Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Review of the Candidates, from Paul to Clinton


Last night saw Avery Knapp hosting a Ron Paul presidential campaign party at the New York campaign’s HQ, 515 W. 29th St., perhaps-fittingly in a building that used to be a sex club and turned out to be located on the most decadent block in New York City, 29th west of 10th Avenue. And I don’t say decadent because the rest of it is full of porn or sex clubs (for that you need 42nd St. pre-Giuliani) but because it’s a strip of youth-filled bars so boisterous that at night it’s closely watched by cops standing behind traffic barriers, as drunken young people stumble home from what an angry Curtis Sliwa once referred to, rather quaintly, as “gin mills.” I remembering looking at that block one night, coincidentally, and thinking that it looked like the opposite of a libertarian society: irresponsible individuals plus an authoritarian police presence. But I hope the Ron Paul signs around that one door will now help make the neighborhood a bit more respectable.

The diversity of the Ron Paul movement is an encouraging sign, by the way, and a more moderate but equally diverse version of the movement might be the route to victory someday, making libertarianism the hybrid “middle” of American politics instead of a fringe — which is why I was a bit enthusiastic about Jesse Ventura when he first arose as a political figure, somewhat libertarian in spirit but too ordinary a mind to get frighteningly ideological, which may be the slightly-mushy formula America ultimately needs: a more-culturally-flexible version of conservatism, or “conservatism for punks,” if you will, rather than a precise economic creed that few will ever learn or love.

But in the meantime: Last night’s party was organized to celebrate today’s “Ron Paul Tea Party,” the latest Paul fundraising stunt, in which supporters hope to break the one-day fundraising record for a presidential candidate that they set back on November 5, the earlier one-day stunt helping to give Paul his boost in the polls from a meager 1% or so to his current non-dominant but respectable 8% or so. Pour the resulting money — including some of yours, if you care to donate — into an ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire, produce a surprise outcome in the early-January primaries there, and perhaps Paul will become more than a footnote. (Iowa likes Christian pro-life politicians, after all, and New Hampshire likes humble, libertarian candidates who want to keep taxes low and keep the state out of your life, so they all ought to vote for Paul.)

If no surprise occurs by that point, of course, it’s time for me to survey (with no small amount of horror) the rest of the candidate field and, while not necessarily picking one to enthuse about (one really shouldn’t enthuse about them), at least mull the better and worse plausible outcomes, if only to give myself something to feel anxiety about. Here are some thoughts, then, about all the still-viable candidates who aren’t Ron Paul, of which I count five now:


I’m pleased to see National Review’s Rich Lowry continue the NR crowd’s criticism of Huckabee, and it will be interesting if Huckabee actually becomes president with so little enthusiasm — perhaps an unprecedented lack of enthusiasm — from America’s flagship conservative magazine. (The Weekly Standard supported McCain at one point in 2000, rightly seeing him as the most TR-like, progressive/bold-projects-oriented Republican presidential candidate, but they’ve been pro-Bush ever since 9/11 caused Bush to have “national greatness” foisted upon him.)

Maybe Arkansas is the problem. I’m not the only one who finds himself most dreading the twin possibilities of Dem Hillary and GOP Huckabee becoming president, both of them plagued by financial ethics-violation charges over the years and both of them alarmingly and self-servingly flexible about their purported principles — even while being wrong about many of the things they stick to resolutely. It’s funny how the “New York” race of Hillary vs. Rudy could so easily become an “Arkansas” race of Hillary vs. Huckabee, and you have to think that would change the way Hillary talked about her past. To some extent, the record of how America fared under Bill Clinton vs. the somewhat Giuliani-like Bush would become a less useful point of comparison than how Arkansas fared under Bill Clinton vs. Huckabee as governor — yet who cares about those details? (My apologies to Arkansas state rep. Dan Greenberg.)

Since despair and inaction are rarely the right responses to circumstances (a utilitarian is obliged to keep seeking a way to make an unhappy situation yield long-term increases in happiness), I must add that if Huckabee is our next president, the entire focus of the center-right-libertarian coalition should be on holding him to his half-baked tax reform plan and — this is crucial — making sure that the part about abolishing the IRS, the existing tax code, and withholding happens before the imposition of a national sales tax (a.k.a. “FairTax,” though even to me it seems a tad regressive, more so than a flat tax, which always exempted people at the bottom in Steve Forbes’ formulation anyway — not that that stopped an ostensibly objective CBS News report from calling his plan “wacky,” despite the flat tax taking little flack when Democrat Jerry Brown was pushing it four years earlier).

