So, how do we walk away from Omelas?

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar North
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    Obama has demonstrated, repeatedly, an huge aversion to confrontation and partisan conflict. The pro-torture groups seem to have seized on that along with his inflated rhetoric about bipartisanship early on in his administration and convinced Obama that dealing with the issue wasn’t worth the trouble for him so he’s punted on it. Unfortunately, to our collective shame, the general public hasn’t mustered much of a hue and cry on the issue to force him to face it so Obama has been able to just ignore it.

    How do we end it? I suppose we’d have to collectively punish elected politicians for it and currently, alas, the issue is simply not gaining any traction with the electorate.Report

    • Avatar 62across in reply to North
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      Or we convince the public to muster a greater hue and cry, so the path of greatest confrontation is to go against us. Then Obama’s aversion works to our benefit.Report

      • Avatar mark boggs in reply to 62across
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        Yeah, but then you gotta break the binary thinking that goes on with our electorate. Their guy bad, our guy good. Regardless of the fact that there ends up being little substantive difference between the two.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to mark boggs
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          Little substantive difference between the guy who created the regime of kidnapping and torture and the guy who’s not being as effective as we’d like ending it? I don’t think so..Report

        • Avatar mark boggs in reply to mark boggs
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          Fishing nested comments.

          Compared to his rhetoric? Especially while campaigning? Sorry, I admit to wanting to cut Obama slack, but the difference between his campaign rhetoric about setting things right in terms of civil liberties and the seeming energy expended to actually do it seems a bit stark.Report

          • Avatar mark boggs in reply to mark boggs
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            Oh fish…I give up. Let my reply to somebody 42 comments upthread show up, not once, but twice here in the middle of nowhere, seemingly in response to nothing and no one. I’m sure it fits me.Report

            • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to mark boggs
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              Mark,
              My comments will often show up in the wrong place here to start with, but they seem to always go in the right place eventually (maybe after moderation). Yours seems to have done the same thing here, as you appear here to be responding sensibly. I’ve learned to just trust the blog-magic and ignore nesting errors right after I comment.Report

              • Avatar mark boggs in reply to Boegiboe
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                No, Boegiboe, it’s me. Rarely do I have anything of substance to add to these heady conversations, so it seems appropriate that, when I do feel compelled to throw my comment into this intellectual grinder, I’d miss completely and leave it splattered on the counter next to the fat remnants.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to 62across
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        Oh well certainly, but being cynical I presume that if the initial shock of the concept didn’t generate the necessary momentum then nothing will, especially now that the right wing half of the electorate as essentially internalized enhanced interrogation and enshrined it as one of their principles along side free markets and the like.Report

        • Avatar 62across in reply to North
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          Unfortunately, we are not trying to gain momentum in the direction we’d like from a state of inertia, but rather from a state where the momentum was going the strongly other way.

          In the aftermath of 9/11, the “general public” was prepared to chuck all semblance of civil liberty in order to feel safe. The Patriot Act, the airport security measures, all of it was fine with the public, since it brought some sense of security.

          It has taken some time, but I sense we are finally seeing some movement in the other direction. Events like the Wikileaks case are helping. I happen to think that what is happening in the across Middle East is going to help with our public’s attitudes as well. To watch how the Egyptian people have comported themselves through their ouster of Mubarak, it has to become harder to demonize all Arabs as some blood thirsty other.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North
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          To its lasting shame, the Democratic Party was punked by 9/11. Congress, we now know, was made aware of what was going on at Gitmo and the secret detention facilities. Its response? To write a few perfunctory CYA complaints, date and time stamp them and file them secretly, so when this gigantic turd of tyranny floated up to the top of the punch bowl of politics, they had some Plausible Deniability.

          Let us, as Liberals or whatever you are, be honest here. We elected cowards and poltroons to high office, including this weasel Barack Obama, who have failed to push back against tyranny. And to our lasting shame and their endless credit, it was the new crop of Tea Partiers who stood up against extending these godawful provisions of the PATRIOT Act.Report

          • Avatar 62across in reply to BlaiseP
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            I don’t disagree, but the least poltroon-esque Senator of the day, Mr. Feingold of Wisconsin, was shown the door for his courage. The populace apparently can’t be led where it doesn’t want to go.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to 62across
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              How very right you are and how deeply shameful it was to see the Democrats abandon Feingold and their principles in those terrible days.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP
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                Democrats abandon Feingold? Maybe in Washington. In Wisconsin, he was beaten by a poltroon swept into office on a Tea-Party-fueled wave, along with the oh-so-civil-libertarian dollars of the Kochs and their various fronts.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew
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                Wisconsin politics is just too weird to wrap my head around these days. You’re absolutely right, Michael.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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                Feingold was a big, big spender, period. It ain’t rocket science.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Robert Cheeks
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                I respect Feingold a lot. According to him, he went in and spent hours and hours poring over the intelligence before voting “no” on wacking Iraq. Conscientious judgment is all you can ask of a man. [I see he was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act as well.]

                That said, it would take an extraordinarily crappy opponent for me to vote for Feingold since I disagree with his worldview and political philosophy almost completely.

                That a 3-term senator from a state Obama carried in 2008 could lose convincingly [52-47%] in 2010 was a surprise to me.

                And it’s not as if his loss was the “fault” of those stupid conservatives. The NYT, in its classic obtuseness, headlined it “In Feingold’s Loss, Independents Turn on One of Their Own.”

                http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/us/politics/05feingold.html

                Russ Feingold: Not only a “lion of liberalism,” a self-defined “progressive,” but an “independent” to boot. LSHMPH*.

