence he derives the fullness of his authority gives him a responsibility. He believes that the framers of the Constitution “gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” But he did not mean that he was an originalist, or a “constitutional conservative.” Indeed, the very opposite is true. Obama believes that the “founding creed” is no less than this: “we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.” Originalism means change, he is telling us.

This is a president no longer prepared to dally, or to punt on his liberal beliefs. “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us,” he said. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he also proclaimed. In his mind, there is no need to coddle the political right anymore, and he believes that the truth as he tells it will set us free.

So unreserved was Obama’s conviction that he took the sacred line of modern conservatism, “We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still” and turned it into the most liberal of philosophies, that “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” Obama never really had much of a stomach for unadulterated libertarianism; in his heart of hearts, this former community organizer is a communitarian. This is why he cited “We the People” five times in his address.

Call Obama liberal, or call him correct; the point is half the country does not agree, and there are tough wars to come. That Obama has been so uncharacteristically upfront about his intentions signals, though, his belief that the national political tide has turned. That on gay rights, immigration, and so forth, either because of his electoral mandate or the changing demographics of the country, he believes he holds the upper hand.

And however short his second-term “honeymoon,” I think he does. Had Obama not been re-elected, his first term might have been construed as a fluke; a bit of electoral charity from a guilt-ridden America willing to give a half-African-Anerican a chance to deliver at the White House. But Barack Obama was re-elected by a vote differential of 5 million. Only the most measly of partisan spirits will deride this victory, and deny Obama the honeymoon that he justly earned.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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3. On the Second Amendment: should we fear government or ourselves?

By Elvin Lim


The tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, have plunged the nation into the foundational debate of American politics.

Over at Fox News, the focus as been on mourning and the tragedy of what happened. As far as the search for solutions go, the focus has been on how to cope, what to say to children, and what to do about better mental health screening. It is consistent with the conservative view that when bad things happen, they happen because of errant individuals, not flawed societies. The focus on mourning indicates the view that when bad things happen, they are the inevitable costs of liberty.

At MSNBC, the focus has been on tragedy as a wake up call, not a thing in itself to simply mourn; on finding legislative and governmental solutions — gun control. This is consistent with the liberal view that when bad things happen, they happen because of flawed societies, not just the result of errant individuals or evil as an abstract entity.

The question of which side is right is an imponderable. Conservatives believe that in the end, our vigilance against tyrannical government is our first civic duty. This was the logic behind the Second Amendment. It comes from a long line of Radical Whig thinking that the Anti-Federalists inherited. That is why Second Amendment purists can reasonably argue that that citizens should continue to have access to (even) semi-automatic guns. They will say that the Second Amendment is not just for hunting; it is for liberty against national armies. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a government duly constituted by the people need not fear government; and it is citizen-on-citizen violence that we ought to try to prevent. This line of thinking began with Hobbes, who had theorized that we lay down our arms against each other, so that one amongst us alone wields the sword. Later, we called this sovereign the state. The Federalists leaned in this tradition.

Should we fear government more or fellow citizens who have access to guns? Should government or citizens enjoy the presumption of virtue? Who knows. There is no answer on earth that would permanently satisfy both political sides in America, because conservatives believe that most citizens, most of the time, are virtuous, and there is no need to take a legislative sledgehammer to restrict the liberty of a few errant individuals at the expense of everybody else. Liberals, conversely, believe that government and regulatory activity are virtuous and necessary most of the time, and there is little practical cost to most citizens to restrict a liberty (to bear arms) that is rarely, if ever, invoked. Put another way: conservatives focus on the vertical dimension of tyranny; liberals fear most the horizontal effects of mutual self-destruction.

What is a president to do? It depends on which side of the debate he stands. Barack Obama believes that the danger we pose to ourselves exceeds the danger of tyrannical government (for which a right to bear arms was originally codified). The winds of public opinion may be swaying in his direction, and Obama appeared to be ready to mould it when he asked: “Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”

Here is one neo-Federalist argument that Obama can use, should he take on modern Anti-Federalists. If the Constitution truly were of the people, then it is self-contradictory to speak of vigilance against it. In other words, the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It was written in an era of monarchy, as a bulwark against Kings. To those who claim to be constitutional conservatives, Obama may reasonably ask: either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it.

If this is to be the age of renewed faith in government, as it appears to be Obama’s mission, then the President will be more likely to convince Americans to lay down our arms; he will persuade us that our vigilance against government by the people is counter-prouctive and anachronistic. But, to move “forward,” he must first convince the NRA and its ideological compatriots that we can trust our government. Only the greatest of American presidents have succeeded in this most herculean of tasks, for our attachment to the spirit of ’76 cannot be understated.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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4. Post-mortem on the RNC Convention

By Elvin Lim


The Republicans’ convention bump for Mitt Romney appears to be muted. Why? There was a lot of bad luck. Holding the convention before the Labor Day weekend caused television viewership to go down by 30 percent, as did the competing and distracting news about Hurricane Isaac. The Clint Eastwood invisible chair wasn’t a disaster, but a wasted opportunity that Romney’s advisors should have vetted. Valuable time that could have been spent promoting Romney (such as the video of him that had to be played earlier) before he came out to speak on prime time, was instead spent in a meandering critique of Obama.

Obama’s first remarks about the convention was that it was something you would see on a black-and-white tv — a new spin on the Republican Party as allegedly backward, as opposed to the Democrat’s who lean “Forward.”

The most revealing thing about the convention was that President George W. Bush wasn’t asked to speak. Instead, he appeared in a video with the older Bush, possibly in a bid to mollify the presence of the younger. Republicans are still divided over Bush, which is why they continued their hagiography of Reagan in the convention. For all of Jeb Bush’s intonations for the Obama campaign to stop putting blame on the previous administration, the fact is that the convention conceded that George W. Bush was indeed a liability. “Forward” is a narrative that can work as long as the look immediately backwards isn’t too satisfying.

On the other side, Bill Clinton will of course make an appearance in Charlotte in next week. The Democrats have also wisely flooded the speakers’ list with women, to show that the Republicans’ paltry presentation of just five women represent the tokenism narrative that Democrats are trying to paint. Women are America’s numerically biggest demographic and they are more likely to turn out than men (by 4% in 2008).

In this final stretch, the gurus are gunning straight for the demographics. Campaigning has become a science, albeit an imperfect one. The Romney campaign now knows that a generic refutation of the Obama’s performance about the economy, jobs, the national debt — which we’ve been hearing for nearly four years — is not going to change the underlying tectonics of voter sentiment. This is why they tried to elevate the Medicare issue last week, and why they’re trying the personalize Romney strategy this week. The latter is more likely to work, and it should be done quickly, because next week, the DNC intends to make America fall in love with Barack Obama again.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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5. Same-sex marriage, state by state

By Elvin Lim


New York has just become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, together with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, and the District of Columbia. New Jersey, Maryland, and Rhode Island have not legalized same-sex marriage, but they do recognize those performed in other states. State by state, the dominoes against same-sex marriage are falling away as surely as reason must conquer unreason. President Barack Obama has been accused of allowing a state governor, Mario Cuomo, to be the leader on this issue. But on this issue, Obama’s hesitation and characteristic equivocation might turn out to be strategically, if unintentionally, wise, because civil rights issues are most effectively advanced by state legislatures, not national institutions.

