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The 2016 Stump Speeches: Marco Rubio

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

When I described my model for analyzing the Republican presidential campaign a few weeks ago, I began with the cautionary tale of Tim Pawlenty, the candidate Jonathan Chait picked as the most likely Republican nominee in the 2012 cycle. Pawlenty had the virtue of being broadly acceptable to all four Republican factions, but none of them considered him to be their guy. Consequently, even though he made a much more plausible president than Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty was the first man out.

To me, Marco Rubio looks like the Tim Pawlenty of 2016. (538‘s Harry Enten disagrees with me.) There’s no obvious reason he couldn’t be the Republican nominee: He’s well liked by the Corporatist donors. He’s religious enough to be acceptable to the Theocrats, bellicose enough for the NeoCons, and can preach the low-tax small-government gospel well enough for the GOP’s Libertarian wing (which is not to be confused the far more doctrinaire Libertarian Party). He’s young and good-looking, he’s from an important swing state, and he’s got that successful-son-of-immigrants thing going. If you’re a Republican, what’s not to like?

His problem is that none of the factions looks at him and thinks: “That’s my guy.” Jeb Bush is the heir to the Corporatist dynasty and Rand Paul is the Libertarian crown prince. If you’re so anti-Obama you’re ready to burn the country to the ground, Ted Cruz has been leading your crusade. If you’re holding out for a full-fledged minister of the Religious Right, Mike Huckabee is in the wings. Scott Walker seems like the Corporatists’ first alternate if Bush stumbles. So where does Rubio fit in?

The speech. Listening to Rubio’s announcement speech, (See the Time transcript.) I was expecting a serious answer to the question “Why me?” I was disappointed. His answer, when I insert the names he leaves to the listeners’ imagination, is that nobody wants another Bush vs. Clinton election.

Like Cruz and (to a lesser extent) Paul, Rubio casts his own story as a fulfillment of the American Dream. His mother and father came from Cuba in 1956. They found basic working-class jobs, but because America is the land of opportunity, they could hope for more.

My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children. He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.

In what could be interpreted as a backhanded slap at Jeb Bush, Rubio said:

I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.

He pivots from his personal story to public policy in the same way that Cruz and Paul did, and I suspect nearly every candidate will:

My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible.

This is becoming the question of 2016, and appropriately so — if we take it seriously and don’t use it as just a jumping-off point for promoting whatever policies we favored anyway: Economic mobility in America is not what it was. Unskilled labor is no longer easy to find and no longer pays well enough to buy a home and raise children in it and launch them into a better life. College and other forms of training for skilled jobs has become prohibitively expensive for those who weren’t born at least part-way up the ladder of success. New small businesses — small shops, small farms, small restaurants — do not so easily thrive without capital outlays beyond the dreams of struggling families. What — if anything — can be done about this?

The shrinking of the middle class and the increasing slipperiness of the ladder to success have been issues since the mid-1970s, through administrations of both parties. Carter, Clinton, and Obama didn’t fix it, but neither did Reagan or the two Bushes. So it’s long past the point where either party can just say, “All you need to do is elect us.” Rubio is exactly right when he says:

While our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century. … This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.

And his claim that we need a new generation of leaders rings true.

Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday [i.e., Hillary Clinton] began a campaign for President by promising to take us back to yesterday. But yesterday is over, and we are never going back. We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.

But then we get to Walter Mondale’s challenge to Gary Hart’s new-ideas candidacy of 1984: “Where’s the beef?” What are these new ideas that Rubio’s new generation of leaders will implement to bring the American Dream into the 21st century?

Now, the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century.

If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare, the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs.

If we create a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work, then our people will be prepared to seize their opportunities in the new economy.

If we remember that family – not government – is the most important institution in society, that all life deserves protection, and that all parents deserve to choose the education that’s right for their children, then we will have a strong people and a strong nation.

And if America accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran, and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world; then our nation will be safer, the world more stable, and our people more prosperous.

What in that plan does he think Jeb Bush will disagree with? Less regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less government spending, traditional family values, strong defense, aggressive American leadership in the world. How is that different from what every Republican has been saying since Ronald Reagan?

Republicans can and do argue that those ideas are good, and that previous Republican presidents just didn’t push them hard enough or stick with them long enough. But no one can argue that they’re new, or that they constitute an answer to the unsolved problems of the last 40 years.

In Rubio’s defense, it’s early in the 2016 cycle. It is a time for themes and visions, not 12-point programs. But if the theme of his campaign is going to be that he represents a new generation of leaders for a new century, then at some point he’s going to have to point in a different direction than the old leaders. At some point he’s got to have some new ideas, not just announce the need for them.

Otherwise he’s just making a claim about demography and identity: He’s young, Hispanic, and unburdened by the name “Bush” or “Clinton”. That’s all fine, but I don’t see how it’s going to solve his Tim Pawlenty problem.

Death, Taxes, and the American Dream

As executor of my father’s estate, I learned that the #1 argument against “the Death Tax” is completely false.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a great fortune seeking to pass from one generation of aristocrats to the next must be in need of tax relief. To this end, Thursday the House voted (mostly on party lines) to repeal the federal estate tax, a.k.a. the Death Tax.

Now, you might wonder why House Republicans would do that, given (1) Obama is sure to veto it if it gets that far, and (2) Republicans now claim they want to do something about income inequality. (They used to say it wasn’t a problem; now suddenly it is.)

So far in the 2016 cycle, the announcement speeches of all the Republican presidential candidates have centered on the next generation’s loss of hope in the American Dream. Typically they say something like this: “For me [or my parents or grandparents — I can’t wait to hear how far back Jeb Bush has to go before he finds someone who struggled] America was a place where you could come with nothing and achieve anything. I want that to continue to be true for future generations of Americans.”

None of them are talking about the old European Dream of establishing a dynasty that hands a huge fortune down through the centuries. But actions speak louder than words, and that’s the tax plan their party has united behind.

Who pays the Death Tax? As it currently stands, the federal estate tax only applies to estates larger than $5.43 million, so it is literally a multi-millionaires’ tax. The whole point of the Death-Tax framing is to fudge that fact. Everybody dies, so something called a “Death Tax” sounds like it ought to affect everyone.

But, sadly, not everybody leaves a multi-million-dollar estate. According to WaPo’s Plum Line, only 1 out of every 553 estates owes any estate tax at all. And that one gets to skim $5.43 million off the top ($10.86 million if the heir is a surviving spouse), so even if you’re fortunate enough to die with $6 million or $7 million, your estate is still not going to pay much.

So repealing the tax has nothing to do with passing a small family farm from father to son, or letting a Mom-and-Pop business continue as a Brother-Sister-and-Two-Cousins business. The real issue is the American equivalent of keeping Pemberley in the Darcy family or saving Downton Abbey for the Crawleys. Repealing the estate tax is all about the plutocracy maintaining itself.

The fairness argument. Even after Citizens United, we still have enough of a democracy that politicians can’t just admit they’re serving the hereditary aristocracy. So what do they say?

The usual argument against the estate tax is that it’s unjust, because the money is being taxed twice. I’m not sure exactly why double-taxation would be unjust — that’s a different discussion — but for now let’s just go with it: As the money came in, it was trimmed by the income tax, so taxing it again at death is unfair. The Patriot Post begins its ringing denunciation of the Death Tax like this:

There are lots of persuasive reasons to kill this odious tax. The money in a person’s estate has already been taxed over the lifetime that it was earned.

Persuasive? Maybe. It’s also false.

Dad’s farm. I’ve been hearing that double-taxation argument for years, but I didn’t realize how wrong it was until I became executor of my father’s will. One of the things Dad left behind was the family farm: a 160-acre square whose abstract of title includes documents going back to the Homestead Act.

My parents bought the farm from my grandparents in 1950 for $30,000, and I sold it to a cousin in 2013 for … well, considerably more than that. (It’s good Illinois topsoil, and Dad took care not to let it erode.) Because of the way the tax laws work, no one ever paid tax on that capital gain: not my parents while they were alive (because they didn’t realize the capital gain by selling), not the estate (which was under the $5 million limit), and not me or my sister (because of a nifty little loophole called stepped-up basis).

That’s not some special arrangement for farms; it applied to the rest of the estate as well. Mom and Dad were conservative investors who didn’t buy or sell that often, so the non-farm portion of their holdings consisted of a house and some stocks they had held for many years (and usually bought for a lot less than the current value). As a result, the great majority of what my sister and I inherited is money that, to this day, has never been taxed.

That’s not unusual. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Estimates recently made by economists James Poterba and Scott Weisbenner, based on data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, suggest that unrealized capital gains make up about 37 percent of the value of estates worth more than $1 million and about 56 percent of estates worth more than $10 million.

I’ll take a wild guess and say that the percentage keeps getting higher and higher as the estates get larger.

Heirs and entrepreneurs. If you look at the top of a list of the richest Americans, you might think we’re still an entrepreneurial society: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison — all founders of major corporate empires. That case gets only slightly dicier with the next two names: Charles and David Koch, who inherited Koch Industries from their Dad, but did manage it aggressively and multiplied its value. Dad’s company wasn’t a household name, but Charles and David’s company is. That’s why they’re on the list.

Four of the next five, though, are the heirs of Sam Walton, founder of WalMart. The singular virtue that makes the Waltons multi-billionaires is that they were born in the right place. Most of what they inherited was WalMart stock that Sam had owned since the founding, when it was worth virtually nothing. When he died, that vast capital gain disappeared for tax purposes, just like the gain on Dad’s farm. So the federal estate tax was the only tax that money ever faced.

Now imagine the “Death Tax” gone. The Gates, Buffett, Ellison, and Koch fortunes are in Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Oracle and Koch stock. The vast capital gains on those holdings have never been taxed. Without an estate tax, that stock is just handed off directly to the heirs, who can hand it off to their heirs.

It never gets taxed. Ever.

That’s how you build a hereditary aristocracy.

But the rich have foundations. Another excuse for getting rid of the Death Tax is that the very rich find ways around it anyway. Look at Gates and Buffett: They’ve put billions into the Gates Foundation, money that the tax man will never see.

That continues a long American tradition, going back to the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Andrew Carnegie’s money wound up in countless libraries, museums, and universities, rather than in the federal treasury.

I’m not sure why that’s supposed to be a criticism of the estate tax. If Bill Gates wants his money to fight malaria in Africa rather than lower the federal deficit, I’m OK with that. John D. Rockefeller decided to found the University of Chicago rather than hand his money over to the government. I got my graduate degrees there, so it worked out fine as far as I’m concerned.

Without the Death Tax. You know what would be worse than that? If the richest-Americans list were still dominated by Rockefellers and Fords and Carnegies. That would make us a fundamentally different kind of country.

It could have worked out that way. I’m not sure I buy Celebrity Net Worth’s estimate that Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Henry Ford put together were worth about $800 billion in today’s dollars — that would be about ten times Bill Gates — but I don’t doubt that those fortunes would still be competitive if the heirs could have held them together and invested them well.

Without the “Death Tax” either collecting taxes or pressuring billionaires to find other ways to dispose of their money, a century from now we could be that kind of country — the kind where the wealthiest people aren’t entrepreneurs, they’re heirs. The richest-Americans list of 2115 might consist almost entirely of Waltons and Ellisons and Kochs. The way to get on that list would be to marry into one of those empires, not try to start one of your own.

