Category Archives: Commentary

What My Twitter Sources Told Me Really Happened To Michael Brown

We are in a revolutionary period when it comes to the dissemination of news in this nation. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that as of this past January, fully 74% of Americans use social networking sites and, among online adults, almost 20% are on Twitter, an increase in Twitter use of 5% in two years.  This is still a relatively small number of Twitter users compared to those who get their news through other means, but the increase isuggests that Twitter’s influence as a platform for gathering and sharing political stories is on the rise. This is evident, for example, when comparing Pew’s estimate of the Twitter coverage of the Michael Brown shooting to that of Trayvon Martin’s two years earlier.

Political scientists are just beginning to assess how the growing use of Twitter and related social media platforms are affecting the coverage of and attitudes toward American politics. In that spirit, I’ve undertaken a comprehensive survey of my own Twitter feed regarding what actually happened in the Michael Brown shooting (with no pretense that my twitter sources represent a truly random sample of the twitterverse more generally). Here’s what I’ve been able to discern regarding this tragic event:

1. Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Michael Brown, who is black, by ordering him to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Michael Brown, who is black, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, by initially refusing to respond to Wilson’s direction to get on the sidewalk and stop blocking street traffic.

2. Wilson knew, via a report on the police scanner, that someone had robbed nearby convenience store just minutes earlier and he saw that Brown was carrying cigars, which the scanner report indicated was one of the items stolen. Wilson had no idea that Brown had allegedly stolen some cigars and, even if he did, that does not excuse Wilson’s use of excessive force.

3. The police decision to release video of the robbery was needlessly incendiary and designed to turn public opinion against Brown. The police reluctantly released the video due to multiple media requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and in the goal of full transparency.

4. When Wilson tried to get out of his cruiser to question Brown, the 6-foot-4, 292 pound suspect pushed him back into the car, and then punched Wilson. In the ensuing struggle, Wilson’s gun went off, at which point Brown broke free and tried to escape arrest. Office Wilson, irked with Brown’s slow response to his directive, backed his cruiser alongside Brown. Then, without provocation, he reached out through the cruiser window and grabbed Brown by the throat, pulling him toward the cruiser, prompting Brown to struggle to break free. When Brown did, Wilson, while still in his cruiser, shot at Brown once.

5. After the initial shot (or shots), Brown turned around and raised his hands to surrender, but was shot multiple times by Wilson, who had chased after Brown, from a distance of about 7 feet. Wilson, pursuant to standard procedure, pursued Brown and his friend, ordering them to freeze. When they turned around, Brown ran at Wilson, prompting the officer to shoot him in self-defense from a distance of 2-3 feet.

6. Wilson reportedly has severe facial bruises consistent with a struggle. Preliminary autopsy results on Brown show no sign of a struggle.

7. In a clear sign of excessive force, Brown was shot six times, including two shots to the head, despite the fact that he was unarmed and trying to surrender. Consistent with police training, Wilson – fearing he was in imminent danger – used deadly force to protect himself.

8. Ferguson and St. Louis police faced a near impossible task of both respecting the right of demonstrators to peaceably protest while at the same time cracking down on those looters and others who were explicitly trying to provoke a police response. The subsequent mishandling by law enforcement of largely peaceful protests, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, exacerbated an already tense situation, and showed complete incompetence on the part of St Louis and Ferguson police.

9. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has helped pressure law officials to release information they otherwise would have concealed and generally made it harder for them to whitewash a clear violation of Brown’s civil rights. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has inflamed an already unstable situation by providing incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, and by precipitating a rush to judgment. It will be almost impossible for Wilson to get a fair hearing.

10. President Obama’s decision to wait until all the facts are in before visiting Ferguson, or commenting on the case in detail, epitomizes the type of calm, restrained leadership we expect from our president. President Obama’s unwillingness to talk about the racial implications of the Brown shooting, never mind visit Ferguson, is a betrayal of everything we expect from the first black President.

