I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Moulitsas.
The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.
It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:
who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?
Who? Who indeed?
I visualize America so:
I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.
Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined. I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.
It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money. Three years ago, we made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer. No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:
… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week. As you know, contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements. What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.
(Photo Terray Sylvester/SF Chronicle)
It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us). Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader. You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong. The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.
This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better. At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again. Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it. Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever. A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.
A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.
Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.
The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.
If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.
Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.
All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.
In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.
Want to see the first successful Arab democracy in action? Tune in Sunday, when tiny Tunisia will hold its first legislative elections since the ratification of its liberal-democratic constitution in January. Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began in 2011, and it’s just about the only place where that movement for freedom and democracy hasn’t failed. The complex politics of these elections will tell us a lot about whether Tunisia is going to mature into a functioning democracy — or revert to dictatorship like Egypt.
The protagonists in the legislative election are really just two, and they’re both highly interesting. The first is Ennahda (it means the Renaissance), a party that advocates both Islamic values and egalitarian democracy. Ennahda’s origins lie in the international Muslim Brotherhood. Under the leadership of Rashid Ghannouchi, the party has established itself as the most politically moderate Islamic political actor anywhere in the Arabic speaking world.
In the last elections, Ennahda won a plurality in the constituent assembly that governed Tunisia during its extended period of transition. In that role, Ennahda formed coalitions with secular parties of the right- and left-center. It shared power with those parties, shakily at times but ultimately peacefully. It dropped any mention of Shariah from the constitutional draft. And perhaps most remarkably, Ennahda has announced that it will not run a candidate in November’s presidential elections. If it keeps to that promise, the legislative elections are the party’s only shot to remain a predominant force in Tunisian politics.
The other party seen as a leading contender in the legislative elections didn’t exist the last time Tunisians voted. Nidaa Tounes, “the Call for Tunisia,” hopes to represent a broad base of secular Tunisians. Striving to avoid internecine conflicts that have doomed most of Tunisia’s secular parties to irrelevance over the last three years, Nidaa has avoided making too many specific policy promises. To many voters, the party’s biggest appeal is that it isn’t Ennahda.
Nidaa’s leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, is a throwback to an earlier era of Tunisian politics — literally. Now 87, he served in the government of Habib Bourguiba, the revolutionary hero of independence from France, from 1957 to 1971. Essebsi was an ambassador and legislator under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After Ben Ali’s ouster and before the first elected coalition government could take office, Essebsi served honorably for most of a year as interim prime minister, after which he peacefully stepped down. He intends to run for president in November.
At a personal level, the differences between Essebsi and Ghannouchi could hardly be more marked. I met Essebsi in his rather grand house a couple of years ago, and his political rhetoric reminded me of the newspaper articles that my teachers used for Arabic lessons when I was a teenager in the 1980s. Even then the nostrums sounded hopelessly outdated. Essebsi was urbane, worldly and obviously highly intelligent. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was speaking to a political dinosaur.
Ghannouchi, soft-spoken to the point of diffidence, spent a good chunk of the 1980s in jail. He passed the next two decades in exile in Paris and London, where he developed his theories of an Islam compatible with egalitarian democracy. Essentially an intellectual, Ghannouchi is the leader of Ennahda, but has never held elected office and shows no interest in doing so. He interrupted one of our conversations to pray quietly and briefly on a mat in his modest office in Ennahda’s worryingly unprotected headquarters. Whatever Ghannouchi may be — and his many opponents condemn his apparent moderation as an act — he differs drastically from the traditional model of the modern Arab politician from the era of dictatorship.
What will happen Sunday? Polls are relatively unreliable, but in general they have the two parties running close with Nidaa perhaps somewhat ahead. For Ennahda, the best result would be to win a plurality, then form a governing coalition with Nidaa or smaller secularist parties. So far, the strategy of coalition of compromise has paid off for the Islamic democrats. Unlike the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda has avoided threatening or alienating secular forces in the society to the point where they seek its violent suppression. If Ennahda does win a plurality, expect the party to keep its promise of not running a presidential candidate. Ennahda knows that with a legislative plurality and the president from his own party, it would be too powerful and might well provoke a response.
