Crude reality

Will a Middle Eastern oil disruption crush the economy? New research suggests the answer is no — and that a major tenet of American foreign policy may be fundamentally wrong.

For more than a month, the world has been riveted by scenes of protest in the Middle East, with demonstrators flooding streets from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. As the unrest has spread, people in the West have also been keeping a wary eye on something closer to home: the gyrating stock market and the rising price of gas. Fear that the upheaval will start to affect major oil producers like Saudi Arabia has led speculators to bid up oil prices — and led some economic analysts to predict that higher energy costs could derail America’s nascent economic recovery.

The idea that a sudden spike in oil prices spells economic doom has influenced America’s foreign policy since at least 1973, when Arab states, upset with Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, drastically cut production and halted exports to the United States. The result was a sudden quadrupling in crude prices and a deep global recession. Many Americans still have vivid memories of gas lines stretching for blocks, and of the unemployment, inflation, and general sense of insecurity and panic that followed. Even harder hit were our allies in Europe and Japan, as well as many developing nations.

Economists have a term for this disruption: an oil shock. The idea that such oil shocks will inevitably wreak havoc on the US economy has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in turn the United States has made ensuring the smooth flow of crude from the Middle East a central tenet of its foreign policy. Oil security is one of the primary reasons America has a long-term military presence in the region. Even aside from the Iraq and Afghan wars, we have equipment and forces positioned in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in Bahrain.

But a growing body of economic research suggests that this conventional view of oil shocks is wrong. The US economy is far less susceptible to interruptions in the oil supply than previously assumed, according to these studies. Scholars examining the recent history of oil disruptions have found the worldwide oil market to be remarkably adaptable and surprisingly quick at compensating for shortfalls. Economists have found that much of the damage once attributed to oil shocks can more persuasively be laid at the feet of bad government policies. The US economy, meanwhile, has become less dependent on Persian Gulf oil and less sensitive to changes in crude prices overall than it was in 1973.

These findings have led a few bold political scientists and foreign policy experts to start asking an uncomfortable question: If the United States could withstand a disruption in Persian Gulf oil supplies, why does it need a permanent military presence in the region at all? There’s a lot riding on that question: America’s presence in the Middle East exacts a heavy toll in political capital, financial resources, and lives. Washington’s support for Middle East autocrats makes America appear hypocritical on issues of human rights and democracy. The United States spends billions of dollars every year to maintain troops in the Middle East, and the troops risk their lives simply by being there, since they make tempting targets for the region’s Islamic extremists. And arguably, because the presence of these forces inflames radicals and delegitimizes local rulers, they may actually be undermining the very stability they are ostensibly there to ensure.

Among those asking this tough question are two young professors, Eugene Gholz, at the University of Texas, and Daryl Press, at Dartmouth College. To find out what actually happens when the world’s petroleum supply is interrupted, the duo analyzed every major oil disruption since 1973. The results, published in a recent issue of the journal Strategic Studies, showed that in almost all cases, the ensuing rise in prices, while sometimes steep, was short-lived and had little lasting economic impact. When there have been prolonged price rises, they found the cause to be panic on the part of oil purchasers rather than a supply shortage. When oil runs short, in other words, the market is usually adept at filling the gap.

One striking example was the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If anything was likely to produce an oil shock, it was this: two major Persian Gulf producers directly targeting each other’s oil facilities. And indeed, prices surged 25 percent in the first months of the conflict. But within 18 months of the war’s start they had fallen back to their prewar levels, and they stayed there even though the fighting continued to rage for six more years. Surprisingly, during the 1984 “Tanker War” phase of that conflict — when Iraq tried to sink oil tankers carrying Iranian crude and Iran retaliated by targeting ships carrying oil from Iraq and its Persian Gulf allies — the price of oil continued to drop steadily. Gholz and Press found just one case after 1973 in which the market mechanisms failed: the 1979-1980 Iranian oil strike which followed the overthrow of the Shah, during which Saudi Arabia, perhaps hoping to appease Islamists within the country, also led OPEC to cut production, exacerbating the supply shortage.

In their paper, Gholz and Press ultimately conclude that the market’s adaptive mechanisms function independently of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that they largely protect the American economy from being damaged by oil shocks. “To the extent that the United States faces a national security challenge related to Persian Gulf oil, it is not ‘how to protect the oil we need’ but ‘how to assure consumers that there is nothing to fear,’ ” the two write. “That is a thorny policy problem, but it does not require large military deployments and costly military operations.”

There’s no denying the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the US economy. Although only 15 percent of imported US oil comes directly from the Persian Gulf, the region is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s production and the majority of its known reserves. But the oil market is also elastic: Many key producing countries have spare capacity, so if oil is cut off from one country, others tend to increase their output rapidly to compensate. Today, regions outside the Middle East, such as the west coast of Africa, make up an increasingly important share of worldwide production. Private companies also hold large stockpiles of oil to smooth over shortages — amounting to a few billion barrels in the United States alone — as does the US government, with 700 million barrels in its strategic petroleum reserve. And the market can largely work around shipping disruptions by using alternative routes; though they are more expensive, transportation costs account for only tiny fraction of the price of oil.

Compared to the 1970s, too, the structure of the US economy offers better insulation from oil price shocks. Today, the country uses half as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as it did in 1973, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Remarkably, the economy consumed less total energy in 2009 than in 1997, even though its GDP rose and the population grew. When it comes time to fill up at the pump, the average US consumer today spends less than 4 percent of his or her disposable income on gasoline, compared with more than 6 percent in 1980. Oil, though crucial, is simply a smaller part of the economy than it once was.

There is no denying that the 1973 oil shock was bad — the stock market crashed in response to the sudden spike in oil prices, inflation jumped, and unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1979 oil shock also had deep and lasting economic effects. Economists now argue, however, that the economic damage was more directly attributable to bad government policy than to the actual supply shortage. Among those who have studied past oil shocks is Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1997, Bernanke analyzed the effects of a sharp rise in fuel prices during three different oil shocks — 1973-75, 1980-82, and 1990-91. He concluded that the major economic damage was caused not by the oil price increases but by the Federal Reserve overreacting and sharply increasing interest rates to head off what it wrongly feared would be a wave of inflation. Today, his view is accepted by most mainstream economists.

Gholz and Press are hardly the only researchers who have concluded that we are far too worried about oil shocks. The economy also faced a large increase in prices in the mid-2000s, largely as the result of surging demand from emerging markets, with no ill effects. “If you take any economics textbook written before 2000, it would talk about what a calamitous effect a doubling in oil prices would have,” said Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who has written about oil shocks and their implications for US foreign policy. “Well, we had a price quadrupling from 2003 and 2007 and nothing bad happened.” (The recession of 2008-9 was triggered by factors unrelated to oil prices.)

Auerswald also points out that when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, it did tremendous damage to offshore oil rigs, refineries, and pipelines, as well as the rail lines and roads that transport petroleum to the rest of the country. The United States gets about 12 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico region, and, more significantly, 40 percent of its refining capacity is located there. “Al Qaeda times 1,000 could not deliver this sort of blow to the oil industry’s physical infrastructure,” Auerswald said. And yet the only impact was about five days of gas lines in Georgia, and unusually high prices at the pump for a few weeks.

While there is an increasing consensus that oil shocks caused by disruptions in supply are not particularly harmful — and, somewhat surprisingly, have little impact on oil prices — a debate still rages among economists about whether the same can be said of oil shocks caused by increases in demand or those caused by speculators bidding prices up in anticipation of a supply disruption (such as before the first Persian Gulf War). The relation of these sorts of shocks to economic recessions is not well understood. But what’s clear is that the relationship has more to do with human perceptions than any actual change in the oil supply.

So how much should we be sacrificing to protect our oil supply? The question goes to the heart of American policy in the Middle East.

In 1997, Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, two political analysts at the Rand Corporation with long records of US government service, estimated that the United States spent “$60 billion a year to protect the import of $30 billion worth of oil that would flow anyway.” A 2006 study by James Murphy, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Mark Delucchi, at the University of California Davis, similarly found that when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken into account, the expenditures ranged anywhere between $47 billion and $98 billion per year. But the amount of oil coming to the United States from the region was worth less than $35 billion per year.

“Why is it that American consumers are bearing a disproportionate cost of having oil flowing to the international marketplace?” said Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

In their Security Studies paper, Gholz and Press argue that there are indeed a few threats in the Persian Gulf that might overwhelm the oil market and threaten US energy security. One of these would be an attempt by a single power to conquer the majority of the region. Another is Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the only irreplaceable sea channel. The third is revolution in Saudi Arabia. The first two scenarios are highly unlikely, Press and Gholz argue, and could be countered by moving in US forces stationed elsewhere in the world, such as the neighboring Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. (There is debate among security analysts about whether Iran has the military capability to close the strait, or could itself economically survive such a move.) A revolt in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking increasingly possible given the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — but it could not be prevented by the US military deployed in the Gulf. Our presence could even make such unrest more likely, if soldiers became flashpoints for revolutionary anger.

Gholz’s and Press’s argument has gained some currency in academic circles. “I have believed for a long time that the US presence in the Gulf has been ‘under argued’ strategically,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where both Gholz and Press received their PhDs, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about this topic. “Press and Gholz undermine the usual ‘simple’ arguments for being there. That leaves us looking for other arguments that may be the ‘true’ ones, or suspecting that there is no strong argument.”

But it has gained little traction so far either on Capitol Hill or in the corridors of the Pentagon. “Did it immediately change people’s minds? Not really,” Gholz said of his paper.

Auerswald, who has grown frustrated by the lack of response to his own research on this topic, said that the problem is that the fear of Middle Eastern oil shocks is now politically useful to a whole spectrum of powerful interest groups. “This argument is like the familiar old jeans of American politics,” he said. “They are nice and cozy and comfortable and everyone can wear them. Because of ethanol, the farm lobby loves it; for coal, well it’s their core argument; for the offshore drilling folks, they love it.” Even the environmental movement relies on it, he said, because they use it as bogeyman to scare Americans into taking renewable energy and energy conservation more seriously. As for the US military, “The US Navy is not interested in hearing that one of their two main theaters of operation has no justification for being,” Auerswald said.

The costs to US foreign policy, of course, cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, although certainly the cost here has been very high. But it looks even higher when one considers the lost opportunities and squandered chances — what we could be achieving if we weren’t so concerned about a threat that looks increasingly like an illusion.

“If we are going to commit our troops to prevent something from happening, it should be something that would be an existential threat to the United States,” said Auerswald. “Having people wait in line for five days for gas in one part of the US is not an existential threat.”

Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Dehli.


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The Way Forward in Egypt

The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.

Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?

The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.

The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.

So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:

1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.

The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.

2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”

This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.

3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.

Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.

Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.

4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.

5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.

“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.

6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.

The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.

Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.

Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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An end or a beginning?

The upheaval in Egypt

As Hosni Mubarak fights back, where Egypt’s revolt will go, and how far it will spread, are still unanswered questions

IT IS the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests have challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. As yet, the denouement remains unwritten. Will it match Tunisia, where a popular uprising sent another strongman president into exile, toppled his ruling party and opened the way to real democracy? Or will it look like Iran in 2009, where a hardline regime crushed a popular protest movement with iron-fisted resolve?

The protests have left hundreds dead, frozen Egypt’s economy, forced a cabinet to resign, brought the army onto the streets and prompted Mr Mubarak to promise reforms. Egypt’s tough 82-year-old president, in charge for the past three decades, now says he will go—but only at the end of his term in September, with dignity and with a subtle threat that if he does not get his way, things could turn uglier still. While offering a bare minimum of concessions, he has driven a wedge between millions of protesters who demand change and millions of others who fear chaos and want a return to normal. By February 2nd the two sides were battling each other.

Mr Mubarak has been slow to respond throughout the crisis, but his few appearances have been cleverly pitched. When he finally spoke, after midnight on January 28th, a day when hundreds of thousands across the breadth of Egypt had battled furiously with his police, it was with a husky voice and the petulance of a master betrayed by bungling servants. He said he understood his people’s concerns, and as a concession fired his cabinet. But he blamed the unrest on miscreants and agitators, declaring that protests had grown so loud only because he himself had magnanimously granted rights to free expression.

There was something in this. During his rule Egyptians have changed, as has the world they live in. They do speak more freely now, but not only because Mr Mubarak’s regime has belatedly allowed the airing of more critical views. New technologies have also made it impossible for states such as Egypt’s to retain the information monopolies they once enjoyed.

Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.

This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.

But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.

The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.

The bellwether country

Egypt is bigger and poorer than most other Arab states, and not necessarily a model. But it is a more of a bellwether than Tunisia was. It was Egypt’s 1952 revolution, ushering in the military-backed authoritarianism of Gamal Abdel Nasser that Mr Mubarak inherited, which inspired similar regimes to emerge, from Algeria to Iraq to Yemen. The direction Egypt chooses now could have a similar influence.

Egyptians of all classes and persuasions have joined today’s protests. But in their vanguard, except perhaps in the thickest combat, have been thousands of urban professionals, or university students who hope to be professionals one day. Such people have typically shunned politics, seeing Egypt’s stage-managed version as a waste of time. In private they have often complained that they do not feel they own their country, as if it is someone else’s private estate.

In the past—for example, in the riots that erupted in 1977 when Sadat’s government doubled the price of subsidised bread—it was the poor who forced simple demands on Egypt’s government. To prevent another climbdown, Mr Mubarak’s regime built its riot squad into a daunting force of perhaps 150,000 well-trained and well-equipped men. It also kept the economy burdened with subsidies, with bread, cooking fuel and public transport priced at fractions of their real cost.

Some 40% of Egyptians still live on less than $2 a day. In recent years, even as Egypt’s overall economy has grown apace and more consumer goods have filled even lower-income households, the poor have won little relief from relentlessly rising food prices and sharper competition for secure jobs. Such anxieties have found expression in a growing number of strikes and local protests across the country. Yet in a sense, persistent poverty has helped prop up the regime. “People survive on a day-to-day basis,” says a young Cairo lawyer. “They can’t go for long without a daily wage and daily bread, so they can’t afford to make trouble.”

Economic strains have squeezed better-off Egyptians, too, but other factors raised their anger with Mr Mubarak’s government to boiling point. Even to a people inured to politics as a farcical pageant, the blatant fakery of parliamentary elections held in November and December, which virtually shut out any opposition players, seemed a lurid insult, added to the injury of Mr Mubarak’s apparent plan to foist upon them his son Gamal as their next ruler. Equally lurid are the tales of corruption involving not just rich businessmen but also institutions of Mr Mubarak’s state. Dismay over police cruelty has also risen, especially after an incident in June when plainclothes agents in Alexandria beat to death a young internet aficionado, Khaled Said, spawning a Facebook campaign that prompted silent vigils across the country.

That such overlapping concerns seemed unlikely ever to coalesce into political action testifies to the effectiveness of Egypt’s police state. This relies less on repression than on co-opting, dividing and, perhaps most important, demoralising potential challengers. Its other prop has been a political shell-game, whereby Mr Mubarak and his inner circle simply blame any shortcomings on his ministers, and explain repression as a needed defence against menacing Islamists. Despite rising calls for change, bitter quarrels—between Islamists and secularists, conservatives and leftists—have dissipated the energies of Egypt’s opposition.

Two new factors seem to have tipped the balance. One was the emergence of loosely related groups pressing for reform, run via the internet by youths of generally secular outlook but no particular ideology. Some coalesced around labour rights. Some promoted human rights or academic freedom. Others were inspired by the appearance on the scene of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. For such a respected figure to demand an end to dictatorship seemed a breath of fresh air to educated Egyptians. Some of these groups studied other people-power movements, such as Serbia’s, and began quietly organising for a similar campaign.

The second factor was Tunisia. It was not only the speed and success of its revolt that convinced many Egyptians that their regime might prove equally flimsy. The most obvious outcome of Tunisia’s unrest was the exit of its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of rule. His flight to exile in Saudi Arabia concentrated Egypt’s dissident minds on the one thing they could all agree on: the demand that Mr Mubarak should go.

Revolution’s trigger

The Facebook page for solidarity with Mr Said, the victim of police brutality, was what drew the widest audience for the idea of a “day of rage” to be held on January 25th. Yet few among the page’s 375,000 followers anticipated the impact this would have. The peaceful crowds that turned out that day were not huge: they numbered in the tens of thousands only in Cairo and Alexandria. By the end of the day, police recaptured Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of Cairo, in a brutal charge.

But the eruption of protests in nearly all Egypt’s main cities at once had proved a stunning shock. As in Tunisia, the regime appeared paralysed at first. It responded solely through security measures, such as cutting off mobile telephones, text-messaging services and the internet. By the time Mr Mubarak decided to speak, three days later, it seemed too late to turn the tide.

Demonstrations on Friday January 28th prompted him at last to break his silence. Protesters were numbered not in tens but in hundreds of thousands, including people from all walks of Egyptian life. In Cairo itself pitched battles between protesters and riot police raged in more than a dozen places, leaving scores dead and thousands wounded. Flames roared through the halls of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, where youths danced amid the lingering fumes of tear-gas around the smouldering wrecks of overturned police vehicles. When night fell it was not only the riot police who retreated, beaten and exhausted. The entire uniformed manpower of Egypt’s mammoth Ministry of Interior, amounting to perhaps a million policemen, vanished from the country’s streets.

Exactly as in Tunisia, their suspiciously complete exit sparked a wave of looting, vandalism and banditry. Rioters breached the walls of several of Egypt’s main prisons, freeing more than 20,000 convicts, including several hundred on death row. In the strategic north-east corner of Sinai, along the border with Gaza, local Bedouin blew up police stations and grabbed their arsenals. Reports from Alexandria claimed that some 20,000 police guns had gone missing. The city of Suez, where the toll of casualties was particularly high, fell entirely into the hands of protesters.

The evacuation of police also fanned rumours, backed by reports of security agents engaging in arson and thievery, that the chaos was planned. If so, it had its effect. Despite the hasty organisation of citizen militias, reports of roving bands of thugs terrified many, especially in poorer districts. This kept people at home, away from the demonstrations. As bread became scarce in the shops and salaries went unpaid, many also began blaming the protesters for provoking chaos.

The regime hangs on

With his police in disgrace, Mr Mubarak sent in his army and decreed what only weeks before would have been seen as a radical change. He appointed as vice-president his dour, dapper 74-year-old intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman. Since Mr Mubarak had never anointed a deputy, this was widely seen as a first step to his own graceful retirement. He also picked a new prime minister, a former air-force commander, Ahmed Shafik.

The army’s intervention has been broadly greeted with relief, particularly since its command declared it would not use force. But Mr Mubarak’s other moves did not assuage protesters, now joined by the enraged families of those injured by police in previous clashes, as well as by the full might of previously hesitant Islamist groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The cabinet soon sworn in by Mr Shafik retained half the ministers of the previous government, a sign, perhaps, of the difficulty of manning what many perceived as a sinking ship and a signal, to some, that Mr Mubarak was up to his old trick of blaming failings on subordinates, in this case the outgoing ministers. The new vice-president failed to impress with a brief statement, his only public appearance so far. Mr Suleiman said he was open to talks with opposition forces, and would respect court verdicts over challenges to December’s election results. This could prove a big concession, since many jurists say the whole vote was fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, protests mounted to a new pitch. Despite the continued suspension of the internet and text-messaging, and the blockage of rail and road links into Cairo, a crowd of nearly half a million crammed into Cairo’s centre on February 1st, overspilling Tahrir Square onto adjacent streets and bridges. As many as 100,000 also marched in Alexandria.

Citizens find a voice

Knocked back, Mr Mubarak replied with the skill of a seasoned general. In a masterful speech that night, he declared that he had never intended to run for a sixth term this September, without explaining why he had never revealed this before. He also said he would revise articles in the constitution, inserted by himself, that narrowly restricted the field of presidential challengers. He restated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition, and reasserted his paternal concern for the people. “I am a military man and it is not my nature to abandon my duties,” he said gravely. “I have defended the soil of Egypt and will die on it, and be judged by history.”

To protesters camped in Tahrir Square, who had spent days screaming for his departure, this was again far too little, too late. But many other Egyptians, particularly the elderly and the poor, saw it as a dignified way out of the impasse. Amid a backlash of pro-Mubarak sentiment the next day, foreign newsmen were attacked by Egyptians accusing them of plotting to undermine stability. In Alexandria and Cairo large pro-Mubarak mobs of youths, some reportedly fortified by plainclothes thugs and paid criminal stooges, tried to storm the protesters’ camps, leading to mêlées in which dozens were injured.

Such dirty tactics, accompanied by calls from the army, which has remained scrupulously neutral, for the protests to end, suggest that Mr Mubarak’s regime believes it can complete what appears to be a well-devised script. Middle-class protesters will be frightened back to their homes, and most ordinary Egyptians relieved to see the unrest end. The president’s opponents will be able to declare that they have won key reforms. But the regime will remain in charge, controlling the pace of change.

Whether this will succeed in restoring stability remains to be seen. Egypt has now become starkly polarised. The fury against Mr Mubarak felt by many has only increased. Despite numbers thinned by the defection of those fearful of getting hurt, the anti-Mubarak protesters may still be able to mount mass protests, perhaps after Friday prayers. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not negotiate with the government until Mr Mubarak steps down. Mr ElBaradei has described pro-Mubarak demonstrations as criminal acts by a criminal regime.

From pharaohism to democracy

As Egypt’s powerful state regroups its forces and continues to capitalise on fears of insecurity, Mr Mubarak’s men may have their way. Still, even within his army, which has so far remained loyal to the president, many may believe that only Mr Mubarak’s departure can calm Egypt’s streets. The president could possibly announce an early retirement on health grounds. But if there is one quality Mr Mubarak has shown during his three decades of rule, it is stubbornness.

Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Egyptian society as a whole has evolved. Despite the ugly clashes of recent days, the change has mostly been peaceful. Egyptians have graphically demonstrated that they will no longer accept the old rules. They are moving, in the words of Fahmi Huweidi, a popular columnist sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, from pharaohism to democracy.

Even if protests fizzle for the time being, a certain pride of reclaiming possession was vividly in evidence. Protesters in the notoriously trash-strewn megalopolis of Cairo swept and tidied the squares they occupied, and ordinary Egyptians cheerfully and quite efficiently directed traffic or joined neighbourhood patrols in the absence of police.

In the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteer manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displayed a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving licence of a police officer whose car they had stopped. In such ways, Egyptians have begun to establish themselves as citizens of their own country.


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Being Hosni Mubarak

Egypt’s leader has gambled that he can ride out the protests and hold on. It’s a pretty good gamble.

Imagine yourself as Hosni Mubarak, master of Egypt for nearly 30 years. You’re old, unwell, detested and addicted to power. You could have orchestrated a graceful exit by promising to preside over free and fair presidential elections later this year—elections in which the Mubarak name would not be on the ballot. Instead, you gambled that you could ride out the protests and hold on.

It’s a pretty good gamble.

Like everyone else, you’ve been “listening” to Egyptians marching through the streets and telling you it’s time to go. That’s an opinion they’ll likely revise after a few more neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria are ransacked, looted and torched by gangs of hooligans.

But you haven’t just been listening to the demonstrators. You’ve also been watching them—the way they dress, the way they shave. On Sunday, in Tahrir Square, you could tell right away that most were from the Muslim Brotherhood, though they were taking care not to chant the usual Islamic slogans. And Western liberals want you to relinquish power to them?

Then there are the usual “democracy activists,” minuscule in number, better known to Western journalists than to average Egyptians, most of them subsisting on some kind of grant from a Western NGO. They think they’re lucky to have Mohamed ElBaradei as their champion, with his Nobel Peace Prize and his lifetime in New York, Vienna—everywhere, that is, except Egypt itself. They think he gives them respectability. They’re wrong.

Finally, there are the middle-class demonstrators, the secular professionals and minor businessmen. In theory they’re your biggest threat. In practice they’re your ace in the hole.

What unites the protesters is anger. But anger is an emotion, not a strategy, much less a political agenda. What, really, does “Down With Mubarak” offer the average Egyptian?

If the Brotherhood has its way, Egypt will become a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran. If the democracy activists have theirs, it’ll be a weak parliamentary system, incapable of exercising authority over the army and a cat’s paw for a Brotherhood that knows its revolutionary history well enough to remember the name of Alexander Kerensky.

Luckily for you, this analysis is becoming plainer by the day to many Egyptians, especially since Mr. ElBaradei, imagining he has the upper hand, stumbled into a political alliance with the Brotherhood. Also increasingly plain is that it’s in your hands to blur the “fine line between freedom and chaos,” as you aptly put it last week, and to give Egyptians a long, hard look at the latter. No, it wasn’t by your cunning design that thousands of violent prisoners made a jailbreak last week. And the decision to take police off the streets was done in the interests of avoiding bloody scenes with protesters.

Yet all the same, the anarchy unleashed on Egyptian streets has played straight into your hands. The demonstrators want a freedom that looks like London or Washington. Your task is to remind them that it’s more likely to look like Baghdad, circa 2006.

No wonder the mood among Cairo’s shopkeepers, many of whom supported the initial demonstrations, is turning sharply in your favor. Those shopkeepers will soon be joined by housewives who want to feel safe in the streets; and tourism workers who want Egypt to remain a safe destination, and everyone else with a stake in a stable environment. You may be 81, but time is still on your side. And patience is rarely a virtue of the young, who now crowd the streets.

So you’re right to order the army not to fire: The last thing you need is to furnish the protesters with a galvanizing event, or the officers with an embittering one. But the analysts who suppose this decision is a sign of weakness fail to appreciate how neatly it serves your purposes. Nearly all Egyptians are agreed that the army is the one “good” institution in the country—competent, mighty and incorruptible.

But just who do they think the army is? You are its commander in chief and the keeper of its interests. Through you, the army controls an estimated 40% of the economy. Through you, retired officers are guaranteed lucrative careers running state-owned companies or getting senior political appointments. Will your officers hazard their perquisites for a hazy notion of popular freedom? Unlikely.

Today will be the moment of truth. Millions are expected to come out into the streets. But what will they do, other than chant slogans? And who will they fight, if the army won’t fight them? And what other buildings will they put to the torch, without further alienating everyone who isn’t in the march?

You’ve thought these questions through, hence your offer to negotiate with the demonstrators—preferably interminably. In the meantime, passions will cool, cosmetic adjustments will be made and you’ll plot your course to this summer’s elections.

It may be that you won’t run; you’d die in office anyway. But you’re determined to leave in the time and manner of your choosing. Judging by the way you’ve played your cards so far, you will.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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An Unserious Speech Misses the Mark

The audience found it tiresome. Here’s why it was irksome as well.

It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.


The central elements of the missed opportunity:

An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”

Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?

Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”

Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.


As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”

Yes, well, all we’ve done is think about it.

“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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A Presidency to Nowhere

High-speed rail and solar shingles are not the answer to America’s “Sputnik moment.”

No president before Barack Obama has been so right and so wrong.

When in his State of the Union speech Mr. Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” citing the emergence of global competition from the likes of China and India, he was right.

Minutes later he proposed to cover the country with high-speed rail and companies making solar shingles.

High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.

About halfway into the speech, I began to wonder: What is John Boehner thinking? Let’s first welcome back the tradition of House Speakers who bring nothing but a poker face to the State of the Union. (The vice president re-tightening his tie in the middle of the speech was a minor Biden classic.)

I’m guessing that about the time the president was calling investments in clean energy “the Apollo projects of our time,” the new Speaker was thinking: “This is bunk,” or some word to that effect.

That probably wasn’t Mr. Boehner’s first thought. Before the bunk arrived, his first thought was: “We’re in trouble.”

If Barack Obama had come even close to matching policies with the sentiments he spun across the House chamber in the first sections of that speech, the Republicans would have been dealing with a formidable new centrist president.

The speech’s prelude could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan or written by the conservative entrepreneurial Utopian George Gilder.

In a single generation, “the rules have changed,” he said, propelled by technology. “The naysayers predicting our decline” are wrong. When moments later Mr. Obama said, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea,” one felt the ghost of the Gipper hovering nearby. The president called forth more of those spirits, praising “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”

And: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Yes!

And: “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Oh, yes!

Even an Obama naysayer was thinking, Go for it, Mr. President. Unleash our nation of pioneer entrepreneurs with incentives to work, save and invest. (But why the weird slap at the all-American competitiveness of the Super Bowl?)

For a while Tuesday night, it appeared Mr. Obama would replicate Bill Clinton’s almost sci-fi ability to absorb his opposition’s best ideas, such as welfare reform, and re-infuse them into the body politic as his own. But no. We got high-speed rail and solar shingles.

Barack Obama believes what he believes. The ideas he came in with are the ideas he will go out with, and nowhere in that speech was there a fully formed policy idea reflecting authentic belief in the private economy.

The recently promised and much-needed regulatory review was offset with a paean to regulation. “It’s why we have speed limits.” He somehow felt compelled to tell productive suburban families that he’ll try to rescind the tax cut for them, the $250,000 “millionaires.”

Once past the Reagan moment, the Obama policy menu had three entrees: clean energy, education and infrastructure. This was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Obama budget message two months into his presidency: “Our budget will make long overdue investments in priorities—like clean energy, education, health care, and new infrastructure.” He extolled “new jobs that pay well” such as “installing solar energy panels and wind turbines.”

This isn’t a vision. It’s an obsession.

Sending the completed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification should have been a lay-up for a president seeking the center. That’s not happening.

What’s ahead? Mainly one thing: November 2012.

If the State of the Union disappointed policy wonks, it’s because the Obama presidency has entered full campaign mode. His State of the Union was a road map to a second term. Draw the Republican Congress toward the post-November spirit of reform on spending, entitlements and taxes, let these ideas twist in the wind of endless negotiation, pocket the “bipartisan” effort, and run out the clock to a three-point November victory.

Then what?

After ObamaCare and financial re-regulation, the remaining Obama years are looking like a presidency to nowhere. Even if you believe in green jobs, that’s an industry off in the future. Beyond the Keynesian liniment oil of public spending, he’s offering almost nothing for the here-and-now economy.

Rep. Paul Ryan, in his response, was right that “our nation is approaching a tipping point.” Either the government leads the economy, as proposed in the last two-thirds of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union, or it will be driven into the 21st century by the nation’s pioneer legacy of individual innovation, as he seemed to say in the first third of the speech.

If you belief it’s the latter, six more years of chasing Mr. Obama’s idea of investments will be a waste of precious time. The Super Bowl of global competition is well into the first quarter. The future is now.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Throw the WikiBook at them

It is understandable for the administration to underplay the significance of the WikiLeaks State Department cables. But while it is wise not to go into a public panic, it is delusional to think that this is merely embarrassing gossip and indiscretion. The leaks have done major damage.

First, quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity. Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they’re letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government’s doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the Sanaa government’s tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.

Second, we’ve suffered a major blow to our ability to collect information. Talking candidly to a U.S. diplomat can now earn you headlines around the world, reprisals at home, or worse. Success in the war on terror depends on being trusted with other countries’ secrets. Who’s going to trust us now?

Third, this makes us look bad, very bad. But not in the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied in her cringe-inducing apology speech in which she scolded these awful leakers for having done a disservice to “the international community,” and plaintively deplored how this hampers U.S. attempts to bring about a better world.

She sounded like a cross between an exasperated school principal and a Miss America contestant professing world peace to be her fondest wish. The problem is not that the purloined cables exposed U.S. hypocrisy or double-dealing. Good God, that’s the essence of diplomacy. That’s what we do; that’s what everyone does. Hence the famous aphorism that a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.

Nothing new here. What is notable, indeed shocking, is the administration’s torpid and passive response to the leaks. What’s appalling is the helplessness of a superpower that not only cannot protect its own secrets but shows the world that if you violate its secrets – massively, wantonly and maliciously – there are no consequences.

The cat is out of the bag. The cables are public. Deploring them or trying to explain them away, a la Clinton, is merely pathetic. It’s time to show a little steel. To show that such miscreants don’t get to walk away.

At a Monday news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder assured the nation that his people are diligently looking into possible legal action against WikiLeaks. Where has Holder been? The WikiLeaks exposure of Afghan war documents occurred five months ago. Holder is looking now at possible indictments? This is a country where a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Months after the first leak, Justice’s thousands of lawyers have yet to prepare charges against Julian Assange and his confederates?

Throw the Espionage Act of 1917 at them. And if that is not adequate, if that law has been too constrained and watered down by subsequent Supreme Court rulings, then why hasn’t the administration prepared new legislation adapted to these kinds of Internet-age violations of U.S. security? It’s not as if we didn’t know more leaks were coming. And that more leaks are coming still.

Think creatively. The WikiLeaks document dump is sabotage, however quaint that term may seem. We are at war – a hot war in Afghanistan where six Americans were killed just this past Monday, and a shadowy world war where enemies from Yemen to Portland, Ore., are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and executed. Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage – and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department?

And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? Assange has gone missing. Well, he’s no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.

Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can’t sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I’m not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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On Mrs. Kennedy’s Detail

IT was with great trepidation that I approached 3704 N Street in Washington on Nov. 10, 1960. I had just been given the assignment of providing protection for the wife of the newly elected president of the United States, and I was about to meet her for the first time.

I soon realized I had little to worry about. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, just 31 years old at the time, was a gracious woman who put me immediately at ease. She was the first lady, but she was also a caring mother; her daughter, Caroline, was nearly 3 years old, and she was pregnant with her second child. Three weeks later, she went into early labor with John Jr., and I followed her through the entire process. It would be the first of many experiences we would have together.

Being on the first lady’s detail was a lot different from being on the president’s. It was just the two of us, traveling the world together. Mrs. Kennedy was active and energetic — she loved to play tennis, water-ski and ride horses. She had a great sense of humor, and we grew to trust and confide in each other, as close friends do.

In early 1963, Mrs. Kennedy shared with me the happy news that she was pregnant again. She had curtailed her physical activities and had settled into a routine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., for the last few months of her pregnancy. I was on a rare day off when I got the call that she had gone into early labor. I raced to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, arriving shortly after she did.

The president, who had been in Washington, arrived soon after she delivered their new baby boy, whom they named Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.

When Patrick died two days later, Mrs. Kennedy was devastated. I felt as if my own son had died, and we grieved together.

The following weeks were difficult as I watched her fall into a deep depression. Eventually, it was suggested that she needed to get away. In October 1963 I traveled with her to the Mediterranean, where we stayed aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the Christina. The trip to Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, along with a short stop in Morocco, seemed to be good therapy, and by the time we returned to Washington the light had returned to her eyes.

I was surprised, however, when not long after our return Mrs. Kennedy decided to join her husband on his trip to Texas. It was so soon after the loss of her son, and she hadn’t accompanied the president on any domestic political trips since his election.

Nevertheless, when we left the White House on Thursday, Nov. 21, I could tell that Mrs. Kennedy was truly excited. I remember thinking this would be a real test of her recovery, and that if she enjoyed the campaigning it would probably be a regular occurrence as soon as the 1964 race got into full swing.

The first day of the trip was exhausting. We had motorcades in San Antonio, Houston and finally Fort Worth, where we arrived around midnight. It had been a long day for everyone, and Mrs. Kennedy was drained.

On the morning of Nov. 22, I went to her room at the Hotel Texas to bring her down to the breakfast where President John F. Kennedy was speaking. She was refreshed and eager to head to Dallas. She had chosen a pink suit with a matching hat to wear at their many appearances that day, and she looked exquisite.

The motorcade began like any of the many that I had been a part of as an agent — with the adrenaline flowing, the members of the detail on alert. I was riding on the running board of the car just behind the president’s.

We were traveling through Dallas en route to the Trade Mart, where the president was to give a lunchtime speech, when I heard an explosive noise from my right rear. As I turned toward the sound, I scanned the presidential limousine and saw the president grab at his throat and lurch to the left.

I jumped off the running board and ran toward his car. I was so focused on getting to the president and Mrs. Kennedy to provide them cover that I didn’t hear the second shot.

I was just feet away when I heard and felt the effects of a third shot. It hit the president in the upper right rear of his head, and blood was everywhere. Once in the back seat, I threw myself on top of the president and first lady so that if another shot came, it would hit me instead.

The detail went into action. We didn’t stop to think about what happened; our every move and thought went into rushing the president and Mrs. Kennedy to the nearest hospital.

I stayed by Mrs. Kennedy’s side for the next four days. The woman who just a few days before had been so happy and exuberant about this trip to Texas was in deep shock. Her eyes reflected the sorrow of the nation and the world — a sorrow we still feel today.

Clint Hill, a former assistant director of the Secret Service, served under five presidents.

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Who Cares About Haiti?

Extortionists drain the country’s economic lifeblood while the U.N. stands by idly.

Ten months after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed an already decrepit infrastructure, some 1.3 million impoverished souls are still barely surviving in tent cities around the country. Living conditions are deplorable and after nearly a year, optimism about a way out of what were once dubbed “temporary” camps has dimmed.

Now more than 1,100 people have died in a cholera epidemic, and riots that began in the northern city of Cap-Haitien spread to the capital of Port au Prince last week. Protestors allege that the United Nations peace-keeping mission brought the disease to Haiti. The jury is still out on the source of the cholera, but the unrest has taken a further toll.

And so it goes. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, more poverty, violence and sorrow conspire to increase the sense of helplessness in what is the ultimate economic basket case in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of people the world over watch from afar and wonder why something can’t be done.

Here’s the $64 million question: Is Haiti’s seemingly intractable misery the result of a society and culture that is incapable of organizing itself to create civil order and a viable economy? Or is it the consequence of ruling kleptocrats—abetted or at least tolerated by influential foreigners—treating every economic transaction in the country as an opportunity for personal enrichment?

Evidence abounds that it is the latter. So why have the U.S. and the U.N. refused to take even small steps toward shutting down an official corruption racket that pushes millions of helpless people into lives of desperation? Instead they’ve put Bill Clinton—whose political family famously went into business with the notoriously corrupt former President Jean Bertrand Aristide—in charge of rebuilding the country with billions in foreign aid.

A cholera victim in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center near the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Nov. 19.

Development takes generations, and nation building by outsiders is a fool’s game. But often there is a simple change that can yield fast returns. One no-brainer target in Haiti is the port at Port-au-Prince, where the bulk of imports must enter the country, but where Haiti’s legendary mafia will only release containers after sizable bribes are collected.

A report this year by the Rand Corporation describes the port’s importance this way: “The costs of shipping through Haiti’s ports have imposed a major burden on Haitian consumers and businesses. Because imports play such an important role in consumption, investment, and business operations, the cost of imports is a key determinant of living standards and economic growth.” And yet, Rand says, “importing a container of goods is 35 percent more expensive in Haiti than the average for developed OECD countries.”

Haitian officials like to blame inefficiency at the capital’s port on a lack of modern infrastructure. But Haitians know that’s only part of the story. Writing for the online magazine The Root in October, Haitian-born business consultant Yves Savain explained that pulling a container out of the port in the capital “takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an unspecified number of signatures.” The full cost, which he said includes “legitimate and illicit duties,” constitutes “a substantial and arbitrary financial drain on all sectors of the national economy.”

Mr. Savain was being diplomatic. On a visit to the Journal offices last week, former Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph—who resigned in August—was more direct. “The corruption situation in the ports was one of the major reasons I decided I could no longer defend this government,” he says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mr. Joseph says, “I had so many [nongovernmental organizations] calling me and saying ‘ambassador, could you help me get our things out of the port?’ They kept telling me [port officials] want so many thousands of dollars to get the things out.” Mr. Joseph says that by calling the minister of finance he could sometimes get the goods out but that he wasn’t always successful.

Another example: A Nov. 14 CBS “60 Minutes” report featured the case of six containers destined for an NGO housing project that had been “stuck” in the port for months. No one could figure out why the goods couldn’t be released, but the NGO was still forced to pay $6,000 to the Haitian government for an “imposed storage fee.”

Haiti holds elections on Nov. 28 for parliament and president, and enemies of representative government want to disrupt that process. This partly explains the recent violence. Yet it would be foolish to write it off as solely the work of the nefarious underworld.

Haitians are fed up with the squalor that seems to promise an end only in death. They are angry not only with their own crooked politicians but with the way in which outsiders turn a blind eye to their tormentors. The fact that Washington and the U.N. have refused to rein in the extortionists running the port demonstrates the lack of international political will to alter the status quo.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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The Uproar Over Pat-Downs

Americans understand the need for security screenings at airports and are remarkably patient. So there is no excuse for the bumbling, arrogant way the Transportation Security Administration has handled questions and complaints about its new body-scanning machines and more aggressive pat-downs.

The Times reported on Friday that civil liberties groups have collected more than 400 complaints since the new pat-downs began three weeks ago. That is a minuscule number compared with all the people who flew. But there are far too many reports of T.S.A. agents groping passengers, using male agents to search female passengers, mocking passengers and disdaining complaints.

Lawsuits have been filed asserting that new, more powerful body-scanning machines violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches. In general, it seems to us that the scanners are not unconstitutional, but the lawsuits are a healthy process that will require the government to prove that the scanners are reliable and more effective than other devices.

The Fourth Amendment would certainly protect Americans from unnecessary, overly intimate security checks. And nothing in the Constitution permits power-happy or just downright creepy people from abusing their uniforms and the real need for security. The government could start by making their screening guidelines clear. And they should respond to the concerns of people like the woman who told The Times that she is patted down every time because of an insulin pump.

Some passenger groups are planning demonstrations during the Thanksgiving rush. That’s their right, although if they interfere with air travel, or with security measures, they have to assume the risk that applies to any civil disobedience: they might be arrested.

The federal authorities need to take customers’ complaints seriously. And while they’re at it, they should be hard at work filling in the really huge hole in the security of air travel: the inadequate screening of cargo.

Editorial, New York Times


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Ireland’s Paradise Lost

For an American tourist weaned on Gaelic kitsch and screenings of “The Quiet Man,” the landscape of contemporary Ireland comes as something of a shock. Drive from Dublin to the western coast and back, as I did two months ago, and you’ll still find all the thatched-roof farmhouses, winding stone walls and placid sheep that the postcards would lead you to expect. But round every green hill, there’s a swath of miniature McMansions. Past every tumble-down castle, a cascade of condominiums. In sleepy fishing villages that date to the days of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen (she was the Sarah Palin of the 16th century), half the houses look the part — but the rest could have been thrown up by the Toll brothers.

It’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.

This actually isn’t a bad way of thinking about Ireland’s 20th century. The island spent decade after decade isolated, premodern and rural — and then in just a few short years, boom, modernity! The Irish sometimes say that their 1960s didn’t happen until the 1990s, when secularization and the sexual revolution finally began in earnest in what had been one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world. But Ireland caught up fast: the kind of social and economic change that took 50 years or more in many places was compressed into a single revolutionary burst.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when everyone wanted to take credit for this transformation. Free-market conservatives hailed Ireland’s rapid growth as an example of the miracles that free trade, tax cuts and deregulation can accomplish. (In 1990, Ireland ranked near the bottom of European Union nations in G.D.P. per capita. In 2005, it ranked second.)

Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.) The European elite regarded Ireland as a case study in the benefits of E.U. integration, since the more tightly the Irish bound themselves to Continental institutions, the faster their gross domestic product rose.

Nobody tells those kinds of stories anymore. The Celtic housing bubble was more inflated than America’s (a lot of those McMansions are half-finished and abandoned), the Celtic banking industry was more reckless in its bets, and Ireland’s debts, private and public, make our budget woes look manageable by comparison. The Irish economy is on everybody’s mind again these days, but that’s because the government has just been forced to apply for a bailout from the E.U., lest Ireland become the green thread that unravels the European quilt.

If the bailout does its work and the Irish situation stabilizes, the world’s attention will move on to the next E.U. country on the brink, whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Greece (again). But when the story of the Great Recession is remembered, Ireland will offer the most potent cautionary tale. Nowhere did the imaginations of utopians run so rampant, and nowhere did they receive a more stinging rebuke.

To the utopians of capitalism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth. To the utopians of secularism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation. (“Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture,” Christopher Caldwell noted, but now “we may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.”)

But it’s the utopians of European integration who should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story. The continent-wide ripples from Ireland’s banking crisis have vindicated the Euroskeptics who argued that the E.U. was expanded too hastily, and that a single currency couldn’t accommodate such a wide diversity of nations. And the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.

As for the Irish themselves, their idyllic initiation into global capitalism is over, and now they probably understand the nature of modernity a little better. At times, it can seem to deliver everything you ever wanted, and wealth beyond your dreams. But you always have to pay for it.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


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Russia’s Dictatorship of Law

Russia’s newly outrageous legal treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the country’s largest oil company, is a reminder that Russia has yet to grasp the idea of equal justice under law — especially when the Kremlin decides someone is in the way.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 on trumped-up charges of fraud and disobeying a court order and lost his company to Kremlin loyalists. Russians call his sort of case “telephone law,” imposed by the politically powerful through a call to the courthouse. With his sentence almost up, he was just tried again on suspect charges of embezzling and money-laundering. The judge is expected to reach a decision in December.

Two decades ago, the United States State Department urged the new Russia to resurrect the jury system, as The Times described this week, to put the law in the hands of the Russian people. Juries had been abolished after the Soviet revolution, along with anything recognizable as courts and lawyers. They were reborn in 1993.

Defendants have a right to a jury trial in a small fraction of crimes like murder and kidnapping. Compared with non-jury trials in the Soviet era, when the acquittal rate was likely less than 1 percent, the rate with juries has climbed to between 15 and 20 percent. Because of this apparent success, it is tempting to look for the growth of a familiar sense of justice. That search ends in disillusionment.

The Soviet system relied on prosecutors to find what passed for the truth in criminal cases, so the foundation for reform is at odds with the new system that juries are part of, with truth supposedly emerging from the competing accounts of the prosecution and the defense.

More to the point, the old system is not dead. Russia, the scholar Jeffrey Kahn said, has “a lot of bad legal habits.” One is the prosecutor’s “case file,” which sealed the guilt of countless Soviet citizens and retains its terrifying force. Of the 791,802 criminal cases disposed of this year through September, only 465 were decided by a jury. Mr. Khodorkovsky wasn’t allowed a jury in either of his trials. Deliberately, the prosecution charged him only with crimes that didn’t give that right. A jury couldn’t be trusted, apparently, to look out for the state’s interests.

When Vladimir Putin heralded the start of the era of law and democracy, he repeatedly described it as “the dictatorship of law.” As the Khodorkovsky case dramatizes, that is a chillingly accurate description.

Editorial, New York Times


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Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha

“THE perception I had, anyway, was that we were on top of the world,” Sarah Palin said at the climax of last Sunday’s premiere of her new television series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” At that point our fearless heroine had just completed a perilous rock climb, and if she looked as if she’d just stepped out of a spa instead, don’t expect her fans to question the reality. For them, Palin’s perception is the only reality that counts.

Palin is on the top of her worlds — both the Republican Party and the media universe. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” set a ratings record for a premiere on TLC, attracting nearly five million viewers — twice the audience of last month’s season finale of the blue-state cable favorite, “Mad Men.” The next night Palin and her husband Todd were enshrined as proud parents in touchy-feely interviews on “Dancing With the Stars,” the network sensation (21 million viewers) where their daughter Bristol has miraculously escaped elimination all season despite being neither a star nor a dancer. This week Sarah Palin will most likely vanquish George W. Bush and Keith Richards on the best-seller list with her new book.

If logic applied to Palin’s career trajectory, this month might have been judged dreadful for her. In an otherwise great year for Republicans she endorsed a “Star Wars” bar gaggle of anomalous and wacky losers — the former witch, Christine O’Donnell; the raging nativist, Tom Tancredo; and at least two candidates who called for armed insurrection against the government, Sharron Angle and a would-be Texas congressman, Stephen Broden, who lost by over 50 percentage points. Last week voters in Palin’s home state humiliatingly “refudiated” her protégé, Joe Miller, overturning his victory in the G.O.P. Senate primary with a write-in campaign.

But logic doesn’t apply to Palin. What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. In an angry time when America’s experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor. She has turned fallibility into a formula for success.

Republican leaders who want to stop her, and they are legion, are utterly baffled about how to do so. Democrats, who gloat that she’s the Republicans’ problem, may be humoring themselves. When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off.

Of course Palin hasn’t decided to run yet. Why rush? In the post-midterms Gallup poll she hit her all-time high unfavorable rating (52 percent), but in the G.O.P. her favorable rating is an awesome 80 percent, virtually unchanged from her standing at the end of 2008 (83 percent). She can keep floating above the pack indefinitely as the celebrity star of a full-time reality show where she gets to call all the shots. The Perils of Palin maintains its soap-operatic drive not just because of the tabloid antics of Bristol, Levi, et al., but because you are kept guessing about where the pop culture ends and the politics begins.

The producer of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” Mark Burnett (whose past hits appropriately include both “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”), has declared that the series is “completely nonpolitical.” It is in fact completely political — an eight-week infomercial that, miraculously enough, is paying the personality it promotes (a reported $250,000 a week) rather than charging her. The show’s sole political mission is to maintain the fervor and loyalty of the G.O.P. base, not to win over Palin’s detractors. In the debut episode, the breathtaking Alaskan landscapes were cannily intermixed with vignettes showcasing the star’s ostensibly model kids and husband, her charming dad, the villainous lamestream media (represented by Palin’s unwanted neighbor, the journalist Joe McGinniss), and the heroic Rupert Murdoch media (represented by an off-screen Bill O’Reilly).

Palin fires a couple of Annie Oakley-style shots before we’re even out of the opening credits. The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara. With a showbiz-fueled net worth widely estimated in the double-digit millions, Palin is as Hollywood in her way as Reagan was, but you won’t see any bling or factotums in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” She tells the audience that she doesn’t have “much of a staff” to tend to her sprawling family and career. “We do most everything ourselves,” she says, and not with a wink.

Thanks to the in-kind contribution of this “nonpolitical” series, Palin needn’t join standard-issue rivals like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty in groveling before donors and primary-state operatives to dutifully check all the boxes of a traditional Republican campaign. Palin not only has TLC in her camp but, better still, Murdoch. Other potential 2012 candidates are also on the Fox News payroll, but Palin is the only one, as Alessandra Stanley wrote in The Times, whose every appearance is “announced with the kind of advance teasing and clip montages that talk shows use to introduce major movie stars.” Pity poor Mike Huckabee, relegated to a graveyard time slot, with the ratings to match.

The Fox spotlight is only part of Murdoch’s largess. As her publisher, he will foot the bill for the coming “book tour” whose itinerary disproportionately dotes on the primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. The editorial page of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is also on board, recently praising Palin for her transparently ghost-written critique of the Federal Reserve’s use of quantitative easing. “Mrs. Palin is way ahead of her potential presidential competitors on this policy point,” The Journal wrote, and “shows a talent for putting a technical subject in language that average Americans can understand.”

With Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on her side, Palin hardly needs the grandees of the so-called Republican establishment. They know it and flail at her constantly. Politico reported just before Election Day that unnamed “party elders” were nearly united in wanting to stop her, out of fear that she’d win the nomination and then be crushed by Obama. Their complaints are seconded daily by Bush White House alumni like Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and Mark McKinnon, who said recently that Palin’s “stock is falling and pretty rapidly now” and that “if she’s smart, she does not run.”

This is either denial or wishful thinking. The same criticisms that the Bushies fling at Palin were those once aimed at Bush: a slender résumé, a lack of intellectual curiosity and foreign travel, a lazy inclination to favor from-the-gut improvisation over cracking the briefing books. These spitballs are no more likely to derail Palin within the G.O.P. than they did him.

As Palin has refused to heed these patrician Republicans, some of them have gotten so testy they sound like Democrats. Peggy Noonan called her a “nincompoop” last month, and Susan Collins, the senator from Maine, dismissed her as a “celebrity commentator.” Rove tut-tutted Palin’s TLC show for undermining her aspirations to “gravitas.” These insults just play into Palin’s hands, burnishing her image as an exemplar of the “real America” battling the snooty powers-that-be. To serve as an Andrew Jackson or perhaps George Wallace for the 21st century, the last thing she wants or needs is gravitas.

It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy. The Bushies and Noonans and dwindling retro-moderate Republicans are no less loathed by Palinistas and their Tea Party fellow travelers than is Obama’s Ivy League White House. When Palin mocks her G.O.P. establishment critics as tortured, paranoid, sleazy and a “good-old-boys club,” she pays no penalty for doing so. The more condescending the attacks on her, the more she thrives. This same dynamic is also working for her daughter Bristol, who week after week has received low scores and patronizing dismissals from the professional judges on “Dancing with the Stars” only to be rescued by populist masses voting at home.

Revealingly, Sarah Palin’s potential rivals for the 2012 nomination have not joined the party establishment in publicly criticizing her. They are afraid of crossing Palin and the 80 percent of the party that admires her. So how do they stop her? Not by feeding their contempt in blind quotes to the press — as a Romney aide did by telling Time’s Mark Halperin she isn’t “a serious human being.” Not by hoping against hope that Murdoch might turn off the media oxygen that feeds both Palin’s viability and News Corporation’s bottom line. Sooner or later Palin’s opponents will instead have to man up — as Palin might say — and actually summon the courage to take her on mano-a-maverick in broad daylight.

Short of that, there’s little reason to believe now that she cannot dance to the top of the Republican ticket when and if she wants to.

Frank Rich, New York Times


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The Backdating Embarrassment

How did a meaningless violation of accounting rules become the crime the of century?

An array of influential friends urged leniency for Bruce Karatz in his stock-option backdating sentencing last week, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad. But these personages weren’t the reason Judge Otis D. Wright II rejected prosecutors’ request for a six-year prison sentence and instead gave Mr. Karatz probation. Judge Wright said he couldn’t see putting the former CEO away for a crime that did no harm to his company, KB Home, or its shareholders.

So endeth another episode in the annals of backdating, in which a fairly meaningless violation of accounting rules (though violation it was) became trumpeted from the media pulpits as the business crime of the century.

We suppose it’s humanly understandable that, finding themselves compelled to bring these cases, federal prosecutors stretched and kneaded the evidence to fulfill the media’s stereotype of backdating as theft and fraud against shareholders. Let this be a lesson to the children in how not to respond constructively to cognitive dissonance.

Such prosecutorial misconduct led to the dismissal of the backdating case last year against Broadcom founder Henry Nicholas. A judge also threw out the guilty plea of his partner, Henry Samueli, saying he didn’t think Mr. Samueli committed any crime. The first conviction of former Brocade Communications CEO Greg Reyes was similarly overturned on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct (though Mr. Reyes was retried and convicted by a new jury, and now is appealing).

A further irony is that backdating was abetted by a nonsensical accounting rule at the time that treated one kind of option as having value and another kind as having no value (though both have value). This split-the-baby rule itself arguably evolved out of the media’s perennial insistence on portraying stock options as emblems of greed rather than as business tools.

By the estimate of the University of Iowa’s Erik Lie, some 2,000 public companies must have engaged in backdating at some point, as testified by otherwise inexplicable patterns of options pricing. Some 150 companies eventually restated their past results to conform to the proper rule for expensing such options. Yet only a few executives were singled out for criminal prosecution, in a manner that left an observer scratching his head as to why the justice roulette wheel chose some but not others.

Further reason for pause: The handful of subsequent convictions seemed to turn less on the act of backdating than on the self-preserving prevarications executives uttered once the posse arrived at their doorstep.

The ultimate statement in this vein, of course, was the decision by Kobi Alexander, former CEO of Comverse Technology, to decamp to Namibia. We can think of two reasons somebody might flee the law—because he fears he will get justice, or fears he won’t. Presumably Mr. Alexander will one day appear in a U.S. court. It will be interesting to see what countenance he puts on his decision to become a fugitive—perhaps he will cite as a precedent the behavior of the legal system in Salem, Mass., circa 1692.

Meanwhile, the larger lessons of the backdating furor were drawn in an epic piece in May in the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal. By freelance reporter Anna Stolley Persky, the piece connected the dots between (among other things) the backdating witch-hunt, the tainted prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, and the government’s use of the vague “honest services” statute to criminalize various kinds of behavior post hoc (a practice the Supreme Court finally curbed earlier this year).

One critique can be found in the title of a book by Boston defense attorney Harvey Silverglate: “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” Mr. Silverglate believes that only a mobilization of “civil society” can stop what he calls rampant abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

In contrast, former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova puts the onus on DOJ overseers: “If anyone thinks it’s anything other than prosecute at any cost, then they are wrong. . . . The department has been AWOL in supervising the ethics of its prosecutors,” he told ABA Journal.

But it’s also hard not to see the self-interested ethics of the plaintiff’s bar spilling across the entire legal profession. In their official roles, prosecutors invent Kafkaesque new ways to ensnare the unpopular wealthy in legal trouble, then jump to private law firms and make seven-figure livings protecting the wealthy from the monster they themselves unleashed.

Shakespeare had a solution, but, alas, this would also be illegal. Thus it must fall to bloggers, the media and judges like Judge Wright to protect Americans from overzealous prosecutors.

Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal


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Acquittal in terror case shows justice system’s strength

THE STUNNING verdict in the first civilian trial of a Guantanamo detainee is an embarrassment for the Obama administration, but it should not deter officials from considering federal court prosecutions for others being held at the U.S. naval base.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was acquitted of 284 of the 285 charges lodged against him for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Mr. Ghailani, who was indicted in federal court months after the attack and then captured in 2004, was convicted only of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property and buildings. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, Mr. Ghailani purchased the truck and the tanks of oxygen and acetylene gas used in the suicide bombing of the embassy in Tanzania. Prosecutors also presented evidence that the day before the bombings, Mr. Ghailani used a fake passport and an assumed name to depart Africa on a flight with two al-Qaeda operatives also implicated in the attacks. The presiding judge prohibited the government from calling a witness who claims he sold Mr. Ghailani TNT because the government learned of the witness only after subjecting Mr. Ghailani to what his lawyers say was torture at an overseas CIA prison.

Administration critics say the multiple acquittals prove that a federal court is the wrong venue for such trials. They are right that a trial by its nature is a risky proposition, notwithstanding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s brave assertion in 2009 that “failure is not an option.” Defense lawyers in this case effectively painted Mr. Ghailani as an unwitting accomplice.

But Mr. Ghailani did not escape responsibility. His conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and the judge may impose a life sentence. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a military commission, the preferred alternative of many critics, would have produced a tougher result. Such commissions are not apt to admit statements coerced through torture, so the star witness rejected by a federal judge probably would have been excluded by the military court as well. And in 2008, a military jury rejected the Bush administration’s argument that Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was a hardened al-Qaeda operative, acquitted him of the most serious charges and sentenced him to a mere five months on top of time served.

The fact that a jury sitting in a terrorism case just blocks from Ground Zero declined to rubber-stamp the government’s assertions shows not the weakness of the federal court system but one of its principal strengths: independence.

Military commissions are a legitimate option to try accused terrorists, and in rare cases – if the administration would have the courage to seek a legal framework, with judicial oversight – indefinite detention is as well. But the Ghailani verdict provides no sound argument to remove federal courts from the mix.

Editorial, Washington Post


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Don’t touch my junk

Ah, the airport, where modern folk heroes are made. The airport, where that inspired flight attendant did what everyone who’s ever been in the spam-in-a-can crush of a flying aluminum tube – where we collectively pretend that a clutch of peanuts is a meal and a seat cushion is a “flotation device” – has always dreamed of doing: pull the lever, blow the door, explode the chute, grab a beer, slide to the tarmac and walk through the gates to the sanity that lies beyond. Not since Rick and Louis disappeared into the Casablanca fog headed for the Free French garrison in Brazzaville has a stroll on the tarmac thrilled so many.

Who cares that the crazed steward got arrested, pleaded guilty to sundry charges, and probably was a rude, unpleasant SOB to begin with? Bonnie and Clyde were psychopaths, yet what child of the ’60s did not fall in love with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty?

And now three months later, the newest airport hero arrives. His genius was not innovation in getting out, but deconstructing the entire process of getting in. John Tyner, cleverly armed with an iPhone to give YouTube immortality to the encounter, took exception to the TSA guard about to give him the benefit of Homeland Security’s newest brainstorm – the upgraded, full-palm, up the groin, all-body pat-down. In a stroke, the young man ascended to myth, or at least the next edition of Bartlett’s, warning the agent not to “touch my junk.”

Not quite the 18th-century elegance of “Don’t Tread on Me,” but the age of Twitter has a different cadence from the age of the musket. What the modern battle cry lacks in archaic charm, it makes up for in full-body syllabic punch.

Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man, the Tea Party patriot, the late-life libertarian, the midterm election voter. Don’t touch my junk, Obamacare – get out of my doctor’s examining room, I’m wearing a paper-thin gown slit down the back. Don’t touch my junk, Google – Street View is cool, but get off my street. Don’t touch my junk, you airport security goon – my package belongs to no one but me, and do you really think I’m a Nigerian nut job preparing for my 72-virgin orgy by blowing my johnson to kingdom come?

In “Up in the Air,” that ironic take on the cramped freneticism of airport life, George Clooney explains why he always follows Asians in the security line:

“They pack light, travel efficiently, and they got a thing for slip-on shoes, God love ’em.”

“That’s racist!”

“I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.”

That riff is a crowd-pleaser because everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. Nowhere do more people meekly acquiesce to more useless inconvenience and needless indignity for less purpose. Wizened seniors strain to untie their shoes; beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants; 3-year-olds scream while being searched insanely for explosives – when everyone, everyone, knows that none of these people is a threat to anyone.

The ultimate idiocy is the full-body screening of the pilot. The pilot doesn’t need a bomb or box cutter to bring down a plane. All he has to do is drive it into the water, like the EgyptAir pilot who crashed his plane off Nantucket while intoning “I rely on God,” killing all on board.

But we must not bring that up. We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

The junk man’s revolt marks the point at which a docile public declares that it will tolerate only so much idiocy. Metal detector? Back-of-the-hand pat? Okay. We will swallow hard and pretend airline attackers are randomly distributed in the population.

But now you insist on a full-body scan, a fairly accurate representation of my naked image to be viewed by a total stranger? Or alternatively, the full-body pat-down, which, as the junk man correctly noted, would be sexual assault if performed by anyone else?

This time you have gone too far, Big Bro’. The sleeping giant awakes. Take my shoes, remove my belt, waste my time and try my patience. But don’t touch my junk.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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To Run or Not to Run, That Is the Question

It’s only Thanksgiving 2010, but some GOP politicians must decide if they want a shot at the presidency.

All eyes have been on Capitol Hill, but let’s take a look at the early stages of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

This week the papers have been full of sightings—Newt and Huckabee are in Iowa, Pawlenty’s in New Hampshire. But maybe the more interesting story is that a lot of potential candidates will decide if they are definitely going to run between now and New Year’s—and some of them will be deciding over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s all happening now, they’re deciding in long walks, at the dinner table, and while watching the football game on the couch. They’ll be talking it through, sometimes for the first time and sometimes the tenth. “Can we do this?” “Are we in this together?” “How do you feel?”

In some cases those will be hard conversations. A largely unremarked fact of modern presidential politics is the increased and wholly understandable reluctance of candidates’ families to agree to a run. Looking at it through a purely personal prism, and that’s where most people start, they see it not as a sacrifice, which it is, but a burden, a life-distorter, and it is those things too. But they have to agree to enter Big History, or a candidate can’t go. And a lot of them don’t want the job, if victory follows candidacy, of “the president’s family.” The stakes are too high, the era too dramatic, the life too intense. They don’t want the intrusion, the end of all privacy, the fact that you’re always on, always representing.

A president’s spouse gets mass adulation one week and mass derision the next. But if you’re a normal person you probably never wanted mass adulation or mass derision.

So what’s happening now in the homes of some political figures is big and in some cases will be decisive. Potential candidates already have been approached by and met with campaign consultants, gurus looking for a gig telling them “Don’t worry about all the travel, you can have a Facebook campaign, we’ll make you the first I-pad candidate! You can keep your day job. You can even work your day job!” And then there are the potential contributors, the hedge fund libertarian in Greenwich, and the conservative millionaire in a Dallas suburb, who are raring to go. Candidates have to decide by at least New Year’s in order to be able to tell them to stay close and keep their powder dry, and in order to plan an announcement in the spring, in time for the first big GOP debate, at the Reagan Library.

Some candidates and their families are not wrestling with the idea of running, of course. Mitt Romney, for instance, surely knows he’s running. But not every potential candidate is serious about it. Some look like they’re letting the possibility they’ll run dangle out there because it keeps them relevant, keeps the cameras nearby, keeps their speech fees and book advances up. The one thing political journalists know and have learned the past few decades is that anyone can become president. So if you say you may run you are immediately going to get richer and more well known and treated with more respect by journalists. Another reason unlikely candidates act like they’re running is that who knows, they may. It’s hard to decide not to. It excites them to think they might. It helps them get up that morning and go to the 7 a.m. breakfast. “I’m not doing this for nothing, I may actually run. The people at the breakfast may hug me at my inauguration; I may modestly whisper, ‘Remember that breakfast in Iowa when nobody showed? But you did. You’re the reason I’m here.'” They’re not horrible, they’re just human. But history is serious right now, and it seems abusive to fake it. If you know in your heart you’re not going to run you probably shouldn’t jerk people around. This is history, after all.

All this decision making takes place within the context of a new mood in the party. We are at the beginning of what looks like a conservative renaissance, free of the past and back to basics. It is a revived conservatism restored to a sense of mission.

The broader context is this: Every four years we say, ‘This is a crucial election,’ and every four years it’s more or less true. But 2012 will seem truer than most. I suspect it will be, like 1980, a year that feels like a question: Will America turn itself around or not? Will it go in a dramatically new direction, or not.

And if there are new directions to be taken, it’s probably true that only a president, in the end, can definitively lead in that new direction. On spending, for instance, which is just one issue, it’s probably true that the new Congress will wrestle with cuts and limits and new approaches, and plenty of progress is possible, and big issues faced. But at the end of the day it will likely take a president to summon and gather the faith and trust of the people, and harness the national will. It’s probably true that only a president can ask everyone to act together, to trust each other, even, and to accept limits together in pursuit of a larger good.

Right now, at this moment, it looks like the next Republican nominee for president will probably be elected president. Everyone knows a rising tide when they see one. But everything changes, and nothing is sure. President Obama’s poll numbers seem to be inching up, and there’s reason to guess or argue that he hit bottom the week after the election and has nowhere to go but up.

Most of my life we’ve lived in a pretty much fifty-fifty nation, with each cycle decided by where the center goes. Mr. Obama won only two years ago by 9.5 million votes. That’s a lot of votes. His supporters may be disheartened and depressed, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ll show up for a presidential race, especially if the Republicans do not learn one of the great lessons of 2010: The center has to embrace the conservative; if it doesn’t, the conservative loses. Add to that the fact that the White House is actually full of talented people, and though they haven’t proved good at governing they did prove good not long ago at campaigning. It’s their gift. It’s ignored at the GOP’s peril.

All of this means that for Republicans, the choice of presidential nominee will demand an unusual level of sobriety and due diligence from everyone in the party, from primary voters in Iowa to county chairmen in South Carolina, and from party hacks in Washington to tea party powers in the Rust Belt. They are going to have to approach 2012 with more than the usual seriousness. They’ll have to think big, and not indulge resentments or anger or petty grievances. They’ll have to be cool eyed. They’ll have to watch and observe the dozen candidates expected to emerge, and ask big questions. Who can lead? Who can persuade the center? Who can summon the best from people? Who will seem credible (as a person who leads must)? Whose philosophy is both sound and discernible? Who has the intellectual heft? Who has the experience? Who seems capable of wisdom? These are serious questions, but 2012 is going to be a serious race.

Good luck to those families having their meetings and deliberations on Thanksgiving weekend.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Air Guitar

The danger of America’s will to weakness.

Lately in the news:

Beijing provokes clashes with the navies of both Indonesia and Japan as part of a bid to claim the South China Sea. Tokyo is in a serious diplomatic row with Russia over the South Kuril islands, a leftover dispute from 1945. There are credible fears that Tehran and Damascus will use the anticipated indictment of Hezbollah figures by a U.N. tribunal to overthrow the elected Lebanese government. Managua is attempting to annex a sliver of Costa Rica, a nation much too virtuous to have an army of its own. And speaking of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is setting himself up as another Hugo Chávez by running, unconstitutionally, for another term. Both men are friends and allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

About all of this, the Obama administration has basically done nothing. As Sarah Palin might say: How’s that multi-poley stuff workin’ out for ya?

Throughout the Bush years, “multipolarity” was held up as the intelligent and necessary alternative to the supposedly go-it-alone approach to the world of the incumbent administration. French President Jacques Chirac was for it: “I have no doubt,” he said in 2003, “that the multipolar vision of the world that I have defended for some time is certainly supported by a large majority of countries throughout the world.” So were such doyens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.

In this view, multipolarity wasn’t merely a description of the world as it is, or of the world soon to come. It was also a prescription, a belief that a globe containing multiple centers of influence and power was preferable to one in which American dominance led, inevitably, to American excess. The war in Iraq was supposed to be Exhibit A.

Barack Obama was also a subscriber to this view. In the fall of 2008, a high-ranking foreign diplomat paid a visit to the offices of The Wall Street Journal and told a story of a meeting he and his colleagues had had with the Illinois senator. Mr. Obama, the diplomat recounted, had gone out of his way to arrange the chairs in a circle, not just as a courtesy but also as an effort to suggest that there was no pecking order to the meeting, that they all sat as equals. Wasn’t that nice? Didn’t it set a better tone?

Maybe it did. And maybe, given the thrust of some of President Obama’s ideas on trade, currency and monetary policy, it’s just as well. But whether an American president ought to get his way on a matter of policy is one thing. That a president can’t get his way is another. That’s a recipe for the global disorder we are beginning to see encroaching from Central America to the Middle and Far East.

Last week, Mr. Obama was so resoundingly rebuffed by other leaders at the G-20 summit in Seoul that even the New York Times noticed: Mr. Obama, the paper wrote, faced “stiff challenges . . . from the leaders of China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.” His administration has now been chastised or belittled by everyone from the Supreme Leader of Iran to the finance minister of Germany to the president of France to the dictator of Syria. What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who’s willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side.

But it would mean other things, too. The small and distant abuses of power, would grow bolder and more frequent. America’s exhortations for restraint or decency would seem cheaper. Multipolarity is a theory that, inevitably, leads to old-fashioned spheres of influence. It has little regard for small states: Taiwan, Mongolia, Israel, Georgia, Latvia, Costa Rica. The romance of the balance of power might have made sense when one empire was, more or less, as despotic as the next. It is less morally compelling when the choice is between democracy and Putinism, as it is today for Ukraine.

We are now at risk of entering a period—perhaps a decade, perhaps a half-century—of global disorder, brought about by a combination of weaker U.S. might and even weaker U.S. will. The last time we saw something like it was exactly a century ago. Winston Churchill wrote a book about it: “The World Crisis, 1911-1918.” Available in paperback. Worth reading today.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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President Obama isn’t the new Carter, but he just might be the new (first) Bush

Months before Election Day, the name of Jimmy Carter had assumed an incantatory power among observers of politics. President Obama’s supporters began to fret that his presidency was declining as Carter’s did, while his opponents salivated at the prospect, as though the more the 39th president was mentioned, the worse the chances of the 44th. In addition to columnists and bloggers, historians Walter Russell Mead and Sean Wilentz have written on the comparison, while Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, has worried over it. Carter himself recently discussed it with Larry King.

Is Obama the next Carter? Leaving aside for the moment the facility and myopia of this analogy — we’ve had 17 one-term presidents — its details are off. Obama and Carter are both Democrats, true, both are intellectuals who came into office on a wave of discontent, and both promised new approaches to government and the world. What candidates don’t? Obama seems to like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even less than Carter liked Menachim Begin, and Carter faced a crisis in Iran, a new eruption of terrorist threats, and economic woes, though all of very different sorts than those facing Obama.

But where Carter, a notorious micromanager and hand-wringer, appeared to bog down in the carpet fibers of the presidency, a common complaint about Obama is that he’s in the clouds. Where Carter was said to have a morose and pedantic outlook, Obama is accused of being, rather, cerebral and aloof — related charges, maybe, but not the same. Recounting Carter’s fumbling Mideast statecraft in his book “A World of Trouble,” Patrick Tyler described an “obsessive technocrat who wore his idealism like a crucifix and his pragmatism like a slide rule clipped to his waistband.” That’s not Obama.

Yet there is a recent one-term president he resembles. George H.W. Bush doesn’t often come up in discussions of Obama, but two years into Obama’s term, the two presidents’ tenures bear a striking resemblance. So too do their governing styles and temperaments, and even, unlikely though it may seem, their speech. Here are two leaders “buffeted by circumstance,” as the presidential historian Bert Rockman characterized Bush, whose same signal qualities in repulsing buffets and discussing them with the public — sobriety, patience, and, yes, prudence, to use Bush-impersonator Dana Carvey’s favorite Bushism — are often enough their least appreciated.

But why attempt the comparison at all? Isn’t analyzing the doings of one White House frustrating enough? Were we able to travel back in time and stand behind each of the 44 presidents as they went about a day in office, we’d no doubt find the diversity of problems they faced and the ways they faced them makes drawing parallels laughable. Despite working in the Oval Office, each successive occupant of it is a nonpareil.

Still, the practice feels necessary. Why? Most simply, because comparison is how we learn, how we judge. Comparing Obama to Carter, even if it’s to express disfavor, is a way of fitting him into a group, of trying to understand him and the challenges of his job. It’s a way of familiarizing him. That Obama is the first African-American president makes this impulse all the stronger. Similarly, while presidents have been compared since John Adams succeeded George Washington, when we’re talking about a young president with scant public record prior to his election, past presidential performances are one of the few available yardsticks.

So let’s compare, first, those historical buffets. In the first year of Bush’s term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis. Facilitated by deregulation and a mortgage bubble, the S&L crisis threatened the country’s banking system by the time of Bush’s inaugural. Unpopular though he knew the move would be, Bush and Congress put together a massive tax-funded rescue. The public didn’t understand the disastrous alternative scenario, and the move was assailed as a bailout of reckless bankers.

Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world. He cut off diplomatic ties to China after Tiananmen, but, a committed internationalist, he believed engagement was eventually the right strategy. He was roundly criticized for not doing enough to support the protestors.

That didn’t turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Since “everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything,” as the presidential historian Richard Neustadt observed in his study “Presidential Power,” Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.

Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.

George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits. Though Bush would have liked to do more in domestic policy, he was constrained not just by money, but by a widespread public conviction, inflamed by Reagan, that government “is the problem.” Bush pollster Robert Teeter recognized this early on, seeing that while Americans were revolted by the “private interest” excesses of the Reagan era — as Bush himself was — they were also unwilling to embrace the “public purpose” alternative.

Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan’s had. And Obama faced the same conundrum: He campaigned on the promise of a renewed sense of public purpose, and perhaps the most fundamental misreading of the public he made was thinking that what even many conservatives wanted, after George W. Bush, was not smaller government but rather more competent big government. Long before they’d occurred, the 2010 elections were deemed a rejection of that notion.

It’s little remembered now that a renewed sense of public purpose was also Bush’s hope. We recall with amused pity the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler America,” but those ideas meant something to Bush. He’d studied at the feet of the policy mandarins who surrounded his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, conservative men who nonetheless believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, a proposition Reagan made his name maligning. Though he first ran as a Goldwater conservative, as a young congressman — like Obama but unlike Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W., he came out of the Legislature — Bush proved his mettle by bravely voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fair housing bill, after Johnson had announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, and over the objections of Bush’s incensed white Houston constituents.

In 1988, Bush could not run openly on reversing his predecessor’s policies, as Obama would later run against his son, but he did so tacitly. He was troubled by the rampant deregulation and decline in social services funding of the 1980s. Indeed, one slogan of his campaign, since forgotten, was “We Are The Change!” (add “we seek” to the end of that, and you have an oft-repeated slogan of the Obama campaign).

As president, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He put the full weight of the White House behind renewing the Clean Air and Water Acts (a coup Obama would be lucky to equal). He effected the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Most gallingly for his friends on Wall Street, in the wake of the S&L crisis he approved the most significant package of financial regulation reforms until 2010’s Consumer Financial Protection Act.

In his inaugural address, in which he studiously eschewed the folksy populism of Carter, Obama pledged that Americans were “ready to lead once more.” Similarly Bush predicted a “new world order” led by America, a phrase that would come to haunt him in the 1992 primaries. “Is George Bush merely an idealist or are there now plans underway to merge the interests of the US and the Soviet Union in the United Nations,” Pat Robertson drooled in his campaign book, “and install a socialist ‘world order’ in place of a free market system?” If that rings a bell, it may be because you’ve been watching clips of Glenn Beck.

There is also a rhetorical similarity between the two presidents. Obama is better spoken and more inspiring than was Bush, but, like Obama, Bush’s central rhetorical fault — how he eventually lost the public — was that he was always cool, always rational. He knew what he wanted, and what he’d done, but, like Obama, he was almost bashful about explaining as much to Americans, going so far as to cross many of the I’s out of his addresses. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater lamented that his boss’s approach to message politics was “If I am doing the right thing, I can take any punishment.” Bush himself admitted, “I’m not good at expressing the concerns of a nation — I’m just not very good at it.”

Like Obama, Bush had a cerebral, deliberative, occasionally paradoxical way of speaking. In a fascinating study, “Personality Profiles of the 1992 Presidential Candidates as Derived from their Speech Patterns,” a pair of speech pathologists found that Bush’s most hobbling tendency as a speaker was not his well-known gaffes, which many people actually found endearing, but his Obama-esque fondness for retractors — “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” and other such words that suggest active thought but also reversals of course.

The presidential historian Richard Hofstadter, who perfected the art of comparing chief executives, pointed out that the activity was a cultural necessity. “A longing to recapture the past, in fact, has itself been such a basic ingredient of the recent American past that no history of political thinking is complete which does not attempt to explain it,” Hofstadter wrote in “The American Political Tradition.” In other words, as Americans, we ply a kind of hyper-nostalgia. Hence every officeholder runs on the promise of restoring tradition, acknowledging as little as possible that America has many governmental traditions, not just one, a fact writ large in the presidency. It is said that nothing can prepare a candidate for the highest office. Maybe then we must compare presidents precisely because they are nonpareils? The presidency is an embodiment of so many traditions, a job of such power, of such complexity and thanklessness, there is no standard of measurement for it except itself.

This winter, Obama will face what promises to be a bitter debate over the deficit and taxes. Commentators will no doubt compare it to the budget battle of 1995-96, when Washington shut down. A better parallel, however, would be the fiscal debate Bush faced in 1990. More than anything, it proved the undoing of his presidency. Bush wrote in his diary at the time that he knew a decision to raise taxes might cost him reelection. He also knew that the cavalier spirit behind his “read my lips!” campaign pledge, while popular, was unwise — which is to say unlike George H.W. Bush. So he agreed to raise taxes.

Never mind that the deficit reduction bill he signed paved the way for the surpluses of the 1990s, or that his tax increase was actually smaller than an earlier one forced upon Reagan in percentage of gross domestic product: Republican legislators abandoned Bush over the decision. Their treacherous logic was voiced by Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber: “What is good for the president may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans. We need wedge issues to beat incumbent Democrats.”

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because you encountered it a few weeks ago — but not from Republicans. It summed up the playbook of Democrats running for their lives, away from Obama’s policies. It resulted in the loss of the House of Representatives.

James Verini is a journalist in New York.


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Bush Agonistes? Not Quite

In an interview, the former president makes the case for his ‘freedom agenda’ and defends his record on the economy and spending.

The former leader of the free world sits in a comfy chair wearing Crocs. As twilight sets in, George W. Bush keeps one eye on a muted World Series game. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he tells the TV in his home library after one impressive Rangers play.

The 43rd president of the United States looks healthy, rested and confident. That last is especially notable, considering he’s not yet two years out of what can only be called a controversial presidency.

Mr. Bush ran as a uniter, but the hung 2000 election bequeathed him a divided nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought brief national cohesion, but it was soon shattered by recriminations over the Iraq war. A difficult second term—overshadowed by war turmoil and capped by a financial crisis—saw him leave office with anemic approval ratings. But as readers of “Decision Points,” his memoir set to hit stands today, will discover, this is not a president agonizing over the big decisions he made or wringing his hands about history’s judgment.

The book is not the usual chronological fare; Mr. Bush wrote thematically, with 14 chapters chronicling decisions he made in life and office, and it is very much in his own voice. We get his insights on his decision to quit drinking, on stem cell research, Hurricane Katrina and enhanced interrogations. Six chapters deal with the momentous foreign and domestic policy decisions that followed from 9/11.

[bushinterview]George W. Bush
The president does write about his regrets and his desire to have done some things differently. But both in his memoir and in an interview he granted me 10 days ago, Mr. Bush sounds entirely secure about the major decisions of his presidency. The last lines of the book perhaps put it best: “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.”
The president—thoughtful, spirited, and at times making fun of my clumsiness with a tape recorder—gamely answered everything I threw at him.
If his book has an overriding theme, it is Mr. Bush’s case for his “freedom agenda.” He defines it broadly: from Afghanistan and Iraq, to his African AIDS work, to tax cuts. One major criticism of his Iraq policy is that the turmoil in that country has empowered Iran, which continues to move toward a bomb.
“The notion that we went into Iraq and therefore the Iranians became emboldened—it was the opposite,” Mr. Bush says. “The Iranians, it turns out, suspended their program,” he continues, referring to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003. He says that it wasn’t until mid-2005 that Iranian elections brought to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the process of nuclear enrichment would accelerate.
As for those who feel Mr. Bush wasn’t aggressive enough, the president disputes the notion that Iran can be compared to Iraq. “Diplomacy was just beginning in Iran, the world was just beginning to focus,” he says. Mr. Bush takes credit for “helping focus” that attention.
One revelation in the book is the degree to which Mr. Bush’s Iran strategy hinged on internal political revolt. His goal, on the one hand, was to “slow down” the Iranian “capacity to develop a weapon,” which he chose to do with sanctions. On the other hand, his administration tried to “speed up” the ability of reformers to institute change. He writes of his belief that the success of the surge and a free Iraq would “help catalyze that change,” and he points to last year’s massive street protests following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
What about the critique that Afghanistan was left to fester while the president dealt with Iraq, setting up a return of the Taliban and the need for President Obama to send more troops? “What I say is, we had a large coalition of troops in Afghanistan and it looked like we were making progress.” He notes that “when it became apparent that the NATO coalition was not able to cohesively deal with the Taliban,” he ordered a 2006 “silent surge” in Afghanistan—a 50% troop increase. “We were plenty capable of doing two things at the same time.”
Mr. Bush writes that one of two major “setbacks in Iraq” was not finding WMD. He writes it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” I ask why, given the myriad reasons he lays out for removing Saddam. The problem, he says, was what the lack of WMD meant for the public’s perception of the war.
“The world is better off and more secure without Saddam Hussein in power. But so much of the case—and so much of the focus—was on WMD, that the failure to find it made the task of convincing the American people to hang in there harder.” The Bush doctrine rested on “going on offense.” And in Mr. Bush’s mind, this failure risked a “wave of isolationism that would effect U.S. security” by putting Americans off future pre-emptive action.
Should he have fought back harder against those who accused him of lying about WMD, as Karl Rove argued in his memoir? “His point is that I should have gotten in their face about the lying, and I chose not to do that because I thought it would diminish the presidency. . . . You start calling names, it makes it even harder to hold the support of the American people.
President Bush has studiously refrained from commenting on Mr. Obama—and doesn’t here. Though when I ask him what is the most devastating thing that could happen to Iraq now, he shoots out unequivocally: “No U.S. presence. We need to work with the Iraqi government and respond to any requests they may have about a presence.
Given Mr. Bush’s reputation as an international cowboy, readers will be intrigued by his descriptions of his relationships with world leaders—including frank appraisals of those he did and didn’t like. The latter category would come to include Vladimir Putin, despite the president’s 2001 comment that he’d seen into the Russian leader’s “soul.
I ask the president when exactly he became aware of Mr. Putin’s true political character. “When they started suspending rights,” he responds. Mr. Bush’s theory is that the mid-decade rise in oil prices emboldened Mr. Putin, giving him “an opportunity to spread economic hegemony” to a Europe reliant on Russia’s natural gas. Why wasn’t there more pushback from the White House? Russia was a “disappointment,” Mr. Bush admits, but he adds that “it’s hard to know if we could have done anything differently. Russia is a sovereign nation, they elected their leaders, and they entrenched themselves.”
Then there are the anecdotes about Jacques Chirac, who at several points lectures the U.S. on the folly of morality or idealism. When I ask the president if he wants to expand, he starts, stops, and gives that Bush chuckle. “Let’s just say he wasn’t a freedom-agenda guy.”
Mr. Bush devotes his final chapter to the financial meltdown: The White House anxiety he describes nearly equals his narration of 9/11. He heaps most of the blame on Wall Street. As for too-loose Federal Reserve policy, which many see as the groundwork for the housing bubble, Mr. Bush refers to “easy money” only once among a list of contributing factors.
I ask if anybody ever specifically warned him about the Fed’s feeding of the mortgage beast. “No, not really. I think that the only place, the main place, where we get credit for having seen a potential crisis is Fannie and Freddie.” (The administration’s proposed reforms were blocked by Congress.) “The crisis blindsided us.”
While a Democratic Congress this year passed a slew of financial regulations, Mr. Bush argues this wasn’t “a lack-of-regulation crisis, except for the extent to which Fannie and Freddie were allowed to run wild. . . . This was a regulated house of cards—regulators were watching it all. . . . This was a crisis that was caused in large part by bad business decisions.”
If that was the case, why weren’t more banks left to fail? Did the administration discuss what particular institutions were too big to fail? “No,” Mr. Bush answers, adding that he believes in letting the market punish bad decisions but in this case the economy was in the balance. “We didn’t want any of them to fail because we were really worried that there would be a domino effect.”
Unprompted, he adds that this fear is why the administration bailed out General Motors. Did he genuinely believe that a GM bankruptcy would cause an economic freefall? “That’s what I was told. I think at that point in time it would have been still pretty risky.” I must still look skeptical because he adds: “I hope I conveyed in the book this sense, that we were,” he throws his hands in the air, as if to summon the anxiety of those weeks. “We were pretty risk-averse at this point. We really were.”
Why did the administration inject TARP money directly into banks—a move that tarred healthy banks along with sick ones—rather than proceed with the original idea to buy up toxic assets? “Because it was too cumbersome. It was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t going to work quickly enough. Whose assets? How do you buy them? . . . We didn’t have a lot of time.” With capital injections, the money went “boom, right into the system.”
Will the fact that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression happened on his watch overshadow his accomplishments on the war on terror? Again, that confidence. “Naaaaah. I think history will eventually say that the Bush administration dealt with this in a way that saved the economy. . . We didn’t have a depression—and I thought one was coming. I did.”
One perception the president is determined to shift is that of his spending record. “Decision Points” contains one graphic: a table comparing, among other things, President Bush’s average spending-to-GDP (19.6%) to that of Bill Clinton (19.8%), Bush 41 (21.9%), and Reagan (22.4%). It also shows that his deficit-to-GDP was 2%—half that of Bush 41 and Reagan.

I come armed with a slew of spending questions. Why didn’t he veto more GOP spending bills? Why didn’t he use the war as a reason to cut back on domestic spending? But he shuts me down by referring to the chart. I point out that, chart or no, there is a perception he oversaw fiscal profligacy.

“Yes, there is,” he concedes. “I think the Medicare reform caused certain conservative writers to say ‘Bush has been fiscally irresponsible.’ And they did not look at the facts. And the facts are that we have a very solid fiscal record”—despite spending “a lot of money” on war, homeland security, and Hurricane Katrina.

But what about 2003 Medicare reform, which saw Republicans add a major new prescription drug entitlement? He rejects the premise of the question. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare. And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” The prescription-drug program is about allowing Medicare to give seniors a “$15 drug in order to prevent a $30,000 operation that your taxpayer money would be committed to paying.”

Congress will soon be debating the fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign and have been an unadulterated supply-side victory. As the memoir notes, what followed the 2003 legislation—which included important cuts in top marginal rates, capital gains and dividend taxes—was 46 consecutive months of growth.

Isn’t the point here that not all tax cuts are created equal, and that there’s more value in the 2003 supply-side winners, than in, say, Mr. Bush’s 2008 one-time tax “rebates” that caused only a temporary GDP blip? “I don’t want to differentiate,” he responds, though he does a bit. “I do know this, 70% of new jobs in America are created by small businesses . . . and the rates matter to small business. And capital gains matter to investment.” His bigger point is that all the cuts come down to a “philosophy” that’s pretty simple to follow: “We’d rather you spend your money than the government spend your money.”

There’s a lot of emotion in Mr. Bush’s memoir—much of it for the families of troops who died protecting the country. But when it comes to the policy decisions we discuss during the interview, this does not seem like a man going to bed tortured by what-ifs or what-will-comes.

What will future historians say? “I’d hope they’d say he had certain principles that were the foundation of his presidency, and on which he was unwilling to compromise.”

And what about those who believe he wasn’t really a conservative—that he’s to blame for setting the stage for the Obama ascendancy? He smiles. “I say read the book.”

Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.


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Too Good to Check

On Nov. 4, Anderson Cooper did the country a favor. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip to Asia would cost $200 million a day. This was an important “story.” It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism.

In case you missed it, a story circulated around the Web on the eve of President Obama’s trip that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $200 million a day — about $2 billion for the entire trip. Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before he had had Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, on his show and had asked her where exactly Republicans will cut the budget.

Instead of giving specifics, Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream. She answered: “I think we know that just within a day or so the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He’ll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.”

The next night, Cooper explained that he felt compelled to trace that story back to its source, since someone had used his show to circulate it. His research, he said, found that it had originated from a quote by “an alleged Indian provincial official,” from the Indian state of Maharashtra, “reported by India’s Press Trust, their equivalent of our A.P. or Reuters. I say ‘alleged,’ provincial official,” Cooper added, “because we have no idea who this person is, no name was given.”

It is hard to get any more flimsy than a senior unnamed Indian official from Maharashtra talking about the cost of an Asian trip by the American president.

“It was an anonymous quote,” said Cooper. “Some reporter in India wrote this article with this figure in it. No proof was given; no follow-up reporting was done. Now you’d think if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? But there hasn’t been any follow-up reporting on this Indian story. The Indian article was picked up by The Drudge Report and other sites online, and it quickly made its way into conservative talk radio.”

Cooper then showed the following snippets: Rush Limbaugh talking about Obama’s trip: “In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.” Then Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became “a vacation” accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy. Ditto the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage. He said, “$200 million? $200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents.”

Cooper then added: “Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts. For security reasons, the White House doesn’t comment on logistics of presidential trips, but they have made an exception this time. He then quoted Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, as saying, “I am not going to go into how much it costs to protect the president, [but this trip] is comparable to when President Clinton and when President Bush traveled abroad. This trip doesn’t cost $200 million a day.” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: “I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd, this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy and some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier in support of the president’s trip to Asia. That’s just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.”

Cooper also pointed out that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the entire war effort in Afghanistan was costing about $190 million a day and that President Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to Africa — with 1,300 people and of roughly similar duration, cost, according to the Government Accountability Office and adjusted for inflation, “about $5.2 million a day.”

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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Accountability for Torture (in Britain)

The contrast could not be more distressing.

The British government has decided to pay former detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tens of millions of dollars in compensation and conduct an independent investigation into its role in the mistreatment of prisoners.

The United States still operates the Guantánamo camp, with no end in sight. None of the truly dangerous terrorists there have been brought to justice, while many prisoners are still held who never should have been. The government not only refuses to come clean on this ignoble history, but it is covering up the Bush administration’s abuses by denying victims a day in court.

In July, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that there would be an independent investigation into Britain’s role in the mistreatment of detainees. On Tuesday, the government announced that it was compensating British citizens who were held at Guantánamo, six of whom filed a lawsuit accusing government agencies of complicity in their detention, torture and incarceration.

Three years ago, Canada apologized and paid compensation to Maher Arar, a Canadian torture victim, following an investigation into how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police mistakenly identified him as a terrorist. American authorities acted on that false information to arrest Mr. Arar and “render” him overseas. Even after the mistake was revealed, they continued to hold him.

The United States has neither compensated victims of illegal detention and abuse nor taken steps to hold the architects of the human rights abuses accountable. Indeed, some of the Obama administration’s biggest legal victories have come in shielding Bush-era officials by getting lawsuits brought by victims with credible claims of kidnapping and torture thrown out of court on specious secrecy grounds, without any testimony being heard.

Among the former detainees whom Britain has agreed to compensate is Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born former detainee with a British right of residency who said that he was tortured after American authorities sent him to Morocco. In September, a federal appeals court dismissed his case on unconvincing security grounds presented by Obama administration lawyers.

It will do no good for this nation’s tarnished human rights reputation that at the same time Britain took responsibility for its comparatively minor role in the ill treatment of terrorism suspects, former President George W. Bush was bragging in a new book that he had personally authorized the repeated use of a form of simulated drowning called waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of Sept. 11.

At least someone is owning up to the awful legacy of Mr. Bush’s illegal detention policies.

Editorial, New York Times


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Don’t Get Cocky, GOP

Obama is weak, but it is always difficult to defeat a sitting president.

It has been a brutal month for President Obama. The historic electoral rebuke delivered to his party was followed at the G-20 meeting by a public rebuff of the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program and the administration’s handling of the China currency issue.

The president arrived home to find House Democrats intent on keeping Nancy Pelosi as leader, New York Congressman Charles Rangel judged guilty by a House ethics panel of 11 violations, and a lame duck session of Congress fraught with battles over taxes, the New Start treaty and more. This has Republicans feeling cocky about 2012.

Opinion surveys give some support for GOP optimism. This month’s Associated Press-GfK poll shows only 39% of Americans believe Mr. Obama deserves re-election, while 54% believe he deserves to be voted out of office. In a late October CNN poll, Mr. Obama trailed both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee nationally. And in polls taken in battleground states by Public Policy Polling, Mr. Obama lost to a generic unnamed Republican in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado.

Mr. Obama can’t count on a strong economy to improve his fortunes. President Ronald Reagan’s policies produced 4.5% and 7.2% growth in the two years before his 1984 re-election. But the University of Michigan Economic Forecast projects only 2.3% and 3.2% growth in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and 9% unemployment at the next election.

Still, Republicans should sober up. It is always difficult to defeat a sitting president. Since World War II, three have been defeated for re-election and two decided not to run again. But five have sought and won second terms.

Moreover, the GOP lacks a clear frontrunner. Gallup found this week that no potential Republican candidate draws more than 19% support for nomination: Four contenders are essentially tied.

This shows how unusual the GOP presidential contest will be. Historically, the Republican faithful have displayed an almost genetic predisposition to settle early on a favorite who, by dint of previous service or campaigning, has a claim on their hearts and minds. Not this time. The dozen or so potential Republican candidates will all come out of the blocks from essentially the same starting line, ensuring a wide-open and unpredictable contest.

The contest will gel late in 2011, with the stronger candidates being those who do better at three essential tasks. The first is to create a compelling narrative for why Mr. Obama deserves to be replaced, why voters should pick him or her as the replacement, and where he or she seeks to lead the country.

Passion and authenticity will matter a great deal. Republicans spent 2010 focused on this year’s contests—and while they are now pondering who should be their party’s standard-bearer in 2012, I sense a desire to wait and observe before committing.

The second task for each candidate is to demonstrate the strength, values, decision-making capacity and leadership to take on the responsibilities of the world’s most powerful and important job. Voters need to be able to visualize someone in the Oval Office before they will give them their support.

For the most part, this task cannot be achieved directly. Confidence is built by handling the unanticipated question or the unannounced test.

Finally, the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination is likely to be the one who shows the greatest ability to unite the party and draw others into the GOP fold. This was one of Ronald Reagan’s great strengths. No candidate in the GOP field possesses Reagan’s political gifts. But they should seek to emulate his appeal to both committed Republicans and to disaffected Democrats and independents in a principled and optimistic manner.

It will be a long, hard slog. Both parties have wisely pushed back the Iowa caucuses to the first week of February. (In 2008, they were on Jan. 3. Some caucus-goers still suffered from New Year’s hangovers.) The Internet’s power for fund-raising and organization could mean even more frequent twists and turns in the race than we’re used to.

But done right, a long and competitive primary season could be very healthy for the GOP, drawing the country’s interest, boosting Republican registrations, recruiting volunteers, and sharpening its message.

Mr. Obama is extremely weak right now. It’s an open question whether he possesses the political skills that allowed other presidents (like Bill Clinton) to recover. The results of his policies may prevent his recovery, not enable it, as with Reagan. Republicans should not count on Mr. Obama imploding but assume the race ahead will be difficult. If history is any guide, it will be.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Kevin Rubs It In

My Mom used to say, “When you’re blue, wear red.” America took that advice on Election Day, and you can color Kevin happy. My conservative brother celebrated by doing his year-end political letter early. Here is his tour d’horizon:

As a semichastened Barack Obama appeared at the press conference following the election, he conjured up the image of the curtain opening in “The Wizard of Oz,” revealing a little old man working the controls, not the great and powerful Oz.

The president had to wonder how this could happen in two short years. He must long for the days when the media routinely referred to him as “cerebral and brainy” (savvy was never mentioned) and salivated over “Michelle’s amazing arms.”

The voters left no doubt about their feeling for his super-nanny state where the government controls all aspects of their lives and freedoms. Warning signs were up in the three elections held in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey and with the noisy birth of the Tea Party. But the president, swathed in the protective cocoon of adulation and affirmation from the media and his own sycophants, soldiered on in his determination to turn our country into just another member of the failed European union — France without the food.

No one should be surprised by this. The president is a devoted disciple of the teachings of Saul Alinsky and a true believer in a redistribution of wealth controlled by big government. We can see how well that is working in Greece, Portugal, Spain and France. Instead of focusing on jobs and turning the private sector loose to provide them, he insisted on giving the American people things they did not want: expensive health care, more regulation and higher taxes. He clumsily interjected himself on behalf of the mass-murdering Muslim Army major, the ground zero mosque, the civil trials of enemy combatants and the lawsuit against Arizona. His theme song could have been “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On Nov. 2, voters across every spectrum loudly stated their preference for a return to American exceptionalism, self-reliance, limited government and personal freedoms. They delivered a message that they would demand that their representatives start reflecting their wishes. They showed their muscle to shocked elitists who had dismissed their dissent as ignorance, bigotry or racism. It is probably a product of the revisionist history we now teach in our schools that the Tea Party, a replica of the beginnings of the American Revolution, was marginalized and mocked as a lunatic fringe group by a dismissive news media.

That same media is becoming increasingly aware that its creation is in over his head. He seems unaware of, or ambivalent about, the results of his actions. The last three weeks of the campaign were particularly unseemly. The vision of the President of the United States, one who spoke of civility and hope and change, exposed as just another Chicago pol, viciously and personally attacking his opponents, was undignified.

When my children were small, I used to take them to visit my mother. One of her favorite lines if they complained was, “Do you want some cheese with that whine?” We may have to call Switzerland to get enough cheese for the presidential whines.

I once had a Jesuit English teacher who asked for an example of irony. A classmate raised his hand and wondered if Othello mistakenly killing Desdemona qualified. The old priest shook his head, noting, “That is not irony, bud, that is tragic irony.” So it is with the idea being floated that Hillary might join Obama on a dream ticket as V.P. to save his presidency. Hillary, the only member of the cabinet with any political savvy, saving the guy that jumped line on her. I don’t think so.

Here are my random thoughts for 2010:

To Sarah Palin: Mirror, mirror on the wall, you’re the fairest of them all. You don’t need to run for the presidency.

To Nancy Pelosi: It’s hard to watch a noble ideal ravaged by facts. We’re going to need that military jet back.

To Keith Olbermann: A welcome, but all too brief, respite. Thank God you’re not handicapping horses.

To Chris Matthews: Is that tingle now a spasm?

To Jon Stewart: Good work and great rally! You tower above your critics.

To Alan Grayson: Good riddance.

To Eric Holder: Try suing the bad guys.

To Chris Van Hollen: Pickett was not promoted after Gettysburg.

To Jimmy Carter: You make my hair hurt.

To Vivian Schiller: Too bad the truth didn’t set you free — as in fired.

To President Bush : A 50-to-42 winner over Obama in a mock presidential poll in Ohio after doing absolutely nothing. A Nobel Prize is on the way.

To John Boehner: You are on double secret probation. Be grateful for a second chance. Vaya con Dios!

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


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The Two Cultures

Many of the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know are liberal, so it seems strange that American liberalism should adopt an economic philosophy that excludes psychology, emotion and morality.

Yet that is what has happened. The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

These models can be used to make highly specific projections. If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity. If the government spends $800 billion on a stimulus package, that will produce 3.5 million in new jobs.

Everything is rigorous. Everything is science.

Conservatives, who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types, have gone all Oprah-esque in trying to argue against these liberals. If the government borrows trillions of dollars, this will increase public anxiety and uncertainty, the conservatives worry. The liberal technicians brush aside this soft-headed mush. These psychological concerns are mythological, they say. That’s gaseous blathering from those who lack quantitative rigor.

Other people get moralistic. This country is already too profligate, they cry. It already shops too much and borrows too much. How can we solve our problems by borrowing and spending more? The liberal technicians brush this away, too. Economics is a rational activity detached from morality. Hardheaded policy makers have to have the courage to flout conventional morality — to borrow even when the country is sick of borrowing.

The liberal technicians have an impressive certainty about them. They have amputated those things that can’t be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships. As a result, everything is explainable and predictable. They can stand on the platform of science and dismiss the poor souls down below.

