How does a President whose political fortunes were considered moribund after the mid-term elections – only seven weeks ago – pull off a string of legislative triumphs in record time ? One reason is that he remains a formidable politician who will not be as easy to defeat in 2012 as many assume. A second reason is that these victories are smaller than the sum of their parts.
Consider the “law” that now permits avowed homosexuals from serving in the military, a move that most combat troops overwhelmingly opposed. It is not difficult to see a harmful effect on unit cohesion when a sexual dynamic is introduced into the ranks, especially where men are forced to live in close quarters for long periods of time. After all, if libido and propriety are not legitimate considerations, men and women in the military would be sharing lodgings, so how can social discomfort not impair military effectiveness ? And for those who have been touting that Israel has had open homosexuals serving in the military for several decades without any loss of effectiveness, well, how do you know ? How do you measure effectiveness ? Israel has not fought a conventional, contested war in almost forty years, and the most recent example of a near-contested conflict – the war in Lebanon in 2006 – was a military debacle. So who’s to say that the IDF has not been harmed by a number of factors, including this one ? What metric is used ? And so the military has been given the needed “flexibility” to
In any event, the “law” that banned homosexual service was of fairly recent vintage – 1993, in fact, and President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a (reasonable, workable) reaction to that law. But why was a “law” necessary in the first instance, when the prohibition itself was a military regulation not subject to Congressional oversight ? For example, when President Truman de-segregated the military in July 1948, he did it through Executive Order as was his prerogative as Commander-in-Chief. He did not need Congressional legislation. It was the fear of Clinton’s using the same mechanism (and a deep distrust of Clinton on military issues) that induced Congress to act, what was likely then an inappropriate micromanagement of military matters.
Of course, Clinton had a good ten months when he could have assured full participation of homosexuals in the military but chose to do nothing. He wisely chose to do nothing, because the military was opposed then, as it is now. But now that the “PR” victory has been won, the dance goes on. Using the military to advance a social agenda without due regard for its effect on its efficiency is always unwise, so the military has been offered the bone of determining the pace of implementation. What works in liberal theory – think “closing Guantanamo” – might not be as practicable in the real world. In any event, I would be curious to find out whether the new law sparks of wave of homosexuals joining the military. And, more importantly, more than 99% of Americans are unaffected by this legislation, which makes it mostly symbolic and reflective of declining mores.
The START Treaty is another example of legislation that offers more symbols than substance. Billed as the President’s “leading foreign policy objective” begs the question: why this treaty was ignored for months and then rushed for approval ? And another question: isn’t it just a little quaint to perceive Russia as a “superpower” with whom the United States has to engage in arms control talks ? Russia is a third-rate power with a mono-dimensional economy propped up by oil and natural gas sales, and little else. By many accounts, China has supplanted Russia as America’s main rival, and other countries in the world – Iran, for one – pose a greater threat to America than does Russia. So the nostalgia for a Cold War dynamic is misplaced, and the main effect of the treaty is to limit the US ability to defend itself and its allies by quantifying the number of strategic warheads America can deploy. This effectively dooms the missile shield over Europe that Obama renounced anyway last year, as well as deprives the US of the full capacity to deter the troublemakers in South America, like Venezuela, which is importing Iranian missiles. And all designed to hasten the objective of eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world, a pipedream that is a nightmare for freedom. Remember the old slogan: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”? The greater horror is the naïve fantasy that the US can divest itself of nuclear weapons, and the evildoers of the world will follow suit.
And I thought “peace in the Middle East” was the President’s “leading foreign policy objective.” Oh, well. This, too, will not affect the average American.
The third accomplishment – the extension of the Bush era tax rates – shows Obama’s political prowess. Certainly, I supported the extension and reiterate that any American who wishes to pay taxes at a higher rate can certainly do so, and I support as well a drastic reduction in domestic and foreign spending (by the way: the time has come. Let Iraq start contributing financially for the presence of American troops there). You can’t (shouldn’t) spend what you don’t have. The apoplexy of the liberal base – which truly believes that not confiscating someone’s wealth is a “tax break” – was a joy to behold. Their assumption must be that everything one earns belongs firstly to the government, which then allows you to keep whatever they deem appropriate. That assumption is Stalinist, not Jeffersonian.
What’s troubling is the recourse to the lame duck session of Congress in order to deliberate and vote on matters that might have political consequences if done before elections, and debated by many politicians who were repudiated by their constituents and have lost their mandate. These sessions were historically very rare and very limited in scope, but have become almost routine. It amounts to bi-partisan fecklessness, unworthy of people who purport to be national leaders. Indeed, the long delays between elections and the assumption of office are anachronisms that should be changed, immediately. Give new presidents and Congresses two weeks to take office (to allow for ballot challenges and recounts); count absentee ballots before the elections; tally them as they come in, under rules of strict secrecy, of course.
The most important consequence of all this legislation is on President Obama. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was candy for the liberals dismayed by his acceptance of the Bush-era tax rates, and certainly solidified that part of his base. Like his policies or not (I despise them), he has an admirable record of at least trying to implement, and in many cases, implementing, his campaign promises. The irony is that many of his voters assumed that his promises were just rhetoric – that no leader would be so brazen as to legislate the country into bankruptcy or socialism. But he has tried – and has transformed for the moment his political standing. In a little over one month, Obama went from projecting the appearance of incompetence to projecting the appearance of competence. It is not that any individual piece of legislation is that significant – it’s not – but he momentarily changed the debate, and the image of his presidency, and seized the initiative.
All of which will make him much more difficult to defeat in 2012. But it is still early. And dealing with a Republican House has the potential to bring out Obama’s arrogance and condescension in a way that alienates many prior supporters. And if a Republican alternative to Obama governance emerges – both person and policy – the campaign will be joined and the battle begun.