Friday, October 12, 2007

"A stain on democracy"

Meanwhile, away from the news cycle:

Political analyst Larry Sabato, the academician/author/quotemeister, contends in a provocative new book that the U.S. Constitution is a brilliant yet somewhat "archaic" document in dire need of an update. He says that certain provisions should be revised or even overhauled, in order to address “the new demands of a very different country than the one that existed in the founders' world.”

He pitched his 23 proposals last week at the National Constitution Center – I moderated the panel, which also featured Hofstra University law professor Eric Lane and International Herald Tribune executive editor Michael Oreskes, co-authors of a new book that says the Constitution is sufficiently flexible as it is – and I recall sounding skeptical about the prospects for radical change. (The forum is slated for broadcast on C-Span2 this weekend, at 7 a.m. Sunday and again at 7 p.m.)

Sabato, based at the University of Virginia, is calling for a new constitutional convention, and tossing out all kinds of ideas: changing the composition of the Senate to give greater representation to the most populous states; slapping term limits on all members of the House and Senate; eliminating lifetime tenure for federal judges; giving the president a single six-year term, with an option to seek two additional years in a national referendum; a new provision requiring that all able-bodied young Americans devote two years to national service; and many more.

I suspect that he knows a constitutional convention would be a long shot, and that he is really most interested in getting people to think anew about a document that is widely taken for granted.

At least one proposal, however, seems particularly attractive (and perhaps achievable, if only by legislation): Dropping the requirement that only “natural born citizens” can serve in the presidency. Sabato thinks the job should also be open to naturalized Americans who have been citizens for 20 years. A number of legal scholars and members of Congress concur; John Yinger of Syracuse University, testifying on Capitol Hill three years ago, in support of a reform bill that went nowhere, contended that the constitutional provision that bars the presidency to all foreign-born citizens is “an extreme form of profiling.”

Sabato argues in his book (and argued on the panel as well) that this constitutional provision “is a stain upon our democracy” that currently disqualifies 14.4 million American citizens, including Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. He points out that the provision was enacted at a time when the signers feared the prospect of a foreign monarch coming to these shores, perhaps at the invitation of conniving politicians in Philadelphia; rumors persisted that the Prussian brother of Frederick the Great, and the second son of British King George III, had received various overtures.

Sabato writes: “Fundamental to our national self-image is a belief that here in the United States, however humble one’s origins, anyone can rise to the highest office in the land. Striking the prohibition on non-native-born citizens will be a powerful symbol if America’s rising inclusiveness and equality in the 21st century.” He and other reformers think that 20-year naturalized citizens should be free to run for president, thereby leaving it up to the voters to decide whether they feel comfortable about electing somebody not born on American soil.

But the prospects for reform are dim, because the issue is too politically sensitive. In the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans are instinctively more fearful of foreign influence; in a national poll that Sabato commissioned for his book, 68 percent of respondents opposed the idea of a “foreign-born president.”

(Interestingly, one presidential candidate in the recent past was foreign-born. George Romney, father of current candidate Mitt Romney, ran for the GOP nomination in 1968, even though he had been born in Mexico, where his parents were Mormon missionaries. If he had triumphed during the primaries, the constitutional prohibition would have been front and center.)

It’s also noteworthy that Schwarzenegger, arguably one of the most popular and successful Republicans on the national scene, is nevertheless barred from seeking higher office due to his birth in Austria. Indeed, he was in the front row of the audience, at a GOP presidential debate last May, when the current candidates were asked whether they’d be willing to knock out that constitutional provision. Eight of nine said no – including Mitt Romney (“I’ll give it some thought, but probably not”). That kind of response must have made Arnold proud to be an American.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The true meaning of sacrifice

With respect to the latest Republican presidential debate, which I mentioned here yesterday, it’s worth noting that the questioners missed a golden opportunity to quiz the GOP candidates on a critically important issue.

This exchange, midway through the debate, seemed like the ideal opening:

Maria Bartiromo of CNBC: “Senator McCain, last week on the campaign trail you were critical of President Bush for the lack of asking for sacrifice…from the American people after September 11th - adding that, "Just go shopping," wasn't enough. What would you have asked?

