It is said that history is recorded by its victors. Apart from the traditional understanding of this maxim, we at The Mendenhall offer another interpretation: that ultimate victory does not come from those who fight the battles, but from those who write of them. The history of an era, as written and interpreted by its intellectuals, not only allows future generations to look back and learn the lessons of their predecessors, but also sets the cultural tone for years to come. So vital is the emergence of a rational culture to the achievement of our own ideals, we have taken it upon ourselves at the end of each year to summarize and analyze the year previous from a capitalist, pro-liberty perspective.
It is in that spirit that we look back on the events of the last twelve months often with frustration, occasionally with the pride of hard-fought victories, and always with a love for our country and the ideals that it was founded upon and may once again embody.
If The Mendenhall’s previous annual reviews have appeared to grow in scope and scandal with each passing installment, 2013’s practically writes itself. To look back at our review of 2012, written in the immediate wake of President Obama’s re-election, one is brought time and again to the paradoxical statements, “How little we knew(!)” and “How right we were!” For if 2013 has been anything politically, it has been a vindication of those who so vehemently opposed the policies and philosophy of the president and his administration since his inauguration five years ago. The enactment of his signature legislation, the ironically dubbed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; the rash of scandals and improprieties; the violations of constitutional rights; and President Obama’s struggle to involve us in unnecessary foreign conflicts have all revealed an administration built on hypocrisy, artifice, and a vision for America that prioritizes nihilistic ideals over American independence, recovery, and success.
The pace and political gamesmanship of 2013 was likewise a beast unto itself. If 2012 was a year of broad themes and the manic mix of big ideas, big talk about small ideas, and petty scandals that always mark presidential election years, 2013 was a perpetual battle of wills both within the legislature and between the branches of government. Though Obama’s re-election in November 2012 was hailed by his supporters in the press as a ‘mandate’ for the administration and its policies, the events of the ensuing thirteen months have expended the president’s political capital, largely silenced his once vociferous supporters, and, no doubt, left the White House looking back and wondering what just happened.
As the Obama Administration quickly learned, whatever mandate it believed it possessed on the eve of election night was bereft of any legitimate political importance come the beginning of the 2013 legislative year. The Republicans maintained their firm grasp on the House of Representatives and, despite John Boehner’s unopposed re-election to the speaker’s chair and the “Tea Party Purge” he conducted late in 2012, there remained a boisterous faction within the GOP offering principled (albeit imperfectly so) opposition to the administration’s policy agenda. Regardless of their two-seat deficit, the Republicans retained a valuable legislative tool through most of 2013: the Senate filibuster. Though the filibuster is most useful when both chambers of Congress are under the control of a single party, a few enterprising senators found an even more impressive use for the rule in the early months of the year.
Amidst increasing centralization of executive authority in the White House since the September 11th attacks of 2001, the Obama administration continued to allot to itself ever broader police powers both overseas and within our own borders, and the other branches of the federal government seemed either unable or unwilling to stop it. An incomptent Congress — divided though it is — continued to renew the PATRIOT Act, and in 2012 passed the NDAA which contained provisions for the indefinite detention of American citizens (unfortunately, something already made legal by the AUMF of 2001). Ruling in favor of the government’s request to keep classified its legal justification for killing US citizens overseas via drones without trial, a frustrated federal judge wrote in January, “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.” In essence, the executive branch appeared to be the unquestioned and unrestrained authority on all matters military, whatever the authorities granted to Congress regarding the same.
However, that trend suffered an abrupt and considerable public setback when Rand Paul took the floor of the Senate on March 6 with the words, “I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the C.I.A.” Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky who has shown such immense promise since joining the Senate in the wake of the 2010 midterms, was less interested in Brennan’s nomination (an otherwise routine affair) than in the administration’s use of military drones on US soil. Unhappy with Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to definitively state that the President of the United States lacks the authority to utilize military drones against noncombatant US citizens on US soil, Paul held the floor and the fascination of the entire country for thirteen hours, all while passionately and substantively speaking out against statist abuses committed by the Obama administration. When he finally yielded the floor, he had almost single handedly shut the door on any hopes the White House may have had for a smooth second term.
Though the occurrence of an actual, “old-fashioned” filibuster is highly unusual, perhaps what was even more astounding was the public’s response. Paul had managed the capture the public imagination as socialist Bernie Sanders had failed to do with his own filibuster in 2010, igniting a social media revolution the likes of which are virtually unparalleled in congressional politics. News outlets remained fixated on Paul throughout the entirety of his filibuster, phrases like “#StandwithRand” and “#filiblizzard” trended on Twitter and other social media outlets, other senators (Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in particular) joined Paul to express their support, the tides of public opinion shifted rapidly against the administration on a previously obscure issue, and the administration was compelled to respond directly to Paul’s questions. In the end, Paul established himself as a leading figure in his own party (particularly for the next generation of Republicans slowly replacing the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of yesteryear). He utilized social media and engaged young voters as no other Republican has, setting the stage for a potential presidential run in 2016. The administration’s illusions of aloof detachment from criticism in the second term were over, and a junior senator had breathed new life into a disillusioned GOP.