                Sort of like some of the comments here lately, the artful use of words to define reality away. I love it; so many sophistries, so little time.
                ______________________

                *Laughing So Hard My Prostate HurtsReport

            • Avatar greginak in reply to 62across
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              And it was those principle libertarians the Koch bros who helped support Feingold’s opponent.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to greginak
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                Y’know, I don’t think it’s wise to attack the Koch Bros for the same reasons I think these attacks on George Soros are juvenile and pathetic. The Kochs and Soros are too complex to be summed up as either villains or heroes.

                Some while back I said you can’t hate Communism properly until you’ve seen it at close range. Well, the Koch family did see it at close range and learned to hate it properly. If they went overboard into Libertarian politics, well, I’ve also said bully for the Libertarians. American politics is a sum-of-vectors problem.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP
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            And to our lasting shame and their endless credit, it was the new crop of Tea Partiers who stood up against extending these godawful provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

            Honestly I don’t think they’ve been the ones making the stand. From what I can tell, the Tea Party movement doesn’t really get motivated by civil liberties. They appear to want lower taxes and more entitlements and more wars and double Guantanamo forever.

            So who is standing up? Glenn Greenwald, Radley Balko, Ron Paul…. a few here and there among left, right, and libertarians. Not enough to matter in democratic politics, I fear.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              Anecdotal as it may be, my experiences with Tea Partiers have led me to believe they do care about civil liberties, though perhaps imperfectly. True, they might lack some of the Libertarian vocabulary, but they are sick and tired of government intrusion in their lives, in every way.Report

              • Avatar mark boggs in reply to BlaiseP
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                If this were the case, it would seem their rise to prominence might have corresponded with the time these abuses started to come to light rather than the moment Obama was elected.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to mark boggs
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                That’s about the time the Tea Parties started getting some press. I get to see an awful lot of the country. I’m the sort of guy who takes a book to the bar twice, three times a week and reads along, eventually getting into a conversation with a different person every time. When the conversation approaches politics, I say “I take my politics too seriously to get into shouting matches. What do you really think?”

                And these people tell me the most amazing stories.

                I contend, after many decades of such conversations, what we now call the Tea Parties have always been present in American politics. Talk radio has been preaching many of these same doctrines forever.

                If the Tea Parties attracted the media’s ever-fickle eye after the election of Obama, it was what I call the Skeet Shooting Principle. The media, you see, had seized on Obama as the Wonder Boy-du-jour and propelled him high into the sky, only to start shooting at him once he was there.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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                I think you’re right about the TPers always being there but I don’t think the msm started shooting at Barry just after his election. Frankly, running the deficit he’s running I see the msm giving him a pass, even on the GITMO thing. I think it is about ‘fellow travellers,’ and the natural inclination to protect your own.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                Well, one man’s Hard Hittin’ Reportin’ is another man’s Fox News Slander, as we all know. Don’t kid yourself about the MSM: Fox News is putting asses in armchairs all over this great country of ours. High drama, the frisson of fear puckers millions of righteous-minded pooters as the Latest Vile Escapades of the Kommunist Kenyan are laid out (in a Fair ‘n Balanced fashion) for all to see.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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                ..don’t even get Fox News but its gotta be better than perky Katie.Report

              • Avatar mark boggs in reply to BlaiseP
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                Well, I’m certainly not as well traveled as you but I have a hard time buying that the current crop of TPers are strongly aligned with Glenn Greenwald-style civil libertarianism. Their raison d’etre seems to be much more anti-Obama and anti-spending than pro-civil liberties.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                @mark boggs: Now here’s where it gets really interesting, because the TPers’ lack the vocabulary to express many of their viewpoints effectively.

                Sitting there with these TPers, I’ve availed myself of the opportunity to teach five minute sermons on John Stuart Mill. When I get to the part about the Harm Principle, their eyes light up, aha, now I know what to call this inchoate and formless emotion. I teach another five minute lecture on Marx, so they can use the word Dialectic properly: ideas are not enough, politics isn’t theology, common sense is what we can both agree on.

                And most importantly, I teach them Liberals have these same sentiments, too. Liberty means I can do and say anything I want within the boundaries of the law and there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do to stop me or shut me up. And if the ACLU seems to be defending the worst sorts of people, that’s because there’s an important principle of civil liberty at stake. Liberals and Tea Partiers have far more in common than they think, and it’s a great mystery why the Liberals have looked down their nose at these Salt of the Earth Types and called them racists and ignoramuses.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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                I think you’ve grown since you’ve come here.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                I haven’t been here long enough to grow. Don’t put on airs: I’m an old man who’s always had respect for people I don’t understand.

                It’s the people I do who give me trouble.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to BlaiseP
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                One of the things that has seemed obvious to me about Glenn Beck for some time is that part of his appeal for his viewers is the belief that his program is educational. People are naturally curious and want to know more about anything they can. Unfortunately, television programmers are generally adamantly opposed to that idea.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                @Rufus F. : A blackboard and chalk do not a teacher make. Glenn Beck isn’t teaching. He’s preaching. Preachers use chalkboards, too. There’s a part of many church bulletins with a general outline of the sermon, with room for people to take notes. Homiletics, homilos, to assemble a unifying theme from pieces.

