Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Has Obama's Comeback Started?

A string of legislative successes have left some pundits arguing that Obama has already started his comeback. I’m not so sure.

Let’s start with the tax cut package. It is true that Obama was able to extend unemployment compensation. But the Bush era tax rates were extended, and in a way that will give Obama less maneuvering room in future tax fights. The tax rates will expire again during the 2012 elections. Obama and his advisors will not want to run in the general election having opened themselves to charges of overseeing the largest tax increase in American history. To mitigate this, Obama may only extend tax breaks for the middle class. Regardless, it will be a tough spot as Republicans typically have the advantage on taxes. If Obama capitulates and agrees to extend taxes on the wealthy as well, he will come under immense pressure from his base, which he needs to turn out in force.

Besides, I think anything that could be defined as a political comeback needs to improve Obama’s chances of winning reelection. Ratifying START and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” may well make America safer and fairer. But I don’t see significant political upside. Gays and lesbians already voted heavily for Obama, and I just don’t see the average voter caring as much about something like START when the economy is still front and center.

Obama’s fortunes will still rise or fall with the economy. To the extent that any of the measures including the tax cut package accomplish that, then they will indeed fuel a comeback. In terms of policy, the next year with an emboldened Republican majority could well have a large impact on the economy. It will certainly be interesting to see what Obama can accomplish.

The next Congress will make some important decisions. Obama will have to make some substantive moves on the deficit to reassure worried moderates, but making specific cuts in programs risks upsetting voters. Republicans will try to repeal and defund Obamacare, and so Democrats could be left defending unpopular features like the mandate. There is plenty of room to slip politically.

Of course, this is all hard to judge right now. I think comebacks are only easy to spot in retrospect. On election night 2012, we may call this the beginning of his comeback. We’ll have to wait and see.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Handicapping the Republican Primary Field

Over the Christmas holidays, possible Republican Presidential candidates will be involved in important discussions about whether to run or not. We’ve already heard many of their names: Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty etc.

Before ranking the ones with the best chance of winning, it is helpful to think about what Republican primary voters will want out of their candidate, and what qualities will be helpful in a general election against Obama. The tea party is still ascendant, so fiscal issues will be top priority. They want to repeal Obamacare and dramatically reduce the deficit. To make a strong candidate against Obama, the nominee will need to make a coherent conservative critique of Obama’s economic policies in a way that doesn’t alarm moderates. In other words, someone with a strong policy background who can make a credible case, but in a way that resonates with voters is needed. Anyway, here’s the list!

1. Mitch Daniels

I’m sure this comes as a surprise pick to most. But I think there is good reason to give him this ranking. Daniels has a record cutting government in Indiana that he can point to on the campaign trail, which will make him appeal to tea partiers in the primary. But he also extended health insurance to more Hoosiers and hired more welfare caseworkers, two facts which will immunize him to some extent to charges that he is an anti-government zealot. He has a mild demeanor and his talk of a “truce” on social issues might end up helping with moderates in the general election. While he has spent the last several years as a Governor, he was also an insider who worked in the Bush White House and for Ronald Reagan, so he will have important connections to raise money for the long haul.

2. Mike Huckabee

Huckabee has been an outspoken critic of many recent measures such as Obamacare. These criticisms should mollify the “Club for Growth” set that had issues with him in 2008. He is charismatic and will retain a strong following with evangelicals, who dominate in Iowa and South Carolina. He has a fair amount of experience as Governor of Arkansas, which will help differentiate him from Sarah Palin. The one thing he will need to work on is making sure that he can raise enough money to be truly competitive all through the primaries.

3. Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty has a decent policy background as Governor of Minnesota and a mild manner which should avoid startling moderates. He has worked hard at putting together a good organization. I see him being a good second choice for a lot of voters because he is disliked by almost no one. This could really play to his advantage in Iowa’s caucus, where there is second choice voting.

4. Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin has a devoted following, and she will be especially popular with women and evangelicals. Her big problem is her perceived lack of gravitas because of her short experience as Governor of Alaska. It is too late in the game to rectify the problem. While many in the Republican base like her, they will start to wonder, will the general electorate take her seriously? This coupled with her divisiveness among moderates will make primary voters pause long and hard before they vote for her.

5. Mitt Romney

Romney has a strong organization, access to lots of money, and gravitas when it comes to economic issues. What’s the problem? It might be more accurate to ask what are the problems? He supported universal healthcare in Massachusetts; the system implemented is quite similar to what Obama ended up doing. Conservatives hate the law. So Romney will be faced with a choice: he can repudiate his support, and reinforce his image as a flip-flopper without convictions, or he can continue to embrace something so similar to the Obamacare conservatives so detest. I don’t see how Romney can get around this issue easily. That is to say nothing of Romney’s Mormonism, or his image among many as a slick politician.

It’s a shame, because Romney’s credibility on economic issues might actually make him the best candidate in the general election.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Weighing in on the Repeal of DADT

Don’t ask, don’t tell will no longer be in force in the coming months after the Senate voted to repeal it. It is certainly time.

Over the years, over 14,000 soldiers have been discharged because they admitted to being gay. This makes little sense at a time when the US is embroiled in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We simply need every soldier we can get. It is also true that some of the gays discharged performed important jobs such as Arabic translators that we can especially ill afford to lose.

Some of the conservatives who opposed the repeal highlighted concerns about military effectiveness. Yet, a study by the pentagon and testimony from the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff indicate that repeal poses little threat. It is true that there seems to be higher-than-average levels of opposition from the Marine Corps. I doubt that this opposition will ultimately hurt the Marine Corps much though. People who volunteer to put their lives at risk have an abiding love for America and an intense desire to see that it is safe. I have a feeling their patriotism will override their concerns about serving alongside gays.

At the end of the day, soldiers fight in situations where their lives are on the line and where they have to learn to trust those they fight with. If a soldier is wounded, will he really care whether the medic coming to save his life is gay or straight? When the military was integrated, there were surely many white soldiers that objected. Yet, individual units eventually got over their discomfort and managed to become effective fighting forces. In the long run, the effectiveness of the military was not hurt. I predict the same will come to pass with gay soldiers.

Interestingly, I am unsure about one of the arguments given in favor of repealing DADT, namely that all citizens have a right to serve in the military. Clearly, we don’t believe that everyone has a right to serve in the military. We don’t take people who fail to meet certain weight or height requirements. The army would reject someone who weighed 400 pounds because it would be harder to participate in combat and he may well prove a burden to his unit in combat. We don’t allow children to fight because they haven’t developed all of the faculties which would make them effective soldiers. A right to fight in the military is not a specifically enumerated right in the constitution.

Yet in all of the scenarios listed above, the conditions clearly prevent a person from being an effective soldier. But I simply don’t see how being gay would prevent someone from being effective. Homosexuality does not make people less able to bear the physical rigors of combat, or give them less of an ability to react or think through trying situations. As Barry Goldwater once said “you don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.” In fact, the number of gay soldiers discharged indicated that putting them out for their sexual orientation is more likely to hurt the effectiveness of the military than allowing them to serve openly.

Moreover, even if there is no “right” to serve in the military, that doesn’t mean we should not consider the morality of DADT. People are forced to choose between serving their country and denying a fundamental piece of themselves. Soldiers who had bled and suffered for their country for years were kicked out on a moment’s notice. Allowing those brave soldiers who have sacrificed so much for their country to serve without fear of discharge only seems just.

I am curious to see what precedent the repeal sets for other changes to the military. Specifically, will this give momentum to advocates of allowing women to fight in combat? Surely, that is something military policymakers will take up in coming years.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Racial Profiling is a Bad Idea

“Don’t touch my junk” has probably become the refrain of the hour. John Tyner, the man who uttered this phrase at an airport has become a hero to those unhappy with new TSA screening procedures. Many insist that there is a simpler profile. Terrorists are all almost Arab, Muslim, and male they reason. So why subject grandmothers to pat-downs when we know what terrorists look like. Let’s use racial profiling to make everyone’s life easier.

