Friday, January 29, 2010

An informed citizenry, a nation of dodos or a system too complex to understand

An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to thrive. However, as pointed out here earlier, the public perception of the health care proposals before Congress doesn’t match what they are. Now there is a Pew Poll revealing that only 26% of Americans do not know that it now requires sixty votes to pass legislation in the United States Senate rather than a simple majority.

Matthew Yglesias considers the finding and its meaning:
… It’s also worth pointing out that one of the major failings of most political journalism is a perennial tendency to overstate the American people’s level of knowledge about politics. You never hear the impact of public ignorance about the filibuster discussed as a factor in the president’s fortunes. But I’d say the fact that people don’t understand how this works is an important element of what makes it so effective. To a small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is a heroic stand. To another small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is an undemocratic disaster. But to the majority of Americans it’s completely invisible and all they see is a Democratic Party that can’t get things done.
Joe Klein was blunter in his assessment of public ignorance of the stimulus package revealed in a CNN poll:
It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don't make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you're a nation of dodos.
Certainly public officials are obligated to educate the public as much as possible about what they are doing and the public, in turn, is obligated to educate themselves about the issues of the day. However, there may be another factor at play and that may be sheer complexity of the American system of governance. For example, there is our national government with split executive and legislative branches; a legislative branch that itself is split in two; one legislative branch that is not democratic in its makeup or rules; a federal system that splits power between the national government and fifty state governments; overlapping but different relationships between national, state and local governments; and, of course, there is the number of elected officials who represent us. Yglesias looks at how hard it is to keep track of your elected representatives and hold them accountable when there are so many of them:
…If you live in Toronto, you vote for a member of the Toronto City Council, you vote for a member of the Ontario Parliament, and you vote for a member of the Canadian Parliament. That’s one large Anglophone city in North America.

What happens in New York City? Well, you’ve got a city council member, a borough president, a mayor, a public advocate, a comptroller, and a district attorney. You’ve also got a state assembly member, a state senator, an attorney-general, a state comptroller, and a governor. Then at the federal level, there’s a member of congress, two senators, and the president. That’s sixteen legislative and elected officials rather than Toronto’s three. New Yorkers don’t have three times as much time in their day to monitor the performance of elected officials. Instead, New Yorker elected officials simply aren’t monitored as closely. That creates more scope for corruption. What’s more since campaign money has diminishing marginal returns, the proliferation of elected makes money matter more than it otherwise would.

A big country like the United States is never going to have public officials who are as well-monitored as the ones in a place like Denmark. But we make the situation much, much worse by proliferating the quantity of elected officials to the point where most people have no idea what’s happening. How many people can name their state senator? How many people know what things their school board has authority over and what things their mayor decides? And this is all without considering the absolutely insane practice of electing judges.
If the system is complex beyond easily understood and agreed upon principles the public will become disenchanted with politics as a whole. Once they become disenchanted they will come to believe they have no stake in the outcome or any say-so in the process of governance. They may lose interest in the issues before their communities and nation or become susceptible to simplistic and sometimes extreme ideologies. It is a downward spiral we need to watch out for.

You can read Matthew Yglesias’ posts here and here and Joe Klein here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The spending freeze should include military spending

Remember the “peace dividend” – that idea military spending would be cut substantially at the conclusion of the Cold War to either cut the cost of governance or to be reinvested in civilian needs or both? Military spending did dip initially after the collapse of the Soviet Union but U.S. foreign policy had become too militarized for substantial cut-backs. Following the 9-11 attacks and invasions of Afghanistan and Iran spending shot back up (although the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were funded off-budget through supplementary spending legislation under the Bush administration). In 2009 U.S. military budget was almost as much as the rest of the world's defense spending combined and was over nine times larger than the military budge of China (although there is some disagreement about the exact figure of Chinese military spending).

