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It’s Good to be the Speaker November 3, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, President Obama.

John Boehner may not be directing a human chessboard in the Rotunda against the minority leader anytime soon, but he is about to find some substantial influence as the Speaker of the House.  He will lead a caucas far more united than the Democratic ones that Speaker Pelosi had to manage for her 4 years with her raucous Blue Dogs on her right flank.  He has a historic opportunity to serve as both the chief critic of the Administration as well as an architect in steering through bills that will highlight Republican solutions to the nation’s problems.  Now that the dust has settled (mostly), here is my underqualified analysis of yesterday’s election:

The House

It’s good to be John Boehner today.  The Republican Party is on track to have its biggest majority since 1947.  In virtually every competitive race, GOP candidates pulled off upsets, some expected, some surprising.  Three key races indicate the depth of the wave that swept the country last night.  In New Hampshire, both House races went to Republicans, providing a respectable toehold in New England, which has been devoid of Republican representatives since 2006.  As a sidenote, GOP candidates also did well in the Middle Atlantic states of New York and Pennsylvania.

A second important race saw Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) swept from office after 28 years representing the district.  He received a lot of flak for his chairmanship of the Budget Committee, which failed to pass a budget this year.  His demise, along with Gene Taylor’s in Mississippi, indicates that long-term incumbency is no longer enough to save these moderate Democrats in heavily Republican districts.  The final race, which came as somewhat of a surprise, was Rep. Ike Skelton’s (D-MO) loss to Republican Vicky Hartzler.  Skelton has served for 17 terms, was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and was basically a moderate.  However, Hartzler proved an energetic campaigner, while Skelton (aged 77) did not run much of a campaign, relying on his incumbency and name recognition.  These races suggest that not only are moderate Blue Dogs and senior leaders not safe, but even liberals who overread their 2006/2008 mandates are vulnerable to challenges.

Presumptive Speaker-Elect John Boehner and Democrats highlighting the post-election casualty list

Now after the hyperanxiety of the campaign, the hard part begins.  Winning will prove easier than governing from the majority in the House.  To fulfill campaign promises, Republicans will (and should) pass various bills targeting Obamacare, financial regulation, stimulus programs, and other acts of the past two years.  Many of these will fall victim to Senate filibusters.  Nonetheless, they will be important symbolic statements to show the GOP is serious about its principles.  Once that statement is made clear, Republicans will have to contribute positive ideas to promote job growth and economic stabilization.  They can and should offer sound conservative bills.  But they should also offer some that have a decent shot of Senate passage.  Willing to compromise on a couple issues here and there will show the GOP is responsible and capable of not just shooting down Democratic proposals.

So John Boehner has his work cut out for him (sorry for the cliche).  The speaker’s platform and House majority will be a useful platform against the Obama Administration’s excesses and policies.  Some of the most egregious programs of the past two years will be flooded with amendments, hearings and investigations.  But Republicans will also have a great opportunity to demonstrate their ability to lead, to hold true to their principles and rein in government, and to not screw it up like last time.

The Senate

The Senate will clearly earn its moniker as the “saucer that cools the tea” over the next two years.  A lot of bills coming from the House will be slowed down in the Senate, where the narrow Democratic majority will put a brake on bills originating from the House, especially if they were sponsored by Tea Party-backed members.  However, bills that are not wildly controversial (like repealing Obamacare or razing the Department of Education) could pass with the support of a couple moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin or Ben Nelson (both up for reelection in 2012).  Nonetheless, look for a record low number of bills to emerge from the Senate for the President’s signature.

As a sidenote, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) will be seated very soon since they are replacing appointed senators.  This will complicate any Democratic plans to take advantage of a lame duck session of Congress to pass unpopular bills before they lose their House majority and substantial Senate majority.  Senator Harry Reid, against all odds, managed to pull off his reelection by a comfortable margin.  Now that he has to deal with a Republican House, look for lots of publicity duels between him and Boehner.

John Boehner and Harry Reid will have a lot to talk about over these next 2 years

Ballot Initiatives

The most overlooked story of the election.  In addition to selecting new members of Congress, state legislators, and governors, citizens in many states voted on a number of key issues in ballot initiatives.  Here are some of the most important:

Health Care – Every state that had a ballot measure on striking down or targeting the individual health care mandate  saw it pass by significant margins – Arizona (55-45), Colorado (53-47), and Oklahoma (65-35).  These clearly challenge federal law and will end up before the Supreme Court.  They demonstrate the continuing resilience of the Obamacare law since its passage in March.

