Appropriately Muddled

Things are never what they seem. Conservatives don’t believe that for a moment. Liberals, or Progressives if you wish, assume that conventional wisdom, or received wisdom, and a whole lot of cultural tradition, might be wrong. Our enemies, while evil and dangerous, might be acting rationally, as they see it, given their particular circumstances. Sure, we could kill them all – if we had the time and had a way to contain the inevitable blowback from future generations of such folks – or we could change their circumstances, which, while tedious, is far less costly than shock-and-awe followed by a decade of occupation, after which we come home and pretend we fixed things. That was at the core of the debate about the Iraq war that Dick Cheney and his crew wanted. George Bush seemed to be just tagging along for the ride on that. But Saddam was evil, so he had to go – so did Gadhafi in Libya. They were both just as they seemed – very bad men – but nothing much changed after they were gone. Iraq is close to a failed state, and now closely aligned with Iran, our enemy forever, for now, and Libya is a failed state. There’s no country there anymore, just two governments, each saying the other is illegitimate, with no one at all running the place. Gadhafi was as bad as he seemed, but the situation wasn’t what it seemed. Removing Gadhafi seemed like a good idea. It may not have been.

Things are never quite what they seem, even if removing Saddam Hussein seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe it was, in a limited way, but the underlying circumstances of life in Iraq haven’t changed. The Shiites are in charge now, making life hell for the Sunnis. Under Saddam Hussein, it was the other way around – but the ISIS crowd vows to change that. What did we accomplish?

The Bush administration would have none of that kind of thinking. Saddam was a BAD MAN! Use your eyes! And he had those weapons of mass destruction! Use your eyes! The critics of the Bush administration kept saying things are seldom what they seem. Let Hans Blix and his inspectors do their thing, and we’ll see if there are any of those weapons of mass destruction – and war to change the government in Iraq might seem like a good idea, but things are seldom what they seem. If we do that, what comes next? The critics of the Bush administration lost those arguments. Those who said that things are just as they seem won the day. We had our war.

There is more to this than the Iraq business. The same dynamic is in play in all disputes between conservatives and liberals. Gay marriage might not only be something the government should allow, to be fair to everyone, but it might strengthen the institution of marriage, not destroy it, because people pairing up to love and respect and care for each other is good for the society as a whole – so things aren’t what they seem. Conservatives will have none of that. Gay people are icky. Use your eyes, and use your eyes about global warming too. This is the worst winter we’ve ever had, or close enough. Forget the dismal statistical trends:

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who strongly denies that climate change exists, brought a large snowball on the Senate floor Thursday as a real life example that the globe is not warming.

“In case we have forgotten because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record,” said Inhofe, who is the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee while holding the lumpy snowball in his hand. “I asked the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out – very unseasonable.”

“Catch this,” he said, as he tossed the snowball underhand to an unseen person – perhaps a page or an aide – just a couple of feet away.

He then resumed his speech with a smile on his face that indicated he was quite pleased with his demonstration.

He proved that things are just what they seem, but of course someone could mention to him, that if he looks out the window, the earth seems flat. Just look. Walk far enough in any direction and you could fall off the edge. So, do you really want to argue that things are just what they seem? Heck, raising the minimum wage might create jobs and help the economy, as more people, who have to spend all their money just to survive, spend that new money and goose the economy. Sure, a few employers might shed a few low-end employees, as they have to pay them a bit more, or so it seems, but lots of people would now be buying things they couldn’t buy before, which is good for business. And by the way, sex education and birth control, while they might seem morally awful to some, might go a long way toward reducing teen pregnancies and abortions. And so on and so forth.

Those arguments will fall on deaf ears, and there have been a few decades of research that tries to figure out why. In the nineties, John Jost was working on what he called “systems justification theory” – and he’s been at it ever since. In a new interview in Salon, he has a few things to say about those who argue that things are just what they seem:

When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.

And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator – at the level of social psychology – in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.

This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better – but they are not.

That led to a 2003 a paper on political conservatism:

We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism – the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change – and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other. …

We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat – as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc. – and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.

Jost notes things haven’t changed since then, which he goes on to explain in excruciating detail, but his main point seems to be that conservatives share a need, as a social group, to assert that things are indeed just what they seem, and always have been. The idea that things are seldom what they seem cannot be considered, and that will be hard to overcome:

Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice – which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society – there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.

How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out.

It might be impossible to work that out, and an issue that shows that is the issue about what to do about Iran, which may not be what it seems.

This came up long ago, when the sun never set on the British Empire, when those who ran the world had too much time on their hands. One of those was Sir William Jones:

In 1770, he joined the Middle Temple and studied law for three years, which would eventually lead him to his life-work in India; after a spell as a circuit judge in Wales, and a fruitless attempt to resolve the issues of the American colonies in concert with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, he was appointed puisne judge to the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Calcutta, Bengal on 4 March 1783, and on 20 March he was knighted. In April 1783 he married Anna Maria Shipley, the eldest daughter of Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of Llandaff and Bishop of St Asaph. Anna Maria used her artistic skills to help Jones document life in India. On 25 September 1783 he arrived in Calcutta.

And he was bored. Being a judge in Calcutta wasn’t doing it for him. He was too curious for that, and he decided to dive into what really interested him – languages. He already knew Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and the basics of Chinese writing, and he ended up knowing thirteen languages quite thoroughly and another twenty-eight reasonably well – and stuck in India, with too much time on his hands, he began to look for patterns. That’s when, looking at Sanskrit and Persian – which is now modern Farsi – he started seeing all sorts of cognates with Latin, and even English. These languages were related, damn it, and he was the one that postulated and then proved there was a common source – what he called Proto-Indo-European – and that added Persian, now Farsi, to the Indo-European Language tree. Those folks form their thoughts with the same linguistic structures that we use to form our thoughts. They just use Arabic script.

That may seem a minor thing, but that’s part of how things aren’t what they seem. Iranians are not Arabs. Ethnically they’re Persians – “The name of Iran is the Modern Persian derivative from the Proto-Iranian term Aryānā, meaning ‘Land of the Aryans’ first attested in Zoroastrianism’s Avesta tradition.”

They’re Aryans? Who knew? They may be fundamentalist Shiite, but the odd thing is that they had always been friendly to us, until 1953 and Operation Ajax – that’s when the CIA organized and executed the overthrow of the newly elected and quite popular government at the request of, and with support from, the British government. The guy they elected was going to nationalize the oil companies we and the Brits had there. Those Persians thought that was their oil, but Eisenhower and the Brits had it all worked out. We put Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the thrown there to rule as the monarch, a Shah who would never face elections. That lasted for twenty-six years, until he was overthrown in 1979, by the Shiite clergy who promised they’d take their country back, and we flew Pahlavi to Panama so he’d be safe. But over the years his secret police, the SAVAK, and his military, had killed a whole lot of Iranians who got in his way. The Shah was not a nice guy. “Shah” is, by the way, a cognate of “Caesar” and thus “Koenig” and “King” – as Sir William Jones pointed out.

Things went downhill from there. In the Carter administration they stormed our embassy in Tehran and took the hostages. They never forgave us for Operation Ajax. Those are the circumstances they know. They’re not Arabs – they’re Aryans, damn it – but they’re still pretty pissed off. They do, however, hate those stupid Sunnis – the al-Qaeda folks and now ISIS – and there was this from 2008:

Iran rounded up hundreds of Arabs to help the United States counter al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attack after they crossed the border from Afghanistan, a former Bush administration official said Tuesday. Many were expelled, Hillary Mann Leverett said, and the Iranians made copies of almost 300 of their passports.

The copies were sent to Kofi Annan, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, who passed them to the United States, and U.S. interrogators were given a chance by Iran to question some of the detainees, Leverett said in an Associated Press interview.

Leverett, a Middle East expert who was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, said she negotiated with Iran for the Bush administration in the 2001-3 time period, and Iran sought a broader relationship with the United States. “They thought they had been helpful on al Qaeda, and they were,” she said.

For one thing, she said, Iran denied sanctuary to suspected al Qaeda operatives.

Some administration officials took the view, however, that Iran had not acknowledged all likely al Qaeda members nor provided access to them, Leverett said.

We missed a chance:

Iranian diplomats made clear at the time they were looking for broader cooperation with the United States, but the Bush administration was not interested… The Bush administration has acknowledged contacts with Iran over the years even while denouncing Iran as part of an “axis of evil” and declining to consider resumption of diplomatic relations.

“It isn’t something that is talked about,” Leverett said in describing Iran’s role during a forum at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan policy institute.

Leverett and her husband, Flynt Leverett, a former career CIA analyst and a former National Security Council official, jointly proposed that the U.S. president who replaces George W. Bush in January seek a “grand bargain” with Iran to settle all major outstanding differences.

That might be a good idea. Obama seems to be working on it, and now it gets tricky:

Washington and Tehran have reached a “special understanding” over the forthcoming offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Tikrit, Iraqi political sources said, as the US warned the assault to retake the city must not fuel sectarian tensions.

The latest developments in the ongoing fight against ISIS in Iraq come as the US-led international coalition continued to carry out airstrikes against ISIS-held positions in central and western Iraq, but did not assist in the latest offensive against ISIS positions in the Sunni-dominated Salah Al-Din governorate.

That means this on the ground:

All along the green irrigated plains in the heart of what American occupying troops used to call the Sunni triangle, lampposts and watchtowers are flying the flags of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia long hated and feared by many Iraqi Sunnis.

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

Iraqi officials, too, have been unapologetic about the role of the militias. They project confidence about their fighting abilities and declare that how to fight the war is Iraq’s decision, as militia leaders criticize American pressure to rely more on regular forces.

Yeah, but there’s this:

Twice designated a terrorist by the United States government, considered responsible for up to 20 percent of American casualties in the Iraq war, Major General Qasem Suleimani, the legendary Iranian spymaster and leader of the Quds Force – the elite special operations wing of the hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – is now stirring alarm in Washington for doing something the Obama administration would ordinarily cheer: taking the fight to ISIS in Iraq.

Photographs circulating on social media show Suleimani operating alongside senior Iraqi officials in the theater in and around Tikrit, the Sunni ancestral home of Saddam Hussein that is located almost equidistant between Mosul, the ISIS-controlled city 120 miles to the north, and Baghdad, the capital of the Iraqi government 100 miles to the south.

The presence of Suleimani at the forefront of Iraqi forces’ efforts to reclaim Tikrit from ISIS control underscores both the expanding influence of Iran on the central Iraqi government and the increasingly critical role that Shi’ite militiamen, thought to be operating under Quds command, are playing in the Iraqi fight against ISIS. Neither development brings pleasure to senior U.S. officials or lawmakers in Congress.

This may not end well:

As the international coalition of countries continues to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some unlikely alliances are proving effective. While both the U.S. and Iran have said they are not coordinating efforts, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s backing of Kurdish and Shiite militias is a key component to the fight.

But CBS News senior security contributor and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said that de-facto relationship comes with some possible serious consequences.

“There’s a real risk here that over the long run we can defeat ISIS in Iraq, but we might hand Iraq to the Iranians, in a diplomatic sense,” he said Tuesday on CBS This Morning.

Is that why we spent eight years in Iraq? It seems that nothing is what it seems, and our conservative hawks, who keep saying things are simple – agree with Israel and take out these guys – will just have to face the fact that this isn’t simple. Iran is our enemy, and our ally, and they really are the bad guys, most of the time, but not always – and they’re not even Arabs. Our conservative hawks will say just look! Sure, but look at what? Do you really want to argue that things are just what they seem?

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Tea Leaves

Every liberal has a conservative friend who warned them, back in 2003, in a friendly way, that they were going to be mighty embarrassed when our troops found those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That would be a former friend, but these things happen. Consider the curious case of Bill O’Reilly – as on March 18, 2003, it was this – “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?”

He knew. Sure he did. On February 10, 2004, it was this – “I was wrong. I am not pleased about it at all and I think all Americans should be concerned about this… What do you want me to do, go over and kiss the camera?”

O’Reilly had a problem, and then, two days later, there was this – “I go on Good Morning America yesterday and say that I’m personally sorry my analysis on WMDs before the war was wrong and I’m angry about the CIA mistake. I mean, any honest commentator would say that, but the left-wing press sees my admission as some kind of liberal policy vindication and is using my words to hammer the president. Well, that’s dishonest. I still believe removing Saddam was the right thing to do and that history will prove it. And there’s also the possibility that WMDs will be found, so I might have to apologize for my apology. I don’t mind. I still hope they find WMDs.”

They never did find any of those weapons of mass destruction, and with Saddam Hussein gloriously gone we got ISIS fighting the Iraqi government we created, now tightly aligned with Iran, our deadly enemy. Bill O’Reilly has been silent on the matter about which he was so sure ever since – but Obama sure has messed everything up, hasn’t he?

