Balkinization  

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thoughts on John McCain as our constitutional dictator

Sandy Levinson

I have been arguing, of course, that we should recognize the extent to which we are in the process of selecting someone to serve in an office that on occasion will take on overtones of "constitutional dictatorship": decisions may have to be made in relatively short order with extremely significant consequences, including in some cases life and death, for others. There are no clear criteria for selecting who is fit for that high office. At the end of the day, one is inevitably going to have to rely on hunches about temperment and judgment when selecting who is best fit to serve as our "constitutional dictator."

It surely will surprise no one to learn that I believe that John McCain has revealed even more why no one should look with equanimity at the prospect of his becoming our potential constitutional dictator. I repeat the final paragraph of the George Will column I quoted a couple of days ago:

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?
If one needs further proof of what is most scary about John McCain , it is provided by his grandstanding yesterday and today. The reason for my concern is linked to my previous post about the non-"authority" of George W. Bush. Well, folks, the same is true of both McCain and Obama, as a matter of fact. Neither of them has anything whatsoever to contribute to the negotiations going on right now, at least if one takes seriously the repeated argument that we are in a crisis that demands an immediate solution, and that the solution should be hammered out by people who really know what they're talking about (and are not engaged in crass political calculation). John McCain, by his own admission, knows very little about economics in general and, I am confident, about complex financial institutions in particular. His only contact with them was as a participant in the corruption generated by Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings. So, if we assume that the negotiations involve knowledgeable people, including Paulson, Bernanke, Barney Frank, Charles Shumer, and others, including, no doubt, Republican representatives and senators, McCain has nothing userful to add. Obama has many, many strengths, but I am not aware that knowledge of the intricacies of financial institutions is one of them. So Obama has nothing useful to add. It is as if one asked them their views about whether the new super-collider in Switzerland should shut down several months in order to engage in relevant repairs. There are people who know the answer, or at least the range of probabilities of different courses of conduct, but I am absolutely confident that neither McCain nor Obama is one of them. Both totally lack what philosophers call "epistemic authority," i.e., relavent knowledge about the topic under discussion. And that is true about the delicacies of responding to the ostensible financial crisis.

Only one of the two candidates insisted on flying down to Washington and potentially hijacking the negotiations while depriving the public of an opportunity to see him answer relevant questions in the presence of his opponent. The other, as is appropriate, waited to be asked and accepted the President's invitation. If John McCain had a horse, he would have ridden it to Washington (after chatting with Katie Couric instead of keeping his date with David Letterman) and fully revealed his caesarist persona. Both, of course, can say that the proposed deal(s) threaten to wreck their presidencies, which is an interesting and important political observation, but it is irrelevant to resolving the present crisis, IF one believes there really is a crisis. If the entire future of the American economy is at stake, then, to paraphrase John Kennedy, we must be prepared to pay any price, including condemning lots of children to inadequate medical care in the future. If, of course, one believes that there are elements of hype in the description of the oncoming "cataclysm," that's another matter entirely, and those who believe that should explain to the public--and not to their colleagues around a negotiating table--why that is the case.

If it was relevant to have people from the McCain and Obama campaigns there, they should have been their leading economic advisers, who presumably have some epistemic authority. Otherwise, they could answer at the debate--assuming that McCain is not simply a coward who will do whatever he can to avoid answering tough questions (beginning with his "country first" rationale for naming Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from succeeding a 72-year-old torture and cancer survivor)--what they see as the consequences for their presidencies of whatever deal might have been accepted (or the consequences if no deal is reached). Will McCain really continue to argue that he can cut taxes while the US takes on $700 billion of new commitments? Would any person take him seriously if he did? For that matter, can Obama really believe that these new commitments won't require increasing taxes on at least some people who make less than $250,000/year? These are questions that the public very much is entitled to know.

Barack Obama has taken some heat for being "prematurely presidential" by going to Europe and receiving the acclaim of millions. But John McCain has behaved in a far more ominous "prematurely presidential" way by forgetting that he has not yet been elected to the office and that he does not know enough to contribute usefully to the discussions. This is both shameful and shameless. But, as I asked before, does the man even know any more what honor and shame are about, in his zeal to achieve his lifetime ambition of becoming President, whatever it takes?

Yes, this is a rant, but, yes, I'm angry and depressed at the debasement of our politics that are now indelibly associated with the McCain campaign. He once promised something quite different. Was he always a fraud, or has this developed only late in his 72-year life when consumed by ambition?

