Politics: May 2007 Archives

In a discussion on the Trinity, Trent Dougherty at Prosblogion rasies the question of whether President Bush is his own president. There's a sense in which Bush is the president of those who voted for him, i.e. they (at least at one point) identified with him as the person they wanted to be president. There's a broader sense in which he's the president of every U.S. citizen, i.e. he's the president who governs over them. That's the sense Trent has in mind. In that sense he is Ralph Nader's president as much as he is James Dobson's.

But is he his own president? Trent thinks yes, and I agree. Mike and Dale in the comments say no, and they offer two reasons. First, he can't pardon himself, which means he doesn't have that particular authority over himself. Second, he's not under his own authority, because as the top executive he's not under anyone's authority. I've adapted what follows from my comment on that post.

I think it's helpful to compare the president's authority with authority in other branches of government. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obviously has limited authority, She needs on her side either (1) the president, at least 50% of the House, and at least 51 senators (and in the event of a filibuster at least 60 senators) or (2) at least 67 senators and 2/3 of the House. It's fairly easy to see how her authority is fairly limited. But is she her own speaker? She speaks for the House. She leads a body of which she is a member. In the UK system of government, there's a similar position held by someone who isn't a member of the body in question, but she actually is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She votes for the speaker along with the other members, and if she sets up rules she then has to abide by them or go through the normal process of changing them. So I'd say that we should consider her to be her own speaker.

The Supreme Court doesn't have to treat its precedents as binding in the same way that lower courts have to (but all of the justices except Thomas treat precedent as having some relevance for any case before them, differing only in terms of the degree of importance they place on precedent). Still, if Justice Breyer as a private citizen breaks a law that the Supreme Court declared binding he has broken the law. He is in this sense a member of the final judicial panel that is over him. In many cases directly bearing on him, he might recuse himself from the decision-making process, but lots of cases will come up that could have a future effect on him as a private citizen (including a famous decision not too long ago that would have changed the outcome of a presidential election had things gone his way). In that sense he is one of the Supreme Court justices whose authority does count in some ways as being over him as a private citizen.

The only difference with the executive branch is that the president is one person. If he issues an executive order about a certain practice, he does have the authority to remove the order or replace it with a contrary one. However, while the order is in place it is binding on him. He is thus under the president's authority, although he is also the president who can change dictates issued by that authority.

Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy is disturbed by the rhetoric of the following statement by President Bush yesterday morning:

Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people.
The complaint seems to be that the president is treating those who disagree with him on this bill don't want to do what's right for America. I think the complaint relies on an ambiguity in the expression. Absent any context, principles of charity, or assumptions about what someone might mean, you can take the expression in either of the following two ways:

A. This bill is right for America, and if you want to kill it then you don't want to do this thing that's right for America.
B. This bill is right for America, and anyone who wants to kill it must agree that it's right for America and therefore must have a desire to harm America or at least to resist anything that's right for America.

Now I acknowledge that someone could use the language the president used to mean the second thing. However, I find it extremely unlikely that that's what he meant. In context, he was discussing a particular bill and arguing that the bill itself is right for America. The very fact that he was arguing with those who disagree with him on the particular bill, and that he was making an appeal to doing it because it's right for America, means he does think those who disagree with him on the bill want to do what's right for America. So taking him as if he thinks the opposite is at odds with the context of his speech. He wasn't speaking to a closed-room, partisan audience in order to smear his political opponents. He was trying to persuade people who disagree with him.

It therefore makes much more sense to interpret the president as fitting within his rhetorical situation rather than opposing it. It's always best to take someone in the most charitable way possible given all your information, and it's more charitable in terms of intellectual coherence to take him as saying A. It's also more charitable in moral terms, since it would be immoral to intend B by the sentence he uttered.

But there's no reason to think he did, and intending A is perfectly fine. So I'm at a loss to understand why there's supposed to be any problem with what he said (aside from whether it actually is best for America, but that's something he's in the process of trying to argue for, and mentioning that he thinks it's best for America is perfectly legitimate in that context).