11. Law enforcement should resist a rush to judgment, and instead take however long is necessary to fully assess the evidence before deciding whether to prosecute Wilson. The longer law enforcement waits to indict Wilson and bring him to trial, the more volatile the situation in Ferguson will become.

12. Unfortunately, a white cop shooting an unarmed black man is an all-too-common occurrence in this country, and it is evidence of the systemic racism that continues to cloud race relations. The immediate racialization of the Brown shooting and the concomitant rush to judgment both exaggerates the impact of race as a causal factor in the shooting, and needlessly undermines race relations in this country.

13. Finally (and here I am anticipating the twitter reaction to this post!), by trying to treat these dueling narratives as equally (in)valid, this post is another example of the false equivalency that characterizes reporting on the Brown shooting, when it is quite clear that one side of the story is true, and the other almost wholly made up.

And that’s the truth about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, based on what I’ve read on Twitter.

The Arrogance of Power and the Case For Presidential Term Limits

A week ago Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser, came out with this op ed piece that proposed a way of “ending presidents’ second term curse.” By curse, Summers’ refers to a recurring pattern of both legislative gridlock and political scandal that he believes characterizes the second term of presidents dating back at least to FDR’s presidency. As he summarizes, “Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and for the country.” To break this pattern, Summers argues that we should consider a single presidential term of perhaps six years: “Would the U.S. government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps of six years? The unfortunate, bipartisan experience with second terms suggests the issue is worthy of debate. The historical record helps makes the case for change.”

To be sure, Summers acknowledges that one reason second terms are problematic is that the 22nd amendment  essentially relegates presidents who win reelection to four years of lame-duck status. Restricting a president to a single-term without the possibility of reelection would only mean the president becomes a lameduck that much earlier. For Summers, however, the “problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve reelection.”

What are we to make of Summers’ proposal? To begin, as Andy Rudalevige points out, there’s nothing particularly novel about Summers’ recommendation. In fact, delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention charged with drawing up a framework for the presidency initially gravitated toward establishing one seven-year presidential term.  Since then amendments to this effect have been proposed in Congress on at least 160 different occasions, dating back at least to 1826. Of perhaps greater significance, at least 15 presidents have endorsed a single presidential term. Clearly Summers’ proposal has a long and impressive pedigree.:

So why hasn’t it been implemented? To begin, not everyone agrees with Summers’ diagnosis, never mind his proposed solution. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, the roots of some of the second-term scandals and policy fiascos, such as Watergate or Bush’s Iraq debacle, actually trace back to a president’s first term. Moreover, it’s not clear that the imposition of formal term limits via the 22nd amendment significantly weakened a presidency whose previous occupants almost always adhered to the two-term limit by tradition. To this I would add that one reason second terms seem less productive is that most of the low-hanging legislative fruit is typically picked early during the president’s time in office, leaving the problems that lack either a ready solution, or political support – or both – for the second term. In short, the lack of legislative productivity may be more a function of dwindling opportunities for success, and not a president’s weakened political state. More generally, James Hedtke  finds no convincing evidence that second-term presidents are weaker as a result of their ineligibility to run again.

Nonetheless, as I have noted elsewhere in an argument that foreshadows Summers’, second terms do seem to present their own problems, usually in the form of policy overreach or scandal. The explanation seems rooted in part, I think, by a decline in presidents’ and their aides’ political sensitivity combined with a heightened focus on their historical legacy as their time in office winds down. The result is a greater tendency toward risk taking during a second term. If this diagnosis is true, however, it is not clear that a single six or seven-year term will obviate the problem since presidents who are ineligible to run again would lack any incentive to remain sensitive to constituents’ concerns. This has led some reformers to advocate repealing the 22nd amendment, thus effectively returning to the Founders’ original constitutional framework that allowed presidents unlimited eligibility to seek reelection.

