Thursday, July 30, 2009

Acting Stupidly

If you want to figure out what a politician is up to, pay attention to what he accuses his opponents of doing. Chances are, the accuser is probably doing it himself.

It is with that thought in mind that we take a look at President Barack Obama’s now infamous determination from afar that the police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “acted stupidly,” in arresting Harvard Professor, and Obama friend, Henry Louis Gates. The president has since re-calibrated that remark, offering in his pre-eminent law enforcement opinion that Gates should not have been arrested for verbally assaulting Sgt. James Crowley and causing a public scene in front of his home in protest of the police coming to protect him and his property from potential vandals.

But the “acting stupidly” comment still hangs over the incident and over the White House like a dark cloud. Obama put it there with his inability to restrain himself from commenting on the Gates affair at last week’s White House press conference. And in so eagerly labeling the Cambridge Police, Obama has unwittingly provided the lens through which to view his first six months as president. For the Obama Administration has been acting stupidly almost since the very first day of his presidency.

President Obama came into office with perhaps more political capital than any president in recent history. Following an administration and a president that had become widely – if unfairly – unpopular, Obama took the office after a campaign based on broad themes of hope and change. Americans of all ideologies earnestly hoped that the country would thrive under his leadership, even if like Rush Limbaugh they wished his more liberal policy initiatives to fail. Supported by a press corps heavily invested in his election and his Administration’s success, and coupled with enlarged Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a Republican minority looking for areas in which to cooperate with the popular new president, the young Administration had everything going for it.

Until it was time to govern.

The trouble began even before the inauguration with a series embarrassing tax problems for Administration nominees. Nominee after nominee was withdrawn for their failure to fully and completely pay their fair share, some might say their patriotic share, of income taxes. The most famous of these is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Others, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, survived their tax woes, with the support of the president. The entire episode, however, would have been avoidable were it not for a stupid oversight of the vetting committee. Just days after the inauguration, Obama was forced to admit, “I screwed up.”

On policy, the Obama Administration has acted no less stupidly than it did on personnel. President Obama’s guiding principle of his first 100 days in office can be summed up in this: If George W. Bush did it, it must be bad. Therefore I must undo it. There doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. From reversing the ban on funding of family planning groups that counsel and conduct abortions overseas to ordering the closing of the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the first weeks of the Administration were characterized by a reflexive rejection of any and every policy instituted by the Bush administration.

Particularly in the case of Guantanamo Bay, the Administration has come to regret those heady days of its youth, when all Obama had to do was be the anti-Bush to win plaudits from his sycophantic press corps. Guantanamo has turned out to be thorny issue, on which Obama has had to eat his words. Not long after declaring that the prison would close within a year, Obama has had to admit that some of the detainees would have to remain incarcerated indefinitely, without charge or trial. It was unquestionably stupid of Obama to issue a definitive proclamation on the fate of the prison without considering the real world consequences of that decision, and he has been burned for it.

Legislatively, Obama has not fared much better, either. On his signature program to date, the economic stimulus bill, President Obama allowed the appropriators in Congress to write the bill with little guidance from the White House. The predictable result was a bill so laden with such obviously wasteful spending items, that Republicans were able to coalesce almost unanimously against it. But the real stupidity on the part of the Administration came when Obama invited Congressional Republicans to the White House for negotiations on the package. Instead of paying lip service to Republican concerns and perhaps throwing them a bone or two, in the spirit of bipartisanship, Obama stupidly and arrogantly dismissed Republicans with a curt “I won.”

The insult galvanized opposition to the bill and resulted in not one single Republican member of the House voting for it. Similarly, only three liberal Senate Republicans sided with the Administration on passage of the measure, and one of those is now a Democrat. Now that the stimulus bill is not working as advertised and the economy has gotten worse not better, there are only Democrats and the Administration to blame. Republicans have been so emboldened by their successful opposition that some are openly speculating that the GOP can take back the House in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Now comes the health care debate, and President Obama is displaying the hallmark of truly stupid behavior: the refusal to learn from one’s mistakes. Obama has once again allowed Congress to write the legislation with little guidance and the resulting bills have been disasters. Republicans are once again united in opposition while Democrats are fractured along ideological lines. As with the stimulus, the Administration has rejected all Republican initiatives on health care reform, to the point of claiming that Republicans have not offered a plan of their own.

