“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” With those words, written more than 200 years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers explained the most important safeguard of the American constitutional system. They then added this promise: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.
But will it?
As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.
Frum actually understates the case that Congress is weakening. The decline of the Legislative branch has been going on for at least a century.
It takes a long time to unravel a system of government like the one the Founders created. “Erosion” is a fitting way to describe it–it’s occurred slowly, over generations. But there is one entity that has consistently worked over the decades to reduce the power of the legislature.
That entity is… the United States Congress.
“Wait, what?” you say. “Congress is taking power away from itself? Why would it do that?”
Well, it’s a long story. And, as you probably suspected, it all began with the increasing costs of farming in the late 1800s.
Donald Trump: President-Elect Barack Obama: Outgoing President John Roberts: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (And a good judge too!) Bill Clinton: A former President Hillary Clinton: A former Secretary of State Al Gore: A former Vice-President Chorus of Senators, Representatives, and Townspeople.
Act I. Scene: Washington D.C. A frigid winter day. The familiar landmarks seen in the background. TRUMP discovered standing at podium.
TRUMP: Well, well, at long last the fruits of my eighteen months’ labor are to be crowned with inestimable glory. At noon today, I shall finally achieve the august rank of President, defying all the many baleful prophecies set forth by the ignorant laymen and avowed antagonists of my singular quest. The prospect is Elysian–big league!
(Enter BARACK OBAMA, BILL and HILLARY CLINTON, AL GORE and Chorus. Chorus seen begging OBAMA in a furious state of agitation.)
OBAMA: There’s no getting out of it. The law is the law. At 12 o’ clock today, I relinquish control of the office to my elected successor.
(Chorus much dejected)
OBAMA (aside): Never mind my misgivings about his personality, or his total contempt for my liberal policy agenda; not to mention his hiring investigators to find evidence that I am not a legitimate president. I’m a constitutional lawyer–it’s built into my, er, constitution– and respect for the law, unpleasant as it may be, is paramount! (aloud, to TRUMP) Well look, Donald, I certainly wish you the best with your efforts to undo everything I have done. I have heard it said that you wish to, er, how does it go? “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp” is that right?
TRUMP: Yes, that sounds like something I would say.
OBAMA: I know we have had our differences over the years, but I do hope we can put those behind us, and work together in a spirit of mutual bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of the country.
TRUMP (aside): This fellow still thinks I listen to people. Sad! (aloud) Beautiful, very very beautiful! I’ll have my people look into it.
(Enter CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, looking harried and nervous)
TRUMP: What’s the matter with you?
OBAMA (checking his watch): The inauguration does not occur for another half-hour yet.
ROBERTS (frenzied): Stop–stop, both of you! There is a problem here.
TRUMP: Problem? What do you mean? Explain!
ROBERTS: Mr. Trump’s investigators have just completed their report on President Obama’s birth certificate and by extension, eligibility to hold office!
(OBAMA and TRUMP both much affected)
TRUMP: I had forgotten all about that!
ROBERTS: Yes, well it seems that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate really was a forgery! They fabricated it using someone else’s birth certificate.
(OBAMA staggers in disbelief.)
TRUMP (Triumphantly): I knew it all along!
ROBERTS: But there’s more to it than that–it seems that the certificate they used was yours, Mr. Trump! They simply wrote “Hawaii” over “New York”.
ROBERTS: So, technically you’ve already served two terms–
OBAMA (clapping TRUMP on the back) –and a fine two terms they were, if I may say so myself.
ROBERTS: –and you can’t serve a third.
TRUMP: This is ridiculous–then who is going to be President?
ROBERTS: I’ve checked into that–the results of the last three elections are all invalid, and so we can’t use those. And the winner of the two before that is obviously ineligible to serve as well. As such, I have taken the liberty of convening the court to overturn the results of Bush v. Gore.
(All gasp. ROBERTS motions GORE to step forward.)
ROBERTS: I give you: the Next President of the United States!
ALL except TRUMP: Hurrah!
GORE: Fallacy somewhere, I fancy.
All except TRUMP exeunt in jubilation. TRUMP lowers his head dejectedly.
Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump. I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.
My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.
This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms. By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”. He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.
This was part of Nixon’s plan. It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968. It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.
When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump. He’d become a laughingstock.
Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.
I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.
Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power. But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.
The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it. The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.
From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other. I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.
Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.
I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win. But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.
I was right. Obama won re-election.
But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him. Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.
Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.
Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up. Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.
Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.
But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”
You would need more than that, though. Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable. He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people. He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.
To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.
I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.
Trump is not boring. Trump constantly commands the press’s attention. He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him. And he almost never backs down from it, either.
Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.
And as far as “optics” go, he is right. Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration. When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”
The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate. He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:
In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.
Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies. They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.
That is where charisma comes in. Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.
Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people. Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.
My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw. It’s not that at all. Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that. It’s a very rare ability.
Most people are afraid of public speaking. This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc. But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.
That’s the bad news for the Democrats. The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.
Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.
And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out. Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.
But there is one thing that should give them pause. And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.
The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate. So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard. He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)
Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.
And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?
I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September. He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year. He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.
Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.
Will he succeed?
Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.
I only watched President Obama’s speech and part of Senator Ernst’s response; I didn’t see any of the other many response speeches various Republicans gave.
Overall, I thought Obama’s speech was good, and Ernst’s was pathetic. And I’m not even commenting on content here; since what politicians say frequently has hardly any bearing on what they do. I am strictly reviewing them both in terms of their rhetorical skill here.
There was one thing both of them did that I found annoying, although it’s incredibly common in political speeches, so I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on these two for it. But I’m going to. Politics isn’t fair.
It begins with our economy. Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction… “If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”
As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time… They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off.
Now, I get what Obama’s trying to do here, rhetorically. He’s trying to take a macro point (“the economy was bad, but it is getting better”) and illustrate it using a micro-instance of two particular people. He explicitly said this later on: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”
This isn’t a bad technique. In fact, it can be a very good technique. But it’s overused. I think Obama uses it almost every speech he gives. And it’s getting to be just too much of a cliche. This isn’t a criticism of the couple’s story, by the way; I’m happy for them. But Obama’s use of telling these stories has crossed from being a good way of making things “relate-able” to being something the audience can start tuning out, because we’ve heard this before.
Watching the State of the Union, I felt like I’ve seen this speech before. Like it’s the same speech every year. And part of it is due to that same “John Smith did XYZ, and that’s what makes America great” style. It gets to feel like it’s formulaic.
You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.
But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.
Again, she’s going with the same technique, although she did a much worse job than Obama of explaining the relevance of this to her point. Even if she had though, it would really make for compelling imagery. As it was, she reminded me of Governor Bobby Jindal’s awful State of the Union response from a few years ago.
I’m sure this technique of telling these little stories to illustrate the point was useful, back in the days when politicians would give dry speeches full of numbers and such. It made your speech stand out. But now, it’s such a common thing that it’s gotten to be overused, and when something is overused, people don’t pay attention to it. I suspect a drier, more statistics-filled speech would get more attention (not to mention being better suited to Ernst’s speaking style).
On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.
It is pretty much the standard Republican fare in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today. I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless. I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.
But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style. I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers. I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.
To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.
I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election. It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such. I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have dared to spend the whole half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.
To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.
Last year, there was an online service that was in very high-demand. It was hyped, but its rollout was very rocky. When it was released to the public, it tended to crash a lot. It couldn’t handle the number of users it was getting.
People criticized the organization that created it for being unprepared for the number of users, and for designing the system poorly. It was quite embarrassing, especially since the organization behind it has always been a lightning rod for controversy.
The game companies got flak for it, too–gamers hate Electronic Arts about as much as Republicans hate President Obama, but with the additional problem that they aren’t allowed to filibuster EA’s products and demand they come back with new ones. It’s the equivalent of if Republicans had to pass and endorse all Obama’s pet projects or else leave politics entirely.
But at what point does this sort of thing start to constitute a pattern? When the U.S. Government and two separate large electronics companies cannot roll out a satisfactory online service, you have to wonder if anyone knows what they are doing as far as building online services.
One argument might be that in all cases, the people making the service thought so many would have to use it–because of the law in the one case, and because of the gaming industry hype machine in the others–that they felt no reason to do a good job on the service in question.
But I don’t buy that for the Health Care case, because it’s one of the major political issues of the time, and even if you are so cynical as to believe the architects don’t care about the people, many of them will find their careers riding on the success or failure of the program. So they had good reason to make sure the product worked from the get-go.
I don’t have any real explanations for this myself. I just think it is interesting that wealthy organizations, who ought to have enough resources to understand what they can and can’t make, keep failing at debuting web products like this.
So, in the opinion of this legal scholar, someone who was born in a foreign country still qualifies as a natural born citizen, even if born in another nation, as long as their mother was a citizen. We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating.
And so once again, I must ask the question: why didn’t the press mention this any of those times when people were alleging President Obama was ineligible because he had been born in Kenya? That would have been a much better way of counter-acting the so-called “birther” conspiracy than anything else. Where Obama was born never even matteredfrom a legal perspective.
