Thursday, August 30, 2012

Politics I: It's no fun anymore

Last night Paul Ryan gave his big speech.  As a politics geek and expert on the vice presidency, I really should be writing about this, but I’m just not that interested.  It isn’t because of the famous alienation afflicting the American voter.  I’m not alienated.

Decades ago, in college, a good friend of mine said he quit being a film major because if he kept studying it, he would never be able to enjoy a movie again.  Now, as a student of public policy (an evil step-brother to political science) I feel the same way about politics.  I understand.  Actually studying politics, knowing the dynamics of how decisions are made and the limitations under which politicians operate creates enormous sympathy for the people who actually enter the arena.

It also takes the fun out of politics.

When I mentioned this to my friend, he scoffed, “You are such a dork for even thinking politics could be fun.”

The fun of politics is in the tribalism.  People like to sit with friends of similar opinions and party and share how clever and virtuous they are and how foolish and despicable the other guys are.  That is what the pundits mean by “red meat.”  I get that and have even indulged in it back in the day.  I am reminded of it at family gatherings on a regular basis as I calmly try to explain basic conservative principles to my typical liberal Jewish (redundant?) clan.  On the other hand, when confronted with diehard Republicans, I often find myself articulating the logic of the Democratic parties position (even if I disagree with it.)

The problem is that due to my training (and probably my inclination) I see the different sides of the issue and see the complex dynamics underpinning them.

What’s more, study after study shows that political judgments are made on a pretty thin basis of personal narratives and models of the world that are incredibly flawed.  One can decry this general ignorance, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  Individual inputs into policy-making are so tiny that the investment of really understanding the complexities of an issue rarely pays off – so instead we aggregate general preferences and let politicians turn them into policy.  (More on the virtues of that in another post.)

Most political rhetoric is ridiculous and primarily intended as shorthand that re-states some basic policy preferences in order to remind votes.  That’s fine, so far as it goes, and there are interesting aspects to it.  But from my perspective the rhetoric is just a ship sailing some very deep waters.

Watching the boat sail and its crew try to catch winds and ride currents is fun for a while - but no more, I am interested in what's under the surface.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Strategic Implications of Skinny-Dipping

Politico broke the urgent foreign policy story that: 
The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff — and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
Naturally the Arena asked about the political implications of these shenanigans.  Most pundits (including my Arena colleagues) wrote the incident off as pretty insignificant.  This just shows the vast ignorance of Israeli politics that prevails among the chattering classes.  In fact, an incident like this could have enormous implications and even shatter the American-Israeli security relationship.

In an effort to shed light, not heat, I replied:
The behavior of the American congressional delegation is simply reprehensible.

In defiance of the instructions of an entire nation of Jewish mothers, they went swimming less then 20 minutes after eating. They could have DIED - and they weren't wearing clean underwear (or underwear at all!) so people might have thought they came from a bad family. Thank goodness the FBI is investigating.

This has serious political implications for Israeli-American relations. The public may think the Mossad or IDF are powerful, but by far the dominant constituency is Israel are Jewish mothers. Annoy them and American visitors may never be allowed into the living room to sit on the good sofa again!

Ironically, this may help the Republican Right. Many Americans find the Republican Right a bunch of stuck-up holier-then thou types. But if this were the case they would have been walking across the Sea of the Galilee, not skinny-dipping. Plus then they could have maybe brought their own wine to dinner.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Should Hillary Replace Joe?

There are other things to write about in the world, but when the Politico Arena asks about the vice president, I must answer the call (and enjoy the 10 days every four years that anyone actually cares about the vice president). The other day, in the wake of Biden's obnoxious comments, the Arena question of the day was about Hillary replacing Biden. A fun rumor, but it is not going to happen.

I wrote:
First, replacing the vice president is almost always a bad play.

The last president to pull it off and win re-election was FDR. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Senior (or at least some of their advisors) all toyed with doing it, but there were constituencies in the party that rallied behind the VP. The one president to actually remove his vice president and replace him in the past half-century was Gerald Ford. Replacing Rockefeller with Sen. Dole (who came off badly in the debates with Walter Mondale) probably wasn't what defeated the ticket but it certainly didn't help.

