Friday, October 30, 2009

Spanish Civil War in New York

Between 1936 and 1939, a civil war was fought in Spain. In retrospect, that war is seen as a dress rehearsal for World War II, which started soon thereafter. Germany and Italy backed the winning side, whose leader, Francisco Franco governed Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. The other side was backed by the Soviet Union, and by leftists from the U.S. and elsewhere.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Republicans in the U.S. are positioning themselves for all-out war over their party's 2012 presidential nomination. A special election next Tuesday for a U.S. House seat in New York State's 23rd district has become a proxy war, analogous to the Spanish Civil War, among some of the GOP presidential prospects.

I wrote here about the third-party Conservative candidate who is trying, apparently successfully, to doom the candidacy of a moderate Republican.

Presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty have endorsed the Conservative candidate Douglas Hoffman. Their potential rival Newt Gingrich is supporting the Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava.

Gingrich advocates maximizing the number of Republicans in the House, in order to weaken or eliminate the power of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who holds the office that had been Gingrich's from 1995 to 1999.

Palin and Pawlenty subscribe to the school of thought (that seems to be predominant among Republicans nationally) that the way to restore their party to power is to present a clear ideological message to the American electorate.

I don't think the New York result will be decisive in resolving the 2012 nomination battle, but any candidate on the winning side might score some points in the battle to emerge from the pack as a front-runner.

The blogosphere is debating the meaning of polls that have been conducted for this contest.

That's more important in this case than it would be in a two-way race. If the third-party candidate Hoffman can prove that he's a viable candidate, that will probably boost his support, in that those who vote for him won't fear that their vote is wasted.

As an aside, the Instant Runoff Voting system, which my native city of Minneapolis is going to try out next week, would eliminate that issue. Not that I'm advocating that. It would encourage more third-party voting, potentially making parties even more ideologically rigid than the Democratic and Republican parties have become. While there are pros and cons to that, on balance, I don't think it would be healthy for the system.

But back to the 23rd district polls.

In 538, Nate Silver makes a cogent argument that polls commissioned by Hoffman's supporters, that show him in the lead, can't necessarily be relied on.

But Chris Cillizza, in The Washington Post's The Fix blog, cites a poll conducted on behalf of the left-wing blog Daily Kos, that shows Hoffman in a dead heat with Democrat Bill Owens.

On the other side, Hoffman's backers on the Power Line blog are strongly arguing that Hoffman is ahead. I think Scott Johnson misses the point, in defending the integrity of the pollster whose results were challenged by Silver. There are many ways in which the biases of a pollster can affect the results. The wording of the questions, the order in which questions are asked, and adjustments to the numbers in an attempt to have the sample better reflect the whole population, tend to sway the results in favor of the sponsors of a poll. To acknowledge that is not to impugn the integrity of the poll-taker.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Hot Is The Dragon?

Soon after Mao Zedong died in 1976, bringing to an end his 27-year attempt to starve China's people to death (which was only partially successful, but give him credit for trying), that country began to allow market forces to work once more. Now, more than three decades later, commentators are asking whether China is about to overtake the U.S. as the world's major economic power.

Cool your jets, says the Economist in its October 24 issue. While they note that:

China owns $800 billion of American government debt—enough to give it power of life and death over the American economy

they go on to describe continued American dominance:

China’s economy is still less than a third the size of America’s at market exchange-rates. Its GDP per head is one-fourteenth that of America. The innovation gap between the two countries remains huge. America’s defence budget is still six times China’s. As for the Treasury bills, dumping them is not an option for China: a tumbling dollar would hurt its own economy.

As is the case with many accounting concepts, comparing the size of countries' economies is not as simple as one might think.

There are two ways of calculating GDP. One of those methods takes into account the fact that cost of living tends to be lower in poorer countries. Those countries' GDP amounts are inflated to reflect the additional buying power of any given monetary amount. Some international economist who likes alliteration labeled this the "purchasing power parity" (PPP) method of calculating GDP.

Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World, explains the PPP concept and discusses when the unadjusted GDP (GDP at market exchange rates) is a more suitable measure. (See his footnote on p. 17.) He writes:

... when it comes to the stuff of raw national power, measuring GDP at market exchange rates makes more sense. You can't buy an aircraft carrier, fund a UN peacekeeping mission, announce corporate earnings, or give foreign aid with dollars measured in PPP.

I agree with that, and that is the basis on which the Economist came up with its comparison, with the American economy still being three times as large as China's.

Here are data from the World Bank, showing that, on a PPP basis, the U.S. GDP is less than twice that of China.

Where I think the PPP adjustment makes more sense, is to apply it to per capita GDP, and thereby come up with a comparison of standard of living between countries.

On that basis, China falls even further behind, due to its huge population. Those numbers are: US $39,319, and China $5,453. That is the number that China's leaders focus on, in their attempt to distract their people from questioning their political impotence. And it is also the figure that marketers will look at, to gauge how quickly China's consumption will continue to grow.

Will China eventually surpass the U.S. in all of these measurements? If so, that's too far into the future to predict with any accuracy.

