The End Of The Bushes?

Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite columnists and always a great read, today turns her substantial rhetorical guns on what she sees as the biggest threat to the Republican Party — George Bush. Accusing him of following his father in squandering a great political inheritance, Noonan calls for a Republican repudiation of Bush and his family:

What political conservatives and on-the-ground Republicans must understand at this point is that they are not breaking with the White House on immigration. They are not resisting, fighting and thereby setting down a historical marker–“At this point the break became final.” That’s not what’s happening. What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them. What President Bush is doing, and has been doing for some time, is sundering a great political coalition. This is sad, and it holds implications not only for one political party but for the American future.
The White House doesn’t need its traditional supporters anymore, because its problems are way beyond being solved by the base. And the people in the administration don’t even much like the base. Desperate straits have left them liberated, and they are acting out their disdain. Leading Democrats often think their base is slightly mad but at least their heart is in the right place. This White House thinks its base is stupid and that its heart is in the wrong place.
For almost three years, arguably longer, conservative Bush supporters have felt like sufferers of battered wife syndrome. You don’t like endless gushing spending, the kind that assumes a high and unstoppable affluence will always exist, and the tax receipts will always flow in? Too bad! You don’t like expanding governmental authority and power? Too bad. You think the war was wrong or is wrong? Too bad.
But on immigration it has changed from “Too bad” to “You’re bad.”

I’m a little surprised by Noonan with this piece. I see nothing all that unusual with the way the Bush administration has attacked its critics over immigration. If she was to honestly look at the last six years, she will see that this is the normal mode of operation for the White House — to always stay on the attack. In fact, they’ve followed the James Carville model from their first days in the White House.
What’s the difference? They’ve not had to answer substantial conservative criticism very often. When they have, though, they’ve been consistent. When the Right objected to the poor choice of Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court nominee, they were accused of being sexist. When the Dubai Ports deal came to light — which the administration failed to properly support — they accused critics of bigotry and xenophobia. Those same accusations have arisen from Bush himself in this debate, with his accusation that opponents of the compromise bill “do not want what’s right for America”.
Welcome to the hardball of the Bush administration. We loved it when they used it on Democrats and the war, and it seems just a little hypocritical to start whining about it now that we’re getting a taste of it ourselves.
However, Noonan does get the main point correct, which is that the GOP needs to start working on defining itself for the post-Bush era. We support him on the war and on taxes, but on most other domestic issues, we have a lot of daylight between Bush and the party. Discretionary spending went out of control on his watch, and the government grew faster than during the Clinton administration. That’s not just Bush, either, but also the Congressional Republican leadership prior to the last mid-terms. We allowed lobbyist influence to increase, and we exploded the use of earmarks.
Republicans used to stand for smaller government, federalism, and strong national defense. Not all of that conflicts with the Bush legacy, but enough of it does that we need to start publicly demanding a return to those core concepts. Rather than repudiating Bush over his insulting attacks on the base, the better path is to generate a positive agenda that demonstrates our dissatisfaction with the previous six years — and give Republicans something to vote for, rather than something to vote against.
If we can do that, we won’t have to demand that the Bushes stay in Kennebunkport. We just won’t give them any room to remain in party leadership.

The Iranian Answer, Continued

The Iranians extended their response to American diplomatic overtures by arresting another American in Iran. Ali Shakeri, who ironically works as a peace activist in Irvine, California, now faces charges of espionage and potentially the death penalty:

The United States confirmed that a missing Irvine peace activist has become the fourth Iranian American detained by Iran on suspicion of espionage, and warned U.S. citizens against traveling to the country.
“American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran,” the State Department said after confirming that Ali Shakeri, who has been missing in Iran for more than two weeks, is being held at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. …
Shakeri, a founding board member at UC Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, had been scheduled to leave Iran and fly to Europe in the first half of May.

The UCI-CCP advertises itself as “tak[ing] an integrated approach to studying the best grassroots peacebuilding methods in both domestic and international conflicts, and utilizes those findings in direct engagement in peacebuilding projects in neighborhoods in Orange County and Los Angeles, California as well as in selected communities in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and the former Soviet Union.” It hardly seems the place for nefarious espionage activities, especially knowing the general political direction of UCI. In 2004, for instance, they gave a Peacebuilding Award to Mikhail Gorbachev, hardly a fan of American influence in the Persian Gulf.
However, the next year, they gave the award to Iranian ex-patriate Shirin Abadi. She has campaigned against human-rights abuses in Iran and for greater democratization there. The Iranians consider her a threat, and likely they consider any organization which honors her as an equal threat.
Ironically, Ali Shakeri has championed expanded diplomatic efforts between the US and Iran. Now he may become the center of a diplomatic effort to get himself and three other Americans released before the Iranians can execute them. This seems like a pretty clear answer to the recent efforts by the Bush administration to quiet its critics by pushing for diplomatic talks with the mullahcracy in Teheran.

