The Supreme Court and Disaffected Progressive Voters

Last minute appeals to disaffected progressive voters are now being made, with the Supreme Court at the forefront of the debate as always. Although I come down emphatically  on the side that argues for all to vote to re-elect President Obama and always have for a number of reasons, it’s not hard to see how the way this debate has played out has done a disservice to all involved.

A brief overview:

Calling the current iteration of the court a Republican majority isn’t as simplistic and misleading as it would have been with the Rehnquist court in 2004. Since Souter and Stevens stepped down there are no moderate to liberal appointees of Republicans presidents left on the court and there aren’t going to be any more where they came from. Supreme Court justices now broadly reflect the party of the president that nominated them: five conservative Republicans appointees and four moderate to progressive Democratic appointees.

The conservative side has two relatively young George W. Bush justices, a George H.W. Bush justice and two Reagan justices. The Democratic side includes two relatively young Obama justices and two Clinton justices. Over the next four years the seats currently filled by Clinton and Reagan justices will be watched closely. Reagan appointees Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia are both 76. Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 80 early next year and has batted cancer. Clinton’s other addition to the court, Stephen Breyer, is 74.

That Anthony Kennedy, the champion of Citizens United, is the swing vote speaks to the nature of the conservative majority on the court. Kennedy is often labeled a “moderate” because he changed his mind and broke with the right on Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Chief Justice John Roberts was effusively praised simply because he ultimately decided not to strike down in its entirety the Affordable Care Act and it’s most controversial component, the individual mandate, that originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Kennedy and Roberts have successfully cleared a very low bar.

If Romney were to win and replace Kennedy or Ginsburg the right’s majority would be solidified for a long time. If a “President Romney” were to replace both, a  real possibility if he were to win, it would be difficult to overstate the damage the conservative majority could inflict. If President Obama is re-elected there’s a chance that he will be able to replace a Reagan appointee and end the right’s majority. A durable majority mainly consisting of relatively young Obama appointees isn’t out of the question

Some disaffected progressives contend that there isn’t much difference between the Democratic appointees and their Republican counterparts. I disagree. Yes, Justice Kagan may be an open question on a handful of things and other Democratic appointees may only look like progressive stalwarts when compared to the right. But that doesn’t mean the differences on reproductive rights, effective regulation in the public interest, the right to organize, campaign finance and civil rights are small or inconsequential. It’s possible to advocate for more of a difference in future Democratic appointments without diminishing the differences in the present.

Other disaffected voters argue that elected Democrats haven’t fought the right’s Supreme Court nominees. I wouldn’t dispute that in 2003, even though George W. Bush had lost the popular vote and it was well understood that his eventual nominees would be stealth regressives, there were Senate Democrats privately and perhaps publicly giving voice to the traditional view that Senators should default to voting for a president’s Supreme Court nomination, almost regardless of context and consequence. Some Senate Dems may have even patted themselves on the back for their display of inordinate reverence for what the norm might look like in a perfect world in which elected Republicans are not, you know, elected Republicans.

However, the Democratic conference in the Senate has improved since 2006 and will improve further with the additions of  Baldwin, Hirono and Warren. As always, advocates will still need to push Senate Dems on a range of issues but that looks more doable than it used to. This isn’t Mission Accomplished it’s Mission Possible.

Spend some time reading what progressive disaffecteds are thinking and it quickly becomes apparent that what they resent the most, and understandably so, is the notion that the two words “Supreme Court” render profound disagreements on other issues invalid. The Supreme Court is a very good reason to vote to re-elect the president. What Romney appointees would do on the court really is scary. But the Supreme Court is not cause to end all uncomfortable discussions and internal debate. The disaffected are right that if something is wrong or counterproductive it doesn’t become any less so just because the president who is doing it is one we voted for; they’re right that dissent is integral to progressive change; and they’re right that “better than Republicans” is a woefully inadequate standard.

I would hope that any progressive voters making a last minute decision would separate the way the Supreme Court has been invoked from the issue itself. Because although it should never be used to try shut down all debate and dissent about things like foreign policy, the future of the Supreme Court is at stake in this election.

 

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iHawk

There’s never a shortage of candidates and prominent commentators who portray themselves as hawks: vigilant, proactive, ready to descend onto a threat. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that too many of these self-styled political hawks are hawkish about the wrong things. They’re more like peacocks (they try to call attention to themselves) or ostriches (when it comes to the most pressing and realistic threats their heads are placed firmly in the sand). If there was a bird that let out some kind of “Yeah, look at me! I’m so hawk-like!” noise before crashing itself into the ground with great ferocity they would be like that bird too. This brand of political hawk goes through a four step process.