China's percentage rate of growth (from a very small base) has exceeded that of the U.S. over the past 30 years. It is easy to extrapolate from that, and show that, if those rates continue into the indefinite future, China will eventually surpass America.

But, if China's GDP continues to grow at double-digit rates over the next few years, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain those percentage rates. It was relatively easy for them to quickly grow from the desperate poverty of the Mao era. But, as the GDP base gets larger, those percentages will probably flatten out. And who knows? Maybe, many years from now, a neo-Mao will bring China back into economic chaos.

Certainly, we can't rule out China eventually taking over the #1 spot. But it doesn't seem to me that there's any basis for a prediction that that will happen and, if so, when.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New York Special Election

For the second time this year, voters in a New York State congressional district will cast ballots in a special election to fill a U.S. House vacancy. On November 3, that state's 23rd district will choose a successor to Republican John McHugh, whom President Obama has appointed as secretary of the army.

The earlier special election was less directly tied to an Obama nomination. Democrat Scott Murphy was elected to succeed Kirsten Gillibrand, after Gillibrand had in turn been appointed as the interim successor in the U.S. Senate to Obama's choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Murphy held for the Democrats a seat that had often voted Republican in the past.

The 23rd is in upstate New York, adjacent to Murphy's 20th district, and it has also historically been Republican territory.

Now for the most interesting twist in the current campaign: major Republicans on the national scene are working to defeat Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate. This New York Times report explains that strange situation in further detail.

New York State has two odd political entities: the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Party was formed in 1944 as a vehicle for the anti-Communist left, that was independent of the Democrats, which the Liberals describe as having been "rife with corruption".

The right wing in that state countered in 1962 by founding the Conservative Party.

Those parties have often endorsed Republican and Democratic candidates, but in some races, they have run third-party candidacies.

The two most famous Conservative candidacies, one successful and one not, were run by members of my favorite political family, the Buckleys. I described those campaigns in this post.

On the other hand, the Liberals' greatest success on their own was the reelection of New York City Mayor John Lindsay in 1969. He lost the Republican primary, but still won the general election, as New Yorkers tend to describe it, "on the Liberal line".

This might seem surprising in this day and age, but the Liberal Party often backed Republican candidates. Those were the so-called "Rockefeller Republicans" that formerly dominated that party in New York.

However, they never endorsed Nelson Rockefeller himself in any of his runs for governor. But they did support Republican U.S. Senate candidates such as Charles Goodell and Jacob Javitz.

Now, the Conservative Party is attempting to replicate its victory in the 1970 Senate election, when its nominee James Buckley defeated Goodell, who was Rockefeller's appointee to replace the late Robert Kennedy in the Senate.

Douglas Hoffman is running on the Conservative line against Scozzafava in the 23rd district special election. Many Republicans consider her to be too far to the left, and they prefer to take the chance of allowing a Democratic victory, rather than putting a latter-day Rockefeller Republican in the seat.

As I've repeatedly noted, northeastern Republicans have become an endangered species. What is the best way to stave off extinction?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage Litigation

Many state and local governments have taken steps to expand rights for those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in recent years. These have included legislative actions and court decisions.

The federal Supreme Court rendered the so-called sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003, as I described here. But no branch of the federal government has made a similarly sweeping move on the issue of discrimination against LGBT people in employment and other areas of life. And on another of the big issues, same-sex marriage, the political branches moved in the other direction. In 1996, entrenched in their heterosexual bunker, they held off the barbarian LGBT hordes, by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by then-President Bill Clinton.

A few states, through judicial or legislative action, or some combination thereof, have legalized either same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Now, a case is making its way through the federal courts, that could give the U.S. Supreme Court a basis for striking down state and federal restrictions on same-sex marriage.

One of the most talked-about aspects of the case is that Ted Olson, who was U.S. solicitor general in George W. Bush's administration, is one of the lawyers advocating the pro-same-sex-marriage viewpoint. Some LGBT activists, who question the tactical wisdom of pursuing this litigation at this time, have even accused Olson of deliberately trying to sabotage the cause.

But it seems as though Olson is a genuine supporter of LGBT rights.

That all ties into the confusing ways in which the American body politic uses the word "conservative". (I started writing about that here, and then got distracted.) Religious-right defenders of the traditional concept of marriage are lumped together with libertarians, whose concept of allowing rights as long as they don't harm the interests of others fits in very well with support for same-sex marriage. (See the New York Times article to which I've linked, above, regarding the inability of even the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage to cite any potential harm to others.)

Another interesting angle to the suit is that David Boies, who was Olson's adversary in state and federal Supreme Court arguments about the 2000 Florida dispute between Bush and Al Gore, is working with Olson on the marriage case.

Further evidence, if any were needed, of how mainstream the LGBT rights position has become. Even if the Pentagon doesn't ask, go ahead and tell them.

Monday, October 26, 2009

German Coalition is Finalized

Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her new coalition government. For the past four weeks, Merkel, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) has been negotiating these arrangements with her party's coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), led by Guido Westerwelle. Those talks followed the general election last month, in which the CDU and FDP between them won enough parliamentary seats to form a majority coalition, and send the CDU's previous coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), into opposition.