John McCain Interview Transcript Ready

My interview with John McCain earlier this week has been transcribed and is now posted at Heading Right. The Senator and I discussed the controversial comprehensive immigration-reform proposal, but also talked about Iraq and the upcoming Iowa caucuses. McCain acknowledged the difficulties in convincing people to trust that the government would actually secure the borders:

EM: … I think the issue is, for them, how to get them to trust that Congress and the enforcing agencies are actually going to follow through on those border triggers and border security triggers and employment triggers in a way that they feel safe about proceeding on to the next level. I think that this is basically saying we just don’t trust Congress to do it.
SM: And that skepticism is well justified because of what happened in ’86. Look, we all love and revere Ronald Reagan. We want to do everything exactly like him and I quote him every other sentence but you know, that was a failure in that administration. We said we would secure the borders in return for giving amnesty, we didn’t secure the borders, we gave amnesty so the skepticism and concern is very legitimate. The response I have to that is, one, then you want to maintain the status quo, which we all agree is unacceptable. The status quo is totally unacceptable and one of the responses that very quickly will be, well just enforce existing laws. Nobody believes that, Chertoff doesn’t believe it, nobody believes it and if we leave the status quo, then you have de facto amnesty. You have de facto amnesty because they will be allowed to stay here.

On Iraq, Senator McCain warned that the adoption of reform in the Maliki government might be slow and halting:

EM: At some point they’re going to have to implement that. But is it a big concern that those three major reforms which is oil revenue, the provincial elections and reverse de-Baathification . Is it a major concern that isn’t going to be accomplished by the end of September? What does that mean if that’s true?
SM: I’ve got to give you some straight talk, Ed. I am more worried about the Maliki government then I am about our ability to obtain our military objections and we all know it is has to be a combination. I don’t know the answer to it. I keep getting assurances from people that that the Maliki government will act and that they’re trying their best, etc. etc. I also hear from people this and I understand this side of it, that is if they think we’ll leaving, they’re going to have to stay in the neighborhood and they are going to have to try and accommodate the neighborhood and take care of their own interest first which increases the sectarian priority as opposed to the all encompassing priorities. So, look, I am concerned about the Maliki government. I believe that they can and will act, particularly if we continue to show some military success but I am very concerned about it and that’s all I can tell you my friend.

He also injected a little self-deprecating humor:

EM: No, I mean I agree with you that the idea here is that we need to show some forward progress and I think we are all ready seen that; we’ve been seeing that since February, actually.
SM: You know the trouble that I got into by claiming it.(laughing)
EM: (laughing) Yeah, Yeah. I’m not going to make you go back on the record and do that all over again.

Be sure to read the whole transcript, and listen to the podcast as well. (The interview starts at 50 minutes.) You get a good sense of McCain, who genuinely believes in what he’s doing with immigration, Iraq, and everything else. That doesn’t mean that one has to support all or any part of it; I’m not supporting the immigration bill in its current form, and I don’t see much hope of improvement through the amendment process.
However, we have to be careful about demonizing people instead of criticizing them, and I include myself in that warning. It’s the same mistake that Bush just made on Wednesday with his comments about immigration opponents not wanting what’s best for the country, rather than acknowledging the disagreement over what the best course of action might be. At some point after the primaries, we’ll need John McCain as an advocate for the Republicans, and trashing him now makes that a lot less effective down the stretch. Let’s have a good, tough primary debate, but let’s not send dissenters into exile.

Secret Holder On Open Government: Kyl

Senator Jon Kyl has acknowledged placing a hold on a bill that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, which open-government reformers see as key to exposing government processes to sunlight and criticism. Kyl insists that the Department of Justice has concerns that must be addressed before proceeding, even though the bill has strong bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by John Cornyn (R-TX). The other co-sponsor, Pat Leahy (D-VT), will attempt to get a vote despite Kyl’s hold:

Kyl revealed his identity Thursday, days after the bill’s backers launched an e-mail and telephone campaign, urging supporters to help in “smoking out ‘Senator Secrecy.'” They pointed out the irony that an open government bill was being blocked using a rule that allowed secrecy.
Supporters say the bill would plug loopholes in the FOIA law by, among other things, clarifying when federal agencies would have to pay attorneys fees if they miss deadlines to provide information, and bolstering deadlines for the government’s response to requests under the law.
Although the Justice Department has objected strenuously to several provisions, advocates say they have answered or addressed the major concerns.
For example, a section has been eliminated that would have lifted exemptions letting the government deny access to privileged or law-enforcement sensitive information, said Leahy spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