I don’t remember any CNN articles pointing this out when they talked about the conspiracy theory. I mean, the conspiracy stuff is ridiculous enough as it is, but when you throw in the fact that even if it were all true, it is totally unimportant, that would make them look really bad. And yet, nobody seems to have bothered to consult any legal experts when the questions were raised about Obama.
I played the end of Fallout 3last night. For those of you who haven’t played it, it’s a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future in Washington D.C. Awesome setting, absolutely dreadful writing. There is exactly one well-written character in the game, and many of his lines are just quotes from actual U.S. Presidents.
The game has multiple endings, and the one I played last night has a massive, giant, gaping plot-hole in it. I won’t give it away–it would take forever to explain anyway–but in brief, the player is forbidden from making the most logical choice simply because the game writers wanted to force a choice on the player. There’s a perfectly logical ending that’s best for everyone, but the game won’t let you pick it. (In fairness, they did subsequently make an add-on that will let you choose this option, but I don’t have it.)
I’ve talked in the past on here about good and bad video game writing. I could talk about the writing in F3 is an example of the latter, and contrast with the brilliantly constructed plot in its sequel, Fallout: New Vegas. But we all have bigger things to worry about, what with the election coming up. And it is along those lines that forced choices in Washington D.C. set me thinking.
There are exactly two real choices for President this election, as there in almost all other elections of late. Yes, there are third-party candidates, but they cannot win, and unlike Ross Perot in ’92, are unlikely to even attract enough votes to make the real candidates take notice. Thus, as I have written before, the question is not “is this the best person for the job?”, but, “is this person better than this other person for the job?”
I support President Obama. I think he is clearly better than Romney. But is he the best person for the job? I don’t know. Theoretically, of course, the primary system would produce the two best people for the job, but an incumbent President who faces a primary challenge is virtually sure to lose, and so no Democrat had any reason to challenge Obama this time around. And Mitt Romney, for his part, put on an absolute clinic on how to game the American electoral system. He discovered that he could simply say one thing in the primaries, and the opposite in the general campaign, and face no real consequences for it. His campaign even told everyone they were going to do that, and it still worked.
It is well-known that some voters blindly give their unwavering support to one party or the other, but the bigger issue is that even when people attempt to escape from the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats, they still allow the parties to dictate the terms on which political decisions are made. That’s why the word “centrist” annoys me so much; it still permits the parties to set the agenda, from which the “centrists” only mix and match their selections.
I sometimes think it would be better if the system worked as follows: the politicians were all effectively independents most of the time, but during election season could choose to align themselves with some party if they felt so inclined. In other words, the candidate would nominate the party, rather than the party nominating the candidate who has best worked his way up in the party. (If you think about it, why should low-ranking local officials need to have a party affiliation?) But maybe this has already been done and failed. And it does have its drawbacks–most notably, there’s still the question of how to keep the number of candidates manageable. Elections would all end in ties if every adult were easily able to run. So, how do you decide who is qualified to be a national candidate without involving the party system?
Well, as I said, I think Obama is the better candidate, no question. I don’t even really understand why so many Republicans are eager to vote for Romney, as he is apparently willing to throw away their platform to win a debate. I don’t actually know what he plans to do, though the best guess I can make is cutting spending and causing another recession. So, by default, I have to support Obama for President.
–lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy.
Speaking of international affairs, the foreign policy speech the other night was surreal. I say “speech” because it was in no way a “debate”. Romney just echoed Obama. Sort of pointless, really. They might have at least had the decency to say beforehand “hey, we have no major disagreements on this, so let’s debate something else”.
Barry Goldwater famously derided “me-too” Republicans, meaning Republicans who went along with the Democrats with only slight deviations. Mitt Romney has taken “me-too” Republicanism to an absurd extreme–at least in his words, if not in his deeds. Either he is lying to the country in general about what his plans are, or else he is lying to the Republicans about being one of them. I think there was a famous quote from some old politician about “fooling all of the people all of the time“. Romney should check that out.
One problem with foreign policy debates is that foreign policy more than other matters requires secrecy. You can’t go blabbing your plans all over the place, or rival nations and other entities will find out what you’re up to and react accordingly. So, all they can really do is spout platitudes. “Peace is good”, “America must be strong” and so on. Still, spouting platitudes is what politicians excel at.
Obama’s line about horses and bayonets was a good one, but I sometimes think he’s over-thinking things. While I agree that some of the military spending Romney is proposing is wasteful, it might be the easiest way of providing the economy with the Keynesian stimulus it needs, since few Republicans will vote against it. It would be better to spend it on schools and such, but if the political landscape makes that impossible, there’s not much to be done.
I still think Obama is going to win this election, but there’s no question it’s been much closer than I ever expected.