Yes, that’s changing the subject, but when someone says that anyone can see what’s going on here – which everyone seems to like to say – it’s probably not what’s going on here, or anywhere. Reading tea leaves is an art, or foolishness, or a scam – but this was the day everyone was trying to figure out if Obamacare would be destroyed and eight to eleven million people would lose their new health insurance and the entire healthcare insurance system would collapse. That will be decided in June, or July. This was the day of tea leaves:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday took up the Affordable Care Act in one of the most anticipated arguments of the term, and it seemed closely divided over the fate of President Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

The court’s four liberal members voiced strong support for the administration’s position. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who cast the decisive vote to save the law in 2012, said almost nothing on Wednesday, and did not indicate his position.

In a pleasant surprise for the administration, however, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who was in dissent in 2012, made several comments indicating that his vote was in play.

“Perhaps you will prevail in the plain words of the statute,” he told a lawyer for the challengers. But, he continued “there’s a serious constitutional problem if we adopt your argument.”

Wednesday’s arguments suggested that the coming months will be tense for the administration as it waits to hear whether about seven million low- and middle-income people in some three dozen states will continue to receive subsidies to help them buy health insurance. Should the court rule that subsidies were not authorized by the health law, most of those people would no longer be able to afford insurance. And insurance markets in those states could collapse.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said it would be “unwise” to draw conclusions based on the questioning by the justices. Such efforts, he said, can produce “some erroneous predictions about the likely outcome.”

Slate’s Josh Voorhees reviews those predictions:

After watching the first day of arguments in the 2012 blockbuster, Jeffrey Toobin famously declared that it was “a train wreck” for the White House. “This law looks like it’s going to be struck down,” the CNN legal expert and New Yorker writer said at the time. “I’m telling you, all of the predictions, including mine, that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong.”

Toobin was far from alone in making that assessment. But in the end, of course, the high court voted 5–4 to preserve the individual mandate and avoid delivering what would have likely been a death blow to the Affordable Care Act.

As you may remember, much of the immediate analysis was focused on Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the White House lawyer tasked with saving Obamacare then, as he is again this week. Verrilli stuttered, stumbled, and coughed out of the gates during the March 2012 arguments, drawing an onslaught of criticism from court watchers and prompting serious handwringing from liberals. “Verrilli seemed more like a nervous first-year law student than a respected advocate who had appeared before the court on 17 previous occasions,” declared the Daily Beast. Mother Jones went one step further, writing that the Verrilli performance just might “go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.” After the solicitor general’s argument and the rest of the day’s action, “the Obama administration better start preparing for the possibility of a future without the individual mandate,” warned the Huffington Post.

The assessments were more measured in the nation’s papers of record, but the takeaway was largely the same. The New York Times explained that “the available evidence indicated that the heart of the Affordable Care Act is in peril.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that court’s conservative justices “appeared deeply skeptical” that the individual mandate was constitutional, “endangering the most ambitious domestic program to emerge from Congress in decades.”

They were all wrong, and this time the question before the court isn’t about whether the government can compel citizens to buy health insurance or pay a fine, which was sort of a constitutional matter. This time the issue is a bit more arcane, and the New York Times’ editorial board finds it rather absurd:

The central claim of the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of four Virginians by a small group of conservative activists who have long sought to destroy Obamacare, is that the law does not allow tax-credit subsidies to be made available to anyone living in the 34 states whose health care exchanges are operated by the federal government, which stepped in when those states declined to set up their own.

This is, to put it mildly, baloney.

In the long, tangled history of the debate over the Affordable Care Act, no member of Congress ever indicated a belief that the law would work this way. To the contrary, the law explicitly provides for “quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”

And it has accomplished a good deal of this goal: More than 11 million people now have coverage under the law, and more than eight in 10 of them qualify for subsidies. In other words, broad availability of the subsidies is central to the functioning of the act. Without them, it collapses.

But because of the opponents’ purposefully blinkered reading of four words in the 900-page law the case is now before the Supreme Court.

The four words – “established by the State” – appear in a subsection of the law dealing with the calculation of tax credits. The law’s challengers say this means that credits are available only in the 16 states that have set up their own exchanges.

The Times’ board smells a rat:

The challengers did not innocently happen upon these words; they went all out in search of anything that might be used to gut the law they had failed to kill off once before, on constitutional grounds, in 2012. Soon after the law passed in 2010, Michael Greve, then chairman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is helping to finance the current suit, said, “This bastard has to be killed as a matter of political hygiene. I do not care how this is done, whether it’s dismembered, whether we drive a stake through its heart, whether we tar and feather it and drive it out of town, whether we strangle it.”

After the challengers found the four-word “glitch,” as they initially called it, they worked backward to fabricate a story that would make it sound intentional. Congress, they claimed, sought to induce states to establish exchanges by threatening a loss of subsidies if they did not. (Not coincidentally, the challengers also traveled state to state urging officials not to set up exchanges, thus helping to create the very “crisis” they now decry.) Of course, if Congress intended to introduce a suicide clause into a major piece of federal legislation, it would have shouted it from the mountaintops and not hidden it in a short phrase deep inside a sub-sub-subsection of the law. So it is no surprise that no one involved in passing or interpreting the law – not state or federal lawmakers, not health care journalists covering it at the time, not even the four justices who dissented in the 2012 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act – thought that the subsidies would not be available on federal exchanges.

That’s what makes this so odd:

Many legal observers were surprised that the court agreed to hear the case at all. But despite several justices’ clear dislike for the health care law, it is hard to imagine how they could disregard their longstanding approach to interpreting statutes, which, as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a 1997 case, requires them to consider “the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.”

Reading the Affordable Care Act as a whole, it’s clear that Congress meant to provide subsidies on both federal and state exchanges. For one thing, why establish a federal exchange that doesn’t actually work? As an amicus brief submitted by a group of legal scholars put it, “Congress does not write statutes to fail.”

And yet the challengers insist that their bizarre, non-contextual reading of the law is the only possible one. A majority of federal judges who have reviewed the case have thrown out this argument. So should the Supreme Court. Even if the court were to consider the law ambiguous, under its own precedent it must defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of the statute’s wording. Here, that agency is the IRS, which has issued a rule affirming that subsidies are available no matter who establishes the exchange.

Ah, but there are those four words:

The challengers disingenuously say that Congress can go back and change the wording, knowing full well that Republicans on Capitol Hill hate the law almost as much as they do. The states that currently rely on federally operated exchanges could set up their own, but many – egged on by the challengers – have already refused to do that.

Whatever legal games the challengers play, this case has never been more than a ginned-up, baseless attack on one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the last generation. The health of millions of Americans hangs in the balance. And now it is not even clear that the four plaintiffs have legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

All that may be so, but this Supreme Court seems inclined to wipe out Obamacare, or not. It was hard to tell:

If President Obama could draw hope from the 1 hour and 25 minutes of debate about his signature domestic achievement, it would be because of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Three years ago, Kennedy was among the four dissenters who would have found the entire act unconstitutional. But Wednesday, with his comments and questions seeming to cut both ways, he appeared to be back in play.

The outcome could also hang on Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. He wrote the opinion saving Obamacare from a constitutional challenge in 2012, but he was inscrutable this go-round, asking no questions that would provide a clear reading of his inclinations.

At issue in the current case is whether millions of Americans who receive tax subsidies to buy health insurance are doing so illegally. The challengers say a straightforward reading of the law means the credits are available only for those who buy insurance on marketplaces, called exchanges, that are “established by the State,” rather than on a federal marketplace.

The subsidies are a linchpin in the program to require Americans to buy health insurance. A ruling against the administration would have adverse consequences for an estimated 7.5 million Americans who now receive subsidies in the 34 states where authorities have declined to establish their own exchanges.

That led to this:

Questions about dire consequences for the states seemed to most concern Kennedy, the court’s leading advocate of federalism.

He told Washington lawyer Michael A. Carvin that the challengers’ reading of the law – which he characterized as telling the states to “create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral” – is the kind of coercive pressure the federal government is not allowed to apply.

“Perhaps you will prevail in the plain words of the statute, [but] there’s a serious constitutional problem if we adopt your argument,” Kennedy said.

Carvin said that plain reading must be what guides the justices.

“The only provision in the act which either authorizes or limits subsidies says, in plain English, that the subsidies are only available through an exchange established by the state,” Carvin said.

The rest of the law may contradict those four words, and if the law is struck down many lives will be made miserable, and many may die, but someone put those four words in there, even if no one noticed them until now, and no one double-checked the text and the words are there. This is about the rule of law. Let those people die.

Carvin didn’t say that, but he came close, and some justices were unhappy:

To read the law as literally as he does, Justice Elena Kagan told Carvin, would mean Congress authorized the establishment of federal exchanges “in which there will be no customers and, in fact, there will be no products.”

She added: “We are interpreting a statute generally to make it make sense as a whole, right? We look at the whole text. We don’t look at four words. We try to make everything harmonious with everything else.”

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, made a similar point. He said the law meant to provide states with flexibility and avoid “death spirals” in insurance markets, which could occur if not enough healthy individuals are enrolled to make the system financially viable. The challengers’ reading of the law, he said, would put coverage beyond the reach of many.

“It revokes the promise of affordable care for millions of Americans,” Verrilli said. “That cannot be the statute that Congress intended.”

The conservative justices were having none of that:

“Of course it could be,” responded Justice Antonin Scalia. “I mean it may not be the statute they intended. The question is whether it’s the statute that they wrote.”

Scalia and fellow conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. were the most challenging of Verrilli. Scalia said it was not up to the court to “twist the words” of a law to make it fit what the administration said Congress intended.

Alito asked Verrilli the question he had the most trouble answering: “If Congress did not want the phrase ‘established by the State’ to mean what that would normally be taken to mean, then why did they use that language? Why didn’t they use other formulations that appear elsewhere in the act? Why didn’t they say ‘established under the act’? Why didn’t they say, ‘established within the State’?”

And then they said this was none of their business:

Scalia and Alito also played down the dramatic consequences that the administration said would follow from an adverse ruling. Alito said the court could stay its ruling to avoid immediately cutting the subsidies. Scalia said lawmakers could fix the problem if they thought the court had misinterpreted their intent.

“You really think Congress is just going to sit there while – while all of these disastrous consequences ensue?” Scalia asked.

“Well, this Congress, Your Honor?” Verrilli replied, as laughter filled the packed chamber.

But this wasn’t funny:

It was the comments from Kennedy that received the most scrutiny. He is the court’s most outspoken advocate of states’ rights, and he said Carvin’s argument must be seen as Congress telling the states “either you create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral.”

Kennedy brought up the “standard of constitutional avoidance.” That means that if there are two possible interpretations of a statute, judges should choose the one that is plainly constitutional instead of the one that raises constitutional questions.

Verrilli said that would be a “very powerful reason to read the statutory text our way.”

But Kennedy said later that may not be an option if the justices are convinced that the plain language of the statute should prevail.

Kennedy was also concerned that the law might be ambiguous, as a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled. In such cases, the Richmond-based panel ruled, courts should defer to the agency responsible for implementing the law. The judges found the Internal Revenue Service permissibly “crafted a rule ensuring the credits’ broad availability and furthering the goals of the law.”

That, too, worried Kennedy. “It seems to me a drastic step for us to say that the department of internal revenue and its director can make this call one way or the other when there are, what, billions of dollars of subsidies involved here?” he asked.

There are all sorts of ways to read those tea leaves, and there was this:

Justice Roberts was even more opaque. The chief justice was blasted by fellow conservatives in 2012 when he came up with the compromise that found the law constitutional, and there were media reports that the justices on the right felt he had changed his vote late in the game.

On Wednesday, he seemed determined not to tip his hand. Normally an active questioner, Roberts instead played the role of impartial umpire, playing traffic cop when the other justices were vying to be heard and allocating more time to Carvin and Verrilli when the questioning cut into their responses.

That’s not very helpful, but Ian Millhiser thinks that Obamacare will probably survive its second trip to the Supreme Court:

If tax credits are cut off in states with federally run exchanges, premiums will spike, and healthy people will likely drop insurance that they can no longer afford. Once that happens, however, the insurance companies will no longer have enough revenue to pay for sick peoples’ costs, so they will have to raise premiums even further. That, in turn, will cause more healthy people to drop care. The result is a “death spiral” where higher premiums beget fewer customers, which beget higher premiums, which beget fewer customers.

This threat of a death spiral raises constitutional concerns, because the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare decision forbids Congress from coercing states into taking certain actions. If states are forced to choose between setting up their own exchange or watching their individual insurance markets collapse, that could amount to unconstitutional coercion.

Justice Kennedy appeared to believe that it did. There’s “something very powerful” to this coercion argument, Kennedy said, adding that Carvin’s interpretation of the law raises a “serious constitutional problem.” Later in the argument, he indicated that the Court may have an obligation, under something known as the “constitutional avoidance doctrine,” to read the law in a way that does not raise constitutional doubts.

