Customer Feedback, Week 6

[Lay impressions on the GOP’s political messaging this week. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Slow news week last week.  A relative (and rare) calm before the State of the Union tomorrow night. 

Hagel and Brennan

Republicans are weak on the confirmations of Hagel and Brennan.  Lindsey Graham on Face the Nation yesterday said he intends to somehow block a confirmation vote of Hagel until he gets more information on Benghazi.  I’m of two minds on this.  The time for outrage on this is passed.  The Benghazi attack occurred two months before a presidential election and the people decided to give the president a pass.  I do tend to think the president is “disengaged,” as Graham says.  But unless you have a broad swell of support at least among other Republicans, Graham is mostly just providing the president and Democrats evidence for their supposition that the GOP is fractured.  Which lends support to the argument that Graham is doing this for personal political reasons, to convince his constituents in his upcoming 2014 campaign that he’s conservative enough.

On the other hand, I wonder how much deference to nominees is appropriate.  When it comes to judicial nominations, for example, it’s been accepted that contested aggressive confirmation hearings are justified given that Supreme Court sessions have become, in effect, annual constitutional conventions.  Given the great power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself in the past several decades, it’s understandable and even appropriate that the confirmation process—one of the only meaningful democratic checks on the Court—has grown some sharp teeth. 

The power and significance of the U.S. military also has swelled greatly in modern times.  Perhaps more resistance and skepticism is warranted in the confirmation process. 

Drones

John Eastman says the drones memo was improperly classified because it did not contain any tactical information.  The real reason it was held back may be because the administration is relying on many of the same grounds cited in the Bush memos, which then-Senator Obama criticized.

No matter; the public loves drones.

State of the Union

Republicans are bracing for one of the most partisan State of the Union addresses of this partisan president’s administration.  Obama is set to focus on the economy, and likely will employ his familiar device of using strawmen and hyperbole to demonize his opponents.  Last week, he told Democrats that Republicans’ position is that “the only way to replace it now is for us to cut Social Security, cut Medicare and not close a single loophole.”  Who is saying that?  Is there any elected Republican in Congress—or anywhere else—who says this? 

I’ll be gritting my way through the president’s address Tuesday night awaiting Marco Rubio’s response.  To say that Sen. Rubio is facing high expectations may be a gross understatement after last week: 

One of the memes last week was that the GOP doesn’t just need better messaging, it needs a new message.  From my perspective, this meme cannot survive without referencing leaders who badly fumble the GOP message, proving the point that the problems is in the messengers, not the message.  Rubio is far and away the most thoughtful and articulate conservative the party has seen in a very long time.  The juxtaposition of Rubio’s response to what is expected to be Obama’s most aggressive and progressive SOTU address will be a thing to behold. 

65 thoughts on “Customer Feedback, Week 6

  1. unless you have a broad swell of support at least among other Republicans, Graham is mostly just providing the president and Democrats evidence for their supposition that the GOP is fractured.

    I don’t think fractured is the right word there. Obsessed may be more accurate as to what the Democrats are saying about the GOP, and what Graham’s argument can be seen as providing evidence for.

    One of the memes last week was that the GOP doesn’t just need better messaging, it needs a new message. From my perspective, this meme cannot survive without referencing leaders who badly fumble the GOP message, proving the point that the problems is in the messengers, not the message.

    I don’t think it proves the problem is the messenger rather than the message. Logically it can’t prove that. It can only provide a continuing reason to think the problem may may be the messenger rather than the message. But I’m not sure you should get too complacent about that, given the demographics of the last election.

    Republicans are bracing for one of the most partisan State of the Union addresses of this partisan president’s administration. Obama is set to focus on the economy, and likely will employ his familiar device of using strawmen and hyperbole to demonize his opponents.
    Are you suggesting he’s no better than prior presidents, or that he’s worse than prior presidents? One of those needs more support than the other.

      

    • “Fractured” would be the perspective if I’m the president and his party on the eve of the SOTU. Obama is about to express his vision for the nation while one of the only Republicans making noise is still talking about Benghazi. Other adjectives may work, but the operative one seems to be that many of them are out on so many different issues and need to get behind a unified message. I hope that’s not Benghazi, but at least if it were, they wouldn’t be “fractured” on that issue.

      This is all just kind of a passing observation, though.

        

    • Are you suggesting he’s no better than prior presidents, or that he’s worse than prior presidents?

      No better than what? Maybe I’m not clear on what you’re referring to. On partisanship? I don’t know. I’m not good at making comparisons like that. He seems awfully partisan to me. I think that point’s even been conceded by his supporters, and the discussion has turned instead to whether his partisanship or the GOP’s is cause or effect of the current hyper-partisan climate.