Merkel said that tax cuts will be a key part of her government's program. The FDP have been the strongest German advocates for lower taxes.

Many of the center-right parties in Continental Europe would not be considered all that right-wing by American standards. The governments of Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy maintain a larger and more intrusive role in economic life than American Republicans have traditionally been comfortable with. (However, even they became a bit too comfortable during George W. Bush's presidency.)

In Germany, the CDU started out in 1949, implementing the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that enabled their country to recover from the devastation of World War II. Their initial leaders, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard, pursued free-market policies that restored West Germany to economic preeminence in Europe. Later CDU leaders strayed from that course.

The FDP, called "liberal" according to the European understanding of that term, which is closer to what we call "libertarian" over here than it is to our understanding of "liberal", will provide some market-oriented backbone to the softer Christian Democrats.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Breaking News: Labor Advocates Defeat of Tories!

Roger Cohen, in this op-ed in The New York Times, has provided an excellent example of the "dog bites man" vs. "man bites dog" concept of news, that I described here.

No, it's not really breaking news that the Labor Party's David Miliband, foreign secretary in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, wants the British electorate to maintain his party's majority in the House of Commons in the general election that must be held by next June, rather than putting Conservative leader David Cameron in 10 Downing Street in place of Brown.

To be fair to Cohen, there is more to his column than that. But he does seem to want us to accept Miliband as an unbiased authority on the question.

As to President Obama's position on the matter, that's a more complicated question.

Other countries' leaders need to be careful about perceptions that they're meddling in another country's election. Two reasons for that, one theoretical, one practical:

On a theoretical level, such behavior can be criticized as undemocratic, and disrespectful of the other country's independence.

The practical concern is that all countries' leaders will have to work with whichever candidate wins the election. In other words, a foreign leader who, however subtly, favored party "A", might have a difficult working relationship with the leader of party "B", if party "B" wins the election.

Even though the US is not a member of the European Union (EU), we have a stake in its policies. And we have a stake in the nature of the relationship that a major country such as the UK has with the EU.

Cohen praises Obama for pushing Britain in the direction of a Europe policy that fits America's interests. It would be naive to think that an American administration would absolutely not do that. But there could be a backlash on the part of Britain's voters and/or its leaders, if that is pushed too strongly.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Dollar: How Weak Is Too Weak?

Andrew Sullivan and friends think that concern about the weak dollar is a false issue that is being used to smear President Obama.

Sullivan links to a 2007 New York Times op-ed by Tyler Cowen, one of the leading economics writers in the blogosphere.

Cowen gives the standard international trade analysis of the value of the dollar, i.e., that a weak dollar makes it easier for American sellers to sell to foreign consumers, but makes it more expensive for American consumers to buy from foreign sellers. So, directly or indirectly, just about everyone will feel some good effects and some bad effects from a weak dollar.

Cowen mentions, but downplays, larger potential implications.

If the dollar were to lose its standing as the world's preeminent currency, that would have major implications. Our ability to borrow in dollars from foreign investors, such as the Chinese government, gives the U.S. a great degree of control over its debt situation. If push came to shove, America could print more dollars, and thereby avoid default on our debts. (Not that that's a viable long-term solution; if we did too much of that, we would hasten the downfall of the dollar.)

The fact that commodities such as oil are priced in dollars on international markets has a similar effect.

So far, the world continues to lend dollars to us, and the oil exporters have not switched to a different currency. But the concern cannot be dismissed as a red herring. In other words, saying that the weak dollar is a concern is not the same as saying that Obama was born in a place other than Hawaii.

Hockey Moms, Wagers, etc.

Andrew Sullivan joins in the debate raging through the blogosphere on the question of whether Sarah Palin will run for president in 2012. He links to a post that describes a wager about the Hockey Mom's future plans, between writers on the 538 blog.

This ties into a post of mine back in June, when I noted that, when a president runs for a second term, there are always many candidates from the opposition party lining up to oppose the reelection effort. But things rarely work out well for the opposition nominee.

Tom Schaller's analysis, noting that it would be prudent for a young presidential prospect such as Palin to wait until President Obama is term-limited, makes sense to me. But ambitious politicians have not historically been willing to wait, so Palin will not be bucking a trend, if she jumps into the fray for 2012.

As I noted in that earlier post, some challengers have defeated incumbent presidents. But Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are/were extraordinary politicians. Does Palin put herself into that category?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gubernatorial Elections: 13 Days Away

The two gubernatorial elections scheduled for this year, in New Jersey and Virginia, are now less than two weeks away.

Earlier this year, the Republican candidates had double-digit leads in the polls in both of those states. The New Jersey race has tightened considerably, while in Virginia, Republican candidate Bob McDonnell has maintained a large lead.

The average poll results, as reported by Real Clear Politics, show McDonnell ahead by 10.9 percentage points over Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia, while New Jersey Republican Chris Christie leads incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine by only four tenths of a percentage point.

The biggest development in New Jersey has been the unexpectedly strong independent candidacy of Chris Daggett. He has been appointed to positions in government by elected officials of both parties, but has stronger ties to the Republican Party. The conventional wisdom is that Daggett is siphoning off votes from Christie.