Before embracing that proposal, however, it is worth looking more closely at why the 22nd amendment was passed. Analysts often assume it was Republican payback for the Democratic Franklin Roosevelt’s long tenure as president. But, as Michael Korzi’s excellent study of presidential terms limits reveals, while partisan payback was part of the impetus for the 22nd amendment, the debate in 1947 over the proposed reform was far more nuanced, and in many respects reprised the arguments for and against presidential term limits that were aired during the constitutional convention. Essentially, the debate pitted the Republican/Whig “constitutionalists’” concern to limit executive power against the Democrats’ “plebiscitary” model of leadership that sees a popularly elected president as, in Korzi’s words, “the engine of the U.S. political system, with the president deriving power from a strong connection with the American people.”

In assessing these competing visions, both sides too often forget that we have one empirical case in which to assess a president who broke the two-term limit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In assessing the Roosevelt case, supporters of unlimited reelection often cite how the nation benefited from FDR’s willingness to serve a third term on the eve of World War II.  They argue that had the 22nd amendment been in place, we would have been prevented from drawing on his experience, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

However, rather than FDR’s decision to run for a third term in 1940, the more telling case for me is FDR’s decision to pursue a fourth term in 1944 despite obvious health issues. My concern here is not that FDR hid his failing health from the public – we have ample examples of presidents doing just that at all times in office.  Instead, the more worrisome aspect of his decision to run again is that FDR, and his aides, seemed not to fully grasp the implications of his failing health. As Korzi writes, “The impression one is left with is that FDR and advisers engaged in self-delusion on a rather large scale.” Despite FDR’s haggard appearance, not to mention his cardiologist’s diagnosis in March 1944 that FDR had serious heart disease, Korzi argues that the “artificial atmosphere” associated with FDR’s long tenure as president “promotes arrogance and even self-deception, as if the normal rule – in this case, the simple laws of physiology – are not applicable to the president.” One consequence of that arrogance is that FDR didn’t seem to pay much attention in 1944 to who his vice president was going to be, and after Truman was chosen, FDR failed to include him in any discussions of the major issues with which the President was grappling.

In his magisterial study of the Presidency , Richard Neustadt notes approvingly, “Roosevelt had a love affair with power in that place.” Roosevelt, Neustadt writes, viewed the White House as “almost a family seat….and he regarded the whole country as almost a family property.” That conception of his place as president made FDR acutely sensitive, Neustadt argues, to protecting his sources of power in any decision he made. But there is a potential risk in this type of love affair – one exemplified, I think, by FDR’s decision to seek a fourth term. It is that presidents, and their advisers, may delude themselves into thinking they have become indispensable to the well-being of the nation. For most of our nation’s history, that temptation was held in check by virtue of the two-term tradition. As the plebiscitary mode of leadership has gained prominence, however, can we trust tradition alone to prevent presidents from seeking a third term? I, for one, am not willing to take that risk. If the 22nd amendment serves any purpose, then, it is to protect the nation against the arrogance of power associated with long tenure in office.

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Give ‘Em Hell! Bears, Bubbles, Teleprompters and A Republic

This Sunday’s Shorts:

The Bear Is On The Loose

At some point in their presidency, all presidents chafe at the isolation imposed by living in the White House “bubble” and seek ways to partake in some “normal” activities, even something as mundane as eating a burrito bowl at Chipotles.  Of course, sometimes this is for photo opportunities, but more often it reflects a genuine desire to break the isolation that is an inevitable part of being president. On this topic, Harry Truman told the following story as part of the conversation that I recounted in yesterday’s post: “I sat on the porch one Sunday afternoon, and there was a ballgame down there on the Ellipse, and I thought I would go down and see the ball-game, and I started to walk down there, and I looked around and there were two or three policemen on one side and Secret Serviceman on the other side, and when I got to the fence, it broke up the ball-game – they all came over to look at me. By experience you learn those things. What President Taft said is true. It is an extremely lonesome job, and I can’t see why anybody in his right mind would want the job. It was rather forced on me.”

