Tuesday, January 24, 2012

No, I'm not watching the SOTU -- I've been trying to get through Ryan Lizza's supposedly revelatory article about the Obama presidency


How is it that all these new "revelations"
add up to what we already knew?

by Ken

There's been a fair amount of talk about Ryan Lizza's piece in the January 30 New Yorker, "The Obama Memos," which seems to think it's a behind-the-scenes look at the Obama administration which will explain all and make us see things anew, and as I started reading, I was hopeful. But after plowing through the thing cursorily, it all seems to come back to the things we already knew:

* Obama really seems to believe in his "postpartisan" nonsense, and was convinced there was a vast heaving 'middle" in the country waiting to be liberated from the polarized "extremes."

* Although Lizza doesn't seem to get it, what he documents over and over is how unreformist this self-styled reformer really is. Even as he's being shocked to discover how little power the president actually has, and is frustrated at not being able to pursue his "agenda," it becomes foggier and foggier what that agenda might be, except for not hurting the feelings, let alone the financial interests, of American big business -- like the insurance companies, for example, when it came to health care "reform." (So what kind of reform did he think he could do?)

The "new" perspectives that Lizza brings to his survey of the Obama presidency seems to me primarily: (a) an obsession with quantifying our era's polarization, which I suppose has some value, at least as long as it doesn't slip into the illusion that polarization is some kind of natural phenomenon that exists outside human agency, and (b) that Washington tends to pull all presidents in certain directions -- again true, but what excuse is there for being surprised?

In the end, Lizza acknowledges:
Obama made important mistakes in the first half of his term. He underestimated the severity of the recession and therefore the scale of the response it required, and he clung too long to his vision of post-partisanship, even in the face of a radicalized opposition whose stated goal was his defeat.

But when you're wrong about those things, what is there left to be right about? The people who assisted him in making those errors continue to be quoted as if they were sages.

But then Lizza can write with a straight face:
Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street.

I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Ryan.

I hope to give the piece more concentrated effort, but stuff like this suggests it won't be easy or bear much fruit.


Meanwhile, in the same isssue, The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg bids an only slightly unfond farewell to the candidacy of Rick Perry, noting that "It’s not as much fun without him."
At Rancho Perry, every day was Oopsday. Along the trail, he forgot how many Justices the Supreme Court has (eight is not enough); forgot the name of one of them (Sonia Sotomayor); placed the American Revolution in the sixteenth century; identified the voting age (fixed at eighteen four decades ago by constitutional amendment) as twenty-one; and suggested that the chairman of the Federal Reserve is a traitor, that Turkey (a NATO ally of sixty years’ standing) is governed by Islamic terrorists, and that Social Security is not only a Ponzi scheme but also a criminal enterprise, a monstrous lie, and unconstitutional.

But buried in the muck of the Perry campaign, probably not meant sincerely but nevertheless to be found among the candidates official positions, was what Hertzberg calls "Perry's Good Idea."
[T]here was more to Perry’s campaign than blunders. It was also a campaign of “ideas.” Few of them were good, alas. For example, reducing the salaries of members of Congress by half, to eighty-seven thousand dollars a year, is not a good idea. Neither is a tax cut that would net the richest one per cent more than five thousand dollars a week and the unrichest twenty per cent less than two dollars and fifty cents. Nor is there much to be said for reinvading Iraq, reinstituting torture, or unconditionally supporting new and bigger Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Yet at least one idea Perry embraced was, and is, very good indeed. It involves the Supreme Court. The Governor may be a little shaky about the Court’s names and numbers, but he knows what to do about it. Here’s the proposal, straight from his now moribund campaign Web site:
A Constitutional Amendment creating 18-year terms staggered every 2 years, so that each of the nine Justices would be replaced in order of seniority every other year. This would be a prospective proposal, and would be applied to future judges only. Doing this would move the court closer to the people by ensuring that every President would have the opportunity to replace two Justices per term, and that no court could stretch its ideology over multiple generations. Further, this reform would maintain judicial independence, but instill regularity to the nominations process, discourage Justices from choosing a retirement date based on politics, and will stop the ever-increasing tenure of Justices.

This ingenious idea has been kicking around in legal circles for decades. It tiptoed into wider view in 2002, via a Washington Post op-ed piece by two prominent law professors of opposite ideological and political leanings: Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar, a Democrat, a former clerk for Stephen Breyer, and a stalwart of the liberal American Constitution Society; and Northwestern’s Steven G. Calabresi, a Republican, a former clerk for Antonin Scalia, and a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society. In 2006, Calabresi and his colleague James Lindgren fleshed the idea out in a long article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Justices would still get lifetime appointments. After their eighteen years with the Supremes, they could choose to serve on other federal courts, bringing their experience and, in some cases, their wisdom to the appellate bench. Even if they didn’t exercise that option, though, their salaries would continue for life. If a Justice died or retired before his or her eighteen years were up, a substitute would be appointed via the usual process—Presidential nomination, Senate confirmation—to serve out the remainder. The interim Justice would not be eligible for reappointment to the Supreme Court, but he or she would have the same sweet post-Court deal. And what lawyer wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a Justice of the highest of high courts, if only for a year?

The Amendment—call it the Perry Plan—would solve any number of problems. From 1789 through 1970, the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice was about fifteen years. For Justices who have retired or died since then, the average tenure has been twenty-six years. This isn’t just an artifact of longer life spans. As the Court’s importance has grown—Marbury v. Madison made it the only one of the three federal command posts that is functionally sovereign, and the polarized gridlock of the elected branches has only made it more powerful—and as it has become more “political,” aging Justices have tended to hang on well into senescence, especially when the sitting President is of a different ideological persuasion. Presidents, for their part, seek to extend their influence into the far-distant future, by finding the youngest nominee they can get away with. (Another incentive: while younger is not always wiser, it does make for a shorter paper trail.) The prospect that a Justice will be handing down decisions for close to half a century turns confirmation fights into political Armageddons. The randomness of openings abets the now-or-never mentality. Richard Nixon named four Justices during his five years in the White House; Jimmy Carter, during his four years, named zero. The Perry Plan would change all that. Voters would know that every President, every two years, would get to nominate someone for the Court.

It’s possible that Perry saw his endorsement of the Perry Plan as nothing more than a handy horsewhip for conservative Court-lashing. To him, the Supremes are a bunch of “Grand Ayatollahs” who have “wrested away from the people the power to decide what is right and what is wrong and, at the most fundamental level, how we should lead our lives.” He’s referring, no doubt, to rulings like Engel v. Vitale (school prayer), Roe v. Wade (abortion), and, of course, Lawrence v. Texas (homosexual “sodomy”). But liberals have their own complaints, among which Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. F.E.C. are prominent. As the Court’s power has waxed, its reputation has waned. It could use a therapeutic dose of democratic legitimacy. The Perry Plan would give it one, without, as Perry’s Web site notes, endangering its judicial independence. The Governor isn’t big on earnest, high-minded good-government concerns. He’s no goo-goo. But, whatever his motives, by trying to move an admirable reform from the law library to the electoral arena he has taken a small step toward showing that he’s not just an oops-oops, either.

It's easy to dismiss the idea on the ground that it's politically impossible, even with some support on both the left and the right. Can we fathom what it would take to enact a constitutional amendment at this point in our history? Any constitutional amendment. Still, it's not all that "out there" an idea. It's something to think about, at a time when there seems hardly anything anymore to think about, except escape.


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