Yet over the past 21 months, it has been harder to groove to their certainty. To start with, the economy has not responded as the modelers projected, either in the months after the stimulus was passed or this summer, when it was supposed to be producing hundreds of thousands of jobs. It has become harder to define how much good the stimulus package is doing. An $800 billion measure must leave a large footprint, but it is hard to find in a $70 trillion global economy.

Moreover, it has been harder to accept that psychological factors like uncertainty and anxiety really are a mirage. The first time a business leader tells you she is holding off on investing because she is scared about the future, you dismiss it as anecdote. But over the past few years, I’ve had hundreds of such conversations.

It’s been harder to dismiss morality as a phantom concern, too. Maybe in a nation of robots the government can run a policy that offends the morality of the citizenry, but not in a nation of human beings, as the recent elections showed.

Nor has the world come to look simpler and easier to manipulate since the stimulus passed. It now looks more complicated. It’s one thing to hatch an ideal policy in an academic lab, but in the real world, context is everything.

Ethan Ilzetzki of the London School of Economics and Enrique G. Mendoza and Carlos A. Vegh of the University of Maryland examined stimulus efforts in 44 countries. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, they argued that fiscal stimulus can be quite effective in low-debt countries with fixed exchange rates and closed economies.

Stimulus measures are generally not as effective, on the other hand, in countries like the U.S. with high debt and floating exchange rates. The authors of the paper pointed to a series of specific circumstances that complicate, to say the least, the effectiveness of increasing public spending: How much stimulus money ends up flowing abroad? What is the relationship between fiscal policy and monetary policy? How do investors respond to fear of future interest rate increases?

One could go on. It’s become harder to have confidence that legislators can successfully enact the brilliant policies that liberal technicians come up with. Far from entering the age of macroeconomic mastery and social science triumph, we seem to be entering an age in which statecraft is, once again, an art, not a science. When you look around the world at the countries that have come through the recession best, it’s not the countries with the brilliant and aggressive stimulus models. It’s the ones like Germany that had the best economic fundamentals beforehand.

It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that.

David Brooks, New York Times


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Why President Obama is right about India

Much grousing about the expense of President Obama’s India trip. This is silly and vindictive. The one thing this country owes its leader is to spare no expense in protecting him. Especially when his first stop is Mumbai, scene of one of the most savage and sustained terror attacks in modern times.

It is protested that Britain’s prime minister took a British Air flight when he traveled here in July. So what? To be blunt about it: A once-imperial middle power flies commercial; America flies colossal. Why do you think we built that 747 flying palace emblazoned with the presidential insignia – if not to land to awestruck crowds wherever it goes?

There was grumbling about the White House taking over every room at Mumbai’s five-star Taj Mahal Palace hotel. What is the Secret Service to do? Allow suites to be let to, say, groups of Pakistani madrassa instructors?

I will admit that Indian authorities went somewhat overboard when they cut down the coconuts surrounding the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. I am no expert on this, having never been subject to a coconut attack, but it seems to me that a freefalling coconut is no match for an armored car built to withstand anything short of a small nuclear device. Now perhaps the enemy, always racing one step ahead of us, is working on the dreaded RPC – the rocket-propelled coconut. I’m not privy to all the intelligence here, and, try as I may, I could get nothing out of the Coconut Desk at CIA. Nonetheless, to this outsider, the anti-coconut measures seemed a bit excessive.

But I digress. The only alternative to drawing down the Treasury to move the president around safely is for him not to go at all. And that’s not an alternative. Presidential visits are the highest form of diplomacy, and the symbolism alone carries enormous weight. No one remembers what Nixon did in China; what changed the world is that Nixon went to China.

The India visit was particularly necessary in light of Obama’s bumbling overenthusiasm in his 2009 trip to China in which he lavished much time, energy and praise upon his hosts and then oddly tried to elevate Beijing to a G-2 partnership, a kind of two-nation world condominium. Worse, however, was Obama suggesting a Chinese role in South Asia – an affront to India’s autonomy and regional dominance, and a signal of U.S. acquiescence to Chinese hegemony.

This hegemony is the growing source of tension in Asia today. Modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun. The story of the first half of the 20th century was Europe’s attempt to manage Germany’s rise. We know how that turned out. The story of the next half-century will be how Asia accommodates and/or contains China’s expansion.

Nor is this some far-off concern. China’s aggressive territorial claims on resource-rich waters claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan are already roiling the neighborhood. Traditionally, Japan has been the major regional counterbalance. But an aging, shrinking Japan can no longer sustain that role. Symbolic of the dramatic shift in power balance between once-poor China and once-dominant Japan was the resolution of their recent maritime crisis. Japan had detained a Chinese captain in a territorial-waters dispute. China imposed a rare-earth mineral embargo. Japan capitulated.

That makes the traditional U.S. role as offshore balancer all the more important. China’s neighbors from South Korea all the way around to India are in need of U.S. support of their own efforts at resisting Chinese dominion.

And of all these countries, India, which has fought a border war with China, is the most natural anchor for such a U.S. partnership. It’s not just our inherent affinities – being democratic, English-speaking, free-market and dedicated to the rule of law. It is also the coincidence of our strategic imperatives: We both face the common threat of radical Islam and the more long-term challenge of a rising China.

Which is why Obama’s dramatic call for India to be elevated to permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council was so important. However useless and obsolete the United Nations, a Security Council seat carries totemic significance. It elevates India, while helping bind it to us as our most strategic and organic Third World ally.

China is no enemy, but it remains troublingly adversarial. Which is why India must be the center of our Asian diplomacy. And why Obama’s trip – coconuts and all – was worth every penny.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Obama’s Gifts to the GOP

Republicans own the political center for now. Not because they deserve it.

Democrats are down, and sniping at each other. That’s the way it goes when parties lose. What’s interesting is the mood this week among Republicans on the ground. It’s not triumphal. They all seem to have in the back of their minds a question: Is this election the beginning of the big turnaround? Is this when the GOP comes to the fore as its best self and soberly, shrewdly pursues policies that will help dig our country out of the mess? Or will the great sweep of 2010 come to be seen, in retrospect, as just another lurch and shift in a nation whose political tectonic plates have been unstable since 2006?

They’re not sure, but there’s a high degree of hope for the former. And that’s news, because Republicans haven’t been hopeful in a long time.

They continue to be blessed by luck. Whatever word means the opposite of snakebit, that is what the Republican Party is right now. One reason they are feeling hope is that they have received two big and unexpected gifts from President Obama. The first, of course, was his political implosion—his quick descent and speedy fall into unpopularity, which shaped the outcome of the 2010 elections. At the heart of that descent was the president’s inability to understand how the majority of Americans were thinking. From the day he was sworn in he seemed to have had no practical or intuitive sense of what was on the American mind. By early 2009 they had one deep and central worry, the economy. But his central preoccupation was reforming health care. He devoted his first 18 months to it and got what he wanted, but at the price of seeming wholly out of touch with the thoughts and concerns of the American people.

This week the president gave Republicans a second unexpected gift. He reacted to the election’s outcome in a way that suggested he’s still in his own world, still seeing a reality no one else is seeing. The problem wasn’t his policies, but that he didn’t explain them well. It wasn’t health-care reform, it was his failed attempt to popularize it. His problem was that he was not political enough. He was too substantive, too serious. Americans have been under stress, and people under stress don’t think clearly, and so they couldn’t see the size of his achievements.

He sounded like a man who couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else, and once again made his political adversaries seem, in comparison, more realistic, more clear-sighted and responsive to public opinion. And he did this while everyone was watching. Again, what a gift.

Two areas seem to me key for Republican leaders in Washington. One is a long-term concern, the other an immediate one.

The first has to do with the art of political persuasion. A month ago, in conversation with a veteran Democrat, I mentioned that the old cliché is now truer than ever, that everything happens in the center. The path to victory is through the center, that’s where things are won. The Democrat nodded vigorously. “Compromise,” she said, “it’s so important.”

But compromise was not my point. Persuasion was my point. Compromise is a tool you use to get the best legislation possible, but you have to persuade the big center that your way is the better way. We’re in an age where politicians assert, insist and leave. It’s all quick, blunt and dumb. But to win and hold the center you have to make your case, you have to show you’re philosophically serious, you have to show your logic, and connect it to a philosophy. You don’t sit around saying, “I like centrists so I compromise,” you say, “Here’s what we believe, here’s how we think and why.”

The establishment of the GOP hasn’t been good at this. Some of them aren’t philosophically serious. Some don’t know that persuasion is at the heart of things. Some know but aren’t good at it. Some think they’re never given quite the right venue to expand on their views, or questioned in the right way. They should create venues.

A lot of this will fall to the newly elected congressmen and senators, and the philosophically inclined incumbents who’ve been quiet and let the leadership dominate the stage the past few years.

Right now the center is with the Republicans. They voted like Democrats in 2008 and like Republicans in 2010. But there’s going to be lots of drama in Washington the next few months, and things could turn on a dime. To hold the center you have to respect your own case enough to argue for it, and respect the people enough to explain it.

The second area has to do with the media environment that will exist in January, when the new Congress is sworn in. The mainstream media already has a story line in its head, and it is that a lot of these new Congress critters are a little radical, a little nutty.

Media bias is what we all know it is, largely political but also having to do with the needs of editors and producers. The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn’t bland, that has a certain edge. We saw this throughout the past year as they covered big tea party rallies.

A reporter would be walking along with a cameraman. At one picnic blanket she sees a sober fellow and his handsome family. He looks like an orthodontist or a midlevel manager. His family looks happy, normal, pleasant. Right next to them, on a foldout lawn chair, is a scowling woman in a big straw bonnet with a dozen tea bags hanging from the brim. She’s holding a sign, a picture of Obama in a Hitler mustache. Who does the reporter choose to interview? I think we know. A better question might be who would you pick if you were that reporter and had a producer back in the newsroom who wanted interesting copy, colorful characters and vivid pictures.

The mainstream media this January will be looking for the nuts.

I saw this in 1994, when the new Republican Congress came in. The media had a storyline in their head then, too: These wild and crazy righties who just got elected are . . . wild and crazy. They focused their cameras on people who could be portrayed as nutty, and found them. The spirited Helen Chenoweth, freshman from Idaho, talked a little too much about “black helicopters.” She was portrayed as paranoid and eccentric. Bob Livingston, from New Orleans, went to his first meeting of the Appropriations Committee wielding a machete. The new speaker, Newt Gingrich, was full of pronouncements and provocations; he was a one-man drama machine.

It was a high spirited group, and one operating without a conservative media infrastructure to defend them. They and others were caught and tagged like big wild birds, then released into the air, damaged.

The point is when they want to paint you as nuts and yahoos, don’t help them paint you as nuts and yahoos. It’s good to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said, speaking in a different context, that she didn’t really care what people did as long as they didn’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.

That would be the advice for incoming Republicans: Stand tall, speak clear, and don’t frighten the horses.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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The 1099 Democrats

The Democrats decoupled from business—and lost the election.

Calvin Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” The Democrats just lost America because they forgot that.

On second thought, you can’t forget what you never knew. The Democrats running things the past two years proved they have no clue about the business of business. In their world, the real world of the private economy is an abstraction, a political figment.

Exhibit A: Along the road to ObamaCare, the party’s planners inserted into the bill the now- famous 1099 provision, requiring businesses to do an IRS report for any transaction over $600 annually. No member of Congress, White House staffer or party flunky thought to say, “Oh, wow, this 1099 requirement will crush people running their own businesses. Are we sure we want to do this?” Yes, and that 1099 fiasco is a metaphor now for the modern Democratic Party.

Exhibit B: The Obama ban on offshore oil drilling. It floated out of the White House, Energy Department and EPA without anyone thinking: “Whoa, this is going to kill hundreds of working-class guys and their families.”

In recent days, both President Obama and Speaker-to-go Nancy Pelosi have said that the message of the voters in the election was that they wanted jobs. To be sure.

President Coolidge was more eloquent on this truth. The American people “are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. The great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.”

But much of what this Democratic Congress did, or tried to do, was like throwing Molotov cocktails at business. It began in early 2009 with the cap-and-trade climate bill. The country was going to have to chow down its provisions no matter how many jobs got lost in Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and other coal-using states. The bill portended so much damage to businesses in these states that some of the Senate’s most liberal members had to beg off supporting it.

At his news conference last week, Mr. Obama still wouldn’t rule out the EPA’s impending “carbon finding” to regulate emissions, another Freddy Krueger nightmare for the average business.

The air is filling now with suggestions of what the Democrats and Mr. Obama need to do. Always mentioned is that the president needs to repair his bad relations with “business.” But this is noted as just one item on the post-election to-do list: adjust the message, go to church more, reconnect with business, put up the storm windows.

The party’s decoupling from vast swaths of America at work didn’t start with Barack Obama. Al Gore and John Kerry ran hard against the depredations of the insurance, pharmaceutical and oil industries. The post-modern Democrats, starting at the top, convey the impression that the average company consists entirely of three guys in spats, silk vests and top hats, like the little character on the Monopoly cards, who deserve to be indicted or monitored.

And so any argument that the top marginal tax rate hits sole proprietorships and the like blows right by them. The “rich” gotta pay. They do pay, stop hiring and then they send money to American Crossroads to unelect Democrats.

Years ago the Democrats’ anti-business populism didn’t matter much because most people doing politics, including the populists, took for granted that politics included staying connected to local businesses. No more. Most Democrats are driving right past the Mom-and-Pop economy to public union headquarters. The party’s candidates are like brides of Dracula, locked forever in an embrace with infusions of public union political money (more than $170 million in this election).

As to the future, look at a map done by the National Conference of State Legislatures showing state-level party control now. The southeastern states, one of the most economically vibrant regions of the country, is wholly red. North Carolina has its first Republican senate since 1870. What’s still blue on this map suggests the Democratic Party is collapsing into mostly urban, public sector redoubts—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago.

One might argue that what the post-November 2010 Democrats need is their own tea party reform movement. Problem is, they just had their version—the Soros-MoveOn-Daily Kos activists who threw over the Clintons and put the party firmly in the hands of the progressive House chairmen who stopped thinking about the private sector 35 years ago.

Many activist Democrats don’t want their party to do business with business until the terms of engagement change. They think once the ObamaCare entitlement flows through the veins of the private sector, its workers also will be the party’s brides. What’s left of the private “impulses of our life” to create industries will be sopped up with permanent public subsidies to alternative-energy entrepreneurs. With luck, this new “low-growth” economy will produce enough tax revenue to keep the party’s watermills going for another generation.

There is an alternative view: The party’s antibusiness compulsions have turned it to rust.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Obama Has a Listening Problem

The idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn’t make sense to voters.

The rock star Sara Bareilles sang at President Barack Obama’s Las Vegas rally for Sen. Harry Reid in October. Her biggest hit, “King of Anything,” includes the lyrics, “You’ve got the talking down/Just not the listening.” That pretty well sums up Mr. Obama’s reaction to last week’s midterm.

The president rejects the idea that voters don’t like his policies on jobs and the economy. At his White House news conference last Wednesday, Mr. Obama observed, “If right now we had 5% unemployment instead of 9.6% . . . people would have more confidence in those policy choices.”

Well, yes. But isn’t unemployment much closer to 10% than 5% because the stimulus package didn’t work as the president promised it would when he signed it? Mr. Obama’s narrative that the economy’s condition has nothing to do with his policies is nonsense.

When asked at the same news conference if he felt there was “a majority of Americans who think your policies are taking us in reverse,” Mr. Obama waved off the criticism, saying that the “American people understand that we’re still digging our way out of a pretty big mess.”

Wrong again. Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to understand that the midterm “shellacking” his party took was an explicit rejection of his policies, especially by independent voters.

This is borne out by a post-election poll released Tuesday by Democrat James Carville’s Democracy Corps and Republican Ed Gillespie’s Resurgent Republic. The survey found that 56% of independent voters voted for GOP candidates while just 38% voted Democratic, a 36-point swing from the 2006 midterm and a 26-point swing from the last presidential election.

Independents now look much more like Republicans than like Democrats—79% believe the country is on the wrong track and they’re more than twice as likely to blame President Obama and the Democrats than to blame President Bush and Republicans.

Independents share the GOP view that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. They trust the GOP more than Democrats on jobs and employment (50%-27%), the economy (48-25), government spending (50-23), the federal budget deficit (53-17), and taxes (54-23). A majority (51%) support extending all the Bush-era tax cuts even after hearing Mr. Obama’s best arguments against extending them for people making over $250,000.

Instead of acknowledging the need for policy correction, Mr. Obama offers the now familiar excuse that it’s all a communication problem. As he told the National Journal’s Ron Fournier in October, his policy successes were “a lot for me to be able to communicate effectively to the public in any coherent way.”

But the problem is not with the capacity of voters to grasp the brilliance of Mr. Obama’s policies. Rather, the idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn’t make sense to voters. The more they heard Mr. Obama talk about this approach, the more they rebelled.

Something similar happened with health care. The president dismisses the notion that last week’s results were a rejection of ObamaCare, saying at his White House news conference that it would be “misreading the election” to argue “the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years.”

But that’s exactly what voters want. The Democracy Corps/Resurgent Republic poll found that 51% of all midterm voters and 57% of independents believe ObamaCare should be “repealed and replaced.”

In the wake of last week’s epic rebuke, Mr. Obama has two historical models to follow. He can react as President Bill Clinton did after Democrats’ 1994 defeat and move to the center, which resulted in two of Mr. Clinton’s greatest achievements: a balanced budget and welfare reform. Or he can emulate Harry Truman in 1947-48, sticking hard to a liberal agenda and fighting the congressional GOP for obstructing it.

It will be difficult for Mr. Obama to channel Mr. Clinton, who was a Third Way Democrat and politically nimble. In addition, after the 1994 midterms, Mr. Clinton was freed of the baggage of HillaryCare, which failed to become law. Mr. Obama is stuck with his deeply unpopular health-care reform.

But it may be even more difficult for him to pull off a Truman. It’s hard to run against a “do nothing” Congress when your own party controls the Senate and the GOP’s agenda is more popular than yours.

Mr. Obama is in a pickle without an obvious path to winning back independents. After turning on him so decisively, they may well tell him, in the words of Ms. Bareilles: “You sound so innocent, all full of good intent/Swear you know best/But you expect me to jump up on board with you/Ride off into your delusional sunset . . . Who cares if you disagree, you are not me/Who made you king of anything?”

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.


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The Pelosi Minority

The Speaker decides to reward herself for an epic defeat.

We’re beginning to wonder if any Democrats take responsibility for this week’s election rout. President Obama blamed it Wednesday on a failure to communicate rather than substance, and now Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making a bid to keep her job as House Democratic leader. Lose 61 seats? Whatever.

As an historical matter, Mrs. Pelosi’s announcement yesterday was almost as extraordinary as the election itself, which saw the largest turnover of House seats since 1938. Speakers almost always resign after an electoral repudiation—even Newt Gingrich, who stepped down after the GOP lost a handful of seats in 1998 while retaining the majority. The last Speaker who accepted a demotion to minority leader was Democrat Sam Rayburn in 1946, who reclaimed the gavel two years later on Harry Truman’s coattails.

Presumably Mrs. Pelosi is entertaining similar hopes, which suggests that Democrats really do believe their own post-election spin. How else to explain her bid as a matter of political logic?

Remaining in power deprives her party of one of its better opportunities to show the public that Tuesday’s message was received. Even if Democrats have no plans for a policy turn, sacrificing the unpopular Mrs. Pelosi might stand as a down payment on winning back the trust of the independent and suburban voters who fled Democrats this year. Something like a dozen House Democrats ran against her as much as they did against their GOP opponents.

Nonetheless, in her letter to the Democratic caucus, Mrs. Pelosi eulogized “the most productive Congress in a half century,” adding that “Our work is far from finished.” (Cue the string section.) “We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back,” she continued, citing ObamaCare, financial reregulation and job noncreation programs like the stimulus, with unspecified threats to Social Security and Medicare thrown in at no extra charge.

In other words, Mrs. Pelosi thinks she should remain in power to preserve the agenda that forfeited the House. And she may well succeed, not least because of her fund-raising and proven log-rolling skills that were necessary to pass some of the worst legislation in generations.

The Democrats who lost in 2010 were in the swing seats that matter for controlling the House, and now that the caucus is leaner its political wavelength is more in sync with Mrs. Pelosi’s San Francisco liberalism than with the rare Blue Dog survivors like Heath Shuler of North Carolina or Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. Lucky for them the vote for minority leader, as opposed to Speaker, is a secret ballot.

Mrs. Pelosi’s run also puts her chief lieutenants in a squeeze play. Current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was expected to sidle into the top slot but said yesterday he’s weighing a run for whip, the No. 2 in the minority leadership. But current whip James Clyburn is a liberal Pelosi loyalist closer to the rump caucus mood than is a moderate like Mr. Hoyer. Mr. Clyburn also enjoys support from his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, most of whom come from safe or gerrymandered districts.

In Mr. Clyburn’s whip letter, he too writes that “we should have no regrets about the achievements of the last two years,” though he was willing to concede “general acknowledgement that we lost the communications battle on too many fronts.” Mr. Obama echoed that sentiment in an interview due to air Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” claiming that “over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation. That it’s a matter of persuading people . . . and making an argument that people can understand.”

All of which explains how the Democrats made themselves a House minority in a modern record of a mere four years. In his Weekend Interview with the Journal last week, retiring Democrat Brian Baird of Washington state described what he called the “authoritarian, closed leadership” and “general groupthink” that has prevailed under Speaker Pelosi. Nothing confirms Mr. Baird’s judgment more than her decision to reward herself for an epic defeat by once again vouchsafing her leadership upon her Members.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Warped Justice

In reaching a plea deal to end the prosecution of Omar Khadr, a former child soldier held at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, the Obama administration achieved its political goal of avoiding having this disturbing case be the first to go to trial under its revamped military commissions. But this is not a legal victory anyone can feel proud about.

Mr. Khadr, a 24-year-old Canadian, was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15. He was thrown into armed conflict by his Al Qaeda-linked father, who was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003. As part of the plea deal, Mr. Khadr admitted that he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier during a 2002 firefight and that he planted roadside bombs. In exchange, his sentence was capped at eight years. After a year, he will be allowed to transfer to Canada to serve the remainder of his term.

It is hard to know what to make of Mr. Khadr’s admission of guilt. It may be truthful or driven by a fear that going to trial would mean a life sentence.

That concern became more acute following an appalling pretrial ruling by the military judge. He refused to exclude from evidence incriminating statements obtained under coercive and abusive circumstances by Mr. Khadr’s interrogators — including someone who implicitly threatened the frightened and severely wounded youngster with gang rape and was later convicted of detainee abuse in another case.

The case had other troubling aspects. Usually in war, battlefield killing is not prosecuted. The United States argued that Mr. Khadr lacked battlefield immunity because he wore no uniform. On the eve of a hearing, commission rules were hastily rewritten to downgrade “murder in violation of the laws of war” to a domestic law offense from a war crime in order to avoid seeming to concede that Central Intelligence Agency drone operators who reportedly fly the aircraft from agency headquarters in Virginia and also kill while not wearing uniforms commit war crimes.

United Nations officials and human rights groups objected to the prosecution’s dubious legality under international law. They noted the dangerous precedent set by making him the first person in many decades prosecuted for war crimes allegedly committed as a juvenile.

Then there is the matter of Mr. Khadr’s abusive treatment in custody. One witness at his pretrial hearing told of seeing him hooded and handcuffed to his cell with his arms extended painfully above his shoulders. In January, the Supreme Court of Canada criticized his lack of counsel and inclusion in the “frequent flier” program, which used sleep deprivation to get prisoners to talk.

Under military rules, Mr. Khadr’s case still had to go to a jury after the plea deal for a verdict that is mostly ceremonial. In a shabby yet perversely fitting conclusion, the prosecution asked the jury to recommend a long sentence and called a forensic psychiatrist who pronounced Mr. Khadr “highly dangerous.” On cross-examination, it turned out, the doctor’s views were colored by the work of a notorious Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels, who has called the Koran a “criminal book that forces people to do criminal things” and urges Western countries to halt all Muslim immigration.

A plea deal of eight years is better, obviously, than requiring Mr. Khadr to live his entire life behind bars. But he has already been imprisoned for eight years. That should have been enough.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Best Speech

In India, the president defended free markets, free trade and free societies.

Every now and then a columnist ought to shock and dismay his most faithful readers. So here goes: Barack Obama gave a terrific speech yesterday to India’s parliament, perhaps the best one of his presidency and potentially a true compass for the rest of it.

No, I don’t mean the president’s feckless lament about trade and currency imbalances. I don’t mean his equally feckless defense of the Fed’s latest liquidity injection, which is the currency manipulation that dare not speak its name.

I don’t mean his support—justified but meaningless—of India’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. (Who would want it, anyway?) I don’t mean his bizarre plea for a nuclear-free world, “a vision,” he says, “that Indian leaders have espoused since independence.” If that’s so, why did those same Indian leaders acquire a nuclear arsenal in the first place?

Above all, I don’t mean Mr. Obama’s reverential bows to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose “message of love and peace,” as the president put it, is just a little marred by the details of his biography. Among them, his support for the caste system; his refusal to allow his wife to get a penicillin shot that might have saved her life; the “Dear Friend” letter he addressed to Adolf Hitler, whom he also described as “not a bad man”; and his belief that the British—and the Czechs, and the Jews—should have offered no more than nonviolent resistance to the Nazis.

So where was I?

Right: The president gave a terrific speech. Not that it was particularly eloquent. But for all my cavilling, he stood up for free trade, free markets and free societies. He also finally beat an honorable and unequivocal retreat from his July 2011 withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan. Here’s a sampler from the speech, since the best of it seems to have escaped notice in most press accounts:

• Afghanistan: “While I have made it clear that American forces will begin the transition to Afghan responsibility next summer, I have also made it clear that America’s commitment to the Afghan people will endure. The United States will not abandon the people of Afghanistan—or the region—to the violent extremists who threaten us all.” (My emphasis.)

• Pakistan: “We will continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe havens within their border are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice. We must also recognize that all of us have an interest in both an Afghanistan and a Pakistan that is stable, prosperous and democratic—and none more so than India.”

• Free trade: “Together we can resist the protectionism that stifles growth and innovation. The United States remains—and will continue to remain—one of the most open economies in the world. By opening markets and reducing barriers to foreign investment, India can realize its full economic potential as well.”

• The sources of India’s success: “Instead of resisting the global economy, you became one of its engines—reforming the licensing raj and unleashing an economic marvel.” The “licensing raj” refers to the regulatory state that used to dictate all “private” economic decision-making in the country and still dominates the country’s educational establishment.

• Terrorist attacks on India: “Here in this Parliament, which was itself targeted because of the democracy it represents, we honor the memory of all those who have been taken from us.” Mr. Obama is referring to the December 2001 terrorist attack on India’s parliament, in which six policemen and one civilian were murdered. But he is also taking aim at the idea, common among his progressive friends, that terrorists object to what free societies do—whether in Gaza, Iraq or Kashmir—rather than to what they are. To take the opposite view, as Mr. Obama now seems to have done, is to recognize that terrorists can never be mollified by political concessions, and that democracies live under a common threat. If that’s true of the U.S. and India, why not of the U.S. and Israel as well?

That’s something to ponder. Also worth pondering is how a president who used to routinely inveigh against Bangalore for stealing jobs from Buffalo, who defended the “buy American” clause in the stimulus bill, and whose health-care legislation comes with its own de facto licensing raj, can suddenly talk so much sense. Maybe it’s pure double-speak, or maybe the president has emerged from his midterm shellacking with a new religion. India tends to have that effect on strangers: The sensible among them have been known to lose their minds, but the senseless often find their grip.

Mr. Obama, plainly, is a leader who needs to find his grip. In describing the domestic achievements of India, he has at last alighted on a formula that can work for the U.S. while saving his presidency in the bargain. A man who has so often promised to listen to the world rather than preach to it might do well, this time, to listen to himself.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Palin’s Dollar, Zoellick’s Gold

An unlikely pair elevate the monetary policy debate.

It would be hard to find two more unlikely intellectual comrades than Robert Zoellick, the World Bank technocrat, and Sarah Palin, the populist conservative politician. But in separate interventions yesterday, the pair roiled the global monetary debate in complementary and timely fashion.

The former Alaskan Governor showed sound political and economic instincts by inveighing forcefully against the Federal Reserve’s latest round of quantitative easing. According to the prepared text of remarks that she released to National Review online, Mrs. Palin also exhibited a more sophisticated knowledge of monetary policy than any major Republican this side of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan.

Stressing the risks of Fed “pump priming,” Mrs. Palin zeroed in on the connection between a “weak dollar—a direct result of the Fed’s decision to dump more dollars onto the market”—and rising oil and food prices. She also noted the rising world alarm about the Fed’s actions, which by now includes blunt comments by Germany, Brazil, China and most of Asia, among many others.

“We don’t want temporary, artificial economic growth brought at the expense of permanently higher inflation which will erode the value of our incomes and our savings,” the former GOP Vice Presidential nominee said. “We want a stable dollar combined with real economic reform. It’s the only way we can get our economy back on the right track.”

Mrs. Palin’s remarks may have the beneficial effect of bringing the dollar back to the center of the American political debate, not to mention of the GOP economic platform. Republican economic reformers of the 1970s and 1980s—especially Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp—understood the importance of stable money to U.S. prosperity.

On the other hand, the Bush Administration was clueless. Its succession of Treasury Secretaries promoted dollar devaluation little different from that of the current Administration, while the White House ignored or applauded an over-easy Fed policy that created the credit boom and housing bubble that led to financial panic.

Misguided monetary policy can ruin an Administration as thoroughly as higher taxes and destructive regulation, and the new GOP majority in the House and especially the next GOP President need to be alert to the dangers. Mrs. Palin is way ahead of her potential Presidential competitors on this policy point, and she shows a talent for putting a technical subject in language that average Americans can understand.

Which brings us to Mr. Zoellick, who exceeded even Mrs. Palin’s daring yesterday by mentioning the word “gold” in the orthodox Keynesian company of the Financial Times. This is like mentioning the name “Palin” in the Princeton faculty lounge.

Mr. Zoellick, who worked at the Treasury under James Baker in the 1980s, laid out an agenda for a new global monetary regime to reduce currency turmoil and spur growth: “This new system is likely to need to involve the dollar, the euro, the yen, the pound and a renminbi that moves toward internalization and then an open capital account,” he wrote, in an echo of what we’ve been saying for some time.

And here’s Mr. Zoellick’s sound-money kicker: “The system should also consider employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation and future currency values. Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.” Mr. Zoellick’s last observation will not be news to investors, who have traded gold up to $1,400 an ounce, its highest level in real terms since the 1970s, as a hedge against the risk of future inflation.

However, his point will shock many of the world’s financial policy makers, who still think of gold as a barbarous relic rather than as an important price signal. Lest they faint in the halls of the International Monetary Fund, we don’t think Mr. Zoellick is calling for a return to a full-fledged gold standard. His nonetheless useful point is that a system of global monetary cooperation needs a North Star to judge when it is running off course. The Bretton Woods accord used gold as such a reference until the U.S. failed to heed its discipline in the late 1960s and in 1971 revoked the pledge to sell other central banks gold at $35 an ounce.

One big problem in the world economy today is the frequent and sharp movement in exchange rates, especially between the euro and dollar. This distorts trade and investment flows and leads to a misallocation of capital and trade tensions. A second and related problem is the desire of the Obama Administration and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to devalue the dollar to boost exports as a way to compensate for the failed spending stimulus.

As recently as this week in India, Mr. Obama said that “We can’t continue situations where some countries maintain massive [trade] surpluses, other countries have massive deficits and never is there an adjustment with respect to currency that would lead to a more balanced growth pattern.”

If this isn’t a plea for a weaker dollar in the name of balancing trade flows, what is it? The world knows the Fed can always win such a currency race to the bottom in the short run because it can print an unlimited supply of dollars. But the risks of currency war and economic instability are enormous.


In their different ways, Mrs. Palin and Mr. Zoellick are offering a better policy path: More careful monetary policy in the U.S., and more U.S. leadership abroad with a goal of greater monetary cooperation and less volatile exchange rates. If Mr. Obama is looking for advice on this beyond Mr. Zoellick, he might consult Paul Volcker or Nobel laureate Robert Mundell. A chance for monetary reform is a terrible thing to waste.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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‘Obama Comes Across as Cold, Arrogant and Elitist’

The World from Berlin

Tea Party Activists display a US Flag in front of the Capitol Building in Washington.

It was a failure of historic proportions. With US President Barack Obama’s Democrats having lost control of the House, there seems little hope for progress during his two remaining years, say German commentators. Obama himself, they say, bears much of the blame.

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama and his Democratic party were issued a stinging defeat in the mid-term elections as the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and installed themselves in 22 governor’s mansions.

Though the Democrats narrowly were able to keep control of the Senate, the Republicans, who rode the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment and populist anger over the economy into office, now have the power to determine the House’s legislative agenda — and to block Obama proposals. Indeed, Republican leaders in the House have already promised that their first order of business will be to repeal Obama’s health care reform — his signature achievement.

Several German opinion-makers were clear that the election was more of a referendum on the president, who comes across as “cold, arrogant, and elitist,” and less of an endorsement of the Republicans and their policies. There is widespread agreement in the editorial pages that Obama failed to make the case for his administration’s accomplishments, a fact that he himself has acknowledged.

The ‘True Victors’

But the biggest challenge for Europeans appears to be understanding the role of the Tea Party activists — described as the “true victors” of Tuesday’s elections — and predicting what kind of influence they will have over the next two years.

Congressman John Boehner, the Republican from Ohio who stands to be the next Speaker of the House — and third in line for the presidency — made his first call on election night to supporters of the Tea Party movement in southern Ohio, and according to The Washington Post, told them: “I’ll never let you down.”

The effect of the elections on US-German relations were downplayed in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that the German-American friendship doesn’t rest on the shoulders of just one person, namely Barack Obama, and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the American election was a vote on domestic policy, not foreign policy.

Still, the new balance of power has been cause for discussion.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Europeans have to understand that America is different, and that means it is also different from how they would like it to be. And secondly any autopsy of the Democrats’ massive defeat on Tuesday shows that the right did not prevail simply due to their own strength. This was a collapse of the Obama coalition — because the president has lost the support of America’s middle class.”

“In Western Europe Obama still enjoys almost messianic approval ratings of 80 percent. Nowhere else on earth regards Obama’s program as more self-evident. Reforms such as health insurance for all, an active state and more environmental and climate protection are seen as catch-up Europeanization, a simple normalization. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, see this as an audacious if not revolutionary agenda to serve the interests of the state.”

“The fact that Obama’s new state is too slow and has produced too few successes has also been politically disastrous. More than $800 billion (€ 562 billion) was supposed to stimulate the economy — but the unemployment rate has stagnated at almost 10 percent. And while state money has saved Wall Street and the auto industry from bankruptcy, this year alone sees one million families facing the prospect of losing their homes.”

“Two years ago his vision inspired voters. Today the same man often sounds strangely bloodless. Back then his cool, self-assured composure impressed many, now the same character comes across as cold, arrogant, even elitist. The right may well put on a shrill rough performance, and stand in the media spotlight. However, this president was never going to win votes on the right anyway. Obama’s historic victory in 2008 was created by the middle of American society — the independent voters and the suburbanites. It is this center that has abandoned him.”

The conservative Die Welt writes:

“The country is experiencing a new version of an ancient dispute over the heart of America. It is about what belongs to the state and what belongs to the citizens. The Tea Party wants less redistribution and more individual responsibility. The fall from grace for them was the bank bailout, because for them freedom includes risking failure. Many of the Tea Party people are ‘libertarians’ who are horrified to see managers on Wall Street make huge profits for years and then see the entire population have to bear their losses.”

“That is why the grassroots movement is shy of both parties, who they see as being in bed with big business. Naturally it is unfair that the Democrats bear the brunt of this rage. After all Obama inherited the economic crisis, the bank bailout and the first part of the stimulus program from his predecessor. However, the fact that the president chose to extend the redistributive state through a health reform in the midst of the crisis was the final straw. And unlike most Europeans, the Americans have a clear perception of who ends up paying the bill: the middle class.”

“Two years ago, Obama’s call for change won him the election. Now the conservative-libertarian part of the population’s call for change could cause a political earthquake in the other direction. American politics have become volatile.”

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

“The question is whether Obama wants to, or even can, move to the political center — and even further away from the disappointed left-wing of the Democrats — in order to search for compromises with the (stalwartly right-wing) Republicans.”

“Naturally the new strong men in Congress will have to play along….The Republicans face two alternatives: Either they can ensure that Obama has no more legislative successes and use their dramatically improved power to block him. Or they can seriously look for issues on which to cooperate with the president.”

“Paralysis and polarization — this might suit many politically but it is not a suitable recipe for getting America out of its deep crisis — a crisis that Obama has to thank for his victory and that he has not yet mastered.”

“An America that is largely concerned with itself is not the brightest of prospects. On the other hand it offers Washington’s partners the opportunity to come up with their own initiatives.”


“The Republicans didn’t win this election. The president lost it. Two years ago voters were sick of George W. Bush, now it is Barack Obama who is being punished. Frustration seems to be the most important motivation for voting and there is a rapidly changing perception of which camp is to blame for the failed policies.”

“Yet it is not really clear what policies US citizens want. On the one hand they want a lower public deficit, but at the same time they demand tax cuts and increased spending on job creation. They demand more than they can get. And when their wishes are not fulfilled they turn to the next choice.”

“If there was one true victor on election night then it was the Tea Party movement…. What matters now is whether the Tea Party can manage to establish itself as an independent power in Washington, as a voice of dissent next to the Republicans — in order to profit even more from the wave of dissatisfaction that is sweeping the land.”

“Then anything would be possible in two years. Even the prospect of the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as the first female president of the United States.”

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

“It was the state of the economy that cooked up the devastating defeat for Barack Obama in the congressional elections. And it could also be the economy that disappoints him when it is time for his re-election bid in two years. After all, a rescue is nowhere in sight. Congress threatens to be paralyzed and the financial instruments are exhausted. If one were a pessimist one would say that the only hope Obama has is a miraculous reactivation of the US economy. But it remains a mystery where that is supposed to actually come from.”

“Barack Obama could tell the voters the truth. He could explain that the US economy is not competitive enough, that they have to make savings, and that it is not enough to look elsewhere for someone to blame, for example China and its currency policy. Obama could tell the Americans that the country is facing tough years ahead, before things improve. He could dare to cut spending significantly and use the resources that this frees up to invest in innovation. He could do everything to make sure dynamic US firms prosper and that no companies are rescued just because they are big. However, such a message does not win votes. Obama will instead save the Americans these painful facts. And will bet everything on hope.”

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

“The (Tea Party) movement, with their demands for a smaller state, less federal spending and opposition to Obama, succeeded in shaping the Republicans’ agenda. The fact that they could also, through their shrill demonstrations, racist undertones, and, at times, absurd demands, claim this election for themselves, is high drama.”

“The Tea Party will have achieved its goal when Republicans in Congress have successfully hindered Barack Obama from pushing through further reforms. But they can also continue to shake up Republican beliefs. They are against any agenda that assigns the state more power. The electoral defeat of the Democrats is therefore also a warning sign for the United States’ capacity for reform.”

“The Republicans in Congress can now block all policy proposals for the next two years. This destruction is their declared goal. The Democrats and President Obama largest task over the next two years will be to develop a new, constructive narrative opposing (the Republicans), and to bring this uncertain country back to its senses.”

The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

“US President Barack Obama failed with one of his primary aims. He didn’t succeed in gathering the country’s political camps behind one goal. This fact appears almost obsolete after months of protests against Obama’s agenda, agitated by fired-up Tea Party activists and the sensational tirades of right-wing provocateurs in radio and TV. Now the mood has also been dragged down by the voters, and not only from the hard-core right radicals in the provinces, but also among the circles who voted Obama into office two years ago….”

“In order to pursue policy with the blockade being threatened by the House of Representatives, Obama has to close the gaps. He must bridge the divide between himself and the moderate Republicans, which could, in turn, initiate another break, this one between the moderates and the Tea Party activists. The conservatives must show who among them is ready to take seriously their congressional responsibilities, and who chooses, instead, the option of becoming known as a total failure or nay-sayer.”

“The vote in this election wasn’t primarily a vote for Republicans, it was a vote against Democrats. For this reason, the conservatives must, in this notoriously unpopular Congress, show their organizational intent. It would be nice if both sides would try to reach more of a balance.”


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The Crossroads Nation

Bill Clinton used to talk about building a bridge to the 21st century. President Obama talks about laying down a “new foundation.” But Clinton was always vague about what the land on the other side of that bridge was going to look like, and Obama is vague about what edifice is going to go on top of that foundation.

They are vague because nobody is clear about what sort of country America is going to be in 2030 or 2050. Nobody has quite defined America’s coming economic identity.

In thinking about this question, it probably helps to start at the beginning. Five hundred years ago, agriculture was the major economic activity. One hundred years ago, it was industrial production. Now, of course, we’re living in an information age. Innovation and creativity are the engines of economic growth.

Howard Gardner of Harvard once put together a composite picture of the extraordinarily creative person: She comes from a little place somewhat removed from the center of power and influence. As an adolescent, she feels herself outgrowing her own small circle. She moves to a metropolis and finds a group of people who share her passions and interests. She gets involved with a team to create something amazing.

Then, at some point, she finds her own problem, which is related to and yet different from the problems that concern others in her group. She breaks off and struggles and finally emerges with some new thing. She brings it back to her circle. It is tested, refined and improved.

The main point in this composite story is that creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks. It happens when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.

Now imagine you are this creative person in the year 2010, 2025 or 2050. You are living in some small town in Ukraine or Kenya or some other place, foreign or domestic. You long to break out and go to a place where people are gathering to think about the things you are thinking about, creating the things you want to create.

If you are passionate about fashion, maybe you will go to Paris. If it’s engineering, maybe it’ll be Germany. But if you are passionate about many other spheres, I suspect you’ll want to be in America.

You’ll want to be in the U.S. because English has become the global language. You’ll want to come because American universities lead the world in research and draw many of the best minds from all corners of the earth.

You’ll want to be there because American institutions are relatively free from corruption. Intellectual property is protected. Huge venture capital funds already exist.

Moreover, the United States is a universal nation. There are already people there with connections all over the world. A nation of immigrants is more permeable than say, Chinese society.

You also observe that America hosts the right kind of networks — ones that are flexible and intense. Study after study suggests that America is one of those societies with high social trust. Americans build large, efficient organizations that are not bound by the circles of kinship and clan. Study after study finds that Americans are not hierarchical. American children are raised to challenge their parents. American underlings are relatively free to challenge their bosses. In this country you’re less likely to have to submit to authority.

From this story you can see that economic power in the 21st century is not going to look like economic power in the 20th century. The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power.

In 2009, Anne-Marie Slaughter, now director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs in which she laid out the logic of this new situation: “In a networked world, the issue is no longer relative power, but centrality in an increasingly dense global web.”

Slaughter’s essay was titled “America’s Edge.” That is apt. Americans are now in a depressed state of mind. As China and India rise, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe their nation is in decline.

In fact, the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation. It is well situated to be the center of global networks and to nurture the right kinds of networks. Building that America means doing everything possible to thicken connections: finance research to attract scientists; improve infrastructure to ease travel; fix immigration to funnel talent; reform taxes to attract superstars; make study abroad a rite of passage for college students; take advantage of the millions of veterans who have served overseas.

The nation with the thickest and most expansive networks will define the age. There’s no reason to be pessimistic about that.

David Brooks, New York Times


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A return to the norm

For all the turmoil, the spectacle, the churning – for all the old bulls slain and fuzzy-cheeked freshmen born – the great Republican wave of 2010 is simply a return to the norm. The tide had gone out; the tide came back. A center-right country restores the normal congressional map: a sea of interior red, bordered by blue coasts and dotted by blue islands of ethnic/urban density.

Or to put it numerically, the Republican wave of 2010 did little more than undo the two-stage Democratic wave of 2006-2008 in which the Democrats gained 54 House seats combined (precisely the size of the anti-Democratic wave of 1994). In 2010 the Democrats gave it all back, plus about an extra 10 seats or so for good – chastening – measure.

The conventional wisdom is that these sweeps represent something novel, exotic and very modern – the new media, faster news cycles, Internet frenzy and a public with a short attention span and even less patience with government. Or alternatively, that these violent swings reflect reduced party loyalty and more independent voters.

Nonsense. In 1946, for example, when party loyalty was much stronger and even television was largely unknown, the Republicans gained 56 seats and then lost 75 in the very next election. Waves come. Waves go. The republic endures.

Our two most recent swing cycles were triggered by unusually jarring historical events. The 2006 Republican “thumpin'” (to quote George W. Bush) was largely a reflection of the disillusionment and near-despair of a wearying war that appeared to be lost. And 2008 occurred just weeks after the worst financial collapse in eight decades.

Similarly, the massive Republican swing of 2010 was a reaction to another rather unprecedented development – a ruling party spectacularly misjudging its mandate and taking an unwilling country through a two-year experiment in hyper-liberalism.

A massive government restructuring of the health-care system. An $800 billion-plus stimulus that did not halt the rise in unemployment. And a cap-and-trade regime reviled outside the bicoastal liberal enclaves that luxuriate in environmental righteousness – so reviled that the Democratic senatorial candidate in West Virginia literally put a bullet through the bill in his own TV ad. He won. Handily.

Opposition to the policies was compounded by the breathtaking arrogance with which they were imposed. Ignored was the unmistakable message from the 2009-10 off-year elections culminating in Scott Brown’s anti-Obamacare victory in bluer-than-blue Massachusetts. Moreover, Obamacare and the stimulus were passed on near-total party-line votes – legal, of course, but deeply offensive to the people’s sense of democratic legitimacy. Never before had anything of this size and scope been passed on a purely partisan basis. (Social Security commanded 81 House Republicans; the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 136; Medicare, 70.)

Tuesday was the electorate’s first opportunity to render a national verdict on this manner of governance. The rejection was stunning. As a result, President Obama’s agenda is dead. And not just now. No future Democratic president will try to revive it – and if he does, no Congress will follow him, in view of the carnage visited upon Democrats on Tuesday.

This is not, however, a rejection of Democrats as a party. The center-left party as represented by Bill Clinton remains competitive in every cycle. (Which is why he was the most popular, sought-after Democrat in the current cycle.) The lesson of Tuesday is that the American game is played between the 40-yard lines. So long as Democrats don’t repeat Obama’s drive for the red zone, Democrats will cyclically prevail, just as Republicans do.

Nor should Republicans overinterpret their Tuesday mandate. They received none. They were merely rewarded for acting as the people’s proxy in saying no to Obama’s overreaching liberalism. As one wag put it, this wasn’t an election so much as a restraining order.

The Republicans won by default. And their prize is nothing more than a two-year lease on the House. The building was available because the previous occupant had been evicted for arrogant misbehavior and, by rule, alas, the House cannot be left vacant.

The president, however, remains clueless. In his next-day news conference, he had the right demeanor – subdued, his closest approximation of humility – but was uncomprehending about what just happened. The “folks” are apparently just “frustrated” that “progress” is just too slow. Asked three times whether popular rejection of his policy agenda might have had something to do with the shellacking he took, he looked as if he’d been asked whether the sun had risen in the West. Why, no, he said.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Barack Obama, Phone Home

AFTER his “shellacking,” President Obama had to do something. But who had the bright idea of scheduling his visit to India for right after this election? The Democrats’ failure to create jobs was at the heart of the shellacking. Nothing says “outsourcing” to the American public more succinctly than India. But the White House didn’t figure this out until the eve of Obama’s Friday departure, when it hastily rebranded his trip as a jobs mission. Perhaps the president should visit one of the Indian call centers policing Americans’ credit-card debts to feel our pain.

Optics matter. If Washington is tumbling into a political crisis as the recovery continues to lag, maybe the president shouldn’t get out of Dodge. If the White House couldn’t fill a 13,000-seat arena in blue Cleveland the weekend before the midterms, maybe it shouldn’t have sent the president there. If an administration charged with confronting a Great Recession knew that its nominee for secretary of the Treasury serially cut corners on his taxes, maybe it should have considered other options. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Well, here we are.

True, the big things matter more than the optics. Unfortunately, they are a mess too.

You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first. It means that Obama can make a comeback, but only if he figures out what he has to come back from and where he has to go.

The president’s travails are not merely a “communications problem.” They’re also a governance problem — which makes them a gift to opponents who prefer no governance at all. You can’t govern if you can’t tell the country where you are taking it. The plot of Obama’s presidency has been harder to follow than “Inception.”

Health care reform remains at the root of this chaos. Obama has never explained why a second-tier priority for him in the 2008 campaign leapt to the top of his must-do list in March 2009. For much of the subsequent year spent fighting over it, he still failed to pick up the narrative thread. He delayed so long in specifying his own priorities for the bill that his opponents filled the vacuum for him, making fictions like “death panels” stick while he waited naïvely for bipartisanship to prevail. In 2010, Obama and most Democrats completed their transformation of a victory into a defeat by running away from their signature achievement altogether.

They couldn’t talk about their other feat — the stimulus, also poorly explained by the White House from the start — because the 3.3 million jobs it saved are dwarfed by the intractable unemployment rate. Nor could they brag stirringly about a financial regulatory reform effort that left too many devilish details unresolved, too many too-big-to-fail banks standing and nearly all the crash culprits unaccountable.

With a cupboard this bare, Blame Bush became the Democratic message by default. But a message that neither boasts of any achievements nor offers any specifics for the future is a political suicide note.

Blame Bush was also a part of the G.O.P. message this year. When Republican candidates weren’t trashing Obama, they routinely deplored the spending excesses of their own Bush-era Congress and ripped into the villainous Bush- Paulson TARP as if their leaders hadn’t all signed on to it. The rest of the G.O.P. message — typified by the “Pledge to America” peddled by John Boehner — was as incoherent as the Democrats’. Traditional Republican boilerplate — lower taxes, less spending, smaller government — was chanted louder and louder, to pander to the Tea Party rebels, but with zero specifics of how it might be carried out. The midterm strategy was appropriately labeled “80-20” by the House majority leader in-waiting Eric Cantor — 80 percent attacks on Democrats, 20 percent proposing a G.O.P. plan.

But there was no plan. Even in victory, most Republicans can’t explain exactly what they want to do besides cut taxes and repeal health care (a quixotic goal, given the president’s veto pen and the law’s more popular provisions). A riotous dissection of this empty agenda could be found on election night on MSNBC, where a Republican stalwart, Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, called for “across the board” spending cuts. Under relentless questioning from Chris Matthews, she exempted defense and entitlements from the ax, thereby eliminating some 85 percent of the federal budget from her fiscal diligence.

