Friday, April 27, 2012

Weighing the qualifications of Edwards vs Rubio (VP candidates past and future)

Responding to a Political Arena question earlier this week on whether or not John Edwards should go to prison, I wrote
I don’t want to see him go to prison (and there are apparently some significant questions about the legal consequences of the prosecution) but I have always disliked John Edwards.

I did not have a problem with Edwards’ policy positions - I may have disagreed but could respect them. He was talking about the growing inequality in the United States over a decade ago (before it was cool.) Many very smart friends of mine (and substantial numbers of voters) were quite taken with him. I was not.

While Edwards is obviously a man of considerable talent, his experience relative to the attention he received was very thin. Barely into his single term as a Senator he became a vice presidential prospect. With only a single undistinguished term in the Senate he became a presidential contender.

Pundits who pilloried Dan Quayle, swooned for Edwards. But Quayle was a capable and respected Senator. Sure, Quayle could be inarticulate, but remember Edwards' own deer in headlights moment debating Cheney in 2004? A thinly experienced Democrat is characterized as fresh and new, while a thinly experienced Republican is lampooned as dumb. Granted sometimes these conditions are true - but the instinctive bias bugs me - and Edwards exemplified it.

Edwards (who I sincerely hope finds peace and contentment) turns out to have not been presidential timber at all, and we should be thankful that he has left the national scene. But we should consider carefully, how this bantamweight got as far as he did.
Now, it appears that Sen. Marco Rubio is auditioning for the role. I've taken on this question before and found Rubio wanting. So, I don't think I am a hypocrite on the question of qualifications. However, Rubio has been a professional politician much longer then Edwards. He served in Florida's legislature for the better part of a decade (including two years as Speaker of Florida's house.) This is not insubstantial. At the core of being a politician is winning elections. Rubio has won many - Edwards won exactly one (same with Romney - by the way.) True, most of his at-bats have been in the minors - but he's still had a fair number of trips to the plate. He is not quite the inexperienced, loose cannon like Sarah Palin, and those comparisons seem unfair. Nonetheless, Romney needs serious Washington experience (despite his oft-stated preference for executive experience), and Rubio only has two years in town.

So I feel my conscience clean of hypocrisy - but - I NEVER liked Edwards. He rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. I gave my rationale - which I believe is legitimate. But I cannot explain my gut reaction except that gut reactions to candidates are important in shaping electoral outcomes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's Santorum Gonna Do?

Watching Santorum on Piers Morgan reminds me I've been wondering about Santorum's prospects for 2016 (or 2020). He seems an unlikely VP choice, since he can't guarantee PA and polarized lots of voters that Romney needs to charm. But, as I discussed, when Politico's Arena asked Rick Santorum: What Went Wrong the Republican party has a long history of choosing the next person in line.

My full answer is posted here:
Did anything really go wrong for Santorum? The Republican party has a strong tradition of nominating "the next person in line." Romney was runner-up to McCain in 2008 and will win the nomination in 2012.

McCain was runner-up to Bush in 2000 and was nominated in 2008. In 1988 Dole was the runner-up to Bush and was nominated in 1996. Bush of course had been the runner-up to Reagan in 1980 - who in turn had been the runner-up to Ford in 1976. Also, Romney did everything by the book, leaving the race in 2008 in time to show he was serious, but not so long that he seemed to hurt the party. Since then he has assembled a formidable team and raised enormous amounts of money. His approach to the nomination has been methodical and systematic.

Santorum's campaign was not always a model of order and Santorum himself had plenty of gaffes. But, considering the organizational barriers against Santorum, he probably did about as well as could be expected.

The intriguing question is this: if Romney loses, is Santorum now next in line for 2016?
On TV right now, Santorum is making all the right noises: "I will support the nominee, we need to defeat Obama blah, blah...

But somehow, Santorum does not seem to be plausible as the next guy in line. Is there a threshold to reach that point that somehow Santorum didn't cross? This could be a fine political science paper - for someone else.

Finally, is there a picture of Piers Morgan in the dictionary under unctuous?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

HBO's Veep is Completely Inaccurate

As an expert on the vice presidency I feel obligated to present my thoughts on the new HBO series Veep which premieres tomorrow night. Quite frankly, the show is profoundly inaccurate and misleading.

As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I have not seen it yet – although I am thinking of breaking down and subscribing to HBO just so I can watch it (also, I really love the star – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I am a Seinfeld dork of the first order). And anyway, for a pundit offering an opinion without the slightest familiarity with the subject is not a problem.

By all accounts, the show is about a neurotic vice president who constantly gaffes, desperately seeks power and attention, and is utterly peripheral to the president. Fair enough (and I don’t doubt the show is a terrific character study and entertainment), but not realistic (at least not since Mondale.)