                I’m not sure how many people want an education, at least in the form they get it. I’ve evolved these five-minute sermons from teaching my own kids. My old man was a preacher: he said, if you can’t make your point in 20 minutes, just shut up. Well, I got it down to five. That’s as long as you can get a kid to listen, and make your thesis point in the first minute, preferably with the antithesis point immediately thereafter.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to BlaiseP
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                Blaise P, all I’m saying is that Americans who want to learn more are a natural resource that is untapped by our media or politics.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                Do you really think so? There is a hunger for something, but I am not sure it is education. They want to confirm their biases. They want to be told they are right. They want to be scared. They want the bang-bang from wars, not backgrounders on how those wars got started.

                And it seems they want less, not more of it. PBS is being defunded and that resource is tapped twice a year during the PBS begathon.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP
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            And to our lasting shame and their endless credit, it was the new crop of Tea Partiers who stood up against extending these godawful provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

            Honestly I don’t think they’ve been the ones making the stand. From what I can tell, the Tea Party movement doesn’t get motivated by civil liberties. They appear to want lower taxes and more entitlements and more wars and double Guantanamo forever.

            So who is standing up? Glenn Greenwald, Radley Balko, Ron Paul…. a few here and there among left, right, and libertarians. Not enough to matter in democratic politics, I fear.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              The Patriot Act re-approval was close to partisan lines. There were *lots* of Democratic “nays” on the list.

              I think it’s fair to say that the Democrats, as a party, are still at least presenting a strong opposition to many of the civil liberties infractions among the rank and file. The leadership is screwing the pooch, though.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                That’s now how they behaved when the PATRIOT Act was first hurled over the transom.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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                Yes, that’s true.

                It’s hard to make definitive judgments based entirely on crisis response, though. Failing to provide good leadership during a crisis makes you a bad crisis manager, not necessarily a bad policy maker during non-crisis time (which is, after all, *most* of the time).

                Passing the Patriot Act originally was stupid, I’ll grant you. So is the TSA, the DHS, and a couple dozen other post 9-11… wait… okay basically *all* of the post 9-11 policy changes. You can make a mistake, you just have to correct it. Many Democrats voted against the Patriot Act on its *first* renewal attempt, and every one since. The support for it among the Republican party has remained both very high, and uniform.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                Yeah, well, that’s the Murkan Way for yez. Got a problem? Create a fresh bureaucracy to solve it. Smoosh all these intelligence agencies together and put all their sitreps on the same file system so some troubled soul like Bradley Manning can copy it all to his Lady Gaga CD-RW disk.

                Hoo boy.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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                I remember one of the rare times I was cheering Dubya was when he was steadfastly (and correctly) refusing to follow the 9/11 commission’s recommendations to create the DHS.

                There are very good operational reasons why the FBI, CIA, and NSA are not *supposed* to be sharing information (including, “they’re not ALLOWED” to be sharing certain types of information).

                This ties into the education thread: people’s response to a failure of multiple organizations is usually to try and cram them all into a single layer of abstraction. It’s almost always a bad idea, with worse outcomes than what you had before.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                Was that Bush? I think it was Slam Dunk Tenet over at CIA trying (without success) to keep Cheney at bay. Cheney just went around him anyway. Now even Curveball admits he was a liar.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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            I’m with Blaise on this one, and I really liked Russ a lot; disagree or agree with his conclusions, the guy actually had principles and stood by them.

            Which is one reason why he didn’t get reelected. But also like Blaise, I think this says a lot more about his constituents than it says anything about the Koch brothers.Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to Pat Cahalan
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              Oh it says plenty about his constituents but it does suggest where most people come down on “freedom” issues. Low tax and let business do what they want seems to win over other kinds of liberty. If people are pro-business R’s that is fine, but they should not dress up in liberty loving clothes.Report

            • Avatar 62across in reply to Pat Cahalan
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              Which circles back to my point: if constituents won’t reward (read re-elect) their leaders for being principled, then color me unsurprised that we have a lot of unprincipled people leading us.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to 62across
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                This jibes when you have “getting re-elected” as a primary motivational factor for electors.

                If everyone was more concerned with “doing the job” than “keeping the job”, the job might be done a bit better, no?

                Not that this would eradicate the problem, but it might help mitigate things…Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                Sho’ nuff. That’s a problem inherent in every republic: we motivate these guys by threatening to throw them out at the first available opportunity. We shouldn’t be surprised when they put Getting Re-elected over Doing the Job. They have a limited amount of political capital to begin with and seldom accrue much interest on their accomplishments in office.

                Case in point: Bush41 the Wiser. Won the most lopsided victory in the history of warfare and a little recession (which was already lifting) doomed his chances for re-election. Bush41 never got enough credit. I always like the guy, thought him a huge improvement on Reagan.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP
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                BlaiseP, I was too young to remember Bush the Greater but my understanding is that he was punished severely for reaching a compromise with Democrats in congress that caused spending to be cut and taxes to be raised thus balancing the budget. Lips were involved I hear, and something about taxes?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North
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                Two words: Ross Perot.Report

              • Avatar 62across in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                Wasn’t this part of the rationale behind the push for term limits in the past? Eliminate the possibility of career office holders, so they’ll put Doing the Job over Keeping the Job. How’d term limits work out?

                No, I’m going to stick with the idea that we’ve got the politicians we deserve. The answer lies in enlightening the electorate. BlaiseP’s barroom conversations (conversions?) are where you start and change will be inexorably slow.