Pressed about Social Security and Medicare, Blackburn would only promise to have an “adult conversation” with Americans on the subject. That’s the new Republicanese for punting. The G.O.P. budget guru, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also called for a “conversation” in a specifics-deficient op-ed manifesto in The Financial Times last week. Boehner and Mitch McConnell, in their postelection press conference, declared no fewer than 11 times that they were eager to “listen” to the American people. At the very least they are listening to a message guru like Frank Luntz.

Were they to listen to Americans, they’d learn that they favor budget cuts mainly in theory, not in fact. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this summer found that three-quarters of Americans don’t want to cut federal aid to education — high on the hit list of most fiscal hawks — and more than 60 percent are opposed to raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. Even in the Republican-tilted electorate of last week, exit polls found that only 39 percent favored extending the Bush tax cuts to all Americans, including those making $250,000-plus. Yet it’s a full Bush tax cut extension that’s the entirety of the G.O.P. jobs program in 2010. This will end “uncertainty” among the wealthiest taxpayers, you see, and a gazillion jobs will trickle down magically from Jackson Hole.

Obama has a huge opening here — should he take it. He could call the Republicans’ bluff by forcing them to fill in their own blanks. He could start by offering them what they want, the full Bush tax cuts, in exchange for a single caveat: G.O.P. leaders would be required to stand before a big Glenn Beck-style chalkboard — on C-Span, or, for that matter, Fox News — and list, with dollar amounts, exactly which budget cuts would pay for them. Once they hit the first trillion — or even $100 billion — step back and let the “adult conversation” begin!

Better still, the president should open this bargaining session to the full spectrum of his opposition. As he said at his forlorn news conference on Wednesday, he is ready to consider policy ideas “whoever proposes them.” So why not cut to the chase and invite Congressional Tea Party heavyweights like Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann to the White House along with the official G.O.P. leadership? They will offer the specifics that Boehner and McConnell are too shy to divulge.

DeMint published a book last year detailing his view that Social Security be privatized to slow America’s descent into socialism. Paul can elaborate on his ideas for reducing defense spending and cutting back on drug law enforcement. Bachmann will explain her plans for weaning Americans off Medicare.

Maybe some of the big Tea Party ideas will be as popular as the Tea Partiers claim them to be. We won’t know until Congress tries to enact them. Nor will we know Obama’s true measure until he provides a coherent alternative of his own about how he intends to put Americans back to work and keep them in their homes. If he has such a plan, few, if any, Americans have any idea what it is.

To do this, he’ll have to break out of the White House bubble he lamented again last week. He can no longer limit interactions with actual working Americans to photo ops on factory floors or outsource them to a “Middle Class Task Force” led by Joe Biden. He must move beyond his Ivy League-Wall Street comfort zone to overhaul his economic team. If George Bush could announce Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement the day after his 2006 midterm thumping, why is the naming of Lawrence Summers’s much-needed successor receding into eternity?

In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”

Surely there are dozens of supporters reassuring Obama with exactly this Truman scenario this weekend. But if he lacks the will to fight, he might as well just take his time and enjoy the sights of Mumbai.

Frank Rich, New York Times


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‘Blindsided’: A President’s Story

W. never sweated the small stuff.

Unfortunately, he didn’t much sweat the big stuff either.

Often the thing the former president was sweating most was, well, sweating — making sure he got in quality time for his cherished workouts.

In his deftly crafted and utterly selective new memoir, W. is the president we all wished him to be: compassionate, bipartisan, funny, charming, instinctive, independent, able to admit and learn from mistakes — and a good dad, who sang his twin girls the Yale fight song as a lullaby.

Heck, after I finished reading it, I was ready to vote for the guy.

The book lacks the vindictive or vaporous tone of many political autobiographies. It’s peppered with endearing personal stories, like the time W. made a Rose Garden speech supporting a Palestinian state and his mother called afterward to ask sarcastically, “How’s the first Jewish president doing?”

But when I look at the sad eyes of President Obama, buried alive with his party beneath the heedless decisions and reckless spending and tax cuts of his predecessor, I snap out of it.

Many presidents go a little loco. Others — even those who insist they want to be transformative and not play “small ball” — fall into periods where they seem strangely disengaged during crises.

It happened to President Obama during the interminable health care battle and intemperate birth of the Tea Party, and again when the BP well gushed.

It happened to W. with Afghanistan, Iraq and Katrina. When they tragically spun out of control on his watch, President Bush was not engaged.

He sometimes treated life-and-death issues like abstractions, not imminent threats, and frequently did not grasp the consequences of his decisions. By the time he got on top of things, many lives had been lost or shattered.

He wasn’t interested in the unglamorous part of decisions, the due diligence required before you plunge into wars that can break the military and expose to our enemies the limits of our power, or the follow-through essential for policies like nation-building in Afghanistan and education reform at home.

The author of “Decision Points” prides himself as The Decider, a man with a great gut and crisp opinions — the opposite of the discursive, deliberative Obama. From the beginning, the prodigal son of the first President Bush was packaged by Karl Rove as the anti-wimp — one hardy hombre. Junior was tougher than his cosmopolitan father, as his White House chief of staff Andy Card asserted, because W. was from West Texas and “his training was dealing with problems on the streets of Laredo or Dallas or Houston or Midland or Austin.”

W. modeled himself on a Western hero and he even walked like a gunslinger, noting that a president has to be the “calcium in the backbone.” Cheney played on this, taunting W. about sacking Saddam. At their weekly lunch, W. writes, “Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’ ”

Yet for a self-proclaimed man of action, W. was often strangely passive, caught off guard again and again by shocks to America’s reputation and faith in itself.

He was “blindsided” when both his FBI director and his acting attorney general threatened to resign over the legality of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

He was shocked by the looting and violence that followed the Iraq invasion, though it was widely forecast. He asked Rummy about the light troop levels, then meekly accepted the defense secretary’s tragic insistence that all was well.

W. writes that he was “blindsided” by the “grotesque” Abu Ghraib photos, which he only saw the day they were shown on “60 Minutes II.”

Rummy and Cheney knew how to play W.; when they offered to resign, he was so impressed with their loyalty, he let them stay. Besides, W. writes, “there was no obvious replacement for Don.” How about … anybody?

He was “shocked” that there were no W.M.D., though it should have been an obvious possibility that the proud, decimated Saddam might want to look tough in front of his neighbors. And W. was taken aback by the Iraq insurgency, though when you toss a ruthless ruling class into the street, you should expect a rumble.

When W. could have acted to try to prevent real disasters — Osama’s attack on 9/11, the fiend’s escape at Tora Bora, the financial meltdown — he was oblivious. When he jumped in pre-emptively, as in Iraq, it was because he and Cheney had conjured up fake disasters out of their own paranoia and obsession with proving their toughness.

Yet if W.’s decision-making leaves something to be desired, his story-telling is good. He writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.

Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


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Why Obama Is No Roosevelt

Roosevelt: ‘Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst without flinching and losing heart.’ Obama: We don’t ‘always think clearly when we’re scared.’

Whatever the outcome of today’s election, this much is clear: It will be a long time before Americans ever again decide that the leadership of the nation should go to a legislator of negligible experience—with a voting record, as state and U.S. senator, consisting largely of “present,” and an election platform based on glowing promises of transcendence. A platform vowing, unforgettably, to restore us—a country lost to arrogance and crimes against humanity—to a place of respect in the world.

We would win back our allies who, so far as we knew, hadn’t been lost anywhere. Though once Mr. Obama was elected and began dissing them with returned Churchill busts and airy claims of ignorance about the existence of any special relationship between the United States and Great Britain, the British, at least, have been feeling less like pals of old.

In the nearly 24 months since Mr. Obama’s election, popular enthusiasm for him has gone the way of his famous speeches—lyrical, inspired and unburdened by the weight of concrete thought.

About the ingratitude of Democratic voters the president brooded in a September Rolling Stone interview. “If people now want to take their ball and go home,” he declared, “that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.” His vice president, Joe Biden, had a few days earlier contributed his own distinctive effort to seduce Democrats back to the fold by telling them to “stop whining.”

The results of this charm campaign remain to be seen. What’s clear now is that we’ve heard quite enough about the “angry electorate”—a peculiarly reductive view of citizens who’ve managed to read all the signs and detect an administration they were not prepared to live with.

Nothing wakened their instincts more than the administration’s insistence on its health-care bill—its whiff of totalitarian will, its secretiveness, its display of cold assurance that the new president’s social agenda trumped everything.

But it was about far more than health-care reform, or joblessness, or the great ideological divide between the president and the rest of the country. It was about an accumulation of facts quietly taken in that told Americans that the man they had sent to the White House had neither the character or the capacity to lead the country.

Their president was the toast of Europe, masterful before the adoring crowds—but one who had remarkably soon proved unable to inspire, in citizens at home, any belief that he was a leader they could trust. Or one who trusted them or their instincts. His Democratic voters were unhappy? They, and their limited capacities, were to blame.

These are conspicuous breaks in the armor of civility and charm that candidate Obama once showed—and those breaks are multiplying.

At a Democratic fund-raiser a few weeks ago, the president noted, in explanation for the Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm, that facts and science and argument aren’t winning the day because “we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.” The suggestion was clear: The Democrats’ growing resistance to his policies was a product of the public’s lack of intellectual capacity and their fears.

Decades ago another president directly addressed Americans in a time of far greater peril. “Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst without flinching and losing heart,” Franklin Roosevelt told his national audience. The occasion was a fireside chat delivered Feb. 23, 1942. No radio address then or since has ever imparted a presidential message so remarkable in its detail, complexity and faith in its audience.

It was delivered just a few months after Pearl Harbor, a time when the Allied cause looked bleakest. It would be known to history as “The Map Speech.” The president had asked Americans to have a map at hand, “to follow with me the references I shall make to the world- encircling battle lines of this war.” He took them through those lines, the status of battles around the globe, the enemy’s objectives, centers of raw material and far more. By the time they had finished poring over their maps with him they had had a considerable education.

It is impossible to imagine what might have been the effect if the current president, who is regularly compared to FDR—always a source of amazement—had tried anything like a detailed address explaining, say, the new health-care bill. Though this would have required knowledge of what was actually in the bill (a likely problem) and a readiness to share that news (an even greater one).

Despite the ongoing work of legions grinding out endless new and improved proofs that FDR was a despoiler of democracy and our economic system, it is worth remembering the reason virtually all serious historians rank him among the top three of our greatest presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt led the nation through 12 years begun in incomparable national misery virtually to the end of the war. When he died, an anguished country mourned as it had not done since the death of Lincoln. Americans trusted him. The story is told of a man found weeping when Roosevelt’s funeral train went past, who was asked if he had known the president. “I didn’t know him,” he replied. “But he knew me.”

The times are now vastly different—no one expects a candidate with the powers of an FDR these days. But the requirements of leadership don’t change. Despite charm and intellect, Americans have never been able to see in Mr. Obama a president who spoke to them and for them. He has been their lecturer-in-chief, a planner of programs for his vision of a new and progressive society.

Plenty of suggestions, none of them feasible, are in the air now about how he can reposition himself for 2012, and move to the center. Mr. Obama is who he is: a man of deep-dyed ideological inclinations, with a persona to match. And that isn’t going away.

The Democrats may not take a complete battering in the current contest, but there is no doubt of the problems ahead. This election has everything to do with the man in the White House about whom Americans have lost their illusions. Illusions matter. Their loss is irrecoverable.

Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.


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Americans Vote for Maturity

Obama gets a rebuke, but so do Republicans who seem unqualified.

‘The people have spoken, the bastards.” That would be how Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are feeling. The last two years of their leadership have been rebuffed. The question for the Democratic Party: Was it worth it? Was it worth following the president and the speaker in their mad pursuit of liberal legislation the country would not, could not, like? And what will you do now? Which path will you take?

The Republicans saw their own establishment firmly, sharply put down. The question for them: What will you do to show yourselves worthy of the bounty?

The Republicans won big, but both parties return to Washington chastened. Good.

Two small points on the election’s atmospherics that carry implications for the future. The first is that negative ads became boring, unpersuasive. Forty years ago they were new, exciting in a sort of prurient way. Now voters take for granted that politicians are no good, and such ads are just more polluted water going over the waterfall. The biggest long-term loser: liberalism. If all pols are sleazoid crooks, then why would people want to give them more governmental power to order our lives? The implicit message of two generations of negative ads: Vote conservative, limit the reach of the thieves.

The second, not much noticed, is that all candidates must assume now that they are being taped, wherever they are, including private conversations. Sharron Angle was taped in a private meeting with a potential supporter, who leaked it to the press, to her embarrassment. The taper/leaker was a sleaze and a weasel—a sleazel—but candidates can no longer ever assume they are speaking in confidence; they have to assume even aides and supporters are wired. (Go reread “Game Change” and wonder if some of the conversations reported there were taped.) The zone of privacy just got smaller, and the possibility of blackmail, a perennial unseen force in politics, wider. Prediction: this fact will, at some point in 2012, cause an uproar.

On to the aftermath of the election. On Wednesday President Obama gave a news conference to share his thoughts. Viewers would have found it disappointing if there had been any viewers. The president is speaking, in effect, to an empty room. From my notes five minutes in: “This wet blanket, this occupier of the least interesting corner of the faculty lounge, this joy-free zone, this inert gas.” By the end I was certain he will never produce a successful stimulus because he is a human depression.

Actually I thought the worst thing you can say about a president: that he won’t even make a good former president.

His detachment is so great, it is even from himself. As he spoke, he seemed to be narrating from a remove. It was like hearing the audiobook of Volume I of his presidential memoirs. “Obama was frustrated. He honestly didn’t understand what the country was doing. It was as if they had compulsive hand-washing disorder. In ’08 they washed off Bush. Now they’re washing off Obama. There he is, swirling down the drain! It’s all too dramatic, too polar. The morning after the election it occurred to him: maybe he should take strong action. Maybe he should fire America! They did well in 2008, but since then they’ve been slipping. They weren’t giving him the followership he needed. But that wouldn’t work, they’d only complain. He had to keep his cool. His aides kept telling him, ‘Show humility.’ But they never told him what humility looked like. What was he supposed to do, burst into tears and say hit me? Not knowing how to feel humility or therefore show humility he decided to announce humility: He found the election ‘humbling,’ he said.”

What Democrats have to learn from this election: Cut loose from that. Join with Republicans where you can, create legislation together, send the bill to the White House, see what happens. Even as the Republicans have succeeded in getting out from under George W. Bush, this is your chance to get out from under Mr. Obama, and possibly prosper in 2012 whatever happens to him.

What the tea party, by which I mean members and sympathizers, has to learn from 2010 is this: Not only the message is important but the messenger.

Even in a perfect political environment, those candidates who were conservative but seemed strange, or unprofessional, or not fully qualified, or like empty bags skittering along the street, did not fare well. The tea party provided the fire and passion of the election, and helped produce major wins—Marco Rubio by 19 points! But in the future the tea party is going to have to ask itself: is this candidate electable? Will he pass muster with those who may not themselves be deeply political but who hold certain expectations as to the dignity and stature required of those who hold office?

This is the key question the tea party will face in 2012. And it will be hard to answer it, because the tea party doesn’t have leaders or conventions, so the answer will have to bubble up from a thousand groups, from 10,000 leaders.

Electable doesn’t mean not-conservative. Electable means mature, accomplished, stable—and able to persuade.

Conservatives talked a lot about Ronald Reagan this year, but they have to take him more to heart, because his example here is a guide. All this seemed lost last week on Sarah Palin, who called him, on Fox, “an actor.” She was defending her form of policical celebrity—reality show, “Dancing With the Stars,” etc. This is how she did it: “Wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn’t he in ‘Bedtime for Bonzo,’ Bozo, something? Ronald Reagan was an actor.”

Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I’ll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.

The point is not “He was a great man and you are a nincompoop,” though that is true. The point is that Reagan’s career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn’t in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn’t in search of fame; he’d already lived a life, he was already well known, he’d accomplished things in the world.

Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can’t just bully them, you can’t just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.

Americans don’t want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy. They’ll vote no on that.

It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Time for Republicans to Deliver

Voters understand that Mr. Obama is president for two more years and retains the veto, but they will insist the GOP at least fight for change.

Tuesday’s election was epic. Republicans gained over 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate. They’ll now occupy eight additional governors’ mansions and at least 500 more seats in state legislatures.

The GOP picked up more House seats than in any election since 1938, leaving Democrats with the smallest number in the House since 1946. Republican gains in the Senate are roughly twice the post-World War II midterm average. When Mr. Obama took office there were 22 Republican governors: Now there will be at least 29.

Fifty incumbent Democratic congressmen lost, including 22 freshmen. An extraordinary nine senior Democrats with 18 years or more of service also went down, including three committee chairs: South Carolina’s John Spratt, Missouri’s Ike Skelton, and Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar. Their offense was to back the Obama-Pelosi agenda.

Among the few vulnerable Democrats to survive were those, like Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire, who emphasized their opposition to policies like ObamaCare.

Some of the president’s closest personal allies lost—including his pick-up basketball buddy, Alexi Giannoulias, who failed to keep the Senate seat formerly held by Mr. Obama. The GOP also beat many candidates whom Mr. Obama stumped for last week, like Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Apparently the president’s presence so close to the election reminded undecided voters why they were upset.

Democrats didn’t suffer as many losses in the Senate as many predicted. This was largely because Democratic candidates either trumpeted their opposition to Mr. Obama’s policies (West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin) or vilified their Republican opponents (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s final ad called his GOP competitor “pathological”).

And Democratic losses could get worse in the next election. In 2012, three times as many Senate Democrats as Republicans face the voters—and many are from red states. Two more years of voting for the Obama agenda could do many of them in.

The public’s deep dissatisfaction with the failed stimulus bill, uncontrolled spending and sweeping health-care reform gave rise to the tea party movement. This phenomenon provoked as much as an 8% increase in turnout, according to George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald, who estimates turnout at around 90 million, up from 82 million in the 2006 midterm. Independents went 55% for the GOP, an 11-percentage-point gain from 2008 and a 16-point jump from the last midterm.

The damage to the White House and the Democratic Party is severe and will be long-lasting. On the eve of redistricting, the GOP controls more state legislative seats and chambers than it has since the 1920s.

In Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Republicans gained control of both legislative houses and will dominate redistricting, adding to the number of states where the GOP will draw lines that will boost their numbers in the House for the next decade. In other states like Colorado, Republicans gained a seat at the table by winning at least one chamber.

Tuesday’s results mean Mr. Obama no longer has the luxury of jamming through legislation solely with his party’s support. A week after saying it was “time to punish our enemies,” the president will have to find ways to reach common ground with them. In yesterday’s press conference, the president mentioned earmarks and energy policy as two places to start.

Republicans must not delude themselves: The voters didn’t throw out the Democrats because they are enraptured with the GOP. The polling data suggest that many voters, while warming to the party, still remain nervous about it. Republicans are on probation. And whether they get off of it depends on whether they do what they said they would on the campaign trail.

Voters want Republicans to press for reform—regardless of the obstacles placed in their way by Mr. Obama. They understand Mr. Obama is president for two more years and retains the veto, but they will insist Republicans at least fight for change.

Republicans should be willing to compromise on details. Ronald Reagan was right when he said, “I’d rather get 80% of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying.” But voters will not tolerate compromise on fundamental principles.

Americans clearly want the new Congress to focus on economic growth and creating jobs in the private sector. Real spending reductions, an extension of the Bush tax cuts, ending earmarks, using the returns from the bailouts to reduce the debt, and turning Fannie and Freddie into private companies should all be at the top of the GOP’s agenda.

Republicans must also tackle ObamaCare. They must try to repeal or defund it. But they should also present conservative alternatives—such as permitting Americans to buy health insurance across state lines, allowing small businesses to pool their risk to get the same discounts that big businesses get, giving the tax advantage of having insurance to the individual as well as the employer, and passing medical-liability reform to end junk lawsuits.

The GOP should also take up entitlement reform. Voters will not judge them to be fiscally serious if they avoid the issue.

All of this needs to be advanced by a party that is seen as hopeful and optimistic about America while remaining humble about itself. The next speaker of the House, John Boehner, hit just the right notes on Tuesday night.

President Obama brought on the worst thumping a party has received since the middle of the 20th century by offending America’s conservative instincts. The public has spoken. Now it’s up to the Republicans to deliver.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.


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Fast Track to Inequality

The clearest explanation yet of the forces that converged over the past three decades or so to undermine the economic well-being of ordinary Americans is contained in the new book, “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.”

The authors, political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley, argue persuasively that the economic struggles of the middle and working classes in the U.S. since the late-1970s were not primarily the result of globalization and technological changes but rather a long series of policy changes in government that overwhelmingly favored the very rich.

Those changes were the result of increasingly sophisticated, well-financed and well-organized efforts by the corporate and financial sectors to tilt government policies in their favor, and thus in favor of the very wealthy. From tax laws to deregulation to corporate governance to safety net issues, government action was deliberately shaped to allow those who were already very wealthy to amass an ever increasing share of the nation’s economic benefits.

“Over the last generation,” the authors write, “more and more of the rewards of growth have gone to the rich and superrich. The rest of America, from the poor through the upper middle class, has fallen further and further behind.”

As if to underscore this theme, it was revealed last week (by David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The New York Times), that the incomes of the very highest earners in the United States, a small group of individuals hauling in more than $50 million annually (sometimes much more), increased fivefold from 2008 to 2009, even as the nation was being rocked by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Last year was a terrific year for those at the very top. Professors Hacker and Pierson note in their book that investors and executives at the nation’s 38 largest companies earned a stunning total of $140 billion — a record. The investment firm Goldman Sachs paid bonuses to its employees that averaged nearly $600,000 per person, its best year since it was founded in 1869.

Something has gone seriously haywire in the distribution of the fruits of the American economy.

This unfortunate shift away from a long period of more widely shared prosperity unfolded steadily, year after year since the late-’70s, whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the levers of power in Washington. “Winner-Take-All Politics” explores the vexing question of how this could have happened in a democracy in which — in theory, at least — the enormous number of voters who are not rich would serve as a check on policies that curtailed their own economic opportunities while at the same time supercharging the benefits of the runaway rich.

The answer becomes clearer when one recognizes, as the book stresses, that politics is largely about organized combat. It’s a form of warfare. “It’s a contest,” said Professor Pierson, “between those who are organized, who can really monitor what government is doing in a very complicated world and bring pressure effectively to bear on politicians. Voters in that kind of system are at a disadvantage when there aren’t reliable, organized groups representing them that have clout and can effectively communicate to them what is going on.”

The book describes an “organizational revolution” that took place over the past three decades in which big business mobilized on an enormous scale to become much more active in Washington, cultivating politicians in both parties and fighting fiercely to achieve shared political goals. This occurred at the same time that organized labor, the most effective force fighting on behalf of the middle class and other working Americans, was caught in a devastating spiral of decline.

Thus, the counterweight of labor to the ever-increasing political clout of big business was effectively lost.

“We’re not arguing that globalization and technological change don’t matter,” said Professor Hacker. “But they aren’t by any means a sufficient explanation for this massive change in the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. Much more important are the ways in which government has shaped the economy over this period through deregulation, through changes in industrial relations policies affecting labor unions, through corporate governance policies that have allowed C.E.O.’s to basically set their own pay, and so on.”

This hyperconcentration of wealth and income, and the overwhelming political clout it has put into the hands of the monied interests, has drastically eroded the capacity of government to respond to the needs of the middle class and others of modest income.

Nothing better illustrates the enormous power that has accrued to this tiny sliver of the population than its continued ability to thrive and prosper despite the Great Recession that was largely the result of their winner-take-all policies, and that has had such a disastrous effect on so many other Americans.

Bob Herbert, New York Times


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A Little Lady Predicts a Big Win

The Republican tide may even reach the Jersey Shore.

Well, I think we know where this one’s going. The polls came like waves this week. Independents breaking hard for the GOP, those making under $50,000 going Republican, the party has a 20% lead among college graduates. Gallup says 2010 is looking better than the year of the last great sweep, with 55% of respondents now saying they are Republican or lean Republican. It was 49% in 1994. RealClearPolitics has 222 House seats going to the Republicans, 175 to Democrats, and 38 toss-ups, of which 36 are currently held by the Democrats. The president’s approval numbers remain well below 50%, and Congress’s disapproval numbers above 70%.

Let’s say the polls are pretty correct. If they are, two big facts present themselves. One is that the Obama coalition broke under pressure. We’ll see if they regroup. America turns on a dime, we’re in a time of quick and constant change. But Barack Obama’s lines have been broken.

On the other side, not only is a big Republican wave coming, but a rough coalition seems to be forming. It is the coalition that did not come together in 2006 to save Congress for the GOP, and did not come together in ’08 to elect John McCain. The tea party saved the Republican Party by, among other things, re-energizing it. But it’s also becoming clear the tea party did so without turning off the center.

This is news. Six months ago the common wisdom was that the tea party was going to scare independent voters and make them run screaming from the tent. “There was an awful man in an Uncle Sam hat and a woman talking about repealing some amendment. I can’t take it, Harry!”

But the center doesn’t appear to be scared. Maybe it doesn’t scare easy. Maybe getting scared is what happens next time, not this time. Or, my hunch, maybe the center, some of whose members have expressed a certain antipathy or standoffishness toward the tea party, simply doesn’t care that it feels a certain antipathy or standoffishness. Because such feelings are beside the point right now, a self-indulgence suited to less crisis-laden times. And we are in crisis. Our spending is ruinous, the demands of government are too great. It doesn’t matter if you like the style of those who want to turn it around, join them and try to turn it around. One of the things Rep. Paul Ryan says has seeped into the electorate: We have only a short time to fix things, we have to move now.

What’s rising now on the Republican side is big but not fully known and will evolve, will change itself and direct itself and maybe even settle some old issues as it goes forward in the next few years. It promises to be turbulent, and rich in meaning.

We’ll know in the early hours next Wednesday how it all turned out. But here is one way you’ll know it’s huge: Anna Little wins in New Jersey. If she wins it means the Republican wave swept all before it.

Not that she’s expected to. She’s running for Congress in the Jersey Shore’s Sixth Congressional District, which went for Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain 60% to 38%. She’s the Republican mayor of Highlands, population 5,000, up against incumbent Frank Pallone, an 11-term Democratic veteran who won in 2008 by 35 points. A Monmouth University poll has her down seven points. On the bright side, numbers guru Nate Silver just increased her chances of winning from 2% to 5%, and Charlie Cook changed the listing of the race from safe Democrat to likely Democrat.

Ms. Little takes it in stride. She says she’s not looking at Obama’s numbers. “I’m looking at Chris Christie’s numbers.” The Republican governor carried the district by 8% last November.

This week, at Pier Village in Long Branch, Ms. Little called a last-minute rally. Fifty or 60 people showed up, pretty good for a rainy Wednesday at 11 a.m. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele came through town to do the event with her. He represents the dreaded establishment, but they cheered him merrily.

Mr. Steele said, “Who you gonna fire?” The crowd yelled, “Nancy Pelosi!” “Who you gonna hire?” “Anna Little!”

When Ms. Little spoke the people in front had to lower their signs. She’s 4-foot-11½. She said, “It is my honor to be part of your grass-roots movement.” She said, “I’m gonna bring the Jersey shore to the Washington Beltway to straighten them out.” This got cheers. “A Jersey girl can take a California girl any day.” That got cheers too.

I talked to a Little supporter named Lois Pongo. The tea party and the Republican establishment are supposed to be at war, I said. No, she said, they’re working together. “We need to get into a place of cooperation. It can’t be we-they. The party has structure, knowledge, experience. The tea party has principles—not just the principles but the passion to restore our country.”

Ms. Little is confident of victory. She believes no one understands the mood of the voters this year: “No one’s noticed what’s going on.” The Democrats are “not in line with the people.” The No. 1 issues: jobs and the economy. After that, health care. “You have government and insurance companies together directing what kind of insurance must be purchased by an individual or employer.” Her opponent, as head of a House subcommittee on health care, was a major supporter of ObamaCare. It caused tumultuous town-hall meetings in August 2009.

“I stand for private-sector job creation and economic growth,” Ms. Little says. “Get government out of the way. Individual liberty and freedom. A right to life that includes the right to direct your health care.”

Her campaign is a shoestring operation. She’s got four pickup trucks that tour around with her signs. She calls it “The Lawrence Welk Caravan: Anna 1, Anna 2, Anna 3 and Anna 4.” By the end of the campaign, she says, she and her volunteers will have knocked on 100,000 doors. She puts the figure at 90,059 as of Tuesday night.

In January 2010, she says, local tea-party leaders came to her and asked her to run for Congress as an independent. She said no. “It’s hard for an independent to win. It solidifies the position of the incumbent.” They asked her to run as a Republican. She agreed. But what if party leaders don’t pick you, they asked. She said she’d run in the primary, “on behalf of the grass-roots.”

Republican leaders did not choose her. So she ran for the GOP nomination against their candidate, a wealthy party contributor who was part of the organization, glamorous to the point of Palinesque, and self-funding. Ms. Little, with no money, won by 84 votes of 13,524 cast.

How did she do it? “I went door to door,” she said.

She agrees there is no civil war in the party—yet. All people want are solutions to our problems. “They don’t care who does it. They are happy to be in the Republican Party as long as it does not compromise its principles. . . . They will hug me and kiss me now, but they’ll be on top of me when it comes time for me to vote and they will hold my feet to the fire.”

She was asked if they call her the Little Engine That Could. “No,” she said. “They call me the Little Engine That Will.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Political blips, disguised as ‘eras’

In the history of badly timed book titles, Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten hold a distinguished place. The publication of “One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century” in 2006 was followed quickly by two national elections in which Democrats gained 15 Senate seats, 54 House seats and the White House. In 2008 Barack Obama became the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson to win an outright majority of the popular vote. He took seven states that had twice voted for George W. Bush, including two (Indiana and Virginia) that had not gone Democratic since 1964.

Which led to James Carville’s 2009 book, “40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.” Carville argued: “American presidential politics is generally not a back-and-forth enterprise. There are eras in which one party dominates. Today, a Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next forty years.”

Apparently the era of Democratic dominance will last two years. According to the polls, key groups of Obama voters – including women, Catholics, less affluent voters and independents – are abandoning Democrats in large numbers. Republican strategist Vin Weber calls it the “largest ideological shift in the shortest period of time in my lifetime.”

American politics has become a back-and-forth enterprise.

Some explanations for these electoral swings are historically unique, making them difficult to generalize into principles. The political damage of the Iraq war and the response to Hurricane Katrina was specific to the Bush administration. It was politically disastrous for Obama to oversell the stimulus package and to focus on health-care reform instead of job creation. Democrats miscalculated that the economic crisis presented a New Deal moment – a chance to expand the social safety net and increase the progressivity of the tax system. Actually, most people just wanted the economy improved.

And Obama himself turned out to be a surprisingly poor politician. He has shown little ability either to explain his economic theory – can anyone describe Obamaism? – or to show empathy for the suffering. He has managed the difficult feat of deflating his supporters while energizing his critics, seeming too compromised and too extreme at the same time.

But there are broader lessons to be drawn. These rapid shifts are a warning to political commentators: Don’t overinterpret a given political moment. While the ideological predispositions of most Americans are pretty well set, two factors still vary greatly from election to election – ideological intensity and the support of independents. Both political parties have proved capable of exciting their bases, appealing to independents and securing decisive majorities – and of squandering all these advantages quickly. At least in national politics, no future political outcome is predestined by current trends, demographics or other tools of tarot punditry. The Carville-like book of political predictions is a roulette guess, black or red. Either party can dominate – or fail.

These swings also hint at a deeper dynamic. The velocity of political change seems to be increasing, propelled by information technology and a breathless, polarized media. Political time has become compressed. The interval between hero worship and humiliation has narrowed. The pace of disillusionment has quickened. Americans, along with Thomas Jefferson, may like a little rebellion now and then. But indulged too frequently, the habit seems more like instability. And the world is left to wonder about the consistency, even the coherence, of American economic and foreign policy.

Above all, this recent history should provide lessons for the winners. Even decisive victories are fragile. Majorities are built with the support of both partisans and independents. Results are ultimately more important than purity. Ideological overreach provokes a backlash. In the current case, there is a genuine uprising in favor of fiscal responsibility and job-creating growth – but there is no mandate for the deconstruction of the modern state. The first revolution will be hard enough.

Following a large political victory, however, it is easier to drink deeply and dream. Which makes it likely that someone will write: “The Permanent Tea Party Majority.”

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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The great campaign of 2010

In a radio interview that aired Monday on Univision, President Obama chided Latinos who “sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.’ ” Quite a uniter, urging Hispanics to go to the polls to exact political revenge on their enemies – presumably, for example, the near-60 percent of Americans who support the new Arizona immigration law.

This from a president who won’t even use “enemies” to describe an Iranian regime that is helping kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. This from a man who rose to prominence thunderously declaring that we were not blue states or red states, not black America or white America or Latino America – but the United States of America.

This is how the great post-partisan, post-racial, New Politics presidency ends – not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a desperate election-eve plea for ethnic retribution.

Yet press secretary Robert Gibbs’s dismay is reserved for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and the “disappointing” negativity of his admission that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

McConnell, you see, is supposed to say that he will try very hard to work with the president after the election. But it is blindingly clear that nothing of significance will be enacted. Over the next two years, Republicans will not be able to pass anything of importance to them – such as repealing Obamacare – because of the presidential veto. And the Democrats will be too politically weakened to advance, let alone complete, Obama’s broad transformational agenda.

That would have to await victory in 2012. Every president gets two bites at the apple: the first 18 months when he is riding the good-will honeymoon, and a second shot in the first 18 months of a second term before lame-duckness sets in.

Over the next two years, the real action will be not in Congress but in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy. Democrats will advance their agenda on Obamacare, financial reform and energy by means of administrative regulation, such as carbon-emission limits imposed unilaterally by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But major congressional legislation to complete Obama’s social-democratic agenda? Not a chance. That’s why McConnell has it right. The direction of the country will be determined in November 2012 when either Obama gets a mandate to finish building his “New Foundation” or the Republicans elect one of their own to repeal it, or what (by then) remains repealable.

Gibbs’s disapproving reaction to this obvious political truth is in keeping with the convention that all things partisan or ideological are to be frowned upon as “divisive.” This is pious nonsense. What is the point of a two-party democracy if not to present clear, alternative views of the role of government and, more fundamentally, the balance between liberty and equality – the central issue for any democracy?

The beauty of this year’s campaign, and the coming one in 2012, is that they actually have a point. Despite the noise, the nonsense, the distractions, the amusements – who will not miss New York’s seven-person gubernatorial circus act? – this is a deeply serious campaign about a profoundly serious political question.

Obama, to his credit, did not get elected to do midnight basketball or school uniforms. No Bill Clinton he. Obama thinks large. He wants to be a consequential president on the order of Ronald Reagan. His forthright attempt to undo the Reagan revolution with a burst of expansive liberal governance is the theme animating this entire election.

Democratic apologists would prefer to pretend otherwise – that it’s all about the economy and the electorate’s anger over its parlous condition. Nice try. The most recent CBS/New York Times poll shows that only one in 12 Americans blames the economy on Obama, and seven in 10 think the downturn is temporary. And yet, the Democratic Party is falling apart. Democrats are four points behind among women, a constituency Democrats had owned for decades; a staggering 20 points behind among independents (a 28-point swing since 2008); and 20 points behind among college graduates, giving lie to the ubiquitous liberal conceit that the Republican surge is the revenge of lumpen know-nothings.

On Nov. 2, a punishing there will surely be. But not quite the kind Obama is encouraging.

My prediction: The Dems lose 60 House seats, eight in the Senate. Rangers in seven.

Charles Krauthammer, New York Times


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Signs of the Democratic Apocalypse

Midterms are tough for presidents, but party leaders aren’t usually in trouble.

Next Tuesday Democrats will receive a crushing rebuke. More to the point, voters will be delivering a verdict on the first two years of the Obama administration.

Midterm elections are almost always unpleasant experiences for the White House, especially when the economy is weak. But key races that should have been safe for the party in power demonstrate the extent to which President Obama and his policies have nationalized the election.

In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a huge war chest in a state Mr. Obama won in 2008 by 12 points. Mr. Reid trails Sharron Angle by four points in the latest Rasmussen poll.

In West Virginia, Joe Manchin, a popular Democratic governor, is running for the Senate, yet he lags behind John Raese by two points in the Oct. 23 Fox News Poll, largely because of Mr. Obama’s 30% approval rating in the state. Mr. Manchin is running away from the president, telling Fox News that Mr. Obama is “dead wrong on cap and trade,” and that he would not have supported ObamaCare had he known everything that was in the bill.

Or take the Illinois Senate seat held by Mr. Obama before he was elected president. It should be safely Democratic. Instead, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk has led Illinois Treasurer and Obama basketball buddy Alexi Giannoulias in eight of the 10 polls taken this month. It will be a terrible embarrassment if the president’s former Senate seat flips.

Elsewhere, some powerful Senate Democrats were either forced out by popular Republican challengers (North Dakota and Indiana) or they trail badly because their races became nationalized over the Obama agenda (Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin).

One of the more interesting Senate races is in Ohio, where Rob Portman, a former trade negotiator and budget director for George W. Bush, leads Democratic Lt. Governor Lee Fisher by an average of 19 points in a state Mr. Obama carried by four points.

Ohio is no longer friendly Obama territory. An August survey by Public Policy Polling reported that Ohioans would prefer George W. Bush in the White House today rather than Mr. Obama by 50% to 42%. Mr. Portman campaigns relentlessly on jobs, presenting a principled, optimistic case that conservative policies mean economic growth. It’s a winning strategy.

Then there are senior House Democrats who normally don’t draw more than token opposition. This year, some are terminal and others in jeopardy.

Nine-term Congressman Earl Pomeroy (North Dakota) and 13-termer Paul Kanjorski (Pennsylvania) will both go down. Three House committee chairmen—John Spratt (South Carolina), Ike Skelton (Missouri) and Jim Oberstar (Minnesota)—are trying to hold off late-charging challengers. Even the dean of the House, Michigan’s 27-term Congressman John Dingell, is having to fend off a spirited challenge by cardiologist Rob Steele.

Then there’s House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, squaring off against Republican Sean Bielat, a Marine and businessman, in Massachusetts. In 2008, Mr. Obama carried his district by 29 points, but Mr. Frank is now stuck at 46% support in a recent poll commissioned by the Boston Globe. Anything less than 50% is a dangerous place for an entrenched incumbent. Mr. Bielat has campaigned so effectively he’s forced the acerbic, high-strung Mr. Frank to confess he’d been wrong to oppose reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the years before their spectacular collapse.

While Mr. Frank and several other senior Democrats may hang on, the fact that they even face tough races shows how much trouble the Democrats are in.

Adding to Democratic problems, the record GOP turnout in this year’s primaries points to higher turnout next week. Four years ago, 82 million people voted in the midterms. This year I estimate 89 million to 91 million Americans may cast a ballot, based on voting-eligible population statistics calculated by George Mason University’s Michael McDonald. Could there be a late surge in Democratic enthusiasm? The latest Pew poll, from Oct. 21, reports that 64% of Republicans say they have given a lot of thought to the election, while only 49% of Democrats have. This intensity edge is staggering, larger even than the GOP’s 12-point lead in 1994.

In recent days, Mr. Obama screamed defiantly to Democratic rallies that Republicans have to “sit in the back,” and he told a Latino radio audience that it’s time to “punish our enemies and . . . reward our friends.” That may be the president’s idea of how to appeal to Americans’ better instincts. Next Tuesday night we’ll see how badly wrong he is.

Mr. Rove was senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush


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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

ELECTION day could not have come too soon, after what felt like many long and painful weeks.

It had been raining steadily, and the glorious reds and golds of upstate New York in autumn lay clumped and muted. On my way to work, as I do every day, I trudged by the large corner house that is covered in signs, some soaked and wilted in the rain, others protected behind the glass street-facing windows. Many of the signs were for Ann Marie Buerkle, the Tea Party candidate for New York’s 25th Congressional district.

We are new to the neighborhood, and I called my husband: “You know that house with all the Tea Party yard signs? The one on the corner, with like a million signs? They really make me mad. Right now I’m going to knock on their door and tell them how mad they make me.”

“They’re allowed to have signs; it is their house,” my irritatingly rational husband replied.

“And I’m allowed to have signs, too. I’m going to put signs all over our lawn!” I said. Later I spotted a giant sign for Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, in front of a vacant lot. I called my husband again.

“I wouldn’t worry. Paladino is down 20 points in the polls,” he assured me.

I honestly considered getting a sign for Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee. But I just wanted the election to be over already. The rain kept coming down. And I kept tallying signs: Mr. Cuomo was nearly shut out; Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, was doing well near the university; but the suburbs were Carl country.

I asked my mother, who lives in rural Otsego County, about signs where she lived. She reported a few Paladinos.

My mother didn’t have a Cuomo sign on her lawn either. Only an anti-fracking sign. Many upstate voters are worried about a plan to open up our area to hydrofracking, the highly controversial technique of using high-pressure water and chemicals to extract natural gas. In fact, my mother hates hydrofracking as much as my corner neighbor loves Ann Marie Buerkle.

“An election isn’t a yard sign contest,” my mother advised me. Yet I continued to notice more and more Paladino signs. Not only that, his and other Tea Party signs were often planted on public property: on street dividers, on the edges of parks and next to shopping malls.

Obviously, their supporters are excited about the election. I imagined them driving around in the middle of the night sticking up illegal signs, high-five-ing and joyful in their righteous anger. I felt no joy on my side. The lack of enthusiasm on the left has been widely discussed. But the despair about New York is longer and deeper than this election or recession.

What could help the economy of central New York, parts of which have been in decline since the Erie Canal closed down? I read that Mr. Cuomo would create upstate regional economic councils to help local businesses access resources and capital. Better still, he would appoint Daniel Wegman as one of the councils’ advisors. Wegmans, the beloved central New York-based supermarket chain, consistently lands at the top of the Forbes Best Companies to Work For list.

Compare that with Carl Paladino’s string of Family Dollar stores, the discount seconds franchise that colonizes run-down strip malls all over the region. Wegmans versus Family Dollar. Was there any chance New Yorkers would choose Family Dollar for their future?

That night, my mother called to say she had put up a Cuomo yard sign. “O.K.? Do you feel better now?”

After I hung up, I went out to walk my dog, and discovered a yard sign planted in the middle of my lawn. It said Dave Valesky for State Senate. I still didn’t know anything about my new State Senate district or Dave Valesky. I looked down the street. Who put this here? Was it some midnight Tea Partier, hopped up on Sean Hannity and “Fox and Friends”? I pulled out the sign, muttering to myself about plastering Cuomo signs all over my local Family Dollar.

When I got back in the house, I looked up Mr. Valesky. He turned out to be our Democratic State Senator and, from what I could tell, a sane person. I picked the sign out from between my garbage cans, went out into the rain and replanted it in my yard. So I ended up with one yard sign, albeit an accidental one.

Final results for upstate’s sign contest: the Tea Party won, hands down. It remains to be seen what else they’ll win.

Dana Spiotta is the author of the forthcoming novel, “Stone Arabia.”


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A Referendum on the Redeemer

Barack Obama put the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation rather than leading a great one.

Whether or not the Republicans win big next week, it is already clear that the “transformative” aspirations of the Obama presidency—the special promise of this first black president to “change” us into a better society—are much less likely to materialize. There will be enough Republican gains to make the “no” in the “party of no” even more formidable, if not definitive.

But apart from this politics of numbers, there is also now a deepening disenchantment with Barack Obama himself. (He has a meager 37% approval rating by the latest Harris poll.) His embarrassed supporters console themselves that their intentions were good; their vote helped make history. But for Mr. Obama himself there is no road back to the charisma and political capital he enjoyed on his inauguration day.

All this would be enough to explain the disillusionment with this president—and with the Democratic Party that he leads. But there is also a deeper disjunction. There is an “otherness” about Mr. Obama, the sense that he is somehow not truly American. “Birthers” doubt that he was born on American soil. Others believe that he is secretly a Muslim, or in quiet simpatico with his old friends, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, now icons of American radicalism.

But Barack Obama is not an “other” so much as he is a child of the 1960s. His coming of age paralleled exactly the unfolding of a new “counterculture” American identity. And this new American identity—and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned—is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America. So Mr. Obama is very definitely an American, and he has a broad American constituency. He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in this counterculture American identity. When he bows to foreign leaders, he is not displaying “otherness” but the counterculture Americanism of honorable self-effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement.

Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ’60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the “imperialism” of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the ’60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America’s natural default position.

But Barack Obama is not an “other” so much as he is a child of the 1960s. His coming of age paralleled exactly the unfolding of a new “counterculture” American identity. And this new American identity—and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned—is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America. So Mr. Obama is very definitely an American, and he has a broad American constituency. He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in this counterculture American identity. When he bows to foreign leaders, he is not displaying “otherness” but the counterculture Americanism of honorable self-effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement.

Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ’60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the “imperialism” of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the ’60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America’s natural default position.

Among today’s liberal elite, bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness. More importantly, it is the perfect formula for political and governmental power. It rationalizes power in the name of intervening against evil—I will use the government to intervene against the evil tendencies of American life (economic inequality, structural racism and sexism, corporate greed, neglect of the environment and so on), so I need your vote.

“Hope and Change” positioned Mr. Obama as a conduit between an old America worn down by its evil inclinations and a new America redeemed of those inclinations. There was no vision of the future in “Hope and Change.” It is an expression of bad faith in America, but its great ingenuity was to turn that bad faith into political motivation, into votes.

But there is a limit to bad faith as power, and Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party may have now reached that limit. The great weakness of bad faith is that it disallows American exceptionalism as a rationale for power. It puts Mr. Obama and the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation, rather than leading a great nation. They bet on America’s characterological evil and not on her sense of fairness, generosity or ingenuity.

When bad faith is your framework (Michelle Obama never being proud of her country until it supported her husband), then you become more a national scold than a real leader. You lead out of a feeling that your opposition is really only the latest incarnation of that old characterological evil that you always knew was there. Thus the tea party—despite all the evidence to the contrary—is seen as racist and bigoted.

But isn’t the tea party, on some level, a reaction to a president who seems not to fully trust the fundamental decency of the American people? Doesn’t the tea party fill a void left open by Mr. Obama’s ethos of bad faith? Aren’t tea partiers, and their many fellow travelers, simply saying that American exceptionalism isn’t racism? And if the mainstream media see tea partiers as bumpkins and racists, isn’t this just more bad faith—characterizing people as ignorant or evil so as to dismiss them?

Our great presidents have been stewards, men who broadly identified with the whole of America. Stewardship meant responsibility even for those segments of America where one might be reviled. Surely Mr. Obama would claim such stewardship. But he has functioned more as a redeemer than a steward, a leader who sees a badness in us from which we must be redeemed. Many Americans are afraid of this because a mandate as grandiose as redemption justifies a vast expansion of government. A redeemer can’t just tweak and guide a faltering economy; he will need a trillion- dollar stimulus package. He can’t take on health care a step at a time; he must do it all at once, finally mandating that every citizen buy in.

Next week’s election is, among other things, a referendum on the idea of president-as- redeemer. We have a president so determined to transform and redeem us from what we are that, by his own words, he is willing to risk being a one-term president. People now wonder if Barack Obama can pivot back to the center like Bill Clinton did after his set-back in ’94. But Mr. Clinton was already a steward, a policy wonk, a man of the center. Mr. Obama has to change archetypes.

Mr. Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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The Second Marriage

The heavens rejoiced. Two years ago as Democrats cruised to power, Washingtonians felt a jolt of electricity in the air. News organizations published picture books celebrating the dawning of a new age. I distinctly remember seeing angels and cherubs drunk at the bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House.

Today, the atmosphere is different. Republicans may win the House, but everyone is writing about anger, not inspiration. (Memo to young journalists: Democratic victories are always ascribed to hope; Republican ones to rage.)

The biggest change is in the camp of the potential victors. Two years ago, Democrats waxed romantic. This year, the Republicans seem modest and cautious. I haven’t seen this many sober Republicans since America lost the Ryder Cup.

We have to be careful not to get carried away, says Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. “I was thinking about putting photos of Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman in the Republican cloakroom to remind us not to overreach,” he told me on Monday.

We have to beware of unrealistic expectations, emphasized Senator Jon Kyl, the second-ranking Republican. Republicans can’t accomplish big things without Democratic help. They can’t defund Obamacare on their own or pass a new tax law.

Many Americans are still skeptical about us, acknowledged Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House. We can’t do anything that might unsettle them, like shutting down the government. Instead, Republicans need to offer reassurance. Businesses should be able to predict what their tax costs will be, what their health costs will be and what their regulatory burdens will be.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich talked about a Republican Revolution, but these Republicans are still suffering from the hangover. Gingrich concentrated power in the speaker’s office, weakened the committee chairmen and built his machine for speed. Today’s Republican leader, John Boehner, vows to do the opposite — to weaken the speaker’s office, decentralize authority and move step by step.

Many Republicans figure the age of permanent majorities is over. Democrats once held the House for 40 years, but now control will likely flip back and forth with the tides. So lasting change has to be firmly implanted and gradually absorbed.

The Republican theory about how to revive economic growth, is best expressed by Alexander: “We have to make it easier and cheaper to create private sector jobs.” Week by week, Republicans hope to issue a string of bills designed to reduce uncertainty, public spending and the cost of hiring.

Some of the measures will attempt to repeal parts of Obamacare. For example, the new health care law has a provision that forces companies to file a 1099 form to the I.R.S. every time they pay more than $600 a year for goods or services from any individual or corporation. If you’re a freelancer and you buy a laptop from an Apple store, you have to file a 1099. If you spend more than $600 per year with FedEx, you have to file a 1099. Republicans are going to make this an early target — an example of the law’s expensive interference in business life.

Republican leaders are also prepared to take what they can get, even if it’s not always what they would like. Republicans would like to extend all the Bush tax cuts until the sun fizzles out. They’re willing to take a compromise extension of two or three years. Republicans are under intense pressure from the business lobbies to compromise with Democrats to get certain things done: more infrastructure spending and tax breaks for energy innovation.

The predictable response to all this gradualism is that the Republican leaders may want this, but there is no way the fire-breathing Tea Party-types are going to cooperate. There’s some truth to this. Rank-and-file Republicans are more hostile to earmarks than the chairmen (who say that without earmarks spending, decisions will just get made by bureaucrats).

There will also be clashes over budgets, raising the debt limit and doctors’ reimbursements. (Democrats are talking about leaving behind legislative traps to maximize G.O.P. discomfort.)

But this leadership-versus-the-crazies storyline is overblown. The new Republicans may distrust government, but this will be a Republican class with enormous legislative experience. Tea Party hype notwithstanding, most leading G.O.P. candidates either served in state legislatures or previously in Washington. The No Compromise stalwarts like Senator Jim DeMint have a big megaphone but few actual followers within the Senate.

