It’s Midterm Season and the Media Is Really Bored

The 2014 midterm elections are rapidly approaching. Next week many Americans (well, probably more like 40% of them) will head to the polls to decide the composition of Congress during the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency. Healthcare, immigration, the administration’s treatment of the Iraq/Syria conflict and latest Ebola outbreak will serve as prominent avenues of attack for the GOP and points of retreat for many Democratic candidates.

As always, conservative candidates have indulged in their usual series of idiotic statementsludicrous claims (see above), and childish behavior. The Democrats have likewise made their fair share of ill-advised advertisements,  statements and non-statements all topped off with a healthy dollop of academic dishonesty. Not limited to the partisan frey, even universities are getting in on the action this year. Indeed, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping gaffes and the cross-aisle bickering remains as as fervent as ever. However, there is a distinctly muted aura that has surrounded this year’s campaigning. Even with the fate of the Congressional majority hanging in the balance, Americans simply aren’t interested in next week’s election, and it shows. As a result, the media has produced a startlingly broad consensus on two primary and very much intertwined electoral themes.

First, you have a unanimous forecast of an overwhelming Republican victory. Estimates currently place the chance of a successful Republican consolidation of a Senate majority at various degrees of likelihood. Most exceeding 50% by a very comfortable margin and have been increasing steadily since about mid-month. The Washington Post place the chances of a GOP victory in the Senate at 93%,  The New York Times puts them at 66%, YouGov at 63%, and FiveThirtyEight at 62.3%. While this is certainly in line with the majority of the statistical models, the (editorial, not mathematical) certainty with which these predictions are being touted is unusual. Consequently, the dominant narratives have been those featuring liberal America lethargically resigning itself to a predetermined result.

Interestingly, the introduction of “big data” to mass media and the rise of the infographic have given a new angle to the American love of statistics and cemented the role of the pollster in contemporary politics. It seems as though the “triumph” of nerd-prophet Nate Silver in predicting the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election has inspired a sense of reverence among a new generation of Americans (at least those who consume news media) for the projections of popular number-crunchers.

Backing up these relatively dense and technically-oriented predictions have been a series of pieces that remind the electorate of these conclusions. Even back in September, Fox News’ headlines have highlighted the “gloomy” democratic prospects, while Hill contributors are certain of the GOP’s “big victory in the Senate, House and statehouses”, and Bloomberg editors jumping at the chance to “be the first to congratulate Republicans on their victory“. While I am certainly not suggesting that the Democrats are likely to win (or even retain control of the Senate), dismal Democratic midterm performances may not be as certain as the President may think.

The second, and far more amusing, theme of the upcoming election is the absolute insistence that they are both a) boring and b) not even really about anything substantial. The extent to which the media has rallied around this motif is impressive. Nate Silver, the aforementioned patron saint of millennial stat-fodder, said back in mid-2013 that this is “not a super interesting year in politics” and proclaimed that the 2014 midterms will be “dull“. The Atlantic ran an article from Peter Beinart that explains how the relatively “low stakes” of this election are to blame for the fact that it’s “so boring“. New York Times contributor David Brooks called it “the most boring and uncreative campaign I can remember“, while The New Republic ran an article with the title It’s Not Just You. The Midterms Are Boring. Even the more vigorously partisan outlets are running the message: The American Conservative published The Boring Midterms about the aforementioned Atlantic piece while MSNBC’s  Morning Joe discussed David Brooks’ remarks.

This is taken a step further by several outlets claiming that not only are the midterms boring, but they don’t even have any substance to speak of either. An NBC article proclaimed that “the 2014 election sounds at times like a campaign about nothing“, while The New Republic’s Guide to Midterm Elections asserts that “if you want to talk about policy, you’ll have to wait until 2016“. Gloria Border of CNN capitalized on the sentiment of the former, explaining that “to a degree, this is a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing“.  While the majority of these articles admit that the election results will likely not be inconsequential, they’re all united in condemning the vapidity of political discourse as if it were unique to this particular election.

