Sunday, July 25, 2010

What is Orthodox Republicanism?

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s formation of the congressional Tea Party caucus portends the Republican Party both a challenge and a confrontation. It is a battle for the soul of the GOP, suggesting a new definition of the party in light of its 2006-8 loses. Yet this remaking of the party is only the latest effort by the Republicans to define themselves, asking what in fact is orthodox Republicanism?

If the GOP takes over the House, the Tea bloc could hold the balance of power. If the Democrats retain control, the Tea caucus might force the Republican leadership into an ever more uncompromising ideological corner. But in either case, the formation of the caucus is the maturing of the Tea Party as it travels from a grassroots movement to an institutional force within the Republican Party. The real question though is whether the Tea caucus rebrands the GOP or the later coops the former.

This is not the first time the Republican Party has sought to remake itself. Think of the GOP at its inception as the party of Lincoln, committed to emancipation, civil rights, and economic freedom. Fast forward to Harding, Hoover, and Landon, the party of small government, business, and opposition to the New Deal. Then jump again to the 1950s and 60s. At the time I grew up in New York, Eisenhower was president building the interstate highway system, signing a major civil rights bill, and denouncing the military-industrial complex, while Governor Rockefeller, Senator Javits, and Democrat Senator Bobby Kennedy battled amongst themselves for the crown of who was more liberal.

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing of the GOP for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of the accommodation with the New Deal that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservatism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later requires an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand is what defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change. For whatever it meant, it was preferred to Reaganism.

But the seeds of Reagan’s demise in McCain’s 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin. Palinism still seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise. Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra “I want my country back.”

The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality, a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism. Palin, Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs have all produced less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded an attitude and brand. It is brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear. Partaking of that brand is Michelle Bachmann, and now the congressional Tea Party caucus.

While ideologically incoherent, Palinism has a deeper totalitarian aspect to it. Language describing some GOP members as RINOS (Republican in Name Only), talk of a 2009 conservative litmus test, and complaints that even Senators Bob Bennett and John McCain are not pure enough speak to a new orthodoxy.

So what is orthodox Republicanism now? It may be no more than a marketing brand or technique attempting to repackage a collection of contradictory ideas, some that have been part of the Republican Party for some time, others that are new. Palinism’s rebranding of the GOP offers little new, except for a multi-media cult of personality campaign that draws upon the anger and fear of many that their way of life is threatened and that someone else is to blame for it. If only government, gays, immigrants, abortionists, Democrats, and RINOS did not exist, we could take back our country and prosper again. This is orthodox Republicanism.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

One Month to Go

It is exactly one month to the Minnesota’s first August primary which takes place on August 10. Frantic are the candidates for the governor’s race (especially DFL) who are securing absentee ballots for voters away on that date. They are also making their last minute pitches to remind their supporters to vote for them, or convince likely voters to convert to them.

Where do we stand today? Emmer for the GOP and Horner for the Independence Party are still the favorites for their parties. For the DFL, Dayton retains his lead, Kelliher second, and Entenza third. But Entenza is the biggest wild card. Recent polls have him gaining the most–largely out of Kelliher’s numbers–and his recent television ads, including a new one on education that features him and Robyn Robinson, are getting better and more frequent. His money and ads seem to be working.

But a few questions surround Entenza. It is yet to see if the ads and new poll numbers translate into real turnout on primary day. This is the groundwars battle and it is not clear where he stands compared to Dayton and Kelliher who have more connections to unions that might be able to drive turnout. Additionally, Dayton’s decision to release his taxes and Entenza’s refusal, the latter’s income from his wife in healthcare and the environment, are raising troubling questions about potential conflicts of interest. I also continue to find that regular DFLers (party folks) continue to see Entenza as having other ethical questions. I spoke at an event Thursday heavily populated by suburban (DFL) Jewish women. They all expressed concern about Entenza’s ethics but several also expressed concern that when several of them had talked to him in the past they said “he looked right though them” and did not really listen to them.

But conversely, Entenza may also be the best candidate to take on Emmer. Emmer needs to be pressed on many issues about taxes, spending, and host of other issues. Entenza may be the best at going for Emmer’s juggler and in debating. Entenza has good speaking skills and knows the issues well. He is a better debater than Dayton and is clearly more aggressive than Kelliher. Both may be critical skills in what will be a difficult general election.

Overall, while right now the smart money is on Dayton for August 10, Entenza is a good long shot for both then and the general election if he makes it that far. He still needs to address concerns about ethics and listen to what these DFL women are saying.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Welcome to Hooverville

Whatever the fate the of financial reform bill in Congress, it does little to fix the short term problems with the US economy. Last Friday the news of weak job production followed up stories of declining consumer confidence and weakening new homes sales. Couple these together with signs of increased mortgage foreclosure and all the signs of a double-dipped recession are becoming more clear and real.

So what are Obama and Congress doing about all this? Not much. Obama proposes an anemic jobs bill that Congress cannot pass, new action to extend unemployment insurance is stalled, and there is pressure among deficit hawks to cut government spending now, well in advance of the economy sustaining itself. It seems as if the lessons of John Maynard Keynes have been lost as many rush to join Hoovernomics. Soon I bet we will pass a new version of Smoot-Hartley and we will be completely back to Depression era economics.

It is bad enough that the individual states are hurting recession recovery by cutting spending in order to maintain balanced budgets. These moves, while they sound fiscally smart, actually counteracted the federal stimulus law adopted last year. Instead of creating new spending they merely forestalled state budget cuts which are now coming in force this year.