Over all, if it is won, a Republican House majority will be like a second marriage. Less ecstasy, more realism. The party could have used a few more years to develop plans about the big things, like tax and entitlement reform. But if a party is going to do well in an election, it should at least be a party that has developed a sense of modesty.

David Brooks, New York Times


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Karzai and the Scent of U.S. Irresolution

Our longest war is now being waged with doubt and hesitation, and our ally on the scene has gone rogue, taking the coin of our enemies and scoffing at our purposes.

‘They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done, we are grateful to the Iranians for this.” This is the East, and baksheesh is the way of the world, Hamid Karzai brazenly let it be known this week. The big aid that maintains his regime, and keeps his country together, comes from the democracies. It is much cheaper for the Iranians. They are of the neighborhood, they know the ways of the bazaar.

The remarkable thing about Mr. Karzai has been his perverse honesty. This is not a Third World client who has given us sweet talk about democracy coming to the Hindu Kush. He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity. We are there, but on his and his family’s terms. Bags of cash, the reports tell us, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai; there are eight flights a day. We distrust the man. He reciprocates that distrust, and then some. Our deliberations leak, we threaten and bully him, only to give in to him. And this only increases his lack of regard for American tutelage. We are now there to cut a deal—the terms of our own departure from Afghanistan.

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war—and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty—there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan. By latest cruel count, more than 1,300 American service members have fallen in Afghanistan. For these sacrifices, Mr. Karzai shows little, if any, regard.

In his latest outburst, Mr. Karzai said the private security companies that guard the embassies and the development and aid organizations are killer squads, on a par with the Taliban. “The money dealing with the private security companies starts in the hallways of the U.S. government. Then they send the money for killing here,” Mr Karzai said. It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The brutal facts about Afghanistan are these: It is a broken country, a land of banditry, of a war of all against all, and of the need to get what can be gotten from the strangers. There is no love for the infidels who have come into the land, and no patience for their sermons.

In its wanderings through the Third World, from Korea and Vietnam to Iran and Egypt, it was America’s fate to ride with all sorts of clients. We betrayed some of them, and they betrayed us in return. They passed off their phobias and privileges as lofty causes worthy of our blood and treasure. They snookered us at times, but there was always the pretense of a common purpose. The thing about Mr. Karzai is his sharp break with this history. It is the ways of the Afghan mountaineers that he wishes to teach us.

When they came to power, the Obama people insisted they would teach Mr. Karzai new rules. There was a new man at the helm in Washington, and there would be no favored treatment, no intimacy with the new steward of American power. Governance would have to improve, and skeptical policy makers would now hold him accountable (Vice President Joe Biden, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, et al.). Mr. Karzai took their measure, and everywhere around him there were signs of American retreat, such as the spectacle of the Pax Americana eager to reach a grand bargain with the Iranian theocrats.

Mr. Karzai didn’t need to be a grand strategist. He had, as is necessary in his world of treachery and betrayal, his ear to the ground, his scent for the irresolution of the Obama administration. He saw the scorn of Iran’s cruel leaders for America’s diplomatic approaches. He could see Iranian power extend all the way to the Mediterranean, right up to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and to Gaza. The Iranians were next door and the Americans were giving away their fatigue. Why not accept the entreaties from Tehran?

A year ago, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, laid out the truth about Mr. Karzai and his regime in a secret cable that of course made its way into the public domain. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” Mr. Eikenberry wrote. The Karzai regime could not bear the weight of a counterinsurgency doctrine that would win the loyalty of the populace. There were monumental problems of governance but “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.” In Mr. Eikenberry’s cable, Mr. Karzai is a man beyond redemption, who was unlikely to “change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship.”

In one of his great tales of the imperial age, “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad depicts the encounter between a criminal and a noble figure. “Gentleman” Brown and a band of robbers had come into Tuan Jim’s domain—a small world, Patusan, where Jim’s writ ran and the natives honored and deferred to him. Everything was on the side of Jim—possession, security, power. But Brown senses the hidden irresoluteness of Jim, a man who had come to this remote, small world in the Pacific in search of redemption. We are equal, says Brown: “What do you know more of me than I know of you? What did you ask for when you came here?” Jim pays with his life. He had let the ruffian set the terms of the encounter.

A big American project, our longest war, is now waged with doubt and hesitation, and our ally on the scene has gone rogue, taking the coin of our enemies and scoffing at our purposes. Unlike the Third World clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy. He is a different kind of client, but then, too, our authority today is but a shadow of what it once was.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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No Second Thoughts

When times get tough, it’s really important to believe in yourself. This is something the Democrats have done splendidly this year. The polls have been terrible, and the party may be heading for a historic defeat, but Democrats have done a magnificent job of maintaining their own self-esteem. This is vital, because even if the public doesn’t approve of you, it is important to approve of yourself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Democrats have become role models. They have offered us lessons on how we, too, may continue to love ourselves, even in trying circumstances.

Lesson one. Think happy thoughts. Never allow yourself to dwell on downer, depressing ones.

Over the past year, many Democrats have resolutely paid attention to those things that make them feel good, and they have carefully filtered out those negative things that make them feel sad.

For example, Democrats and their media enablers have paid lavish attention to Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino, even though these two Republican candidates have almost no chance of winning. That’s because it feels so delicious to feel superior to opponents you consider to be feeble-minded wackos.

On the other hand, Democrats and their enablers have paid no attention to Republicans like Rob Portman, Dan Coats, John Boozman and Roy Blunt, who are likely to actually get elected. It doesn’t feel good when your opponents are experienced people who simply have different points of view. The existence of these impressive opponents introduces tension into the chi of your self-esteem.

Similarly, the Democrats and their enablers have paid lavish attention to the Tea Party this year. It’s nice to feel more sophisticated than those hordes of Middle Americans, who say silly things like “Get government off my Medicare.”

On the other hand, Democrats have paid little attention to the crucial group in this election — the independent moderates who supported President Obama in 2008 but flocked away during the health care summer of 2009 and now support the GOP by landslide proportions.

Losing friends makes you sad. It is better to not think about why these things happen.

Lesson two. Always remember, many great geniuses were unappreciated in their lifetimes.

Democrats are lagging this year because the country appears incapable of appreciating the grandeur of their accomplishments. That’s because, as several commentators have argued over the past few weeks, many Americans are nearsighted and ill-informed. Or, as President Obama himself noted last week, they get scared, and when Americans get scared they stop listening to facts and reason. They get all these crazy ideas in their heads, like not wanting to re-elect Blanche Lincoln.

The Democrats’ problem, as some senior officials have mentioned, is that they are so darn captivated by substance, it never occurs to them to look out for their own political self-interest. By they way, here’s a fun party game: Get a bottle of vodka and read Peter Baker’s article “The Education of President Obama” from The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. Take a shot every time a White House official is quoted blaming Republicans for the Democrats’ political plight. You’ll be unconscious by page three.

Lesson three. Always remember: You are the hero of your own children’s adventure story.

Some low-minded people could look at events this year and tell a dull, prosaic story. They would say that parties that promote unpopular policies tend to get punished at election time, These grubby-minded people would point out that Democratic House members who voted against health care are doing well in their re-election bids, while those who voted for it are getting clobbered.

But many Democrats have a loftier sensibility. They see this campaign as a poetic confrontation between good (themselves) and pure evil (Karl Rove and his group, American Crossroads).

As Nancy Pelosi put it at a $50,000-a-couple fund-raiser, “Everything was going great and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where — because they won’t disclose it — is pouring in.”

Even allowing the menace of secret money, embracing this Paradise Lost epic means obscuring a few inconvenient facts: that Democrats were happy to benefit from millions of anonymous dollars in 2006, 2008 and today; that the spending by Rove’s group amounts to less than 1 percent of the total money spent on campaigns this year; that Democrats retain an overall spending advantage.

But legend rises above mere facticity, and this Lancelots-of-the-Left tale underlines a self-affirming message — that Democrats are engaged in a righteous crusade against the dark villain who tricked Americans into voting against John Kerry.

In short, it’s hard not to be impressed by the spirit of self-approval that Democrats have managed to maintain this election. I say that knowing it may end as soon as next Wednesday, when, as is their wont, Democrats will flip from complete self-worship to complete self-laceration in the blink of an eye.

David Brooks, New York Times


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Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State

A few weeks ago, the Cardozo School of Law mounted a conference marking the 20th anniversary of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a case in which the Supreme Court asked what happens when a form of behavior demanded by one’s religion runs up against a generally applicable law — a law not targeted at any particular agenda or point of view — that makes the behavior illegal. (The behavior at issue was the ingestion of peyote at a Native American religious ceremony.) The answer the court gave, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, was that the religious believer must yield to the law of the state so long as that law was not passed with the intention of curtailing or regulating his or anyone else’s religious practice. (This is exactly John Locke’s view in his “Letter Concerning Toleration.”)

“To make the individual’s obligation to obey . . . a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs” would have the effect, Scalia explains, of “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself.’” And if that were allowed, there would no longer be a single law — universally conceived and applied — but multiple laws each of which was tailored to the doctrines and commands of a particular faith. In order to have law in the strong sense, Scalia is saying, you can have only one. (“No man can serve two masters.”)

The conflict between religious imperatives and the legal obligations one has as a citizen of a secular state — a state that does not take into account the religious affiliations of its citizens when crafting laws — is an old one (Scalia is quoting Reynolds v. United States, 1878); but in recent years it has been felt with increased force as Muslim immigrants to Western secular states evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shariah law rather than by the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism. I say “supposedly” because of the obvious contradiction: how can a law that refuses, on principle, to recognize religious claims be said to be neutral with respect to those claims? Must a devout Muslim (or orthodox Jew or fundamentalist Christian) choose between his or her faith and the letter of the law of the land?

In February 2008, the Right Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried in a now-famous lecture to give a nuanced answer to these questions by making what he considered a modest proposal. After asking “what degree of accommodation the laws of the land can and should give to minority communities with their strongly entrenched legal and moral codes,” Williams suggested (and it is a suggestion others had made before him) that in some areas of the law a “supplementary jurisdiction,” deriving from religious law, be recognized by the liberal state, which, rather than either giving up its sovereignty or invoking it peremptorily to still all other voices, agrees to share it in limited areas where “more latitude [would be] given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identities.”

Williams proceeded immediately to surround his proposal with cautionary safeguards — “no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights” — but no safeguards would have satisfied his many critics, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who declared roundly that there is only one common law for all of Britain and it is based squarely on “British values.”

Prompted by Williams’s lecture and the responses it provoked, law professors Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney have now put together a volume, to be published in 2011, under the title “Shari’a in the West,” a collection of learned and thoughtful essays by some of the world’s leading scholars of religion and the law. The volume’s central question is stated concisely by Erich Kolig, an anthropologist from New Zealand: “How far can liberal democracy go, both in accommodating minority groups in public policy, and, more profoundly, in granting official legal recognition to their beliefs, customs, practices and worldviews, especially when minority religious conduct and values are not congenial to the majority,” that is, to liberal democracy itself?

This is exactly the question posed by John Rawls in a preface to the second edition of “Political Liberalism,” his magisterial account and defense of liberal political principles: “How is it possible for those affirming a religious doctrine that is based on religious authority . . . also to hold a reasonable political conception that supports a just democratic regime?” The words to stumble on are “reasonable” and “just,” which at once introduce the requirement and indicate how hard, if not impossible, it will be to meet it: “reasonable” means confirming to rational, not religious, principles; “just” means respecting the equality of all, not just male or faithful, individuals.

With these concepts as the baseline of “accommodation,” accommodation is going to fall far short of anything that will satisfy the adherents of a religion that “encompasses all aspects of public and private law, hygiene, and even courtesy and good manners” (A. A. An-Na’im). In liberal thought these areas are the ones in which the individual reigns supreme and the value of individual choice is presupposed; but, as Ann Black explains, “Muslims do not conceptualize Islam in terms of the Westernized sociological categorization of religion which places the individual at the centre of all analyses.”

And so, perhaps predictably, the essays in Shariah in the West tack back and forth between the uneasy alternatives Williams names in his lecture — “an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community . . . is the only significant category,” and on the other side secular government’s assumption of a “monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” These assumptions seem to be standing obstacles to the ability of secular Western states to think through the problem presented by growing Muslim populations that are sometimes militant in their demand to be ruled by their own faiths and traditions.

On the one hand, there is the liberal desire to accord one’s fellow human beings the dignity of respecting their deepest beliefs. On the other hand, there is the fear that if those beliefs are allowed their full scope, individual rights and the rule of law may be eroded beyond repair. It would seem, at least on the evidence of most of these essays, that there is simply no way of “finding a viable path that accommodates diversity with equality” (Ayelet Shachar), that is, accommodates tolerance of diverse religious views with an insistence that, in the last analysis, the rights of individuals cannot be trumped by a theological imperative. No one in this volume quite finds the path.

Except perhaps theologian and religious philosopher John Milbank who puts forward, the editors tell us, “the striking argument that only a distinctly Christian polity — not a secular postmodern one — can actually accord Islam the respect it seeks as a religion.” The italicized phrase is key: the respect liberalism can accord Islam (or any other strong religion) is the respect one extends to curiosities, eccentrics, the backward, the unenlightened and the unfortunately deluded. Liberal respect stops short — and this is not a failing of liberalism, but its very essence — of taking religious claims seriously, of considering them as possible alternative ways of ordering not only private but public life.

Christianity, says Milbank, will be more capable of deeply respecting Islam because the two faiths share a commitment to the sacred and to a teleological view of history notably lacking in liberalism (again, this is not a criticism but a definition of liberalism): A “Christian polity can go further in acknowledging the integral worth of a religious group as a group than a secular polity can.” Christianity can acknowledge the worth of Islam not merely in an act of tolerance but in an act of solidarity in the same way that Christian sects can acknowledge each other. If you are a Catholic, Milbank explains, “and you do not agree with the Baptists you can nevertheless acknowledge that, relatively speaking, they are pursuing social goals that are comparable with, and promote a shared sense of human dignity” as defined by a corporate religious identity. Liberalism can acknowledge individual Muslims or individual Baptists or individual Catholics, but the liberal acknowledgment detaches these religious believers from their community of belief and turns them into citizens who are in the things that count (to liberalism) just like everyone else.

“Liberal principles,” declares Milbank, “will always ensure that the rights of the individual override those of the group.” For this reason, he concludes, “liberalism cannot defend corporate religious freedom.” The neutrality liberalism proclaims “is itself entirely secular” (it brackets belief; that’s what it means by neutrality) and is therefore “unable to accord the religious perspective [the] equal protection” it rhetorically promises. Religious rights “can only be effectively defended pursuant to a specific and distinctly religious framework.” Liberal universalism, with its superficial respect for everyone (as long as everyone is superficial) and its deep respect for no one, can’t do it.

If that is so, then the other contributors to this volume are whistling “Dixie,” at least with respect to the hope declared by Rawls that liberalism in some political form might be able to do justice to the strongly religious citizens of a liberal state. Milbank’s fellow essayists cannot negotiate or remove the impasse he delineates, but what they can do, and do do with considerable ingenuity and admirable tact, is find ways of blunting and perhaps muffling the conflict between secular and religious imperatives, a conflict that cannot (if Milbank is right, and I think he is) be resolved on the level of theory, but which can perhaps be kept at bay by the ad-hoc, opportunistic, local and stop-gap strategies that are at the heart of politics.

Stanley Fish, New York Times


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Obama Underappreciation Syndrome

In an increasingly desperate attempt to develop a narrative for the coming Democratic collapse, the Democrats have indulged themselves in what for half a century they’ve habitually attributed to the American right — the paranoid style in American politics. The talk is of dark conspiracies — secret money, foreign influence, big corporations, with Karl Rove and, yes, Ed Gillespie lurking ominously behind the scenes. The only thing missing is the Halliburton-Cheney angle.

But after trotting out some of these charges with a noticeable lack of success, President Obama has come up with something new, something less common, something more befitting his stature and intellect. He’s now offering a scientific, indeed neurological, explanation for his current political troubles. The electorate apparently is deranged by its anxieties and fears to the point where it can’t think straight. Part of the reason “facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time,” he explained to a Massachusetts audience, “is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”

Opening a whole new branch of cognitive science — liberal psychology — Obama has discovered a new principle: The fearful brain is hard-wired to act befuddled, i.e., vote Republican.

But of course. Here Obama has spent two years bestowing upon the peasantry the “New Foundation” of a more regulated, socially engineered and therefore more humane society, and they repay him with recalcitrance and outright opposition. Here he gave them Obamacare, the stimulus, financial regulation and a shot at cap-and-trade — and the electorate remains not just unmoved but ungrateful.

Faced with this truly puzzling conundrum, Dr. Obama diagnoses a heretofore undiscovered psychological derangement: anxiety-induced Obama Underappreciation Syndrome, wherein an entire population is so addled by its economic anxieties as to be neurologically incapable of appreciating the “facts and science” undergirding Obamacare and the other blessings their president has bestowed upon them from on high.

I have a better explanation. Better because it adheres to the ultimate scientific principle, Occam’s Razor, by which the preferred explanation for any phenomenon is the one with the most economy and simplicity. And there is nothing simpler than the Gallup findings on the ideological inclinations of the American people. Conservative: 42 percent. Moderate: 35 percent. Liberal: 20 percent. No fanciful new syndromes or other elaborate fictions are required to understand that if you try to impose a liberal agenda on such a demonstrably center-right country — a country that is 80 percent non-liberal — you get a massive backlash.

Moreover, apart from ideology is empirical reality. Even as we speak, the social-democratic model Obama is openly and boldly trying to move America toward is unraveling in Europe. It’s not just the real prospect of financial collapse in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, with even the relatively more stable major countries in severe distress. It is the visible moral collapse of a system that, after two generations of increasing cradle-to-grave infantilization, turns millions of citizens into the streets of France in furious and often violent protest over what? Over raising the retirement age from 60 to 62!

Having seen this display of what can only be called decadence, Obama’s perfectly wired electorate says no, not us, not here. The peasants have seen the future — Greece and France — and concluded that it does not work. Hence their opposition to Obama’s proudly transformational New Foundation agenda. Their logic is impeccable: Only the most blinkered intellectual could be attempting to introduce social democracy to America precisely when the world’s foremost exemplar of that model — Europe — is in chaotic meltdown.

And it isn’t as if this political message is new. It had already been sent in the last year with clarion clarity in the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts where independents — the swing voters without ideological attachment one way or the other — split 2-to-1, 2-to-1 and 3-to-1, respectively, against the Democrats.

The story of the last two years is as simple as it is dramatic. It is the epic story of an administration with a highly ideological agenda encountering a rising resistance from the American people over the major question in dispute: the size and reach and power of government and, even more fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract.

An adjudication of the question will be rendered on Nov. 2. For the day, the American peasantry will be presiding.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Tea Party to the Rescue

How the GOP was saved from Bush and the establishment.

Two central facts give shape to the historic 2010 election. The first is not understood by Republicans, and the second not admitted by Democrats.

The first: the tea party is not a “threat” to the Republican Party, the tea party saved the Republican Party. In a broad sense, the tea party rescued it from being the fat, unhappy, querulous creature it had become, a party that didn’t remember anymore why it existed, or what its historical purpose was. The tea party, with its energy and earnestness, restored the GOP to itself.

In a practical sense, the tea party saved the Republican Party in this cycle by not going third-party. It could have. The broadly based, locally autonomous movement seems to have made a rolling decision, group by group, to take part in Republican primaries and back Republican hopefuls. (According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, four million more Republicans voted in primaries this year than Democrats, the GOP’s highest such turnout since 1970. I wonder who those people were?)

Because of this, because they did not go third-party, Nov. 2 is not going to be a disaster for the Republicans, but a triumph.

The tea party did something the Republican establishment was incapable of doing: It got the party out from under George W. Bush. The tea party rejected his administration’s spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has become only too willing to say so. In doing this, the tea party allowed the Republican establishment itself to get out from under Mr. Bush: “We had to, boss, it was a political necessity!” They released the GOP establishment from its shame cringe.

And they not only freed the Washington establishment, they woke it up. That establishment, composed largely of 50- to 75-year-olds who came to Washington during the Reagan era in a great rush of idealism, in many cases stayed on, as they say, not to do good but to do well. They populated a conservative infrastructure that barely existed when Reagan was coming up: the think tanks and PR groups, the media outlets and governmental organizations. They did not do what conservatives are supposed to do, which is finish their patriotic work and go home, taking the knowledge and sophistication derived from Washington and applying it to local problems. (This accounts in part for the esteem in which former Bush budget chief and current Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is held. He went home.)

The GOP establishment stayed, and one way or another lived off government, breathed in its ways and came to know—learned all too well!—the limits of what is possible and passable. Part of the social and cultural reality behind the tea party-GOP establishment split has been the sheer fact that tea partiers live in non-D.C. America. The establishment came from America, but hasn’t lived there in a long time.

I know and respect some of the establishmentarians, but after dinner, on the third glass of wine, when they get misty-eyed about Reagan and the old days, they are not, I think, weeping for him and what he did but for themselves and who they were. Back when they were new and believed in something.

Finally, the tea party stiffened the GOP’s spine by forcing it to recognize what it had not actually noticed, that we are a nation in crisis. The tea party famously has no party chiefs and no conventions but it does have a theme—stop the spending, stop the sloth, incompetence and unneeded regulation—and has lent it to the GOP.

Actually, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, former drummer of the Velvet Underground, has done the best job ever of explaining where the tea party stands and why it stands there. She also suggests the breadth and variety of the movement. In an interview this week in St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, Ms. Tucker said she’d never been particularly political but grew alarmed by the direction the country was taking. In the summer of 2009, she went to a tea-party rally in southern Georgia. A chance man-on-the-street interview became a YouTube sensation. No one on the left could believe this intelligent rally-goer was the former drummer of the 1960s breakthrough band; no one on the left understood that an artist could be a tea partier. Because that’s so not cool, and the Velvet Underground was cool.

Ms. Tucker, in the interview, ran through the misconceptions people have about tea partiers: “that they’re all racists, they’re all religious nuts, they’re all uninformed, they’re all stupid, they want no taxes at all and no regulations whatsoever.” These stereotypes, she observed, are encouraged by Democrats to keep their base “on their side.” But she is not a stereotype: “Anyone who thinks I’m crazy about Sarah Palin, Bush, etc., has made quite the presumption. I have voted Democrat all my life, until I started listening to what Obama was promising and started wondering how the hell will this utopian dream be paid for?”

There is also this week a striking essay by Fareed Zakaria, no tea partier he, in Time magazine. He unknowingly touched on part of the reason for the tea party. Mr. Zakaria, born and raised in India, got his first sense of America’s vitality, outsized ways, glamour and crazy high-spiritedness as a young boy in the late 1970s watching bootlegged videotapes of “Dallas.” What a country! His own land, in comparison, seemed sleepy, hidebound. Now when he travels to India, “it’s as if the world has been turned upside down. Indians are brimming with hope and faith in the future. After centuries of stagnation, their economy is on the move, fueling animal spirits and ambition. The whole country feels as if it has been unlocked.” Meanwhile the mood in the U.S. seems glum, dispirited. “The middle class, in particular, feels under assault.” Sixty-three percent of Americans say they do not think they will be able to maintain their current standard of living. “The can-do country is convinced that it can’t.”

All true. And yet. We may be witnessing a new political dynamism. The Tea Party’s rise reflects anything but fatalism, and maybe even a new high-spiritedness. After all, they’re only two years old and they just saved a political party and woke up an elephant.

The second fact of 2010 is understood by Republicans but not admitted by Democrats. It is that this is a fully nationalized election, and at its center it is about one thing: Barack Obama.

It is not, broadly, about the strengths or weaknesses of various local candidates, about constituent services or seniority, although these elements will be at play in some outcomes, Barney Frank’s race likely being one. But it is significant that this year Mr. Frank is in the race of his life, and this week on TV he did not portray the finger-drumming smugness and impatience with your foolishness he usually displays on talk shows. He looked pale and mildly concussed, like someone who just found out that liberals die, too.

This election is about one man, Barack Obama, who fairly or not represents the following: the status quo, Washington, leftism, Nancy Pelosi, Fannie and Freddie, and deficits in trillions, not billions.

Everyone who votes is going to be pretty much voting yay or nay on all of that. And nothing can change that story line now.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Incoherent Closing Argument

While the economy is the No. 1 issue, the president constantly changes the subject.

At an April 2008 fund-raiser in San Francisco, Barack Obama let loose with his famous “they cling to guns or religion” line. Last Saturday at a West Newton, Mass., fund-raiser, the president said, “facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning . . . because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”

Memo to White House: Calling voters stupid is not a winning strategy.

The economy and jobs are the No. 1 issue in every poll. Yet Mr. Obama of late has talked about immigration reform and weighed in (unprompted) on the Ground Zero mosque. He devoted Labor Day to an ineffective Mideast peace initiative. He demeans large blocs of voters and now is ending his midterm pitch with attacks on nonexistent foreign campaign contributions and weird assertions that “the Empire is striking back.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have talked about little else than the economy—drawing attention to lackluster job growth, the failed stimulus, out-of-control spending, escalating deficits and the dangers of ObamaCare.

On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod promised that the administration’s focus next year would be “to generate more growth and jobs” and “on our fiscal situation.” That must have left congressional Democrats—battered for months by the GOP’s message discipline—wondering why there’s been no focus on that up to now.

Much of the blame lies with the president, who has left his party with an incoherent closing argument 12 days before the election.

In a penetrating piece in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 12, Peter Baker profiles a president who “believes he is the smartest person in any room,” according to one prominent Democratic lawmaker. He and his aides think that the core of their difficulties is “a communications problem” and the result of a “miscalculation” that the president could “forge genuine bipartisan coalitions.”

Communications? After the president devoted 58 speeches and events to health care over a 51-week period, his bill grew progressively less popular.

The comment about bipartisanship is a joke. As a candidate Mr. Obama spoke about it, but as a president whose party enjoyed massive majorities in both houses of Congress, he ignored it. He could have severely weakened his opposition by drawing them in. Instead, Mr. Obama strengthened Republicans by taunting them with their seeming irrelevance, and he fashioned legislation that only Democrats could vote for. Now many of them will lose their jobs because of their votes.

How many? Virtually everyone agrees that 20 of the 37 Senate seats on the ballot this year are in play. Twelve are now held by Democrats and eight by Republicans. The Republican-held seats appear increasingly safe. It’s Democrats’ seats that are at risk.

As for the lower chamber, the political handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg both now have 91 Democratic House seats and nine Republican House seats in play (albeit with slightly different names on each list). sees 99 Democratic House seats up for grabs versus five Republican seats.

How many are likely to fall? The American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olson examined wave elections (in which one party gains a big number of seats) and found that the winning party picks up roughly 70% of the seats considered vulnerable. If that model holds, we’re looking at a net Republican pickup of 64 to 69 seats in the House and roughly eight seats in the Senate.

I doubt Republican gains will be that big, at least in the House. Democratic candidates have a financial edge—they ended the third quarter with an average of 53% more cash on hand than their Republican opponents. While the GOP is closing the financial gap in the final weeks, money matters.

Democrats have also invested heavily to turn out their vote. Not only will unions spend an estimated $200 million to get their supporters to the polls, but the Democratic National Committee is also investing $50 million in helping state Democratic parties with their ground games. The GOP’s efforts have been much smaller.

These tactical advantages will save some Democrats in close contests. Still, even a superior ground game will not save most of them. The political environment is awful. The party’s record is toxic with the public. And compounding these problems, Mr. Obama is now overseeing one of the worst White House midterm strategies in American history.

Earlier this year Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas warned moderate Democrats of a midterm bloodbath comparable to 1994. “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me,” he reported the president as having said. “We’re going to see how much difference that makes now,” Mr. Berry added. Yes, we will.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Bravo, Canada

A U.N. snub is a badge of honor.

Life must be very good in Canada, or at least dull, judging by the domestic reaction to its failed bid last week for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council. Listen to the yowls in the papers north of the border: “A nation reeling,” “humiliating defeat,” “a rebuke from the global community,” “tarnishes our reputation,” “a slap in the face.”

We say: Way to go. Canada seems to have annoyed a sufficient number of Third World dictators and liberally pious Westerners to come up short in a secret General Assembly ballot. The sins committed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government include staunch support for Israel, skepticism about cap-and-trade global warming schemes, and long-standing commitment to the Afghan war. Americans would be so lucky to get a leader as steadfast on those issues as the Canadian Prime Minister.

The United Arab Emirates took credit for putting together a group of anti-Canadian Arab and Islamic states to stop the bid for the two-year rotating chair. The UAE also has a beef with Ottawa over landing rights for Emirates Airlines going into Canada.

The U.S. role here is also embarrassing—to the U.S. Richard Grenell, a former senior official at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., reported last week that America’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, refused to campaign on Canada’s behalf. Mr. Harper’s politics are not hers, and Liberal opposition leader and Obama political soulmate, Michael Ignatieff, declared last month that Canada under Mr. Harper didn’t deserve to get one of the 10 temporary seats.

The farcical nature of all this was made clear when the Canadians lost to Portugal, which—with all due respect to the memory of Vasco da Gama—is no global titan. This small and economically hobbled Iberian country will now hold one of two temporary spots reserved for Western bloc states. Germany was assured the other.

Canada, on the other hand, is a serious country. Under Mr. Harper’s leadership, Canada has avoided the worst of the global recession and emerged with a vibrant banking system and strong currency (now trading near parity to the U.S. dollar). The courage of its soldiers in Afghanistan, and in other missions, is testament to a nation that honors its commitments. Canadians should wear the U.N. snub as a badge of honor.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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‘Obama Has Turned Out to Be an Utter Disaster’

SPIEGEL Interview with Karl Rove

A gigantic inflatable eagle at the Tea Party movement’s rally in Reno, Nevada.

Karl Rove was one of President George W. Bush’s closest advisers. SPIEGEL spoke with the political analyst about the widespread anger against Barack Obama and the prospects of Tea Party success in the coming midterm elections.

SPIEGEL: In the approaching midterm elections, the Republican Party is putting forward several unusually radical candidates, some of whom are not even “qualified to be a dog catcher,” as one Republican said. What has happened with your party?

Rove: That’s nothing unusual. In campaigns from both parties, people get nominated who are not typical, particularly in times of rapid change. For example, the Democrats in 1974, at the height of the Vietnam War, had a lot of very kooky candidates that they nominated.

SPIEGEL: Still, it’s hard to imagine a major European party featuring a candidate like Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate in Delaware. She was forced to admit that she has experimented with witchcraft.

Rove: I know enough about European politics to know you’ve got a lot of crazy people who make their way onto the ballot.

SPIEGEL: You don’t want to admit that O’Donnell isn’t exactly a candidate that the Republicans can be proud of?

Rove: In Europe and the United States, you’ve got different systems to select candidates, and no system is perfect. In Germany you have a parliamentary system in which political parties weed out people. And the fact of the matter is that in Germany, on both sides of the aisle, particularly on the Social Democratic side, you have seen lousy leadership of the political parties that have allowed subpar candidates to emerge through the parliamentary system.

SPIEGEL: In what way?

Rove: You have had candidates that the country rejected in a pretty profound way. Our primary system prevents this from happening as often.

SPIEGEL: Nobody is forced to vote for the party’s list.

Rove: But the advantage of our system is that it is able to react to changes in public opinion better than the European system generally is able to. And, we tend to have broadly representative parties rather than sort of multiple parties that represent more narrow slices of the electorate and lead to coalition politics.

SPIEGEL: The Republican Party used to have a broad center. All of a sudden, we have this completely new phenomenon in which outsiders like Sarah Palin play a very large role in the party. She almost seems to dominate the party.

Rove: What’s unusual about that? She’s a rambunctious reformist former governor from the state of Alaska. Both parties have seen relative newcomers like this emerge before.

SPIEGEL: She wasn’t, though, part of the Republican Party establishment.

Rove: Ronald Reagan wasn’t in the establishment of the Republican Party either, nor was Richard Nixon.

SPIEGEL: It is nevertheless striking how little experience she has. That’s new.

Rove: Oh really? I believe she was the chief executive of a state. She wasn’t simply a newly elected senator from the state of Illinois who had absolutely no accomplishments whatsoever.

SPIEGEL: The inexperience of President Barack Obama was a major issue during his presidential campaign. His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton attacked him for it as well. It would seem that inexperience has turned into an asset in politics.

Rove: You may be right that people say: “You know what, we had Obama. He was inexperienced. The guy had great rhetoric, sounded good, looked good, but has turned out to be an utter disaster. I want someone where I have confidence and credibility that they’re up to the job and that I can trust what they tell me.”

SPIEGEL: So is Palin the right person to succeed Obama?

Rove: I don’t know. That’s what the coming presidential campaign will be about. It will be fought out over two sorts of broad baskets. One is the way in which somebody governs, and the other is the things on which they act; if you will, their persona and their agenda. Last time around, it was very much about the persona.

SPIEGEL: Many would say that the Republican Party has moved continually further to the right. Now, the Tea Party is pulling the party even further in that direction. How much is too much?

Rove: I disagree with your assumption. It looks like it’s moved because the Democrats have gone so far left. Name me one other instance in which the federal government increased discretionary domestic spending 25 percent in less than one year. There has been a bipartisan consensus since World War II that the size of the federal government would be roughly between 18 to 21 percent of GDP, floating around 20 percent. Obama is the first president to cross that line so dramatically.

SPIEGEL: Europeans see Obama as a middle of the road Democrat and don’t understand the unending criticism.

Rove: He probably is a middle of the road social democrat, but remember America does not have a history of social democracy. We have been a country in which even the Democrats have been to the right of the left in Europe, and that’s one of our strengths. A lot of people call him a socialist. I don’t. He is a social democrat, though. He is somebody who says, “Okay, the state will regulate, the state will dictate. We will take an ever larger share of the GDP into the hands of government, and we will dictate to the private sector, but maintain ownership in private hands, subject to the regulatory state.”

SPIEGEL: But is he so different from other Democratic presidents? Take Lyndon B. Johnson. He introduced Medicare.

Rove: Even LBJ in Medicare insisted upon a robust private role. Obama is culturally and philosophically to the left of Johnson.

SPIEGEL: Are you convinced, then, that the Republican Party will be able to integrate the Tea Party without drifting too far to the right?

Rove: Sure. There have been movements like this before — the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the pro-life movement, the Second Amendment rights movement. All of them popped up, insistent, loud, and relatively unsophisticated. They wanted everything now and for politicians to be with them 100 percent of the time. And after an election or two, people wake up saying, our system produces mostly incremental progress and takes time and compromise. That’s exactly what’s going to happen here. I meet a lot of Tea Partiers as I go around the country, and they are amazing people. Most have never been involved in politics before. This is their first experience, and they have the enthusiasm of people who have never done it before.

SPIEGEL: Is the Tea Party movement a repeat of the Reagan Revolution?

Rove: It’s a little bit different because the Reagan Revolution was driven a lot by the persona of one man, Ronald Reagan, who had an optimistic and sunny view of what the nation could be. It was also a well-organized, coherent, ideologically motivated and conservative revolution. If you look underneath the surface of the Tea Party movement, on the other hand, you will find that it is not sophisticated. It’s not like these people have read the economist Friedrich August von Hayek. Rather, these are people who are deeply concerned about what they see happening to their country, particularly when it comes to spending, deficits, debt and health care.

SPIEGEL: It is, however, difficult to understand the smear campaigns against Obama, claiming that he falsified his birth certificate and is not the legitimate president.

Rove: Please, with all due respect. That’s what happened for eight years with Bush. Just before George W. Bush was sworn into office, on “Meet the Press,” Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader is the House of Representatives, was asked by Tim Russert twice if he believed George W. Bush was the legitimately elected president of the United States. And twice, the leader of the Democrats refused to answer the question. I was shocked, and that was what we had to deal with for eight years.

SPIEGEL: It has become fashionable for Republicans to blame everything on Barack Obama. But the Bush administration has also been criticized for massive government spending. John McCain describes the current anger as the “Bush hangover.”

Rove: There is some anger about the bank bailout, which was the right thing to do and which Bush will defend.

SPIEGEL: Nobody really disputes that.

Rove: Some people in the Tea Party movement do, but not all. What really got them was Obama’s mortgage bailout. Remember the Tea Party movement didn’t get started in September of 2008 when the bank bailout was passed. It really began on Feb. 19th, 2009 when a television commentator named Rick Santelli stood up and said what the hell are we doing bailing out people who couldn’t afford a mortgage by taking money from people like me who are prudent?


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Obama the snob

After a series of ineffective public messages — leaving the political landscape dotted with dry rhetorical wells — President Obama has hit upon a closing argument.

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” he recently told a group of Democratic donors in Massachusetts, “and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”

Let’s unpack these remarks.

Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents “facts and science and argument.” His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader — the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains — the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.

Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.

The neocortical presidency destroys the possibility of political dialogue. What could Obama possibly learn from voters who are embittered, confused and dominated by subconscious evolutionary fears? They have nothing to teach, nothing to offer to the superior mind. Instead of engaging in debate, Obama resorts to reductionism, explaining his opponents away.

It is ironic that the great defender of “science” should be in the thrall of pseudoscience. Human beings under stress are not hard-wired for stupidity, which would be a distinct evolutionary disadvantage. The calculation of risk and a preference for proven practices are the conservative contributions to the survival of the species. Whatever neuroscience may explain about political behavior, it does not mean that the fears of massive debt and intrusive government are irrational.

There have been several recent attempts to explain Obama’s worldview as the result of his post-colonial father or his early socialist mentors — Gnostic attempts to produce the hidden key that unlocks the man. The reality is simpler. In April 2008, Obama described small-town voters to wealthy donors in San Francisco: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Now, to wealthy donors in Massachusetts, opponents are “hard-wired not to always think clearly.” Interpreting Obama does not require psychoanalysis or the reading of mystic Chicago runes. He is an intellectual snob.

Not that there is anything wrong with this. Some of my best friends are intellectual snobs. But they don’t make very good politicians. Somehow, an aristocrat such as Franklin Roosevelt was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side. But the old social aristocracy could have been taught a thing or two about snobbery by the intellectual upper class — conditioned to believe their superiority is founded not on wealth or lineage but on “facts and science and argument.”

What must Democrats trying to compete in Pennsylvania or Ohio think when they hear Obama make arguments such as these? Do they realize the tremendous mistake they have made, tying their political fortunes to a leader who makes Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry look like prairie populists in comparison?

This is not just a political problem; it is a governing challenge. There is fear out there in America — not because of the lizard brain but because of objective economic conditions. And a reactionary populism can be disturbing when it targets minorities, immigrants and intellectuals. But intellectual disdain among elites feeds this destructive populism rather than directing or defusing it. Obama is helping to cause what he criticizes.

It is among the nobler callings of a leader to understand public fears and then place them in the context of national commitments. Yes, the American dream is fragile, but it won’t be recovered by abandoning American ideals. Yes, the borders must be controlled and terrorism is a mortal threat — but we can’t give in to stereotyping and hatred.

One response to social stress doesn’t help at all: telling people their fears result from primitive irrationality. Obama may think that many of his fellow citizens can’t reason. But they can still vote.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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The Trouble With Talking to the Taliban

As in Vietnam, compromise is not in the insurgents’ playbook.

So the U.S. has now given safe passage to senior Taliban commanders for parleys with the Afghan government in Kabul. That’s good for Hamid Karzai, who must look to his own post-American world, good for the Obama administration, which wants a politically graceful exit from Afghanistan, and excellent for the Taliban, which seeks to return to power. Too bad it also risks turning Afghanistan into another Vietnam.

By late 1967, the U.S. had been fighting in Vietnam for seven years, combat deaths were at the 10,000 mark, and pundits and policy makers (though not yet the public) were concluding the war was unwinnable. The Johnson administration had undertaken a bombing campaign of the North but had refused to go after communist sanctuaries in neighboring Laos or Cambodia, or to disrupt the supply of Soviet arms. Nor would the U.S. invade the North out of a misplaced fear of Chinese intervention.

Under those restrictive conditions, the war really was unwinnable. But rather than change the military strategy, the administration opted to change the diplomatic one. In September 1967, Johnson announced his willingness to halt the bombing in exchange for “productive discussions” with the North. Productive meaning what? Hanoi’s idea of diplomacy was first to object to the shape of the negotiating table, and then to insist that the U.S. collude in overthrowing the government of South Vietnam.

It would be another five years before an agreement was reached. It was less the product of the talks themselves than of a series of sharp military reversals for the North. And even then the agreement proved meaningless: The North refused to honor its terms, and the U.S. lacked the political will to enforce them. And so Vietnam was lost.

What, then, did the talks accomplish? Politically, they were supposed to demonstrate that the U.S. wanted peace. The antiwar movement was not impressed. Strategically, they were supposed to offer the U.S. an alternative to a victory that U.S. policy makers had concluded was beyond reach. But as Henry Kissinger would later observe, “Hanoi’s leaders had launched their war in order to win, not to cut a deal.”

On the other hand, what the talks did do was provide the North with innumerable opportunities to pocket U.S. concessions, forestall U.S. military actions, and manipulate U.S. public opinion. If negotiations were, for Washington, an effort to end the war, for Hanoi they were a form of warfare by other means.

Now to Afghanistan. Plainly the war there is not Vietnam redux. The Taliban has a more limited base of popular support and no superpower patron. Their sanctuaries in Pakistan are nothing like North Vietnam itself. The U.S. military has internalized the lessons of counterinsurgency doctrine. American combat deaths over nine years of war are barely half of what the U.S. lost in May 1968 alone. The war remains eminently winnable.

But all that is put at risk the moment the U.S. embarks on the same talk-and-fight strategy it adopted in Vietnam. If winning over the Taliban’s “reconcilables” were the goal, we could simply adopt an amnesty strategy on the same generous terms Colombia offered FARC deserters. High-level negotiations are another story.

How shall we expect the Taliban to negotiate? Their first tactic—disavowing that the commanders who went to Kabul speak for the Taliban itself—is straight out of the guerrilla’s playbook: By creating the illusion of a gap between their negotiators and fighters (think Sinn Fein and the IRA), they permit the negotiators to maintain a veneer of credibility without compromising their military options.

Second, they will make maximalist demands, in the expectation that Mr. Karzai or the U.S. will moderate their own negotiating stance. This was the experience of the U.S. in Vietnam, just as it is now between the West and Iran.

Third, they will seek to exploit latent divisions between Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration. What happens in the event that Mr. Karzai is prepared to accept terms unacceptable to the U.S., such as sharing power with Mullah Omar? Ultimately, we are in Afghanistan to defend core U.S. interests, not the whims of its capricious president.

Fourth, the Taliban will create security problems that it will then offer to “solve” at the price of this or that concession. Kim Jong Il is the master of this style of bargaining.

Finally, the Taliban will never honor any agreement it makes. Like most modern insurgencies, its grievances are all pretexts: What it seeks is absolute power, exercised without restraint. We know how that movie ends.

There’s one way—and only one way—the U.S. could get the Taliban to come to terms: a series of decisive military blows that give them no other option. At that point, who would want to rehabilitate them? Surely not an administration intent on avoiding, as this one so keenly is, “another Vietnam.”

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Five myths about Sarah Palin

Think you know Sarah Palin? The former Alaska governor has been in the spotlight ever since John McCain named her as his running mate on Aug. 29, 2008. Yet, while practically everybody has an opinion about Palin, not all of those opinions are grounded in reality. Many of them are based more on a “Saturday Night Live” caricature than on the living, breathing, 46-year-old mother of five. The real Sarah Palin is a complex woman who has risen in no time from obscurity to the stratosphere of American politics, fusing celebrity and populism in novel ways. Now that she’s laying the foundation for a possible presidential run in 2012, it’s worth taking a moment to separate the facts about Palin from the fables.

1. Palin cost McCain the 2008 election.

She didn’t. CNN’s 2008 national exit poll, for example, asked voters whether Palin was a factor when they stepped into the voting booth. Those who said yes broke for McCain 56 percent to 43 percent.

Before Palin’s selection, remember, McCain suffered from an enthusiasm gap. Republicans were reluctant to vote for the senator from Arizona because of his reputation as a maverick who’d countered his party on taxes, immigration, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and “cap and trade” climate legislation. But Palin’s conservative record in Alaska and antiabortion advocacy changed the Republican mood. With her by his side, McCain’s fundraising and support from conservatives improved. It wasn’t enough to beat Barack Obama — but McCain probably would have lost the presidency by a greater margin if he had, say, selected independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, further alienating the GOP base.

Yes, it’s possible that Palin’s conservatism and uneven performance on the campaign trail shifted some voters to Obama’s column. But even if Obama picked up some anti-Palin votes, he surely didn’t need them: The economy was in recession, Wall Street was in meltdown, and the incumbent Republican president was incredibly unpopular. In the end, it’s impossible to know how McCain would have performed if he hadn’t selected Palin — politics does not allow for control experiments.

2. Resigning as governor was rash.

No one expected Palin’s resignation on July 3, 2009, just 2 1/2 years into her term. Her hastily composed and clumsily delivered farewell address left many observers confused about her motives. Some of her critics were only too eager to fill in the gaps with conjecture and hearsay (She’s being investigated by the FBI! Sarah and Todd must be headed for divorce!). If there was one thing everybody knew for sure, it was that Palin’s career in politics was over.

But none of the rumored scandals ever broke. The Palins remain married. And as for Sarah Palin’s career, it’s taken off. She plays a far greater role in American public life than she did before she left office.

When Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, she confronted three problems. The political coalition on which she had based her governorship — a combination of Democrats and renegade “Palinista” Republicans — had collapsed. Her critics were using Alaska’s tough ethics laws to launch investigations into her behavior, sapping her finances and her energy. Finally, every time she traveled to the Lower 48, Alaskans criticized her for putting her political interests above the state’s.

Palin’s solution was to resign. Her agenda stood a better chance of passing if then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who shared Palin’s goals, succeeded her as governor. As a private citizen, meanwhile, Palin could make enough money to pay her legal bills. And she would no longer be accused of neglecting her official duties.

Some might say that Palin’s resignation was shortsighted and showed that she was not ready for the demands of executive office. But if Palin had remained governor, she would have been denied opportunities to rally the tea party and fight in the battle over the Obama agenda. She would have been stuck on a regional stage. Instead, she’s back on the national one.

3. Palin and the tea party are destroying the GOP.

You’ve heard the spiel: The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war between moderate incumbents and far-right challengers backed by Palin and the tea party. Driving Charlie Crist from the GOP and defeating establishment figures such as Robert Bennett, Lisa Murkowski and Mike Castle spells electoral doom for the party. The only chance Republicans have for long-term success is to move to the center in a bid to win over millennials and Latinos.

But demographics aren’t destiny, and no one knows what the future holds. The reality, right now, is that Palin and the tea party are saving the GOP by dragging it back to its roots and mobilizing conservative voters.

Remember, by the time Palin arrived on the national scene, the Republican Party was depleted, exhausted and held in disrepute. An unpopular war in Iraq, an economy in recession and GOP corruption had driven away independents. Meanwhile, massive government spending and a liberal immigration policy had dispirited conservatives.

This is where Palin came in. In the wake of Obama’s historic victory, she and countless other grass-roots activists could have abandoned the GOP and turned the tea party into a conservative third party. They didn’t. They decided instead to refashion the Republican Party from the ground up, pressuring it to live up to its limited-government ideals. Now, two years after Obama’s win, Republicans are poised to reap major gains in the midterm elections. Palin and the tea party haven’t hurt the GOP one bit.

4. Palin is extreme.

On many of the most important issues of the day, Palin holds positions that are squarely in the center-right of American political discourse. And many of those positions, not incidentally, are held by a large segment or even a majority of the public. For instance, neither the public nor Palin believes the stimulus worked. And while most Americans may not share Palin’s views regarding “death panels,” many join her in opposing Obama’s health-care overhaul.

Over the past two years, Pew and Gallup surveys have tracked the public as it has moved to the right — not on just one or two issues but on a whole constellation of them. Even on the controversial topics of abortion, guns and same-sex marriage, Palin is not as far away from the center as some suppose. A May 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that a majority of Americans identified as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.” In October 2009, Gallup measured record-low support for gun control. The public is divided on same-sex marriage, with about half the country joining Palin’s (and Obama’s) opposition.

5. Palin is unelectable.

Without question, a Palin 2012 campaign would be an uphill battle. Palin is unpopular — massively so among Democrats, decisively so among independents. Even many Republicans don’t believe she’s ready to be president.

But opinions can change. Look at the political resuscitations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. If Palin works hard and runs an impressive campaign, wavering Republicans and skeptical independents may give her a second look.

To earn that second look, she may need to find a big idea. It’s hard to become president without one. Reagan had supply-side economics and the end of detente with the Soviets. Bill Clinton had the third way. George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism and the freedom agenda. Obama had national unity and hope and change.

At the moment, however, Palin still expresses her agenda mainly in negative terms, focusing on her opposition to Obama and the Washington establishment. She hasn’t defined her “common-sense conservatism” in positive language. And she hasn’t found a unifying, exhilarating theme.

Then again, she just might get along without one. After all, a presidential contest is a choice. The public might not love Palin. But by 2012, Americans might absolutely despise Obama. Two more years of a bad economy and an unpopular Afghan war, and anything is possible. Yes, there’s a ceiling to Palin’s support. But in 2012, there also will be a ceiling to Obama’s.

Whose will be higher?

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of the Weekly Standard and the author of “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.”


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What the Tea Partiers Really Want

The passion behind the populist insurgency is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma.

What do the tea partiers really want? The title of a recent book by two of the movement’s leaders offers an answer: “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.” The authors, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, write that “We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others.”

This claim should cause liberals to do a double-take. Isn’t it straight out of John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of liberalism? Last year my colleagues and I placed a nearly identical statement on our research site, “Everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don’t infringe upon the equal freedom of others.” Responses from 3,600 Americans showed that self-described libertarians agreed with the statement most strongly, but liberals were right behind them. Social conservatives, who, according to national polls, make up the bulk of the tea party, were more tepid in their endorsement.

Because a generalized love of liberty doesn’t distinguish tea partiers from other Americans, liberals have been free to speculate on the “real” motives behind the movement. Explanations so far have spanned a rather narrow range, from racism (they’re all white!) to greed (they just don’t want to pay taxes!) to gullibility (Glenn Beck has hypnotized them!). Such explanations allow liberals to disregard the moral claims of tea partiers. But the passion of the tea-party movement is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for “deed” or “action,” and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.

Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.

In the tea partiers’ scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people—from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions—under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson’s effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.

Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police).

Now jump ahead to today’s ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers’ money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?

As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma’s Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

Listen, for example, to Rick Santelli’s “rant heard ’round the world” on CNBC last year and its most famous lines: “The government is promoting bad behavior,” and “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” It’s a rant about karma, not liberty.

