Marc asked one key question: who should clean up the oil seeping through the Gulf of Mexico? Another question on everyone’s minds is whether Obama should permanently reverse his recent decision to allow offshore drilling (not shockingly, the White House will hold off on authorizing further offshore drilling until after this debacle is addressed).
One way to evaluate public policy is how well it balances risks. The risks associated with offshore drilling are environmental; the risks associated with disallowing it are security-based (dependence on foreign oil and long-term energy needs) and economic (lower energy prices for consumers and businesses).
Environmental risks tend to be downgraded until disaster strikes. Now that reports have oil making landfall on the ecologically fragile Louisiana marshlands, it’s a good time to embark on a more sober diagnosis of the risks we’re willing to take on.
A massive oil spill caused by an explosion on and subsequent collapse of an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening the fragile environment of the Mississippi Delta region. According to federal law, BP — the company leasing the rig — is ultimately responsible for paying the cost of response and cleanup operations. Does that sound right? What about the owner of the rig, Transocean? Why not the U.S. government for allowing drilling so close to shore or for not regulating safety well enough? In the case of industrial accidents, where does moral responsibility fall? Are the companies always responsible? Or might the U.S. government ever shoulder some of the blame?
The dangers of an overly partisian Supreme Court
Daniel had a really good post yesterday on the Supreme Court and the tension between the need for judicial review and a respect for democratically enacted laws. While I agree with almost everything he said I would take issue with the notion that purely partisan nominations would necessarily “infuse a measure of legitimacy into an otherwise undemocratic institution.” Daniel explains: Read more
The new categorical imperative
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican rhetoric on Obama’s supposed radicalism is overheated and off-base. He concludes:
This president is a mainstream, pragmatic moderate, operating in the center of American politics; center-left, perhaps, but not left of center.
This debate reveals that ideological description is policy prescription. How we describe, explicate, and categorize someone’s political theory or ideology, conceived holistically–say, either as American centrist or communist–affects how we understand an individual policy forwarded by that person.
If Obama’s whole project is categorized justifiaby as radical socialist, then most Americans will have good reason to scrutinize and be especially skeptical of any particular policy he proposes. Even if they support that given policy, they have to be wary of death by a thousand cuts, and worry that it might represent one step toward a path-dependency leading to a undesirable destination, or one innocuous piece of a larger malevolent project. Require people to purchase insurance now, central planning of the whole economy later.
If he’s branded as a pragmatic left-centrist, people will grant him more trust and give him the benefit of a reasonable doubt. Require people to purchase insurance now, require people to purchase insurance now; there is no worry of path-dependency in the wrong direction, or lurking shadowy projects. Obama has worked tirelessly to make this image stick; whether or not he’s been successful, Orstein argues pretty convincingly that it’s not just spin.
What characteristics should Obama be looking for?
On April 9th 2010, John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, penned a letter addressed to President Barack Obama. In it, the oldest member of America’s highest judicial body announced his imminent retirement, paving the way for the current White House resident’s second SCOTUS nomination in as many years.
The question of who Obama should choose to present before the Senate to take up the vacant position has already generated a hot debate, and it seems that two key tensions underscore much of what has been said on the matter.
The first tension is between partisanship and the principle of wisdom. It is common for presidents to nominate candidates that broadly share their values. Indeed, the current ‘conservative’ composition of the Supreme Court owes much to the fact that six of its nine members were recommended by Republican presidents (although it’s worth noting that Stevens himself –regarded as a liberal voice– is one of them, nominated by President Gerald Ford). On the face of it, one might contend that so long as both Democrats and Republicans partake in this ongoing tug-of-war, there appears to be some degree of fairness involved. Read more
Dionne’s argument is something many liberals/progressives have been thinking for quite a while. The Supreme Court has moved substantially to the right in the past 20 years. The court’s most liberal current members would be unrecognizable as such to the Warren court. Dionne argues that this is due to a shift in first principles; the idea that the court must avoid “judicial activism” is now the guiding principle.
Dionne’s arguement is a familiar one, and one to which I won’t disagree. “Above all,” Dionne writes, “it should become clear that the danger of judicial activism now comes from the right, not the left.” Dionne calls for liberals to start making this case more publicly.
I wonder, however, if the more sage advice might be for liberals to abandon the rhetoric of judicial activism entirely. That term has been thoroughly appropriated by conservatives over the last 20 years; it’s hard to imagine liberals winning on convincing the public that the activist tables have been turned.
If liberals truly want to win this debate, they should make an affirmative argument to first principles — that the role of the court is to fight for justice, ensure fairness, etc. Dionne is right that Citizens United can likely be an important campaign talking point for liberals. However, I don’t think the most salient point will be that the court overturned precedent that the public hasn’t heard of; it will be that, substantively, the court has increased the role of corporations in politics.
The Obama administration has pledged to create the most open government in history. They even launched an Open Government Initiative. One meaning of government openness is that citizens have easier access to government documents, and a more fluid conduit to make their voices heard.
But another meaning – one for which the Bush administration was heavily criticized – is that openness means hearing frequently and candidly from the highest elected officials. From a Politico story on press frustrations with the White House:
Day-to-day interaction with Obama is almost non-existent, and he talks to the press corps far less often than Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush did. Clinton took questions nearly every weekday, on average. Obama barely does it once a week.
The value of government openness is rarely debated any more in modern pluralistic democracies, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. In the Internet-era, it may be worth a reevaluation of just what openness means, why it’s so good, and what we should expect.
Online access to the federal budget is all well and good. But I want to hear what Obama thinks about financial regulation, immigration, and the collapsing European economy more often than I do.
Lindsey Graham and the battle for control of the Senate
Citing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) “cynical political” decision to pursue immigration legislation before energy/climate legislation, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday withdrew his support for an energy and climate bill that he, along with Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), has long championed.
In his post yesterday, Sam tries to figure out why: Read more
In today’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne writes:
The genius of American conservatives over the past 30 years has been their understanding that the most effective way to change the country is to change the terms of our political debate. On issue after issue, they have done just that.
If liberals can’t successfully challenge conservatives on first principles, they’ll never win the fights that matter.
Putting aside his ideological point, this is exactly why we exist. Because the truth is that our philosophical beliefs set the terms of public debate. When we don’t take them on explicitly, we avoid what’s really at stake in every big discussion.
Ok, enough evangelizing . . .
The life and obligations of Lindsey Graham
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) has been considered a key player in the development of a Senate energy and climate bill designed to move the country towards reduced carbon emissions and lessened dependence on foreign oil. On Saturday, Graham withdrew his support for the bill, a move that he annouced in a letter to supporters:
Recent press reports indicating that immigration – not energy – is their priority have not been repudiated. This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year.
Why is Graham so upset that immigration will take precedence over action on the climate? He explains:
Moving forward on immigration – in this hurried, panicked manner – is nothing more than a cynical political ploy. I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.
There’s no question that hardcore politics are at work here, but is there something else, too?
The possibility of bipartisan compromise on a particular issue cannot guarantee – or require – the same cooperation on another issue, or vice versa. But when should partisan rancor necessarily derail bipartisan compromise? Read more