Edward Snowden Continues To Bring Out Differences Between Civil Libertarians And Advocates Of The Surveillance State

Edward Snowden We The People

The recent vote by the European Parliament calling on member states to protect whistle blower Edward Snowden from extradition and  prosecution, while largely symbolic, demonstrates how the United States government is conservative by international standards. This was seen again in the past week when, with absolutely no evidence to back them, some in the intelligence community used the recent terrorist attack in Paris to make Snowden the scapegoat. Glenn Greenwald has debunked these arguments:

The CIA’s former acting director, Michael Morell, blamed the Paris attack on Internet companies “building encryption without keys,” which, he said, was caused by the debate over surveillance prompted by Snowden’s disclosures. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) blamed Silicon Valley’s privacy safeguards, claiming: “I have asked for help. And I haven’t gotten any help.”

Former CIA chief James Woolsey said Snowden “has blood on his hands” because, he asserted, the Paris attackers learned from his disclosures how to hide their communications behind encryption. Woolsey thus decreed on CNN that the NSA whistleblower should be “hanged by the neck until he’s dead, rather than merely electrocuted.”

The CIA’s blame-shifting game, aside from being self-serving, was deceitful in the extreme. To begin with, there still is no evidence that the perpetrators in Paris used the Internet to plot their attacks, let alone used encryption technology.

CIA officials simply made that up. It is at least equally likely that the attackers formulated their plans in face-to-face meetings. The central premise of the CIA’s campaign — encryption enabled the attackers to evade our detection — is baseless.

Even if they had used encryption, what would that prove? Are we ready to endorse the precept that no human communication can ever take place without the U.S. government being able to monitor it? To prevent the CIA and FBI from “going dark” on terrorism plots that are planned in person, should we put Orwellian surveillance monitors in every room of every home that can be activated whenever someone is suspected of plotting?

The claim that the Paris attackers learned to use encryption from Snowden is even more misleading. For many years before anyone heard of Snowden, the U.S. government repeatedly warned that terrorists were using highly advanced means of evading American surveillance…

Greenwald elaborated more on this, and concluded with a general warning about how the government uses terrorism as an excuse to infringe upon civil liberties:

What the Snowden disclosures actually revealed to the world was that the U.S. government is monitoring the Internet communications and activities of everyone else: hundreds of millions of innocent people under the largest program of suspicionless mass surveillance ever created, a program that multiple federal judges have ruled is illegal and unconstitutional.

That is why intelligence officials are so eager to demonize Snowden: rage that he exposed their secret, unconstitutional schemes.

But their ultimate goal is not to smear Snowden. That’s just a side benefit. The real objective is to depict Silicon Valley as terrorist-helpers for the crime of offering privacy protections to Internet users, in order to force those companies to give the U.S. government “backdoor” access into everyone’s communications. American intelligence agencies have been demanding “backdoor” access to encryption since the mid-1990s. They view exploitation of the outrage and fear resulting from the Paris attacks as their best opportunity yet to achieve this access.

The key lesson of the post-9/11 abuses — from Guantanamo to torture to the invasion of Iraq — is that we must not allow military and intelligence officials to exploit the fear of terrorism to manipulate public opinion. Rather than blindly believe their assertions, we must test those claims for accuracy. In the wake of the Paris attacks, that lesson is more urgent than ever.

The controversy over Edward Snowden’s actions has become apart of this year’s election debates. Hillary Clinton’s comments on Snowden in the first Democratic Debate were just one of many falsehoods from Clinton which went unchallenged during the debate. Nick Gillepsie and Amanda Winkler called Clinton’s comments on Snowden her biggest lie of the debate:

What was Hillary Clinton’s biggest lie during the first Democratic debate?

That NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden could have gone through official channels.

“He broke the laws,” said Clinton. “He could have been a whistleblower, he could have gotten all the protections of being a whistleblower.”

More important is the experience of NSA and intelligence whistleblowers who came before Snowden.

“Tom Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Ed Loomis did go through the proper channels,” says Radack. “And all of them fell under criminal investigations for having done so.”

Hillary Clinton has a right her own opinion about the value and damage done by Snowden’s revelations, but she’s simply not credible when she argues he could have worked through official channels.

Martin O’Malley also took a hard line on Snowden during the debate. In contrast, Bernie Sanders has called for clemency or a plea agreement for Snowden. He took the most moderate approach towards Snowden during the first debate:

SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.

