No Panaceas

Friday, March 07, 2003
Thanks for talking to us, but why?: Am I only the one who can't figure out why President Bush held that news conference last night? For a while now presidents have largely eschewed news conferences because they are high risk/low payoff events. That is, the chances of saying something damaging to the administration are much higher in a news conference than most other settings, short of a debate, that a president faces. In addition, the networks are no longer nearly so cooperative in giving up primetime space for speeches or news conferences, unless the event promises special significance. And each failure to deliver only exacerbates this problem.

Bush's performance was fine, but what was the significance? He said nothing, utterly nothing, that he hasn't said numerous times already in other settings. We really should refer to this as a newsless conference.

Was it scheduled to announce a major development on the Osama bin Laden front? Did this fall through, or, perhaps more likely, the White House decided at the last minute that it might be wise to hold back an announcement, thus leaving Bush holding a rather empty bag? Rumors about OBL's capture were everywhere yesterday, and this morning there are early reports of the capture of two of his sons.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003
Obstruction By Any Other Name: The Senate Republicans appear ready to move cloture against the Estrada filibuster. Assuming the media has the right vote count -- sometimes a big assumption -- the Republicans are well short of getting the necessary sixty votes. Especially with a pending war -- I predict April 2d -- I think time is pretty short for the Republicans to kill this thing.

One charge that Republican senators like Orrin Hatch, and Republican columnists like George Will, keep making is that this filibuster is unique. A further charge is that the Democrats are subverting the Constitution, and the intent of the framers, by holding Estrada’s confirmation up to a sixty vote standard. By this view, this filibuster constitutes a dangerous precedent. I want to come at this from several angles.

Is it unique? It depends on how you look at it. It is unique in the sense that a lower court nominee probably has never suffered an organized filibuster. Lower court. Probably. Organized. By lower I mean not the Supreme Court. Supreme Court nominees have faced filibusters, Abe Fortas most recently. By probably I mean, well, probably. Filibusters can be hard to define, especially as we go back in time, and there is not really an agreed upon master list of all attempted filibusters. By organized, I mean a concerted group of “willful men,” as Woodrow Wilson put it. Lone mavericks face little chance of successfully filibustering against a committed majority. At least one lone maverick has tried to filibuster lower court nominees. As political scientist Nancy Scherer points out, New Hampshire senator Robert Smith unsuccessfully filibustered two Clinton circuit nominees during the 106th Congress.

So, I think it is fair to say that we have never seen this type of filibuster before. Is it a dangerous precedent? Is it all that different than other, non-filibuster, types of obstruction? More later.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003
Terrorism in Another Age: While reading a biography of Sam Rayburn today I came across an incident that I had never heard about. In 1954 a group of Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor from the gallery. Five members were wounded. The incident led to the implementation of somewhat tighter security methods, but, according to the biography, Rayburn and then Speaker Joe Martin prevented the enclosure of the public galleries in bullet-proof glass.

Monday, March 03, 2003
I say, I say, them chickenhawks are feisty: One of the most striking charges against the Bush administration’s foreign policy is the “chickenhawk” insult. Namely, many of the biggest supporters of war against Iraq conveniently avoided military duty in Vietnam. Richard Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are mentioned most. Fellow administration travelers like Rush Limbaugh suffer similar abuse, as sometimes does President Bush, though here the charge is harder to make. There is even a Chickenhawk Database.

Much like “death tax” and “partial-birth abortion,” chickenhawk is a brilliant bit of political framing. It evokes powerful images of hypocrisy, incompetence, and absurdity. (Unfortunately – and I assume inadvertently – the term also evokes a particularly vile form of sexual predator.)

It also has clear elements of a circumstantial ad hominem. Which makes it just one more in the parade of false dichotomies, red herrings, slippery slopes and assorted other logical fallacies that composes much of the discourse over Iraq.

Yet, if we step away from the rhetoric and insults there is actually a substantive question here worth considering. Does it matter if a government is composed primarily of lifetime civilians versus military veterans? Does foreign policy differ?

Political scientists Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver just published a paper that gets at this question. “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick? Veterans in the Political Elite and the American Use of Force” is in the December, 2002 issue of the American Political Science Review. (I don’t know why it’s not getting talked about in the press, other than the obvious fact that only political scientists read the APSR. The actual article is only available on a subscription basis, but here is an earlier version of the paper.

They ask two simple questions: 1). Does the number of military veterans in the U.S. government affect the propensity of the U.S. to initiate militarized disputes with other nations?; and 2). Given a militarized dispute, does the severity of American action vary with the number of military veterans serving in the government? Looking over a long expanse of American history (1816-1992), they find that a veteran-laden government follows the Roosevelt adage, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” That is, these governments are less likely to initiate disputes, but once a dispute is underway the veterans use greater force to resolve the conflict.

I have several technical quibbles with their methods (which I’ll spare you), but overall it is a well-crafted, provocative piece of work. But let me be clear about what the article is not saying. It makes no claims about the quality of decisions being made, e.g., whether or not civilian-laden governments made “better” foreign policy decisions than veteran-laden governments. It simply demonstrates that a relationship exists.

Of course, you cannot read this article divorced from the current administration’s actions towards Iraq. While it would be fallacious to claim that Gelpi and Feaver's general finding proves anything about this specific case, the Bush administration’s policies carry the imprimatur of civilian policy wonks like Wolfowitz and Cheney, more so than it does veterans, especially war veterans, like Powell. How would things be different – for better or worse – if the dominant voices in the administration had first-hand war experience?