What is Conservatism?

November 12, 2008

I’ve been hearing a lot about where this country is politically and I have to confess that I do not understand much of what is being said. Yesterday I heard a Republican say that “America is right of center.” I sincerely do not understand what that means. I presume that it was intended to mean that Americans support the Republican agenda, but the election offered little to support that position and polls uniformly show that the majority of us support the political issues advanced by so called “liberals” such as opposition to the Iraq war, health care revision, regulation of financial institutions, and establishing a trade balance.

It seems to me that the notions of conservative and liberal are indistinct to say the least with conservatives proposing dramatic changes to the society at least over the last eight years (I’m thinking tax reduction during a war, the “Bush Doctrine” which permits attacking other countries that might be a threat in the future, domestic warrantless surveillance, rendition, Guantanamo and the related human rights issues, abdication of federal oversight of financial institutions, stuff like that) and liberals advocating a return to a balanced budget and trade balance, and rolling back many of the recent changes implemented by the administration.

Another instance of this confusion about what is conservative and what is liberal is the recent Supreme Court case, argued Tuesday, in which the Court heard arguments about the FCC’s right to penalize “fleeting profanity.” The FCC for example fined PBS for airing interviews with old blues men who sometimes used the “s” word.

During oral argument it appeared that the “conservative” judges favored upholding the FCC’s right to control the use of any bad words, while the liberals seemed to disfavor this relatively mild form of censorship. In the courts conservatism is not marked by a philosophical opposition to governmental intrusion into our lives, as conservative judges tend to favor this type of censorship, to favor expansion of the police power and generally to disfavor using civil rights to limit the powers of government. At least in cases involving these competing interests the conservatives are more likely to be on the side of the government. On the other hand when government interferes with business, they are more likely to be on the side of business and the limitation of government.

This reminds me that when the constitution was adopted there was no bill of rights, to Thomas Jefferson’s great disappointment. The conservatives, who generally had opposed the inclusion of a bill of rights, coalesced into the Federalist Party which favored a strong federal government. Federalists were also much more pacifist than Jefferson’s following. I guess the conservatives on the bench take inspiration from John Adams and the Federalists at least in part. The conservatives of that era were for radical changes in the government to centralize and strengthen the power of the federal government.

The just finished presidential election illustrates the blur between conservative and liberal, as these terms are commonly used. McCain could not effectively distinguish his policies from those of Bush. McCain could not identify any bright lines that distinguished his policies from Obama and appealed to the voters. Eventually he seemed to stake his campaign on “character” issues, which to some degree is a euphemism for personal attacks. He did this is substantial part because he could not find the “right of center” where Republicans say most of us reside.

McKenna’s Suits Against the Republican Party and BIAW

October 7, 2008

Yesterday’s entry about the lawsuit against the Republican Party drew a comment that warrants notice. James Tierney of Columbia Law School’s National State Attorney General Program saluted Rob McKenna’s decision to bring the lawsuit against the Republican Party. I perhaps did not call attention to my recognition of this decision as a commendable action. Earlier I praised McKenna for suing the B.I.A.W., a major Republican contributor.

Mr. Tierney says that it was appropriate for the Attorney General’s office to bring the action instead of having an independent law firm pursue it. This is certainly something beyond my expertise, but the decision does at least raise a question of a conflict of interest. Given the wide ranging responsibility of the Attorney General’s Office, I am sure that this comes up with some frequency and that it has been adequately resolved in terms of professional responsibility.

My question is that given the appearance of what might commonly, not professionally, be viewed as a conflict of interest, the A.G.’s decision not to pursue immediate action, as is sought in the lawsuit by the two former state supreme court justices, is politically questionable. The citizen suit makes it appear that the A.G.’s office might be going lightly on the case by not seeking immediate remedies.

I should emphasize that there probably is a perfectly sound basis for not seeking the relief sought in the citizen’s suit. In fact the citizen’s suit asks the court for emergency permission to gather evidence so the matter can be decided shortly. The A.G.’s office may very well have determined that there was no such evidence or that the search for such evidence was inappropriate in light of the immanence of the election.

Much of this speculation, however, might have been avoided by hiring outside counsel to pursue the lawsuit. There is certainly nothing impermissible about the Attorney General’s office handling the case, but in the emotional charged context of this election, it may have been prudent to avoid the faintest question about the role of politics in the decisions regarding the litigation.