Going to Pot… Not – Marijuana was a big issue in Arizona and California.  Despite the liberal/libertarian bent of the region, the cause for expanded marijuana legalization suffered across the board losses.  Arizona’s attempt to legalize medical marijuana came the closest, with about 7,000 more “No” votes, although it has not officially been called yet.  South Dakota decisively voted down medical marijuana by a 63-37 margin. Over the much more contentious issue of legalizing the drug for general consumption, California voters rejected that idea by a comparatively wide margin of 54-46.  The analysis? Traditional voters and those uncomfortable with encouraging the acceptability of marijuana, are not just limited to whites and Republicans.  Solid majorities of African-, Latino-, and Asian Americans voted the measure down too.

Redistricting – California, as in many other areas, once again pioneered new ideas.  With 61% of the vote, Californians voted to take the power of redistricting away from the state legislature and hand it to a 14-person citizens commission.  This commission is to consist of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, as well as some non-affiliated California voters.  The goal is to end gerrymandering that carves so much of  California into safe Democratic and Republican seats.  The impact (and success of this idea) will not be fully known until the new district lines are drawn.  At the very least, Republicans don’t have to feel so bad about losing the governorship to Jerry Brown, since his hand in redistricting has been nullified.

Budget Vote Requirement – California’s budget and fiscal health has been notoriously dysfunctional.  With the approval of Proposition 25, the state legislature will require just a simple majority (as opposed to the current 2/3 supermajority) to pass a budget.  The one exception is if new tax rises are included.  This proposition has the potential to loosen up some of California’s paralysis, but that remains to be seen.

Secret Union Ballot – In Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, voters approved by wide margins initiatives to preserve the secret ballot for unions.  Clearly a preemptive strike should Democrats try to resurrect card check.

Rhode Island is Named What? – Perhaps the strangest yet important ballot initiative of the election was the question of renaming the state of Rhode Island, or rather the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”  Seems some people are offended by the very term “plantation,” for its past association with slavery.  Nonetheless, common sense prevailed and political correctness failed with a vote of 78-22 to keep the historic official name of the state.


My Midterm Musings November 2, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, Republican Party, Uncategorized.
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No election day would be complete without my underqualified analysis and predictions on the day’s outcome.  I have been a poll-junkie over the past several months, and have read up on as many House and Senate races as I could.  It will be no surprise that Republicans will have a very good night, the question has just become how much of one it will be.  The GOP will almost certainly retake the House, and pick up a minimum of 7 Senate seats, possibly as many as 9.  So without further ado, here are some of my predictions and races to watch:

Final Senate Tally: Net gain of 8 seats

Final House Tally: Net gain of 57 seats

Critical GOP Gains: Illinois, Colorado, Nevada – If Republicans can pick off President Obama’s old Senate seat, it will be a huge morale victory and portend big gains in the Great Lakes region.  GOP candidates are already doing very well in every state bordering Illinois (WI, IA, IN, KY, and MO), so Mark Kirk has a better than even shot of pulling this off.  Colorado’s GOP candidate, Ken Buck, has seen his margin in the polls tighten over the past month, but his lead has been consistent.  Assuming the Colorado gubernatorial debacle does not peel away votes from him, he should pull off a narrow victory.  Few Senate races have gotten as much media attention, or outside money, as Sharron Angle’s bid to upset Senator Harry Reid in Nevada.  Although this race has been within the margin of error for months, expect Reid to be narrowly defeated by night’s end.

Longest Wait: Alaska – In all likelihood, the final results of the Alaska Senate race will not be known for days, or even weeks, after voting ends tonight.  The 3-way contest between Republican Joe Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams, and Republican-running-as-an-independent-write-in Lisa Murkowski (the current senator who lost her primary), has been a roller coaster.  Miller, who enjoyed a lead for months, has seen his support slip as moderates and Republicans flock to Murkowski.  My prediction is that Murkowski will come in first, Miller in second, and McAdams in third.  However, many of her write-in votes may be invalidated by the courts, so this could be a replay of the Minnesota senate contest two years ago.

Biggest Open-Seat Blowout for Democrat: Delaware – Delaware Republicans nominated an unelectable conservative in their deep blue state.  Democrat Chris Coons will walk away with this one by at least 15 points.

Biggest Open-Seat Blowout for Republican: North Dakota – Next to only the Kansas and Utah races, this one has the best chance of the Republican, the popular governor John Hoeven, crossing the 70% threshold.

Biggest Surprise of the Night: Republican John Rease wins in West Virginia – The Mountaineers are traditionally Democratic but have backed Republicans in the past several presidential elections.  The Democrat running to fill Robert Byrd’s old seat, Governor Joe Manchin, boasts a popularity rate above 60%.  His GOP rival is a successful businessman, but he has a favorable rating far below the governor.   If West Virginians elect Raese, it will clearly be a signal that they are deeply dissatisfied with President Obama’s agenda.  If they elect Manchin, it will also be a signal that they are deeply dissatisfied with the ruling party (witness his ad where he shoots a copy of the Cap and Trade bill).  Expect Manchin to be the most conservative Democrat in the chamber.