The Pentagon budget has for too long been a sacred cow. Yes, we are involved in two wars and yes, there are other non-Afghanistan/Iraq war spending that is necessary for national defense. But it is difficult to believe that elsewhere in the overall budget for defense spending there is not waste or unnecessary holdover projects, bases, personnel, and more from the Cold War. Whether or not the President’s proposed freeze on discretionary spending makes sense or not is a different issue. Assuming it is worthwhile then it makes no sense to exclude 21% of the federal budget from the freeze proposal.

Fred Kaplan explains in Slate:
President Obama's proposal tonight to freeze discretionary federal spending for three years may or may not be a smart idea. Certainly it is a good idea to exclude, as he put it, "spending related to national security." I hope he realizes, however, that such spending is not synonymous with the Defense Department budget.

Like the budgets of all bureaucracies, but much more so, the Pentagon is stuffed with entrenched interests, parochial barons, and internecine rivalries.

In the budget-freeze section of his State of the Union address, Obama noted that because of the economy, many American families "are tightening their belts and making tough decisions," so "the federal government should do the same." The administration will, he said, need to go through its budget "line by line, page by page, eliminating programs we don't need or that don't work."

There is no good reason to exempt the Pentagon's budget from this discipline.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to exempt parts of the defense budget from a strict spending freeze. For instance, there should be no arbitrary freeze on spending to support overseas conflicts, for instance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism. There is no way to know now how things will be going in these fights, and how much our forces will need to carry out their missions, in 2011. Because of this, the Pentagon requests much of this money in emergency supplementals to the budget, and these requests should be evaluated on their own terms.

Last year, to his credit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put a good chunk of this war-related spending into the baseline military budget. He noticed an unhealthy chasm between the nation's soldiers and the Pentagon's institutional bureaucracy. By putting some of the soldiers' traditionally unfunded needs into the Pentagon's budget, he hoped to give those needs some institutional grounding—and to give the bureaucrats a reason to fight for those needs.

In the fiscal year 2010 budget, which was passed last year, that portion of the budget amounted to $170 billion. This included military pay. In the past 10 years, U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have received a cumulative 65 percent pay raise—and, with an all-volunteer military, in an age of multiple wars, they deserve it. So exempt this from a freeze.

However, the total military budget for FY10—not including the emergency supplementals for fighting wars—amounted to $534 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates, in a recent analysis, that cost overruns and other unanticipated hikes will boost this sum to $552 billion.

Deduct $170 billion—the hands-off portion—from the $552 billion amount, and that leaves $382 billion. This $382 billion has nothing directly to do with the wars we're fighting right now. That doesn't mean it's unnecessary or unjustified; maybe some of it is, maybe some of it isn't. But it's not the stuff of life and death, like the other parts of the budget—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—that Obama wants to exclude from the freeze. It should be subject to the same discipline—the same line-by-line, page-by-page analysis—as the rest of the budget.

Most of this $382 billion consists of weapons systems—combatant ships, fighter jets, submarines, heavy armored vehicles—that the individual branches of the military have been cranking out for decades. If some Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in 1982, woken up in 2009, and looked at the U.S. military budget as an indicator of what was going on in the world, he would assume that the Cold War were still raging.

Yes, the budget also includes the new, high-tech "unmanned aerial vehicles"—the armed drones, as they're called—which are dominating so much of warfare today. These things didn't exist in the '80s. But they don't take up much of today's budget either. They're cheap. All told, according to the CBO, they and their infrastructure cost about $9 billion a year—barely 2 percent of the total Defense Department budget.

Last year, Obama and Gates announced they would "rebalance" the military budget, cutting or killing certain weapons that were no longer needed because they had little use against the range of plausible threats that we faced now or in the future. The president and the secretary of defense also boosted the production of other weapons that were very much needed in the wars we were fighting now. This was why they stopped production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter, revamped the Army's Future Combat Systems, and cut back the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer—and why they put more money in drones, new armored personnel carriers, and intelligence sensors.

