Thursday, December 31, 2009

Conference Committee 2: Health Care

Following up on this post, where I described the general rules of reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of a bill, I will now discuss expectations for the upcoming House-Senate conference on health care.

For those of us who would like to see the Congress reject both versions, and start over with a more market-oriented approach, such as I described here, the best-case scenario would be for the Democrats to fall into such disagreement about whether the legislation either goes too far, or not far enough, that they fail to reach a compromise.

Nate Silver, on the 538 blog, who is on the opposite side from me on this issue, considers, and (correctly I think) rejects that possibility.

Joe Klein has written an opinion piece in Time, arguing, from a center-left perspective, against left-wing opponents of a compromise bill. He acknowledges that the public-option government health insurer is dead, but calls it "a worthy but relatively minor provision". Klein parrots the Obama line that it would just add one more competitor to the existing insurance marketplace. That ignores the possibility that, by using public subsidies to hold down premiums, it could force private-sector insurers out of business.

In Politico, Josh Kraushaar writes that Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, the number-three House Democrat, is furiously back-pedalling from the public option, after the Senate approved a bill without that provision. He seems to be laying the groundwork for the quiet death of that provision in conference.

Congressional Democrats will be faced by a variation on that old military question, "Will the center hold?" The new version is, "Will the center-left hold?" Unfortunately, I suspect that it will, and that Congress will agree on a bill that is very similar to that which passed the Senate.

It would be a major embarrassment for President Obama and the congressional leadership to come out of this process without some form of legislation being signed into law. For Democrats running for reelection next November in conservative states and districts, the embarrassment may come at that time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Conference Committee

Both houses of Congress have now passed health care bills. Some people (although probably not the type of political sophisticate that reads Exploring the Political Spectrum) might think that the process is over, and the utopia of cheap and abundant health care has arrived. Aside from the procedural questions that I plan to address in this post, they would, of course, be overlooking the fact that a utopia, by definition, can never arrive.

The House and Senate bills are not identical. The major difference is that the House voted to create a government-run health insurer, the so-called "public option". The Senate rejected that idea.

Minor differences between Senate and House versions of a bill can sometimes be dealt with via informal means. One house might agree to accept the other house's bill. Or the differences can be worked out through discussions between party leaders and committee chairs in the two houses.

But major differences, such as those involving the health care bills, need to be referred to a conference committee. Anticipating public interest in the process of reconciling the health care bills, the Senate has posted this 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service, on its website.

The conference committee consists of a bipartisan group of conferees or "managers" from both houses. The chairmen and ranking Republicans of the relevant committees will, in practice, select the conferees, most of whom will probably be members of those committees. The speaker of the House and president of the Senate formally ratify those selections.

It doesn't matter whether one house has more conferees than the other. Approval of a compromise bill requires a majority vote among the House conferees, and a majority vote among the Senate conferees. Neither house can outvote the other.

If the conference committee agrees to a compromise bill, the full membership of both houses will then vote on it. The bill can still be filibustered in the Senate at that stage (except for certain budget measures that are subject to expedited procedures). Only if both houses approve an identical bill, can it go to the president for signature or veto.

Next: What are the expectations for the health care conference committee?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Woodrow Wilson's birthday

I recently had a bit of a dialogue in this post, and the related comments, about the academic discipline of political science. And now, today is the 153rd birthday of the only academic political scientist to become president of the United States: Woodrow Wilson.

He was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. Wilson received his bachelor's degree from Princeton, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins.

After teaching at other eastern schools, Wilson found his way on to the Princeton faculty, in 1890. His best-known published work was the book Congressional Government, written during a period when the legislative branch of the federal government had a stronger position as against the executive branch, than is currently the case. Later, Wilson himself had a lot to do with accelerating the 20th-century trend toward assertion of a greater role for the presidency.

In 1902, Wilson turned toward an administrative career, when he became president of Princeton. That helped him establish a political base in New Jersey, where he was elected governor, as a Democrat, in 1910.

I wrote here about the circumstances under which Wilson was elected president, in 1912. He took advantage of a split in the Republican Party, to become the only Democratic president during the period from 1897 to 1933.