Update: Even Peggy Noonan has joined the insanity. I'd never have predicted her to be the sort who would read this president's words in as uncharitable a light as possible. She sometimes disagrees with him, but she's not usually willing to engage in this kind of libel.

It's sometimes said that the word 'jihad' in Arabic derives from a word for striving and thus doesn't mean war or holy war. Mark Liberman points out that the English word 'war' is also derived from a root that has nothing to do with war, although in this case it is confusion rather than striving. It's easy to see how either might eventually end up meaning war. (It's a little more difficult to see how the etymological root of 'war' eventually became the German word for sausage.) But both words do actually mean war.

Now, as Mark acknowledges, this doesn't stop people from using either word metaphorically to refer to something else. Muslims do use the word 'jihad' to refer to an inner, spiritual quest that involves struggling to be a good Muslim, but in fact the English word 'war' can also be used in such a metaphorical way, as can several other words that literally mean violent conflict. Some words have even more commonly come to mean nonviolent moral missions (e.g. 'crusade') and hardly ever mean war.

I have no problem if a Muslim wants to use the word 'jihad' in this way. I'd be much happier if all Muslims did no more than go through inner struggles in their personal jihad. I do have a problem if someone wants to pretend that the word never means "holy war" or especially the historically revisionist line that Muslims never meant it as war. I do have a problem if someone tries to act as if this nonviolent use of the word is standard in a way that nonviolent uses of the word 'war' are not. But even aside from the parallels between the two words, I think it's worth resisting the etymological fallacy that takes a word to mean something simply because it was derived from an archaic root that means that. The classic counterexample of 'butterfly' in English comes to mind. It doesn't have much to do with butter or flies.

Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the amazon.com entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at abortion.com, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

Exit Strategy

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Scrappleface offers a plan for Moktada Al-Sadr to undermine the basis of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Stop giving the infidels an excuse to be there by no longer doing the things they keep using as a justification for the occupation. So stop killing people, blowing things up, and refusing to participate in the democratic order. Channel all that energy into positive venues like cleaning up litter and doing good deeds for your neighbor. Maybe all the money used to buy weapons could help rebuilding all the damage the insurgency has caused.

What if Thomas Jefferson had treated Ben Franklin the way some Republicans are treating Mitt Romney? Evangelicals for Mitt have gotten hold of a letter from that alternative reality.

Suppose we're convinced that a certain issue is more important than any other, and it's on the level of urgent moral necessity to do whatever we can to make progress on that issue and that issue, even if it sets us back quite a ways on other issues. I don't think that's true of the issue of abortion. Having pro-life leaders on the national level isn't better than having pro-choice leaders if the pro-life leaders are going to do things that are even worse than the status quo on abortion. I wouldn't vote for someone who thinks abortion is wrong if the person also thinks we ought to put the majority of the population in machines for eight hours a day that cause intense pain and shorten their lives conserably, merely to make the lives of a few elite people comfortable. While I think abortion is evil and unjust, I'd rather make little progress or even move backward on that score if it's a choice between that and moving into a society that's so bad that the abortion status quo pales in comparison. Those who tolerate grave evil are still better than those who would deliberately perpatuate a greater evil.

But even if we consider a certain issue to be so all-defining that we think we should care very little about anything else, I think we have a moral obligation to prefer someone who is closer to us on that issue than someone else who is further from us on the issue, even if we think both of them hold immoral views and are too tolerant of evil. This may well end up being the case with the 2008 presidential race for pro-lifers if it turns out that the two frontrunners get their respective party nominations. Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice. So is Hillary Clinton. According to the pro-life view, both of them are willing to tolerate serious evil, and that is immoral. However, even given the false premise that abortion is the only morally relevant issue, it simply doesn't follow that pro-life voters ought to stay home or vote for a third party if those two candidates receive their party nominations.