        

      • No his “partisanship” has not be conceded by his supporters. In fact one of the main criticisms many liberals had of O during his first term was he was continually trying to negotiate with R’s or giving in to some of their demands before even starting to negotiate. Most liberals have wanted him to be more forceful in defending liberal ideas and pushing liberal policies. Liberals really weren’t saying the problem with the ACA is it went TO far to the left.

          

        • Indeed, frankly I find it refreshing to be hearing the right-o-sphere wailing and shrieking about Obama being partisan and actually agreeing that he’s behaving that way and he’s actually putting up some fight. The spectacle of Obama playing doormat while the GOP stomped on him and simultaneously howled about how evilly partisan he was nausea inducing. At least now Obama’s giving them something to cry about.

            

      • In all honesty, as a guy who’s not really aligned with either party, and who keeps half a professional eye on the presidency since I’m sorta-kinda committed to teaching it every other year, I just don’t see Obama as particularly partisan. I see him as far less partisan than his predecessor, who I see as far more partisan than any other president in recent memory.

        Obama’s got a penchant for Republican SecDefs, no? And on policy battles I think he’s given far too much away to Republicans. “Far too much” here is defined on a strategic basis, not on a policy preference basis–that is, I don’t bemoan Obama not standing up for more liberal/progressive policy goals; as an sorta-kinda half-assed presidential scholar who mostly thinks about what kinds of examples any president will provide for that class I find myself not-too-willingly teaching once in a while, I think he’s undermined his prospects for real policy success by not fighting hard enough for what he wants. Richard Neustadt (a real prez scholar, unlike me) emphasized the importance of “reputation” for a president–a president whose reputation is that of a guy who gets what he wants tends to find it easier to get what he wants, while a guy whose reputation is that of one who caves tends to find it harder to get what he wants; harder to persuade the opposition that this time he’s really truly not going to cave. I think Obama’s reputation is that of someone who caves.

        And even if he is more partisan than average, well, people voted for him and his party. Just as it was legitimate for Reagan to push Republican/conservative policies against Democratic/liberal opposition, it’s legitimate for Obama or any other president to do so. I find people tend to be more disturbed by the partisanship of presidents who are not from their party than they are by the partisanship of presidents who are from their party.

          

        • I’d call W the most partian president of my lifetime, because his administration did not distinguish between policy and politics. Giving someone like Karl Rove significant input on policy was just horrific, and let to constant violations or near-violations of the Hatch Act.

            

          • I’m inclined to agree. I thought the firing of attorneys general was one of the most egregiously partisan and anti-good government acts of all time. Perfectly legal, mind, but with zero justification other than an effort to use the legal system for purely partisan ends.

              

          • I got a laugh out of the partisan line as well, given how incredibly partisan Bush was. I think that falls under the category of IOKIYAR. Now that he’s been re-elected, Obama does seem somewhat more partisan but, as James said above, he earned a reputation for being the guy who caves during his first term, and that’s going to be a hard reputation to overcome.

              

          • I consciously did not use a comparative qualifier (e.g., “most” or “one of the most,” etc.) when I claimed Obama is “partisan.” I did not closely follow politics during W’s term in office, so I’m not comfortable making such comparisons. If you’re interested in my subjective experience when I listen to Obama speak, here it is: I think of myself as a reasonable person, even though firmly right of center on most issues. By this time, I can spot Obama’s rhetorical patterns pretty easily: he begins with making conciliatory and anodyne statements so that no one, least of all someone like me who thinks himself reasonable, could possibly disagree. And then he says things like the Republicans’ position is that “the only way to replace it now is for us to cut Social Security, cut Medicare and not close a single loophole.” This rhetoric gives me the impression he’s not interested in talking to people who hold my views even though I’m willing to consider his. I know that Republicans are not unwilling to “close a single loophole.” We want tax reform, but we want spending cuts more. Democrats (some of them) want spending cuts, but want tax reform more. So each side is going to use one as leverage to get the other. (Though it’s my impression that most Democrats are far less willing to engage in meaningful spending cuts than most Republicans are to engage in tax reform. The fact is, establishment leaders on both sides use the tax code to give favors to their supporters.)

            My point is, Obama’s rhetoric has been extremely divisive and partisan from my perspective. I won’t make comparisons here, and I won’t suggest whether it’s cause or effect. But for a president who hit paydirt using Romney’s 47% remark and emphasizing he’s the man to lead the whole country, he seems to have oversold himself.

            Here’s an interesting piece on how attaching Obama’s name to certain policies helps and hurts their chances—make of it what you will: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/02/12/what-president-obama-should-and-shouldnt-say-in-the-state-of-the-union/

            “Seven in 10 people in the survey said they would support a path to citizenship, including 60 percent of Republicans. But when the same question was asked of a separate sample of respondents, this time with Obama’s name attached to it, support dropped to 59 percent overall and just 39 percent among Republicans.