UPDATE: The New York Times has just posted a story on the potential stalling of the bailout, in large part because of revolt by House Republicans. Key paragraphs include:

“My hope is that we can get a deal,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, hours after House and Senate negotiators had announced that an accord was at hand. President Bush had hoped that an agreement could be announced after the late-afternoon meeting.

Mr. Dodd, looking tired and annoyed, complained that the late complications were making the episode sound more like “a rescue plan for John McCain,” the Republican presidential candidate, than one for the financial system.

It does no good, Mr. Dodd said, “to be distracted for two or three hours by political theater.”

The senator was apparently alluding to a growing revolt by conservative Republicans, and the fact that Mr. McCain had not yet endorsed the plan, whose concept runs contrary to the policy positions he has taken.

Well, yes, Sen. Dodd is a Democrat, and perhaps one should be at least a bit suspicious. But maybe he is "putting country first" and is justifiably angry on Sen. McCain's theatrics. And the question remains: On what epistemic basis will Sen. McCain decide whether or not to support the plan? Will he consult with Sarah Palin or his new-found Christian Right friends? With "elitist" professors of economics? .....

FURTHER UPDATE: Just as I began thinking that perhaps I had gone over the deep end in my rant, I read the following article that will presumably be in tomorrow's New York Times. It begins as follows:

Senator John McCain had intended to ride back into Washington on Thursday as a leader who had put aside presidential politics to help broker a solution to the financial crisis. Instead he found himself in the midst of a remarkable partisan showdown, lacking a clear public message for how to bring it to an end.

At the bipartisan White House meeting that Mr. McCain had called for a day earlier, he sat silently for more than 40 minutes, more observer than leader, and then offered only a vague sense of where he stood, according to people in the meeting.

In subsequent television interviews, Mr. McCain suggested that he saw the bipartisan plan that came apart at the White House meeting as the proper basis for an eventual agreement, but he did not tip his hand as to whether he would give any support to the alternative put on the table by angry House Republicans, with whom he had met before going to the White House.

He said he was hopeful that a deal could be struck quickly, and that he could then show up for his scheduled debate on Friday night against his Democratic rival in the presidential race, Senator Barack Obama. But there was no evidence that he was playing a major role in the frantic efforts on Thursday night on Capitol Hill to put a deal back together again.


If this is "leadership," I'll eat my hat (and a lot of crow). It sounds like a scared and desperate politician, faced with severe divisions in his own party, trying to figure out how best to save his political hide. I'm not sure what role "putting country first" is playing in Senator McCain's calculations, but I'm not optimistic. Perhaps Sen. McCain has decided to accept Bill Kristol's advice to torpedo the bailout and run as an all-out populist (and, who knows, maybe McCain would be correct to do so IF one believes that Paulson and Bernanke (and Barney Frank) are simply engaging in hype and there is, in reality, no real crisis and need for immediate action). But if McCain believes it's all (or largely) hype, let him say so and break sharply with his erstwhile friend, George W. Bush, whose enabler he has been for the past four years (since he decided not to accept John Kerry's offer to run for VP with Kerry).

Why anyone at this point would trust John McCain about anything is beyond me.


Comments:

"If it was relevant to have people from the McCain and Obama campaigns there, they should have been their leading economic advisers, who presumably have some epistemic authority."

McCain brought his leading economic adviser, Holtz-Eakin, and the Obama people, oddly, objected his bringing members of his campaign staff, as that, they said, belied his claims to have suspended his campaign. I believe he then sat out the meeting. So much for epistemic authority. Moving on...

"John McCain, by his own admission, knows very little about economics in general and, I am confident, about complex financial institutions in particular. His only contact with them was as a participant in the corruption generated by Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings."

Silly cheapshot worthy of one of your dafter commenters. He's not an economist but I'm sure that he's had plenty of policy-related contact with complex financial institutions.

"the same is true of both McCain and Obama, as a matter of fact. Neither of them has anything whatsoever to contribute to the negotiations going on right now, at least if one takes seriously the repeated argument that we are in a crisis that demands an immediate solution, and that the solution should be hammered out by people who really know what they're talking about."

Now this is just dumb. By that standard I suppose that no members of Congress have anything to contribute to the negotiations. Perhaps you'd like each Senator to be represented in the negotiations by an economics professor from his or her home state. This is a political matter. Maybe you think economic crises are too important to be left to politicians, to paraphrase Clemenceau - I might agree with you - but unfortunately our Constitution leaves the matter squarely at their feet. So what are you going to do? Without McCain's support, a lot of House Republicans are going to bolt. He had to be involved.
 

