My senator Bill Nelson’s support for bombing Syria (and a response)

Bookworm asked me to post an exchange I had with my Senator, Bill Nelson.

I wrote an e-mail to Senator Nelson to express my opposition to bombing Syria.  Here is his response:

Dear Mr. Underwood:
     Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the situation in Syria.
     I think everyone can agree that the use of chemical weapons there is cause for moral outrage.
     Some argue against a U.S. response. But I agree with President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and many of the GOP leaders, such as Senators McCain and Graham, that it’s in our nation’s best interest to hold accountable a dictator who uses weapons of mass destruction and slaughters innocents.
     We also believe we should limit our nation’s direct military involvement.
     I very much appreciated hearing from you on this important issue. Varied perspectives help me to be a better public servant. Thank you.
                                   Bill Nelson
  And here is my response, which Bookworm asked me to share:

Thank you for your explanation of your position on attacking Syria.  However, I must respectfully disagree.  Yes, everyone can agree that a country’s use of chemical weapons on its own people is a moral outrage.  It does not follow, however, that we should take matters into our own hands and unilaterally commit an act of war against that country.  If moral outrage were the criteria, we would be attacking dozens of countries a year.Consider if Syria, or any other country, decided that capital punishment was a moral outrage and decided to attack our country because we still execute people.  They would have as much right to do so as we do to bomb Syria.  Yet surely you would consider it both wrong and an act of war against the United States if they actually did so.

Also, it is a fantasy to think that we can commit a blatant act of war against another nation in a “limited” way.  Especially in the Middle East, as we have learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq, “limited” actions have a way of producing unlimited consequences.

Please reconsider your position.  America is neither the world’s policeman nor its judge, jury and executioner on issues of moral outrage.  If we act at all to “punish” Syria, it should be under the banner of the United Nations, not the United States.

I should mention that I’m really not a fan of the United Nations.  But if the international community is ever to act to enforce “moral” norms, the United Nations is the only organization that could possibly claim a legitimate right to do so.  Certainly, the United States, acting unilaterally, may not claim such legitimacy.

I hope Bookworm will add her comments here, to get the conversation started.

Gun rights advocates should not rely on the Second Amendment.

Today, a local reporter, in discussing proposed gun control laws, said that some people were concerned that such laws would “step on their Second Amendment rights.”  It occurred to me that she should have said the were concerned that gun control laws would impair their ability to protect themselves and their families from assaults and other crimes.  Instead, she focused on the dry, technical, constitutional argument, and the gun rights advocates have no one to blame but themselves.  They constantly focus on the Constitutional provision, to the detriment of their argument on the merits of gun control.

Since at least 1954, 59 years ago, it has been clear that when the people or the government decided they want something, the Constitution is no barrier.  Specifically, when the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, they also handed down a decision in a companion case for the District of Colombia.  In that case, Chief Justice Warren frankly acknowledged that, “The legal problem in the District of Columbia is somewhat different, however. The Fifth Amendment, which is applicable in the District of Columbia, does not contain an equal protection clause as does the Fourteenth Amendment which applies only to the states.”  Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) 347 U.S. 497, 498-99 supplemented sub nom. Brown v. Board of Educ. of Topeka, Kan. (1955) 349 U.S. 294.  But, where there is a will there is a way, and the Court discovered that segregated schools not only violated equal protection, but due process, a completely novel and unjustifiable use of the concept of due process.  The justices simply could not bear to think that the result could be different for the feds than for the state so they simply made up the law to fit the desired outcome.

The legislatures, administrations, and courts have been making the rules to fit the desired outcomes ever since.  There is no doubt they will do so to get around the Second Amendment.  Thus, relying on that amendment to protect the right to bear arms is a losing proposition.  Instead, gun rights advocates have to engage in the much harder work of convincing the public that gun control is a bad idea — that the world is a safer place when private citizens have the option of being armed.