If thing work out that way, I’m sure the politicians of 2115 will still give inspiring speeches about the American Dream. But it will be the old European Dream of the Medicis and the Rothschilds that has won out. Don’t waste your time trying to invent the Next Big Thing, just hope your daughter finds her Darcy. Then keep handing the money down your family line forever.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

Paul and his candidacy. Rand Paul is in many ways the most interesting of the potential Republican candidates, the one whose positions are most idiosyncratic and least in step with GOP groupthink. He usually tries to sound like an Ayn Rand libertarian — which already sets him apart on some issues — but occasionally a bit of Occupy Wall Street anarchy gets into his rhetoric as well.

Most other Republicans argue that the Republican Party just hasn’t been Republican enough. It needs to double down on its principles, not move to the center or compromise with Democrats to get things done. Good stuff will happen only after the last Democrat has been driven into the hills.

Paul, on the other hand, is arguing that both parties are the problem: Both are part of a culture of corruption that makes government spending and government power constantly increase.

If he could quit there, he’d have an attractive message. Paul’s “Stop the Washington Machine” slogan sounds really good to people with a wide range of views. Consequently, like Barack Obama in 2008, Paul has a chance to expand the electorate by attracting people otherwise too alienated to vote. But it leaves his campaign with two problems:

  1. He’s running for the nomination of one of the parties he’s attacking. So he somehow has to get Republicans to vote for a candidate who says that Republicans are part of what’s wrong with America. But Republicans view acknowledging mistakes as weakness; they don’t want their candidate to go on an apology tour for the sins of George W. Bush.
  2. Once he stops the Washington machine, what is he going to put in its place? Other candidates are in a position to be vague and hopeful, but Paul’s record includes a lot of white papers and proposed bills whose details (if they become common knowledge) will turn off a lot of the people his slogan attracts.

The speech’s theme. [All unattributed quotes are from Time‘s transcript of the speech Paul gave Tuesday in Louisville. Watch out for The Independent‘s “full transcript”; parts of the speech are missing.]

A typical announcement speech is a blend of autobiography and political vision. Sometimes (as in Ted Cruz’s speech), those are two separate segments. But Paul’s speech is organized by issue, and biographical details are sprinkled in as they seem relevant. That structure sends a message in itself: Who I am is not important compared to what I want to do. Where Cruz frames himself as a prophet raised up to do God’s work, Paul frames himself as Cincinnatus temporarily putting aside his farming (or, in Paul’s case, his practice as an eye doctor) to save the Republic.

Paul begins his speech saying: “We have come to take our country back.” This is a common trope for any party out of power, and (depending on your vision of what America used to be) can mean anything from restoring white Christian supremacy to redistributing wealth. To Paul it means:

The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped. … I want to be part of a return to prosperity, a true economic boom that lists all Americans, a return to a government restrained by the Constitution. A return to privacy, opportunity, liberty. [1]

Debt and spending. Paul’s primary symbol and symptom of too-big government is the $18 trillion federal debt.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to enjoy the American Dream. I worry, though, that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters. As I watch our once-great economy collapse under mounting spending and debt, I think, “What kind of America will our grandchildren see”?

It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame. Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration. And it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is on course to add more debt than all of the previous presidents combined. We borrow a million dollars a minute.

This mixes some truth with some falsehood: A million dollars a minute is a little high, but in the ballpark. George W. Bush did double the national debt, but Obama didn’t triple it, and isn’t on course to add more debt than all previous presidents combined. (Details in endnote [2].)

The more abstract idea that big government and debt are collapsing the American economy is less easily fact-checked, but shouldn’t be accepted as obvious. Other rich countries (Sweden and Germany, for example) have much higher per-capita government spending than we do, and Japan’s per-capita government debt is almost double ours. The fastest-growing of the world’s large economies is China, which has a far more intrusive government. [3]

Fixing the budget. Paul proposes that we balance the budget entirely with spending cuts.

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

The way he wants to make that happen is through a constitutional amendment:

Congress will never balance the budget unless you force them to do so. Congress has an abysmal record with balancing anything. [4] Our only recourse is to force Congress to balance the budget with a constitutional amendment.

Usually, conservatives wave a balanced-budget amendment like a magic wand: It will balance the budget without forcing us to spell out the harsh spending cuts that are required once tax increases are off the table.

Paul can’t be criticized for that. In 2011 he put out a proposal to strip $500 billion out of the budget (almost exactly the current deficit). That proposal demonstrates how draconian a balanced-budget-with-no-new taxes is. As I observed at the time: it cut 28% from the Center for Disease Control, and made similar cuts in the agencies that monitor food safety. The National Park Service got cut 42%. And so on.

When people think “The government spends too much money”, I’ll bet they’re not thinking about Yellowstone, or planning to cut corners on the next Ebola outbreak. But Paul is.

This is the problem when you get specific: The American people dislike “big government” and “spending” in its trillion-dollar abstraction, but the big things that the government spends money on — defense, Social Security, Medicare — are popular. In the rest of the budget, nearly all the easy cuts were made long ago. And when you’re sitting on your rooftop in New Orleans wondering whether the helicopters or the flood waters will reach you first, “big government” sounds pretty good.

Inequality. For a long time, conservatives refused to recognize growing economic inequality as a problem. (Talented ambitious people are out-performing inept lazy people. What’s the problem?) But recently that has turned around. At least rhetorically, conservatives are now addressing inequality.

Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages has only widened the income gap. Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions [5] and poor families across America continue to suffer. I have a different vision, … a vision that will offer opportunity to all Americans, especially those who have been left behind.

My plan includes economic freedom zones to allow impoverished areas like Detroit, West Louisville, Eastern Kentucky to prosper by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who live there.

This “economic freedom zone” idea has been kicking around for a while under various names. Jack Kemp first called them “enterprise zones” and later “opportunity zones of prosperity“. (I call them “hellholes”, for reasons that will become apparent. But I’ll try to be nice and use Paul’s terminology.)

The idea is that if you lower taxes and cut regulations in some impoverished region, businesses will sprout there like mushrooms, providing jobs for all the previously unemployed residents. If you just stop there, it sounds like it might work. But Paul put out a 6-page outline of his plan in 2013, so we know a lot more of the disturbing details.

Reducing taxes in economically depressed areas is a stimulus that will work because the money is returned to businesses and individuals who have already proven that they can succeed.

i.e., to rich people.

These “Economic Freedom Zones” allow blighted and bankrupt areas to remove the shackles of big government by reducing taxes, regulations, and burdensome union work requirements. These zones give parents and students the flexibility to find better schools, allow talented immigrants to pursue entrepreneurial and job-creating endeavors, and will provide additional incentives for philanthropy to help those in need.

So how does that work? Let’s start with the tax part. When an impoverished area like Detroit or West Louisville is declared a hellhole — sorry, an Economic Freedom Zone — both the individual and the corporate tax rates go down to 5%. Payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) are reduced for both the employer and the employee. And the capital gains tax goes away for “stock or tangible assets that are located within the area”.

This is supposed to encourage new businesses. I know immediately the new business I would want to be in: turning abandoned buildings into tiny cheap condos that rich people could buy to establish residency, even though they would never be caught dead there. With all the zoning regulations suspended, I could probably build them for $20,000 each easy. Then I sell them for $100,000, and a guy with a billion-dollar income saves hundreds of millions in taxes by buying one. Everybody wins!

Mailboxes Etc would also do well, as corporations move their “headquarters” to mailboxes inside the Zone. Now they pay low taxes, and capital gains on their stock become tax free!

You think this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen? Again and again, we’ve been sold the idea that cutting taxes will give rich people lots of money to create jobs with. But why should they? Why not just pocket the extra money and do as little as possible to help anybody? And if you start writing rules to prevent this chicanery, not only would the tax-avoiders always be one step ahead of you, you’d end up creating yet another complex set of bureaucratic rules.

If actual people or businesses did move into the Zones, their enclaves would look like Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They’d be as isolated as possible from the impoverished residents. They wouldn’t, for example, lift a finger to improve the local public schools, because part of the program is that everybody gets private-school vouchers.

But one kind of business would be attracted to the Zones: businesses that pollute a lot. That’s because EPA non-attainment designations would be suspended. The Zones would also be exempted from regulations on municipal storm-sewer run-off, and they could waive land use restrictions like “Wilderness Areas, National Heritage Sites, or Wild & Scenic Rivers”. Also, construction permits under the National Environmental Policy Act would be “streamlined”.

So, if a real-estate corporation wanted to take over a Zone’s wilderness areas and heritage sites, the local government could sell to them. And it might be motivated to sell, because the program specifically forbids any government bailouts if the municipality gets into financial trouble. (But they would be authorized to renege on their pensions.)

So there you have it: Polluted districts populated mainly by phony residences and fake corporate headquarters, with abandoned public schools, pensionless local residents, and all the beautiful or historic areas privatized. Hellholes.

Meanwhile, enormous tax loopholes have been created that require even more massive spending cuts than the ones Paul has already laid out.

Infrastructure. But wait, there’s more:

I want to see millions of Americans back at work. In my vision for America, we’ll bring back manufacturing jobs that pay well. How? We’ll dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home.

More than $2 trillion in American profit currently sits overseas. In my vision for America, new highways and bridges will be built across the country, not by raising your taxes, but by lowering the tax to bring this American profit home.

This is the overseas profits tax holiday he co-sponsored with Democrat Barbara Boxer. Multinational corporations like Apple and Google (both headquartered in Boxer’s state) juggle their books to make most of their profits appear overseas, so that they can avoid the 35% corporate income tax. The Paul-Boxer bill would let them bring those profits home and pay just 6.5%. It would create an immediate one-time slug of revenue, but, as Bloomberg Business explains:

It’s not clear that the Paul-Boxer plan would actually raise revenue. The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper for tax bills, said last year that a similar proposal would raise money in the first few years and then cost the government a net total of $95.8 billion over a decade.

That’s because companies would interpret a repeat of a tax holiday enacted in 2004 as a sign that they should shift even more profits outside the U.S. in anticipation of another holiday.

Criminal justice reform. After Ferguson, Paul wrote an op-ed in Time calling for demilitarization of the police. He wrote:

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

He mentioned the issue in Tuesday’s speech without elaborating:

I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.

Most other Republicans don’t believe that race is a factor in our criminal justice system, so in the debates I expect Paul to be challenged to name some law that should be repealed because of its unfairness to blacks. It will be interesting to see what he says.

Defense and foreign policy. Historically, Libertarians have been isolationists. For good reasons: War inevitably increases government power, both economically and in terms of civil liberties. In wartime, ordinary political dissent turns into disloyalty or even treason.

For years, this reluctance to involve the United States in foreign conflicts has distanced both Rand and Ron Paul from the Republican mainstream. (In the 2011 Republican debates, Ron Paul said about the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapon “What’s so terribly bad about this?” and opposed even trade sanctions. Just a year ago, Rand Paul told ABC’s Jonathan Karl “The people who say ‘by golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war.”)

Since he began moving towards his own presidential run, though, Rand has tried to walk that back and sound more bellicose, even supporting higher defense spending. In his announcement speech, he proclaimed “radical Islam” as “the enemy”.