Next week, in addition to his new budget, Gates will present a new Quadrennial Defense Review—a congressionally mandated document that is supposed to lay out the priorities of U.S. defense policy and link them with defense budgets. A draft of the unclassified QDR (which is floating around and which someone sent me) states, "Further rebalancing may be called for in [the] coming years." It notes that the shifting shouldn't go too far; long-term needs are vital as well; the rebalance should still leave us with some kind of balance. However, the review adds, "The Department will continue to look assiduously for savings in less pressing missions and program areas."

So there's the admission that Obama should remove the Defense Department's budget—or $382 billion of it, anyway—from the category of "untouchable." The fact that Gates cut or killed (and will continue to cut or kill) some major weapons programs means that someone in the Pentagon put the weapon in the budget in the first place.

In other words, there is disagreement, even—especially—within the Defense Department, over whether some programs are needed. These programs reside in budgets that are, as Obama put it, "related to national security." But they are not all vital to national security. They should not be given a free ride when the rest of the bureaucracy has to make trade-offs.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stray animals and poor children will breed if you feed them according to S.C. Lt. Gov.

South Carolina’s contribution to our national polity and political discourse has not always been on the side of progress. For example, to win South Carolina's support for the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson removed all material from the document that condemned slavery. And now from the state that gave us John C. Calhoun, the nullification crisis of 1832, secession leading to the Civil War, Strom Thurmond, and Jim DeMint we have Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer campaigning to succeed Republican playboy Mark Sanford as governor presenting his ideas on education and poverty:
Bauer, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, made his remarks during a town hall meeting in Fountain Inn that included state lawmakers and about 115 residents.

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better," Bauer said.

In South Carolina, 58 percent of students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Bauer's remarks came during a speech in which he said government should take away assistance if those receiving help didn't pass drug tests or attend parent-teacher conferences or PTA meetings if their children were receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Health care reform and the voters – perception v. reality

There has been much speculation interpreting the “message” of the voters in last week’s special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy and its national significance. One issue dominating that discussion is the direction the President should take on pending health reform proposals before Congress.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has just released a poll taken before the Massachusetts election. (The poll was conducted January 7th through the 12th of 2,002 adults with a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percent.) The poll finds the perception of the American people of this legislation doesn’t match what this legislation really is. Americans are evenly divided (41% oppose and 42% support with the remainder undecided) BUT when asked about the key specifics in the proposals there is a significant swing towards support on all but a couple parts of the legislation.

This from the Kaiser Family Foundation press release:
The January Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, conducted before the Massachusetts Senate vote, finds opinion is divided when it comes to the hotly debated legislation, with 42 percent supporting the proposals in the Congress, 41 percent opposing them and 16 percent withholding judgment. However, a different and more positive picture emerged when we examined the public’s awareness of, and reactions to, major provisions included in the bills. Majorities reported feeling more favorable toward the proposed legislation after learning about many of the key elements, with the notable exceptions of the individual mandate and the overall price tag.

For example, after hearing that tax credits would be available to small businesses that want to offer coverage to their employees, 73 percent said it made them more supportive of the legislation. Sixty-seven percent said they were more supportive when they heard that the legislation included health insurance exchanges, and 63 percent felt that way after being told that people could no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Sixty percent were more supportive after hearing that the legislation would help close the Medicare “doughnut hole” so that seniors would no longer face a period of having to pay the full cost of their medicines. Of the 27 elements of the legislation tested in the poll, 17 moved a majority to feel more positively about the bills and two moved a majority to be more negative.

In some cases elements of the legislation were popular enough to prompt a majority of skeptics to soften their opposition, including the tax credits for small businesses (62% of current opponents said it made them more supportive), the fact that most people’s existing insurance arrangements would not change (59%), and the stipulation that no federal money would go to abortion (55%).

A smaller number of provisions cut the other way. When told that nearly all Americans would be required to have health coverage, for instance, 62 percent of people said it made them less likely to support the legislation and 51 percent said they were less likely to support the reform package after learning it will cost at least $871 billion over 10 years.