Don’t Count Them Out: Fiorina in CA and Rossi in WA – Although both of these candidates are down in the polls, their challenges have become the toughest incumbents Barbara Boxer (CA) and Patty Murray (WA) have yet faced.  California’s contest will hinge on turnout (Democratic likely to be higher here than in the rest of the country due to the marijuana initiative) and the fallout from the tumultuous governor’s race.  While Rossi has come within striking distance of Murray, it may be too little too late.  Almost all of Washington votes by absentee ballot or early voting, so the contest was likely decided over the past couple weeks.


Bellweather for Anti-Incumbency: Barletta Beats Kanjorski in PA – In 2008, Democrat Paul Kanjorski (PA-11) was reelected to his 13th term with just 52% of the vote.  President Obama carried the district by a much wider margin.  If Republican Lou Barletta pulls off the upset, it could well be a signal that voters across the country are willing to vote out their own long-serving representatives, even though their seniority often brings influence and federal dollars to the district.

Bellweather for Northeast Comeback: Hanna Knocks Off Arcuri in NY – Democrat Michael Arcuri (NY-24) won his second term in 2008 with just 52%.  The district he represents has a slight Republican registration advantage.  Currently only 2 members of New York’s 29 House districts are Republicans.  If the GOP is to have any hope of establishing a firm foothold in the majority, it will have to wrest away seats like this in the northeast that flipped in 2006 and 2008 to Democrats.  Republicans cannot hope to have a lasting majority if they are locked out of the 3rd biggest state in the country (Texas by contrast has 12 Democrats to 20 Republicans).

Campaign Strategy: Perriello vs. Hurt in VA – In 2008, Democrat Tom Perriello (VA-5) was elected to an open seat by a margin in the hundreds of votes.  Since then he has become a vocal and consistent supporter of President Obama’s agenda.  This has hurt him in a district where Republicans have a 5-point registration advantage.  In 2008 he was able to draw on the support of UVA students and Charlottesville liberals.  If they do not turn out this year, he is sunk.  He has become the only representative to bring President Obama to campaign specifically for his district.  While most Democrats are running away from their leader, Perriello is embracing him.  If he wins, Democrats will be emboldened to run strongly on their record in 2012.  If he loses, they may become more timid in their support of the President’s agenda. 

Biggest Surprise of the Night: Charles Djou Holds on in HI – While Republicans have occasionally held the governorship in Hawaii, they have been virtually locked out of the congressional delegations.  When Neil Abercrombie retired to run for governor, Republican Charles Djou won his seat in a special election, helped by the fact that two Democrats remained in the race.  Although at the time many assumed he would serve a short stint in Congress, polls have him within the margin of error to his one opponent this time.  Either for lack of Democratic enthusiasm, or just Hawaiians wanting to give him a shot at a full term, there is a slight chance Djou may pull this race off.

Are Open Primaries the Solution? September 16, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Republican Party.
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Unpredictability has been the norm in the 2010 election cycle so far.  While many incumbents are feeling the heat from angry and dissatisfied voters, the wrath of the Tea Parties has so far fallen disproportionately on Republicans.  Just this week Delaware GOP primary voters chose Christine O’Donnell, a firebrand conservative who has lost statewide races twice, over Representative (and former governor) Mike Castle, who has won statewide races twelve times.  The result: Biden’s old Senate seat will almost certainly be a safe Democratic hold.  Why have the Tea Parties proven so destructive to the Republican Party?  Because they tend to lean Republican and thus vote in GOP primaries, allowing many Democrats to escape their electoral clout, at least until the general election in November.

Michael Castle (R-DE): Moderate Republican, An Endangered Species?

What has been the result of this intra-party rivalry?  In state after state, “establishment” and/or moderate Republican candidates have lost to Tea Party-backed insurgents and “outsiders” in the primaries, often with the backing of conservative kingmakers Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint.  The impact of these races will be mixed in November.  While Tea Party candidates for the Senate may still win in Kentucky and Alaska, they are more likely lose in Nevada and Delaware (seats that more moderate GOP candidates may have easily won).  However, this does not tell the full story.  In six years (or less for House members) the electoral climate will almost certainly be different, and new senators such as Joe Miller (AK) or Rand Paul (KY) may find themselves losing reelection races in their red states (just as the 2006 and 2008 elections swept away Republicans in supposedly safe seats).  As a disclaimer, this may not hold true for candidates that have Tea Party support but are not controlled by them, such as Marco Rubio in Florida or Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint: The Democrats' Best Friends?