Sandy, the fact is, the Democrats in Congress, including Barrack Obama, have indicated that they will not support and will not vote for any bill which lacks McCain's support. I can imagine only two reasons for Obama's position. The first is that Obama, as you say, lacks knowledge of the proper course here but, contrary to your suggestion, believes that McCain has authority, of whatever sort you might think relevant. The second is that Obama is a coward and believes that doing what is right for the country might be politically costly and therefore he is looking to McCain for leadership. In either case, I'd think that Obama has revealed himself to be entirely unfit to govern.
 

Was [ John McCain ] always a fraud ?

Yes.

He is today the person he's always been -- an opportunist with a penchant for upstaging other, more serious actors on the political stage, a corrupt (Keating, adulterer) man who moralizes about the actions of others. His "straight talk" reputation was earned through his inability to master diplomacy, not through courage in speaking truth to power.
 

I can imagine only two reasons for Obama's position. The first is that Obama, as you say, lacks knowledge of the proper course here but, contrary to your suggestion, believes that McCain has authority, of whatever sort you might think relevant. The second is that Obama is a coward and believes that doing what is right for the country might be politically costly and therefore he is looking to McCain for leadership. In either case, I'd think that Obama has revealed himself to be entirely unfit to govern.

The third, of course, is that Obama was trying to put country first over politics, and reached across the aisle to his opponent to come up with a joint policy to the benefit of the country. Instead, McCain decided to grandstand, lie to Lettermen (cancelling his appearance there to rush to DC--the next day, after interviewing with Katie Couric and speaking at the Clinton foundation), and claim the high road (as he takes the low road).

Someone who tells such an obvious and easily disputed lie to such a public person, who could dispel it in such a public manner, shows serious judgment issues. Either he felt he could get away with it, or he didn't care if he was caught. Either option does not inspire optimism. He not only is not fit to govern, but also may not be fit to keep his seat. I would hate to be negotiating with him, because apparently you can't trust anything he says.
 

Fraud Guy:

the cancellation of Letterman wasn't based on a lie. Now, I want to be clear - I'm not defending this silly charade. But the Letterman was canceled because he deemed that to be a campaign appearance and he was suspending his campaign. Now, you could argue that the Couric interview was a campaign appearance of sorts too, but that's where he draws the line.
 

Sandy:

Exactly who do you think is qualified to work on this legislation if not our elected Senators?

Democracy is based upon the proposition that the People can elect reasonably intelligent lay persons to serve as our representatives to make decisions just like this one. To the extent that our representatives need advice on technical issues, they need only ask the class of professional smart guys and gals who make a career out of advising the political class.

We elected men like McCain and Obama to the Senate to do precisely this kind of work. Indeed, the fact both of these men are also running for President and one of them will end up managing this monster rescue for much of his first term would recommend that they take an even greater part in this work than your average Senator. The idea that McCain and Obama should absent themselves from their work simply to avoid rescheduling a canned debate borders on ridiculous.
 

Fraud Guy, I guess you didn't read Sandy's post, or you disagree with it. If McCain doesn't know anything about these matters, then how does involving him in deciding on a policy make sense? Naturally the description of events you offer isn't at all an accurate description of what Obama and the Democrats are doing. Obama tried to get a joint statement from McCain because he doesn't want to lead--he's too much of a coward to tell us what he thinks.
 

None of the arguments that are being employed against McCain’s actions make the slightest logical sense. The contention is that he is somehow dishonorable, unpatriotic and cowardly because he has (a) suspended campaigning, (b) skipped Letterman and (c) gone to Washington to deal with the greatest economic crisis facing the country in a generation (at least). What was the alternative? He could have waited to see if the negotiators in Washington agreed on a package and then weighed in on it. The problem with that is there might not have been any agreement without an assurance of McCain’s support (as many people, including Senator Reid, suggested) and his opposition to any plan would have surely sunk it. The easiest political route for McCain would have been to have supported the plan (whatever it was) reluctantly, while pointing out all of the ways that he disagreed with it. But this approach might have made it impossible to pass, would have certainly have aggravated popular opposition, and probably would have undercut the plan’s effectiveness in restoring confidence to financial markets.