“It’s one thing to talk about the public’s perception of health care reform legislation, which right now is in some ways negative, but it’s another to tell people what’s actually in the bill and when you do that people are more positive,” said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman.

The poll finds that even after a year of substantial media coverage of the health reform debate, many Americans remain unfamiliar with key elements of the major bills passed by the House and Senate. About half are aware that tax credits would be available to small businesses, one of the most popular provisions. And 44 percent recognize that the legislation would help close the Medicare “doughnut hole.”

Awareness can matter. Among the least known elements of the bills, those with the biggest potential to change minds include the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has said health reform would reduce the deficit (only 15% expect the legislation to reduce the deficit, but 56% said hearing that makes them more supportive) and that the legislation would stop insurers from charging women more than men (37% are aware that the legislation would do this, but 50% said this provision makes them more supportive). There were no lesser known provisions that would push a majority of supporters away from the bill.
In politics, as in much of life, perception becomes reality. A large percentage of this country is skeptical of overall health reform because of a muddled perception of what it really is. The Republicans have done their job by creating confusion and distorting what this legislation will do. The Democrats have a choice – they can either cave in or they can education the public to secure the support that is really there just below the surface. The American people by and large already support the key parts of the legislation. What the Democrats need to do is clarify these parts are what make up the whole.

You can read the entire Kaiser news release here and the results of their poll here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Minority rule in the United States Senate

James Fallows does the math on the system of American governance:
- The original Constitutional compromise giving two Senate seats to every state, large or small;

- The post-Constitutional patterns of population growth, which leave California with nearly 37 million people and Wyoming with just over half a million; and

- The very recent practice of subjecting almost every Senate action to the threat of filibuster, which requires 60 votes to surmount...

.. means that in theory Senators representing only 12% of the U.S. population could block efforts that Senators representing the other 88% support.

In reality, the pattern is not that extreme. The Republican minority in the Senate includes some from highly-populated states -- two from Texas, one each from Florida and Ohio. The Democratic majority includes some from low-population states -- both from Delaware and West Virginia, one each from Alaska and Nebraska.

So in reality, what's the population balance? Counting the new Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent. (Taking 2009 state populations from here. If you count up the totals and split a state's population when it has a spit delegation, you end up with about 112.3 million Republican, 194.7 million Democratic + Indep. Before Brown's election, it was about 198 million Democratic + Ind, 109 million Republican.)

Let's round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.

This is just as a point of information. The Constitution was designed as a system of checks and balances. As explained in my article, that image is being replaced by one of brakes:

"In their book on effective government, William Eggers and John O'Leary quote a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Michael Keeley, on why the city is out of control. "Think of city government as a big bus," he told them. "The bus is divided into different sections with different constituencies: labor, the city council, the mayor, interest groups, and contractors. Every seat is equipped with a brake, so lots of people can stop the bus anytime. The problem is that this makes the bus undrivable." "
During the next election cycle when you hear someone say their vote doesn’t count, think long and hard about your response.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

President Obama’s first year

Hendrik Hertberg puts Barack Obama’s first year as president into perspective:
Having been around a while, I have some memory of the Years One of four previous Democratic Presidents. Turbulence during takeoff has been the rule. It is wise to keep one’s seat belt loosely fastened.

J.F.K. had the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a humiliating Vienna summit with Khrushchev, unforced errors both. He dazzled with imaginative, low-cost initiatives like the Peace Corps, but the really ambitious items on his agenda (health care!) stalled in Congress. Carter mismanaged relations with Congress and “gave away” the Panama Canal, a necessary move that had the side effect of turbocharging Ronald Reagan’s political rise. Clinton stumbled over gays in the military on the way to his own health-care debacle. Only Johnson had a stellar first year, and that was largely due to the tragically galvanizing circumstances of his taking office.