It is therefore highly likely that the GOP primaries this year will threaten Republicans’ prospect of winning the Senate (and narrow its advantage in the House) in 2010 as well as endanger any majorities in future election cycles.  What, then, is the solution to this growing problem?  How can moderates of both parties hope to fend off challenges from the far left or right without making extreme statements or casting votes that make them unelectable come November?  On the state scene, California and Washington have adopted an innovative solution: open, nonpartisan primaries.  The constitutional amendment approved by 53% of Californians in June, Proposition 14, will take effect in the 2012 elections (see here for a description of the measure by ballotpedia).

“Top two” primaries would be a significant break from traditional American politics.  Instead of candidates running in their own party primaries (and often having to run to the left or right to secure their bases), they would run against all other candidates for that office, regardless of party.  Every voter would get the same ballot, which could have multiple Republican, Democratic, and third-party candidates on it.  Whichever top two candidates received the most votes would face off in the general election.

This could, of course, cause two candidates of the same party (or ideological persuasion) to wind up being the two choices in November, especially in deep-blue states like Vermont or deep-red states like Idaho.  However, this is not a bad thing.  Since one of the candidates would likely be more moderate (or more likable, inspiring, trustworthy, etc.), it would give an incentive to independents and voters from the other party to support the candidate closer to their values.  This may seem like picking the lesser of two evils, but it is certainly better than the current system.  In states or districts dominated by one party, heavily outnumbered minority party voters either vote for their candidate who is destined to lose by a wide margin or do not vote at all.  A report by the Center for Governmental Studies found that members of the minority party could have substantial clout in electing the more moderate candidate.  As a side effect, top two primaries could significantly increase the number of Americans participating in the electoral process.

This system would obviously stir up a great deal of controversy.  Party bosses in California complained it would spell the death of political parties.  However, a party leadership could always support or oppose a candidate wishing to run under its banner.  Those who argue that such a system would produce ineffective or unprincipled candidates always trying to appeal to the middle have clearly not looked around lately.  Is it not better for candidates to appeal to the electoral center and majority instead of the far ends of the spectrum?  At the very least it would help tone down the divisive rhetoric and restore a semblance of civility to our electoral process.

Governor Schwarzenegger, Moderate Republican, Welcoming the Approval of Proposition 14

Examining the cases of Delaware and Arkansas this election cycle can shed some light on how this system would affect primary contests.  In Delaware a “top two” primary, in which independents and everyone else could vote for any candidate, would almost certainly have produced Republican Mike Castle and Democrat Chris Coons as the candidates.  Christine O’Donnell, who snatched victory from the moderate Castle and has no chance in November, would not have made it to the general election because she lacks broad appeal in Delaware.  In Arkansas, incumbent Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln may not have had to run to her left and may have avoided a costly run-off if an open primary were in place.  Though she still would probably lose to Republican John Boozman, the contest may have been slightly more competitive.

Adopting the top two primary in more states would shake up American politics.  After a couple of election cycles, this system would have the potential to produce a more respectful political climate, more bipartisanship, and broadly agreeable and durable solutions to the economic, social, and political problems that have plagued the country for decades.  In that way this solution to often self-destructive party primaries may engender solutions to far greater, nationwide problems.

Primaries and a New Rise of Antiestablishmentarianism May 21, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, President Obama, Republican Party, Uncategorized.
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Tuesday’s primaries were surely a preview of things to come in November – unpredictability, anti-incumbency, and polarization.  The hammer of populist rancor and antiestablishmentarianism fell equally on Republicans and Democrats, and Republicans-turned-Democrats.  Both as a result of the primaries and the special election that took place in Pennsylvania, it appears that the tsunami of 2010 may be a more modest tidal wave than was previously anticipated.

First, a brief look at the races starting with the Keystone state.  In the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Joe Sestak, a relatively unknown 2-term U.S. congressman, unseated incumbent Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter.  Specter was known for his moderate views and independence from party over his 30-year career, which often mirrored the positions of PA voters.  According to CQ, Specter and Sestak both voted with President Obama and the Democratic leadership over 95% of the time in 2009.  So what accounts for the primary voters’ abandonment of Specter, who was endorsed by the governor and the President?  Part of it was this anti-incumbent phenomenon, but part of it must also be attributed to the fact that there wasn’t much difference between the two candidates, and the energetic and younger Sestak tirelessly pointed back to Specter’s three decades as a Republican.  It will be interesting to see whether Sestak can continue his anti-establishment campaign while he holds a congressional seat in the face of Pat Toomey’s challenge.