As public support for the plan has cratered, the Obama Administration has panicked, insisting on an August recess deadline for passage of a plan and exposing the legislation’s Achilles Heel. Republicans have been successful at forcing Democrats to miss that deadline, and are on the precipice of killing the plan outright.

Meanwhile, Obama has only made things worse, holding his disastrous prime-time press conference at which he stupidly decided to weigh in on a minor law enforcement matter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Incredibly, unable to admit his mistake, Obama first doubled down on his remarks, then invited Crowley and Gates to the White House for a beer, thereby guaranteeing another week of bad press from the incident.

There are more examples - the much-hyped lobbyist ban that the White House broke the very next day after the president signed it comes to mind – but the point is clear. Any of these stumbles on their own might be chalked up to the growing pains that accompany a transition of power. But all of them taken together, and in such a relatively short time, could be said to constitute stupidity in governance. The next time President Obama is tempted to label a public servant’s actions as stupid, he would do better to look a little closer to home.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sotomayor's Discriminating Defense

President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, has been deservedly criticized for her stated belief that minority judges make better decisions than “white males” because of their race, gender, ethnicity, and life experiences. The remark, repeated by Sotomayor in near identical form in speech after speech, has raised questions about her ability to be fair and impartial on the bench.

Surprisingly less criticized has been Sotomayor’s defense of her membership in an exclusive women’s club, The Belizean Grove. A little over two weeks ago, Sotomayor responded to questions from Senators about the group with an answer that made even her champions at the New York Times blush. Sotomayor said that her membership in the all-female group was appropriate because the group did not “invidiously discriminate” against men.

“I am a member of the Belizean Grove, a private organization of female professionals from the profit, nonprofit and social sectors. The organization does not invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex. Men are involved in its activities — they participate in trips, host events and speak at functions — but to the best of my knowledge, a man has never asked to be considered for membership.”

The Times pointed out that the group’s own website does not agree with Sotomayor’s characterization, describing the group as a, “constellation of influential women,” and seemingly containing no mention of any roles for men. Like her explanation of her racial comments, Sotomayor’s defense of her membership raises more questions than answers.

Those questions could be fertile ground for Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to plow at Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, which begin July 13. According to the group, The Belizean Grove’s members strive to form “mutually-beneficial relationships.” Republicans should pursue the notion that a sitting federal judge has no business belonging to such a group.

Senators might ask the nominee just how, if at all, members of the group could have expected to benefit from her membership. Did Sotomayor perform any favors for her sister members in her professional capacity as a supposedly impartial judge? Did she hear cases in which members of the group, their businesses, or their employers had an interest? Did she recuse herself from any case in which a member of the group had an interest? Why or why not?

Sotomayor’s membership in the group, even if it resulted in no tangible benefit to her fellow members, is a shocking case of poor professional judgment. The fact that, her interpretation notwithstanding, the group clearly discriminates on the basis of sex is bad enough. But for a federal judge to give the appearance that she is seeking to benefit from her position should be disqualifying. To paraphrase a famous alleged federal office broker, it is as if Judge Sotomayor believed that a federal judgeship is a valuable thing, and she was determined to make the most of it.

The Sotomayor nomination has largely fallen off the radar screen for the mainstream press. Even the Supreme Court’s reversal of her decision in Ricci v. DeStefano this week received only passing mentions and not very much detailed analysis of her original decision. The lull in coverage has served Sotomayor’s interest, as the public has not been exposed to a daily drumbeat of criticism of her nomination. It will be up to Republicans then to give her a thorough examination at her conformation hearings. Sotomayor’s Belizean Grove membership, her inability to recognize the discriminatory nature of the group’s membership policy, and the potential for conflict between her membership and her professional duties should all be explored in detail.