And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.

And he tried to walk narrow line supporting negotiations with Iran without siding with President Obama.

I see an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, yet wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention.

which sounds a lot like what Obama sees. So what’s the difference?

The difference between President Obama and myself, he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness. Yet everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad.

But it’s not clear what would make a President Paul “stronger” than President Obama, other than simply being a Republican. I’m sure he’ll be pressed on this during the campaign.

Civil liberties. One place Paul is not backing down is on limiting government spying on American citizens who have committed no crime.

The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance. … We must defend ourselves, but we must never give up who we are as a people. We must never diminish the Bill of Rights as we fight this long war against evil. We must believe in our founding documents. We must protect economic and personal liberty again.

This is one issue where his difference with other Republican candidate might be popular even among the Republican electorate. I hope he’ll challenge other candidates to match his day-one pledge.

Summary. To appeal to the Republican primary electorate, Paul will be tempted to shift his positions towards the Republican mainstream and away from this Libertarian roots. To an extent he already has. But his hope of winning also has to depend on drawing alienated voters to the polls. To do that, he’ll have to maintain an image as a different kind of Republican.

That will require a lot of political skill, which Paul has never shown in the past. (He has a tendency to get testy when questioned, as he did this week.) There is a place in American politics waiting for the candidate who can run a pox-on-both-your-houses campaign. But I personally don’t believe Rand Paul is skillful enough to be that candidate.

More of a problem is his record of specific proposals. It’s hard to run an Obama-style hope-and-change campaign when your opponents can so easily pull you into unpopular details you have laid out in your own words.

Addendum. It’s been pointed out in the comments that I said nothing about Paul’s position on social issues like abortion. That’s because Paul said nothing. My take is that he wishes he could avoid talking about these issues. One of the times he got testy with a reporter was when he was asked whether an abortion ban should have a rape exception.

The fact that he doesn’t want to answer that question tells you where he is on abortion in general: He’s against it to the point that he’s willing to consider forcing a woman to have her rapist’s child. That’s where the question starts getting difficult for him.

He has also said that same-sex marriage “offends myself and a lot of other people“, but supports letting same-sex couples have “contracts” with each other, whatever that means.

[1] Paul puts forward a zero-sum view of government and the people: any expansion of government necessarily diminishes individuals. This clearly makes sense with regard to privacy: As the government snoops more, our sphere of privacy shrinks. But it’s less obvious with opportunity and liberty: Liberals would argue that programs like government-subsidized state universities and community colleges can increase opportunity for people born into poverty, and regulations that restrain the power of big business (net neutrality, for example) can increase liberty for individuals. Libertarians have arguments against these points, but Paul usually doesn’t go there: He frames these objections out of the discussion rather than address them.

[2] Kimberley Amadeo does the analysis of debt-added-per-president through Obama’s first five budgets. Paul’s statement about President He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (i.e., George W. Bush; the word “Bush” does not appear in the transcript) is accurate: The debt was $5.8 trillion at the end of Bill Clinton’s last budget, and (excluding the FY 2009 spending of Obama’s stimulus plan, which was added to the FY 2009 budget after Bush left office) he added another $5.849 trillion. So yeah: doubled.

In Amadeo’s analysis, President Obama added $6.167 trillion in his first five years, including the FY 2009 spending taken out of Bush’s total. The current CBO projection of the FY 2015 deficit is $486 billion. FY 2016 and FY 2017 come in at $455 billion each. Total: $7.563 trillion.

So “tripled” is only accurate if you mean that the debt has (more than) tripled since Bush took office, which is a generous way to read Paul’s statement — certainly not the way the typical voter hears it. Obama himself is nowhere near tripling the debt; he hasn’t even doubled it. (And if you want to spin the numbers Obama’s way, he inherited a $1.6 billion annual deficit and has whittled it down to under $500 billion.)

The bit about “more debt than all of the previous presidents combined” is simply false. If you add up just the last three Republican presidents — Bush II at $5.849, Bush I at $1.554, and Reagan at $1.86 trillion — you get $9.263 trillion of debt, which is considerably more than Obama is projected to add by the time he leaves office. (In inflation-adjusted numbers, the comparison is even worse for the Republicans.)

If you want try juggling numbers to make Paul’s statement accurate, you can charge Obama with the full FY 2009 deficit (including the part already run up before Inauguration Day), and give the next president credit for the FY 2017 projection. That adds $1.177 trillion and brings Obama up to $8.74 trillion, which is still less than half the projected national debt at the end of FY 2016. (Also, giving Obama the full blame for FY 2009 ruins Paul’s claim that Bush doubled the debt.) So no, you just can’t make Paul’s claim work no matter what you do. It’s a lie.

And a million dollars a minute? Close enough for this kind of analogy. There are 60 x 24 x 365 = 525,600 minutes in a year. Times a million is $525.6 billion. The projected deficit for this year is $486 billion.

[3] The major disagreement between the parties is over why the middle class is vanishing, and I hope the campaign centers on that debate. Republicans largely back Paul’s view, that the problem is the growth of government. Liberals blame the effects of the Reagan Revolution: By lowering taxes on the wealthy, freeing corporations from anti-trust regulations, and making it nearly impossible for workers to unionize — policies that Clinton and Obama never managed to reverse — government has allowed the 1% to squeeze all the juice out of the economy.

Liberals have timing in their favor: wage growth stopped tracking productivity growth with the jump in oil prices in 1973, but the gap really started opening up during the Reagan administration and has not closed since.

Conservatives have to explain why the explosive growth of government that began with FDR went together with the growth of the economy and the middle class until the mid-1970s.

For a completely different view of the meaning of the national debt, see Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.

[4] In Republican circles, the Clinton surplus just never happened. What’s more, the way it happened — a combination of controlled spending and increased taxes — is a theoretical impossibility.

[5] This popular conservative talking point seems to refer to the sustainable-energy part of stimulus, which made the famous failed loan to Solyndra. But in spite of extension congressional investigations, no big corruption scandal ever emerged. According to The Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s final report “does not provide specific evidence to back up GOP allegations aired over past months that administration officials provided the Solyndra loan as payback for campaign donations.”

Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way

There have been a lot of painful back-and-forths about what the proposed state “religious freedom” laws allow. Like this one, where ABC’s Jake Trapper tries to get the sponsor of Arkansas’ original RFRA bill (which has since been watered down a little) to admit that it allows “discrimination” against a same-sex couple getting married, while the legislator will admit only that it allows bakers, florists, et al to refuse to “participate in the message”.

There actually is a sensible in-between position, and I doubt a new law was necessary to allow it, because it was already embedded in the judge’s decision in the 2013 Colorado bakery case, as I noted last week.

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. … [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. [my emphasis]

Let me take this out of the gay-rights arena with a hypothetical example: Suppose I represent an atheist group that is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I go to a baker and ask for a cake. Suppose I want him to write “God is Dead” on the cake, and he refuses. If I sue, then I believe he should win the case, because his freedom of speech is violated if he’s forced to write something he doesn’t agree with.

But now suppose we didn’t get that far: As soon as I say why I want a cake, the baker responds, “I’m not going to make a cake for an atheist group.” All I want is a cake with a 10 on top of it, and he says no. Now if I sue, I believe I should win, because the baker is discriminating against atheists as a religious group. In other words, a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

Colorado followed that principle again this week when it upheld the right of a baker not to make an anti-gay cake:

The complaint against Marjorie Silva, owner of Azucar Bakery, was filed by Castle Rock, Colo., resident Bill Jack, who claimed Silva discriminated against his religious beliefs when she refused to decorate a cake showing two groomsmen with a red “x” over them and messages about homosexuality being a sin.

Silva said she would make the cake, but declined to write his suggested messages on the cake, telling him she would give him icing and a pastry bag so he could write the words himself. Silva said the customer didn’t want that.

If conservative Christian bakers would offer gay and lesbian couples a similar compromise — “I’ll make the cake and sell you two groom figures, but you’ll have to put them on the cake yourself.” — I suspect they’d have no problems with the courts. Certainly not in Colorado, and probably not anywhere.

The loophole the Arkansas legislator is trying to wiggle through is that the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to “symbolic speech” — wordless actions that make a statement, like burning an American flag. He wants to claim that providing any of the services involved in a same-sex wedding can be construed as a symbolic statement that the provider approves of same-sex marriage. So a florist’s or photographer’s right to free speech is violated if s/he is forced to make such a statement.

That’s ridiculous. It’s the kind of passive aggression I’ve pointed out before: exaggerating your sensitivity in order to control others by claiming offense. Society could not function if we allowed everyone to claim this degree of moral sensitivity. (“If you force me to hire beef-eaters in my widget factory, then you’re making me say I approve of eating beef, which violates my Hindu faith.”) So it’s an implicit claim that conservative Christians have special rights that other people don’t have.

What this situation cries out for is a “reasonable person” interpretation: Would reasonable people look at the flowers at a same-sex wedding and see the florist making a political/religious statement? (“Those must come from Belle’s Flowers. I didn’t know Belle endorsed same-sex marriage. I thought she was a Christian.”) Or would they just think “nice flowers”?

This interpretation separates actual religious-freedom issues from the bogus ones that fundamentalists are putting forward. A reasonable person would assume that the officiating minister approves of the ceremony, so the minister’s presence makes a statement that the law can’t force. But florists? photographers? bakers? caterers? No.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ted Cruz

On March 23 at Liberty University in Virginia, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas became the first major Republican to announce his presidential candidacy. As I explained in the introduction to this series, I don’t think the mainstream media takes candidate stump speeches seriously enough: In them, a candidate presents a vision of what leadership America needs at the present moment, and why he or she is the person to provide it. That vision is typically a combination of truth and fantasy, both about himself/herself and about America, but it is a telling and instructive combination all the same.

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes below are from the Washington Post transcript. (I’ve left out the crowd reactions.)

Significance of the site. “To come to the world’s largest Christian university [1] is a statement in and of itself,” said student government president Quincy Thompson. “I think he was very clear in his commitment to Christ.”

Liberty University was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and is still headed by his son, Jerry Jr. It describes its mission as “training champions for Christ“. Falwell Sr. can be regarded as a founder of the Theocrat wing of the Republican Party — I discuss the four Republican factions here and here — so by announcing his candidacy at Liberty, Cruz is identifying himself as a Theocrat. (He has since doubled down on that with his first campaign ad.)

Cruz’ speech is one of Liberty’s three-times-a-week Convocations, and he is introduced by President Falwell. (I haven’t found what Falwell said.) Attendance at Convocations is mandatory for students, which explains why you can see a few Rand Paul t-shirts in the crowd. In general, the audience is respectful but not enthusiastic, except when Cruz pledges his support to Israel. (Christian Theocrats are major supporters of Israel, for reasons largely having to do with end times prophecies.)

Outline. The overall theme of Cruz’s 31-minute speech is “re-igniting the promise of America”. It falls into three parts: The first ten minutes are about Cruz and his family, the next 13 make a contrast between where he thinks America is and where he wants to take it, and the final eight explain why the difficult things he wants to do are possible: a combination of people power (“The power of the American people when we rise up and stand for liberty knows no bounds.”) and divine assistance (“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”).