Bookworm has pointed out that advocates should reframe the discussion from one about gun violence and gun control to one about violence and crime generally (and the role that guns play in both the violence and crime, and in the prevention of violence and crime).   To that I would add that advocates should reframe the discussion from one about the Second Amendment to one about the pluses and minuses of gun control.  Assuming the Constitution is no impediment (it’s not) why is gun control such a bad idea?

Stay with the Republicans or start anew?

MikeD makes the perfectly legitimate point that there is a difference between party and philosophy.  However, one party, the Democrat party, is dominated by people who do not share our conservative philosophy, so is not a viable home for that philosophy.  That leaves us with a choice of working through the other party or forming a new, third party.  The worst thing we can do is split our efforts, with some conservatives seeing the Republican party as the only viable option and others giving up on the established parties and starting fresh.


Certainly, we need a little time to recover from this election and regain our footing.  But we should address this issue sooner rather than later.  It takes time to build a machine to rival the one that the left has built over the years.  Competing machines, inside and outside of the Republican party, will ensure our losses will continue.  Personally, I’m inclined to work within the existing framework.  But I believe this is a discussion we need to have. So, in or out?

What can conservatives learn from this election?

CM and Cheesestick challenged me to come up with some answers as to how to make our message more appealing to women and minorities.  If I knew the complete answer to that question I’d be President myself.  I don’t.  But I’ll be happy to throw out some ideas.

First, we must get over this notion that anyone who disagrees with us is ignorant and immoral.  Certainly, many on the left (especially in the leadership) are both of those things.  But there are millions upon millions of highly moral people who simply disagree with us.  Many of these people are open to being made less ignorant and persuaded to our cause.

Second, we must pay attention to the message and how we present it.  Obama’s ads were dishonest, but sharp and persuasive.  Romney’s ads were unfocused and ineffective.

For example, here in central Florida, with its many retirees, Obama ran weeks of ads saying that Romney would turn Medicare into a voucher program, basically telling seniors that their own Medicare was in peril.  Bookworm posted a reasonably effective (though too short) commercial featuring our own Senator Rubio.  So far as I saw, it never ran here.  Instead, Obama’s ad went unanswered for weeks.  Finally, in the last few days of the campaign, Romney ran ads clarifying that his plan would not change Medicare for anyone over 55 and would give a choice to anyone under 55, and even that ad didn’t say what the choice was.   That ad was far too little and far too late.

Wouldn’t it have been more effective and persuasive if Romney in the debates and in his ads had made a point of challenging Obama directly?  Wouldn’t you have just loved to see Romney ask directly, “Mr. Obama, why are you lying about my plan for Medicare?  You know it will not change Medicare for anyone over 55.  Why are you trying to frighten our senior citizens?  You know the current Medicare system is unsupportable.  Let’s have an honest discussion about how to fix it.  Here’s my plan.  What is yours?”

Another example:  it is absolutely meaningless to say, as Romney did in one widely-run ad here in Florida, that if Obama is elected the debt will grow to $20 trillion dollars.  Honestly, most people don’t have a clue what such a number means.  It means little to have a woman say, as one said in another widely-run ad, “Mr. Obama, how are our children going to pay back this debt?” as practically a throw-away line in the middle of a commercial that tried to cover five topics in 30 seconds.

How about an ad that pictures a baby in a nursery?  The ad voice over and graphics are something like this:  “When Megan was born, in 2008, she was deeply in debt.  She was born owing [X] dollars as her share of the national debt. “  Then show a picture of a 4-year-old at play.  “Now, in 2012, thanks to Obama’s trillion dollar deficits she owes [Y] dollars.”  Picture an 8-year-old, perhaps with a serious, sad, look.  “In 2016, if Obama is re-elected, she will owe [Z] dollars. Isn’t it time we stopped heaping debt on Megan?  Isn’t it time we paid our own way?”  Then Romney:  “I will fight for Megan and for all our children.   This problem wasn’t created overnight and it won’t be solved overnight.  But my plan [and, for goodness sake, have a plan!] will put an end to a government that overspends and passes the bill on to our children.  I’m Mitt Romney and I ask for your vote and your help.”

