Democrats and Republicans Finally Talking About the Same Problem

A street in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 12, 2008
A street in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 12, 2008 (Steve Minor)

Florida senator Marco Rubio struck a familiar chord on Monday when, in a speech announcing his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he argued that too many Americans were starting to question whether the “American Dream” is still within their reach.

Those Americans include “hard-working families, living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster,” Rubio said; “young Americans, unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs”; and “small businessowners, left to struggle under the weight of more taxes, more regulations and more government.”

In a speech in Detroit in February, Rubio’s most formidable contender for the Republican nomination, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, similarly lamented, “Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges.”

Democrats see the same problem. Read more “Democrats and Republicans Finally Talking About the Same Problem”

Europe’s Problem Is Not Irresolute Leadership

Barack Obama Angela Merkel
Enrico Letta, François Hollande, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, the leaders of Italy, France, America and Germany, talk on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, September 5, 2013 (Bundesregierung)

Robert D. Kaplan complains in The American Interest that Europe is lacking the sort of bold leadership supposedly needed to deal with the continent’s myriad economic and strategic challenges.

Whereas Asia has “dynamic and resolute” leaders in China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzō Abe, Europe has “grey, insipid ciphers who stand for little except finessing rather than dealing with the next crisis and the next,” according to Kaplan.

Such leaders cannot be expect to deal with the challenges of Russia and the Middle East.

His characterization is unfair. (Not to mention his description of Abe, who has put off making tough decisions on the economy for two and a half years now, as “resolute”!) Read more “Europe’s Problem Is Not Irresolute Leadership”

Angry White Men Are Not Going to Win in 2016

Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26
Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26 (Gage Skidmore)

Republicans are not going to win in 2016 if they continue to insist that votes from one racial constituency must necessarily come at the expense of another and that any compromise is a betrayal of what they stand for.

Yet that is exactly what some in the conservative movement propose to do.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, probably articulated the view of many rightwingers when he spoke out against a potential candidacy for former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Wednesday.

Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, is seen as a credible contender in part because he could appeal to more Hispanic voters than Romney did in 2012. When he ran for the governorship of Florida in 2002, Bush won 80 percent of the Cuban vote and a majority of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote.

According to Olson, winning more votes from Hispanics is not enough to win the election.

As recounted by The National Interest‘s Akhilesh Pillalamarri, he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Center for The National Interest that America’s Hispanic population is highly concentrated in a few states, including California and New York, that are solidly Democrat. “In 2012, over two-thirds of eligible Hispanic voters lived in what were considered non-battleground states.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Olsen argued that Romney didn’t lose the election because he only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Rather, he lost because he failed to appeal to working-class voters in the Midwestern United States.

Obama beat Romney in only one of the four qualities voters desired in a president: the question of whether the candidate “cares about people like me.” On this front, Romney lost to Obama by a whopping margin, with only 18 percent of voters believing this of Romney, compared to 81 percent for Obama.

Democrats certainly did much to portray Romney as an uncaring plutocrat. By his own admission, Romney didn’t care to win the support of the 47 percent of Americans who were supposedly dependent on government. But attributing the 2012 defeat entirely to Romney’s “unlikability” would be unfair — and a mistake.

It takes three elections to recover

Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, argues at his blog, The Restless Realist, that parties typically go through a three-elections recovery. The first defeat is written up to bad luck.

We saw this rationalization among Labour supporters in 1979, Tory ones in 1997, Democrats in 1980 and Republicans since 2008.

In hindsight, Margaret Thatcher clearly won the 1979 election because British voters had become convinced the country needed a break from the postwar consensus on industrial and welfare policy. American voters made a similar choice a year later when they elected Ronald Reagan. Britain’s Labour Party and the Democrats in the United States didn’t face up to the fact that national opinion had changed until Tony Blair and Bill Clinton persuaded them to pursue a “Third Way” in the 1990s.

The second defeat is a different matter and is usually written up to the candidates, either the unusual strength of the incumbent or the flawed nature of their opponent.

Labour’s Michael Foot surely was a flawed candidate, as was Walter Mondale. But they didn’t just lose because Thatcher and Reagan were strong such candidates in 1984. Nor did Romney lose because Barack Obama was such a strong candidate. He wasn’t. They lost because they represented something the majority of voters had already rejected.

In Romney’s case, it was a conservative movement that has traded “ends-based efficiency” for a “near-religious devotion to moral principle.”

Taxes are too high not because of even the ideologically-informed Laffer Curve but because they are inherently confiscatory and morally wrong. Government redistribution is inherently immoral while unions are forces of evil not because they are sometimes corrupt or prone to causing inefficiency but because they inhibit the holy market and limit the freedom of the owners who “built” their companies.

In this environment, primary elections turn into “inquisitions” from which a relatively moderate conservative like Romney could only emerged bruised and discredited.

Republican fanaticism scares away sympathetic voters

It’s not that Middle America doesn’t share many Republican positions.