And then he admits Kennedy’s vote is not certain. On Fox News they’re shouting OBAMACARE IS DEAD! That’s where Bill O’Reilly works, and he may still think we’ll find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, any day now. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s learned something about tea leaves.

That’s unlikely, or unlike him, and Ezra Klein looks at the implications of the Supreme Court destroying Obamacare:

1) For Republicans, the challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate made good political sense: if the mandate was repealed, it would cripple the law. Obamacare would be a disaster from coast to coast. The White House would have to agree to repeal, or at least root-and-branch reform.

2) The challenge to Obamacare’s subsidies makes less political sense: if the subsidies are ripped out of federal exchanges, it will only cripple the law in red states that loathe the legislation. Obamacare will work fine in states that want it to work; those states either have their own exchanges now or they’ll quickly build them. But resistant red states will be left with a policy disaster – and a hefty bill.

3) This is a key point: if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, the subsidies will basically shut off in (mostly) red states. But Republicans in those states will still be paying the taxes and bearing the spending cuts needed to fund Obamacare. They just won’t be getting anything back.

4) So the Republican plan is to make Obamacare a huge subsidy flowing from red states to blue states. Or, put more simply, the Republican plan to fight Obamacare is for Republicans to rip themselves off.

Oops. But then this all may be moot. Each side made their oral arguments in this matter, and there were very few tea leaves in the bottom of the teacup. Only Professor Trelawney could read those, and she was mad as a hatter. In late June or early July we’ll find out if Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction, or something.

Posted in Obamacare, Supreme Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Day for Stunningly Bad Ideas

Everyone will now remember the day the leader of the free world came to the United States to address a Joint Session of Congress, to upbraid and shame the young and hopelessly naïve president of that now equally hopeless country – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, and don’t like gays, and who prefer minorities stay in the background, quietly, and like their women modest and generally silent. That would be the Republicans of course.

Everything had been arranged. The leader of the free world was invited to come, and to set things straight, behind that hopelessly naïve president’s back. There was need to tell him what was up – and those few remaining Real Americans would thus show the rest of the other whining and useless Americans, who voted the wrong way, twice, what a real leader does, or at least what a real leader says. That seemed to be the general idea. After this, no one would ever vote for a Democrat again, not even for dogcatcher. The big guy would show Americans the mistake they had made, twice. All they needed was a hook, and they had one:

With dark warnings and a call to action, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used one of the world’s most prominent venues on Tuesday to denounce what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran and to mount an audacious challenge to President Obama.

In an extraordinary spectacle pitting the leaders of two close allies against each other, Mr. Netanyahu took the rostrum in the historic chamber of the House of Representatives to tell a joint meeting of Congress that instead of stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama’s diplomatic initiative “would all but guarantee” that it does, in turn setting off a regional arms race.

“This deal won’t be a farewell to arms,” Mr. Netanyahu told the lawmakers, who responded to him with a succession of standing ovations. “It would be a farewell to arms control. And the Middle East would soon be crisscrossed by nuclear tripwires. A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox.”

In short, look at this fool you elected twice. He’ll get us all killed, and this is quite obvious:

Such dire predictions could make it much harder for Mr. Obama to sell an agreement to a Republican-led Congress even if his negotiators reach one in Geneva.

That was the whole point, but the boy-president shot back:

The president quickly tried to counter the prime minister by dismissing the speech as “theater” and “nothing new.” Mr. Netanyahu, the president told reporters, had no better ideas than the status quo or, in theory, military strikes against Iranian facilities.

“The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives,” Mr. Obama said after the speech at the start of a meeting with his new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter. He added, “The alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program, without us having any insight into what they’re doing, and without constraint.”

There he goes again, being logical. Is that leadership? That was the question:

Mr. Netanyahu’s address, by far the most anticipated speech to Congress by a foreign leader in many years, drove a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. While he was escorted into the chamber by a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers and greeted with raucous enthusiasm, especially by Republicans, more than 50 Democrats skipped the event. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the party’s House leader, called his speech an “insult” to the United States.

Longtime congressional veterans could recall few if any precedents for such a confrontation by a foreign leader on Capitol Hill, or for such a partisan response. Most foreign dignitaries invited to speak to Congress are celebrated figures, like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, or leaders of American allies delivering unifying messages. Perhaps the closest parallel involved not a foreign leader but Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was invited to address Congress a week after President Harry S. Truman fired him in 1951.

Truman still fired him, but the battle lines were drawn:

Democrats blamed Mr. Netanyahu and Speaker John A. Boehner for arranging the event without consulting the White House in an effort to undercut the president, while Republicans faulted Mr. Obama for reacting with such hostility to the genuine concerns of an endangered ally.

None of that was resolved. It wasn’t supposed to be resolved, although Netanyahu tried to smooth things over:

Mr. Netanyahu tried to defuse some of the tension surrounding his visit by praising Mr. Obama for all he has done to support Israel and by embracing lawmakers of both parties. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political,” he said. “That was never my intention.”

But he did not succeed in mollifying all Democrats, who recalled a history of what they deemed doomsday messages by him. Ms. Pelosi appeared agitated on the floor during the speech, shaking her head, gesturing and commenting to those around her. She later issued a statement saying she “was near tears” because she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States” and “the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.”

Yeah, well, President Obama didn’t watch the speech – he was holding a video conference at the same time with European leaders about Ukraine and this and that. He said he later looked over a transcript of Netanyahu’s remarks and he saw nothing new there.

That was waving a red flag at the powerful bull:

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, moved on Tuesday to allow procedural votes as early as Monday to advance legislation requiring the president to submit any agreement to Congress and restricting his authority to waive sanctions for 60 days to give Congress time to weigh in.

Obama has said he’d veto that. The negotiations are still going on, and waiving a few sanctions would be part of any final deal, so this was jumping the gun, and Netanyahu wasn’t helping matters either, and then there was the situation back home for him:

In Israel, where Mr. Netanyahu’s speech has proved no less contentious, political analysts praised his rhetorical skills. But they said it was unclear whether the speech would have any effect on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, or whether it would help or hinder Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of being re-elected on March 17.

“There was nothing really new here for Israelis,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

“On the one hand, you have people getting up and cheering in Congress, and on the other, people here are asking whether it was worth causing such damage” to Israel’s relations with the Obama administration.

And there was this:

All of Israel’s major television channels broadcast the speech, but with a five-minute delay mandated by the Israeli Central Elections Committee to give local news editors time to block out any sections that could be construed as violating Israel’s strict election propaganda laws. Nothing was censored.

Isaac Herzog, the Zionist Union leader who is challenging Mr. Netanyahu in the elections, said that “there is no doubt that Netanyahu knows how to give speeches,” but that the speech in Congress “will not stop Iran going nuclear.”

Mr. Herzog said the prime minister’s trip had delivered “a harsh blow to American-Israeli relations.”

Real Americans don’t see it that way. National Review columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that “Netanyahu, not Obama, speaks for us” – and called him “the leader of the free world” – so the Israelis will have to realize who’s on top here. They should be proud that Netanyahu put America in its place.

That idea upset MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:

I’ll get to the heart of this speech now. This man from a foreign government walked into the United States legislative chamber and tried to take over U.S. foreign policy. He said, “You should trust me, not your president on this. I am the man you should trust. I am your true leader on this question of U.S. geopolitics. To protect yourself, you must listen to me and not this president.”

It was a startling situation. To allow someone to come in – knowing that was going to be their message – to the U.S. Congress. This was a decision made by Boehner and certainly complied with by Netanyahu and his ambassador [Ron Dermer]. They went into the U.S. Congress to take over U.S. foreign policy from the president.

Matthews wouldn’t let it go:

Think it through, what country in the world would let a foreign leader come in and attempt to wrest from the president control of the U.S. foreign policy? This was a takeover attempt by Netanyahu with this complying America partners to take American foreign policy out of the hands of the president.

Ah, but that was the general idea, and the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman tried to wrap his head around that:

The U.S. position – shared by China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France – is: Given that Iran has already mastered the techniques to make a bomb and managed to import all the components to do so, despite sanctions, it is impossible to eliminate Iran’s bomb-making capabilities. What is possible is to demand that Iran roll back its enrichment and other technologies so that if Iran decided one day to make a bomb, it would take it a year — more than enough time for the U.S. and its allies to destroy it.

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if – if – it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization – right now – to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

These conditions would satisfy U.S. strategic concerns, while opening the possibility – nothing more – for Iran to become more integrated into the global system. Ultimately, the only safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an internally driven change in the character of Iran’s regime.

My problem with Netanyahu is that he warned that the interim deal Obama negotiated with Iran – which froze and rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program and created these negotiations – would lead to a collapse of sanctions and be violated by Iran. None of it happened.

There may be nothing more important than deterring Iran, but there is reality:

If that were my top priority, would I engineer an invitation to speak to Congress by leveraging only the Republican Party and do it without even informing the president, who is running the Iran talks? And would I do it two weeks before Israeli elections, where it looks as though I am using the American Congress as a backdrop for a campaign ad, raising the question of whether my opposition to Iran is partly a political pose? And if I needed the Europeans to be on my side for tighter sanctions, wouldn’t I announce no more settlement-building in the West Bank in areas everyone knows will be part of any negotiated Palestinian state? Such a move would cost Bibi politically with his base, but would certainly increase Israel’s support from Europe.

Friedman is not impressed:

Bibi is Churchill when it comes to isolating Iran, but he is AWOL when it comes to risking his own political future to make it happen. I have a problem with that. … I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done.

Sure, but who leads the free world these days? Who’s your daddy, Friedman?

Slate’s Fred Kaplan also sees some nonsense here:

The Israeli prime minister pretended to criticize the specific deal that the United States and five other nations are currently negotiating with Iran, but it’s clear from his words that he opposes any deal that falls short of Iran’s total disarmament and regime change. He pretended merely to push for a “better deal,” but he actually was agitating for war.

At the start of his speech, he played nice, thanking President Obama for the generous bounty of security assistance, the rescues from embassy sieges, the shipment of Iron Dome missile-defense batteries (which probably saved hundreds of Israeli lives from Hamas rocket attacks), and for his help in other programs so highly classified that they cannot be mentioned.

But this had all the sincerity of Mark Antony coming to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The burying soon commenced.

That was obvious:

As an opening dig, he listed the many ways in which Iran is a threat to the region and to Israel: It supports terrorists, seeks to expand its influence, and still shouts slogans of death to America and Zionists. These claims are, of course, incontestable. But what do they have to do with the nuclear deal on the table?

This is a question that Netanyahu not only failed to answer, but thoroughly muddled.

No logic followed:

His problem with the deal is twofold: It doesn’t obliterate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and it relies on international inspectors to detect cheating. This, of course, is the “problem” with every arms control agreement that has ever been negotiated, except for treaties of surrender at the end of a war.

He failed to note that the deal, as it’s been outlined, would force Iran to reduce its stockpile of centrifuges, to freeze its enrichment of uranium well below “weapons-grade” levels, and to open its nuclear facilities to extraordinarily intrusive inspections.

And then there was the idea that the deal, if there is one, would expire in ten years. There is no deal, so the ten-year thing is just a possibility, if it has even been discussed, but Netanyahu said you can Google it, so it must be true, and this cannot stand:

At that point, Netanyahu warned, Iran would be free to resume its juggernaut toward a nuclear weapon, this time with economic sanctions long lifted, resulting in the continuation of Iranian aggression and a nuclear arms race between Iran and its regional foes.

But it can stand:

This is a legitimate concern but consider the following. First, a lot can happen in 10 years. (Take a look back at the most recent three or four 10-year periods.) Second, almost every arms-control accord ever negotiated has an expiration date. Third – and this is key – the horrible things that Netanyahu foresees 10 years down the road, if the deal is signed, might happen – by his own logic, would happen – in the next two or three years if the talks fail.

The only difference would be that, if the talks fail now, the sanctions would still be in place. But in fact this seems unlikely. The U.S. government’s sanctions would probably hold, but not those imposed by the European Union and other nations – which have lasted as long as they have only because of the nuclear talks. President Obama and others have persuaded many others that the sanctions have helped pressure the Iranians into negotiations. If the negotiations break down, that argument falls apart – especially if they break down because the U.S. Congress rejects the deal, and doubly so if it rejects the deal because of a speech by the prime minister of Israel.

So what does Netanyahu offer as an alternative to the present deal on the table (which, it should be emphasized, has not been completed and, by all reports, still has many disputes to resolve)? “The alternative to this very bad deal,” he told the assembled American lawmakers, “is a much better deal.”