The battle for control over the trajectory of American politics exists much as it has for the past few decades. The intense political polarization of Americans is welldocumented and looks to be increasing with each passing year. I’ve written before about how so-called “Independents” are really anything but and the decreasing number of swing voters in America is fast becoming a defining element of electoral strategy, two points raised by Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt in their Washington Post article The 2014 campaign is a campaign about nothing. As familiar as we now are with this theme, Drutman and Schmitt astutely judge that the acute lack of “ideological overlap” between parties and lack of incentives for aisle-crossing centrism are driving the high-cost/low-substance character of the 2014 elections. The intense and deep-seated polarization in Congress reflects the American flight from the center.

While the 2014 midterms may come to be defined by their monotony, there are still a few reasons to tune in. For one, there are a few interesting candidates. There’s a cartoon cat-tie wearing pizza guy (who “actually does” smoke marijuana) and an American (almost) Idol, both pursuing Congressional office. There are also a few (legitimately) important issue items such as the potential “second wave” of marijuana legalization which could have profound effects, not only on the future of the drug’s legality on a national scale but also on the recently reinvigorated debate over D.C. statehood. The success of certain campaigns will likely also influence the future of the debate surrounding “dark money” in politics and the 2010 Citizens United ruling. Of course there is also the off-chance of an upset victory. This is most interesting in the case of  Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is benefiting from the public assistance of populist heavy-hitter Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her attempt to attempt to unseat the current Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.

Besides, there’s always the presidential election looming in the distance. And if you think that the problem with this election is a lack of exciting new blood, just wait until we’re confronted with Bush vs. Clinton in 2016.

In Defense of “Don’t Do Stupid S—“

On May 28, President Obama delivered an address to the graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point. His speech focused heavily on the Administration’s approach to foreign affairs for what remained of the his second term in office. The speech featured about as much of the minimally subtle sabre-rattling chest-beating bravado and lofty appraisals of the United States’ capacity and intention to lead the international community as one would reasonably expect from any modern Commander in Chief. However, these remarks also featured an unmistakably subdued tone, a palpable air of cynicism that betrayed the President’s meagre appetite for risky foreign meddling of any sort. Tempting fate is clearly not on Obama’s second term agenda.

The West Point speech marked a significant moment in the Administration’s attempts to translate an increasingly calculated approach and progressively less ambitious worldview into a cohesive foreign policy that will be remembered as the definitive Obama Doctrine. It has become a surprisingly difficult challenge for a President who ascended to the White House on promises to improve the way the United States leads on the international scene and make necessary reforms to combat the rapid decline of the nation’s image in the eyes of the world’s population. In this respect, Obama’s presidency began on a much more confident note, with the Commander in Chief appear to rise to the challenge of maintaining the country’s position of  leadership role while modifying the character of its guidance. This was perceived by many as being a return to the triumphant and conscientious American leadership of the golden past. In his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama laid the framework for America’s active role in combating evil as global defender of the righteous:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

These remarks were certainly made by a very different President, one displaying very few qualms with the mobilization of the United States’ overwhelming military might in noble leadership of the international community against threats to global order and well-being. While Obama has certainly not shied away from his firm commitment American exceptionalism, explaining in his West Point remarks that  it is something that he believes in “with every fiber of [his] being”, he has made a visible departure from the ambitious and moralizing rhetoric that was a trademark of his early Presidency.

Instead of playing the traditional role of advocate for active and benevolent intervention, he has embarked upon what amounts to a grand campaign of damage control, an effort that has helped to shape the attitude of the government in facing contemporary conflicts, most notably Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the most poignant statement to come from the President’s speech at West Point addressed the need to avoid relying on the military as the nation’s primary problem solving tool:

Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.

The difference in tone between these two quotations is dramatic. In lieu of the lofty ideals of “hope” and “change” that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Obama Doctrine referred to by future generations will have taken on a much less glamorous character.

