With only days and perhaps even just a few hours left before the Supreme Court rules on the constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the second guessing has already begun among Democrats. Though the outcome is known only to the justices and their clerks and secretaries, in the months since the oral arguments revealed there was a good chance it would be overturned, the president’s party has sunk deeper and deeper into depression over the possibility. Though they may yet win, as today’s front-page feature in the New York Times reveals, many on the left are already starting the recriminations, with the White House and the congressional Democrats getting the lion’s share of the blame.
The president and congressional leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are being lambasted for not taking the challenge to the bill’s constitutionality seriously as they forced it through the legislature. Pelosi’s response to the suggestion that there was any doubt about its legality was a now famous, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” But though that is a remark that will go down in the history books if the judges say no to ObamaCare, scapegoating her, the president or the Justice Department lawyers who did not anticipate the possibility is a waste of time. So, too, are some other liberal responses, such as liberal law professor Jonathan Turley’s suggestion in Friday’s Washington Post that the problem is that nine is too small a number of judges to make such a momentous decision, a solution Democrats won’t embrace if Mitt Romney wins in November and is the one doing the nominating of the extra judges.
The problem wasn’t the tactics pursued by ObamaCare advocates either in court or outside it. The problem was a bill that proposed an expansion of federal power that even the Commerce Clause — that catchall mechanism used to justify every new federal power grab for a century — couldn’t support.
The bill did help generate a political earthquake in the form of the Tea Party that led to the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterms that erased the Democratic majority who passed the act. But better advocacy on the part of the bill’s supporters would not have prevented conservatives and libertarian lawyers from bringing forth the successful challenges that two lower federal courts have already accepted.
If Democrats like Pelosi couldn’t imagine anyone taking those challenges seriously it is not just because they live in a liberal echo chamber where conservative ideas are viewed with as much contempt as conservative politicians. It is because after nearly 100 years of liberal judicial activism that created the current federal leviathan, they had come to believe there were no limits on that power. If Congress could regulate any kind of commerce, why wouldn’t liberals think that this extended even to commerce that didn’t already exist or even inactivity and thereby make it legal for the government to demand that individuals purchase health insurance?
Since for decades liberals have treated a more libertarian approach to the constitution with scorn, why would anyone, especially that former law professor sitting in the White House, have thought differently?
Of course, as the Times points out, the constitutional challenge would have been avoided if the legislation had been framed more explicitly as a tax which the federal government has the right to levy. But Obama and Pelosi had a hard enough time getting a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass it without explicitly selling it as a massive tax increase though that is, in effect, what the bill is. In that form, it would never have been adopted.
As for Turley’s court-packing scheme, the transparently political nature of his appeal renders it absurd. He’s right that there’s nothing sacred about the number nine but since the current format has been in place since 1869, there’s no reason to change this tradition. Any expansion would be inherently political, an attempt to overturn the current court majority by a president and a Congress that didn’t like their opinions on the constitution. If Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t get away with such an idea in 1938 when he proposed it, does anyone seriously believe Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or any other president in the foreseeable future can do so?
The liberal dilemma has no more to do with the number of justices than it does with supposed shortcomings in the strategy adopted by the White House or Congressional Democrats. If the bill goes down this week it will be because a majority on the court have realized that a government that is given the power to invent as well as to regulate commerce is a threat to our liberty. And no clever tactic can make that acceptable to the majority of Americans who oppose ObamaCare or the judges who will vote against it.
Liberal Second-Guessing Won’t Make ObamaCare Constitutional
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A boon to America, the region, and the world.
The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.
The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.
Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.
The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences—and these are real—Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.
Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one—so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.
Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.
An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.
Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.
The liberals strike back.
Given his reputation for favoring even wildly impractical progressive policy objectives, few might have guessed that the first prominent liberal to stand athwart the Democratic Party’s reckless lurch to the left would be Joe Biden. With liberals fawning over progressive firebrands and amid the growing unanimity around the notion that there is no social and economic challenge that cannot be solved by throwing money at it, the former vice president has emerged as a vocal opponent of at least one idea popular among liberal reformers and libertarian technocrats alike: a universal basic income.
“The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached,” Biden wrote in a post for the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute.
“While I appreciate concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their innovations may do to American incomes, I believe they’re selling American workers short,” he continued. “Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we’ve had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work.”
Now, before we go congratulating Biden’s attack on indolence and his tacit acknowledgment that material incentives to be productive have a better record than their alternatives, it’s important to acknowledge that Biden may, in fact, be endorsing the traditional liberal position.
As far back as 2013, progressive activist and former MSNBC host Krystal Ball advocated the adoption of a “mincome” as a means of eliminating poverty. “The basic concept is simple,” she continued. “Every non-incarcerated adult citizen gets a monthly check from the government,” she said. But there’s a catch: “Other safety net programs are jettisoned to pay, and poverty is eliminated.” Just like that!