If Nidaa wins a plurality, however, the situation will become more complicated. Nidaa might well believe that it could form a coalition without Ennahda. Nidaa would have significant momentum to win the presidential contest — at which point Essebsi would find himself an 88-year-old with a serious secular mandate. The temptation to use undemocratic means and get rid of Ennahda as a viable political force could be hard to resist. The result would be a disaster for Tunisia’s hopes of becoming a functioning democracy.
Faced with this danger, elements within Ennahda may reason that the party should break its pledge and run its own presidential candidate if it loses in the parliamentary elections. The theory would be self-protection. Ennahda stalwarts might also reason that a president associated with the Islamic democratic movement would be less threatening if he served alongside a secularist prime minister from Nidaa Tounes.
Either way, Tunisia will face challenges to making its democracy work. The key to success is for all sides to realize that winner-take-all politics are incompatible with democratic development. So vote early and often, and hope for coalition government. Arab democracy needs all the help it can get.
In a piece last week in Foreign Policy, Historian Aaron David Miller writes that “we have reached peak president.” I agree with a lot of what Miller says in this piece and in his recently released book - the expectations surrounding the presidency are unrealistic and at times undemocratic, and that the institution, not just the individuals who occupy it, shapes outcomes. Miller insists that leadership is measurable, and concludes, based on his “three C’s” - character, crisis, and capacity- that we’ve had three great presidents and are unlikely to have anymore.
Leadership is a popular topic in some journalist and historical circles. But it’s acquired something of a stigma in political science, conflated with fluffy notions of unmeasurable qualities and overemphasis on soaring rhetoric. This isn’t entirely fair. There are several aspects of presidential leadership that lend themselves to the kind of systematic scrutiny that political scientists know and love. For all there is to like in Miller’s new book, it is still one more book describing the greatness of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If presidentially-minded political scientists applied some more rigorous analysis to the question of leadership, perhaps we would come up with some new answers, or at least a few new hypotheses about great leadership.
Here are a couple of ideas for how we might bring some new analytical energy to the study of leadership:
1. The relationship between leadership and the presidential selection process
The development of the presidency is inescapably bound up with the evolution of the party system. A number of scholars have argued that presidential nomination process has influenced the kind of candidates who seek and receive the party nod. In the nineteenth century, the parties nominated “dark horse” candidates like James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce. These candidates weren’t anyone’s first choice, but were minimally acceptable to the various factions within the Democratic Party. In the new Republican Party, Lincoln was a similar kind of choice, but attained (so the argument goes) a somewhat unlikely greatness because of his leadership during the Civil War.
As the process became more oriented toward voters and candidates, and less driven by bargaining among party factions, a different brand of presidential candidate emerged. During the Progressive-New Deal era, we saw a string of presidential candidates with experience as governor (Wilson, both Roosevelts). As the story goes, the post-reform era (combined with the media environment) has attracted telegenic “outsiders” like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. It’s debatable how much each of these candidates were really outsiders - but they certainly weren’t the most experience in their respective fields. More broadly, a process that requires substantial travel, TV appearances and primary season debates, and innovative media strategies is going to favor some candidates and repel others.
As resistant as I am to arguments that rely on the personal characteristics of presidents and aspirants, I think it’s possible that our selection process stresses the wrong ones. One, as Richard Skinner pointed out, there’s an overemphasis on presidential authenticity at the expense of more relevant political qualities. Another consideration is that the emphasis on personal qualities and on fresh faces (especially sought by Democrats) seems to work against candidates with long legislative records or service in previous administrations.
2. Leadership isn’t about rugged individualism; it’s about building and maintaining coalitions.
In his book, Miller observes that we have no “real-time connection with greatness” in contemporary American politics. But I think someone writing in 1864 or 1935 might have said the same thing. In their times, Roosevelt and Lincoln were quite divisive, and often looked politically vulnerable. So our assessment of leadership may require some historical distance.