Family bio. Telling your story is a standard part of a stump speech, and if your theme is “re-igniting the promise of America”, it helps if your family’s story illustrates the promise of America. This isn’t a conservative or liberal thing: In many ways Cruz’ use of his father’s Cuban-immigrant struggle reminds me of Mike Dukakis’ use of his father’s Greek-immigrant struggle.

It’s particularly important for Cruz, though, because his father is going to be an issue in the campaign: Rafael Cruz is pastor of a Purifying Fire franchise in Carrollton, Texas. He is a popular religious-right speaker on his own, and regularly says the kinds of things that liberals imagine conservatives think but don’t say. That relationship will be a plus for Cruz as long as he’s only facing far-right audiences, but in a general election his Dad problem will dwarf Barack Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem.

As Ted tells it, his parents’ story has two themes: How in America two people can start with nothing and put their son in the Senate, and how Jesus Christ can transform a family. He also tries to pick up some working-women cred through his mother’s success in a male-dominated field (computer programming). [2]

Rafael arrived from Cuba at 18, after rebelling against the corrupt dictator Batista and then getting disillusioned by Castro. He worked his way through the University of Texas washing dishes (something you could do back in the days when state universities were heavily subsidized). Ted conveniently skips Rafael’s failed first marriage, but does tell how he abandoned his second wife when Ted was three. That was when Rafael found Jesus.

And God transformed his heart. And he drove to the airport, he bought a plane ticket, and he flew back to be with my mother and me. There are people who wonder if faith is real. I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt, because were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ … I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.

Ted’s wife was the child of white missionaries to Africa. In telling the story of her business success, he focuses on her childhood cake-baking business, and manages not to say the words “Goldman Sachs”.

Similarly, he leaves out some things when talking about himself

heading off to school over a thousand miles away from home, in a place where he knew nobody, where he was alone and scared, and his parents going through bankruptcy meant there was no financial support at home, so at the age of 17, he went to get two jobs to help pay his way through school. He took over $100,000 in school loans, loans I suspect a lot of ya’ll can relate to, loans that I’ll point out I just paid off a few years ago.

That’s got to be the strangest way I’ve ever heard someone say he went to Princeton and then got his law degree at Harvard. [3]

He draws this segment to a close by saying: “These are all of our stories.” In other words, the American dream is “to come to America with nothing, and to achieve anything.” We all share that dream, but the Cruz family embodies it.

The threat. Having shown us how the promise of America has been fulfilled for him and his family, Cruz transitions to the second part of the speech by introducing the idea that the promise of America is threatened, and may not be available for the students in the audience unless they fight for it.

For so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant. … So many fear that that promise is today unattainable.

The promise of America has to be “re-ignited” if it’s going to be available to this generation.

What’s interesting here is how Left and Right are telling the same story with different villains. In Cruz’ version, the promise of America has been corrupted by over-reaching government and the loss of the Christian values the country was founded on. In the liberal version, the promise of America has been stolen by the 1%; they have climbed the ladder of success and pulled it up behind them. A candidate who could combine these stories would really have something; but I don’t see that coming from the husband of a Goldman Sachs executive — or from Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

Cruz uses war imagery to imagine how this might turn around. He begins with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” [4]

Today millions of young people are scared, worried about the future, worried about what the future will hold. Imagine millions of young people coming together and standing together, saying “we will stand for liberty.”

and in the closing invites the students “to join a grassroots army”. His implicit message is that one way Liberty students can be “champions for Christ” is to be champions for Ted Cruz.

Imagine how things could be rather than how they are. The “imagine” in the previous quote is the start of a litany of the form “Instead of X, imagine Y.”

Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth. … Instead of small businesses going out of business in record numbers, imagine small businesses growing and prospering.

Again, this kind of stuff will play well in the Republican primaries, but I can imagine an attack-dog Democratic VP candidate (Al Franken would deliver the line best) countering with: “Instead of the slow but steady growth we’ve had under a centrist Democratic president, imagine the economy falling completely off a cliff the way it did the last time we had a conservative Republican president.”

That’s going to be the general-election challenge of any Republican candidate: You can talk a good game about “booming economic growth”, but when the details come out, what are you proposing other than a return to Bushism? In large part, that is what sunk Romney. He wanted to project an image as an economic turn-around specialist, but he didn’t have any credible proposals to back it up. Lower taxes? Less regulation? How is that different from what failed so disastrously under Bush?

And “small businesses going out of business in record numbers”? False.

Sometimes there are policies behind Cruz’ litany, if you know how to interpret.

Imagine innovation thriving on the Internet as government regulators and tax collectors are kept at bay and more and more opportunity is created.

If wasn’t until the second time I listened to the speech that I realized he was talking about his opposition to net neutrality. The idea that the FCC’s endorsement of net neutrality will have a side-effect of raising taxes is speculative at best, but is accepted as gospel on the right. And the belief that letting Comcast and Verizon dominate the internet will make innovation “thrive” and create “opportunity” … well, that’s just crazy.

Cruz repeats several other baseless conservative fantasies:

Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends met, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. Imagine abolishing the IRS.

Every proposed flat tax that collects the same revenue as the current system does so by increasing taxes on “families struggling to make ends meet”. It has to, because the whole point of flattening the tax is so that rich people can pay less.

Similarly, the flatness of a tax has nothing to do with how complicated tax returns are. [5] The complicated part of the income tax is figuring out what your income is after deductions, not what tax rate you pay on it. Having a flat tax is not going to help you compute the basis price on your investments, or what part of your small-business revenue is actually income. (How are you going to do that on a postcard?) And if you want to simplify by getting rid of deductions, you can do that without flattening the tax. (If you want to make deduction-cutting revenue-neutral, lower all the tax rates by equal percentages.) The point of a flat tax is not simplicity or anything other than shifting the tax burden from the rich to the rest of us.

And “abolishing the IRS” means what exactly? That the government is just going to take our word for what our income is? The only way to abolish the IRS is to abolish the income tax, which would have to be replaced by something more regressive, like a national sales tax.

Instead of the lawlessness and the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders.

What kind of police state would we need to “secure the border”? Reagan couldn’t do it. Bush couldn’t do it. Even Nazi Germany never managed to secure its borders completely. Also: about half our undocumented immigrants come in legally, but overstay their visas. Nothing we can do on the border will fix that.

And imagine a legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.

All of them? Isn’t that exactly what a lot of conservatives want to prevent? How many immigrants does Cruz imagine letting in each year? Won’t they “steal our jobs“?

And some Cruz’ proposals are just nonsense:

Imagine repealing every word of Common Core.

As many people have pointed out, Common Core is not a law, so it can’t be repealed. Pretty much everything Cruz says about Common Core is disconnected from reality. Vox explains:

If Cruz really wanted to get rid of Common Core, he could run the Obama administration’s play in reverse: create his own version of Race to the Top, with financial incentives for states to toss out the Common Core standards and develop their own based on what local authorities think students should learn. But that’s just another form of federal interference — and Cruz wants the federal government out of the education standards business entirely.

Cruz continues:

every single child, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of wealth or ZIP Code, every child in America has the right to a quality education.

But if there are no national standards, what does “quality education” mean? And if there’s no definition, what is Cruz’ assertion of every child’s rights worth?

And of course, no Ted Cruz speech would be complete without trashing ObamaCare.

Instead of the joblessness, instead of the millions forced into part-time work, instead of the millions who’ve lost their health insurance, lost their doctors, have faced skyrocketing health insurance premiums, imagine in 2017 a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.

It will be interesting to see how long the Right can stay in the alternate universe where ObamaCare is a horrible failure. An ever-larger percentage of the electorate either gets insurance through ObamaCare or knows someone who does, so the made-up horror stories can’t cut it forever, as Cathy McMorris Rodgers found out.

Imagine health care reform that keeps government out of the way between you and your doctor and that makes health insurance personal and portable and affordable.

You need imagination to see the Republican alternative to ObamaCare, because in the real world there isn’t one. I’ll bet Cruz will go as long as he can without offering any more details than what you see above.

But the portions of the Imagine litany aimed at the Religious Right ring true.

Instead of a federal government that wages an assault on our religious liberty, that goes after Hobby Lobby, that goes after the Little Sisters of the Poor, that goes after Liberty University, imagine a federal government that stands for the First Amendment rights of every American.

Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage.

Instead of a government that works to undermine our Second Amendment rights, that seeks to ban our ammunition imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.

I’ve got nothing cynical to say about any of that. [6] He means it.

God’s help. One theme of Cruz’ career is that conservatives don’t need to compromise, they just need to fight. That principle and Cruz’ leadership was how we wound up with the government shutdown of 2013.

So he closes his speech by explaining why he believes — in spite of sad experience — that compromise is unnecessary and his vision is possible. He recalls a number of crisis points in American history [7], and then concludes:

From the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing. Over and over again, when we face impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge.

So Theocrats shouldn’t seek a compromise candidate that might have a better chance of winning. Ted Cruz should be their first choice, and with their help and God’s he will become president.

Is it working? The first new poll out says it is: Cruz has gone from 5% support to 16%, within striking distance of the leaders Scott Walker (20%) and Jeb Bush (17%). God may not be throwing his weight into the scale, but the Theocrats are.

[1] Liberty has nearly 14,000 students on its campus and another 100,000 online. I’m not sure exactly how it justifies its claim to be “the largest Christian university in the world”, which Cruz repeats in his speech.

Just in the U.S., Catholic DePaul has over 30,000 students on campus. Maybe Liberty has more online students, or maybe they think Catholic universities are not really Christian. Certainly you don’t have to be Christian to attend DePaul, while Liberty’s application requires an essay on “How will your personal faith and beliefs allow you to contribute to Liberty’s mission to develop Christ-centered leaders?”

One good background source is the book The Unlikely Disciple, by a liberal Brown student who goes undercover at Liberty.

[2] Since Ted was born while the family was living in Canada, he gets his American citizenship and his right to run for president from his mother, who was born in Delaware. Some on the left want to make an issue out of this, since there is at least more substance to it than to the pure-fantasy Birther objections to President Obama’s legitimacy — which Rafael Cruz promoted. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Birthers tear down democracy by injecting bullshit into the public discourse. Those of us who want to uphold democracy can’t use their tactics.

[3] In context, this talking-about-himself-in-the-third person is not as weird as it sounds out of context. Rhetorically, he has set it up well.

[4] That choice of founding father is a dog whistle: To most of us, Patrick Henry is just another founder. But he was a Theocrat in the Virginia of his day, and clashed often with secularists like Jefferson and Madison. Liberty students probably know this.

[5] I just finished doing my own taxes. If we’d had only one tax rate in 2014, all that would have changed were the numbers in the Tax Tables. Everything else in my tax return (and yours too, I believe) would have been exactly the same.

[6] Well, one thing. The “ban our ammunition” line is about a proposal to ban armor-piercing bullets, whose main civilian application is in killing cops. The Obama administration dropped that proposal after the NRA threw a fit.

This shows how far you have to stretch if you want to claim that Obama is a threat to gun owners: You have to point to a moderate, sensible proposal that he didn’t follow through on anyway.