That sounds fine, but it’s a bit absurd:

He defines “a much better deal” as a deal that doesn’t merely freeze and inspect Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but dismantles it – completely. Furthermore, the deal should be written so that, at the end of the 10-year period, the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted unless Iran stops all aggression against its neighbors, stops supporting terrorist groups, and stops its rhetorical threats to annihilate Israel – in short unless Iran changes its behavior or (here’s the real upshot) changes its regime.

This is a nice world that Netanyahu envisions, but it just isn’t going to happen, and he knows it. During the decades of Soviet-American arms control talks, many conservatives similarly argued that the president shouldn’t sign a deal unless the Kremlin stopped supporting Communist insurgents, dropped its Marxist-Leninist views, and joined the international economic system. Thankfully, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan thought it was in U.S. interests to control, and then reduce the nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of a change in the political, economic, or ideological spheres.

Then Netanyahu gets even stranger:

“If Iran threatens to walk away,” he told Congress, “call their bluff. They need this deal a lot more than you do. By keeping up the pressure on Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.”

This is nonsense, and he knows it. Early in the speech, he warned of Iran’s growing strength: It was “charging into the void” to export terror throughout the Middle East; it “dominates four Middle Eastern capitals;” it is “busy gobbling up” nations. “We must stand together,” he urged Congress, “to stop Iran” from subjugating the region, then the world.

But later on, when he sought to assure Congress to demand stiffer terms and to let Iran walk away from the talks if they don’t like it, he changed his tune. Iran can be pressured into accepting a better deal because, he said, it’s “a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil.”

So which is it, Mr. Prime Minister: Iran as a rapacious beacon of Islamic terrorism, comparable in its beastliness to the Nazis or to Haman, the Persian viceroy who sought to wipe out the Jews 2,500 years ago (and yes, he made comparisons to both) – or Iran as a weakening regime, sure to change its entire political structure and foreign policy if only we applied a little more pressure?

Kaplan sees no reason to trust this guy:

It’s worth noting, for now, that Netanyahu has been consistently wrong on this whole issue. He denounced the interim accord, signed a year ago, as a fraud that wildly favored the Iranians and that the Iranians would soon violate anyway; in fact, it’s been remarkably effective at freezing Iran’s nuclear activities, while freeing up a small fraction of its sanctioned funds. For the past 15 years, he’s been warning that Iran could or would go nuclear in the next year – and yet, here he still stands, in a Middle East where the only nation with nuclear weapons is his own.

Kaplan sees a guy who wants a war, and Betsy Woodruff tells us of others who see the same thing:

Rep. Jared Huffman of California, who attended the speech, accused the prime minister of trying to push the United States into war.

“This is a prime minister who’s never seen a war he didn’t want our country to fight,” Huffman said, adding that diplomats negotiating with Iran shouldn’t be distracted by Netanyahu’s address.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Illinois Democrat, suggested Netanyahu’s credibility is suspect because he also backed the 2003 war in Iraq.

“What I heard today felt to me like an effort to stampede the United States into war once again,” she said.

Another Democrat compared Netanyahu to George W. Bush’s former vice president. “This speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” said Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth. “It was fear-mongering at its ultimate.”

Yarmuth also said that Netanyahu’s requests were akin to those of a small child looking to visit an amusement park.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu basically said that the only acceptable deal was a perfect deal, or an ideal deal,” Yarmuth said. “It’s like the child that says, I want to go to Disneyland every day, eat ice cream and drink Coca-Cola every day, and not go to school.”

Not everyone saw the real leader of the free world, and William Saletan saw this:

First, the indisputable purpose of this speech was to enlist Congress as a weapon against Obama. Two weeks ago, according to Haaretz, Israel’s ambassador to the United States – the Netanyahu protégé who negotiated the speaking engagement – told officials in Jerusalem that Netanyahu was going to Congress because Israel “has almost no ability to influence the negotiations through other channels.” Last Friday, campaigning in Israel, Netanyahu said he was coming here to lobby “the only body that may prevent” the Iran deal. The gist of both statements is obvious: Netanyahu doesn’t like Obama’s policy, so he’s trying to use Congress to block it.

Netanyahu says he’s doing this only because Iranian nukes are an existential threat to Israel. But this isn’t the first time Netanyahu has publicly challenged Obama. The last time he did it – lecturing Obama in the Oval Office, in front of television cameras, for seven minutes in May 2011 – the subject wasn’t Iran. It was peace talks with the Palestinians.

This is not a nice man:

In Israel, Netanyahu is exploiting his fight with the administration. He accuses his rivals in the center and on the left of “groveling to the international community” while he stands up to foreign pressure. A Likud campaign ad casts Netanyahu in the tradition of past Israeli leaders who, according to the ad, defied “the American secretary of state” and “the American State Department.”

So let’s be clear: Netanyahu has come here to defy Obama. He has done so because confrontation is in his nature. And he’s politicizing it. You can dismiss all his protestations that the speech shouldn’t be taken as an assault on the authority of our head of state. Because that’s exactly how Netanyahu treats criticism of his own policies back home.

And there’s more:

In January, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, France organized a massive march against terrorism. The French government asked Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to attend. France didn’t want Israeli-Palestinian issues or Netanyahu’s election campaign to cloud the message of the march. Netanyahu attended anyway. In a direct challenge to the national solidarity and pluralism France wanted to convey, Netanyahu urged “all French Jews” to move to Israel. He worked his way up to the front row of the march and plugged his own biography in a speech. “I am personally familiar with the wounds of terror,” he recalled. “As a soldier, I was wounded in an operation to free hostages who had been kidnapped on a Sabena airplane.”

Having sown division in France, Netanyahu used his trip to quash dissent in Israel. He portrayed his participation at the march – which he had decided to attend only after discovering that two other Israeli politicians would be there – as glory for Israel, since Netanyahu represented the nation. “There is great significance in what the world saw, the prime minister of Israel marching with all the world leaders in a united effort against terrorism,” said Netanyahu. In fact, he asserted, “I came to Paris not only as prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the Jewish people.”

That’s his thing:

When Israelis question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, or his plan to speak in Congress, he dismisses them and purports to speak for the whole nation. Two weeks ago, he told Israelis that he would come to Congress “representing all the citizens of Israel.” On Sunday, he went further: “I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people.” A statement from Likud accused dissenters of betraying national security: “On such a crucial existential issue for the citizens of Israel, opposition leaders should rise above political and personal considerations and stand alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The man has a healthy ego, but at least he doesn’t claim to be Jesus, returned, and angry – or he hasn’t claimed that yet. He does, however, claim he speaks for all Jews, and now for the free world, which Saletan finds offensive, just like his speech to Congress:

So please, Mr. Prime Minister, don’t pretend we shouldn’t take offense at what you just did. If anybody did the same to you, you’d never stand for it.

This speech may have been a stunningly bad idea, and full of stunningly bad ideas, but then the few remaining Real Americans cheered didn’t they? They cheered the real leader of the free world. Everyone else just sighed. The world is full of stunningly bad ideas.

Posted in Benjamin Netanyahu, Diplomacy, Iran's Nuclear Progran | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The End of the Line

Something went wrong a long time ago, if a long time ago is 2007, when John Dean was talking about broken government:

In almost four decades of involvement in national politics, much of them as a card-carrying Republican, I was never concerned that the GOP posed a threat to the well-being of our nation. Indeed, the idea would never have occurred to me, for in my experience the system took care of excesses, as it certainly did in the case of the president for whom I worked. But in recent years the system has changed, and is no longer self-correcting. Most of that change has come from Republicans, and much of it is based on their remarkably confrontational attitude, an attitude that has clearly worked for them. For example, I cannot imagine any Democratic president keeping cabinet officers as Bush has done with his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, men whom both Democrats and Republicans judged to be incompetent. Evidence that the system has changed is also apparent when a president can deliberately and openly violate the law – as, for example, simply brushing aside serious statutory prohibitions against torture and electronic surveillance – without any serious consequences. Similarly, but on a lesser scale, Alberto Gonzales faced no consequences when he politicized the Department of Justice as never before, allowing his aides to violate the prohibitions regarding hiring career civil servants based on their party affiliation, and then gave false public statements and testimony about the matter. When the Senate sought to pass a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the attorney general, the Republicans blocked it with a filibuster.

And so on and so forth – Dean had already written a book about that – and in 2012, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – one from the center left, one from the center right – gave us It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism:

Two sources of the problem are given. The first is the serious mismatch between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, in their view. They state that the groups “have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties and in a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act”.

Mann and Ornstein specifically criticize the right-ward move of the Republican Party, especially the use of administrative and parliamentary tricks to keep from having clear votes on some issues. The authors describe the party as “an insurgent outlier- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

They remark, “Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process. Congress is deadlocked and its approval ratings are at record lows. America’s two main political parties have given up their traditions of compromise, endangering our very system of constitutional democracy.”

Mann and Ornstein also write, “Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don’t treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way.”

Mann and Ornstein, like Dean, blamed the Republicans, and they blamed the cowardly media for that both-sides-are-at-fault crap, but unlike Dean, Mann and Ornstein also identified a structural problem. We don’t have a parliamentary democracy, where, when things aren’t working, a no-confidence vote ends the current government, new elections are called, and everyone with an axe to grind, the hyper-partisans, has to find a way to win enough seats to form a new government, which always seems to mean cutting deals with those who don’t agree with you on much but can give you the majority you need, at a price. That sort of system buffers extremism, as new governments are formed again and again, on no particular schedule. Gridlock is relieved immediately. It cannot go on forever – no one will stand for it – but we have a system where we’re stuck with a president for four or eight years, and senators for six years, and representatives forever, as they serve an endless series of two-year terms, because our political parties, at the state level, have drawn district lines that have created totally “safe” seats. No one from the other party should even bother to run against the incumbents in those districts.

That’s a lock too. Congressional district lines can only be redrawn every ten years, when there’s new census data – except in Texas, where the Republicans seem to redraw those lines whenever they feel like it, until the courts stop them.

There is way out of that. California held a referendum and gave the job of redrawing district lines to an independent commission – wiping out the Republican Party out here – but now Arizona is trying that and that sort of thing may be ruled unconstitutional:

Supreme Court justices will hear arguments Monday morning over an independent redistricting commission created by Arizona voters more than a decade ago in a case that may have the most direct impact on the makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives this term.

Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative back in 2000 creating a bipartisan commission to conduct the decennial redistricting process. The panel, comprised of two Republicans, two Democrats and a fifth member, chosen by the other four, to break ties, was supposed to draw fairer lines, mostly free of partisan gerrymandering.

But members of the Republican-led state legislature say the U.S. Constitution clearly grants them the right to draw their own districts. Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution grants legislatures the power to decide “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections.”

That clause, the legislature has argued, should supersede the ballot initiative that created the commission. If the court agrees, Arizona’s legislature would likely have to redraw congressional and legislative district lines before the 2016 elections. …

The court will be asked to decide just how much authority the legislature has to draw its own district lines. The legislature, represented before the Supreme Court on Monday by former Solicitor General Paul Clement, contends the Constitution gives them sole power to oversee the process.

The Republican-led state legislature in Arizona knows this might flip districts down there. Republicans control five of that state’s nine congressional districts, and in 2014 they almost won two more – and this could screw that up, if they can no longer put all the Hispanics in one or two oddly-shaped geographically enormous districts, off to the side. An even distribution would devastate the Republicans out there in the desert, but the Roberts Court will likely side with the Republicans on this, and that would then change things here in California – or maybe not. Give redistricting back to the legislature, here, and you’re giving that task to a legislature with few Republicans these days. Still, the bias would be toward stasis – the same folks in the same seats forever, with no incentive to compromise on anything – and that guarantees gridlock. That guarantees broken government.

That’s what we have, but now Matthew Yglesias has decided to argue that this means the end of our democracy:

America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.

Some day – not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies – there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else. If we’re lucky, it won’t be violent. If we’re very lucky, it will lead us to tackle the underlying problems and result in a better, more robust, political system. If we’re less lucky, well, then, something worse will happen.

That’s a cool opening, but Yglesias is serious:

America is the richest, most successful country on earth. The basic structure of its government has survived contested elections and Great Depressions and civil rights movements and world wars and terrorist attacks and global pandemics. People figure that whatever political problems it might have will prove transient – just as happened before.

But voiced in another register, my outlandish thesis is actually the conventional wisdom in the United States. Back when George W. Bush was president and I was working at a liberal magazine, there was a very serious discussion in an editorial meeting about the fact that the United States was now exhibiting 11 of the 13 telltale signs of a fascist dictatorship. The idea that Bush was shredding the Constitution and trampling on congressional prerogatives was commonplace. When Obama took office, the partisan valence of the complaints shifted, but their basic tenor didn’t. Conservative pundits – not the craziest, zaniest ones on talk radio, but the most serious and well-regarded – compare Obama’s immigration moves to the actions of a Latin-American military dictator.