Or look at the political issue that most enraged the early tea partiers. Messrs. Armey and Kibbe state categorically that it was not Mr. Obama’s stimulus bill that turned millions into activists; it was Mr. Bush’s bank bailout. “Many of us knew instinctually that the bailout was wrong,” they write. “We understood that in order for capitalism to work we need to be able to not only keep the potential gains from the risks we take but also accept the losses that may come.” This is capitalist karma in a nutshell.

A rally organized by radio and TV commentator Glenn Beck in August.

One of the biggest disagreements between the political left and right is their conflicting notions of fairness. Across many surveys and experiments, we find that liberals think about fairness in terms of equality, whereas conservatives think of it in terms of karma. In our survey for, we asked Americans how much they agreed with a variety of statements about fairness and liberty, including this one: “Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money.” Liberals were evenly divided on it, but conservatives and libertarians firmly rejected it.

On more karmic notions of fairness, however, conservatives and libertarians begin to split apart. Here’s a statement about the positive side of karma: “Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most.” Everyone agrees, but conservatives agree more enthusiastically than liberals and libertarians, whose responses were identical.

And here’s a statement about the negative side of karma: “Whenever possible, a criminal should be made to suffer in the same way that his victim suffered.” Liberals reject this harsh notion, and libertarians mildly reject it. But conservatives are slightly positive about it.

The tea party is often said to be a mixture of conservative and libertarian ideals. But in a study of 152,000 people who filled out surveys at, led by my colleague Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, we found that libertarians are morally a bit more similar to liberals than to conservatives.

Libertarians are closer to conservatives on two of the five main psychological “foundations” of morality that we study—concerns about care and fairness (as described above). But on the other three psychological foundations—group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual sanctity—libertarians are indistinguishable from liberals and far apart from conservatives. We call these the three “binding” foundations because they are the psychological systems used by groups—including religious groups, the military and even college fraternities—to bind people together into tight communities of trust, cooperation and shared identity. When you think about morality as a way of binding individuals together, it’s no wonder that libertarians (who prize individual liberty above all else) part company with conservatives.

To see this divergence in action, ask yourself how much somebody would have to pay you (in secret) to get you to do things that violate one of the three group-oriented moral foundations—that is, those based on loyalty, authority and sanctity. We asked people, for example, to name their price to “Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.”

As shown in the graph, conservatives were far more horrified than the other groups by this act of petty treason. The same goes for this minor act of disrespect toward authority: “Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit,” and for this harmless desecration of the body: “Get a blood transfusion of 1 pint of disease-free, compatible blood from a convicted child molester.” (Sanctity refers to the belief that things have invisible spiritual essences—the body is a temple, the flag is far more than a piece of cloth, etc.)

To see the full spectrum of tea party morality in a single case, consider (or better still, Google) a transcript on Glenn Beck’s website titled “Best caller ever?,” which relates one man’s moment of enlightenment. The exchange, which aired live in late September, starts with karmic outrage. A father in Indiana, proud of his daughter’s work ethic and high grades, learned that she would have to retake a social studies test because most of the students—who, he says, run around after school instead of studying—had failed it. The teacher confirmed that yes, the whole class would have to take the test several more times because “we have to wait for the other children to catch up.” The father asked if his daughter could work on new material while the other kids retook the test. The teacher said no, it would “make the other children in the class feel not as equal.” That was the last straw. At that moment, the father says, he rejected “the system” and decided to home-school his daughter.

What makes this call so revealing is the caller’s diagnosis of how America became the land that karma forgot: “It’s time for America to get right, and it all starts in the home. It comes from yes, sir, no, ma’am, thank you, get on your knees and pray to God.” He continues by telling Mr. Beck how, when his daughter’s friends sleep over at his house, he asks them to help with chores. When their parents object, he tells them: “Well, they wanted a meal. See, we’ve all got to row our boat. We’ve all got to be in the boat. We’ve all got to row as one. And if you are not going to row, get the hell out of the way or stop getting in mine.” It’s the perfect fusion of karmic thinking and conservative binding.

The tea-party movement is a blend of libertarians and conservatives, but it is far from an equal blend, and it’s not clear how long it can stay blended. The movement is partially funded and trained by libertarian and pro-business groups—such as FreedomWorks, the organization run by Messrs. Armey and Kibbe—whose main concern is increasing economic liberty. They may indeed “just want to be free,” particularly from regulation and taxes, but the social conservatives who make up the great bulk of the movement have much broader aims.

The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children’s education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis” and “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which will be published late next year.


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Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement

Our universities haven’t taught much political history for decades. No wonder so many progressives have disdain for the principles that animated the Federalist debates.

Highly educated people say the darndest things, these days particularly about the tea party movement. Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman got the ball rolling in April 2009, just ahead of the first major tea party rallies on April 15, by falsely asserting that “the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass-roots) events.”

Having learned next to nothing in the intervening 16 months about one of the most spectacular grass-roots political movements in American history, fellow Times columnist Frank Rich denied in August of this year that the tea party movement is “spontaneous and leaderless,” insisting instead that it is the instrument of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne criticized the tea party as unrepresentative in two ways. It “constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers,” he asserted last month. This was a step back from his rash prediction five months before that since it “represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics,” the tea party movement “will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections.”

In February, Mr. Dionne argued that the tea party was also unrepresentative because it reflected a political principle that lost out at America’s founding and deserves to be permanently retired: “Anti-statism, a profound mistrust of power in Washington goes all the way back to the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution itself because they saw it concentrating too much authority in the central government.”

Mr. Dionne follows in the footsteps of progressive historian Richard Hofstadter, whose influential 1964 book “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” argued that Barry Goldwater and his supporters displayed a “style of mind” characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Similarly, the “suspicion of government” that the tea party movement shares with the Anti-Federalists, Mr. Dionne maintained, “is not amenable to ‘facts'” because “opposing government is a matter of principle.”

To be sure, the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.

Born in response to President Obama’s self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives.

In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.

But far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy. The Federalists who won ratification of the Constitution—most notably Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—shared with their Anti-Federalist opponents the view that centralized power presented a formidable and abiding threat to the individual liberty that it was government’s primary task to secure. They differed over how to deal with the threat.

The Anti-Federalists—including Patrick Henry, Samuel Bryan and Robert Yates—adopted the traditional view that liberty depended on state power exercised in close proximity to the people. The Federalists replied in Federalist 9 that the “science of politics,” which had “received great improvement,” showed that in an extended and properly structured republic liberty could be achieved and with greater security and stability.

This improved science of politics was based not on abstract theory or complex calculations but on what is referred to in Federalist 51 as “inventions of prudence” grounded in the reading of classic and modern authors, broad experience of self-government in the colonies, and acute observations about the imperfections and finer points of human nature. It taught that constitutionally enumerated powers; a separation, balance, and blending of these powers among branches of the federal government; and a distribution of powers between the federal and state governments would operate to leave substantial authority to the states while both preventing abuses by the federal government and providing it with the energy needed to defend liberty.

Whether members have read much or little of The Federalist, the tea party movement’s focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution. One reason this is poorly understood among our best educated citizens is that American politics is poorly taught at the universities that credentialed them. Indeed, even as the tea party calls for the return to constitutional basics, our universities neglect The Federalist and its classic exposition of constitutional principles.

For the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs. Meanwhile, leading history departments have emphasized social history and issues of race, class and gender at the expense of constitutional history, diplomatic history and military history.

Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.

Then there are the proliferating classes in practical ethics and moral reasoning. These expose students to hypothetical conundrums involving individuals in surreal circumstances suddenly facing life and death decisions, or present contentious public policy questions and explore the range of respectable progressive opinions for resolving them. Such exercises may sharpen students’ ability to argue. They do little to teach about self-government.

They certainly do not teach about the virtues, or qualities of mind and character, that enable citizens to shoulder their political responsibilities and prosper amidst the opportunities and uncertainties that freedom brings. Nor do they teach the beliefs, practices and associations that foster such virtues and those that endanger them.

Those who doubt that the failings of higher education in America have political consequences need only reflect on the quality of progressive commentary on the tea party movement. Our universities have produced two generations of highly educated people who seem unable to recognize the spirited defense of fundamental American principles, even when it takes place for more than a year and a half right in front of their noses.

Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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Your pre-election post-mortem

When the election is over, prizes and trophies and hosannas will be issued left and right. But why wait? As a public service, I present an infallibly prescient scorecard of best and worst of 2010.

Most suicidal candidate. Carl Paladino is running in a deep-blue state with sky-high taxes, yawning deficits and rampant corruption. The last elected Democratic governor resigned in disgrace, and his successor is so tainted that he dare not run for another term. So, what does Kamikaze Carl proceed to do? Get in an angry shouting match with a reporter. Level some odd insinuation about his opponent’s “prowess.” Figuring he hasn’t veered off-message enough, he then expounds on homosexuality — and spends three days having to explain and reaffirm, before the inevitable apology. He’s down by 19 points.

Innocent bystander award. Down-ballot New York state Republicans (see above).

Luckiest guy on the planet. Chris Coons, Delaware. He draws the short straw to run against the anointed Republican establishment candidate Mike Castle, who had never lost a statewide election in 12 tries. Good soldier gamely plays sacrificial lamb — then, bingo: Castle stunningly loses the primary. Coons is now up by 18 points.

Unluckiest guy on the planet. Beau Biden (see Delaware, above), groomed for years to inherit his father’s seat. After Castle declared, however, the young Biden decided to forgo the race, citing important unfinished business as attorney general. He must now watch Coons walk off with the family jewel.

Most important socio-demographic trend. The rise of the conservative woman. Sarah Palin’s influence is the most obvious manifestation of the trend. But the bigger story is the coming of age of a whole generation of smart, aggressive Republican women, from the staunchly conservative Nikki Haley (now leading the South Carolina governor’s race) and the stauncher-still Sharron Angle (neck-and-neck with Harry Reid in Nevada) to the more moderate California variety, where both Carly Fiorina (for Senate) and Meg Whitman (for governor) are within striking distance in a state highly blue and deeply green. And they are not only a force in themselves; they represent an immense constituency that establishment feminism forgot — or disdained.

Most misrepresented socio-demographic trend. Conventional wisdom is that the election is being driven by anger and blind anti-incumbent fervor. Nonsense. Overwhelmingly, it is Democratic incumbents, not Republicans, who are under siege. This is a national revolt against the Democratic governance of the past two years. One must understand that “anger” is the explanation du jour when Republicans win big. The last wave election (1994), for example, was dubbed the Year of the Angry White Male — despite the fact that there was not a scintilla of polling evidence supporting that characterization. Of course the electorate is angry this time around. But it is not inchoate irrational anger — a “temper tantrum,” as ABC News anchor Peter Jennings called the 1994 Republican sweep — but a highly pointed, perfectly rational anger at the ideological overreach and incompetence of the governing Democrats.

Rising star. Marco Rubio, soon-to-be senator from Florida. He has the ingredients of a young Obama — smart, inspirational, minority (Cuban American), great life story. Headed for a meteoric rise.

Fastest falling star. Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida. Facing disaster in the Republican primary against Rubio, he becomes an independent, flip-flops on one issue after another, and is now running about 16 points behind. Just two years ago, there was talk of him as a Republican vice presidential candidate. Today he’s nowhere man.

Most shameless attack campaign (national). President Obama suggesting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is secretly using foreign money to fund its campaign ads. There’s not a shred of evidence that this is true. When Bob Schieffer asked David Axelrod for evidence, he responded, “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?” That’s like some lunatic claiming that Obama secretly says Muslim prayers at night that no one can see and no one can hear. You ask: What’s your evidence? He says: What’s yours that he is not? You say: No one’s ever seen or heard him do that. He says: Aha, that’s exactly my point.

Most shameless campaign ad (local). Category canceled. Too many entries.

Most irresistible political name. New Hampshire Republican and Senate primary candidate Ovide Lamontagne. Sounds like a French-Greek poet declaiming in the streets of Nashua. Tragically, he lost.

Ovide, we hardly knew ye.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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I Am No Threat to Democracy

The president says secret foreign money might steal the election. He’s not even fooling the New York Times.

Last Thursday, in his speech at Bowie State University, President Obama accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of trying to “steal our democracy” by funding campaign activities with donations from foreign contributors. The chamber denied this charge immediately, insisting donations from foreign nationals were not used for political campaigns (that has been illegal since the 1907 Tillman Act). The White House produced no evidence to the contrary.

This weekend, the Democratic National Committee escalated its assault with a TV ad claiming that former GOP National chairman Ed Gillespie and I “even take in secret foreign money to influence our elections.” The ad was referring to two groups for which Mr. Gillespie and I are informal advisers and fund-raisers: American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Neither accepts foreign contributions.

These smears were too much even for the New York Times, which noted on Saturday that “Democrats have offered no evidence that the chamber is using foreign money to influence the elections.” Brooks Jackson of wrote the next day that “accusing anybody of violating the law is a serious matter requiring serious evidence to back it up. So far Democrats have produced none.” And when CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asked White House senior adviser David Axelrod for corroboration that the chamber was spending foreign money on American elections, Mr. Axelrod answered, “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?” Mr. Schieffer incredulously responded, “Is that the best you can do?”

So why is Mr. Obama making such an incendiary charge without any evidence? One explanation is that he is laying the foundation for an alternative narrative—the Democrats lost because Chinese campaign cash allowed Republicans to steal the election. Another is that the president is trying to fire up his party’s base. But phony charges about campaign finance won’t appeal to independent voters, the true source of Democratic troubles this election.

A third possibility is that Mr. Obama hopes to intimidate contributors to the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads or Crossroads GPS. If so, his tactic is backfiring. Crossroads and GPS have raised more than $14 million since he began his assault last week, enabling them to become active in House races they weren’t targeting before.

The most plausible explanation is that Mr. Obama wants to distract voters from the 9.6% unemployment rate. But if some West Wing geniuses really think voters will forget Mr. Obama’s body of work—the lousy jobs picture, failed stimulus package, disastrous health-care law, reckless spending and unprecedented deficits—simply by throwing dust in the air, then the president should run off a few more senior aides.

While most Americans are concerned about jobs, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats look like their only concern is keeping their own. When they hear the words “Chamber of Commerce,” most Americans don’t see a big white building on H Street in Washington, D.C., but a storefront on Main Street in their hometown. The White House attacks reinforce a perception that Mr. Obama is antibusiness at a time when job creation is the issue that will decide this election.

The smears about campaign money also open the president to charges of hypocrisy. Mr. Obama had no problems with liberal nonprofits keeping donor lists private as allowed by law (including when they run campaign ads). He never insisted that the unions that spent $450 million to elect him in 2008 disclose their donors—who may include other unions or even private individuals. Mr. Obama’s own campaign refused to make public the names of more than 10% of its donors.

His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, worked in 2004 for a group that ran ads and didn’t disclose its donors until after the primaries. His White House political director, Patrick Gaspard, came from the Service Employees International Union, which doesn’t disclose its campaign contributors and admitted earlier this week that it might be spending money from foreign nationals on this year’s elections. Are these two also a “threat to our democracy,” to use the president’s words from last Thursday’s speech?

Beyond all this, Mr. Obama looks weirdly disconnected—and slightly obsessive—when he talks so much about the Chamber of Commerce, Ed Gillespie and me. The president has already wasted one-quarter of the campaign’s final four weeks on this sideshow.

Congressional Democrats trying to eke out victories can’t be happy when their president ignores the election’s principal issues in favor of unsupported attacks of dubious significance. Bob Schieffer was right. Is this really the best they can do?

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.


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Nobel Peace Prize reaction: China’s angry, the U.S. is subdued

Within hours of the announcement of a Nobel Peace Prize for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government reacted as if reading from a script. As expected – and as was appropriate, given that Liu is an advocate of the free press – it erased news of the prize from Chinese Web sites, removed Liu’s name from Twitter services, and jammed a CNN broadcast from Oslo. It also issued a fairly standard string of denunciations. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry described Liu as a “convicted criminal sentenced to jail by Chinese justice authorities for violation of Chinese law.” By giving him the prize, the committee had “totally gone against the purpose of the award” and “committed blasphemy against the peace prize.”

He didn’t finish there. “Recently, China and Norway have had good relations,” he declared ominously. No longer.

To which there is only one possible reaction: Who cares about Chinese-Norwegian relations? Certainly not the Norwegians, whose enviably high living standards derive from their small numbers and their offshore gas supplies, not from their trade with China. It’s true that the Norwegian government is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with China, but it isn’t of earth-shattering significance: All told, Norway’s trade with China (2 percent of exports, 7 percent of imports) is a small fraction of its trade with the European Union, and the balance is entirely in China’s favor.

And that, of course, is precisely the point. When he created this prize, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish dynamite millionaire, decreed that the selection committee should consist solely of five Norwegians. His reasoning: Norway is outside the European mainstream, and Norwegians are therefore less likely to be corrupt. As I pointed out last year – when the Nobel peace prize inexplicably went to the then-new President Barack Obama – Norwegians, being outside the European mainstream, are also more likely to be eccentric. In this case, their eccentricity is demonstrated by the fact that they genuinely could not care less about the reaction of the Chinese government.

In the modern world, there aren’t that many nations in a position to be so cavalier. The British and the French did cautiously applaud the prize. Both of their foreign ministry spokesmen declared right away that they had called for Liu’s release in the past. But the European Union was more careful: Its commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, made a general statement in support of “all those around the world who, sometimes with great personal sacrifice, are struggling for freedom and human rights.”

The U.S. government, meanwhile, was worryingly silent: The State Department did not issue an immediate statement of congratulation following the announcement, even though it managed one marking the 40th anniversary of the independence of Fiji and despite the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Liu’s release at a democracy conference last summer.

More to the point, the entire morning went by before last year’s winner congratulated his successor. As of noon, east coast time, not a word had been said: Presumably, everybody was sweating over the wording of a statement. Finally one appeared. It was straightforward enough: The president described Liu as “an eloquent and courageous spokesmen for the advance of universal values,” called on the Chinese government to release Liu “as soon as possible,” and made a nod to the “dramatic progress in economic reform in China” just in case there were any hurt feelings.

He declined to elaborate a few minutes later when he met with media in the Rose Garden to say an official farewell to Jim Jones. But then, we are not Norway.

Anne Applebaum, Washington Post


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Obama Pulls Down His Party

Like George W. Bush’s, the current president’s approval ratings are sinking his party’s congressional candidates

On the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, the Republican Party lay in ruins. The Democrats had just obliterated its candidates, and after the Franken-Coleman recount achieved the holy grail of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. In time, a senior congressional Republican visited the offices of the Journal’s editorial page to talk about the carnage.

Someone asked how George Bush’s low approval rating, at 30-something, had affected the congressional races. “Bush killed us,” came the reply. “He just killed us.”

Now it looks as if another president’s depressed approval rating is about to kill his party.

All presidents say they don’t follow their approval ratings. But the linkage between presidential approval and the re-election fortunes of his nominal party allies appears to grow stronger with every election cycle.

Most of the time, the headline job-approval rating for presidents is a rough proxy for the national mood. But in a modern off-year congressional election, voters have one eye on individual Senate, House or gubernatorial candidates and the other eye on the political player no one can avoid anymore—the president. Whether Bush or Obama, we are marinated in the modern presidency, probably too much so.

Though less publicized, the president’s state-by-state approval is routinely sampled by pollsters. If one compares Barack Obama’s percentage share of a state’s 2008 presidential vote with his approval rating today, the effect on the fortunes of his party’s candidates in key states is striking.

In Wisconsin, a Democratic bastion, voters in 2008 gave Mr. Obama 56% of their vote (his share of the national popular vote was 53%). Today, the Obama approval rating has fallen 10 points, to 46%. A political rule of thumb holds that when you fall below 50%, bad things start to happen. The public mood darkens, people focus, and events can push the approval number ever downward. Ask Russ Feingold.

The three-term Democratic senator is running nine points behind—and this has to hurt—a “Republican businessman,” Ron Johnson. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who is Milwaukee’s mayor, is also nine back.

Colorado gave Mr. Obama 54% of its 2008 vote. His approval now: 38%. Republican Ken Buck is up 6.5 points over incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.

Pennsylvania was another 54% win for candidate Obama. Approval today: 41%, and former GOP Congressman Pat Toomey leads Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak by almost seven points in their race to take the Democratic Senate seat held by Arlen Specter.

In the Ohio Senate race, former Bush budget director Rob Portman is up 12 points on the Democratic lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher. Though the New York Times/CBS sample has an Obama approval of 43% in a state he won, Quinnipiac’s 38% sounds closer to the reality of the extremely ticked-off Buckeye State.

In Nevada, Mr. Obama has fallen to 47% from 55%, and the Senate Majority Leader is gasping against tea partier Sharron Angle.

Washington state voters were ga-ga for Mr. Obama in 2008, at 57%. Now it’s 48%. That nine-point decline translates into a mere three-point lead for Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray over Dino Rossi.

Even in Illinois, which went 62% for native son Obama and was recently thought to be a GOP dead zone, his approval has fallen 18 points, to 44%. Both the senate and governor’s races are dead heats.

Democrats will argue that the bad economy explains everything. But in states where Mr. Obama’s approval rating has held up—New York (58%), Connecticut (53%), Massachusetts (54%) and Maryland, the land that time forgot (61%)—so have the party’s candidates.

In New York, incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a weak candidate, is up 11 points. In Connecticut, another damaged and unattractive Democratic candidate, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, holds a nine-point lead over Linda McMahon. And don’t hold your breath expecting another Massachusetts miracle to defeat Barney Frank.

California, over the top for Mr. Obama with 61% in ’08, is harder to read. His approval there runs from 56% in the Los Angeles Times poll to 48% with Fox. Barbara Boxer, who should be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat on the ballot, remains nearly seven points ahead of Carly Fiorina. Jerry Brown holds a margin-of-error lead over Meg Whitman (four points).

The Obama camp can argue that given his grand agenda (recall that Denver acceptance speech), the president spent his popularity capital when it mattered. His 2008 campaign swept those massive majorities into the 111th Congress. He and that Congress then passed ObamaCare. Like it or not, and most voters do not, it now governs 16% of the economy. From where Barack Obama is sitting, it’s an historic presidential achievement.

Still, the reality: Led by a larger-than-life president whose public support sat at 69% on that famous Inauguration Day, the Democratic Party, like a dying star, may be collapsing into a handful of urban redoubts such as New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston and the D.C. metropolitan area. Don’t be surprised if the next successful president decides that a more modest agenda and less face time with America is a higher percentage path to retaining Congress and his presidency.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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The Economics of Drug Violence

Competition in the narcotics trade is preferable to monopolistic syndicates.

President Felipe Calderón still has two years left in office. But he is already on track to go down in history as having presided over the bloodiest Mexican sexenio since the revolution of 1910. By December, when Mr. Calderón completes his fourth year as president, the national death toll from his war on the drug cartels could reach 30,000.

Statistically speaking, Mexico is a relatively safe place with 12 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009. The trouble is that the violence is concentrated, and according to one economist I talked with here, that’s because the drug-trafficking business is structured much like Colombia’s was in the 1980s and ’90s.

Marijuana and weapons seized in Tijuana. Monopolistic syndicates control Mexico’s cross-border drug trade and could move north.

Powerful monopoly suppliers need to control key zones so they can guarantee an army of contract employees. These “ants” carry the drugs over the U.S. border at a limited number of strategic points in small shipments. Without mafia-style terror, the cartel’s domination along the route cannot be maintained.

Mexican law enforcement has been courageous in trying to confront these monopolies, but firepower has not done the job. That’s because this is an economic problem. Lower levels of violence in the U.S., despite widespread availability of drugs, and an improved picture in Colombia, where cocaine still flows, are best explained by competition and the smaller scale of the operators. It wasn’t always that way in Colombia. In Mexico it could also change.

To help Mexico deal with this “antitrust” problem, the U.S. has to recognize that competition in the narcotics sector is preferable to the monopolistic syndicates that threaten the state and could move north. But this would require greater flexibility from U.S. drug warriors.

Some progress may be in the making on marijuana, and Mexicans will be watching the California ballot initiative that asks the electorate to approve the legalization of the ubiquitous weed. It is far from clear that Proposition 19, as it is known, will pass. The combination of conservatives who fear that legalization would transform us into a hash-happy heap of hippies, drug warriors who make a living off of the criminalization of pot smoking, and gangsters whose profits are tied up in prohibition could be enough to defeat it by a narrow margin.

Nevertheless, the competitiveness of the “yes” vote on this proposition suggests that attitudes toward “grass” have generally softened, and that many Americans would prefer the business be run legally. For sure, the U.S. market is robust, and “medical marijuana” looks like a way of legalizing without admitting to it. There is also the fact that the stuff seems to move around the country quite easily, demonstrating some tolerance on the part of U.S. law enforcement for the retail sector that distributes it.

More competition in marijuana production and distribution in the U.S. would help beleaguered Mexico. As it stands now, the gangsters have good reason to pull out all the stops to get their marijuana across the border where the market is large, barriers to distribution are low and prohibition adds value. Profit margins are not huge but the sales volume is there.

Mexican officials estimate that the marijuana business makes up more than half of the Mexican cartels’ income. Legalizing grass in the U.S. would mean increased competition for Mexican exporters and lower profit margins, thereby depriving the monopolies of important income.

The bigger problem for Mexico is U.S. cocaine demand. Here there seems to be at least some recognition among drug warriors of what hasn’t worked. Wrote former Drug Enforcement Administrator Robert Bonner in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine: “The goal must be clear. In Colombia, the objective was to destroy the Cali and Medellin cartels—not to prevent drugs from being smuggled into the United States or to end their consumption.”

This is risible. The entire raison d’être of the last 40 years of U.S. drug policy abroad has been to stop supply in order to reduce demand in the U.S. Of course when this plan backfired and Colombian cartels grew more powerful, American and Colombian authorities had to adjust. But their war was predicated on the belief that interdiction of supply could diminish U.S. drug consumption.

If Mr. Bonner is now backing away from that argument, it can only be because he is looking at the numbers. Andean cocaine production in 2008 was down only 8% since 1999, and even that might be explained by a shift in preferences in the U.S.

Analysts and policy makers agree that a crackdown on Caribbean narco-routes has driven the business through Mexico, though it hasn’t reduced U.S. drug use. The economist I talked to argued further that if cocaine moved more easily through the Caribbean as it once did and the Mexican border were more porous, it would be harder for a big cartel to monopolize the traffic, even through violence.

It’s an interesting theory and of course runs totally counter to the direction of U.S. policy. But if that policy is proven wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time in the long history of the drug war.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends

“THE Social Network,” you’re understandably sick of hearing, is a brilliant movie about the Harvard upstart Mark Zuckerberg and the messy birth of his fabulous start-up, Facebook, circa 2004. From the noisy debate over its harsh portrait of Zuckerberg, you’d think it’s a documentary. It’s not. Its genre is historical fiction — with a sardonic undertow. The director David Fincher and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are after bigger ironies than the riddle of Zuckerberg, a disconnected geek destined to spawn a virtual community of 500 million “friends.” You leave the movie with the sinking feeling that the democratic utopia breathlessly promised by Facebook and its Web brethren is already gone with the wind.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the gap between the romance and the reality of the Internet more evident than in our politics. In the idealized narrative of digital democracy, greater connectivity has bequeathed more governmental transparency, more grass-roots participation and even a more efficient rendering of political justice. Thanks to YouTube, which arrived just a year after Facebook, a senatorial candidate (George Allen of Virginia) caught on camera delivering a racial slur was brought down swiftly in 2006. Not long after, it was the miracle of social networking that helped enable Barack Obama’s small donors to overwhelm Hillary Clinton’s fat cats, and his online activists to out-organize her fearsome establishment pros.

But you can also construct a less salutary counternarrative. For all the Obama team’s digital bells and whistles, among them a lightning-fast site to debunk rumors during the campaign, Internet-fed myths still rage. In a Pew poll in August, 18 percent of Americans labeled the president a Muslim — up 7 points since March 2009. The explosion of accessible media and information on the Web, with its potential to give civic discourse a factual baseline and hold politicians accountable, has also given partisans license to find only the “facts” that fit their prejudices. Meanwhile, wealthy candidates like Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive running for Senate in California, have become adept at buying up prime Google-YouTube advertising real estate to compete with digital stink bombs tossed by the rabble.

The more recent miracle of Twitter theoretically encourages real-time interconnection between elected officials and the citizenry. But it too has been easily corrupted by politicians whose 140-character effusions are often ghost-written by hired 20-somethings, just like those produced for pop stars like 50 Cent and Britney Spears. When the South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was pretending to hike on the Appalachian Trail during his hook-up with his mistress in Argentina last June, his staff gave him cover by feeding his Twitter account with musings about such uncarnal passions as “Washington D.C. financial recklessness.”

At least Obama and Ron Paul have admitted they don’t write the Twitter feeds in their names. It took journalists poring through financial disclosure forms to discover that Sarah Palin had paid a Los Angeles blogger $22,000 to script her “Internet messaging.” We must take it on faith that her former running mate, John McCain, an admitted computer illiterate who didn’t use e-mail just two years ago, is now such a Twitter maven that he dashes off aperçus about MTV’s Snooki to his followers.

Just as “The Social Network” hit the multiplexes, Malcolm Gladwell took to The New Yorker with a stinging takedown of social networks as vehicles for meaningful political and social action. He calculated that the nearly 1.3 million members of the Facebook page for the Save Darfur Coalition have donated an average of 9 cents each to their cause. He mocked American journalists’ glorification of Twitter’s supposedly pivotal role during last year’s short-lived uprising in Iran, suggesting that the rebels’ celebrated Twitter feeds — written in English, not Farsi — did more to titillate blogging technophiles in the West than to aid Iranians in their struggle against totalitarian rulers.

“With Facebook and Twitter and the like,” Gladwell wrote, “the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will” was supposed to be upended, so it would be “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Instead, he concluded, we ended up with the reverse: social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents. In his view, social networking is far less likely to recreate the civil rights movement of the 1960s than to track down missing cellphones for Wall Streeters.

Gladwell’s provocative Internet critique is complemented by a much-buzzed-about independent movie — in this case, an actual documentary — that was released shortly before “The Social Network.” No one will confuse this ham-fisted film, titled “Catfish,” with a Fincher-Sorkin production, but it’s highly unsettling nonetheless. It tells of a 25-year-old Manhattan photographer who strikes up a devoted Facebook friendship with a small-town Michigan family whose 8-year-old daughter is a painting prodigy. When the photographer seeks out his virtual friends in the real Michigan, it’s inevitable that he and the audience will learn the hard way, as the Times film critic A.O. Scott put it, that cyberspace is a “wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”

Even if Gladwell and “Catfish” are overstating the case, they certainly have one if you look at the political environment in our election year of 2010. The Internet in general and social networking in particular have done little, if anything, to hobble those pursuing power with such traditional means as big lies and big money. Perhaps what’s most remarkable this year is the number of candidates who have tried to create fictitious avatars like the Facebook impostors in “Catfish.” These candidates and others often fashion their campaigns to avoid real reporters (and sometimes real voters). Some benefit from YouTube commercials paid for by impossible-to-trace anonymous donors. In this wild political ether where nobody knows who anybody is, the Internet provides cover, not transparency.

Go online, and you’ll discover that many of those now notorious false fronts for oil billionaires and other corporate political contributors have Facebook pages. We don’t know who has written checks to Crossroads GPS, the more shadowy wing of American Crossroads, the operation concocted in part by Karl Rove to raise $50 million to attack Democrats. (There’s already $32 million in the bank, $10 million more than was spent by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.) But the American Crossroads page on Facebook sure looks like a bottom-up populist movement, festooned with photos of thousands of ordinary folk voting their “like” of the site. The Save Darfur Coalition page may have infinitely more friends, but it’s American Crossroads that has real clout in the real world even if nobody knows who is behind the screen.

What you might call our “Catfish” Congressional candidates are a perfect match for the phantom donors. The power of the Google search hardly deters those politicians intent on fictionalizing their identities. Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senatorial candidate in Connecticut, repeatedly implied in public speeches that he had fought in the Vietnam War, though he’d served only stateside. Mark Kirk, the Republican senatorial candidate in Illinois, inflated his own military history, bragged of a nonexistent teaching career, and exaggerated his derring-do in a teenage boating accident. Ben Quayle, an Arizona G.O.P. Congressional candidate with no children but a history of writing under a nom-de-porn on a racy Web site, burnished his wholesome image with a campaign photo in which nieces stood in for his nonexistent daughters. In each of these cases it was old-fashioned analog reporters, most of them working for newspapers, who finally penetrated the falsehoods.

When Christine O’Donnell ran an ad last week with the improbable opening line “I’m not a witch,” we once again had to marvel at the Delaware primary triumph of a mystery candidate with a falsified résumé, no job, and apparently no campaign operation beyond out-of-state donors and out-of-state fans like Palin “writing” Twitter endorsements. O’Donnell’s Facebook page is by far the most palpable presence of an aspiring senator who shuns public events and the press in Delaware. In a brave new political world where candidates need only exist in virtual reality, it’s no wonder that Donald Trump believes he’s qualified for public office because of his relative gravitas as a heavy on a television “reality” show.

Sometimes I wonder if the most “real” candidate this year is the one most derided by Democrats, Republicans, the news media and late-night comics alike: Alvin Greene, a 33-year-old previously unknown military veteran who won the Democratic senatorial primary in South Carolina with 59 percent of the vote over a Charleston city councilman. Greene achieved his victory without giving any speeches, raising any money or stating any positions. As soon as he won, even South Carolina Democrats said his candidacy was a Republican prank. The most incriminating piece of evidence was the fact that he doesn’t own a computer.

As it turned out, Greene’s résumé actually is more authentic than those of O’Donnell, Blumenthal, Quayle and Kirk. He really is who he said he is — a genuine nobody with no apparent political views. That he drew 100,000 votes — more than three times O’Donnell’s tally in her Delaware victory — leaves you wondering if he’d have a shot at the presidency had he only been on Facebook.

Frank Rich, New York Times


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Lethal Force Under Law

The Obama administration has sharply expanded the shadow war against terrorists, using both the military and the C.I.A. to track down and kill hundreds of them, in a dozen countries, on and off the battlefield.

The drone program has been effective, killing more than 400 Al Qaeda militants this year alone, according to American officials, but fewer than 10 noncombatants. But assassinations are a grave act and subject to abuse — and imitation by other countries. The government needs to do a better job of showing the world that it is acting in strict compliance with international law.

The United States has the right under international law to try to prevent attacks being planned by terrorists connected to Al Qaeda, up to and including killing the plotters. But it is not within the power of a commander in chief to simply declare anyone anywhere a combatant and kill them, without the slightest advance independent oversight. The authorization for military force approved by Congress a week after 9/11 empowers the president to go after only those groups or countries that committed or aided the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s distortion of that mandate led to abuses that harmed the United States around the world.

The issue of who can be targeted applies directly to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen, who officials have admitted is on an assassination list. Did he inspire through words the Army psychiatrist who shot up Fort Hood, Tex., last November, and the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas? Or did he actively participate in those plots, and others? The difference is crucial. If the United States starts killing every Islamic radical who has called for jihad, there will be no end to the violence.

American officials insist that Mr. Awlaki is involved with actual terror plots. But human rights lawyers working on his behalf say that is not the case, and have filed suit to get him off the target list. The administration wants the case thrown out on state-secrets grounds.

The Obama administration needs to go out of its way to demonstrate that it is keeping its promise to do things differently than the Bush administration did. It must explain how targets are chosen, demonstrate that attacks are limited and are a last resort, and allow independent authorities to oversee the process.

PUBLIC GUIDELINES The administration keeps secret its standards for putting people on terrorist or assassination lists. In March, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, said the government adheres to international law, attacking only military targets and keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust,” he said in a speech, without describing them.

Privately, government officials say no C.I.A. drone strike takes place without the approval of the United States ambassador to the target country, the chief of the C.I.A. station, a deputy at the agency, and the agency’s director. So far, President Obama’s system of command seems to have prevented any serious abuses, but the approval process is entirely within the administration. After the abuses under President Bush, the world is not going to accept a simple “trust us” from the White House.

There have been too many innocent people rounded up for detention and subjected to torture, too many cases of mistaken identity or trumped-up connections to terror. Unmanned drones eliminate the element of risk to American forces and make it seductively easy to attack.

The government needs to make public its guidelines for determining who is a terrorist and who can be targeted for death. It should clearly describe how it follows international law in these cases and list the internal procedures and checks it uses before a killing is approved. That can be done without formally acknowledging the strikes are taking place in specific countries.

LIMIT TARGETS The administration should state that it is following international law by acting strictly in self-defense, targeting only people who are actively planning or participating in terror, or who are leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban — not those who raise funds for terror groups, or who exhort others to acts of terror.

Special measures are taken before an American citizen is added to the terrorist list, officials say, requiring the approval of lawyers from the National Security Council and the Justice Department. But again, those measures have not been made public. Doing so would help ensure that people like Mr. Awlaki are being targeted for terrorist actions, not their beliefs or associations.

A LAST RESORT Assassination should in every case be a last resort. Before a decision is made to kill, particularly in areas away from recognized battlefields, the government needs to consider every other possibility for capturing the target short of lethal force. Terrorists operating on American soil should be captured using police methods, and not subject to assassination.

If practical, the United States should get permission from a foreign government before carrying out an attack on its soil. The government is reluctant to discuss any of these issues publicly, in part to preserve the official fiction that the United States is not waging a formal war in Pakistan and elsewhere, but it would not harm that effort to show the world how seriously it takes international law by making clear its limits.

INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT Dealing out death requires additional oversight outside the administration. Particularly in the case of American citizens, like Mr. Awlaki, the government needs to employ some due process before depriving someone of life. It would be logistically impossible to conduct a full-blown trial in absentia of every assassination target, as the lawyers for Mr. Awlaki prefer. But judicial review could still be employed.

The government could establish a court like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes wiretaps on foreign agents inside the United States. Before it adds people to its target list and begins tracking them, the government could take its evidence to this court behind closed doors — along with proof of its compliance with international law — and get the equivalent of a judicial warrant in a timely and efficient way.

Congressional leaders are secretly briefed on each C.I.A. attack, and say they are satisfied with the information they get and with the process. Nonetheless, that process is informal and could be changed at any time by this president or his successors. Formal oversight is a better way of demonstrating confidence in American methods.

Self-defense under international law not only shows the nation’s resolve and power, but sends a powerful message to other countries that the United States couples drastic action with careful judgment.

Editorial, New York Times


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November election results will vindicate or undercut Obama

Promoting his new book, Jimmy Carter, whose version of Christianity allows ample scope for what some Christians consider the sin of pride, has been doing something at which he has had long practice — praising himself. He is, he says, “probably superior” to all other ex-presidents, and would have enacted comprehensive health care if a selfish Ted Kennedy had not sabotaged his plan.

Actually, one reason Carter, who promised to deliver government “as good as the American people,” lost 44 states in his 1980 reelection bid was that voters believed he considered himself too good for them. And they thought he did not know them — that he was disconnected from the way most people thought and felt.

Eight years later, another Democratic presidential candidate had a comparable problem. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have required public schoolteachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps the bill was constitutionally problematic. But a presidential campaign is not a law seminar. Dukakis’s incomprehension of American political culture outside of Massachusetts was apparent when, responding to Republican insinuations about his patriotism, he said dismissively that “every first-year law student” studies flag-salute cases that vindicate his position.

Today, Barack Obama, a chronic campaigner, is out and about trying to arouse the masses against the inequity of not raising taxes on “the rich.” He opposes extending the Bush tax rates — they are due to expire Dec. 31, when a higher rate is restored — for “millionaires and billionaires.”

And for quarter-millionaires. Expiration would mean an increase for households with incomes of at least $250,000. Obama’s $750,000 fudge sweeps many people into the plutocracy. In Obama’s Chicago, a high school principal can earn $148,000. A police officer with 25 years on the force can earn $114,000 — not counting overtime. If the principal and the officer are married, supposedly they are rich.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama said that the rich begin at $150,000. If so, both the principal and the police officer are perilously close to becoming targets of liberal redistributionists.

The damage that has been done to the Democratic brand in just 20 months has encouraged comparisons of Obama to Carter, who seemed miniaturized by the presidency, and to Dukakis, who seemed mystified that Massachusetts’s political culture was not the national norm. There also is, however, an Obama resemblance to Lyndon Johnson.

Obama became president knowing next to nothing about Washington. Johnson began his career as a congressional staffer and spent almost all of his pre-presidential adulthood in Washington. But there is this similarity between them: overreaching.

Obama’s overreaching is testimony to what 44 years can do to a party’s memory. It has forgotten the 1966 elections, which cost Democrats three Senate and 47 House seats, abruptly terminating two years of liberal happiness that had followed 28 fallow years.

In 1938, five years into the New Deal, the public was weary of Washington’s hyperkinesis. Voters recoiled against FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court by enlarging it, and his related attempt to purge conservative Democrats from Congress. After 1938, Republicans and conservative Democrats prevented a durable liberal legislative majority. Until the 1964 anti-Goldwater landslide.

Johnson carried 44 states, Democrats gained two Senate and 38 House seats, and hyperkinesis returned in the form of the Great Society agenda. Since 1966, liberal overreaching has been difficult. After November, it will be impossible, for many years. For Obama, the worst result next month might be for Democrats to retain control of both houses of Congress. If they do, their majorities will be paralyzingly small. And their remaining moderates will be more resistant to the liberal leadership: The moderates will have survived not because of, but in spite of, those leaders.

Today, if you see Obama in a political ad, you are almost certainly watching a Republican ad. And a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that more than twice as many people view House Speaker Nancy Pelosi negatively (50 percent) than positively (22 percent).

If Democrats retain control of Congress, Obama will seek reelection while being perceived as responsible for everything in Washington, where everything is perceived to be dysfunctional. And anti-Washington fever may be worse than it is today, because the 2010 elections will not seem to have changed very much.

If Democrats lose both houses, Obama will seem repudiated. If they lose neither, he will seem impotent. So, if Democrats lose big, he loses big. If they lose smaller, he loses bigger.

George F. Will, Washington Post


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The Colbert Democrats

A president’s first midterm election is inevitably a referendum on his two years in office. The bad news for Democrats is that President Obama’s “reelect” number is 38 percent — precisely Bill Clinton’s in October 1994, the eve of the wave election that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Yet this same poll found that 65 percent view Obama favorably “as a person.” The current Democratic crisis is not about the man — his alleged lack of empathy, ability to emote, etc., requiring remediation with backyard, shirt-sleeved shoulder rubbing with the folks — but about the policies.

And the problem with the policies is twofold: ideology and effectiveness. First, Obama, abetted by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, tried to take a center-right country to the left. They grossly misread the 2008 election. It was a mandate to fix the economy and restore American confidence. Obama read it as a mandate to change the American social contract, giving it a more European social-democratic stamp, by fundamentally extending the reach and power of government in health care, energy, education, finance and industrial policy.

Obama succeeded with health care. Unfortunately for the Democrats, that and Obama’s other signature achievement — the stimulus — were not exactly what the folks were clamoring for. What they wanted was economic recovery.

Here the Democrats failed the simple test of effectiveness. The economy is extraordinarily weak, unemployment is unacceptably high, and the only sure consequence of the stimulus is nearly $1 trillion added to the national debt in a single stroke.

And yet, to these albatrosses of ideological overreach and economic ineffectiveness, the Democrats have managed in the past few weeks to add a third indictment: incompetence.

For the first time since modern budgeting was introduced with the Budget Act of 1974, the House failed to even write a budget. This in a year of extraordinary deficits, rising uncertainty and jittery financial markets. Gold is going through the roof. Confidence in the dollar and the American economy is falling — largely because of massive overhanging debt. Yet no budget emerged from Congress to give guidance, let alone reassurance, about future U.S. revenues and spending.

That’s not all. Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill. To keep the government going, Congress passed a so-called continuing resolution (CR) before adjourning to campaign. The problem with continuing to spend at the current level is that the last two years have seen a huge 28 percent jump in non-defense discretionary spending. The CR continues this profligacy, aggravating an already serious debt problem.

As if this were not enough, Congress adjourned without even a vote — nay, without even a Democratic bill — on the expiring Bush tax cuts. This is the ultimate in incompetence. After 20 months of control of the White House and Congress — during which they passed an elaborate, 1,000-page micromanagement of every detail of American health care — the Democrats adjourned without being able to tell the country what its tax rates will be on Jan. 1.

It’s not just income taxes. It’s capital gains and dividends, too. And the estate tax, which will careen insanely from 0 to 55 percent when the ball drops on Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Nor is this harmless incompetence. To do this at a time when $2 trillion of capital is sitting on the sidelines because of rising uncertainty — and there is no greater uncertainty than next year’s tax rates — is staggeringly irresponsible.

As if this display of unseriousness — no budget, no appropriations bills, no tax bill — were not enough, some genius on a House Judiciary subcommittee invites parodist Stephen Colbert to testify as an expert witness on immigration. He then pulls off a nervy mockery of the whole proceedings — my favorite was his request to have his colonoscopy inserted in the Congressional Record — while the chairwoman sits there clueless.

A fitting end for the 111th Congress. But not quite. Colbert will return to the scene of the crime on Oct. 30 as the leader of one of two mock rallies on the Mall. Comedian Jon Stewart leads the other. At a time of near-10 percent unemployment, a difficult and draining war abroad, and widespread disgust with government overreach and incompetence, they will light up the TV screens as the hip face of the new liberalism — just three days before the election.

I suspect the electorate will declare itself not amused.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Democrats and ‘Poisoned’ Politics

Incumbents launch personal attacks to divert attention from the economy’s poor performance.

In March 2004, when Barack Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Illinois Democratic primary, he excoriated President George W. Bush for creating a “jobless recovery.” The month he said that, 334,000 new jobs were created—none of them temporary Census ones—and unemployment was 5.8%.

That was then. Now the unemployment rate is 9.6%, and tomorrow’s jobs report is unlikely to be much better.

Many other Democrats piled on Mr. Bush at the time. “Mr. President, where are the jobs?” Rep. Nancy Pelosi asked on CNN in October 2003. “The American people will not settle for—nor should the Republicans celebrate—a jobless recovery.” That month saw 203,000 new jobs and 6% unemployment. Her party would kill for such a rate today.

Instead, they will be killed at the polls. This election’s top issue is the economy, and the Democrats are being held accountable for its poor performance. After all, the party controls the White House and Congress and passed all the spending and stimulus measures it could dream up.

Last month, the Pew poll found that Americans thought Republicans would be better at improving “the job situation” than the Democrats by a 40% to 35% margin—a 16-point shift since 2006. Historically, Republicans have done well in congressional races when the GOP has closed to within five points on the economy and jobs. Republicans were also more trusted to “reduce [the] budget deficit” than the Democrats, by 44% to 29%.

How did the Democrats get here? By passing bad legislation. How bad? Not a single vulnerable House Democrat is featuring the stimulus bill in campaign ads—except for those Democrats who opposed it. Nor do any extol cap and trade in television spots.

Only one targeted Democratic Senator (Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold) and three Democratic Congressmen (North Dakota’s Earl Pomeroy, Nevada’s Dina Titus and New York’s Steve Israel) feature ObamaCare in their advertising. But they talk only about the best poll-tested elements, such as no denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Despite the encouragement of some ivory-tower liberal commentators, these politicians understand the toxicity of the bill’s totality and its price tag.

Democratic voters are noticeably less enthusiastic than Republican ones. Pew found last week that 83% of Republicans said they would “definitely” vote, compared to 69% of Democrats. The GOP’s 14-point advantage is twice as big as in 1994.

Independents are energized: 65% said they would “definitely” vote, the highest since Pew began asking the question in 1994. According to a Pew poll released Sept. 23, independents prefer the GOP by 49% to 36%, a 31-point swing since the 2006 midterms.

Given this dismal picture, Democrats believe they have only one option: a thermonuclear assault on their GOP opponents, which means raising questions about their character, distorting their views, and making outlandish claims.

Many Democratic incumbents now routinely assert in their ads that Republicans who pledge not to raise taxes support shipping jobs overseas—a claim that the nonpartisan has found to be false. Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader featured a senior citizen saying that if Republican challenger Scott Bruun “had his way, I’d be out on the street.” Arizona Democrat Harry Mitchell accused Republican David Schweikert of being a slumlord who tried to evict a 12-year-old child. He couldn’t produce the boy. Virginia’s Gerry Connolly attacked Keith Fimian, his GOP challenger, for working against women’s rights because he was a member of Legatus, a respected Catholic lay organization that opposes abortion.

In a debate last month, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.) accused Republican challenger John Boozman of having voted in Congress to let an incestuous rapist father sue a physician who performed an abortion on the daughter the father had raped. Mr. Boozman had no idea what Ms. Lincoln was talking about, and when challenged she couldn’t back up her charge. Mr. Boozman now leads by 19 points in the Real Clear Politics average.

Personal attacks generally don’t work unless they’re seen as fair, credible and pertinent. Voters must think the character shortcomings are both persistent and relevant. If not, the assaults will fail, even backfire.

The Democrats’ reliance on this strategy may rescue a few otherwise lost campaigns. But it will further besmirch the reputations of the Democratic Party and its leader, Mr. Obama. The man who complained on the night of his election about the “pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long” is complicit as candidate after candidate in his party adds arsenic to the nation’s political well.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Revolt of the Accountants

Washington is turning America into Paperwork Nation.

If you write a column, you get a lot of email. Sometimes, especially in a political season, it’s possible to discern from it certain emerging themes—the comeback of old convictions, for instance, or the rise of new concerns. Let me tell you something I’m hearing, in different ways and different words. The coming rebellion in the voting booth is not only about the economic impact of spending, debt and deficits on America’s future. It’s also to some degree about the feared impact of all those things on the character of the American people. There is a real fear that government, with all its layers, its growth, its size, its imperviousness, is changing, or has changed, who we are. And that if we lose who we are, as Americans, we lose everything.

This is part of what’s driving the sense of political urgency this year, especially within precincts of the tea party.

The most vivid illustration of the fear comes, actually, from another country, Greece, and is brilliantly limned by Michael Lewis in September’s Vanity Fair. In “Beware Greeks Bearing Bonds,” he outlines Greece’s economic catastrophe. It is a bankrupt nation, its debt, or rather the amount of debt that has so far been unearthed and revealed, coming to “more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek.” Over decades the Greeks turned their government “into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums” and gave “as many citizens as possible a whack at it.” The average government job pays almost three times as much as the average private-sector job. The retirement age for “arduous” jobs, including hairdressers, radio announcers and musicians, is 55 for men and 50 for women. After that, a generous pension. The tax system has disintegrated. It is a welfare state with a cash economy.

Much of this is well known, though it is beautifully stated. But all of it, Mr. Lewis asserts, has badly damaged the Greek character. “It is simply assumed . . . that anyone who is working for the government is meant to be bribed. . . . Government officials are assumed to steal.” Tax fraud is rampant. Everyone cheats. “It’s become a cultural trait,” a tax collector tells him.

Mr. Lewis: “The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. . . . Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible.”