1. Be very proud of yourself
2. Ignore the most pressing threats and opportunities
3. Remain very proud of yourself
4. Repeat

The “hawk” label is frequently used as it relates to foreign policy, as a crude and dated way to denote whether someone is supportive of military action. It may have outlived its usefulness. Self-professed “hawks” misled our country into the disastrous war in Iraq. They want to keep us in Afghanistan, as if years 11, 12, 13, and 14 would be the charm. Politically involved younger voters whose peers have had to fight these wars for inordinately long periods of time aren’t very big on foreign policy hawks of any kind but they’re downright infuriated by the “chickenhawk” variety of the foreign policy hawk and rightfully so. Chickenhawks are all for rushing into wars in a litany of places as long as they are nowhere near the action. Chickenhawks casually send their fellow Americans to war, and then go AWOL on the resulting PTSD, brain injuries, joblessness and homelessness among veterans—and veterans care in general.

On economic policy front we see the the  self-proclaimed “deficit hawks” like leading “fiscal conservative” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The fiscal conservative label Ryan wears so proudly is meant to, through the sheer force of the word “fiscal,” cast a highly destructive and incoherent set of positions as inherently virtuous. These fiscal conservatives fail to articulate a credible view of when and how a budget deficit negatively impact the real economy while simultaneously making wildly inaccurate statements about what is driving the deficit they are supposedly Very Serious about.

Fiscal conservatives talk themselves up as noble tellers of “hard truths.” This is ironic, not just because their “hard truths” are aggressively deceptive (so much for the “truth” part), but because they’re the ones who haven’t yet been sufficiently and publicly confronted with what for them will be a hard truth: there’s little reason to believe they care about the deficit at all. There’s every reason to think they’re trying to use it as political cover for a long-standing agenda. This goes back to Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo that became a blueprint for the conservative movement. Yelling “look at the deficit!” when there’s a Democrat in the White House is in fact important to conservatives, the deficit itself isn’t. “Fiscal conservatism” is an attempt to put a vaguely respectable sheen on the real agenda of redistributing even more wealth and power upwards, giving even more tax breaks to the most wealthy despite their already very low tax rates, and cutting or eliminate Social Security and Medicare because the programs are very successful and broadly popular and conservatives can’t stand it. “Fiscal conservatism” is the right’s operational cover for their deep-seated ideological opposition to progressive economic policy

Those in the media who covered Paul’s Ryan’s “Listen To Me Say ‘Deficit’ A Lot” Tour in a favorable light might prefer to ignore the assertion that Ryan is a blatant fraud with goals far outside of the mainstream. But this view is backed up by Ryan’s voting record, the content of his proposals, his stated beliefs and the easily observable conservative playbook. The deficit gives them something to attribute a bad economy to and a theory of how electing them will fix it. Their expressed concern for the deficit runs into an obvious problem when they make one of their top domestic priorities eternal, ever more extreme tax cuts for the wealthy. In an attempt to paper over this glaring inconsistency, fiscal conservatives trot out discredited theories like Arthur Laffer’s infamous Laffer curve and/or the right-wing spin on “dynamic scoring.” This is the only fig leaf Republicans like Paul Ryan feel they need to declare with one breath that the deficit is a terrifying threat before yelling “Tax cuts! Thurston Howell III, come get more tax cuts!” with the next.

Note that movement conservatives like Grover Norquist openly talk about “starving the beast.” This translates to decimating revenue in order to give conservatives a pretext for hacking away at things that work and people like but make Zombie Ayn Rand cry. Norquist has actually been pretty straightforward about this. They’re not really concerned about the deficit and of course they want less revenue.

Republican strategists try to spin all of this into something they can pitch as constructive. Because of their agenda’s status as a miserable failure, and the fact that almost all of its component parts are unpopular, it has to be repackaged often. It’s trickle down economics, no it’s supply side, no the empowerment agenda, no “supply side economics for the working man,” as the Wall Street Journal and now Rick Santorum put it. (More accurate title: four flat tires for the driving man.)

Shorter Trickle Down Re-Re-Remix: Here’s the latest slight variation on the same agenda. We’re going to claim it addresses problems we don’t really care about and have never cared about. This will allow us to continue our efforts to dismantle the successful policy we’ve always hated.

For the record, elected officials who are genuinely concerned about the long-term deficit would be talking about rising health care costs. They would be proposing things that infuriate AHIP (insurance companies) and PhRMA (drug companies). Grover Norquist would be their lifelong sworn enemy. And if they’re truly interested in economic responsibility, elected officials in either party will be adamant about putting job growth first. The deficit is a symptom of the Great Recession, not the disease itself.

The hawkish impulse isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just being misapplied. As an example, here are some threats and challenges that warrant a hawkish outlook:

Unemployment

Any improvement on this front is obviously welcome. And while it’s certainly true that the GOP’s Mitch McConnell strategy and the demonstrable (and predictable) failure of austerity hysteria slashonomics have blocked and hobbled recovery, Democrats and progressives shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that we’re a painfully long way off from what should be our goal: fully employment. We’ll never get anywhere close to where we need to be if we’re satisfied with clearing a relatively low bar. As far as the election goes, it would be helpful if Democratic candidates remembered that most people will react negatively to statements that comes across as in any way self-congratulatory. You really can’t blame them for this. We’re still in a bad place and at this rate we will be for quite some time. It’s much better to talk about determination to make progress, and how we’ll go about doing that, than to tout improvement most have yet to feel. There’s a point at which improvement will make people receptive to more positive language, but we’re not there yet and we won’t get there anytime soon unless the improvement is significant and sustained.

