Setting policies by means of SuperPACS

A case-study in contemporary policy-setting.  The Republicans put off Hispanics, which is arguably demographic suicide.  So how to change the anti-immigration stance associated with the party?  Reason? Discussion?  Debate?  Coming to a consensus?  No.  Start a super PAC that will give money to pro-immigration Republicans and sponsor primary opponents against Republicans who vote the wrong way.

Prominent Republicans are launching a new super PAC they hope will help begin repairing the political damage left by years of anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric that has dominated GOP primaries and alienated crucial Hispanic voters.

The organization, to be called Republicans for Immigration Reform, aims to undermine what organizers call the “extremists” who have pushed party nominees to stake out far-right positions such as opposing a pathway to legalization for millions of illegal workers, students and children.

Even before it raises money and establishes target races for 2014, the group’s organizers told The Washington Post, it will help smooth the way for wavering Republican lawmakers to vote next year for an immigration overhaul. Such a measure suddenly gained momentum last week after GOP leaders watched President Obama’s dominance among Hispanic voters help carry him to an electoral college landslide.

Spearheading the group is Carlos Gutierrez, the Cuban American commerce secretary under President George W. Bush. He is joined by Washington lawyer Charlie Spies, co-founder of the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which, illustrating the very trend that the new PAC aims to thwart, aired some tough ads during this year’s primaries accusing Romney’s rivals of supporting “amnesty” and being “too liberal on immigration.”

“There’s currently only energy on the anti-immigration reform side, and we want to be able to provide some cover for Republicans that vote in support of an immigration reform approach,” Spies said.

Spies and Gutierrez declined to cite a fundraising goal, but both enjoy close ties to corporate America, which generally favors looser immigration laws. A super PAC can accept unlimited donations. Spies’s pro-Romney group raised $142 million for the 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“This is not small ball,” Gutierrez said. “We’re serious, and we are going to push the debates on immigration reform to a place where I believe the Republican Party should be in the 21st century.”

via New super PAC hopes to give cover to pro-immigration Republicans – The Washington Post.

Let us bracket the issue of immigration reform and whether Republicans need to loosen up on the question and make major efforts to attract Hispanics.  I myself agree that something on this order needs to be done.  So let’s not talk about that.  Let’s discuss this method of forming policy and making laws.

On any issue, we can now expect a SuperPAC to fund one side and probably another SuperPAC to fund the other side.  (I am not disputing their “rights” to do so.  Let’s not talk about that either.)  They work by rewarding, threatening, and punishing lawmakers with money, using campaign contributions–given, withheld, or given to an opponent–as a means of coercing support of a legislative agenda.

Doesn’t this replace democracy with plutocracy, so that money becomes the actual means of governing?  This strike me as a step beyond simply raising money for a campaign.  As we have seen, raising and spending money will not necessarily win you an election.  You get special interests making contributions but that may or may not determine how a lawmaker votes.  This tactic, by contrast, seeks to determine which candidates can run for office in the first place and fixes their position on an issue, which is determined not by the give-and-take of a rational process but by the SuperPAC that has quite literally bought their vote.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing and living

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five among many others, seems like a much better author when you’re young.  There is a close link between idealism and cynicism, both of which are characteristic of the young and both of which are necessary to appreciate Vonnegut’s dark humor.  I remember reading him as a college student with great excitement and appreciation.  But now. . . it’s just not the same.  Still, you have to appreciate his wit, and an affection lingers.

Dan Wakefield has just published a collection of his correspondence entitled Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.  In a review, Michael Dirda gives us some bon mots from those letters:

“Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.”

The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.”

“The secret of good writing is caring.”

“No picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.”

“I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

To his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son. . . .I am talking about hair, of course.”

“Story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”

May I? or Can I?

In discussing the legal debate over gay marriage, Michael W. Hannon cites an important, but generally ignored distinction:

Think back to the embarrassing and obnoxious response your teacher used to give when a student would ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” “I don’t know,” she would say, “Can you?” The child’s mistake lay in confusing “Can I?”—an interrogative dealing with possibility—with “May I?”—which pertains rather to permissibility. Instead of asking whether he was allowed to go to the bathroom, the confused pupil accidentally asked if he was capable of that feat at all. Yet childhood errors have a way of coming back to haunt us, and that is precisely what has happened in the debate over redefining marriage.