COOPER: Is he a hero?

SANDERS: He did — he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is (inaudible)

Sanders also defended privacy rights against NSA surveillance during the debate:

Well, I would shut down — make — I’d shut down what exists right now is that virtually every telephone call in this country ends up in a file at the NSA. That is unacceptable to me. But it’s not just government surveillance. I think the government is involved in our e-mails; is involved in our websites. Corporate America is doing it as well. If we are a free country, we have the right to be free. Yes, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism, but there are ways to do that without impinging on our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.

Snowden has received support world wide from civil libertarians and activists against tyranny. The most recent example came from Chinese activist Ai Weiwei:

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has expressed alarm about the growth of state surveillance and praised US whistleblower ­Edward Snowden for speaking out about the “technology monster”.

Ai is due in Australia next month for a show at the ­National Gallery of Victoria, where he will share top billing with the late American pop artist Andy Warhol.

Speaking in Berlin, where he runs a studio in tandem with ­another in Beijing, Ai told The Weekend Australian that Snowden was “one of the great heroes” for sharing information about government control.

Ai carries two iPhones, and a picture of Snowden — the National­­ Security Agency contractor who revealed domestic spying in the US — is printed on the back of both.

“This guy should have a Nobel Peace Prize if anybody ­deserves that,” he said. “But, of course, he could not stop it. He just told the people that’s what’s happening.

“Of course, what happened then is a nightmare, this young guy just had to sacrifice everything for saying that.”

Obama Takes First Step In Reforming NSA Surveillance

In a speech today, President Obama called for an overhaul of the NSA’s phone data collection program. The full text is here and the proposals are summarized here. There are meaningful improvements, including requiring a court order to obtain phone data, which will be held by a third party, and proceedings before the FISA court will become more adversarial with arguments made counter to the government’s arguments by a panel of public advocates.

Glenn Greenwald has some valid criticism and deserves credit for his work in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations to the public. As has often been the case regarding Obama, I believe he is also underestimating the value of these reforms. It must be kept in mind that this issue is about what the NSA has done wrong, not about one’s opinion of Glenn Greenwald. I am finding that Greenwald’s sometimes overzealous attacks on Obama have led many liberals to automatically reject whatever he has to say, and I fear that this is contributing to the attitude of some liberals to fail to take the NSA revelations with the seriousness they deserve.

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued this statement, also arguing that Obama has not gone far enough:

President Obama today announced changes to some aspects of the NSA’s surveillance programs and left others in place. Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:

“The president’s speech outlined several developments which we welcome. Increased transparency for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, improved checks and balances at the FISA court through the creation of a panel of advocates, and increased privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens abroad – the first such assertion by a U.S. president – are all necessary and welcome reforms.

“However, the president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling. The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”

A new chart comparing the ACLU’s proposals, President Obama’s announcement, and the USA FREEDOM Act (a bipartisan bill currently pending in Congress) is at:
aclu.org/national-security/where-does-president-stand-nsa-reform

ACLU Action is demanding an end to dragnet surveillance at:
aclu.org/endsurveillance

I do think that Glenn Greenwald could learn from the manner in which the ACLU both acknowledged the favorable aspects of Obama’s proposals while calling for greater reforms. This has been the general attitude which I have seen so far among liberal critics of NSA surveillance. Such an attitude is also more likely to bring about greater unity on the left for reform as opposed to his attacks which are causing some liberals to discount the entire issue.

The fact that Obama made this speech is further evidence of the value of Edward Snowden’s work, and I feel provides further vindication for his actions. Needless to say, many in the intelligence community do not agree, some having fantasies of dealing with Snowden as would be done in a third rate spy thriller:

One Army intelligence officer even offered BuzzFeed a chillingly detailed fantasy.

“I think if we had the chance, we would end it very quickly,” he said. “Just casually walking on the streets of Moscow, coming back from buying his groceries. Going back to his flat and he is casually poked by a passerby. He thinks nothing of it at the time starts to feel a little woozy and thinks it’s a parasite from the local water. He goes home very innocently and next thing you know he dies in the shower.”

There is no indication that the United States has sought to take vengeance on Snowden, who is living in an undisclosed location in Russia without visible security measures, according to a recent Washington Post interview. And the intelligence operators who spoke to BuzzFeed on the condition of anonymity did not say they expected anyone to act on their desire for revenge. But their mood is widespread, people who regularly work with the intelligence community said.

