Scandal-free

I suspect, hope, would like to believe, that just about every last man/woman/child admires President Obama as a man/husband/father.  (Unlikely to the be case with the next guy… )   His only vice seems to be sneaking a smoke every now and then in defiance of the trouble&strife.

That’s not to be confused with being a “scandal-free” administration, as is being suggested in many quarters here in the final days.  As two different pieces today argue, there may not be “a stained blue dress” and we should be glad when any president “lives up to the standards of Gerald rip-van-mediaFord,” but the Obama administration had plenty of scandals that were quietly dropped by a press corp who now seem to be in the process of rediscovering their fastball.  (Just as SNL seems to be doing.  Funny, that.)

Here’s Kevin D.Williamson at NRO, and a similar list can be found in today’s WSJ.

Not only was the Obama administration marked by scandal of the most serious sort — perverting the machinery of the state for political ends — it was on that front, which is the most important one, the most scandal-scarred administration in modern presidential history.

For your consideration:

Under the Obama administration’s watch, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies from the BATF to the NLRB were illegally used to target and harass the president’s political enemies. The IRS targeting scandal was the most high-profile of these, but others are just as worrisome. Federal investigations and congressional oversight were obstructed, and investigators were lied to outright — a serious crime. The administration protected the wrongdoers and saw to it that they retired with generous federal pensions rather than serving federal sentences for their crimes.

The Obama administration oversaw the illegal sale of arms to Mexican traffickers for purposes that to this date have not been adequately explained, and those guns have been used to murder American law-enforcement officers.

President Obama’s secretary of state was involved in a high-profile case in which she improperly set up a private e-mail system to evade ordinary governmental oversight; she and her associates routinely misled investigators, obstructed investigations, and hid or destroyed evidence. These are all serious crimes.

The Obama administration made ransom payments to the Iranian government and lied about having done so.

Under the Obama administration, the Secret Service has been a one-agency scandal factory, from drunk agents driving their cars into White House barriers to getting mixed up with hookers in Cartagena.

Under the guise of developing “green” energy projects, the Obama administration shunted money to politically connected cronys at Solyndra and elsewhere.

Obama’s men at the Veterans Administration oversaw a system in which our servicemen lost their lives to bureaucratic incompetence and medical neglect, and then falsified records to cover it up.

Under the flimsiest of national-security pretexts, the Obama administration used the Department of Justice to spy on Fox News reporter James Rosen. It also spied on the Associated Press.

The Obama administration’s attorney general, Eric Holder, left office while being held in contempt of Congress for inhibiting the investigation of other Obama administration scandals.

 

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Which presidential elections really mattered?

John Steele Gordon has a very interesting piece in today’s WSJ, arguing that Trump May Herald a New Political Order.

For all their noise and news dominance, presidential elections typically don’t change the country all that much. That isn’t a bad thing but a sign of how strong American democracy is. It rarely veers far from the center, where successful policy usually lies. But on rare occasions, deep historical currents and extraordinary political talents produce an entirely new order. It happened in the presidential elections of 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932—and, quite probably, 2016.

Here are truncated versions of his arguments for why those years were transforming:

1828

“Jacksonian democracy” moved the locus of power sharply down the socioeconomic scale. Soon most states repealed property requirements for voting, a first step toward universal suffrage.

Jackson created the modern Democratic Party, and the intense opposition to his policies coalesced into the Whig Party, establishing the two-party norm that prevails to this day. No wonder the great 19th-century American historian George Bancroft considered Jackson the last of the Founding Fathers.

1860

The Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an expressly abolitionist party, grew rapidly as the Whigs collapsed. …It would take the greatest war in American history to reunite the country. By the time the Civil War was over, the nation had been transformed. The South, impoverished and politically crippled, would be effectively a Third World country inside a First World one for 100 years. The North, with its rapidly expanding industry and growing population, was politically dominant. More than half the antebellum presidents had been Southern. In the century after the war ended, only two Southerners were elected to the White House: Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native who made his career in New Jersey, and Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson.

