Monday, July 31, 2006

Moderate v. Centrist

I managed to miss this on Friday (actually I saw it but forgot to post it and then just re-discovered it) - CNN political editor Mark Preston has some comments on the distinction between "moderate" and "centrist", at least as those terms pertain to the Republican Main Street Partnership.

More than 60 current governors, representatives and senators are members of the RMSP, which works to bring together centrists within the GOP around issues which unite rather than divide. It's a good group, and they're working hard this year, planning to spend more than $7 million on elections around the country.

Part of the RMSP's big job is countering the impact of the Club for Growth, which goes after Republicans who don't agree 100% with their economic and social platform (i.e. all tax cuts good, abortion bad, etc.). Right now the Club is going after freshman congressman Joe Schwarz (MI), who has been very much a centrist during his term, as well as Senator Linc Chafee in RI (the Club supports challenger Steven Laffey, while RMSP is backing Chafee).

Rep. Tom Davis (VA), the current president of RMSP, notes that the group is not about unseating other incumbent Republicans, speaking of the need for tolerance of different views within the party. While I sometimes wish that this group would be more active and make the centrist voice heard on a wider range of issues, I think they've improved greatly in recent years and I really hope that trend continues.

As we're seeing around the country, from Rhode Island to Connecticut to Michigan and beyond, there are those in both parties who want everyone to think, act, and vote alike. That is neither healthy nor desirable, and we all should continue to do everything in our power to oppose such attempts.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Today's Must-Read

Anne Kornblut has an interesting article in today's NYTimes that's worth a read. She covers the unlikely friendship that's sprung up between Senators McCain and Clinton as they've worked together on the Senate Armed Forces Committee and other matters ... and the ways in which that friendship may impact the prospective 2008 campaign season. Kornblut comments "the interplay between the two senators, both well known and both with compelling personal narratives and a knack for infuriating their own parties’ bases, could determine the tone of the 2008 presidential race and make it less personally vicious than the last two campaigns."

The article goes on to note that the two senators share a basic approach to politics, as both "strive to be seen as willing to break with ideological orthodoxy from time to time and to work across the aisle." Marshall Wittman (aka the Bull Moose) is quoted as well, saying "They would run a completely different campaign than we’ve seen in recent memory. Both of them realize there is a desire in the country for a different politics of national unity that transcends the current polarization."

Presuming that McCain and Clinton are in fact the major party nominees for 2008 (and that is a huge presumption at this point in the game), I think it's true that the candidates themselves would strive for a higher tone and a less-polarized dynamic. However, the parties, the surrogates, the interest groups will almost certainly continue to engage in the same kind of attack politics and smear games we've seen over the last several election cycles. It would take a heruclean effort by the candidates to quell those tactics; an effort, I fear, that would require their constant attention and prevent them from ever actually campaigning for anything.

There are a whole lot of "we'll see" moments between now and a McCain-Clinton race in 2008. But I think Kornblut and Wittman are right - such a race might have the best chance of looking different from any we've seen in a long time.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Stem Cells as Campaign Issue

Running late this morning, but I did want to pass along this article from today's Christian Science Monitor on the role that stem cell politics are playing in some key races around the country. According to Cook Political Report analysts and others, the number of races being impacted by this issue continues to grow after the Bush veto last week.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fun with Scenarios

The New York Times has unveiled its "Interactive Guide" to the 2006 election season, where you can get information on candidates, try your hand at election scenarios (see what happens if the GOP loses PA but wins in OH or something, for example). Some good information, if limited (the gubernatorial races don't include independent candidates, which in some states could prove decisive this year ... hem hem Texas ...).

Eavesdrop "Compromise": I Smell a Rat

Back on July 14, I declared myself "cautiously optimistic" on the deal reached between the Administration and Senator Specter on the NSA eavesdrop program. I cannot say that is the case anymore. After yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the issue, it appears that the Administration is seeking even more power outside the FISA framework.