Granted this is just anonymous talk and no action has been taken, but this attitude does reinforce the need to keep the intelligence community under control, and could even be argued to represent further evidence that Snowden was right in his actions.

This all occurs a day after the latest revelations released by Edward Snowden that the NSA collects millions of text messages.

Detention of Glenn Greenwald’s Parter Results In Further Questions Of Government Secrecy

Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:

Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.

Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.

A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.

This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:

Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.

Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.

Updates: The White House had advanced notification but denies having any role in the detention. Glenn Greenwald is threatening to release UK secrets in retaliation.

Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.

Edward Snowden Leaves Hong Kong

Edward Snowden has arrived in Moscow with Cuba one of his potential final destinations. He seems fated to wind up in Cuba regardless of what happens–Havana if he remains free or Gitmo if captured.

Update: Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador.

In related news, David Gregory asked Glenn Greenwald this question: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Our “liberal” media at work.

Greenwald tweets: “Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?”

Building The Infrastructure For A Police State

The government has accumulated and is storing massive amounts of data on Americans but is keeping this information secure and promises not to use this to spy on individual Americans not connected to terrorism. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, obviously that is a sarcastic rhetorical question. One good answer to this question is found in an op-ed by Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a bit about whistle blowers:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately this is run under the title Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America. Yet another example of hyperbole seen on this issue, like another example I gave here. Fortunately Ellsberg acknowledges that this is not a police state, and is warning about a potential threat as opposed to exaggerating about the current situation. I certainly don’t see any sign that anyone fears discussing this issue, as would be the case in a true police state. On the other hand, would anyone trust John McCain, who has never seen a war he didn’t like. to have this information about people who might protest whatever wars he got us into if elected? Would you trust Mitt Romney, who seems to be devoid of any principles? In a two party system, who knows what type of Republican might manage to win an election in the near future (and not all Democrats can be trusted either).

There are a number of answers I’m hearing which aren’t very good, ranging from paranoia to the opposite reaction of denying the problem. I have received an answer that “Bush did it.” Is George W. Bush the standard by what is right? Yes, as I pointed out last week, this is an ongoing problem, not a new issue, and not a question of whether you like Bush or Obama better. Look at the issue independent of political personalities. Besides, if you want to blame politicians, as Steve Benen pointed out you can also blame Congress:

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

“But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

“Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.”

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines…

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed laws these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

We cannot expect any president to voluntarily give up powers present upon taking office, but at least there have been favorable signs that Obama is starting to ask the right questions. Under normal circumstances we need Congress to do their job. Unfortunately many Democrats were afraid to do this under Bush, and the Republicans are preoccupied by matters which are more important to them, from restricting reproductive rights to voting to repeal Obamacare thirty-seven times.  We also need the courts to do more than rubber stamp requests. Even under the best of circumstances, we cannot count on government to reveal its sins. If not for whistle blowers, we would not know much of what we know about Viet Nam, mistreatment of prisoners at places such as Abu Ghraib, CIA rendition, and the use of drones.

I’m seeing far too many cases of liberals playing down this issue, seeing it as an attack on Obama, when most opposed these provisions of the Patriot Act under George Bush. I’m also seeing some making this about Glenn Greenwald (who says more revelations are coming). I agree that at times he has gone overboard in attacks on Obama, but this is about the facts he is reporting, not his personal views.  Meanwhile the right is divided between those want to attack Obama and big government, contradicting their previous support for big government under George Bush, and those who are such big proponents of an authoritarian surveillance state that they will even overlook the fact, just this one time, that Obama is involved.

Another poor response I’m seeing is a comparison to all the information we give up when we go shopping, or post on Facebook. There is absolutely no comparison to information which is given voluntarily and to a retail store as opposed to information being secretly obtained by a government. When Google was accused of possessing too much information they initiated action to notify users of the information they have and offer ways to opt out. This might not be completely satisfying, but it is far preferable to a government system where it is illegal to even discuss requests for information.

Serious Concern Versus Paranoia

Over the last few days Glenn Greenwald has posted so much information on NSA surveillance abilities that I almost expect the next revelation to be that the machine on Person of Interest is real. There are certainly many things to be concerned about in the recent news related to privacy rights and civil liberties. The problem is exacerbated by the extreme secrecy surrounding this intelligence gathering making it impossible to have the type of informed debate which is necessary in a free society.