Presidential elections in the decades after the Civil War tended to be close.

1896

William McKinley’s decisive victory in 1896 marked the dawn of an era of Republican dominance that lasted more than a generation. McKinley ran on a platform of “Sound Money, Protection, and Prosperity,” a doctrine that suited the interests of the nation’s fast-rising affluent classes. … Between 1896 to 1932, Republicans controlled the Senate for all but six years, and the House for all but 10. The GOP lost the White House only when Theodore Roosevelt split the party in 1912, giving Woodrow Wilson victory with only 41.8% of the popular vote.

1932

Democrats regained political dominance thanks to the Great Depression and the remarkable political talents of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1928 the Republican presidential nominee, Herbert Hoover, carried 40 of the 48 states and enjoyed large Republican congressional majorities. Four years later, Hoover lost 42 states to FDR. The Democrats also took large congressional majorities, which allowed them to greatly expand the reach and power of the federal government, increasing taxes sharply on the rich and running budget deficits to pay for popular new programs such as Social Security.

Over the next 48 years only two Republicans were able to capture the White House: Dwight Eisenhower, a national hero, and Richard Nixon, who won by a narrow margin after the Democrats had torn themselves apart over the Vietnam War. Between 1932 and 1980, the GOP controlled both houses of Congress for a total of only four years.

2016

(Excerpting his entire argument since it’s topical)

But by the 1970s the liberalism that had powered the New Deal and the Great Society had succumbed to one of the basic rules of political science: Movements tend to evolve toward the extreme. The struggle for civil rights had been decisively won in the 1960s, but liberals kept fighting that war, deepening racial divides with identity politics. Though union membership had been sliding for years, out-of-date laws kept labor politically powerful. The federal bureaucracy metastasized, as program after program was added with little overall planning. Many government offices, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, were captured by Democratic constituencies.

Liberal policies were increasingly tailored to the interests of a political elite, not the country as a whole. The people noticed. Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to capture the 1976 Democratic nomination, promising to clean up Washington. He failed, but Ronald Reagan, touting his own outside-the-Beltway bona fides, proved the most consequential president since FDR, both at home and abroad.

Because Reagan was always restrained by a solidly Democratic House, he was not as transformative a figure as Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley or FDR. But he did have a lasting effect. The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, ran as a centrist. When voters rejected his liberal policies in 1994 by electing the first Republican Congress in 40 years, he bent with the political winds. He declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.” He compromised with lawmakers to reform welfare and produce the first budget surpluses in nearly 30 years.

But it didn’t last. Congressional Republicans became more interested in their own re-election campaigns than in fiscal discipline. Liberal social-engineering housing policies produced a housing bubble and a banking crisis. Then came the presidential election of 2008, the only one in history held amid a financial panic. A Republican candidate perceived as unsteady lost to a young, charismatic Democrat.

Barack Obama took office with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. He pushed through a very liberal, and very unpopular, agenda. The Obama years have proved a disaster for Democrats. They lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, both tidal-wave elections. Republicans now control most governorships and state legislatures as well.

So does Donald Trump’s stunning election herald something permanent—a shift akin to those brought by Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley and FDR? That’s a fair bet, considering the GOP gains that preceded it. …

The Obama years showed liberalism to be exhausted, its ideas out of date and its advocates living in an imagined past. The Democratic Party has never been so weak, or so old. The top three Democrats in the House are all at least 76. The average age of their GOP counterparts is 49. The Republicans’ Senate majority allowed them to delay the appointment of a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, ensuring that the Supreme Court will not tip to a liberal majority. There are more than 100 vacancies on lower federal courts waiting to be filled.

Most important, no new president, at least since Jackson, has owed so little to the political establishment. Mr. Trump was elected explicitly to change the self-serving ways of Washington. That greatly increases his freedom of action. His cabinet picks signal profound change, the likelihood of lower taxes and a regulatory environment more friendly to business. Mr. Trump also has a gift for communicating directly with the people and cutting out the oblivious media, long a part of the problem.