            “On other hot-button issues like banning the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons or ending the war in Afghanistan, however, lending Obama’s name to the proposal made each viewed more favorably — and therefore if he were to put his political weight behind them it could actually increase their chances of passing. On doing something about climate change, there was no noticeable movement.”

            Also, Gallup shows the past decade has seen some of the most divisive politics in history in terms of how much supporters support and critics criticize them. W is in the lead, but Obama may overtake him in his second term: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/obama-the-most-polarizing-president-ever/2012/01/29/gIQAmmkBbQ_blog.html

              

          • The WaPo article attributes the skewed poll numbers to increased polarization in general, not to the president or his words and actions. Certainly one factor for Obama is the prevalence of Birtherism among Republicans; wouldn’t you disapprove of someone who’s president illegally?

              

          • Tim: “I did not closely follow politics during W’s term in office.”

            Then why should we listen to you about anything? For most of us, especially liberals / progressives, it was hard NOT to follow politics durng the Codpiece Commander’s Reign of Terror (a bit of hyperbole, perhaps). Now, all of the sudden, you’re a political scholar? Bushwa.

            As for the “closing loopholes” being a strawman, the GOP had four years to close any, and chose not to. I don’t see mentioning that as strawmanning.

              

          • Yeah, I’ve been sort of ignoring this point from Tim, but yeah. I’m a little questioning of “conservatives”, especially hardcore conservatives who claim they suddenly developed an interest in politics in the past four years.

              

          • Spent the years after college co-founding and building a computer service company and playing in a band. Started getting more interested in politics after I began law school in 2004. I always had a latent interest in politics, but it was studying the philosophy of the founding during law school, and working on eminent domain cases against abusive government power under a legal regime that disfavors property rights, that gave shape and focus to that interest. While in law school, I blogged a little at a Federalist Society student blog, mostly on legal issues, and then started what became this blog in November 2008 after a trying first year in law firm life.

            I’m happy to meet you at whatever level you like, preferably if you ask nicely. If you’re dissatisfied with my resume, you’re free to ignore what I have to say. But my point was that I didn’t spend nearly as much time poring over W’s rhetoric and tone and style like I have Obama’s, so I don’t feel comfortable making comparisons at that level.

              

          • Tim,

            I hear what you’re saying here, and it’s reasonable. But please understand that by specifically noting Obama as partisan, and his speech as his “most partisan,” and not, noticeably, likewise identifying Rubio’s response as partisan, it really looks like you have some implicit comparison in mind. And your claim that he’s partisan, and that his SOTU is partisan, tends to read as criticism. But if you really don’t have much background in paying attention to presidents, do you have basis for treating it as a criticism? (Now I emphasize that it “reads” that way; if you did not intend it, I believe you, but still think you ought to take note of how it appears, which is that it appears as partisan to some of your readers as Obama’s speech appears partisan to you.)

              

          • James, this post was written before the State of the Union address. My statement said that others are bracing for a “most partisan” speech. That was not my characterization. My Statement was that Obama is partisan. Not most or more than other presidents, just plain partisan. Of course I think that’s a criticism. Just as others I’m sure think it’s a criticism of Bush when they call him partisan. All that all seems fair to me.

              

          • Tim,

            I know you’re a good guy, an honest guy, and an intelligent guy. I think, though, that for everything folks talk about, they need some historical perspective. You have some historical perspective with regard to ideas, tying them back to the Founding, etc. But I don’t think you have developed that historical perspective when it comes to politics, regarding the presidency, partisan relations in Congress, and presidential-congressional relations. So it might be a bit premature to use an idea like “partisan” as a criticism, if you don’t have the historical context for it. There’s been no American president elected outside of a party base since 1796, and the only one since Washington who can with any seriousness be called not-particularly-partisan (because even John Adams, elected outside of a formal party base, was in fact very partisan) is probably Eisenhower. Presidents pursue policies more amenable to their parties, they do so by trumping the other party–as long as we elect presidents and congressmembers in partisan elections, they will act as partisans. There’s just no two ways about it.

            Part of the problem with the presidency is that we ask him to be both head of state and head of government, unlike most countries, where those roles are split among separate people (e.g., the British PM is head of gov’t, while the Queen/King is head of state). As head of state we expect the president to represent all of us, to be non-partisan, but as head of government he cannot avoid taking a partisan role. So much of the criticism of presidential partisanship tends to stem from disappointment that our presidents are not always above the fray as head of state, but simultaneously we condemn presidents who stay ahead of the fray and don’t get involved in pursuing policy legislation. And since the SOTU is where the president presents his policy goals, it’s really non-sensical to criticize it for being partisan.