As was the case with the next Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson came into office with a largely domestic agenda, but later took the country into war. He had kept the U.S. out of the World War, which had begun in Europe in 1914, and had won reelection in 1916, largely on the basis of that achievement. But, shortly after his second inauguration, in 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. German attacks on American ships in the Atlantic eventually made neutrality impossible to sustain.

Shortly after American involvement began in earnest, in 1918, Germany was defeated. I wrote here about Wilson's involvement in the subsequent Versailles peace conference, when the victors re-drew world maps, following the collapse of German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.

Up to that time, American foreign policy was largely based on isolationism, an avoidance of European alliances and disputes. That ended, during and after World War II, but, in Wilson's time, the U.S. was unwilling to take on a permanent world leadership role.

Wilson advocated an American international role, including membership in the League of Nations, forerunner to the UN. In 1919, he suffered a stroke during a speaking tour that he undertook in order to defend his position. His convalescence is best known as the period of the U.S.'s only female presidency. That notion is based on the controversial story that Wilson's wife, Edith, in effect acted as president, while trying to conceal the extent of his incapacitation from the outside world.

The U.S. Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations.

By 1920, Wilson had partially recovered, and wanted to run for a third term. But tentative feelers that he put out to that effect revealed a lack of support.

Wilson's Republican successor Warren Harding advocated a return to normality. But he changed the English language by calling it "normalcy". Harding negotiated peace with Germany, on terms that were more in line with traditional American isolationism, than the Versailles Treaty had been.

Wilson was the only president to choose Washington, DC, as his retirement home. He died there, in 1924. Ironically, Harding, who had presented such a robust contrast to the ailing Wilson in 1920, had predeceased Wilson, dying in 1923.

20 Years Ago 18: European Union

The events of 1989 fundamentally changed the nature of the organization now known as the European Union (EU). And the EU has in turn affected how some of those countries have evolved in the meantime.

In this post, I described the history of the EU and predecessor organizations, and how their membership expanded. Two waves of expansion were tied to the end of the Cold War. Austria, Finland and Sweden, who had been neutral in the Cold War, no longer had anything to be neutral about, so they felt more free to join. And former Soviet bloc countries joined later.

That gave birth to the "broadening" vs. "deepening" debate in Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall came two years after the group that was then called the European Community began to implement the Single European Act. That accelerated the process of removing barriers to free trade among the member states. The idea was to go beyond simply the lowering of tariffs, and address issues such as the free movement of labor across the members' borders. That constituted the "deepening" track.

Dissenters, notably in Britain, feared that that path would eventually lead to elimination of the independence of the member states.

But once a consensus started building for inclusion of the neutrals and the ex-Communist countries, i.e., "broadening" the organization, it became clear that "deepening" would be much more difficult.

Further deepening moves have taken place, the most significant of which is the creation of the Euro currency, which is used in much, but not all, of the EU's territory. But anyone's hopes, or fears as the case may be, of a United States of Europe, were put on hold. Two major impediments to deepening:

The larger the number of member states, the more difficult it is to reach consensus on issues. On the biggest questions, the EU still requires unanimous agreement. When there were six countries of continental western Europe, that was much easier than the current situation, with 27 members, spread from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. I recently wrote here and here about how that affected the related questions of ratification of a new EU constitution and elections to new offices created by that constitution. National governments moved to maintain their preeminence, by electing relatively minor players to those positions.

Differences in the economic conditions of member states make further deepening problematic. The EU subsidises its farmers at least as much as the US, with equally little economic justification. And, more broadly, it provides aid to poorer regions within its territory.

Agriculture was much less efficient in Marxist-Leninist economies, whose farmers lacked both incentives and opportunities to modernize. If the EU's subsidy program, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), had remained unchanged, the cost to the richer member states would have been enormous. So the CAP was scaled back, and the new ex-Communist members of the EU would not be as closely integrated economically with the long-time member states as previous visions of European integration would have called for.

But aid to poorer regions continues. And that is widely seen as encouraging the trend toward splitting up multinational states, that I described in this and other posts. If a relatively poor region that had traditionally been connected to a larger state could get money directly from Brussels, it could afford to be less concerned about the economic consequences of secession. That was true of Slovakia as compared to the Czech Republic. And it is probably one factor behind the independence movement in Scotland, that is spearheaded by the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party. So, the EU is both cause and effect of the changes in Europe during the last two decades.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Republican Contest for Pennsylvania Governor

Toward the beginning of this year, I wrote a preview of the 2010 gubernatorial election, here in Pennsylvania. Now that the race has had several months during which to develop, I will take another look, first at the Republican side.

