Saturday, January 19, 2008

Obama and the Founding Fathers?

Historian Joseph J. Ellis has recently published a piece in the Los Angeles Times ('The better angels' side with Obama, 19 January 2008) which seeks to defend Democratic candidate Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) from critics of his message to independents and Republicans to unite behind his candidacy. According to Ellis, a very respected academic historian who teaches at Mount Holyoke and has published two very acclaimed popular works on the founding fathers (2000's winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Founding Brothers, and 2007's American Creation), Obama is not "a weird historical aberration." The Senator's message, which seems to fly in the face of modern two-party zero-sum politics, has "roots in our deepest political traditions," says Ellis. Even more hyperbolic, Ellis claims that Obama's appeal across party lines "is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation." Unfortunately, this argument is just a latest example of the pitfalls and problems one witnesses when good historians venture into modern political fights in which they, and this is certainly no sin, have a favorite to defend.

The only way this comparison, and Ellis singles out the first four presidents of the republic -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison -- between the founding fathers and Barack Obama makes any historical sense is if we drop the vital context of issues and ideas. Ellis is correct on the simple level of political hope, the founders dreaded the idea of factions (self-serving groups of people working against the public good) dividing and ruining the republic and thought the creation of political parties were the beginning of a dangerous slippery slope into a state of competing and destructive factions. However, this desire for unity did not -- emphatically did not -- prevent divisions and the rise of the first party system of Federalists (George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton et al.) and Republicans/Democratic-Republicans/Jeffersonians (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Gallatin et al.).

Important in understanding this split is that both sides viewed it as a temporary expedient to defeat a dangerous combination of demagogues or monocrats depending on which side you were. Even more crucial is that this party divide centered on very real differences in ideas which could not be (easily) compromised. One side supported the French Revolution, the other opposed it, one side favored the creation of a federal financial system, the other opposed it, one side thought war with France likely in the late 1790s and passed legislation in anticipation of it, the other did not see war as likely at all and opposed preparatory measures. These differences were real and important, forgetting them may allow for nifty modern comparisons, but such comparisons are disanalogous in the extreme.

But beyond that, Ellis curiously quotes Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural to support his comparison. The obvious line he pulls out of context is Jefferson's soothing words to the elections losers "we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." But one needs to know what Jefferson meant here to understand that line. He was not just saying that party distinctions did not matter. He was saying that most Republicans and Federalists actually had agreed on a specific vision of government that I am positive would not actually be "kosher" to any currently running presidential candidate, let alone Barack Obama. Quoting Jefferson's First Inaugural: "Still one thing more, fellow citizen--a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, an this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities." In other words, to unify the country the government had to keep out of the affairs of the people (for the time period this was a clear attack on the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts) and not drain the resources created and earned by the honest work of honest citizens. Is Obama advocating this vision of government to avoid dividing the people among "haves" and "have-nots"? To avoid creating a situation where some people hope to cash-in on the stolen wealth of others? To avoid creating a government which does anything but leave the people "free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement"? I think not.

So when people get eager or excited over candidates and want to defend them against charges of "novelty" by appealing to the authority of the ages, let alone America's founding fathers, beware such comparisons as, at best, superficial and shallow. Ellis is a very able historian and a very gifted writer, but he's not doing any service to the profession, the founding fathers, or even Obama but making simplistic and ultimately useless comparisons. If the ideas on politics that the founding fathers advocated, like individual rights, limited government, etc., were of any real importance to the American voting public, Obama's candidacy would have much much much more to worry about than simply the naivete of his call for unity.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Presidential Debates, Etc. Etc. Etc.......

Ok, so it was my policy to stay away from this insanely premature election season until the actual year in which the election was to take place finally got here. Representative Paul prompted me to jump the gun, though I kept that as much as possible to historical and ethical criticism. But having watched my first entire debate this evening (the Republican debate between Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, I missed last night's Democratic debate due to other plans, though I did see the speeches of the three main candidates after the Iowa caucuses), I finally have some comments and observations concerning the whole swath of candidates, issues, etc.

