Monday, November 30, 2009

This candidate certified 80% pure

This is a post about a novel idea that the Republican party has thought up to boost their fortunes. Before I discuss it, I'd like to quick review the biggest challenges the two parties face going into the next election.

The first problem for Democrats is the current anti-incumbent mood of the public. People aren't happy about the state of the economy, and they're bound to take it out on current office-holders if things don't improve. That means trouble for the party in power. The second problem is apathy among Democrats. Democratic voters mostly stayed home in the 2009 election; in 2008 they represented 39% of the electorate, but only 33% of the electorate in this November's races. Furthermore there's indication that Democrats may stay home again in 2010.

The biggest problem the Republican Party has (now that people are starting to forget the scorched-earth policies of George W. Bush) is that not many Americans want to be card-carrying members. While nearly 30% of voters called  themselves Republicans at the time of the 2008 elections, only 22.7% do so now. The party hasn't seen numbers this poor since its post-Watergate nadir in the 1970s. Other difficulties for the GOP include problems raising cash, the fact that it is increasingly identified as a regional party of the American south, and the fact that its leadership is increasingly made up of its nuttiest and least-informed members (Sarah Palin is clearly the party's most popular spokesperson).

So putting aside the Democrats problems for another day, here's what the GOP has come up with to get their party moving again: a "purity" test for candidates. I'll let the New York Times fill you in: "Republican leaders are circulating a resolution listing 10 positions Republican candidates should support to demonstrate that they “espouse conservative principles and public policies” that are in opposition to “Obama’s socialist agenda.” According to the resolution, any Republican candidate who broke with the party on three or more of these issues– in votes cast, public statements made or answering a questionnaire – would be penalized by being denied party funds or the party endorsement."

For the record, the resolution would force Republicans to toe the line on at least 8 of these 10 issues:
(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership

Also from the Times,"the chief sponsor of the proposal, James Bopp Jr., defended the use of a 10-point list on key positions like fiscal conservatism, gun rights and abortion. He found it predictable that Democrats would be critical, saying they “relish criticizing the Republican Party for not being true to our conservative principles, which was unfortunately true with regard to support for spending, deficits and bailouts during the Bush administration, which I publicly criticized at the time. They will attack any effort to reassure voters that we are serious about restoring our conservative bona fides.”

I actually find it refreshing to hear a Republican admit that while the party talks a good game on keeping spending under control, the reality has been very different. So to pass a resolution saying in essence, "if you say one thing and do another, you'll be called to account for it," I think that's just fine.

The thing is, this proposal isn't meant to threaten politicians who don't keep their promises, it's a strong-arm tactic that attempts to force all of the party's candidates to hold identical viewpoints on the issues. I fail to understand how this actually helps Republicans to build their party and regain the majority in Congress.

Contrast the Republican strategy with the Democratic game plan. The Democratic Party supports liberal candidates everywhere it's possible to elect a liberal, and more conservative candidates in conservative districts. I support the Democratic strategy for a couple of reasons. First of all, it works. We have a large majority in Congress, and one reason for that is that we've managed to elect a Democrat in a lot of conservative districts. Some people believe these "blue dog" conservative Democrats are more trouble than their worth, but I don't. Although some of the blue dogs have made themselves pretty annoying, a Democrat who votes with us 60% of the time and who helps us raise money and build our party is preferable to a Republican who never votes with us. The second reason why I don't favor forcing Democrats to adhere to a narrow range of opinion on the issues is that is makes us the "big tent" party. We welcome people with different points of view.

The GOP purity test is nothing new of course, Republican Senator Jim DeMint offered essentially the same idea earlier this year when he said that he "would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs." And I still like what conservative columnist Peggy Noonan had to say about DeMint's remarks, "Good luck stopping an agenda you call socialist with 30 hardy votes. "Shrink to win": I've never heard of that as a political slogan."

 So, is the GOP leadership so deluded that it really thinks that the purity test will help them? Honestly I don't think they believe that this sort of thing will help them build their party. Rather, I think James Bopp Jr. and his friends believe that the purity test resolution will help them build their own power within the party. The Republican leadership has noticed that the party has lost most of its moderate voices, which means that what remains of the base has become far more conservative. By throwing some red meat to the grassroots, Mr. Bopp is assuring his own prosperity, whether his organization prospers or not.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Iowa: corn, beans and incumbents who always win

Lately I've been thinking of my youth growing up in Iowa. And not just because I'm reminded as we begin the holiday season that the state Song of Iowa is sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum.