In particular, it’s easy to overlook the divisions of history once we know how the debates were resolved. Conventional wisdom says that polarization has eclipsed statesmanship. Here’s where the focus on the personal qualities of individual presidents is particularly misplaced. Accounts of presidents as lone statesmen, swimming against the tide and making Great Decisions is the stuff of hagiography and cartoons. Politics is not an individual enterprise; it is a collective enterprise. All presidents - great, mediocre and otherwise - have dealt with parochial interests, partisanship, and clashing ideologies. The ones who have been most successful weren’t acting alone; rather, they understood the political situation - the stakes of policy and the necessarily coalitions for passing and implementing new legislation. They also brought a sense of who the winners and losers would be, and used tools at their disposal - patronage, rhetoric, etc. - to make it harder politically for the losers to build their opposition, either by marginalizing them or finding a way to bring some of them on board.
3. Analytical tools like counterfactuals can help us understand leadership.
Rigorous studies of leadership require carefully considered counterfactuals. The list of questions should include whether a different person would have made the same decision, and whether a different leader would have done the same things to build and maintain a coalition before and after a big policy decision? Faced the same constraints?
Closer attention to counterfactuals would also help scholars critically reexamine a central axiom in the study of leadership: greatness only happens in times of crisis. The connection between greatness and crisis is obvious; many scholars, including Miller, have written persuasively about it. When I discuss greatness in my American presidency course, it’s usually the first pattern the students notice.
But making this a necessary condition for greatness basically concedes that leadership is circumstantial. Ok, maybe that’s true. But let’s not settle on that conclusion without thinking about it some more. I think Miller is on to something when he writes about the merits of “good, not great” leadership, but perhaps we can break this down even more.
One under-explored area of leadership is the ability to head off a crisis? This is controversial for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s as difficult to determine causation in the study of politics as it is in any other context. We’ll never know definitively that these presidential actions meaningfully changed the course of events. We’ll never know for sure that a different choice wouldn’t have produced a better outcome. But I can think of a couple of controversial examples of decisions that were made in order to prevent crisis (or at least keep it from getting worse). One is Andrew Jackson’s proclamation against state nullification of federal laws in 1832. (Specifically, South Carolina declared that it would not obey a recently passed federal tariff law.) Jackson is always a controversial choice on which to bestow the “great” label, as his cruelty and moral failings with Native Americans are undeniable. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on a medium-sized limb and say that his decision to stand up to South Carolina and articulate the reasons was forceful and correct. Jackson asserted the authority of the federal government. Sidney Milkis and Marc Landy credit Jackson’s rhetorical move with providing doctrine that helped Lincoln deal with full-blown crisis a few decades later. Jackson’s response to the situation probably prevented the crisis over tariffs and nullification from getting worse, and thus allowed the country a few more decades of development before confronting the bigger issues.
An even less likely, but similarly worthy, contender for preventative greatness is Ford’s pardon of Nixon. It was no Emancipation Proclamation or New Deal. It didn’t reshape how we understand the Constitution or give anyone any new rights. And certainly not everyone thinks it was the right thing to do. But Ford made a decision under difficult circumstances, and it was one that clearly weighed in favor of stability. We won’t ever know what would have happened if Ford had made a different choice; perhaps, as Rick Perlstein suggests, Ford made the worse decision for American politics in the long term. But the pardon was a decisive; it settled the question of Nixon’s guilt and allowed him to exit the public stage.
Response to crisis has been a central theme in the presidential leadership literature, especially that which focuses on historical comparisons and “greatness.” We could probably do this with a lot more nuance, thinking about the crises that didn’t happen or didn’t get worse.
4. Scholars of leadership need to refine our concepts and reconsider the unit of analysis.
Our focus on holistic evaluation of presidents is an outdated paradigm. We keep getting stuck in the same dilemmas. Lyndon Johnson had great domestic achievements but bungled Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson changed the role of the office but was a horrible racist. Thomas Jefferson expanded the country but failed to build up institutional capacity, and he supported the Embargo Act of 1807, which is widely considered a serious policy mistake. American presidents are human, and as a result they display both positive and negative qualities.