First of all, who is not sick of the lame refrain of "change" by now? It has to be the most absurd election year cliche which only a group of complete idiots would lap up and cheer for in and of itself. Obviously, anyone elected will necessarily bring change (in personnel if in nothing else, though to assume any candidate would ever run on or govern by way of a "I will do everything my predecessor did" strategy is sophomoric at best), but Giuliani brought up the obvious point that one needs to know what exactly this change is, good or bad? If we are switching from a mixed economy, particularly in health care, to one which is completely under government command, or "only" just more so than it already is, then it is obvious that such change is poison. It would be like "changing" from the slow death of the arsenic laced water we are currently drinking to some water laced with cyanide. This is not the sort of "change" I want to vote for. Even with all of the tremendous problems of the health care system, all of which lie in the myriad interventions the government has already made into it (it is completely false and ludicrous to call the American health care system capitalist or free market, it is, like the rest of the economy, a mixed system of private ownership and government regulation), I prefer a dysfunctional mess to government nationalization, i.e. death.

The most bizarre approach to foreign policy is certainly coming from the Democrats. Obama, in his victory speech the other night in a rare moment of cliche-less nonsense, promised to get the rest of the world on board with the United States again. What does that mean? Why is much of the rest of the world not on board right now? If it is simply a disdain for Bush then electing anyone would produce a salutary result. However, if it is because the United States is fighting an "aggressive" war against our enemies (this assertion is laughable) then the only way to get them back on board would be to abandon such a policy. This is a change in the completely wrong direction. If the governments and peoples of other nations decide they do not favor our policies towards our enemies, that is their right, but it is not an obligation of ours to abandon our vital security interests in order to be better friends with others, that is a ridiculous idea and an idiotic way to conduct foreign policy. Should we just poll our allies when we wish to go to war or impose sanctions? If we would be less popular for merely defending ourselves and removing various threats to our security (a right which every nation must claim, defend, and have in order to retain sovereignty and credibility) then that is an unfortunate reflection on our alleged friends than upon us.

The Republicans of course have gone completely off the deep end on "illegal immigration" otherwise known as the global voting of feet which stands as mass proof against the absurd dogmas of cultural relativism. That people move to America for the opportunity to make money, become part of the American nation, or do whatever else they wish (presuming they are not violating any actual rights of others), presents no actual problems at all. It has long been a maxim in the making of laws, it is unwise to make laws which are certain to be broken. It merely promotes disrespect for lawmakers for legislating against reality and by making criminals of people engaged in non-violent activity which is in no way ethically or morally wrong. Certainly in cases where rights are violated (i.e. murder or rape or theft, etc.) then punishment must be meted up harshly and swiftly, but no rights are violated in the act of immigration to the United States "legally" or otherwise. It is pure folly to prevent people seeking opportunity, security, freedom, and everything else America offers from doing so. The problem is when people come for handouts and giveaways, but the problem there is with the handouts and giveaways. When you give away things for no effort whatsoever it should be unsurprising that some undesirable people would come to receive such plumbs.

Other issues I have commented on elsewhere or will comment on, undoubtedly, in the future. As for candidates.....

Mike Huckabee -- A former Baptist minister??? He makes Bush look like an atheist. Though watching him in New Hampshire, a state whose Republican voters are mostly not religious nut jobs, you might never know he just ran a campaign vaunting his "Christian leadership." What does this mean? Either is as concerned with and warped by religion as his Iowa campaign attests, or he is merely a dangerous demagogue who merely says whatever he needs to in whatever state he happens to be in. Whatever the case, he is a mess and a scary folksy windbag who I cannot see myself voting against, unless Kucinich or Gravel is the nominee on the other side.

John Edwards -- Truly the most frightening of any of the major candidates. He's basically running on a "bread and circus" message of taking stuff from anyone he calls rich and giving that stuff to anyone who is envious and angry and supports him. Not only that, but I cannot recall in my own experience or my knowledge of history a candidate, even in modern times where qualms about presidential ambitions no longer exist, a candidate so devoted to making himself president. The man has basically been campaigning since the day after John Kerry conceded the previous election. So maybe it's no shock he seems so much more angry and aggressive this time around, I'd be too if I campaigned non-stop for five or six years for anything and did not win hands down.