State Attorney General Tom Corbett is the Republican front runner. My congressman, Jim Gerlach of the 6th district, is in second place, well behind Corbett.

As I noted in that earlier post, since Pennsylvania began allowing governors to seek reelection (there is now a two-term limit) in 1970, the governorship has shifted at eight-year intervals, both between the parties, and between the eastern and western parts of the state. Corbett, a western Republican, should be due for his turn.

But is there something inherent in the office of state attorney general that produces an ambition to run for governor, but not the means to win such an election?

Corbett's predecessor, Republican Mike Fisher, was his party's unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee in 2002. And an earlier Republican attorney general, Ernie Preate, had his 1994 gubernatorial candidacy derailed by a scandal that resulted in his pleading guilty to mail fraud, and doing prison time.

There seems to be a similar trend in my native state of Minnesota, where four attorneys general have made failed runs for governor since 1970: Republican Doug Head in 1970, and Democrats Warren Spannaus (1982), Hubert (Skip) Humphrey (1998) and Mike Hatch (2006).

Time will tell whether Corbett will break the A.G. jinx, if there is one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When in Rome ...

Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, seems to be pursuing his own version of the old saying, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." Except for him it's, "when on the Democratic side of the aisle, do as the Democrats do."

Throughout the health care debate in the Senate, Specter has been strongly pushing the so-called "public option", a government-run health insurer that would, depending on whose narrative you believe, either compete with, or push out of business, private-sector insurers.

Specter has emailed a statement that reads in part:

It is not the bill that I would have preferred and there is an oppuntunity [sic] to improve it in conference. I would like to see a strong, robust public option.

If the Democrats try to resurrect the public option during their conference with the House that will reconcile differences between the bills passed by the two houses, they would presumably renew their battles with Senators Lieberman, Nelson and Lincoln.

My guess is that Specter has no such expectation, and he is merely throwing red meat to the Democratic primary electorate here in Pennsylvania, that will decide between Specter and Representative Joe Sestak for their Senate nomination next year.

That's not particularly surprising, but it is a different path for Specter, who consistently hugged the political middle ground in his five Senate candidacies on the Republican ticket. If he wins the primary, he will probably tack back toward the center in the general election campaign. But I expect him to have trouble with voters on the center-right, such as this writer, who have supported him in the past.

Republicans and 2010

It has been a busy few days for me, so I haven't been blogging. But, Upper Midwestern weather is going to stop me from traveling this weekend, so I should have some chance to catch up.

As the parties gear up for the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republicans got mixed news, this week.

Current polls predict that the Republicans will make gains next year. It's possible (though I wouldn't say probable) that the G.O.P. can retake control of the House of Representatives. They will be helped, to the extent that: 1) they have incumbents (other than those tainted by scandal) on the ballot, or 2) when there is no Republican incumbent, they can recruit a proven vote-getter to seek their nomination.

The best-case scenario is for a congressman to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Not only is there an additional Republican incumbent, but there is one fewer on the other side of the aisle. The defection of Representative Parker Griffith of Alabama puts such a double-whammy on the Democrats.

Griffith is a freshman congressman. His district has consistently elected Democrats to Congress, but recently has tended to vote Republican in presidential elections. Griffith has opposed Democratic positions on stimulus spending, environmental issues, and the health care bill.

A few Democratic congressmen in similar situations have recently announced that they will not run for reelection next year. Their districts will constitute the Republicans' prime targets.

On the other hand, Republican hopes in New York have taken a hit, due to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision not to seek statewide office in 2010. Even though he has never won an election outside of New York City, and failed to get out of the starting gate in a presidential run last year, he is a "big name" who might have helped Republicans take a Senate seat or the governorship away from the Democrats.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Senate Successors

At least one report on the recent U.S. Senate primary in Massachusetts for the special election that will choose the late Ted Kennedy's successor, noted the big names who had held that Senate seat in the past. Not only the Kennedy brothers, John and Edward, but also Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. That reminded me of a topic I've had in the back of my mind for some time: who are the current successors to some of the famous senators from history?