The special election in PA’s 12th congressional district, to replace the late John Murtha, was equally significant.  In a district where largely conservative voters hold a Democratic registration advantage of 2 to 1 over Republicans, Democrat Mark Critz won by a small margin.  He did this by running to the right, saying he would have voted against the health care bill, cap and trade, and other unpopular bills.  It did, however, provide a blueprint for those Blue Dog Democrats fighting to hold onto their seats – come out strongly against the administration’s agenda and focus on local issues so as not to nationalize the race.  Whether this will be successful remains to be seen, but it may thwart Republican prospects of capturing the 40 seats needed to retake control of the House of Representatives.

The Kentucky race was probably the most fascinating of the evening.  Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, backed by moderate Republicans and the GOP establishment, was crushed by over twenty points by his Tea Party rival, Rand Paul (son of long-shot presidential contender Ron Paul).  A self-described libertarian, Paul ran a relentless anti-establishment campaign (he has never held public office) against the pragmatic conservative Grayson.  In this action Kentucky primary voters effectively devoured one of their own to nominate someone with pure ideological credentials – someone who probably belongs in the Libertarian Party more than the Republican Party.  The fact that Paul had to spend the first day of the general election campaign defending his position on the Civil Rights Act with theoretical arguments spells trouble for his prospects in November, as Michael Gerson of the Washington Post makes clear here.  I will go out on a limb and opine that the KY primary has effectively killed the GOP’s slim chances of winning 10 seats and retaking the Senate in November.

Both parties are eating their own in the search for ideologically pure candidates

In Arkansas, the primary was much less conclusive.  Three-term incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln narrowly edged her liberal opponent, but she was still below 50%, which forces the contest into a runoff in early June.  Her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, criticized her not only for her moderate views but also on an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent platform.  Lincoln, who was already considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats in November, may pull it out in June but is unlikely to repeat the miracle in November.

So what is the lesson from the elections on Tuesday (and the Utah GOP convention last month)?  It seems to be that moderates and incumbents, regardless of party, will be persecuted in November.  If a candidate did not always support or always oppose the President, voters will be more inclined to send them packing, branding them as too establishment to represent their constituents.  This spells trouble not so much for the parties as for the nation as a whole.

Pure ideologues have their role to play in our political system, but it has never been the dominant role.  Partisan voting has its advantages on certain issues, but not the critically important ones such as national security (conflicts, treaties) or domestic policy (health care, energy policy).  While some of this is the fault of liberal over-reach in Congress and the White House, the remedy is not to elect hyper-partisan (or libertarian) politicians.  If the Democrats wish to lend permanency to their legislative accomplishments, they will have to retain the moderate forces within their party to hold valuable seats in the South and West.  If the Republicans wish to roll-back some of the more egregious excesses of the Obama Administration, they will have to retain their own moderates to hold or win valuable seats in the Northeast, Southwest, and Midwest.  Antiestablishmentarianism is attractive when voters are seeking to “throw the bums out,” but the parties and candidates are playing with fire – to be effective, they not only have to be capable of running against Washington but also of mastering it in order to govern.  Otherwise they will quickly become the “bums” they so recently evicted.

Chavez’s Referendum and Washington’s Response February 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Democracy, President Obama, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 16 February 2009, it was announced that Chavez had won his referendum to remove term limits from all political offices, including his own, by a 54% to 46% margin (see story here).   This came after the government spent unknown (but large) sums of money on promoting a positive vote on the referendum, after TV stations (mostly state-run) were required to air speeches and promotions favoring the referendum, and after pressure was placed on the two million state employees to both get out the vote and of course vote “yes” on the ballot.

Chavez therefore shamelessly wielded the full powers of the government at his disposal to push through the referendum (which had failed just last year) that would allow him to run again for president in 2012.  Democracies tend not to function well when one leader maintains executive power limitlessly, a key reason most democracies (both American-style republics and parliamentary ones) place term limits on their executives.  The Venezuelan opposition was obviously disappointed by this vote result, seeing it as a key turn on the steady road to both socialism and dictatorship under Hugo Chavez.  As one commented on seeing the throngs cheering for Chavez, “these people don’t realize what they have done.”

What, then, was the response from Washington to this troubling development?  Condemnation that Chavez had rigged the vote or at least improperly used government tools and money to do so? No.  Statement of support to the opposition to continue its fight to preserve Venezuelan democracy? No.  Expressed disappointment of the results? No.  Silence?? No.  The State Department actually welcomed the results of the referendum, admiring Venezuelans’ “civic spirit” (see here).

Forget President Obama’s pledge to conduct direct talks with Venezuela (which may have had some merit), this is outright validation and support for his style of governing Venezuela.  The Administration has actually supported the results of a referendum that removed term limits from Hugo Chavez, an avowed enemy of Washington, by praising the democratic spirit of Venezuelans.  People voting is not the issue here – what they’ve just voted for is.  What does this say about President Obama and his Administration’s view of valid and legimitate democracies?

