On Gingrich’s judicial power play

Mr. Gingrich thinks well of himself – by itself, a prerequisite for the presidency. Part of the American vetting process we call caucuses, primaries and campaigns is about inquiring just how well one thinks of oneself, and just how one thinks well of oneself.

Mr. Gingrich gives us a glimpse into both by his assault on activist judges. He has ramped up the rhetoric – far beyond its traditional mooring in the importance of presidential elections, because presidents populate the judiciary. That subtle interplay between the branches – a perfect instance of what we traditionally celebrate as “checks and balances” – doesn’t satisfy Mr. Gingrich.

He wishes to make a case for the other two branches aggressively taking back power from the judiciary. He makes this case radically, as befits the bigness of his ideas. Presidents (and presumably governors) are not necessarily bound by Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, entire courts (such as the Ninth Circuit) should be abolished, and individual judges should be held accountable for opinions that a president or a congressional committee consider unconstitutional, and subpoenaed, if necessary, to explain their decisions.

I disagree strongly with Mr. Gingrich’s splash-play on judges – but I hasten to add, his ideas are not “crazy.” The Supreme Court’s final authority on constitutional interpretation was an unsettled and controversial question before 1803, when Chief Justice John Marshall handed down the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision. And the controversy continued simmering thereafter (emphasis on “simmering,” as we conducted judicial and political business as if the issue were finally settled).

Mr. Gingrich is correct that Congress has the technical power to abolish and add lower courts, and even to haul judges before Congress. But not all technical powers are wisely exercised, a point that should resonate with conservatives.

Curiously, Mr. Gingrich’s remedy for a “constitutional crisis” (and for the record, we are not in the midst of a “constitutional crisis,” at least not if that phrase has any of the gravity that the Constitution itself has) is to radically politicize the Constitution. If you believe we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis now, buckle your seatbelts. Strip the Supreme Court of supremacy in constitutional interpretation (a notion, ironically, with considerable liberal support), abolish the Ninth Circuit, and subpoena judges to explain their decisions to Congress – and we’ll be awash in weekly constitutional crises.

Mr. Gingrich might have sounded sensible had he urged a more serious constitutional conversation. For example, he could have called for serious congressional inquiries into constitutional doctrines applied by the courts. He could have promoted hearings by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees featuring panels of legal experts that educated Congress and the public on the origins, justifications and consequences of various holdings. That would be a public service, and smack less of branch bullying.

But of course, Mr. Gingrich believes he is seizing upon a hot-button issue, and doing so in a radical way that could galvanize conservative support for him as the only muscular conservative in the race for the Republican nomination.

As Mr. Gingrich has very little money and very little organization, compared to Mr. Romney, he rather desperately needs a surrogate for what organization and money get a candidate: credibility and momentum. Attacking activist judges plays well with the base, but is insufficiently attention-getting by itself. So Mr. Gingrich couples it with a grand re-shuffling of the constitutional balance of powers, as befits the bigness (and the bluster) of his ideas.

It’s a long shot, but it’s Mr. Gingrich’s Hail Mary – much as John McCain, with his similarly challenged campaign, threw the Sarah Palin Hail Mary – not with conviction that he was choosing carefully, but precisely with the knowledge that choosing carefully doomed him, and that only an apparently reckless long-shot, which might, just might, open into some kind of excitement and momentum, was his only hope.

The difference is that John McCain stared at the juggernaut of history bearing down upon him, and threw a Hail Mary, while Newt Gingrich imagines himself the juggernaut of history poised to sweep civilization, and throws a Hail Mary hoping how well he thinks of himself will be contagious.

 

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“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.

 

On Occupyosity and Making Real versus Illusory Differences

I got sucked into Occupyosity by a Facebook friend’s posting of a particularly obnoxious article entitled, “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” To read the article is to reminisce fondly about those days when we were 14 and 15 and 20 and absolutely certain, so abundantly clear in our early mushy work-in-progress brains, that we grasped the core truth, and that our doddering misdirected contemptibly careful and uncommitted elders didn’t even have rudimentary sense, much less our vision!