Once the economy crosses that point, the political capital Democrats gain needs to be put towards the kind of recovery effort that can get more results. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we don’t need to “pivot” to unemployment as much as we need to kick the jobs crisis in the face, repeatedly, until it goes away. And for the sake of actually learning from history and the 1937 mistake, let’s not prematurely pivot away from jobs (again). (See: Paul Krugman)

Investment deficit

Other countries aren’t hesitating to build a 21st century infrastructure, Meanwhile, we’re falling behind. Combating the crumbling of America (details from the American Society of Civil Engineers) is a no-brainer. It’s as practical as it gets. Yet we’re still not doing it. Every day that we don’t act we fall further behind China and the European countries that take infrastructure seriously. Those who sleep on this challenge embody the old caricature of a “liberal” as someone with their head in the clouds. Politicians like to talk about competitiveness and American greatness, but if they’re not investment deficit hawks their talk of economic patriotism is empty.

Note: Manufacturing, the trade deficit, and China’s predatory practices fit in here or in the broader discussion about jobs.

Union busting

Labor unions built the American middle class and are essential to rebuilding it. We’ve seen a systematic and unrelenting attack on labor by the extremely well-financed union-busting lobby. This attack has delivered for those, like the Koch brothers, who put insane amounts of money into it. Virulently anti-union right-wingers and special interests have dramatically tilted the playing field against unions. This has a profound negative impact on all working people, whether they’re in a union or not (see: wages). The wrecking crew is knocking out the pillars of the middle class.

As a recent CEPR report shows, it’s the forces who target unions for political reasons, not other factors, that are responsible for the decline in union membership. We never had a strong, broad middle class without the right to organize and we never will. If the labor movement dies, it will not be due to natural causes. And if the labor movement dies, the hopes for a vibrant American middle class die with it.

Climate change

Climate change is right at our front door. Yet the same Republicans who talk about not wanting to pass things on to future generations ignore that anyone planning on being alive in 10 years, let alone their children, is going to be most angry with those in power over the destruction wrought by catastrophic climate. The absolute least the Inaction Caucus can do is start looking into cameras and saying what those with any shred of honesty know to be true: their inaction means catastrophic climate change and/or serious conversations about geoengineering sooner rather than later. Politicians who deploy forward-looking rhetoric about science can’t ignore what the scientific community is in heated agreement about right now. In a few more years, the harsh reality will make it next to impossible for all but the most stubborn FOX News viewer to deny climate change science. But we don’t have years to wait.

Defending Social Security

Most voters don’t reflexively line up with either side in the debate over the role of government. They don’t agree with conservative’s selective devotion to “small government” (or they’re in the large “ideologically conservative, operationally liberal” contingent), nor would they agree with the mythical liberal who wants what the right calls “big government” for its own sake.

Side note: I have yet to come across one of these “government is its own reward” liberals. They’re political Bigfoot. Let me know if you find one and it’s not just David Koch wearing the Bigfoot suit.

Voters want effective government. And that’s precisely what Social Security is. It’s a testament to Social Security’s undeniable success that those who want to needlessly cut it have to resort to saying that a couple of decades from now, after what will at that point be almost a hundred years of success, the intensely popular program will have an easily fixable, relatively small problem. That’s the knock against it.

To my fellow Democrats I would ask a straightforward question: If Social Security isn’t worth defending and truly strengthening, what is? We believe in and advocate for effective government. People want effective government. Social Security is effective government.

If we take part in unnecessary cuts and undermine retirement security despite broad opposition to cuts, when are we going to stand up for anything the right-wing wants to dismantle? If we won’t stand up for what we know to be right (and popular!) — one our party’s defining achievements, which is absolutely essential to retirement security, when exactly are we going to locate our backbone? Much too late, if ever.

I don’t quote him lightly, but the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) is apt here.

“If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” – Paul Wellstone

K Street’s influence

Conservatives and Republican operatives like to say that campaign finance reform is “unrealistic.” It’s true that getting K Street and Wall Street out of a position from which they can dominate our politics is going to be an epic battle requiring ongoing effort. A movement that can bring about campaign finance and lobbying reform with teeth is key, but it won’t mean the end of the story. This problem will require vigilance long after it’s contained.

But what’s really “unrealistic” is for conservative Republicans to expect to win much without the influence of corporate special interests giving them an assist in elections and legislative battles. They’re on the wrong side of demographic changes, history, and public opinion. Their solution to their problem: make it more difficult for people who are likely to support Democrats to vote (the ongoing GOP voter suppression tour) while making it even easier for K Street and Wall Street to drown out the voices of those who do vote (the Citizens United decision, other right-wing efforts to undo anything that acts as a check on corporate interests’ involvement in elections). This is what a desperate party looks like.

It’s also unrealistic to think that we’ll be able to truly address our major problems without reducing the influence of big money and countering the pull of K Street.