Obama used the West Point speech as an opportunity to convince the world of the merits underpinning what will likely come to define the foreign policy outlook of his Presidency to future generations. While the White House defines his doctrine as being “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral“, the President himself has a far more forthright way of describing his outlook. According to the media, the President himself has coined (and repeatedly employed) the phrase “Don’t do stupid s—” (DDSS) to describe his current approach to the international policy. Spurred on by a particularly adversarial media climate, the cynical tone reflected by the Chief Executive’s willingness to describe his foreign policy outlook in such bleak and candid terms betrays a growing level of frustration and cynicism in the White House.

However, it would be incorrect to consider this as an abrupt about-face in policy. Instead, it should be viewed as an organic transformation in the President’s approach. The current reticence  is consistent with many of the President’s recent declarations about wielding American hard power internationally. Take, for example, Obama’s speech in September of 2013, when he explained to the UN General Assembly his desire to shift the United States “away from a perpetual war footing”. Included in the same remarks were appeals for increased levels of multilateral international involvement in Israel and Palestine as well as a remarkably conciliatory overture to the Iranian administration for increased cooperation, instead of submission, breaking with the traditional demanded from leaders in Washington.

These are marked departures from traditional foreign policy dogma and, contrary to his exceptionalist rhetoric,  signal the President’s willingness to see the United States adopt a much more modest role in the international order. The humble character of DDSS doctrine is symptomatic of the difficulties inherent in this Administration’s attempt to reconcile the traditional American position as global arbiter, defender of freedom, and promoter of democracy with the groundswell of public opinion in favor of a more restrained role in global affairs. In many ways this is easily understandable when considering Obama as a President tasked with bridging the gap between generations in an atmosphere of unprecedented political polarization.

At the moment, both extremes of the domestic political spectrum (save for the Tea Party, as seen above) are pushing for dramatically reduced foreign involvement while “establishment” Democrats and Republicans continue to criticize the White House for its reticence in Iraq and Syria.  The isolationist camp is primarily composed of small-government (“Independent”) conservatives, who primarily view interventionism as something that the United States can’t current currently afford, and young progressive idealists who oppose intervention on anti-imperial moral grounds. Mainstream Republicans and a significant portion of Democratic leadership, as we will discuss in a moment, still believe in the importance of America’s moral imperative and the maintenance of national security through preventative action.

It’s interesting that the Middle East, a traditional proving ground for imperial ambition, has functioned as a catalyst for the President’s new doctrine of restraint, increased multilateralism, and reliance on the developing world to establish its own security apparatuses. Pundits, however, like the National Journal’s Kaveh Waddell, were quick to point out how ill-suited the DDSS approach is to contemporary conflict.  While Waddell bases his judgement (and title of his piece: “Iraq Is a Terrible First Test for Obama’s New Foreign Policy”) on more situational tactical and military factors, such as the combat ineffectiveness of the Iraqi military, there are multiple reasons why Iraq is in fact a very appropriate “first test” for the application Obama Doctrine.

The current situation in Iraq and Syria is an almost perfect representation of the sort of ambiguous and volatile conflict zone that the United States is likely to face in the 21st century. The commitment of armed forces carries with it a huge political risk and virtually no assurance that the conflict won’t become a protracted affair. Unreliable regional actors are subject to sudden disappearance alliances and shifting alliances carry the risk of a sudden inversion of the tactical situation. Even a comprehensive tactical success would bring almost no tangible reward in terms of spoils, political capital. or any sort of goodwill, and would certainly not guarantee a cooperative future regime.

