Tuesday, July 31, 2012

the Polish vote

Americans of Eastern European extraction have long been cultivated for their political support. In the 1950s and later, Congress regularly passed resolutions condemning Soviet occupation of the "Captive Nations." [I used to dismiss such acts as political theater until I had the chance to visit newly independent Lithuania and Estonia. I concluded their freedom was worth pressing for.]

So when Mitt Romney decided to include Poland on his campaign tour, I thought it made political sense. Poles are anti-Russian [as Romney certainly seems to be], strongly Catholic, and culturally conservative.

What I didn't know until I saw this piece was how much Lech Walesa has intervened in U.S. politics in recent years --not only criticizing Obama but even traveling to Illinois to campaign for a Tea Party candidate. Walesa was a hero of Solidarity and now is diminishing his stature by such blatant involvement in American politics.

oversight vs. fishing

I'm a strong advocate of vigorous congressional oversight of our military and intelligence operations. That's why I was pleased recently to read of the degree of oversight of our drone operations.

What's happening now, however, strikes me more as a fishing expedition, demanding highly classified internal documents in order to play lawyer games.  Republican Senators are pushing legislation to demand release of the Justice Department's legal memos on the constitutionality of the drone strikes. They have the eye-catching phrase of wanting to see "Obama;s license to kill." 

I wouldn't mind seeing it, too, but this is not the sword to fall on. Congress needs to watch the policy in practice, not the legal theory behind it.  As we've learned from  John Roberts, skilled lawyers canmake the Constitution say almost anything.

deterrence by leaks

Congress and the Obama administration are in a renewed dither over leaks of classified information. The Senate is even considering a bill to forbid anonymous briefings for journalists except by a few top officials. Lots of luck!

There are too many reasons for leaks for them to be banned. Some are trial balloons. Some are whistleblower disclosures that we on the outside deserve to know. Some are political puffery, either with the favored journalists or with the broader public. And some, pretty few in fact, are damaging revelations of military or intelligence operational details.

Last week, reporters were told that the National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, had briefed Israeli officials about U.S. military planning for possible conflict with Iran. I take that as an effort to reassure people in both countries on the seriousness of U.S. determination to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons -- and to persuade Israel to calm down and wait for the ever tougher sanctions to bite. No doubt it also had domestic political benefits in America, but I believe that was a collateral effect,  not the reason for the disclosure.

A harder case to assess is today's New York Times piece about Pakistan.  The thrust of the article is that American and Pakistani differences over how to deal with the Haqqani network could lead to a rupture in relations. But it also mentions that Haqqani suicide bombers seem determined to inflict mass casualties on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and have come perilously close. It then says that U.S. officials have met to consider contingency responses in case  a mass attack succeeds.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, according to a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations — everything from withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.
One possible reason for this leak is to remind the Pakistanis that, if they don't launched their often promised and often delayed operations against Haqqani, the U.S. would take unilateral actions that, like the Bin Laden raid, would greatly embarrass the security services.  If so, that could be a justifiable reason for the leaks.

and you thought Congress wasn't worth it!

Whatever your complaints about the U.S. Congress, withhold them for a moment to consider the regional assembly in Sicily. Spiegel reports:
The problem isn't just that they receive a monthly net salary of €10,000 to €15,000 [$12-18,000] -- more than members of the national assembly in Rome get -- without working terribly hard. The assembly rarely convenes and the turnout is usually quite low. Even the fact that almost a third of the Honorables have a criminal record, are being sued or are under investigation is a cosmetic blemish at most. The true problem lies in what they have been doing: The political class in semi-autonomous Sicily has been doling out jobs and cash so lavishly over the years that the region is at risk of financial collapse.
We're not there yet. Not even close.

punctuated politics

In the good old days, The Wall Street Journal [note the capitalized article!] used to run a center column story that was offbeat, fun, clever, not newsworthy in a political or economic sense, but well worth reading. Many of the stories were picked up by network television news. The Journal still runs such stories occasionally at the bottom of the front page.

Today's piece reports the fight in the Obama campaign over its slogan: "Forward." Should the slogan have a period, or does that suggest no place to go? Should it have an ellipsis [...]? Or a Soviet-style exclamation point?  This is what the folks in Chicago are reportedly fighting about.

