Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Reading

Obstruction — Jonathan Bernstein at Salon on why blocking every move by the president will blow up in the hands of the GOP.

It’s obvious that the unprecedented Senate Republican obstruction of executive branch nominations is bad for the president; it’s bad for the smooth functioning of the government; and it’s bad for voters who elected a Democratic president and a solid, 55-seat Democratic majority in the Senate. I’ve argued, too, that it’s bad for the Senate.

Less obvious? It’s bad for Republicans.

Now, in electoral terms, it can’t be bad for both parties, since electoral politics is a zero-sum game. Indeed, that’s sort of the problem for Republicans; obstruction of these nominations almost certainly has zero electoral effect. After all, most voters couldn’t tell you who the nominees for secretary of labor or to head the Environmental Protection Agency are, let alone the obscure rules Republicans are using to delay their confirmation.

So the effects of massive, across-the-board obstruction are going to be on policy, not elections. And that’s not a zero-sum game – and it will hurt Republicans and Republican-aligned groups, too.

Obstruction backfires against Republicans because it makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for them to collectively use the nomination process to make policy demands. Consider, for example, what they’ve done with EPA nominee Gina McCarthy. Senators traditionally ask nominees questions in order, in part, to get them to commit to policies those Senators find acceptable. McCarthy received not the normal dozens of questions, but more than 1,000. That appears to be an extreme case, but it’s not just her, either. As the New York Times reported, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had to answer 395. By contrast, George W. Bush’s last Treasury Secretary received 49 questions from Democrats and 32 from Republicans. When you answer hundreds of questions, you might as well answer none; by failing to focus on specific areas of policy they care about, Republicans are likely wasting the opportunity to actually win some policy commitments.

Which Was the Worst? — James Fallows at The Atlantic weighs in on which of the so-called scandals is the one that could be the worst for President Obama.

Obama’s endorsement of the seizure of phone records and investigation suggests surprising blindness to two great and not-very-hidden realities of presidential history.

One is, secrets always get out. Presidents always hate it, and they always do their best to prevent it. Usually they manage to guard the truly life-and-death, real-time operational details — for instance, in Obama’s case, the suspected whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. But always there are leaks. Always. Always. And they are nearly always less consequential than is alleged at the time.

The other great historical constant is that after-the-fact hunts for leakers always go wrong. That is because they criminalize the delicate but essential relationship between reporters and government officials. The prosecutors always come across as over-reaching and too intrusive. The reporters and their news organizations always end up in a no-win situation: sometimes spending time in jail, often put in financial distress by legal costs, always torn between their professional/personal obligation to maintain confidence with their sources and the demands of prosecutors. And no good purpose is ever served.

Obama should know this. He must know it. He must know that no president looks better in history’s eyes for anti-leak prosecutions, and that many look worse. He must know the temptations that work on any president: the temptation to steadily arrogate executive power, to become so resentful of the limits on his power in domestic-legislation fights that he is drawn toward his untrammeled international authority, to slide imperceptibly from his (unavoidable) role as the person who must make countless hard decisions to a sense that his judgment automatically equals what is best for the country. He must know what the open-ended “war on terror” has done to the balance of powers, the fabric of life, and the rule of law in our country. Obama’s (and America’s) ideal, Abraham Lincoln, infringed heavily on civil liberties in the name of wartime emergency. That war, like Franklin Roosevelt’s, had a definable end.

I think Barack Obama has made a bad mistake in endorsing this investigation. It is one of the rare times I question not his effectiveness or tactics but his judgment. I hope he reconsiders.

Pity Party — Frank Bruni says that winning in America, be it on The Voice or in politics, relies on having a hard-luck story to tug at the heartstrings.

There’s a vivid streak of this in history, from Abe Lincoln’s log home to Bill Clinton’s turbulent one. But it seems more florid now. The economy’s stubborn funk has ratcheted up our suspicion of perks and privileges and our support for underdogs, to a point where we’re less taken with what people have achieved than with what they’ve endured.

In politics and in prime time, the contestants with the most traction are frequently the contestants with the gravest trials: afflictions, addictions, lost loves, lost dogs. I’m kidding about the canines, but only slightly. If there aren’t any epic setbacks in your biography, your political consultants or your “Voice” producers will find and amplify whatever garden-variety sorrows do exist. They’re like divining rods for tears, Yo-Yo Ma’s of the heartstrings.

That’s surely why a sort of weariness and skepticism was the response among a few New Yorkers I know to last week’s revelations by Christine Quinn, the mayoral candidate, that she’d struggled with bulimia and alcoholism. They’ve grown so inured to the process of public figures rummaging through the past for hard knocks that they greet it in a jaded fashion, wondering how to tell the real aches from the exaggerated ones.

Fetishized misfortune — hardship porn — has numbed them. That’s the biggest problem with it. It equates and mashes everything into one sentimental mush, cheapening uncommon suffering by showcasing it alongside the rest. It bends all life stories into identical arcs, no matter how different those stories are.

Doonesbury — Facial recognition.