Saturday, August 23, 2008

What We Could Use Less of This Election

It wasn't unexpected except that it comes from a fairly mainstream source and writers, and it's a real shame that they have contributed to the general nastiness that is contemporary American politics.

Jacob Weisberg opinines in that only a racist would vote for McCain:

You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and
large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health care system, oil dependency, income stagnation, and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.

You knew something like this was coming. Obama is "handsome, brilliant, and cool" and "What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one." Taken together, Obama should be running away with the polls, and race is the only explanation since Obama's policy proposals are "large" and "serious." Given this combination, he's entitled to the White House apparently, even though Weisberg acknowledges that voters may rationally prefer McCain's policies.

Or, they may prefer McCain's experience, particularly in foriegn and military policy that recent events along the Russian-Georgian border make clear are still very relevant.

Or, they may prefer McCain's record of actually enacting bills into law rather than just giving inspiring speeches. Obama's legislative accomplishments are, in contrast, negligible and include merely adding his name onto other people's bill (co-sponsoring) rather than working to get his own ideas enacted into law.

To be fair to Weisberg, his arguement isn't really that everyone who votes for McCain is a racist, but that given that Obama should win easily given the fundamentals, racism will be the deciding factor should he not win. Still, this is too clever by half. There are enough good reasons to choose McCain that "racism" should not automatically attach itself should Senator McCain triumph. If it does, we'll just have another four years of bitter division - a heads we win, tails you lose proposition.

My point isn't that people should vote McCain. There's a strong case to be made for electing Obama, but those who don't shouldn't be automaticall castigated as racist. Slate magazine and Jacob Weisberg can do better than this.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Much ado about nada...

We read today that the candidates are trying to use each other's person lives to paint them as out of touch:
Democrat Barack Obama seized on comments from Republican John McCain in a Politico interview Wednesday where he could not identify the number of houses he owned. As Obama mocked his rival at a town hall meeting here for the comments, his campaign sent an ad to national cable stations and deployed high-profile surrogates in 16 key states, casting the comments as evidence that McCain does not understand working families.
But wait!
McCain’s campaign responded by raising Obama’s ties to Tony Rezko, a former Obama fundraiser who was convicted this year on corruption charges unrelated to the senator. Obama and his wife bought their $1.65 million home in 2005 after getting advice from Rezko.
So, who's really out of touch?

The answer is:


Politicians, especially members of the US Senate, are so divorced from the day to day lives of ordinary Americans its mind boggling. They're driven around, surrounded by staff, have even the most mundane of transactions taken care of, etc. No wonder few retire voluntarily to become just one of the people.

I'm not saying that makes them bad people - just that we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that either "really understands working families" except as an abstraction. If voters keep their eye on the ball and ignore this nonsense, politicians will start talking about things that matter.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Be Skeptical

From my favorite political daily comes the following story regarding unfounded rumors that Senator Obama was being advised by George Clooney on foreign policy:

The Obama-Clooney story was concocted from anonymous sources. Yet it spread throughout the world within hours. It was quickly picked up by The Drudge Report and television networks ranging from Fox News to NBC. The overall result served to bolster Republican candidate John McCain’s dubious contention that his rival Obama is a vapid “celebrity” rather than presidential material.

One would assume that a newspaper of any sort, even an English tabloid, would have some source for such a story, even a poor one. In fact, it turned out not to have any real evidence whatsoever. What's even more alarming, the "real" media turns out to have simply passed the story along with no independent verification.

We saw a similarly shoddy piece of "journalism" from the newspaper formerly known as the "Paper of Record" earlier this year.

The US media was criticized for failing to report on recent allegations surrounding former Senator John Edwards, which turned out mostly to be true. This poses the dilemma about when to report and when to sit on a story.

On balance, though, I prefer to hear accurate news a little later to hearing lies immediately. The press generally can't be counted on to do its homework, though, and will simply pass along gossip to avoid appearing to be out of the loop. It's up to the voters, therefore, to possess the sort of skepticism and good judgment that once could be found in our newsrooms, withholding judgment until all the facts are in.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fixing Leaks: A Better Way

Jack Goldsmith reviews Eric Lichtblau's Bush's Law here. His review is largely negative, but Goldsmith admits that the press has an important role to play in overseeing government, but one that is in tension with government's legitimate need to keep some things, such as surveillance techniques, secret if it is to retain their efficacy.

Goldsmith's conclusion is worth noting for the lesson it provides in minimizing leaks:
How can we maintain the virtues of a vigorous press, but minimize the disclosure of secrets that should remain secret?