These cuts will undo or undercut whatever good the federal stimulus did. Now with pressure mounting on the federal government to tackle deficits first, any effort to stimulate the economy at the time it most needs a second bounce will also be damaged. The assumption seems to be worries about inflation and belief that cutting spending and taxes now will free up capital for the private sector to grow. This is still the same old pie in the sky supply-side economics hope and belief that has not worked in the past.

There have been too many roads not taken since 2008 to help the economy. First there was the $150 or so billions stimulus in the spring, 2008. That measure failed as it was too small and too diffuse. I argued then the $150 was a waste and measures should have been taken to directly help the residential mortgage market.

TARP helped banks but did little to address the underlying problems with the mortgage market that caused all the problems. We have yet to address mortgage speculation, subprimes, defaults, and falling or negative equity. Both the short term and long term health of the economy needs to stabilize this market. Several times I have argued that this is a core issue and there still seems to be no clue or effort to address this problem.

The weak housing market is paralleled by a weak jobs market. There is no question that a real job bill (not just milk toast tax breaks for businesses) are needed. My laundry list of legislation for both the mortgage and labor market includes:
  • Immediate moratorium on residential foreclosures for one year
  • Require banks to renegotiate loans
  • Federal support to reduce principal on many residential mortgages
  • Federal jobs bill that consists of direct hiring for public works projects (A WPA for 2010 that is not just roads and highways).
My overriding goal? Keep people in their homes and get them to work. These are both good individual goals and socially smart in that they benefit us all. They address personal problems and market failures. Both require serious government investments in the short run before we worry about the longer term problem of deficits and inflation which are still distant issues.

Alas, if we do not do this, as I suspect we will not, we will remain trapped in Hooverville and in the economics that exacerbated the first Depression and which is in danger of doing the same here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thoughts on Kagan and the Confirmation Process: Creating Potted Plants

So what did we learn about Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings? Precious little beyond the vaguest of generalities is my impression.

For three days the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for Kagan. I listened to most of them and commented on them for Minnesota Public Radio (you can listen to the interview here). There were two items that most struck me about the hearings. First, that the hearings were not about Kagan. Second, Kagan gave us no more than textbook answers or that any opinion she held or view expressed was disavowed.

The hearings were really perfunctory. Kagan was going to be confirmed. Her appearance was a pretext for other political agendas. Thus, speeches by the Senators were previews of the 2010 election, or efforts to make news back home, or posturing for constituencies. But bring together that this is an election year, she does not change the balance of power on the court, she worked in the Obama administration, and she said nothing, the combination is a recipe for the hearings to be political posturing. That is what we received. This is no different than many other hearings in the past, but some thought it would be different given Kagan’s criticism of vacuous confirmations in the past.

Kagan recanted on her demand for candor. Some of this is understandable, potential justices have to be wary of saying too much, less they prejudge cases that compromise their integrity. This is a legitimate concern. But there is also the political demand to say very little to make it possible for senators to vote for you–or at least not against you. And then there is a demand to be open and answer questions in order to educate the public and allow the Senate to do its constitutional duties. All three need to be balanced and the trend now seems to be to say little.

But having said that, what struck me as odd was the number of times, when pressed about an issue or asked about a case or something she wrote, Kagan said that she had not read the decision, that she was simply working for the president, or the views did not express her own. She also seemed to say she did not have opinions on certain subjects or that her mind was open. I find all of this hard to believe. She is a well educated ivy league law professor, former Harvard Law School dean, and solicitor general. She could not have gotten that far without forming her own opinions on many legal matters.

I teach law. I read cases and opinions and I am expected to have digested them. I would be remiss if I did not. I find it hard to believe she has not read or formed opinions about so many of the things she was asked about. It reminds of how when Clarence Thomas, when asked at his confirmation hearings, whether he had read Roe v. Wade (the abortion case), and he said he had never discussed it in law school. This is hard to believe given that Roe was decided while he was in law school! Thus, for Kagan, as well as Thomas, they seemed not to be doing something that I would expect of every good lawyer or law professor–read, think, and form opinions about the law.

Moreover, Kagan gave textbook answers to so many questions. These were answers we teach in law school as almost rote answers. For example, always try to avoid deciding a constitutional question and decide on statutory grounds. If making a statutory decision, do xyz. Kagan repeated this mantra.

My criticism is not totally on Kagan but on the process of judicial selection. The confirmation process is a charade, but judicial elections are equally empty in terms of what we learn about judicial candidates. I am not sure there is a good way to select judges in ways that provide meaningful information about them, whatever “meaningful” should signify. We want accountability but in a democracy that is majority rule balanced by respect for minority rights, and where judges are supposed to assist or take a primary role in striking that balance, I am not sure what judges should be allowed or encouraged to discuss.

But one thing is certain. In 1986, in commenting on the Bork confirmation, Judge Richard Posner said judges are not potted plants. They are learned, have views, and exercise discretion. Supreme Court Justices should not be potted plants, but the confirmation hearings encourage them to act like that.

Final note: One caller to MPR asked me if I was troubled about the fact that all the justices now are east coast, Ivy League Harvard types. Even though I am from NY, I said yes. While the nine justices do differ in many ways, they (and the Obama and before that the Bush administration) represent a narrow band of elites. Senator Feingold caught it well on Tuesday when he asked Kagan how she could understand the plight of those in Stevens Point. She said she could. I doubt any of the justices or most of the Obama or previous Bush Administration could. Senator Franken caught it well when he discussed how the Court has a real impact on the lives of real people. His speech was a plea that we need to remember real people. I fear this Court and Ivy covered world from which they come cannot do that.