In the last presidential election, a majority of voters in all of the swing states that determined its outcome agreed — according to exit polls — that the federal government should do less. Voters who identified as either conservative or moderate far outnumbered those who said they leaned left in the seven states where neither the Democrats nor the Republicans had a solid majority. More voters in Iowa and Ohio identified as conservatives than nationwide yet both states reelected Barack Obama.

Except in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, swing voters were also more likely to oppose the president’s health reforms than support them.

According to Berman, Republicans aren’t losing national elections because of their principles. They are losing because they are so zealous about them.

Olsen argued on Wednesday that Republicans would do better to nominate the union-busting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker than Bush because of his “ability to perform well in the Midwest.”

Why the white working class in Midwestern states that haven’t supported Republican presidential candidates since 1988 should suddenly back unrestrained capitalism, globalization and public sector layoffs when they have traditionally been more in favor of regulation, protectionism and a big state is unclear.

They are not the ones most put off by Republicans’ inability to compromise anyway. It is the better-educated, better-off, urban or suburban middle class of whatever race in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia that is voting against their interest in lower taxes and less government because they think reactionaries like Walker — and like Texas firebrand Ted Cruz; like “homosexuality is a choice” Ben Carson; like “legitimate rape” Todd Akin — are just repugnant characters.

Jeb Bush, of all people, recognized as much two years ago when he told NBC News that Romney had lost the election not because many Latinos were appalled when he urged illegal aliens to “self-deport.” Bush said, “It’s not just immigration.”

It’s our party, the party that has been, I think, the source of many of the important reforms grounded in conservative principles over the last generation of time, has become way too reactionary. Way too against whatever someone’s for.

Demographics aren’t destiny

Demographics are a factor. A growing Hispanic population has made the former swing state New Mexico almost safe for Democrats. Colorado, Florida and perhaps ultimately even Republican bastions such as Arizona and Texas could become battleground states as their older, white voters die and Hispanics grow in number — and start participating in elections more.

But demographics aren’t destiny. Why shouldn’t increasingly affluent, middle-class Catholics vote Republican just because they or their parents or even their grandparents were born south of the border?

Bush understands that Hispanics — like most Americans — aren’t as obsessed about immigration and low-tax orthodoxy as conservative activists are. What worries them more is that they “no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges,” Bush said in Detroit last month.

It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top or even the middle. This should alarm you. It has alarmed me.

Bush doesn’t deviate from the party line when he says this is caused by a welfare system that “traps people in perpetual dependence” and a “progressive and liberal mindset” that sees “a Washington DC solution” for every problem. He’s just not a fanatic about it.

Many reasonable Americans would agree. And after eight years of ineffectual leadership from a Democrat, they might just be persuaded to vote a Republican back into the White House — provided the zealots don’t scare them away.

Don’t Admire the Big Man

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014 (Kremlin)

Surprisingly many Westerners admire the authoritarian leaders of other nations.

They should be careful what they wish for.

Accepting dictators as a necessary evil in the absence of an immediate alternative is one thing. Respecting them for what they are is quite another.

Comedian Jon Stewart ridiculed American rightwingers’ obsession with international strongmen on his The Daily Show Tuesday night, contrasting their fawning praise of Jordan’s king, Abdullah, Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin with their indignation whenever their own president, Barack Obama, oversteps the constitutional restraints on his office.

But there is more at play here than hypocrisy. It’s not just that those demanding “strong leadership” would — rightly — complain when it is exerted at home; their protestations reveal an unhealthy desire to be led and a misjudgment of what makes a political system sound.

A psychologist might have more to say about the former, but the fact that it is evidently still widespread in Western societies is worrisome. If only because those very societies have made the most progress in empowering the individual.

Who needs strong leaders?

A society with citizens who are informed and willing to take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t need “strong leadership.” It needs a leadership that respects personal autonomy and privacy.

Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens (and businesses) to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s private lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

It may be unfair to put King Abdullah in this category, but Sisi and Putin clearly belong here.

It’s clear from when Sisi told Germany’s Der Spiegel this week that without him, Egypt would have slid into civil war and “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.”

It’s clear from when Putin warned in 2012 that ethnic tensions would have torn Russia apart if it weren’t for him.

These men believe they’re the only ones who can save their an helpless people — a delusion that befalls dictators everywhere.

The delusion of one-man rule

If a country’s stability does hinge on the ability of one man, it has a big problem.

That’s the second thing Sisi’s and Putin’s admirers in the West fail to recognize.

One-man rule may offer the mirage of stability, but it is always structurally rotten.

What Egypt and Russia need is not stronger leadership, but a strong citizenry. They need a civil society that nurtures critical and informed citizens. They need bureaucrats who are competent and politicians who are accountable. They need a political system that channels grievances and settles disputes peacefully. And they could do with more entrepreneurs who create jobs independently of the state.

