Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Political Reality

With respect to any piece of legislation that comes before a legislator, there are two sets of questions to be answered. The first set concerns the quality of each item in the legislation. For each item, one may ask, "Is this item worthy of my support?" The other question, of course, is, "Should I vote for this legislation?"

Every legislator will almost certainly have to vote at some time to institute a practice that is unjust, or approve a law that does harm to (those he thinks are) innocent people, or causes unnecessary suffering. Because, in spite of the fact that the bill contains something bad, it contains more good than bad, and the legislator must vote for or against the whole bill.

The same is true of executives (governors and presidents) who sign the bill into law.

A moral objection to a provision of the bill does not necessarily imply that a good person would vote against that bill.

These issues come to mind with respect to the current FISA bill – the bill that will be used to govern the future of wiretapping for security purposes. Many people on the political left are opposed to this bill. Democratic Presidential candidate Barak Obama also opposed this bill, until recently, when he announced that he will vote for it.

I have read a number of objections against Obama’s change in position.

I have spent the day trying to learn enough details about the bill in order to discover what position I would take on it. To be honest, I could not find enough clear information on which to make a decision. However, my research took me through a great deal of criticism of Obama's shift in position. A lot of that criticism was missing some very important elements.

It appears to me that criticism of a bill (as distinct from criticism of a specific element of a bill) requires more than simply an announcement that there are reasons to reject provisions within the bill. It requires some discussion of what alternatives are available, and what the consequences are of a particular action.

For example, one of the criticisms made against Obama was that he was concerned with winning the election, and seems willing to abandon principle when there are votes at stake. However, I have never found this to be a sensible criticism. It is the same as saying to a candidate, "I believe that you are the best person for the job. However, I demand that you act in such a way that you give up any chance of winning the election, and actually hand the seat over to somebody who, in that position, will spell disaster for the country."

I do not approve of lying. I do not approve of a candidate saying that he favors a position he does not favor in order to attract votes. At the same time, I see no sensible reason to object to a candidate who says, "I am voting for this legislation, even though it contains elements that I do not like, because I do not see a better alternative available. I am not saying that this legislation is perfect. To insist that I only vote for perfect legislation is to insist that I never vote in favor of any legislation."

Again, I am not talking about lying. I am talking about making the honest claim that, “This is the best option that I think is politically viable at this time. If you do not like this option, then change political reality so that we can get a better version of this law passed. Sitting around and griping – expecting political reality to change magically rather than by hard work, while demanding that candidates act as if they are not running for office in the real world, is irrational nonsense.”

People who have read this blog know that I am adamantly opposed to having 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto. However, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on these matters, I fully expect Obama to denounce the decision and to speak in defense of these practices. His defense will make no logical sense, and I will take great pains to show its flaws.

However, I also realize that I live in the real world. I expect – I even hope – that Obama will denounce the 9th Circuit Court opinion (if it comes out against 'under God') for the simple fact that, if he does what is right, it could cost him the election. Given the consequences of his renouncing the 9th Circuit Court decision, and the consequences of McCain becoming President, I choose the former over the latter.

When Obama states his position, I expect to rip it to shreds in this blog – and I will encourage others to do the same. However, I will do so with full understanding of why he stated that position. I will do so knowing full well that before any politician can dare to support the position that I support, I need to put the work into making it politically viable for him (or her) to do so. That’s my job as a citizen.

For similar reasons, people who are opposed to certain elements of the FISA Amendments need to do the same thing. They can certainly know and understand that some of its positions are morally objectionable. However, they have to recognize that it is senseless to demand that a politician take a position on that issue that will guarantee that he will lose the election to a worse candidate. They have to recognize that their first duty must be to contribute to changing the political landscape to one in which a politician can take the correct position on the issue, and still win an election.

It is a politician's duty in this winner-take-all political system to pull together the best 51% of the country against the worst 49% (or the best 60% against the worst 40%). If he makes it his goal to pull the best 49% together against the worst 51%, then he is handing the reigns of government over to the worst 51%.