John McCain: “I would have asked Americans, when we were incredibly united…to serve a cause greater than themselves. I would have told them, first of all, consider the military, also the Peace Corps, also AmeriCorps, also neighborhood watches, also volunteer organizations that we would form up all over America -- that way we would all serve this nation.”

That was it. McCain got off easy. Bartimoro moved on – rather than ask the most logical follow-up question:

“But, in terms of asking for sacrifice, Senator McCain, since you were, and continue to be, a strong supporter of the Iraq war, and since you see that war as a vital front in the war on terror, wouldn’t it be prudent and fair to ask today's Americans to help finance that war through a tax increase – the standard American practice ever since the Civil War?”

Perhaps she should have asked all the hawks on stage the same question. No doubt they would have dodged and weaved, but it would have triggered a far more scintillating conversation than the standard GOP wares on display the other day (such as whether the line-item veto is constitutional, an issue that no doubt galvanized the viewing audience). Seriously, are these candidates so committed to the war in Iraq that they would be prepared to ask the current generation of Americans to pay for it?

Politicians in both parties have long required that kind of sacrifice. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, imposed an estate tax on the rich in order to pay for his Union army. Another Republican, William McKinley, did the same to help pay for the Spanish-American war. His Republican successor, Theodore Roosevelt, kept it on the books in case of wartime emergency, saying that “the man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantage from the mere existence of government. Democratic presidents raised taxes to pay for World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

George W. Bush has invoked FDR and World War II in order to inspire listeners about the stakes in Iraq, but he never quotes what FDR said five weeks after Pearl Harbor: “War costs money. So far, we have hardly begun to pay for it.” Nor does he quote what FDR said a year earlier, when he warned Americans that they would need to sacrifice in order to shore up the British in their fight against Hitler: “A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes.”

Instead, today’s Americans sacrifice by spending their Bush tax cuts at the mall. Basically – and this too might have been fertile turf at the Tuesday debate, which was supposed to be primarily about economics – the Bush team is paying for this war by putting the tab on the American credit card, by running up the national debt. And burgeoning nations such as China are gaining long-term economic leverage against us by buying up that debt.

It would have been instructive to see whether the GOP hawks were prepared to buttress their war support by asking for substantive economic sacrifice. That might have tested their true commitment to the war. At the least, the exchanges would have been far more valuable than hearing Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney squabble at length over who did what on taxes and revenue way back when.


Speaking of Iraq, we all remember how the Surge was supposed to inspire the warring sectarian Iraqi factions to move toward political reconcilation, and how that goal remains a pipe dream. The topic came up today at the White House press briefing, after press secretary Dana Perino happened to mention that President Bush had a teleconference conversation early this morning with Prime Minister Maliki.

Perino insisted, of course, that Maliki is "a good man" who is "trying as hard as he can." Then, referring to the Bush-Maliki chat, she added this:

"One of the things they talked about was the frustration that you can have when you're in the executive branch, in trying to push the legislative branch into acting on something that you want to see done."

Yep, just one leader of a democracy commiserating with another leader of a democracy, about how hard it is to deal with unruly legislators. The legislators in one democracy think they can just go ahead and enact health insurance for children, while the legislators in another democracy prefer to aid and abet sectarian strife and's all part of the challenging process of checks and balances, with those Iraqi lawmakers really acting just like those uppity American Democrats.

Or as Bush himself told CBNC today, "You're seeing a democracy emerge and it's exciting."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A GOP no-no: "You sit down with your attorneys..."

So I was in the midst of multi-tasking yesterday, keeping an ear cocked to the Republican presidential debate that was playing online, when I heard Mitt Romney say the most amazing thing. I had to roll back the transmission and listen again, just to make sure. I even watched his lips move, just to ensure that this wasn’t some sort of trick.

And sure enough, he did say it. Here’s the exchange with host Chris Matthews, with the highlights italicized.

Matthews: “Governor Romney…if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities?”

Romney: “You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of Congress.”

Matthews: “Did he need it?”

Romney: “You know, we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do, but certainly what you want to do is to have the agreement of all the people in leadership of our government, as well as our friends around the world where those circumstances are available.”