To bring permanent change, Mr. Trump needs policies that succeed on the ground, not merely in theory. Faster growth and rising incomes are always rewarded at the ballot box. If the president-elect makes good on his economic promises, skeptical Republicans in places like Waukesha County may come home in 2020.

But continued outreach to minority communities is also crucial. Mr. Trump has promised to address the problems of inner cities, which he accuses the Democrats of ignoring for decades. And at one rally last fall, he was handed a rainbow flag, a symbol of gay rights. He smiled broadly and held it aloft as the audience cheered.

This is not your father’s Republican Party.

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Solidifying the imperial presidency is President Obama’s real legacy

h/t Veronique De Rugy

Gene Healy writes  writes over at Reason:

As Obama’s tenure comes to a close, it’s clear his has been a presidency of enormous consequence. But his most lasting legacy will be one few — perhaps least of all Obama himself — expected. He will leave to his successor a presidency even more powerful and dangerous than the one he inherited from Bush. The new powers he’s forged now pass on to celebrity billionaire Donald J. Trump, a man Obama considers “unfit to serve as president” — someone who can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account, let alone the nuclear launch codes. Perhaps only those incorrigible “cynics” Obama regularly chides from the bully pulpit could have predicted this would come to pass.

He has a long list of examples including these:

Throughout his second term, Obama increasingly governed by executive fiat. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he bragged, and he proceeded to use them to, among other things: pressure schools throughout the country to adopt national curriculum requirements Congress never authorized; promulgate new rules that nearly quadruple the number of workers eligible for overtime pay; force American power plants and, ultimately, electricity consumers to bear billions of dollars of costs in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that Congress has never voted to treat CO2 as a pollutant; issue regulatory “guidance” documents purporting to make the rules for nearly every school and workplace bathroom in the United States; and unilaterally amend the Affordable Care Act by ignoring clear statutory mandates and deadlines.

During his efforts to rewrite the Affordable Care Act on the fly, Obama even invented a presidential “power of the purse” and ordered the disbursement of billions of dollars in “cost-sharing” subsidies that Congress never appropriated. When IRS officials voiced doubt about the legality of those payments, they got the kind of strong-arm briefing David Addington, “Cheney’s Cheney,” specialized in during the Bush years. The dissenters were handed a secret memo rationalizing the move, told they “could not take notes or make copies,” and informed that the attorney general had declared the expenditures legal. Whatever the source of that authority might be, Obama officials couldn’t specifically identify it under questioning at a congressional hearing last July, though a top Treasury official volunteered: “If Congress doesn’t want the money appropriated, they could pass a law that specifically says don’t appropriate the money from that account.”

More than any recent president, Obama has embraced and, to some extent, legitimized the anti-constitutional theory that congressional inaction is a legitimate source of presidential power. It’s a theory future presidents will build upon. In the words of the University of North Carolina legal scholar William P. Marshall, “The genies of unilateral executive action are not easily returned to the bottle.”

As Healy’s piece shows, solidifying the imperial presidency is President Obama’s real legacy — contrary to what he sees his legacy to be. Democrats have only themselves to blame for all the powers President-elect Donald Trump will have when he is in office.

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Astronomy pictures of the fortnight, LXXII

This gallery contains 10 photos.

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The inner chimp is always there, and, sometimes, he wins.

Social conventions make a decent life possible.”  So writes Kevin D. Williamson:

About 97 percent of the human genome is identical to that of orangutans, which are solitary and pacifistic. But about 99 percent of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees — which are intensely social and fierce. The genetic difference between orangutan and chimpanzee is relatively small, and the genetic difference between chimpanzee and H. sap. is tiny indeed. (“My brother, Esau, is a hairy man.”) Every day presents a struggle between the better angels of our nature and the inner chimp.

The inner chimp is always there, and, sometimes, he wins.