When I read about people saying of a candidate, "I refuse to support him because he refuses to act in a way that will cost him the election and give power to the worst 51%," this type of attitude strikes me as irrational to the point of insanity. I can make no sense of it. Yet, I see it all the time.

If the alliance of the best 51% is not willing to support the 4th Amendment, then it becomes my job – our job – to get them to see the value of the 4th Amendment. If we fail, this does not change the fact that the candidate's job is to pull together an alliance of the best 51%. The only thing that changes is that the best 51% happens to be a group of people who simply refuse to support the 4th Amendment – and the 4th Amendment is as good as repealed.

Perhaps an alliance of the best 51% will support the 4th Amendment. If this is the case, then Obama should defend it as well. It is open for somebody to make that case. Yet, many of the critics that I see do not make the case – or they assert it without offering any reason to believe it other than, “Of course the majority realize that my position is correct.”

To the degree that somebody can make this case, to that degree they have a case for condemning the politician who does not defend the 4th Amendment – for saying that the politician is making a mistake. Where they cannot make such a case, their protest amounts to insisting that the candidate unite the best 49% against the worst 51% - that is to say, they are insisting that the candidate be irrational and foolish in a way that does irreparable harm to the country.


Hume's Ghost said...

"they have to recognize that it is senseless to demand that a politician take a position on that issue that will guarantee that he will lose the election to a worse candidate."

But what indication is there that protecting the Fourth Amendment would lose someone an election? Democrats thought like this before the 2002 election, and thus voted for the AUMF which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Max Cleland voted for it and still lost his seat.

Obama has made a central part of his campaign the assertion that he will challenge the conventional Beltway wisdom that being "strong" on national security means doing what ever Republicans want. He had previously promised to filibuster a bill with telecom immunity.

On both these issues he has betrayed his own stated values and promises, and has done so for the most base and cynical reasons possible (i.e. his campaign believes 'the left' will still have to vote for him over McCain). This makes Obama look like a flip-flopper, it angers civil libertarians, it betrays the values of Obama's base, and it cedes the framing of the issue to Republicans.

How can that do anything but weaken Obama?

And this isn't simply about what polls well and what not: it's about the power of money to get what it wants. Telecom lobbysts poured millions of dollars into buying themselves immunity and the Democrats closed ranks to take advantage of it. Which also contributes of the failure of Democrats to shape public opinion by actually taking a stand on the issue and developing a counter-narrative that is actually based in the truth. The conservative movement has come to power and that happened despite it having started as a fringe extremist movement ... if they thought like Democrats they'd still be the John Birch Society rather than the Republican Party

Of course I'll still vote for Obama, as I have to. But I want the Obama campaign and the Democratic party to know that I will be working towards removing them from office and replacing them with individuals who value American democracy and the institutions and laws that preserve and protect it.

Hume's Ghost said...

Regarding the "I'm voting for this because it's not perfect but there's no alternative"

The reasoning Obama has stated for supporting this bill is false. A campaign aid quoted in the New York Times said that Obama supports the bill because he doesn't want FISA to expire.

FISA is not going to expire (except for when this bill becomes law, then it will effectively be nonexistent.) So when Glenn Greenwald questioned the aid, he eventually was told that Obama doesn't want the Protect America Act spying authorizations to expire. That's interesting, given that Obama voted AGAINST those authorizations in the first place.

Hume's Ghost said...


Hume's Ghost said...

Majority polled opposes telecom immunity.

Hume's Ghost said...

Voters oppose warrantless surveillance

Hume's Ghost said...

And this action makes Obama more likely to lose the votes of conservatives like this.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have agreed that a person can make a case against Obama if one can show that a coalition of the 'best 51%' would have voted against this legislation.

Again, the objective is not to show that a coalition of the best 51% would have opposed certain provisions of the legislation, but that a coalition of the best 51% would have opposed voting for the legislation.

We have to keep in mind how political advertising works. The relevant question is: "Is there a way to give a no vote on this bill a spin that will turn 51% of the population against the person who cast the vote?"