Consider the bittersweet record of the Civil Rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the lesser known Loving v. Virginia (1967) (which legalized inter-racial marriage) were landmark Supreme Court decisions. But they created decades of backlash, most easily exemplified by the busing controversy as well as the “special rights” retort — the argument that a too-ready conferral of alleged rights to identity groups creates an atomistic society and a government with more obligations than it can or ought to fulfill — the lead argument against affirmative action policies today. In 1967, the year inter-racial marriage was made legal by “judicial activism,” 72 percent of Americans were opposed to inter-racial marriage. It was not until 1991, 35 years later, that these Americans became a minority. Brown and Loving gave us the right decisions, but not necessary with the smartest strategy.

The history of the same-sex marriage movement in the mid-2000s exhibited the same one step forward, two step backwards tendency when it tried to follow in the strategic footsteps of the Civil Rights movement, by way of Courts. In 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, that it’s inconsistent with the State’s constitution to limit marriage only to opposite-sex couples. Massachusetts became the first US state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; a triumphant first hurrah, but ultimately a harbinger of backlash, including a national movement to amend the US constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and the passage of amendments in 11 state constitutions to the same on election day. 2004 would be remembered as the of anti-same-sex-marriage backlash, not the year when the movement for marriage equality started.

But something remarkable happened in the last few years, when the movement decided that the “special rights” retort was too powerful to overcome. The movement suspended its alliance with the Courts, and turned, as presidential candidates must, to a state-by-state strategy. In doing this, the movement drove a knife into the the heart of the anti-same-sex-marriage argument. The argument against “activist judges” — a procedural argument that disguises the moral disgust — cannot stand when state legislatures comprised of elected officials redefine the meaning of marriage. Just seven years after a national hysteria against “judicial activism,” conservative groups are now left with one of two choices: either come out (no pun intended) and articulate the real moral or religious reasons why they are against same-se

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6. Rethinking July 4th

By Elvin Lim


Yesterday was Independence Day, we correctly note. But most Americans do not merely think of July 4 as a day for celebrating Independence. We are told, especially by the Tea Partying crowd, that we are celebrating the birth of a nation. Not quite.

Independence, the liberation of the 13 original colonies form British rule, did not create a nation any more than a teenager leaving home becomes an adult. Far from it, even the Declaration of Independence (which incidentally, was not signed on July 4, but in August), did not even refer to the “United States” as a proper noun, but instead,  registered the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” And that was all we were in 1776 – a collection of states with no common mission, linked fate, or general government. This was the understanding of the the Franco-American treaties of 1778, which referred to the “United States of North America.”

America was not America until it was, well, constituted. The United States of America was born after the 9th State ratified the US Constitution, and Congress certified the same on September 13, 1788. So we should by all means celebrate the 4th, but confusing Independence with the birth of a nation has serious constitutional-interpretive implications. If the two are the same, then the Declaration’s commitment to negative liberty — freedom from government — gets conflated with the Constitution’s commitment to positive liberty — its charge to the federal government to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The fact of the matter is that government was a thing to be feared in 1776. Government, or so the revolutionaries argued, was tyrannical, distant, and brutish. But it was precisely a turnaround in sentiment in the years leading up to 1789 — the decade of confederal republican anarchy — that the States came around to the conclusion that government was not so much to be feared than it was needed. This fundamental reversal of opinion is conveniently elided in Tea-Party characterizations of the American founding.

It is no wonder that politicians can get American history so wrong if we ourselves — 84 percent, according to the National Constitution Center’s poll in 1997 — actually believe that the phrase “all men are created equal” are in the Constitution. Actually, quite the opposite. Those inspirational words in the Declaration of Independence have absolutely zero constitutional weight, and they cannot be adduced as legal arguments in any Court in the nation.

Nations are not built by collective fear. Jealousy is a fine republican sentiment, especially if it is directed against monarchy, but it is surely less of a virtue when directed against a government constituted by We the People unless jealousy against oneself is not a self-defeating thing. What remains a virtuous sentiment, in monarchies or in republics, however, is fellow-feeling, a collective identification with the “general Welfare.” America can move in the direction of “a more perfect Union” only if citizens can come to accept that the Declaration of Independence was the prelude to the major act, and not the culminating act in itself. At the very least, we could get an extra federal holiday in September.

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7. If the public debt robs our children, we robbed the WWII generation

By Elvin Lim


It is often said that the public debt is a burden we leave to our children and grandchildren. Even Barack Obama said the same when he was a Senator. Invoking children is a great way to make a moral argument without sounding moralistic, but it is a spurious way to make an economic argument in committing the fallacy that all borrowing is deferred charge.

The American people should know that it is not as if the $14 trillion public debt is owed to foreigners. Actually, Paul Krugman (not surprisingly, a Keynesian) thinks that the figure that matters is the debt (or federal securities) held by foreigners and institutions outside of the US, which is about $9.6 trillion. The remaining $5 trillion or so, called intra-governmental debt, is the debt the federal government owes to itself, such as in the form of debt owed to trust funds like Social Security. The cries against burdening our children and grandchildren are are illegitimate here. Borrowing by the federal government is itself a market transaction and an investment decision in which the lender forgoes the present use of her money, and purchases a security in return for interest. This interest is socially costless because it is simply a redistribution from all tax-payers to bond-holders. This is a transfer payment, not robbery.

What is missed in the intergenerational-robbery fallacy is that deficits actually help present working cohorts to invest in the increased supply of assets, generated by the debt. Far from being a burden to their children, the present working cohort are, if they are not also building tangible assets made possible by the money raised, at the very least saving for their retirement and doing their part to ensure that future generations are not called on to fund their retirement (either personally, or by public programs). We don’t even have to get into Keynesian arguments about how debt possibly increases aggregate demand and jobs to show that government borrowing in such instances does the exact opposite of burdening future generations. This is what makes government borrowing a potent instrument of fiscal (read “stimulus”) policy, and it is the real reason why deficit hawks are against it.

Debt sounds like a bad word only because we are falsely analogizing from the personal, or the household, to the public sphere. But what is prudent for the individual or the household is not necessarily prudent for the market. (That’s why the economy needs us all to go out and buy even if we don’t feel we should.) Yet the false analogizing isn’t too surprising if we recall that one strand of ideology in this country has always started off from the perspective if the individual, and the other, the collectivity. We can argue till the cows come home on the latter, but the idea that the public debt is always and entirely a burden to future generations is simply and certifiably fallacious. We are the children and grandchildren of people living during WWII, during which time the public debt as a percentage of GDP was even higher than what it is now, but I don’t think anyone will argue that we’re now paying off their debt.

