We’re now 9 months into the Obama administration and, on a number of fronts, I think our country is more secure. Most of all, Obama has set a new tone in our relations with the world. But I continue to see our greatest source of our insecurity — our economy — as suffering from a failure of governmental leadership.
By now, everyone knows the story that got us into the current economic crisis. Primed by cheap capital and lax regulation, Wall Street took out huge sums of debt and gambled on everything from stocks to subprime mortgages. This bubble economy proved incredibly profitable for Wall Street and its executives took home tens of billions of dollars in bonuses. Then, the bubble burst. But instead of having Wall Street bear the brunt of this cost, a decision was made that its banks were “too big too fail” and so the government bailed them out.
As I wrote back in March of 2008, I’m not necessarily against the original bailout, but it should have been accompanied by a “new contract with Wall Street” where banks were regulated so they could never again be “to big too fail.” My point was that if the government’s thesis was right, that some banks were too big to fail, then we had a terrible set of market incentives. Banks would come to realize that they were immune from bankruptcy because the government would be there to bail them out. This would lead to a dangerous market system where banks got all the profits from gambling and society absorbed all the losses.
I hoped that the Obama administration would clean up this growing moral hazard on Wall Street, but we are unfortunately seeing more of the same. Obama’s central plan has been to make capital incredibly cheap for large banks so that they get credit flowing again. While the credit markets have admittedly improved, this cheap capital has also added to the risk-taking and the bigness of these banks. In other words, we’ve made the moral hazard worse. The recent profits by Goldman show that it has returned to its high-risk business. No one can fault Goldman for taking risk and making money–that’s capitalism. The problem is that they’re taking this risk with the government’s highly subsidized capital and implicit guarantee in the case of failure.
In keeping with the PSA’s charter, we’re seeing bipartisan consensus emerging around U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The bad news? There are actually two bipartisan consensuses.
Technically, that is impossible. Consensus means “general agreement” or “a view reached by a group as a whole” so there can’t really be more than one.
And that is the problem. So long as the right is fighting the right, and others on the left are fighting the left, policymakers will be inclined to focus on other policy issues, content to let Afghan policy drift, and hope for a miraculous turnaround (e.g. Karzai becomes less corrupt and more competent; the Afghan economy begins to produce something other than opium; the Pashtuns decide to make common cause with the Tajiks, Turkmen and Hazara; Afghan men decide that Afghan women should have rights, etc). Our men and women in uniform, engaged increasingly in armed social work are caught in the middle while the pointy-heads pull on their respective chins.
Certain leading voices on the right agree with others on the left that we must redefine our ends in Afghanistan, and begin exploring ways to draw down the military presence there. My colleagues Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter have just completed a comprehensive study making this case (you can get a preview here), and will present it for the first time at Cato on Monday, September 14th.
A familiar group of hawks and neocons dismiss such sentiments as defeatist bordering on treasonous. Others suggest that talk of withdrawal is simply premature.
The debate got a jolt this week when George Will’s Tuesday column in the Washington Post declared that it was “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.”
News of the Will column broke late Monday night. Bill Kristol — tipped off, no doubt, by the Post‘s editors who agree with him — had his response ready by 9 am.
The salient question: Would the GOP follow Will or Bill? By 4 pm, we had our answer when Michael Steele and the RNC weighed in…on Kristol’s side.
There is a debate on the left as well. George Will’s position echoes a stance adopted by Sen. Russ Feingold last month, and repeated this morning on NPR (with Rep. Jim McGovern). But scholars at the left-leaning Center for New American Security and the Brookings Institution have joined forces with those from AEI and CSIS in recent weeks to make the case for increasing the commitment to Afghanistan, and explicitly discouraging any talk of withdrawal any time soon. (See, for example, this account by The Nation‘s Bob Dreyfuss.)
The public favors withdrawal. A CBS News poll found that 41 percent of Americans want “troops to start coming home, up from 33 percent in April and just 24 percent in February. Support for increasing the number of troops dropped from 39 percent in April to just 25 percent now.” A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken last month found that for the first time since they began asking the question, a majority of Americans no longer think the war in Afghanistan has been worth the costs.
The more things change the more they stay the same; as in the military-industrial congressional pork barrel. As evidence one need only look at the current debate over Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ decision to stop producing the F-22 fighter. Gates and President Obama have threatened to veto Congress’ entire 2010 defense spending bill if it contains a single F-22 over the 187 now authorized.
This should not be a hard decision. After all, how often does the Pentagon actually try to kill a program it does not need? Keeping unnecessary weapons in the military budget is usually par for the course, thanks to the influence of weapons manufacturers and senators and congressmen who receive credit in their home states and districts for managing to save some jobs for constituents. Usually the Pentagon goes along because it is more trouble to fight it than it is worth.
But on the rare occasion that the Pentagon does not want weapons that it did not ask for it is clear that something stinks to the high heavens; higher even than the F-22 can fly.
