Jonathan Chait, a smug, center-left blogger of some note among Democrats and moderates, recently weighed in on the Democratic primary. The article, with the self-congratulatory title “The Case Against Bernie Sanders” is worth exploring in some detail because of its bad logic, exaggerated arguments, and extreme cynicism. Ultimately, no one should be convinced by his “case.”
As is well known, American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone attack in Yemen on 30 September 2011. He was alleged by the government to have been a “senior talent recruiter” for al-Qaeda, primarily by creating “radicalising” YouTube videos. The administration never charged or indicted him of him with any crime, much less tried him before an impartial tribunal, so his killing should offend the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The Obama Administration doesn’t agree with that straightforward analysis, but was unwilling to reveal the legal basis for their assumption of the power to execute American citizens in secret with no charge, trial, or congressional or judicial oversight. Members of Congress begged the Administration for months following al-Awlaki’s killing for memos explaining the Administration’s position, and finally the Administration deigned earlier this month to yield a draft white paper dated fifteen months ago — not to Congress proper, mind you, but to two of its subcommittees.
That white paper has now been leaked publicly. While it is unclear whether it completely details the Administration’s thinking, the paper is sufficiently devastating that Democratic California Representative Barbara Lee said in an open letter to the Los Angeles Times that it “should shake the American people to the core.” But Obama’s a nice guy, right, so how bad can it really be?
After some serious delays and multiple requests, President Obama finally indicated last Wednesday that he would allow two Congressional committees to see copies of a certain secret memo. What they actually got was a white paper from the Office of Legal Counsel (the part of the Department of Justice which exists to advise the President about the legality of proposed policy) which detailed the Administration’s understanding of when and how it can legally assassinate suspected American terrorists abroad. The straw that broke the camel seems to have been the recent furor over John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to become CIA director, as he is widely understood to be the staunchest advocate of our secret drone war.
The third and final presidential debate of this election cycle was to be about foreign policy, just as the first (and the only other which wasn’t a Town Hall format) was to be about domestic policy. That didn’t really come to pass in earnest, and it also happened that this final debate was pretty flat. I think the main reason for that was the broad agreement that both candidates have on their approach to foreign policy: both love Israel, both fear and want to look tough on Iran, and both think America is the greatest thing to have recently happened to the world. This is obviously a bad position for Romney to find himself in as he attempts to convince us that we need a leadership change, which explains how much the debate pivoted back to the economy in variously clever and tired ways. A few interesting things happened, including a few zingers from Obama, but the tone after the tension of the second debate — and the last one before the election — was one of measured caution.
If there was one conclusion most of the pundits drew from the first presidential debate, it was that Obama was functionally asleep and let Romney walk all over him. If there was a second conclusion, it was that Jim Leher was functionally asleep and let Obama and Romney walk all over him. So it isn’t surprising, especially after announcing that it would be the case, that Obama was much more aggressive and challenging for this match-up, the first and only Town Hall-style debate we’ll see this election. Romney must have known this, so he upped his game as well, and tensions ran high. Obama won the debate by being engaged, articulate, and right on the issues. But he got help from Romney, who emphatically lost it by over-correcting and quite frankly embarrassing himself.
You might not have noticed since it was pretty dull and a lot of other things were happening, but the Sitting Decider and some asshole Mormon upstart spent an hour and a half talking about basically nothing last night, the first such exercise in extemporaneous theatre of a scheduled series of three.
As is my wont, I’m going to talk a little about it.
The New York Times dropped a bombshell expose earlier this week when it reported on many details of a ‘Secret Kill List’ that the President heads up. The existence of such a list within the administration isn’t news: the Los Angeles Times reported more than two years ago about a CIA drone hit list when there was talk of putting US citizen Anwar al-Awalki on it. Of course, he was put on that list and was later executed by drone to much fanfare.
What is new information is the personal role that Obama himself takes in deciding who lives and who dies. According to Tuesday’s Times article, “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.”
The question of whether a pair of homosexual adults ought to be able to enter a federally recognized marriage has been under debate for twenty years or so. Hawaii appears to have forced the issue in the early 90s with the interesting case of Baehr v. Miike. The Hawaii Supreme Court remanded a trial court dismissal of a suit alleging Hawaii’s ban on same-sex marriages was illegal. The Court found in 1993 that, because the ban was discriminatory based on sex, it was subject to “strict scrutiny” and hence the burden of proof that the law was sound rested with the state “by demonstrating that it furthers compelling state interests and is narrowly drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgments of constitutional rights.” This led to a remarkably childish legislative and judicial back-and-forth which culminated in the People of Hawaii enacting, by a vote greater than two thirds, a constitutional ban in 1998.
At around the same time there had also been federal wrangling over the legal status of homosexuals. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on ending fifty years of refusing to allow gays in the military, which was derailed in part by then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, leaving us with the widely reviled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. In 1996, Congress enacted the dubious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally codified marriage as being only between a single heterosexual couple on fears that the US would be forced to recognize Hawaiian gay marriages due to the Full Faith and Credit clause in its Constitution. Many states followed suit in the intervening years; at present, 42 states ban gay marriage, 31 of them through Constitutional provision.
Let’s face it: no republican will become president in 2013.
That’s quite a bold claim, so allow me to defend it. The contentious republican nomination race continues without an obvious winner emerging as yet. There is still talk of a white knight coming to the rescue at the last minute, and this idea isn’t new: popular New Jersey governor Chris Christie was shamelessly pestered despite emphatic refusal to enter the race last summer, but he’s more likely to join the Romney ticket as VP; Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has been the target of speculation to fill this role, but he has also explicitly declined, and his official GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, while popular on the far right, was quite frankly horrible in both content and presentation; even former Florida governor Jeb Bush is getting the eye, but it seems inconceivable that the republicans would risk their shot on a third Bush four years after the second one left office with the lowest approval rating in Gallup history. In short, the white knight scenario is not happening.