OK wait, maybe some will.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan Un

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8. Republicans will pay for the Tea Party’s ideological purity

By Elvin Lim


Tea Party Republicans are about to be force-fed a slice of humble pie. In the first test of their political acumen since sweeping into Congress last year, they showed an ignorance of the first rule of democratic politics: never say never, because a politician’s got to be a politician.

Especially on an issue, the federal debt ceiling, with stakes as high as financial Armageddon itself! All the best intentions in the world, served up on the high horse of ideological purity, are about to bring the entire Republican party to its knees before Obama on this issue.

Ronald Reagan presided over 16 debt ceiling raises, Bush saw it raised 7 times. Did Tea Party Republicans really think that they could out-Republican Reagan and Bush? There’s the crux of any bargaining game — know thine chips. There is simply no way Wall Street and the Chambers of Commerce around the nation were going to sit around and let the Tea Party faction within the Republican fold play with this financial matter of life and death. Maybe it was the residue of last year’s electoral hubris, or maybe they believed the myth that fiscal conservatism is the one thing that unites Republicans, or maybe they forgot that the president wields a veto, but Tea Partiers and their leaders in Congress should never have done a repeat of George H. W. Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Doing this backed them into a corner, flanked by no debt ceiling increases on the one side, and no tax increases on the other. Leaving no standing room left for compromises, the Tea Party caucus is about to realize that two negatives do not together make a “yes” from the White House. In fact, the only one who gets to say “no” with no less than constitutional gravity is the President.

Obama knew this issue was his to win all along, and he has played the Republicans like a fiddle, presenting himself as a grand negotiator and eminent pragmatist; the go-getter who slyly had it implied that checks for social security may not be sent out in August, and the media played along and covered the circus. But Obama knew that he never ever had to compromise, which is why he raised the goal of achieving a $4 trillion plan to ensure both that he looked presidentially ambitious, and that he would get exactly what he wants when the deal inevitably fails. Republican leaders trotted along to the White House negotiation table, willingly playing his game in part because they had to look like they were trying, but for the most part they were clueless about the plastic value of their bargaining chips.

It is one thing to take an extreme position, but it is another to take an extreme position on a matter that could precipitate financial Armageddon. I have to believe that anyone who is willing to take that risk has a part of herself who would like to see financial collapse on Wall Street, the decimation of corporate capitalism, and a return to Jacksonian laissez faire. The President is rather smugly playing this game because he knows that he doesn’t have to lift a hand because in the end, Wall Street will rein the Tea Party in. And so mainstream Republicans have allowed themselves to lose control of the message — which worked so very well in their favor when they were still focused on jobs — by talking themselves into corner on an issue they wrongly thought was more on their side than on the President’s. Wall Street is not conservative or Republican, Tea Partiers! It’s even more powerful than the liberals, and that’s why the Dow’s not even flinching.

Worse still,

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9. The triumph of politics

By Elvin Lim America is the only country in the world that that has the luxury of creating an economic crisis when there isn't one. Ours is the only democracy with a debt ceiling, with the exception of Denmark, which raises its ceiling well in advance of when it would be reached. Economists say that our "debt crisis" is an unforced error, because people are more than willing to lend us money, at pretty good rates. This is the benefit of having a really good credit score.

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10. Perry v. Romney

By Elvin Lim The two front-runners in the Republican nomination contest, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, narrowed the distance between them in the last debate in Florida sponsored by Fox and Google. This is a debate that showcased both their Achilles’ heels. Perry's problem is not the "ponzi scheme" comment about Social Security. Most conservatives agree with him, and the consistent conservative would actually agree with him that Social Security is a matter that should be sent back to the states to handle. Perry's problem is his

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11. Does Obama lead when he does not speak?

By Elvin Lim When the dust settles on the history of the Obama presidency, a major theme historians will have to consider and explain, is the startling contrast in his record in domestic policy versus his successes in foreign policy, which now include the assassination of Bin Laden and the toppling of Qaddafi. To put the matter in another way: if 2012 were 2004, and Obama would be judged purely on his foreign policy alone, he wouldn't have to be doing any bus tours in the battleground states now.

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12. A brokered Republican Convention?

By Elvin Lim


The Republican nomination race is still Mitt Romney’s to lose, but he is in trouble yet again, and his cloak of inevitability is fast disappearing.

The Republican convention / L.M. Glackens (1908). Source: Library of Congress.

Even if Romney won every delegate from now on, and he won’t, it wouldn’t be mathematically possible for him to lock up 1144 delegates at least until early April. It is now too late in almost every state to get on the ballot, so barring a brokered convention where a compromise candidate can potentially emerge out of nowhere, we are down to these last four candidates. Ironically though, the longer Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich stay in the race, the more likely the Republicans will be headed toward a brokered convention, and new developments keep making what was once a journalist’s dream a palpable possibility. Gingrich’s superPAC just got a 10 million infusion from Sheldon Adelson, and with a lock on Georgia’s delegates, he has no incentive to drop out anytime soon. Ron Paul, of course, is the only candidate in this race in it for the ideas and the ideas alone, so he is guaranteed to stay on for as long as he can shape the debate. When 2012 is wrapped up, it may well be that only one person unambiguously benefited from Citizens United and the rise of the superPACs to sustain the campaigns of what would once have been longshot candidates — the same person who had initially opposed Citizens United, Barack Obama.

With a steady trickle of good news coming in about the economy, Mitt Romney’s strong suit is losing its luster, which is why the game between the two front-runners is fluid and difficult to call. With contraception in the news, Romney’s moderate credentials pale in contrast to Santorum’s authentic conservatism, or as Romney has tried to say of himself, “severe” conservatism. Funded by billionaire Foster Freiss, Santorum now has the resources to fight a longish race. More important, he is polling ahead of Romney in Michigan, where Romney’s father was once the Governor. If Santorum ekes out a victory in Michigan, he may get enough of a momentum to win in delegate-rich Ohio, a key battleground state that will cause Establishment Republicans to give him a fresh look. Things could then get really messy this summer, and this is bad news for the GOP. The difference between the Obama-Clinton battle in 2008 and the Romney-Santorum battle is that Clinton wasn’t able to pull Obama to the Right. Each of the anti-Romney candidates have taken their turn to drag Romney so far to the Right that the eventual nominee may not have time to race back to the center to stage a plausible general election campaign.