On the other hand, there has also been a considerable degree of paranoia and unwarranted hyperbole this week. With the NPR stations limited to Prarie Home Companion on my drive home this evening, I turned to a left talk radio station I have rarely listened to before on XM which was making a fallacious argument that the United States has become like China. Earlier today I discussed this topic on Facebook, posting a link I received via email to an article entitled Beyond Orwellian’: Outrage Follows Revelations of Vast Domestic Spying Program.

This is just ridiculous hyperbole. It’s not that I disagree with the specific criticism, but “Beyond Orwellian” is as absurd as the conservative sites trying to compare the IRS scandal to Watergate. Even if wrong, what we are seeing now is not at all close to either Watergate or 1984. (I won’t even get into Rush Limbaugh’s attempt to compare imagined crimes by Obama to the Holocaust).

When you combine the urge for provocative titles to get people to read with the unfortunate fact that some on the left are every bit as nuts as those on the right, reading through blog post titles in email or RSS feeds can make both look paranoid and crazy. Again, in the case of this specific linked article it wouldn’t be bad if they hadn’t used such hyperbole in the title. It is also possible that an editor and not the author added the title to attract attention.

There are problems being exposed but so far there is no evidence that the information has been misused. The people on the talk radio show I mentioned above speculated that people might disappear because they read the Koran. There is zero evidence that the information being obtained has been used for such a purpose.  However, it is conceivable that there are abuses which are unknown due to the high degree of secrecy surrounding these programs. The risk of abuses is also much higher when people are acting in secret. We know that power does corrupt. We should change the law due to the potential dangers to privacy rights and liberty, and far more meaningful Congressional and judicial oversight appears needed, but that does not mean we are suffering from Orwellian tyranny.

Obama Winning The War That Bush Kept Losing, But We Must Consider The Ethical Issues

The killing of American born al Qudda leader Anwar al-Awlaki is both reason to celebrate the success of  U.S. policy against terrorism and question under Obama as opposed to Bush and to consider the need for new legal mechanisms to apply to the modern world. Old concepts of war, as well as due justice, do not apply well in this age of terrorism.  Principles of due process do not easily apply to an American citizen providing operational leadership to a terrorist organization operating out of a foreign country.

This does not mean that the objections raised by Glenn Greenwald are not without merit.  In this case it is difficult to argue that killing al-Awlaki was not a proper move, but we also do run the risk of going down a slippery slope when Americans can be killed without due process. The response to Greenwald from much of the right, such as at Jawa Report, ignores the actual arguments raised. Contrary to the claim made, Greenwald has said nothing which justifies the claim that Greenwald and the left would be lamenting the death of Hitler. The key distinction here is that al-Awlaki was an American citizen and Hitler was not.

However, what if Hitler had been an American citizen who moved to Germany and led a war against the United States? I doubt very many people would object to killing Hitler in such a situation, but if killing an American-born Hitler would be justified, doesn’t the same principle apply to al-Awlaki. My view on this killing is somewhere between the view of those on the right who fail to see that any ethical and legal questions are raised and the view of those who have  immediately condemn this action as unjustifiable.  I fall closer to the view expressed by BooMan who both sees the pluses of killing al-Awalaki and the problems this raises. The answer is not simply a debate as to whether this was right or wrong but to use this to stimulate the development of new law to account for situations of this nature . Some form of due process should be established when an American citizen is involved, recognizing the difference between a common criminal and an American citizen who is waging war against the United States and cannot be brought in to be tried in an American court.

Looking past the ethical issues, this action demonstrates the tremendous difference between the failed policies of George Bush and the much more effective policies of Barack Obama. Andrew Sullivan writes:

 This administration actually is what the Bush administration claimed to be: a relentless executor of the war in terror, armed with real intelligence and lethally accurate execution. Sure, Yemen’s al Qaeda is not the core al Qaeda of Pakistan/Afghanistan – it’s less global in scope and capacities. But to remove one important propaganda source of that movement has made all of us safer. And those Americans who have lived under one of Awlaki’s murderous fatwas can breathe more easily today.

The same goes for al Qaeda more generally. Obama has done in two years what Bush failed to do in eight. He has skilfully done all he can to reset relations with the broader Muslim world (despite the machinations of the Israeli government) while ruthlessly wiping out swathes of Jihadist planners, operatives and foot-soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has thereby strengthened us immeasurably both in terms of soft and hard power.

