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Politics and purity

[ 66 ] October 3, 2011 |

I’ve gotten a bit of criticism from a couple of political allies about a piece I wrote this weekend for Newsweek/DB concerning claims that Chris Christie’s weight should be considered a major negative, or even a disqualification, when evaluating his apparently impending POTUS candidacy. Their argument isn’t that my criticism of these claims is wrong on the merits, but rather that this sort of scrupulousness isn’t something “we” can afford at the moment, especially given that “the other side” has no such scruples when it comes to playing the political game.

I’ve heard similar arguments about Glenn Greenwald’s ongoing crusade condemning the Obama administration’s woeful civil liberties record, which as Glenn points out is quite arguably even worse than George W. Bush’s. Yes yes the argument goes — Obama’s record on these questions is indefensible, but do you really want to help elect [parade of horribles] president next year?

There are both principled and practical problems with these arguments. As a matter of principle, everybody has to choose how dirty they’re willing to get and what lines they’re not willing to cross. After all, certain conservative critics of Obama aren’t willing to exploit racist arguments about birth certificates and the like while others are. It’s possible to respect the former people in a way one can’t respect the latter, and the same holds true for liberals who are or aren’t willing to use sexist arguments against Bachmann and Palin, and who are and aren’t willing to use fat hatred against Christie.

As a practical matter, the problem with lesser of two evils rationalizations is that at some point the difference for which one is willing to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity is so small that one has ended up making that sacrifice for something that’s no longer worth defending. I’m personally getting quite close to that point when it comes to Obama’s civil liberties/foreign policy record. As much as I prefer his domestic policy to that of his likely opponents, there comes a point when it should become impossible to support someone who is carrying out policies that cross certain lines of basic decency. Again, certain conservatives reached that point with the Bush administration on the issue of torture, and certain progressives are reaching that point with the Obama administration when it comes to things such as unilateral executive branch decisions to assassinate American citizens without any legal oversight.

In the end of course everyone must decide for themselves what sort of things they are willing to lend active support. I may vote for Obama again, but if I do it will be with great reluctance.

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  1. superking says:

    Under current circumstances, virtually no one in this country will be voting next year based on foreign policy and civil liberties concerns. Liberals want an active government addressing the economy, and the wing nuts want a government that ensures everyone suffers for the sins of the bankers. Even in a good year, though, people don’t typically vote on things like whether it is legal to blow up an American citizen in the Arabian desert. Democracy simply cannot be the check on this behavior.

    The question, then, is what can be? The courts have abdicated their responsibility, Congess is only interested in party politics, and the administration appears to not be terribly concerned about it themselves. If the institutional checks fail and the cultural checks are non-existant, what is left? I honestly don’t know.

    • Lee says:

      This is the main problem faced by the political faction that places civil liberties as being very important. Most voters really don’t care that much about civil liberties under normal circumstances for voting.

      Under the right circumstances, certain specific groups of voters might care about civil liberties but not necessarily in a good way. African-Americans and racists both cared about civil liberties during the Civil Rights era just in very different ways. More recently, the LBGT community and homophobes both care about LBGT rights just very differently. Civil liberties tend to be an issue in American politics if you are member of a group who lacks them or you want a member of a particular group to lack them. Otherwise, they tend to be none issues and rarely decide elections. Accordingly, most politicians generally feel that they can get away with civil liberty violations.

      I really can’t figure out how to change this but politicians will only really respect civil liberties when they believe that they will suffer electorally for violating them.

  2. Dan Nexon says:

    The administration’s foreign policy record has been fine (as in: not spectacular, but not terrible). Sure, the US acts like a hypocrite on human rights, etc. But the number of unforced errors is at par for US administrations. Looks better than Clinton in 1995 and much, much better than GW Bush. Unlike current unemployment, many of the dilemmas facing the US are structural, or at least can’t easily be dealt with by US policy shifts.

  3. “when it comes to things such as unilateral executive branch decisions to assassinate American citizens without any legal oversight. ”

    Before we get dragged down this road again, has anyone actually established that the administration broke the law according to the judicial branch yet?