At least the story has some historical background on how other campaigns punctuated their signature campaign slogans. Interesting reading.

This is not a Romney problem because his slogan, "Believe in America," has no punctuation. I guess it's not an order.

Monday, July 30, 2012

politics then and now

I was interviewed last week about the Lavelle affair, and it made me realize how differently political controversies were handled then compared with now.

In early 1972, I was working for Senator Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa, who was determined to force a end to the Vietnam war. He also was working hard to prevent the reelection of President Richard Nixon. Our office received a letter from an Iowan serving in the Air Force and based in Thailand, Sgt. Lonnie Franks. The letter said that he was ordered to falsify after-action reports on air strikes inside North Vietnam, that his immediate supervisor said "the president probably doesn't even know about it," and he wondered whether it was "legal and proper" for falsify classified reports.

Did Senator Hughes rush to the cameras and denounce the unauthorized attacks on North Vietnam? Did he leak the letter to the New York Times so the news media could trumpet the story?  Isn't that what you'd expect today?

But no, Hughes discussed the issue with a trusted colleague, then sent the letter -- after concealing the name of the author and other identifying details -- to the Secretary of the Air Force, who promised to investigate.

The investigation revealed a pattern of violation of written orders setting the rules of engagement for attacks in North Vietnam. It also revealed that Lavelle had ordered his subordinates not to report that they had acted contrary to orders, and that as a result a system of falsifying classified reports was established.  Lonnie Franks later testified that the 200 people at his base often had to spend up to three hours a night "making the wrong right" -- that is, concocting false reports that had all the necessary details so that they looked legitimate.

The Air Force Chief of Staff recalled Lavelle and relieved him of command. Senator Hughes was told that the problem had been fixed.  The Nixon Administration, however, issued a false statement that Lavelle had retired for health reasons.

Some congressional conservatives who were critical of any restraints on U.S. bombing complained that Lavelle had been mistreated -- and the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing where Lavelle accepted responsibility for the false reports but said he didn't know about them.

Only then, when the issue was public and the facts were being distorted, did Senator Hughes make a public statement. Moreover, he secured a commitment from Chairman John Stennis to investigate the whole matter. Our five month investigation was followed by nine days of hearings, at which everyone above Lavelle in the chain of command said that he had violated orders. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater said that Lavelle "cannot be defended." In an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 12-2, the Committee denied Lavelle a promotion on the retired list.

Senators and the Armed Services Committee conducted themselves as statesmen, not politicians. They saw the issue as one of integrity and civilian control, not whether the war was good or bad.

I haven't seen much evidence of similar statesmanship in recent years.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

what numbers count?

I've raised doubts before of the wisdom of letting schoolkids use calculators rather than learning how to do arithmetic tasks like long division, but now I'm willing to consider a radical change in the other direction -- dropping the requirement that all high school or college graduates need advanced mathematics like algebra and calculus.  A thoughtful opinion piece in the New York Times by a political science professor, Andrew Hacker, makes the case.

Hacker notes that failure in math classes correlates with failure to graduate from high school and later college. In effect, we are creating an insurmountable barrier for otherwise educable young people.

I want to hear more on the idea, for it sounds plausible, especially since Hacker still calls for numeracy, for schoolkids to learn how to handle finances and understand public policy issues expressed with statistics and other numbers. He argues that higher math just isn't necessary for ordinary functions and jobs of most citizens. I agree with the need to require numeracy, but wonder how much most of us need.

the war of the week

A month ago, I took note of the required presidential report indicating the many nations where the United States currently has sent troops into hostile situations.  While our engagement with Syrian rebel forces now seems limited to intelligence activities, we continue to be deeply involved in the conflict in Somalia. The Los Angeles Times has a valuable report today indicating the breadth of that involvement.

As reporter David Cloud puts it, "Washington is once again heavily engaged in the chaotic country. Only this time, African troops are doing the fighting and dying."  He details U.S. activities.

I'm not opposed to such measures, but I want our lawmakers to maintain close oversight.

Maybe I should make this a weekly feature here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

after-action regrets

Ryan Crocker has been a distinguished public servant. He's now leaving his challenging post as US ambassador to Afghanistan and has given an exit interview to the NY Times.  I felt honored to have Ryan as a colleague at the National War College prior to his most recent assignments and I consider him the quintessential diplomat.