            The only time I think it’s an appropriate criticism of a president to say that he’s being partisan is when he’s acting in a situation that distinctly calls for him to play the head of state role. E.g., when Bush went to the Ground Zero after 9/11, if he had made a partisan speech it would have been grotesquely offensive. But even that very partisan head of government steered well clear of that in that important head of state moment.

            But to criticize Obama as partisan in his head of government role makes as much sense as criticizing a coach for saying he hopes his team beats the other team.

              

          • James – That formulation makes sense. In light of that, I’d modify the claim to say Obama is unduly partisan, or perhaps obnoxiously partisan, e.g., when he makes calls to end partisanship that, according to your formulation, seems to be a logical impossibility without radically altering our system of government. This would suggest the pleas to end partisanship are either naïve or disingenuous. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s a fair statement that no other recent president has advanced an “end to partisanship” theme as prominently as Obama.)

            At any rate, in his (legitimately) partisan role as leader of government, he has been effective—ironically, by advancing or at least indulging in a theme of post-partisanship. The Republicans, on the other hand, have been much more openly and boorishly partisan (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”), but clearly less effective, largely as a result of it.

              

          • Tim,

            Well, on the one hand Washington’s partisanship has gotten worse, all the long-time observers agree on that. It’s always been there, and always should be, or some party’s not representing it’s constituent’s interests. But in the past there’s still been ability to compromise, to work across the aisle, and today that ability is scarcely there. And a large portion of the public s very sick of it. So a call to an end of excessive partisanship is good both in terms of good governance and in appealing to the public, even if it’s done rather cynically.

            But it’s not really that new, even if perhaps couched in different terms today. Presidents throughout the 20th century called for Congress to set aside its differences and pass the presidents proposals. And in the Bush administration, 9/11 and the war on terror were used at times as excuses to paint partisan opposition as un-American and traitorous.

            And, again, Obama has twice appointed Republicans to be SecDef, and his one Dem appointment to tha position was a pretty conservative Dem. He refused to investigate anyone from the Bush administration for their role in illegal torture. And throughout his first term he consistently compromised to a greater extent than the GOP congressmembers on legislation, particularly budgets (e.g, extension of Bush tax cuts).

            So while I can get why you find his partisanship distasteful, and while I can disagree it’s disingenuous, even cynical, I can’t get behind the “unduly partisan” claim. And really, when the other side is being as unbending as possible, engaging in a record number of filibusters, and is, as you say, being openly and boorishly partisan, to the point of publicly admitting that their number one goal as legislators was not any legislative goal but to make Obama a one-term president…..I have a hard time seeing how he could manage to be “unduly” partisan in response. I think all the partisanship he’s demonstrated in response to them is quite due.

            I mean, what would you have the guy do? Not as a partisan yourself, but if you were his political adviser? What if Romney had one, and the Democrats refused to make any compromises, filibustered everything in sight, including possibly one of their own appointed by Romney to a cabinet post, and vowed that their number one goal was to make Romney a one-term prez? Meanwhile Romney is trying to get his proposals through Congress and calling for the partisanship to chill so Congress and president can work together for the country’s good (as he sees it, of course). If Democrats started calling him unduly partisan, would that ring true to you at all?

            Honestly, I find Obama exceptionally irritating on a number of dimensions, including his flat out lying on matters of abuses of executive power, and I can’t stand to listen to him because he always sounds like he’s talking down to us. I voted with real reluctance for him the first time (I initially favored McCain, but he worked overtime to alienate me), and I did not vote for him the second time. I have no love for the man, but I just can’t see your argument as being fairly objective.

              

          • James — As for “unduly” partisan, I thought for a moment about whether I could offer reasons to support it. I do believe there’s a case to be made, but I’m not prepared to make it here. So for now, I will dismiss the claim without prejudice.

            I am in the habit of engaging in the mental exercise of putting myself in the other guy’s shoes and asking myself how I’d respond then. But it some circumstances it’s a less helpful exercise, such as in the example you mentioned if Romney had been elected and Democrats announced their intention to stonewall all his policies. Although I hope you understand that I’m exactly a “tear it all down” extreme limited government type, I do still believe that government inaction is a policy in itself that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. One of the big differences I perceive at the national level is not “our policies versus their policies,” but too many policies altogether. For for those kinds of reasons, the mental exercise of “what if they did it to Romney” is not as effective.