A pair of Iowa politicians that no one's heard from in a while have returned, like a couple of ghosts of Christmases past who won't leave us alone. Four-time Iowa Governor Republican Terry Brandstad has returned to run against incumbent Democratic Governor Chet Culver. I ventured over to wikipedia to remind myself what Governor Brandstad's accomplishments were in his sixteen years in office. Branstad's page lists exactly ONE mighty achievement for the good Governor: linking Iowa's school district's in a broadband network.

Well, since no one seems to remember much of anything Branstad did in his most-of-two-decades in office, I'll have to rely on my own memory. The Branstad I recall was mostly interested in raising revenue on the back of Iowa's poor and middle classes. When he took office in 1983, Iowa's sales tax was three percent. Within a few years, where I lived in Story County it was six percent. And as far as the good "conservative" Governor was concerned, too much was never enough when it came to raising the gas tax, creating state lotteries, and legalizing gambling. And almost everyone seems to have forgotten the incident in which Branstad's son killed two people while driving drunk but was only convicted of a misdemeanor.

I had a suspicion that when Branstad and today's Republican Party got their first chance to meet each other that they would find out that they don't have much in common.The new "conservatives" are nothing like the moderate, frequently sensible Reagan coalition Branstad remembers from his first successful race for Governor in 1982. And the young Republican activists who drive the party and who have no idea who Branstad is are going to find out what Iowans knew in the 80's but chose to ignore: Terry Branstad is a very dim bulb.

Sure enough, when the GOP faithful and Branstad finally got together last week, it was not exactly a love-in. Attendees at the event described Branstad as "arrogant" and "no threat to the liberal status quo." (I think "no threat to the liberal status quo" means "not conservative enough.") Branstad's remarks at the event included defending himself on approving the first state lottery bill by saying that it was a response to his getting booed at football games. He also seemed to insult blind people. Branstad's second meeting with Iowa Republicans a few days later didn't go much better, with the Des Moines Register describing the audience as having, "no sense of excitement for the candidate."

So who's our other specter from Iowa's political past? It's Terry Brandstad's first opponent for Governor, attorney Roxanne Conlin, running against crusty old Chuck Grassley in next year's Senate race. I can give you a lot of reasons why Conlin isn't going to beat Grassley. Here's one big one: it is to Iowa's lasting shame that it has never elected a woman to Congress. Here's another reason: Conlin has served as the president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Yeah, that'll be real popular.

There is one upside to nominating the head of the trial lawyers. Conlin will be able to raise an incredible amount of money and drive Grassley nuts with negative ads. The old man has recently shown that he's incredibly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism.

Iowa loves its incumbent politicians, and is likely to reelect them no matter which way the wind is blowing in 2010. That will give Senator Grassley another six years of the guaranteed government health insurance that he's already enjoyed for over fifty years but doesn't believe should be available to you in any form.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Expect the inquisition!

Anyone reading this article is probably familiar with Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch. In this sketch, an ordinary scene is interrupted by the arrival of Michael Palin, playing a Catholic Cardinal, who proceeds to tie an old woman to a chair and inform her, "you are accused of heresy on three counts -- heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed, and heresy by action -- *four* counts."

Something very like this happened this fall in the special election for New York's 23rd congressional district. The Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, was an experienced legislator who had no trouble winning the endorsement of Republican luminaries such as Newt Gingrich. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: GOP activists decided that Scozzafava just wasn't conservative enough. "Tea-bagging" conservatives abandoned Scozzafava and began supporting third-party candidate and right-wing ideologue Doug Hoffman, eventually forcing Scozzafava to drop out of the race. Result: Democrat Bill Owens carried the day, winning in a district parts of which had not voted Democratic since before the Civil War.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Republican "small tent" strategy, espoused by GOP Senator Jim DeMint, who feels that he, "would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs." Interestingly, the Hoffman debacle in New York doesn't seem to have phased DeMint one bit. DeMint criticized National Republican Senate Committee John Cornyn's efforts to find moderate candidates who can appeal to a broad spectrum of the public this week saying, "He’s trying to find candidates who can win. I’m trying to find people who can help me change the Senate...To think we can grow the party by picking people who are more liberal and don’t share our core values doesn’t make any sense."

I'm unclear how as to how DeMint thinks he can grow his party with the strategy "pass our litmus test on every issue or be kicked out of the Party." Well, Kentuckian Henry Clay used to say, "I'd rather be right than President." Clearly, DeMint would rather be right than have a majority in Congress.