House districts appear, disappear, and change shape, after each census. But, for example, the Class I seat and the Class III seat from Pennsylvania have existed in the same form since the First Congress. So there is a clear line of succession throughout history.

Pure trivia, I suppose. But every once in a while, senators indicate that it's something they think about. Perhaps it feeds their oversized egos. But it might be embarrassing, in some cases.

Here are the 16 presidents who served in the Senate, and the current holders of their Senate seats:

James Monroe/Jim Webb

John Quincy Adams/Paul Kirk

Andrew Jackson held both Tennessee seats for different periods, so he can be considered predecessor to both Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

Martin Van Buren/Kirsten Gillibrand

William Henry Harrison/George Voinovich

John Tyler/Jim Webb

Franklin Pierce/Judd Gregg

James Buchanan/Arlen Specter

Andrew Johnson/Bob Corker

Benjamin Harrison/Richard Lugar

Warren Harding/George Voinovich

Harry Truman/Claire McCaskill

John Kennedy/Paul Kirk

Lyndon Johnson/John Cornyn

Richard Nixon/Barbara Boxer

Barack Obama/Roland Burris

By far the oddest of couples in that list is the pairing of Nixon and Boxer. Nixon won his only Senate election in 1950, running against a left-wing woman whom he labeled the "Pink Lady". Boxer was first elected to the Senate in 1992, about a year and a half before Nixon died. I'm not sure to what degree he took note of her election, and that it was his old Senate seat. If so, perhaps he would have considered her at least pink, if not downright crimson. (That's in the old sense, when the left was considered red, before, for some strange reason, people began to call Republicans red.)

John Cornyn could probably have found common cause with some of the old-time Texas Democrats. But he would not fit too easily with Lyndon Johnson, who came out of a more populist strain of Texas politicians.

James Buchanan and Arlen Specter are two of the most prominent political names in my home state of Pennsylvania. But I'm not sure what either one would have thought of the pluses and minuses of the other.

And President Obama was clearly embarrassed about the circumstances under which Roland Burris became his successor.

Otherwise, for the most part, it seems as though predecessors might have approved of successors.

My Vote -- Revisited

Paul Mirengoff raises an interesting question on Power Line: whatever happened to the Obamacons?

Last November, as I described here, I voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1980, when I was still experiencing the hangover from my student-liberal days that had then been over for a year and a half.

Mirengoff links to a commentary piece that Christopher Buckley wrote in March, regarding his decision to vote for Barack Obama. If Buckley can't exactly be called the intellectual leader of the Obamacons, it's probably true that he, because of his surname and quirky writing style, brought more attention to the (what does one call it? a movement?) than anyone else.

I'm not sure whether Buckley has changed his mind in the meantime, but in March he said that, if he had it to do over again, he would still have voted for Obama:

Our choice, last fall, was between an angry 73 year old with a legislative record far from consistently conservative, who nominated as his running mate a know-nothing religious extremist; on the other side was an appealing, thoughtful man who--for a brief shining moment--seemed to be more than the sum of his ideological parts.

Buckley's view of Obama was more idealistic than mine. I've long since given up being idealistic about politicians. But I fully agree with his characterization of the Republican ticket, which is very close to what I wrote last November.

While this is not primarily intended to be an opinion blog (although I'm increasingly giving in to the temptation to turn it in that direction), I have criticized Obama. However, if given another chance to vote for the McCain/Palin ticket, I would decline.

Republicans who criticize Obama sound like Bob Taft or Everett Dirksen, calling for fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. That's fine, as far as it goes. But Republicans making those arguments in 2009 should, it seems to me, acknowledge their own party's dismal fiscal policy, especially during the 2003-6 period when they controlled both of the political branches of the federal government, and the fact that we're just barely emerging from a severe recession.

George W. Bush's deficits in the hundreds of billions during a time of economic growth are not that all that different from Obama's trillion-plus deficits in a time of recession. And those who criticize Obama's advocacy of increased federal government involvement in health care seem to forget about Bush's massive expansion of Medicare.

I was not one of the Obama voters (and there were many) who equated his election with the Second Coming. I voted as I did, hoping that, after some time in the wilderness (somewhat mixing my religious metaphors here), the Republicans will produce a ticket in 2012 or 2016 that I can support.

