Morning Reading, May 21, 2018

This morning:

  • I thought I was all done with the royal wedding, but then this morning I read a Vox article by Dylan Matthews arguing that a constitutional monarchy is better than an elected head of state:

    Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975, it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. Nothing like it has happened since.

    As Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis once told me, “Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state.” But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.

    I am sympathetic to this point of view, partly because I think the American system (where we just tack on all the responsibilities of being head of state to the president’s already overwhelming portfolio) is a hot mess. Both because the president doesn’t really have time for ceremonial duties and because the fact that the president has just survived a highly contentious, several-month-long election means that a sizable chunk of the country doesn’t feel represented by and, in fact, very likely wants nothing to do with him (or, someday, her). Some countries elect their head of state, which solves the first problem but not the second.

    To be clear, I think there are big philosophical issue with monarchies (the financial arguments against them are pretty weak to my mind) but I’m not convinced they don’t work better than elected heads of state, and if you don’t elect the head of state and it’s not an inherited position, how do you choose someone? Maybe in the future we can use a lifelike robot.

  • In the Atlantic, Joel S. Wit writes about a series of meetings with North Koreans that he attended in 2013, and what the North Koreans said then about denuclearization. His argument here is that Bolton’s “Libya model” (in which North Korea unilaterally denuclearizes and then receives rewards in return) will doom the summit and that the United States needs to be prepared to make upfront concessions of its own:

    . . . [W]hat they outlined was a step-by-step process of denuclearization accompanied in each phase by U.S. measures of their own. It is entirely different from the “Libya model” espoused by John Bolton, which involves giving up its program first and only then getting benefits in return. Indeed, the Trump administration doesn’t necessarily endorse Bolton’s view. Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state in charge of Asia, said last week that it was obvious there would be multiple steps in a long process of denuclearization, and the key issue was what happened first.

    How those differences over denuclearization are resolved inside the Trump administration, and whether common ground can be found with the North Koreans, will determine the future of the Korean Peninsula. The stakes are nothing less than the success or failure of the world’s best current chance to disarm North Korea. The Thornton approach could mean, over the long term, that it really happens. The Bolton approach would assure that it won’t.

    Wit seems a little more bullish on the summit than I am (my own view is that it’s either going to be cancelled or we’re going to be taken the cleaners, since I suspect Kim both has a much firmer grasp of the issues at hand and is less desperate for a win than Trump is). I think it’s possible we could get somewhere if we had the right people at the table, but I don’t think we do. Also, if they were so open to negotiation and ultimately denuclearizing as Wit claims, why couldn’t previous administrations get this done? I couldn’t help but wonder if Wit wrote this article before North Korea threw a fit over previously scheduled joint American/South Korean military exercises and the U.S. caved and canceled them. I’m more skeptical of the North Korean’s sincerity than Wit seems to be.
    (Also, this article introduced me to Wit’s North-Korea-centric website, 38 North, which looks excellent and informative.)

  • Slawomir Sierakowski writes in Foreign Policy about the collapse of the left wing in Europe:

    In his latest research paper, titled “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right,” the economist Thomas Piketty presents an interesting theory of how we ended up here. Analyzing electoral results in France, Britain, and the United States and comparing them to data on voters’ income and education, he found that in the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing parties drew most of their support from poorer, less-educated voters. Since then, the political left has gradually become associated with well-educated voters, giving rise to a “multiple elite” party system in the past two decades: Highly educated elites now vote for the left, while high-income elites vote for the right. In other words, elites control both the left and the right.

    Under these conditions, the working class, which does not feel represented by the left, is giving its support to populist parties, and only the center-right remains to confront them. The European political spectrum has been reduced to the mainstream right and the populist right, with the mainstream gradually evaporating as it absorbs the ideas and rhetoric of the populists.

  • And I guess I’m going to have to talk about the Constitutional crisis that the president is absolutely determined to provoke. Two pieces on this caught my eye this morning: one by Theodore B. Olson in the Weekly Standard and another by Benjamin Wittes in the Atlantic.
    Olson (who turned down an offer to represent Trump a few weeks ago) argues that the president can’t be required to testify before a grand jury because Mueller hasn’t yet shown it is legally necessary.

    The importance of all this to the president is that it is unlikely that he can be forced to give grand jury testimony simply to satisfy Mueller’s curiosity and submit to a potential perjury trap. He could, in short, put Mueller to his proof—make Mueller show that the president’s testimony was necessary to prosecute someone else. And that such evidence could not be obtained elsewhere. That is a high bar, indeed, and one that at this point Mueller has not shown he would be able to surmount.

    I am not a lawyer! But I don’t really understand this argument: Mueller hasn’t shown he would be able to surmount the bar, however high it is, because he hasn’t yet tried. All we know about potential subpoenas of the president come from leaks or from the not-necessarily-reliable chatter of Rudy Giuliani. So why would we assume that Mueller can’t make the case if he wants to? It just seems odd to me to argue that Mueller hasn’t shown something when he’s never, to my knowledge, attempted to make a legal argument for it. I am a little surprised at how insubstantial this article seemed; I usually think Olson is smart and thoughtful even when I disagree.
    Meanwhile, Wittes is decorously freaking out over the president’s tweet yesterday:

    I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!

    Which, I grant you, is a pretty extraordinary tweet coming from the president of the United States. As Wittes says:

    It’s a statement of intent to issue a specific investigative demand of the Justice Department for entirely self-interested and overtly political reasons. And Trump published it in the absence of a shred of evidence that might support the demanded action. If we take his tweet at face value, the president is announcing that he will on Monday “officially” “demand” the Justice Department launch a specific investigation of activity that would be criminal were it true—about whether the DOJ and FBI spied on the Trump campaign for an improper purpose and whether the Obama administration demanded such action of them.
    This is a nakedly corrupt attempt on the part of the president to discredit and derail an investigation of himself at the expense of a human intelligence source to whose protection the FBI and DOJ are committed.

    As Wittes also says, though, given that Trump is Trump it’s hard to know how much this means. It could mean that tomorrow he’s going to order Rosenstein to pursue a full-fledged investigation (Rosenstein said yesterday he had asked the OIG to look into it, which may or may not appease the president); or, it could mean that he needed a nap and by the time he woke up this morning he’d forgotten about it. Who knows? My guess is that Rosenstein’s statement yesterday will be enough to calm him down and forestall a Monday Afternoon Massacre. So we’re OK for the short term, but the long term could get sticky.

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