Unfortunately for the president, these first three months–though rocky–would, in retrospect, be the mildest portion of his fifth year in office. As spring turned to summer, the Obama administration faced a slew of scandals, all corroborating longstanding claims from the principled right that the president and the modern left have nothing but contempt for the rights of the individual, the laws of the United States, and honest governance.
Clinton’s (and now Kerry’s) State Department was implicated for covering up a wide array of criminal activities including sexual assault and retaining an ambassador implicated in child prostitution as turmoil surrounding attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi underwent further scrutiny. Troubles were not mediated when Clinton so tactlessly exploded, “What difference does it make?!” in a senatorial hearing. The EPA released the personal information of “potentially thousands” of farmers to eco-groups. The IRS was found to have targeted Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny and harassment since 2012, revealing the increasing politicization of allegedly non-partisan agencies as well as the administrations fear of Tea Party influence. This particular revelation fortunately halted Democrats’ steady march toward anti-self-defense gun control bills throughout the first half of the year by lending credibility to the right’s argument that the Second Amendment is meant to defend against abusive government, first and foremost. Holder’s Department of Justice was found to have spied on reporters from the Associated Press, Fox News, and possibly CBS, with Eric Holder potentially perjuring himself when addressing the issue in Congress. HHS Secretary Sebelius solicited support from companies regulated by her department for a nonprofit group promoting Obamacare. Later in the year, USAID was accused of money funneling and gross mismanagement. These scandals, pathetically defended by the president’s own supporters, fundamentally contradict the promise for “transparent” government offered by Obama some five years ago, but none of these even compare to the bombshell that was dropped by an otherwise unassuming former employee of the NSA.
Edward Snowden, now a political fugitive with asylum in Putin’s Russia, released pages of documents explaining the vast, Orwellian surveillance machine secretly collecting data on an unwitting American population. Despite Obama’s promise to curtail the abuses by the NSA, it appears, at the year’s end, that America’s surveillance apparatus is as active as ever– if not more so. Whether mining data from tech giants like Google and Facebook through a program called PRISM, obtaining phone records of every American in vast dragnet policies, or physically intercepting deliveries of laptops to install spyware or tracking devices, the NSA seems committed to validating Edward Snowden’s “alternative Christmas message” in which he stated that children born today will “never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” Even the trust of our allies overseas was compromised by the program, as further documents revealed that the NSA had spied on Chancellor Angel Merkel of Germany. As litigation moves forward on the issue, the future of Americans’ right to privacy is in limbo as two separate US district courts have issued conflicting rulings on the issue.
In the meantime, the legacy of Snowden remains hotly contested by both supporters and detractors of these surveillance policies. Some have compared him to the likes of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the latter of the two having been sentenced to prison this year for releasing classified documents to the former’s WikiLeaks government-monitoring operation. But unlike either Manning or Assange, Snowden appears to possess a sense of rational discrimination when it comes to the documents he chooses to withhold and release. Whereas Assange displays nihilist, anarchist tendencies in that he would prefer to simply release all information (without regard to its nature or sensitivity) in hopes of bringing down the government, Snowden has thus far dealt exclusively with criminal wrongdoing. There is nothing that we have seen that validates the claims of some that Snowden has undermined the government’s legitimate function — that of protecting its citizens. If anything, he has furthered it by providing the people of the United States with the knowledge needed to protect themselves from the government. Provided he continues down the same course and does not veer into aiding nations belligerent to US interests, he ought to not only be pardoned, but publicly commended.
Apart from scandals occurring behind closed doors, the administration’s official policy agenda is no less abusive. In particular, the Division of Antitrust within the Department of Justice continues to harass some of America’s most successful business enterprises. All of top ten companies on Fortune magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies list have been recently subjected to antitrust enforcement.These businesses, targeted for their successes rather than any actual vice, continue suffer harassment at the hands of Holder’s DOJ, and none more prominently this year than the number one company on Fortune’s list: Apple.
After challenging the DOJ’s accusations in court, Apple lost its most recent antitrust case that arose from a plan to offer a competitive market alternative to Amazon.com for ebook publishers. While the publishers settled outside of court, Apple stood its ground and was subsequently “made an example of” through a series of draconian punishments and probable fifth amendment violations enacted by the court. As always, the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act is arbitrary and capricious, and under Obama, dangerously active. Though Obama may lack the domestic political capital needed to expand the government’s scope through legitimate legislation, he has proven himself more than capable of repeatedly injuring individual rights through existing legislation without need for amendment or executive order.