That Obama let the “outside game” part of the health-care drama get away from him, so focussed was he on the “inside game” of trying to force the legislative elephant through the Congressional keyhole, can no longer be denied. He and his team can also be faulted for the political (and perhaps substantive) inattention that has allowed the right to profit handsomely from the economic disaster that their policies, not Obama’s, brought about.

Whether yesterday’s upset in Massachusetts turns out to be a catastrophe or merely a setback now depends largely on the grown-upness, or lack of it, of liberals in the House of Representatives. I don’t see any way out of the darkness right now other than for the House to tighten its stomach muscles, pass the Senate version of the health-care bill A.S.A.P., and move on to jobs and the economy. The Senate health-care bill, however inferior to the House version, is vastly superior to the status quo. The only alternative I can discern is no bill at all—a political, substantive, and humanitarian failure that would reverberate for a generation.

Thanks to my longstanding obsession with the obsolescence of our eighteenth-century political and electoral hydraulics (such as the separation of powers and the lack of a single government accountable to a national electorate) and this sclerotic system’s sadomasochistic twentieth-century refinements (such as the institutionalization of the filibuster), I am not astonished that Obama has had trouble “getting things done.” Absent only the filibuster—even while leaving untouched all the other monkey wrenches (committee chairs, corrupt campaign money, safe districts, Republicans, etc.)—Obama by now would have signed landmark bills addressing health care, global warming, and financial regulation, and a larger, better-designed stimulus package, too.

Obama came into office with a slightly better-than-average electoral mandate, but he was immediately faced with difficulties of a size and type that his post-mid-century Democratic predecessors were not: a gigantic economic emergency whose full effects weren’t felt until halfway into his first year; two botched wars in chaotic Muslim countries; an essentially nihilistic opposition party dominated by a pro-torture, anti-intellectual, anti-public-spirited, xenophobic “conservative” movement; and a rightist propaganda apparatus owned by nominally respectable media corporations and financed by nominally respectable advertisers. Excuses? Maybe. Good ones, though. Sometimes excuses actually excuse.

Meanwhile, President Obama forestalled a second Great Depression, turned the attention of the executive branch toward real problems, restored lawfulness and decency to foreign and domestic policy, damped down the flames of global anti-Americanism, and staffed the agencies and departments with competent, public-spirited officials who believe in the duty of government to advance the general welfare. In this generation, Obama is as good as it is likely to get. I’m not sure whether that’s good news or bad, and I’m not saying that liberals shouldn’t keep the pressure on him to do better. I am saying that their—our—anger and exasperation should be directed elsewhere, at systemic grotesqueries like the filibuster and at the nihilists those grotesqueries enable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The challenge for President Obama after the Massachusetts special election

The upset victory by a little-known pro-torture and anti-health-care-reform Republican for the late Senator Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts has stunned Democrats across the nation. There is the local element of the quality of candidate and how she ran their campaigns (as we are painfully aware in Virginia after last November) to take into consideration but it is also seen as a message about the President’s leadership after one year in office. Despite majorities in both houses of Congress, some Democrats seem spooked by last night’s election results. There is also a sense that the Democrats may be losing the appeal to independent voters who flocked to them in 2008.

As John Judis points out, President Obama shares a fair amount of the blame for this political crisis. The country is in two wars and a devastating recession. While calculations may have been rational they often seem to lack the passion and clarity of his campaign rhetoric. This is not nostalgia for former President Bush’s often child-like comic-book presentation of the world in black and white. American voters are adults and can understand nuance in a world of shades of gray. And granted the American dual-legislative process, with one body unrepresentative of the public and burdened by self-imposed rules to thwart democracy, is simply screwy and a challenge to any elected leader.

That said, the Rube Goldberg legislative system has been made to work before. Social Security and Medicare faced significant challenges but passed and remain popular. They were reforms that were easy to understand and affected everyone – unlike the current health care reform effort. And President Obama proved during the campaign his superb communications skills.

