Archive

February 14th, 2016

Is U.S. 'presidentialist' democracy failing?

    Perplexed by today's turbulent American political scene? Not to worry: A distinguished political scientist wrote an essay 26 years ago that anticipated our predicament with eerie explanatory power. The only downside is that its author specialized in the causes of democratic collapse.

    "The Perils of Presidentialism," by Yale University's Juan J. Linz, compared the Westminster-style parliamentary system with "presidentialist" systems that divide executive and legislative power between separately elected presidents and assemblies. The former, he concluded, were inherently more stable than the latter.

    This was an unlikely argument for an academic in the United States - a presidentialist nation deeply attached to separation of powers as a constitutional principle and equally confident of its political stability.

    Yet Linz, a Spaniard, had closely studied his native country's 20th-century journey from democracy to dictatorship and back again, as well as the chronically unstable presidential systems of Spain's former colonies in Latin America.

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If Assad and Putin win, then Islamic State wins

    The civilians fleeing Aleppo don't prove definitively that, with Russian backing, President Bashar al-Assad will win the Syrian civil war. But it's certainly time to game out that scenario and ask: What would victory look like to Assad? And what will happen to the other regional actors engaged in this fight?

    The decisive element to consider is whether Assad needs to defeat Islamic State to be a winner. If the answer is yes -- and if Assad could do it -- the world would probably breathe a sigh of relief, and accept Assad's victory, despite its extraordinary human costs and egregious violations of human rights.

    But Assad will probably calculate that he doesn't need to beat Islamic State, just contain it so that it doesn't constitute an existential threat to his regime. That would put Islamic State well on its way to becoming a statelet, accepted by its neighbors for lack of will to defeat it. The long-term consequences for the world would be high, but Assad's regime would be substantially better off.

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Count the New Hampshire losers and move on

    Who had it worst in New Hampshire?

 

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    Might as well start with the obvious one, but her defeat is unlikely to cost her the nomination. It may be similar to George W. Bush's landslide loss to John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000. There was a fuss, but nothing more, as it turned out.

 

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

    The first four presidential contests are mainly about winnowing. Christie was winnowed. It's unfair to blame him for taking his best shot at winning by going after Marco Rubio in Saturday night's debate. That may have weakened Rubio, and led to what many see as chaos in the Republican nomination fight right now, but they might more fairly blame Jeb Bush for directing more than $20 million of negative ads at Rubio.

 

    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

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Clinton must now fight for the female vote

    In a devastating outcome for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, this was the most unkindest cut of all: Women flocked to Bernie Sanders. Not by single digits, but by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent.

    These numbers matter, and not, as Shakespeare wrote of Brutus stabbing Caesar, because "ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms, quite vanquish'd him." Clinton is not vanquished by what she and her supporters may see as female voters' ingratitude; she will soldier on.

    But moving forward, the candidate and her campaign need to figure out how better to speak to women, especially younger ones. In particular, they need to navigate the treacherous waters of celebrating the prospect of the first female president without sounding as if that is a qualification in itself. Or, worse, as if female voters tempted by Sanders are traitors to the feminist cause -- Brutus to Clinton's Caesar.

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A culture war breaks out over Super Bowl halftime

    I want to thank Rudy Giuliani. As supremely unenlightened as I may be about pop culture, hearing the former New York mayor's cranky critique of Beyonce's Super Bowl halftime show makes me feel almost hip.

    "I think it was outrageous," he said, venting full You-Kids-Get-Off-My-Lawn geezer rage on Fox News Monday. "The halftime show I thought was ridiculous anyway. I don't know what the heck it was. A bunch of people bouncing around and all strange things. It was terrible."

    For the record, the "bunch of people bouncing around" consisted of pop superstar Beyonce backed by her female dance team who wore Black Panther-style black berets atop huge 1960s-style afros and at one point raised a "black power" fist salute in the air.

    All of which Giuliani interpreted as a salute to the Black Lives Matter movement and a slap at police.