This only conforms to the trend in recent years of a rising spirit of democratic authoritarianism on the left. From the aggressive prosecution of antitrust cases and the general burden that America’s regulatory regime places on private individuals to attempts to bypass Congress on gun control legislation via executive order, the modern left has increasingly come to embrace its Rousseauian roots, regarding man’s life as nothing but a “conditional gift of the state.” More specifically, it is a conditional gift of the “collective” in their minds — the mystic whole of society that somehow possesses the authority to compel each of its members, independent of their own wills. This is nothing but a contemporary retelling of the ancient, bloody doctrine of “might makes right”, with “might” derived from belonging to the statistical majority of the collective, the minority be damned.
The move by Senate Majority Leader Reid toward the end of the year to rule filibusters of judicial nominees dilatory from the chair, preventing the senatorial minority from fulfilling their constitutional purpose of preventing the “tyranny of the majority”, both in the senate and in the courts, where judges confirmed without due senatorial consideration will hold sway over Americans’ rights for the rest of their lives. Whereas democracy only has legitimacy insofar as it is restrained to the certain, limited function of protecting individual rights (this restraint being that which differentiates a republic from a true democracy), the democracy pursued by the left in the second decade of the twenty-first century is pure collectivism. Either an individual conforms to the will of the majority simply because it is the will of the majority, or he will be compelled to do so. Individual rights, in this context, lose any meaning whatsoever.
Amidst this struggle between democracy and individual rights at home, it was, perhaps, America’s response to a clash of these principles many thousands of miles away that proved most instructive of where Americans stand on the question. In an outpouring that would prove to be the single largest political protest in the history of mankind, the people of Egypt took to the streets in late June in opposition to the abusive regime of Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Showing their contempt for oppressive governments, whether secular or religious, Egyptians converged again on Tahrir Square in Cairo on June 29th, and demonstrations soon erupted across the country in Alexandria, El-Mahalla, and Suez, reviving the words first used against Hosni Mubarak in 2011: “The people demand the ouster of the regime!”
As millions took to the streets, many looked toward the United States, wondering how that symbol of freedom would respond to the image of people demanding rights, freedoms, and secularism from their government. In a tragic statement on the depth of its understanding of and commitment to the spread of freedom throughout the world, while Egyptians protested, America slept. Only one of its national television news networks (CBS) even made a headline story of such an unprecedented demonstration. Others dallied in reporting yesterday’s news and pretending that nothing of note had transpired.
What of the US government, though? Surely if the president took a stand in support of such a movement for freedom, the media would have to respond assertively. Indeed, the president did respond. Unfortunately, the tenant of that office once termed ‘leader of the free world’ stood bound by his earlier choices to ally with the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi, siding, with all the vagueness and misdirection characteristic of his administration, against the protesters. What’s more: having given over $250 million in military and financial aid to the Morsi regime in March, the Obama administration moved quickly to characterize the protests and ensuing overthrow of the MB as a ‘coup’, nullifying its obligations to provide the promised aid to Egypt. Setting aside the fact that the US should not be in the business of financially and militarily supporting any foreign country, the choice to withdraw such support made the Obama administration’s support of the MB not only a political, but a material issue as well. If the administration’s position was given some spin by its media allies at home, Egyptians on the streets of Cairo, carrying signs that hailed the US and derided its president, were not persuaded, and relations with Egypt have been on uncertain footing ever since.
What could lead President Obama and his supporters– and, for that matter, the global left more generally– to oppose the kind of populist political movement that they would once have championed? The answer rests again in their intrinsic admiration for democracy over individual rights. All the while, they defended the preservation of the Morsi regime on the grounds that it was “democratically elected,” characteristically ignoring its perpetual abuses of Egyptians’ rights. Thus, the Western left’s response to events in Egypt is significant not merely to the case at hand, but for how it illustrates a broader philosophical trend that bears upon its own politics at home. The extent of the left’s support for ‘democracy’ has overcome even its love for grassroots, second- and third-world populist movements to become, for them, an end in itself. The guiding premise at the root of this trend is the left’s social subjectivist morality, its unending reverence for a positivist legal philosophy, the belief in the majority as the primary unit of political consideration, and an enshrinement of democratic politics as the means of its empowerment.
Intriguingly, the passing of history and the trend of global events are thus putting the left in a precarious situation as they, once the champions of populist politics, are finding themselves increasingly siding with those already in power. The left is being made to check its premises and perhaps to abandon its pretenses of believing in democracy as a tool for the security of freedom when democracy and freedom are set at odds by the abuses and violations of elected leaders.