Compare the two presidents. One unleashed a war in Afghanistan he then left to languish, and sparked an unjustified war in Iraq, that became a catastrophe of mass death and chaos. He both maximally antagonized the Arab and Muslim world and didn’t even score a major victory against the enemy. In many ways, Bush gave al Qaeda an opening in Iraq where it never had one before, and allowed its key leadership to escape at Tora Bora. The torture program, meanwhile, fouled up our intelligence while destroying our moral standing in the world.

Obama has ended torture and pursued a real war, not an ideological spectacle. He has destroyed almost all of al Qaeda of 9/11 (if Zawahiri is taken out, no one is left), obliterated its ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, found and killed bin Laden, in a daring raid pushed relentlessly by the president alone, capturing alongside a trove of intelligence, procured as a consequence of courage and tenacity rather than cowardice and torture.

I know the next election will be about the economy. But what it should also be about is the revelation of the Republicans as fundmentally weak on national security. Caught up in their own ideology, they proved for eight years they’d rather posture and preen than do the intelligent, relentless, ethical intelligence work that is only now leading to victory.

Obama, in other words, is winning the war Bush kept losing.

 

Obama and the Left

Liberal objections to Obama frequently comes down to a combination of ignorance of his accomplishments, failure to understand the limits of the presidency, failure to understand the difficulties created by the dominance of the right wing noise machine over the news media, and failure to understand the dynamics of a two-party system. In recent elections we have been given a choice between two distinctly different world views, but among adherents of each worldview there is a variety of views and it is unlikely that the candidate of either party will entirely represent the views of those on either the left or the right. I could easily make long lists of areas where I disagree with Obama, both on policy and political approach, but with regards to electoral politics these objections are trivial compared to my objections to candidates who support the type of theocracy, plutocracy, and opposition to science seen in the opposing party.

Despite claims of a weak president who has offered little to liberals, there have been countless posts outlining the number of liberal measures which Obama has successfully passed, including here and here. In light of the considerable length of any lists of Obama’s liberal successes, I will refer to these links as opposed to duplicating them here.

Jonathan Chait has an article in The New York Times Magazine which addresses some of the structural issues. He pointed out the limitations a president must deal with in passing measures through Congress, as well as debunking the myth that George Bush was able to pass whatever he desired:

The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s. Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda, on the correct assumption that this would make it less popular and help the party win the 2010 elections. Only for roughly four months during Obama’s term did Democrats have the 60 Senate votes they needed to overcome a filibuster. Moreover, Republican opposition has proved immune even to persistent and successful attempts by Obama to mobilize public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly favor deficit reduction that includes both spending and taxes and favor higher taxes on the rich in particular. Obama even made a series of crusading speeches on this theme. The result? Nada.

That kind of analysis, however, just feels wrong to liberals, who remember Bush steamrolling his agenda through Congress with no such complaints about obstructionism. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently invoked “the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term.”

Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts — by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues. On No Child Left Behind and Medicare, he cut deals expanding government, which the right-wing equivalents of Greenwald denounced as a massive sellout. Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.

Chait responded to the liberals who have a distorted memory from when the stimulus was proposed and passed:

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders — that is to say, just about everybody who mattered — as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

Compounding the problem, Obama proposed his stimulus shortly after the Congressional Budget Office predicted deficits topping a trillion dollars. Even before Obama took office, and for months afterward, “everybody who mattered” insisted that the crisis required Obama to scale back the domestic initiatives he campaigned on, especially health care reform, but also cap-and-trade, financial regulation and so on. Colin Powell, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, warned in July of 2009: “I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the president — and I’ve talked to some of his people about this — is that you can’t have so many things on the table that you can’t absorb it all. And we can’t pay for it all.”

Rather than deploy every ounce of his leverage to force moderate Republicans, whose votes he needed, to swallow a larger stimulus than they wanted, Obama clearly husbanded some of his political capital. Why? Because in the position of choosing between the agenda he came into office hoping to enact and the short-term imperative of economic rescue, he picked the former. At the time, this was the course liberals wanted and centrists opposed.

Chait’s overall description is far more consistent with reality than that promoted by segments of the left, even if it is true that some on the left did want a larger stimulus.