Gates’ decision was in response to votes by the House and Senate armed services committees last month to spend $369 million to $1.75 billion more to keep the F-22 production line open were propelled by mixed messages from the Air Force; including a quiet campaign for the plane that includes snazzy new Lockheed videos for key lawmakers and intense political support from states where the F-22’s components are made. The full House ratified the vote on June 25.
But, contrary to the claims made by the various legislators on the Lockheed Martin payroll there are many excellent reasons to kill it. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month, the F-22 -22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show. The aircraft’s radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature, key maintenance trends for the F-22 have been negative in recent years, and on average from October last year to this May, just 55 percent of the deployed F-22 fleet has been available to fulfill missions guarding U.S. airspace, the Defense Department acknowledged.
The F-22 was created for a world that no longer exists. It was designed during the early 1980s to ensure long-term American military dominance of the skies andconceived to win dogfights with advanced Soviet fighters that Russia is still trying to develop. (more…)
Here at PSA we’ve been working hard to create a program for Congressional staff that adds value in the oftentimes crowded programmatic environment of Washington, D.C. The PSA Congressional Fellowship Program aims to bring together House and Senate staffers from both parties to socialize, debate, and learn together with the goal of enhancing bipartisanship in their daily jobs. The most recent event with the Summer 2009 Fellows was a dinner with 9/11 Commission Chairman and former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, and Politico sent a reporter to cover the event. The resulting article, “Bipartisanship, in three courses”, published this morning, highlights many of the most important aspects of what we do at PSA.
“Whereas members of Congress at least have the opportunity to work together if they choose to do so,” the reporter writes, “staffers are rarely forced to remove their partisan blinders. Until now.” She quotes PSA Fellows Pablo Duran of Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office and Brandon Andrews of Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-OK) office lamenting the rarity of meeting staff from across the aisle. “‘I don’t know that anyone makes a concerted effort to not do it,’ Andrews said. ‘I just think it doesn’t happen, because people travel in different circles.’”
We will be visiting the White House to meet with President Obama’s chief national security speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, this week and going on a weekend Retreat after that. It’s been an exciting summer so far, and we appreciate Politico’s interest in the work we do here at PSA.
For those who are interested in applying to be a Fellow in the Fall 2009 session, information can be found on our website here.
PSA is excited to welcome a new class of Fellows to its Congressional Fellowship Program next week. The initial group of 27 Fellows includes highly motivated and accomplished staff from 14 Democratic and 13 Republican offices, with 16 from the House and 11 from the Senate. The Program, taking place from June to October 2009, will help these young leaders build relationships across the aisle and gain skills and knowledge necessary to bridge the partisan divide and build consensus on critical issues.
They bring impressive backgrounds to the Program, including active duty military service, legal practice, scientific research, political campaigns, community service, think tanks, and media. Building on these diverse backgrounds, Fellows will participate in critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy guided by former senior foreign policy officials. Following the completion of a series of five events geared toward enhancing effective bipartisan dialogue, Fellows will complete a Final Project aimed at resolving real world challenges on Capitol Hill. The full list of Fellows can be found on the PSA website.
The Congressional Fellowship Program will fill a crucial need on Capitol Hill for the promotion of bipartisanship in a long-term context. Too often, contacts between Members and staff from opposite parties are temporary, made on an issue-by-issue basis. We believe that relationships formed in the earlier stages of a career can help forge a more bipartisan atmosphere and process in Congress across the range of foreign policy challenges faced every session. No one party has a monopoly on wisdom, and by bringing together these Fellows now, they will be able to get to know each other and share ideas and experiences that will pay dividends in future policy debates. We look forward to working with the Fellows and to a great summer.
Obama and Shultz at the White House on May 19 (AP photo)
At a meeting Tuesday with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, President Obama summed up the group’s deliberations on the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons:
“This is a reminder of the long tradition of bipartisan foreign policy that has been the hallmark of America at moments of greatest need, and that’s the kind of spirit that we hope will be reflected in our administration.”
It’s great to hear this from the President who also made “bipartisanship and openness” an official plank in his campaign platform, and now identifies it as a key to effective US national security and foreign policy for his Administration.
You might think Obama’s commitment to bipartisan consultation and cooperation on national security would win nothing but plaudits from a group of former leaders obviously assembled not just for their substantive expertise, but for their bipartisan credibility. So then what are we to make of George Shultz’s reply, in the role of spokesman for the elder statesmen? Not once, but twice, the former Reagan administration official remarked that President Obama was wrong about nuclear disarmament being a “bipartisan issue,” because:
“It’s really nonpartisan. This is a subject that ought to somehow get up above trying to get a partisan advantage. And it’s of such importance that we need to take it on its own merits. And that’s the way we’ve proceeded. And that’s the way, at least it seems to us, you’ve proceeded.”