These dilemmas are not resolvable. They distract us from more rigorous assessments of the decisions that presidents make - how to rank priorities, how to frame decisions, how to interact with their own parties. Whether, and how, to intervene in conflicts abroad. We don’t try - at least not this hard - to integrate discrete decisions for any other institution.
We generally accept that the 110th Congress or the Roberts Court or whatever will make some good moves and some poor ones, some whose significance may not be apparent for many years. Courts and Congresses will miss opportunities. But we don’t endlessly try to reconcile these different decisions.
This holistic focus on presidential history isn’t just a scholarly problem. It also informs our broader understanding of the president’s role and, in turn, what we want in a Commander-in-Chief. Twenty-first century narratives of the presidency emphasize leaders as national symbols. This further polarizes the office by connecting it to debates about culture, religion, and even region. It also leads to undue focus on presidential candidates’ family lives and personalities, without real reflection on what those mean for the tasks that face presidents.
It doesn’t make sense for scholars to dismiss leadership because we don’t think any contemporary leaders can rise to the level of Washington or Lincoln. And just because leadership is difficult to define, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily meaningless. Plenty of important concepts in politics suffer from that problem. We have the analytical tools to address that - why not use them to ask new questions about leadership?
Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter. Despite the simple-minded sloganeering on both sides, the question of creating legal cannabis market is about as technical as they come, with equally valid public goals in sharp conflict, many unknowns, a variety of tricky design issues, and some big risks.
But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want.
Cannabis legalization is that sort of issue, too: legislators are scared of cops and prosecutors, and most cops and prosecutors really hate legalization.
In Oregon, advocates went to the legislature and said, “We can and will put legalization on the ballot unless you handle the issue.” The legislature didn’t move. So the advocates acted on their threat, giving us Measure 91.
What they produced is noticeably less crazy than the measure that failed in 2012: for example, the quotation from the Book of Genesis about “herb bearing seed” is missing. It seems to reflect a good-faith effort to craft a law that will allow adults to get cannabis, wipe out the illicit market, provide some revenue, and prevent a big increase in use by minors.
But Measure 91 does not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the problems of illicit markets or a nuanced view about substance use disorder. Focusing on the goal of eradicating the illicit cannabis market in Oregon, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the risk that Oregon might become a source of illicit supply to neighboring states. Focusing exclusively on preventing use by minors, it neglects the risk of increasing dependency among adults.
The basic fact about a legal cannabis market is that the product will be remarkably cheap to grow; once competition and industrial-style production have taken effect, a legal joint would cost (before tax) about what a tea-bag costs, rather than the illegal or medical-dispensary price, which is 100 times as high. And the tax provided for in Measure 91 would add only about 50 cents to the price of a joint: not a high price to pay for two hours or more of being stoned.
Lower prices won’t much change the behavior of adult casual users; even at today’s illegal prices getting stoned is a bargain compared to getting drunk. But lower prices would matter a lot to frequent users, and most of all to frequent underage users, simply because what they spend on pot represents significant element in their personal budgets: at current prices, the cost of a heavy cannabis habit can exceed $5000 per year.
Unless the legislature decided to raise it, the $35-per-ounce tax in Measure 91 would lead, within a couple of years, to prices way below current illicit prices and way below legal prices in Washington State. That in turn would mean big increases in use by minors and in the number of Oregonians with diagnosable cannabis problems. It would also mean substantial diversion of cannabis products legally sold under Oregon’s low taxes to Washington, where taxes are much higher. (Currently the flow goes the other way, with the two biggest-selling legal cannabis stores in Washington being the two closest to Portland.)
It wouldn’t be hard to draft a better-balanced measure than the one to be voted on in two weeks. For example, it might be wiser to limit legal production and sale to co-ops or non-profits, keeping the profit motive out of the business altogether.
But the choice Oregon voters face isn’t between what’s on the ballot and some perfectly designed cannabis policy; it’s between what’s on the ballot and continued prohibition at the state level, until and unless a better initiative can be crafted, put before the voters, and passed into law.