[7] Leaving out the Civil War, interestingly. I wonder if Cruz believes God’s side won that war.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Introducing the Series

One benefit of living in New Hampshire is the opportunity to listen to presidential candidates unfiltered by the national media. It wasn’t until I arrived here in 1996 that I realized just how distorting that filter can be: Early in each cycle, the press corps decides on a narrative for each candidate, and from there on it’s very hard for any other message to get through.

For example, in 2003 Howard Dean was the anti-war candidate. That’s what I expected to hear when I went to see him, and when he instead talked about a wide range of issues, I thought he must be making a real effort to broaden his appeal. But when I read the press coverage the next morning, it only mentioned the anti-war parts of his speech. If I hadn’t been there, I would have thought the anti-war candidate gave another anti-war speech. In fact, I eventually discovered, Dean had given his standard stump speech, which had always been about a wide range of issues. It just never got covered that way.

In the same campaign, I listened to John Kerry and blogged about his talk, not realizing that I had totally ignored what became the mainstream-media story: Kerry calling for “regime change in the United States“. If you were there, it was a throw-away line in an otherwise serious talk about where America was heading and where it needed to go. If you weren’t there, it was the only line you heard.

Ever since, I’ve tried to listen to as many candidates’ stump speeches as I can. Often they contain a lot of slanted statistics and mis-stated facts — which are instructive in their own way — but they also constitute a candidate’s best answer to the fundamental question of any presidential campaign: Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead us there?

It’s important not to lose sight of that, or to get lost in all the clever remarks and wardrobe choices and inside-baseball strategizing. Where does this candidate think America needs to go and why is s/he the one to lead us there?

Fortunately, in the YouTube era you don’t have to live in New Hampshire or Iowa to hear a stump speech. So in this series I’m going to link to videos and/or transcripts of stump speeches of all the major candidates as they start campaigning, and I’m going to take them seriously. I’ll fact-check, pull out larger themes, compare to other candidate’s speeches, and think about the parts of the picture I think are being left out.

Watch the speeches with me and add your comments. I’m going to start later today with Ted Cruz’s Liberty University speech, and I plan to update this post throughout the year as more candidates announce and more stump speeches become available.

Speeches discussed so far: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio.

2016: Understanding the Republican Process

Four years ago, Jonathan Chait made the kind of prognosticating mistake people don’t let you forget: He picked Tim Pawlenty as the 2012 Republican nominee.

To be fair, Pawlenty wasn’t as ridiculous a choice as hindsight makes him look, and Chait wasn’t the only one forecasting great things for him: Pawlenty was Mitt Romney without the baggage of Mormonism and RomneyCare. He was conservative enough to be acceptable to the Party’s various factions, while sounding moderate enough not to scare off the national electorate.

In other words: If this were still the GOP of 1920, Pawlenty was exactly the kind of Warren-Harding-ish compromise candidate the smoke-filled room above the convention hall would have settled on after ten or twenty ballots. But since Pawlenty was nobody’s first choice in 2012, he never broke out of single digits in the polls and was out of the race before a single vote was cast.

The lesson of Chait/Pawlenty is that the modern Republican presidential process has two distinct phases: First a qualifying phase, where a few candidates break out of the pack to eliminate everyone else, and then a decision phase, where the party picks one of the qualifiers to unify around. Pawlenty is an example of a good decision-phase candidate who never made it out of the qualifying round.

To make it out of the qualifying phase, you need to be the first choice of one of the Party’s factions. But what are those factions?

The Four Factions. I still believe in the model from “The Four Flavors of Republican“, which boils down to this diagram:

GOPstructureThe four groups overlap, which is how the GOP stays together. But each speaks a subtly different language and focuses on a different set of issues. In 2012, each faction had a favorite son: Mitt Romney (Corporatist), Newt Gingrich (NeoCon), Rick Santorum (Theocrat), and Ron Paul (Libertarian). Those candidates made it through the qualifying phase, with Romney substantially in the lead. The decision-phase question was then whether Romney could convince the NeoCons, Theocrats, and Libertarians not to divide the party — and so insure Obama’s re-election — by rejecting him.

That model, I believe, will hold again in 2016. To make in through the qualifying phase, a candidate will need to convince one of the four factions that he is their guy. To survive the decision phase and get the nomination, a qualifier has to convince each of the other three factions not to veto him.

So let’s look at the factions one-by-one. Each faction has its favorite sons, and a second category I call “fluent speakers” — candidates who aren’t necessarily identified with the faction, but who can go into a room of activists and speak their language. If a faction comes to believe that its favorite sons can’t be nominated, its members might throw their early support to a fluent speaker. On the flip side, a faction might identify some candidate as an enemy: somebody whose nomination could be a reason to bolt the party. In 2012, for example, many Theocrats had a hard time stomaching the Mormon Romney.

Theocrats. If a candidate denounces gay marriage, compares abortion to the Holocaust, talks about the Constitution as if it were a scripture God revealed to the Founders, and takes seriously the idea that Christians are persecuted in this country, he’s trying to win over the Theocrats.

The favorite sons are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. (Sarah Palin could be favorite daughter if she actually ran and wasn’t looking increasingly loony. But I don’t think she has any interest in the hard work necessary to run a serious campaign. She floats her name to stay in the headlines, and she’ll tease her supporters as long she can. But she won’t run.) Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal are fluent speakers of the Theocrat language. Scott Walker has the background and record to be a fluent speaker, but after watching his Iowa Freedom Summit speech, I’m still not sure he can really preach in Theocrat. (Questions like that are why we have campaigns.) Chris Christie might be an enemy.

Jeb Bush can speak the language, but fails key litmus tests. Theocrats worry about government-imposed secularism, and so are suspicious of any federal role in education. Bush was an early proponent of the Common Core standard, not realizing it would turn into a “vast network of conspiracy theories“. (To a Corporatist, Common Core is not a liberal conspiracy, it’s a corporate plan to skim more profits off of public education. That kind of conspiracy is OK.) A lot of Theocrats are also Nativists, so Bush’s sympathy for Hispanic immigrants also makes him suspect. One of the key issues of the decision phase will be whether Huckabee/Santorum can paint Bush as an enemy, or whether Bush can use his mastery of the language to convince Theocrats (who liked his brother in spite of No Child Left Behind) that he’s harmless.

In recent years, Iowa has picked the Theocrat qualifier: Santorum in 2012, Huckabee in 2008. Both are interested this year. Ted Cruz’ decision to announce his candidacy at Liberty University says that he’s pitching for the Theocrat vote as well.

NeoCons. This is the John McCain/Dick Cheney wing of the party. A candidate who identifies with Israel, denounces Islam by name, hates Obama’s move to end the Cuba embargo, and views war with Iran as more-or-less inevitable is appealing to the NeoCons.

The purest NeoCon candidates are John Bolton and Lindsay Graham, but it’s not clear that either of them is ever going to be taken seriously. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and a lot of other people are fluent speakers. Rand Paul is an enemy, while Scott Walker’s complete lack of military or foreign-policy experience makes him suspect.

The early primary with the strongest NeoCon flavor is South Carolina, and the kingmaker of the NeoCons is billionaire Sheldon Adelson; when he starts writing big checks, we’ll know who the NeoCon candidate is.

Corporatists. Articles about the “donor class” or the “Republican establishment” focus on the Corporatists. Corporatists value managerial experience, so they favor business executives and governors. They hate unions, want to privatize anything government does,  and dislike government interference (but aren’t above taking a special tax break or a bail-out). They want to cut the taxes that affect rich people and corporations, but they also worry about “the 47%” who don’t pay federal income tax. So raising taxes on poor people is a winning issue here, if you come up with some euphemism (“broaden the tax base“) that doesn’t sound like “raising taxes”.

Moral issues are just tactical for the Corporatists; they used gay marriage to boost Republican turn-out in 2004, but are just as happy to drop it now that the wind has changed. However immigration reform works out, they don’t want to lose access to cheap labor.

Corporatists are well-connected in the media, so their candidates usually appear to be stronger than they actually are. (That’s why Romney seemed “inevitable” in the 2012 cycle, but had so much trouble nailing the nomination down.) As candidates from other factions emerge, the media will be shocked and say that they “came from nowhere”.

Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker are the Corporatist favorite sons. Corporatists don’t usually have to accept a fluent speaker, but Rick Perry might be acceptable and most candidates speak pretty good Corporatist. Mike Huckabee is an enemy, and many Corporatists find Ted Cruz’ populist side scary.

The Koch Brothers are an interesting case. They present themselves as Libertarians, but much of their money goes to Corporatists. Koch-Corporate may just be a rival branch of the Corporatist faction, one that wants to support its own candidates rather than established ones like Bush. If so, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker might be its favorite son.

Libertarians. Libertarian Republicans are already united behind Rand Paul, just as they were behind Ron Paul in 2012. But they are probably the smallest faction of the party, and the question is whether Paul can pull support from other factions, or whether some fluent speaker might get their support if Paul embarrasses himself in the debates. (I think that’s a real possibility; Rand is just not as sharp as his Dad was.)

The key event to look for is whether Paul can get support from the Kochs. (I don’t think he will.) Paul was invited to the Koch Brothers’ candidate forum (where he clashed with Cruz and Rubio over foreign policy), but Rubio came out ahead in the straw poll.

What the numbers say. 538’s Harry Enten looked at recent nominees and came up with this theory about early polls: At this stage of the campaign, you can be on your way to the nomination if you’re known and liked by your party (as Bush was in 1999), or if you’re not liked because you’re still unknown (like Dukakis in 1987). But it’s death to be known and not liked. No recent nominee has had both high name recognition and low net favorability at this stage of the process.

If you buy that theory, then Christie and Palin are hopeless, while Perry and Bush have work to do, and Jindal is on life support. Huckabee, Paul, Carson, and Walker are about where they ought to be, with Cruz and Rubio doing OK.

Other factors. A lot of unpredictable or hard-to-measure factors will turn out to be important, including:

The Money Primary. Whoever wins the first primary gets a boost, but the first primary isn’t Iowa or New Hampshire: It’s the Money Primary, where the “electorate” are the big donors. A Corporatist almost always wins: Bush in 2000, Romney in 2012.

In a few days we’ll start hearing fund-raising totals from the first quarter, and they will make it clear that Jeb Bush is decisively winning the Money Primary. That will shape the race in three ways:

  • It anoints Bush as the Corporatist qualifier, unless and until he screws up. It all but sinks Chris Christie, and tells Scott Walker he needs a more Theocratic image.
  • It will ignite the Jeb-is-inevitable talk, which will continue until a Theocrat “comes from nowhere” and wins Iowa. (If Jeb wins Iowa, then he probably is inevitable.) That will open up the possibility of a Libertarian or NeoCon winning New Hampshire and a NeoCon winning South Carolina.
  • Money gives a candidate resilience. If you have a lot of it banked, you can absorb a loss and regroup in the next state. In 2012, Romney lost South Carolina to Gingrich, then outspent him 4-to-1 to win Florida.

Identity politics. There’s a strong I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I aspect to Republican politics. In the Obama years, that helped non-white candidates like Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and Bobby Jindal, who let Republicans say, “See, we’re not racists; you’re the racists.” But as the Democratic mantle shifts from Obama to (presumably) Hillary, I expect Republicans to lose interest in non-whites. If there were a viable woman in the race — Palin isn’t, and Carly Fiorina has yet to emerge from obscurity — she might get a similar boost. Another female VP candidate is a real possibility.