Republicans and Deregulation

October 2, 2008

To some audiences McCain has claimed to have made an effort to strengthen the regualtion of the financial industry.  This is disingenuous, as he and his party are four square behind removing constraints on the financial community and the business world in general.  I have discussed his meager gestures toward regulating business.  His overwhelming record in favor of deregulation is much discussed elsewhere.  It is hard to imagine a record more clearly favoring abolishing regulatory constraints.  Here is a video compilation of a few recent deregulation statements by McCain and speakers at the Republican convention.

Washington State Republican Party Caught Breaking Campain Laws

October 2, 2008

When it rains it pours. I’ve discussed the two lawsuit filed by the Attorney General’s office against the Master Builders Association of King County and Snohomish County and agains a BIAW subsidiary. These suits related to allegedly illegal campaign contributions to Republican causes and recently there has been some discussion in the Seattle P.I. linking Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate for governor, to these events.

The State Republican Party (remember them, the ones who in their platform propose to disregard the 14th Amendment) has also recently suffered at the hands of the Public Disclosure Commission regarding campaign contributions. On September 25 the Commission heard a case entitle Washington State Republican Party, Case # 09-015.

The case relates to three letters sent out by the party during the primary season, scurrilously attacking Gregoire and recommending Rossi. The cost of these mass mailings was not reported by the party in the manner required by the law according to the Commission.

The Washington State Republican Party claimed that the communications were exempt, which seems like quite a stretch. The argument seems to be based on RCW 42.17.640(b) which exempts internal communications not associated with an individual candidate.

There were two big problems: it is hard to imagine how mass mailings are “internal” and the letters clearly favored Dino Rossi.

The party argued that the mailings went out to Republicans only, which is a challenging argument since Republicans do not register here. There was difficulty arguing that the mailings were not associated with Rossi.   Assuming that the party knew the law (which may be a significant assumption), my impression was that its behavior was based on not getting caught rather than having a solid legal justification for its actions.

The Commission had no problem finding that the party had violated the law, voting 4-1 to send the matter to the Attorney General to review commencing a lawsuit. The decision is reported here.

What interested me was the lone dissenting vote, cast by Jim Clements, a former Republican legislator. He said that he did not dispute the Commission’s conclusion but that these things are “sometimes more political than substance,” so he voted that there had been no violation of the law.

I hope there was an error in reporting because that is complete nonsense. He agrees with the majority but votes against it for purely political reasons based on speculation. His job is to enforce the law and he apparently would give a pass to illegal campaigning until after elections?

I hope that Rob McKenna recuses himself for a conflict of interest on this one. He declined to do so in the lawsuits previously mentioned. Here the conflict of interest seems so strong it could not be ignored.

BIAW: the Voice of Deregulation and the Housing Industry

September 17, 2008

It was reported that nationally new home starts in August were at a 17 1/2 year low. The housing industry sector of the economy is in its worst slump since the Great Depression. By absolutely every credible account this is due to a failure of regulation in the financial industry, the same cause as the Great Depression.

Just as the new breed of Republicans wants to roll back the social safety nets of the New Deal, they also want to unfetter all of industry from regulation. This is why Bush appointed deregulation champions and incompetents to head federal agencies. Having failed to learn from the past we were doomed to repeat it. Once again the failure of regulation has led to economic crisis.

The loudest and most ardent — if not the rational — voice for deregulation in Washington is the Republican attack dog BIAW, which constantly shrieks about getting the government off its back. The BIAW complains bitterly about environmentalists who are likened to Nazis. Officials of local governments, who enforce building codes fare no better in their eyes. Evidence of the benefits to society from growth planning, safety standards and environmental regulation are dismissed as the toxic propaganda of evil doers.

The strength of this ideological fervor is such that it overrides even concern for the interests of the BIAW’s constituency, the building industry in Washington. It is the absence of meaningful regulation — a condition insisted upon by the BIAW and the Republican Party — that created the disastrous economic conditions that are ruining so many construction-related businesses in Washington.

Time and again we learn that unchecked greed is not a functional foundation for an enduring society. Certainly there can be over-regulation but that is not a justification for the utter abandonment of regulatory constraints on society-threatening institutional avarice.

Our society in its blind fervor to reduce government to a military subsidization function, has failed over the last several years in two respects relevant to this topic: First, our tax money, instead of being used for generally recognized governmental purposes is being used to subsidize huge corporations, the profit going to investors and executives, and losses to the government; Second, under slogans promoting self reliance we have repeatedly in the last several years spectacularly depleted retirement funds and the savings of individuals, undermining the end sought to be achieved.