Other matters of American foreign affairs, if less decisive and transformative, were nonetheless significant to the United States’ position in global politics. Unfortunately, all stood as testament to the United States’ unhealthy position and lack of direction under President Obama. Despite the continual build-up of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and the anticipation spurred by direct communications between Obama and the Iranian regime, US talks with the Islamic state (joined by UK and France) resulted in an unceremonious, short-term solution from which Iran will likely emerge as winner, if only from having been yet again legitimated by an American foreign policy long stymied by the influences of pragmatism and moral relativism. At the year’s end, as Tehran unveiled new centrifuges for enriching uranium, Obama’s insistence on dropping all sanctions against Iran was opposed even by Democrats, leaving the president yet again looking weak on foreign policy and showing new rifts as Dems increasingly distance themselves from a rapidly declining presidency.
From Iran to an increasingly belligerent and unstable North Korea under Kim Jong-Un, American diplomacy under Obama has continually talked a tough game and delivered nothing of note. One can scarcely be surprised when the leaders of such countries respond dismissively to an administration more interested in crafting messages than strategies, more inclined to protect its own than to protect US interests. Thus, it was particularly bewildering that, with such imminent threats left unresolved, when the administration did take it upon itself to act aggressively it chose to do so in Syria, where a civil war has now raged for over two years. When video evidence was released of the Assad regime having used chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians, President Obama rose quickly to declare that if the reports were to be substantiated it would amount to a crossing of the proverbial “red line,” necessitating American entry into the conflict to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Facing strong congressional opposition and severe unpopularity among the American people for any military involvement in the Syrian conflict, an exchange ensued in which the president reiterated his commitment to intervene and a willingness to use the full extent of his presidential powers to oppose the will of Congress and the people in the interest of keeping his “red line” promise. Ultimately, it would be the bungling words of his own Secretary of State John Kerry that would foil the president’s plan, as an offhand comment in a press conference tied the hands of the administration and left an opening for Russia and Vladimir Putin to sweep in with an accommodating solution that would retain the Assad regime and settle the chemical weapons issue for the time being.
The whole exercise seems now to have largely been a trumped-up near-miss for an administration caught in a cycle of trying to use foreign and diplomatic efforts to draw attention away from its failed domestic policy, only to stumble and fall ever more ingloriously on a global stage. From a false start on Syria to failed talks with Iran to every American administration’s fall-back initiative when all else is going badly– Israel and Palestine — the Obama administration always seems to enter such frays in the immediate wake of underwhelming jobs reports, budget battles, and all around bad news on the domestic front. This melding of PR and policy priorities has continually backfired because in the interest of presentation it has perpetually neglected to define and assert real American values in the global political arena. It is an administration laboring not for the United States, but for its own narrow interests, and not doing well at that.
No intellectual pursuit, however, can be carried out in a vacuum of ideas. Certainly something is guiding the Obama foreign policy. What, then, is the character and substance of that policy? When those who are in power fail to think purposefully of what they seek to achieve, neglecting broader principles, values, and unifying goals, they must, by necessity, become the inert slaves of the dominant ideas in their field– indeed, they must become their most loyal exponents. So it is with Obama in the global arena. American thinking in foreign policy has, in recent decades, become dominated by certain detrimental pragmatist assumptions that curtail its thinking to range-of-the-moment considerations, eschewing long-range planning and the integration of subsequent actions into coherent strategies. As such incoherent pragmatist thinking precludes the pursuit of any long-range, ultimate moral ideals, it must default to the dominant morality of its culture. In the case of modern Western culture and Obama’s foreign policy, that default morality is altruism— the belief that the realization of the good consists of perpetual self-sacrifice. Obama’s political philosophy in general being so poignantly altruist/collectivist to begin with, its application to his foreign initiatives makes for an easy fit.
Thus, American foreign policy under Obama is a quintessential example of range-of-the-moment altruism: ignoring or failing to act assertively against those forces that might pose legitimate threats to the interests of the United States and its citizens while throwing the full force of one’s political weight behind efforts to enter a fray half a world away in which the US has no decided interests and in which victory by either side brings with it dubious consequences for the West. Perhaps if President Obama were only the man so many Americans supported in 2007, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “our first measure must be sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy — the kind that the Bush administration has been unable and unwilling to use” and who would “develop a strong international coalition to … eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program”, we could lend him our support with ease and might even find it sufficient to balance out some of his domestic failures, as he has worked so hard to make us do.
Ever at the intersection of the United States’ domestic and foreign affairs, immigration policy remained a fervent issue throughout the year, spurred early by the president as the first major policy initiative of his second term. Unfortunately, as the issue was roused it only brought to the fore the challenges of reaching a rational solution to a problem in which both parties are operating on flawed premises. The president seemed to quickly lose enthusiasm for the issue once it became spearheaded by the bipartisan ‘Gang of Eight’ and their proposal. The left persists in supporting a more open immigration policy while failing to make the sort of outspoken moral argument they are prone to when advocating for the expansion or introduction of vast social welfare programs, encouraging the perception that they pursue the issue not on principle but only in hopes that new immigrants will vote Democrat. In truth, the president’s drawdown from the issue may be partly explained by the fact that his far-left union support base has always been adamantly anti-immigration, often matching the right in their nationalist championing of ‘America-for-Americans’ and characterization of immigrants as job-thieves and welfare louses. Indeed, the president’s deportation of unauthorized immigrants supports this theory, as his administration has been deporting considerably more immigrants than presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton ever did.