Performance. The hardest factor to predict is how well candidates will perform on the campaign trail. In 2007, who knew Obama would be that good a campaigner or a strategist? And you can never guess when somebody is going to self-destruct in a debate, like Rick Perry did in 2011. (His excuse is that he was recovering from back pain and was over-medicated then, but he’s better now. I thought his Iowa Freedom Summit performance was impressive, but we won’t know until the debates start. Certainly any little flub he makes will get a lot of coverage.)

I expect Cruz and Christie to perform well, and Jindal and Paul to perform badly. (Watch Paul’s interview with Rachel Maddow.) The big wild card is Bush, who has never campaigned for national office, or for anything at all since 2002.

I don’t think we give Mitt Romney enough credit for how good a primary campaign he ran in 2012. He was the target in every debate, and nobody wounded him. Can Bush walk that gauntlet? It’s harder than Romney made it look.

Luck. If 2008’s October surprise had been an Iranian nuclear test rather than a financial crisis, John McCain might be president. You never know when Fate will serve up some issue that lets a candidate say, “I’ve been right about this all along.” Conversely, you have to wonder if the story Rick Perry wants to tell about the Texas economy will fall apart now that oil is under $50 a barrel. All the governors are tied to the events in their states. More bond downgrades for New Jersey could sink Christie, and the sluggish economy of Wisconsin could be trouble for Walker. The outbreak of an unpopular war could turn Rand Paul into the peace candidate.

What I Expect. Paul is the only Libertarian running; unless he self-destructs, he’s a qualifier. Similarly, unless some gaffe makes him a laughing stock, Bush will be the Corporatist qualifier. Iowa will anoint the Theocrat qualfier (or eliminate Theocrats if none of them can win it). Ditto for South Carolina and the NeoCons. Then the two qualifiers who are polling best against the Democrat — Hillary unless somebody else emerges soon — will have a shot at putting a coalition together.

What Just Happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu trashed President Obama, the peace process, and Israeli Arabs — and made a startling political comeback. Maybe it’s time Americans recognized that Israel has changed.

During George W. Bush’s first term, a lot of thoughtful foreign observers felt sorry for America and its good-hearted citizens. A fluke in our electoral system had allowed Bush to take office even though Al Gore had gotten more votes. Once in power, Bush turned out to be a radical conservative rather than the like-father-like-son moderate many voters had expected.

And now America wasn’t acting like itself at all: It was trumping up bogus reasons to start wars, creating a “law-free zone” in Guantanamo, torturing prisoners caught on the battlefield, and even imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without trials. How sad it must be for the peace-and-freedom-loving people of America, sympathetic foreigners thought, to see what was happening to their country.

Then we re-elected him.

Around the world, the shock of 2004 was the realization that the problem wasn’t him, it was us. Americans, or at least a majority of the Americans willing and able to get out and vote, liked this kind of government. Who could predict what we might do next? [see endnote 1]

That’s what came to my mind Tuesday when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister of Israel.

The spirit of 67. Like a lot of Americans (and in spite of my criticisms of Israeli policy on this blog) I have a deep and irrational affection for Israel. In June of 1967, I was an impressionable ten-year-old stuck inside with a cold and nothing to watch on TV but the Six Day War that was pre-empting all other programming. I was completely sucked in by the David-and-Goliath narrative all three networks presented as tiny Israel thrashed its much larger neighbors. What better fantasies could a housebound Midwestern Lutheran boy ask for than to be an Israeli tank commander kicking up sand in the Sinai, or a pilot screaming over the horizon and striking terror into Egyptian or Jordanian troops? [2]

In the decades that followed, Israelis were easy to identify with: They looked like us and dressed like us and talked like us. All the Israeli leaders who showed up on TV spoke marvelous English. They seemed so polished compared to Yassar Arafat, who always looked dusky and unshaven and foreign. Israel’s armed forces fought like ours, with tech and air power and a high value on each soldiers’ life. Their parliamentary system was more like the British, but that was OK too; it still had campaigns and elections and courts that enforced basic rights.

In high school, I had friends who had been to Israel, and others who wanted to go. They made it sound like such a magical place. Of the Arab countries, only Egypt piqued my interest, and then only the remnants of its dead civilization. Present-day Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus held no similar allure.

Through the 1980s, I paid little attention to the Palestinians. Sinai had gone back to Egypt in the prototype land-for-peace swap, and no doubt the West Bank would eventually be part of some similar deal. It was taking longer than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new and expanding Jewish settlements [3], but peace seemed to be in everyone’s long-term interest, so I had little doubt it would eventually happen.

Since the 1990s, though, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Even appreciating the complexities involved in resolving the problem, it’s hard for me to get past a basic sense of wrongness: This can’t go on. Something has to be done.

Israeli conscience. My main solace these last few decades has been that a lot of Israelis feel that same wrongness. For example, one chapter of Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land discusses his military service as a guard at the Gaza Beach detention camp in 1991, and how he and his fellow soldiers struggled to cope. They know there is no real comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany — for starters, Israel isn’t out to annihilate the Palestinians — but they can’t help but feel the resonances.

And even N., who harbors strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M. explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

I, too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They well up when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fence to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter. They well up when a youngster who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of submission and panic and quiet pride. They well up when I glance at myself in the mirror, shocked to see myself here, a jailer in this ghastly prison. And when I see the thousand or so humans around me, locked up in pens, in cages. …

What makes this camp tick is the division of labor. The division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people. This is how it works: The people who vote for Israel’s right-wing parties are not evil; they do not round up youngsters in the middle of the night. And the ministers who represent the right-wing voters in the government are not evil; they don’t hit boys in the stomach with their own fists. And the army’s chief of staff is not evil; he carries out what a legitimate, elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil — he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. And the interrogators — well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they are told, impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailers, most of them are not evil, either. They only want to leave all this behind and get back home.

Yet in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage together to produce a result that is evil indeed.

Shavit is the great-grandson of one of the original British Zionists, and in his own way remains a Zionist, loyal to his great-grandfather’s Jewish humanism. (In an earlier chapter, he retraces his ancestor’s tour and tries to imagine what he saw and what he was thinking. [4]) He believes the Occupation is a cancer on the original Zionist vision, and it needs to end — not just for the sake of the Arabs, but also for the sake of the Jews.

But he is optimistic. The Zionist story, as Shavit tells it, has always balanced the need for the Jews to survive as a people with their need to survive as a moral people. The current moral challenge is nothing fundamentally new, and Zionists will figure it out as they always have.

The tension Shavit feels between morality and survival reminds me of a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who late in his life hoped for the eventual end of slavery but (fearing a race war if the slaves were freed) saw no practical way to bring it about:

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

I really want to believe Shavit, and to believe in the ability of Israelis like him to meet their moral challenge and shape a just future. But the politics of the Netanyahu era are hard to reconcile with his hopeful vision. And Jefferson’s Virginians never did figure out how to end slavery, did they?

Against democracy. Israelis deal with the contradiction between the Occupation and Israel’s traditional democratic values in two opposite ways: Some, like Shavit, come back from military duty with a determination that the Occupation must end. Others return with a weakened commitment to democracy, an attitude that is sometimes called “bringing the Occupation home”. It is psychologically difficult to serve in the territories, treating Palestinian Arabs as a subject population full of terrorists, and then in civilian life to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens with rights. Even Israeli Jews who oppose the Occupation can come to seem like a dangerous fifth column.

To appreciate the full anti-democratic ugliness of the Netanyahu era, read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Blumenthal is a secular American Jew, the son of the former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Like Shavit, Blumenthal mostly tells stories rather than argues. But the stories he tells come from the kind of Israelis you don’t usually see on CNN: Arabs and left-wing Jews, as well as members of the openly racist parties to Netanyahu’s right. [5]

Americans typically only notice Israel’s foreign policy, but Blumenthal calls attention to disturbing domestic laws that get little coverage in the American media. For example, the government has tried in a variety of ways to make it difficult for Israeli Arabs and their Jewish sympathizers to commemorate the Nakba, a day of mourning for the Palestinians driven from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. [6]

On the Israeli left, there is an effort to boycott products made in the West Bank settlements they consider illegal. But a 2011 law makes promoting such a boycott a civil offense. Simply saying “I think people shouldn’t buy West Bank settlement products” in public could land you in court. Wikipedia summarizes:

The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, [my italics] may be sued civilly, in tort, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

Some Israelis are ignoring the law and daring the government to enforce it, including the Hebrew-language Facebook page “Sue me, I’m boycotting settlement products.”

Most disturbing of all is a Netanyahu-supported and cabinet-approved bill that is still awaiting a final vote in the Knesset: the Nation-State Law, which would end the principle — often ignored by the government, but still occasionally invoked by the Supreme Court — that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law. Haaretz summarizes:

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country’s dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state’s Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

In December, Bernard Avishai put the issues bluntly in The New Yorker:

[T]his bill is about writing into the law old Zionist provisions that have morphed into racist and theocratic practices. It will make judicial correctives nearly impossible. … If it comes to an election, it will be best for democratic forces to unify, not only around what Israel does, but what Israel is. Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not. The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.

Conflict over this bill is part of what led Netanyahu to call for the recent elections. But contrary to his hopes for a clearer mandate, late polls indicated his party might control only 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and that a more liberal coalition might get first crack at forming a new government by controlling 24 seats. [7]

Americans are used to political campaigns ending on a Mom-and-apple-pie note. No matter how radical his positions might be, a candidate closes with an appeal to the center, and attempts to prove to late-deciding voters that he’s not as scary has he’s been made out to be.

Facing defeat, Netanyahu did the exact opposite; he embraced more firmly the ugly side of right-wing politics. He came to America to rally Republicans in Congress against President Obama; he reversed his support for a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians (and then flipped back after the election), leaving the world to wonder whether he has any plan for peace at all [8]; he warned the public of the “danger” posed by Arab voters “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations“, i.e., using their legal rights as Israeli citizens; and he charged that a left-wing government might “follow orders” from the international community rather than defend Israel.

And it worked. In a stunning comeback, his party took 30 seats in the Knesset, which (combined with the vote for other right-wing parties) grants him another term as prime minister. During that term, he will know he owes his office to anti-Arab, anti-peace, anti-international-community, anti-democratic rhetoric.

What this means for Americans. There is still a large bloc of reasonable, humanistic, democracy-valuing, peace-loving Israelis. They are the ones that Americans are more likely to know: more likely to visit this country, more likely to write books published in English, more likely to appear on American TV, and so on. Similarly, Americans who visit Israel will probably spend most of their time inside a bubble of humanistic and democratic sensibility; their academic or business contacts will be largely drawn from educated, well-traveled classes where people yearn for “a globalist Hebrew republic” rather than “a little Jewish Pakistan”. [9]

But what this election should teach us is that those people are not the majority. The problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate. That problem is not going away; it’s getting worse. Israel is drifting away from peace and democracy, with no turnaround in sight. [10]

Americans need to face that reality, and re-evaluate our policies in response to it. We can no longer blindly support the Israeli government, hoping that someday it will produce an Anwar Sadat, or even another Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Those days are over in Israel.