The problem with this proposition is the notion that progressive policy advocates would ever consent to the elimination of any anti-poverty program for any reason, particularly in order to pave the way for one that is “universal” (e.g., not directed toward uniquely threatened or preferred constituents).
“I’m not against a guaranteed income because I think that it would make the government too big,” American University professor emerita and liberal economist Barbara Bergmann told PBS. “I think government ought to be much bigger.” She noted, accurately, that the idea government could eliminate poverty and hardship by disbursing, say, $11,000 annually to every citizen is nonsense and doesn’t take into account disparate needs. Given the political inclinations of the present Democratic Party, the notion that any candidate could successfully run on a platform that consists of paring back bloated entitlement programs is delusional.
As Oren Cass wrote for National Review, a “mincome” would soon take its rightful place in the pantheon of sprawling American welfare-state programs alongside Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act’s provisions for individuals and corporations. Further, such a program would alter Americans’ perceptions of their relationship to the state; for the first time in American history, the government would be transformed into every American’s first and most essential source of well-being. And contrary to the protestations of UBI proponents, it would by necessity undermine the value of work and productivity. “Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things,” Cass noted.
For the social-justice left, there is one other attractive element to the UBI—one so subversive it is barely spoken above a whisper outside venues that care little for how they are perceived by the respectable sort. “In recent years, a UBI has been embraced in particular by the post-productivist left, which carries a strong feminist and ecological bent and rejects the traditional left’s valorization of labor and the working class,” wrote Jacobin Magazine’s Shannon Ikebe.
She said there were actually two kinds of a UBI—the kind on which you can live comfortably and the kind on which you can’t. She obviously prefers the latter. Her argument soon devolves into neo-Marxist prattle, blathering on about how an empowered working class free from the need to produce would create capital flight and divestment, increasing class divisions and, eventually, compelling us to reengage with “the age-old question of the ownership of the means of production.” That’s only relevant insofar as it provides a window into the thinking of the kind of politics that finds the UBI an attractive proposition.
It’s a funny kind of Marxism that looks down its nose at labor and those who perform it. You can, however, see how that would appeal to Democrats who resent having to appeal to those backwater blue-collar voters who lost faith in the Democratic Party under Barack Obama or—to their eternal disgrace—voted for Trump. That’s precisely the kind of mentality that Joe Biden (who is originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, if you needed reminding) would dedicate himself to combatting.
The fight over a UBI is a fascinating glimpse at the sub rosa ideological battles being waged within the Democratic coalition. Biden’s jab at the concept is, no doubt, self-interested, but it comes from a place of pride in the traditional American ethos of personal responsibility and industriousness. Unfortunately for him and those who would join him in this internecine fight, they are vastly outmanned.
With Noah Rothman sadly out of commission for the day, Abe Greenwald and I discuss the president’s speech at the UN (good!), the attacks on it (mostly bad!), why his polls have seen an uptick (less Trump!), who’s crazier about health care (liberals!) and the evils of honey (yes, honey). Give a listen.
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Was it all an act?
When Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, took to the lectern on Tuesday, she was speaking to us. Suu Kyi’s silence as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are driven from their homes amid a campaign of state-sponsored pogroms had been deafening. When Suu Kyi finally addressed the issue, she spoke in perfect English to the international community, but she was not being entirely honest.
Over the space of just weeks, at least 420,000 Rohingya civilians have fled their Rakhine State villages amid cycles of violence and counter-violence. Thousands more are trapped, besieged and surrounded by hostile Rakhine Buddhists and the government has denied their petitions for safe passage out of the area despite claims that supplies of food have dwindled to starvation levels. Hundreds have died either in transit or conflict, and the humanitarian conditions threaten to deteriorate further.
Suu Kyi insisted that it was not the intention of her government “to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility.” She observed that her regime has not yet been in power for a full 18 months and still has limited control over junta-led ministries like defense and border affairs. “After several months of seemingly quiet and peace, on 25 August, 30 police outposts . . . were attacked by armed groups,” Suu Kyi added, apportioning blame. She bristled with indignation at international monitoring bodies that have focused only on the plight of local Muslims and not smaller minority groups that have also been made refugees and “of whose presence most of the world is totally unaware.”
“Since 5 September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations,” she insisted, which is an outright lie, according to Suu Kyi’s own information committee. She claimed the Rakhine Muslims have access to all essential and non-essential state services, but they do not. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and are clustered in camps when they are not fleeing to Bangladesh for their lives. “Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny,” Suu Kyi insisted. While a handful of journalists have been allowed access, organizations like Doctors Without Borders say they have not had access to Rakhine State since August. Indeed, NGO staffers are afraid to travel to the region because Myanmar officials have accused humanitarian organizations of colluding with local militant groups.