If Huckabee actually scrapped the tax code, he could end up being the best friend freedom has had in the Oval Office since Coolidge (and would get a lot of cheers from Ron Paul supporters). But Huckabee doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt, no advance cheerleading — he actually has to accomplish this massive thing before I view him as anything more than our latest national problem.

At this juncture, focusing on SocSec or Medicare reform — or any other budget cuts — would make more immediate fiscal sense, but the IRS has to go at some point, so now’s the time, President Huckabee, unless of course you’re just a faddish demagogue or a lying con artist.


My anarchist political-junkie friend Michael Malice (who’ll speak to us at Lolita Bar on Jan. 2 about Ultimate Fighting, which McCain, incidentally, crusaded to outlaw) may have been right, according to some recent polls, when he predicted that Huckabee’s rise (as a religious-right candidate) would hurt Romney most. Huckabee, after all, is rising mostly as an alternative to pro-choice Giuliani, and GOP voters don’t really need more than one not-Giuliani candidate. I’m starting to wish they didn’t even have one not-Giuliani candidate, though, since I think he’d bring about a welcome secularist shift within the GOP (even Lowry from religion-friendly NR framed his criticism of Huckabee partly as a criticism of conservatives who focus solely on religion). And I think that absent a religious-right candidate, GOP voters actually would suck it up and vote for the tough-on-crime, tough-on-liberal-foes, terrorist-hating Giuliani, which would be good practice for them for facing what I hope will prove an increasingly secular future.


If Romney, endorsed as a sort of strategic compromise between religiosity and sanity by NR, becomes president, I am not at all worried that he would prove overly religious, though. If part of your own base is troubled by the fact that you’re a Mormon, you could keep throwing them bones (of Christ), but surely it’d be far safer to just avoid ever doing anything that reminded them you’re a Mormon. Stick to secular topics. And on those topics, Romney would be fairly sane. Not that I think Mormonism is substantially nuttier than other branches of Christianity — and it is a branch of Christianity, unless your definition of “Christian” is so narrow that even people who think Jesus is God and rose from the dead to offer us eternal life don’t count as Christians, which I have to say seems a tad narrow-minded to those of us who are completely outside Christianity — sort of like insisting that a woman who says Allah is the One God and Mohammed the most important prophet is not a Muslim if she doesn’t wear a veil. So, the Mormons think an angel talked to a nineteenth-century American and that we each get our own private universe after we die if we’ve been good, big deal — like Catholicism isn’t weird?


Despite the delight that some Democrats take in seeing Obama’s rise in the polls, I still think the odds are that Hillary Clinton will be our next president — and it’s interesting that many Republicans I know think so, too, while many of the Democrats I know, more prone to see the bulk of the American population as sexists and racists, don’t think either Obama or Clinton could prevail in the general election. Yet these Dems are rooting for them anyway, which I suppose is admirable. (I wonder who NR would have endorsed had they not explicitly deployed a formula for picking the “most-conservative viable” candidate [that is, electable at both the primary and general phase] and instead just followed their non-strategic, principled preferences — perhaps Giuliani, though I argued on it really ought to be Paul unless only hawkishness matters to GOP voters now — Paul fitting in more perfectly with NR’s stated domestic-policy principles than any other candidate.)

I do not want to dismiss the legacy of racism and sexism in the world, and (as I’ve been told several times in the past few months) I probably don’t say often enough that (at least some forms of) racism and sexism are precisely the sort of cultural problems that (unless one is excessively value-neutral and relativist in one’s endorsement of market outcomes) free individuals ought to work to combat, in ways that clearly render state solutions unnecessary (in the same way that properly-functioning charity and social networks eliminate the need for a welfare state). Having said that, though, can we all agree in advance that if perchance America actually elects a black president and female vice president (or vice versa), we are allowed to beat ourselves up about our history of racism and sexism at least a little less? I know it’s easy for me, born in 1969, to act like Jim Crow laws and the absence of women from the workplace are ancient historical phenomena — and that in doing so, I’m being as myopic as a teen who thinks the Cold War is ancient history because he was lucky enough to be born after 1989 — but times really do change, sometimes with surprising speed (picture New York City in 1907).