We’re used to this, and each side, alternatively, could be taking turns at being wrong, but then both sides could be right, and Yglesias suspects he’s right about this:

Accusations that Barack Obama or John Boehner or any other individual politician is failing as a leader are flung, and then abandoned when the next issue arises. In practice, the feeling seems to be that salvation is just one election away. Hillary Clinton even told Kara Swisher recently that her agenda if she runs for president is to end partisan gridlock.

It’s not going to work.

The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.

It had to break down:

To understand the looming crisis in American politics, it’s useful to think about Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria. These are countries that were defeated by American military forces during the Second World War and given constitutions written by local leaders operating in close collaboration with occupation authorities. It’s striking that even though the US Constitution is treated as a sacred text in America’s political culture, we did not push any of these countries to adopt our basic framework of government.

This wasn’t an oversight.

In a 1990 essay, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz observed that “aside from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government – but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.”

The exact reasons for why are disputed among scholars – in part because you can’t just randomly assign different governments to people. One issue here is that American-style systems are much more common in the Western Hemisphere and parliamentary ones are more common elsewhere. Latin-American countries have experienced many episodes of democratic breakdown, so distinguishing Latin-American cultural attributes from institutional characteristics is difficult.

Still, Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speak for the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”

That what Mann and Ornstein hinted at, but Yglesias is explicit:

In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional train wreck with no resolution. The United States’ recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.

Here that dynamic leads to disgust, followed by indifference, but frustration follows, and worse things, but for now we’re safe:

Looking back at Bush’s election in 2000, one of the most remarkable things is how little social disorder there was. The American public wanted Al Gore to be president, but a combination of the Electoral College rules, poor ballot design in Palm Beach County, and an adverse Supreme Court ruling, put Bush in office. The general presumption among elites at the time was that Democrats should accept this with good manners, and Bush would respond to the weak mandate with moderate, consensus-oriented governance. This was not in the cards. Not because of Bush’s personal qualities (if anything, the Bush family and its circle are standard-bearers for the cause of relative moderation in the GOP), but because the era of the “partisan presidency” demands that the president try to implement the party’s agenda, regardless of circumstances. That’s how we got drastic tax cuts in 2001.

If the Bush years shattered the illusion that there’s no difference between the parties, the Obama years underscore how much control of the White House matters in an era of gridlock. The broadly worded Clean Air Act, whose relevant provisions passed in 1970, has allowed Obama to be one of the most consequential environmental regulators of all time – even though he hasn’t been able to pass a major new environmental bill. He’s deployed executive discretion over immigration enforcement on an unprecedented scale. And he’s left a legacy that could be rapidly reversed. A future Republican administration could not only turn back these executive actions, but substantially erode the Affordable Care Act.

The lessons of the 2000 and 2008 elections make it unnerving to imagine a Bush-Gore style recount occurring in 2014’s political atmosphere. The stakes of presidential elections are sky-high. And the constitutional system provides no means for a compromise solution. There can be only one president. And once he’s in office he has little reason to show restraint in the ambitions of the legislative – or non-legislative – agenda he pursues. In the event of another disputed election, it would be natural for both sides to push for victory with every legal or extra-legal means at their disposal.

There’s a name for this:

What we are witnessing instead is a rise in what Georgetown University Professor Mark Tushnet labeled “constitutional hardball” in a 2004 article.

Constitutional hardball describes legal and political moves “that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understanding.” In other words, moves that do not violate the letter of the law, but do trample on our conventional understanding of how it is supposed to work.

There are no surprises here:

His lead example is from the George W. Bush administration, when liberals were concerned about the president taking power away from Congress. Tushnet describes the “strained” argument offered by Republican senators in 2005 that Democratic Party filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees violated the constitution. At the time, of course, Democrats found the view that Republicans might simply ban the use of filibusters for this purpose outrageous. “The filibuster serves as a check on power,” said Harry Reid, “that preserves our limited government.” Joe Biden called the Republicans’ attempt to end the filibuster “an example of the arrogance of power.”

But ultimately the hardball tactic for ending filibusters was used by Democrats in 2013 to halt Republican obstruction of Obama’s nominees. Republicans, Reid said, “have done everything they can to deny the fact that Obama had been elected and then reelected.” He argued he had no choice but to abandon a principle that just a few years ago he said was crucial to preserving American liberty. Meanwhile, Republicans who had supported the 2005 effort to weaken the filibuster executed a perfect flip-flop in the other direction.

Tushnet’s other example from the mid-2000s – Texas’ decision to redraw congressional district boundaries to advantage Republicans between censuses – seems almost adorably quaint by the standards of the Obama era.

And now:

From its very first months, Obama’s presidency has been marked by essentially nothing but constitutional hardball. During the Bush years, Democratic senators sporadically employed a variety of unusual delaying tactics to stymie his agenda. In 2009, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans retaliated by using tons of them, constantly. Suddenly filibustering went from something a Senate minority could do to something it did on pretty much all motions.

We’re stuck, but no one is to blame:

America’s escalating game of constitutional hardball isn’t caused by personal idiosyncratic failings of individual people. Obama has made his share of mistakes, but the fundamental causes of hardball politics are structural, not personal. Personality-minded journalists often argue that a warmer executive would do a better job of building bridges to congress. But as Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan points out, “Bill Clinton’s more successful outreach to his opponents didn’t keep him from getting impeached. Likewise, George W. Bush was more gregarious than Obama, but it didn’t make him any more popular among Democrats once the post-9/11 glow had worn off.”

There’s a reason for this, and it gets to the core of who really runs American politics.

In a democratic society, elected officials are most directly accountable to the people who support them. And the people who support them are different than the people who don’t care enough about politics to pay much attention, or the people who support the other side. They are more ideological, more partisan, and they want to see the policies they support passed into law. A leader who abandons his core supporters because what they want him to do won’t be popular with most voters is likely, in modern American politics, to be destroyed in the next primary election.

Those are just a few key excerpts from a long and detailed argument, an argument that we cannot run the country this way, and our luck is running out:

No other presidential system has gone as long as ours without a major breakdown of the constitutional order. But the factors underlying that stability – first non-ideological parties and then non-disciplined ones – are gone. And it’s worth considering the possibility that with them, so too has gone the American exception to the rule of presidential breakdown. If we seem to be unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s because we are unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis. The breakdown may not be next year or even in the next five years, but over the next 20 or 30 years, will we really be able to resolve every one of these high-stakes showdowns without making any major mistakes? Do you really trust Congress that much?

The best we can hope for is that when the crisis does come, Americans will have the wisdom to do for ourselves what we did in the past for Germany and Japan and put a better system in place.

That wisdom may be hard to come by, as Heather Parton notes:

If there’s one article of faith in the political establishment it’s that being a political “moderate” is the only appropriate philosophy for people of good sense and mature disposition. No one possessed of even a modicum of rationality and logic could possibly hold a set of values or political positions that fall entirely on one side of the political divide or the other because that would mark him as a fanatic of some sort. And that would be very bad indeed. It might even be considered (shudder) partisan.

And if one is wise enough to be such a moderate, one naturally believes that negotiation and bipartisan agreement are achievable by people of good faith by simply sitting down and hammering out a reasonable compromise. After all, moderates have the kind of even temperament that naturally seeks comity and common ground. The problems in our politics are due entirely to the hot-headed partisans at both ends of the political spectrum who refuse to behave like adults.

Imagine how surprised the establishment wags must have been to see this Vox story by Ezra Klein reporting that political scientists have determined the vaunted moderate voter is actually an incoherent extremist who cannot possibly be appeased because her views are irrational.

Klein simply reports:

What happens, explains David Broockman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, is that surveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions.

The way it works is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they’re left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle – and so they’re labeled as moderate. But when you drill down into those individual answers you find a lot of opinions that are well out of the political mainstream. “A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British,” Broockman said in July 2014. “A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process. You’ll often see really draconian measures towards gays and lesbians get 16 to 20 percent support. These people look like moderates but they’re actually quite extreme.”

It seems that we are a nation of people with extreme views, with a government that is structured to reinforce and lock in those views, and can no longer function, because of its static structure. Yglesias thinks we’ve reached the end of the line. What’s the counterargument?

Posted in Broken Government | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s Always 1938 Somewhere

Never again – that’s the word. Six million died, simply because they were Jewish, and because no one stopped Hitler when they had the chance, before the whole thing started. Neville Chamberlain negotiated a treaty with Hitler in 1938, when he should have known better. Negotiations are foolish. Hitler was who he was, and such people have to be stopped by force. Force is the only thing that will stop them. Talk won’t stop them. Bombs will. That’s the lesson of history.

Everyone in Israel knows this – at least those in the Likud Party and those who vote for them know this – and they also know that Hitler is long gone. They also know the next Hitler is waiting in the wings, as is the next Neville Chamberlain, and that explains this:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to a joint meeting of Congress will probably be the most important speech of his career – and one that has already jeopardized relations between Israel and the United States.

On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu will confront an American president and insist that the future of the State of Israel, and the world, is imperiled by a pending “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program.

Never again:

On Tuesday morning, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry meets with his counterparts in Switzerland to try to complete a framework accord with Iran by the end of March, Netanyahu will stand at the lectern in Congress to tell Americans, essentially, that President Obama is either foolhardy or weak and about to sign a deal with the devil.

Netanyahu will warn, as he has in the past, that the Americans are gambling on a radical Iranian regime run by Muslim clerics who deny the Holocaust, sponsor terrorist groups, support a murderous regime in Syria and pledge to destroy Israel…

The prime minister’s press office released photographs of Netanyahu penning his speech in longhand.

That was a nice touch. This was personal, and heartfelt, but not without controversy:

Nearly half of American voters think that Republican lawmakers should not have invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without first notifying President Barack Obama, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds.

Some 48% of registered voters said they disapproved of inviting another leader to speak without first checking with the president, while 30% said congressional Republicans should have done so. Just over a fifth said they didn’t know enough to say.

Mr. Netanyahu’s planned speech, set for Tuesday, has become a symbol of a broader rift between the Israeli leader and Mr. Obama, who has said he won’t meet with the prime minister during his trip.

Of course there’s a rift, but now it comes down to the 1938 thing. Democrats don’t realize it, but Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu realize that Obama is a dangerous fool who will usher in the next Holocaust – unless he is stopped. Negotiations are more than foolish, and the combined forces of the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu will show the world that Obama is this generation’s Neville Chamberlain. There’s always a Neville Chamberlain.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wasn’t pleased with that – “I trust that a graduate student someday will write a doctoral essay on the influence of the Munich analogy on the subsequent history of the twentieth century. Perhaps in the end he will conclude that the multitude of errors committed in the name of ‘Munich’ may exceed the original error of 1938.”

Schlesinger may be right – such talk can lead to trouble – but Neville Chamberlain did blow it, and that was caught on camera. History is what it is. There’s that iconic picture from September 30, 1938 – Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome near London, having just arrived from Munich, waving a piece of paper that was the Munich Agreement – a diplomatic solution to a geopolitical problem. Hitler had demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, and Chamberlain was able to obtain assurances, put down on paper and signed by the Germans, that Hitler had no designs on the rest of Czechoslovakia at all, just that German-speaking corner of it, and no designs at all on other areas in Eastern Europe that had German minorities, like the part of Prussia which was then part of Poland. There would be no war. Later that day Chamberlain stood outside Number 10 Downing Street and said this – “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”

Neville Chamberlain was wrong, and soon enough he wasn’t the British Prime Minister. Hitler considered that piece of paper a joke, and considered Neville Chamberlain a fool. Hitler had simply bought himself some additional time, for arming-up even further. The Czechs weren’t happy, and in March of 1939 weren’t Czechs anymore, and on the first day of that September, Hitler’s surprisingly short blitzkrieg made all of Poland part of Germany, and the war that Chamberlain had negotiated away had begun. The Brits turned to Winston Churchill, having come to the same conclusion about Chamberlain that Hitler had – the man was a fool, and maybe he was. It’s just that the secondary effect of all this sorry business, as a corollary of sorts, was that diplomacy itself was now forever discredited. There’s no point negotiating about much of anything, and making concessions is stupid – and cowardly and immoral and useless. Few consider that this might be a special case – Chamberlain the naïf working from faulty intelligence, and Hitler the ultimate “bad actor” of all time. One can imagine a hard-nosed negotiator who knows what’s really going on, who won’t give away something for nothing, and on the other side, a foe who actually has much to lose, and knows it – but few are willing to imagine that. It’s easier to mutter “Munich” and be done with it, and be off to war.

Chamberlain ruined everything. That’s what we learned. Yes, Ronald Reagan negotiated major nuclear-arms reductions with the Soviets, with his famous caveat – “Trust but Verify” (it doesn’t have to be all Neville Chamberlain all the time) – but many on the right were still hopping mad at him, calling for even more American nuclear weapons, because no one can trust those commies. We had come to assume that everyone else is always as bad an actor as Hitler. Even a conservative icon can be a Neville Chamberlain if he isn’t careful. Ronald Reagan just smiled, and his three-word caveat calmed everyone down, and the world became a bit safer. Animosity really isn’t policy.