While the agreement would still submit the eavesdrop program to the FISA court for review, it would also provide a Congressional blessing for the extralegal activity: "the White House had insisted that the bill include language implicitly recognizing the president’s 'constitutional authority' to collect foreign intelligence beyond the provisions of the 1978 law," as Eric Lichtblau reports in this morning's NYTimes. To accept such a formulation is to say that the president can go beyond FISA basically any way he wants, any time he wants ... just because he can.

What really bugs me about this entire discussion is that the Administration's arguments for ignoring the FISA requirements are incredibly lame. Yesterday NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander told the Judiciary Committee it would be a "tremendous burden" if his agency had to pursue a warrant for each target: "You would be so far behind the target, if you were in hot pursuit, with the numbers of applications that you would have to make and the time to make those, you could never catch up." And that is exactly why FISA allows 72 hours in which the surveillance can occur before a warrant is sought (if that period needs to be extended slightly, fine, make it a week or something).

Walter Pincus, on the story today for the Washington Post, notes that Senator Feinstein (no fool on intelligence matters) said that "based on what she had learned in secret briefings about the number of U.S. citizens subject to wiretaps, the surveillance program 'is easily accommodatable to an individual warrant for U.S. persons.'" Of course the NSA folks disagreed.

But there's more - the loopholes have only begun to rear their ugly heads. Assistant Attorney General (aciting) Steven Bradbury noted that the Specter-(Bush) legislation "would 'encourage' - but not require - Bush or a future president to present any future surveillance program to the secret FISA court for approval." Also, according to Pincus, "Bradbury stressed that the president retained authority to institute such a program on his own and that Bush's pledge to submit the program for judicial review was only 'if the chairman's legislation were enacted in its current form or with the further amendments sought by the administration.'"

And that's even before we get to the signing statements. I have to say, I smell a rat. While I appreciate what Senator Specter's tried to do here, I think he got a raw deal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Redistricting Watch: National Updates

There's been some building momentum in recent weeks on the redistricting reform front, and I've been behind the eight-ball, for which I must apologize. Here are some recent developments:

- Back on July 18, Reps. John Tanner (D-TN), Zach Wamp (R-TN) and other supporters of the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act held a news conference in response to the Supreme Court's end-of-term ruling on redistricting issues. "If we are going to fix this problem and give control of Congress back to the American people like our founding fathers intended, then the House and Senate must take that action now," Tanner said, referring to passage of his bill. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) said "We should all be concerned about the political shenanigans and gerrymandering that occur in this country. It affects the makeup of Congress and leaves nearly 90% of Members with safe seats and little chance of losing an election. We need to clean up this process." Dear Colleague letters [pdf] have been sent to members of both houses of Congress encouraging them to support action on the FIRA. If you haven't written to your members of Congress and offered your support, I urge you to do so if so inclined.

- The National Taxpayers Union has released a statement in support of the FIRA, which says, in part: "At first glance, this bill would not seem to have a direct impact on taxpayers, but NTU believes H.R. 2642 is key to restoring the citizen-legislator model our Founders envisioned. NTU’s letter noted, 'Unfortunately, although the process of drawing lines on a map to preserve political power has a long history in this country, the use of computers and other modern technologies has created a situation in which there are only 25 or so truly competitive races for 435 seats nationwide.' The result, according to [NTU Vice President for Communications Pete] Sepp, is two-fold: 'Hard-working taxpayers who are convinced their votes won’t make a difference stay home, while those who profit from bigger government flock to the polls. Meanwhile, the political class that’s propelled into office by this constituency cares even less about fiscal discipline and tax reform.'"

- The renewed push for reform has garnered some media attention, including articles in Roll Call (blocked by subscription, unfortunately) and the Associated Press.

- The editorial board of the Clarksville TN Leaf-Chronicle chimed in on July 23, noting "To be sure, gerrymandering has a long history in the United States. But a system that is designed to keep one party in power - whether Republican or Democrat is immaterial - doesn't conform to the basic principles of our representative democracy. Whether Tanner can get his bill through Congress is pretty iffy, given the current political situation, but it ought to be taken seriously and debated on its merits in a nonpartisan manner."