Just when the heat on the Obama presidency seemed to be peaking, Pennsylvania’s senior senator suddenly became a Democrat. It hasn’t been since Sen. Jim Jeffords’ switch gave Senate Democrats a majority in 2001 that a major defection has happened, and Republican soul searching has dominated the news cycle ever since.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argues for a bigger GOP tent. Referring to the two Republican senators from Maine, Frum argues, “It ought to be obvious to any Republican why we need to make room for politicians like Snowe and Collins in our party. It’s not like we have so many votes that we can afford to throw them away.” Frum worries that while some Republicans are more concerned about the “quality” of Republican elected officials, “quantity” is required to govern. Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor has started a new group, the National Council for a New America, to lead the GOP to a new understanding with the American voter, and perhaps to electoral success.
It is certainly amusing to many Democrats to watch the Republican hand wringing. “I wonder if this is how Republicans felt all those years,” some must wonder, recalling the Democratic Party’s own recent periods of strategic chaos, when Karl Rove’s claims of an enduring Republican majority seemed just a little too plausible. David Brooks calls the jubilation among Democrats “the joy of pulverization,” of scoring another touchdown when you’re already up by four. For Republicans, he calls it “demoralization piled on top of demoralization.”
Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who had a famously unhappy tenure as President Bush’s EPA Administrator, penned a New York Times column lamenting one-party control of Washington.
To the extent we lose more members of the Republican Party, we lose what ability we have left to affect policy, and that is going to be devastating to our nation. Our democracy desperately needs two vibrant parties.
This is about much more than the switch of one senator or even than the potential 60-vote supermajority Democrats may now soon achieve. After all, power is fleeting and the political winds fickle; laws enacted by one Congress can be overturned by the next. As Whitman wondered in her column, what will happen when one party holds such sway over the two political branches of our federal government? While it is easy to see why this is a bad development for Republicans, Democrats may find that Specter’s switch raises as many questions for them as it answers.
Yes, that’s me, the sinister looking guy on the left side of the screen. And yes, it’s a real beard. About a year ago, when Kevin MacDonald and his crew were in DC filming the movie “State of Play,” my wife and I showed up at an open casting call for extras. We got called back to do a scene set in a Congressional committee hearing room (actually the old EPA building on Constitution Ave, NW), where Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) grills the CEO of PointCorp (a.k.a. Blackwater) about private contractor abuses in Iraq. For no especially good reason, I got yanked from the crowd to sit in as the CEO’s lawyer, and the rest is, as they say, on the silver screen.
Why am I writing about a Hollywood movie here, on PSA’s bipartisan foreign policy blog? Well, for one thing, I’m in it, and I think it’s worth seeing despite that. It’s a pretty good film, and the twist at the end is better than I expected. But there’s more than that. For those of us who spend our professional lives thinking about good government policy and how it is—or isn’t—made, I think this movie holds an important lesson.
Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the young, idealistic Congressman’s investigation of the shadowy, powerful, paramilitary corporation is very far from a made up scenario. It’s based, of course, on real investigations of waste, fraud, abuse, and even war crimes committed by private citizens whose salaries have been paid by the US government. For more on that, see my fellow Across the Aisle blogger David Isenberg’s recent piece. What’s worse is that in the movie, as in real life, the bad guys don’t get caught, partly because their high-level political connections immunize them from meaningful scrutiny, but much more importantly, because our system for oversight of government action by Congress is fundamentally broken.
With trillions of dollars in new government spending already swelling the coffers of the Executive Branch and two ongoing wars, it is time to get serious about oversight. The President’s appointment of Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney to lead a stimulus oversight team was a fine gesture, but an Executive appointee monitoring Executive spending is like a fox guarding a henhouse. Truly effective oversight will depend on Congress’s willingness to flex some of its Constitutional muscle. (more…)
After the House passed the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote last month, many declared the age of bipartisanship under the Obama Administration over. How quickly the pundits and the talking heads who hailed the bipartisanship of the new President trumpeted its demise.
So, is President Obama bipartisan or isn’t he? Everyone wants the answer and they want it now. The media is tracking bipartisanship as if it can be quantified issue by issue and moment to moment. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what bipartisanship is and why it is important.
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In a piece for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Times political reporter Matt Bai evaluates Obama’s effort to reach white male, gun-toting, church-going (and traditionally conservative) voters. He highlights Obama’s dogged pursuit of a “50-state” strategy, which includes dozens of campaign offices in places like Southwestern Virginia, South Dakota, and North Carolina. Bai suggests that despite being the first ever Democratic nominee who is not a white male, Obama might have a good shot of bringing white males into the Democratic camp. This speaks to the question of whether Obama can win a commanding majority that includes both traditional Democratic voters and new converts from rural, white, working class communities. But Bai touches only briefly on the much more important question of why Obama would want to win such a majority. He writes:
From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.
From a purely tactical standpoint, winning by a wide margin would clearly be preferable to winning by a narrow margin. After all, extra electoral votes to push the winner over the top are an insurance policy against potential close calls like Florida in 2000, and a commanding win certainly bodes better both for popularity polls during the winner’s first term, and for his chances of winning a second term in 2012.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.