Animosity became policy in the Bush-Cheney years, and Schlesinger, had he lived, would have been saddened by how the Munich analogy was used to justify the Iraq War. Colin Powell faced the cowardly and immoral and useless French at the United Nations, who were saying that it might be wise to wait for Hans Blix and his inspectors to finish their hunt for those weapons of mass destruction, and who were also saying that if Blix found any nasty weapons of mass destruction, which seemed unlikely, all-out war wasn’t the only way to deal with that problem, if it turned out there was actually was a problem – and there might not be one.

We would have none of that. Reagan’s dictum was forgotten. The inspectors had to leave – now. We’d soon have our war, and the Bush surrogates hit the talk shows and gave their speeches all over the country, subtly invoking Neville Chamberlain, or naming him explicitly, as an example of the pointlessness of diplomacy in what they called the real world. The Bush crew pummeled the skeptics with that name, Neville Chamberlain, until almost every Democrat, and Hillary Clinton most famously, gave in. We had our war.

Something else changed too. Bush shifted most of the responsibilities of the Department of State – figuring out how to deal with the complex regional political demands of this group or that – to the Department of Defense. Generals were expected to be diplomats. Diplomats were given the afternoon off, every afternoon. Donald Rumsfeld called the shots, not Colin Powell, or later, Condoleezza Rice. Powell and Rice were there as support staff – they were sort of window dressing – and Dick Cheney wandered about growling that we don’t negotiate with rogue regimes, we remove them, and Syria and North Korea were next. He and Rumsfeld were always invoking Neville Chamberlain. That shut people up, but the multitude of errors committed in the name of Munich multiplied. After eight long years we left Iraq with nothing much to show for it, other than the scorn of the rest of the world, and ISIS, and an Iraqi government aligned with Iran.

That should have ended the argument about whether Neville Chamberlain had been a special case, and Hitler too – they both must have been – but it didn’t. Diplomacy is still considered stupid and cowardly, at least by many, and that’s why Netanyahu is coming here, at the invitation of the Republicans, to tell us that our Democratic president is a dangerous fool. Netanyahu had been a close friend of Mitt Romney since 1976 – they always saw the world the same way – so the politics of this isn’t surprising.

The implicit message is a bit surprising. These things wouldn’t happen if Americans elected Republicans. Israel knows this. Every single Jew in in the world knows this. Not one Jew in America has ever voted for a Democrat, after all. No, wait – the Jewish votes has always been overwhelmingly Democratic. Perhaps they’re those self-hating Jews or something. But of course Netanyahu won’t say that, directly – but that hardly matters. Everyone gets it.

Slate’s William Saletan doesn’t get it:

Nothing like this has ever happened before. The opposition party is convening a special session of Congress so that a foreign leader, on the floor of our national legislature, can rebuke the foreign policy of our president.

The breach is bad enough. But the story of how it happened, and the hostility and disrespect behind it, are worse. Israel negotiated the speaking engagement with aides to House Speaker John Boehner for at least 13 days without telling the White House. Not until the morning of Jan. 21 – a day after the plan was sealed, and two hours before it was announced publicly – did Boehner inform the administration.

Boehner made clear that the invitation’s purpose was to counter Obama’s message and challenge his policies. He cited the president’s State of the Union address, delivered the previous evening. “I did not consult with the White House. The Congress can make this decision on its own,” the speaker declared. “There’s a serious threat that exists in the world. And the president last night kind of papered over it.”

The White House, blindsided, expressed its dismay. “The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” said Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest. “So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Netanyahu was undeterred. On Jan. 22, he announced that he was accepting the invitation. He claimed it had been extended “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership” in Congress.

That was bullshit:

Democrats corrected him. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said they hadn’t been consulted. “It’s out of the ordinary that the speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation,” said Pelosi. She added: “I don’t think that’s appropriate – for any country – that the head of state would come here within two weeks of his own election.”

The White House announced that if Netanyahu came, Obama wouldn’t meet with him. “The President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress,” said a statement from the National Security Council. The State Department added that Secretary of State John Kerry wouldn’t meet with Netanyahu either. The White House noted that Obama opposed legislation – which Boehner and Netanyahu supported – to impose further sanctions on Iran. The statement explained: “The President has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community.”

Netanyahu pushed right back. On Jan. 25, Israel’s Army Radio disclosed new talking points issued by Netanyahu’s party, Likud. The talking points instructed party members to emphasize that Congress could override Obama’s veto of a sanctions bill. This was the prime minister’s objective: to marshal Congress against the president.

Then things escalated:

Netanyahu could have backed out. But the prospect of standing up to Obama didn’t discourage the prime minister. It exhilarated him. “We are not afraid to determinedly object to the risky agreement that is being formulated between the world powers and Iran,” Netanyahu proclaimed on Jan. 29. “We do not hesitate to speak up clearly, even if there are those who refuse to hear.”

A week later, Netanyahu criticized the United States directly. “The American secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister held talks over the weekend,” Netanyahu warned Israelis on Feb. 8. “They announced that they intend to complete a framework agreement by the end of March. From this stems the urgency of our efforts to try and block this bad and dangerous agreement.” At a campaign rally the next day, Netanyahu criticized those who quibbled about “protocol.”

The next week there was no backing down:

On Sunday, Netanyahu called the continuation of talks with Iran “astonishing.” On Tuesday, he rejected an invitation to speak privately with Democratic senators during his visit. On Wednesday, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, warned Boehner and Netanyahu that “by virtue of the invitation … and the acceptance of it … on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship” that is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States.

That stopped nothing:

Netanyahu is plowing right through the stop sign. On Friday, he told an Israeli interviewer that he’s coming to Washington to enlist the American public against Obama’s Iran policy. “I am going there to try to stop the deal from happening,” said the prime minister. “In most of the U.S., there is support for Israel. So I can have differences with the U.S. president. … What is not legitimate about us speaking our minds, especially when the majority supports us?”

Saletan sums things up this way:

That’s Netanyahu’s wager. He believes Obama’s policy is catastrophically wrong. To defeat it, he’s willing to ally the government of Israel with congressional leaders who are openly trying to humiliate the president and seize control of U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu thinks he can get away with this because you love Israel, no matter how its prime minister behaves, more than you love the president of the United States.

Hey, it’s always 1938 somewhere. Never again, right?

Maybe so, but Josh Marshall points out something interesting:

One of the most significant developments has gone all but unmentioned. We now have dramatic new evidence of Netanyahu’s willingness to distort or simply falsify what his own intelligence agencies are telling him about the state of Iran’s nuclear program when he speaks to the US and the world.

Marshall cites J. J. Goldberg’s deeply-sourced article on this and offers the gist of it:

You probably remember that Netanyahu speech a couple years ago before the United Nations – the one where he used the bomb cartoon to illustrate his points about the Iranian nuclear program. In that speech Netanyahu made a series of specific claims about the status of the Iranian nuclear program. It turns out several of those claims were specifically contradicted by the current intelligence from the Mossad – Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. We know this because of a major leak of hundreds of documents from South African intelligence. One of those is a report from the South Africans’ Israeli counterparts – detailing their current evaluation of the status of the program. It’s dated only a few weeks after Netanyahu’s speech.

This blows things up:

It has been an open secret for years that very, very few of Israel’s top military and intelligence leaders see eye to eye with Netanyahu on the Iran question. This isn’t to say that they don’t view it as a major threat; they do. The questions are whether it is an existential threat and the wisdom of an Israeli military strike to thwart or retard the program.

Marshall also cites this article on the head of Mossad from 2002 to 2010, Meir Dagan, saying Netanyahu is “destroying the Zionist dream” with his leadership, but it comes down to this:

These are questions of judgment and strategy – which are ultimately the province of elected leaders. The points in the UN speech are narrow questions of fact – which Netanyahu appears to have deliberately misstated.

Unfortunately for Israel, unfortunately for America, unfortunately for everyone, Netanyahu can’t be trusted – not his judgment or his honesty. And no amount of deterrence will stop the onslaught of weaponized grandiosity he plans to unleash on America this coming week.

Also, did I mention, you can’t trust him to tell the truth?

And that’s not the half of it:

Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off on Sunday for Washington, a group of 180 retired Israeli generals and former top security officials warned that his upcoming address to a joint meeting of Congress on Iran’s nuclear program will cause more harm than good.

It will not only damage Israel’s special relationship with the United States, but also undermine military and intelligence ties, they said.

Rather than slowing down Iran’s nuclear project, the former security officials said, Mr Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday will bring the Islamic republic closer to developing a nuclear bomb.

“When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel – he is strengthening Iran,” Amnon Reshef, former head of the army’s armored corps, said at a news conference on Sunday.

Mr Reshef is a founder of Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organisation of 200 retired and reserve senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad secret service, the Shin Bet domestic security agency and the national police force.

Yeah, but each one of them is a damned Neville Chamberlain:

Mr Netanyahu’s party, Likud, responded to the criticism in a statement: “This is a recycled version of the same generals – leftists who promised peace in Oslo, supported the disengagement (from Gaza), supported the Arab Peace Initiative based on dividing Jerusalem, and promoted withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights.”

So there! But there was also this:

US Senator Dianne Feinstein knocked Mr Netanyahu for suggesting that he represents all Jewish people on the topic of Iran.

“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” Senator Feinstein said on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”

She’s not much of a Jew, is she? Or is Netanyahu? Orly Azoulay sees a problem for Israel now:

Israel has a clear interest to be portrayed in the world, particularly in the eyes of the Arab states, as a country which enjoys the unconditional support of the American administration, which has many advantages, including first-rate intelligence and security cooperation – and everything the strongest world power can offer its small ally surrounded by enemies: From the Iron Dome system to the Stuxnet computer worm, which – according to the New York Times – was developed in cooperation with the Mossad and IDF Unit 8200 in order to damage the Iranian centrifuges’ control systems.

Netanyahu’s decision to address the Congress this week, behind Obama’s back and in order to warn the lawmakers and American public against the agreement that the president wishes to sign with Iran, has made senior administration officials take their gloves off. The way they see it, Netanyahu is breaking the rules of the game by supplying the Republican Party with ammunition against the president. That’s the reason why they are no longer obligated to save his face.

There are consequences:

When Netanyahu leaves Washington, Israel, which according to the Bloomberg network, has asked the United States for another $317 million for the development of the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 defense systems, may find out that America is much less generous than it was before.

Administration officials are already working on a plan for the day after Netanyahu’s speech: Which sections will be cut from the aid to Israel and which requests arriving from Israel will be met with foot-dragging.

Netanyahu is therefore making Israel lose twice: He won’t be able to stop the agreement with Iran, if it reaches the signature stage, and he will no longer succeed in getting the generous and protecting American hand back.

The damage is done:

When he leaves the US, Netanyahu will leave behind scorched earth. The White House hopes the Israelis will realize the extent of the crisis and bring about a political upheaval on March 17 which will lead to the rise of a prime minister who will restore the relations with the administration.

Obama has two years left in the White House, and as far as he is concerned, his relationship with Netanyahu is over. Now it’s not just a credibility crisis, it’s the end of the road.

So be it, and a graduate student someday will write that doctoral dissertation on the influence of the Munich analogy on subsequent history since 1938, and probably will conclude that the multitude of errors committed in the name of “Munich” really does exceed the original error of 1938 – because it’s not 1938 anywhere now. That year, on July 18, Wrong Way Corrigan took off from New York, heading for California, and somehow landed in Ireland. It was just that kind of year.

Posted in Benjamin Netanyahu, Diplomacy, Iran's Nuclear Program, Israel and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reaching Maximum Dysfunction

It was a sad day here in Hollywood. Well, perhaps every day is a sad day in Hollywood, where whatever isn’t tacky is shabby, and bewildered tourists wander around wondering where the stars live. The stars live in Beverly Hills or Malibu, or they live in Manhattan or London and fly in to make movies now and then. Hollywood is for rubes – but this is the place that generates cultural icons. Hollywood gave the world the ultimate woman, Marilyn Monroe, and the man’s man, John Wayne – or maybe that was Humphrey Bogart. James Dean will always be the troubled rebel, trying to do his best in a world full of fools, and Steve McQueen will always be too cool for words. Each of these folks may be dead, but they live on as icons – and now Spock is dead. That’s the sad part.

Leonard Nimoy was a fine fellow – but he was Spock, and Spock lives on. Nimoy finally made peace with that – his first autobiography was “I Am Not Spock” and his second was “I Am Spock” – because he came to like the character everyone assumed he was, and others did too.