- Writing for the Knoxville News Sentinel, columnist Richard Powelson discusses the Tanner-Wamp bipartisan cooperation around this issue; he makes the important point that "Tanner is getting support for his bill from some well-known grassroots organizations like Common Cause and Public Citizen and the National Taxpayers Union. But these groups and Tanner's four-dozen House supporters need to stir up many Americans to get the attention of the power brokers in Washington to change the rules."

- In Roll Call today, DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel wrote a column titled "A Big Factor in Corruption: Gerrymandering" (again, blocked by subscription). It starts "

The DLC's American Dream Initiative

Alan over at Maverick Views has a great post on the policy agenda laid out yesterday by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, the American Dream Initiative. I agree entirely with his take on both the plan and its prospects.

Signing Statements and Specter

Reuters reports that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) will introduce legislation that would enable Congress to sue the president over his use of signing statements. This is one of the recommendations suggested in the ABA report I mentioned yesterday. An interesting idea, but we'll have to see if the legislation is allowed to go anywhere.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Back in the Saddle

I have returned from a very relaxing week of vacation and will be returning to a semi-regular blogging schedule this week, time willing - although it'll probably take me a bit to get back into the swing of things. It's definitely weird coming back to the internet and cable after a week of getting all my news from network television and the occasional newspaper (not to mention the fact that I came to realize just how bereft of any substantive comment the network morning shows are). I still have scads of emails to get through, some of which I'm sure are about postable topics.

A few brief comments for now (in no particular order whatsoever):

- On the stem cell veto. Not a surprise, but certainly a disappointment. We can hope that the next president will have a more enlightened attitude when it comes to this important research area, and we can remember well the role this one has played.

- On Ralph Reed's loss in the Georgia lieutenant gubernatorial primary. It's about time GOP voters realized that the Abramoff scandal is a serious issue. This loss is undoubtedly as good for Georgia as it is for the Republican Party.

- On the Lieberman-Lamont primary. Wowsers, what a mess. I probably need say no more than that I stand firmly with the Bull Moose on this one. I may disagree with Joe Lieberman on some issues associated with the war in Iraq, but I think the attacks being leveled at him by Lamont and his blogospheric surrogates are really over the top.

- On the renewed Mideast violence. I think Hezbollah is getting exactly what it deserves, but I regret wholly the loss of civilian life and infrastructure. I hope that a suitable arrangement can be reached, but that must involve the disarmament of Hezbollah and a strong security presence in south Lebanon to maintain the integrity and safety of northern Israel.

- On the ABA report faulting the president for his use of "signing statements." Their conclusion that the Bush Administration's widespread and substantial use of these runs "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers" is one I entirely share. I hope that some of their recommendations will be considered.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Off I Go!

I'm heading "down east" for some down time on the Maine coast this week, and will be posting extremely lightly (if at all). I've posted my vacation reading here at PhiloBiblos for your enjoyment.

Today's Reads

Two good and recommended articles from today's Washington Post:

- Jonathan Weisman covers the continuing movement by a bipartisan group of senators to get in front of the detainee justice issue and push for the use of UCMJ rules and courts martial to try enemy combatants. It's (thankfully) the usual suspects: McCain, Graham, Warner, Levin, and Specter. Another good quote from Graham today: "The idea of reauthorizing military commissions as written would be a mistake. I am very optimistic that we will reauthorize military commissions that are set up using [standard military law] as the model, but with substantial differences because the war on terror demands substantial differences."

- Rick Weiss writes about the upcoming Senate stem cell debate, revealing recent lobbying efforts by those on both sides of the issue. Senator Frist announced Friday that the debate on the stem cell package will begin on Monday, with votes on Tuesday. President Bush is still expected to veto the main portion of the bill, possibly as early as Thursday. The main House sponsors of the bill, Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) attempted to set up a meeting with the President to discuss the bill and his pledged veto, but "were told he would not have time." Yeeeah.

Friday, July 14, 2006

On the FISA "Compromise"

As the papers are reporting today, Senator Specter and the White House have apparently reached an agreement on legislation which will submit the warrantless eavesdrop program to blanket review by the FISA court.