Even if abortion is the only issue under consideration, Hillary Clinton is far worse from a pro-life perspective than Rudy Giuliani is. When he was mayor of a very liberal city, he did virtually nothing to increase women's rights to have abortions, and the abortion rate went down. Some of that may have been just part of a national trend going on at the same time, but it doesn't seem as if he cared enough about the issue to promote abortion rights, never mind to expand them. Rather, he seems to have been expressing a pro-choice view mainly because he's not too motivated by pro-life concerns and not because he holds Hillary Clinton's view that the right to abortion is so inviolable that we should never restrict it under any circumstances.

He seems open to letting states decide, as is his general view on many issues. He worked in the Reagan Justice Department, which suggest some kind of judicial conservatism, and he has gone on record supporting judicial nominees like Roberts and Alito, as opposed to those like Kennedy, O'Connor, or other Republican appointees who have safeguarded Roe v. Wade. Even if the pro-life voter can't trust how faithful he'd be to that, he obviously isn't so dedicated to the pro-choice view that he'll let it affect anything else he does as if it's one of the most important rights one might poseess, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton would do.

A little while ago, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote a brief but interesting review of the new Tolkien novel The Children of Hurin. One statement stood out to me as especially interesting:

The story also emphasizes Tolkien's view (perhaps influenced by his experiences in World War I) that waging war against evil often requires time and patience, avoiding both premature defeatism and premature large-scale offensives.

I don't know whether this is accurate to Tolkien's intent, but I thought the ensuing discussion in the comments was very helpful in terms of why he takes Tolkien this way. But what's perhaps more interesting to me is that this seems like a perfectly normal use of the word 'evil', one that assumes nothing in particular about the metaphysical or moral content of the term. Speaking of fighting against evil in this sense does not involve any assumption about some force of evil in the world, never mind about whether such a thing is as powerful as any good force.

It amazes me how many philosophers I know think that using 'evil' as a noun in this way somehow reveals a hidden Manicheanism or dualism in one's view of good and evil (i.e. the view that good and evil are equally powerful forces). Sometimes the claim is put that President Bush is "ontologizing evil" by using the word 'evil' as a noun in this way, which is philosophical shorthand for the same point. A friend of mine called me up last week for other reasons, but the conversation degenerated to a series of his gripes against some of the views I've argued for on this blog that he'd been holding in for a couple years and had to get out before he leaves town (at least that's what it seemed to me he was doing), and at one point he just couldn't fathom how I could possibly think President Bush is not a dualist of this sort given how often he uses the word 'evil' as a noun in this way.

This kind of abstract language isn't all that uncommon. Are people ontologizing cancer as if it's some all-powerful force in the universe when they say that we're forming a crusade against breast cancer? Are Mothers Against Drunk Driving treating drunk driving as some evil force on the level of divinity if they speak as if they're waging a war against drunk driving? Are politicians ontologizing corruption as some spiritual force as powerful as God whenever they speak of fighting corruption? I don't see how it's any different when it comes to fighting terrorism, fighting terror, or fighting evil. It's a credit to the Volokh Conspiracy readers that no one repeated that meme in the comments.

Al Sharpton has once again gotten himself into trouble, but I think this time those who are critical of him have gotten him way wrong. His actual words:

As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways, so don't worry about that; that's a temporary situation.

Evangelicals for Mitt has the video. EFM is playing this as anti-Mormonism. This post and commenters at Race 4 2008 seem to take it the same way. Sharpton denies that he meant that Mormons don't believe in God. I believe him. After all, look closely at what he said. He said people who really believe in God will vote against Mitt Romney. That means the people who don't really believe in God are not Mormons but people who would vote for Mitt Romney. In other words, Republicans and conservatives, particularly social conservatives, do not really believe in God. It has nothing to do with Mormons. It has everything to do with those who disagree with him politically. If you don't agree with his political views, you must not believe in God. It's that simple.

This isn't new to Sharpton. He's said it before about supporters of President Bush. So of course he can say that it wasn't meant as a statement about Mormons. It wasn't. It was a slam against all Christians who happen to be politically conservative. This kind of irresponsible statement would be grounds for excommunication in the first-century church. From Sharpton's perspective, he must think it's a good thing that we've strayed so far from biblical teaching about the consequences of this kind of divisiveness. Of course it would be better for him if he were held accountable, because then he'd have a greater chance of seeing how serious his insult to Christ really is.