The answer to this large question lies with the executive branch of government. Many people think that the executive branch should crack down more on leakers, because the regularity of leaks without sanction legitimizes leaking and leads to more. The Bush administration has tried to punish those who leak details of its surveillance and interrogation programs... And even when leakers are discovered, it is hard to prosecute them, for many of the same reasons that it is hard to prosecute members of the press--poorly drafted laws and fear of disclosing leaks.

Yet the absence of sanctions is not the real problem. The real problem, and the source of many of the most harmful leaks in the past few years, is the perception within the government of illegitimate activity. Secret surveillance activities that began in 2001 did not leak until after a legitimacy crisis had already developed, beginning in June 2004, around the Abu Ghraib scandal and the leaked interrogation memos. Lichtblau explains that it was the Terrorist Surveillance Program's circumvention of checks and balances, and the attendant anxiety about the program's legality, that led people inside the government to tell him about it...

A root cause of the perception of illegitimacy inside the government that led to leaking (and then to occasional irresponsible reporting) is, ironically, excessive government secrecy. "When everything is classified, then nothing is classified," Justice Stewart famously said in his Pentagon Papers opinion, "and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on selfprotection or self-promotion." And he added that "the hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure," noting that "secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained."

(emphasis added)

In short, the leakers aren't just those not "on board" with the policies, but those who doubt their legality and have no alternative but to leak. Being more transparent, listening to internal criticisms and engaging in a real dialog with those who are enforcing such programs addresses the root of leaks more effectively than threats of retaliation.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Vice President

At TPB, we're less interested in handicapping who will be picked than what criteria should be used and what the selection says about the person doing the picking. Once the names are announced, there will be a LOT of coverage, a TON of analysis on cable with anyone who once spent 5 minutes stuffing envelopes being labeled a "strategist" and asked their opinion, etc., I'd like it if we could keep our eye on the ball.

First and foremost, the person should be very well qualified to lead the country should something happen to the President.

When the names are announced, ask yourself the following question: what was primary reason in selecting this person?

If the answer you derive is that the selection was done in consideration of how it would help the President once elected, the selection was probably a sound one. If your answer is "it helps deliver a potential swing state," or "it will help turnout the base," the selection was probably not.

The rest is just noise - and there's going to be a lot of it.

A Government Ill Executed - Introduction

In his introduction to A Government Ill Executed, Paul Light starts out by detailing his main thesis regarding why our federal government is having performance problems.

1. An agenda of "staggering reach" without adequate resources, leading to "a long list of frustrations."
2. A chain of command that is broken up by needless layers of management.
3. The broken appointment / confirmation process for Presidential appointees.
4. A federal workforce motivated more by compensation than meaningful work.
5. Young people seeking to do public service more likely to enter the non-profit / NGO world than the federal government.
6. A non-stop treadmill of administrative reforms that get discarded and replaced with every new administration.
7. The growth of the role of contractors, grantees and others who perform federal government work that used to be performed by employees of the US government.

To combat these problems, Light looks to Alexander Hamilton's definition of an energetic executive. As he interprets Hamilton, an energetic federal service has 7 characteristics (perhaps the 7 is a convenient interpretation). They are says Light:

1. Missions that matter
2. Clarity of command
3. Posts of honor (i.e. appointments by merit, not political ties)
4. Vigor and expedition
5. A "Spirit of Service" (the concept of a professional, life time civil service, with formal education, etc.)
6. Steadiness in Administration
7. Safety in the Executive (the ability to hold the executive in check through transparency and accountability).

Although Light gives short descriptions of what these mean, the rest of the book looks at them one by one, and explains exactly how these principles can, properly executed, improve the performance of the federal government. Because the topic of good government is so central to this blog, we'll be looking at them one by one, and asking in future posts how they hold up in light of future challenges.

This last point is especially important because I've found that political science is a great way of explaining what happened in the past, but not always so useful for handling issues that come down the pike in the future. So, we'll take a closer look at Light's thesis in coming weeks and try to analyze their usefulness in meeting the many challenges that will face the next President.

Light contrasts Hamilton's approach with Jefferson, who distrusted a strong federal government and would be all too happy with an inefficient one inadequately financed and resourced. Jefferson saw the executive branch as only one part of a single level of government, and government as only one part of society. Recall, in contrast, to Hamilton the execution of the federal government was the very soul of good government.

Although Light gives Hamilton a place of honor in the book's analytical framework, he still acknowledges Jefferson's contributions and includes them where he thinks appropriate, e.g. a simpler civil service and a greater sense of civic duty.