John McCain -- Ughhh, how is this guy so popular, particularly as a "maverick" or opponent of politics as usual? Am I the only one who remembers the Keating Five scandal? Why does McCain get a pass on that? Just because he was held hostage in Vietnam and survived politically in Arizona hardly seems reason to forget that he was the poster child for the bought and sold politician. Kudos to him for recasting himself as a maverick and the great champion of fighting "special interests" and money is politics (oh yeah, his bill with that genius Russ Feingold has really cut spending on elections or curbed commercials or any other of the alleged ills it was allegedly supposed to combat, I can't imagine why that ineffectual admission the candidates are now forced to make when they pay for ads isn't working!), but his actual record is less glamorous and even though the press seems to love the guy, I seriously doubt his opponent (if he is nominated) will let the public live in ignorance of McCain's less glorious past.

Hillary Clinton -- What a lame candidacy. Her only claim to fame, that which led directly to her senate seat and all of this vaunted experience she now claims is so vital, is that she was a former President's wife. Big deal. Under that logic, Laura Bush should become President, she has the most relevant reservoir of recent experience to impart to the job. Seven years in the Senate however, actually constitutes legitimate experience that should not be entirely discounted, but her opponents also have Senate experience (Obama nearly three years, Edwards six) not to mention prior local political experience in the case of Obama. This is mostly irrelevant anyway, "experience" in holding prior offices has never been an accurate judge of competency in the presidency. For instance, James Buchanan had been an ambassador, a Secretary of State, and a congressman for about twenty years and was a disaster as President. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand served two years in the House of Representatives and received one patronage job in Illinois from President Taylor, that's it. Building one's entire case on their alleged advantage in office holding experience will also fall by that strategy.

Fred Thompson -- He seems to have checked out of the race, angling for a VP nomination perhaps to a Giuliani who might need a more "conservative" man (not to mention a Southerner) to balance out his ticket? I don't know, but he seems to not be interested in his own candidacy so why should I be?

Barack Obama -- The talk of the town, the hot shot, the front runner. In a year which seems to guarantee a Democratic victory, being the Democratic front runner would seem to make you in line to be the 44th President of the United States. Honestly, at this point, even though he utters nonsense when he's not uttering ridiculous nothings, he's probably one of the least offensive candidates in a party known for producing offensive (to reason, morality, anything) candidates. Even I think he's a likeable fellow, not that that's a reason to become President, but it's a plus when both of your opponents (Clinton, Edwards) are jerks. Obama is essentially a milquetoast, a fresh slate, a blank. I don't mean to suggest that he's an idiot, but since he rarely says anything that isn't just a cliche or whatever his opponents also say, he's sort of just a nebulous personality that lacks originality. This is not as bad as it sounds. He could turn out to be a decent president assuming he does not surround himself with pacifists and compromisers and does not have congressional acquiescence to do whatever he might suggest domestically. I need to see more of the man to be quite honest, but these are my initial impressions.

Mitt Romney -- The guy has too many ideological "transformations" this late in his life to be taken credibly by me. And these "transformations" are almost all nearly in the wrong direction. His strategy to combat a religious zealot Huckabee is to "me too!" his way around it. This is distasteful in the extreme, and I think fundamentally dishonest.

Rudy Giuliani -- The most unconventional of the major candidates. Despite being a high ranking member of the Justice Department in the Reagan administration, his most relevant recent experience though was as mayor of New York City. The road to the White House has rarely led from such an unlikely source. Clearly the impetus of his candidacy is not as a prosecutor in the Justice Department, or a goofy crime and poverty fighting mayor in the country's biggest city, but as the person on the ground during the worst shedding of American blood on American soil since the Civil War. The country underwent something nearly undefinable during the hours and days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and even though Joe Biden can ridicule Giuliani's constant evocation of that day, what should this man speak of? Clearly and appropriately that event became the focus of his public life (as it should have become Biden's if he wants to claim to be a foreign policy genius). Mayor Giuliani, of all these candidates, is the only person who still has the continuing and very real problem of crazy religious fanatics trying to kill us in his center sights. He is also the only Republican running with any sensible thoughts on issues of private life and conduct who is not also nuts (Ron Paul). So as things stand now, I think he is likely to do the least amount of harm of all candidates while also pursuing vigorously the only actual issue in this campaign that matters at all and that the President by himself has a shot at effecting quickly and directly.

More later.