But what he tells the Times is to be careful.
¶ Remember the law of unintended consequences.
¶ Recognize the limits of the United States’ actual capabilities.
¶ Understand that getting out of a conflict once you are in can often be dangerous and as destructive for the country as the original conflict.
These are old lessons, not new ones. Everybody should remember them before major diplomatic or military operations, not just after.

Obama causes tornadoes

Actually he doesn't. But Brad Plumer of the Washington Post's interesting Wonkblog cites political science research showing that voters do punish politicians for natural disasters that used to be called"acts of God."

Now, the evidence is somewhat mixed, for it can be hard to separate anger about events from anger about how the political officials respond to them, but the results are statistically significant, which is all you can ask for in poli-sci research.

One lesson for officials is that they have to be on tap and on top of responses to floods, tornadoes, and the like. I can think of several mayors who were on vacation in Florida when their cities were paralyzed by snowstorms and who then got the chance to take permanent vacations.

What the research doesn't show is how blame is likely to be assessed when global warming becomes undeniable and irreversible. I hope we all get smart before then.

Europe in danger

A blogger always enjoys discovering a piece that takes a vague notion, an intuition, and then develops it in a persuasive way. That's how I felt reading an article by Walter Laqueur in The New Republic. Laqueur is a distinguished 91-year old political analyst of European affairs.

His article, "The Weimar Union," lists the many ominous similarities between the economic and political conditions in Europe today and those that facilitated the rise of fascism and other radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s: high youth unemployment, vigorous political movements mostly led by the young, and a yearning for a different political order.

Laqueur warns that "a latent potential for extremism is very much present in Europe."  He fears "a precipitous descent into rank populism" and bitter "chauvinism."  I share those concerns.

The pan-European dream that led to the EU and then the euro is becoming a nightmare. The technocrats of "Brussels," who are appointed rather than elected, are easy targets for people with almost any grievances, and they have no basic legitimacy to fight back.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In defense of Norm Ornstein

Full disclosure: Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is a friend of mine. He has been a friend since he first worked in the Senate on a nonpartisan fellowship. I don't agree with everything he says, but I do agree with his recent analysis that the Republicans are more to blame than Democrats for the gridlock and hyperpartisanship that has made Congress dysfunctional.

Accordingly, now that Senate Republican leader McConnell has branded Norm as "ultra, ultra liberal," I want to give space for Norm's rebuttal. He quotes McConnell's own statements in support of his gridlock strategy. Read them for yourself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

compared to what?

Sometimes it's useful to compare apples with oranges., or even with other apples. In international affairs, with our UN fixation on one nation, one vote, we may forget -- or never even know -- that size matters.  It matters that Pakistan is the world's sixth largest country in population. It matters that Iran has 74 million people, ten times that of Israel. It's useful to remember that Indonesia has ten times the population of Australia. That doesn't mean that the United States should side only with the small when they have disputes with larger nations, but rather that we may have more complex relations with large countries than with smaller ones.

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting comparative table showing economic strength [GDP] of nations compared with some U.S. cities. It's fun to note that Boston has a higher GDP than either Venezuela or Greece, that even the Washington, DC metropolitan area would rank 27th in the world if it were a separate country.  Of course, one of America's economic strengths is that we have a common market among the 50 states, and an economy that allows movement of capital and labor between rich and poor areas. Even my hometown of Denver has a bigger GDP than Kuwait or Hungary or Vietnam.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Congress inaction

Businessweek compiled a single chart that beautifully illustrates what Congress has been doing -- which is to say, not much. Only 54 laws have gone to the President for signature this year: 17 of them just renamed post offices or other federal places; 9 approved real estate transaction; 6 renewed existing laws. That leaves 5 major laws and 16 miscellaneous ones.

Now laws sent to the President is not the only worthwhile measure of legislative activity -- and the Republican-controlled House is right to note, as Democrats did when they controlled the House in the 111th Congress, that the Senate hasn't moved much of anything because of its own filibuster-fueled gridlock. But when the House takes 33 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and none on immigration reform and many other pressing issues, the puny output is indicative of poor performance of their Constitutional tasks.

foreign aid with strings

Foreign policy requires a lot of guesswork. Will carrots or sticks work best in a given problem area? Do threats promote conciliation or resistance?