It is for precisely these reasons that Obama’s revised conception of America’s role, as defined by the DDSS doctrine, is a much more appropriate fit for the current situation than the cavalier moral crusades favored by the previous administration. It demonstrates the President’s willingness to confront the challenge of finding a happy medium between War-on-Terror inspired neo-imperial adventurism and the irresponsible and callous inaction that has allowed for events such as the Rwandan genocide of the 90s. The recent remarks made by the President during his weekly address on August 9 illustrate this policy-in-motion and prove that it is possible to reach a calculated plan of action that takes into account both America’s assumed moral imperative and its predilection for reckless military interventionism:

The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world.  But when there’s a situation like the one on this mountain—when countless innocent people are facing a massacre, and when we have the ability to help prevent it—the United States can’t just look away. That’s not who we are. We’re Americans.  We act.  We lead.  And that’s what we’re going to do on that mountain.  As one American who wrote to me yesterday said, “it is the right thing to do”.

While the Administration can be rightly criticised for not acting swiftly to prevent the escalation of the conflict in Syria or the spread of ISIL throughout the region, its hesitance is not a direct result of DDSS policy. The situation was and is extremely delicate. Backing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may very well have been a poor decision and the lack of support to moderate resistance groups in Syria almost certainly was. However, the lack of Executive action can not be attributed to a policy that is, at its core, “both interventionist and internationalist”. If anything, the failure of the United States (and the West, more broadly) to act effectively and judiciously in Iraq is a failure to apply the principles of DDSS. On the whole, this new blend of international interventionism and cautious multilateralism being pioneered by the current administration is a sure step in the right direction for the United States.

While prudence and multilateralism is often far less political appetizing to American audiences (or, at least, offers up no shortage of ammunition for one’s political opponents) in the short run, it inevitably becomes far more appealing in the longer term and even more so when viewed in retrospect. Unfortunately, the partisan dynamics of the American political scene have completely disincentivized the pursuit of the rational yet unspectacular within the executive branch.

This is especially acute during important periods of the election cycle, as we are approaching now. It comes as no surprise, then, that rather inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton. has roundly criticized the concept of DDSS doctrine as a display of weakness in leadership. Couched in a rather more valid and substantial criticism of the administration’s lack of support for moderate Syrian rebel forces (which she tenuously attributes to the rise of the Islamic State), Clinton dismissed the notion of DDSS by saying that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle“.

Now, this may simply be a superficial appraisal of the phrase in question, or an attempt to distance herself from an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it’s equally likely that  her comment was made in light of her opposition to a reduced American role in the international community. Clinton believes “that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good”, a conviction that likely reveals her membership in the Democratic party of a bygone era. Another example is Clinton’s staunch support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which runs contrary to the rapidly diminishing levels of unconditional support for Israeli among young Americans. Nearly a decade and a half older than President Obama, who based his campaign heavily around his appeal to younger Americans, Hillary Clinton likely faces a stiff challenge in convincing young voters of the necessity of America’s role as global policeman (though persuading the general population may prove less difficult).

The response of the Obama administration and its allies to Clinton’s criticism was quite sharp, though it seems that no lasting damage was dealt. Still, it seems as though Clinton’s foreign policy, as seen by Millennial voters, leaves a lot to be desired and it’s no secret that the gulf between the opinions of American voters and establishment politicians is only widening. As the generation of young people who were raised during the expensive and unproductive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become young voters, the number of  ardent moral crusaders like Clinton will only diminish. While Democratic Party heavyweight centrist  Hillary Clinton can certainly continue to promote staggeringly hawkish foreign policy, it is in her best interest to adopt a position that builds upon the trail blazed by President Obama towards a smarter and more nuanced future of American policy-making.

The Shutdown and America’s Post-Democratic Era

The ongoing government shutdown and Congressional stalemate over the government’s ability to fund its programs has highlighted an essential element of contemporary American Zeitgeist.  Financial backing for the Affordable Care Act, which was passed into law in March 2010, has run aground while facing opposition from a very vocal Republican minority within the House of Representatives. The anti-healthcare contingent has demonstrated that it has no qualms about doing wide-rangvoiling damage to the government of the United States or the American citizenry in order to divert national attention to their agenda. Despite the fact that Obamacare remains a fait accompli, the far-right remains convinced that by obstructing the continued operation of the federal government, they will achieve their goals. Welcome, everyone, to the post-democratic era of American politics.