Both of those governorships are currently held by Democrats. A term limit prevents Virginia Governor Tim Kaine from seeking reelection.

So, it looks as though the Republican Party will gain at least one, and maybe two, state houses next month. Two implications:

If they serve their full term, the governors elected this year will have veto power over the redistricting process following the 2010 census, for both U.S. House and state legislative seats.

Also, these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Obama Administration. Is that an accurate reading of elections at the state level? Of course, if things go as expected, Democrats will say "no". Obviously, local issues play a role in gubernatorial elections. But, one year after a presidential election, when the winner of that election is engaged in controversial policy battles, I think the New Jersey and Virginia results can be interpreted as a verdict on President Obama.

That will give some indication of how next year's mid-term congressional elections, and the gubernatorial elections that will held in 2010 in most of the states, will go.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Shifting Currents in Asia?

Renard Sexton, in the 538 blog, has addressed an issue I wrote about here, which is the effect that Japan's rejection of their long-time ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, will have on that country's close alliance with the U.S.

Sexton cites trade data that show that China has overtaken the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner. I agree with him that such a shift affects the political, as well as economic, relationship between countries.

But, I think he overstates the effect that might have in terms of weakening the military alliance.

Since 1954, Japan has maintained what it euphemistically calls Self-Defense Forces. Those forces constitute quite a large military. However, it is small in comparison to Japan's large population and GDP. It would be difficult to reconcile a full-size military establishment with the country's promise in its post-World War II constitution to abandon militarism.

Japan has largely relied on American military protection. If it were to substantially shift away from its alliance with the U.S., Japan would need to either fully remilitarize, or find itself a new strategic partner(s).

Toward the end of his post, Sexton mentions the historically strained relations Japan has had with some of its Asian neighbors, stemming from Japanese aggression against those countries during and before World War II. While that has not stopped those countries from building up a significant trading relationship with Japan, emotions still run high, regarding that troubled history. If Sexton thinks that closer relationships with Japan's Asian and Oceanic neighbors (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, anyone?) can substitute for its American alliance, he's taking insufficient account of history.

I think there will continue to be gradual and incremental changes in East Asian power relationships, but I don't expect any sudden and dramatic shift.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Independent Democrat

That's the party designation that Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman has applied to himself, ever since the general election of 2006, in which he defeated Ned Lamont, the man who had beaten Lieberman in the Democratic primary.

But how independent is he?

The word on Lieberman has consistently been that, while he's a hawk on foreign policy, he toes the Democratic Party line on domestic issues.

Apparently, with some exceptions.

Nate Silver, in the 538 blog, points out that Lieberman is taking a stand that is further to the right than the rest of his party, regarding health care legislation. Silver makes a plausible case that that won't help Lieberman's reelection prospects next time, as a Democrat, an Independent, or anything in between.

My opinion is that a legislator's motives for anything he or she does or says, are some mixture of 1) what he or she thinks is right; and 2) what will help him or her get reelected.

Some politicians will claim that it's all based on that first motive. On the other hand, the most cynical of observers will maintain that the reelection motive is all there is. But I think it's always somewhere in the middle.

To the extent Lieberman may think that his health care stand will help him win reelection, I agree that he has miscalculated.

Minnesota Michele

My native state of Minnesota has seemed to produce more than its share of colorful political characters over the past few decades. For the most part, they have been members of the Democratic Party's Minnesota affiliate, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. Names that come easily to mind include Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone. Outside of that party, there is, last, but by all means not least, the third-party former governor, Jesse Ventura.

Now, even with the lame-duck Repubican governor being seen as a dark-horse but plausible candidate for president, he is not the most-talked-about politician in that state, and not even the most-talked-about Republican. That title goes to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota's sixth district. The award has been confirmed by her inclusion among the news that's fit to print.

Since the 1960 census, Minnesota has held even with eight U.S. House seats. The current sixth district bears some resemblance to how it looked during the 1960s, but, in the meantime, it has shifted eastward, and become less rural and more suburban. In its current incarnation, it stretches from the Lake Wobegon region of central Minnesota to northern and eastern suburbs and exurbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. (Minnesota might be reduced to seven seats after the next census. If that happens, it's possible that the sixth will cease to exist in any recognizable form.)

Historically, the parties have batted the district back and forth like a tennis ball. In its current form, Bachmann and her Republican predecessor Mark Kennedy have won it by margins ranging from three to 22 points. Demographically, it's the only district in Minnesota that would be likely to elect anyone with a hard-right image such as Bachmann's.

Her voting record bears out her right-wing credentials. The American Conservative Union rated her 100% for 2007 and 2008. That was their highest rating for any Minnesotan; a fellow Republican, Jim Ramstad, who at that time represented other Minneapolis suburbs in the House, rated only 44%. At the other end of the spectrum, the Americans for Democratic Action confirms the analysis, giving Bachmann a "liberal score" of zero for 2008.

Where does she go from here?

One option would be to stay in the House, accumulate seniority, and eventually chair a committee or take a leadership position. That would be difficult to do in what is not a safe Republican district, in a state facing a potentially bruising redistricting fight.