If the answer is "yes", then it is politically unwise to cast a no vote.

In fact, this is how a politician has to measure every law. Not in terms of whether the law is a good idea, but in terms of, "What type of spin can my opponent give to my vote?"

The Republicans would have certainly used a 'no' vote to run a campaign that says, "Obama will not keep you safe from terrorists."

Now, conduct a poll. What percentage of the population will vote for a person who coddles terrorists?

You and I both know that this claim of coddling terrorists is false. But will the coalition of the Best 51% know this? Where we are talking about a coalition of the best 51%, we only need to have 2% persuaded by such a campaign, and a victory turns into a defeat.

These are political realities that it would not be wise to ignore.

Having said this, I am not saying that no argument can be made against Obama's vote. I am not defending his decision. I am pointing out some flaws in a commen set of arguments against his position. This does not imply that good arguments cannot be found.

Note: Obama's stated reasons for voting for the FISA Amendment have been posted on his

Hume's Ghost said...

Oh, I realized the argument you were making, and agree with it. This is such an issue that I feel so strongly about, though, that I wanted to go ahead and argue in the comments that the case against Obama can and should be made in this instance.

You are 100% correct that a No vote would mean Republicans would say Obama is weak on terror. Yet a Yes vote does not mean Republicans are not going to say Obama is weak on terror. Indeed, they and their surrogates in the media are already saying that we'll lose an American city if Obama becomes president.

That is irrespective of any given Democrats policies ... it is simply an axiomatic belief for movement conservatives that Democrats are weak on national defense.

And when Democrats fail to challenge Republicans on these issues, when they fail to develop a counter-narrative based in truth and reality, they cede the framing of the issue to Republicans and allow them to shape public pereption of what constitutes being "strong" on national defense.

In other words, this sort of behavior helps to create the conditions that allow Republican attacks of being "weak" on terror to work in the first place (Drew Westen wrote about this process of ceding the neural networks at book length in The Political Brain.)

I heard last night that one of Obama's advisers is Tom Daschle. Dashle was one of the leaders of the Dems 2002 decision to vote for an AUMF before the election in order to avoid being called weak on terror. Daschle lost his seat.

Obama's says that this is a good compromise because of the exclusivity clause in the bill. That's like having one steal 100 dollars, write new legislation saying that crime is granted immunity and that "stealing" now means stealing over 100000 dollars and then saying its a good compromise because it establishes that stealing is against the law.

The Inspector General bit of oversight still places the power of review of the program within the Executive. This administration has demonstrated how easily that power can be abused.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

It is nice to be hearing from you again.

Let me start with this comment of yours.

And when Democrats fail to challenge Republicans on these issues . . .

Well, there is a distinction between what 'Democrats' should do and what 'Obama' should do. I am comfortable with strategies where 'democrats' do one thing and 'Obama' does something else. What Obama should do is get elected - in this case.

More importantly, there is a difference between what 'Democrats' should do and what we should do.

As I have argued, it is up to us to raise a stink about this law. We should not be pushing this responsibility onto others, we should be taking the responsibility ourselves. We should be working to make it easy for a politician of either party to come out in defense of privacy, and politically costly for them not to.

We have more freedom than Obama does in these types of cases, because we have nothing to lose. (Well, in a sense.) Obama's job is to win the election, and that puts constraints on what he can say and do that you and I do not have, giving us freedom to say and do things that would cost Obama the election if he agrees with us.

Daschle lost his seat in the Senate. However, it is still an open question whether he would not have lost it if he had voted against AUMF - or if he would have lost it by a wider margin.

As I said, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its opinion that 'under God' is unconstitutional, Obama will (and must) say some stupid things to condemn the Court - or lose the election. I will condemn the stupid things that he will say. I will probably write several posts on how they make no sense. But I still understand why he has to say them - and I would not have him not say them.

I will, instead, condemn those who most responsible for creating a situation in which people have to say stupid things to get elected.