Measure 91 would enact an ordinary law, not a constitutional amendment. If it passes, the legislature will be free to amend it the next day by a simple majority vote; such moves are allowed not only by law but by the conventions of Oregon politics.
So the question facing Oregonians who want adults to be able to buy cannabis legally - without the nonsense of finding a “kush doctor” and faking an ailment - is whether to defeat the proposition and hope that the legislature will act on its own (or that a better-drafted bill will appear on the ballot in 2016) or whether instead to pass the current proposition and hope that the legislature will move to fix what’s wrong with it.
Given the balance of political forces, it seems more reasonable to trust the legislature to rein in a too-lax legalization scheme than to expect it to do what no legislature in the nation has been willing to do yet: pass a full cannabis-legalization law.
It’s not hard to identify the key points that need amendment, within the context set by the initiative: cannabis sold by a set of for-profit enterprises under state regulation. (That leaves aside such interesting ideas as just letting consumers grow their own, or requiring that growers and retailers be not-for-profit co-ops or public-benefit corporations, as well as the alternative of state-monopoly retailing, which has some attractive features but can’t be done while the federal Controlled Substances Act is in place, because the state can’t tell its officials to violate federal law.)
* Recognize preventing adult substance use disorder among the goals of the law.
* Assign some of the regulatory authority to the health department rather than giving it all to the revenue department.
* Give the regulators explicit authority to restrict the quantity of cannabis that can legally be grown. (Ideally, growing rights ought to be auctioned off rather than given away, giving the financial windfall to taxpayers instead of to the lucky few who end up with licenses.) * Increase the proposed taxes, and make them adjustable to keep legal prices at about the current illegal level as production costs fall. In the end, to prevent a big price decrease, the tax would have to be a very large fraction of the current illegal or quasi-medical price of about $10/gram. Ideally, taxes would be based on the intoxicating power of the product - measured in milligrams of THC, the primary active chemical - rather than on the total weight of the plant material. (We tax whisky more heavily than beer or wine; why shouldn’t cannabis taxation work on the same principle?)
* Require that retail clerks have some serious training in pharmacology and substance use disorder, and make it part of their job to discourage excessive and dangerous consumption patterns, rather than letting their bosses just tell them to sell as much product as they can.
* Make sure there’s enough enforcement against illicit growing and dealing to make the legal market competitive.
* Rein in the medical-marijuana business. Once Oregonians with medical need can buy tested and labeled product at commercial outlets, there’s no need to have an entire parallel distribution system. It makes sense to offer tax exemptions for limited quantities to genuine patients, but the current practice of “patients” buying “medical” supplies for illicit resale has to stop.
There are lots of other good ideas around. (See the forthcoming RAND report on legalization options for Vermont.) But those will do for a start.
Would the legislature pass them all? Probably not. But Oregon’s chances of getting to a temperate cannabis policy will be better if the voters force the legislators to get off the dime.
It’s not an easy choice; as a Californian, I’m glad I don’t have to make one like it (yet). But if I had to vote in Oregon, I’d vote “Yes.”
The reason Democrats should be clamoring for a strong candidate to take on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries isn’t Whitewater. It has nothing to do with the political baggage she has been carrying during her long public life.
The issue has come up because of a fuss over a Harper’s cover story (gated, alas) saying Democrats should “Stop Hillary!” based on two things: the Clinton scandals of the 1990s and earlier, and the objection that the only case for her candidacy is that “she has experience, she’s a woman, and it’s her turn.”
Whether or not this argument holds up (and, as political scientist Scott Lemieux argues, it doesn’t), Democrats of all stripes should be clamoring for a contested race.
The first reason to want a primary is that the more likely it is she can secure an uncontested nomination, the less she will have to commit to the Democratic platform.1 The nomination process cements candidate to party; without it, the natural tendency of politicians is to maintain as much independence as possible.