On the off-chance this could be engineered, Hillary would not be a good replacement. This is not due to any fault of her own. She has proven savvy and capable as secretary of state and her experience as an active first lady legitimately gives her insight into the unique pressure cooker that is the White House. However, she brings her husband and he is problematic baggage. Again, this is not through any fault of his own, but rather because ex-presidents need to be kept a healthy distance from the Oval Office. Bush Senior was rarely around when his son was president and Reagan stayed away from Bush Senior. These were sound precedents and should continue.

A few additional notes. First back in the nineties I was a bit of a Clinton-hater, I have come to respect the virtues (irony alert) of the Clinton Administration.  But I still think ex-Presidents need to stay off the main-stage.  That being said, nothing prepares one for the Presidency like serious time in the White House.

Biden's comments were pretty bad, and if it were a Republican probably would have far more blowback.  One of the difficult things about politics is how policy preferences and values began confused in the public debate.  Opposition to a specific policy intended to help a community or population does not mean those opposed hate that population.  It means they have legitimate questions about the efficacy of that policy or the whether that policy should be prioritized.  That is not to say that this opposition is not at times a cover for unacceptable views but one should not leap to that conclusion.  Being a Republican does not mean I don't care about the (fill in the blank here - poor, women, African-Americans.)  It means I have questions as to whether the policies Democrats prefer will help that population or whether the other costs of that policy will outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ryan as Governing Partner

So we have a VP candidate and the media have something to talk about.  The term game-changer will be used as punctuation in every comment about it.

VeepCritique will not be left out, however the focus here is on the vice president as governing partner.  So let’s dispense quickly with the politics of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan and rush to how a Romney-Ryan team might work together.

The Politics of Picking Ryan
The impact of the vice presidential candidate is nearly always over-estimated (historic analysis is pretty consistent on this) and usually involves trade-offs.  The candidate that appeals to the unaffiliated voter will perturb the base and vice-versa.  There is no magic bullet in VP selection, the key is to do no harm and maybe get a bit of help.

This choice was over-shadowed by McCain’s unfortunate selection of Sarah Palin.  Romney wanted to avoid this at all costs and he did.  Ryan is young and telegenic (and really does look like he could be another member of the Romney brood.)  But he is not an amateur; Ryan has been in the House of Representatives for seven terms and has become the party’s leading spokesman on the budget.  One does not get that far in life merely by being cute.

Whether or not Ryan’s views will hurt or help Romney’s candidacy is tough to say.  His budget plan gives plenty of fodder for the Democrats to rally their base – just as it gives the Republicans plenty of fodder to rally theirs.  How it will impact the undecided voters is tough to say (presumably the ultra-analytical Romney team has done some pretty serious study of this question.)  But most voters don’t do in-depth studies of complex issues, they make their decisions based on general impressions.  Republicans mean less government and taxes – Democrats mean more government and taxes.  The rest is commentary.

Finally, over the next decade the budget will be THE ISSUE.  The United States is facing some pretty serious fiscal challenges – we can address them (we are the wealthiest society in history) but the sooner we do so the less difficult the adjustment.  Ideally we would have taken this stuff on in the 1990s.  One may not agree with Ryan’s plan – but at least he is in the game in a serious way.

Ryan as Governing Partner
The top determinant for the vice president’s role in an administration is whether or not the president is inclined to turn to his vice president for advice on critical decisions.  It is unknown if Ryan and Romney have this kind of relationship.  Often this friendship is forged in the heat of the campaign as the individuals and their staffs learn to work together.

One past indicator is that older Presidents do not tend to take advice from younger vice presidents.  The most influential vice presidents in recent years have been Mondale (four years younger then the President), Gore (two years younger then the President), Cheney (Cheney five years older then the President), and Biden (19 years older then the President.)  Quayle, by contrast, was 23 years younger then President Bush Sr. Another example is Eisenhower who was 23 years older then Nixon.  This is the age difference between Ryan and Romney – it is not destiny, the sample of President-Vice President relationships is extremely small.  But it could be a factor.

That being said, Ryan would almost certainly have a role in a Romney White House.  It is extremely difficult to block the vice president out of the policy process.  The West Wing office along with access to White House meetings and the President have become traditional perquisites of the vice president.  They are not enshrined in law, but it would be embarrassing to remove them.  It would be a public admission that the President did not have confidence in the Vice President.