                I see gay rights as a case in point. The culture is way ahead of where the politicians are. The people are leading – which seems proper for a democracy. We should be talking about how we raise the importance of civil liberties culturally, rather than how we get politicians to buck their constituents.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to 62across
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                Heh. I don’t know if I’d call them Conversions. It feels a bit like teaching Islam, me being a Christian and all — which I’ve done, too, when I run across someone who’s all upset about Those Darn Islamic Tur’rists.

                No, I will never be a Libertarian. I’m a Liberal and always will be. The Libertarian is just barely enlightened to the point where he can dimly perceive the Righteousness of Individual Liberty, having learned that much wisdom in Politics 101. When it comes time to integrate what he knows about the Individual into Society in Politics 202, he’s just a big old hot tranny mess, spouting off from positions of deepest ignorance.Report

  2. Avatar Ben JB
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    Unless you’re thinking of a different story, Omelas is not exactly what this is–and I feel like we’ve pointed this out a few times to those who support Gitmo: unlike the child whose suffering guarantees happiness in Le Guin’s story, Gitmo guarantees nothing except the minority’s suffering. “Omelas” is about a hard choice between two evils; to those who don’t like it, Gitmo seems to be a story with a simpler choice.

    I think the real question is why do so many Americans seem to support Gitmo?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Ben JB
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      You’re correct, of course. The parallel is distinctly limited.

      Not only do we in the opposition think the abuse unnecessary to our comfortable way of life, but the supporters of it don’t see the victims as innocent. In answer, I would say two things: First, try them, and then punish according to duly enacted law. And second, even if they are guilty as sin, the things they’ve been subject to aren’t a part of our legal or ethical code, not even for the guilty. So there is still a bit of Omelas there, I suppose.Report

      • Avatar mark boggs in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        First, try them, and then punish according to duly enacted law.

        And then actually allow the verdict to stand. Like, if they’re found innocent, let them go. Haven’t we already seen a few found innocent and then “indefinitely detained” despite the acquittal?Report

  3. Avatar stillwater
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    Quiggin concludes reluctantly that the Democrats still need our support. But support for what, exactly? If they are the lesser of two evils, it’s not by much.

    True, there’s little substantive difference between them on this issue. But I think two things can be said: One, that large institutional structures have a lot of inertia, and changing them takes a huge effort. Recall that Cheney went against custom by placing hand-picked, untested, but ideologically loyal outsiders into key leadership roles in important departments (rather than promoting insiders) in order to shape the ideological and political views those departments supported. That was a massive undertaking and overtly politicized institutions which were not (at least overtly) political prior to that. The point here is that institutional change requires huge effort, subject to criticisms of partisanship and politicization and internal disagreements, which makes such changes difficult. So changing a policy already in place requires either meeting a huge argumentative and political burden, or alternatively, the unilateral imposition of the new policy.

    Another thing is that given the size of governmental institutions, substantive differences often only show up at the edges. Obama has for example, publicly denounced enhanced interrogation and rejected it’s codification as a just practice. Rendition, too, I think. And he’s tried to close Gitmo, but Senators (including Democrats) politicized the suggestion and shot it down. This goes back to the first point.

    All that said, Obama’s tacit support of Manning’s treatment can’t be excused or explained away. I think it would be wrong, however, to use this single example to justify the view that governance under Dems and the GOP is functionally indistinguishable.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to stillwater
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      All that said, Obama’s tacit support of Manning’s treatment can’t be excused or explained away. I think it would be wrong, however, to use this single example to justify the view that governance under Dems and the GOP is functionally indistinguishable.

      I wouldn’t call it a single example. Obama supports the USA-PATRIOT Act, caved on closing Guantanamo, and did not authorize the investigations and prosecutions that Bush administration officials clearly deserved. When Republicans next occupy the White House (when, not if), the precedent will be set — all of that’s just fine. Just fine, because not even Obama opposed it.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        This is completely fair.

        Whether due to political expediency, the fact that the dude is young and is in the middle of making his Bay of Pigs screwup, or some other factor, the cold reality on the ground is that every civil liberties charge that was levied against the Bush administration (by the candidate himself, let alone the rest of his party!) has been quietly dropped.

        And that is a criminally bad leadership outcome for a President. I’d argue that it’s really bad for the Democratic party as well, but I don’t really care about the party 🙂Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        caved on closing Guantanamo,

        That is, didn’t sell arms to Iran to raise the funds for that which Congress wouldn’t allocate?Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Mike Schilling
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          If you’re a President, and you can’t force your own party to give you a goddamn cookie, you’re failing at leadership.

          Sit Harry down in a chair and bluntly say, “This is going to happen, and you’re going to get me the Democratic votes to do it, or I’m going to burn you down. And re-open Yucca Mountain, to make sure that your constituents burn you down even if I don’t.”Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pat Cahalan
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            This.

            Also, as commander in chief, I’m sure he could have arranged it. Bush used the very same power to set up Guantanamo in the first place, you know.Report

            • Avatar stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              But I think that reveals the fundamental difference in the styles of governance under consideration. Bush unilaterally, via executive order and therefore anit-democratically, established a policy. And now Obama is criticized for attempting to change policy via the democratic process. It’s a bit of a double edged sword here (or a catch-22, or something): if we didn’t like Bush’s abuse of unilateral executive power, it seems inconsistent to criticize Obama for failing to use unilateral executive power.

              Btw, I’m not a huge fan of Obama’s foreign and security policy. I do think it is substantively better than Bush’s in important respects, tho certainly there’s lots and lots to criticize. But take DADT as an example of Obama’s methods: he wanted institutional support – from military and congress – to enact that change, and succeeded, even as many people on the left were saying he ought to unilaterally strike it down (of course, that argument was incoherent in any event).Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to stillwater
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                There’s nothing wrong with exercising unilateral power that you’re actually authorized to exercise.