I've made no secret of my hope that Governor Tim Pawlenty, Republican of Minnesota, will head that ticket. I admit that chauvinism about my native state contributes to that feeling, and I'll be watching his performance over the next few months, to confirm whether or not he is really The One.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Texas Senate Election -- The Democratic Side

I wrote here about a potential Republican candidate to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison as a senator from Texas, if, as expected, she resigns from that body, after next year's primary election in which she's seeking the Republican nomination for governor. But what about the Democrats?

Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post describes John Sharp as "the near-certain Democratic nominee".

Sharp, 59, spent 20 years in electoral politics in Texas, in the legislature, on the Railroad Commission, and as state comptroller. Since leaving the comptroller's office in 1998, he has worked as a tax consultant.

Mayor Bill White, of Houston, had planned to run in the Democratic Senate primary, but recently switched to the gubernatorial race. That seems, for the moment at least, to leave Sharp a clear path to the special election for Senate.

No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate election in Texas since Lloyd Bentsen won a fourth term in 1988, which he later cut short, to accept appointment as President Bill Clinton's first secretary of the treasury. Hutchison won a special election to replace Bentsen, in 1993, and that is the seat for which Sharp is now running.

20 Years Ago 17: Soft Power

I decided to write a bit more about Poland's Solidarity movement, after I saw this recent obituary in The New York Times. The article describes the contribution of the late James F. Brown to Solidarity's eventual success.

Brown was director of Radio Free Europe during the pivotal years between 1978 and 1984. His radio station provided important information to the Polish dissidents, without being too strongly polemical about their efforts.

It fits the Times' biases to oppose what they would consider to be too strong an anti-Communist message. But in this case, I think they have a legitimate point about the events that led to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The American foreign policy establishment early in the Eisenhower presidency, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, spoke of rolling back Communism (in contrast to the Truman Administration's policy of containment, as articulated by George Kennan). This brief biography of Dulles mentions a degree of caution on Eisenhower's part:

Although both called publicly for the “roll back” of Communism, and the “liberation” of those held captive by its “despotism and godless terrorism,” Eisenhower cautioned his secretary of state to add the phrase “by all peaceful means.”

Still, the argument is made that American rhetoric emboldened Hungarian reformers to resist the party line from Moscow, while the U.S. had no intention (and/or ability?) to back up its words with military force. That allowed the Soviets to militarily crush the Hungarian rebellion. (Similar circumstances obtained in relation to opponents of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship at the end of Gulf War One in 1991.)

25 years after the Hungarian situation, when the world contemplated what the Soviet Union might do in response to the formation of an independent labor union in Poland, the question again arose as to whether the U.S. and others in NATO might react militarily if the Soviets invaded Poland. Ronald Reagan kept Moscow guessing as to his intentions and, while the Polish government imposed martial law and outlawed the Solidarity union, the Soviets stopped short of repeating the tactics they had used in Hungary in 1956 and, under similar circumstances, in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The obituary indicates that Brown "resigned from the network in 1984 because he felt that the Reagan administration’s insistence on avid anti-Communist programming was counterproductive."

As I see it, the results indicate that Reagan struck the correct balance, by speaking out against what he considered wrong in the world, without creating exaggerated expectations about what the U.S. was, and was not, prepared to do.

And all of this provides interesting background to the "hard power" vs. "soft power" debate that has been going on, regarding our war against Al Qaeda.

Reagan's strategy of intentional ambiguity about his future plans was carried on throughout his presidency, not just in regard to Poland's situation. It stands in contrast to President Obama's setting a specific date for American withdrawal from Afghanistan. I understand Obama's strategy of putting pressure on the Afghan government, and I hope he succeeds. Again, this is one of those unanswerable historical what-ifs, but I strongly doubt that, if Reagan had faced the circumstances that Obama faces in Afghanistan, Reagan would have been as clear about his future intentions as Obama has been.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Army Navy

Later today, the Army-Navy football game will be played at its traditional neutral site, here in Philadelphia, about half-way between West Point and Annapolis. To commemorate that event, let's look at alumni of those academies who have become president of the United States.

West Point is ahead of the Naval Academy on that score, by 2-1. Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower were alums of the U.S. Military Academy. But Jimmy Carter is the only Navy alum to become president.