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Rubio's revealing loop

    It's time for establishment Republicans to face the truth about Marco Rubio: Once you get past the facade, there appears to be no there there.

    The void behind his prettified rhetoric was stunningly revealed in Saturday night's debate. Rubio sounded like a malfunctioning cyborg as he kept repeating one of his prepared lines.

    Asked to list his accomplishments in the Senate, he tried to name a few but was wise to change the subject. But he did so with an oddly phrased swipe at the president: "And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing." I guess that's supposed to be a bad thing.

    Chris Christie barged in with a tough attack on Rubio's lack of experience. Rubio's response: "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing."

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Why President Obama's new budget is more relevant than you thought

    Here's what budget expert Stan Collender said about President Barack Obama's new 2017 budget:

    "This is a lame duck's budget being sent to a hostile Congress controlled by an opposition party in an election year. There is little-to-no chance of it influencing much on Capitol Hill, of any major proposal being adopted or of it being remembered more than a few days after it's released."

    Harsh, yes, but there's a strong possibility that he's right. In recent days, congressional Republicans loudly proclaimed that the president's budget proposal would be dead on arrival. To which I thought: DOA would be an improvement. They were considering the document dead long before its arrival, certainly before any of them had seen it. Both Senate and House Republicans even took the unprecedented step of refusing to hold the usual hearings where White House budget officials present the budget to Congress.

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February 13th

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Valentine's Day

    Valentine's Day is upon us. And to think we are still recuperating from Groundhog Day. That's February for you, a gray month of no big flashy celebrations, at least not until President's Day.

    The busier many of us get, the less our demand for outside stimuli. But for those needing to set chronological coordinates, Valentine's Day delivers.

    Valentine's Day, the event, evokes responses ranging from love to hate. It is often held in contempt by the ultra-sophisticated and the partner-less, which are two groups that can overlap. They dismiss the day as a merchandising hook for purveyors of chocolate, flowers or heart-shaped anything -- and a shot-in-the-arm for restaurateurs on a (preferably) non-weekend night. (Is that so bad?)

    One reason to like Valentine's Day is that it's an occasion for which people get dressed up. One reason to dislike Valentine's Day is that only the women get dressed up. This is a generalization, I know, but go to a nice restaurant and observe the ladies in sparkles and manicures and their male partners in un-pressed jeans, their shirts hanging out.

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Why people confess to crimes they didn't commit

    An economics professor made the audacious suggestion a few years ago that the medieval practice of trial by ordeal "worked" because innocent people were more likely than guilty ones to pick up pieces of hot iron or plunge their bare hands into boiling oil. The practice depended on suspects having unwavering faith that God would save the truly innocent from third-degree burns. And the priests in charge could temper the heat, just in case God wasn't paying attention.

    Likewise, less brutal means of psychological manipulation in U.S. criminal investigations may "work" to elicit confessions, but there's a growing scientific case that currently acceptable tactics aren't conducive to discovering the truth.

    The recent mass distribution of videotaped interrogations, such as the ones featured in the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," reveal that confessions aren't always spontaneous acts of contrition, motivated by the need for a clear conscience. The interrogation process can still be something of an ordeal, with confessions coaxed by combinations of psychological pressure, deception and sheer exhaustion.

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Why James Madison would have backed Phoenix's Satanists

    The Phoenix City Council has voted to no longer to begin its meetings with a public prayer. Sounds like a victory for the separation of church and state, right? Maybe even the influence of Justice Elena Kagan's dissent in the Town of Greece case, in which the court's majority allowed such prayers to continue?

    Think again. The Phoenix City Council is banning prayer so that self-described Satanists won't have a chance to give one. The decision isn't about tolerance but intolerance. In the end, that's a good thing, a sign of the establishment clause working -- and of James Madison's First Amendment logic in action.

    The law as clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2014 case is the backdrop against which events have unfolded. According to the justices' interpretation of the First Amendment, the city council can hold public prayer at the beginning of its sessions. Congress does it, after all -- and has from the very beginning.

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