The shutdown has come as the manifestation of an increasingly stagnant legislature that has produced record levels of dissatisfaction among constituents. Aggregated across multiple polling efforts, Congressional approval ratings are currently peaking  just a fraction above 10%. As discontent with Congressional intransigence continues to swell, especially among disaffected Millenials, the age-old American myth of unadulterated self-reliance has been given a new lease on life. An excellent example of this, if you’ll remember, was the Romney presidential campaign’s attempt to decontextualize the ‘If you have a business: You didn’t build that’ soundbyte from a July 2012 speech by the President. While it remains blatantly obvious to any casual observer (or, in fact, anyone who bothers to read the line in context) that the president was not suggesting than an omnipotent central government was responsible for the success of small-business entrepreneurs in America, that did not stop the GOP from pushing their agenda of finger-pointing and birther-esque slander. Indeed, an appallingly cynical conception of America’s working poor and the willingness of Tea Party politicians to regurgitate an abundance of boldfaced lies have combined with the enduring American tradition of governmental distrust to foster a disconcerting base of support for those committed to the anti-government cause.

The very nation’s commitment to “exceptionalism” at the expense of popular welfare has produced, in its latest manifestation, a detrimental legacy of disregard for the marginalised sectors of society. This tradition of neglect forms an oft-ignored subtext that underscores the increasingly prominent return of rhetoric that fetishizes notions of ‘rugged individualism’ and a disdain for the working poor. Despite the disastrous results of the President Herbert Hoover’s trust in the virtues of self-reliance to guide the country through the burgeoning Great Depression and the absurdity of Reagan’s ‘by your bootsraps’ convictions (we’re still waiting for that wealth to trickle down…), high profile Republicans and Libertarians continue to deliver lines that would make Ayn Rand beam with pride.

Once responsible for fostering the immigrant-friendly ‘melting pot’ culture that attracted the world’s greatest scientific and academic minds, America’s fascination with individualism and self-determination forms an integral part of the national spirit (not to mention the second passage of the Declaration of Independence). Today’s ‘Boostrap revival’ efforts, however, have perverted the egalitarian and anti-bourgeoisie aspirations apparent in the spirit of America’s inception. In an ironic move that has pitted the ‘populists’ against the population, shutdown-era radicals of the far-right equate future lower and middle-class prosperity with the eradication of government assistance to those very same groups. We have to look no further than the mid-September bill pushed through the House of Representatives by the GOP majority. The proposed legislation features deep cuts to federal programs that provide assistance (namely ‘food stamps’, which increasingly come in the form of debit-style electronic cards) to those who otherwise cannot afford to eat.

The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, which features over $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years to the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), was labelled ‘one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen‘ by Democratic Representative James McGovern from Massachusetts. The Republicans, for their part, have an entirely different perspective. House Speaker (and shutdown celebrity) John Boehner claimed that the bill would make ‘getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs’. This sentiment, as well as the bill’s lofty title, would lead you to believe that the bill contains some sort of pro-labor provision that would work to help soften the blow of slashed government benefits to the poor. This, however, is far from the case.

When viewing the Act’s contents, any allusions of GOP sympathy for impoverished Americans are quickly dispelled. Boehner’s description of the bill’s utility as a tool in expediting the unemployed masses’ return to work is wildly disingenuous. In place of any remotely proactive initiatives exist a series of draconian measures that highlight the elimination of ‘state performance bonuses’, ‘increas[ed] oversight of SNAP programs for the homeless, elderly, and disabled’, and the consent of the federal government for states to ‘conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits’.  Voilà, ça y est. Today’s Republicans care little about reinvigorating the working-class foundation of the domestic economy, and much more about preventing the President’s health care bill from coming into effect.