Sit down with your attorneys…Go to the lawyers…It’s hard to imagine a Republican candidate committing a more egregious gaffe. After all, Republicans have long delighted in bashing lawyers, as rhetorical sport. They typically take a certain populist macho pride in distancing themselves from the effete hair-splitters (President Bush, umpteen times: “I’m not a lawyer”). Republican pollster Frank Luntz even insisted in a 1998 memo to GOP candidates that “it’s almost impossible to go too far when it comes to demonizing lawyers. Make the lawyer your villain.”

The typical Republican believes that legal niceties are for wimps, that you fight the global evil-doers and run roughshod over dithering congressmen not by sitting with your attorneys, but by channeling John Wayne….which is precisely why, if an ’08 Democratic candidate had ever dared to say what Romney just said, that Democrat would currently be under serious assault from the Fox/Rush/Drudge/Coulter/GOP message nexus.

Never mind the fact that, in a narrow technical sense, Romney was actually speaking the truth, since presidents of both parties do tend to check with legal counsel while weighing constitutional issues. In the shorthand of politics, nuance is the first casualty. One can only imagine how Republican admakers would have responded, in 2004, if John Kerry had spoken Romney’s identical phrases: “Once again, the Democrats have shown that they cannot be trusted to keep us safe. John Kerry thinks we should outsource the war on terror to the lawyers – ‘to let the lawyers sort it out,’ as he puts it. In a dangerous world, America cannot afford that kind of inaction…”

In fact, that’s what a lot of conservatives were saying in 2004 anyway; commentator Barbara Stock at the Renew America think tank mocked Kerry for his alleged belief that “a few lawyers will solve the pesky terrorist problem.” Meanwhile, Jed Babbin over at the National Review wrote that year, “If wars are too important to be trusted to the generals, they are far too important to be trusted to a bunch of lawyers.” (In that piece, he was complaining about how Bill Clinton had consulted with Pentagon lawyers before deciding whether to launch special-ops missions.)

Perhaps conservatives would at least be consistent if they now rebuked Romney for expressing a willingness to consult with lawyers during a national security crisis. Right?

Dream on.

With the exception of a few observers – Matt Hemingway at the National Review website fumed, “What a terrible answer on Mitt’s part…mind-boggingly awful” – most of the conservative commentariat has been predictably benign.

I repeatedly checked The Drudge Report, in the hours after the debate. It’s fair to suggest that if a Democratic candidate had talked about consulting with lawyers, the parsed quote would have been emblazoned in red on the home page. But Romney’s quote was nowhere to be found (last night, by contrast, there was a photo of Hillary in a witch costume).

The generally astute Matthew Continetti, at the Weekly Standard, did suggest that, while “none of the candidates had a bad debate,” Romney “came close when he said he would more or less cede command authority to his lawyers.” But he didn’t elaborate. And even though a blogger at did argue this morning that Romney’s words “tells me all I need to know about his qualifications to be commander in chief. In fact, Romney's reply sounded much like what we would hear out of the mouths of liberal Democrats,” he immediately took heat from conservative posters who thought Romney’s words were no big deal.

But even though most conservatives seem to want to excuse one of their own, even for uttering words that they would have condemned from a Democrat, this doesn’t mean Romney will get off scot free. If any rival candidate sees Romney as an impediment and needs ammo to cut him down, the lawyer line might well be resurrected. The Fred Thompson campaign put out a brief mocking email last night, and an official Thompson blogger wondered last night, “Does the Iranian regime respond to subpoenas?”


And speaking of Fred Thompson, how did the GOP’s purported conservative savior perform yesterday, in his long-awaited debate debut? Some commentators seem to think that he did just swimmingly, just because he remained awake for two hours and managed to survive a Chris Matthews pop quiz by correctly naming the prime minister of Canada.

But suffice it to say that his lines were better on Law and Order. At one point, he let loose with this clearly scripted sound bite: “It’s strange to me to think that the average 20-year-old serving us in Iraq knows more about what it takes for our national security than the average 20-year veteran on Capitol Hill.” (I know it’s de rigueur these days to offer kudos to our troops, and that’s fine - but are we now supposed to believe that they are also endowed with big-picture geostrategic wisdom as well?) And at another point, he sounded like a foggy version of George W. Bush: “The manufacturing industry is, in large part, an international industry nowadays, which means prices are set internationally.”

On the other hand, any 65-year-old man who can stay vertical while listening to a discussion of the Smoot-Hawley tariff probably deserves at least a measure of applause.