Specter's legislation, according to today's WaPo report, "would allow the Justice Department unlimited attempts to revise the program to meet the court's approval and would allow it to appeal adverse court rulings. It would also give the NSA in emergency situations a week rather than the current 72 hours to eavesdrop on a domestic target without requesting a warrant, and it would allow the government to send to the FISA court all lawsuits challenging the program's legality."

In principle I'm in favor of judicial review over this eavesdrop program, but I would prefer individual warrants rather than a blanket approval. Of course who knows how the FISA court will rule on the matter; they could require just that. I think for now we must watch how the legislation works its way through both chambers of Congress and then see where we are - there are a great number of alternatives out there on the table, and any amendments will make a big difference in how this measure is received.

I hate to say "wait and see," but in this case I might be necessary. For now, I'm cautiously (ok, very cautiously) optimistic given that the Administration has actually agreed to a court review. That's a good start.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Graham Leads on Detainee Justice

The LATimes has an interesting profile today on Senator Lindsey Graham, who is emerging as the leading voice in the Senate when it comes to rights for military combatants in the wake of the SCourt's Hamdan decision. Graham's experience as a military lawyer (he currently is one of just 13 judges on the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals) is serving him well now, as his colleagues look to him for advice and ideas.

Graham has come out in favor of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice as the basis for a system to try terror suspects, rather than approving the Administration's tribunal plan or devising some other method. "We need to not only adhere to treaties that we've been a part of for 60 years for the protection of our own troops, we need to let people know that we can win this war without becoming our enemy," Graham said. Of taking another route than the UCMJ, Graham said "If you fight that approach, it's going to be a long, hot summer."

The LAT article quotes two of the Senate's "big guns" in support of Graham: Senator McCain, who allied with Graham on the anti-torture amendment last year, said "Lindsey is very persuasive and very articulate. He is the only guy in the Senate who has practiced the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so he has a pretty good idea what it's all about." And from the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton said of Graham "He has demonstrated a grasp of the issues and a commitment to the values of our military justice system, and an understanding of how what we do with enemy combatants affects our own troops. So I hope people listen to him."

It seems to me that the UCMJ would be a very decent basis for approaching this question, and the Senate (not to mention the Administration) could certainly do worse than to give Lindsey Graham's ideas the consideration they deserve.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Book Review: "Team of Rivals"

I've posted a review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals here at PhiloBiblos.

Stem Cell Vote Next Week

Hotline on Call provides this statement from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist:

"The Senate will take up the three stem cell bills on Monday, July 17, and will complete all action by Tuesday, July 18. There's tremendous promise in stem cell research, and I've worked long and hard with my colleagues to bring this serious ethical issue to the floor in a way that encourages thoughtful discussion and deliberation."

After days of cryptic speculation from The Note, some questions were finally answered yesterday about just what it was that Ron Fournier's been up to since his departure from the Associated Press. Fournier has joined with a group of high-level political consultants to announce the creation of, which is being billed as "a forum that connects community leaders from across the country - what the sponsors call 'opinion drivers' - with national political leaders, experts and celebrities to debate issues and trends in politics, business, science and culture."

Those involved with the founding of Hotsoup include Fournier (who will serve as editor of the site once it debuts in October), Bush-Cheney '04 chief strategist Matthew Dowd (now strategizing for Gov. Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign); GOP media guru Mark McKinnon; former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart; Carter Eskew and Michael Feldman, both Democratic advisers; and Allie Savarino, an "Internet advertising consultant."

As the LATimes puts it today "The effort is striking because it includes central figures from the last two presidential races, which sharply polarized the nation along lines of race, gender, cultural attitudes and geography. None of the website's organizers explicitly renounced the strategies they pursued in those campaigns, but they acknowledged unease with the fractures now evident in the public discourse on almost all major issues."

Matthew Dowd is quoted as saying "The perceived polarization that exists in this country today is not a good thing ... for each party ... or for the country's advancement." Lockhart adds "There is nobody who knows how broken the system is more than us. ... Everyone in the room could say they contributed to the polarization."