So four republicans remain in the presidential primary, and one of them will be named at his party’s convention in August for the general election barring some unlikely brokered convention scenario. But whom?
The GOP primary battle continues to rage, but Mitt Romney continues to dominate. Let’s recap: among viable non-Romney candidates, only Newt Gingrich remains in the race. Rick Santorum won in Iowa, but just barely, and has come in third or worst in all the other states to date. Ron Paul has yet to carry a state and admits he doesn’t yet know which ones he might. Newt Gingrich has only won so far in South Carolina, a
racist southern state more likely than most to find resonance with “blacks should demand paychecks not food stamps” bullshit; and even then, his victory might well be attributed to a bump from some jabs he managed to get past the inept moderator at the debate held there days before the primary.
With contests in Minnesota and Colorado tomorrow, Romney is well positioned to double his collection of wins: according to PPP, he’s the clear favourite in Colorado and is in a more or less dead heat with Santorum in Minnesota. A win for Santorum there will not breathe life into his dying, unelectable bones, but the obvious loss Gingrich is about to face will surely kill all that remains of his momentum. It seems clearer and clearer that what has been conventional wisdom for months — that Romney will be the nominee — has been right all along.
All this would be considerably less interesting if there were any other uncertainties in the race. But Obama will not be primaried, and with unemployment rates starting to seriously drop, providing cautious optimism for some that a recovery is starting to kick back in, his reelection seems all but certain. Barring some cataclysm, does it seem reasonable to suppose that Romney could beat Obama? The latter is likely to enjoy something close to a repeat of the record black turnout in 2008, and Romney isn’t too popular even among conservatives (hence the unending support for the not-Romney candidate trending up at any moment). Obama is starting to put his toe in the general race now, saying he “deserves a second term” in an interview with NBC ahead of the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty nice time to have the national airwaves, and polls are showing he would do well in a race with Romney.
But all this is very sad! We must choose between a sitting president with a dubious record and a flip-flopping venture capitalist no one really likes. This ‘fact’ was ironically highlighted for me as I was reading Federalist 66 the other day and noticed this choice bit from Hamilton:
The [House of Representatives] will be the umpire in all elections of the President, which do not unite the suffrages of a majority of the whole number of electors; a case which it cannot be doubted will sometimes, if not frequently, happen.
Ha! Of course, this did happen, but only twice out of the 56 presidential elections held so far. In 1800, before the 12th amendment changed the rules of the electoral college, the House deadlocked repeatedly and finally elected Thomas Jefferson after 35 votes. And in 1824, following the dissolution of the Federalist party, four candidates each gained a fairly significant slice of the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson beat his next closest rival, John Quincy Adams, by 10 points in the popular vote and 15 electoral votes, but missed a majority by more than 30 electoral votes. The House eventually selected Adams after Henry Clay, also running, gave the former his support; Clay was eventually named Secretary of State in what was called a ‘corrupt bargain.’
So given the Constitution has baked into it a way to resolve disputes between candidates when none obtains a majority of electors, a mechanism Hamilton thought would be used ‘frequently’, why has it remained unused for nearly two centuries? Even from the earliest days of the republic, the two-party duality has been a potent force in general elections. The Federalists and Anti-federalists were not officially recognized parties like ours today are, but they were responsible for bitter election battles in the late eighteenth century. Parties were more dynamic between that 1824 standoff and the civil war, but the formation of the Republican party in 1854 saw more or less the final manifestation of the two-party system we see today, with only a handful of serious third party bids since.
Modern laws make it harder for third parties. Ballot access usually requires meeting some minimum signature bar in a petition, which means parties need nationwide local coordination, something which requires a large establishment. Debates are basically bi-partisan affairs and usually do not include third parties. Mass defection to a third party might swing the election to the least desirable of all three (consider the charge that Nader lost Gore the election in 2000). States almost always award electors on a winner-take-all basis, so the incentive for voters in each state to make their voices heard on the national stage by picking perceived winners is high.
In that vein, I think the biggest reason that the two-party system persists is inertia. The parties are well-established and can pretty easily either gobble up any fringe third-party platform (or ridicule it as being Unserious, as has been happening to Ron Paul’s candidacy generally). Most issues are binary as far as the average voter is concerned: you’re either mostly for gay rights, or you’re mostly against them; you want increased social programs, or you want to cut them back; you mostly want to drill for oil or you mostly want to research green energy. It doesn’t help that these ideas mostly align with conservative or liberal ideologies very nicely: conservatives tend to want to stick to the ancient ways, while liberals want to change most aspects of society and government.
Then there’s the related issue of bipartisan consensus. Perceived political realities force politicians to cave to certain positions, which then silences debate. Look to Clinton’s welfare reform, “tough on crime” laws which had led to unprecedented incarcerations, the jingoism of the runup to Iraq war that seems to have returned but this time against Iran; and of course, the notion that taxes should not go up except maybe for the other guy. When both parties largely agree on so much, it can be difficult to see what the usefulness of a third party could be. Is there a third major platform in American politics today? Evidently not.
And that is the main problem. The Tea Party was swallowed by the Republicans since they aligned closely enough to allow it. Obama has already begun to adopt of the rhetoric of Occupy and might win several of its less aware and passionate members. But this is too bad. An adversarial third (or fourth, or fifth) party would make this election battle a lot more interesting than the inevitable “lesser of two evils” Obama-vs-Romney scorched earth, no-holds-barred steel cage match. And if more people demanded better at the ballot box, they would get it: that’s a political reality. Consider that before holding your nose for Obama (or Romney if you have no soul) in November.