McCain’s action was necessary because any plan needs political legitimacy to succeed (or to have a chance of succeeding) and Bush cannot provide such legitimacy. As McCain recognized, political legitimacy requires that both he and Obama support the plan (thus he was not guilty of being presumptuous).

It is true, as I have already noted, that neither candidate can offer any economic expertise to speak of. Indeed, I am skeptical that even those who supposedly have expertise can offer more than a wild guess as to the potential costs and benefits of the plans being floated. If I were “constitutional dictator,” I am not sure what I would do in this situation. But I do know that a decision has to be made, and it has to be made by someone with political legitimacy. By default, that means McCain and Obama.
 

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Let's abandon the notion that the McCain campaign was "abandoned." It continued on all fronts in all respects through the day. What did McCain contribute to the settlement of the crisis?
 

Prof. Levinson, regarding the 'further update,' whatever McCain did or didn't do today, the fact remains that a bailout plan that he doesn't support would have a tough time making it through the House. He has objections to the Paulson plan. So it seems to follow that his input is needed to craft a plan to his liking, and by extension, to the House Republicans.
 

Tray:

the cancellation of Letterman wasn't based on a lie.

Paraphrasing Letterman:

Senator McCain told me he was cancelling because he had to rush back to Washington. And McCain then proceeded to the Couric interview, which apparently was taped at the same time as he would have appeared on Letterman, and also waited to rush back to Washington until the next morning after his appearance at the Clinton Foundation.

He lied.

Thomas,

I am offering another reason why McCain is not suited, in that he tells a bad, easily revealed lie, when he could just as easily have told the truth, or at least a less provable lie (scheduling conflict, prep for the negotiations, etc.).

As to Obama not being willing to lead--it is obvious that you do not think it took leadership to ask for bipartisanship instead of hammering his foe on his domestic policy weakness. Was their some political calculation there--yes, but there was a more obviously political ploy on McCain's part by trying to seem to be the lead on an Obama/McCain plan. But McCain's campaign is truly risible at this point. People I meet every day are shaking their heads and laughing at him.

mls,

The Letterman episode is not evidence that McCain is "dishonorable, unpatriotic and cowardly". It does show that he is dishonest and inept. However, I do not disagree with the rest of your post.
 

"Senator McCain told me he was cancelling because he had to rush back to Washington."

It is my opinion that Letterman's misunderstanding things here. What McCain really said, I think, was that it was inappropriate to campaign at this time and that he was going to go to Washington at some point in the very near future. His nonappearance on Letterman is correctly read as part of the suspension of the camapign.
 

Tray:

the cancellation of Letterman wasn't based on a lie. Now, I want to be clear - I'm not defending this silly charade. But the Letterman was canceled because he deemed that to be a campaign appearance and he was suspending his campaign. Now, you could argue that the Couric interview was a campaign appearance of sorts too, but that's where he draws the line.

Now that 'rationalisation' is getting truly silly. McCain may believe that half the country are eedjits and will believe such tripe ... and he may be right. That hardly makes it right.

Not to mention Letterman said they blew him off to go back to Washington. And if you think about it, if he didn't have to go back to Washington (and he didn't), then what purpose in not "campaigning"?!?!? I mean, we know he can't walk and chew gum at the same time, but can't he walk one day and chew gum the next?!?!?

Cheers,
 

The idea that McCain and Obama should absent themselves from their work simply to avoid rescheduling a canned debate borders on ridiculous....

"... especially when there's an agreement to torpedo and photo-ops to be had...."

My guess, "Bart", is that a solid majority will see this as the Grand Theatre it is, and McCain will sink like a rock. Bad gamble. And a big loss.

Cheers,
 

It is my opinion that Letterman's misunderstanding things here. What McCain really said, I think, was that it was inappropriate to campaign at this time and that he was going to go to Washington at some point in the very near future. His nonappearance on Letterman is correctly read as part of the suspension of the camapign.

"... but it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is..."

Let's not play clueless, folks. Spin, spin, spin ... after the biggest name in late-night telly catches you with your pants down and flays your keister. Ain't gonna work. Just ask anyone who watched the Letterman thing.

Cheers,
 

In subsequent television interviews, Mr. McCain suggested that he saw the bipartisan plan that came apart at the White House meeting as the proper basis for an eventual agreement, but he did not tip his hand as to whether he would give any support to the alternative put on the table by angry House Republicans, with whom he had met before going to the White House.