In principle, I believe that it often helps to back diplomacy with the threat of force. But the threat has to be credible, and carrying it out shouldn't undermine the basic policy goals. That's often hard to accomplish in practice.

American lawmakers have a long history of writing conditions into foreign aid legislation. Most of those conditions are helpful in deterring foreign governments from doing things we strongly oppose -- like abusing human rights or supporting terrorists or overthrowing fairly elected democratic governments. On the other hand, Congress' efforts to prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons, when they failed to achieve their primary purpose, forced the US government to halt arms deliveries that even today poisons US-Pakistani relations.

There's a good piece in the National Journal about some of the pending conditions on US aid and the dilemmas they entail. One analyst is quoted as saying that conditionality "is a gun with one bullet in it." What she doesn't say is that that bullet may shoot us in the foot.

I sympathize with lawmakers who want to use conditions as pressure and leverage. But I also sympathize with executive branch officials who may need wiggle room -- the right to waive the conditions -- if that can prevent self-inflicted wounds.

confrontation in the South China Sea

There's discouraging news about efforts to manage disputed claims in the South China Sea by diplomacy instead of armed conflict. The Chinese military has announced plans to build a military garrison in the Paracel Islands.  Meanwhile, the recent ASEAN conference in Pnom Penh broke up without agreement even on a final communique because of this dispute; Japan has recalled its ambassador from Beijing; and enough Republican Senators have announced opposition to ratifying the Law of the Sea convention that it would be defeated if brought to a vote.

I'm no expert on these issues, but I think smart diplomacy must be tried and might work. I like the analysis and suggestions in this Council on Foreign Relations paper.


As Harold Lasswell famously said,  politics is who gets what, when, and how.

Interest groups mobilize for favors and protection, and are often met by counter groups. Most of the time I'm not especially bothered by this; it's the American way. Remember, the First Amendment allows petitions for "redress of grievances." Some groups are just better at playing the game than others.

So it is with more amusement than anger that I report to you that the farm bill may become the venue for resolving a big fight between egg producers -- or should I say egg gatherers?

What we really need among our legislative and executive leaders are people who can find ways to balance the competing claims on behalf of the broader national interest. Regrettably, that runs counter to our electoral system's incentives.

making a difference in Syria

After ten days of delightful grandparent duty, I have time once again to read the papers and learn how bad things are. I can't see much of anything getting better, and a lot getting worse.

In Syria, the bloodshed continues and diplomacy has stalled. I remain highly dubious of the many pundit proposals for "U.S. leadership" and military intervention. On the other hand, I'm encouraged by reports like this in the Wall Street Journal about a quiet, multi-pronged effort by U.S. agencies, to pressure the Assad regime. This is more likely to be effective than the more dramatic efforts onlookers propose.

I also find it useful to get other perspectives on foreign problems, and once again the Financial Times has something I haven't seen elsewhere -- analysis of how Syria might fracture into several states, including an Alawite one, with significant foreign policy consequences.

UPDATE: I see another analyst disputes the Alawite state prospects. I'm not taking sides.

Friday, July 13, 2012

worst Congress ever

I give up. I'm going to stop defending Congress. Until now, I felt and said that things could be worse -- and, of course, they still can be. Until now, I've been willing to believe that this is what rowdy children do, so you shouldn't expect  better conduct until they grow up. Until now, I've seen some, scant evidence that there are some members  willing to put the country ahead of their party, and their institution ahead of political games.

But Ezra Klein has put together a totally damning indictment of the 112th Congress. All in one post. All true. Read it and weep.

Years ago, I forget just when, but at some moment of low public esteem of Congress, the Senate chaplain was asked how he could praise for "those" people. He responded, "As I stand in front of the Senate and look at the various members, I don't pray for them; I pray for the country."  Good advice.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Washington, DC street names

I had lived in Washington for several years before I discovered the very logical system the District has for street names. So, for new arrivals and short-term visitors, here's the plan:

- The District has four quadrants centered on the Capitol and with major streets radiating in three directions. The Mall is to the west. Most official buildings are in the Northwest quadrant. Much of what once was the Southwest quadrant, the area across the Potomac River, was returned to Virginia in 1847 and now is Arlington.