            But there are some real life examples—Senate Democrats filibustering Miguel Estrada comes to mind. I haven’t thought deeply on it, but I wrote recently that I decided to largely withdraw the concept of voting against court nominees because of the undue swell in power of the judiciary; indeed, even if one disagrees that the swell is undue, the operative fact is that the courts are simply perceived to have more power than they were perceived to have at the time the limited checks on the judiciary were installed in the Constitution. Given that change in perception, a greater check is needed to safeguard its perceived legitimacy. Now, whether filibustering or other measures to block nominees are appropriate, or whether instead propriety demands a vote, I will need to think on further. But my point is that I do try to think of these issues from an institutional and process-oriented perspective and not just a partisan one.

            Finally, and in the latter regard, I am, after all, a partisan. I tend to have a significantly greater implicit trust level in writers and thinkers who are up front about their ideologies and allow their readers to correct for bias on their own, rather than pretending to “objectivity” and forcing their readers to sleuth for hints and cues of bias. For that reason, I don’t think objectivity describes what I aim for in my writing: I have opinions and I mean to advocate for them. Fairness, precision, accuracy, clarity, civility, those are traits I hope would characterize my approach to writing and advocacy. But I do fear that these are less evident when I take to writing about politics.

              

          • Tim,

            By all means be partisan and non-objective about your political values. Values are subjective, after all. I’m not encouraging you to abandon your arguments for a conservative politics.

            My issue–a long standing beef I bring up everywhere, probably making myself unwelcome most everywhere I go–is whether the standards we use to judge our own and others are common standards, or whether we adjust them to favor our own and disfavor others. I think of it as the “good fan rule.” A good fan cheers his/her team on and hopes to crush the other team, but is satisfied with a ref who calls the game the same for both teams. A bad fan is one who thinks the ref is only doing a good job when the standards for a foul are looser for his team and tighter for the other team.

            I’m not saying you’re a bad fan, only that the comment we’ve been gnawing over seemed to tilt a bit in that direction. If you were a useless, mindless, schlumpf, I’d have mocked you and stopped there. But you’re a thoughtful and intellectually engaging guy, and by your own statements you’re still developing in that role, so I want to set out a warning sign in hopes of helping to make clear the dangers of unconsciously drifting down that path.

            And this has probably all come across as unduly parental, because my rhetorical skills aren’t always what I’d desire them to be. Despite any tone that suggests otherwise–and for any such other tone I regret my limited rhetorical capacity–I really do mean this as constructive critique and encouragement, not as a damn-you-eyes argument.

              

          • Fairness, precision, accuracy, clarity, civility, those are traits I hope would characterize my approach to writing and advocacy. But I do fear that these are less evident when I take to writing about politics.

            I’m not a paragon of any of these traits myself, but I hope that my stance isn’t that I more or less just accept that I’m going to be worse at maintaining them when discussing politics, just because of the nature of the beast. I would be disappointing myself if so.

              

          • …Which is not to say that I find a lack of these in your writing, Tim. But I would think less of you as a political interlocutor if I thought you for some reason felt yourself less committed to maintaining these in the political realm than elsewhere. Obviously, since that’s where I tend to encounter you, there’s a reason I’d feel that way…

              

        • I think Obama’s been increasingly partisan, which probably makes him look pretty partisan to the other party (and, as we know, less unduly conciliatory to the highly partisan on his side). But I agree with James that, with the exception of a few moments, he’s never been a particularly partisan president. Also, most of his political profile at the moment comes from the election campaign, which necessarily makes all actors seem more partisan, and he continues not to pull any punches in portraying the other parties proposals exactly as they actually read, which makes him sound partisan just by enunciating a direct statement of what they contain, and saying he opposes them. Maybe that is partisanship, but if so, it’s a kind of partisanship we actually want. If we’re going to have parties, one of the benefits we can hope to get from having them is to be given clear choices between policy proposals.

            

      • ” I think that point’s even been conceded by his supporters, and the discussion has turned instead to whether his partisanship or the GOP’s is cause or effect of the current hyper-partisan climate.”

        No, it hasn’t been conceded by his supporters.
        BTW, you do know that GOP congressional leadership decided on a 100% opposition strategy by dinner on Inauguration Day, 2009, don’t you?

          

        • James Hanley February 12, 2013 at 12:57 pm

          ” I’m inclined to agree. I thought the firing of attorneys general was one of the most egregiously partisan and anti-good government acts of all time. Perfectly legal, mind, but with zero justification other than an effort to use the legal system for purely partisan ends.”

          To the extent that they were fired due to unwillingness to abuse their office to conduct fraudulent partisan prosecutions/ignore crimes committed by their party, I’d say that it was highly illegal.

          Difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but highly illegal.

            

  2. Thoughtful and Articulate Rubio may be.
    Whether he is still out of jail in the next few years?
    Only time will tell.

