I’m gonna set your flag on fire

19 08 2013

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

I wasn’t clear in defining “punishment”, nor in distinguishing that undefined punishment from a beat-down from one’s political opponents.

The ultimate punishment (for an incumbent) is, of course, to be tossed from office, and is the standard for any other concerns about punishment. For example, falling poll numbers might invite either a primary challenge or a better-quality challenger from the other party, which could result in losing one’s seat. Similarly, a beat-down from a political adversary could lead to softening poll numbers, which, in turn, lead challengers to believe the incumbent is vulnerable.

I also wasn’t clear in distinguishing between fear of losing one’s seat from fear of being hammered for an allegedly weak response. As with the issue of punishment, the fear of hammering is a second-order fear linked to the primary fear of election loss.

The difficulty for the incumbent representative or senator, or for either the incumbent or possible presidential candidate, is discerning whether one will be considered weak if one counsels a less-aggressive stance as well as whether one would be able to fend off any attacks in ways that, if they do not strengthen one’s candidacy, do not appreciably weaken it. In the United States, DO SOMETHING!!! is the default mode in response to provocation, so in the absence of other cues, taking a highly aggressive stance is likely the safest tactic.

There are other factors, of course. Pressure from party leaders and threats to withhold campaign funds or boot a member off a favorable committee can steer a wavering politician toward aggression. A sustained media assault can also erode one’s resistance.

Finally, the politician might truly believe that the most aggressive response is, in fact, the correct one, and as such, acts in accordance with his or her principles in voting for aggression.

Now, as to my hypothesis that the supposed problem with a softer response is actually a problem with an unclear response, well, because elections are rarely about one thing and one thing only, this is tough to test.

Russ Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act and laid out his reasons for doing so, and he lost his re-election; however, he had always had tough races, and lost his bid in the 2010 Tea Party surge. Rep. Ron Paul counseled and Senator Rand Paul counsel non-intervention; the father repeatedly won re-election and the son is popular enough with the base of the Kentucky Republican Party that Mitch McConnell is looking to him in his tough re-election bid. Yet it’s also clear that Rand Paul’s non-interventionism runs into strong opposition within his own party, and while he might be able to ensconce himself in his senate seat for decades to come, it might limit his appeal as a presidential candidate in the Republican primaries.

So, no clear lesson.

Except: to the extent that there is no clear lesson regarding the necessity of the most aggressive response, it is just possible that a sitting politician or a presidential candidate who strongly believes in a less-aggressive/non-interventionist approach could effectively inoculate him or herself against charges of being “soft on terrorism/crime” by crafting a strong and clear alternative and selling it as the most effective way of dealing with the problem.

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The sifting cloth is binding

18 08 2013

I’m not much disappointed in the Obama’s administration’s approach to national security.

I hate it, but I never expected anything else.

I’ve said in the past that presidents are so keen to go overboard on national security issues because a) they can and b) because they’ll be punished if they don’t. I think “a” still holds: presidents have far more leeway in foreign policy and national security matters than they do in domestic policy, not least because Congress is (in part due to fear of “b”) almost always willing to go along with the president when he says certain powers are needed to protect the (sigh) “homeland”.

President Bush almost certainly acted outside of the boundaries established by Congress when his administration authorized the torture of prisoners, but everything else by Bush and Obama? Okey-dokey by them. Detention. Rendition. A FISA court which never says no. Restriction of oversight to, well, oversight rather than overseeing. The gulping down of any and all data transmitted electronically. And who do you think authorized the expenditures for that massive data-storage complex in Utah?

This is not confined to the US: Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained by the British security service for the full 9 hours (which almost never happens) allowed under the horrendously loose provision of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000—passed by Parliament a year before the September 11 attacks.

I’ve also argued in the past that we, the people, basically authorize Congress to authorize the president to grope around in our private lives: we want to be safe, are willing to give power to those who promise to do everything possible to keep us safe, and will punish those who are unwilling to do everything possible. We won’t tolerate failure, I’ve asserted, so will tolerate almost everything else.

I’m no longer so sure that’s true, at least the part that we’ll punish leaders if something bad happens. In fact, I think I was badly, grossly, wrong about that in ways that should have been obvious.

What have been obvious failures of security in the past century or so? William Randolph Hearst trumpeted “Remember the Maine!” and pushed McKinley toward war, but was McKinley himself punished for the alleged Spanish perfidy? Pearl Harbor was attacked on FDR’s watch, and, again, the result was war—but not punishment for the president. LBJ trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led, yep, to war, but not to a diminution of his power.

Carter was considered weak in the wake of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but it’s not at all clear that the determination of weakness was due to the takeover itself rather than the long siege or the lousy US economy. The Marine compound was attacked in Beirut under Reagan and the Black Hawk Down incident occurred under Clinton, but because both presidents chose to cut the US’s losses, it’s not clear to what, if any, extent either man was punished: each was re-elected after these events.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing? Again, Clinton wasn’t punished for that, easily winning a second term the following year.

And, of course, there’s the example of President George W. Bush. The worst attack by foreign terrorists on US soil and not only did he not pay a price, his approval ratings went up.

Now, it is common to talk about a rally-round-the-flag effect in response to national crises, but if this effect is real, then the punishment thesis doesn’t really work: they’re mutually exclusive.

This is just so goddamned obvious I have no excuse for having missed it.

I do think it’s possible that politicians are afraid they’ll be punished by constituents, but the real threat is less from constituents than political opponents, and from worrying that they’ll be called “soft” on terrorism or crime or drugs or whatever. If they don’t have any response to that charge, then they might get tagged as weak—but the weakness (if it is really even a weakness) may be due less to the alleged softness than to the lack of response itself.

Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Bush responded with war; presidents Reagan and Clinton responded with cut-and-run, and President Carter, the one considered weak, didn’t seem to have a clear response. In Carter’s case, that lack of clarity was read as lack of competence.

There’s a lot I’m throwing out, here, and much that I likely should be considering and am not. But on that basic point, that politicians act aggressively so as not to punished for [the consequences of alleged] softness, I’m pretty damned sure I was wrong.

I may be wrong on this, too, but I now think the issue isn’t punishment for an attack or even for lack of aggression following that attack, but lack of clarity  in the response.