- Streets are named in a regular sequence north and south. First come the lettered streets: A, B [now renamed Constitution and Independence Avenues in different quadrants] C, through W. Then there are streets with two-syllable names, in alphabetical order. Then there are three-syllable streets. Finally, there are streets with the names of trees or flowers, again in alphabetical order.

- Avenues, and there are many, including one for each state, are at angles to the regular grid. There are also streets and "places" of only one or a few blocks, though many have the same first letter as their nearby main grid street.

- East and West of North and South Capitol Streets are numbered streets.

It's almost impossible to get lost. Right?

the politician's credo

As a kid, I enjoyed watching the TV show "Maverick," with James Garner and Jack Kelly. Often Garner would utter some aphorism attributed to his "Pappy." One of the best is a statement I have come to consider the politician's credo, for it seems to explain so much of what goes on in campaigns.

It goes" You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time -- and those are pretty good odds."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

watching the election horse races

John Sides of the always interesting blog, The Monkey Cage, has some useful advice on how to watch the remaining weeks of the presidential and congressional campaigns: pay less attention to the advertising and the polls and more to the "ground game" of the various parties and candidates. He says that political science research has demonstrated that that can make a big difference in outcomes. He also notes that what happens locally in House and Senate races is also more susceptible to get out the vote efforts.

What we can't tell, however, is how newly enacted voter ID and related laws will limit turnout of otherwise qualified voters. I fear that may be a sleeper in the eventual results.

seeds of fascism

Youth unemployment is now above 50 percent in Greece and Spain.  That's psychologically as well as economically devastating. It may take a decade or more to restore opportunities to those young people.

Meanwhile, there is already a right-wing extremist backlash in Greece, as the New York Times reports today.These harbingers of hate could be a problem for the rest of Europe, too.

They've been there before -- in 1933.

What the developed world faces isn't merely a liquidity crisis, or a solvency crisis, but a social-political crisis. I hope political leaders can rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

real gridlock

Lately I've been reading about Rutherford B. Hayes, a mostly forgotten one-term president from 1877-1881. He was elected by one electoral vote more than his Democratic rival in the scandal-tainted election of 1876 when a commission, voting on party lines, awarded him the votes of three southern states with highly disputed results. To win southern support, Hayes promised to withdraw U.S. troops from the former Confederate states, where they had been propping up Republican-controlled state governments that were helping to empower former slaves. Hayes' action marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of white efforts to reclaim political dominance over blacks.

That was a devil's bargain that derailed the train of liberty for another 90 years. But what fascinates me now is how Hayes dealt with a Democratic congress. In 1877, he vetoed the army appropriations bill that contained a southern rider seeking to repeal the law posting federal marshals at southern polling stations. With the veto and the adjournment of Congress, the army had no funds for six months until the next Congress voted an acceptable bill.  The army went unpaid but continued to function.

In 1879, the outgoing 45th Congress adjourned without passing appropriations bills for the army or the civilian agencies and Hayes summoned the new 46th Congress into special session. Four times the lawmakers passed money bills with objectionable riders, and four times Hayes successfully vetoed them. Again, the army went without pay but the rest of government did not shut down. Finally, after four months, Hayes relented.

I've asked some budget law experts why the government did not shut down -- as happened in similar circumstances in the Clinton administration, but nobody knows for sure what the legal thinking was then.

If the past is prologue, what we have here is an example of real, persistent, partisan gridlock, but with few real world consequences. That's not the case today, whether over the debt limit or taxes or budget sequestration. This fall, we'll see whether partisanship or statesmanship prevails.

Friday, July 6, 2012

artificial intelligence

Years ago, in 1965 to be precise, I saw an early indicator of our growing dependence on technology instead of human judgment. I was in the British Museum, looking at the Elgin Marbles, the statues taken from the Parthenon. An American woman was there with her son of 7 or 8, each wearing the tape player with commentary on the exhibits. "I can't go until my machine tells me to," she said, "but if your machine tells you to go, then go."

Later on, I felt uncomfortable when my own kids used calculators to do math homework, instead of doing multiplication and division by hand [and brain].

Now I read about the confusion in the cockpit of the Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009. Indicators were contradictory; some were malfunctioning; the pilots didn't realize that the plane was stalling. But the saddest comment came from an American aviation safety expert, who said, “We are seeing a situation where we have pilots that can’t understand what the airplane is doing unless a computer interprets it for them. This isn’t a problem that is unique to Airbus or unique to Air France. It’s a new training challenge that the whole industry has to face.”