Would such an ad have made the difference in Florida and elsewhere?  Who knows?  But as I write this Obama leads by about 50,000 votes out of 8 million counted.  And it would surely have been more effective than the ads Romney actually ran.

Every ad should have one and only one message.  Every ad should be long enough to deliver that message.  Every ad should put a face on the problem and offer a solution.  Obama understood this.  For example, he ran a series of ads here in which the topic was reproductive freedom and the “face” was Romney himself.  The ad showed Romney time after time saying that he wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade and end funding to Planned Parenthood.  The message was clear:  Are you (women who want to preserve your right to choose) going to believe Romney’s commercials or the words out of his own mouth?  Romney responded with an ad that equivocated, saying that he favored leaving abortion legal in cases of rape, and immediately changed the subject to the deficit and a claim that Obama had no plan for the next four years.   What incompetent wrote these things?

This ad needed a direct response by Romney himself, stating whatever he actually believed.  I don’t know what that would look like, but here’s one possibility:  “I believe that women should have access to birth control.  I also believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape and medical emergency.  However, I do not believe that abortion should be used as a form of birth control.  I do not believe that the government should be able to force those who oppose abortion on religious grounds to pay for abortions.  I do not believe that a government that is $16 trillion in debt should pay Planned Parenthood to counsel young girls to have abortions.  Finally, I believe the federal government should not decide this issue that so deeply divides our country.  I believe the federal mandate set out in Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and the decisions in this area returned to the states.”  [I’m uncertain how to effectively end such an ad.  Any ideas?]

Such an ad might or might not have helped Romney get votes.  But it would address the issue honestly and forthrightly and certainly would defuse the impression left by the Obama ads.

Third, we must find ways to stand firm in our principles while being flexible in our positions.  For example, it would not violate our principles to support a path to citizenship for all immigrants who seek it.  America is a land of immigrants and it is, if anything, against conservative principles to close the borders to those who seek a better life here.  I believe that we could be more successful among Hispanic voters, and completely consistent with our principles, if we put forward a plan that (a) allowed a short path to citizenship for all who sought it, but (b) cut off benefits to all those who did not seek citizenship.  Immigrants who are now here illegally would be given the opportunity to choose which course they desired.  I believe a plan can be put together that would, at a minimum, not turn off Hispanic voters but still be true to conservative values.  If that much is accomplished, Hispanics will become Republicans in large numbers because they largely share conservative values, especially regarding family and religion.

I’m not sure how much progress can be made with blacks, but many Asian-Americans and Jewish Americans certainly share conservative values.  Even many, if not most, blacks share many conservative values.  But the Republican party has practically written off minorities and liberal women.  Conservatives should never concede a single voting block to the opposition.  Yet, I did not see a single ad in this entire campaign directed specifically toward minority voters.  [Well, that’s not entirely true; I saw Internet links to such an ad, but I don’t recall ever seeing it on local television here in central Florida.]  Why not have ads featuring, say, a Mexican immigrant who came here illegally but now is proud to be a hard-working, successful, conservative, Republican citizen?  How about a black man who started life in the inner city, joined the military, got an education and is now proud to be a hard-working, successful, conservative, Republican small businessman?  Such people do exist.  Featuring them in ads would show the minority communities that Republicans have not written then off and, indeed, offer them a clear path to success and alternative to being forever dependent on government handouts.

In short, we have an appealing message that, if packaged honestly and properly, has at least a fair chance of success.  But, we are guaranteed to fail if we fail to engage the other side, if we write off voters as ignorant and immoral, if we wring our hands and moan that we just can’t understand how people could believe and vote as they do, if we blame the media or the pollsters and just give up.