And, with respect to Barack Obama's recent alleged insult to American flag pin wearers everywhere, history shall record that, yesterday, only two of the nine Republicans debaters wore flag pins.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The downside of having your dukes up

While addressing Democratic partisans, Hillary Clinton frequently touts herself as the ultimate stump warrior, a battle-tested candidate who will effectively repel every attack and cede nary an inch to political enemies. But, as evidenced by her behavior at an Iowa event two days ago, this kind of hair-trigger vigilance clearly has its downside.

During a Sunday “town hall” session, Hillary took some questions from the audience (a noteworthy event in itself, because in recent weeks she has generally avoided such interactions). She was soon hit with a zinger from a guy named Randall Rolph, who was disturbed by the fact that Hillary had recently voted for a Senate resolution calling on President Bush to formally designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Rolph voiced his concern that Hillary, by her vote, was essentially providing Bush with a new excuse to foment war with Iran.

Then Rolph delivered the money quote. Referring to Hillary’s Iraq war authorization vote of 2002, he said to her: “Why should I support your candidacy…if it appears you haven’t learned from your past mistakes?”

At first, Hillary in response stuck to substance, insisting that the anti-Iran resolution was merely intended to foster more diplomacy and sanctions, and not to encourage the bellicose members of the Bush war team. But then she fired back at Rolph, by suggesting that he was a Hillary-bashing conspirator who had been instructed beforehand to show up and make her look bad. Referring to the substance of his question, she told Rolph: “Somebody obviously sent it to you.”

Rolph didn’t particularly appreciate the implication that he was an audience plant, that he had not been thinking for himself. He called out, “I take exception. This is my own research. Nobody sent it to me, I am offended that you would suggest that.”

Hillary tried to back off: “I apologize. It's just that I've been asked the very same question in three other places. So let me apologize.” She later added, “I respect your research.”

But none of that erases her initial response, which was to suggest that the adversarial question was evidence of a plot against her. Which is precisely why her first reaction was to push back, hard – in accordance with her dukes-up instincts.

The problem, however, is that Rolph was voicing a concern that is widely shared among antiwar Democrats. An argument can be made that this concern is not warranted – as Hillary told Rolph, the new Senate resolution does not contain any specific language authorizing Bush to attack Iran – but, as her critics point out, Bush attacked Iraq on the basis of the ’02 resolution, even though Hillary now claims it was only intended to foster more diplomacy and sanctions.

In other words, her Iowa questioner didn’t need to have any information “sent” to him by conspirators. All he had to do was swim in the information stream. This Iran issue has been around for several weeks, and it has already surfaced in a Democratic debate. On Sept. 26, John Edwards – clearly referring to Hillary - said this: “There was a very important vote cast in the United States Senate today. And it was, basically, in a resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization…I have no intention giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran…(Y)ou cannot give this president the authority and you can’t even give him the first step in that authority, because he cannot be trusted.”

Not surprisingly, Rolph resented the implication that he was merely a conspirator who was out to get her, as opposed to being a thinking citizen. He later told reporters: “"She tried to ... accuse me of using someone else's words and being stupid. And that offended me.” (Hillary did not risk offending anybody else yesterday. She reportedly held four more Iowa events - but took no audience questions.)

She is besting her rivals in the latest Iowa Democratic polls, so perhaps her instinctive reaction on Sunday won’t mean squat when the caucuses finally commence. But if this incident was at all indicative of how she responds to adversarial questioning, that suggests a character trait worthy of greater scrutiny.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Fashion choice" and the meaning of patriotism

As a foreign correspondent living in London during the early ‘90s, I was always struck by the absence of patriotic display. The Union Jack flag flew from government buildings, but hardly anywhere else. Motorists didn’t plaster the flag on their bumpers; used car dealers didn’t fly it over their merchandise; politicians didn’t pin it to their lapels. I recall asking a Tory member of Parliament about all this, and, after initially looking bemused (his expression said, “Typically stupid American question”), he replied: “There is hardly a need for us to show off, because we rather prefer to fly the flag” – tapping chest – “in here.”