                My beef with Bush was that he exercised unilateral power that I did not think he had real legitimacy to exercise the way that he did.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              Arranged what? Being CinC doesn’t do much good when you need to *remove* people from military authority.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              says:

              “the very same power.” Hmm. I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t have done this. But let’s not pretend he had equal power to sway Congress in 2009 that Bush did at the time he set up Guantanamo. At that time, it was a rubber stamp Congress on these matters; and in any case initially I don’t believe it was necessary for Bush to get specific approval to set up Guantanamo. He was giving basically plenary authority to do what he wanted for a few months. When it came time for Obama to close the facility, he was facing legislators who had been polarized by a political opposition to the practices that had been put in place after 9/11, and many, including powerful Senators in his party being driven by the residual feelings of the state in which the greatest damage was done, very specifically opposed doing so, and had the power to deny funds necessary to transfer prisoners to the mainland. Obama could have closed the facility with a stroke of a pen, but he would have had to release everyone there.

              I’m not defending where Obama ended up on GTMO – I don;t see where the full reversal was necessary or forced; it was embraced — but I just can’t accept the political “same power” argument when the question is swaying Congress. Formal presidential powers are fairly constant (or at least precisely trackable); political power as against co-equal branches on various political questions at various times fluctuates madly. No, Obama did not have the same power to get from Congress the white cookie he wanted in mid-2009 that Bush had to get his black cookie from them in late 2001. Get real.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                So what?

                Honestly, so you’re saying that the conditions on the ground make Obama’s job harder than Bush’s? That’s not in contention (by me).

                Obama could be a million times better than Franklin Pierce. 5/7ths of the American presidents could be terrible leaders. So he’s a “run of the mill” president, as far as presidents go. That might *still* be “a bad leader”.

                I really don’t care how hard the job is. You’ve signed up for what is arguably the most difficult job in the world. Tough.

                Lead, or don’t lead. If you don’t lead, you’re not doing the job.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                I was responding to Jason’s direct claim that the power level was equal w/r/t relations with Congress on the matter at the two points in time. I didn’t give a so what; I was just addressing that factual claim. If it’s not relevant to you, fine, but Jason still made the claim.

                By the way, you sound like someone pontificating on an issue you haven’t studied here, and who doesn’t see any reason he ought to do so. Leaders can be held accountable blindly, or for specific actions viewed in context. I prefer the latter. I’m sorry if that doesn’t hoot from the hip fast enough for you.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                > By the way, you sound like someone
                > pontificating on an issue you haven’t
                > studied here, and who doesn’t see
                > any reason he ought to do so.

                That’s an interesting claim.

                Here’s what I’ve seen, since the man has been elected. He has chosen, in virtually every crisis he has experienced (and there have been many) to allow other political animals to provide the narrative.

                There are plenty of books on leadership (including a couple of great ones on the specifics of political leadership that I’ve just finished and can recommend) that will harp on this point quite heavily. Whether or not you deal with the crisis effectively is important; controlling the narrative is necessary to prevent the crisis from having additional political ramifications. He failed at this, quite badly.

                In the case of BP, he did not capitalize on the regulatory capture of the Bush presidency. The narrative was a co-failure of the regulatory mechanism and corporate self-policing.

                In the case of both the health care bill and financial reform, he let the bill be formed by committee, and did not use the sausage-making aspect of legislation and the public’s repugnance with it effectively in a media campaign. Thus, he failed to frame the debate as either, “I know what to do, and here it is” or “Congress is mucking this up, help me get your congresspeople in line, America!”

                In the case of financial reform, his chosen group of advisors were all those who had significant ties to the problem, except Volcker. It’s a case study in how to enable groupthink. Avoiding groupthink is a fairly well established way to cut down on bad decision making.

                In no case has he let the common American feel like they are getting justice out of any of the above. In no case has he let the base of the Left feel like they are getting justice for the eight years that the Left feels they were abused. Strategically, that’s a crappy-ass way to maintain your popularity.

                He has not even kept up his standing in the international community.

                Should I go on? I can keep talking about other specific things I think the guy has done wrong.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                Those are a lot of issues, and the one I was talking about was not Obama’s leadership, but rather his handling of Guantanamo in particular. Perhaps you’ve studied it closely, my observation was just that you weren’t writing like you had, or that you thought it important that you do so before pronouncing what you were pronouncing. But maybe close study of the Guanatanamo issue was indeed incorportated in your off-hand-sounding pronouncements on the Guantanamao issue.Report

              • Avatar stillwater in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                As Michael Drew said, those are a lot of issues. But one thing that I think warrants a comment is that your conception of leadership, mentioned below, is simply to get shit done, irregardless of whether that stuff ‘drives us off a cliff’. I think the least that one could say about Obama’s approach is that it is better than his predecessors, in particular that leading – on his view – is based something more than using political capital counterproductive ends.

                It seems to me your criticism of Obama isn’t that he’s weak, but that his approach to achieving goals isn’t the same as yours.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                > Your conception of leadership,
                > mentioned below, is simply to get
                > shit done

                I think I’m being mis-read (or, perhaps I’m writing badly). That is not the entire concept of leadership.

                The point I was attempting to make is that moving your agenda forward is an integral part of effective leadership. “Good” leadership, on the other hand, requires a judgment of the actual agenda.