Whatever the shortcomings of the current health care proposals it is important that the White House and Congress proceed in the process that has been ongoing since last summer. The results of a special election in a single state cannot be allowed to derail this legislation. There are two things American voters especially dislike in their political leaders: cowardice and flip-flopping. If health care reform was important last week then it remains important this week.

Josh Marshall has these thoughts:
In the spirit of bipartisanship the president admires, let's go back to President Bush in 2006 and 2007. The Republicans and the president were hit with a staggering defeat in November 2006 in an election fought overwhelmingly on public dissatisfaction with the Iraq War. The president said that he'd heard the people's message and proceeded to dramatically expand the US troop commitment in Iraq.

What you think of the surge is a separate point. But the example is an instructive one. Especially because it's an example that President Obama could follow with a far better argument that he is listening to the message of the people than President Bush ever had with Iraq.

The central problem the president is laboring under is the fact that the economy remains in a shambles. And unemployment remains at a toxic 10%. Beyond that though the Democrats are suffering because they have shown voters an image of fecklessness and inability to deliver results at a moment of great public anxiety and suffering. Big changes provoke great anxiety, especially in such a divided society. But Democrats are not just having dealing with the ideological divisions in the country -- which is what the Tea Party movement is about. They're also losing a big swathe of the population that is losing faith that the Democrats can govern, that they can even deliver on the reforms and policies they say are necessary for the national good. As I wrote earlier, this is about meta-politics. If the Democrats, either from the left or the right, walk away from reform, they will get slaughtered in November. They'll get it from the people who want reform, from the people who never wanted reform and from sensible people all over who just think they can't get anything done.

What the Democrats -- and a lot of this is on the White House -- have done is get so deep into the inside game of legislative maneuvering, this and that 'gang' of senators and a lot of other nonsense that they've let themselves out of sync with the public mood and the people's needs.

The president needs to find way to say, we've heard you. We've gotten so focused on working the Washington channels to get this thing done and we need to be more focused on the public's mood and urgency. Well, we've heard you. We're going to stop playing around and get this thing done. And then we're going to work on getting Americans back to work. We know the urgency of the moment and we know you expect results.

…. This is the biggest testing time the president has yet faced. It could be a key turning point in his presidency. Over the next forty-eight hours the president is going to come under withering pressure to walk away from reform. It'll come from the left and the right, and in various different flavors. It will come from shocking directions. The president is going to have to find a way to say, No. We're doing this. He'll need to stand down a lot of cowardly and foolish people in his own party. He'll have to stand down the vast and formless force of establishment punditry and just say, No. We're going to do this. And he's going to have to make the case to the public, not necessarily convince all those who have doubts about health care reform but make clear that he thinks this is the right direction for the country and because he thinks it's the right thing to do that he's going to make it happen.
The President needs to say we are not backing down and lead the charge to bring this health care reform proposal to a successful conclusion.

He then needs to tackle in a very major and public way this nation’s unemployment and ongoing recession. This economic mess is not his fault, and the American people understand that, but voters have a right to expect that more be done to correct it and those responsible for the economic collapse be reeled back in under regulation to protect the public.

In short, he needs to do what we elected him to do.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What the government’s responses to Haiti and Katrina tell us about domestic political ideology

Do liberals in power respond better to catastrophes than conservatives in power? The differences in responses by President Obama to the earthquake in Haiti compared to President Bush’s responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 are no coincidence. Peter Beinart explains why in the Daily Beast:
Here’s something you’re not supposed to say: Barack Obama has responded to the earthquake in Haiti much better than George W. Bush responded to Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami. Here’s something you’re really not supposed to say: He’s responded better because he’s a liberal. Liberals see responding to humanitarian disasters, including overseas, as a more fundamental responsibility of government than conservatives do. Don’t take my word for it—listen to the nation’s most influential conservative commentators themselves.

