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.

Battles On The Left Over Kagan

While I’m not exactly excited by the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, I do not see this decision as worth the amount of controversy on the left as it has been receiving. The two major sources attacking the nomination have been Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald. After the health care debate I’ve given up reading anything coming from Hamsher after seeing how she engages in exactly the same type of distortions as Glenn Beck and other right wing pundits. Greenwald has done enough worthwhile work for me to continue to take him seriously, and much of his criticism of Obama is valid, even if he sometimes loses perspective. He does lose me when he breaks into nonsense comparing Obama to Bush. Both have some things in common, including both being featherless bipeds, but it is their major differences which are far more significant.

Glenn Greenwald and Lawrence Lessig are engaged in quite a dispute over the Kagan nomination and each other’s integrity. The links on each of their name presents their side of the dispute while McJoan at Daily Kos has a play by play analysis. Personally I think that the fine points of this debate will soon be forgotten as we are faced with the various arguments coming from the right wing noise machine as to why Kagan is the most liberal person to have ever been nominated to the Supreme Court. I agree with Steve M. on this:

Part of my frustration with Firebagging in general is that progressives simply lack the muscle to drag not just the administration but Congress and the country all that far to the left by sheer force of will, and Firebaggers don’t seem to understand that. Unlike the teabaggers, we don’t have a multimedia news organization at our disposal that’s endlessly fed money by hit Hollywood movies. We haven’t had a Wurlitzer in operation for thirty years persuading the mainstream press that attention must be paid to us because we’re the really really authentic Americans. Our propagandists don’t dominate AM radio on every square mile of U.S. territory. We haven’t even begun the work of persuading — not hectoring, but persuading — heartland swing voters that our ideas aren’t scary, aren’t hostile to American values, and in fact are in sync with their values. We certainly haven’t persuaded enough to heartland voters to make heartland members of the House and Senate sit up and take notice, the way they carefully notice whether they’re protecting their right flanks.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to get our message across. We’re not going to get there by regularly joining right-wingers in Obama pile-ons.

So yeah, regarding the administration, I’ll keep grumbling. But I’m not going to support any move that dilutes what little power we have (and I’m not joking when I say “little power,” because even with huge congressional majorities and the White House, too much of the country is still under a Reagan/Limbaugh/Murdoch spell, and too many congressional Democrats are cowardly as a result). If you know how to get big leftward shifts to happen, really, go for it. If all you know how to do is demand them, I might take your point, but I’m going to object that you don’t have a plan.

Mixed Views From Both Left And Right On Kagan Nomination

News of the choice of Elena Kagan to be Barack Obama’s second appointee to the Supreme Court neither has me terribly upset or very excited. Presumably this is the type of reaction which was desired by choosing someone without a very strong, or controversial, public record.

There is mixed response on both the right and the left. There are already a number of falsehoods being spread, with Media Matters debunking a long list of  myths. The Volokh Conspiracy has some preliminary thoughts which show, while doubting the claims by some on the left that Kagan is a closet conservative, she is probably the best conservatives and libertarians can hope for. Ilya Somin believes that while Kagan is a liberal she has shown openness to non-liberal views. She also writes this,  disagreeing with some of the claims coming from others on the right:

While I won’t argue the point in detail here, I think Elena Kagan clearly has the necessary professional qualifications for the job (I thought that Sotomayor did too). She was a successful dean of Harvard Law School and a respected though not pathbreaking legal scholar. She also has a record of service in important Justice Department positions, including most recently as Solicitor General (the official responsible for arguing the federal government’s position before the Supreme Court). I don’t think that Kagan is the best-qualified possible nominee. Very few Supreme Court nominees are, since (to understate the point) it is not a purely merit-based process. But she does have at least the minimum necessary credentials. Comparisons to Harriet Miers are, I think, off-base.

Kagan’s openness to non-liberal views can be a virtue but also opens her to attacks from some liberals. Glenn Greenwald has outlined the criticism of her from the left. The issue of greatest concern to both liberals and libertarians is her view on presidential power. Radley Balko of Reason writes:

She’s a cerebral academic who fits Washington’s definition of a centrist: She’s likely defer to government on both civil liberties and regulatory and commerce issues. And though libertarians allegedly share ground with Republicans on fiscal and regulatory issues and with Democrats on civil liberties issues, neither party cares enough about those particular issues to put up a fight for them. Which is why Kagan sailed through her first confirmation hearings, and is widely predicted to sail through the hearings for her nomination to the Supreme Court.

Justice Stevens’ reputation as a stalwart defender of civil liberties was probably overstated. Which makes it all the more disappointing that Obama’s choice to replace him will almost certainly make the Court even less sympathetic to the rights of the accused. And taken with Obama’s decision to replace Justice Souter with Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor with a “tough on crime” reputation, the candidate who touted his days as a community organizer for the powerless and dispossessed and who decried the criminal justice system’s disproportionately harmful treatment of minorities and the poor during the campaign will now almost certainly leave the Supreme Court more law enforcement-friendly and more hostile to criminal defendants than he found it.

While I would prefer a nominee who has a strong record on civil liberties issues I’m not certain there is cause to panic. Kagan has spent her time in government in the executive branch and does appear to see matters more from their perspective, but this could change as she works in a separate branch of government. Kagan’s job as Solicitor General is to argue the position of the administration but her views as a judge might not necessarily be the same. I also hope that her experience as Solicitor General has also led her to see the weakness of some administration arguments, even if she could not act upon this in her current position.

There has also been speculation as to how the appointment will affect efforts at marriage equality. William Jacobson discusses her view that, “There is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.” This does not mean she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, but that she might be unlikely to support judicial as opposed to legislative efforts to achieve this goal.

While immediate attacks from the right wing blogs were anticipated, it remains unclear as to whether the Republican Party will try very hard to block her nomination.  Seven Republican Senators did vote to confirm Kagan to be Solicitor General.   However Bob Schieffer believes that Republicans will wage a vicious fight in light of the current degree of polarization. He calls this an “especially toxic election year” as the far right members of the tea party movement are out to purge even conservative Republicans from the GOP for not being conservative enough. He believes  “you will see some Republican Senators, moderates, giving very careful consideration to their vote on Elena Kagan. In a way, a vote against her would be ‘Tea Party insurance,’ to let people know that they’re moving to the right.”