I agree with the analysis in the Times article, that she would have a tough time getting elected to statewide office. Successful Republican candidates in Minnesota have tended to be moderate, or at least to cultivate a moderate image. One exception is a previous sixth-district congressman, Rod Grams, who won a U.S. Senate seat in the Republican mid-term landslide of 1994, but was unable to hold on to it.

It wouldn't surprise me if she turned her side job into a full time role as a cable news pundit.

I've stopped watching cable news. I might tune in if there's breaking news (I mean real breaking news; i.e., maybe 1% of those occasions when they spread "Breaking News" across the screen in a large typeface). So, I have not seen any of the congresswoman's performances on those channels. But, they seem to like her, so that could well be a future option.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Lost Senate

David Rogers published a very interesting article on Politico last Friday, about the manner in which the U.S. Senate has changed over the past few decades.

I'm always skeptical of what I think of as the "good old days" view of history. It's clear that the Senate has changed, but I don't know that, on balance, that can be described as a loss. Rogers acknowledges that, during the period in question, the Senate has stopped upholding legal racial segregation, and its own membership has been opened up to ethnic minorities and to women, but his headline, and the general tone of his article, both indicate disapproval of most of the changes.

As I see it, this all relates to one of the most difficult questions in a representative democracy: to what degree should elected representatives act according to the opinions of their constituents, as opposed to what the representatives themselves think is right?

While some of the trends involve senators talking mainly to members of their own party, and former House members forming a clique separate from senators with other types of experience, a lot of the criticism involves senators spending more time in their home states, that formerly would have been spent in Washington with their Senate colleagues.

Both types of contact are important, and I think senators should strike a balance between the two. They're not automatons sent to vote according to results of public opinion polls in their states. But, if their only political conversations are with fellow senators, they'll lose contact with their constituents, which is not healthy for both the functioning of our democracy and their own reelection prospects.

Howard Baker is quoted as relating technological changes to the evolution of the Senate. While air conditioning has led to longer annual sessions, cheaper and easier air travel has prompted more members to leave town on (long) weekends. Television, which has covered Senate sessions since 1986, has affected the nature of Senate debate. One of the more subtle changes has involved the necessity for brighter lighting in the Senate Chamber, which some contend has had a significant effect on interpersonal relations among the members.

Rogers cites the number of states with one Democratic and one Republican senator, as an indicator of the degree of partisanship in the Senate. Currently, 12 states have such a split delegation, with 24 states being represented by two Democrats, and 14 others having two Republican senators. He compares those numbers to those of 30 years ago, when 27 states were split, with only 16 having two Democratic senators, and a mere seven being represented by two Republicans.

Rogers leaves the impression that there is a long-term trend in that direction. But let's go back further, to 1959, when Lyndon Johnson, as majority leader, ran the Senate in the heyday of the Senate as a Club. The numbers then were roughly comparable to the current situation: 15 split delegations, 25 with two Democrats, and 10 with two Republicans.

I suggest that 1979 was an anomaly, representing a point when northeastern states were in transition from Republican dominance to Democratic, and vice versa for the southeast. Rather than there being more red states and blue states than previously existed, the change involves switching formerly blue southern states to red, and red northern states to blue.

The major American parties are more ideologically aligned than they were in 1979 or 1959. I don't have a root cause in mind, that I can cite for that. But call it the Arlen Specter/Strom Thurmond effect, i.e., less conservative Republicans in the northeast switching to the Democratic Party, and conservative southerners becoming Republicans.

I can see how that makes it more difficult for senators to reach across party lines, and to compromise with those across the aisle.

Rogers offers a very plausible analysis of one of the most significant recent trends in the Senate, that being the increased use of the filibuster tactic. It may have been the closer personal relationships among senators that formerly caused them to limit the use of the filibuster to occasional issues on which they felt particularly strongly. Now, with less such inhibition, a minority leader is more likely to reason that, whenever he can block the majority party's legislation with 41 votes (i.e., enough to block a cloture motion that would allow a vote on such a bill) he will do so.

Rogers quotes the current incumbent in that job, Mitch McConnell, as acknowledging that point of view regarding filibusters. Speaking of his ability to block legislation in that manner, McConnell said "I like it". Democratic minority leaders, during the periods of Republican control before 2007, had a similar attitude.

For those of us with libertarian leanings, what has, in effect, become a supermajority requirement is not such a bad thing.

To sum up, yes there needs to be a degree of comity between the parties, to be able to reach necessary compromises, and simply to run the Senate from day to day. But the following elements of the changed Senate have a lot to be said for them:

  • Greater diversity among Senate membership.
  • More contact with constituents, via television and increased home-state travel.
  • Increased need for supermajorities to pass legislation.
  • Greater responsibility to the rank and file of one's party, as opposed to one's elite friends within the Senate.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I'm not particularly critical of the first eight months and 19 days of President Obama's foreign policy. His domestic policies are another matter.

To paraphrase what I wrote here when I declared my intention to vote for Obama, I hoped that he would change the tone of American foreign policy, while continuing to defend our vital interests. The jury is still out, but, to some extent, he seems to be doing just that.