                Look, if you sit by while 100 people do a job you want done, that’s not leadership. It’s efficient, but it’s not leadership.

                If you talk about what you want done, while 100 people do it, that’s not leadership either. It’s effective political theater, and it might be great self-promotion, but it’s not leadership.

                If you work with the 100 people to get the thing done, that’s management.

                If you work with 100 people to get the thing done, and you’re explaining to another 10,000 what’s going on, and getting their buy-in, and defusing the political bombs that are being thrown your way, that’s political leadership.

                > I think the least that one could say
                > about Obama’s approach is that it
                > is better than his predecessors

                Sure, but when you’re looking at outcomes that’s a pretty low bar.

                To take the particular issue of Guantanamo, here’s where I think he failed. He tossed a political hot potato onto Congress, when Congress was not motivated to handle it, in fact they were motivated instead to use it as political theater. He did not need to do this. When this started to go badly, he did not take action to fix it. He risked losing a lot of his international credibility on this one issue, and then he let Congress dictate the narrative, when Congress is far more concerned with playing to the constituents than the international community.

                One can argue that the guy is learning on the job, and he’s entitled to mis-gauge the environment around Guantanamo, I suppose. But the laundry list of things I think he’s done badly leads me to believe that this is less a single instance of misjudgment and more an instance in a pattern of fumbling the leadership ball.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                Will the president take the lead on cowboy poetry? The great styrofoam menace?Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Pat Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            With every single Republican voting against it, so that a single defection (say, Lieberman) allows it to be filibustered.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Mike Schilling
              Ignored
              says:

              That’s still a failure of leadership.

              Leadership is easy to measure, dude. You measure it by outcome. Not process. *Management* is measured by process.

              Barry might be a great managerial President (jury’s still out on that one). He’s demonstrably not a great leadership President.

              Bush, on the other hand, was a terrible management President. On leadership, though, you have to give the guy his marks. He might have led the country off a cliff, but goddamn he got everyone lined up behind him and pushing for the effort. That’s remarkable, all by its lonesome.

              Optimally, what we need is someone who’s good at both, but those people are damn rare.Report

              • Avatar stillwater in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                he got everyone lined up behind him and pushing for the effort.

                Isn’t that singularly explained by 9/11? His approvals went through the roof, then consistently declined to about 29% for his last two years. (Cheney at 17%!)Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                > Isn’t that singularly explained by 9/11? His
                > approvals went through the roof, then
                > consistently declined to about 29% for his
                > last two years. (Cheney at 17%!)

                No, that explains how he got the political capital.

                He still *did* something with it. Part of leadership is getting political capital. The other part is spending it. There’s been lots of instances of elected officials having a lot of political capital and sitting on it, thinking it earns interest or some sort of garbage.Report

              • Avatar stillwater in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                And actually, I think his ‘leadership’ was a convenient myth. The one (and only) policy that I recall him getting out front of, and actually trying to lead on, was privatizing social security, and his own party shot that down. All the other policies enacted by his admin were pushed, in my view, by either CheneyRumsfeld, or Congress. And I think everyone was aware of that.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                Colin Powell laid out how The Decider made his decisions. He’d first summon one staffer, who’d lay out his side of the argument. Then he’d summon the other side of the argument, separately. Then he’d summon both of them and let them argue in the Oval Office for a few minutes.

                The Decider would then choose one side, whole-hog. The defeated staffer would then retire in disgrace and his opponent would have carte blanche to implement the policy. There wasn’t a lick of compromise or thought put into any of it. Few questions, if any, were asked. He was a singularly incurious man, was The Decider.

                That’s not leadership.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
                Ignored
                says:

                That’s crappy decision-making, sure.

                Maybe we need a whole post on leadership, vs. management, vs. decision making, to clarify.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
                Ignored
                says:

                All leadership is by example. There is no other kind. Learned that in NCO school, served me well all the days of my life.

                Two kinds of leadership: strategic and tactical. Strategy asks the question: “What does Done mean in this situation?” and Tactics asks the question “How do we do it most effectively?” There are no other kinds of leadership.

                There are as many different kinds of leaders as their are leaders.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
                Ignored
                says:

                There’s a huge difference between leadership inside closed parameters and leadership when the frame is open.

                Military (or business) leadership is a great example, but there’s one major, glaring difference between military leadership and political leadership. You have to be able to get legitimacy in politics. You have to build political capital to get stuff done.

                You’re granted legitimacy in the military, by virtue of rank. You’re granted legitimacy in a business organization, by virtue of the org chart. This isn’t complete legitimacy, of course, and there are counterexamples, but there is a big difference between having most of your power vested in you via your position’s formal explicit power and most of your power vested in you via your position’s implicit power.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                I never saw that much difference between competent military and civilian leadership. The higher the monkey climbs, the better you can see his ass.

                While there is a great truth in saying the military is hierarchical, woe betide the sorry butterbar 2nd Lieutenant who presumes he’s got more pull than the Command Sergeant Major or even the Company First Sergeant. I schooled many a highly intelligent 2LT on how best to command my men: who was best at what, how not to annoy them, how to delegate, when not to delegate, when to crack down and when to shine on some of the crap that went down, when to deep six something and how to navigate the minefields of company politics. I did so in a highly formal and deferential manner, presuming I was speaking to an intelligent person worthy of my respect, regardless of his personal failings. I saluted his hat, not his head.