Already, the divergence of interest between the presidential and primary candidates and incumbent republicans is occurring. On the one hand, Republicans in Congress have already caved in to payroll tax cuts proposed by the Obama administration, and succumbed to the pressure to moderate in order to produce some legislative outcomes in an election year. On the other hand, the primary electorate is being invited to live in an alternate universe, where ideological purity and consistency rather than moderation will be rewarded. The net result is that the overlapping of general and primary election imperatives — the incentive to go right and go center – is going to get increasingly glaring and damaging to the GOP the longer the nomination contest goes on. The Republican party therefore has every incentive to end the nomination race soon, so that it can begin the move toward the center that

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13. Why Racial Profiling is like Affirmative Action

By Elvin Lim


The Transportation and Security Administration’s new video screening and pat-down procedures has given new fuel to advocates of racial profiling at airports around the nation. Opponents of racial profiling argue that treating an individual differently simply because of his or her race is wrong because discrimination, even for noble intentions, is just plain wrong. Let’s call this the principle of formal equality.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what opponents of affirmative action say. They typically argue that some other signifier, for example class, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if affirmative action policies were in place.

This argument is analogous to the one offered by those who are against racial profiling. They suggest that some other signifier, for example behavior, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if racial profiling policies were in place.

It seems, then, that one can either be for race-based profiling and affirmative action, or against both. What is problematic is if one is for one but not the other. My guess is that most liberals are for race-based affirmative action but against racial profiling, and most conservatives are against race-based affirmative action but for racial profiling. Inconsistency?

The problem is harder to resolve for the conservative who is anti-affirmative action but for racial profiling than it is for the liberal who is pro-affirmative action and anti-racial profiling. Here is why. The liberal can restate his or her philosophy as such: discrimination is wrong only when a historically disadvantaged group bears the brunt of a particular policy (as in racial profiling); discrimination is permissible when historically advantaged groups bear the brunt of a particular policy (as in affirmative action). By moving away from formal equality toward a more substantive conception of equality that incorporates the principle of historical remedy, a liberal can remain consistently pro-affirmative action, and still be anti-racial-profiling.

For the conservative who is against race-based affirmative action but for profiling, the problem is stickier. Almost every anti-affirmative action argument I have come across turns on the principle of formal equality: that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, no matter what the policy intentions may be.

Suppose, in an effort to reconcile an anti-affirmative action and a pro-profiling position, one argued that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, unless it was done in the name of some higher good, such as national security.

Well, then in protest, the pro-affirmative action liberal will simply substitute “some higher good” with “diversity,” and the anti-affirmative action conservative would be forced to accept the plausibility of the liberal’s position on affirmative action — or at least the fact that they share similar argumentative forms with no way to adjudicate between one higher good and another (while retaining his or her pro-profiling stance.) The problem is that to admit of any higher principle other than formal equality (the claim that discrimination on the basis of race for any reason is just flat out wrong) to help distinguish the cases decimates the case against affirmative action that was itself built on formal equality.

Profiling on the basis of race, among other characteristics, such as behavior, is likely to become a de facto, if not a de jure, policy in our nation’s airports in the years to come. It is going to inconvenience some innocent people simply because, among other factors, their skin was colored a particular way just as, and the hope is, it will save a lot mor

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14. WikiLeaks, Anarchism, and the State

By Elvin Lim


WikiLeaks affirms on its website that “democracy and transparency go hand in hand.” This may be true in the abstract, but in the world in which we live, it is not, because the only democracies we know of operate within the confines of the nation-state, and nation-states are not comfortable with transparency. That is why the campaign by the nation-states of the world to shut the site down is proceeding with such ferocity.

Individuals – at least those who live in states committed to the rule of law – enjoy a presumptive respect for our privacy. There is no reason why anyone or any institution should have access to details of our private life. We do not owe anyone a transparent account of our lives.

WikiLeaks believes that nation-states should not enjoy a similar presumption because it believes that under the cover of secrecy, states are more likely than not to engage in nefarious activity. WikiLeaks rejects the “need-to-know” operational norm of the nation-state because it rejects its monopolization of the legitimate use of force and therefore its monopolization of the legitimate use of information.

And this is the disagreement between anarchists and realists. Realists believe that nation-states are the way to run what would otherwise be an even more anarchic world. If it weren’t the American, German or any other government dealing with each other, it would be multinational corporations, sub-national groups, and transnational organizations (some of which are terrorist groups) determining the agenda and contours of global politics. Realists assume that the disorder between entities other than nation-states would far exceed the disorder between nation-states. Anarchists believe that the disorder between nation-states – most notably, war – is the source of global friction, not its solution.

The anarchism of Julian Assange (WikiLeaks’ public face) is not so far removed from other strands of anti-statism. Assange rejects all nation-states in a plenary fashion. The American Tea Party movement does not challenge the American nation, but it does reject the American state when its focus is directed internally (rather than externally). Like Assange, the movement believes that whereas individuals do not owe to others a duty to be transparent about ourselves, states owe a duty of transparency to those who are burdened by their authority. Osama Bin Laden rejects only Western nation-states and their support of the Jewish nation-state, but he is no anarchist because he wants to create a Palestinian state. Bin Laden believes in transparency too – just not his own. The interesting point that emerges from these comparisons is that whereas the anarchist is universally and without exception against the state (and believes that all nation-states, if they exist, should be transparent in their dealings with each other), both non-state actors like Al Qaeda and sub-state actors, like the Tea Party movement, are only selectively in support of the state and the virtue of transparency when they further their perceived interests but not otherwise.

What the last three examples force is a question that will come under increasing scrutiny in the decades to come: under what conditions do we need the state? Reasonable people can and will disagree, but what is clear is that very few people are completely against the state without reservation or exceptions. Anarchists, like all purists, are a lonely b

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15. John Boehner and Jared Loughner say: Read the US Constitution, but do they get it?

By Elvin Lim


The new House rules require that bills be posted online for 72 hours before they come to the floor for a vote.

If this is a nod to the Tea Party movement, either the nodders are naive or the Tea Party movement has no clue what the Constitution really means.

One needs quite a lot more than a public reading of the US Constitution to unpack its meaning. For to understand the Constitution is not only know what it says, but how it works.

The more the House succeeds as a check against itself, the less it would be able to be a part the original checks and balances the Framers invented. The checks they envisioned were mostly inter-branch, not intra-branch.

Consider the various rules the House has now adopted to constrain its own powers. The Supreme Court doesn’t do this. The President certainly does not. Whereas the House has mandated its members to post bills online for 72 hours before they are brought to the floor of the vote, presidents in the 20th century have been happy to conceal their actions behind the protective veil of “executive privilege.” Whereas all bills and resolutions sent to the House now have to be accompanied by a statement of constitutional propriety, we are not likely to see a president voluntarily tie his/her hand like that. If anything, presidents purport to have independent authority to interpret the Constitution as they so please. Congress has now ceded its prerogative to do so.

The Tea Partiers do not appear to understand that power is a zero-sum game between the executive and legislative branches, and this is particularly ironic given that not a few of them are routing for the current president’s political demise.