I thought of that exchange this weekend, after reviewing the particulars of the Barack Obama flag pin scandal, a transient fracas that prompted much huffing and puffing among the self-appointed custodians of our national iconography. Trivial as this incident ultimately may prove to be, it nevertheless tells us much about the patriotism divide on this side of the pond.

For those of you who didn’t track the chronology: Last Wednesday, a local TV reporter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa happened to notice that Obama wasn’t flying the flag on his suit jacket and decided to investigate further. (Obama hadn’t been wearing a flag pin for years, but local-affiliate TV people are not known for their preparation.) The reporter asked: “You don’t have the American flag pin on. Is this a fashion statement?”

Obama, rather than lapsing into the usual Democratic posture of hemming and hawing, decided to address the matter in a straightforward fashion: “You know, the truth is that, right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Oraq war, that (pin) became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is (about) speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

The Associated Press picked up his remarks, and, a day later, The Drudge Report went to work, conveniently fudging the time element by making it appear that Obama’s decision was brand new. (Drudge’s headline: “Obama Ditches American Flag Pin,” followed soon thereafter by “Obama Drops American Flag Pin.”) Meanwhile, also on Drudge day, Obama decided to amplify his previous remarks, and push back against his anticipated critics. At an Iowa campaign event last Thursday, he said:

“I haven’t probably worn that pin in a very long time…After awhile, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time. My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart…”

No matter; the defenders of public display were already in high dudgeon. That day on Fox News (big surprise), host Sean Hannity assailed Obama’s decision to go flagless: “What’s bothersome to me here is the American flag on your lapel ought not be politicized.” He was quickly seconded by his guest, former Virginia GOP leader Kate Obenshain, who decided that Obama, notwithstanding his stated concern for the treatment of our war veterans, was actually attacking the troops: “Our men and women are in harm’s way. Somebody who wants to be commander-in-chief should have pride in our country enough to wear the lapel, continue to wear the lapel pin on their jacket during this campaign.”

The next day, a blogger at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine reviewed Obama’s remarks and scoffed, “Wow. If Obama weren’t so sophisticated, we would say he just managed to give offense to millions of Americans who do proudly wear the flag on their lapels.” (In conservative parlance, the word sophisticated is used as a synomym for elitist effete intellectual liberal.)

Meanwhile, over at MSNBC, a GOP talking head named Brad Blakeman decided that the flag-free Obama was not merely undercutting his quest to be commander-in-chief. It was actually worse than that: “He’s running for patriot-in-chief…and if he chooses to take the flag off, it’s a fair issue (for criticism)…The United States flag is not a ‘fashion choice’…Say that to our soldiers who wear it on their uniforms. Do you think the flags on our soldiers’ uniforms are a fashion choice?” (Memo to Blakeman: Obama never described his decision as a “fashion choice.” That was just the TV guy’s glib terminology.)

In the broadest sense, there is a cultural gap between the way patriotism is practiced on the left and the right. Conservatives (unlike their counterparts in Britain) are quite comfortable with public exhibition, with the notion that we should loudly communicate – either in song, flag pins, decals, etcetera – our love of America to others who should feel compelled to reflexively acknowledge our national greatness. Liberals tend to shy away from the visceral, believing instead that patriotism is about asking difficult questions, expressing dissent, trying to close the gap between American promise and American performance. That’s the essence of what Obama was talking about; the backlash against Obama was the visceral impulse in action.

But, aside from this basic cultural divide, the visceral crowd overlooked a fundamental fact: Hardly any of the ’08 Republican candidates wear the flag pin, either.

Somehow, in their rush to assail Obama, they didn’t do their basic homework. At the most recent GOP debate that was attended by eight candidates, only one – Rudy Giuliani – wore a flag pin. Fred Thompson, the ninth candidate and debate absentee, is routinely photographed without a flag pin. Candidate Sam Brownback, the conservative Kansas senator, has a new book out – and he appears on the cover without a flag pin. Nor does John McCain generally wear a flag pin. I assume that Obama’s critics would not view those pin-free candidates as being ill-qualified for the job of patriot-in-chief.

What got Obama into trouble, at least with the right, was his insistence that patriotism should be about substance, not symbols; that politicians should not wrap themselves in symbolism and use that as a substitute for action. His notions might not play well on Fox News, but, at a time when most Americans believe we are heading in the wrong direction, they probably resonate elsewhere.