The third item of  the aforementioned list has featured heavily in recent conservative agendas. The push to mandate drug testing for SNAP recipients does little to discourage the perpetuation of the caustic and bigoted ‘welfare queen’ mythology. It has become increasingly clear that the modern libertarian equates poverty with sloth and unemployment with apathy. The drug testing initiative, in addition to being ethically and morally objectionable, has been shown to make little economic sense. Florida conservatives were temporarily successful in launching a new law that resulted in a four month period of testing in 2012. In a deeply ironic twist, the examinations produced a failure rest of just 2.8%, which resulted in a cost to the state of $118,140. The program, which cost the state more than the expense of the potential benefits to the 2.8% of drug-using welfare-recipients, was deemed likely to have been a ‘constitutional infringement’ by a Federal District Court who discontinued the testing via temporary injunction.

The unsurprising results of the Floridian experiment have done little to deter the right wing’s push to further marginalize the American lower classes. Regardless of the matter at hand, be it food stamps or healthcare, it is clear that the anti-government contingent of the GOP will stop at nothing to see the income disparity widen and the downtrodden fall increasingly underfoot. The most recent manifestation of this desire, the government shutdown, has only pushed their pursuit further into the international spotlight. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the far-right is far less concerned with implementing alternative routes towards American prosperity than they are to obstructing ideologically undesirable legislation and attempting to annihilate the reputation of Democratic presidents.

 

madhouse of reps
Star Tribune/Cagle Cartoons

 

The unflattering rightward shift of the political spectrum in the United States has coincided with a growing disparity between the privileged few and the disenchanted masses, with the lower echelons of society inheriting the lion’s share of the resulting burden. The contingent of anti-welfare extremist Republicans in the House of Representatives referred to as the ‘Anarchy Gang’ by Senator Elizabeth Warren and their constituents have achieved an overwhelming level of success. President Jimmy Carter recently remarked that:

The disparity between rich people and poor people in America has increased dramatically since when we started… The middle class has become more like poor people than they were 30 years ago.

Adding insult to injury, the push to disenfranchise (see: the recent fight over voter registration laws) and marginalize the American masses is exacerbated by a declining education system. The de-funding of public schools fits neatly into the far-right’s program to comprehensively privatize American life. It also, not-so-coincidentally, functions to inhibit the upward mobility of citizens and abolishes any prospect of ‘bootstrap’-style salvation. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has quantified the decline of American academic prowess. A BBC article on the report remarked that the United States represented ‘an education superpower of a previous generation’, where younger generations are increasingly less educated than their parents. This downward spiral has had tangible effects beyond the general ignorance of the population, with the number of ‘highest-skilled’ professionals in the US falling from 42% to 28%.

The reality, however, has remained almost entirely irrelevant to the far right. Plummeting levels of education and unprecedented levels of poverty Practicalities do not represent any significant impediment to the GOP’s pursuit of unabashedly ideologically-driven agenda. If anything, the downward trend in education enables the radical right’s pursuit of all things anti-science and anti-modern. Equally, it simply does not matter that  their ‘small government’ rhetoric runs completely contrary to drug testing for welfare recipients that costs the state exorbitant sums. The fact that Obamacare is based largely on conservative designs and represents a significant step forward for the American population is equally irrelevant. The commitment to antagonism at the expensive of reason has spawned claims about the Affordable Care Act that cross a line drawn far beyond absurdity and extend well into the realm of nauseating obscenity. The legislation, which functions to expand healthcare provisions to significant swathes of previously-uninsured Americans, has been labelled ‘a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850‘ by Republican Representative Bill O’Brien. Tea Party leader and architect of the ‘not-quite-filibuster’ Senator Ted Cruz has led the charge among the minority of Republicans committed to a protracted shuttering of the government. In his opinion, the President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are responsible for grinding the government to a half over their unwillingness to ‘compromise’ on Obamacare. The reality, in stark contrast to the Tea Party Senator’s remarks, is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed through both houses of Congress, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and was reaffirmed by the election of Obama (in lieu of Mitt Romney, whose promise to ‘repeal Obamacare’ formed the basis of his entire presidential campaign) to a second term.