The fact that Obama has responded better is obvious—pundits and politicians just aren’t supposed to say so for fear of politicizing a tragedy. Within half an hour of learning of the Haitian earthquake, the White House released a statement. The president cleared his public schedule the following day, and received five briefings in 26 hours. The secretaries of State and Defense both cut short trips to Asia, and Obama and Hillary Clinton each named one of their closest aides (Dennis McDonough at the National Security Council, Cheryl Mills at State) to coordinate disaster relief. Hillary personally visited the island, and Vice President Joe Biden met Haitian-Americans in Miami. Within a day of the earthquake, a U.S. aircraft carrier was en route and Obama had announced $100 million in aid.

Compare that to the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Twelve hours before Katrina reached the U.S., Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff flew to Atlanta to attend a conference on bird flu, even though he and the president had already been warned that a major hurricane could breach New Orleans’ levees. On Tuesday morning, August 30, a day after the hurricane hit, Bush flew to California to commemorate America’s World War II victory over Japan; then returned to Crawford, Texas, to continue his vacation. On Wednesday, he flew over the devastated Gulf Coast, but didn’t set foot there till Friday. Even Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter gave the administration’s response an F.

Similarly, it took a vacationing Bush three days to make a public statement about the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. His administration’s initial aid pledge was $15 million, which led the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs to call the response of America and other Western countries “stingy.” Stung by the criticism, Bush later increased U.S. aid, and oversaw a substantial humanitarian effort by the American military. But as with Katrina, his initial response was passive, if not downright negligent.

It’s true that Obama has the benefit of hindsight. He knows that the inept response to Katrina damaged Bush’s presidency (and that he himself was sharply criticized for taking too long to publicly discuss the Christmas bomb attack). But there’s more to it than that. The discrepancy between Obama and Bush mirrors a broader discrepancy between liberals and conservatives. Last Wednesday—the first full day of earthquake coverage in the U.S. press—MSNBC’s three signature evening shows (Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews) devoted a total of more than two hours to Haiti, according to the liberal group Media Matters. By contrast, Fox’s three signature shows (Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck) devoted less than seven minutes. Noting that MSNBC (not to mention CNN) had sent some of its top anchors and reporters to the island, Rush Limbaugh actually boasted on his radio show that “I am… the top media figure not broadcasting from Haiti.”

And it wasn’t just that Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity and Beck largely ignored the earthquake. They implicitly explained why they were ignoring it: because they didn’t believe an aggressive Washington response would do any good. “The USA will once again pour millions into that country, much of which will be stolen,” declared O’Reilly. “Once again we will do more than anyone else on the planet and a year from today Haiti will be just as bad as it is today.” On his radio show, Beck argued against any non-military assistance from Washington. “We’ve poured millions into there,” added Limbaugh, “and it’s pouring it down a drain.”

In fact, recent foreign aid to Haiti has been anything but money down a drain. Largely because of a highly successful U.N. peacekeeping effort, Haiti in 2008 held a peaceful democratic election. Five days before the earthquake hit, the country got its first international hotel franchise in a decade.

But O’Reilly and Limbaugh’s comments are revealing less for what they say about Haiti than what they say about the American right. In their private lives, American conservatives are at least as charitable as their liberal counterparts. But when it comes to government to government charity—the kind that the Obama administration is practicing now—conservatives are far more skeptical. They tend to believe that there’s little the American government can do to fix countries like Haiti, and that the harder Washington tries, the more it will neglect the real business of foreign policy: fighting America’s enemies. In the 1990s, when the Clinton administration invested heavily in Haitian nation-building, Republicans accused it of practicing “foreign policy as social work.” And it’s significant that both Limbaugh and O’Reilly compared Obama’s fast response to the Haitian earthquake to his slower response to the Christmas bombing—the implication being that Obama is so focused on helping the wretched of the earth that he can’t protect America.

“This is what he lives for,” Limbaugh jeered. “He lives for serving those in misery.” In a sense, Limbaugh is right. Liberals like Obama have greater faith in government than do conservatives, and they’re less nationalistic. As a result, they see helping those in agony—even in other lands—as a big part of what the American government is supposed to do. They also believe that if the American government does that work well, it will generate goodwill that makes America safer.