    I’d rather neither party pin their hopes on ethically questionable politicians.
    (Yes, there are politicians who aren’t ethically questionable!)

      

  3. …what exactly IS the GOP message?
    Not snarking here. Whenever something discernible comes about I see or hear something contradicting it right after.

    As for drones, I strongly get the feeling that the coverage of their use (or more precisely lack thereof) is the main factor in their approval. When you’re told “it’s highly accurate, & we’re striking after Very Bad Guys! You do want us to win against Very Bad Guys, don’t you?” by the government & you’re swallowing that along w/ removal of risk for U.S. troops, finding out civilians are being killed in our names and the working definition of a “militant”/combatant being used is any male adult in the area would have to be a perspective shock.

    That is, unless those respondents genuinely don’t give a shit because of nationalism & dehumanization of the Other. Which would be terrible, since that’d chalk it up to hatred rather than mere ignorance.

      

    • In broad terms, the GOP message focuses on the idea of a higher law that imbues individuals with both rights and obligations with respect to his fellows; that those rights are best exercised and respected, and those obligations best discharged, through associations with local communities that provide paternal authority, including religious associations and instruction, that train citizens to be men and women. That government, to the contrary, “seeks only to keep them in childhood irrevocably,” as Tocqueville put it, and thus is not to be regarded as a dispensary of the good moral character and virtue necessary for a free republic. To train citizens through proper education. To avoid the “corruption of morals” and a culture of “dependence,” as Thomas Jefferson warned. To foster opportunity and allow citizens to “pursue his occupation and enjoy the fruits of his labors in the produce of this property in peace and safety and with the least possible expense,” as Thomas Paine said, for “When these things are accomplished all objects for which governments ought to be established are accomplished.” To distrust power, and thus to avoid concentrations of it.

      Also, that prosperity begets virtue. But, as is too often forgotten in the battle against state-centered redistribution, that concentrations of wealth are problematic today, as they were for the founders. The founding generation believed the great land reserves of the West and limited government would solve the ancient causes of great concentrations of wealth—populations that outstrip the land’s economic capacity and rent-seeking. We deal with much different circumstances today, but both major political parties fail badly in overstating the merit of one side of the coin and completely ignoring the other side. Prosperity and rights to property is important to virtue, industriousness, and as a safeguard against tyranny. “The utopian schemes of leveling, and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable, as those which vest all property in the Crown, are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government unconstitutional,” Sam Adams said. “Now what property can the colonists be conceived to have, if their money may be granted away by others, without their consent?” But on the other hand, the current system in which favored businesses, particularly those in the finance sector, close to the spigots of capital, is also antithetical to the founding. “[A] general and tolerably equal distribution of landed property is the whole basis of national freedom” and wide spread distribution of property was “the very soul of a republic,” said Noah Webster, writing in favor of adopting the U.S. Constitution in 1787. And in a 1776 letter to James Sullivan, John Adams wrote:

      “The balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may he possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government.”

      These are the sorts of principles that suggest to me that the GOP should focus its message on devolving authority on certain matters back to states and local governments; reduce dependency on government, but especially on the federal government, as it has minimal ties to local communities; education and character-building programs; property rights, opportunity, and reducing political capitalism/cronyism; and accountability in government. Most of these broad goals intuitively point to smaller government as not only a good in itself (because of distrust of power), but also as implicitly necessary to carry out these individual- and community-oriented programs. Small government might sound like an unthinking mantra, but it really is a logical and practical necessity in these matters.

        

        • The latter. Note that almost all of these statements are all tied directly to quotes from the founders, and that I don’t think you’ll find many conservatives who will disavow the founders. So I think they’re pretty solid. But they’re also very general, as I mentioned. So this is more a statement of principles or values, and perhaps not a message, i.e., a list of policy prescriptions. I took a step closer to policies in the final paragraph, but still didn’t quite get there.

            

          • Cool. As long as we’re clear that that’s not what b-psycho asked for, and also that you started by saying that what was to follow was what you thought GOP message in fact is (which is what b-psycho asked about…).

              

          • I think if you’re trying to describe the GOP’s message and relying entirely on quotes from over 200 years ago and the logic “I doubt they would disavow the founders”, you are operating more on “wishful thinking” than an actual description of the GOP message or principles.