Disclaimer: There are conservatives who do the same thing. I'd say the same about them. There clearly are people who claim to be Christians who demonstrate by their actions or words that their Christianity is extremely thin and doesn't amount to much of what I know as Christianity. I think John Kerry's identification with Christianity is largely cultural because of his Catholic upbringing. I suspect the same is true of Newt Gingrich on the Republican side. My point isn't about never being able to wonder whether someone's faith is genuine. It's about making sweeping claims about people's political affiliation as proof that they don't genuinely believe in God, which is nonsense.

This post continues my thoughts on the first Democratic presidential debate. Part I is here. Here are several further thoughts about particular candidates or other aspects of the debate, and then I'll move to a few issues I care about and how this debate contributed to our understanding of these candidates on those issues.

Hillary Clinton seems to me to consider her vote to invade Iraq to have been misguided, but she insists that she made the decision based on what seemed right to her at the time. I'm not convinced she's fully changed her mind on whether it's good for us to be in Iraq. Both Clintons have all along disagreed with how Bush has handled things, but enough of what she's said has been enough in agreement with what I think that I can't believe the difference now for her is the difference on the ground in Iraq but rather a different political environment that requires her to say something she doesn't fully agree with. I just don't see her turnaround on that issue as stemming from any real argument. Those on the left who don't trust her are, to my mind, justified in their skepticism. Yet at the same time I hear what she's saying she'd do (and her actions in the Senate are very clearly demonstrating her willingness to do them), and I really don't want that to happen. So even if she doesn't really believe in what she's doing, it seems that she's very willing to do it. In that sense I think she will satisfy those who don't trust her, even if they don't trust her motives. If she has a secret view that we ought to remain in Iraq, it doesn't do anyone any good or bad, since she doesn't seem to want to act on it.

It gives me little confidence to see a presidential candidate unwilling to abide by the rules of the debate. Several candidates kept talking after time was up. Some were instructed to give one name or to say "pass" on a Supreme Court justice. Three got a chance to respond out of eight, because the first three spent so long explaining their answer that time ran out. The same happened when they were told simply to give the names of three countries that are our greatest allies. When that didn't work, a few were asked about our greatest enemies, and no one was content just to give names. I would say that Richardson, Obama, and Biden might have been the worst offenders on this score, although Gravel was much more immature in a number of ways, including his insistence on turning every question into a way to criticize his opponents on being too soft on Bush on Iraq. Brian Williams even made a sarcastic jab at him once when he turned a question on the environment into Iraq. I have to say that things were slightly better in the Republican debate the next week, at least in part because Chris Matthews was trying to learn from how things had gone the previous week and at least in part because several candidates saw how the Democratic candidates were behaving and didn't want to look that bad. So maybe there's hope for future debates.

In his interview with Joe Scarborough after the debate, Dennis Kucinich shows that he knows the difference between being inconsistent in your views and being a hypocrite. He refuses to call Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hypocrites, even though they are in favor of ending the war but have voted to continue funding it, which he sees as an inconsistency. He wants to show them that they are inconsistent, not call them hypocrites, which would a moral charge and not just the intellectual charge that inconsistency is. He went up several notches in my view at that point, even though he wasn't able to explain the difference in the short amount of time Scarborough gave him. It was clear to me that he understood it. He's still second-to-worst in my evaluation of the Democratic presidential candidates, but I was impressed by his recognition of that distinction, which most politicians and political commentators (including most political bloggers) are completely tone-deaf to.

I want to conclude with an overview of what I think of the candidates on a few issues I care a lot about.

I haven't had a chance to put my thoughts together from the April 26 Democratic debate and the May 3 Republican primary. I've been typing up a lot of notes, however, and I've decided to post them now before the Democratic debate is a full two weeks gone. It's not as carefully organized as I'd wanted, and it's a bit long, so I'm dividing it into two posts. I'll save the Republican debate for a separate post or two later in the week.