President Obama may be starting to figure that out. If he takes any action based on that new understanding, he will come under a blistering attack from our own right wing. The rest of us will need to have his back.

[1] That’s my explanation for those huge and adoring crowds Barack Obama drew across Europe during his candidacy in 2008. It wasn’t his personal charisma or even the inspiring symbolism of a black president. Europeans looked at Obama’s popularity and hoped: “Maybe the most powerful nation on Earth isn’t crazy.”

[2] I remember a joke from that war: An Egyptian commander sees an Israeli soldier stick his head out from behind a dune, and sends five men after him. None come back. Then he sends twenty men, and none of them come back either. Finally he sends a hundred men. An hour later, one badly wounded soldier crawls back to report. “It was ambush,” he says. “There were two of them.”

[3] I am careful not to use Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, and in this case Jewish is the more appropriate term. Arab citizens of Israel typically are not welcome in the West Bank settlements, even ones their taxes helped build. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Few, if any Arabs live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a surge of violence in recent months has persuaded some to leave those in east Jerusalem.”

The right of Israeli Arabs to live in certain parts of Israel is also controversial.

[4] If I met Shavit, I’m sure we’d find a lot to argue about. But he has written a really good book. It is not an argument, but a series of historical vignettes of the Zionist movement. (HBO is about to make it into a movie.) As Palestinian author Sami al Jundi recognized in The Hour of Sunlight, the way to bridge a divide is not to convince opponents with your arguments, but to engage them with your stories.

[5] In his closing chapter, Blumenthal spends time with young leftist Israeli Jews who can no longer live in Israel freely or in good conscience. He finds an active community of Israeli expatriates in — of all places — Berlin.

A more nuanced but equally disturbing account of Israeli society is a review of Goliath by anthropologist (and self-described “nice Jewish girl”) Callie Madhof.

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

[6] The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.

[7] Forming a 61-vote majority is even harder than it looks, because no Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, forcing would-be prime ministers to cobble together super-majorities of the primarily Jewish parties. (That’s what has given those tiny religious parties their clout through the years.) The Joint Arab List captured 14 seats Tuesday.

[8] Marc Schulman commented in the Times of Israel:

[W]e have always claimed that the Palestinians were the ones who were guilty of saying one thing in Arabic to their home audience, and something different on the international stage. Now … our Prime Minister has been caught brazenly doing the same thing.

My reading of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state peace plan is similar to my reading of his support for a “better deal” with Iran: He is always available to accept his enemies’ surrender, but has no interest in finding a mutually acceptable compromise.

[9] Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

[10] Optimists will point out that the United States rejected Bushism in 2008. But that reversal did not come from any new understanding, it resulted from external shocks: the Iraq War turning into a disaster and the economy collapsing. To hope for a similar Israeli turnaround means hoping for similar external shocks.

Justice In Ferguson

Darren Wilson gets off, but the Ferguson police and courts don’t.

Through the late summer and into the fall, no issue in America was more polarizing than the shooting of Michael Brown and the demonstrations of public anger that it sparked. Objective reality seemed to have vanished. The “facts” you saw or believed or told other people depended almost entirely on your prior commitments, what news sources you trusted, and who your friends were.

In Ferguson’s African-American community, everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who had seen Brown gunned down in cold blood, his hands up, trying to surrender. Meanwhile the police (and later the prosecutor) were doing Darren Wilson’s public relations, selectively leaking whatever evidence supported Wilson’s story or made Michael Brown look like a thug.

When the prosecutor organized a defense of Wilson in front of the grand jury, the result — no indictment — seemed predetermined and changed very few minds. If you had believed Wilson from the start, you felt vindicated. But if not, the Brown’s murder was just one more example of police misconduct swept under the rug.

The federal Department of Justice was uniquely situated to bridge the gap. It had the direct access to the witnesses and evidence that the community lacked, and the desire to find the truth that the police and prosecutor seemed to lack.

Wednesday, the Department of Justice released two reports, one specifically about the Brown shooting and the other examining the general state of policing in Ferguson. Taken as a whole, the two reports fit the narrative of neither side. But I heard a convincing ring of truth in them.

Policing in Ferguson. You get the clearest picture if you read the general report first, because the community’s response to the Brown shooting makes no sense until you understand its long-term relationship to the FPD.

The essence of the problem in Ferguson can be summarized in one sentence:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

In other words, the City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The report illustrates with many examples — most taken from the FPD’s own files — the following series of abuses:

  • Police regularly stop citizens without probable cause of any wrong-doing.
  • They demand that citizens submit to unjustified searches of their persons or vehicles.
  • Refusal of unlawful commands or attempts to claim constitutional rights are met with punitive arrests and/or violence.
  • While in custody, citizens are controlled by violence and threats of violence. For example, protesting the basis of an arrest, passively refusing to cooperate, or verbally abusing an officer frequently results in being shot with a taser.
  • The FPD ignores its own system for tracking officers’ use of force. When supervisors do submit a report on a use of force, typically only the arrest report written by the officer in question is consulted, even if that report contains internal contradictions.
  • Complaints from the public are discouraged, are frequently ignored, and can result in punitive investigations of the complaining citizens.
  • Officers are rated and promoted based largely on their “productivity”, i.e., the number of revenue-producing citations they write. Citizen complaints or repeated use of force does not significantly affect an officer’s career.

The damage done by a rogue police force can be mitigated by the courts, if the courts are motivated to pursue justice. However,

The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.

The municipal court, in other words, is part of the predatory system.

Racism. The report describes a general pattern of abusing the powerless, with sections on the mentally ill or mentally handicapped (whose inability to comprehend or respond to police commands is often taken as resistance and met with violence), and students (the officers assigned to Ferguson high schools escalate situations towards arrests — more revenue! — rather than trying to establish and maintain peace).

But the largest of these sections focuses on racism. The FPD, the city government, and the municipal court are overwhelming staffed by whites, in a city that is two-thirds black. Blacks are disproportionately the prey of the municipal justice system, and the more extreme the police action, the more likely the victim is to be black. For example,

The department’s own records demonstrate that, as with other types of force, canine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children. Furthermore, in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American. This disparity, in combination with the decision to deploy canines in circumstances with a seemingly low objective threat, suggests that race may play an impermissible role in officers’ decisions to deploy canines.

The more an officer’s discretion is involved in an arrest, the more likely the arrested citizen is black. For example,

With respect to speeding offenses for all roads, African Americans account for 72% of citations based on radar or laser, but 80% of citations based on other or unspecified methods. Thus, as evaluated by radar, African Americans violate the law at lower rates than as evaluated by FPD officers.

Another factor was the practice of police and court employees “fixing” traffic tickets and other municipal citations for friends and relatives. Given the racial composition of the city’s staff, the recipients of these favors were probably overwhelmingly white.

In addition to statistics, the report culled a number of racist emails from the police and court systems. Like:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

Justice Department investigators could find no record of recipients objecting to such emails or of superiors reprimanding the senders. Often such offensive jokes were forwarded to others.

Reading the report, I was left with an impression not of Klan-like, get-the-niggers racism, but of widespread racial stereotyping that affected decisions at all levels. Being a young black male was in itself seen as probable cause of wrong-doing that police should look into. Uncooperative blacks were seen as inherently violent and dangerous, justifying police violence to control them. Violence directed at blacks was considered a less serious matter than similar incidents against whites* would be. The overall predatory nature of the system was more easily ignored or rationalized because its victims were mostly black.

Michael Brown. When Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in broad daylight on a city street in front of many witnesses, the African-American community saw a chance for some good to come of this tragedy: Maybe finally the police had done something so outrageous that it couldn’t be covered up. Maybe finally the world would have to notice the abusive system they lived in, and a policeman would have to pay.

It is no wonder, then, that the community was quick to believe the worst about Darren Wilson. Accounts in which he gunned down Brown for no real reason fit very well with the accounts they heard every day from their friends and neighbors: of dogs set on young blacks for no real reason, or tasers used when blacks mouthed off or just didn’t move fast enough to suit police.

Likewise, it is no wonder that witnesses saw what they expected to see, that they exaggerated what they did see, or that they stayed away from TV cameras if what they saw supported Wilson’s account.

The Justice Department’s report on the Brown shooting recommends no charges against Darren Wilson. It goes through the evidence in great detail, and concludes not that everything happened the way Wilson said, but that it could have happened that way. (In Mythbusters terms, Wilson’s story is “plausible”.)

Wilson’s account goes like this: He tried to stop Brown on suspicion of a petty theft (of a handful of small cigars from a convenience store). Brown punched him and reached into his vehicle to struggle for Wilson’s gun. Wilson fired the gun once while inside the car, causing Brown to run away. Wilson pursued, and Brown turned to charge him. Wilson started shooting again, but Brown did not stop until Wilson had fired the fatal shot to the top of Brown’s head.

None of the physical evidence contradicts that story. Some eye-witness testimony supports it. The testimony that contradicts Wilson would not impress a jury, because there are no witnesses who

  • contradict Wilson
  • tell a story consistent with the physical evidence
  • have told the same story consistently to all investigators.

So the Justice Department concludes that prosecuting Wilson would be a waste of time.

The separate accounts of the various witnesses paint a picture of more than just the Brown shooting: a community that wants this shooting to be what it needs rather than what the incident was. Again and again, witnesses against Wilson confess that they have mixed the part of the event they saw with what they have heard on the street. Witnesses supporting Wilson are reluctant to come forward, either because they want Wilson convicted or because they don’t want to be known in the community as the witness who got Wilson off. Some just don’t talk and we don’t know why.

Putting the two reports together, I am left with questions about Wilson, even if I know that I couldn’t vote to convict him. Was killing Brown really necessary, or was it the kind of punitive violence that is endemic in the FPD? To what extent was Wilson worried about his own safety, and to what extent was he just angry that Brown disrespected his authority? (For example, Wilson explains why he reached for his gun rather than his taser during the struggle in his SUV. He doesn’t explain why — given a brief period of time to collect himself before pursuing Brown — he didn’t switch weapons.) Was it really necessary to keep firing, or did the stereotype of the unstoppable black beast affect Wilson’s decision? (Wilson’s choice of words — comparing Brown to a demon — suggests it did.)

I’ll never know for sure. But I couldn’t convict Wilson just on my questions. He should go free.

Justice. In the end, although the Justice Department hasn’t given the black citizens of Ferguson Darren Wilson’s scalp, it has given them what they really need: Exposure of the corrupt and predatory system they live under, and some hope of relief.

Friday, Attorney General Holder pledged that the Justice Department is “prepared to use all the power that we have … to ensure that the situation changes.”

Asked if that included dismantling the Ferguson Police Department, Holder said, “If that’s what’s necessary, we’re prepared to do that.”

Sunday’s NYT illustrated all the ways that Ferguson is not unique, particularly in St. Louis County, but also in communities across the country. There are other predatory police-and-court systems out there. Those towns and cities will be watching Ferguson closely. If the DoJ follows through, the effects could ripple across the nation.

That may not be the conclusion that either side was asking for, but it may be the best ending this tragic story could have received.