Vice presidents strongly associated with a wing of their party are often expected to be their advocate within the White House.  They are usually disappointed.  The vice president can make the case, but ultimately the president decides and the vice president must publicly support the decision or risk alienating the commander-in-chief.  Most vice presidents have advocated forcefully for positions that were not in line with their previous political views (and which they may have privately opposed).

Vice presidents are probably at their most influential as a high-level sounding board that can compensate for a President’s analytical weaknesses.  President Carter, an engineer by training, labored over details in an effort to find perfect technical solutions.  Mondale sought to remind him of the political realities that had to be taken into consideration.  In contrast, Clinton had a fine-tuned political antenna and maneuvered according. Gore would counsel him to take stands on principle.

Whether Romney is open to having Ryan play this role is an open question.  Ryan will almost certainly play an active role as advisor, administration spokesperson, and point of contact with Congress.  Whether or not he will also be a source of influence in the administration is difficult to know, not only for outside observers, but probably for the candidates themselves.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Romney's VP Options: A Resume-based Analysis

So this morning Politico's Arena asked if Chris Christie could be Romney's VP and who should be the VP.  Here is my answer:
In choosing a running mate the candidate should focus on who will be a good governing partner. There are two aspects to this question, personality (do the two people get along) and experience (does the running mate have areas of knowledge the candidate lacks). The political impact of the vice presidential selection is vastly over-rated.

Quayle is maligned (unfairly) as the classic lightweight VP, but in 1988 Bush Senior won the election with Quayle on the ticket. They lost in 1992, but that was primarily because the economy was weak and Republicans had held the White House for three terms, not because of Quayle’s presence on the ticket. McCain’s choice of Palin has been justly criticized, but the reality is that the economy collapsed in the middle of the campaign – it is difficult to see how McCain, associated as he was with the incumbent party, could possibly have won.

Politically, the key rule in running mate selection has always been, “First do no harm.” Critical is choosing someone who is realistically presidential in his or her own right. All of the top choices on Romney’s list are experienced capable politicians. The question of personal chemistry is unknown to outsiders. There are rumors that Romney and Pawlenty have a warm friendship, but these are rumors. All of the top choices are experienced politicians who have probably had to learn to get along with their colleagues. 
That leaves the issue of experience. The Presidency is a job like no other. Romney is a capable individual with a variety of experience, but there is little doubt that he will find very steep learning curves with many aspects of the Presidency. At a recent forum at the Brookings Institute, Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, who was an assistant to Vice President Bush and then head of Presidential Personnel in the George H. W. Bush White House, observed that Capitol Hill experience should be a pre-requisite for the vice presidency. The last two vice presidents who came from governorships to the vice presidency were Agnew and Rockefeller – both had difficult experiences in their new role. Congress is a unique institution and a new president who does not know it well himself will need counsel and will probably benefit from his VP’s personal contacts. 
In terms of Hill experience the leaders, by far, are Rep. Ryan and Sen. Portman. Both were elected to the House of Representatives seven times. But Portman was also elected to the Senate and has the additional virtues of substantial executive experience close to the White House as a staffer, OMB chief, and US Trade Representative. All of these positions are in areas where Romney may find that he needs an experienced hand to offer assistance and advice. 
On the one aspect of the VP selection process that is clear to outsiders (resume) Portman has a strong lead. But there are many other factors – including the all-important issue of personal chemistry.
It occurs to me, I did not address the question of Chris Christie.  He is a talented politician and interesting character.  But he has been governor of New Jersey for less then 3 years.  Prior to that he was US attorney for New Jersey for six years.  This is important experience, but not electoral experience.  Most importantly, Christie's background suggests little that substantially augments areas where Romney is weak - experience with Washington and international affairs.

Another candidate worth a bit more examination is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  He has a bit of Washington experience - 3 years in the House and 2 years as Asst. Secretary at HHS.  He is an extraordinarily capable politician and young enough to have multiple shots at the presidency himself.  But his Washington experience is slender and offers Romney little complementary experience.

Finally Rubio also has only two years of Washington experience, thus not bringing the right skill set to the table.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Virtues of Alawistan?

It is not clear how events in Syria will play out.  One item that keeps coming up is the possibility that Bashar and Co. will retreat to the hills and establish an Alawistan.  There are many arguments for and against this happening.  Long-timeSyria watcher Josh Landis says that none of the political or physical infrastructure is in place.  Another analyst points out that an Alawi state would quickly become a rogue state andwould inspire other separatist movements in the region – of which there are a great many.