Through the Looking Glass

September 5, 2008

Now Obama is part of the establishment or so you would have thought last night. There were many very odd aspects to the Republican convention. Absent from the Republican convention were not only references to the Republican Party or the G.O.P. Compare the transcripts of the speeches in this convention with those of past conventions; proud reference to the party by name is startlingly absent.

While you are looking at those transcriptions of this past convention try to find reference to President Bush’s remarks on the first day. It is as if according to the Republican website he did not speak. In fact a foreign observer might leave the convention with the impression that Reagan was the last Republican president.

In that setting McCain attacked the establishment, which of course for 12 of the last 14 years has been a Republican Congress and for the last 8 a Republican executive. During the last 14 years the distinguishing feature of Republican rule has been the coherence of the party members in voting and even discussing issues.

Republicans have voted in a block as neither party has voted perhaps ever. This includes John McCain except for a two year period after he lost the 2000 nomination. His maverick tag is not derived from his voting record.

Consider the scope of this undertaking. A party trying to distance itself from itself and John McCain, who has been going to such extremes to solidify himself with Bush’s base, casting himself at 72 as the vehicle for a fresh change? McCain who voted with Bush on nearly everything, the 72 year old face of change?

This is not putting a spin on things; this is a tectonic shift of world view.

What utterly amazed me was McCain’s call to get special interests out of Washington. (His staff of course remains largely former lobbyists.) He skipped over his own voting record to point to Obama’s vote for big oil on the Energy Bill, as an example of the influence of money on Washington.

Obama who for months has been cast as a rabid liberal was last night cast by McCain as part of the establishment that he wants to change! Can you believe it?

McCain called for a change in our economic situation but his proposals are the same as Bush’s programs, except bigger with more spending and taxes lower than they have been. This even has The Economist troubled.

This seems to be the plan: stick with Bush’s policies in order to keep the political base, call for change, and celebrate goals. Without any policy to support the references to change, McCain will push what is called “character” (did you know that he was n the Vietnam War?) and right wing Christian values.

Ron Paul Creates his own Forum

September 3, 2008

Ron Paul, before he disappeared from the Republican Party or at least its convention, placed second or third in about 20 Republican primaries. This was significantly better than say yesterday’s keynote speaker Fred Thompson.

Paul though was not invited to speak at the convention and given what he calls only limited access to it and so had his own “counter convention,” where he spoke yesterday for a balanced budget and a curb on militarism. He gave a rather stirring speech against our war efforts and about the meaning of “patriot.” The speech can be seen here.

Hold on Sarah You Were not Going to Do This

September 2, 2008

Remember the interview a few months ago in which Sarah Palin said that it was unfortunate that Hillary Clinton was complaining about her treatment in the media because she was perceived as a “whiner?”  If not not whining, what are we supposed to call this,?  Stronger words come to mind.

Adding Up the Score so Far

September 2, 2008

One person who commented said that that the social conservative wing of the Republican party in apparently controlling McCain’s choice for vice president had prompted him to leave the party, at least until it returns to champion more traditional conservative values. This view is commonly shared. Some of my friends have said they will no longer vote Republican because of the war mongering and corruption at the national level. All of these things depart from traditional conservative values.

The choice of Palin certainly appears to be an example of form prevailing over substance. Except that one can clearly discern from Palin’s record rather abject adherence of the tenets of the religious right. As to matters relating to governance and national issues there is a void.  Here is a disturbing explanation of the choice.

I have written how McCain has abandoned the principles that he espoused when he was labeled a maverick. He is now even campaigning on issues that he has actually voted against not just recently but for years! For example alternative energy, and minimum wage increase.

His choice of Palin demonstrates a commitment to do whatever it takes to get elected as opposed to adherence to any principle whatsoever. His economic proposals will only augment the policies that created our present situation by increasing the deficit and enhancing the decline of the middle class. His foreign policy is more martial than Bush’s policy and his history of positions with respect to the use of the military over the past ten years has been errant to say the least.

But this attention to style is not just a Republican preoccupation. Obama trumpets national health insurance and proposes a plan that fairly drips skepticism, as discussed in this article by Chris Hedges. Obama, like McCain, voted against a single payer plan that would actually provide national health care but which is ardently opposed by the insurance industry.