The author recounts the recent story of the person who chased Ivanka Trump and her child on a flight to harass them, a person who was eventually escorted off the plane.

I suppose that by now regular readers of National Review will have figured out that my sympathy for the Trumps is . . . limited. My own view is that Donald and Ivanka and Uday and Qusay are genuinely bad human beings and that the American public has made a grave error in entrusting its highest office to this cast of American Psycho extras. That a major political party was captured by these cretins suggests that its members are not worthy of the blessings of this republic. But here we are.

I also believe that the Clinton family is more of a crime syndicate than an abortive political dynasty and that the Americans who support them are at best in need of some criticism and are in many cases genuinely bad citizens. That a major political party was captured by these cretins suggests that its members are not worthy of the blessings of this republic. But, again, here we are.

What should I do when I see a Subaru pulling into the Whole Foods parking lot with an “I’m With Her” bumper sticker? Should I lecture the driver? Scream at him? Yell at his kids? Kick in his headlights? Run down his address and send him a gift subscription to National Review?

No. That would be bonkers.

That would be chimpy.

… We are called to be something more than our emotions and appetites and allegiances.

But that is also the approach consistent with enlightened self-interest. Manners are a misunderstood thing: They are not, at heart, about aesthetics, about making yourself a more pleasant dining companion. It does not matter, in itself and in the greater analysis, which fork you use for your salad. The point of manners is to make other people feel valued, respected, and considered.

Which is to say, the point of manners is to keep the peace.

We develop complex social codes and social rituals in order to prevent violence. Violence, suppression, and misery were all most of the human race knew until the day before yesterday, when the emergence of market capitalism taught us how to cooperate with one another and the Industrial Revolution gave us the means to do so on a grand scale. It isn’t Leviathan who prevents bellum omnium contra omnes — it is manners, the rules of social intercourse, that keep us from poking each other in the chimp.

Politics always brings out tribalism — politics is tribalism for most people — and this year’s election has been more tribalistic than most: Witness how the 80-odd percent of Republicans who opposed bailouts when they were done by Barack Obama reversed course and became the 80-odd percent of Republicans who support bailouts when organized by Donald Trump. (It is not a question of GM vs. Carrier, after all.) Those affinities and loyalties are deeply imprinted in us, and there is no escaping them.

But we are called to be more, to be human, to be morally and spiritually larger than what’s within our own skins. And if that is beyond your personal capacity, you are in luck. You don’t have to be a saint. All you really have to do is to mind your manners and you can pass for human most of the time.

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It was time to party, not press the advantage

From yesterday’s WSJ, The USSR Fell – and the World Fell Asleep:

Right-wing dictatorships like those of Taiwan, South Africa, Portugal and Chile made smooth transitions to vibrant democracy and the free market. Left-wing regimes have had a far harder time, as if socialism were an autoimmune virus that destroys a society’s ability to defend itself from tyrants and demagogues.

The story of human progress is striving, dreaming and sacrificing for a better future. Instead of believing that happy, successful individuals make for a successful society, socialism insists that a perfectly functioning system will produce happy individuals. When the system comes first, the individual becomes an afterthought. When the system fails, individuals are blamed for not surrendering to it enough. Recovering from a regime that restricts individual freedom is far easier than recovering from one that teaches that individual freedom is worthless.

Earlier in the piece the author makes a more specific point about the collapse of the Soviet version of socialism:

It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.

The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.

Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the end of watch for the anti-Communist coalition formed by Harry Truman after World War II. A year later, baby boomer Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. The U.S. had unrivaled global power and influence, more than at any other time in history. Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all.