  4. Karate Bearfighter says:

    Paul, as a conlaw prof, maybe you can clear this up: why the focus on Awlaki’s citizenship? If assassination by drone is permissible against Pakistani citizens, why would it be impermissible against American citizens? If it is unacceptable against Pakistanis, why focus on Awlaki’s birthplace?

    The 5th and 14th amendments both require due process for “persons”, rather than “citizens”. It seems to me the more relevant distinction is “overseas”, (where we exercise no police power,) vs. “at home”, (where we do.) (Not trying to say here that drone assassinations are acceptable in either context.)

    • actor212 says:

      And if I can tack on a hypothetical here, what if this conflict in question that created Awlaki as an “enemy of the state” was a civil war back here?

      • Karate Bearfighter says:

        That’s an interesting question, and probably deserves a better answer than I can give. That said, I would argue that a state’s police power ceases to exist where it no longer monopolizes the organized use of force –i.e., in times of civil war or insurrection. The check on the state’s use of force in those situations would not be civil liberties, but human rights, or the rules of war.

        This is more than a semantic distinction: turning your hypothetical around,I suspect you would you not have argued for the full panoply of due process rights for captured confederate soldiers, but that you would expect them to be treated humanely as prisoners of war. Human rights ideals, foreign policy considerations and treaties on the conduct of warfare set a very different floor for state use of force than do constitutional protections. Grouping this with civil liberties issues conflates different limitations that we put on our government.

        I’m not arguing that this is an appropriate way to conduct wars; but I disagree that this becomes a constitutional — rather than foreign policy or humanitarian — issue whenever there is a US citizen on the other end of the gun.

        • Proportionality is also an issue. If some wahoo in Montana declares his compound a new country and begins breaking U.S. law, the government has a responsibility to treat him as a criminal and the matter as one of law enforcement. If some substantial number of state governments break away and mount a semi-credible insurrection against the U.S. government, different rules would apply.

          In general, the rule for understanding these distinctions is that you have to not be dense and refuse to see any context or difference in degrees.

          • actor212 says:

            You sort of get to the nub of my concerns.

            What if it’s not an organized section of states, but a large proportion of individual citizens who have an uprising, a la the Teabaggers or Occupy Wall Street, who wish to secede, peacefully if possible, but it morphs into something uglier?

            The line between criminality and revolution gets a little hazy for me.

    • Because it’s a nice red herring that makes the decision sound super awesomely terrible and horrifying as though it’s only a matter of time before we start assassinating people in St. Louis on a whim.

      • Karate Bearfighter says:

        Well, I think we can all agree that Tony LaRussa poses an existential threat.

      • DK says:

        Actually, it makes it sound like the US can start assassinating citizens abroad on a whim.

        • Right. Because obviously the fact that one guy who is without question aligned with al Qaeda in some capacity and was holed up in a remote, inaccessible area of Yemen with other al Qaeda officials was killed by a drone strike, there is absolutely nothing keeping the U.S. government from killing any American citizen anywhere outside of the United States whenever they please. It’s clearly exactly the same exact thing, and no one could ever be expected to believe the latter won’t happen now.

          • DK says:

            I said no such thing. You’re flailing.

            But once you say the executive gets to decide this sort of thing on secret evidence (which is their argument, despite what you seem to think) then there is, in fact, no limitation.

            • No, you’re eliding the point. The evidence behind these decisions, such as it were, is always secret. Because they’re military decisions. The question here is whether there has to be a domestic trial before he can be targeted, and that seems wholly unsupported by any reasonable view of precedent and due process rights.

              But most of the things people are getting hand-wavy about, namely the words “assassination” and “U.S. citizen” have nothing to do with the legality of the decision at all. And that’s why there’s so much “OMG THE GOVERNMENT CAN KILL US ALL NOW!!!!!” nonsense going on.

              Though I do admit, if you plan on making propaganda videos for al Qaeda then fleeing to hide out with other al Qaeda officials in remote areas of Yemen, Pakistan, etc., you may have something to worry about. Short of that, I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine.