The same issue confronts our military robotic systems, as Peter W. Singer has warned. If we take humans "out of the loop," we risk enormous unintended consequences. whatever we may gain in speed.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

the fickle and inconsistent American public

One of the original purposes of this blog was to discuss the public and political influences on U.S. foreign policy -- the "giddy minds" of the title.  There's new evidence of how fickle and inconsistent public thinking is on many current issues, so read it and weep.

A YouGov poll developed by a Dartmouth professor found, among other things, that the public wants sharp cuts in government spending but can't agree where,other than foreign aid; that a majority says current policy isn't in line with their own preferences; that the world today is more dangerous than during the Cold War; that Americans would rather be number one in the world economically than to have their income levels double but be second to China.

There's more, but not much that's encouraging.The public is out of synch with elite opinion of either major party.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

lessons about our recent wars

Tom Ricks has done a neat job translating the Pentagonese of a major study into plain English. The Joint Staff has a unit called "Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis," typically shortened to JCOA, which is part of the JCS Chairman's "Lessons Learned Program."

Drawing on the major U.S. military operations of the 21st Century, JCOA has produced Decade of War, Volume I: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations.  The 50-page unclassified document contains a mix of cliches and valuable insights, like many U.S. government reports. Ricks has an assessment; let me offer a few additional points.

1. I hope that the title signifies a shift away from "lessons learned" by calling them ""enduring lessons." The British army, which also has a long history of analyzing past operations as a learning tool, years ago switched from calling them "lessons learned" studies to the more accurate "lessons identified." We could only wish that presidents generals and admirals would actually learn from the past.

2. The JCOA report's comments on Interagency Coordination are wise and valuable. It softly laments that coordination "was uneven" because of "inconsistent participation in planning, training, and operations; policy gaps; resources; and differences in organizational culture." Quite true, but remember that some of those differences were because of another factor mentioned -- "different levels of resources." The civilian agencies were asked to sail in a speedboat-led convoy with their rowboats.

3. The recommendations for improved interagency coordination echo many of the ideas I and others involved with the Project on National Security Reform urged four years ago. There have been improvements under the Obama administration, but much more still needs to be done.

4. The section on "Host-Nation Partnering" recognizes the American tendency to pressure others to be like us.
The US also had challenges that complicated partnering. One challenge was a propensity for the US to shape host-nation institutions after its own image, rather than allowing the host nation to make such decisions consistent with its own history, culture, and traditions. Another was a lack of strategic patience, where a desire for quick results at times drove the US to lead the partnering relationship, rather than operating by, with, and through host-nation forces to build long-term capacity.
Calling these problems "challenges" understates their importance and their difficulty. Many of our problems with Iraq and Afghanistan today are traceable to American insensitivity to the views of our intended allies.

5. Despite recognizing this problem, the JCOA report -- like Boxer in Animal Farm -- just recommends working harder. Its phrase is "Strengthen existing relationships." Sure, like with Pakistan. Send another four-star.  Lots of luck.

women's suffrage

One more voting story: as a third generation native of Colorado, I have long been proud of the fact that my state was one of the first to give women the right to vote. Now that I know more of the background, it seems more like a good thing for a not-so-good reason.

Women's suffrage was part of the Populist party platform that won majorities in Colorado in the 1892 elections. But a major reason the newly empowered lawmakers voted to let women vote was to diminish the electoral power of unmarried miners, who were viewed as transients and radical. Women, on the other hand, were considered settled and socially conservative.

 [By the way, my foray into Colorado history also has made me re-think my embarrassment over the fact that a governor and several other major officials who won office in 1923-24 were proud members of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, the Klan was nativist, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic and anti-Negro. But in Colorado its members were engaged less on those issues than on fighting political corruption. And the Klan was viewed more as a social organization like masonic lodges than a  political action group. The winning candidates had broad coalitions, not just the Klan. So there was "some good in the worst of us."]

ignoring the Constitution

One of the historical factoids that puzzles me is why the Congress failed after the 1920 census to follow Article I, section 2 of the Constitution requiring a decennial reapportionment of the House of Representatives. As a result, no changes were made after the 1910 census until 1932.