Suu Kyi’s prickliness amid allegations of brutality, prejudice, and ethnic cleansing is a bitter pill to swallow. Burma’s democratization, culminating in Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and, eventually, her free election to serve as the head of a quasi-civilian government seemed like a genuine move toward liberalism.
That country’s thaw appeared such a bright spot that Hillary Clinton cited her successful efforts to open Naypyidaw frequently in her quest for the Democratic nomination. “While the Arab Spring was losing its luster in the Middle East, Burma was giving the world new hope that it is indeed possible to transition peacefully from dictatorship to democracy,” Clinton wrote in the chapter she dedicated to Myanmar’s transition in her 2014 book, Hard Choices.
In 2011, Clinton traveled to Burma where she appeared beside Suu Kyi. “It was incredibly emotional and gratifying to see her free from the many years of house arrest,” she said. For her part, Suu Kyi played the part of non-violent democratic resistance figure and pledged that “there will be no turning back from the road to democracy.” Following a landslide victory for Suu Kyi and her democratic opposition in 2015, Clinton took her share of credit. “It was also an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress,” she said in a statement.
Clinton was in very good company in praising Suu Kyi as a leading light for the cause of freedom. “This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma, and who speaks in such a way that she’s a powerful voice in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country,” President George W. Bush said signing a bipartisan bill awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008.
In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Following her release from house arrest, she traveled the world lecturing as a Nobel laureate on the primacy of the rule of law and the necessity of democracy “for the guarantee of human rights.” Today, she presides over what a Yale University Law School study claims amounts to genocide.
Maybe the pressures and political realities of running a democratizing state alongside a tenacious junta have been underappreciated, both by Suu Kyi and her detractors. Perhaps the facts on the ground tie her hands, and she must meekly defend the actions of her military as it commits atrocities against oppressed minorities. Either way, Aung San Suu Kyi is a crushing disappointment.
A different president; a normal foreign policy.
President Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and it was a triumph.
The speech offered the clearest sign yet that the administration has parted with Steve Bannon and other Breitbart types who wanted to use Trump as a bulldozer against liberal order. At Turtle Bay, Trump recommitted Washington to the defense of a U.S.-led world order. He also called out forcefully the rogue states that seek “to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom.”
Trump praised the founding of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, based on the “noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free” and the “vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” Robert Kagan couldn’t have said it better.
Turning to specific global security challenges, Trump similarly telegraphed a return to the GOP’s postwar foreign-policy traditions.
- On Iran: “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities [in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen] while building dangerous missiles. And we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program . . . Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The day will come when the people will face a choice: Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?”
- On socialism in Venezuela and beyond: “The problem in Venezuela isn’t that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, to Venezuela; wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
- On U.N. reform: “Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
- On the threat from revanchist regimes in Moscow and Beijing: “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
And so on. This wasn’t the rhetoric of a pinched, narrow nationalism a la Marine Le Pen. She and other European illiberals loathe American leadership. They see it as American imperialism disguised as rules-based world order. For all their talk of sovereignty, they don’t want to see Washington confront Moscow’s bullying in Eastern Europe or Tehran’s in the Middle East. And Trump’s talk of upholding postwar “systems and alliances” can’t have gone down well at the Front National’s base in Nanterre—or at Breitbart HQ.
If your default vision of liberal order looks like Barack Obama- and Angela Merkel-style transnationalism, you were probably disappointed with Trump’s speech. The features of the Obama/Merkel model are endless diplomatic processes for their own sake; the expansion of transnational “norms” and institutions, usually at the expense of democratic self-government; and a general disdain for anything redolent of nationhood and nationalism and particularity. It has angered voters–think of Trump’s election and Brexit–and triggered a crisis of liberal-democratic legitimacy across much of the developed world.
There are other, more humble ways of conceiving international order. It can be liberal—that is, rules-based and tending toward liberty—without setting itself up against nationalism. The nation-state isn’t going away anytime soon and, indeed, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” as Trump noted.
Liberal order can acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious believers. Therefore, the effort to force every nation to follow the Netherlands on gender and sexuality is both wrong and likely to invite a backlash. And it can recognize that evil is a root fact of the life of individuals and nations, and therefore sometimes diplomacy and multilateralism must give way to the sword.
This alternative vision of liberal order would have looked familiar to a Ronald Reagan or a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Judging by his best foreign-policy speeches—in Riyadh, Warsaw, and now New York—it is also the vision the administration has adopted. Those of us who worried about Bannon’s themes should cheer, and give credit where it is due.