I want to begin by disputing the notion that we will reliably be able to easily pick out would-be terrorists if we start profiling. It is the case now, that many of those who try and hijack airlines are young Arab males. But to assume that we would be able to stop terrorists by pulling aside such people is to assume that groups like Al Qaeda are not perceptive or observant. They will eventually notice that everyone who gets enhanced scrutiny is a young Arab male. So they will increasingly recruit people who don’t fit the mold. There are certainly plenty of white and Asian Muslims in the world. In countries like Bosnia, Turkey, and Albania, there are millions of light-skinned Muslims who don’t fit the stereotype of Middle-Easterners wearing turbans. About 5% of Muslims in American mosques are of Asian, European, or white American extraction, precisely the people we don’t tend to think of as Muslims. With around 6 million Muslims in the US, that translates into at least 300,000 Muslims who would have US passports, non-Islamic sounding names, and non-Arab appearances. When we consider the rest of the world including places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia, Turkey, and Western Europe, it becomes clear that there are millions of Muslims who could be recruited for terrorism who wouldn’t get special attention if we move to racial profiling.

Already, there have been attempts to commit terrorist attacks on the part of non-white Muslims. Richard Reid—who is the reason we have to take our shoes off at airports—is one example. Neither can we be assured that all future terrorist suspects will be young men. Israel has seen no shortage of female suicide bombers in recent years. We have often heard it said that “white grandmothers are not terrorists, so we need not bother them.” But given the growing numbers of white Muslims in the world, and the incentive of terrorist groups to recruit people who aren’t young Arab males if we start profiling, the next hijacking could very well be done by a white grandmother.

So on balance, I doubt that shifting to profiling will do very much to decrease the actual number of terrorist attacks on airplanes. But there will also be negative implications in terms of international relations. People in Arab nations will see Arabs singled out for special attention, and will likely perceive the US to be treating them unfairly. The US will conform to the stereotype of an imperialistic, racist nation bent on mistreating Arabs and Muslims. The average person on the Arab street will not join Al Qaeda because of his anger over profiling. But he could be more likely to pressure his governments not to cooperate with an America. Arab governments needing to maintain popular legitimacy to stay in power will have a tougher time offering the US basing rights or providing intelligence to US authorities, two things that are critical to maintaining national security.

The end result might be less of an ability to project power in the Middle East, and less ability to get Arab governments to cooperate in shutting down terrorist attacks in their earliest stages. In a 2010 Zogby poll, only 16% of respondents were hopeful about American policy in the Middle East while 63% were discouraged. Moreover, 57% of Arabs said Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would be good for the Middle East. Now simply could not be a worse time to alienate Arabs. And yet, having news reports on Arab television of innocent young men being targeted for their race and religion would do exactly that.

None of this takes into account the moral and constitutional considerations of profiling. To focus special attention on members of a certain race is in effect to treat them differently solely because of the color of their skin. It is to make them wear a scarlet letter in public for the sins of a tiny minority of terrorists whom they most likely have never met. A young Arab male who sees himself pulled aside for special attention while whites file past can only think of himself as a second-class citizen in a nation where after a sordid past including slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Japanese internment, and the trail of tears, no one is supposed to be a second class citizen.

Conservatives who embrace racial profiling would need to abandon their long-standing interpretation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause as preventing the government from considering race in how it treats its citizens. In cases about affirmative action, conservatives invoke the 14th amendment in claiming that public schools cannot discriminate against white applicants, even in pursuing what they deem to be a socially utile outcome of providing more opportunities to minorities to bring about racial equality and redress past discrimination. If government cannot keep a person out of his first choice college because of his race, how can it then pat him down and humiliate him in front of hundreds of passengers because of it?

Of course, there is the standard refrain that if profiling can save even one life, then we ought to do it. This depends on the assumption that profiling would actually decrease terrorism on net, which there is good reason to doubt. Given the immense toll of terrorism though, one sympathizes with this sentiment. But the logic is untenable if we take it to its conclusion. We might diminish crime in inner cities if we put young black males in preventative detention on a regular basis and officially approved stopping and frisking them while allowing whites and Asians to pass. The reason we don’t do that even if it did decrease crime is because it is morally repugnant and because it makes some people second class citizens. The same logic should apply here.