Olson, Boies, and their allies have systematically confused a debate about metaphysical possibility with one about political permissibility. They are arguing that our government ought to let same-sex couples marry, and they are convinced that their opponents are arguing over the same point, just on the other side of the issue.

But that is a gross mischaracterization of the disagreement. For our position is not that the government should refuse to let such couples marry, but rather that the government is utterly impotent with regard to this question. Our response to same-sex couples desirous of marriage is not “You may not,” but rather, “You cannot.” We do not seek to bar anyone from marriage; we just believe marriage is a union that is necessarily and by its very nature heterosexual. Maybe we are right, or maybe Olson and Boies are. But regardless, the question to be settled in this debate is not whether to bring a latent potency into actuality, but whether there is in fact any potency present in the first place.

Framing the issue as a “May I?” dispute allows the superlawyers their stirring rhetoric about prejudice and civil rights. But, more perniciously, this mischaracterization also allows them to conceal the circularity of their argument for those discrimination claims.

Boies and Olson’s underlying judgment is that, because same-sex couples could get married if only the government would let them, marriage is therefore not necessarily a heterosexual institution. And at that point, the pair understandably concludes that there remains no principled reason to oppose the legal redefinition of marriage, since they have established that sexual difference has no bearing on the nature of marriage at all. In Yoshino’s words, they think that, shorn of any principled objections, the adversaries to their policy must be motivated merely by “pride, prejudice, and fear.”

But their argument presumes exactly what it was meant to prove. If you begin by saying that it is within the government’s power to extend marriage to same-sex couples, then of course sexual difference is not an essential feature of marriage. If you frame this as a “May I?” disagreement, then you necessarily treat the “Can I?” question as already settled. But that line of thinking fatally begs the question, because the “Can I?” question is not settled at all.

For if those of us who oppose the legal enshrinement of so-called “same-sex marriage” are correct, then the government can no more make same-sex couples married than it can make pi equal to three. In other words, no judicial or legislative fiat can make two men married if marriage is by its very nature heterosexual. And since that is the true point of contention in this debate, presuming that the government has the power to extend marriage to same-sex couples cannot serve as the starting point for discussion.

via The Abolition of Man-and-Woman: On Marriage, Grammar, and Legal Strategy | Public Discourse.

Farewell to Hostess

Hostess Brands is dissolving the company.  The refusal of union workers to take a pay cut was the last straw, but the company was already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Losing their jobs will be 18,500 employees at 33 factories and 500 stores. But at least they didn’t have to take a pay cut!

Hostess made products that became icons of American culture:  Twinkies, Wonder Bread, Snow Balls, Ding Dongs, Ho-Hos, and (my favorite) Hostess Cupcakes.   Other Hostess brands include Nature’s Pride, Butternut, Drake’s, Home Pride, and (my favorite) Dolly Madison.  (No more of those white powdered donuts?)

Remember the “Twinkie Defense,” in which an accused murderer pleaded that he was not responsible for his actions because he ate too much junk-food, being in a state of sugar intoxication when he killed his victim?  That didn’t work.  For other examples of Twinkies in American culture, read this.

Apparently, America has been giving up that soft, pillowy, white bread in favor of hard, wheaty, textured bread, and cutting back on sugary treats with cream filling in favor of healthy, locally-grown snacks.  (Well, that part’s unlikely.  So what happened to these products?)

They were certainly fixtures of my childhood.  I remember pondering how Hostess got that filling into the cakes!  And how can I have Thanksgiving without turkey leftovers on that soft Wonderbread?

A petition has been started asking the White House to bail-out the company.  Hostess is too delicious to fail!  Meanwhile, Twinkie hoarding has begun.  A box of ten is going for as much as $229.99 at E-bay.