A weak legislative branch may beget a weak American state, and the latter, to be sure, is ultimately what the Tea Partiers want. But there is more than one branch able to the task of expanding the state. Tea Partiers might have missed the fact that whereas Republican legislators helped to expand the scope and size of the federal government during the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the 20th century, presidents have been the motive force behind the expansion of the American state. Think of Theodore Roosevelt and the civil service, Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security, Lyndon Johnson and Medicare. Crippling the legislature only makes it more susceptible to the executive whim. Betimes the executive exercises impulse control, but most of the time, presidents grow the state. Whether it pertains to the social security state or the military industrial complex, it’s still the federal budget that has been exploding, and the emboldened executive of our times has quite a lot to do with it.

There are real consequences for our republic whenever someone one or one movement purports that someone else does not have the privilege of interpreting our Constitution. Quite often, they are simply ceding the interpretative power to someone else – either the President or less often, the Courts. Worse still is when the would-be constitutional purist reserves interpretation only for himself by purporting that the Constitution only needs to be read for its meaning to be manifest.

No, I am not talking about John Boehner, but Jared Loughner, the man taken into custody for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who wrote on a Youtube video [3:15] the following:

The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the Constitution of the United States of America.

You don’t have to accept the federalist laws.

Nonetheless, read the United States’ of America’s Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws.

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16. Conservative Anger and Liberal Condescension

By Elvin Lim


The vitriol that liberals and conservatives perceive in each other is only the symptom of a larger cause. There is something rooted in the two ideologies that generates anger and condescension respectively, and that is why a simple call by the President for participants to be more civil will find few adherents.

Liberals are thinking, what is it about conservatism that it can produce its own antithesis, radicalism? Whether these be conservatives of the anti-government variety, such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) or Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), or conservatives of the anti-abortion variety such as Clayton Waagner, Eric Rudolph, or the Army of God -all conducted terrorism to preserve a way of life.

One of the deepest paradoxes of American conservatism is that the preservation of the past takes effort. As William F. Buckley put it, conservatives “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” As the Founder of modern American conservatism noted, the enemy is History itself, because History moves. Congressman Joe Wilson took Buckley’s yelling advice to heart in 2009, when he blurted out “You lie!” to the President when he was addressing the Congress in the chamber of the House. Yelling is a far cry from shooting. But the point is that conservatism on this side of the Atlantic wasn’t exactly born a phlegmatic creed.

Conservatism in America has always been about fighting back and taking back, articulated with a healthy dose of bravado and second amendment rhetoric. Sarah Palin understands this and that is why her crowds cheer her on. People like her because she is feisty. But that has also worked against her. Palin just couldn’t help herself but fight back when she was accused of inciting Jared Loughner into his shooting frenzy. Whereas the very liberal John Kerry thought he was above the fray and was slow to respond to the Swift Boat veterans’ attacks against him, Sarah Palin is often too quick to respond to her attackers, and sometimes she does so without having considered her choice of words (like “blood libel.”)

That is why House leaders about to stage a vote against Obamacare are about to traverse a dilemma-ridden path. To say what they want to say requires outrage and gusto, but when they do this they risk being accused of giving fodder to the would-be Jared Lee Loughners in their midst.

This is not to say that there isn’t vitriol on the liberal side. But it is of an entirely different form. Whereas conservatives are apt to feel anger, liberals project condescension. Again, part of this is structural, because Progressivism of any variety has one thing on its side – history itself. Because in the long run, Progressives have change on their side, they only need to wait and the world as conservatives know it shall pass. This, in part, explains liberal condescension. Conservatives conserve because they want to insulate themselves against the vicissitudes of life and History’s inexorable movement. Progressives or liberals, on the other hand, embrace change because they feel it is inevitable.<

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17. A GOP Front-runner Emerges

By Elvin Lim


The Republican party has traditionally been a more ordered, hierarchical organization, one in which the norm of waiting for one’s turn has been entrenched through the decades. When there is no consensus on the available candidates in the field, the runner-up to the last nomination contest becomes, by default, the front-runner. Today, Palin, Pawlenty, Thune, Huckabee, Gingerich, and Santorum are all names being mentioned. Yet no name stands out the way Mitt Romney’s does.

This weekend, Romney topped a straw poll of New Hampshire Republican Party Committee members for the party’s nomination. He was the runner-up in 2008’s straw poll in New Hampshire, and won 32 percent of the actual primary vote, just behind John McCain’s 37 percent. Now, the poll may not tell us much; New Hampshire is a Romney stronghold because he is from neighboring Massachusetts and owns a home in the state. But history and the Republican primary calendar appear to be moving in Romney’s favor.

This is because by the time the South begins to vote to give victories to Romney’s rivals, he would have had three chances to set up a delegate-grabbing momentum. Romney is the front-runner to beat in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on or around February 14, 2012. On February 18, he is likely to win again in the Nevada caucuses because of his Mormon base there. On February 28, Michigan, where Romney was born and remains a favorite son, holds its primary. As we know of the law of momentum in primary contests, the early bird catches the nomination. Fortune’s arrows are certainly unpredictable, but she has bequeathed to Romney three shots toward the Republican nomination in the first two weeks of the primary cycle in 2012.

The Tea Party movement is inadvertently helping Romney out too. While everyone else is actively courting the Tea Party, Romney isn’t (and some say, he couldn’t even if he tried, because of his hand in healthcare reform as Governor of Massachusetts). This sets Romney apart to win the more moderate Republicans voting in states like New Hampshire, which happens to have a semi-open primary, which means Independents who are not registered with either party can vote in the Republican primary. Romney’s less than cozy relationship with the Tea Party may actually help him because while Palin and Huckabee et al split the Tea Party vote, Romney would be on his way to a delegate lead.

Republican donors appear to be concurring. Almost every economic index other than unemployment is likely to favor an Obama re-election in 2012, so the Republican party could do well to put someone with Romney’s credentials as a former businessman and CEO at the top of their ticket. With 9/11 a decade behind us (the only reason why Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner at this time in the 2008 cycle), American politics will likely regress to the mean so that 2012, like 2010, will be about the economy. Accordingly, Romney’s PAC (Free and Strong America) has raised more money than that of any other contender, including Sarah Palin, whose PAC raised $5.4 million in 2010, compared to Romney’s $8.8 million. Palin gets the crowds out, but Romney gets their checkbooks out. Big difference; and we aren’t even yet talking about Romney’s personal wealth.

Obama’s approval numbers have gone up for now. But one thing he has always been weak on – and watch him try to address this weakness on Tuesday’s State of the Union address – is that likeable as he appears to be, he is al

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18. How Publius Might Counsel Egypt

By Elvin Lim


As the situation continues to unfold in Egypt, and as the White House continues to walk a fine line between support for democracy and support for a new regime which may not be as pro-American as Hosni Mubarak’s was, Publius, the author of the Federalist Papers may lend us some wisdom.