It will be very interesting to see where this effort goes. The group yesterday "struggled to describe just what the site ... will be and how it will reach the target audience," according to the Washington Post. That target audience will apparently be "people teaching Bible class, coaching Little League or volunteering in soup kitchens - and very interested in news." "But they were not clear on how they would find these local folks, especially since participants will not be paid. What the venture hopes to emulate is the social networking appeal of such sites as, in part by including discussions of books and perhaps movies."

Something to keep an eye on as the summer progresses - most importantly for our purposes, this is yet another response to the partisan schisms, and the reaction to it will be quite telling.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

McCain Profiled in Esquire

Hotline on Call has some interesting excerpts from an upcoming Esquire cover profile of Senator John McCain.

Just a couple of them:

"I understand the frustrations a lot of Republicans feel. We're not representing their hopes and dreams and aspirations. We worry about Ms. Schiavo before we worry about balancing the budget. We're going to take up this Family Marriage Amendment again. Why? The Republicans will vote one way, and the Democrats will vote another, and everybody knows it! It's pointless. I've never seen Washington as polarized as it is today."

"I urge my friends who complain about the influence of the religious Right, get out there and get busy. That's what they do! Now, if we believe in the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the big-tent party, then we have to get out there and show that. The fact is, some of us have sat idly by while those very active people have basically set the agenda for our party. I get attacked everyday because I'm working with Ted Kennedy. How can I work with Kennedy? Because I want to get something done."

[An interesting update to this: PoliticalWire reports on a new Rasmussen poll which has McCain running in statistical dead heat with Hillary Clinton and Al Gore (44% McCain-43% Clinton or Gore) ... in Massachusetts! In comparison, Giuliani has slightly less support (50-42% Clinton-Giuliani; 50-41% Gore-Giuliani). It's a small sample (only 500), but still ... wow.]

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Big Question

So what is the "significant intelligence program" that's now slowly making its way into the public eye? That is the big question for the day. We now know that Rep. Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent a strongly-worded letter (pdf) to President Bush back in May regarding an ongoing intel operation:

"I have learned of some alleged intelligence community activities about which our committee has not been briefed. If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the administration, a violation of the law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the members of this committee who have so ardently supported efforts to collect information on our enemies." Hoekstra added "The U.S. Congress simply should not have to play Twenty Questions to get the information that it deserves under our Constitution."

Today we learn (from another NYT article) that a whistle-blower from within the intelligence community disclosed the program's existence to Hoekstra, which combined with the chairman's letter prompted a briefing from the Administration to the Intel Committee on the operations being undertaken. Hoeksta said on "Fox News Sunday" "Some people within the intelligence community brought to my attention some programs that they believed we had not been briefed on. They were right."

Hoekstra added "We can't be briefed on every little thing that they are doing, but in this case, there was at least one major - what I consider significant - activity that we had not been briefed on that we have now been briefed on. And I want to set the standard there, that it is not optional for this president or any president or people in the executive community not to keep the intelligence committees fully informed of what they are doing."

The Washington Post report on Hoekstra's statements yesterday notes that the chairman "appeared mollified." But, he reiterated "I wanted to reinforce to the president and to the executive branch and the intelligence community how important, and by law the requirement, that they keep the legislative branch informed of what they are doing."

If Hoekstra was concerned enough about this program to write such a stern letter to the President, my guess is this operation is a pretty big deal. It's good to see Hoekstra finally speaking out on these issues (better late than never), but I hope that he and his committee aren't "mollified" into complacency with a single briefing, and continue to assert their oversight power as we move forward.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Does the House GOP Leadership Want to Lose?

Sorry I'm a bit behind the eight-ball on yesterday's NYT story about how GOP centrists are annoyed at a new fall schedule the leadership has laid out (I was gone all day on a birding trip and didn't feel the urge to blog when I got up at 3 a.m.). But I do have some thoughts on the piece.

According to the newly-released American Values Agenda, the House will be taking up a series of bills in the coming weeks and months that are simple wedge issues, from the "Pledge Protection Act" to the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act" to the "Public Expression of Religion Act" and beyond, even extending to another crack at the already-failed "Marriage Amendment" and of course, more tax cuts. It is designed to force uncomfortable votes for Democrats before the fall's elections - but that discomfort extends to within the GOP's tattered "big tent," and some people aren't happy about it. Nor should they be.

Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, one of three centrist Republicans in that state whose seat is "in play" this fall, called the agenda "stupid and gross." He continued "They have this obsession to satisfy conservative Republicans who will probably be re-elected no matter what happens. They get job satisfaction, but they are making it more difficult for me to win my race." Another centrist Republican, Mike Castle of Delaware, agreed: "I don't think it is a good agenda to go into the election cycle with."

But the leadership says they don't care - apparently the votes won't be whipped, and "lawmakers could establish their independence by voting against select initiatives if they choose." The larger issue, they say, is that Democrats in conservative-leaning areas will be disadvantaged.

Shays suggested that this agenda helps "maybe 3" of the top competitive races this fall, and told the Times that he skipped a House GOP meeting this week rather than risk losing his temper over the plan.

If the House GOP leadership could have come up with a better way to play directly into the hands of the Democrats, I can't think what it is. As DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel put it, "It reminds people that the Republican Party is the party of Terry Schiavo" - he suggested that it could very much his candidates in various parts of the country.

Frankly at this point I'd like to see the Democrats win back control of the House this year, because I think the GOP's gone off the deep end. The problem is, those who stand to lose are not the deep-enders - it's the centrists like Shays, whose influence within the party is most sorely needed. Pushing this agenda (even if the moderates oppose it) allows the Democrats to tar and feather the GOP for the ideological montrosity that it has become.

If the leadership really wanted to make a good impression with the American people before the end of the year, it could do so ... or it can continue along this road to ruin and loss. Their staggering hubris will surely impel them down the "American Values Agenda" path, and it will only hurt the party in the end.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Few Good Links

- From the AP: is it time to retire the penny?

- In case you missed last night's debate between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont, WaPo has the transcript. Joe Gandelman has posted the definitive discussion/roundup on the go-around, and the Bull Moose adds his thoughts as well.

- Alan Stewart Carl at Maverick Views discusses how a Giuliani '08 campaign could be helped by having Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker's chair after this fall's elections.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bush Admin Board Games

Over at McSweeney's, Eric Feezell offers up a list of "Board Games Inspired by the Bush Administration." Well done.

Broder on Congressional Opportunities

David Broder's column today is well worth a read; he rightly suggests that the Supreme Court's decision last week in the Hamdan case is an important opening for Congress to re-assert its authority, and a necessary slap-down of an overreaching executive:

"Once again the chief executive had to be reminded that he is not above the law. No more than the security threats Nixon invented to justify his rogue police state operations will the war on terrorism relieve the president of the burden imposed by the Constitution to 'faithfully execute the laws.' He can't just make them up to suit his convenience.

For anyone who was worried that the United States was in danger of losing its precious freedoms as it mobilized to combat the threat of Islamic terrorism, the Stevens opinion was the best possible Independence Day gift. The Supreme Court that helped install President Bush in the presidency when it cut off the recounting of Florida votes sent him a clear message that he must operate in ways that Congress and the Constitution permit."

Quite so. As Broder goes on to say, Congress should not fear, or shirk, their responsibilities here - even if they have done so for the past five years. Our checks and balances continue to work, but Congress must step up and do its part.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bush Shifting Immigration Stance?

Well, it probably had to happen. The NYT reports today that President Bush is backing down from his calls for comprehensive immigration reform and beginning to move toward supporting a multi-stage process that would delay implementation of any guest worker and path-to-citizenship program for several years. Joe Gandelman has much more.

I've said it before, I'll probably say it again - submit the Senate bill to a vote in the House, and it would probably pass handily with the support of Democrats and centrist Republicans. If comprehensive reform fails, it will be the fault of the ridiculous and polarizing "majority of the majority" rule enacted by the Republican leadership.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Book Review: "Revolutionary Characters"

I decided that the Fourth was an appropriate day for a review of Gordon Wood's new book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. It provides an excellent counterpoint to the other work on the framers I reviewed recently, the misguided What Would the Founders Do? by Rick Brookhiser (the two were in fact jointly reviewed by Jon Meacham recently).