Be firm in our principles.  Articulate those principles clearly and directly.  Talk less and listen more, in order to understand what matters to the voters.  Then find ways to tailor our messages to the voter’s concerns, compromising positions where necessary, while never compromising principles.

Anyway, I’ve tried to answer your question as best I am able.  I hope this will at least start a constructive conversation.  I’m quite certain that if the intelligent readers in the Bookwormroom put their efforts into finding positive solutions, they will develop creative and valuable ideas that will make a real difference.  What are your ideas?

Random thoughts on the election results

1.  When I predicted Obama would win by 5% I said the one possible game-changer was the debates.  Romney’s striking victory in the first debate did change the game, but not enough, probably because he did not follow it up with dynamic performances in the next two debates.

2.  The claimed bias of the pollsters was pretty dramatically disproven.  If anything, the polls OVERESTIMATED Romney’s support.  But, generally, they were right — state-by-state and overall.

3.  One of the reasons I gave for predicting Obama would win was the fact that his advertisements were vastly superior to Romney’s.  Both sides put out many new ads in the subsequent weeks, but Obama’s were consistently better.  Here is the key battleground state of Florida, I never saw either of the ads that Bookworm linked to as examples of good Romney ads.  Forthermore, I never saw any ads that stressed Romney’s positive traits, aside from a belated emphasis on his ability to forge coalitions — not a message likely to persuade many votes in the closing days of the campaign.

4.  This election was probably the last gasp of straight white men.  The changing demographics will make straight white men (the major group that strongly supported Romney) a continuingly shrinking portion of the population.  If Republicans/conservatives/some-new-third-party can’t find a way to attract women and minorities to vote for their candidates, they will never win again.

5.  One of the theories that conservatives put forward in claiming the polls were wrong was that disaffected Obama supporters would stay home this time around.  Not true.  They voted in numbers at least comparable to 2008.  Even I’m surprised by that, but it is cause for on-going concern to conservatives.  Conservatives have always benefitted from the fact that they vote in higher percentages than liberals.  That may be changing, as liberals do a much better and more consistent job of turning out their vote.

6.  This country is seriously divided and Obama is not likely to do anything but make the division worse.

I look forward to your thoughts on the election, the polls, and where we go from here.

Whatever happened to the effort to get around the electoral college?

A few years ago the Democrats launched an effort to pass laws in various states under which, regardless of how their state voted, their electoral college votes must be cast for the winner of the popular vote in the nationwide general election.  While I didn’t follow these efforts closely, I seem to remember that such laws were passed in a number of states.  Does anyone know if this is right and how this could impact the current election?  Let’s say that Romney wins the popular vote.  Are there any states that will be required to vote their electoral votes for him even if Obama wins the election in those states?  Or vice versa.  What ever came of this effort?

A letter to those tempted to sit this one out

I’m not sure I buy the “Mitt was sent by God” part, but otherwise I think this letter, forwarded to me by my Dad, is worth sharing:


This article is for those who are just simply not enthused about voting for Mitt Romney. You may not be thrilled with the idea of voting for Barack Obama, and in fact, you may be repulsed by it. However, for any number of reasons, you feel uncomfortable with a vote for Romney, and are considering sitting this one out or voting for a third-party candidate. It could be the Mormonism of Gov. Romney you do not like, or it could be his various position changes over the years (most notably on abortion). Particularly in states like Nevada, Ohio, Colorado, and Wisconsin, your non-vote for Romney could very well put Obama back in the White House for an additional four years!!! You are the target audience of this article.