It may surprise some people, but Publius was no fan of democracy. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” Publius wrote in Number 10. The mob cannot rule, though the mob may delegate power to those who can. And that was the genius of 1787 – a full decade after the American revolution, it bears repeating. Revolutions are negative acts where old worlds are shattered; founding, on the other hand, is a positive act, where a new world is created. Egypt has had her fair share of revolutions, and it is high time for a founding that will make a future revolution unnecessary.

But who should the supporters at Tahrir Square anoint to be the leader of a new Egypt? Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm, Publius warned us. The irony of this weekend’s hagiographic celebration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday is that the Framers of the US Constitution had hoped to create a system so that we did not have to wait for virtuous men any more, as the history of a capricious world had only done before. Egypt will become a republic when she no longer awaits a Nasser or a Sadat or a Mubarak. Even ElBaradei should not be mistaken for a messiah.

How would Publius have handled the Muslim Brotherhood? Certainly not by banning it, as Hosni Mubarak did. Instead, Publius would have proposed that Egypt bring as many political and religious groups as possible to the negotiating table, and let ambition counteract ambition. “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy,” Publius wrote, “but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.” If the Muslim Brotherhood supports suppression, then the solution to it is not more suppression, but to engulf it with groups who support liberty.

Finally, Publius’ greatest innovation arguably laid in the fact that he proposed an entirely new constitution, not a mere amendment to the Articles of Confederation, as was the charge of the Continental Congress in 1787. Vice-president Omar Suleiman is apparently now overseeing a committee to oversee amendments to the Constitution, focusing in particular on provisions that would allow the Opposition to run for the Egyptian presidency. This is not a good idea because the Egyptian constitution needs more than piecemeal change. In particular, even the Opposition has been co-opted into believing that Egypt’s problems could be solved by having the right person assume control of the presidency. But the problem lies not just in the manner by which the president is selected, but in the size of the office. Publius stated it well in Number 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place

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19. Fissures in the Conservative Movement

By Elvin Lim


In recent weeks, factions within the Republican party have begun jostling for power within the conservative movement. This is the bitter-sweet inevitability of being more than the party in opposition, but also a party recently co-opted into power. Whether the disagreement is between Rick Santorum versus Sarah Palin, or the Family Research Council versus GOProud , or Tea Party members of Congress and moderate Republicans debating the budget, or William Kristol and Glenn Beck on democracy in Egypt, these differences are only going to grow as we head toward Republican primary season.

There are, of course, differences in priorities within the Democratic fold as well. But the source of the president’s incumbency advantage derives from the fact that these differences will not be played out during the primary season. He will likely enjoy the benefit of not being challenged. So when Republican candidates are invariably jostling for advantage, the president can simply go about his business, looking presidential (and raising money.)

The reason why Ronald Reagan’s historical legacy has been revised upwards in recent times is because the children of his revolution know of no better way to hold themselves together. Or put another way, the celebration of Reagan only reveals the dearth of leadership in the conservative movement, which is still looking to the past because they cannot yet see anyone who can take them to victory in the future.

At this time in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama had already declared his candidacy, alongside a formidable front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Today, there is a long, lackluster, and uncommitted list of potential candidates on the Republican side (so much so that even Donald Trump managed to steal the show at this year’s CPAC Conference), but no major candidate has taken the plunge. Why? Because whoever takes the first plunge would become the universal target of all those not yet declared, and will suffer the irony that the first-mover advantage becomes the first-victim-of-infighting disadvantage. The more potential candidates predict infighting, the later they will declare, so that they can stay above the fray for as long as they can. No one candidate feels confident enough to pull the three major strands of conservatism – the libertarians, the social conservatives, and the neo-conservatives – together, and this is why Reagan is still the godfather revered.

Watch the lesser known candidates be among the first to declare as they would be able to secure some national media attention when the Reagan Library hosts the first Republican primary debate for the season on May 2, 2011. The better known candidates have more to lose and less to gain by declaring early.

In particular, s/he who waits until the situation in Egypt as well as the budget battle between the President and Congress unfolds would better be able to pivot toward the emerging priorities of the conservative movement. If Egypt transitions into a democracy friendly to US interests, then neo-conservatives of the Kristol variety would have won the argument

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20. Democracy and Predictability in the Middle East

By Elvin Lim


American foreign policy elites are now facing the difficult choice of deciding if our short-term goals are in fostering democracy in the Middle East, or in quietly propping up authoritarian allies in the region. Even if policy-makers have a choice, it not an easy one to make. Certainly, in the long run, democracy in the Middle East would likely remove the breeding conditions for terrorism and resentment towards the West, but in the short run, transitioning toward democracy is a highly volatile project and in the meantime our strategic interests in the region could be compromised.

That is why until September 11, 2001, there had been an unspoken consensus that democracy in the Middle East matters less than friends in the Middle East. It has certainly been easier for the United States to negotiate with Kings and dictators than they have with the unorganized masses. We are not alone in taking the path of least resistance. The Soviet Union and the British empire operated on the same principle, prioritizing predictability over democracy. Indeed, almost all the monarchies in the Middle East were created by the British, trying to replicate the balance of power called the Concert of Europe which had prevailed in Europe in the 19th century.

This top-down, and short-term approach to regional order and predictability had its consequences in crowding out the more sustainable, bottom-up approach. The result of imposing an authoritarian solution from above is that whereas countries in the West developed democratic institutions and traditions, countries in the Middle East were developmentally arrested, never allowed to develop the apparatuses of self-rule, including a system of government accountability, a separation and division of powers, codified laws, stable political parties, a free and open media, and an engaged and educated citizenry. The existence of a major resource, oil, made it especially difficult for countries in the Middle East to break out of their arrested development, because leaders propped up by oil revenue spent their energies defending their control of resources rather than fighting for the affections of the people. As a result, most countries in the region failed to develop electorally responsive mechanisms to allocate and check political power. By choosing democracy over predictability and the path of least resistance, the US and the West made it more likely that the Middle East would enjoy neither in the future.

September 11, and the war in Iraq it precipitated, temporarily blurred this conclusion because it appeared that we could seek democracy and predictability at the same time, or at least the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration promised. The relative success of the Iraq war blurred the zero-sum game between democracy and predictability by seeking the latter in the name of the former. But the temporary marriage between our commitment to democracy and predictability in the Middle East could last only as long as our commitment to the former was tentative and calibrated.