Now, it isn’t as if even an uncontested Clinton could ignore the party altogether. If she wasn’t signaling her support for what Democratic activists and Democratic-aligned interest groups want, they wouldn’t be lining up behind her. And she is a creature of her party to begin with. Her campaign organization and, if elected, her administration will draw from the same pool of party professionals that any Democratic presidential contender would turn to. Still, the more a nominee can be pushed toward the party, the better off the party is.
There’s a different reason that those who find the current Democratic Party and its likely nominee too conservative would want a competitive primary. Parties are self-defining institutions, and the main way they go about defining themselves is through nominations for office. Parties take the positions they do because their leaders support those positions, either for policy or electoral reasons or both. Still, it’s always possible to change a party. But it is far easier to achieve this change by forcing the eventual candidate to adjust their positions during the presidential nomination process, than it is to try to change the positions of an elected president.
This process can work even if Clinton wins every primary and caucus, as long as there is enough opposition to force her to compete seriously. The positions of other candidates don’t matter as much as what the Democratic Party collectively believes — and whether it can find the leverage to force its nominee to firmly support those policies. No matter who opposed her, and which issues the challenger raised, both Clinton and her opponent would be competing for the support of the bulk of the party. What’s important for the process to function is to recruit a candidate who can force a real campaign.
The difficult part is to entice a potentially formidable candidate to go up against Clinton, even though her nomination would be perfectly pleasing to the mainstream liberal bulk of the party.
Still, even Democrats who strongly support Clinton should hope someone challenges her, but not because of ancient and probably irrelevant baggage such as Whitewater and Travelgate, and not even because of her vote for the Iraq War. An unchallenged candidate is an independent politician, and party actors should want party politicians.
1 Meaning the informal collection of policy positions that party actors support. The formal platform — the document that is written for and adopted by the convention - isn’t as totally irrelevant as some pundits maintain, but it certainly isn’t the be-all of party policy ideas.
In a recent campaign add run by Scott Brown, the former senator accuses President Obama of being “confused” about the threat ISIS poses. I first heard about this on NPR, and on the program it produced some counter-spin from E.J. Dionne, a guest on the show. “I think the president took a little bit out of that argument by how tough he’s been on ISIS,” Dione grumbled. Unfortunately this comment is an example of the confusion referred to, because it mistakes dropping bombs on people with thinking clearly about the nature of our problem. It is the partnerships we form, not the decision to bomb, that will determine any chance for American success in this latest Mideast war.
In no area is this confusion more evident than our relations with the Kurds. Obama has gone through enormous trouble to create a coalition that targets ISIS in Syria, but until last week he failed to include the one group in that country that has withstood ISIS on the battlefield. That would be the YPG, a Kurdish militia that took over significant territory in three northern cantons of Syria after Bashar Assad’s authority crumbled. It wasn’t just the YPG. It was also the YPJ, a militia of Kurdish women who fight alongside the men. The Syrian Kurds, much like their counterparts in Iraq, have built a secular system in their area. They empower women, and they shelter thousands of Syria’s minorities. It was the Syrian Kurds who crossed the Iraqi frontier and rescued the Yezidi minority on Mount Sinjar.
Given all the unsavory actors in Obama’s Syria coalition, why the long delay in including the relatively tolerant Kurds? The answer takes us back to Obama’s confused priorities. The Kurdish militias are loosely affiliated with the PKK, a group of Kurds in Turkey who have been placed on the US terrorism list. There’s no evidence that Syrian Kurds have targeted civilians (just the opposite in fact), and the PKK itself is on the list because the Turkish government finds it convenient to lump separatists with terrorists. But that nuance is lost on everyone. The PKK are paper terrorists, therefore the Syrian Kurds were off limits.
Putting aside the problematic nature of using the terrorism list as a political cudgel, it’s worth noting that even the Turks were not this fanatical - they invited the Syrian Kurdish leader to Ankara for talks. This put Obama in the absurd position of being more Turkish than the Turks. The result is that even as Obama launched a new American air war in the Middle East, he ruled out in advance dealing with the one liberal faction in the country he was bombing.