As for Obama’s policy ideas, mostly small-step advances in liberalism, they strike me as suggesting that Obama is in some ways more like Bill Clinton than Hillary is. Bill and Obama like a grab-bag of crowd-pleasing programs, while Hillary, I fear, has a vision.


I’ll say this for the Clintons — and we would presumably be “re-electing” them, not merely electing her, make no mistake — for all my griping about them and my rage at her effort to nationalize a seventh of the economy with her old healthcare plan, they (or at least Bill) always had the goal of making America fit comfortably into an emerging global, commercial order (even lefty Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s emphasis on worker retraining was born of the belief that readiness for global markets is the only way forward), as befits Democratic Leadership Council-affiliated quasi-moderates.

And libertarians, too, want a global, commercial order in which trade matters more than war, cultural isolation, and religious conflict. So in some broad sense the Clintonites and free-marketeers are on the same page (witness the rare former Clinton intern turned libertarian who was one of our debaters at Lolita Bar two weeks ago). I doubt historians a thousand years from now will even be able to tell Clintonites and libertarians apart — any more than most Americans today understand why the status of the central bank was the most divisive issue other than slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S.

My friend Richard Ryan — finance-sector-savvy yet solidly on the left and arrested in various political protests over the years — has long said that he feels like Western civilization is sloppily beginning to approximate what he regards as the political ideal, vibrant capitalism with a welfare state sitting unobtrusively atop it, but that no one besides him (and perhaps a lot of Europeans) is really articulating a philosophy that celebrates that two-tiered mixed-economy outcome.

There are different ways of reconciling oneself mentally to servitude, and I suppose if a libertarian like Jacob Levy can comfortably see himself as part of the liberal tradition (broadly defined) and Nick Gillespie is content to view libertarianism as a sort of “marinade” to be added to the concoctions of the left and right rather than a philosophy capable of becoming dominant itself at this point in history, perhaps I can avoid despair if Hillary Clinton is our next president by reminding myself that at least we still live in a very commerce-driven, investor-pleasing world, which is good.

Then again…I have long thought the cold-blooded Hillary is more ideological than her jovial, approval-seeking husband, and as I’ve learned from Jonah Goldberg’s impending book Liberal Fascism (which I’ll review on this site next week as my Book Selection of the Month), she is no mere emotionless, unphilosophical bean-counter but rather a woman schooled since an early age in a religious-left outlook that requires approaching earthly reforms with zeal and forging a sense of community centered on government (what Bill called “The New Covenant” back in 1992, as I’ll recount in this coming Friday’s Retro-Journal entry), a politicized, nation-sized version of community that nonetheless rivals the closeness of a religious sect or, if you will, a village.

That’s a problem, and it may well mean that regardless of whether we get the right-wing Arkansan or the left-wing Arkansan in the White House, we are about to see a huge upsurge in gooey-religious rhetoric being used to cover the welfare state and government in general with the public’s adoration. If so, in the U.S. as in the Middle East, we’ll have achieved the unholy union of love of God and love of government, in some sense a worst-case scenario from my atheist-anarchist (albeit bourgeois and moderate) perspective.

Real Christians know coercion deforms character, though, and libertarians (like Ron Paul) know that the state is systematic coercion, not a village or family, so if — as I expect — Hillary (after getting the nomination) reveals a surprising willingness to talk about Jesus just as much as Huckabee does, be worried about where we’re headed.

And with that, I’m off to a Hanukkah party that’ll probably feature as guests some New York Times contributors who don’t yet realize they face the prospect of choosing between rival socialist Jesus freaks come 2008. (Unless Paul gets a lot of donations, of course.) I’ll finish reading “The Call of Cthulhu” on the way there on the subway, worrying about what horrible future slouches our way.


Jesus|Freak said...