But the football score is expected to go in the other direction. Navy, coming in with a record of 8-4 is favored over 5-6 Army. If Ike were still around to play linebacker for West Point, maybe it would be the other way around. But maybe not, because he'd be 109 years old!

UPDATE: Navy did indeed defeat Army, by a score of 17 to 3.

CORRECTION: I got the math wrong. Eisenhower would be 119 years old.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Texas Senate Election

More news about a special U.S. Senate election that will be held in Texas if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns from that body next year, as she has said she will do. Hutchison is running for governor of Texas, and will stay in the U.S. Senate until after the gubernatorial primary in which she faces incumbent Rick Perry. (Contrary to my speculation in this post, she has pledged to resign, even if she loses the primary.)

Chris Cillizza reports, in his blog The Fix, on the website of The Washington Post, that the Senate candidacy of Commissioner Michael Williams, of the Railroad Commission of Texas, will get a boost from Washington. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, whom Cillizza describes as "the de facto leader -- within Congress -- of the tea party wing of the party", will reportedly endorse Williams.

Williams, 56, was appointed in 1998 to fill a vacancy on the commission by then-Governor George W. Bush. He has since been elected and reelected to that position.

"Railroad commission" is a misnomer. It actually regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas.

According to Cillizza, Williams is being pushed as the best representative of the true-blue (or is that "true-red?) right wing of the party. Cillizza portrays DeMint as the leader of an alternative to the official Senate campaign committee of his party.

This is also another case of Republicans seeking an African American candidate who can win a major statewide election. Previous such attempts have failed, such as the unsuccessful campaign of football star Lynn Swann to deny reelection to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell in 2006.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Massachusetts Senate Primary

As expected, in a primary election yesterday, Massachusetts Democrats nominated state Attorney General Martha Coakley as their candidate in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. State Senator Scott Brown won the Republican nomination over token opposition.

Coakley received what passes for a landslide in a multi-candidate primary, winning almost half of the votes in a four-way race.

This report shows that, as of last month, Coakley was well ahead (58% to 27%) of Brown in a poll for the special election, which is scheduled for January 19, 2010.

Glen Johnson of the Associated Press has written an analysis piece that tries to make it sound as though the fact that a Republican won the Republican primary is a victory for that party:

A state senator's victory in the Republican primary for the special election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat gives the Massachusetts GOP something it's sorely missed: a place in the political spotlight.

Here's that horribly cynical side of me emerging again, but Johnson seems to be trying to create an unfounded sense of optimism about Brown's chances, so that, assuming he does not pull off a miracle and defeat Coakley, his loss might be seen as ending the momentum that the Republicans have recently been gaining, going into next November's congressional elections.

If the mainstream media are trying to make a Coakley victory seem like the same sort of game-changer as, say, Jim Webb's victory in the 2006 Virginia Senate race, they're being even sillier than usual.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Obama's Problem

President Obama has a problem. Some of his predecessors had the same problem. It was a major factor in George H.W. Bush's failure to win a second term in 1992. It made John Kennedy fearful about his chances for reelection, around the time that he made his ill-fated campaign trip to Texas in November of 1963.

In economist-speak the problem is that unemployment is a lagging indicator. In other words, as the economy recovers from recession, decreases in the unemployment rate happen more slowly than increases in gross domestic product and other indicators of growth.

While many employers cut their work force during a recession, they're reluctant to cut too much, because they will need those workers again when growth resumes, and there are costs related to laying off workers, and hiring new ones. So, there is typically some slack in an employer's work force, and the first increases in work brought on by renewed growth can be handled without new hiring.

Eventually, if growth continues, the economy will return to full employment. Economists who are not paid to say otherwise will tell you that the best prescription is for government to step back and allow markets to work.

But, in the meantime, those looking for work are impatient. And, rightly or wrongly (to a great extent, wrongly), the bulk of that impatience always gets aimed at the president.

Early indications are that Obama's party will suffer significant reverses in the 2010 congressional elections. I assume that he and his advisers are fully aware of the economic facts I've recounted above. But he needs to at least be perceived to be trying to do something about lingering high unemployment, in order to keep those electoral losses from getting out of control.

Therefore, he has proposed new federal spending that will purportedly add (or in that marvelously unquantifiable formula that his administration has invented, "save") jobs.

Instead of pandering in that manner, I would rather see him explain the economic facts to the people, and counsel them to be patient. Maybe he's not the great communicator I made him out to be in this post?