Obama obviously thinks that going against these powerful corporations would be foolhardy. With last year’s Energy Bill he supported largess for big oil and he voted for retroactive immunity for telecoms that violated citizens’ rights to privacy. When he talks about taking on the big corporations his plans are not as bold as some think.

My sense of it is that in terms of standing behind what they say, McCain is duplicitous and cynical, and Obama is Machiavellian and weaker than his oratory. Supporters of each candidate excuse this saying that it is what is required to get elected. Once elected there are also plenty of excuses.

In my mind the critical difference is that Obama in fact will depart from Bush’s policies and pandering to the so called “religious right.” Objectively his economic policies, like those of Clinton (the only president to balance the budget in decades), do offer a means of escaping the downward spiral of the national deficit and will benefit the middle class. On matters of foreign policy he seems more thoughtful and judicious.

My views of course may change over the next two months as we hear more from the candidates, but that’s how I see it now.

The DLC and the Conservative Faction of the Democratic Party

August 27, 2008

The Democratic Party is using its convention to among other things bridge the widening cleft between its populist base and conservative leadership.  By repeatedly underscoring that the alternative to a Democratic win is four more years of Bush policies, the party leaders are calling attention to the fact that the party rank and file have no place to turn but to the party for any sort of change, even if that change does not approximate the hopes of the party faithful.

The Democratic Leadership Council spearheads the conservative faction of the party.  Its position is that the party must move rather dramatically to the right to avoid obsolescence.  Recognizing that this view is not shared by a majority of Democrats Bill Clinton campaigned as a populist, then actualized welfare reform that Reagan did not dare champion, promoted and got NAFTA.

He avoided much criticism from the right by usurping positions on the right.  Bill Krystal was so impressed with Clinton’s record as a conservative that he expressed wonderment that the right had any objections at all to Clinton.  Meanwhile many progressives felt betrayed.

In 2004 Howard Dean captured the imagination of the populist anti-war movement and was actively opposed by the DLC, which favored Kerry.  Recognizing that the anti-war movement was strong enough to effect election results, Kerry after incoherent blathering about the war, became an opponent of it, undercutting some of Dean’s support.

Progressives or what is sometimes called the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party fear that Obama has done exactly what Bill Clinton did in getting the nomination.  That is appealing to Democrats as a progressive candidate, then after securing the nomination becoming for many practical purposes a Republican.

Remember Clinton’s opinion poll policies.  He would let Republicans launch a campaign for or against something, wait while opinion polls came then make a decision, often doing what Republicans advocated.  This approach was successful if that is measured by tenure in office.  Many would argue that it was not successful if measured against progressive policies.

The cleft in the party relates to fears that Obama has followed Clinton’s formula, trading on charisma while sacrificing policy.  Without out a doubt he has moved to the right since securing the number of delegates for the nomination.  This in itself is not betrayal and is an almost inevitable shift among Democratic candidates, just as moving to the left is typical of Republican candidates after nomination.

Part of this reaction from the left is due to the almost unimaginable hopes that were posited in Obama by the left.  Clinton was the DLC’s candidate of choice and this time, in contract with 2004, the candidate with populist groundswell support carried the day.  Clinton seemed to suffer a bit for not seeming to come out unequivocally against the war until late in the game.  As a result her anti-war position was never entirely believed by the people defining themselves as anti-war.

Obama in contrast seemed to be clear and unwaivering.  That is until his nomination seemed secure.  Then he ousted his anti-war advisors and substituted Clinton Administration hawks.  His speeches began to emphasize the conditions of withdrawal and looking at all the circumstances.  He seemed to adopt Clinton’s initial position about the war.

Then after all the debate talk about the purity of his anti-war sentiment as opposed to Clinton’s vote for the war, he chose as his running mate the man who perhaps more than anybody was the Democratic Party point man for the war.  Biden has changed his tune but he certainly rattled more sabers than Clinton before the war and following the invasion.  Biden too was an ardent proponent of the anti-consumer bankruptcy bill and was one of the few Democrats to vote for it.

Obama has revealed another Bill Clinton tactic that is far from comforting to the left.  He has demonstrated Clinton’s penchant for adopting Republican positions when his position appears to be unpopular.  Not only has he done this with off shore drilling but so has Nancy Pelosi.

Bush also took misleading positions to get into office.  Remember his sanctimonious statement in his debate with Gore that he would never allow our country to get into nation building abroad?  That turned out to be what his administration was all about.  Bush of course became historically unpopular but he was like Clinton elected twice.  These seem to be good models for getting into office even if the endings have been unhappy.