The uprisings in Tunisia, however, has put this marriage to the test. As the wave of protest spreads in the Middle East, some neo-conservatives are now realizing that they got more than they bargained for, and the instinct to return to short-term thinking in the US has returned. The US can take on the project of democracy one country at a time — starting for example in Iraq — but it cannot do this in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen all at once. Policy-makers and the elected politicians who appointed them have to worry about the here and now too. And that means thinking about the markets, oil prices, and friendly counter-weights to rogue regimes like Iran, which necessarily become more powerful as the authoritarian regimes around it crumble. With even the King of Bahrain now talking about reforms, and protests starting in the normally

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21. Why Operation Odyssey Dawn may become another protracted odyssey

By Elvin Lim


The Obama administration is having a hard time responding to critics who disagree with its decision to intervene in Libya. Some on the Left do not want another war; while some on the Right don’t want a multilateral approach to war focussed on humanitarian intervention and one authorized by the UN. Both sides, of course, are using a “separation of powers” line, charging that the President failed to seek congressional approval, but the procedural objection disguises a substantive disagreement. The fact is very few politicians have ever really cared about the erosion of congressional authority (not that they shouldn’t) since the last war Congress declared was 60 years ago during World War II.

And there lies the crux of the matter. It is not that the President has clearly made a blunder, whether in the timing, method, or articulation of our aims in Libya, for all are up for debate and indeed are being debated. It is just that war is not the sort of thing that we, and most democracies, can easily agree on. (And that is why kings, not presidents in our inquisitive electronic age, have been most successful in using prerogative and secrecy to wage war.)

What is worse is that our agreement on war is so rare that we have romanticized the one war where we came closest to agreeing on, which of course has added to more disagreement because we have subsequently held ourselves to such impossible standards. This is our collective cognitive illusion that all wars should be like World War II, ostensibly the last war in which America took the right moral stance, where we were both unilateral and multilateral, defensive and yet also aggressive, and on which, at least after Pearl Harbor, there was relatively little partisan disagreement. The romanticization of this unusual war has only made the conduct of foreign policy more, not less, difficult in the decades since.

Democracies are rarely in consensus about the conduct of war, which is why we should start them with abundant caution. One reason why we have had a long and less than impressive list of foreign misadventures since the middle of the last century and at least since Vietnam is that we have tried too long, and without any success, to prove to ourselves that World War II was the war to guide all future wars. As it turns out, that war was the exception, not the rule. Yet both the Obama administration and its critics share such a missionary zeal about how foreign affairs should be conducted, respectively, in their anti-totalitarian aspirations, their commitment to procedural orthodoxy, and moral leadership.

Our present disagreement about how to deal with Libya comes from uncertainty, the fact that no one holds a crystal ball. The problem with military intervention is that interveners must know which domestic party to side with, and some appreciation of what the end game should look like. But while we suspect that Muammar Qaddafi isn’t the best bet for democracy in Libya, no one can be sure that the rebel government in Benghazi would do any better. By definition, interveners guide the outcome of domestic strife, changing the timing, manner, and outcome of that which would otherwise have organically occurred. This is good, in the short run, for global order; but bad, in the long run, for democratic consolidation in the host country, and political consensus in the intervening country.

As the White House struggles to articulate a clear mission in Libya in the face of criticism from both the liberal and conservative bases, it is worth noting that ambiguous aims beget unending wars as it is worth

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22. More sound than fury in the budget battles ahead

By Elvin Lim


The strategic gamesmanship leading up to the budget compromise that was reached late last week suggests a blueprint for the budget battles to come. But while many observers believe that Washington is bracing for even more epic battles to come, when Congress considers the budget for the rest of the fiscal year and legislation to raise the debt ceiling, my guess is that there will be more sabre-rattling than a serious effort to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Here are three reasons why.

First, even Democrats agree that cuts are necessary, and even Republicans know that deep cuts are difficult. There will be collusion to fight, but not necessarily to disagree. Certainly, Republicans and Tea Partiers still enjoying the honeymoon from last November’s elections have successfuly set the frame of “spending cuts” such that Democrats have been forced to fight the battle on Republican turf. But everyone already accepts that the federal government has to rein in its spending. Now, Republicans will have to take their pick between fiscal restraint and their social agenda. So far they have been consistent in prioritizing the former, for when push came to shove, even Senator Tom Coburn dropped his insistence on the Planned Parenthood rider. For Democrats, the question is not whether they can beat Republicans at their own game and propose a bigger budget slash than Republicans want, but whether they can reset the political agenda, postpone the issue, or talk about something else. Both sides however, will be sure to start off each new debate with maximal bluster and deliberately over-reach, so as to win the maximal concession from the other side and to achieve a final resting point closest to one’s original pre-bluster preference.

Second, last week revealed that neither side wants to risk the political fallout of a government shut-down. Conventional wisdom holds that Bill Clinton was the net political winner when Republicans forced a government shutdown in 1995 and 1996. Last week, even Tea Partiers revealed their interest in seeing government work, not shut down. The budget talks were the first real test of the Tea Party in government, the first test of Speaker Boehner’s ability to unite a diverse group of freshmen and veteran Republican congressmen, and the first test of President Obama’s ability to reconcile Democrats and Republicans after his announcement to seek a second presidential term. Because nobody wants to risk appearing obstructionist, the irony of divided party control in Washington – which was the case the last time a president managed to balance the budget – is that it may well prove to be more constructive than gridlocked in the short-term. The long run, of course, is a different matter. Nobody in Washington thinks about that.

Third, while Democrats are hailing the $38 billion cut in spending they acceded to as the biggest real spending cut in history, the fact is this amount represents 12 percent of the amount (about $300 billion) we would have to cut from the budget so that Congress would not have to raise the public debt ceiling of $14.294 trillion, which The Treasury Department expects we will hit in about a month. Not even Congressman Paul Ryan or Senator Marco Rubio have proposed plans aggressive enough to save us $300 billion in one month. When politicians make the most noise, then we know that they are interested more in the semblance of trying than confident in the possibility of a solution.

If the last ten years, in which we have raised the debt ceiling ten times, is any guide, it is very likely that we are going to have to raise the debt ceiling, if not the US government would not be able to raise money to fund its operati

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23. Campaign fund-raising and the pre-primaries for elections 2012

By Elvin Lim


Something of a myth of American democracy is that decisions are made in the ballot box by voters on election day. Actually, these outcomes are structured by fundraising efforts by would-be candidates years in advance.

Aspirants to the GOP presidential nomination, now entering the crucial second quarter before election year and on the eve of their formal declarations of candidacies, are now racing for credibility by racing for cash. And those without name recognition, in particular, have to rake in as much as they can before June 30 and the slower summer months begin, so that their second quarter federal disclosure reports do not look so pitiful that their campaigns would end before they even began.

President Barack Obama, for his part, appears on top of his own game. Having quickly declared his candidacy, his campaign manager Jim Messina has already mapped out a plan of getting 400 major donors to raise $350,000 each by the end of the year. By forcing the campaign finance issue so early and so soon on GOP hopefuls, he is already shaping the GOP primary outcome. Even more so than in the typical cycle, Republican primary voters will face pressure to forego a candidate of purer conservative principle with less fund-raising potential such as Rick Santorum in favor of a candidate with more fund-raising potential (or the name-recognition to achieve to same) such as Mitt Romney. Obama’s early campaign kick-off, then, has heightened the GOP’s dilemma between boring but credible candidates, and exciting but unknown candidates — a reason why the party has not already settled on a clear frontrunner the way it had done for every campaign since 1952.