When GDP and the federal debt are both growing, as they now are, I think he should be more concerned about the effect on interest rates and inflation in the near-to-medium term. But that would be tougher to sell on the campaign trail.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Paula Hawkins

An interesting transitional figure in the advancement of women in American politics, has died. Paula Hawkins, who represented Florida in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1987, died last Friday, at the age of 82.

The cataloguing of firsts for women in elective office is complicated by the distinction between those who followed their husbands into office, often as widows, as opposed to women who achieved public office "on their own". In its obituary, The New York Times describes the nature of Hawkins's "first":

She was the first woman elected to a full Senate term without being preceded in politics by a husband or father. (Hazel Abel of Nebraska, who also had no political family ties, was elected to the Senate in 1954, but only to serve the final two months of the term of the incumbent, who had died in office.) She was also the first woman to be a senator from Florida.

To some of us, 1980 doesn't seem like that long ago (although perhaps we're just in denial). But it clearly was a different time, as evidenced by the following story recounted in the Times:

At a news conference soon after her victory, a male television reporter condescendingly asked Mrs. Hawkins who would do the laundry now that she was going to be busy in the Senate. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” she replied, smiling with her lips but not with her eyes. “O.K.?”

Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, was the only other woman in the Senate during Hawkins's term. There are now 17 female senators.

Most of the women who have been elected to the Senate since Hawkins left that body, are Democrats. Of the six Republican women who have followed Kassebaum and Hawkins, I think it's safe to say that none have been as socially conservative as Hawkins was. My main memory of her from that time was of how she got under the skin of the leaders of the women's movement, who were (sometimes far) to the left of her. She was, for better or worse, a sort of forerunner of Sarah Palin.

Hawkins also played a role in the process I described here, of Republicans taking over Senate seats in the South. In the 11 states that had seceded at the time of the Civil War, Republican numbers went from six to 10 with the 1980 election. Then, in 1986, when Hawkins failed of reelection in a year when Democrats took back control of the Senate, that number went back down to six. There are now 15 Republican senators from those states.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

20 Years Ago 16: Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ran the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, first as party general secretary and then as president, won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize ...

... for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community. During the last few years, dramatic changes have taken place in the relationship between East and West. Confrontation has been replaced by negotiations. Old European nation states have regained their freedom.

Nobel peace laureates are often controversial. I have not shied away from such controversies myself.

But what are we to make of Gorbachev's role in the revolutions of 1989?

His main achievement was not something he did, but rather something he didn't do.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was outlined in a speech by Soviet Communist General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in November 1968. He justified the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, which ousted a reform Communist regime:

The peoples of the socialist countries and Communist parties certainly do have and should have freedom for determining the ways of advance of their respective countries. However, none of their decisions should damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries, and the whole working class movement, which is working for socialism ... Discharging their internationalist duty toward the fraternal peoples of Czechoslovakia and defending their own socialist gains, the U.S.S.R. and the other socialist states had to act decisively and they did act against the antisocialist forces in Czechoslovakia.

Although his name is attached to it, Brezhnev did not originate that idea. His predecessor Nikita Khrushchev applied the same therapy to Hungary in 1956.

Gorbachev faced several situations in 1989 in which the Brezhnev Doctrine would have called for armed intervention. He held back, and he made it clear to all involved that he intended to continue holding back. Once the jailhouse door was opened, the prisoners did not linger inside.

So, Gorbachev's achievement was that he was not as evil as Brezhnev. Does that make him a hero?

To answer "no" to that is not to say that Gorbachev's behavior was insignificant, or that it didn't take a certain type of courage to purse that path. Perhaps we can turn around Edmund Burke's famous phrase and say that all that was necessary for the triumph of good was that evil men do nothing.

Gorbachev advanced through the Soviet Communist system, and benefited from the perquisites of power. I probably would have done the same thing in his circumstances. But the true heroes are the dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, who sacrificed a very comfortable life to be true to his conscience.

This is another of those unanswerable what-ifs, but I wonder whether Gorbachev would have governed in the orthodox Communist fashion, if the Soviet Union's economic circumstances had allowed for that. Some cite the falling oil prices of the 1980s as one factor depressing the Soviet economy. But there was also the cumulative effect of the inefficiencies of socialism that had been acting on the country for 70 years. In other words, an argument can be made that Gorbachev's benign inaction was forced on him, and was not necessarily evidence of a genuine intent to reform the system.