I like Obama’s website and his platform. He said that he cannot coerce people and impose his faith on them. Huckabee wants to impose Christianity on people, which is wrong. That is the wrong way to go about things. We as Christians must pray for people to change. Only God can do that. We can’t legislate morality. As a Chistian I support things like civil rights no matter who you are, net neutrality and digital freedom. I also support helping the needy among us, something the right ignores. Huckabee even apologized about a comment he made about mormons, which shows that he and the rest of the GOP uses Christians for their vote and then enriches the rich.


Xine said...

“sort of like insisting that a woman who says Allah is the One God and Mohammed the most important prophet is not a Muslim if she doesn’t wear a veil.”

Sorry, Todd, but that analogy is completely wrong.

The difference between Mormonism and all forms of Christianity is radically theological, and is not simply a fussy matter of practice and minor differences in belief. Fundamentally, Mormonism is both an implicit and explicit denial of the New Testament — whether one reads the NT as literalist freak or dispassionate historicist — as well as of eighteen centuries of Christian tradition that, despite several differences in ecclesiology, liturgy, and even certain points of theology, still agreed on the basics of Christian doctrine (centered in Jesus’s life, death, and claimed resurrection passed on in oral tradition and then recounted in the Gospels). Mormonism deviates from both strands (text and tradition) so radically as indeed to be a distinct religion. If you want to argue that it’s “really” part of Christianity, then you’ll have to acknowledge that within Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox theology, it would only be claimed as heresy.

Yes, you outside of Christianity may see both Mormonism and Christianity as having equally silly beliefs, and may conclude that Mormonism is only tossing on a few extra silly beliefs. But saying that therefore Mormonism is Christianity is as foolish as saying Christianity *is* Wicca because they’re both boneheaded. Surely you’re not saying this. But if you’re not saying this, on what possible grounds are you arguing that Mormonism is a branch of Christianity? What would you say to someone who called himself a libertarian, but argued energetically that this meant supporting socialized medicine and expanded welfare, because that’s what, say, John Locke really advocated in texts he wrote that were unknown in his life and were discovered in the 1950s?

A better analogy: saying that Mormonism is not Christianity is sort of like insisting that a woman who says Allah is the One God and Mohammed the most important prophet is not a Muslim… if she also claims that Muhammed after his death flew on a UFO to Antarctica and battled eight-foot-tall walking sea monkeys.

(Wait…that’s Kucinich!)

Or, to look at it another way, your position here is like a good Roman pagan in the year 60 AD–arguing blithely to Jews horrified over the crazy claims of a handful of people claiming an executed carpenter was their messiah, and kicking them out of synagogues for their offensive blasphemy, that they should cool it–and realize that Jews and “Christians” were the same religion, with only minor technical differences.

Todd Seavey said...

OK, so from your many words I draw the lesson that you think the answer to the question “Is Mormonism Christianity?” is…no. You didn’t really get as far as the “Because they believe…” part, though maybe your typing fingers got tired. But given that you know, better than I, how many branches — now thought heretical (by most or some) — Christianity has actually had over the centuries and around the world, with varying beliefs held strongly by their adherents and deemed apocryphal by others, would you care to explain which precise Mormon beliefs _cancel out_ their belief in the divinity of Christ, which I’d think would count for something, and cast them out of the fold?

And as a non-Christian yourself (last time you made a statement on such matters), don’t you think you could take a slightly looser view of “brand identity” here than the true believers? Obviously, there are Protestants who don’t think Catholics are real Christians and (at least in the past) many Catholics who regarded Protestants as heretics, but we tend today to view such exclusionists as boneheads, so why not take a similarly dim view of those who think Christianity ceases to be Christianity once a little thing like a UFO or a new angel is introduced?

I would have thought the faith more robust than that, regardless of my own lack of belief in it. Where exactly do Mormons cross the line — and would most Christians say Jesus stops accepting their worship and love once they start talking about the UFO?

Koli said...

To many thoughtful people, Jews and Christians _are_ of the same religion with an arguably minor technical difference. Messianic Judaism accepts the divinity of Christ, for example. On the other hand, some Protestants and Catholics see each other as idolaters or heretics based on differences that to them are not minor or technical.

So the issue as to which tenets fundamentally “define” Christianity might just be open. But to those who think religion is myth, this debate sounds a little like this Onion piece Todd once sent me.