              • DK says:

                What kind of person do you take me for that I would only care about the law and constitution if it affected me? (But of course, every time someone says ‘Don’t worry, this will only happen to this narrow category of people’ you can be sure there are a thousand other exceptions just waiting to be deployed.)

                Your zeal in supporting the assassination (because that is what is it, in plain English) of persons (regardless of their citizenship) in the basis of secret evidence is disturbing.

                It’s amazing how often I’ve seen people pulling this trick of demanding that all the words we use to describe this are wrong. Better not to describe it at all, I suppose.

                I wonder why?

                • Ed Marshall says:

                  I take you for a shithouse lawyer, who hasn’t thought long enough about rights. This country has decided as a matter of policy to kill people that the national security establishment has decided are AQ wherever they are in the world.

                  I’m not a huge fan of this policy, I can think of any number of caveats about it. However, the idea that American citizens in bad-guy land are deserving of some extra-consideration of their human rights is not just stupid (it is, and it’s fucking weird for the left to pitch this idea) it’s a sop to nationalism. If he was Yemeni, I guess it wouldn’t have been a problem to blow him to hell.

                  If you want to make the case that we shouldn’t be blowing people up based on DOD recommendations, make that case. Don’t rely on some new standard of human rights where an American passport puts you in a new category. I not only reject that, I think it’s dangerous.

                • Given the number of facts that aren’t in dispute about al-Awlaki’s involvement with al Qaeda and choice of venue to shack up in, I’m very curious as to what these thousands of exceptions are supposed to be.

                  And you can call it an assassination and blather about “plain English” all you want, that still has no bearing on its illegality. If you want to call it an assassination, fine, we’ll call it an assassination, and no I don’t have a problem with it, because it CLEARLY isn’t illegal under international law. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can not understand this without being willfully obtuse. Do you think the U.S. violated (current) international law when they killed Yamamoto? That they couldn’t kill Hitler with a drone in 1944?

              • Murc says:

                The evidence behind these decisions, such as it were, is always secret. Because they’re military decisions. The question here is whether there has to be a domestic trial before he can be targeted, and that seems wholly unsupported by any reasonable view of precedent and due process rights.

                Um. No snark, but seriously, how is it unreasonable to expect the government to go through judicial proceedings before having one of its own citizens killed?

                Because that’s what happened here. The Executive Branch decided Al-Awlaki needed to die, and it went and killed him with no judicial proceedings whatsoever. Their argument is not only that this is moral, but that it would have been just as LEGAL if they’d done it to him anywhere in the world and not just the Yemeni wastes.

                You’re 100% correct that there are political limitations on them just doing this to anyone they want, any time. Is this supposed to make it better? Somehow? That as long as you’re a white dude committing a certain set of crimes you get due process because its not expedient to deny it to you?

                I would also point out that a large number of us view Al-Qaeda as a criminal organization that we can’t legitimately be at war with any more than we were ‘at war’ with the Weathermen or Germany was ‘at war’ with the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The ‘it was a military decision’ argument doesn’t hold a lot of water with us.

                • “Um. No snark, but seriously, how is it unreasonable to expect the government to go through judicial proceedings before having one of its own citizens killed?”

                  Well, on the one hand, there’s really no reason to think citizenship plays a role whatsoever in deciding whether or not someone is a legitimate military target. Especially since there really aren’t that many facts in dispute here, and the only one that seems to be clearly contested might not really make much of a difference.

                  For another, I’m not totally clear on this, but it appears that a trial might not be possible, because in absentia trials are only permitted in a handful of instances, mostly in which the defendant has fled after the trial started. So I’m not sure the government could even open up criminal proceedings against him as long as he was in Yemen.

                  “Because that’s what happened here. The Executive Branch decided Al-Awlaki needed to die, and it went and killed him with no judicial proceedings whatsoever. Their argument is not only that this is moral, but that it would have been just as LEGAL if they’d done it to him anywhere in the world and not just the Yemeni wastes.”