                As a consultant, I’ve found these attributes to be of great value. I’ve steered clear of executives when I can: corporate management, almost without exception, thinks in exceptions and I depend on the little guys who actually have the problems to tell me the rules. And it’s rules which control the world. The exceptions can go up the stovepipe to management for deliberation.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                To clarify this, being what they call a “toxic leader”, but doing it effectively (in terms of accomplishing your goal) is still demonstrating the power of leadership. I’d agree that Bush was a classical toxic leader.

                I ought not to have said, “good leadership”, perhaps.

                Still, the point (in comparison to Obama) is that Bush was not shy about throwing his weight around. He may have been inconsistent, and flailing, and pushing in all the wrong directions, but the guy was moving. Obama seems to be erring far on the other side of caution.Report

          • Avatar Simon K in reply to Pat Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            That’s a good point – This is turning out to be the problem with the Obama administration. Excessive deference to congress, which leads to an appearance of indecisiveness and weakness, and less good outcomes that might otherwise have been available.Report

            • Avatar 62across in reply to Simon K
              Ignored
              says:

              I don’t know that this is “turning out to be a problem” for the Obama administration. It has had all the appearances of a problem to date, but it does represent a return to a more Constitutionally appropriate interaction between the executive and legislative branches and I believe Obama deserves some credit for that. Those “less good outcomes” are part and parcel of the paradigm shift taking place.

              The effectiveness of the approach will need to be viewed over a longer timeline than approximately 55% of a term.Report

              • Avatar Simon K in reply to 62across
                Ignored
                says:

                Sure, its more constitutionally appropriate. I don’t particularly care. I’m a lot more concerned about the quality of policy. Its a problem for the quality of policy.Report

            • Avatar stillwater in reply to Simon K
              Ignored
              says:

              Excessive deference to congress

              Examples? (Real, not imaginary.) And to sorta frame the issue, doesn’t the Obama admin rank as one of the most successful first two years of any Presidency in terms of number of bills signed? (I’m looking, but my search-fu is weak.)Report

              • Avatar Simon K in reply to stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                This (possibly – admittedly its a little tenuous). The healthcare bill. The current budget fandango. Financial reform. In every case the administration has appeared to leave the creation of even the broad sweep of policy to congress. They say they talk to congress-critters behind the scenes. I’m sure that’s true, but this misunderstands the role of the presidency in policy-making, which is to signal to both the public and congress the direction of policy.Report

              • Avatar stillwater in reply to Simon K
                Ignored
                says:

                I’ll grant the ‘a little tenuous’ disclaimer in that these are areas that I think criticism of the policy is justified. How much of that falls on Obama is subject to opinion. For my part, I think he didn’t lead on FinReg (for pretty obvious political reasons), but I think he did lead on HCR (in fact, I don’t think it could have passed without serious effort on his part, both up front and behind the scenes). That leaves deficit issues, which he addressed indirectly in the HC bill by maintaining Medicare as a viable program for some time (tho more still needs to be done, especially contraction of year-over-year provider costs increases, which the ACA indirectly addresses). All the rest of the budget stuff seems to me like ideological bickering, since the country isn’t broke.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling
    Ignored
    says:

    Quiggin gives a few theories about why this has happened. I go with number two: politics. It’s an absurdly easy issue to demagogue: “Do you want some slick lawyer getting a terrorist off scot-free?” can be refuted, but only to an audience that’s actually paying attention (that is, the sort of people who read political blogs, but not the majority of Americans.) You might recall that the Obama administration floated the idea of trying the Guantanamo prisoners under civil law, and was met with full-throated opposition, including congressional refusal to fund the necessary prisoner transfers. Given that tat won;t happen, the only choices are military trials or none.

    By the way, “military trial” and “show trial” are not synonyms. Under Bush they were the same, which is why so many experienced military attorneys refused to have anything to do with them. There is a (perhaps slim) hope that the new set of trials will adhere to the UCMJ,Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Mike Schilling
      Ignored
      says:

      Presidents are only elected for a maximum of two terms. This gives them a psychological out that Senators don’t have. They can burn themselves down, politically, for the sake of getting the right thing done.

      And if getting people to pay attention is required, well, that’s your damn job. You’re the President of the United States.

      > You might recall that the Obama administration
      > floated the idea of trying the Guantanamo prisoners
      > under civil law, and was met with full-throated
      > opposition

      That’s because he was dumb enough to *float* it. Of course your Congresscritters are going to balk, for just the reason you outlay here. Save them from having to defend this decision. Make it yourself.

      > including congressional refusal to fund the necessary
      > prisoner transfers.

      Okay, if he can’t find the money somewhere in funds that have already been approved for your entire Executive branch to relocate 300 people, then I’m wrong, he also sucks at management.Report

      • Avatar 62across in reply to Pat Cahalan
        Ignored
        says:

        “Presidents are only elected for a maximum of two terms. This gives them a psychological out that Senators don’t have. They can burn themselves down, politically, for the sake of getting the right thing done.”

        Doesn’t this make the case that it is somewhat premature to summarily dismiss Obama’s leadership? From everything we’ve seen of him (campaign through today), we know that he refuses to view issues based on the 24 hour (do something, do it now) news cycle. He has taken the long view at every step.

        He has an awful lot of candle left to burn (almost 3/4s of a two term presidency) to get to the right things done. In addition, front loading all the most contentious fights would pretty much ensure he’d get less time to work.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to 62across
          Ignored
          says:

          Yes and no.

          Sure, he’s got the rest of his term to do whatever it is he intends to do. But logistically, getting some things done vs. other things requires timing. You’re never going to have a better time to get things done than during your first six months in office, especially when you know you’re very likely to lose your Congress within your first two years.