A Republic (Not a Democracy) – If You Can Keep It

I rarely disagree with the always interesting Jonathan Bernstein, but I’m going to take issue with Jon’s latest post,  in which he argues that the terms “democracy” and “republic” are largely synonymous. Jon’s broader point is that those, like Philip Klein, who persist in claiming the American political system is a republic and not a democracy are splitting hairs. In fact, Jon argues, there are only different types of democracies, each characterized by different rules governing representation, decisionmaking, etc. To argue otherwise, he believes, “encourages sloppy thinking, including excuses for some seemingly undemocratic practice that we have no other reason to support.”

Well, maybe. But recall that Madison writes Federalist 10 with the specific intent to defend what some might call undemocratic practices embedded in the new constitutional system. In this essay he explicitly labels the newly-established governmental system a “republic”, and takes pains to distinguish it from a “pure democracy” because he sees them as fundamentally different types of government, with different strengths and weaknesses. Madison argues that a “pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” A republic, in contrast, “by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises a cure for which we are seeking.” Madison then goes on to make a point-by-point comparison between a republic and a “pure democracy” emphasizing in particular the strong points of a republic: the delegation of governing control to a small number of citizens elected by the rest, and the corresponding ability to expand the polity to include many more interests, thus weakening the ability of any one faction to dominate the political system. Anyone who has sat through a debate on school funding in a Vermont town meeting can certainly appreciate Madison’s distinction!

Jon is clearly aware of Madison’s famous argument, of course, but he believes Madison’s “republic” “can and should be supported as a strong version of democracy.” However, it seems to me that this “strong version” represents a fundamental difference in kind, rather than simply a version of democracy that falls along one end of the democracy continuum. Of course, although Madison seems to think there is a fundamental difference between a pure democracy and a republic, he also acknowledges variations among republican forms of government: “Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic…” Nonetheless, I’ll let Madison have the final word: “In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”  In the end, while Jon prefers to channel political scientist Bob Dahl, I’m sticking with Madison.

Use a teleprompter? Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!

It’s no secret that President Obama, like almost every president before him dating back to Eisenhower, uses a teleprompter when giving most public speeches. Still, the fact that previous presidents have relied on the teleprompter to various degrees has not stopped partisan critics from suggesting Obama’s frequent use of this device indicates that he is somehow not up to the job or lacks command of the issues. (It also prompted this wonderful Onion parody of what happened when Obama’s “home teleprompter” failed during a family dinner.)

Given the criticism, why bother with the teleprompter? One reason is that everything a president says has policy implications – hence, why take a chance that the president might misspeak? In fact, this was the very point Truman White House aide Charles Murphy made in an internal memo, dated September 13, 1950,  that he sent to Truman in response to criticisms of the President’s speeches. In discussing how to address the criticisms, Murphy notes, “A Presidential speech is a different animal from a news broadcast. Its primary requirement is accuracy, not style.” Murphy then went on to make the following suggestion: “I believe we should continue to seek improvements in the mechanical arrangements – such as lighting, etc. Particularly, we should explore thoroughly the possibilities of readings from a screen for television purposes and also the possibility of using larger type for the readings copy.” Truman, however, was having none of it. Here he is, a month after the Murphy memo, speaking to the United Nations on October 24, 1950, without a teleprompter, regarding the Korean War.

[youtube.com/watch?v=Iv1cXKA163U]

Indeed, as Rob Schlesinger recounts, Truman never did adopt the teleprompter. Instead, it came into regular use under his Republican successor, Dwight Eisenhower – a president who is rarely charged with lacking command of the issues.  But I doubt that will mollify Obama’s critics.

Have a great Sunday!

For notifications of future posts, join me on twitter at @MattDickinson44

Fenno’s Paradox, or Why You Should Ignore That Poll That Says We Hate Our Member of Congress

This WashingtonPost/ABC poll finds that, “for the first time ever”, a majority of those surveyed disapprove not just of Congress, but of their own member of Congress.  What does this portend for the fall midterm election?  As I write in my latest U.S. News post here, it probably means a lot less than some pundits would have us believe.  A rough back-of-the-envelope statistical guesstimate based on past results to this question suggests roughly 87% of incumbents will still win reelection this fall.  If you want to know why, Richard Fenno explained it all back in 1972.