On the issue of immigration, however, it is still the right who present us with the most disconcerting spectacle, showing a nationalistic inclination that is decidedly not part of the classical American conception of our place in world politics. Republicans, inflamed by what is still a dismal economy for many, along with certain economic misconceptions and dangerous philosophical ideas, are finding themselves in a precarious position, on common ground with unions and the far-left — not to mention siding with the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over that of Ronald Reagan, whom they so admire.
Much like the left’s lust for authoritarian democracy setting them against popular protest movements in the second- and third-world, the right’s support of protectionist immigration policies is affording them strange bedfellows. Lest they forget it was Reagan who, in 1986, issued the last round of that policy the mention of which so chills Republicans to the bone: “amnesty.” Reagan wasn’t purely utilitarian about the policy, either, saying, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” What’s more: contrary to how such a policy is generally characterized, Reagan’s amnesty enactment didn’t lead to a recession or economic hardship, but rather proved a boon to an expanding economy.
Rather than valuing this history lesson, Republicans have derived an unsubstantiated conception of Obama as a radical advocate of open immigration and, thinking they are opposing him, have instead sided with his policy of increased deportation. The idea of deporting immigrants to keep jobs exclusive to US-born citizens is no new idea, though. It was used by FDR as part of the New Deal, who went so far as to deport authorized immigrants who entered legally.
So what do FDR, anti-immigrant unions, and Republicans have in common? Per usual, it is a deeper philosophical idea. It is the idea that those who are born in a place own it as a matter of birthright, that those born in a country have license to keep others out, and that the government should intervene to regulate the economy in defense of the well-being of that ‘people’ or ethnicity. It is the political philosophy of nationalism, and it is incompatible with a free economy. It contradicts the ideas of private property rights and the right to trade freely, without the government dictating with whom you can do business based on their place of origin. Above all, it is incompatible with the capitalist influences that have, promisingly, taken root in the Republican party through its Tea Party caucus. If the messages of individual rights, economic freedom, and limited government are indeed principles of that faction and not simply slogans, the Tea Party will look long and hard at its views on immigration and consider the moral contradiction of following in establishment Republicans’ footsteps. If they do, they will not only be in the moral right, but, contrary to the characterization of immigrants as freeloaders who drain an economy, they may well find that freer immigration offers unanticipated solutions to some of the fiscal woes that face our country today. With a record 40.4 million authorized and unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States, it is an issue that will continue to weigh on the country until a lasting solution is found.
After a year of fiscal battles and continued raises of the debt ceiling, surely any policy that promises relief should be taken as welcome. 2013 showed the world that the debt battles of 2011 and 2012 were not passing phenomena but a new fact of life with Obama in the White House and Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. With the limit raised to $17.1 trillion, which it is predicted to hit soon, and the temporary suspension of the debt limit to terminate in early February, we will likely be returning to the same debate and talking points in the early weeks of 2014. With neither party taking seriously the problem of out-of-control spending and Republican leadership granting its support to the Ryan-Murray Budget Deal, which raises both taxes and the national debt over the next decade, it is clear that even in the House, the influence of limited-government advocates is either superficial or so marginal as to be swallowed up by those Democrats and Republicans too invested in the status quo to achieve meaningful change.
This was reaffirmed in late October when that small faction of fiscally responsible legislators attempted to repeal or defund the president’s healthcare overhaul. The move was spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who delivered a twenty-one-hour speech overnight on the floor of the Senate in opposition to the president’s healthcare law (a sort of speech that was never allowed to happen when Obamacare was originally passed due to the Slaughter Rule). The speech coincided with a battle over the continuing resolution to keep the government funded for the next few months, and Cruz and his allies intended to use the House’s position as originator of all appropriations bills as leverage to drag Obama and Democrats to the negotiating table over the healthcare law. Later that week, the Senate Democrats passed an amendment to remove all language defunding Obamacare from the House-passed bill and the government shutdown began.
Though he did not successfully prevent the Democrats from removing the defunding provisions from the bill, Cruz’s speech (in which he read from Atlas Shrugged in the early hours of the morning) managed to energize the Republican and Tea Party base. Voters flooded the offices of their Republican lawmakers and demanded they stand with Cruz and attempt to defund Obamacare, and Republican leadership complied (albeit, reluctantly and without any conviction). For a period of about two weeks, the government went unfunded as all “non-essential” government functions were halted — a rather amusing concept in and of itself to those calling for fiscally responsible governance.