When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, he asked Mondale what he would need to be an effective partner in governance. Mondale gave a list, including complete access to White House meetings and paper trail, regular private meetings with the President, and an office in the White House. Carter gave him all of these things. Vice Presidents since have also possessed these perquisites. They are not mandated, a President certainly can take them away. – but doing so would effectively make the President look kind of stupid. After all, in picking the VP the President effectively says that they would vote for this person to be President. To then never talk to the VP, keep them out of the White House etc. would raise questions about the initial decision. In short, it would be political prudent to keep the VP close and at least keep the appearance of their engagement rather then exiling them. Further, Presidents have actually chosen their running mates fairly well. From Mondale on the VPs have been individuals of substantial capability and distinction (three Senators, and two former cabinet officers.) I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but while Quayle is generally regarded as the weakest of the batch he was not that bad. He performed poorly on TV, but he had been in the Senate for 8 years, winning a tough race to get the seat, and was well regarded by other Senators. Also, he was not a close advisor to Bush but he was not frozen out of the process. He kept all of Mondale’s perks.

The image of the inconsequential bumbling VP, limited to ceremonial tasks, ignored by all harks back to Throttlebottom. Interestingly, on the show’s mock VP website it says that Vice President Selina Meyer had been the Senator from Maryland (sidenote that Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ Elaine character was also from Maryland). In fact the only Maryland VP was Spiro Agnew who was very much the VP in that mold (Nixon despised him but found, found him politically useful, and had staffers sit on top of him to keep him in bounds.) But since then, VPs have been solid pros that have worked hard to serve their Presidents and generally done so successfully. It is tough to believe that an experienced Senator would prove so inept on the national stage (also, VPs have a sizable staff which should be capable of managing things pretty well.)

Palin Exception But what if we had had a VP Palin, who became a real problem for the President? In a sense that is what the show is about?

Again, I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but Palin was in over her head and based on her relationship with the McCain campaign she would have become a political problem for the administration. At the same time, in fairness, she had undeniable talent. She had real achievements as governor of Alaska and even get elected to the position isn’t exactly chopped liver (what have you been elected to lately?)

But kicking her out of the West Wing and formally boxing her out of policy would have led to some nasty leaks and exacted a high political cost. McCain would have had to be creative figuring ways to muzzle her without it coming out in public – too much. But I think that would have been a much darker show the HBO’s creation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission Case Study & Retrospective

My case study on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (here are the slides for a quick overview) has finally been published in full by the Project for National Security Reform. It is in the second volume of PNSR case studies, which contains a number of other interesting case studies besides mine on topics as various as Eisenhower era policy-making in the Middle East, managing the Asian financial crisis, and the failed attempt to assassinate Ayatollah Fadlallah. In particular, I recommend Chapter 9 on U.S. Interagency Efforts to Combat International Terrorism through Foreign Capacity Building Program by my old CTBlog colleague Michael Kraft and Celina Realuyo. Capacity building is very expensive, hard to do, and takes a long time – but when it works it really does leave a nation with stronger institutions that will serve it will in areas far beyond counter-terror. Regardless, the price is right, this 1000+ volume can be downloaded for free.

Lessons Learned in Retrospect I’ve learned a few things since I wrote on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. Not more details about how policies were made and implemented, but bigger picture issues.

Humility in Evaluating Decision-makers First and foremost I went into this project prepared to excoriate Gore and Clinton for blowing it with Russia. If only they had adequately championed economic and political freedom we could have seen a Russia transformed. Having researched the issue, I know see that they played the hand that they were dealt about as well as could have been expected. There were many policies that had to be balanced and they made tough calls in balancing them. For example, the administration as unwilling to take Russia to the mat over its dealings with Iran because for all of his flaws Yeltsin really was seen as a least bad option and there were a number of other security issues on which Russia was cooperative.

This understanding has informed my research since and is shaping my attitude towards studying policy-making. Leaders usually have pretty good reasons for what they have done and are constrained by circumstances external and prior to their own efforts. In my research I am agnostic about the policy itself, and instead am focused on how it came to be.

The American Transformation Chimera My initial criticism was off base. The idea of transforming Russia into a free market liberal ally was in fact the very ambition of Clinton and Gore. Clinton called Russia the “California of international politics.” There is something very American about this ambition – the following administration took a stab at it (at much greater expense) in Iraq. My favorite novelist Robertson Davies has observed that the United States is the most extraverted power in the world and (while he grants it has many virtues) suffers from the extraverted desire to re-shape the world to its liking. In short, culture matters. The Russia transformation experiment was far, far cheaper then the Iraq endeavor but in retrospect it looked awfully unlikely to succeed.

Unfortunately (as an extraverted American maybe) I cannot quite give up the transformation ideal. Re-shaping the world in the American image is not appropriate. But simply ignoring truly vicious regimes such as that of Iraq or what has prevailed in Russia for most of the 20th century does not seem moral. Davies is a Canadian (he argues that Canada and Russia are two terribly introverted powers), but the truth is that for all of Canada’s complaints about US influence – in fact the United States has not significantly sought to re-shape Canada.