 

 

IS, Noah, Watergate and Woodchucks

This week’s Sunday Shorts:

President Obama’s decision to engage in an open-ended air campaign designed to prevent the militant group Islamic State (IS) from expanding its territorial hold in Iraq has, predictably, been lambasted by critics on the Left and the Right. Progressives see it as a potential first step down the slippery slope of greater military involvement and a violation of Obama’s campaign pledge for a full disengagement of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Conservatives argue that it is too little, too late because it does nothing to prevent the Sunni extremist group from solidifying its territorial hold and using it as a base to destabilize the Mideast and, eventually, launch terrorist attacks against the United States. Lost in the storm of partisan handwringing, however, is any mention that Obama’s current policy roughly approximates the two “no fly zones” the U.S. and allies established after the first Gulf War ended in 1992, and which they enforced until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those two no-fly zones were designed to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by Saddam’s Hussein’s forces.  The difference is that the Islamic State lacks Hussein’s air capacity, but the intended effect is the same. And it was criticized as well, and for similar reasons. It is a reminder that the situational context is often more important than partisan principles when it comes to determining a president’s foreign policy choices. And it raises the distinct possibility that Obama’s current open-ended policy of targeted air strikes may be in place for a very long time.

In this earlier post, I argued that, without substantial congressional pressure, President Obama has no intention of showing his decisiveness by firing CIA director John Brennan despite Brennan’s admission that the CIA had accessed Senate Intelligence committee files.  Consistent with my argument, pundits are beginning to turn their ire on Congress for failing to apply that pressure.  For conservative pundits in particular, that lack of action is further reason to pursue other avenues to hold the President accountable, such as a legal suit. Whether Congress intends to apply that pressure remains to be seen.  My guess is members of the Senate Intelligence committee led by Senator Dianne Feinstein may barter Brennan’s survival for White House concessions regarding redactions to the Senate report on U.S. interrogation and rendition policies.

Speaking of suing the president, in this previous post I made the argument that the House Republicans’ vote to authorize Speaker Obama to do just that made perfect political sense, even though it was unlikely to gain any traction in the courts. Here’s the reason why:

As you can see by the breakdown in partisan support, Republicans who run on this issue in the upcoming midterms are banking on turnout from their base, while at the same time expecting a lower turnout from the Obama coalition which draws much more heavily on voters less likely to participate in a midterm elections.  So they see suing as a winning political issue.

Meanwhile, Timothy Noah has written an almost entirely speculative piece on whether Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, complete with misleading headline. Noah concludes that he did. To my knowledge, there is no evidence to support Noah’s assertion, with the exception of a claim by Nixon aide Jeb Magruder many years after the fact that he overheard Nixon authorize the bugging of Larry O’Brien’s phone in the Democratic party headquarters. However, this contradicts Magruder’s earlier claims and is not supported by any evidence from tapes or phone records. Indeed, Noah’s assertion seems undermined by the recordings of Nixon discussing the break-in, which on the whole indicate complete puzzlement on his part regarding why anyone would do something so stupid.

So, if there’s no evidence Nixon orchestrated the Watergate break in, this leads to the obvious question: who ordered Noah to write this opinion piece? I am skeptical that he would do something like this on his own. Was it Rachel Maddow? The head of MSNBC? Democratic political operatives trying to use Nixon against the Republicans this fall? Noah is clearly just the fall guy – some enterprising journalist needs to follow the viewers’ clicks trail to see who really benefits here.

Finally, what does it feel like to be President? I imagine it’s often something like this:

woodchuck

Have a great Sunday!

UPDATE 9.45 Monday:  A couple years back Jonathan Bernstein took on the “Did Nixon order the Watergate break in?” question and had pretty much the same reaction then as I did yesterday to Noah’s post:  http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/06/why-dnc.html