This doesn’t have to look like liberal democracy in the West. But if Egypt and Russia and countries like it are to escape from corruption, economic malaise, personal oppression and political ineptitude, they can’t continue to rely on “big men” who have so often failed them in the past.

Lesser of evils

What makes even less sense is for Westerners — who have all the things so many other countries need — to reject their traditions of representative democracy and rule of law and call in the man on horseback instead.

Sure, Western leaders can be feeble. But then does it make sense to them the power to act on their every whim?

Yes, Western leaders can be incompetent. But at least we can vote them out.

Given the choice between the spectacle of compromising, fudging and trepidation that we call politics in the West and the jailing — or worse — of dissidents, the expropriation of private property and the invasion of other countries supposedly “strong” leaders in Egypt and Russia are responsible for, I know which I’d prefer.

In German Election, Merkel Is the Safest Choice

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a debate in parliament in Berlin, June 27
German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a debate in parliament in Berlin, June 27 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

Polls predict that German chancellor Angela Merkel will cruise to a comfortable victory in this week’s parliamentary elections. We would welcome her reelection.

Although the liberal Free Democrats, who emphasize economic freedom and individual responsibility, are more aligned with the Atlantic Sentinel‘s views, their leader, economy minister Philipp Rösler, looks unfit for the chancellorship. Merkel, by contrast, has proven herself to be a wise leader since she first assumed office in 2005 — sometimes pragmatic, otherwise steadfast. Read more “In German Election, Merkel Is the Safest Choice”

Germany’s Merkel Dominates Preelection Polls

Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters in Brussels, June 28, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

When German voters decide the new composition of the Bundestag in the fall of this year, one thing seems almost inevitable: Angela Merkel will remain chancellor, unless all three parties left of center agree to form a coalition government of their own.

Although the scenario seems highly improbable, Merkel will be presented with a tough choice of her own. While it is too early to put too much faith in opinion polls, the current numbers are startling: Merkel’s conservatives are consistently breaking the 40 percent mark while the Social Democrats led by Peer Steinbrück can barely meet 30 percent of voter approval.

But Merkel’s present coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats, are caught in a battle for political survival, failing to meet the necessary 5 percent mark to be represented in parliament in almost every poll. In recent weeks it has become clear that the Christian Democrats are already taking the possibility of a new coalition partner into their calculations, showing a dwindling support for the liberals in upcoming provincial elections. This strategy is painful for the liberals but makes sense from Angela Merkel’s point of view. Why rely on a razor’s edge majority on the right when a more comfortable margin could be reached with the Social Democrats or the Greens? Read more “Germany’s Merkel Dominates Preelection Polls”

New Government Won’t Change Dutch Foreign Policy

The Dutch Labor and liberal parties that announced this week they had reached agreement to form a new government are unlikely to user in significant changes in the Netherlands’ European and foreign policy.

Although Labor is seen as more pro-European, it backed the previous, right-wing government’s European policy while in opposition for close to two years as one of its partners, the nationalist Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders, refused to support the ruling Christian Democrats and liberals in the creation of two European bailout funds for the financial support of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Before September’s election, which followed Wilders’ withdrawal from the ruling coalition, Labor leader Diederik Samsom vehemently disagreed with Prime Minister Mark Rutte when he insisted that Greece could not be given more time to comply with the terms of its two international bailouts.

Although their coalition agreement, which was published on Monday, does not stipulate a specific policy with regard to Greece, the parties note that the recipients of financial aid should work to improve their economies in the long term. They add, “Structural support from countries that do take their responsibility to countries that don’t is out of the question.” Read more “New Government Won’t Change Dutch Foreign Policy”

Miliband Repudiates New Labour at His Party’s Peril

Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester on Tuesday, Britain’s opposition leader Ed Miliband seemed keen to distance himself from the “New Labour” program of his predecessors.

New Labour under Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s signaled a more centrist socialist party that accepted many of the market reforms that were implemented in the previous decade by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and broadened Labour’s electoral appeal to middle-class voters. It was ideologically aligned to President Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” in the United States which preserved the fiscal and trade policies of the previous Republican administrations.

According to Miliband, New Labour was “was too silent about the responsibility of those at the top,” however. He argued that the wealthy “have the biggest responsibility to show responsibility to the rest of our country,” in other words: should pay higher taxes. Read more “Miliband Repudiates New Labour at His Party’s Peril”

The End of Ideology in South America

A new generation of conservative leaders appears to be stepping up in Latin America. In Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos just took over as president from Álvaro Uribe who had been the continent’s most right-wing leader in a decade. Chile recently elected billionaire Sebastián Piñera president while in Brazil, the opposition’s candidate, José Serra, stands a good chance of claiming victory this fall. It may be tempting to believe that South America is turning conservative. Not so, says Michael Shifter.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Shifter, who is the president of the Inter American Dialogue think tank, argues that South America isn’t making a turn for the right. Rather, he believes, it has shifted to the center. Read more “The End of Ideology in South America”