* For contrast, consider this:

In one 2012 incident, for example, officers reported responding to a fight in progress at a local bar that involved white suspects. Officers reported encountering “40-50 people actively fighting, throwing bottles and glasses, as well as chairs.” The report noted that “one subject had his ear bitten off.” While the responding officers reported using force, they only used “minimal baton and flashlight strikes as well as fists, muscling techniques and knee strikes.” While the report states that “due to the amount of subjects fighting, no physical arrests were possible,” it notes also that four subjects were brought to the station for “safekeeping.”

The Myth of Republican Governance

If your ideology says government can’t succeed, why prove yourself wrong?

Any day now, we are often assured, Republicans in Congress will start to take their jobs seriously. It hasn’t happened yet, but soon.

“I think a lot of people better get serious about governing,” Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said last Friday, after the House failed to fund the Department of Homeland Security past next Friday. It’ll happen. Any day. Any minute.

Of course, they were very serious about governing during the George W. Bush administration. But nobody — not even Bush’s closest relatives — want to think too hard about those days now.

And then the Obama landslide of 2008 made Republicans almost irrelevant for two years. Suddenly there was no point trying to take responsibility for anything, and Republicans discovered the invigorating thrill of pure nihilism. They were free to propose nothing and say no to everything, even their own ideas from that era we don’t talk about any more.

So when Obama based his healthcare proposal on Romneycare, Romney opposed it. McCain turned against the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan, and voted against his own immigration reform. Republicans were all mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more — whatever it was.

But when the low-turnout election of 2010 made John Boehner Speaker of the House, it was time to get serious and get back to governing responsibly. Wasn’t it? [1]

Then followed four years of playing chicken with the well-being of the Republic. That series of crises culminated in the government shutdown of 2013, when the executive branch was very nearly put in the impossible situation of being obligated to carry out Congress’ appropriations bills, but forbidden to raise the money by either taxing or borrowing. Crazy ideas like the trillion-dollar coin bounced around, because they were no crazier than everything else that was happening.

At the time, Republicans’ poll numbers dropped, and there was some thought that the voters might punish the party in 2014. But in fact the exact opposite happened: The voters gave them control of the Senate too.

But now, with control of both houses, they have something to prove. Don’t they? In January as the new completely-Republican-controlled Congress opened, John McCain expressed the party line:

I think a majority [of Republicans] recognize that we have to govern responsibly. We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016.

Two months later, DHS is living paycheck to paycheck, because House Republicans are mad as hell about immigration. They don’t have a coherent plan to undo President Obama’s executive actions, and they certainly don’t have an immigration plan of their own [2], but they’re mad! They have to do … something.

Meanwhile, we’re now up to 50 votes repealing ObamaCare, and not a single one on a Republican plan to replace it. Republicans nearly all acknowledge that parts of ObamaCare should be kept. (The part about pre-existing conditions, for example.) But coming up with a plan that actually does that? Making the compromises necessary to pass it into law? You’ve got to be kidding.

Discipline. In years past, the voters played the wait-til-your-father-gets-home role in American politics. A little bit of posturing and headline-grabbing was fine, even expected. But if a political temper tantrum gave the public reason to doubt the basic functions of government, somebody would pay come the next election.

Democrats, media pundits, and would-be grown-ups among the Republicans (i.e., McCain, Boehner, and McConnell) keep trying to invoke that discipline. But think about it: In 2013, for the sake of a plan that never had any chance of working, the Republican back-benchers shut down the government and very nearly broke the full faith and credit of the United States. And 13 months later, the voters gave their party more power.

We live in a new world, where Dad isn’t coming home and there’s no reason the kids should ever finish their vegetables and go to bed.

It’s time we understood how this new world works.

The difference between the parties. A cynical view of politics says that the two parties are just mirror images of each other, rival gangs competing for territory like West Side Story‘s Jets and Sharks.

But there is one key difference between the two: Democrats believe that government can change people’s lives for the better, and that we can do things together that we can’t do for ourselves. Together, we can have parks and libraries and public schools and clean air. We can soften the dog-eat-dog aspects of the capitalist system so that ordinary people have a chance. We can insure each other against disasters from hurricanes to cancer.

Republicans believe that government can only screw things up.

So when Republicans govern well, they refute themselves. If a Republican official solves a problem — like Mitt Romney did with health care in Massachusetts — it just creates an appetite for more government.

And that’s bad. To really prove the point that government can only screw things up, Republicans elected to office need to screw things up.

Turnout, not persuasion. In the old model of politics, there were “swing voters” — voters not identified with either party, who were open to persuasion. Each side had its partisans, but the one that convinced the swing voters would win.

One thing that swing voters found convincing was performance; that was where the discipline came from. If you made the United States look like a joke, they’d vote you out.

But that’s not how it works these days. Overwhelmingly, the people who care about politics enough to vote are identified with one party or the other, no matter what that party does. Today the question isn’t who you’ll vote for, it’s whether you’ll vote. (That’s how, for example, Mitt Romney got zero votes in some inner-city precincts of Philadelphia and Cleveland. Similarly, there were evangelical churches in the South where if you voted, you voted against Obama. So parties don’t bother trying to convince either set of voters, they just get their own to the polls.)

Take a look at how that works out in the vote totals for House races. (Data from Wikipedia.)

year Republican Democratic Total House split
2008 52,249,491 65,237,840 117,487,331 178-257
2010 44,827,441 38,980,192 83,807,633 242-193
2012 58,228,253 59,645,531 117,873,784 234-201
2014 40,024,866 35,626,309 75,651,175 247-188

A few things to notice:

  • Republicans got their biggest House majority in 2014, when they polled the fewest votes.
  • When there’s a big turnout, the Democrats win the popular vote, but when turnout is small, Republicans win. Another way to say the same thing is that the Republican vote is steadier than the Democratic vote. The lowest Republican vote (2014) is still more than two-thirds of the highest (2012), while the lowest Democratic vote (2014) is barely more than half the highest (2008). Conclusion: The people who might or might not vote are overwhelmingly Democrats.
  • Gerrymandering has locked in a certain amount of Republican advantage, so that winning the popular vote in 2012 didn’t get the Democrats control of the House.

Demographics. The big story after the 2012 election was that demographic trends favor the Democrats. The percentage of the country that is white shrinks every year, and Democrats are favored by non-whites. Young voters (who will be around for a while) trend Democratic, while old voters (who won’t) trend Republican. Christian voters (shrinking) trend Republican, while no-specified-religion voters (growing) trend Democratic.

Salivating over those delicious trends, Democrats started trying to predict the date when Texas turns blue. A report by College Republicans said that their party had to change: compromise on immigration and gay marriage, reach out to Hispanics, blacks, and young people.

None of those changes happened in 2014, and yet the GOP won big. How? The rising demographic groups didn’t vote.

Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.

Rather than continue its inexorable decline, the white vote increased from 72% in 2012 to 75% in 2014.

And that’s the secret to the lasting Republican congressional majority, and maybe to electing a Republican president in 2016: Don’t try to convince swing voters that Republicans can govern better than Democrats (or even govern at all). Just keep the rising demographic groups from voting.

No hope, no change. A portion of the blame/credit for the low turnout among minorities and youth in 2014 has to go to the intentional voter suppression Republicans have been focused on since 2010. They discovered that you don’t have to formally disenfranchise people to keep them away from the polls, you just have to make voting harder and less rewarding. Make people who don’t own cars (and so have no reason to already have a photo-ID drivers license) jump through an extra hoop. Make college students vote where their parents live. Gerrymander districts so that election results are a foregone conclusion. Shorten poll hours, make sure the lines are long in Democratic precincts, and so forth.

Marginal voters tend to have less slack in their lives than the more established non-urban whites of the Republican base. Getting to the polls is tougher, and standing in line for hours might mean you get fired or the kids are left unsupervised. So sure, each new hurdle in front of the voting booth is going to discourage more Democrats than Republicans.

That all has some effect, and will probably have more and more as it becomes normal and fails to provoke the backlash that motivated blacks (in particular) in 2012. But the real secret to lasting Republican power is motivational, or rather, de-motivational: Ruin people’s hope that politics can change their lives for the better.

People get involved in politics because they believe it can stop a war, save a school, jail the bankers who wrecked the economy, open doors for their racial group, give working people a chance, or secure their future against disasters of all sorts. They run away from politics when it looks like one of those pointless internet flame wars. Life is short and energy is limited. If politics is a waste of time, people who aren’t already committed to it will stay away — especially if their lives are hard enough already.

So when the marginal voters would vote against you, dysfunction becomes a strategy. Republican ideology already says that government can’t do anything but screw up. So if Congress is seen as just a bunch of jokers, that proves their point. If even the most obvious bill becomes impossible to pass, and the federal government lurches from crisis to crisis without doing anything that helps people … what better voter suppression is there?

Democrats need hope and change to motivate people to be active and vote. Republicans need no hope and no change to keep them tuned out. And they’re getting it.

That’s how we have the perverse polling we’ve seen: Just before the 2014 election, National Journal found only 9% approved of the job Congress was doing while 80% disapproved. In a Pew Research poll, disapproval of the Republican Party has been consistently running 68/23 neighborhood, compared to Democrats’ somewhat less unfavorable 60/32 split. And that led to increasing the Republican House majority and giving them control of the Senate too.

Why? National Journal has the answer: Americans wish the parties would co-operate more, but don’t believe they will. So:

More of those surveyed looked outside the political system for changes that might improve their lives.

What next? Whether or not we stop paying FBI agents next Friday, don’t expect Republicans in Congress to stop playing games with the government. And yes, it will drive down the popularity of Congress and of the Republican Party.

But so what? That dysfunction will also convince more Americans to lose faith in politics. More and more, voting will become that pointless thing old white people do. And why would you campaign for a candidate or donate to a campaign, unless you represent a special interest that needs to buy a favor?

Winning the House in 2010 gave Republicans the power to screw things up in Washington. And marginal voters responded to the screwed-up state of politics by staying home in 2014 and giving Republicans control of the Senate as well. Maybe they now have the power to screw things up on a grand enough scale to elect a Republican president in 2016.

But, then, surely, with control of both Congress and the White House, Republicans will have to take governing seriously. Won’t they?

Don’t count on it.

[1] It’s worth giving some thought to exactly what “responsible governing” would mean, so that it isn’t just thrown around as a buzzword.

In general, responsible governing means compromising to find a way forward that can be passed into law, rather than turning everything into a test of ideological purity. Finding a workable compromise is something a politician should be proud of, not a shameful act that can only be accomplished under the threat of a dire emergency.

Responsible governing also means being for something, rather than just criticizing everybody else’s solutions. Don’t like President Obama’s immigration plan? Fine. Tell me yours.

Above all, responsible governing means an end to hostage-taking, i.e., threatening to do something that nobody wants if you don’t get your way. Compromise means weighing what I want against what you want. But when one of us starts threatening to do things that nobody wants, we’re playing a different game entirely. The debt ceiling is the clearest example of a hostage — nobody really wants to see the United States default on its legal commitments — but nobody wants to see DHS shut down either.

It’s weird that the people most committed to ideological purity and most opposed to compromise claim to be representing the point of view of the Founders. The Founders were champion compromisers. The United States wouldn’t exist at all if they weren’t.

[2] Marco Rubio had an immigration plan, but has been making what Bloomberg Politics called an “apology tour” for daring to pass it through the Senate. If it had become law, hara-kari would have been his only honorable option.


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