If we adopt racial profiling, we will have declared one of the most important principles upon which our democracy is built—the fundamental dignity and equality of all races—null and void because we are scared. The terrorists we fight don’t believe that all men are created equal or that they are endowed with the same fundamental rights, or they wouldn’t kill innocent women and children. In fact, our insistence that no one should be discriminated against on account of race and religion is one of the dividing lines between them and us. When we blur that line and let the terrorists change our way of life and our values, they really will have won. To make this even worse, we will have cast aside our most noble traditions and principles to no avail; as I have demonstrated profiling will not make us any safer. I cannot think of a worse security policy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Obama's Tax Deal

President Obama and Republicans have come to a tentative deal to extend Bush tax cuts for all families, even the wealthiest for two years. As part of the deal, unemployment compensation will be extended for 13 months as well.

I think this is a decent outcome. I have posted before about how I think extending the tax cuts for a specified period of time would be good. At a time when the economy is shedding jobs, there is no question that leaving more capital out there to invest in businesses might lead to more jobs. Providing needy families with more unemployment compensation is the humane thing to do. People worried about losing their unemployment compensation will have trouble paying for the basics like food and utilities. Anything that makes their lives a bit easier as they search for jobs in a terrible economy is something an enlightened, moral society like ours should consider.

Some have said that there will be political consequences for Obama for endorsing this deal. I have a hard time seeing them though. Given Republican unwillingness to extend taxes for the middle class unless all tax cuts were extended, Obama would have to contend with charges that he pushed through the largest tax increase on the middle class during at a time the middle class is reeling. This could hardly have done his reelection bid any good. Any explanation that Republicans are to blame will be lost in the shuffle. The average voter will see that Democrats were in control of both the White House and Congress when the tax increases happened. These voters will take their wrath out on Democrats.

Moreover, it is still unlikely that liberals will challenge Obama in the primaries for a few reasons. First, Obama still maintains strong support among Democrats (over 80%). It is hard to see how a challenger will be able to get enough support to have a realistic shot at the nomination. Second, a liberal challenge would make it more likely for a Republican to win in the general election if it were to actually gain traction. Ronald Reagan in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, and Pat Buchanan in 1992 all dealt serious blows to the incumbent and helped someone of the opposite party win. Do liberals really want a President Palin or a President Romney? They may not like the deal, but they surely do not like the idea of a Republican President.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Catholic Church and Contraception

Pope Benedict XVI is making news for comments suggesting that the Catholic Church finds condoms acceptable in certain circumstances.

Whether using contraceptives is biblically acceptable is a fascinating topic without an easy answer. The argument for contraception being unbiblical is relatively straightforward. By stopping a child from being born, one contravenes God will if indeed he desired for a child to be born. But that logic becomes tough to follow in all cases. If two people decide not to have sex in the first place they cannot have a child. So if God wanted the couple to have a child, but the couple abstains from sex, aren’t they also contravening God’s will?

For a weirder thought experiment, let’s consider a time machine. Let’s assume that a couple has a 10 year old kid driving them up the walls that resulted from a specific sexual encounter. So we know that if the couple has sex on that exact occasion, a child would result, and we might assume that it was God’s will for the child to come into being. After a while, they regret having the child in the first place. If they found access to a time machine and went back to the hours before they had sex specifically so they could avoid it, would that be a sin? They are knowingly preventing a child from being born. If you asked most people whether couples who used condoms to prevent pregnancies were guilty of sin, they would most likely answer “no.” But if we embrace the logic that preventing a child from coming into being from the time machine thought experiment, then using condoms may well be sinful too.

There is an interesting question of what effect the Pope’s comments will have on the larger church. Perhaps more liberal Catholics who want to change the Church’s views on contraception will feel emboldened and press for change. For sure, the condom issue won’t go away anytime soon.