Most conservatives don’t believe that, which helps explain why Bush responded more passively to Katrina and the tsunami than Obama has to the Haitian earthquake. As neocons like to say, ideas have consequences. And luckily for the ravaged people of Haiti, the ideas of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh don’t permeate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue anymore.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The need to grant temporary protected status for undocumented Haitians

The needs of the survivors of the Haitian earthquake are so numerous and of such quantity as to be almost incomprehensible. Yet the most severe earthquake in 200 years with the epicenter just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince is only the latest tragedy to strike this impoverished nation. Since it’s independence from France, Haiti has seen 32 coups. National authority has been disputed by factions of the army, the elite class and the commercial class (made up of numerous immigrants in the late 19th century: Germans, Americans, French and English). Expatriates bankrolled and armed opposing groups. There has been little self-governance in between several dictatorships and a 19-year U.S. occupation early in the 20th century.

Political instability has contributed greatly the economic poverty of the country and inadequate infrastructure. Deforestation in the early 20th century has made the country prone to severe flooding. Every summer the nation seems to be on the path of one or more hurricanes. And now this earthquake.

Because of its proximity to the United States, Haitians for many years have fled the chaos of their home for the safety, and hopefully prosperity, of U.S. shores. Unlike their Cuban counterparts, undocumented Haitian refugees are deported.

Whatever the arguments favoring this policy were prior to this recent disaster they do not make sense now. Deporting people now back into this disaster area would be irresponsible and immoral. Undocumented Haitian immigrants should be granted temporary protected status (TPS). Andrea Nill explains:
Since the election of President Obama, Haitians in the U.S. have been anxiously awaiting a change in immigration policy which would grant undocumented Haitian immigrants temporary protected status (TPS). TPS is a temporary immigration status that is available to individuals from a small number of federally-designated countries suffering armed conflicts, natural disasters, or other extraordinary circumstances. Haitian immigrants in the U.S. probably should’ve been granted TPS long before yesterday’s earthquake. Yet now, as Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) points out, it would be “not only immoral, but irresponsible” not to.

Haiti’s recent woes come after enduring four consecutive tropical cyclones in 2008 that left 800 people dead and from which the country has yet to recover. The Miami Herald has reported that the Haitian city of Gonaives, is still “uninhabitable.” That same year, Port-Au-Prince was “shattered” as even 9,000 United Nation peacekeepers were unable to halt the looting and violence that ravaged Haiti’s capital. In March, USAID estimated that 2.3 million Haitians were facing “food insecurity” as a result of high food prices. Political instability continues to devastate the country.

Haitian immigrants had high hopes with the election of President Obama. Yet, many have since become frustrated with the administration’s “failure to deliver one of their top goals.” In March 2009, the Obama administration indicated that it would continue deporting undocumented Haitians, “despite appeals by the Haitian government, which says deportations could destabilize a country where food, water and housing have been in extremely short supply since major storms last summer.” One month later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that the Obama administration hadn’t granted Haitians TPS because “we don’t want to encourage other Haitians to make the dangerous journey across the water.” In July, five U.S. senators, including the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), personally wrote to President Obama, urging him to grant Haitian immigrants TPS. The senators countered criticisms that such a move would spark an unmanageable influx of Haitian immigrants by pointing out that TPS is only available to those already living in the U.S.

This morning, Obama affirmed that Haiti “will have a friend and partner in the people of the United States today, and going forward.” Continuing to deport thousands of Haitian immigrants back to their ravaged home country rather than letting them stay in the U.S. to help their families in Haiti get back on their feet is inconsistent with the promises the Obama administration has already made to the people of Haiti. The U.S. generously granted and extended TPS for 82,000 Hondurans and 5,000 Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to 260,000 Salvadorans after an earthquake in 2001. There’s no reason why Haitians should be treated any different.