The answer, of course, was politics. A few Republican states were big winners under the 1920 census: California would have gained 3 seats, Michigan and Ohio 2 each. The losers would have been several southern states that were reliably Democratic and midwestern farm states that usually voted Republican. But in Congress itself, the body which had to pass a law imposing reapportionment, the impact would have been significant. Eleven states would have lost seats, denying incumbents their seats, so those members had an incentive to delay action.

According to historians, two factors other than party advantages help explain the congressional inaction. One was the wet-dry split. Prohibition was the law of the land after January 16, 1920, but efforts were already under way to reverse that decision -- and the 1920 census would have given more power to areas, including growing cities, that were less enamored of Prohibition. The second division in Congress was between rural and urban constituencies, and growing cities would have gained more power under the 1920 census, as they eventually did under the 1930 census and reapportionment.

Gridlock prevailed on the issue throughout the 1920s, notwithstanding the clear words of the Constitution.

the bad in the best of us

There’s a verse that I heard first in childhood that came to mind as I’ve been reading some histories of voting in America. The lines are these:
There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
Authorship is variously attributed. The first printed record was in a Kansas newspaper in 1907.

I recalled the verse as I read about efforts to expand and restrict the franchise over the years. I hadn’t realized, until I read Alec Ewald’s The Way We Vote, that:  “Most states permitted aliens to vote deep into the nineteenth century, particularly in the West – at least twenty-two did in 1875.” … “States began to withdraw voting rights from aliens in the latter half of the century, but it was not until 1926 that no states permitted aliens to vote.”

I also learned that some of the political movements I had long catalogued as “black hat” or “white hat” in my memory were much more mottled. The Know-Nothings, a powerful force in the 1850s well known for nativist, anti-Catholic views, endorsed many laudable policies as well. They wanted to deny the vote to immigrants, especially Catholics, or at least impose a 21-year waiting period before full citizenship. For example, they opposed the expansion of slavery, favored more nonsectarian schools, and supported property rights for married women.

Progressives instituted many reforms most of us still praise, including political accountability through recall and referenda and a professional civil service. But many progressive leaders were highly elitist, supported the now-discredited eugenics movement, and sought to restrict the franchise  – “to purify the electorate” – with literacy reaquirements.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Yes, we were one of the more than half of Pepco customers who lost power last weekend. We've been without power after heavy snowstorms and hurricanes, and wintertime is worst. This time, the power was out for us for 40 hours -- enough to jeopardize all our refrigerator contents and to leave us sweaty and sleepless at night.

But wait! This isn't a Third World country. Pepco isn't supposed to stand for "Pakistan electric power."

Many people argue for putting power lines under ground. I'm not sure the high cost has sufficient benefits, for I had power outages when I lived on Capitol Hill and water leakage on underground cables deprived us of power and were difficult to repair.

The best answer is to be tougher on the electric companies. I was outraged to read Gregg Easterbrook's piece on Pepco, which noted that it has done a far slower repair job than neighboring power companies. He also says that the Maryland regulatory commission that is supposed to protect us, caved in to Pepco management. "Maryland Public Service Commission allowed Pepco to cut back on maintenance, in order to divert funds to dividends and management bonuses," he says.

Maybe we need an 18th century form of accountability -- public humiliation. I'd like to require the top three Pepco officials, and at least 3 people from the Commission to live in power-less residences as long as more than, say, two percent of customers are without power. No generators allowed either.

backing diplomacy with the threat of force

Diplomats and international lawyers like to settle disputes without the use of force. Military operations often have unintended consequences and unpredictable results.  Diplomats, however, need more than persuasive arguments; they need incentives and leverage to get results. Thus, they want to back diplomatic activities with the threat of force, in order to make agreement now preferable to conflict.

In U.S. military parlance, the tools to back diplomacy are called "flexible deterrent options," FDOs. That's what we're seeing now in areas near Iran, according to the New York Times. The United States is deploying ships and aircraft that could be used for military action,offensive or defensive. I hope they won't be needed, but I believe that their presence may help convince Iranian leaders that we mean what we say and have "options on the table" that they would find less acceptable than a solid international agreement.

Such actions are also clearly within presidential war powers --provided they don't include secret kinetic operations that make combat more likely.