While the  shutdown has come as a shock to many, American and non-American alike, it is really far from surprising when viewed from a wider perspective. The current situation has come as a simple product of cause-and-effect. There can be no reasonable expectation of responsibility when ideologues are voted into government. It is not an event that comes without repercussion. It seems especially silly to except the smooth operation of Congress from Representatives that campaign on a platform of anti-government values. When politicians are more committed to the partisan pursuit of destroying the legacy of an incumbent President than they are to providing for the well-being of their fellow countrymen, it becomes absurd to expect a positive result.

It is dangerous, though, to think of the Congressional deadlock as the problem, and not a symptom. The shutdown (and possible upcoming default) has come as a direct consequence of the mainstream acceptance of Tea Party politicians and the dangerous extremes that they represent. Most recently, an individual appeared at the anti-Obama protests in front of the White House accompanied by a Confederate flag. This wildly inappropriate gesture in many ways embodies the senselessness and misguided nature of the government shutdown as well as contemporary American politics at large. Despite impassioned cries of protesters, galvanized by an appearance of Tea Party celebrities Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz, the truth that emerged undeterred. In today’s political arena, the reality has taken a back seat to reactionary fervor. Fear and moralizing partisanship have overtaken the practical considerations of governing, and politics has been reduced to a game of who can behave in the most petulant manner. The reckless brinkmanship is well represented in the recent remarks of President Obama, who has continually affirmed that he ‘will not negotiate’ over things like ‘the full faith and credit of the United States’ or ‘whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations’. However, it remains quite difficult not to mentally substitute the latter half of that phrase with its more conventional conclusion.

In response to the flag-bearer’s breach of decorum, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that ‘If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word ‘patriot’ has no meaning’. In addition to the immediate significance, the sentiment is especially poignant in considering the contemporary distortion of traditional GOP priorities. Gone are the days when practical economic considerations drove policy within the Republican Party. While it’s very likely that Congress will conjure up a last-minute compromise to avoid a cataclysmic breech of the debt ceiling, it will not be because any minds were changed. No compromises will be struck, because today’s Conservatives are uninterested in doing so. Pragmatism, like bipartisanship, is a relic of the old GOP.  The new Republican party is willing to be defined by a small minority of Tea Party extremists who are,  by and large, more concerned with portraying the President as a litany of increasingly laughable evils than they are with improving the country, or, as the previous weeks have demonstrated, even allowing it to function.

Presidential Declarations of War and American Unilateralism

After reading the shameless attention-grab that was Tim Stanley’s latest Telegraph blog post (Obama and Syria: Britain has helped Obama rediscover the Constitution. No need to thank us, America), I realised that it was not, in fact, the ‘Anarcho-Catholic’ and ‘temperamentally conservative’ author’s attempts at being clever (‘Obama referred to America as a constitutional democracy. It’s a republic, sir, a republic. What grades did he get at college I wonder?‘) that made the largest impression on me. Instead, it was the fact that he considered Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military intervention to have been a ‘remarkable performance.’ The notion that the President’s decision to seek out the proverbial ‘green light’ from Congress is at all controversial is deeply worrying. While the school of thought that considers unconstitutional every post-Second World War American armed conflict (John Nichols writes that ‘no president since Roosevelt has respected the Constitution sufficiently to seek a formal declaration of war.’) fails to account for the insufficiency of archaic international institutions, political assumptions, and legal norms, it certainly seems more lucid than the alternative. As House Republican Peter King sees it, Obama is ‘undermining the authority of future presidents’ by not acting unilaterally in lobbing cruise missiles into the Syrian conflict. ‘The president doesn’t need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline‘, he argues. But at what point was the Commander-in-Chief given the power to draw these red lines in the first place?