What’s more, the US gains nothing in this pitiful attempt at rapprochement with Caracas.  Chavez has already stated that Obama carries the same “stench” as Bush.  Also, with Chavez’s future support seemingly tenuous, it makes no logical sense to endorse his referendum if he may not be reelected anyway.  Why alienate the opposition that may be coming back into power in a few years?

Why am I so optimistic about the future of Venezuela?  Well, with oil at around $40 a barrel, Chavez cannot afford to continue his welfare-state spending and keep the poor happy with wealth redistrubition.  The government in Caracas already spends around 32% of the country’s GDP, levels that will grow more unsustainable as oil remains below the $60 threshold.  Also, with inflation at 36% and foreign debt totalling between $30-40 billion, Venezuela is on a road to hard times.  And hard times almost certainly means punishing the executive in power – Hugo Chavez.

Therefore, Washington’s welcoming and validation of this referendum is certainly an unwise and destructive move.  By lending even a little more legitimacy to Chavez, he may well be able to strengthen his hold on power.  With the world economy likely to remain chaotic for the next several years, all the US had to do (this is simplifying it a bit) was sit and wait (and maybe proactively invest in surrounding South American countries) for Venezuelans to vote Chavez out of office.  Instead, we may be setting him up to be the next Castro, a thorn (and much bigger one) in America’s side for decades to come.

Upcoming Essays November 12, 2008

Posted by Adam Nowland in Democracy, Election 2008, Politically Incorrect Blog, President Bush, President Obama, U.S. Government.
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I’ve been extremely busy this week, but over the next few days I’ll be posting several more essays.  You can look forward to the following topics:

Why I’m Glad I’m Not the Next President:  The Overwhelming Crises Facing Barack Obama

Leader, Warrior, President:  How Future Generations Will View Bush’s Legacy

The Days After:  The Economic Realities of an Obama Presidency

President v. Party:  How Barack Obama’s Election Bodes Ill for the Democratic Party

While they should all be interesting to those following the recent election and the end of the Bush presidency, I’m particularly excited about the latter two.  Hopefully it’ll be good stuff.  I’ll keep everyone posted.

Up From the Ashes – The Republican Party’s Chance for a Renewed Lease on Life November 5, 2008

Posted by Adam Nowland in Democracy, Politics, President Bush, President Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations, U.S. Government.
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As Americans wake on the morning of November 5th, they awake in a country on the verge of a new era.  With the landslide victory of President-elect Barack Obama, who enters office with significant majorities in both the House and the Senate, Americans have spoken, and spoken loudly.  The Republican administration of lame-duck President George W. Bush has been swept from office as U.S. citizens voiced their concerns that the GOP was no longer in touch with the average American.

                However, despite the humiliating defeat, the Republican Party is far from dead.  Indeed, in the long run, a crushing defeat at the hands of Obama and his allies may be exactly what the GOP needs to spring back into national power.  Although the defeat and future power seem contradictory, one realizes that the idea isn’t so far-fetched when we recall how far astray from its “roots” the Republican leadership has gone over the last eight years.  Abandoning the old mainstays of fiscal responsibility, small government, and increased rights to private individuals, the GOP in many respects had become the thing it feared most – the Democratic Party.  For all intents and purposes, the parties, at least in Congress, had become indistinguishable.  By assuming power, the Republicans in Congress and the White House permitted absolute power, especially in the wake of broad support following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, to transform them into big government, drunk on power and unlimited funding.  By forsaking their roots, the Republicans set the stage for the major upsets in the last two elections.

                But now that they are removed from power, the Republican Party and its leaders can return to what made them popular in the first place.  The environment for a victory in two years in the next national election is perfect for conservatives, who, if they play their cards right and get a little help from the Democrats, could provide a stunning comeback.  Let’s take a look at the opportunities:

              An inexperienced, untested President taking office with enormous expectations.  Republicans must exploit any mistakes by Obama in his first months in office.  If Obama opens negotiations with Iran, or backpedals in the face of pressure from North Korea, China, Russia, or Venezuela, the GOP has a fantastic opportunity to show that Obama is weak when it comes to foreign policy.  Likewise, the domestic decisions that Obama makes in his first two years as president could have significant ramifications for the economy, the health system, and social policy, and he must tread lightly and ignore the obvious mistake of liberalizing too much too quickly, or he and his party will quickly burn through the political currency they gained yesterday.

              A faltering economy.  The overwhelming focus of voters, the economy continues to struggle while the government seems helpless to solve the credit crunch, the enormous (and crippling) housing mortgage crisis, and a slipping dollar.  The country may be on the verge of significant inflation, yet the government continues to find new ways to pour money into the economy.  Obama plans sweeping tax changes and has promised to pour upwards of sixty billion dollars into the nation’s infrastructure.  Unfortunately, the United States probably can’t afford such action, at least not now. 