Mmmm, yes. It was a feeling so fine I would wish it for everyone, momentarily. “Getting it.” That’s the fascinating power trope of youth speaking to entrenchment — all manner of entrenchment, politicians pursuing naked self-interest, parents stuck in their eye-rolling, pathology-perpetuating ways, bosses being intractably stupid — oppressors all! And the poor Masses, swooning to the insidious fiddles of nefarious Power Elites — oh my the pitiable Masses, those dim-witted enablers of oppression who let this vast stupidity avalanche over their own interests, well, they’re almost as bad as the oppressors. They almost forgivably just don’t get it. Like we do. Mmmm, yes…

Back when I Got It, I was liberal, supremely confident, and certain my Dark Foes lacked the basic synapse that connected thinking and Compassion. And by Compassion, I meant, you know, Caring Deeply about a set of politically significant Abstractions. And by thinking, I meant that thing I did in abundance that set me apart from the dunderheads who couldn’t see the abject stupidity of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. I was teaching in Kenya during Reagan’s reelection campaign, and swaggeringly bet my possessions with a transient American tourist that America would never reelect that buffoon.

Which is to say, I was a wincingly ridiculous liberal — and I know that none of my liberal readers here is that kind of liberal (except for the three in my sidebar survey who say they are so extremely liberal they almost come full circle to fascist, unless they were kidding). Do not feel obliged to defend yourselves. But I do see a bit of my old self in Occupyosity. But just a bit, as I will explain.

First I hasten to add, I see intermittently much to admire in Occupyosity. I see individuals dedicated to mediating conflict. I see individuals articulately decrying their comrades’ anti-Semitic outbursts and other hate rants. I see surges of sincerity, genuine appeals to economic fairness and focus on jobs. I see capable fundraisers (a war chest of several hundred thousand dollars). I see individuals focused on cleanliness and spontaneous sanitation departments. I see individuals focused on feeding — their own and the surrounding homeless. I see individuals dedicated to literacy, and even a “people’s library.”

I admire each of the foregoing individuals, and would have much to learn from them in riveting individual conversation. I just wonder why they’re not simply doing what they do so well — why these talented individuals aren’t very busy raising money, cleansing and ordering, feeding, and teaching in their own communities — and making a measurable difference they cannot possibly make as simpleton trespassers? Why are they finally doing what they do well in consort with a rag-tag aggregation of petty (and occasionally felonious) criminality and political vapidness?

Bias and serious personal deficit alert: I don’t do groups. I love professional football but will never, ever, actually go to a stadium and endure my species behaving that way. I like it slickly mediated on television, thank you — and even then, the crowd noise vexes me. I believe, with faux-mathematical precision, that people gathered in numbers greater than seven behave exponentially more mindlessly and recklessly with each additional person. I believe, with faux-sociological precision that groups, over individuals, are inclined in predictable relation to their numbers to the greatest atrocities — including the atrocity of embracing massive injustice, which they would never do as individuals — for the sake of silly solidarity with their makeshift identity-pumping group.

“Mob,” the very word, makes me shiver. From the Latin mobile vulgus, meaning vulgar hand-held devices and the spectacularly brazen rudeness committed millions of times a day by owners of these diabolical grace-suckers… oh wait, another subject, I digress. Mobile vulgus, the “gathered transient commoners,” the “mob,” as our language, with its gift for Anglo-Saxon grunts, shortened the Latin phrase. Which makes me scurry to Edmund Burke for solace, for a measure of relief against the Jacobin fury and orgy of self-righteous slaughter. Mindless anger and literal carnage acquire lethal force in numbers. Genocide — the ultimate human horror — germinates and cannot gather force without mobile vulgus.

Human beings are wonderful, ever less so in the aggregate.

Now you know my visceral suspicion of Occupiosity. As it was my visceral suspicion of the Tea Party. Collections, both, of interesting people, squandering their charm in service to their comforting mobs. But then I saw very little of the contempt for common manners in Tea Party gatherings. Quite the contrary. More like PTA gatherings writ large. A very few bad actors to be sure, but by and large well-mannered people, roughly organizing around a coherent grievance about our over-reaching government, who never broke a single ordinance. And then I saw the fury and orgy of leftist contempt for them, the vicious bile and ridicule heaped upon them, and I actually felt sympathy for a group I didn’t particularly like.

I still don’t like the Tea Party and I don’t like Occupiosity, such is my abiding distaste for determined gatherings of too like-minded people. But I am struck by the astounding hypocrisy of people who celebrate Occupiosity while slamming the Tea Party — these twin burps of challenging times. Like, to come full circle, the Seattle-based lad who authored “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” The Tea Party — or “teabaggers,” as he offensively prefers, waved “their trademark poorly-spelled signs,” and got more media attention than his favored labor-union-driven rally about health care. And then Occupiosity got just as much media attention, simply because the Occupiers committed “civil disobedience” (that is, they “shut down a goddam bridge”), and he’s pissed, whereupon he defends, in Saul Alinsky style, the attention-getting prowess of “shutting down a goddam bridge,” and bludgeons the people who might wish the Occupiers would simply behave a little better.