Sandy, CBS and Fox have reported that Paulson failed to sway the House GOP and much of the Senate GOP to sign onto his plan and feared that these legislators were balking because they were afraid that McCain would come out against the final plan on the campaign trail. Thus, Paulson asked McCain to some the DC to work out a plan which both he and the House GOP could live with.

The White House meeting was just the first of several meetings and teleconferences McCain was to have with the players in this negotiation. There was absolutely no reason for McCain to announce a plan at the first meeting he attended without having worked it out with the House GOP in advance.

In any case, the double standard here is palable. Mr. Obama had to be dragged back to his job in the Senate, did not volunteer a thing when he returned, and worse still shows no interest in working on a solution that he presumably would be responsible for implementing of he gets elected.
 

I think Prof. Levinson is wrong here for the same reason I thought he was right in his previous post. The fact is, both McCain and Obama do have something to contribute to these negotiations: political legitimacy. That's because they now have, jointly, the "authority" that Bush has lost. If they agree on a deal, there can be one.

Wingnuts like Thomas accuse Obama of being a "coward" because the Dems could pass this bill without McCain. That demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics. After an election, political legitimacy and authority vest in the President and Congress (for better or worse). Before an election, the country is conflicted between the two parties and therefore political legitimacy is shared (or divided, if you will) between them. It's only by acting together that deals can be reached in a pre-electoral crisis.

Obama is therefore behaving responsibly by making himself available to lend his half of legitimacy to a deal. McCain is behaving irresponsibly because he is insisting that he be seen as acting alone to "save" the country. He's presuming to act as an elected President when he's not.
 

"Bart" DePropaganda:

Paulson asked McCain to some the DC to work out a plan which both he and the House GOP could live with.

[assuming that's "come to"]

Huh?!?!? WTF?!?!? I don't think Paulson did any such thing. What evidence do you have of this?

The White House meeting was just the first of several meetings and teleconferences McCain was to have with the players in this negotiation....

You're making sh*te up now.

What was Paulson doing in the week-long negotiations with House leaders from both sides, if he was going to ask that the financial eedjit McSame be summoned into town to tell everyone to "stop the bulls**t" (or worse yet, to present some completely different proposal)?!?!?

That simply makes no sense, "Bart".

There was absolutely no reason for McCain to announce a plan at the first meeting he attended without having worked it out with the House GOP in advance.

Huh?!?!? Why not? You mean they didn't have a plan (outside of throwing a monkey wrench in the gears?!?!?

In any case, the double standard here is palable. Mr. Obama had to be dragged back to his job in the Senate, did not volunteer a thing when he returned, ...

Oh, really?!?!? Then answer: What did McSame "volunteer"?

... and worse still shows no interest in working on a solution that he presumably would be responsible for implementing of he gets elected.

Horsepuckey. Obama's made plain what he thinks is essential in any plan that he would have to administer. The agreement contained those four points.

Please, "Bart": Stop making up fairy tales than even an honest Republican won't believe, and cluttering the threads here with them....

Cheers,
 

I said:

My guess, "Bart", is that a solid majority will see this as the Grand Theatre it is, and McCain will sink like a rock. Bad gamble. And a big loss.

Here's the snapshot polls.

Have a good day, "Bart"!

Cheers,
 

In any case, the double standard here is palable. Mr. Obama had to be dragged back to his job in the Senate,

Even though Obama has missed only about half of votes this year that McCain has.* Who really has to be dragged back to their job? Who is applying a double standard?

*The caveat, of course, is that Obama has missed more votes than anyone except for McCain and Tim Johnson, who is recovering from bleeding in his brain (and Johnson has made more votes than McCain--so what is McCain suffering from?).
 

tray:

It is my opinion that Letterman's misunderstanding things here. What McCain really said, I think, was that it was inappropriate to campaign at this time and that he was going to go to Washington at some point in the very near future.

Actually, that was an excuse offered up for him by Olbermann last night. It still doesn't explain the lie.
 

Yesterday he went a step further by declaring his true aspirations...

If you haven't seen this yet you should.

http://nz.youtube.com/watch?v=i7Hcf7Q1Q9A

From the longer one minute clip that is discussing the economic bailout at DesMoines Register

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=videonetwork&maven_playerId=immersiveplayer&maven_referralPlaylistId=b959b1ca832e44b7543c0c1d3b9b6ef23903c7fc&maven_referralObject=873527229
 

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