The frontrunners on the Democratic side are Senator Hillary Clinton (NY), Senator Barack Obama (IL), and former Senator John Edwards (NC). I consider the second tier to be Senator Joe Biden (DE), Governor Bill Richardson (NM), and Senator Chris Dodd (CT). I would place former Senator Mike Gravel (AK) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) in a third tier.

Since I am not a Democrat, and I disagree so strongly with all the candidates in the debate on a number of key issues that came up, I don't think it's fair for me to present views on who won or who did best from a Democratic point of view. What I will offer are some views on who I think would be the least disastrous of a crew of eight candidates whose presidencies would all be a turn in entirely the wrong direction on many counts. I also have some thoughts on particular issues and specific stateements of individual candidates.

Overall, Hillary Clinton had the most to lose in the debate, and I don't think she lost much. She has been the frontrunner, and she still seems to be the first choice in most polling. Obama is very close in many polls, though, and he has even overtaken her in some. It's more difficult for a woman in a debate, since lower voices tend to carry better and sound more commanding to most people. She managed to convey authority without coming across in a way that many people would (for reasons not entirely good) take as sounding shrill and bossy. It's particularly difficult with someone with as commanding a presence and voice as Obama, and she passed that test.

What surprised me especially is that I came away thinking of her as one of the less-disastrous candidates in terms of policy. I think I'd prefer Biden in several ways, and I didn't get enough sense of some of Dodd's views to know where he stands with respect to her, but I think she'd beat out any of the other candidates on the criterion of policy alone. I do have serious reservations about putting another Clinton in the White House at this point, given that it would mean the Bush and Clinton families would then dominate the American presidency for a sum total of at least 16 and perhaps 20 straight years. That kind of dynastic hold of two (albeit competing) families is not a good thing. I'm so concerned about this that I'd put Dodd above her in my preferences even without knowing where he stands with respect to her on some key issues. After them come Richardson, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, and Gravel.

Ann and Bob's cooperation is jointly necessary for doing something that both are morally obligated to do. Ann and Bob can't agree on how they should go about doing that thing. Ann refuses to do it Bob's way, and Bob refuses to do it Ann's way. In both cases they believe they are morally required not to do it the other's way. So Ann sets out to do it her way, and Bob refuses to cooperate, because he believes her way is immoral. Ann then complains that Bob is refusing to fulfill his moral obligation. Bob complains that Ann is refusing to fulfill hers. The obligation does not get fulfilled.

Can Ann claim that Bob (and Bob alone) is refusing to carry out that responsibility? Can Bob say the same of Ann? My impression from the case as I just explained it is that neither is any more or less responsible than the other for not completing the obligation. Both are equally to blame, and both are somewhat to blame. But consider a slightly altered example. Ann and Bob can fulfill their moral obligation by cooperating, but it would mean Ann does not do something that she also thinks is morally required. Bob wouldn't be sacrificing any moral obligation he believes he has to fulfill the one, but he thinks he'd be doing something wrong to cooperate in the other.

In this case, Ann refuses to do it, because she thinks she ought to do both, and if Bob won't let her do both then she'll do neither. In this second case, then, Ann is morally to blame for not doing the obligation that both agree they have, and Bob is not to blame for not fulfilling that obligation. The fact that Ann thinks there's a further obligation that Bob doesn't think he has does not give her the moral freedom to abandon the one obligation she can fulfill, since it's better to fulfill one moral obligation that you can fulfill even if there's no way the other person will let you do what's necessary to meet the other obligation that you think you have.

Now consider the Congressional leadership and President Bush on the issue of funding of troops in Iraq. Both parties agree that they have an obligation to fund the troops in Iraq right now. The Congressional leadership thinks they have a further obligation to get the troops out of there very soon with an explicit deadline. Bush disagrees. He in fact thinks he has an obligation not to allow that. He thinks they have no such obligation. Now they fashion a method of doing both at once, but he considers that meeting one obligation (temporarily) while violating another. If they followed his recommendation, they would be meeting one obligation while not meeting what they consider to be another one.

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