What exactly is it the lad doesn’t get about “civil disobedience,” as that hallowed term is now commonly understood in our political parlance? Gandhi and Martin Luther King promoted deliberate, non-violent disobedience and violation of manifestly unjust laws, and did so with stupendous honor and self-sacrifice. I am a conservative today with enormous respect for some of the liberals of yesteryear, what they did and how they did it, and how much we owe our modern civil polity to their steadfast courage against entrenched injustice.

But I have little patience for people piggy-backing willy-nilly on that legacy who fundamentally misunderstand it. Occupiosity isn’t protesting any particular unjust law the way Rosa Parks so courageously did. I’ve yet to hear about any specific law the Occupiers are challenging. They’re just protesting “economic injustice,” or “corporate greed,” or “capitalism.” And in the service of that vastly vague objection, some of their numbers are breaking the law — even with substantial latitude to do their thing.

To be sure, police have run the gamut from responding well to badly. Let it be a given that when you “occupy” places that aren’t yours, when you “shut down a goddam bridge,” you tend to invite a bit of push-back, even conflict. When you disrupt neighborhoods, the neighbors can get testy. So instead of critical inquiry into what the Occupiers want, we get a media frenzy of dramatic sub-plots involving rapes, murders, and pepper spray. None of this gets us beyond the level of shallow spectacle. None of this gets us beyond a juvenile celebration of “idealism” and its discontents (or, for the older wistful spectators of the spectacle, a Big Chill-like nostalgia — and by the way, my pseudo-sociological conclusion regarding groups larger than seven comes, entirely arbitrarily, from the seven old friends in The Big Chill).

And I keep coming back to those conversations in my head with the Occupiers, the conversations that remain imagined because of my admittedly idiosyncratic distaste for large gatherings. Okay, if you’re not sure what you specifically want, how about doing what you do so well in your own community? How about making a small but real and meaningful difference instead of wasting your time and abundant community resources thinking you’re making some media-lusty and empty “big” difference by simply Occupying?

Yes, R.I.P. Rick Perry, But Otherwise Interesting

It doesn’t get much worse. To put it delicately, there will be no President Perry.

I haven’t liked candidate Perry from the beginning of his actual entry into the race (i.e., the moment he joined the debates). And I’m a Texan who liked George Bush. But I wouldn’t have wished what happened to Rick Perry Wednesday night on anyone. I felt sorry for him, in a way that no viable candidate for any elected office should ever be felt sorry for.

Conversely, not to pile on, but it’s not simply the “forgetfulness” of the wincing moment (lest we spur a backlash from those who experience “senior moments”). Perry didn’t simply forget the percentage of U.S. debt held by Chinese lenders. He forgot one of the three entire United States departments he would supposedly eliminate if he were president (which would never actually happen, and is itself rank “pandering” to a constituency that barely exists). “Department of Energy,” he remembered later, adding to Department of Commerce and Department of Education. That’s a forfeiture of credibility on multiple levels.

And the Republican debates continue to sharpen the field, dramatically as it happens, and the stakes in 2012. The other candidates, even some of the trailing candidates, had impressive performances. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the overall economic acumen of the candidates in this debate as I was in the earlier Bloomberg debate likewise covering economic issues. But many of the issues put on the table, with 30 seconds to make six points, were delivered with a sophisticated grasp of what is, let’s face it, the vastly complicated interconnections of local, national and international economies.

Economics, by its nature not only the “dismal science” but questioned at times as “science” at all, yields “experts” backing every single competing theory about what’s wrong with the economy, how the current malaise came about, where relative accountability lies, what must be done to get back on the right track, and the relative merits of competing tax, trade, and spending proposals. In other words, the malleability of economic theory yields virtually any result, and its inevitably close kinship with politics means conclusions can be bought and sold in (ironically) a market of political economics. Whereupon all proposals, even recession-aggravating nonsense, all indictments, all theories, have both their sincere and their bought-and-paid-for wonks.