I am not going to defend every single piece of Mitt Romney’s record. I have spent a little time with the Governor over the last few years, and I have found him to be an extremely bright and knowledgeable man, but I would not say that ideological conservatism runs through his veins. I doubt he grew up reading Hayek, Kirk, and Buckley. For those of you who are devout evangelicals or Roman Catholics, you are well aware of the differences in his religious viewpoint from yours. He has some stinker votes out there, and he has changed his position on a couple key issues over the years. It is not possible for me to claim he is a perfect man, or a perfect candidate. But I will suggest to you that the negativity some feel towards him is perhaps misguided …

The most common objection lodged against him is his reputation as a “moderate” when he governed the state of Massachusetts. When a Republican Governor is elected head of Ted Kennedy’s state, and asked to serve over an 82% Democratic legislature, I would suggest to you that a little grace and understanding are in order. If you evaluate each and every action he took as the Governor of that state, you will find (as I did) that he was constantly moving his state to the right, even if it never went as far right as you and I may prefer. He is a true incrementalist, and he moved the ball in the right direction, which I believe is what we elect leaders to do.

I would spend more time on the abortion flip-flop except for the fact that I have no doubt that his “pretend position” was when he was pro-choice, not when he became pro-life again. It is inconceivable that he and his devout Roman Catholic pro-life Vice-Presidential selection, Paul Ryan, would select judges who set the pro-life cause back. I have been wrong on issues in the past, and so have you. I encourage you not to hold it against a candidate that before he was right on an issue, he once was wrong. That is backwards thinking, is it not?

I have written in the past of the very limited things a President can actually do. He cannot restore the size of government to the “right size” many of us wish it to be. He can, though, work diligently and intelligently to get the right things done. I would suggest that some of those crying needs of the hour are exactly what Romney will do, and do phenomenally well. He will work with Congress to reform (but not perfect) the tax code. He will reverse the direction of the budget deficit, even if he will not solve it entirely.

The direction he will take the fiscal state of our country vs. Obama is the most important issue in this election. He will flatten the tax rates, which undeniably spurs economic growth, all the while cleaning up many of the silly and price-distorting deductions that have to be reformed (I learned this from Obama’s former economic czar, Christina Romer, by the way). He will assemble a team of competent cabinet members, as he has done his entire career (do any of Romney’s critics want to criticize his eye for talent at Bain Capital, or in Salt Lake City, or in the Governor’s mansion?). Obama has filled his cabinet with cronies, fools, and extremists. This distinction alone is enough to show up and vote.

I do not believe we will run a budget surplus in four years, and I do not believe abortion will be criminalized at the end of Romney’s first term. What I do believe is this: At this time, at this point in history, in this present set of circumstances, God has seen fit to give us a clear and simple choice between a radical, unqualified, dishonest wretch of a President named Barack Obama, and a competent, managerial, efficient, intelligent, decent man named Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney will be a tool God uses to move the ball down the field.

Romney did not have to choose the extraordinary Paul Ryan as his running mate, and in fact took great political risk in doing so. Gov. Romney is a problem-solver in a country filled with problems. He is not a quintessential conservative Libertarian kind of guy, but he is the antidote we have to the Ivy League radicalism of Barack Obama. He is the alternative to four more years of $1 trillion+ deficits and an utter blindness to the train wreck our entitlement system represents. He has the proven ability to work with other people to accomplish something, as opposed to the community organizer we have in office now who has never so much as led a school sports team, let alone a business, a state, or an organization.

I am not writing because Mitt Romney is perfect. I am writing because he is good enough. And I am writing because Barack Obama is the biggest disaster our country has faced as a mature country. If you worry about the direction of the Supreme Court, and you worry about the size of our government relative to GDP, and you worry about confidence in the business community coming back so as to spur economic growth, then you have a man to vote for who will advance your cause(s) – Mitt Romney. You also have a man to vote against who represents the worst of all possible worlds – Barack Obama.

Please, do not sit this one out. Our country – the last, best hope on earth – needs your vote. I have every confidence in the world that we will be pleased we voted for Mitt Romney – every confidence in the world. Share as you wish. And I will see you at the polls.

David L. Bahnsen, CFP®, works as a Senior Vice President in the private client group of one of the premier Wall Street firms in the country where he provides financial planning and investment management services to individuals and families.