                  That’s pretty specious. Obviously it wouldn’t be legal if they had done so within the United States borders, and though it probably would have been technically legal to do it in a fully functioning allied state like France or the U.K., obviously that wouldn’t happen.

                  “I would also point out that a large number of us view Al-Qaeda as a criminal organization that we can’t legitimately be at war with any more than we were ‘at war’ with the Weathermen or Germany was ‘at war’ with the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The ‘it was a military decision’ argument doesn’t hold a lot of water with us.”

                  Well…sorry? I can respect the opinion, and for the most part don’t really think a fully militarized response to al Qaeda is a sound policy, but there’s absolutely no backing whatsoever for the idea that Congress doesn’t have the authority to authorize military action against al Qaeda abroad. Whether it’s a sound policy or not has no bearing on whether or not it’s within Congress’ authority.

            • And the “no limitation” thing continues to be dense. You might as well just say that if the President can order a drone strike in Yemen, there’s nothing stopping him from ordering one in downtown Berlin. And to some extent that might be right in a literal sense, but I don’t think many people are seriously worried that the U.S. is going to begin drone strikes on major European cities any time soon.

              • mpowell says:

                Another way of putting this is that there are serious consequences regarding oversight in a Congressional declaration of war or open ended authorization of use of military force. This one is less talked about, but the practical impact is to give enormous discretion to the President in his specific decisions in when and where to use force. That’s what it means to be commander-in-chief. If you don’t like it, convince people not to elect politicians who will vote to go to war all the time.

    • The same is true of the term assassination, which doesn’t apply here on under international law. Due process issues aside for a moment, if not for those this would clearly be a legal military operation under international law. Calling it an assassination is a rhetorical attempt to elide that fact.

      • Bill Murray says:

        again there is considerable dispute on this point

      • Ed says:

        Calling it an assassination is a rhetorical attempt to elide that fact.

        Calling it an assassination is calling it what it was.

        • Well we can do this again if you want. You can call it whatever you want, but if you’re want to talk about international law it was not an assassination, it was a military strike against a legal target. If you must insist on calling it an assassination, then you’re not talking about international law. Which is fine, but you can’t then turn around and argue that it’s obviously illegal because international law says assassinations are illegal.

  5. actor212 says:

    I’m not sure that noting Christie’s weight issues is the same thing as attacking him. I don’t see much difference between saying in 2007 “Obama has a hard road ahead of him because he’s black,” and saying in 2011, “Christie is going to have a tough time because people don’t like fat politicians.”

    For me, I don’t see him running, and if he was dumb enough to make a run, I don’t see his weight being an issue as much as his thin-skin.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Except that Kinsley and Robinson weren’t arguing that this affected his prospects; they argued that his weight indicated that he would be a bad president. To say they were just making a disinterested empirical judgment is absurd.

      • actor212 says:

        Would you agree that the current President’s race has unfortunately created obstacles to his administration?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Leaving aside the fact that you obviously don’t think the attacks on Christie are unfortunate, this point remains irrelevant to the arguments actually being made by Kinsley and Robinson.

          • actor212 says:

            First, “obviously” is a stretch. I don’t like looking at the guy, but my issues with Christie are about his temper and his bullying. Now, I suppose if I cared to think about it, I could connect his physicality to his demeanor, but I don’t really care.

            The point I was trying to make was we have no idea whether it would impact his ability to lead the country, just as Obama was tangled up in race (and birth origin) issues for almost two years, and there can be no doubt that when elected officials can straight-facedly call him “traitorous” or “anti-American,” his influence and leadership wanes.

            You know, never complain, never explain. The second you have to explain, you lose the argument.

            Whether it should matter or should not is a value judgement, something Americans seem to be woefully bad at.

      • mb says:

        Regardless, it is possible to make an empirical judgment that, in fact, Christie will be all but disqualified by his weight. Kinsley and Robinson are evidence of this since their opinion, that fat people should not be President, is one held by many, many people who will not ever verbalize it but will, nonetheless, hold it against him. It’s not just about moral failing, i.e., gluttony, it is a matter of health. Obesity is seen as a health problem because it is. People with any kind of health problem have a disadvantage when running for President. And there are good defensible reasons for wanting a healthy President. Why would there be a special dispensation for fat guys?

