Thursday, November 19, 2015

Politics 101: Why Some Positions Are "Can't Lose" For Politicians

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November, a hue and cry has been raised in the United States aimed at President Obama's plan to give shelter to 10,000 refugees of the Syrian civil war. Some people seem to fear that among the refugees will be secret ISIS terrorists who could mount an attack inside our borders, while others seem to be unhappy at what they deem Presidential overreach (which is not an unusual complaint in year 7 of a Presidency). 

Many sober commentators have pointed out that it is contrary to American's stated values to close our doors to people in need. This editorial in the New York Times, for instance points out that "Refugees from War Aren't The Enemy", and describes the detailed background investigations that can take up to two years before someone is granted refugee status by the US. In a related article, Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof notes that "They Are Us",  pointing out that his father was a refugee from the Soviets in the 1950s, and detailing the shameful story of American refusal to shelter Jewish refugees of Hitler's Germany in 1939, over two hundred of whom died in the Holocaust after having to return to Europe

On the other hand, politicians have been eager to go on the record on the issue of Syrian immigrants, and the results have been resounding. CNN reports that "More Than Half the Nation's Governors Say Syrian Refugees Not Welcome", and Presidential candidate Senator Cruz of Texas (whose father was a refugee of Cuba) has introduced a bill banning entry of Muslim refugees from countries controlled by terrorist organizations, though he would allow Christians from those countries to come to America. Fellow candidate former Florida Governor Bush would also focus only on Christian Syrians, which is pretty ironic considering the role his grandfather played in bankrolling Hitler, but as Charlie Pierce often says, self-awareness is not just a river in Egypt.

While I deplore these politicians' statements as a human being, as an observer of politics and teacher of history, I applaud them for their deep understanding of human nature. The best politicians know that the surest appeals to voters are to their "lizard brains". Even more than a threat to a voter's pocketbook, something that invokes a "fight or flight" fear based response is sure to get someone's attention (which in politics often means that people want to be protected). And here is why any politician who doesn't oppose the Syrian refugee entry to America is making a bad political decision (though their moral decision is correct):

Anyone who can read the Constitution should be able to see this quite plainly. In fact, Kristof's article referenced above makes the argument even more obviously bogus with the following thought experiment:
Yes, security is critical, but I’ve known people who have gone through the refugee vetting process, and it’s a painstaking ordeal that lasts two years or more. It’s incomparably more rigorous than other pathways to the United States.  
If the Islamic State wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, it wouldn’t ask a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at, say, Indiana University. Hey, governors, are you going to keep out foreign university students?  
Or the Islamic State could simply send fighters who are French or Belgian citizens (like some of those behind the Paris attacks) to the U.S. as tourists, no visa required. Governors, are you planning to ban foreign tourists, too?
But here's why politicians would be crazy not to oppose the refugees resettlement--they can't be blamed for anything!

Politicians love any opportunity to avoid blame. Laws and policies are not "automatically" unconstitutional, they only become so after a court ruling. This is a fundamental part of our system--Congress could immediately pass a law banning freedom of the press (for instance), or taking away everyone's guns (ha!), and it would still be the law until it was reviewed by a court. If a court rules against the Governors, they can blame activist judges, or an imperial Presidency, and still claim that they were trying to protect their constituents. This is why Presidential candidates talk so freely about Constitutional amendments--since the President plays no role in sending an Amendment to the states, he cannot be blamed for any outcome. If you were running for office, and you knew that you could say something that (while immoral and unconstitutional) was going to be universally popular and would enable you to shift blame to your opponents you'd be crazy not to.

Friends of mine are upset that New Hampshire Governor Hassan (a member of the Democratic Party) has urged the blocking of Syrian refugees. But here's the thing: as upset as they are, what is their alternative? Would they vote for a Republican? The point is that Hassan can't lose by appealing to intolerance and fear at this time. That said, other politicians, such as Washington Governor Inslee (also a Democrat), have doubled down in support of helping the refugees. This, to me, is a display of political courage, because he is deliberately doing the right thing, even though it is unpopular. Time will tell which option the voters like better.

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