Meanwhile, the White House directed its agencies to make the shutdown as “painful” as possible on the American people in an arguably manic attempt to defend what the left considered Obama’s legacy. For his part, Obama refused to compromise in any fashion, even while Republicans offered increasingly milder modifications to his healthcare law. As the days turned to weeks and the Republican leadership, especially in the Senate, more often spoke out against Cruz than alongside him, poll numbers for all parties involved tanked and establishment Republicans retreated. The short term battle for poll numbers frightened them far more than the long-term effects of the impending disaster that was the president’s healthcare law. The Republican Establishment, working with their traditional allies in the Democratic Party, routed the Tea Party faction in the House and forced a funding resolution through the Senate, effectively funding the government and leaving Obamacare unchanged. Democratic analysts declared victory and were excitedly counting the seats they expected to win in 2014 over a year before a single vote will be cast. Unluckily for them, the implementation of Obamacare — which began during the shutdown and lumbers on today — provided the Republicans with a powerful campaign message for 2014: “Cruz was right.”
Obamacare’s rollout was plagued with trouble from the start, beginning with the $1 billion online disaster that is “Healthcare.gov.” Plagued with loading screens and crashes, the government’s website proved incapable of handling the volume of traffic (a fraction of that handled by private companies on a daily basis). Despite the administration’s rosy spin that the traffic only proved the success of the healthcare law, the narrative quickly unraveled when Sec. Sebelius displayed unwillingness to release the number of people who had managed to successfully enroll in the government healthcare exchanges. One fraudulent case of a successful enrollment was celebrated by administration officials in the media and then quickly and quietly cast aside when it turned out that the supposed enrollee (a twenty-something Obama supporter) had fabricated his story. The majority of the traffic, it seemed, had come from people simply curious about the new site, but who had no intention of enrolling.
But as Slade Mendenhall noted, the problems related to the government’s website went much deeper poor website development: “Though the botched rollout was written off by the administration as a mere ‘glitch’, the rollout of the program has shown that the program’s troubles go well beyond servers and web design to the laws of economics.” As the rollout developed further, Americans began to express sticker shock at the costs of even the most basic plans under the healthcare law. As had already happened in Massachusetts and as was predicted to happen by the law’s detractors, premiums under the new law were significantly higher than they had been before. Such is the necessary case when the law imposes immense burdens on private insurers and requires healthy people to pay as if they were sick and the young as if they were old, not to mention when there are ten mandated healthcare provisions that may be entirely irrelevant to an individual’s coverage needs.
The administration, for its part, has made no attempt to obscure from where it intends to draw the bulk of its funding — “young invincibles,” meaning the young, healthy Americans least in need of health coverage who will pay the most into it without drawing much from it. Knowing well the impending disaster if only sick and elderly people buy into the exchanges, the administration has lobbied hard to attract young people to the exchanges, with presumably marginal results, though none can be sure until HHS releases the demographic statistics of current enrollees. The right, oppositely, has led a rather successful campaign to make young people aware that it may better serve their interests to simply pay the annual fee than to purchase health insurance through the exchanges, further frustrating administration attempts to garner young enrollees.
Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the rollout: PolitiFact awarded Obama its “Lie of the Year” Award for his iconic statement, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” Thousands of Americans received notice from their insurance companies that they would be losing coverage — often superior coverage compared to what they can afford under Obamacare — due to their plans not meeting Obamacare’s mandated regulatory standards (e.g. a single, childless, drug free, male adult not having either a. maternal care, b. pediatric care, or c. substance abuse services covered by his plan, all three of which are part of the “ten essential benefits” mandated by the healthcare law).
If Obama and his supporters were correct about anything, it is that Obamacare is this president’s legacy. Every broken promise, every lie, and every American who suffered injury as a result of this law will overshadow even his greatest, most rational achievement (killing bin Laden) for years to come, provided Republicans are willing to proclaim that narrative without reservation.
Whatever lead the Democrats thought they possessed going into 2014 was quickly erased, and at-risk Democrats began suggesting possible alterations to the law. Obama’s approval rating sunk to its lowest since 2011, and Democrats sought to distance themselves from the law and explain away their decision to oppose Cruz and fund the healthcare law. Obama responded as he is wont to do by avoiding the possibility of conceding a victory to the Republicans and by breaking his own law, issuing executive orders that explicitly contradict the legislative provisions of the law (such as grandfathering in old plans, as if that would then deflect blame onto the insurance companies), a power that the president arguably does not even constitutionally possess. Of course, try as he might to make the square wheels of his healthcare rollout to turn smoothly, it simply cannot be done, and the public is beginning to realize as much, expressing even greater disapproval toward the law than to the president himself. Not only has the president’s crowning policy achievement begun to crumble before his eyes; he has made it unsalable to the American people.