I’ve brought this up at various times with liberal colleagues, and the response is always some variant of, “well, it may not make sense, but that’s American policy.” This is maddening. “It’s our policy,” is the kind of answer you expect from overwhelmed airline employees, not the people running America’s war effort. One would think that the deadly seriousness of ordering Americans into a war zone would concentrate minds and force some re-evaluation of unhelpful policies.
The truth is that frigidity towards Kurds affects almost every aspect of this president’s Mideast policy. I’ve already written in detail how the American state department has undermined the current military effort in Iraq through an economic boycott on Kurdish oil. The ostensible reason for that policy is something called “Iraqi unity,” which would be a wonderful thing if it existed in the real world. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Visa restrictions on Kurds remain a preferred form of harassment. More importantly, as Gram Slattery has argued, the State Department effort to organize the Syrian opposition has systematically excluded Kurds from the process. Given an opportunity to deal with secular Kurds, our State Department shows a consistent preference for “moderate” Sunni Arabs. These preferred groups haven’t shown moderate inclinations, and they’ve been soundly beaten on the battlefield. But never mind. The priority is not to build a capable opposition, but rather to put together a photogenic display of Arab unity.
The most vivid example of anti-Kurdish bias occurred on the battlefield in Northern Syria. One of the three Kurdish cantons around the town of Kobani came under fierce attack by ISIS fighters. This triggered a massive round of ethnic cleansing, with hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities forced into Turkish refugee camps. The Kurds have fought ferociously for over four weeks, but they are armed only with light weapons. In contrast ISIS has a full armament of material looted from the Iraqi Army in Mosul. Those American weapons, delivered unthinkingly to the Iraqi Government of Nouri al-Maliki, were part of an earlier Obama effort to arm fictional moderates.
The president announced his intention to defeat ISIS in Syria on September 10th, and American pilots began dropping bombs on September 23rd. Despite this, there was no attempt to provide effective air support to the Kurdish fighters until mid-October, when Kobani was nearly overrun and the prospect of a televised massacre loomed. Relief efforts were non-existent. For weeks not a single bottle of water, meal ration, or cartridge of ammunition fell from the American patrolled sky. The acuity of the crisis prompted hard questions for American military officers, whose fumbled answers about their “broadly focused” Syria mission made it clear they weren’t expected to win any actual battles.
Since last week there has been a complete reversal. American pilots are now coordinating with Kurds on the ground, and there are efforts underway to resupply the besieged fighters from the ground and the air. As in Iraq, the president seems to have realized (with his usual sluggishness) that winning the actual battle against ISIS is more important than avoiding public support for Kurds.
This brings us back to strategic confusion. The obvious discomfort this administration has with supporting Kurdish autonomy is badly outmoded. It no longer makes any sense to weld ourselves to “unity” policies in Iraq and Syria. As the military has found it’s like trying to box on quicksand. Support for Kurdish rights offers a far firmer footing on the ground, and it has the advantage of reflecting American values better than our current deference to Turkish and Arab ethnic chauvinism.
The Kurdish resistance to ISIS in Syria and Iraq has forced us to shift our military plan, and it should prompt us to reassess our diplomatic and economic approach as well. We should drop our self-defeating opposition to Kurds selling oil. We should welcome their students and diplomats. We should include them as full partners in post-war planning, not try to suppress them by incorporating them into larger and less competent groups. We should encourage in every way their strength, prosperity, and independence.
If there’s to be any chance of a tolerant government in any part of Syria or Iraq, a strong Kurdish community will be a major part of it. That is true regardless of whether or not Kurds ultimately opt for independence. The president has been slow to understand this, and he has allowed events to push him into a reluctant and partial partnership with the Kurds. But until he embraces Kurds more fully the consequence is another American war without reliable partners, a realistic objective, or much chance of a humane outcome.
In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:
Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters - a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext - ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.
It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.
Students from elite colleges march off to jobs at the big banks and consulting firms less by choice than because of a rigged recruiting game that the schools themselves have helped to create. By Amy J. Binder 10/01/2014