It being difficult for the average American to disentangle the academic language of competing economic theories, it is worth listening closely and carefully to candidates who can convey, in 30 seconds, (1) a bit of complexity (i.e., why it might be wise to pause before presuming the matter is simple); (2) a bit of understanding about macro-causal relationships — that is, the elementary things that cause things to happen, and then other things to happen, in our economy, and what conclusions may be drawn as a consequence — no easy feat in 30 seconds, and impressive that it could happen at all; and (3) a sense of economic priorities — that is, what pathologies must be addressed first and foremost, so that certain other economic problems might fade in virulence.

The foregoing discipline helps us understand the “dismal science,” as it gets applied in current times, better than we would have otherwise — and all Americans would have been educated, for good and bad, enlivening and wincing, edifying and stupefying, in Wednesday night’s debate. Would that Democrats were having similar debates, and we could see more clearly how the interconnected parts get spun in that parallel universe. For now, the debate is happening among Republicans — and it may be no more riveting than a Science Channel program with Morgan Freeman talking about black holes and extra dimensions, but I, for one, find both of them riveting, and important.

On the Debt-Ceiling Blues and “Putting Politics Aside” (Not)

Nice job Mr. President. Well-spoken. In many respects, a splendid piece of political rhetoric – especially in pitching to independents. Except for the self-contradictory part about “putting politics aside.”

Washington DC politicians (including the president) don’t “put politics aside.” Ever. Americans generally understand that politicians don’t ever put politics aside. Lawyers don’t put law aside. Lumberjacks don’t put lumber aside. It’s an empty phrase – “putting politics aside” – and excessive reliance upon it has diminishing returns, even with independents.

The president’s effectiveness in pitching to independents is a function of poll-tested political rhetoric. “Compromise.” “Oil companies.” “Corporate jets.” “Millionaires and billionaires.” “Balanced approach.” He may well have compelling campaign themes here – but this is the opposite of “putting politics aside.”

(Okay, an aside: corporate jets. Please. That tax break, called accelerated depreciation, was part of the stimulus package overwhelmingly supported, and still ardently defended, by Democrats, which was then re-authorized and signed by President Obama. Harping on tax breaks for “corporate jets” – when you voted for it before you voted for it – may be great campaign rhetoric, but it grows wearisome, and seems a bit disingenuous, as substantive debt ceiling dialogue.)

(Okay, another aside: “Millionaires and billionaires” – a frankly brilliant abbreviation for ginning up class resentment during a recession.  I’m sympathetic to 7- and 10-figure income people paying more taxes. Good heavens, who couldn’t be? But the screeching notion one hears too often that Republicans are some sort of obtuse cabal determined to “protect” “millionaires and billionaires” from any tax increase is absurd. Republican concern with respect to the top marginal tax rate is not about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s about the huge number of small businesses that would be ensnared by this tax increase – at a moment when economic recovery will have very much to do with the viability of small businesses – as the president himself acknowledges. Now maybe Republicans need to “compromise” on some tax issues – indeed, maybe they need to couple some revenue enhancements with targeted breaks for small business (win-win?) – but to continue this bizarre demonization of Republicans for protecting rich people at everyone else’s expense fundamentally misunderstands the larger issue.)

(Okay, one last aside before I get to my point: this one I’m not sure about, and I welcome clarification from those of you who know and care more about the minutiae of this debt-ceiling issue – but did the president’s nose grow when he invoked catastrophe from “default”? There is, I believe, a critical difference in defaulting on our debt obligations versus not being able to pay for everything. All that apocalypse conjured by the president isn’t really a prospect. Worst case scenario: we can’t pay for some government functions, but under no circumstance would we default on our debt obligations, fail to pay out social security and Medicare, fail on payments to veterans, or any of the horrific scenarios referenced by the president. Please enlighten me. I want to know whether the president, you know, misspoke, or whether he, you know, is trying to scare seniors.)

With apologies for the asides, here’s my real point: the system is working. Divided government is working. The Asian markets appear convinced nothing terrible will happen in America. Our elected representatives are very busy developing and promoting competing plans that will be debated. That is good. There should be genuine debate about the trade-off between spending and taxes. There should be a genuine debate about long-term versus short-term fixes. There should be a genuine debate about tax increases during a recession.

Americans get to see that debate most robustly precisely when there is “divided government.” And sometimes “divided government” begins to look like “dysfunctional government” only because it takes some time to fully ventilate these debates and develop a consensus. But it’s not “dysfunctional” at all.

Let me emphasize this: nothing “reckless” has happened – except the rhetoric. This is messy and beautiful democracy. There will be consequences. There will be winners and losers. The American people will process all of this and vote accordingly in due course. That’s how it works. And we’ve all learned a great deal more about debt ceilings, deficits, spending and taxes than we would have without divided government.