Oh, and then there's that little technicality that he never won a free and fair election. Marxist-Leninist politicians' refusal to compete against opposition parties has always been justified by gobbledygook such as "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Many Western intellectuals bought into that. The notion was that there were idealistic ends that, to some extent at least, justified brutal means.

But I agree with the school of thought that says there was never any idealistic intent; it was all about seizing power by force, and holding on to it by force for as long as possible. Submitting to competitive elections would have inhibited their full exercise of power. And, Marx forbid, they might lose, as they started finding out in various European countries starting in 1989.

And what happened when Gorbachev did run in a multi-party election? He got 0.5% of the vote when he ran for president of Russia in 1996. That's all the democratic legitimacy he ever had, when he interacted with Ronald Reagan, who had been reelected with 58.7% of the popular vote in 1984, and George H.W. Bush, who won with 53.3% in 1988.

And, yet, there are many on the left who want to make Gorbachev the hero of the story, and give only a small share, if any, of the credit, to Reagan and other democratically-elected leaders, including Margaret Thatcher.

The best I can bring myself to do is to damn Gorbachev with faint praise by writing that he was perhaps the least bad of the major Communist leaders.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Political Philosophy

In this post, I quoted the great political philosopher Tip O'Neill.

When I think back on all the time I wasted as a political science major, reading Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Marx, etc., it's too bad I didn't realize at the time that just about the only political philosophy I would need to write this blog, is contained in three quotes by the following 20th-century philosophers:

A week is a long time in politics.

-- British Prime Minister Harold Wilson

Money is the mother's milk of politics.

-- California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh

All politics is (should that be "are"?) local.

-- U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill

Regular readers of this blog will note how useful I find those quotations to be. Perhaps I'll try to work something in from Locke sometime, and see if you're impressed.

20 Years Ago 15: More Velvet

In this post, I briefly alluded to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, its ever-so-peaceful transition away from Marxism-Leninism, beginning in 1989.

The subsequent decision of the Czechs and Slovaks to go their separate ways, which was implemented in 1993, was equally peaceful. Therefore, it was inevitable that it would be labeled the "Velvet Divorce".

As I mentioned here, the reunification of Germany was directly tied to the events of 1989. The division of Germany that existed between 1949 and 1990 was completely based on Cold War tensions. The USSR could not come to agreement with the other occupying powers, the U.S., Britain and France, on arrangements to unify the country, which had been the goal when the occupation zones were mapped out at Yalta in 1945. But, once the Cold War was over, the dividing line was quickly erased.

By contrast, the multinational state of Czechoslovakia came into existence long before the Cold War started. As was the case with Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia emerged out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in World War I. There is no logical reason why the Czechoslovak state could not have been kept together post-1989, if the political will had existed for that. But it did not.

The country's Communist dictators had no incentive to split up Czechoslovakia, because that would have diminished their power. However, after 1989, democracy allowed interests in both sides of the country to push their separatist agenda. In other words, the grass roots had a very different view than the former top-down rulers. The democratization allowed Tip O'Neill's famous saying to apply: "All politics is local."

To summarize: the Velvet Divorce was tied into the events of 1989, just not as directly as German reunification was.

But why wasn't the breakup of Czechoslovakia as violent as that of Yugoslavia? Here is a summary of a lecture by Valerie Bunce, a Cornell professor, going into at least as much detail as you're probably interested in, regarding differences in governmental structure. The key is:

Serbs were angry at not getting what they saw as their due, and Serbian leaders had significant institutional resources at their disposal to give a clear voice to these resentments.

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, a product of Yugoslav Communism, had, by the early 1990s, no counterpart in Czechoslovakia. As was typical of Communist leaders, Milosevic gave top priority to preserving his power. By contrast, the democratic leaders of Czechoslovakia had no incentive to use force to prevent a breakup.

Aside from those issues of governing structure, the religious demographics are different. Roman Catholicism is the primary religion in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That differs markedly from the combination of Catholics, Serbian Orthodox and Muslims in Yugoslavia. That seems to have been a major factor in the animosity between the various Yugoslav nationalities.