Xine said...

Are you seriously asking me to explain the theological and historical differences between Mormons and Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Xns? I’m happy to do so, but I just assumed you knew this already.

Acknowledging the radical diversity within Christianity is not, in fact, the same thing as believing that “the issue as to which tenets fundamentally ‘define’ Christianity might just be open.” The ecumenical movement in which the major branches all participate to varying degrees is premised upon the fact that despite differences — yes, potentially mutually heretical, but by definition still *inside*– all are united in historical continuity and a core of incarnational, redemptive, Trinitarian belief–and that the fount of this belief is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ *as recounted in the Gospels*. Again, this is where the Mormons take the bypass.

And those who think that debating — or caring about — the differences between Mormonism and Christianity is just as fatuous as debating the Green Lantern may then sit back and enjoy with detached bemusement the voting choices of American Evangelicals who are generally reluctant to shift their support to a candidate who, they are told, thinks that Jesus and Satan are brothers.

But those of us who live, say, in the Carolinas can’t approach the political choices of Evangelicals with such enlightened hilarity.

Todd Seavey said...

Sorry, Christine, I really meant to confess ignorance more than claim knowledge, but with the possible fate of the republic riding on it, can you please give us some sort of two-sentence reason that Mormons are disqualified from that broader Christian tradition? Why are they not merely heretical, say, rather than _non-Christian_? If they claim to be Christians and go on about Jesus granting them eternal life, you have to at least admit that makes them seem very, shall we say, _non-Zoroastrian_, for example.

(And who are you rooting for for president, if this Ron Paul thing doesn’t work out, by the way? You must find it very interesting that many GOP voters are flocking to Huckabee the minister while flagship conservative magazine _National Review_ has, by your standards, endorsed a non-Christian for president [perhaps a good precedent, regardless of whether he'd be a good president].)

Xine said...

One reason–to Mormons, the Old and New Testaments do not complete the authoritative, textual revelation of God’s communication with humans. The “revelation” of the golden plates discovered and translated by Joseph Smith as the Book of Mormon (with the assistance of the two decoder-stones Urim and Thummim) is, together with the Bible, the fulfillment of that message.

Although Catholics and Protestants generally disagree on the utility and legitimacy of consulting the texts known as Biblical Apocrypha, I think most C/P/O would argue (for lots of reasons) that this is a different issue than Smith’s positing the wholesale discovery of a new authoritative text mystically “translated” by him.

Todd Seavey said...

Still seems like “Christianity _plus_” to me, though, rather than “non-Christianity.” Ditto the Christian Science church, which (I think) simply adds their Mary Baker Eddy-influenced unique beliefs about prayer and faith altering physical reality to the more traditional Christian beliefs. Are they (despite the name) also out of the fold?

Eric Dondero said...

You should have stayed enthusiastic about Jesse Ventura. He would have made a 10 times better representative of our libertarian movement in this Presidential race than the loopey Ron Paul.

Now we find out that Paul had two photos taken of him with Nazi Storm Trooper Front leader Don Black in South Florida back in September. Not something that’s going to be helpful to our efforts in convinceing mainstream Americans that libertarians aren’t fringe.

Bring back Ventura!!

Todd Seavey said...

As Paul has explained, Black simply said he was a fan — and he doesn’t obviously _look_ like he must be a Nazi — and briefly posed (with his son) next to Paul, who has also said he’s delighted Black will have $500 less to promote white supremacy due to his donation, which you know won’t change Ron Paul’s philosophy a bit. Likewise, Greenpeace is more than welcome to give me a $500 contribution and see if it makes me anti-biotech.

But if we’re sinking to this level of guilt-by-association, Eric, surely photos of _you_ with Ron Paul exist from your days on his staff, so I take it we can start calling you a Nazi now, too, right? Maybe Paul, a la Sideshow Bob, should try to discredit you in your Texas race to unseat him for the House by releasing photos of you consorting with him (“Troublingly, Eric Dondero has worked for Ron Paul, known associate of white supremacists — vote Ron Paul for Congress”).

As for me, I’ll vote for Ron Paul on Feb. 5, a.k.a. Super Duper Tuesday, after which I imagine the GOP field will have been winnowed somewhat.