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Populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism

Interesting thoughts about the “sweet spot between populism and post-democracy” from John O’Sullivan:

But what explains the populist rise? What had called forth these spirits from the vasty deep? The answer seems to be that they emerged through the growing tension in liberal democracy, which is what we call the broad Western system of government, between democracy and liberalism. Liberal democracy works as follows: At elections, majoritarian democracy produces a governing majority in parliaments and congresses; and between elections, liberal institutions such as courts and constitutional bills of rights are on hand to restrain a majority government from abusing its authority. That system worked pretty well while the democratic majorities ran the show, and the constitutional bodies intervened only very occasionally to say “Halt” or “Think again.” As the post-war world wore on, however, power drained from elected bodies like parliaments to non-accountable institutions such as courts and, since the end of the Cold War, to transnational and global organizations. As they became more powerful, moreover, the non-accountable liberal institutions became more ambitious, not merely restraining the majority but increasingly dictating law and policy to it on everything from same-sex marriage to the rules of war.

That was possible because progressive-minded elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power and largely sympathized with the policies it promoted. Being human, they rather liked that it made it easier for them to restructure society as they wished and, if necessary, to override the apparent wishes of the voters. Of course, elites on left and right differed with each other on some policies, usually concerning tax and spending, which therefore remained real political disputes on which democracy “worked.” But they agreed with each other on policies such as mass immigration, Euro-integration, political correctness, multiculturalism, the spread of ethnic and gender quotas enforced legally and informally by a large bureaucracy, the application of anti-discrimination laws to expressions of opinion in ways that narrowed free speech, and much more. If the voters resisted such policies or sought to reverse them, the party leaderships kept them out of politics by simply not discussing them or, if discussion was unavoidable, by engaging in kabuki politics that never resulted in real change.

Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers in a democratic politics, becoming merely an equal player with all these other forces, though no one was indiscreet enough to say so. Majoritarian democracy mutated gradually into a system that John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which the elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their representatives in parliament or Congress. That’s more obvious in Europe because the transfer of power from democratic bodies to elites is also a transfer from the nation-state to a faraway transnational bureaucracy in Brussels. It therefore arouses and offends patriotism as well as democratic sentiment.

It’s also true that democratic politics has long been more vigorous and less deferential in the English-speaking world than in continental Europe (though the long sulk over Brexit by Remainers suggests that they have imbibed some of the anti-democratic European spirit). Much European opinion simply took for granted that politics was a game for the elites in which the change of stadium was no great matter. And this gradual emergence of post-democracy was further concealed by the fact that its institutions all have the same names as when they were parts of a simple majoritarian democracy.

Voters, however, could not be deceived indefinitely by these appearances. Over time they realized that, for whatever reason, their representatives seemed unwilling or unable to deliver on their promises. Nothing ever seemed to change, including those things that their MPs and congressmen had explicitly promised would change. After enough disappointments — this process has been going on for more than 30 years — the voters began to switch their support from their traditional “legacy” parties to new parties of Left and Right. The result is the recent eruption of “populist” uprisings across the advanced world.

An apprentice political sociologist could plot these changes along a single line in an impressive social-science diagram. At the left extreme of the spectrum is post-democracy; at the right extreme, populism; in the center lies simple majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move toward post-democracy; and they equally decrease in number and importance as you move toward populism. But the more that power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker that democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more that populism is likely to demand the removal of obstacles to the will of the people.

After being disappointed for decades, populists don’t like to be told that yet again they can’t have the policies they voted for. On the other hand, the more that majority rule is the driving force of democracy, the more populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate. “In short, populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism,” as the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde pointed out some years ago. “It criticizes the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicization.” And it therefore has a stronger case than is usually granted in public debate.

It’s a classic post-democratic case of a liberal institution seeking to remove a popular opinion from democratic debate. It happens fairly often in Europe; Wilders himself has faced similar trials before. What is significant here is that the court, having found him guilty, imposed no punishment on him. That was a recognition that its power to stigmatize has seriously eroded, and that imposing a penalty would only make a martyr of him. Even so, the PVV’s popularity has risen still further since the conviction, and it is quite likely that Wilders will enter a coalition government after the next election. The larger lesson is that the more post-democratic a political system is, the more anti-democratic it will seem, and the more it will generate successful populist parties.

 

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