Chait also explained Obama’s decision on two subsequent events which are controversial on the left. On the extension of the Bush tax cuts:

Last December, he could have refused to extend any of the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000. Republicans vowed to let all the tax cuts expire if he did so. If Obama let this happen, it would have almost fully solved the long-term deficit problem, while at the same time setting back the recovery by raising taxes on middle-class and low-income workers. Obama decided to make a deal, extending all the Bush tax cuts and also securing a progressive payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits, both forms of stimulus that Republicans would never have allowed without an extension of upper-bracket tax cuts in return.

And on the debt ceiling negotiations:

And then, this summer, Obama let the G.O.P. hold the debt-ceiling vote hostage to extract spending cuts. I think he should have called the Republicans’ bluff and let them accept the risk of a financial meltdown. But the reason Obama chose to cut a deal is that calling their bluff might have resulted in catastrophe. And Obama made a point of back-loading the G.O.P.’s budget cuts so as not to contract the economy. He may have chosen wrongly, but he chose exactly the priorities liberals now insist he ignored — favoring economic recovery over long-term goals.

Update: More on Blue Texan’s erroneous account of the stimulus here: Response To The Political Fantasy World Of The Extremes

Evolving Meanings of Left vs. Right

Andrew Sullivan is having a label-crisis. He appears to be troubled by the fact that his views are not the views held by most people who now identify themselves as conservatives:

I suffer, it seems, from an affliction that bedevils many. I now find myself largely opposed to most Republicans and in favor of a Democratic president as an even tempered pragmatist. But I have not reimagined myself as a leftist. Others have, of course, but I wince a little every time. Take the issue of taxes – and you see where the right-left paradigm is totally insufficient to the occasion.

Income tax rates are now lower than they were under Ronald Reagan and far lower than they were under Eisenhower. And yet it has become a Norquistian non-negotiable that no taxes can be raised at all on anyone, let alone the beneficiaries of the last thirty years – and those who differ must be “leftists” – even when the US is facing debt of historic and dangerous proportions. Someone advocating what Eisenhower was perfectly comfortable with would be regarded by the Republican right today as a communist. And yet, of course, Eisenhower was emphatically not a Communist, whatever the John Birch society believed. In retrospect, he might even be seen as the most successful small-c conservative of the 20th century. (This was indeed Paul Johnson’s take in Modern Times.)

Similarly, those who view Obama as some kind of radical have to come to terms with what Glenn Greenwald spells out here:

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% — from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest recieved a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, “the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.”

Conservatism cannot be defined as whatever is the most extreme right-wing narrative of the moment. Time matters. Conservatism needs to be flexible enough a governing philosophy to be able to correct for conservative ideology itself. When such an ideology threatens fiscal balance, a prudent foreign policy, and a thriving middle class, it has become the enemy of real conservatism, not its friend.

The problem is that the conservative movement has been taken over by the extreme right-wing. For the rational Republicans of previous decades, Barack Obama is far closer to their views than the current Republican Party is. Even Barry Goldwater in his later years rejected the religious right and considered himself a liberal.

I’m not going to bother arguing over labels, considering how imprecise they are. If Andrew Sullivan wants to call himself a conservative, but one with views far different from the extremists dominating the conservative movement, that’s his business.

Personally I am far more willing than Sullivan to face reality and grant the extreme right wing victory in taking control of the conservative movement. These days, basically if you are not bat-shit crazy, you are not part of that conservative movement.From my perspective, that currently does make one a leftist, but I certainly am not going to try to force Sullivan to re-imagine himself as one.

The reality is that the meaning of left and right have changed tremendously over the years. There is no longer a battle between capitalism and socialism. The truth is that today the Democrats and the center-left are the supporters of capitalism in the United States. Despite their rhetoric, most on the right do not. The right now supports a system of plutocracy which has been corrupting our free market system.

Today’s conservatives certainly are not fiscally conservative in the traditional sense. While far from perfect, the Democrats have a far better record on the Republicans with regards to the deficit and fiscal responsibility. Bush and Reagan were the biggest backers of big government and were the ones responsible for deficits.

Factors other than economics have become more important in distinguishing between liberals and conservatives. The biggest division came during the Bush years as liberalism came to primarily mean opposition to the neoconservative foreign policy (including the Iraq war) and opposition to the increasing dominance of the religious right in the GOP. In past years Republicans would support the religious right by with their rhetoric. Once in office they would throw them a few small bones, and then laugh them off as the kooks of the party. Under Bush, the kooks took control and social issues increasingly defined left vs. right.