        Personal disclosure: I am a fat guy — in the same neighborhood of fatness as Christie. I know whereof I speak.

        • djw says:

          Christie will be all but disqualified by his weight

          This is repeatedly and confidently asserted, but as it stands no meaningful evidence has been produced. The only systematic attempt to gather evidence on the subject I’ve seen does not support this claim at all.

        • David M. Nieporent says:

          And there are good defensible reasons for wanting a healthy President.

          Yes; if Russsian terrorists take over his airplane, he will be hard pressed to personally defeat them and retake the plane. Otherwise, no. There’s no rational reason to think his weight will have any impact on his presidency.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            I think this is the first time I’ve ever agreed with Nieporent. Of course, it’s because I think Christie would be a shitty president, thin or fat.

          • mb says:

            There is a reason people of Christie’s heft are given the diagnosis of morbid obesity by the medical profession. They are clinically ill. Now the symptoms of that illness may be more or less debilitating, but they are debilitating (and potentially life threatening) and I think probably would render one all but incapable of mounting a modern presidential campaign. Before we ever have to worry whether he’d be able to fend off the commies in a hand to hand, he’s got to be able to endure one of the most grueling processes a politician, or anyone else outside of the special forces, has to go through. Maybe Christie is some kind of super human but when you’re carrying around 400 lbs, life is a struggle. Putting on your socks is difficult — I can’t imagine undergoing the stress of a run for the Presidency.

            • David Nieporent says:

              There is a reason people of Christie’s heft are given the diagnosis of morbid obesity by the medical profession.

              Because you need to attach a science-y sounding label to something before you can bill an insurance company for treating it?

              Maybe Christie is some kind of super human but when you’re carrying around 400 lbs

              400???

              As for the rigors of campaigning, he has to answer some dopey questions from reporters, shake a lot of hands, give some cliché-filled speeches, and attend fundraisers, all while flying first class and staying in four-star hotels. It’s not exactly climbing Mount Everest. 70-year old men who survived years of torture can handle it. I think Christie can manage.

            • This is all bullshit. Being heavy isn’t an illness,and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Christie is incapable of the rigors of a campaign.

              Again, this is about aesthetics, not health.

  6. Jim Lynch says:

    To equate snide, “fatso talk” with a decade old, two party assault on Liberty is a bit of a stretch.

  7. Jim Lynch says:

    DK: What similarities? Campos is talking apples and oranges.

  8. Matt T. says:

    I may vote for Obama again, but if I do it will be with great reluctance.

    My first presidential vote was for Clinton in ’96, which was well after he’d proven to be something other than a progressive’s dream. Pretty much from the get-go, then, I’ve voted against rather than for in presidential elections, and my conscience is pretty clean. I’m not happy about it, granted, but what are you going to do.

  9. Jon says:

    I see that no one has yet asked the obvious question here: exactly which bloc of swing voters in the United States would be swayed by pointing out Chris Christie’s weight? Are self-loathing obese people supposed to be the new soccer moms?

  10. mpowell says:

    I’m not sure this is what you meant, but voting is never a compromise of your intellectual integrity, regardless of the quality of candidate.

  11. somethingblue says:

    I may vote for Obama again, but if I do it will be with great reluctance.

    I’m told that the machines register votes cast with great reluctance pretty much the same way they register those cast with great enthusiasm.

  12. Jim Lynch says:

    DK: I don’t understand that at all, but maybe you’re right. In a parsing, nitpicking sort of way, of course.

  13. [...] want to devote a lot more time to someone who’s not going to run for president, but the overclass moral panic reaction to Chris Christie’s potential run does reveal some interesting things.    First, the [...]

  14. [...] at LGM, Paul Campos has a post up about Obama, enthusiasm, 2012 and that whole dance. Y’all know the deal. Obama has been [...]

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