But surely, for the sake of America and all that is sweet and soft and gooey, as Hostess liquidates and sells its assets, surely  some other company will buy the rights to the Hostess icons.

Twinkie maker Hostess moves to wind down operations, lay off its 18,500 workers – The Washington Post.

Baseball post-mortem

I was glad to see that the Washington Nationals’ Davey Johnson won the National League’s manager of the year.  He also won the award for the American League back in 1997 when he managed  the Baltimore Orioles.  On the same day that reward was announced for getting the Orioles into the post-season for the first time in decades, he got fired.  That won’t happen this time, as the 70-year-old agreed to come back to Washington for one more year before he retires for good.  He took a bad, hapless, hopeless team and turned it, virtually overnight, into the winningness team in baseball.

And, along that line, going from old to young, the National’s Bryce Harper won Rookie of the Year.  He was 19 for most of the season and his infectious energy, as well as his penchant for getting on base and then stealing them, contributed greatly to the team’s successful season.

I was hoping for a trifecta for the Nationals, the home team I’m now following in my new home, but the team’s ace, Gio Gonzalez (not Stephen Strasburg, great young pitcher that he is) finished third in the NL Cy Young.  Usually winning more games than anyone, going 21-8, having 207 strikeouts, and a 2.89 ERA is enough to get you a Cy Young, but this year’s award went to the Met’s kuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who went 20-6.  Since the Mets were a losing team, I can see that this was a greater feat.   race despite having

Gonzalez led the Major Leagues with 21 victories, led the team in strikeouts with 207 and had a 2.89 ERA in 32 games. However, Dickey, who went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, led the NL in starts, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched. The Dodger’s Clayton Kershaw came in second, despite his lowlier 14-9 record, because he came out so well in the sophisticated number crunching of sabremetrics.

 

Balance of powers vs. balance of parties

In his column on attempts to the reform the filibuster, Ezra Klein points out that the Founders built into the Constitution a balance of competing arms of the government that would check and balance each other.  What we have now, however, is a system of competing political parties that check and balance each other.

It’s true the Founding Fathers wanted to make legislating hard. That’s why they divided power among three branches. It’s why senators used to be directly appointed by state legislatures. It’s why the House, the Senate and the president have staggered elections, so it usually takes a big win in two or more consecutive elections for a party to secure control of all three branches.

But the Founders didn’t want it to be this hard. They considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation and rejected the idea. “Its real operation,” Alexander Hamilton wrote of such a requirement, “is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” Sound familiar?

The Founders also opposed political parties — though they went on to start a couple — and couldn’t have foreseen how highly disciplined parties would subvert the political system they designed. Instead of the branches competing against one another, as they envisioned, we now have two parties competing uniformly across all branches.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

Parliamentary systems require political parties.  The leader of the majority party becomes the Prime Minister.  Such forms of government work best when there are a number of parties that can then form coalitions and alliances.  I suppose our political parties were copied from those of England.

America’s constitution, however, does not require parties, and our national founders warned against them.

What would happen if we were to abolish all political parties?  As it is, the role of parties in elections has shrunk considerably with SuperPacs and independent campaign fundraising.  Why not turn that into a virtue?

Individual candidates and politicians would still form factions, caucuses, and interest-groups.  But these alliances would be fluid, varying from issue to issue.  There would still be individuals who ran as conservatives, liberals, and other ideologies in the legislature, and there might be organizations that supported them.  But a  Senator with libertarian sympathies could vote with  liberal colleagues on drug laws and conservative colleagues on free market issues.  Pro-life coalitions could include both religious conservatives and social-justice liberals.

I know it will be said, political parties are inevitable.  And, arguably, they once were.  But what do political parties do now in the age of the internet, political action committees, open primaries, and grass roots activism?  They serve as the gatekeepers of who gets to be on the ballot in the presidential campaigns.  But their political conventions have become mostly irrelevant.  Surely another mechanism could be put into place, such as a series of primary elections, beginning on the local level and continuing onto the state, regional, and national levels.  Couldn’t this re-vitalize our democracy and our representative form of government?


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