Adam Vary is one of those and says Spock was our ultimate nerd hero:

The half-Vulcan’s brilliant mind was guided by a razor-sharp perception of the laws of logic that was not just enviable to nerds, it was aspirational. He could cut through the emotions that seemed to clutter up cogent thought, finding the objective reason tucked inside most any problem or scenario. Spock’s counterpart, William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk, was a different kind of aspirational figure: the virile, impassioned leader who was sexual catnip to anyone he wanted to seduce. In order words, he wasn’t a nerd. We wanted to believe we could be Kirk, but we definitely knew we could be Spock.

Though his dispassion at times deliberately read as cold, Nimoy was too adept an actor to make the character an icy, uncaring robot, no matter how often Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accused him of being one. Because, in a masterstroke by Roddenberry, Spock was more than just half-human – his veneer of Vulcan logic also masked a well of explosive emotions the Vulcan people had spent centuries striving to overcome.

That’s always a problem, unless you’re Italian, and Vary adds this:

Spock has helped expand the very idea of what it means to be a nerd, making his struggle between emotion and logic feel universal, part of the greater human endeavor to strive for something better. And in doing so, he helped to greatly improve nerdom’s cultural currency. The biggest comedy on network TV today, The Big Bang Theory, is literally about nerds who worshipped Spock as kids – and still do as adults. And President Barack Obama said in a statement on Friday marking Nimoy’s passing, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.” The president even flatly stated, “I loved Spock.”

Of course he did. Spock was fiercely loyal and totally honorable, and he didn’t indulge in high drama and ultimatums and whatnot. No-Drama Obama is like that too. He seems to sense that emotions screw things up, while using logic and careful thinking can fix things. People will bitch about your lack of passion, but you can be the one who shows how to fix things, or the one who actually fixes things.

This is not a new observation. Back in 2009, Jeff Greenwald, seeing that everyone was comparing Obama to Spock – most notably the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – tried to explain the connection:

For those of us who watched the show in the 1960s (or during the countless reruns since), Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future in which logic would reign over emotion, and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world; the Pied Piper who led our generation into the Silicon Age.

Anyone who followed the early “Star Trek” with regularity knows how charismatic Spock was. If there were two characters I wanted to be as a young man, they were Spock – and James Bond. Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.

While Bond had his weaknesses (anything in a bikini), Spock was virtually unflappable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the lifted chin, the vaguely sarcastic mien – these were coins of the realm to my pubescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school, and survive the irrational outbursts of parents and teachers? By invoking Spock – who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else but Spock?

America had to elect this guy:

Like Spock, part of what makes Obama so appealing is the fact that although he’s an outsider – “proudly alien,” as Leonard Nimoy once put it – he uses that distance to cultivate a sense of perspective. And while we’re drawn to Spock’s exotic traits – the pointy ears, green blood and weird mating rituals – we take comfort in his soothing baritone, prominent nose and ordinary teeth.

Spock’s appeal, according to the actor who portrayed him, came from cultivating this dichotomy.

But there was something more:

“Star Trek” fans who bonded with Spock already understood what those of us who followed Obama learned early on: that witnessing a powerful intellect can be deeply satisfying on an emotional level. We got a similar hit from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, of course, and from Bill Clinton. But while Clinton’s administration was smart, Obama’s seems futuristic.

“Bill Clinton promised a Cabinet that looked like America,” Henry Jenkins said in a recent conversation. “Obama gave us one that looks like the Enterprise crew. In a matter-of-fact way, he’s embraced diversity at every level. No Klingons yet – but the administration is new.”

Now Obama’s administration in not new, but it is diverse, much like the bridge of the Enterprise – and Loretta Lynch will be the new Lieutenant Uhura – the black woman in a role where one might expect a wise old white man. And of course Americans are still appalled by his dispassionate logic, his methodical careful thinking. Impassioned Democratic activists think he needs to be fiery about income inequality and all sorts of things, and Republicans are appalled that he wants to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, not bomb them back to the Stone Age – the Captain Kirk thing. Obama also doesn’t use the right fired-up words to talk about the ISIS folks – he won’t call them Islamic terrorists.

Greenwald had something to say about that:

The problem with smart, thoughtful people is that you have to pay attention. Even with “Star Trek,” some viewers complained that the stories were too complicated, requiring too much focus for the average TV viewer. Nimoy sympathized. “‘Star Trek,'” he reflected, “was a language show. A lot of the ideas were expressed verbally. It has been said – and I think it’s true – that if you didn’t listen to ‘Star Trek’ you couldn’t follow the stories.”

The same could be said of today’s White House: It’s a language show. “Issues are never simple,” Obama has said. “Very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues.” The stakes are high, the narrative is complex, and no one’s talking down to us.

That’s the problem. You have to listen carefully. With immigration reform, for example, Obama isn’t offering anyone amnesty. We have roughly eleven million people here who have no permission to be here, and Congress has done nothing to address that, but it would be impossible to deport them all next week, and if we did the economy would take a big hit. Most of them are doing work that keeps things running – and we don’t have the resources to deport them all immediately anyway. Obama, charged with administering existing immigration law, has thus issued a series of directives that the resources we do have be used to deport criminals and gang members and jerks, for now. The others can register themselves and stay, for now – and continue contributing to the economy, and know we’re not coming for them. Their status will be resolved down the road. For now, they’ll know they’re safe here, and this will keep their families together, which is kind of the decent thing to do. And this is no big deal – presidents have to figure out how best to carry out the law, given the resources they have. They must enforce the law, but presidents have to have what everyone now talks about, prosecutorial discretion.

How a president enforces the law is the issue now. Obama reviewed his constitutional authority here – he used to teach constitutional law – and applied logic to the situation and came up with this. That federal circuit court judge in Texas disagrees with him, but Obama will win that case on appeal – and he has told Congress that if they have a better idea they could pass some sort of immigration reform legislation. He has said that if they do that he’ll tear up his directives – they’d no longer be necessary – but of course Congress, now in Republican hands, has decided that Obama is breaking the law and violating the constitution and granting amnesty to awful folks, and he must be stopped. Obama, however, was just being Spock. Spock is the guy who infuriated everyone each week by being so damned logical about things. Spock was also the guy who saved everyone’s butt each week.

That’s what made the original Star Trek series so much fun to watch – watching third-tier Hollywood actors let it rip and chew the scenery, playing impassioned outraged characters losing it while Nimoy’s Spock raised one eyebrow, and then did the right thing, the only logical thing. In real life it’s not so pretty:

The House of Representatives finally agreed to pay for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday night, just two hours before a lapse in funding that would have forced thousands of key government workers to go without pay.

But an increasingly bitter divide among Republicans forced congressional leaders to settle for just a one-week extension of the existing budget arrangement, buying them only a few short days next week to reach a longer term deal.

The dispute, which began over Barack Obama’s decision to circumvent a gridlocked Congress and introduce immigration reforms by presidential order, has reopened deep divisions among House Republicans, many of whom believe more should be done to block what they see as executive overreach.

Perhaps more should be done, but the Republicans can’t get anything done:

Earlier in the evening more than 50 of them voted with Democrats against an attempt by the House Speaker, John Boehner, to pass a three-week extension of DHS funding, angry at what they saw as capitulation toward the White House.

The shock defeat was a huge embarrassment for Boehner, whose advisers had been expressing confidence in its passage just hours earlier and left Democrats holding out instead for the House to agree to the same one-year deal passed by the Senate.

Yet with the clock ticking toward another government shutdown that was likely to be blamed largely on Republicans, the White House upped the pressure by issuing emergency instructions on what to do when the money ran out.

That wasn’t very nice, but it was logical. The Senate had passed a clean bill to fund the DHS – but the House refused to take it up – but the House wanted to fund the DHS – not doing so would look bad. John Boehner had no logical option here, so he arranged a vote on a three-week delay in doing anything one way or another. He knew he had the votes for that in his own party, if a few Democrats played along – but they decided they wouldn’t play along. Fund the DHS or don’t. What was going to change in three weeks?

John Boehner had to settle for one week:

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, began the final, if temporary, resolution to the crisis around 9 pm, passing the seven-day continuing resolution by voice vote in the Senate.

This was then followed by another vote in the House of Representatives, this time supported by the leadership of both parties that passed 357-60, but left a bitter taste on both sides of the aisle.

“This is no way to govern the nation and the American people deserve better,” said Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee as he announced the vote.

And nothing is resolved:

Before the vote, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wrote a letter to Democrats urging them to support the [one-week delay] legislation.

“Your vote tonight will assure that we will vote for full funding next week,” she wrote.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told reporters that the Speaker hadn’t committed to bringing up a full DHS funding bill next week. In response a Democratic congressional aide disputed that characterization, saying Boehner had “100 percent, absolutely” committed to bring up a “clean” DHS bill through September next week.

Well, Obama signed the one-week funding bill, such as it was, and the New York Times covers the fallout:

The strong Republican vote for the Senate bill also highlighted the deep rift between House and Senate Republicans, who have struggled to agree on a pragmatic path forward to both keep the agency running and express their displeasure with Mr. Obama’s recent immigration actions.

“We should have never fought this battle,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois. “In my view, in the long run, if you are blessed with the majority, you are blessed with the power to govern. If you’re going to govern, you have to act responsibly.”

Just two months into the new Congress, Republicans were sounding a grim note, far removed from their triumphant election victories in November. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Friday that “2015 is about us.”

“There’s nobody to blame but us now when it comes to the appropriations process,” Mr. Graham said. “If we can run the place more traditional, like a business, so to speak, I think we flourish. If we self-inflict on the budget, and the appropriations process – and we can’t get the government managed well – then I think we’re in trouble.”

In the aftermath of the failed vote, the Republican leadership team met for hours Friday night to come up with a new approach, but their options were limited given the deep rebellion by their more conservative members against supporting anything that does not halt the president’s immigration policies. As the legislation stalled, Mr. Boehner walked wordlessly from the chamber, his head down.

And one must mention the obvious:

The Office of Management and Budget has said that a vote to increase the nation’s debt limit will be necessary by mid- to late summer, and lawmakers were also hoping to take up trade policy, as well as at least a modest overhaul of the nation’s tax code – undertakings that now look increasingly imperiled.

Mr. Obama has already vetoed the Republicans’ main legislative achievement this year – a bill to start construction on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The fight over the homeland security funding – coupled with a separate revolt by House conservatives – also upended Republican plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the 2001 education law that was a signature domestic achievement of President George W. Bush.

Republican leadership had expected to pass a new bill on Friday to reduce the federal government’s role in public education; Mr. Obama has threatened a veto. But the vote was put off after Heritage Action, the conservative advocacy group, waged a campaign against the measure, saying it does not do enough to limit federal authority.

There will be more of this, and Gail Collins looks at the players:

There was absolutely no agreement on what will happen next. We look back with nostalgia on the era when congressional leaders would get together in secret and make deals to pass big, mushy pieces of legislation that were littered with secret appropriations for unnecessary highways and a stuffed-owl museum in some swing vote’s district. We complained a lot at the time, but that was because we didn’t realize it was the golden age.

Do you think it’s a little worrisome that the powerful right flank of the House is made up of people who believe a good way to show their opposition to Obama’s liberal immigration policy is to cut off the border patrol’s paychecks? That the critical role of speaker of the House is held by a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to control his membership? Or even count votes?

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” said Boehner when reporters pressed him about his plans earlier in the week.

That used to be a saying he kept for special occasions, but now it seems to be cropping up a lot. I take that to be a bad sign.

The man is in trouble:

If the Democrats don’t bail him out, Boehner can only afford to lose about 27 Republican votes on any issue. And he’s got a new group called the House Freedom Caucus that was organized to mobilize about 30 Republicans who feel the regular conservative caucus is too mainstream [conservative] …

The writing is on the wall:

This take-no-prisoners right wing is a large part of the reason the Republicans can’t come up with their own policies on anything. It’s embarrassing. They hate Obama’s immigration initiative, but they’ve never passed an immigration bill of their own. They’ve voted to repeal Obamacare at least 56 times, but they’ve never come up with a replacement. Last term, the guy who chaired the committee that writes tax bills produced a tax reform plan, and it went absolutely nowhere.

The list goes on and on, but we have a one-week reprieve, and Steve Benen notes the problem now:

The obvious flaw is that this wouldn’t solve the underlying problem so much as it delays the inevitable for no apparent reason. The less-obvious flaw is that the Speaker’s office is effectively abandoning the whole idea of leverage.

From the outset of this mind-numbing fight, the Speaker felt he had the upper hand: he’d hold Homeland Security funding hostage, threatening Democrats with a shutdown unless Congress were permitted to destroy the White House immigration policy. Under the ham-handed plan, Dems wouldn’t want a shutdown; they would be convinced that the GOP isn’t bluffing, and they’d give in to Republican demands.