              Increasing domestic divisiveness.  Socially, conservatives and liberals in the United States continue to go their separate ways.  Obama takes office with a significant portion of the country extremely distrustful of his motives and potential (which is nothing new for any president).  However, he will have to be careful not to offend large segments of voters, or, like the 2006 national elections, citizens will treat him as they treated President Bush and his unpopular Iraq War.

              A global security nightmare.  War in the Congo.  Continued crisis in Dafur.  An aggressive Russia unresponsive to global scrutiny.  A war going well in Iraq.  A war not going well in Afghanistan.  Osama bin Laden still unaccounted for.  Mr. Obama must find ways to protect Americans from a second 9/11.  However, he must also judiciously approach foreign crises as well.  The United States is uniquely prepared to go into other countries to stop calamities like genocide or famine.  Obama must continue the United State’s role as a global policeman while still avoiding getting mired in another long war in a country that doesn’t fully support our own end goals.

                All these issues point clearly to opportunities for the Republican Party to seize on mistakes by the Obama administration and his supporters in Congress.  A major mishandling of a crisis by Obama would go a long way to bringing the GOP back into power.  However, Republicans must also reinvent their image as a party of the people, rather than a party of the government.  If they can project a new understanding of responsibility and empathy, they should be poised, at the very least, to take back some of the lost seats of Congress.  I suggest three ways to help the Republicans get back on track.

                First, the Republican Party must recreate themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility.  This is a no-brainer.  The Bush administration has become famous for its liberal spending policies, which inevitably led to increased government debt and certainly did not help the country avoid the recession that even now wracks the economy.  This spending is not reminiscent of your grandparents’ Republican party.  With nearly every state struggling economically, schools scrambling to make ends meet, and individuals watching their savings dissolve, it is shocking that Americans have so little faith in Republicans that they turn to a party that is known for its spending excess.  The GOP CANNOT miss this golden opportunity to push towards decreased government.  People don’t want to spend more money on taxes – they want to save and have the government help provide things like education, energy, and infrastructure.  Resume the push for small government and fiscal responsibility, and the Republicans will have taken a major step towards success.

                Second, the GOP must begin rebuilding bridges with the media.  Yes, everyone knows that the media is indeed biased (except, it seems, the media itself), but news outlets continue to hold enormous sway over voters.  Indeed, it is a testament that President Bush was able to be elected despite extreme negative treatment by the media.  Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was incredibly popular with news organizations, and he used those ties to his advantage.  While pandering to the media is not an activity the GOP would like to do, it cannot escape the fact that it will not be successful unless it can somehow gain respect, if not love, from media outlets.  There is no doubt that Barack Obama was a media darling during the 2008 elections.  Republicans must pull a page from the Democrats’ book and use the media as a tool to achieve success, rather than battle reporters and cameras at every outlet.

                Finally, and most importantly, the GOP must show that it is a party of and for the people.  Too many people criticize Republicans for being aloof and “above” the average citizen.  Democrats got involved with the people who would vote for them and got their hands dirty campaigning.  Republicans recently have failed to engage voters on a personal level, showing that they understand the economic and social woes of the everyday family.  Without this personal engagement and a clear understanding of what most people are going through, or knowing what the goals and beliefs of the average citizen are, the Republicans cannot gain the support of voters.  Rectifying this problem would be a significant achievement.

               While Republicans are (and should be) disappointed by the results of the 2008 election, there is hope on the horizon.  The GOP must seize on Democratic mistakes and effectively take the place of the Democratic Party as the political entity most in touch with voters.  By taking advantage of knowing WHY they lost this election, the Republican Party can set itself up to avoid another failure in 2010.

Next Time, Don’t Choose Guns And Butter March 12, 2007

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, U.S. Government.
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In the midst of the conflict in Iraq, it would seem to be a bad time to draw “conclusions” that the struggle has taught us. Looking from a historical perspective however, there are certain lessons that seem to have been ignored over the past couple decades. While they could be instructive for a future war (perhaps against Iran), it is most likely too late to implement the policy in Iraq, when the war has reached an all time low popularity.

The fact of the matter is that Americans as a whole have not been asked or have not made a significant sacrifice in the past several years to help the war effort (with the notable exception of soldiers and their families).  Politicians’ infatuation with an all-volunteer army has led them to believe that there needs to be no unpleasantries during war, such as a draft, rationing, or mobilization.  They couldn’t be more long.  War is more than just a serious matter, it often dictates whether a nation will strengthen or weaken.

Lyndon Johnson pursued a policy in Vietnam that sought to fight a full-scale war while limiting the impact felt by most Americans.  In fact, he attempted to pursue a great expansion of the welfare state in his Great Society program.  In effect, he chose guns and butter, with the unfortunate effect that the American economy was still consumer oriented and the war dragged on another half-decade.

