Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing Joe the Plumber

At last night's debate, John McCain unveiled a new line of attack against Barack Obama, the "Joe the Plumber" offensive. The plumber in question is Joe Wurzelbacher, a resident of Holland, Ohio who posed a question to Obama on the campaign trail this Sunday. Joe was concerned that under Obama's tax plan, a business he plans to purchase that has revenues of $250,000-280,000 dollars would have its taxes raised. The entire exchange was caught on camera, Obama goes through the specifics of his tax plan with Joe in rather extensive detail. In the end he suggests that, with capital gains cuts and other small-business incentives built into Obama's plan, Joe may actually see his taxes cut, though he could not guarantee that without looking at the particulars of Joe's business.

All of this might have been less than a footnote to history, except that Obama uttered three words which are a lightning rod of American political discourse: "spread the wealth." A cursory survey of the blogosphere and pennings of the commentariat reveals that these remarks of Obama's will be among the most misquoted in the annals of American politics. Republicans will hammer away at these three words to craft them into a singular message: "Obama wants to take your hard-earned money away and give it to other people."

This kind of rhetoric is always good for stirring up partisan anger. It bears no relation to what actually passed between Obama and Joe Wurzelbacher on the campaign trail in Ohio, however. Obama never told Joe that he wanted to "spread his wealth around." If you watch the video and listen carefully to the exchange, the context in which the three dread words are uttered is this:

OBAMA: My attitude is, if the economy is good for folks from the bottom up, it's going to be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're going to be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who are going to pay to hire you. Right now the economy is so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I believe that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.

So there you have it. Obama is not talking about taking Joe's money away and giving it to those in need, he is talking about spreading purchasing power to a broader segment of the economy so that service providers like Joe will have an expanded revenue base. This makes good economic sense, and is about as "socialist" as a BLT with cheese is kosher.

Mr. Wurzelbacher has evidently, in subsequent interviews, decried Obama's ideas as socialist and detrimental to the American dream (though, it is interesting to note, as of this writing he has yet to endorse John McCain). Joe is an appealing and likable figure, and it would not surprise me if this fifteen minutes of fame translates into a career move from plumbing to politics. I think that John McCain's attempt to use Joe as a political icon will ultimately backfire, however.

Some people, like Joe himself, will watch his encounter with Obama and come away with the impression of insidious socialism. My guess is, however, that if the video of Obama's conversation with Joe Wurzelbacher gets the airplay it should, it will reinforce the positive impressions that the electorate has been building about Obama himself. Here is a man who, as of Sunday, had been on the campaign trail for a grueling two years, enduring constant attacks to his judgment and character. Confronted with a direct and challenging question about his policy he was not irritated or dismissive, but candid, earnest, and respectful. He addresses Joe's concerns with rigorous detail and minimum rhetoric, every inch the statesman who is sensible of his personal accountability to the voter. If that is not the kind of person we should have as our president, I do not know who is.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage as a Civil Right

The decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage is a welcome step forward in the struggle to advance the cause of American civil rights. Though it has already (and predictably) been attended by conservative complaints about "legislation from the bench," the decision is in the best tradition of constitutional jurisprudence and faithful to our nation's most basic values. This was noted most forcefully by historian Joseph Ellis (New York Times, February 29, 2004) in the wake of a parallel verdict by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Of the principles encoded in that state's constitution by its author, John Adams, Ellis wrote:

[L]ike Jefferson's more famous formulation of the same message, Adams framed the status of individual rights in absolute and universal terms. Certain personal freedoms were thereby rendered nonnegotiable, and any restrictions on those freedoms were placed on the permanent defensive. At the very birth of the republic, in effect, an open-ended mandate for individual rights was inscribed into the DNA of the body politic, with implications that such rights would expand gradually over time.

In 1848, for example, the women at Seneca Falls cited Jefferson's magic words to demand political equality for all female citizens. In 1863 Lincoln referred to the same words at Gettysburg to justify the Civil War as a crusade, not just to preserve the Union, but also to end slavery. In 1963 Martin Luther King harked back to the promissory note written by Jefferson to claim civil rights for blacks. Now the meaning of the mandate has expanded again, this time to include gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry. With all the advantages of hindsight, it now seems wholly predictable that America's long argument would reach this new stage of inclusiveness.

In Ellis' formulation, the recognition of same-sex marriage rights is an organic development of the intrinsic evolutionary trajectory of our ongoing American Revolution. This assertion finds corroboration in the work of Gordon S. Wood, who wrote in his masterful The Radicalism of the American Revolution:

The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society-kinship, patriarchy, and patronage-and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. (page 229)

The radicalism of the American Revolution was to celebrate and give priority to all forms of self-definition and social station rooted in personal autonomy and freedom of choice. Institutions that kept the individual locked into hierarchical structures beyond his or her control-the monarchy, the nobility, the established church-were rejected in favor of liberal safeguards that empowered people to determine their own place in the community and the world. Among the institutions most impacted by these revolutionary currents was the family. Membership in one's natal family was not a matter of personal choice, and thus not only did family ancestry diminish in importance in the revolutionary American society, but a whole series of systemic reforms were embraced that decreased the power of the family over the individual. Consequently, marriage increased in importance as a foundation of one's social and civic identity. Marriage is the only kinship relation that is truly elective, thus marriage has evolved in American law and politics as the paramount familial bond- surpassing all others in intimacy and legal cogency. No U.S. official or institution would allow two spouses to be kept apart by their parents or siblings, for this would be to privilege an involuntary relationship over one forged by a couple's own free will.