I’m fed up with politicians and pundits telling me Americans are fed up with Washington. Nonsense. We’re all learning, and the ever truer terms of the debate are coming into sharper relief. That’s how it works. That’s democracy.

(Okay, one last aside, with apologies: I’m a bit bewildered that the president says a six-month hike in the debt-ceiling limit cannot possibly be part of a “balanced approach” or a “compromise”– when he noted in his own defense that President Reagan signed debt-ceiling increases 18 times – that is, roughly, just under every six months of Reagan’s presidency. Am I missing something? Is the president primarily concerned to push any further debt-ceiling debate beyond the 2012 elections? Good politics Mr. President.)

On Conservative Cannibalism

A friendly fellow blogger has suggested that I am not a true conservative, primarily because I support the right of women to get legal abortions and the right of gays to marry. Now this is a fascinating discussion.

Definitions always matter — and sometimes they have enormous consequences. Not that I personally mind never being invited to true believer parties. I know I am conservative and I know why. And I’m tremendous at entertaining myself.

When I was counsel to Senator Peter Fitzgerald, as conservative a senator as it is possible to elect in the blue state of Illinois (when he retired, Barack Obama won his seat), I was tasked with drafting and promoting his Mutual Fund Reform Act at the height of the mutual fund scandal in 2004. Senator Fitzgerald felt passionately about this issue. He believed more balanced and less conflicted governance, and more careful oversight, of mutual funds — the retirement nest egg, the college fund, the buffer against hard times of tens of millions of Americans who didn’t generally understand financial markets — was a perfectly appropriate project for the federal government.

This was obviously not ideological conservatism. This was not knee-jerk opposition to “government.” This was grounded conservatism. This was commitment to ensuring fair private markets. This is why there is a Securities and Exchange Commission (which ultimately promulgated, by regulation, most of the provisions of the Mutual Fund Reform Act, and thereby protected millions of Americans against what had been easy predations).

The bill never came up for a vote but it attracted bipartisan support. Five Republicans, including John McCain, and seven Democrats co-sponsored the bill. When I spoke with a particular chief of staff for a conservative Republican senator, and pointed to the Republicans supporting the bill, he asked dismissively, “what Republicans?”

I didn’t have a response because I was speechless, not a common experience for me at the time. I had always been vaguely aware of ideological gradients and litmus tests. I had simply dismissed them as frankly silly. In my view, Republicans generally (but not always) did better than Democrats as legislators, regulators, judges and executives, and therefore making the Republican Party as big a tent as possible so that more Republicans could get elected and appointed was obvious. That there could be a serious contrary notion, that ideological purity truly commanded any serious attention, boggled my mind. At the time.

“Ideological purity” disgusts me. Actually, both words independently disgust me, and their combination is an abomination.

Both the left and the right do it. Committed leftists routinely harangue manifest liberals for being insufficiently liberal, and committed right-wingers routinely harangue manifest conservatives for being insufficiently conservative. And both groups should be committed. At the same institution. In the same room. Until they acquire mental health.

Actual governance is never ideology, and certainly never purity. It is a painstaking project of consensus. Conservatives are properly conservative, and liberals are properly liberals, because they view policy proposals through a certain lens, and question, with facts, whether the policy proposal in fact achieves its desired ends, or produces negative unintended consequences. Actual governance dwells in the details.

With obvious conspicuous exceptions, liberals are more pragmatic than conservatives. There is such a thing, for example, as “RINO” (Republicans in Name Only), but no such thing as “DINO.” There can be Republicans at the highest level of governance questioning the right of other elected Republicans to claim the status of “Republican” — but Democrats would never dream of such an absurdity.

And this is why, despite a daunting advantage of self-identified conservatives in this country (including 25% in the Democratic Party), conservatives struggle electorally. They eat themselves. Better to be pure, better to be ideological paragons, than acquire the instruments of governance. And that is absurd.

I have defended the Tea Party, and conservatives generally, against cynical charges of racism, and I have defended the Tea Party against ridiculous comparisons to historically extreme right-wing movements in America — both fantasies of the left intended to discredit conservatism generally.

But I have also criticized the Tea Party for promoting ideological purity over conservatism itself, for taking a giddy and naive pleasure in taking down establishment conservatives because they were allegedly not conservative enough (whereupon Democrats won). This is how conservatism dies in America.