But maybe an Alawistan has something to recommend it.  The critiques are mostly about a state, and on that basis yes, it is a problematic idea.  But what are the prospects for a less formally designated Alawistan?  Beyond preventing a massacre of the Alawites, it could be the spearhead of a profound change in the region.

The always-insightful Martin Kramer, in a lecture entitled When Minorities Rule explains that majority rule is a Western idea.  Minority rule is SOP in the Middle East and can often be more benign then majority rule.  It is difficult to see the Alawi regime of Syria as benign of course, although it has been forced to build coalitions with other minority groups to rule.  But let’s toss out the idea of an a formal Alawi state and note Kramer’s insightful observation here:
The problem in the Arab world is not a lack of democracy. It is a lack of self-determination. Here I do not mean national self-determination; I mean latitude for ethnic, religious, and kinship groups to exercise the maximum autonomous control over their collective lives. This is what has been eroded by the cancerous growth of the state over the past fifty years, exemplified by Iraq. The problem is the overbearing state, which has achieved efficiency in one thing only: depriving the Middle Easterner of the freedom he most cherishes, which is to be left alone to practice his faith, speak his language, and enjoy the traditions of his sub-national community.
What if Alawistan exists as a semi-autonomous region within Syria, similar to the status of the Kurds in Iraq?  As Kramer notes, the coercive power of the modern nation-state, combined with technology and bureaucracy has brought tremendous misery to the region.  Could weaker states be an answer?  An Alawistan would probably give rise to a Druzistan, maybe a Syrian Kurdistan, and create a precedent for some diversity among Syria’s Sunni majority.  It is unlikely al-Qaeda will take over Syria – but it would not be sensible to bet against the Muslim Brotherhood doing so.  They are organized and in life, success goes to the organized.  It would be nice if the international community could derive a formula that would endow Syria with a democratic government, tolerant of human rights, and ready to reform.

But if that can’t be achieved in neighboring Iraq with 200,000 troops on the ground doing it in Syria with far less resources is unlikely.  But if the Alawis can pull back into their mountains with enough of the army to protect themselves could a scenario for a weaker, but far less bloody, repressive, and meddlesome Syria be possible?

These notes do not give details on the exact mechanics of how this would happen – although hopefully the loathsome Assad family would not be part of the equation - but if the idea has merit, the means to make it come about should be explored.

Is is good for the Jews?
This blogger is an unabashed supporter of Israel and how events affect the strategic interests of Israel and the United States is always a central consideration.  Syria is the last bastion of pan-Arabism (outside of university faculties of course) and a weak Syria of semi-autonomous regions would probably not be as capable of confronting Israel.  Further, Syria’s Druse might find acting as go-betweens with their Israeli brethren (who are well integrated into Israel’s society) to be extremely profitable.  They might continue to mouth anti-Israel rhetoric but their priorities would be elsewhere.

One of the reasons the Assads strongly embraced the Baathist ideology was to legitimate their minority rule.  With the need for that justification removed, and a more fractious state wrestling with internal problems, the conflict with Israel can go on the backburner.

This scenario is not a yellow-brick road to peace and prosperity.  There will be a lot more moving parts in the Levant and thus more opportunities to spark conflict.  But hopefully the most vicious oppression can be mitigated and Kramer’s modest sub-national self-determination can become the modus vivendi.

Is it good for the Arabs?
Naturally analysts of the pan-Arab bent will view this as a cunning conspiracy to weaken the Arabs so that they can’t confront Israel.  Well, sure.

But the present system has been awful for the Arabs.

The Middle East is dominated by repressive regime after repressive regime.  The post-World War II era has been a disaster in terms of freedom, human development, and economic prosperity for most of the Arab world.  The modern nation-state system has not served the Arabs well at all.

As for confronting Israel, here again, where are the successes that justify a system that has failed in every other regard?

Weak states, with sub-national groups with substantial autonomy may be a system that allows the Arab world to break out of the development cul-de-sac that has plagued it for the past century.

For the past forty years the Alawites have been a central player in preserving the old Middle East.  One outcome of the rebellion against them is that they could play a central role in shaping a new, more prosperous and free Middle East.