Conservative critics typically complain that the legalization of same-sex marriage will "alter" the age-old definition of marriage that has remained unchanged for eons. This is pure fallacy, however. Marriage has been evolving profoundly and constantly within our society and as a result of our republican Revolution. The very fact that the marriage bond in America is first and foremost forged by each spouse's declaration of intent (the fabled words "I do"), and that it can be undone by a reversal of that same intent (among the earliest developments in American family law was a liberalization of the institution of divorce) marks a radical break with the manner in which marriage operated as an institution for most of human history. This principle, moreover, has not been a constant in American history, but has evolved by stages and degrees as our republic has developed. As recently as 1993 spousal rape was not considered a prosecutable crime in many states, a vestige of the old, illiberal doctrine that marriage was a bond rooted in procreational biology rather than mutual affection and consent. The recognition of the rights of same-sex couples to enter the marital bond embodies the same imperative that has impelled the evolution of American marriage as an institution throughout the nation's history: the preservation of individual dignity and personal autonomy (in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness").

The most recent decision in Connecticut is a progressive unfolding of this imperative, but it will no doubt engender vehement resistance. Unfortunately, this year's Democratic presidential candidates are committed to the shopworn triangulation that opposes same-sex marriage but embraces "civil unions." At this late hour it is unrealistic to expect Barack Obama and Joe Biden to flip-flop on this issue, and economic issues so overwhelm the discourse of this electoral cycle that consideration of same-sex marriage is not likely to achieve much traction. Political tidal forces are bringing this issue to a head, however, and it will not long be possible for politicians on either side of the aisle to prevaricate. It can only be hoped that Democrats will stop running from their political convictions in this regard, and will embrace the position that clearly occupies the downhill slope of history: that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and one that should be safeguarded for all citizens throughout our American Union.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

McCain, Vietnam, and Pakistan

The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama over foreign policy toward Pakistan has generated much press coverage of late. It was revisited in last week's debates, and has received new vitality this week from video showing Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, agreeing with Obama that U.S. forces should wage attacks against Islamist militants across the Pakistani frontier. McCain's campaign has trumpeted this dispute as exemplary of Obama's inexperience and naïveté, but it is more indicative of McCain's own tone-deafness on and ahistorical sense of foreign policy.

The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing because it is caught in one of the oldest strategic traps in military history. When an insurgent force can exploit the frontier zone between two jurisdictional authorities as a safe haven, it achieves massive leverage over its counterinsurgent opponents. Any student of Chinese history is aware that this pattern played itself out repeatedly through successive eras. A rebel force would lodge itself at the frontier between two or more provinces and nimbly jump back and forth across that boundary. When authorities in one province were mobilized to fight the rebels it would withdraw to the periphery of a neighboring province to replenish and recuperate. Because coordination between provincial authorities was poor, and the peripheral areas of provinces were generally sparsely penetrated by official personnel, rebel groups could survive this way for decades. This strategy was exploited effectively by the Nien (1851-1868) rebels in the late Qing dynasty and again by Communist guerillas against the KMT in the first half of the 20th century, to name just two instances.

It is ironic that John McCain would not recognize this pattern in present-day Afghanistan, because another classic example of the use of this strategy to defeat a counterinsurgency was the war that so shaped McCain's own character and outlook, the Vietnam War. Viet Cong and NVA opponents of the Republic of South Vietnam were free to operate back and forth across the frontiers of Cambodia and North Vietnam, placing U.S. and ARVN counterinsurgent forces at a crippling disadvantage. McCain is fond of repeating U.S. soldiers' pleas to "let us win" in Iraq, making the explicit comparison to Vietnam. He insists, however, that he would tie the hands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in precisely the manner that insured defeat in Vietnam.

I am not suggesting that the war in Vietnam could have been won had the U.S. adopted a more "hands free" strategy. Such a strategy could not be pursued in Vietnam without risking a global conflict with China and the USSR, which is why the Vietnam War was an intractable strategic task from the outset and should never have been undertaken. Nor is the pursuit of a cross-border strategy along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier without risk. Trespassing upon Pakistani territory by U.S. forces could incite massive hostility from the Pakistani people, and could, in the most extreme scenario, lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state and the onset of a state of anarchy in that large and nuclear-armed nation.

These risks must be weighed against the single stark contrast between the conflict in Afghanistan and those in both Vietnam and Iraq, however. Unlike the latter conflicts, that in Afghanistan is of vital urgency to the security of the U.S. The forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were lodged in Afghanistan and are currently fighting among the insurgents there. The U.S. can no more relinquish this counterinsurgency than it could refrain from retaliating for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Given that the safety and security of the nation is at stake, the U.S. must pursue all necessary means to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. It therefore has no choice but to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single operational theater. If Pakistani territory is treated as "off limits" in the prosecution of the counterinsurgency, then the conflict in Afghanistan will end in the same manner as the war in Vietnam. If John McCain does not realize this fact, he is a poor student of history and a poor judge of foreign policy.

The challenges of operating within the Afghan-Pakistani theater are acutely complex. Every tool in the strategic arsenal of the U.S., military, diplomatic, and economic, must be used simultaneously in careful coordination with one-another. The tactical and political consequences of each action must be weighed cautiously. U.S. political and military leaders will have to walk a virtual razor's edge: discovering how they may operate within Pakistani territory without either broadening the conflict or precipitating the collapse of the government in Islamabad. All of these tasks will require the total focus and full resources of the U.S. government, a fact that argues in favor of a leader who understands that the invasion of Iraq was a distraction, and that it must be wound down in order to shift focus to Afghanistan.