Wood's book is a much more serious examination of the founding personalities than Brookhiser's, and for that reason alone is infinitely more important. Drawn mostly from previously published materials that are revised and expanded here, Wood offers short character sketches of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Paine and Burr, as well as quite useful introductory and concluding chapters. He makes the important point that most of these men saw the world very differently than we do, and pictured their role in that world rather differently as well.

The general conclusion that Wood has reached after examining the lives of the founders is that their achievements can never again be duplicated because of the groundwork for egalitarian democracy which they laid in framing the government. "One of the prices we had to pay for democracy," he writes, "was a decline in the intellectual quality of American political life and an eventual separation between ideas and power."

I enjoyed each of Wood's chapters. Washington he describes as "the only truly classical hero we have ever had," explaining the first president's fixation on how others would perceive his actions in terms of the worldviews of the time and the concepts of "honor" that held sway. Wood describes Washington's decision to resign his commission at the end of the Revolution as "the greatest act of his life," a conclusion which is difficult to argue with.

The section on Franklin is adapted from Wood's The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, where the point is made (and well) that Franklin's participation in the Revolutionary movement should hardly be taken for granted given his strong ties with Britain and commitment to the empire. Wood also discusses the important "creation" of the Franklinian image, which he argues was largely a creation of the nineteenth century.

Wood addresses the question of the "James Madison" problem head on in this book - that is, how do we reconcile the Convention nationalist Madison of 1787-88 with the states' rights Madison of the 1790s? His important contribution is the understanding that while Madison was indeed a nationalist, his vision was quite different from that blueprint which ended up emerging at Philadelphia; Madison saw the federal government as a "dispassionate umpire", hoping that it would not become simply a copy of the fiscal-military states then emerging in Europe. If we understand Madison in this way, Wood argues, the "problem" ceases to emerge.

Aaron Burr is best understood in terms of his contrasts to the other founders, Wood argues - this was a man not concerned with the views of posterity, violating every tenet of his generation's conception of leadership as disinterestered, unambitious and principled. John Adams told the truths that Americans didn't want to hear about themselves, then or now, and Tom Paine "still does not quite fit in" even though his contributions to the American cause were vital.

It was the changes in American political and intellectual society in the early nineteenth century that came to overthrow the old order of the founders, and has made them more difficult for us to understand and impossible to replicate in our time. Wood concludes "nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that extraordinary group of men, contributed to their own demise."

In his review, Meacham writes "it would be too hasty to rule out the possibility America may once again produce new generations of similarly transformative leaders." I think in theory that's right, but agree with Wood that the founders must stand alone - we'll never have another bunch like them, which is all the more reason to understand their lives and characters on their own terms. Revolutionary Characters is an excellent contribution to that scholarship.

On the Fourth

First and foremost today, please take a few minutes to read (or reread) the Declaration of Independence. Read all the way to the end, including the names of those great patriots who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor so that we can today enjoy the freedoms and liberties they so nobly advanced.

Then go out and enjoy the holiday, while remembering what it's all about.

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote home to his wife Abigail:

"But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.- I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by Solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. - I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. - Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."

Although he mis-calculated which date we would come to celebrate (independence was voted on July 2, the Declaration was adopted July 4), Adams was in all other respects quite correct.

Happy Fourth, my friends.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Key Days

Political writers seem to have (like me) taken a little mini-vacation this holiday weekend; the amount of Washington news in the papers yesterday and today seemed rather sparse (with the exception of this rather odd story in today's NYT on the Bush-McCain relationship). So I thought I would pass along one of the more interesting "Week in Review" pieces from yesterday: Adam Goodheart's "10 Days That Changed History". While I would have picked ten different days, these also make for interesting reading.

- Also, if you haven't gotten the chance to go over to Unity08 and sign their Declaration of Independence, don't forget to do so (if you're so inclined). They're more than halfway to their goal of 10,000 signatures, so keep them coming!