Obama and the Red Line in Syria
David Fitzsimmons/The Arizona Daily Star

Jack Goldsmith, Professor at Harvard Law School, expert on international law, and former Assistant Attorney General published a blog post entitled ‘Why Doesn’t President Obama Seek Congressional Approval for Syria?‘ a few days ago, when a Presidentially-sanctioned unilateral  strike seemed all but imminent. After running through a litany of potential justifications for such a broad conception of presidential power (e.g. ‘military action is being rushed’, ‘formal congressional approval is not a priority’, etc), he concludes that exactly none ‘are good reasons from a constitutional perspective, and in light of the costs of unilateralism’. While the first half of that statement is rather self-evident, the latter half deserves more than a passing acknowledgement. Thus, we will return to the notion of unilateralism in concluding this text. It would seem that Constitutional law scholar Garrett Epps concurs with his Harvard colleague, going as far as to title his first article in The Atlantic on the topic ‘The Authority to ‘Declare War’: A Power Barack Obama Does Not Have‘. In a twist that only becomes ironic after reading the commentary of Tim Stanley, Epps points out that while the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom reserves the right (backed by ‘Royal Prerogative’) to send Britain into war without Parliamentary consent, the American President surely does not. He continues on to explain why historic precedents of Presidentially-sanctioned intervention (most notably: Korea) do not readily apply to the current situation.  As any action would, inherently, lack the pretence of defensive or emergency action, Epps judges that: ‘This is precisely the kind of situation for which the Framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between President and Congress.’ He conjures up a very appropriate quote from South Carolina Governor and author of the United States Constitution, John Rutledge as he argued against a President with exceedingly broad powers during the  from the minutes of the Federal Convention of 1787:

‘ [Rutledge] said he was for vesting the Executive power in a single person, tho’ he was not for giving him the power of war and peace.’

If that is not applicable to the debate over the Framers’ intentions, I do not know what is. Epps went on to publish a second article, Yes, Congress Can Authorize War Without Formally ‘Declaring’ It, which refutes the notion that a Congressional decision is an ‘all or nothing’ affair that was meant for national mobilisation for Total War. In agreeing with Alexander Hamilton’s judgement that the ‘powers of war and peace’ should be viewed as ‘a concurrent authority’ that is shared between the President and Congress. He further levels his sights against those who share the views of John Nichols in pointing out that:

‘If every “undeclared” conflict is a violation of the Constitution, we need retroactive impeachment of Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, and both Bushes.’

Finally, and most importantly, Epps emphasises the fact that  international law is ‘very much a part of the constitution’ (see, for example, the Supreme Court’s recognition of international treaties in relation to the Supremacy Clause [This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land…]), and, as such, war can not be used as mechanism of foreign policy. In any case, I do not find persuasive arguments that place a higher importance on defining the words ‘declaration’ and ‘war’ than on the notion that the Constitution has provided the United States Congress with the responsibility (emergency situations notwithstanding) of deciding when military action is appropriate, and when it is not. Even a cursory glance at the eighth section of the very first article  will give the impression that Congress was to be given the responsibility of authorising the use of what has become the world’s most powerful army. I believe that unilateralism, in its various manifestations, is the quintessential problem with contemporary American foreign policy. That is to say, I think it is the most fundamental flaw. A lack of regard for the opinions of the rest of the planet is the culprit behind such a staggering proportion of the world’s (freely substitute: “Intellectuals”, “Europe’s”, “the United Nations'”, etc.) problems with the last remaining superpower. It is so rare to encounter individuals who harbour a genuine aversion to the concept of humanitarian intervention, though it is equally rare to find someone who believes that the United States has done a stellar job of spearheading such efforts. Similarly, the question should not, as Kerry and company have indicated, be centred around whether or not President Obama reserves the right or privilege of commanding the military into action. Instead, I propose,  it should be about whether doing so would be such a good idea after all.