In the House and Senate, both parties understand that elections have to be bought as much as they must be fought. Democrats in both chambers appear to have begun to narrow the “enthusiasm gap” of 2010, and raised a little more money than Republicans in the first quarter of this year in spite of the expectation that donors are typically unenthusiastic in the fundraising cycle which follows their party’s defeat at the polls. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $11.69 million, just slightly more than the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee’s figure of $11.2 million. A positive sign for Democrats is that the senators holding important swing seats the GOP hopes to re-capture, such as those of Bill Nelson (FL), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Sherrod Brown (OH), did well by raising over a $1 million each in the first quarter. But this could merely mean that these senators are gearing up for a tough, and perhaps uphill battle ahead.

Democrats fared better in the House as well, but the numbers again are very close. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $19.6 million, compared to the National Republican Campaign Committee, which raised $18 million. The DCCC is taking comfort in the fact that the average freshman Republican congressman raised less in the first quarter of 2011 than the average freshman Democratic congressman did in the first quarters of 2007 and 2009 – the years after the Democrats had just enjoyed their victories. There were, however, clear winners on the Republican side, and topping that list was Michelle Bachmann, who raised over $2 million in the first quarter. The critical question for the year ahead is whether the Tea-Party’s enthusiasm for Bachmann is portable enough to help other Republican members achieve their fund-raising goals. If the Tea Party proves capable of inspiring cheques as well as it has inspired hearts, the Republican party will have no problem keeping the House and gaining in the Senate next year.

For American politics, look not to the polls; for where the money goes, so goes t

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24. The Same Ole Party for now

By Elvin Lim


In 2010, the Tea Party movement was out and about. Newly christened and newly outraged, they created the enthusiasm gap that creates victories in an age of evenly split bipolarized politics.

This year, the rage has sizzled out to disgruntled listlessness. Even for those still against Obamacare, the memory of its passage has waned because the promised effects of its eventual implementation will not become evident for a few more years, and the debate about the national debt is either too real (in Medicare) or too esoteric (as in the debt ceiling) for easy populist manipulation.

If Republicans are still waiting for a political novice from a midwestern town to emerge out of nowhere and take the country by storm (i.e. their Obama), then they better wait for the next cycle, because their most talented candidates have already opted to do so. The smart candidates, if they can afford the time, are polishing their CVs for 2016, because they know that whoever it is, incumbent presidents are just hard to beat; plus, they happen to be facing an incumbent president who appears as adept at filling his war-chest as he is at delivering campaign sonnets.

Trump was a fun fantasy, as was Huckabee, and as remains Herman Cain. So many tantalizing options, some sparks of celebrity, and yet no magic, no candidate with the star quality — the je na sais quoi of our era of infotainment politics. It’s not that there is no talent on the Republican side, but that the talented have wisely chosen to withhold their talent for a better shot in the future.

And so all we have on the Republican side right now is the same old. The front-runner, as far as any is visible, is a stiff millionaire with Wall Street credentials with the slick hair to match his slick politics. He was for health-care in Massachusetts before he was against it in Washington. But he does raise a lot of money, so at least he satisfies the bare minimum requirement for what it takes to take on Obama. And that’s it. For all the Right’s talk that Obama is just about the worst president that has ever befallen American (so terrible he’s even been deemed, literally, unAmerican), there is a gaping lacuna in their search for an alternative.

In the era of the permanent campaign, when all elected politicians are already campaigning for their next appearance at the poll, now is rather late in the game that we are not already speculating about the most viable candidates. Granted, the speculations are often wrong, but the point is early speculation is a sign of enthusiasm that helps create a victorious wave for whoever the nominee is later on. The last time there was an incumbent president on the ballot, the Democrats were going gaga over Howard Dean at this time in that cycle. We are well past this point for the 2012 cycle, and yet the Republican Tea Partiers are only just getting over Donald Trump’s flirtatious clownery. Whereas by 2006, the lame-duck George Bush was already being eclipsed by the media’s extended foreplay with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most eyes remain on the same two characters, even if some are cast in contempt. There still isn’t a newsmaking, paparazzi-feeding figure on the Republican side who also looks credible enough to party apparatchiks. (Sarah Palin fails on the latter criterion), in part because no candidate on the Right has yet mastered the fine art of credible populism — as close as one can come to giving the je na sais quoi of presidential star quality a name in the era of plebiscitary and anti-intellectual politics. The existing range of candidates are sub-par because they are either too stiff or too silly.

All populists are, to some extent, sweet-talking thespians. It cannot be otherwise, because democracy makes the voter sovereign, and sovereigns love flattery. But

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25. Rick Perry 2012

By Elvin Lim


A lackluster field of Republican candidates for president will receive a significant jolt if Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, decides to throw his hat in the ring. There is significant buzz now to take this possibility seriously.

The big story about Newt Gingrich’s campaign implosion wasn’t that 16 of his staff members walked out; it is that that two of them, Dave Carney and Rob Johnson (who managed Perry’s last campaign when Perry beat Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by over 20 percentage points in the Republican primary), are longtime aides to the Governor who are now free to offer their services to him. I doubt it is mere coincidence that only a week before, Rick Perry ended years of denial and was reported to have said about running in 2012, “I’m gonna to think about it.”

Perry would be a formidable candidate if he got in. For one, he has never lost an election in his life and if he comes in, it means he’s done the math. Governors from big states already start off with an advantage because they can carry their state’s electoral college votes with them, and Republican governors from Texas are especially advantaged because Texas is the biggest fundraising state for the party. An earlier favorite of the Tea Party, Perry would be able to articulate an authentic voice against big government and capture those votes originally reserved for the more colorful spokespersons of the movement whom we all know would not, in the end, actually run. (A Perry run would also conclusively kill all remaining speculation about whether or not there would be a Palin run, as they’re both courting the same crowd.) As a third term governor, Perry would be able to speak with more executive experience and more authority against “beltway” insiders than the other governors in the declared field, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. Texas’ job creation record in the last year has also been nothing short of astounding, making it home to 37 percent of the nation’s newly created jobs since the recession ended, and you can bet Perry would take the credit for it if he runs. Finally, Perry will benefit from his well-known rivalry with George Bush, while his fiscal fundamentalism and his secessionist sympathies would inoculate him from ties to the party establishment. For a Republican party yearning, after the Bush years, to return to original principles, Rick Perry is as authentic as it gets.

The Republican field is, to use Bill O’Reilly’s caption for Tim Pawlenty, “vanilla” enough that there is tremendous hunger for a candidate with as much stylistic oomph — never-mind the substance — that could match the party’s distaste for President Obama. (Witness the initial surge of interest in Herman Cain.) With no commanding frontrunner this late in the game, Perry has read the tea leaves and he is tempted. And the best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the

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