Just one year into the Obama administration’s second term, the failure of its defining legislation may simply be one symptom of an administration in terminal condition. Though Obama’s first term was not without its monumental failures, perhaps what most distinguished this year from his first four was the responsiveness of Americans to this image of perpetual failure and misguided policies. Poll numbers were not kind to the president in 2013, showing all-time lows in his approval rating and all-time highs in disapproval ratings. After ObamaCare policies started taking effect in October, polls showed that a mere 16% of independents supported the president. RCP’s Poll-of-Polls showed the president to be at an all-time low of 40% approval at the beginning of December. The statistics were even more incriminating in some of Obama’s key demographics. A surprising 52% of young people 18-24 went beyond disapproving of the president to say he should be recalled. Such polls may point to a second term in which the president gradually loses his legislative support base, with Republicans now holding a slight edge in the 2014 senate race and the GOP outpacing Democrats in the production of new, young, charismatic personalities and future presidential candidates.
While it is promising to see a more Tea-Party-influenced GOP taking the lead in the run-up to 2014, it is important to remember that not all Republican candidates are made equal–not by a long-shot. Some increasingly value and work to promote capitalist principles while others hold fast to the sinking middle ground of American politics, preserving a mixed economy in the name of moderation, forgetting Goldwater’s maxim that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.” Some, such as Senator Rand Paul, defend individual rights and seek to bring about a renewed appreciation for the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments to the Constitution, while other (mainly GOP Establishment legislators) surrender the rights and well-being of Americans every time they go to the bargaining table with the president.
Legislators like John Boehner, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Peter King have largely centered their political images in 2013 upon their eagerness to oppose the Tea Party. They have come to speak more favorably of the president than of the members of their own party. On what grounds do they deride an increasingly popular Republican faction? For the charge of having stood adamantly for certain basic principles and refusing to give them away in the name of compromise. The result has been an unprecedented level of infighting and division within a major political party, highlighted by the purging of Tea Partiers from House committees at the end of 2012 and Graham and McCain’s battles with Rand Paul over domestic drone strikes and aid to Egypt.
Boehner, Graham, and their ilk, however, may be betting on the wrong horse. Boehner’s approach of running out the clock on every budget battle to give the president what he wants and blame any intransigence on the Tea Party is starting to wear at Republicans, who have increasingly turned against him and his style of leadership throughout 2013, making him increasingly the brunt of the joke, a perceived ally of the White House, and the reason for Republican losses. Graham is now facing an outpouring of Tea Party challengers in the 2014 South Carolina Republican primary. McConnell, despite his offhand criticisms of the Tea Party, has had to seemingly rely on Rand Paul’s support to ward off potential Tea Party primary challengers in Kentucky. John McCain’s “whacko birds” characterization of Paul and Ted Cruz has done more to make him the subject of derision than either of them.
Though not without its growing pains, this tumultuous scene would appear to be the image of a party in the process of an ideological transformation. Like all such transformations, it must, by its nature, be incremental. We must consider, however, that this may ultimately prove to be a healthy process of challenging existing ideas to the betterment of the Republican party and of the country. Though the left and their media allies have relished treating the GOP’s internal conflicts as signs of weakness, quite the opposite is true. Such struggles are how movements are made and are a sign of wisdom and institutional strength brought about by the caucus’ refusal to break off as a third party. It is fair to venture, in fact, that the left, by virtue of its hard-line approach and intolerance for dissidents, is incapable of that kind of healthy reform. In time, we may see that the ability of the right to endure difficult internal challenges will be the source of its strength and a cause for its long-term ideological success.
It will likely be years before the Tea Party ideology becomes the dominant force on the right. It is also entirely possible and must be considered that the Tea Party as it is now may be very different from the final incarnation of that transformed party. Indeed, though the caucus is on the right track, it still has a long way to go in improving its arguments for capitalism and individual rights. In many senses, it still borrows the collectivist moral premises of the left in arguing for liberty. As a result, though the last four years have seen considerable advances in the culture on the right in terms of support for individual rights and freedoms, that trend has been operating at perhaps only 50% of its potential strength. If the cultural pace-setters in the Tea Party do not work to reform this trend, they will be grossly disappointed in 2016.
As matters stand now, GOP popularity is growing because Obama’s and the left’s policies are failing, but that is a victory by default. If Republicans and the Tea Party want to effect meaningful change and not just another “swing to the right”– if they want a shift to the right– they need to start fighting for capitalism and they need to do it in moral terms, not simply haggling over “what works.” Americans, grossly dissatisfied with the current condition of the country, will readily join a candidate (as they did with Mitt Romney and his Republican primary opponents in 2012) in condemning the way things are. However, without an alternative presented to them– without a vision of how things should be– they will prove difficult, if not impossible, to truly motivate.