Obama has got off to a reasonably good start on some foreign policy issues. But that's all it is: a start. Is that the basis for a Nobel Peace Prize?

I agree with Greg Mankiw's analogy to awarding the economics Nobel to a first-year graduate student.

But I, being I, naturally think in terms of sports analogies. Herb Score won the American League Rookie of the Year award as a pitcher for the 1955 Cleveland Indians. During 1955 and 1956, he won 36 games while losing only 19, and led the league in strikeouts. There would have been more justification for electing Score to the Hall of Fame after his first two seasons, than for giving Obama the Peace Prize this year.

But, after sustaining a severe injury during the 1957 season, Score never recovered his rookie form, and faded into retirement at the age of 28, in 1962.

Now, I sincerely hope that Obama succeeds in the long run. But giving him this award based solely on his high hopes on entering office, seems premature, setting both Obama and the Nobel committee up for potential embarrassment.

If, as some reports indicate, the prize is largely based on Obama's ambitious goals for nuclear disarmament, the committee should perhaps have considered the even-more-ambitious goals of one of Obama's predecessors. Ronald Reagan was more committed to total nuclear disarmament than any president during the nuclear age. He unsuccessfully tried to bargain away almost all of the American nuclear arsenal during a 1986 summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. But the Norwegians seemed not to take any notice of that.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Massachusetts Update

It's been a while since I've written about the upcoming special election in Massachusetts to choose a U.S. senator to succeed the late Ted Kennedy.

By now, the field has pretty well solidified, and the front runners are Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley on the Democratic side, and state Senator Scott Brown in the Republican primary.

Some better-known potential candidates have declined to run. Democrats in that category include former Congressman Joe Kennedy and current Congressman Ed Markey. Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card had been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate, but he has stayed out of the race. A less conventional Republican possibility, former professional baseball pitcher Curt Schilling, has also declined to run.

Congressman Mike Capuano, businessman Steve Pagliuca, and Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year, are also running in the Democratic primary, but are trailing Coakley in the polls.

At this point, Coakley seems likely to win the seat.

Party primaries are scheduled for December 8, with the special election between the primary winners to be held on January 19.

Here's an article that, at first glance, looks like a parody of something that would come out of that certain university in Cambridge, MA, but I think it's intended to be genuine. It's a very Harvard Law School-centric analysis of the election, in the Harvard Law Record.


The New York Times reports on the last piece of the ratification puzzle for the Lisbon Treaty, the proposed new constitution for the European Union (EU), about which I wrote in this recent post.

The Czech Republic is the last EU member state whose ratification is still uncertain.

As I explained here, the EU's forerunner, the European Economic Community, was formed in 1957 among six homogenous continental European non-Communist countries. It was easy for such a group to require unanimous agreement on decisions.

Now that there are 27 member states, achieving consensus is much more difficult.

When the EU started the process of bringing in several of the former Soviet-bloc countries, there was intense debate about whether the Union's governance structure could withstand such a major enlargement of the membership. In the end, it was decided that the political importance of bringing those newly-democratic countries fully into the European fold, outweighed all other considerations. That rationale was similar to the one that induced West Germany's neighbors to bring it into international organizations, starting in the 1950s.

Now, as the Times article explains, the Czech Republic, theoretically at least, has the power to kill a treaty that will soon have been ratified by all 26 of the other EU countries.

The alternative would be to allow something less than a unanimous agreement on such decisions (a simple majority, or two thirds, or whatever). But that would substantially change the degree of sovereignty that the member states delegate to the EU.

With a requirement of unanimity, no country can be forced to accept a policy with which it disagrees. But the power of a majority to adopt a policy reduces each member state's right to control its own governance.

Unanimity is no longer required for all decisions, as the EU explains here and here. But a decision as major as the ratification of the new constitutional treaty can still be vetoed by a single member state, such as the Czech Republic.

Any moves to allow voting by simple majority or supermajority will make the EU more similar to what the United States has been under its Constitution of 1787.

The main Czech opponent of the treaty is President Vaclav Klaus. It seems as though the treaty will eventually be ratified, despite Klaus's opposition. He appears to be in the usual position of a president in a parliamentary system, able to complain and delay, but not to permanently block something that has been approved by the parliament.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Man Bites Dog

The story is told of the newspaper editor who, when one of his reporters brings him an article headlined "Dog Bites Man", responds, "That's not news! If you bring me 'Man Bites Dog', now that's news!"

Well, a post in which Paul Mirengoff of the Power Line blog takes conservatives to task for going too far in their criticism of President Obama, is a "Man Bites Dog" story. Mirengoff's opinion is that those conservatives (apparently, a vocal minority) who applauded the rejection by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of Chicago as the site for their 2016 summer games, acted improperly. Perhaps so.

In this post, I criticized Obama for flying to Copenhagen for the IOC meeting. But I did not address the question of whether Chicago's rejection was a good or bad thing. I'm indifferent.

For the most part, I feel both uninterested and disinterested (and no, they're not synonymous) about another American staging of the Olympics.