At present I would consider these factors to be the most important characteristics of liberalism compared to conservatism:

  1. Support for individual liberty
  2. Support for a market economy, including the regulations necessary for markets to work fairly and efficiently, as opposed to being corrupted to be used to transfer wealth to the ultra-wealthy
  3. Support for science and reason in interpreting the world and making policy decisions

Some on the left hold economic views which old time conservatives would not be comfortable with, but quite a few do not.

The Blogosphere vs. Barack Obama

I feel like the we have returned to the days of the 2008 Democratic Primary as a number of liberal bloggers (primarily but not entirely Clinton supporters) have spent the day bashing Obama. The latest round of this got underway with a blog post from Peter Daou (who worked for Hillary Clinton) and was picked up by the usual suspects. Others, such as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen, put the dispute into perspective, with Steve referring back to a recent post which outlined many of the liberal accomplishments under Obama which some on the left often ignore.

From a political perspective, Daou is overstating the problem when claiming that liberal bloggers such as “Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher” are “bringing down the Obama presidency.” Most people haven’t even heard of these bloggers, and polls have shown a very high level of support for Obama among liberals and traditional Democratic voters. Many liberals can handle acknowledging Obama’s accomplishments and showing some understanding of the political situation he is working in while also disagreeing on some issues.

On the other hand, we have seen a number of signs that this criticism is getting under Obama’s skin (along with that of close associates like David Axelrod). It is a safe bet that they are surprised by the amount of criticism they are receiving from those they expected support from. However to claim they are bringing down Obama is absurd. I think that Obama, as well as the Congressional Democrats, face far more problems due to the apathy towards voting from the average voter who is disillusioned by the slow progress on the economy than they are harmed by those who are upset by compromising of progressive principles.

This is not to say that all of those engaging in the Obama bashing today are sore losers among the Clintonistas or that there is no validity to their complaints. Those such as Glenn Greenwald who concentrate on civil liberties issues do have more to legitimately complain about. Even here a bit of perspective is needed from those who claim that Obama is worse than Bush. Obama is well aware that should there be another terrorist attack on his watch the right will blame it on any areas where they could argue Obama let up on the “war on terror.” This could easily result in a right wing backlash with greater restrictions on civil liberties.

It is of value for bloggers such as Greenwald to point out the problems with Obama’s policies but more of a sense of perspective is needed. Some of Obama’s decisions have been wrong, but we are hardly living in a dictatorial police state, or even in a state as bad as we would have under the Republicans as some on the far left claim. (It is also notable that the tea party supporters who attack Obama for a number of imaginary offenses have largely been silent on these issues).

I also could not help but think, seeing how many primary opponents of Obama are leading the attacks, that most likely either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would be far to the right of Barack Obama on these issues based upon their past records.

While advocates of a single payer system have many valid arguments, it was disappointing during the health care debate to see some such as Jane Hamsher distort the Democratic plan as dishonestly as was done by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Besides, there was zero chance that a single payer plan would pass.

Obama’s mistake here it was more on selling reform as opposed to the type of reform which was passed. The Democrats were delusional to think opposition to health care reform would vanish after passing it, especially when most of the benefits won’t be seen for a couple more years. I don’t buy the argument being made by some that initially pushing for an agenda which is further left would lead to more liberal results, but on health care I do believe that it could have affected public perception of the plan.

Obama antagonized many liberals for quickly shooting down any chance of a single payer plan and also played into the hands of Republicans who falsely claim that his plan represents a government takeover of health care. Imagine if Obama had started out saying there are basically four ideas which might be considered:

  1. “Socialized medicine” where there will be a government run health care system and government bureaucrats run the system.
  2. A single payer plan, like Medicare, in which government pays instead of private insurance companies, with health care facilities remaining in private hands.
  3. A mixed plan similar to the Republican counter-proposal to the Clinton health care plan with controls over what insurance companies could do, exchanges to promote sales of private plans, etc.
  4. Continuing the status quo where bureaucrats from the insurance companies often make the decisions and where many people are denied insurance coverage entirely.

Obama then could reject both socialized medicine and the status quo. When he ultimately went with #3 it would be more accurately framed as a moderate option to the status quo and not a radical plan. Maybe such framing would have even made it easier to push for the public option, which would still be a long way from the rejected choice of socialized medicine.