Thus can great nations, great cultures, disintegrate, break into little pieces that no longer cohere into a whole.

And what I get from my mail is a kind of soft echo of this. America is not Greece and knows it’s not Greece, but there is a growing sense—I should say fear—that the weighty, mighty, imposing American government itself, whether it meant to or not, has for years been contributing to American behaviors that are neither culturally helpful nor, as we now all say, sustainable: a growing sense of entitlement, of dependency, of resentment and distrust, and an increasing suspicion that everyone else is gaming the system. “I got mine, you get yours.”

People, as we know, are imperfect. Governments, composed top to bottom of imperfect people wielding power, are very imperfect. There are of course a million examples, big and small, of how governments can damage the actual nature and character of the citizenry, and only because there was just a commercial on TV telling me to gamble will I mention the famous case of the state lotteries. Give government the right to reap revenues from the public desire to gamble, and you’ll soon have government doing something your humble local bookie never had the temerity to try: convince the people that gambling is a moral good. They promote it insistently on local television, undermining any remaining reserve among our citizens not to play the numbers, not to develop what can become an addiction. Our state government daily promotes what for 2,000 years was understood to be a vice. No bookie ever committed a crime that big.

Government not only can change the national character, it can bizarrely channel national energy. And this is another theme in my mailbox, the rebellion against what government increasingly forces us to become: a nation of accountants.

No matter what level of life in which you operate, you are likely overwhelmed by forms, by a blizzard of regulations, rules, new laws. This is not new, it’s just always getting worse. Priests are forced to be accountants now, and army officers, and dentists. The single most onerous part of ObamaCare is the tax change whereby spending $600 on goods or services will require a 1099 form. Economists will tell you of the financial cost of this, but I would argue that Paperwork Nation is utterly at odds with the American character.

Because Americans weren’t born to be accountants. It’s not our DNA! We’re supposed to be building the Empire State Building. We were meant, to be romantic about it, and why not, to be a pioneer people, to push on, invent electricity, shoot the bear, bootleg the beer, write the novel, create, reform and modernize great industries. We weren’t meant to be neat and tidy record keepers. We weren’t meant to wear green eyeshades. We looked better in a coonskin cap!

There is I think a powerful rebellion against all this. It isn’t a new rebellion—it was part of Goldwaterism, and Reaganism—but it’s rising again.

For those who wonder why so many people have come to hate, or let me change it to profoundly dislike, “the elites,” especially the political elite, here is one reason: It is because they have armies of accountants to do this work for them. Those in power institute the regulations and rules and then hire people to protect them from the burdens and demands of their legislation. There is no congressman passing tax law who doesn’t have staffers in his office taking care of his own financial life and who will not, when he moves down the street into the lobbying firm, have an army of accountants to protect him there.

Washington is now to some degree the focus of the same sort of profound resentment that Hollywood liberals inspired when they really mattered, or seemed really powerful. For decades they made films that were not helpful to our culture or society, that were full of violence and sick imagery. But they often brought their own children up more or less protected from the effects of the culture they created. Private schools, nannies, therapists, tutors. They bought their way out of the cultural mayhem to which they’d contributed. Their children were fine. Yours were on their own.

This is part of why people dislike “the elites” and why “the elites,” especially in Washington, must in turn be responsive, come awake, start to notice. People don’t like it when they fear you are subtly, day by day, year by year, changing the personality and character of their nation. They think, “You are ruining our country and insulating yourselves from the ruin. We hate you.” And this is understandable, yes?

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Too Funny for Words

WHEN my dad, Allen Funt, produced “Candid Microphone” back in the mid-1940s, he used a clever ruse to titillate listeners. A few times per show he’d edit out an innocent word or phrase and replace it with a recording of a sultry woman’s voice saying, “Censored.” Audiences always laughed at the thought that something dirty had been said, even though it hadn’t.

When “Candid Camera” came to television, the female voice was replaced by a bleep and a graphic that flashed “Censored!” As my father and I learned over decades of production, ordinary folks don’t really curse much in routine conversation — even when mildly agitated — but audiences love to think otherwise.

By the mid-1950s, TV’s standards and practices people decided Dad’s gimmick was an unacceptable deception. There would be no further censoring of clean words.

I thought about all this when CBS started broadcasting a show last week titled “$#*! My Dad Says,” which the network insists with a wink should be pronounced “Bleep My Dad Says.” There is, of course, no mystery whatsoever about what the $-word stands for, because the show is based on a highly popular Twitter feed, using the real word, in which a clever guy named Justin Halpern quotes the humorous, often foul utterances of his father, Sam.

Bleeping is broadcasting’s biggest deal. Even on basic cable, the new generation of “reality” shows like “Jersey Shore” bleep like crazy, as do infotainment series like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where scripted curses take on an anti-establishment edge when bleeped in a contrived bit of post-production. This season there is even a cable series about relationships titled “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” — in which “bleep” isn’t subbing for any word in particular. The comedian Drew Carey is developing a series that CBS has decided to call “WTF!” Still winking, the network says this one stands for “Wow That’s Funny!”

Although mainstream broadcasters won a battle against censorship over the summer when a federal appeals court struck down some elements of the Federal Communications Commission’s restrictions on objectionable language, they’ve always been more driven by self-censorship than by the government-mandated kind. Eager to help are advertisers and watchdog groups, each appearing to take a tough stand on language while actually reveling in the double entendre.

For example, my father and I didn’t run across many dirty words when recording everyday conversation, but we did find that people use the terms “God” and “Jesus” frequently — often in a gentle context, like “Oh, my God” — and this, it turned out, worried broadcasting executives even more than swearing. If someone said “Jesus” in a “Candid Camera” scene, CBS made us bleep it, leaving viewers to assume that a truly foul word had been spoken. And that seemed fine with CBS, because what mainstream TV likes best is the perception of naughtiness.

TV’s often-hypocritical approach to censorship was given its grandest showcase back in 1972, when the comedian George Carlin first took note of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The bit was recreated on stage at the Kennedy Center a few years ago in a posthumous tribute to Carlin, but all the words were bleeped — not only for the PBS audience but for the theatergoers as well.

Many who saw the show believed the bleeped version played funnier. After all, when Bill Maher and his guests unleash a stream of nasty words on HBO, it’s little more than barroom banter. But when Jon Stewart says the same words, knowing they’ll be bleeped, it revs up the crowd while also seeming to challenge the censors.

In its July ruling, the appeals court concluded, “By prohibiting all ‘patently offensive’ references to sex … without giving adequate guidance as to what ‘patently offensive’ means, the F.C.C. effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the F.C.C. will find offensive.” That’s quite reasonable — and totally beside the point. Most producers understand that when it comes to language, the sizzle has far more appeal than the steak. Broadcasters keep jousting with the F.C.C. begging not to be thrown in the briar patch of censorship, because that’s really where they most want to be.

Jimmy Kimmel has come up with a segment for his late-night ABC program called “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship.” He bleeps ordinary words in clips to make them seem obscene. How bleepin’ dare he! Censorship, it seems, remains one of the most entertaining things on television.

Peter Funt writes about social issues on his Web site, Candid Camera.


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A Man for All Factions

For decades, the Democratic Party was torn by civil war.

On one side was the liberal left — populist in economics and dovish on foreign policy, in favor of lavish spending programs and suspicious of big business, and hostile to any idea that seemed to give an inch to the conservatives. On the other were the moderates and centrists — pro-market and pro-Wall Street, inclined to tiptoe rightward on issues like crime and welfare, and hawkish about deficits and dictators alike.

In the 1980s, these two factions vied for the opportunity to lose to Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, they fought over the direction of the Clinton administration. In the 2000s, they feuded over whether to support the Iraq war.

But in George W. Bush’s second term, peace broke out. In part, this was because Democrats came to hate Bush so intensely that every other consideration faded into insignificance. In part, it was because the two camps converged on policy: the liberal left largely accepted that it had lost Clinton-era arguments over Nafta and welfare reform, the centrists mostly admitted that they’d been wrong about Iraq, and the two sides found common ground on health care, global warming and income inequality.

But peace was also possible because Barack Obama emerged to bridge the Democratic divide. The left initially wanted John Edwards as the 2008 nominee; the centrists wanted Hillary Clinton. But Obama united the party by persuading both factions that he was really on their side.

The left looked at him and saw a community organizer and Hyde Park intellectual who had been against the Iraq war before being antiwar was fashionable. Of course he was one of them!

The moderates listened to him and heard a postpartisan healer who promised to work with Republicans, cut middle-class taxes and send more troops to Afghanistan. Obviously he was a centrist at heart!

Once campaigning gave way to governing, it was inevitable that one faction or the other would be disappointed. But lately, Obama has managed the more difficult feat of alienating both of them at once.

The party’s centrists, from Blue Dog Democrats to Wall Street, insist that he’s turned out to be far more liberal than they expected. The health care bill was too expensive. The deficits are too big. He’s been too hard on business interests, and on Israel. And what happened to bipartisanship?

On the left, meanwhile, Obama is deemed a disappointment for all the things he hasn’t done. The stimulus should have been bigger. The financial reforms should have been tougher. He should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. He should have taken the fight to the Republicans, instead of letting them obstruct.

Both these arguments are self-serving, of course — a way for activists on both sides to imply, none too subtly, that the Democrats’ dispiriting poll numbers are all the other faction’s fault.

But the widespread appeal of these dueling critiques has left Obama increasingly isolated. And the White House’s attempts to preserve his above-the-fray mystique have backfired: they’ve made the president seem like an ideological enigma, and created the impression that he’s a bystander to his own achievements.

That impression took hold during the debates over health care and financial reform, where left-wing and centrist Democrats alike often complained that they didn’t know exactly where the White House stood. It’s been reinforced lately by Bob Woodward’s portrait of Obama’s Afghanistan deliberations, in which the hawks in the Pentagon and the doves in the Democratic base often seem like more powerful actors than the president himself.

As a result, what was once Obama’s great strength has been transformed into a weakness: neither the center nor the left really trusts him, and neither is prepared to stand by him at a time of crisis.

So the president finds himself alone. Many of the administration’s highest-profile centrists — Peter Orszag, Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel — are either gone or on their way out. The left is wallowing in angst and disappointment. The White House spent recent weeks hectoring progressives about the need to turn out in November, but all these efforts earned was the mockery of Jon Stewart.

Can Obama rebuild his coalition? Perhaps, but not the way he did the first time. He won the White House by being all things to all Democrats (and quite a few independents and even Republicans as well), by making each faction see its own values reflected in his candidacy.

But the days of soaring above the grubbiness of politics are over. If Obama wants to save his presidency, he may have to do it the old-fashioned way: not by transcending his party’s divisions, but by uniting his supporters around their common fears.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


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The Twister of 2010

America’s political landscape will never be the same.

On a recent trip to Omaha, Neb., I found a note prominently displayed in my hotel room warning of the possibility of “extreme weather” including “tornadic activity.” The clunky euphemism was no doubt meant to soften or obscure what they were obliged to communicate: There may be a tornado, look out.

That’s what’s going on nationally. Tornadoes are tearing up the political landscape.

Everyone talks about the tensions between the Republican establishment, such as it is, and the tea-party-leaning parts of its base. But are you looking at what’s happening with the Democrats?

Tensions between President Obama and his supporters tore into the open this week as never before, signifying a real and developing fracturing of his party. Mr. Obama, in an interview in Rolling Stone, aimed fire at those abandoning him: “It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election.” The Democratic base “sitting on their hands complaining” is “just irresponsible. . . . We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard—that’s what I said during the campaign. . . . But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”

At first I thought this was another example of the president’s now-habitual political ineptness, his off-key-ness. You don’t diss people into voting for you, you can’t lecture them into love. The response from the left was fierce, unapologetic—and accusatory. Mr. Obama had let them down, he’d taken half measures. “Stop living in that bubble,” shot back an activist on cable. But Jane Hamsher of the leftist blog Firedoglake saw method, not madness. She described the president’s remarks as “hippie punching” and laid them to cynical strategy: “It’s about setting up a narrative for who will take the blame for a disastrous election.” She said Mr. Obama’s comments themselves could “depress turnout.”

Take the blame? Disastrous? Setting up a narrative?

This isn’t the language of disagreement, the classic to-and-fro between a restive base and politicians who make compromises. This is the language of estrangement. It is the language of alienation.

There is a war beginning in the Democratic Party, and the president has lost control of his base.

The Democratic leadership in the House appears to have lost another kind of control, fleeing Washington without passing a federal budget or extending even part of the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire on Jan. 1. Democrats hold a solid majority in the House. They have a hitherto-powerful speaker. And the decision to adjourn passed by only a single vote—that of Nancy Pelosi, who saw 39 Democrats join the Republicans in dissenting.

The Democratic Party right now is showing signs of coming apart under the pressure of the election and two years of an unpopular presidency. But it’s not a split in two, with the left versus the establishment. It’s more like a splintering, with left-leaning activists distancing themselves from the party’s politicians, and moderate politicians distancing themselves from Mr. Obama.

And part of what’s driving it is what is driving the evolution of the Republican Party. The Internet changed everything. Everyone has facts now, knows who voted how and why. New thought leaders spring up and lead in new directions. Total transparency leads to party fracturing. Information dings unity. We are in new territory.

Another tornado: The president’s influential counselor, David Axelrod, attempted this week to insinuate into the election what Democrats used to deride as “wedge issues.” In an interview he said abortion will “certainly be an issue,” for Democrats. It will be raised “across the country.”

This suggests a certain desperation. Whatever stand you take on the social issues, you have to be blind to think they will make a big difference this year. The issue this year is the size, role, weight and demands of government, and the public sense that its members selfishly look to their own needs and not those of the country. A GOP congressman told me this week that he very much disagrees with the characterization of tea party and Republican voters as enraged or livid. They are scared, he said. He has never, in two decades in politics, heard so many people tell him they are “scared,” frightened for their own futures and for the future of their country.

No one will get revved in the way Mr. Axelrod hopes who isn’t already a reliable Democratic vote. His raising of a wedge issue speaks not only of a certain cynicism but of what appears to be an endemic White House cluelessness.

Yet another tornado: The Democrats have begun what Grover Norquist predicted a month ago. They saved their money for the end of the campaign and have begun running negative ads. They are not speaking in support of their own votes on health care and other issues. They are avoiding the subject of their own votes on health care and other issues. They are focusing instead on accusations of personal scandal. Both parties have done this in the past, to their mutual shame. But this year, with some exceptions and for obvious reasons, it appears to be largely a Democratic game. At this point in history, with America teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, negative advertising is even more destructive, more actually wicked, than it was in the past.

Negative advertising tears everything down. It contributes to the cynicism of the populace, especially the young. It undermines the faith in government Democrats are always asking us to have, by undermining respect for those who govern, or who seek to. It wears everyone down. And in the long term, though this can never be quantified, it keeps from electoral politics untold numbers of citizens who could bring their gifts and guts to helping solve our problems. I will never forget the visionary real-world entrepreneur who sighed, when I once urged him to enter politics, “I’ve lived an imperfect life. They’d kill me.”

But let’s go to what is traditionally the only way journalists and political professionals judge such ads: Do they work? In the past they have. But here’s a hunch: This year they will not be so effective.

The primary reason is the severity of the moment. But another is that negative ads worked so well in the past. For a generation, the American people have been told their politicians are lowlifes. You know what they now think of them? They think they’re lowlifes! People don’t really expect high character from their political figures anymore. “Congressman Smith cheated on his wife.” That’s her problem. Cut my taxes.

Good practical advice on all this comes from Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels, who met this week in New York with conservative activists, journalists and historians. Our country is in real peril, he said, we have a short time to do big things to get it right. Republicans “need to campaign to govern, not merely to win.” If Democrats are “the worst, the most malevolent” in their campaigning, “don’t match ’em, let ’em.” Be better. Be serious about the issues at a serious time.

What appears to be coming is a Republican rout. The main reason is the growing connection between public desire on various issues and Republican stands on those issues. But another is what is happening among Democrats—the rise of a spirit of destruction, and the increasing fact of fractured unity.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Democrats and the Health-Reform Albatross

By making so many misleading claims, the president created an army of opposition.

‘Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Karl Rove, they’re all warning you of the horrendous impact if you support this legislation,” President Barack Obama said in March about his health reform, but “I am actually confident . . . that it will end up being the smart thing to do politically . . .”

Unfortunately for the president, it turns out ObamaCare is not the wind filling the sails of Democratic candidates and propelling them to victory. Rather it has become a reef on which many of their electoral hopes will founder. reports health-care reform is less popular today than it was when it was passed in March. And it wasn’t particularly popular back then.

A composite average of the polls show that today 40% of Americans approve the health-care reform legislation while 50% oppose it. Forty-four percent supported it and 47% opposed it when the president signed the measure. And those in many of the polls who indicate they strongly disapprove of the law outnumber strong supporters by 2-to-1.

Americans stubbornly resist this landmark legislation in part because virtually every major claim about its benefits is turning out to be false—and people recoil when misled.

Mr. Obama said health-care reform would not only stop insurance premiums from rising rapidly, but also reduce them $2,500 a year per family. Yet PriceWaterhouseCoopers has found that with health-care reform, premiums are likely to rise 111% over the next decade, compared to a projected increase of 79% if nothing had been done. This just makes sense: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act slathers on mandates, requirements and rules that can only drive up insurance costs.

Mr. Obama also said repeatedly that if you like your current coverage, you can keep it. According to an analysis by John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, that won’t be true for between 87 million and 117 million Americans. Either their employer will stop providing insurance, or they’ll see benefits go down and co-pays rise as insurers and employers wrestle with the law’s mandates.

Seniors are already losing their coverage: Harvard Pilgrim Health announced this week it will stop providing Medicare Advantage to 22,000 customers in New England because of Medicare cuts.

What about Mr. Obama’s promise that reform would bend the cost curve, reducing what our nation spends on health care? The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has since found the U.S. will spend an estimated $311 billion more on health care over the next decade than if the bill hadn’t passed.

Nor will Mr. Obama be able to keep his pledge never to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year. Taxes levied in the new law will fall on people of all income levels who are customers of drug and medical device companies or own an insurance policy.

There’s more. The new program is “paid for” with 10 years of Medicare cuts and new taxes, fines and fees that start this year. But the government doesn’t actually begin spending money in earnest for four years, and the program isn’t fully ramped up for seven years. How sustainable is that?

More and more Americans are (rightly) concluding Mr. Obama’s reform is a fiscal disaster of epic proportions. By making so many transparently false claims, Mr. Obama persuaded and energized a large swath of the electorate to oppose health-care reform.

Many opponents are among the 14 million Americans who work in health care and millions more who work for health insurance, drug or medical device companies. Many are not happy with what’s coming their way. They are telling friends and family how the bill will negatively impact their jobs and communities. For example, health-insurance brokers are already realizing they are unlikely to have jobs or businesses in the future.

Many business owners are talking to their human resources staff and benefits counselors, making certain employees know what’s responsible for the bad news that’s coming. The conversations these people are having with neighbors and friends are far more powerful than any presidential speech.

Mr. Obama inadvertently recruited many who now are, as he said during the 2008 campaign, “fired up and ready to go”—this time to defeat his party over his signature domestic achievement. Democrats got the health-care legislation they wanted. Now they’re going to get an electoral defeat they won’t easily forget.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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In the Habitable Zone

A planet orbiting a star causes a slight disturbance in the star’s rotation, the effect of the gravitational tug between the star and the planet. Astronomers have been studying the wobbling of stars for a couple of decades, in hopes of finding an exoplanet — a planet beyond our solar system — that might offer the possibility of sustaining human life. Now, after 11 years of searching with specialized instruments in Chile and Hawaii, a team of American astronomers has announced in the Astrophysical Journal that it has found the first likely candidate.

The planet is called Gliese 581g after its sun, Gliese 581, a red dwarf vastly dimmer than our sun and about 20 light-years from Earth. Potentially habitable does not mean Earthlike. It means that Gliese 581g is the right distance from its sun to be in the habitable zone, able to sustain liquid water and with enough gravity to retain an atmosphere. Gliese 581g orbits its sun in a bit more than 36 days and is almost certainly tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet always faces the sun. That probably means wide extremes in temperature and a permanent twilight zone between night and day where the climates are more moderate.

What makes this discovery so important is that it happened so early in the search for exoplanets and after examining only a tiny sample of small candidate stars as close to Earth as Gliese 581. In the paper reporting their discovery, the astronomers discuss the probable implications with carefully calibrated language that still doesn’t hide their excitement. “If the local stellar neighborhood,” they write, “is a representative sample of the galaxy as a whole, our Milky Way could be teeming with potentially habitable planets.” We are intrigued, too.


Editorial, New York Times


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Why is Obama sending troops to Afghanistan?

From the beginning, the call to arms was highly uncertain. On Dec. 1, 2009, commander in chief Barack Obama orders 30,000 more Americans into battle in Afghanistan. But in the very next sentence, he announces that an American withdrawal will begin after 18 months.

Astonishing. A surge of troops — overall, Obama has tripled our Afghan force — with a declaration not of war but of ambivalence. Nine months later, Marine Corps Commandant James Conway admitted that this decision was “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” This wasn’t conjecture, he insisted, but the stuff of intercepted communications testifying to the enemies’ relief that they simply had to wait out the Americans.

What kind of commander in chief sends tens of thousands of troops to war announcing in advance a fixed date for beginning their withdrawal? One who doesn’t have his heart in it. One who doesn’t really want to win but is making some kind of political gesture. One who thinks he has to be seen as trying but is preparing the ground — meaning, the political cover — for failure.

Until now, the above was just inference from the president’s public rhetoric. No longer. Now we have the private quotes. Bob Woodward’s new book, drawing on classified memos and interviews with scores of national security officials, has Obama telling his advisers: “I want an exit strategy.” He tells the country publicly that Afghanistan is a “vital national interest,” but he tells his generals that he will not do the kind of patient institution-building that is the very essence of the counterinsurgency strategy that Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus crafted and that he — Obama — adopted.

Moreover, he must find an exit because “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” This admission is the most crushing of all.

First, isn’t this the party that in two consecutive presidential campaigns — John Kerry’s and then Obama’s — argued vociferously that Afghanistan is the good war, the right war, the war of necessity, the central front in the war on terror? Now, after acceding to power and being given charge of that very war, Obama confides that he must retreat, lest that very same party abandon him. What happened in the interim? Did it suddenly develop a faint heart? Or was the party disingenuous about the Afghan war all along, using it as a convenient club with which to attack George W. Bush over Iraq, while protecting Democrats from the charge of being reflexively antiwar?

Whatever the reason, is it not Obama’s job as president and party leader to bring the party with him? This is the man who made Berlin coo, America swoon and the Nobel committee lose its mind. Yet he cannot get his own party to follow him on what he insists is a matter of vital national interest?

Did he even try? Obama spent endless hours cajoling and persuading individual members of Congress to garner every last vote for health-care reform. Has he done a fraction of that for Afghanistan — argued, pleaded, horse-traded, twisted even a single arm?

And what about persuading the country at large? Every war is arduous and requires continual presidential explication, inspiration and encouragement. This has been true from Lincoln through FDR through Bush. Since announcing his Afghan surge, Obama’s only major speech that featured Afghanistan was an Oval Office address about America leaving Iraq — the Afghan part being sandwiched between that and a long-winded plea for his economic policies.

“He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out,” writes Woodward. One can only conclude that Obama now thinks Afghanistan is a mistake. Maybe he thought so from the very beginning. More charitably and more likely, he is simply a foreign policy novice who didn’t understand what this war was about until being given the authority and duty to conduct it — and then decided it was all a mistake.

Fair enough. But in that case, what is he doing escalating it?

Sen. Kerry, now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked many years ago: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Perhaps Kerry should ask that of Obama.

“He is out of Afghanistan psychologically,” says Woodward of Obama. Well, he may be out, but the soldiers he ordered to Afghanistan are in.

Some will not come home.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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What Ahmadinejad Knows

Iran’s president appeals to 9/11 Truthers.

Let’s put a few facts on the table.

• The recent floods in Pakistan are acts neither of God nor of nature. Rather, they are the result of a secret U.S. military project called HAARP, based out of Fairbanks, Alaska, which controls the weather by sending electromagnetic waves into the upper atmosphere. HAARP may also be responsible for the recent spate of tsunamis and earthquakes.

• Not only did the U.S. invade Iraq for its oil, but also to harvest the organs of dead Iraqis, in which it does a thriving trade.

• Faisal Shahzad was not the perpetrator of the May 1 Times Square bombing, notwithstanding his own guilty plea. Rather, the bombing was orchestrated by an American think tank, though its exact identity has yet to be established.

• Oh, and 9/11 was an inside job. Just ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The U.S. and its European allies were quick to walk out on the Iranian president after he mounted the podium at the U.N. last week to air his three “theories” on the attacks, each a conspiratorial shade of the other. But somebody should give him his due: He is a provocateur with a purpose. Like any expert manipulator, he knew exactly what he was doing when he pushed those most sensitive of buttons.

He knew, for instance, that the Obama administration and its allies are desperate to resume negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programs. What better way to set the diplomatic mood than to spit in their eye when, as he sees it, they are already coming to him on bended knee?

He also knew that the more outrageous his remarks, the more grateful the West would be for whatever crumbs of reasonableness Iran might scatter on the table. This is what foreign ministers are for.

Finally, he knew that the Muslim world would be paying attention to his speech. That’s a world in which his view of 9/11 isn’t on the fringe but in the mainstream. Crackpots the world over—some of whom are reading this column now—want a voice. Ahmadinejad’s speech was a bid to become theirs.

This is the ideological component of Ahmadinejad’s grand strategy: To overcome the limitations imposed on Iran by its culture, geography, religion and sect, he seeks to become the champion of radical anti-Americans everywhere. That’s why so much of his speech last week was devoted to denouncing capitalism, the hardy perennial of the anti-American playbook. But that playbook needs an update, which is where 9/11 “Truth” fits in.

Could it work? Like any politician, Ahmadinejad knows his demographic. The University of Maryland’s World Public Opinion surveys have found that just 2% of Pakistanis believe al Qaeda perpetrated the attacks, whereas 27% believe it was the U.S. government. (Most respondents say they don’t know.)

Among Egyptians, 43% say Israel is the culprit, while another 12% blame the U.S. Just 16% of Egyptians think al Qaeda did it. In Turkey, opinion is evenly split: 39% blame al Qaeda, another 39% blame the U.S. or Israel. Even in Europe, Ahmadinejad has his corner. Fifteen percent of Italians and 23% of Germans finger the U.S. for the attacks.

Deeper than the polling data are the circumstances from which they arise. There’s always the temptation to argue that the problem is lack of education, which on the margins might be true. But the conspiracy theories cited earlier are retailed throughout the Muslim world by its most literate classes, journalists in particular. Irrationalism is not solely, or even mainly, the province of the illiterate.

Nor is it especially persuasive to suggest that the Muslim world needs more abundant proofs of American goodwill: The HAARP fantasy, for example, is being peddled at precisely the moment when Pakistanis are being fed and airlifted to safety by U.S. Marine helicopters operating off the USS Peleliu.

What Ahmadinejad knows is that there will always be a political place for what Michel Foucault called “the sovereign enterprise of Unreason.” This is an enterprise whose domain encompasses the politics of identity, of religious zeal, of race or class or national resentment, of victimization, of cheek and self-assertion. It is the politics that uses conspiracy theory not just because it sells, which it surely does, or because it manipulates and controls, which it does also, but because it offends. It is politics as a revolt against empiricism, logic, utility, pragmatism. It is the proverbial rage against the machine.

Chances are you know people to whom this kind of politics appeals in some way, large or small. They are Ahmadinejad’s constituency. They may be irrational; he isn’t crazy.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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A short history of presidential primaries

Although a Niagara of vitriol is drenching politics, the two parties are acting sensibly and in tandem about something once considered a matter of constitutional significance — the process by which presidential nominations are won.

The 2012 process will begin 17 months from now — in February rather than January. Under rules adopted by both parties’ national committees, no delegates to the national conventions shall be selected before the first Tuesday in March — except for delegates from New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Iowa may still conduct its caucuses, which do not select delegates, in February.

It is not graven on the heart of man by the finger of God that the Entitled Four shall go first, but it might as well be. Although they have just 3.8 percent of the nation’s population, they do represent four regions. Anyway, they shall have the spotlight to themselves until the deluge of delegate selections begin — perhaps in March but preferably in April.

Any Republican delegate-selection event held before the first day of April shall be penalized: The result cannot be, as many Republicans prefer, a winner-take-all allocation of delegates. March events “shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.” This means only that some of the delegates must be allocated proportional to the total vote.

Because Democrats are severe democrats, they have no winner-take-all events, so they do not have this stick with which to discipline disobedient states. Instead, they brandish — they are, after all, liberals — a carrot: States will be offered bonus delegates for moving their nominating events deeper into the nominating season, and for clustering their contests with those of neighboring states.

Each party wants to maximize its chance of nominating a strong candidate and — this is sometimes an afterthought — one who would not embarrass it as president. So both parties have equal interests in lengthening the nominating process to reduce the likelihood that a cascade of early victories will settle nomination contests before they have performed their proper testing-and-winnowing function.

With states jockeying for early positions, the danger has been that the process will become compressed into something similar to an early national primary. This would heavily favor well-known and well-funded candidates and would virtually exclude everyone else.

There have been other proposals. One would divide the nation into four regions voting on monthly intervals, with the order of voting rotating every four years. Another would spread voting over 10 two-week intervals, with the largest states voting last, thereby giving lesser-known candidates a chance to build strength.

Such plans, however, require cooperation approaching altruism among the states, which should not be counted on. Instead, the two parties are in a Madisonian mood, understanding that incentives are more reliable than moral exhortations in changing behavior.

Speaking of the sainted Madison, the parties’ reforms are a small step back toward what the Constitution envisioned: settled rules for something important. The nation’s Founders considered the selection of presidential candidates so crucial that they wanted the process to be controlled by the Constitution. So they devised a system under which the nomination of presidential candidates and the election of a president occurred simultaneously:

Electors meeting in their respective states, in numbers equal to their states’ senators and representatives, would vote for two candidates for president. When Congress counted the votes, the one with the most would become president, the runner-up vice president.

This did not survive the quick emergence of parties. After the presidential election of 1800, which was settled in the House after 36 votes, the 12th Amendment was adopted, and suddenly the nation had what it has had ever since — a process of paramount importance but without settled rules. The process has been a political version of the “tragedy of the commons” — by everyone acting self-interestedly, everyone’s interests are injured.

In 1952, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won every Democratic primary he entered except Florida’s, which was won by Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. So the nominee was . . . Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Party bosses, a species as dead as the dinosaurs, disliked Kefauver.

Today, the parties’ modest reforms — the best kind — have somewhat reduced the risks inherent in thorough democratization of the nomination process. Certainly the democratization has not correlated with dramatic improvements in the caliber of nominees. And the current president, whose campaign was his qualification for the office, is proof that even a protracted and shrewd campaign is not an infallible predictor of skillful governance.

George F. Will, Washington Post


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Visigoths at the gate?

When facing a tsunami, what do you do? Pray, and tell yourself stories. I am not privy to the Democrats’ private prayers, but I do hear the stories they’re telling themselves. The new meme is that there’s a civil war raging in the Republican Party. The Tea Party will wreck it from within and prove to be the Democrats’ salvation.

I don’t blame anyone for seeking a deus ex machina when about to be swept out to sea. But this salvation du jour is flimsier than most.

In fact, the big political story of the year is the contrary: that a spontaneous and quite anarchic movement with no recognized leadership or discernible organization has been merged with such relative ease into the Republican Party.

The Tea Party could have become Perot ’92, an anti-government movement that spurned the Republicans, went third-party and cost George H.W. Bush reelection, ending 12 years of Republican rule. Had the Tea Party gone that route, it would have drained the Republican Party of its most mobilized supporters and deprived Republicans of the sweeping victory that awaits them on Nov. 2.

Instead, it planted its flag within the party and, with its remarkable energy, created the enthusiasm gap. Such gaps are measurable. This one is a chasm. This year’s turnout for the Democratic primaries (as a percentage of eligible voters) was the lowest ever recorded. Republican turnout was the highest since 1970.

True, Christine O’Donnell’s nomination in Delaware may cost the Republicans an otherwise safe seat (and possibly control of the Senate), and Sharron Angle in Nevada is running only neck-and-neck with an unpopular Harry Reid. On balance, however, the Tea Party contribution is a large net plus, with its support for such strong candidates as Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Joe Miller of Alaska, Mike Lee of Utah. Even Rand Paul, he of the shaky start in Kentucky, sports an eight-point lead. All this in addition to the significant Tea Party contribution to the tide that will carry dozens of Republicans into the House.

Nonetheless, some Democrats have convinced themselves that they have found the issue with which to salvage 2010. “President Obama’s political advisers,” reports the New York Times, “are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists.”

Sweet irony. Fear-over-hope rides again, this time with Democrats in the saddle warning darkly about “the Republican Tea Party” (Joe Biden). Message: Vote Democratic and save the nation from a Visigoth mob with a barely concealed tinge of racism.

First, this is so at variance with reality that it’s hard to believe even liberals believe it. The largest Tea Party event yet was the recent Glenn Beck rally on the Mall. The hordes descending turned out to be several hundred thousand cheerful folks in what, by all accounts, had the feel of a church picnic. And they left the place nearly spotless — the first revolution in recorded history that collected its own trash.

Second, the general public is fairly evenly split in its views of the Tea Party. It experiences none of the horror that liberals do — and think others should. Moreover, the electorate supports by 2-to-1 the Tea Party signature issues of smaller government and lower taxes.

Third, you would hardly vote against the Republican in your state just because there might be a (perceived) too-conservative Republican running somewhere else. How would, say, Paul running in Kentucky deter someone from voting for Mark Kirk in Illinois? Or, to flip the parties, will anyone in Nevada refuse to vote for Harry Reid because Chris Coons, a once self-described “bearded Marxist,” is running as a Democrat in Delaware?

Fourth, what sane Democrat wants to nationalize an election at a time of 9.6 percent unemployment and such disappointment with Obama that just this week several of his own dreamy 2008 supporters turned on him at a cozy town hall? The Democrats’ only hope is to run local campaigns on local issues. That’s how John Murtha’s former district director hung on to his boss’s seat in a special election in Pennsylvania.

Newt Gingrich had to work hard — getting Republican candidates to sign the Contract with America — to nationalize the election that swept Republicans to victory in 1994. A Democratic anti-Tea Party campaign would do that for the Republicans — nationalize the election, gratis — in 2010. As a very recent former president — now preferred (Public Policy Polling, Sept. 1) in bellwether Ohio over the current one by 50 percent to 42 percent — once said: Bring ’em on.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Can a president lead with Woodward watching?

Question of the day: Why do presidents give the White House keys to Bob Woodward?

I ask this with all due deference, respect, hat in hand, cape over puddle and other sundry gestures owed by ink-stained wretches like me to the Most Famous Journalist on the Planet.

Through several administrations, Woodward has become president ex officio — or at least reporter in chief, a human tape recorder who issues history’s first draft even as history is still tying its shoes.

For years he’s been the best-selling first read on a president’s inner struggles. His latest, “Obama’s Wars,” exposes infighting in the West Wing over how to handle Afghanistan.

The suggestion that there was discord in the Oval Office over whether to increase troop numbers in a brutal war theater is, frankly, of great consolation. If we don’t worry ourselves sick about putting lives on the line, what exactly would we concern ourselves with? Who’s dancing next with the stars?

What is of some concern — at least based on those excerpts that have leaked thus far — is that the president gets pushed around by the generals. And that impression feeds into the larger one that Barack Obama is not quite commander in chief. He seems far more concerned with being politically savvy than with winning what he has called the good war.

Cognitive dissonance sets in when Obama declares that “it’s time to turn the page” in the war that he didn’t like — Iraq — and that is not in fact over. Fifty thousand troops remain in Iraq, while the surge in Afghanistan seems to be not enough — or too much for too long, already.

Whatever one’s view of circumstances on the ground, whether in the wars abroad or in domestic skirmishes on Wall Street, Obama seems not to be the man in charge. Nor does it seem that he is even sure of his own intentions. One telling exchange reported by Woodward took place with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In explaining his July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Obama told Graham:

“I have to say that. I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

How’s that? We tell the enemy when we’re leaving so the party base doesn’t get upset? Well, of course, public opinion matters in war, as in all things. As we’ve seen before, wars can’t be won without the will of the people at home. But a commander in chief at least ought to know what he’s fighting for and why he’s asking Americans to risk their lives. If it’s not a good enough reason to warrant victory, then maybe it isn’t any longer a good war.

In another telling anecdote, the president asked his aides for a plan “about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan.” Apparently, he didn’t get such a plan. Whose presidency is this anyway?

The White House reportedly isn’t upset with the way the president comes across. His portrayal is consistent with what they consider a positive profile: Obama as thoughtful and reflective. To the list might we add ponderous?

We all want a thoughtful president. As few Democrats tire of reminding us, America and the world have had quite enough of cowboys. But surely we can discard the caricatures and settle on a thoughtful commander who is neither a gunslinger nor a chalk-dusted harrumpher. Surely the twain can meet.

The Woodward Syndrome, meanwhile, presents a dilemma for all presidents. By his presence, events are affected. By our knowledge of what he witnesses, even as history is being created in real time, we can also affect these same events. Is it fair to Obama to critique him as he navigates his own thoughts? Or are we interfering with outcomes by inserting ourselves into conversations to which we were never supposed to be privy?

It’s a conundrum unlikely to be resolved. If anything, in our tell-all, see-all political culture, no struggle will go unrecorded or un-critiqued. The need for strong leadership is, therefore, all the more necessary.

There’s a saying that seems applicable here: Work like you don’t need money, love like you’re never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching.

Note to President Obama: Lead like there’s no tomorrow. No midterm election, no presidential reelection, no party base. Liberate yourself from the Woodward Syndrome, figure out what you think, and lead.

You are commander in chief, after all. Half the country may disagree with you, but they’ll respect you in the morning.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post


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The Enraged vs. the Exhausted

If you thought the 1994 election was historic, just wait till this year.

All anyone in America who cares about politics was talking about this week was the searing encounter that captured, in a way that hasn’t been done before, the essence of the political moment we’re in. When 2010 is reviewed, it will be the clip producers pick to illustrate the president’s disastrous fall.

It is Monday, Sept. 20, the middle of the day, in Washington. CNBC is holding a town hall for the president. A woman stands—handsome, dignified, black, a person with presence. She looks as if she may be what she turns out to be, an Obama supporter who in 2008 put up street signs, passed out literature and tried to win over co-workers. As she later told the Washington Post, “I was thinking that the people who were against him and didn’t believe in his agenda were completely insane.”

The president looked relieved when she stood. Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park. Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.” She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.” She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

What a testimony. And this is the president’s base. He got that look public figures adopt when they know they just took one right in the chops on national TV and cannot show their dismay. He could have responded with an engagement and conviction equal to the moment. But this was our president—calm, detached, even-keeled to the point of insensate. He offered a recital of his administration’s achievements: tuition assistance, health care. It seemed so off point. Like his first two years.

But it was the word Mrs. Hart used that captured everything: “exhausted.” From what I see, that’s how a lot of Democrats feel. They’ve turned silent, too, like people who witnessed a car crash and can’t talk anymore about the reasons for the accident or how many were injured.

This election is more and more shaping up into a contest between the Exhausted and the Enraged.

In a contest like that, who wins? That’s like asking, “Who would win a sporting event between the depressed and the anxious?” The anxious are wide awake. The wide awake win.

But Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee suggests I have the wrong word for the Republican base. The word, she says, is not enraged but “livid.”

The three-term Republican deputy whip has been campaigning in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. We spoke by phone about what she is seeing, and she sounded like the exact opposite of exhausted.

There are two major developments, she says, that are new this year and insufficiently noted, but they’re going to shape election outcomes in 2010 and beyond.

First, Washington is being revealed in a new way.

The American people now know, “with real sophistication,” everything that happens in the capital. “I find a much more knowledgeable electorate, and it is a real-time response,” Ms. Blackburn says. “We hear about it even as the vote is taking place.”

Voters come to rallies carrying research—”things they pulled off the Internet, forwarded emails,” copies of bills, roll-call votes. The Internet isn’t just a tool for organization and fund-raising. It has given citizens access to information they never had before. “The more they know,” Ms. Blackburn observes, “the less they like Washington.”

Second is the rise of women as a force. They “are the drivers in this election cycle,” Ms. Blackburn says. “Something is going on.” At tea party events the past 18 months, she started to notice “60% of the crowd is women.”

She tells of a political rally that drew thousands in Nashville, at the State Capitol plaza. She had brought her year-old grandson. When the mic was handed to her, she was holding him. “I said, ‘How many of you are grandmothers?’ The hands! That was the moment I realized that the majority of the people at the political events now are women. I saw this in town halls in ’09—it was women showing up at my listening events, it was women talking about health care.”

Why would more women be focusing more intently on politics this year than before?

Ms. Blackburn hypothesizes: “Women are always focusing on a generation or two down the road. Women make the education and health-care decisions for their families, for their kids, their spouse, their parents. And so they have become more politically involved. They are worried about will people have enough money, how are they going to pay the bills, the tuition, get the kids through school and college.”

Ms. Blackburn suggested, further in the conversation, that government’s reach into the personal lives of families, including new health-care rules and the prospect of higher taxes, plus the rise in public information on how Washington works and what it does, had prompted mothers to rebel.

The media called 1994 “the year of the angry white male.” That was the year of the Republican wave that yielded a GOP House for the first time in 40 years. “I look at this year as the Rage of the Bill-Paying Moms,” Ms. Blackburn says. “They are saying ‘How dare you, in your arrogance, cap the opportunities my child will have? You’ll burden them with so much debt they won’t be able to buy a house—all because you can’t balance the budget.'”

How does 2010 compare with 1994 in terms of historical significance? Ms. Blackburn says there’s an unnoted story there, too. Whereas 1994 was historic as a party victory, a shift in political power, this year feels more organic, more from-the-ground, and potentially deeper. She believes 2010 will mark “a philosophical shift,” the beginning of a change in national thinking regarding the role of the individual and the government.

This “will be remembered as the year the American people said no” to the status quo. The people “do not trust” those who make the decisions far away. They want to restore balance.

What is the mainstream media getting wrong about this election, and what is it getting right? The media, Ms. Blackburn says, do not fully appreciate “how livid people are with Washington.” They see the anger but don’t understand its implications. “They’re getting right that people want change, but they’re wrong about what that change is going to be.” The media, she said, “are going to be amazed when Carly Fiorina and Sharron Angle win.”

The mainstream media famously like the horse race—red is up, blue is down; Smith is in, Jones is out. But if Ms. Blackburn is right, the election, and its meaning, will be more interesting than the old, classic jockeying. And the outcomes won’t be controlled by the good ol’ boys but by those she calls “the great new gals.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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The Carter-Obama Comparisons Grow

Walter Mondale himself sees a parallel.

Comparisons between the Obama White House and the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter are increasingly being made—and by Democrats.

Walter Mondale, Mr. Carter’s vice president, told The New Yorker this week that anxious and angry voters in the late 1970s “just turned against us—same as with Obama.” As the polls turned against his administration, Mr. Mondale recalled that Mr. Carter “began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public.” Democrats on Capitol Hill are now saying this is happening to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Mondale says it’s time for the president “to get rid of those teleprompters and connect” with voters. Another of Mr. Obama’s clear errors has been to turn over the drafting of key legislation to the Democratic Congress: “That doesn’t work even when you own Congress,” he said. “You have to ride ’em.”

Mr. Carter himself is heightening comparisons with his own presidency by publishing his White House diaries this week. “I overburdened Congress with an array of controversial and politically costly requests,” he said on Monday. The parallels to Mr. Obama’s experience are clear.

Comparisons between the two men were made frequently during the 2008 campaign, but in a favorable way. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, for instance, told Fox News in August 2008 that Mr. Obama’s “rhetoric is more like Jimmy Carter’s than any other Democratic president in recent memory.” Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg noted more recently that Mr. Obama, like Mr. Carter in his 1976 campaign, “promised a transformational presidency, a new accommodation with religion, a new centrism, a changed tone.”

But within a few months, liberals were already finding fault with his rhetoric. “He’s the great earnest bore at the dinner party,” wrote Michael Wolff, a contributor to Vanity Fair. “He’s cold; he’s prickly; he’s uncomfortable; he’s not funny; and he’s getting awfully tedious. He thinks it’s all about him.” That sounds like a critique of Mr. Carter.

Foreign policy experts are also picking up on similarities. Walter Russell Mead, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Economist magazine earlier this year that Mr. Obama is “avoiding the worst mistakes that plagued Carter.” But he warns that presidents like Mr. Obama who emphasize “human rights” can fall prey to the temptation of picking on weak countries while ignoring more dire human rights issues in powerful countries (Russia, China, Iran). Over time that can “hollow out an administration’s credibility and make a president look weak.” Mr. Mead warned that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy “to some degree makes him dependent on people who wish neither him nor America well. This doesn’t have to end badly and I hope that it doesn’t—but it’s not an ideal position after one’s first year in power.”

Liberals increasingly can’t avoid making connections between Mr. Carter’s political troubles and those of Mr. Obama. In July, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked his guests if Democrats up for re-election will “run away from President O’Carter.” After much laughter, John Heileman of New York Magazine quipped “Calling Dr. Freud.” To which Mr. Matthews, a former Carter speechwriter, sighed “I know.”

Pat Caddell, who was Mr. Carter’s pollster while he was in the White House, thinks some comparisons between the two men are overblown. But he notes that any White House that is sinking in the polls takes on a “bunker mentality” that leads the president to become isolated and consult with fewer and fewer people from the outside. Mr. Caddell told me that his Democratic friends think that’s happening to Mr. Obama—and that the president’s ability to pull himself out of a political tailspin is hampered by his resistance to seek out fresh thinking.

The Obama White House is clearly cognizant of the comparisons being made between the two presidents. This month, environmental activist Bill McKibben met with White House aides to convince them to reinstall a set of solar panels that Mr. Carter had placed on the White House roof. They were taken down in 1986 following roof repairs. Mr. McKibben said it was time to bring them back to demonstrate Mr. Obama’s support for alternative energy.

But Mr. McKibben told reporters that the White House “refused to take the Carter-era panel that we brought with us” and only said that they would continue to ponder “what is appropriate” for the White House’s energy needs. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the Obama aides were “twitchy perhaps about inviting any comparison (to Mr. Carter) in the run-up to the very difficult mid-term elections.” Democrats need no reminding that Mr. Carter wound up costing them dearly in 1978 and 1980 as Republicans made major gains in Congress.

Mr. Fund is a columnist for


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Democrats Run From Pelosi

And the GOP prepares its ‘Pledge to America.’

Sometimes the impending loss of power can cause people to say strange things. Consider House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told reporters last week, “I don’t really even have the time to pay attention” to the attacks on her. “This is what campaigns are about. I sort of, like, thrive on them.”

Really? It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Pelosi likes the ads run by at least seven Democratic House incumbents distancing themselves from her agenda, such as the stimulus, cap and trade, and ObamaCare. Or the comments in recent weeks by Reps. Chet Edwards (a trusted Texas lieutenant), Heath Shuler (North Carolina) and Zack Space (Ohio), all of whom declined to support her re-election, saying they don’t even know who will run for speaker. Does she appreciate Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright, who said late last month, “Heck, she might even get sick and die”?

Mrs. Pelosi also faces an uprising by 37 House Democrats who back extending all the Bush tax cuts. Most of them signed a letter on Sept. 15 saying “given the continued fragility of our economy and slow pace of recovery . . . raising any taxes right now could negatively impact economic growth.” With 179 Republicans in the House, just one more Democratic defection and there could be a majority for continuing the Bush tax cuts right now.

There is similar discontent among Senate Democrats. It appears impossible that Majority Leader Harry Reid can pass any tax bill. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is rumored to be unveiling his proposal within days, but no one seems to know what will be in it. There have been no substantive discussions among the finance committee’s members, a precondition for any sincere attempt to legislate.

Meanwhile, the president refuses to provide his own proposal. This is especially disappointing given that Mr. Obama’s budget requires that the $3 trillion of Bush tax cuts he favors be offset by tax increases. So whose trillions of oxen does Mr. Obama want to gore with higher taxes just 40 days before the election? He won’t say, proving he’s not really serious about resolving his tax mess now.

Instead, he’s content to ensnare Democrats in a losing game by asking them to extend the Bush tax cuts before they adjourn—only for those making less than $250,000. But with less than two weeks before Congress adjourns, Democrats can’t pass a tax cut through either chamber.

So why are they even trying to take it up now? It will leave the president and Democratic lawmakers looking disorganized, incompetent and impotent. No wonder Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) questioned the sanity of Democratic leaders. “I don’t know who takes a tax vote, in their right mind, just before an election,” she told the Daily Caller on Tuesday.

Mrs. Feinstein knows of what she speaks. Depending on how the question is asked, polls show as many as two out of every three Americans want to continue the Bush tax cuts and oppose raising taxes on anyone right now because of the feeble economy.

Still, Democrats have achieved something significant. Just before a crucial election, they have cemented their party’s reputation as tax-happy.

Given this ineptness, there will be a temptation for Republicans to ease up, say little of substance, and play out the clock. But in politics, it is never wise to count on the opposition to keep making mistakes. Democrats will get their act together sometime.

Republicans must reinvigorate the national conversation about jobs and economic growth, the stimulus, spending, deficits and ObamaCare, and then present constructive proposals of their own to meet the nation’s challenges.

That’s why today’s release of the House GOP’s “Pledge to America” is so important. It presents practical steps to create jobs, control spending, repeal ObamaCare, reform Washington and keep America secure. Much of it is embodied in legislation that can be voted on right now.

The only thing Congress must do before it leaves town is fund the government. The “Pledge” would freeze the tax code for two years and fund non-defense spending at 2008 levels—before the bailouts and stimulus. Mrs. Pelosi would lose if this were voted upon, even with her current huge majority. So it’s unlikely she’ll allow the GOP proposal to be considered. But she can’t stop Republicans from making their point on spending and taxes.

What’s brought Republicans so close to victory are their deep differences with Democrats. Now’s the time to emphasize those policy disagreements in every way possible. Keeping the fight on the big issues will strengthen the powerful current that’s set to sweep Democrats from office.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Aren’t We Clever?

What a contrast. In a year that’s on track to be our planet’s hottest on record, America turned “climate change” into a four-letter word that many U.S. politicians won’t even dare utter in public. If this were just some parlor game, it wouldn’t matter. But the totally bogus “discrediting” of climate science has had serious implications. For starters, it helped scuttle Senate passage of the energy-climate bill needed to scale U.S.-made clean technologies, leaving America at a distinct disadvantage in the next great global industry. And that brings me to the contrast: While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue.

“There is really no debate about climate change in China,” said Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China. “China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data.” The push for green in China, she added, “is a practical discussion on health and wealth. There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.”