              

          • Maybe I’m not clear myself on what we mean when we talk about a “message.” Is it just a set of policies we mean to work on right now? Or does it also include a statement or principles that informs those policies? The GOP is looking for its next leader, as well as its message, even though it still knows its own principles. So maybe that’s the answer or the qualifier I should have given at the beginning: The GOP’s message at this precise moment is basically nonexistent, other than in the passive sense that, when policy discussions are presented by the other party, they generally respond in line with the principles and values I’ve indicated. But what they are missing is their own action list of policies that will advance those principles and values. Immigration is a good way to do that, and Marco Rubio is the GOP’s best chance to make that part of an affirmative Republican message. So is reform of prisons and criminal justice, being taken up by some Republican governors. But almost by definition, conservatives’ emphasis on state and local reform means they have an uphill battle in terms of messaging at the national level—there, even legitimate arguments that certain programs should be left to other levels of government or are otherwise inappropriate at the federal level draw the rejoinder that Republicans are the “party of no.”

              

          • Honestly? You’ve got a pretty hard row to hoe to claim those are the GOP’s real principles.

            I have no idea what the GOP stands for, really. But I wouldn’t go back 200+ years and pretend that was accurate. I’d look at what they did, recently, when they had power. What they say.

            Even your example: prison and criminal justice reform is being undertaken by ‘some’ Republicans…how is that a GOP principle if it’s only some? Texas sure as heck isn’t, and we’re a pretty big chunk of the GOP — and they control the entire state legislature.

            About the only unifying GOP principle I can see is “cutting taxes”. It’s the only thing they seem to agree on. Oh, and being Not Obama.

              

          • Morat,

            Prison and criminal justice policies are a good example of the difference between principle and policies. Principles are fixed; policies contingent. So when crime was a problem and drug use was increasing, harsher criminal law enforcement and sentencing seemed a good way to protect communities. And it seemed to work to some degree. But like many policies, what worked once won’t necessary work over and over again. The principles are the same, but the policies to effectuate them depend on the circumstances. I happen to think it was a bad idea to remove “correction” from the “correctional” system, but perhaps it was a casualty of a slate of policies with limited funding. At this time, though, it seems that the principles of promoting character and industriousness and strengthening families and communities calls for a different approach to crime prevention and correction than 30 years ago.

            There may be an argument that conservatives conflate policies and principles. But I’m not defending what conservatives or Republicans do as much as what they stand for, even if they sometimes get confused.

              

          • And it is true that I find no irony in citing principles articulated at the founding, particularly as I criticize contrary principles recited in presidential addresses or court decisions that would, as I contend, attempt to re-found the nation in new principles on their own authority, rather than the authority of the sovereign people. So I do not regard it a problem that my authorities are very old. It would only be a problem if those authorities do not accurately reflect the sovereign people’s understanding of the founding.

              

          • When I’m deciding who to vote for, I’m much more interested in policies than principles, especially since there seems to be a pretty big gap between the two much of the time. Stated princples are fine, but I’m not going to vote for a guy who espouses pacifism while pushing a policy of preemptive nucear war with China. I’ll go with the guy who doesn’t want to nuke China, even if he doesn’t appeal to first principles or an overarching philosophy on the way.

              

          • I’m gonne be blunt: You’d have to be a pretty ..let’s say “naive”..to vote for people “based on their principles” when the policies they put in place rarely have anything to do with said principles, and often in fact violate them.

            In the end, you basically say “I believe in what Republicans stand for” wherein you, personally, have defined what Republicans stand for in absolute disregard for what Republicans have been doing.

            You then square the circle by claiming you’re talking about Republican “principles” which you know in your heart they totally believe, even if they’ve gotten lost of late.

            It honestly sounds like you’re conning yourself. You believe in GOP principles that require you to quote 200 year old dead men, instead of modern Republicans. You can’t seem to find instances of them putting these principles into action, or policies supporting them, other than at the edges.

            I for one would not go back to the Founders to determine what the Democratic party stood for. I’d start with their 2012 platform and eyeball their voting records, rhetoric, accomplishments, and works — state and national — over the last decade or so.

            I suspect if you did the same to the GOP, you would find very little comfort there.

              

      • In broad terms, the GOP message focuses on the idea of a higher law that imbues individuals with both rights and obligations with respect to his fellows; that those rights are best exercised and respected, and those obligations best discharged, through associations with local communities that provide paternal authority, including religious associations and instruction, that train citizens to be men and women.

        Are you kidding? I’m glad you averred that this is more a statement of your political beliefs than anything the actual GOP of today stands for, except maybe as lip service. While I think both parties are pretty much whores to corporate power, the Republicans are particularly so.

          

        • This is a good example of the Catch-22 I sometimes complain the GOP’s critics have put them in: The GOP “extremists” who are passionate about limited government and anti-cronyism are unreasonable and should yield to the establishment Republicans, and the establishment Republicans are “whores to corporate power.”

            

          • A simple answer to your Catch 22 is that “limited government” often means corporations have much more power, freedom to do a variety of things many people aren’t happy with and free of regulations. Limited government is often seen as a code word for let Corps do what they want or a rather simplistic phrase that doesn’t address lots of issues. I’m fine with limited government. There is a lot more to discuss though and LG doesn’t really address many issues.