Mark Tapscott, a longtime supporter of the FOIA, criticizes Kyl’s use of a secret hold to block an open-government reform, and questions his conservative credentials:

Memo to Sen. Kyl: Some differences are irreconciliable, such as the difference between those like Cornyn who believe transparency in government is the first essential for democratic accountability, and those in government like the career attorneys at the Justice Department who ALWAYS find a reason to oppose increased transparency.
This gulf cannot be bridged without completely gutting the FOIA reform of whatever substance it retains after three years of negotiation and concessions by its proponents in a vain effort to create a bill that is sufficiently non-threatening to government interests.
Moreover, Sen. Kyl, you have been in Congress more than long enough to know the original FOIA – approved by Congress in 1966 after a decade-long struggle – already has such rigorous exceptions to protect national security considerations that no honest, reasonably alert bureaucrat in the Pentagon or anywhere else in the government can’t keep just about any document behind closed doors. Even President Bush has conceded that the government classifies far too many documents.
What is really aggravating here, Sen. Kyl, is that you profess to be a conservative, a believer in limited government and individual liberty, but here you are taking up the cause of Big Government’s first line of defense.

Kyl has had to answer that charge quite a bit in the last few weeks, after taking the lead in crafting the immigration compromise. A staunch Republican and normally a reliable conservative, his effort enabled a bill that has conservatives screaming mad and killing donations to his party. Now he’s blocking a bipartisan bill that would allow for better access to evidence of government mismanagement, abuse, and fraud.
Mark has this correct. Conservatives rightly fear the rise of big government precisely because of its threat to individual liberty and property. As federal programs grow, conservatives believe that they at least become less efficient and more prone to bad judgements in funding. At worst, they become convenient mechanisms through which to pay off contributors and enrich politicians. The only way to fight that is to make sure that these agencies cannot hide the evidence behind walls of secrecy that have little to do with protecting the nation and everything to do with protecting the right flabby backsides.
Congress should engage the Justice Department in crafting the best possible compromise that allows for free access to information while protecting legitimate interests of the nation. However, as Mark notes, the DoJ may have its reasons for foot-dragging, and at some point Congress needs to take some action. If Kyl believes that the bill is deficient, let him argue that on the floor of the Senate — and then let the Senate vote on the bill with the debate in mind.

The Reason We Have Two Parties

Many people believe that the two major political parties offer so little difference as to be virtually identical. Certainly some of the politicians of either Democratic or Republican stripe focus more on power than policy, and in that sense and in those examples, they have a point. However, some may find themselves surprised by E.J. Dionne’s latest column, as he somewhat inadvertently demonstrates why we have two political parties — and what fundamentally separates them:

Our two political parties and their candidates are living in parallel universes. It’s as if the candidates were running for president in two separate countries. Their televised debates next week will be productions as different from each other as “American Idol” is from “P.T.I.”
The parties do have some things in common — Iraq and the economy are concerns for both. But beyond these two issues, what matters most to Republican voters is hugely different from what matters most to Democrats. The polarization between the parties extends to the very definition of our country, its problems and the stakes in the next elections.
Consider a Pew Research Center survey in April whose findings the center kindly re-analyzed for me. Asked to name the issue that would most affect their choice for president, respondents from both parties put Iraq first — but it was named by 40 percent of Democrats and only 29 percent of Republicans. If Democrats in Congress wonder why they got so many e-mails and phone calls on the recent war-funding vote, that’s why.
On almost every other issue, the gaps between the parties are even more striking. Health care was the most important for 13 percent of Democrats but 2 percent of Republicans. On the other hand, 17 percent of Republicans said issues related to terrorism and security were paramount in their choices, compared with 5 percent of Democrats. Terrorism is actually the No. 2 issue for Republicans, behind Iraq and slightly ahead of the economy. (The economy is No. 2 for Democrats, after Iraq.) No wonder Republicans got into all that detail last month about “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Education was most important for 12 percent of Democrats and only 5 percent of Republicans; abortion for 8 percent of Republicans and just 1 percent of Democrats; immigration for 12 percent of Republicans and 1 percent of Democrats.