This is the great challenge of the Tea Party and, more broadly, the American right today: developing and defending substantive alternatives to the existing ways of doing things.
Americans already oppose ObamaCare and support its repeal. What they have not heard is a rational alternative to it: freedom in the medical field, the dismantling of the third-party payer system and tax incentives for the over-use of insurance, and the gradual phasing-out of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid that have inflated the costs of medical care for decades.
Americans already have their own personal views on social issues that they are free to express and act upon in their own daily lives. They are increasingly displaying their opposition to laws prohibiting marijuana use and possession, as well as those forbidding gay marriage. What they have not heard is principled candidates on the right who, in arguing the merits of limited government, apply that logic consistently to social issues and respect the proper role of the state in society.
Americans already disapprove of the Obama and Bush administrations’ foreign policies. They already believe that US global influence is at a forty-year low and show a waning interest in continued foreign engagements that do not benefit us at home. What they have not heard is a rational alternative to the existing approaches: a return to the conception of US foreign policy as a means for the defense and preservation of Americans’ well-being at home and abroad, an end to foreign aid and interventionist conflicts, an end to the idea of being the world’s policeman, and a serious approach to opposing true foreign threats.
Americans already disapprove in large numbers of Obama’s economic policy, and few believe the much-touted claims of recovery. What they have not heard is a firm and articulate contrary economic program: one that amounts to more than a mere re-hashing of old ideas and haggling over tax percentages, that calls out the abuses and destructive nature of our ever-growing regulatory state, that looks honestly at the economic burden of entitlement programs and supports their gradual phase-out, and that seeks promising free-market alternatives capable of meeting our country’s needs.
If the Tea Party and those on the right, no matter their label, are to succeed, they need to add substance to their ideas– real alternatives; not mere nay-saying. The sooner they do so, the more quickly and effectively they can shed the image of being perpetual oppositionists and become a mature movement of advocates for individual rights in America.
This is not to say that the signs of substantive change are not present. Surely they are. Rick Perry’s proposition earlier in the year to amend the Texas constitution, requiring the state government to return to Texans any excess taxes it exacted was a glimmer of light, and one that he could have benefited from unveiling during his bid for the presidency. Optimism and openness toward such policy moves may continue to flourish as the culture at large becomes more suspicious of government and sympathetic to those who seek to limit its power. Indeed, a remarkable 53% of Americans today see the federal government as a threat to their rights and freedoms.
In a positive display, as Facebook has continued to show the world its permanence as a company, its political activism has shown through and proven overall commendable, with Mark Zuckerberg using his pulpit to declare immigration reform the greatest civil rights issue of our time and supporting a more open system for legal immigration. Even Hollywood’s output has proven more skeptical of government oppression, with villains often coming in the form of bureaucrats and dictators, and heroes appearing as underdog dissidents.
Is the toll of government failures and abuses starting to show in the culture? Seemingly. Will it remain fervent or die off when the winds change direction? It is hard to say, but that depends largely upon the trendsetters in culture and intellectualism as well as, politically speaking, on whether those on the right remain committed to the course that has been set since 2009. Are Republicans on track to be ready for 2016? There can be no doubt that it will be an uphill battle, as Establishment Republicans and their media allies fight to retain their vision for the party. The early prodding of Republican voters to see Chris Christie as their only shot to the White House in 2016 suggests that some in the GOP leadership learned nothing from Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 and will readily lead us down the same path to failure to retain their own outdated vision for the country.
No doubt the same tired crop of moderates will be filed out when the time comes and sold to Americans as ‘electable’ alternatives, with much political capital being expended to stifle Tea Party candidates and make them appear as marginal extremists. Whether Americans buy the line this time or, departing from old habits, reject that approach and vote their minds will be decisive for both the country and the party. Whatever 2014 and the midterm elections bring with them (in these tumultuous times, we do not venture to guess!), they will likely set the tone for the following two years, either affirming the Republicans as being on the right track or sending them back to the locker room for some serious introspection and strategy revisions.
In past installments of this Review, we have often closed with a quote– part inspiration, part direction, part reverence for those gone before us. There are no doubt a wealth of passages long written down that could add a suitable flair to this retrospective, grasping from the ether the essence of times like these, as great wordsmiths always have. Perhaps this is not the time for borrowed wisdom, though. Perhaps the time has come to pen our own witticisms and sagacity; to draw firstly upon the present and our own condition to discern the proper course for our future; to give a well-deserved nod to those who have pointed that way, but to honor them less by our words and more by our actions. Perhaps those who define their beliefs by the desire to ‘conserve’ some undefined ideal from an unspecified time when all was allegedly better should look instead towards creating something new and unprecedented– a clear and unadulterated ideal to be strived for without guilt or equivocation. Perhaps there remains in this country, beneath two and a half centuries of deviation, relativism, skepticism, and inversions, an ideal still worth defending– an ideal whose time has come.