              

          • The GOP “extremists” who are passionate about limited government and anti-cronyism are unreasonable. . .

            Except that most limited government Republicans aren’t really that much into limiting government when it comes to American militarism abroad or social issues. They seem to be quite fine with massive defense spending, the Patriot Act, and governing women’s wombs. And they don’t seem to have any qualms about excessive corporate power. So they’re pretty much half a loaf when it comes to that limited government thing.

              

          • So the guys running the GOP are, in fact, not in tune with those principles and marginalize those guys that are.

            Which means that claimign the GOP adheres to those principles is, by default, false. If only the ‘extremists’ adhere to them, how can you claim the GOP does when the party’s mainstream adamantly does not?

              

          • A simple answer to your Catch 22 is that “limited government” often means corporations have much more power, freedom to do a variety of things many people aren’t happy with and free of regulations. Limited government is often seen as a code word for let Corps do what they want or a rather simplistic phrase that doesn’t address lots of issues.

            Yes, that’s the objection. Not an unreasonable one, I’ll grant you. The question people must instinctively answer for themselves is, roughly stated, whether they’d rather leave choices to the government or to the private sector. To fully address both sides of the question requires more thought than most people (anybody?) would be willing to devote. And yet all of us do answer the question. Not only that, most of us tend to think the answer is so obvious that those who disagree with us must be suffering from some kind of malady.

              

          • The question people must instinctively answer for themselves is, roughly stated, whether they’d rather leave choices to the government or to the private sector.

            It depends on the problem and the circumstances.

            Usually, I’m less about “the private sector” or “the government” making choices, and more about them aligning consequences with choices. Sometimes, consequences of certain choices make them unpalatable. I’m not entirely certain that this is the same thing as letting the government make your choice for you.

            In practice it often works out that way, but correcting for externalities is one of the two reasons we have a government in the first place.

              

          • Morat, I was referring to the criticisms of GOP leaders.

            I don’t want to be misunderstood as being an apologist for all things GOP. This series is an exercise to try to understand and articulate alternately what the GOP says, should say, stands for, should stand for, etc. I’m hardly qualified for the job in the first place, but as we start talking about what particular GOP leaders subjectively believe, you’re going to find I have exceedingly little of anything valuable to say.

            Back to your comment, I tend to think that many of the “establishment” GOP leaders, or “centrists” or “moderates” – I haven’t sorted out operating definitions of these categories that satisfy me yet – might be “squishier” on principles. But I don’t know what anyone really believes beyond what they say, and perhaps by looking at their record – though in the latter case, you’re often still left with their own explanation for why they voted a certain way. So in any event, you’re mostly just left with messaging. And those who are more interested in fixed principles than contingent policies, like I am, are probably more likely to find the GOP’s message appealing – when they can get their act together, anyway.

              

      • Localism, individual rights, community action, distrust of power concentration… Yank the part about “paternal authority” and I’m fine with the principle.

        So I guess what I should ask to this in response is the following: in your view, why despite the above am I an anarchist and not a conservative?

          

        • I dunno. I guess because, in my view, people have a need for structure and security, and they enter into government to provide those things. If the state suddenly stopped providing it, the people would likely just form a new one that would. So the idea is that, if we have to have an authority structure, it should be limited to do just those enumerated things required of it but not more.

            

  4. Inviting Ted Fishing Nugent to attend the SOTU is clearly a move of political genius. I tremble at the impending Republican wave this kind of crafty move portends.

      

  5. Tim Kowal: “Given the great power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself in the past several decades,… ”

    Between Dred Scott and corporate personhood, SCOTUS has arrogated immense power during the mid/late 1800’s. Of course, the latter decisions were quite pleasing to the powers that be, so by definition, they weren’t ‘judicial activism’ 🙂

      

    • the great power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself in the past several decades,

      I’d be interested in a discussion with Tim about which cases of the past several decades were examples of the Court arrogating power to itself. I mean that seriously, non-snark, because I find it an interesting question about the evolution of our system of checks and balances. Personally I’m far more worried about the power the presidency has arrogated to itself in the past few decades, but I’d be interested in a serious discussion of the Court as well.

      P.S. Little known historical fact about Dred Scott case; it was only the 2nd time SCOTUS exercised the power of judicial review. John Marshall was canny enough to both establish the precedence in a way that couldn’t be bucked (Marbury v. Madison) and to not use it again so as to not invite a response that might have killed the power. Few people in history would have had both that level of cleverness and that level of restraint–e.g., that high degree of strategic analysis.

        

Leave a Reply