Now, in doing this analysis, E.J. wants to make an argument for the existence of an entrenched divide so profound that it defies rational debate. I don’t want to quote too extensively, because I want you to read his entire column, but he even goes into a political version of Two Americas for an explanation. How can Democrats and Republicans talk to each other when neither side values the other’s issues, Dionne asks, although he couches this more as a Republican problem than Democrat.
Dionne misses two points. First, we’re in the primary, when parties select their own candidates. Sure, they want to engage moderates and independents if possible, but the voters in the primaries want candidates who represent their points of view and who adopt their priorities. Of course Republican candidates will debate their positions on the pressing concerns of Republican voters, giving shorter attention to lower-priority issues. The Democrats will do the same, and that’s SOP for primary campaigns going back decades, if not longer. I’m not sure why Dionne finds that terribly surprising.
Second and more to Dionne’s theme, the differences in priorities have to do with fundamental differences in political philosophies. Let’s look at the issues that Dionne notes lower Republican interest for the national elections: education and health care. The key point is that Republicans don’t believe the national government should be involved in either to any great degree. It’s not a question of valuing education and health care — Republicans for the most part reject federal government intervention in either.
Understanding that, let’s look at the Democratic priorities. Health care and education is the most important issues for 13 and 12 percent of Democrats, while terrorism and border security barely register (5% and 1%). From that, we can deduce that Democrats have a vision of the federal government primarily as a benefits management system, where those tasks should receive more attention and resources than national security. Republicans see the federal government’s role primarily as securing national security and the borders, and leaving benefits management to the private sector.
In other words, Republicans still believe in smaller government limited by the original text of the Constitution, where Democrats see the federal government as the appropriate mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of wealth and assistance. That’s nothing new or terribly profound, and it demonstrates the political differences between two parties and millions of good, honest Americans. It’s a choice that reflects real philosophical differences, and explains the existence of the two-party system.
In November 2008, the entire nation will make that choice on a number of levels of government. We’ll have plenty of time between then and now to have debates across the electorate about those priorities. In the meantime, the parties will determine which candidates best express those philosophies for that larger debate — and that seems just fine to me.

Firing The Collectors: Desperation Or Efficiency?

The Republican National Committee no longer has operators standing by to take your call — reportedly because you haven’t been calling. Their staff of call-center employees got pink slips yesterday, and while the RNC denies it, the fired employees say that donations have dropped precipitately:

The Republican National Committee, hit by a grass-roots donors’ rebellion over President Bush’s immigration policy, has fired all 65 of its telephone solicitors, The Washington Times has learned.
Faced with an estimated 40 percent falloff in small-donor contributions and aging phone-bank equipment that the RNC said would cost too much to update, Anne Hathaway, the committee’s chief of staff, summoned the solicitations staff and told them they were out of work, effective immediately, fired staff members told The Times.
Several of the solicitors fired at the May 24 meeting reported declining contributions and a donor backlash against the immigration proposals now being pushed by Mr. Bush and Senate Republicans.
“Every donor in 50 states we reached has been angry, especially in the last month and a half, and for 99 percent of them immigration is the No. 1 issue,” said a fired phone bank employee who said the severance pay the RNC agreed to pay him was contingent on his not criticizing the national committee.

I’ve received e-mails asking me about the RNC’s explanation, given my call-center background, of aging phone equipment for the terminations. The RNC employed 65 phone solicitors, so the system has to be of significant size, likely with automated-call distribution and call-tracking software. Replacing a system like that would cost quite a bit of money, perhaps in the quarter-million dollar range on the outside. I’ve seen companies look at that cost, blanch, and start looking at outsourcing as another option.
That said, though, I’ve also seen infrastructure maintenance used as an excuse to get rid of a failing department. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations to all parties and affiliated committees, confirms that the Republicans have a fundraising problem. The smaller donors with whom the RNC’s call center interfaced have decreased their contributions considerably, and overall income has dropped significantly. The RNC has done better than the Congressional committees, but only because the RNC also focuses on big donors through other means, such as fundraising events.
Republican donors have certainly lost some enthusiasm since the midterm losses last year, and the immigration bill has added to their woes. People are angry about the compromise; they have flooded talk radio shows and the blogs to express their discontent, and in return they have been attacked by President Bush as “not wanting what is best for their country.” Under those circumstances, the average small donor has one option, which is to cease being a donor at all — and to communicate that to the people who call for their assistance.
That creates a need for belt tightening. Under those circumstances, unloading 65 salaries and skipping the replacement of an expensive call-center system makes sense. The question of which is the chicken and which is the egg at this point seems secondary to the overall fundraising problem, which won’t get solved by either option of keeping or ending the in-house call center.