I used to be a fanatical viewer of the games, from about 1968 to 1984. I've lost interest in the meantime, and I think that has been caused by some combination of: 1) the other networks don't seem to cover the games as well as ABC did, back in the day; 2) the commercialization of the games, which has accelerated since 1984; and 3) my having (alas) grown older and busier, such that I need to choose more carefully which sporting events I'll spend time on. So, I'm uninterested.

I'm also disinterested, i.e., I have little, if any, financial interest at stake. Any public subsidy (and many Chicagoans refused to believe, for some odd reason, the assurances from their leaders that there would be none such) would have been paid at the local level. However, money is fungible, and in these days when state and local governments are clamoring t0 get funds out of the federal treasury to close budget deficits, all Americans might have been touched for any Chicago Olympic shortfall.

If, as Mirengoff seems to imply, our national self-esteem is so fragile that it's damaged by being jilted by the IOC, then we've got bigger issues to consider.

Calling Europe

When Henry Kissinger served as President Nixon's top foreign policy aide, first as a White House staffer, and later also as secretary of state, he is said to have complained that he didn't know whom he should call if he wanted to call Europe. In other words, he knew who his interlocutors were in places such as Russia and China but, during a period when Europe (meaning western Europe, at that time) was increasingly considered a single entity, it had no single leader.

That might be changing soon.

The European Union (EU) seems to be near the end of the long and winding path it has taken to adopt a new constitution. That document, called the Lisbon Treaty, may soon achieve the necessary unanimous ratification by the EU's 27 member states. This New York Times report describes one major implication of ratification: the appointment of a president of the EU.

The name most often mentioned as a candidate for that job is that of Tony Blair, the ex-prime minister of the U.K. Since leaving office in 2007, Blair seems to have taken on many new roles. In addition to becoming chief Middle East negotiator for the Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN), he has taken advisory roles with certain business firms, and is involved in academia.

Blair has the same problem (or opportunity, if one sees it that way) as his friend Bill Clinton. They both became heads of government at a young age, and then faced retirement at a relatively young age. Now, each of them is taking on several activities to make 1) a difference in the world, and 2) money.

Will Blair become the one whom heads of government and foreign ministers from other continents call when they want to talk to Europe? As of right now, that's a firm maybe.

Who's the Bull Elephant?

Who is the leader of the Democratic Party? If you said anyone other than Barack Obama, or if you even had to think about it for any period of time, with all due respect, you don't understand the nature of party leadership in Washington.

While some have criticized President Obama for giving congressional leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid too much leeway in setting the policy agenda, no one on Capitol Hill can be called the leader of the Democratic Party. And it certainly is not Tim Kaine, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

When the founding fathers designed the presidency, in the Constitution of 1787, they intended that political parties play no role in relation to that office. But, by custom and practice, it has long since been established that one of a president's roles is that of leader of his (so far, always his) political party.

There are exceptions, such as when a president is running up against the term limit, and his party has already chosen its candidate to attempt to succeed him. Also, if a president seeking reelection faces an intraparty challenge, such as those of Pat Buchanan against George H.W. Bush in 1992, or Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter in 1980, I suppose the president loses some of his grip on his party. However, of course, neither of those circumstances currently applies to Obama. He is the undisputed Democratic leader.

But, what about the other party? This article in Politico describes a confrontation between leaders of the congressional Republicans, and of the party's national committee, over who should set the Republican policy agenda.

Given the bicameral nature of Congress, there is no one Republican leader on the Hill, who can lay claim to the leadership mantle. And the current crop of Republican governors doesn't make a credible challenge for the role. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a lame duck who is out of synch ideologically with much of his party. Rick Perry of Texas is perhaps seen as too far in the other ideological direction, and he is not even assured of renomination in his state.

At various points during the Clinton presidency, Republican governors in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan played major leadership roles, but they're all out of office by now, and have been replaced by either Democrats or less effectual Republicans.

The chairman of the national committee of the opposition party has often taken an independent role in party leadership. By contrast, the chairman of the president's party is expected to be a cheerleader for the president and a technocrat who sees that the party's infrastructure functions properly, and does not obstruct the president's agenda.

From the Republican standpoint, coordination and communication between the Hill and the RNC is probably the best way to minimize tension. And, while we can't expect that the egos of leaders at that level can be reduced to anything resembling that of the average person, perhaps those leaders can at least be cognizant of that as an issue, and leave as much legroom as possible for others' egos.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Candidates for head of state or head of government take part in televised debates in many of the world's major democracies. Until now, the United Kingdom has been an exception.

Now, as the U.K. approaches a general election that will be held no later than June of next year, the major party leaders in that country have agreed in principle to participate in such debates. This is subject to the usual caveat the details need to be worked out, but I can't think of any American example where, after agreeing in principle, candidates allowed the details to derail the process. According to the BBC report, one potential stumbling block involves an issue that frequently arises in the U.S.: the involvement of minor parties.

One reason why Britain has been slow to adopt the campaign debate concept is that, while Parliament is in session, the party leaders engage in televised debate every week in the House of Commons. That is known as Prime Minister's Questions. Here in the U.S., C-SPAN televises those sessions. If you enjoy British humor, as I do, you should give it a look. There is plenty of humor, both intended and unintended.