          Prioritizing is, in and of itself, okay. Prioritizing on the scale he’s done is not, IMO. Every single civil liberties issue was back-burnered. And his nomination of Kagan was actually an entrenchment. I’m highly unconvinced that he’s going to do anything in the next 2 years to compensate.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to 62across
          Ignored
          says:

          Also, a President can get away with decisions that Congresspeople can’t.

          A President will largely rise and fall on the national economy. He can make non-economic policy decisions (like vetoing the Patriot Act) that he (or she) can frame in a way that won’t substantially hurt his chances to get re-elected; when the time rolls around for the next national election, if the economy is doing okay, they’re likely going to do fine.

          Congresscritters, on the other hand, fight much more dogmatic battles, and can take much more damage for individual decisions.

          In my estimation, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
        Ignored
        says:

        “that’s his job!” “he sucks at management!” “blardy-blardy!”

        At some point you undermine yourself if you just go with //maximum-facile//. It is exactly as easy for you type these words as it in fact is. The more you go down that road, the more it is the case that that is the most we can conclude from your commentary.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew
          Ignored
          says:

          Okay, you can conclude that at the present moment I think Obama is not a “good” President (if you want to pick that up and use it as evidence for something else, you might want to watch yourself, though)… FWIW, there’s a lot of left- and bi-partisan (as well as right-leaning) leadership people who agree with me on his demonstrated leadership skills.

          In estimating a public leader, I think it’s totally appropriate to say by default they’re all doing a crap job, if for no other reason because I don’t have my flying car and that was promised to me when I was four. The default judgment is, “bad”, we raise the bar on evidence, not the other way around, where the default judgment is “good” and we lower the bar on evidence.

          The person that has the case to make is the one who is telling me that they’re doing a fine job. I’ll readily grant that maybe he is doing a fine job. Explain to me how he’s doing a fine job.

          I don’t think your explanation can quite account for his utter lack of rolling back any of the civil liberties issues (on which, ahem, the man campaigned heavily), nor can explain how the campaigning anti-unitary-executive nominated as his first SCOTUS pick someone who is pro-unitary-executive. But maybe you can do that. Fire ‘way, I’m willing to listen to the case. Maybe it will explain this discrepancy.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            What explanation? I’m not saying he’s doing a fine job. I’m saying you’re being facile.

            “In estimating a public leader, I think it’s totally appropriate to say by default they’re all doing a crap job, if for no other reason because I don’t have my flying car and that was promised to me when I was four. The default judgment is, “bad”, we raise the bar on evidence, not the other way around, where the default judgment is “good” and we lower the bar on evidence.”

            That’s fine. But it’s not not facile. It is facile. We could just as well simply analyze the question in detail and context, without a resumption either way. That’s what I prefer. And what you prefer is what you prefer, and it’s facile. And more than that, you’re writing in a particularly off-hand and facile way about your facile preference, such that I’m taking you less seriously in this thread than I do in others, where you seem not to be against engaging on topics with specificity and substance.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew
              Ignored
              says:

              That’s fair. This particular topic I probably ought to check out of; I’ve had this debate with a large slew of people on both sides of the aisle and analyzing the question in detail and context without resumption has been an exercise in beating my head against two walls, both of which insist, at the end of the process, on rationalization of all of the analysis to fit their narrative anyway.

              Deep breaths might be a good idea.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                And presumably also without presumption as well. Definitely analysis can be co-opted by ideology and preferred conclusions — it can serve as a cover for clever people steering discussion in the direction they choose. Quick judgements are less susceptible. And I do engage in some of those. But God help me if I don’t truly, madly, deeply love the former as my true soulmate. It’s a personal preference.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                > And presumably also without presumption as well.

                Did you just call me out for the exact typo you made in the previous comment?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                No, I thought you were pointing it out by rolling it over in a humorous way, so I was just kind of giving you an winking acknowledgement of that. Didn’t realize it was an actual typo for you as well.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling
      Ignored
      says:

      At the risk of Sea Lawyering, I should like to point out I’ve testified at two courts martial and have a passing acquaintance with UCMJ.

      UCMJ is not set up for cases like these. There were a few cases during WW2 where civilians were tried, and of course there were the Nuremburg Trials, which were military tribunals, but the military just hates to try a civilian.

      Now I have a theory about why Obama’s pushing for this to go through UCMJ. It comes from the same vein of thought whereby Obama’s trying to get around the DoMA. The military will do as it’s done before when pushed to convict civilians: it won’t. He’s the Commander in Chief, and he wants the Gitmo fiasco cleaned up before he goes back on the campaign trail.Report

  5. Avatar Robert Cheeks
    Ignored
    says:

    I’m sorry but it’s rather amusing reading this thread where a coterie of cd’s really, really would like to see Bush and Cheney back in office, for just a moment, so they could go after ’em. But, darn it, it’s Barry and the looney dems in office and they could care less.
    BTW, I agree with whoever said try ’em then either let ’em go or give ’em justice.Report

  6. Avatar Freddie
    Ignored
    says:

    Our economic system is Omelas too.Report

  7. Avatar Rufus F.
    Ignored
    says:

    I think a simpler explanation for Obama’s record on civil liberties being the same as his predecessor’s is that rulers tend to take new powers form themselves a lot more often than they willingly cede them. I don’t know who you should support in such a situation, but whoever’s in power- that’s whose butt you should point the flamethrower at.Report

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