Except it was all a sham. Boehner is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to cut off Homeland Security funding, which means, of course, that Democrats have no incentive to pay the ransom and free the hostage.

Perhaps one shouldn’t mess with Spock:

The Speaker set the rules for this game, but he’s not playing it well. Boehner is simultaneously telling the political world, “Give us what we want or Homeland Security is in deep trouble,” and “Don’t worry, we don’t actually intend to hurt Homeland Security.”

Benen suggests the guy should look up words like “blackmail” and “leverage” – as Star Trek was a language show, after all. Someone on the bridge of the Enterprise has to make sense, or terrible things will happen.

Leonard Nimoy may be dead now, but Spock lives on.

Posted in Obama as Spock, Republicans in Disarray | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Next New Common

The day was not only the birthday of Victor Hugo (1802) and Buffalo Bill Cody (1846) and Jackie Gleason (1916) and Fats Domino (1928) and Johnny Cash (1932) – celebrate who you will – but on Friday, February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure establishing Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and on February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a measure establishing Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. February 26 is a good day – no one had a problem with those new national parks. No one took to the streets in protest. No one claimed this was the end of America as we know it. In each case it seemed like a good idea at the time – and a good idea in general. This was setting aside the best and most amazing places for everyone to enjoy, and protecting those places from being exploited for profit, keeping them pretty much as they were, except for modest roads in, some parking at the edges, and the unobtrusive hiking trails and a few restrooms.

Of course this wasn’t a free-market private-sector solution to preserving a bit of natural wonder. Everyone shares these places and no one owns them, and no one is making any money. The government administers what few operations are necessary – upkeep of access and the few facilities – and that’s that. The modest amount of tax money that takes bothers no one. These are common facilities, and that might be communism, but these are our Commons.

Everyone is comfortable with that concept, an old one. Before there was America there was the Boston Common – although there was some problem with that concept and wasn’t until 1830 that matters were settled and everyone agreed that, no, this was a place for everyone, as it is today. Americans, unfortunately, do tend to argue over what constitutes The Commons – resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one. People have always argued about that. The process by which the commons are transformed into private property is called enclosure, a conflict in many an eighteenth or nineteenth century British novel. The idea is that forests, fisheries or grazing land are something we all share – so when the Sheriff of Nottingham tells Robin Hood he’s poaching, Robin Hood laughs in his face and we all smile, and out here the problem is surfing in Malibu. The good waves are owned by no one, but the rich Hollywood folks own access to the waves, the expensive beachfront property, with amazing fifty-million-dollar homes. That’s private property. As they say, you can’t get there from here. And the lawsuits never seem to end.

It shouldn’t be that complicated. The commons generally includes public goods – public space (even if sometimes not the access to it), public education, and the infrastructure that allows what we have going on here to function, like roads and electricity and water delivery and sewage systems. The commons includes public utilities. This is a simple concept, there’s always a countertrend. Some hold that many of these shared-for-the-common-good things should be commoditized – the idea is that things would be better if, for example, all the public schools were closed and education were entirely for-profit, so there’d be competition. Good schools would make a ton of money and bad schools would go under, as they should. Sure, the remaining schools might end up massively exclusionary, to increase profits, but they’d be damned good – but really, if our schools had to make money to survive, they’d all be better. They’d have to be.

The same argument has been made about other public services. Out here, for a time, Enron provided much of the state’s electric power, trading and swapping energy contracts and making big money – because this really didn’t have to be public and regulated. The market is always more efficient than the government. Of course that didn’t work out well – the brownouts and blackouts brought the state to a halt, and the cost of electricity doubled and doubled again until it was twenty times higher than it ever was, because Enron could do what they wanted, and did. In July 2001, the feds had to intervene. And once again electric service out here is considered part of the commons, a public utility again, tightly regulated, for everyone’s good.

We should have known better, but it seems we need to keep thinking about these things, as explained in an article by Garrett Hardin first published in the journal Science in 1968, where he discusses The Tragedy of the Commons:

The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Central to Hardin’s article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd), of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

That’s the problem. With shared resources, an individual, making a rational economic decision, exercises his right to the common resource and receives all the benefits of it, but the irreversible damage to the common is shared by the entire group – everyone pays for that one guy’s goodies, so to speak, while everything is ruined. That’s the tragedy of the commons. People do want to make money, to make things better for themselves and their family, and with what is shared by all, what is shared by all is eventually destroyed.

That’s what has always been at the core of the current bitter disagreements about healthcare reform – whether basic healthcare services are, like roads and sewage systems, part of the commons. Those who still want to repeal Obamacare have always argued that our basic healthcare services had been rightly commoditized – they were something you paid for, if you wish, or if you could, where large insurance companies, hospital chains and giant pharmaceutical make big money, and provide amazing services and products, that people are willing to pay for. Things had been fine. The Affordable Care Act ruined everything – but things hadn’t been fine. We paid more for less than any other advanced country in the world, while a select few made a ton of money. Obamacare addressed that. Everyone had to buy health insurance, one way or another, or pay a fine, and all of it will be tightly regulated, with strict standards, so no one is selling crappy policies, to make big bucks. Those who can’t afford the common basic insurance will get subsidies, so the pool of those insured will be a close to universal as possible, assuring the system can absorb the cost of those who get really sick. Everyone had to be all in, or it doesn’t work – and this was, in essence, creating a new commons. Republicans are still screaming holy hell about this, but this was a definitional change in how we see healthcare. Massive definitional changes are hard to accept. It’s one thing to carve out a national park or two and say it’s now part of the national commons. It’s another thing to carve out something that was in the realm of private for-profit winner-take-all capitalism and suddenly say that THAT is now part of the national commons too. Where will this end? Republicans ask that question a lot.

They’re asking it again. On February 26, 1919, Woodrow Wilson carved out the Grand Canyon National Park. On February 26, 1929, Calvin Coolidge carved out the Grand Tetons. On February 26, 2015, the FCC carved out the internet:

The Federal Communications Commission for the first time classified Internet providers as public utilities Thursday, a landmark vote that officials said will prevent cable and telecommunications companies from controlling what people see on the Web.

The move, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, was part of a sweeping set of new “net neutrality” rules aimed at banning providers of high-speed Internet access such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable from blocking Web sites they don’t like or auctioning off faster traffic speeds to the highest bidders.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argued that the agency needed to take a dramatic step to preserve a “fast, fair and open Internet.” Broadband Internet providers will now face some of the same heavy regulations that the federal government imposes on telephone companies.

“The Internet has replaced the functions of the telephone,” Wheeler said during the commission vote. “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”

The internet is now the commons too, but there was pushback:

Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country. Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country.

It’s too late for that:

The rules ban Internet providers from several specific activities: They can’t block or stop Web services such as Netflix. They can’t slow down or “throttle” content from particular Web sites. And they can’t speed up a Web site’s traffic, particularly in exchange for money.

The rules also apply to wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, which provide Internet service to tens of millions of smartphones and tablets.

Consumers should not see any immediate changes to what they see on the Internet — in some ways, Wheeler said, that was the whole point of the effort. He added that there would be no new federal taxes or fees put on Internet service providers.

“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” Wheeler said.

In short, play fair with everyone, or don’t play. Those of us who have websites, like this one, are relieved. We won’t have to pay big bucks to avoid being throttled-back, even if the big boys like Amazon can easily cover that cost, and folks knew what was going on:

Through the debate, the wonky issue of net neutrality went mainstream, prompting 4 million people to file comments to the FCC, which caused its Web site to temporarily shut down. Late-night comedian John Oliver drew millions of Web users to his satirical breakdown of Wheeler’s earlier, weaker approach. A handful of protesters even sat in the driveway of Wheeler’s home to block him from getting to work and to pressure him to pass tougher rules.

“It would be hard to overstate how big of a deal this is for consumers and the future of the Internet,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re into the woods, really. We expect opponents to look for every angle they can to stop these rules, whether in court or in Congress.”

No, we’re not out the woods:

Despite tens of millions of corporate dollars in last-minute lobbying, the Federal Communications Commission passed new rules Thursday reclassifying the Internet as a public utility and preventing Internet service providers from artificially slowing down the web.

Now Comcast is calling “inevitable” lawsuits to nullify the rules a “certainty,” and the company says it will pressure legislators to draft a law that will override the FCC’s decision.

“After today, the only ‘certainty’ in the Open Internet space is that we all face inevitable litigation and years of regulatory uncertainty challenging an Order that puts in place rules that most of us agree with,” David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said in a statement. “We believe that the best way to avoid this would be for Congress to act.”

Comcast, Cohen said, has “no issue with the principles of transparency and the no blocking, no throttling, and no fast lanes rules incorporated in today’s FCC Order.”

Yeah, sure:

Comcast’s history of actively blocking, throttling, and creating “fast lanes” is the very reason it is the only company in America required to abide by those rules.

In 2008, the FCC punished Comcast for slowing all traffic coming to and from BitTorrent – everything from downloaded movies to a King James Bible – without telling its customers. Three years later, Comcast agreed that it would never again artificially slow traffic to content, as part of a concession to the FCC that would allow it to merge with NBCUniversal.

But now that all Internet service is classified as a Title II utility, those sanctions are set to become truly enforceable – and not only applied when providers are caught red-handed. So the telecoms are fighting back. …

Comcast, by the way, was not alone in its willingness to block or slow traffic from specific websites. In 2013, Verizon attorney Helgi Walker stated under oath that “we should be able to [block competitors’ websites]. In the world I’m positing, you would be able to,” she added, citing a “First Amendment right” to “edit” content.

And where would that end? But then Ted Cruz offered this:

In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.

The two had to be connected eventually. Republicans hate the idea of the commons in general, on principle, but he got hammered by his followers on his Facebook page:

Ed Piper: As a Republican who works in the tech industry I can say that this statement shows you either have no idea what you are talking about or you are bought and paid for by the American Cable monopoly. This is amazingly a stupid statement and is disheartening.

Keith French: Ted, I am as conservative as they come… I want government out of just about everything… and I hate to say it, really hate to say it, but Obama is right on this one. I do not want my access and internet speed controlled by my ISP. … The internet has been an open forum with little to no restrictions, that will change and not for the better. Bottom line – do not go against freedom of the net just because Obama is for it. Even an old blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

A Jinnie McManus: Goddammit, stop making my party look like morons and look up net neutrality. It doesn’t mean what you and your speechwriters think it means.

Marvin England: Ted Cruz, as a tech and fiscal conservative in Texas who generally votes Republican, I am incredibly disappointed by your completely inaccurate statement. Please read up on what Net Neutrality actually is and fire any staff you have who are advising you on technical matters.

David Vogelpohl: Texas employer here… This is really the wrong issue for you. Drop this quickly and move on to something else before it’s too late. You’re starting to look like a Tea Party whacko growling for his corporate masters. Move on before you embarrass the Republicans out of the next presidency. Net neutrality is about ensuring a free market. America loves a free market. But hey, be against free markets and America. It’s cool. I’m sure no one will think of you when their Netflix slows down who wouldn’t have before.

Jimmy Lee: Wow. I am embarrassed that I supported you Ted. Face palm. I think it’s time that I “unlike” your FB page.

That’s just a sample, but these guys don’t watch David Asman on Fox News:

Of all the government interventions by the Obama administration, the plan released Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet is the worst.

Yes, ObamaCare is massive and is clogging one-sixth of the economy. But even before ObamaCare, government had a huge imprint on the health care industry with Medicaid and Medicare. Also, regulations on pharmaceutical and insurance industries led to their energies being focused as much on pleasing government bureaucracies as curing illnesses.

But the Internet is young, fresh, alive and untainted. The FCC’s plan to muddy the pure waters of the Internet pollutes the one free flow of information on the planet. …

Republicans have been very vocal and have voted regularly for the Keystone pipeline. But they have been largely silent about the administration’s plan to regulate our information pipeline, which is far more vital to national concerns about liberty, freedom of speech and commerce.

Make no mistake. The greatest tool for freedom of expression to come along in our lifetime is in danger. One cannot have genuine freedom of expression with a government monitor, an overseer, a censor prepared to immediately shut down any “threats” to the state. This is Orwellian, even if even opponents are reluctant to say it. But they must remember that the greatest miscalculations in history are those that underrate the determination of the power hungry to grab even more power.

What free flow of information is this fellow talking about? Internet service providers have a history of throttling back sites they don’t like, the ones they think say the wrong things, or sites that do things they find irritating, the ones that cut into their profits – unless those sites pony up some big bucks. That’s restricting the free flow of information, isn’t it? But if money is free speech, as the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United – a ruling they loved – perhaps this makes sense. Pay or shut up. The internet is their private property. You’re lucky they let you use it at all. And that means that freedom of speech is the ability to pay a lot of cash to say what you want – but Asman is wrong. Here the government is not censoring anything. They simply opened this new particular Common, to everyone. It was February 26, the day for that sort of thing.

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