Brown addressed that issue on his party's website, by saying that "I believe it is also right that the parties debate the issues not just in Parliament but in every arena where the public will join in the discussion."

Televised debates are risky for a candidate such as Conservative leader David Cameron, who leads in the polls. But Cameron is confident, and justifiably so, in his TV performing skills.

After the first such debates in a U.S. presidential campaign, in 1960, the leading candidate in each of the next three elections declined to debate (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972). But, since such debates became institutionalized in 1976, I think it would be very difficult for any candidate to opt out of them.

I still maintain, as I argued here, that these are not really debates.

Guido Westerwelle

Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) made a very strong showing in that country's recent general election. That will bring to an end an 11-year period, that has been by far the FDP's longest stretch of not being part of a coalition government, in Germany's post-World War II history.

The FDP's leader, Guido Westerwelle, is expected to be named foreign minister in the new coalition cabinet. That will make him one of the most prominent openly-gay politicians in the world.

Prime Minister Johanna Siguroardottir of Iceland, who is a lesbian, will outrank Westerwelle from a protocol standpoint. But being head of government in a country of 320,000 people is not as prominent a position as being foreign minister of Germany, with its population of 82,000,000.

Two other names that come to mind are Barney Frank, who, as chairman of the U.S. House Banking Committee has played a major role during the financial crisis, and Lord Mandelson, whose title of Secretary of State for Business understates his importance in shoring up the faltering government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Openness in the executive ranks in the public sector is perhaps a bit ahead of where it is at a similar level in the private sector.

Now that openness about one's sexual orientation is becoming possible even in such sensitive jobs as clergy and the military, professional sports, especially in the team sports, is just about the last job category in which almost all LGBT people are still closeted.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Olympian Effort

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose London as the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tony Blair, who was then Britain's prime minister, was credited with swaying the IOC in London's favor, by appearing in person at the IOC meeting at which the decision was made.

It looks as though Blair created a precedent that other heads of state and heads of government are now bound to follow.

President Obama is on his way to Denmark, to make a pitch for his adopted home town of Chicago, which is bidding to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

I'm not a fan of government involvement in sports. Economists have shown that government subsidies for stadiums and arenas do not improve economic conditions for a community as a whole. They certainly benefit certain interests, most directly the owners and players, but also nearby innkeepers etc. And as is generally the case with such subsidies, a portion of them gets recycled as contributions to the politicians who vote in favor of the subsidies.

That's a classic example of the type of government behavior that we of a libertarian bent oppose.

I understand that there is a debate in Chicago as to whether, in the final analysis, taxpayers will be stuck with any of the bill. Were I a Windy City resident, I would be skeptical of claims to the contrary by proponents of that city's Olympic bid.

But let's just look at Obama's trip to Copenhagen, aside from any question of public subsidies in the event Chicago wins the bid.

To transport an American president to Copenhagen, even if only for a day trip, is a massive undertaking. Several planes, in addition to his personal 747 and backup, must accompany him on such a trip. Is there a national interest involved in this situation that justifies such a military mission? Not in my opinion.

Perhaps even more important is the question of whether the president should become involved in a commercial venture such as this. The notion of pure athletic ideals being at the heart of the Olympic enterprise, which was always suspect, is by now completely gone.

I find Obama's involvement to be wrong, in the same sense as George H.W. Bush's infamous trip to Japan, when he went to over to try to convince them to buy more American cars, and had his embarrassing bout of illness during dinner with that country's prime minister.

I don't believe that promoting specific commercial interests is an appropriate activity for a president.

UPDATE: It is now Friday, October 2, and Chicago was the first city to be eliminated in the IOC voting. When I wrote this post, I did not consider the question of whether a failure of the Chicago bid would have adverse consequences for President Obama. Such a trip by an American president is unprecedented, so I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

Generally, if a president makes a foreign trip and brings back nothing to show for it, that's considered a major embarrassment. This trip is not quite the same as a Russian or Chinese summit, or a Middle East negotiating trip, so it's not totally clear whether that same principle applies here. But I don't see any way in which this can be spun as a positive for Obama.

The argument in my original post would still have applied, had Chicago won the bid.

How do nice guys finish?

One more comment about the potential leadership contest among Senate Democrats, that I discussed in this post. Glenn Thrush, describing in Politico a possible race between Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, quotes Jennifer Duffy of Cook Political Report as saying that "people really like Durbin", in contrast to the less affable Schumer.

But does that make Durbin more electable?

I'm reminded of the campaign for Democratic leader that followed then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield's retirement from the Senate in 1976. The candidates were Robert Byrd and Hubert Humphrey. It was said that Humphrey's candidacy collapsed when fellow senators realized that if they voted for Humphrey, and Byrd won, Byrd would retaliate against them, but if the situation were reversed, Humphrey would not retaliate. Byrd won, although it was a somewhat moot point, in that Humphrey died a year later.

According to that point of view, Humphrey was too nice a guy. Would the same attribute weaken Durbin against Schumer?