I stress this point because the DeMint strategy is such a sharp contrast with how the Democratic Party functions. Democrats are only too glad to support conservative "Blue Dog" candidates in conservative areas that are unlikely to elect very progressive candidates. For example, here's the Act Blue web page to raise money for the Senate campaign of Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, a candidate who agrees with progressive Democrats on precious few issues.

Electing the Blue Dogs has its pros and cons. Pro: it allows Democrats to hold large majorities in Congress and to pass important legislation. Case in point: last night's landmark passage of the Health Care Reform bill in the House by a narrow 220-215 vote. Con: it also allows conservative Democrats to throw their weight around and insert the odious Stupak Amendment that takes away women's reproductive rights into the Health Care bill.

The benefits of having the majority and being able to pass the laws we need are worth having a few conservatives in the Party. And there's another advantage as well. There's always going to be debate on Capitol Hill. I'd rather have the debate on legislation be between liberal and moderate Democrats than between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Until the GOP comes up with some real answers to American problems, they deserve to be marginalized.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Conservatives and missle defense: too much is never enough

Conservatives are not happy with President Obama's decision to re-focus our missile defense program in Europe. I've been meaning for some time to write on the subject of missile defense, though I'm hardly an expert on anti-ballistic defense technology. I do however know something about American history, so I'll frame today's post around a timeline.

1969: The US and the USSR begin the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

1972: President Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign what would become known as the ABM Treaty: an agreement to limit strategic offensive weapons and strategic defensive systems. (Good job, President Nixon. Wow, it's amazing how bad your Republican successors look compared to you sometimes).

1983-1993: The United States operates the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" program. Total cost: over $30 billion. Number of space-based weapons launched: zero. Hm.

2001: President Bush withdraws from the ABM Treaty. The new arms race is on!

2007: President Bush announces that the US will build a ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Europe and the United States from long-range missiles launched from Iran. A few problems with this plan: Iran does not have, not is it near to obtaining, long-range missile capability. Both Czechs and Poles oppose the plan. The treaty withdrawal brings post-Cold War relations between Russia and the United States to an all-time low.

2009: President Obama scraps the Bush plan from 2007. The US will now focus its European missile defense plan on defending against Iran's short-to-medium range missiles.

Europe is thrilled by the decision! Why? Here's a summary from Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor: "European officials were skeptical of the missile shield for several reasons: They argued it was technically dubious, did not protect Europe but was mainly planned to stop ICBMs launched against America, that its costs were high, that it was imposed on Europe without proper consultation, and that it gave Moscow an issue to (fairly or unfairly) gripe over."

Relations with our Russian allies improve! President Dmitry Medvedev announces that Russia will not follow through with its threat to deploy missiles and bombers near Poland in the event the antimissile system was installed.

Iran (the alleged threat upon which this whole defense program is based) is furious! Ayatollah Ali Khamenei states that Obama's policy is, "something that is in the doctrine of anti-Iranianism."

So good job, President Obama. Our allies are happy, and our enemies taken aback. We've avoided a new arms race between the superpowers, and we're saving money. That's what we want, right? Well not if you're the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Yeah, yeah, I know. If Obama drinks a Budweiser, conservatives will furiously announce that he should be drinking Coors.

But come on, conservative think-tank guy Baker Spring, is this really the best you can do? Spring: "the U.S. will have no long-range, intercontinental, defense capabilities until 2020. If projections that Iran will produce a long-range missile by 2015 are correct, 2020 is too late."

So what the United States needs to do is to develop an expensive defensive capability to guard against attack from a country that has never in its history started a war, so that we'll be protected from an offensive capability that country doesn't actually have and only theoretically might be able to develop? I disagree.

Spring: "In defense policy, safety, not savings, should be policymakers' ultimate goal... Many painful lessons throughout history have shown that national security should not be shortchanged." 

Really, Mr. Spring? Is the United States, the country that spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on defense, "short-changing" national security? I think not.

Spring: "this shift will weaken America's missile defense capability against real and emerging threats, harm U.S. allies, and embolden its enemies."

Again, our allies approve of what President Obama is doing. They never supported the Bush policy. Do you, Mr. Spring, really know better than them? And again, the Obama policy shifts our defense from a phantom threat to protecting against an offensive capability Iran actually has.

One more thing. I love the bit about how Obama might be "emboldening our enemies." Excuse me, but after President Bush let insurgents bleed us white in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of a decade, is there any way that our enemies could possibly be more emboldened?