If I am not conservative, then conservatism is dying. If I, and so many like me, am not acknowledged as conservative, then conservatism defines itself into a very bleak box, and, despite its numbers, becomes an ironic historical footnote.

I am confident this will not happen. I am confident that conservatism includes (simply includes, not “is defined by”) people who do not believe government has any business forbidding a woman’s right to abortion or a person’s choice of gender in marriage. Mind you, being conservative, I believe these issues should be determined by legislatures, not courts. I oppose judicial fiat of both abortion and gay marriage rights, and I support legislative initiatives to achieve either.

And so I still think of myself as conservative. And I think it important that people like me aren’t eaten. For the sake of conservatism.

Obama’s Bizarre Illegal War in Libya

At the inception of the lethal not-war (and now, not even “hostility”) in Libya, I questioned the wisdom of military action with squishy aims. Squishy has gotten squishier — and politically muddled.

The Obama administration justifies the Executive Branch military action in Libya — that is, use of lethal American military force without congressional authorization, contrary to the War Powers Resolution — by saying that the bombing is not “hostility,” and therefore doesn’t trigger the requirement of congressional authorization. Some administration lawyers disagree.

Air strikes, cruise missile bombardments, and drone operations at a cost of $10 million a day, the dissenters suggest, amounts to a “hostility.” And their view, in my view, enjoys the incidental virtue of common sense.

The surreality of our Libyan not-war got even stranger on Thursday, when the House of Representatives voted convincingly — 123-295 — against authorizing the limited use of the United States Armed Forces in support of the NATO mission in Libya. Republicans voted overwhelmingly against authorization, while all but eight of the 123 supporters were Democrats.

What’s going on? Republicans now favor limitations on the Executive Branch’s war-making powers, while Democrats (the authors of the War Powers Resolution over President Nixon’s veto) support the most expansive interpretation of Executive Branch war-making powers since the Vietnam War (which mostly predated the War Powers Resolution)?

Has an illegal war become part of the president’s triangulation strategy (“I’m not so liberal America. I kill terrorists and enemies of America with the best of them.”)?

Purple Nation columnist Lanny Davis thinks the president should have simply sought congressional authorization.

What is unusual here is that President Obama chose to accept a linguistic legal analysis rather than a political one to thread the needle on this issue. Surely he must know that his definition of “hostilities,” excluding the U.S. shooting missiles from Predator drones or air strikes aimed at suppressing enemy air defense, is a stretch at best.

The question is, why go there? Why not, instead, go to Congress and seek authorization?

He wrote a day before the stinging rebuke of the House vote. Obviously the administration didn’t have the votes. And so it chose to preserve the War Powers Resolution for use against some future Republican president, while engaging in tortured linguistics to argue that it could bomb with impunity without engaging in “hostilities.”

The Dividist blogger puts it succinctly: “We now have a President who is asserting that it is completely within his authority to commit our military resources to strikes against another country, and never be required to request the authority of Congress. This is claim of executive war power far beyond anything that was ever asserted in the Bush/Cheney administration.”

Here is what candidate Obama said in opposing the Iraq war his administration ended up supporting:

A war to disarm a dictator has become an open-ended occupation of a foreign country. This is not America. This is not who we are. It’s time for us to stand up and tell George Bush that the government in this country is not based on the whims of one person, the government is of the people, by the people and for the people.

We thought we learned this lesson. After Vietnam, Congress swore it would never again be duped into war, and even wrote a new law — the War Powers Act — to ensure it would not repeat its mistakes.

What a robust, and massively hypocritical, defense of the War Powers Act — that same act that President Obama now flaunts.

And so we come full circle to squishy aims. We’ve come to this bizarreness because of squishy aims. This administration wished most profoundly both to appear unaggressive and aggressive. This administration wished to project American power and not to appear to be projecting American power. This administration wished, essentially, to hoodwink Americans and the world, with an eye to 2012, and preserve the ability to claim both its muscularity and its good-natured passivity, whichever it needed most politically.

The problem is, as is typically the problem with squishy aims, human beings are dying and American credibility suffers. “Obama’s attack has been too feeble to bring down Gaddafi, but big enough to discredit us for trying and failing; too wrapped up in U.N. legalities, but too little concern over national interests.”

I agree with Lanny. The president should have sought congressional authorization — but for very specific and defined aims — like the elimination of Gaddafi. That might have passed. And that might have preserved the War Powers Resolution without yet another assault on common sense of the sort that makes so many Americans cynical about how our government works.