The same can be said of President Bush’s policy towards Iraq and the War on Terror in general.  Rather than mobilize the American people and economy, the president has chosen to limit the impact to such an extent that people live just like it were peacetime, and in many cases better than it has been in recent decades of peacetime.  Leaders pursue this policy because they believe the people will become restless or opposed to the war if it has an everyday impact on their lives.  It has been demonstrated however, both in Vietnam and Iraq, that a war (even if it starts out popular), is never popular with the American people if it goes on for a long time and victory is not clear and tangible.

Had the United States been fully mobilized as the Iraq War began, it is likely victory would have been unquestionably achieved by now.  However, the time for that has passed, but a possible conflict with Iran, North Korea, China, or any other host of potential nations would require that the American people mobilize for war.  Such an effort, involving conversion of consumer industries to war material industries, rationing of gasoline/oil and other commodities, and voluntary expansion of the armed forces, could lead to victory in a tolerable amount of time.

So clearly the best course of action in the future is not to attempt to achieve the illusion of waging limited war while non-defense spending remains the same or grows (currently the defense budget of the GDP is 3.8%, compared to 38% at height of WWII).  The lesson is to choose guns before and during a time of war, followed by butter in a time of peace.

The Last Best Chance? January 14, 2007

Posted by SV in Democracy, Iraq, Politics.
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The President’s recent plan laid out for rectifying the situation in Iraq has been labelled by some as the “last best chance” for victory in the war.  To call this the “last chance” severely disregards the uncountless successes and advances that have taken place over the last 3+ years.  To say that if we don’t fix the situation in Baghdad specifically and Iraq in general by November then the cause is lost, is a direct insult to the thousands of US soldiers and Iraqis who have given their lives in the quest for building a democratic Iraq.

Notice that I say “democratic,” and not the euphamism of the day, “stable.”  Too many elitists prize stablity far above freedom and democracy, despite the fact stability may kill tens of thousands more in the long run.  While “stability” may keep us from seeing daily reports of suicide attacks that kill dozens of Iraqi policemen and civilians, it can actually cause greater suffering in the form of repressive policies that, as happened under Saddam Hussein, led to the starvation of tens of thousands yearly.

To say, therefore, that the numerous Iraqi elections, civil liberty reforms, reconstruction projects, Saddam’s execution, etc., can be forgotten if the violence does not end by November is to politicize a war in the worst way.  While public support is necessary to win this war, it is not gained by bowing to every fickle public opinion wind.  Perhaps the best best chance to attain victory (freedom and democracy) in Iraq and pacify the American public is to remove those media persons embedded in US units that send daily reports “from the front” casting the war as hopeless and a lost cause.  If the Allied command could just focus on defeating the insurgency without worrying about every little action cast in a political light, perhaps victory could be gained swiftly and quietly, allowing troops to come home as victors, not rearguards.  It may be our best chance, but it is certainly not the last.

Death of a Dictator December 11, 2006

Posted by SV in Democracy, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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So former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet has passed away at the age of 91 years old in a hospital bed surrounded by his close family. Hardly a fitting way to go for a repressive dictator, especially compared to the portrayal of a fictonal assassination of the sitting US president in the film this title parodies. Just 16 years after Pinochet ceded control of Chile, Latin America is already making firm steps on the path to democratization.

The region has had a complex and troubled history, to say the least. For much of the two centuries following independence, it has been ruled by a variety of “caudillos” (strongmen) and entrenched elites. During the Cold War, Latin American states were often governed by Marxist-friendly dictators or rightist anti-Marxist dictators, both of which were heavily repressive. It cannot go without mentioning that the United States played a direct (though unofficial) role in the replacement of Chile’s Marxist president Allende (r. 1970-73) with General Pinochet. Though his 17-year reign was less oppressive than other nations (notably Argentina) and resulted in around 3,000 documented political deaths, it is still a black mark on the record of the US.

Nonetheless, much has changed in the 33 years since we acted with such short-sightedness and traded one democratically-elected dictator for one more friendly to the West. America no longer makes it a policy to replace unfriendly regimes with more friendly dictators, though other nations may do that themselves (such as Pakistan). Instead the Bush Doctrine has marked a dramatic departure from Cold War policy in its promotion of universal human rights and the penultimate goal of spreading democracy around the world. Though much of the discussion concerning this doctrine focuses on the Middle East, its application to Latin America should not be ignored. The death of Pinochet reminds us how much progress has been made in the region, with the only repressive dictators (all leftists) being found in Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Democracy is on the march around the entire world, and the passing of Argentina’s former strongman illustrates how much progress has been made south of our border.