Let’s step back – I am arguing IR with a dead Canadian novelist, that’s a bit ridiculous except that I love his writing so much. The point here is that wholesale re-shaping other nations either with a scalpel (as in Russia in the 1990s) or with a hammer (as in Iraq in the past decade) does not appear to be possible.

But there is an objective measure of good governance that needs to be observed. Unfortunately, finding ways to move nations (like my current obsession – Pakistan) along those lines remains a tremendous challenge. More modest and subtle tools are needed.

Financial Angles Finally, when I wrote this case study I was essentially ignorant of international economics. I have since taken a class on the topic so my ignorance has only been ameliorated by the distinct knowledge of just how ignorant I am (the first step to wisdom?) But the physics of money mattered a great deal to Russia in the 1990s (actually it matters a lot all the time) and shaped the other issues.

As I wrote, many Russians saw the United States allied with corrupt oligarchs as part of a plan to keep Russia weak and impoverished. Some of this reflects on the paranoid mindset of many Russians. American observers viewed it as another deal with the devil to buy short-term stability. BUT – while there certainly was corruption in Russia in the 1990s – there was also a tough economic reality. Russia did not have a functional banking system, so anyone who had access to assets with any value had every incentive to get their money out of Russia. This was not good for the ruble. Unfortunately, it may have been pretty good for the US economy. Russia’s economy dollarizing kept demand for the dollar high and as a consequence, US interest rates could remain low. At the same time, Russia’s economic free-fall kept their energy demands low so that there was more to export on the international market – cheap energy prices are great for the US economy. I truly doubt that Clinton, Gore et al had a devious plan here (and the US economy probably would have prospered in the 1990s regardless because of many other factors). But for a weak paranoid Russia, one can see how this interpretation took hold.

Again, no conspiracy is suspected, but it is possible Gore did not play a consistently helpful role on economic policy. In 1993 Gore criticized the economic reforms for hurting the Russian people. This was echoed a few days later by the State Department’s Russia point-person Strobe Talbot who said the Russians needed “less shock and more therapy…” Treasury felt undermined by this comment. Of course, in fairness, Russia banking sector might have been beyond reform. But this incident may have effectively placed political concerns above economic ones on Russia policy.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Counter-Intuitive Questions about Lone Wolf Terror

Lone Wolf terrorists have been dominating the news in recent weeks. There was of course the tragedy in Toulouse, France. But the massacre of Afghan civilians by a US soldier also seems to fit the profile. All of the information is not in about this incident, but simply chalking it up to PTSD seems inappropriate. There are thousands of US soldiers who have suffered from PTSD (not to mention a huge percentage of the population of Afghanistan.)

The obvious responses to these incidents will be to heighten various security measures and try to further identify key indicators for individuals who are going to turn to violence. This is all well and good and of course should be done. But there are limits to how effective this approach will be. The number of people with some of the characteristics that seem to indicate this kind of action (whether it be young Muslims with some connection to Islamist radicals or US service people under stress) is quite simply enormous. Monitoring them systematically is not realistic, will require vast and intrusive security forces, and open societies do not provide grounds for locking people up before they have committed a crime.

But I am curious about the potential efficacy of taking the opposite approach and asking, Why aren’t there more lone wolf attacks?

It is of course easy enough to make a list of all the attacks and argue that there have in fact been a great many. But consider, the United States suffers over 15000 homicides per year. Even a much less homicide prone nation like France has about a 1000 homicides per year. Thus except for the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik, lone wolves have been little more then a statistical blip.

Yet, these kinds of action are all too easy to carry out. Certainly in the US access to firearms is not a substantial barrier (and not that much more of a barrier in Europe to one dedicated to their cause.) There is no shortage of propaganda calling for lone wolf terrorism (either from al-Qaeda or from homegrown radicals such as the message propagated in the Turner Diaries.) Terrorism experts have been loudly exclaiming this new wave of terror and it can certainly be a cost-effective way to gain attention and spread terror.

But the numbers are relatively small (obviously that is no consolation to the families of the victims.) But the danger of over-reaction is also real (it is argued that one of the real goals of terrorism is to set a society against itself by initiating an over-reaction.) An over-reaction could alienate minorities and drain resources from other problems as well as erode freedoms.

Similarly, considering the length service and the stresses faced by US servicemen, it seems astounding how few atrocities by US servicepeople have occurred. There have been some. There have also been many, many cases were US servicemen made poor decisions, or had inadequate information. But these were tragic accidents in which, given perfect information the servicemen would have almost certainly acted differently. War is full of these horrible accidents, but they are not a brutal crime the way the massacre in Afghanistan was (although again, this is little comfort to the families of the victims.)

Again, I return to the point that, considering the ease of these kinds of incidents why haven’t we seen a lot more of them? What are the barriers to long wolf attacks? What are we doing right? Answering those questions may unearth some useful policy options.