And because runaway pollution in China means wasted lives, air, water, ecosystems and money — and wasted money means fewer jobs and more political instability — China’s leaders would never go a year (like we will) without energy legislation mandating new ways to do more with less. It’s a three-for-one shot for them. By becoming more energy efficient per unit of G.D.P., China saves money, takes the lead in the next great global industry and earns credit with the world for mitigating climate change.

So while America’s Republicans turned “climate change” into a four-letter word — J-O-K-E — China’s Communists also turned it into a four-letter word — J-O-B-S.

“China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” said Liu. “It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.” China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities. “They’re able to quickly throw spaghetti on the wall to see what clean-tech models stick, and then have the political will to scale them quickly across the country,” Liu added. “This allows China to create jobs and learn quickly.”

But China’s capability limitations require that it reach out for partners. This is a great opportunity for U.S. clean-tech firms — if we nurture them. “While the U.S. is known for radical innovation, China is better at tweak-ovation.” said Liu. Chinese companies are good at making a billion widgets at a penny each but not good at complex system integration or customer service.

We (sort of) have those capabilities. At the World Economic Forum meeting here, I met Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, which has invented processes for separating plastic from piles of junked computers, appliances and cars and then recycling it into pellets to make new plastic using less than 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil. Biddle calls it “above-ground mining.” In the last three years, his company has mined 100 million pounds of new plastic from old plastic.

Biddle’s seed money was provided mostly by U.S. taxpayers through federal research grants, yet today only his tiny headquarters are in the U.S. His factories are in Austria, China and Britain. “I employ 25 people in California and 250 overseas,” he says. His dream is to have a factory in America that would repay all those research grants, but that would require a smart U.S. energy bill. Why?

Americans recycle about 25 percent of their plastic bottles. Most of the rest ends up in landfills or gets shipped to China to be recycled here. Getting people to recycle regularly is a hassle. To overcome that, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea — and next year, China — have enacted producer-responsibility laws requiring that anything with a cord or battery — from an electric toothbrush to a laptop to a washing machine — has to be collected and recycled at the manufacturers’ cost. That gives Biddle the assured source of raw material he needs at a reasonable price. (Because recyclers now compete in these countries for junk, the cost to the manufacturers for collecting it is steadily falling.)

“I am in the E.U. and China because the above-ground plastic mines are there or are being created there,” said Biddle, who just won The Economist magazine’s 2010 Innovation Award for energy/environment. “I am not in the U.S. because there aren’t sufficient mines.”

Biddle had enough money to hire one lobbyist to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to copy the recycling regulations of Europe, Japan and China in our energy bill, but, in the end, there was no bill. So we educated him, we paid for his tech breakthroughs — and now Chinese and European workers will harvest his fruit. Aren’t we clever?

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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It’s the Spending, Stupid

A chronic voter ‘concern’ has now exploded into a broad public movement.

At a backyard town-hall meeting in Fairfax, Va., Monday, President Obama explained why Christine O’Donnell was going to beat Mike Castle in the GOP’s Delaware Senate primary:

“They saw the Recovery Act,” he said. “They saw TARP. They saw the auto bailout. And they look at these and think, ‘God, all these huge numbers adding up.’ So they’re right to be concerned about that.”

Of course Mr. Obama was speaking generally about the public mood. Let’s call it his “generic” explanation for the current voter impulse to wipe out GOP incumbents now and Democrats in November.

Here’s your bumper sticker for the 2010 elections: It’s the Spending, Stupid.

And the president didn’t mention the two $3 trillion-plus budgets passed on his watch or the trillion-dollar health-care entitlement. They, the voters, are not “concerned” about Uncle Sam’s spending floating toward the moon. They are enraged, furious, crazed and desperate.

Pennsylvania’s shrewd Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, scripting the new conventional wisdom, says the tea party movement supporting Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska proves the GOP is in the grip of crazies. With luck, none of his audience will wake up from this delusion before November.

Back in April, the New York Times/CBS did a poll of tea party supporters. When asked, “What should be the goal of the Tea Party movement,” 45% said, “Reduce federal government.” That is, cut spending. Everything else was in single digits.

I’m convinced that beneath all the economic turbulence in the land is anxiety that’s been building for years as public spending has continued to grow. What was a chronic “concern” has exploded this year into a broad public movement—in Washington, California, New York, New Jersey and indeed across Europe. This isn’t “concern,” Mr. President. It’s a crisis.

Look at the astonishing numbers in the Rasmussen poll released last week. Nearly seven in 10 respondents (68%) want a smaller government, lower taxes and fewer services. The party breakdown: GOP, 88%; Democrats, 44%; and Other, 74%. In short, the independent voters who decide national elections have moved into the anti-spending column. I don’t think they’ll leave any time soon.

In a note on last week’s poll, Rasmussen points out that the only time it recorded a higher shrink-the-government number, at 70%, was in August 2006. That was just ahead of the famous off-year election in which Republican voters withheld support for their party’s free-spending members in Congress.

The Obama White House holds that the spending concerns Mr. Obama cited Monday—the stimulus, TARP, the auto bailout—were necessary. Whatever any individual merit in this stuff, it hit most voters at a moment when nearly any big government outlays were going to be written off as “more spending.” When Mr. Obama said the health bill was “paid for,” naturally polls showed that no one believed him. Why should they?

This loss of faith predates the Obama presidency.

I called Scott Rasmussen this week to discuss the roots of the anti-spending mood, and he suggested that the American electorate’s desire for pushback against the growth in federal spending dates at least to 1992 and Ross Perot’s third-party presidential bid, which drew 18.9% of the popular vote. Indeed, Mr. Rasmussen argues, you can find evidence of the turn in Jimmy Carter’s “efficiency in government” efforts.

Until Barack Obama, the only Democrats who had a chance of winning the presidency were Southern governors with a reputation for fiscal moderation. But after Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, he immediately tried to pass the mammoth health-care entitlement known as HillaryCare. After 17 acrimonious months, it died in August 1994. That November, voters gave control of the House to the GOP for the first time in 40 years. It was about more than Newt Gingrich’s charm.

So this year the Democrats, who control Congress because of voter disgust with the Republicans in 2006, passed a health-care entitlement. And this year voters will transfer power back to the Republicans.

The most important and startling number in American politics today is Congress’s approval rating: 23%. This is a no-confidence vote. The second branch of government is losing the country. Surely it’s about the spending. What else? That Congress hasn’t spent enough?

If voters give control of the House to the GOP, the party desperately needs to establish credibility on spending. Absent that, little else is possible. Independent voters now know that the national Democratic Party, hopelessly joined to the public-sector unions, will never stabilize public outlays.

In a sense, the GOP’s impending victory is meaningless, a win by default. If the Republican rookies entering Congress next year don’t do something identifiably real to stop the federal-spending balloon, voters two years from now will start throwing the GOP under the bus. Absent action, the political rage and cynicism on offer in 2012 could make this year’s tea parties look like, well, a tea party.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Why It’s Time for the Tea Party

The populist movement is more a critique of the GOP than a wing of it.

This fact marks our political age: The pendulum is swinging faster and in shorter arcs than it ever has in our lifetimes. Few foresaw the earthquake of 2008 in 2006. No board-certified political professional predicted, on Election Day 2008, what happened in 2009-10 (New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts) and has been happening, and will happen, since then. It all moves so quickly now, it all turns on a dime.

But at this moment we are witnessing a shift that will likely have some enduring political impact. Another way of saying that: The past few years, a lot of people in politics have wondered about the possibility of a third party. Would it be possible to organize one? While they were wondering, a virtual third party was being born. And nobody organized it.

Here is Jonathan Rauch in National Journal on the tea party’s innovative, broad-based network: “In the expansive dominion of the Tea Party Patriots, which extends to thousands of local groups and literally countless activists,” there is no chain of command, no hierarchy. Individuals “move the movement.” Popular issues gain traction and are emphasized, unpopular ones die. “In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on such a large scale.” Here are pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen in the Washington Examiner: “The Tea Party has become one of the most powerful and extraordinary movements in American political history.” “It is as popular as both the Democratic and Republican parties.” “Over half of the electorate now say they favor the Tea Party movement, around 35 percent say they support the movement, 20 to 25 percent self-identify as members of the movement.”

So far, the tea party is not a wing of the GOP but a critique of it. This was demonstrated in spectacular fashion when GOP operatives dismissed tea party-backed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. The Republican establishment is “the reason we even have the Tea Party movement,” shot back columnist and tea party enthusiast Andrea Tantaros in the New York Daily News. It was the Bush administration that “ran up deficits” and gave us “open borders” and “Medicare Part D and busted budgets.”

Everyone has an explanation for the tea party that is actually not an explanation but a description. They’re “angry.” They’re “antiestablishment,” “populist,” “anti-elite.” All to varying degrees true. But as a network television executive said this week, “They should be fed up. Our institutions have failed.”

I see two central reasons for the tea party’s rise. The first is the yardstick, and the second is the clock. First, the yardstick. Imagine that over at the 36-inch end you’ve got pure liberal thinking—more and larger government programs, a bigger government that costs more in the many ways that cost can be calculated. Over at the other end you’ve got conservative thinking—a government that is growing smaller and less demanding and is less expensive. You assume that when the two major parties are negotiating bills in Washington, they sort of lay down the yardstick and begin negotiations at the 18-inch line. Each party pulls in the direction it wants, and the dominant party moves the government a few inches in their direction.

But if you look at the past half century or so you have to think: How come even when Republicans are in charge, even when they’re dominant, government has always gotten larger and more expensive? It’s always grown! It’s as if something inexorable in our political reality—with those who think in liberal terms dominating the establishment, the media, the academy—has always tilted the starting point in negotiations away from 18 inches, and always toward liberalism, toward the 36-inch point.

Democrats on the Hill or in the White House try to pull it up to 30, Republicans try to pull it back to 25. A deal is struck at 28. Washington Republicans call it victory: “Hey, it coulda been 29!” But regular conservative-minded or Republican voters see yet another loss. They could live with 18. They’d like eight. Instead it’s 28.

For conservatives on the ground, it has often felt as if Democrats (and moderate Republicans) were always saying, “We should spend a trillion dollars,” and the Republican Party would respond, “No, too costly. How about $700 billion?” Conservatives on the ground are thinking, “How about nothing? How about we don’t spend more money but finally start cutting.”

What they want is representatives who’ll begin the negotiations at 18 inches and tug the final bill toward five inches. And they believe tea party candidates will do that.

The second thing is the clock. Here is a great virtue of the tea party: They know what time it is. It’s getting late. If we don’t get the size and cost of government in line now, we won’t be able to. We’re teetering on the brink of some vast, dark new world—states and cities on the brink of bankruptcy, the federal government too. The issue isn’t “big spending” anymore. It’s ruinous spending that they fear will end America as we know it, as they promised it to their children.

So there’s a sense that dramatic action is needed, and a sense of profound urgency. Add drama to urgency and you get the victory of a tea party-backed candidate.

That is the context. Local tea parties seem—so far—not to be falling in love with the particular talents or background of their candidates. It’s more detached than that. They don’t say their candidates will be reflective, skilled in negotiations, a great senator, a Paul Douglas or Pat Moynihan or a sturdy Scoop Jackson. These qualities are not what they think are urgently needed. What they want is someone who will walk in, put her foot on the conservative end of the yardstick, and make everything slip down in that direction.

Nobody knows how all this will play out, but we are seeing something big—something homegrown, broad-based and independent. In part it is a rising up of those who truly believe America is imperiled and truly mean to save her. The dangers, both present and potential, are obvious. A movement like this can help a nation by acting as a corrective, or it can descend into a corrosive populism that celebrates unknowingness as authenticity, that confuses showiness with seriousness and vulgarity with true conviction. Parts could become swept by a desire just to tear down, to destroy. But establishments exist for a reason. It is true that the party establishment is compromised, and by many things, but one of them is experience. They’ve lived through a lot, seen a lot, know the national terrain. They know how things work. They know the history. I wonder if tea party members know how fragile are the institutions that help keep the country together.

One difference so far between the tea party and the great wave of conservatives that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 is that latter was a true coalition—not only North and South, East and West but right-wingers, intellectuals who were former leftists, and former Democrats. When they won presidential landslides in 1980, ’84 and ’88, they brought the center with them. That in the end is how you win. Will the center join arms and work with the tea party? That’s a great question of 2012.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Mystifying Strategy

It’s too late for the president to turn John Boehner into the Gingrich of 2010.

 don’t often expect to find myself supportive of President Barack Obama. But I didn’t think I’d be as mystified by his actions over the past few months as I have been.

Mr. Obama and his team won a well-deserved reputation during the 2008 campaign for message discipline and a keen appreciation for how Americans would receive his words and actions.

That’s why it’s so surprising that, in just 20 months, Mr. Obama has lost control of his presidency’s narrative. He has done things that are inexplicable, creating the impression of a White House that is clueless, rudderless and arrogant.

For example, what was to be gained by the president attacking the largely unknown House minority leader, John Boehner, last week? Set aside the unfairness of the charges and focus only on the efficacy of the president lowering himself that way.

There is far too little time before the midterm election to demonize Mr. Boehner as President Bill Clinton so effectively did to Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. That took a concerted White House effort over nearly two years that cost tens of millions of dollars for ads.

And does Mr. Obama think this will make it easier to work with Mr. Boehner after Nov. 2 if Republicans take the House and he becomes the speaker? After all, one of the public’s biggest disappointments with this president is that he has failed miserably in his promise to change the political tone.

Mr. Obama’s personal attacks on the GOP leader may be therapeutic for him and send a thrill up the leg of left-wingers, but it has cost him (and his party) dearly with independents and college-educated voters. In a little more than a year and a half, the president has lost a third of his support among independents, many of whom are ready to punish Democrats at the polls.

Then there’s this oddity: Why did the president raise the issue of tax cuts so close to the election? Americans now trust the GOP over Democrats on taxes by 52% to 36%, according to the Aug. 23-24 Rasmussen survey.

The president has yet to offer up legislation that spells out details of his proposal, like the $3 trillion in new taxes to offset keeping the Bush tax cuts just for the middle class. Democrats are in disarray with increasing numbers of them bucking Mr. Obama and endorsing the Bush tax cuts. Mr. Obama’s failure to pass anything this fall, when Democrats have big congressional majorities, will simply add to the emerging narrative of incompetence.

So will the failure to coordinate the Democratic message on jobs, stimulus, energy, immigration and other issues. This has led to campaign themes being used briefly and then discarded like tissues, hurting Democratic chances in the midterms.

This reactive, scattershot approach has kept Mr. Obama from laying the groundwork for any major legislative initiative for 2012. And the administration’s current policies make it unlikely the economy will grow at the rate of between 8% and 9% per quarter it did in the runup to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection.

Also puzzling is Mr. Obama gratuitously wading into the mosque issue. The way he handled the issue hurt America abroad. The New York Times headline after his comments at his White House Iftar dinner on Aug. 13 said “Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site.” After he backtracked less than 14 hours later, the Washington Post headline blared “Obama: Backing Muslims’ right to build NYC mosque is not an endorsement.” That flip-flop made him look weak.

There have been other less serious public relations missteps, including lavish vacations and playing more golf in 20 months than his predecessor did in eight years. These are not big deals, but they are unlikely to sit well with American families hard-pressed to get to the beach, lake or park once during this “recovery summer.” It’s little wonder that 49% of voters in this week’s Quinnipiac Poll say Mr. Obama does not share their values.

It is too late for Mr. Obama to do a makeover before the midterms. After suffering a massive repudiation in November, will Mr. Obama continue down this road of attacks, recriminations and self-pity? Or will he return to the conciliatory, inspirational themes of his 2008 campaign? If his choice is the latter, the president will have to prove himself by deeds. His words have been utterly devalued.

Personnel is policy, so the president’s choices to replace likely-to-depart White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and perhaps-resigning senior adviser David Axelrod will be telling. Will Mr. Obama chose insularity over outreach and partisanship over leadership? For his sake as well as America’s, let’s hope the midterms bring about real hope and change at the White House.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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The Backlash Myth

Many of my liberal friends are convinced that the Republican Party has a death wish. It is sprinting to the right-most fever swamps of American life. It will end up alienating the moderate voters it needs to win elections.

There’s only one problem with this theory. There is no evidence to support it. The Republican Party may be moving sharply right, but there is no data to suggest that this has hurt its electoral prospects, at least this year.

I asked the election guru Charlie Cook if there were signs that the Tea Party was scaring away the independents. “I haven’t seen any,” he replied. I asked another Hall of Fame pollster, Peter Hart, if there were Republican or independent voters so alarmed by the Tea Party that they might alter their votes. He ran the numbers and found very few potential defectors.

The fact is, as the Tea Party has surged, so has the G.O.P. When this primary season began in early February, voters wanted Democrats to retain control of Congress by 49 percent to 37 percent, according to an Associated Press-Gfk poll. In the ensuing months, Tea Party candidates won shocking victories in states from Florida to Alaska. The most recent A.P./Gfk poll now suggests that Americans want Republicans to take over Congress by 46 percent to 43 percent.

Nor is there evidence that the Tea Party’s success has changed moderates’ perceptions about Republicans generally. According to a survey published in July by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans feel philosophically closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats. Put another way, many moderates see Democrats like Nancy Pelosi as more extreme than Republicans like John Boehner.

Nor is there any sign that alarm over the Tea Party is hurting individual Republican candidates. In Ohio, Republican Rob Portman has opened up a significant lead on his Democratic opponent. In Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul is way ahead, as is Marco Rubio in Florida. In Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk has a small lead, and Linda McMahon has pulled nearly even in Connecticut. Sharron Angle, a weak candidate, is basically tied with Harry Reid in Nevada.

This does not mean that moderate voters are signing up for the Glenn Beck-Sarah Palin brigades. Palin has a dismal 29 percent approval rating, according to a June Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. But it does mean that the essential dynamic of this election is still the essential dynamic. Voters are upset about the economy, the debt and the culture of Washington. The Democrats are the party of government and of the status quo. They have done their best to remind people of that. This week, Democratic voters renominated Charles Rangel, the epitome of Washington scandal. Democratic voters in the District of Columbia ousted Mayor Adrian Fenty, one of the nation’s bravest education reformers, and replaced him with an orthodox pol.

Most voters want a radical change in government but not a radical change in policy. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, only 34 percent of Americans say their own representative deserves re-election. This is an astounding number.

It doesn’t matter that public approval of the G.O.P. is now at its all-time low. It doesn’t matter that the Tea Party rhetoric is sometimes extreme. The poll suggests that roughly 50 percent of Americans haven’t thought about the Tea Parties enough to form an opinion. They’re not paying attention because they don’t see it as one of the important dangers they face. Who knows? Maybe they even sort of like the fact that a ragtag band of outsiders is taking on the establishment and winning.

This doesn’t mean that the Tea Party influence will be positive for Republicans over the long haul. The movement carries viruses that may infect the G.O.P. in the years ahead. Its members seek traditional, conservative ends, but they use radical means. Along the way, the movement has picked up some of the worst excesses of modern American culture: a narcissistic sense of victimization, an egomaniacal belief in one’s own rightness and purity, a willingness to distort the truth so that every conflict becomes a contest of pure good versus pure evil.

The Tea Party style is beginning to replicate itself in parts of the conservative world. Dinesh D’Souza’s Forbes cover article, “How Obama Thinks,” contained the sort of untethered assertions that have become the lingua franca of this movement. Obama got his subversive radicalism from his father’s grave, D’Souza postulated: “He adopted his father’s position that capitalism and freedom are code words for economic plunder.” The fact that Newt Gingrich embraced this offensive theory is a sign of how severely the normal intellectual standards have been weakened.

But that damage is all in the future. Right now, the Tea Party doesn’t matter. The Republicans don’t matter. The economy and the Democrats are handing the G.O.P. a great, unearned revival. Nothing, it seems, is more scary than one-party Democratic control.

David Brooks, New York Times


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The Meaning of the Koran

Test your religious literacy:

Which sacred text says that Jesus is the “word” of God? a) the Gospel of John; b) the Book of Isaiah; c) the Koran.

The correct answer is the Koran. But if you guessed the Gospel of John you get partial credit because its opening passage — “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God” — is an implicit reference to Jesus. In fact, when Muhammad described Jesus as God’s word, he was no doubt aware that he was affirming Christian teaching.

Extra-credit question: Which sacred text has this to say about the Hebrews: God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples”? I won’t bother to list the choices, since you’ve probably caught onto my game by now; that line, too, is in the Koran.

I highlight these passages in part for the sake of any self-appointed guardians of Judeo-Christian civilization who might still harbor plans to burn the Koran. I want them to be aware of everything that would go up in smoke.

But I should concede that I haven’t told the whole story. Even while calling Jesus the word of God — and “the Messiah” — the Koran denies that he was the son of God or was himself divine. And, though the Koran does call the Jews God’s chosen people, and sings the praises of Moses, and says that Jews and Muslims worship the same God, it also has anti-Jewish, and for that matter anti-Christian, passages. 

This darker side of the Koran, presumably, has already come to the attention of would-be Koran burners and, more broadly, to many of the anti-Muslim Americans whom cynical politicians like Newt Gingrich are trying to harness and multiply. The other side of the Koran — the part that stresses interfaith harmony — is better known in liberal circles.

As for people who are familiar with both sides of the Koran — people who know the whole story — well, there may not be many of them. It’s characteristic of contemporary political discourse that the whole story doesn’t come to the attention of many people.

Thus, there are liberals who say that “jihad” refers to a person’s internal struggle to do what is right. And that’s true. There are conservatives who say “jihad” refers to military struggle. That’s true, too. But few people get the whole picture, which, actually, can be summarized pretty concisely:

Reading the scripture.

Reading the scripture.

The Koran’s exhortations to jihad in the military sense are sometimes brutal in tone but are so hedged by qualifiers that Muhammad clearly doesn’t espouse perpetual war against unbelievers, and is open to peace with them. (Here, for example, is my exegesis of the “sword verse,” the most famous jihadist passage in the Koran.) The formal doctrine of military jihad — which isn’t found in the Koran, and evolved only after Muhammad’s death — does seem to have initially been about endless conquest, but was then subject to so much amendment and re-interpretation as to render it compatible with world peace. Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.

Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to.

Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.

This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.

After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.

For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”)

As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews.

Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.

All the Abrahamic scriptures have all kinds of meanings — good and bad — and the question is which meanings will be activated and which will be inert. It all depends on what attitude believers bring to the text. So whenever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques.

Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be. (A good first step would be to bring more Americans into contact with some of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are in fact not threatening.)

You can even imagine a kind of virtuous circle: the less menacing each side seems, the less menacing the other side becomes — which in turn makes the first side less menacing still, and so on; the meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures would, in a real sense, get better and better and better.

Lately, it seems, things have been moving in the opposite direction; the circle has been getting vicious. And it’s in the nature of vicious circles that they’re hard to stop, much less reverse. On the other hand, if, through the concerted effort of people of good will, you do reverse a vicious circle, the very momentum that sustained it can build in the other direction — and at that point the force will be with you.

Postscript: The quotations of the Koran come from Sura 4:171 (where Jesus is called God’s word), and Sura 44:32 (where the “children of Israel” are lauded). I’ve used the Rodwell translation, but the only place the choice of translator matters is the part that says God presciently placed the children of Israel above all others. Other translations say “purposefully,” or “knowingly.”  By the way, if you’re curious as to the reason for the Koran’s seeming ambivalence toward Christians and Jews:

By my reading, the Koran is to a large extent the record of Muhammad’s attempt to bring all the area’s Christians, Jews and Arab polytheists into his Abrahamic flock, and it reflects, in turns, both his bitter disappointment at failing to do so and the many theological and ritual overtures he had made along the way. (For a time Muslims celebrated Yom Kippur, and they initially prayed toward Jerusalem, not Mecca.) That the suras aren’t ordered chronologically obscures this underlying logic.

Robert Wright, New York Times


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Don’t care much about history

A QUICK-ON-THE-DRAW David Brooks replies in this morning’s Times to Arthur Brooks and Paul Ryan’s op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. As Mr Brooks has it, the trouble with Messrs Brooks and Ryan’s line of thinking is that it’s bad history:

[T]he story Republicans are telling each other, which Ryan and Brooks have reinforced, is an oversimplified version of American history, with dangerous implications.

The fact is, the American story is not just the story of limited governments; it is the story of limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.

Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending — demanding work in exchange for dollars.

I know I’m simultaneously pushing a boulder uphill and spitting into the wind here, but who cares? Well, everybody cares. But why should everybody care? Mr Brooks of the Times is correct that American history does not correspond to fusionist conservative mytho-history. Pointing this out is indeed a useful corrective to the rhetoric of “restoration” deployed by the likes of Glenn Beck. However, if “limited but energetic” government is a good idea, it’s a good idea and can be defended on its own terms. Leave dead presidents out of it! Slavery doesn’t look better because George Washington was into it. Suspending habeus corpus isn’t a crackerjack move because Honest Abe made it. Attempting to crush judicial branch checks on executive power isn’t smart because FDR gave it a go. So what does it matter that the Whigs or the Pilgrims or the ancient Iroquois nation had their own boondoggles? It doesn’t!

Yes, as David Brooks tells us at least once a month, we human beings are not deracinated logic chimps. But shouldn’t we be a little more deracinated, a little more logical? Shouldn’t we try to combat our degraded argumentum ad verecundiam culture and elevate the quality of public deliberation? This is Logic 101 stuff. Isn’t it sad that we expect more of our college sophomores than of our think-tank presidents and prestige columnists? Ingsoc’s “Who controls the past controls the future” should not be treated as a political pro tip. It is a regrettable half-truth grounded in mental barbarism which civilised people aspire to falsify. 


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The ACLU Is Dismissed

Obama wins one for the Presidency on the state-secrets privilege

Another week, another legal vindication for the Bush, er, the Obama Administration’s war on terror. On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals cited the executive branch’s state-secrecy privilege to dismiss an ACLU attempt to challenge the legality of sending terror suspects from the U.S. to other countries. Our friends on the left are now going nuts about “torture flights,” but we’ll take this decision as evidence that this Administration has its grown-up moments.

The case involves flight-logistics company Jeppesen DataPlan Inc., a Boeing subsidiary the ACLU accuses of being involved in arranging flights to move five terrorist suspects to prisons in Morocco, Egypt and elsewhere so they could be held for questioning by the CIA and local authorities. The five suspects—three of whom are now free—all claim they were tortured, while the ACLU claims Jeppesen personnel knew (or should have known) what was in store for them when they arranged the flights.

How much of that is true remains to be seen; the court made no determinations of fact. What is clear is that the ACLU and the rest of the anti-antiterror left have targeted Jeppesen and companies such as AT&T as part of a legal intimidation strategy aimed at preventing them from cooperating with the government in the war on terror. In the contest between considerations of patriotic duty and legal liability, the ACLU reasons that the latter will usually win out.

That may even be true. But the ACLU’s litigation also required the disclosure of secret information, which former CIA Director Michael Hayden described in a public declaration as having the potential “to cause serious—and in some instances, exceptionally grave—damage to the national security of the United States.”

Gen. Hayden also provided the court with a classified declaration, laying out the damage the lawsuit could do to national security. In its ruling, the court noted that it was persuaded that “the government is not invoking the [state secrets] privilege to avoid embarrassment or to escape scrutiny of its recent controversial transfer and interrogation policies, rather than to protect legitimate national security concerns.”

The court’s decision this week invoked Supreme Court precedents going back to the 1870s, when it ruled in the Totten case that “public policy forbids the maintenance of any suit . . . the trial of which would inevitably lead to the disclosure of matters which the law itself regards as confidential.” A larger and more recent body of case law fleshes out the breadth of the state-secrets privilege.

But perhaps the more noteworthy aspect of this case is that it was dismissed—albeit by a 6-5 vote—by the most liberal Circuit Court in the country, with Judge Raymond Fisher, a Bill Clinton appointee, writing for the majority. That gives the ACLU little hope that it can get the decision overturned should the Supreme Court decide to hear it.

Nor will the ACLU find much solace in the Obama Administration, which has largely preserved the antiterror legal regime established by its predecessor even as it has tinkered with some of the language. Ask terror imam Anwar al-Awlaki, the detainees at Bagram air base whose habeas corpus petitions have been denied, or the enemy combatants still in Guantanamo. Their justified predicaments are testimony to Barack Obama’s education as Commander in Chief.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Je t’aime, moi non plus

Sarkozy’s France

The electorate’s romance with Nicolas Sarkozy is well and truly over—not least because the president no longer seems to know what he wants

“THE French people,” he announced on the day he was sworn in as president, “have demanded change.” Proclaiming “a new era in French politics”, the dynamic young leader swept into office, vowing to modernise the face of government and the country. Despite a promising start, however, the global economic shock, combined with divisions on the political right, took their toll. In the end, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing lost to the Socialists in 1981, after just one term in office.

Over the past 30 years, Mr Giscard d’Estaing is the only French president not to have won re-election. Now, for the first time, the spectre of a one-term presidency has begun to hover menacingly over France’s current leader, Nicolas Sarkozy. His popularity has dropped to record lows. Some 55% of the French say they want the left to return to power at the next presidential election, in 2012. One poll suggests that, in a second-round run-off, Mr Sarkozy would be beaten by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist who is now the IMF boss in Washington, by a crushing 59% to 41%.

Even on the political right there is a groundswell of discontent. Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, has launched his own party to scoop up disillusioned Gaullist voters. Deputies mutter about losing their seats. Some of Mr Sarkozy’s own ministers have voiced unease at the way he spent the summer expelling Roma (gypsies). Bernard Kouchner, his foreign minister, who hails from the left, considered resigning. French magazines have begun to run cover stories such as “The 2012 Presidency: Has he Already Lost?”. Among Mr Sarkozy’s own supporters, from the fields and factories to the parquet-floored salons of Paris, disenchantment has set in. Fully 11.5m voters who backed him in 2007 failed to support his party at regional elections in March, according to Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist.

This autumn is crunch time for Mr Sarkozy. On September 7th 1.1m-2.7m people (depending on who you talk to) took to the streets for the biggest one-day strike in France for years. Teachers, train drivers, postmen, town-hall staff, utility workers and other mainly public-sector protesters are contesting his plan to raise France’s legal minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, as well as job cuts. Next to other European efforts, the pension plan appears modest. France faces a state pension-fund shortfall of €42 billion ($54 billion) by 2018 to fund some of the longest retirements in Europe (see chart 1). The new rules will close less than two-thirds of the gap; general spending will have to fill the rest. Current workers will still pay for those in retirement. Generous benefits remain untouched; civil servants get 75% of their final six-months’ salary. One government insider says that the retirement age should, in truth, go up to 65.

The reform does, however, carry symbolic importance. It reverses a decades-old French tradition of progressively cutting the time people spend in work: François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 in 1983. And it is a crucial test of Mr Sarkozy’s ability to stand firm, court unpopularity in the name of the greater national interest and restore his credibility as a reformer. For, despite his dire poll numbers, Mr Sarkozy is not finished yet. This mercurial politician may find it difficult to summon the warmth or likeability to charm the French back to his side. But he may yet be able to impress them, if he can placate the one-time supporters who suspect that he has lost his audacious touch.


What broke the spell between the French and Mr Sarkozy? Grumpiness is natural at mid-term. Voters deserted the two previous presidents, Jacques Chirac and Mitterrand, at a comparable point; yet each went on to win a second term. Mr Sarkozy has had to deal with a global recession, which has crushed growth and battered the country’s morale. Jean-Paul Delevoye, the state mediator (or ombudsman), said earlier this year that the French were “psychologically exhausted”. Two recent bestsellers include “Mélancolie française”, a historical reflection on French decline, and “Le Quai d’Ouistreham”, an account of life in poverty in a northern French town.

Yet there is more to the disenchantment than this. When observers ask, “Why have the French fallen out of love with Mr Sarkozy?”, the answer is that they never truly fell in love with him in the first place. The French did not warm to Mr Sarkozy as a person. In polls voters judge him “determined” and “courageous”, but never “reassuring” nor “close to the French”. They knew they were electing an atypical, outsiderish leader, not an affable father figure: they had had enough of that under the torpid Mr Chirac. With no countryside roots, nor taste for wine, nor diploma from any elite French college, and a weakness for bling to boot, Mr Sarkozy was quite unlike any of his predecessors. His mother’s father was a Jew from Thessalonica; his father immigrated from Hungary, and once told him that “With a name like yours …you will never get anywhere in France.”

Rather, French voters saw past his strange tics and foibles to his hyper-kinetic, can-do style, and his unstuffy willingness to tell it straight and get the job done. This was a man of verbs, not abstract nouns like la gloire or la grandeur. He told the French bluntly that they could not afford their high-tax, high-security, low-growth, low-employment model indefinitely, and promised a “rupture” with the complacency of the past. Enough of the French knew, deep down, that something was not working, and judged him best placed to fix it. The simplest reason for disappointment, therefore, is that Mr Sarkozy has failed to bring about what he promised: more jobs, more growth and better earnings.

To which the simplest explanation is: the recession. Mr Sarkozy handled the financial crisis well, thwarting consumer panic at home, steering crisis talks in Europe and swiftly concocting a stimulus plan. The doubts, however, concern whether he has done enough to help lift the French economy on to a faster-growth, higher-employment path once the global economy recovers. The French government spends 56% of GDP, more than any other euro-zone country, yet France has above-average unemployment (10%) and its GDP has grown at below the annual European average over the past ten years. The factors that cushioned the French economy from severe recession—high public spending, a strong state, low reliance on exports—now seem to be crimping growth again (see chart 2). Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, has cut the 2011 forecast for GDP growth from 2.5% to 2%.

Mr Sarkozy can point to a good deal of useful reform on his watch. He has loosened labour laws, encouraged overtime work, cut red tape for entrepreneurs and lowered taxes. He has kept increases in the minimum wage to inflation, and tried to limit union power and disruption during strikes. He has boosted competition in telecoms and retail, as well as spending on research and development, and trimmed the public payroll. Ms Lagarde says that she has done “80%” of the reforms recommended by the Attali Commission’s report on improving French competitiveness.

One of Mr Sarkozy’s better reforms has been a shake-up of France’s mediocre, centrally run universities, with their crowded amphitheatres, drab campuses and libraries that close at weekends. The system churns out far too many psychology or sociology graduates, who find their degrees useless in the job market. Law or medicine aside, top school-leavers study madly for a place at the elite grandes écoles instead.

Today, however, 51 universities out of 82 have accepted Mr Sarkozy’s offer of autonomy, enabling them to recruit their own lecturers, fix their salaries and seek private finance. They have raised nearly €60m, and have begun to lure French researchers back from abroad. Valérie Pécresse, the higher-education minister, has shocked the universities’ egalitarian civil-service culture by forcing them to compete for money to refurbish their campuses. Of the six originally picked (Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg and Toulouse), none was in Paris, to the capital’s outrage. The reform is imperfect: there is still no selective entry for undergraduates. So all those with the school-leaving baccalauréat can sign up for wherever they wish; and over two-fifths of undergraduates drop out. There are no tuition fees. But by injecting ideas like competition, independence and private finance, Mr Sarkozy has begun a mini-revolution.

The rest of the picture is far less inspiring. Many other reforms launched in the whirlwind first year do not go as far as promised. Mr Sarkozy put an end to special pension rules, which had allowed some railwaymen to retire at 55, but at a cost of agreeing to more generous rules governing beneficiaries’ final pensions. The reform, according to Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg, two labour economists, brought no financial savings. Mr Sarkozy loosened labour laws, but he never took the 35-hour maximum working week off the statute book. The two-tier labour market debars outsiders, notably the young, and sets up perverse incentives. High costs and protection—the labour code runs to 2,600 pages—deter employers from creating permanent jobs. For employees earning above the minimum wage firms pay 45% in payroll taxes, next to 13% in Britain. Redundancy rules dictate generous tax-free packages, which can be combined with unemployment benefit at up to 75% of salary. Managers say this encourages long-serving employees to try to get fired.

A disappointing menu

Along the way, Mr Sarkozy has made some poor choices. He abandoned good ideas (the deregulation of taxis and pharmacies), while wasting political capital on bad ones (his plan to abolish investigating magistrates). Other decisions have been daft. One was cutting VAT in restaurants to 5.5%, which involved a fierce battle with the European Commission and costs the tax-payer €2.4 billion a year. Restaurants were required in return to drop prices on just seven items on their menu—and only half have done even that. Diners scanning the pricey plats du jour feel ripped off.

Up to a point, Mr Sarkozy had to give ground in order to get things moving. France has a long tradition of theatrical street protest, which tempers even the most reformist politician. In 1995, when Alain Juppé was Mr Chirac’s prime minister, he was forced to back down on pension reform after weeks of strikes. Politically, Mr Sarkozy also needed to take a tough line on curbing financial excess. The French felt, not unreasonably, that their jobs and savings were being put at risk through no fault of their own, while bankers pocketed vast bonuses as their bank profits collapsed.

But Mr Sarkozy, a live wire, warmed so fast to his new theme, bashing hedge funds and blaming tax havens, that it has become hard to make out what part is gesture politics and what part genuine conviction. The man who urged the French to reconcile themselves to globalisation later declared that “laissez-faire capitalism is finished”. The man who implored the French to stop knocking wealth creation then vowed to stop French carmakers building vehicles in low-cost countries for the French market.

His own voters have been left thoroughly confused. Does he want to modernise the French social model, or reinforce it? Does he want to make France more competitive, or limit competition? Does he want to roll back an over-heavy state, or return to Colbertist interventionism? These questions are no easier to answer now that Mr Sarkozy has belatedly agreed to an austerity plan to curb the government’s deficit, from 8% this year to 6% next. The champion of the worker is now wielding the axe, cutting jobs in teaching, hospitals and the police force.

“Half of what he has done has been clever,” concludes Jacques Delpla, an economist who once worked for Mr Sarkozy, “and half either badly done, or not done at all.” It is a measure of impoverished ambitions that, according to presidential aides, there are no more big plans on the table after pension reform. “Next year,” says one, “we will improve or polish existing reforms, not begin anything new.”

The perils of perpetual motion

To watch Mr Sarkozy up close is to observe a machine in perpetual motion. He strides into rooms and taps his feet when bored. He zig-zags the country four times a week, dropping in on hospitals, factories or farms. Yasmina Reza, a playwright, wrote of this restlessness as a desire somehow to “combat the slippage of time”. Mr Sarkozy is a man in a hurry. Yet, after three years in office, voters have begun to feel dizzy. The style used to dazzle; now it often dismays.

The frenetic, action-man manner is more than just appearance. It is also about the exercise of power, and the nature of French presidential office. Traditionally, the president ran only foreign and defence policy. Mr Sarkozy, by contrast, has stuck his finger into everything, from the number of taxis on Paris streets to the petulant behaviour of the French national football team. All top decisions are made by a close team of advisers at the Elysée presidential offices. Ministers are kept on a tight leash.

Accruing so many powers carries risks. One is that Mr Sarkozy cannot resort to that familiar French ploy of blaming his prime minister, François Fillon, when things go wrong. Indeed, Mr Fillon enjoys far better poll numbers than his boss. Another is that it has given Mr Sarkozy exaggerated ideas about what he can do which, when exposed, breed disillusion. He promised, for instance, not to let Arcelor-Mittal, a steelmaker, close part of a factory in eastern France, only for it to shut down anyway, with the loss of 575 jobs at the site. His failure to delegate has also created a clannish atmosphere at the Elysée, in which advisers hesitate to tell Mr Sarkozy, who has a fearsome temper, when he is wrong. “It’s very difficult to talk to him as an equal,” comments one old friend.

Merde alors

This has led to some staggering errors of judgment. Mr Sarkozy failed last year to grasp how nepotistic it seemed when his son, Jean Sarkozy, an undergraduate, tried to run for the presidency of the body overseeing the Parisian business district of La Défense. One junior minister is still in place despite admitting to having use of two official lodgings. Another spent €116,500 of tax-payer’s money hiring a private jet to take him to an aid conference in the Caribbean (he has since resigned). Yet another charged €12,000 of Cuban cigars to expenses (he also quit).

Most egregiously, Eric Woerth, the pensions minister, remains in office despite a conflict of interest linked to the Bettencourt affair. This is an ongoing dynastic court case centred on Liliane Bettencourt, the billionaire heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire, which touches alleged illegal financing of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party and alleged tax evasion. Mr Woerth was previously budget minister, and led a clamp-down on tax evasion at a time when his wife, Florence, worked as Mrs Bettencourt’s wealth manager (she has now resigned). He was also UMP treasurer while the Bettencourt family was a donor. Mr and Mrs Woerth deny doing anything wrong. But the affair smells rotten.

With such a faltering touch, Mr Sarkozy seems particularly prone to extreme measures to boost his standing. This summer he blew a relatively small problem concerning illegal Roma into a national drama by stepping up expulsions, closing illegal camps and sounding a xenophobic note. He is also changing the law to strip nationality from naturalised citizens who deliberately endanger the life of a police officer. Both moves—which polls suggest meet with voter approval—look like gimmicks to woo the far right, and a decoy to distract public attention from his mixed record on crime and the banlieues. For, despite promises of a Marshall plan, a toxic mix of high unemployment, drug-running and resentment festers on the heavily immigrant estates that ring French towns.

Nicolas Baverez, a political commentator, sums up Mr Sarkozy’s problem in terms of “transgression”. The French did want a leader who would shake things up, he argues, but he went too far in the wrong places, touching sacred elements of the presidency: dignity in office, a respect for parliament and judicial independence, the separation of private and public life. The clubbish links between the Elysée, certain business and media bosses, even the judiciary, are troubling. In a country where public life has traditionally stopped at the bedroom door, many French people are dismayed to hear the president’s advisers comment publicly on the state of his marriage to Carla Bruni. Nobody wants a return to the hypocrisy of the past. But something of the solemnity of office has been damaged.

Towards 2012

In time, some of the movement that Mr Sarkozy has set in place should nudge France out of its comfort zone. It could be, for instance, that a small group of universities will offer students a real alternative to the grandes écoles. For all his faults, Mr Sarkozy has done more than Mr Chirac ever attempted. And the tempestuous French do not make it easy. Fully 93% of French respondents say they think their fellow countrymen moan a lot.

Yet France is not the same place that Mr Juppé ran. Many voters realise that they cannot defy the laws of demography and economics for ever. Although 70% of them said this week that they supported the strikers, 53% also agreed that the rise in the retirement age was “acceptable”. Those who do not enjoy the protection of public-sector jobs no longer feel so inclined to back the cause of those who do.

Mr Sarkozy has been in politics for over 30 years, and knows its recent history intimately. Back in 1976 President Giscard d’ Estaing’s prime minister resigned unexpectedly, and founded his own party. That ambitious man was Mr Chirac, the party became the one Mr Sarkozy inherited, and the move split the right and wrecked Mr Giscard d’Estaing’s chances of re-election. To avoid a similar fate, Mr Sarkozy knows that he needs to restore his credibility and his grip. He may not gain many friends by holding firm on pension reform. But he will lose the ones he has if he fails.


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The incredible shrinking président

Nicolas Sarkozy

His ambitions seem to have shrunk along with his poll ratings. Time to rediscover the original grand vision

WHEN Nicolas Sarkozy first burst into the French political consciousness he was unlike any other recent leader the country had known. He dared to tell the French what they did not care to hear: that they should work more, take more risks, promote more ethnic minorities, be nicer to America. He was not afraid to roll up his sleeves, confront his opponents and court unpopularity. He balanced firmness on immigration from abroad with fairness towards ethnic minorities at home. Never a fully fledged liberal, he nonetheless had enough liberal reflexes to understand that the French could preserve the best of their way of life only through reform.

What a shrunken version of that politician now occupies the presidency. Little more than three years into his five-year term, Mr Sarkozy seems to be a shadow of the reformer he once was on economic affairs and a caricature of the tough-cop leader on social matters. He bashes capitalism with one hand and now Roma (gypsies) with the other. His popularity has collapsed, the opposition Socialists are breathing down his neck and a series of mini-scandals has damaged his standing. Even his own camp has begun to doubt that he still has what it takes to carry them to victory again in 2012.

This is what lies behind the battle over pension reform, which drew 1.1m-2.7m protesters (depending on whom you believe) onto the streets on September 7th as part of a one-day national strike. At stake is more than the sustainability of France’s generous pension benefits. It is Mr Sarkozy’s credibility as a leader who is still willing to take risks, and France’s ability to restore its public finances and economy to health.

Impoverished ambitions

By the standards of other European countries, the French pension reform is timid. Mr Sarkozy plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to just 62, in a country where men spend six more years in retirement than the OECD average and where the state pension-fund faces a shortfall of €42 billion ($53 billion) by 2018. A bolder president would have raised the retirement age higher still. Yet, flush with the success of this week’s manif, union leaders are pushing for concessions even to the current modest plan. The palaeolithic Socialists joined in the demonstrations, calling for the legislation to be thrown out and claiming that they would revert to retirement at 60 if they won the presidency in 2012. From his offices in Washington, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential Socialist presidential candidate and presently boss of the IMF, must have blushed as red as the banners on the boulevards of Paris.

Fear of the French street, where all great battles are won or lost, is understandable. Recent history is littered with examples of street protests that have defeated government plans: pension reform in 1995 under Alain Juppé, one of President Jacques Chirac’s prime ministers; a new job contract for the young in 2006 under Dominique de Villepin, another former prime minister. The French are proud of their cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, and do not give them up without a good old theatrical fight. Their recalcitrance led Mr Chirac to conclude that they were too fragile to cope with unpopular change.

That is too pessimistic now. One encouraging trend has been a growing French acceptance of the need to adapt. The euro-zone crisis has focused minds, and even the French—or, at least, those not marching this week—know that they cannot expect Europe’s new austerity to apply to everybody except them. They approve of protest: in one poll this week 70% backed the strikes. That does not, however, mean that they think the government should cave in. The same poll showed 53% thought Mr Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 was “acceptable”. This is a turnaround from 15 years ago, when a majority wanted the government to back down.

For years the French elected politicians who were happy to sustain the illusion that generous benefits and snug protections were indefinitely affordable by building up the debts they leave to future generations. The fact that they voted for Mr Sarkozy demonstrated that they were hungry for change. But now he seems unwilling to bring change about.

The good news is that Mr Sarkozy says he will not budge on retirement at 62. Yet, no sooner had the demonstrators folded up their banners this week than he announced exceptions to the new rule, for farmers and other hard labourers. This fits a pattern. Even when the president’s popularity was sky-high, he tended to give too much ground in order to secure a headline-grabbing deal. More worrying, his advisers say that, once the pension plan is passed, there are no further big reforms in the diary.

The idea that France is fixed and that there is nothing useful to do for the next 18 months is preposterous. While the German economy is surging ahead, Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, recently cut the forecast for French GDP growth in 2011 from 2.5% to 2%. This will make it harder for the government to curb its deficit as promised, from 8% this year to 6% next; no French government has balanced its budget for over 30 years. The young are shut out of work because excessive rules and costs discourage employers from creating jobs. The heavily immigrant banlieues that encircle French towns are steeped in unemployment, gang violence and rage. The strengths that protected France’s economy from the worst of the recession are turning into weaknesses in the recovery.

Point him in the right direction, someone

At his best, Mr Sarkozy is a thrilling politician; at his worst, a shameless opportunist who bends with the wind. His inconsistencies make it hard to know what he really wants, if he even knows himself. Before the next election there is still time for him to demonstrate the qualities that once made him so beguiling, and to reassert both his reformist streak and his previously open approach towards ethnic minorities and integration. Holding firm on pension reform would be a start.

The current, timid, reactionary Sarkozy may judge that he stands to gain little from further reform. His grander former self would decide that he has little to lose from trying either.


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Our Love Affair With the Fairs

State fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing.

So the summer fades and our children return to school—and this feels at once like a liberation and a reminder that we have only a few years with them. The fall leaves me melancholy, but thankfully there is perhaps our most beloved family tradition, the Kansas State Fair.

I grew up assuming the fair was an indispensable part of the American landscape. But this year the state of Michigan, bowing to budgetary pressures, abandoned its 161-year-old state-fair tradition. A part of me wonders, even as we plan our day at the Kansas fair, whether my children will do this with my grandchildren.

Fairs, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), can be traced back to 500 B.C. Before UPS and TiVo, people had to get together for shopping and amusement. Fairs have existed as microcosms of society from the beginning, places where you can buy sharp knives and slabs of cooked meat, be enticed by all manner of hucksters, and survey the oddity and splendor which are your fellow man’s wardrobe choices.

Small wonder, then, with the decline of agriculture and the advent of satellite TV, that state fairs are struggling. South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois and Colorado state fairs have recently faced financial strains, and Arizona used federal bailout funds for theirs last year. The defunct Michigan state fair, meanwhile, was the oldest in the nation.

Kansas doesn’t rank in the top 50 fairs by total attendance (Texas has held the top spot the last two years), but when you adjust for state population we look pretty darn good. We trounced Texas last year, for example, with one attendee for every 8 Kansans, versus one Texas State Fair attendee for every 13.6 Texans.

By that measure, we’re nowhere near Iowa, Minnesota or Alaska, where fair attendance routinely averages a third or more of state population. Still, it’s total numbers that catch the eye, which might explain why Oprah Winfrey wore a cowboy hat and taped a show at last year’s Texas State Fair.

While the numbers vary considerably from state to state, all told some 150 million Americans visited agricultural fairs last year, estimates IAFE president Jim Tucker. State fairs represent the America many of us praise from afar, or live within, or simply puzzle over.

Fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing. Where else can you, in a matter of minutes, buy a tractor, ride a camel, sample the latest in waterless car-washing technology, marvel over a 20-pound cucumber and then saunter a few hundred feet to hear Hank Williams, Jr. belt out “Family Tradition”? Let’s face it: no matter how sophisticated we become, a life-size statue of Elvis sculpted from 800 pounds of butter will always fascinate us.

And if you don’t understand this, then I’m afraid you don’t understand America. Don’t look for enlightened insights about American culture from those like Frenchman and “American Vertigo” author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who could afford no more than a “quick visit” to the Iowa State Fair, but who lingered over prisons in a manner that would make Foucault blush. If you’ve never hurled a tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs, run your hand along a shiny new combine, or cheered at a pig race, then save your opinions for people who roll their eyes at Lee Greenwood.

Come to think of it, perhaps a qualification for commentators on American culture should be the ability to explain a cheese curd. The food alone can make fairs worthwhile, all of it from heaven or hell, although I’m not really sure which.

There are the funnel cakes, steak sandwiches, and roasted and buttered corn on the cob so hot you can brand cattle with it. And let’s not forget the panoply of fried delicacies. Every year brings an item that nobody before had thought—or dared—to fry and eat: pickles, Twinkies, HoHos, and—surely a sign of the apocalypse—bacon-cheeseburger doughnuts. Alongside these are all manner of skewered delights: pork chops on a stick, potato chips on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, waffles on a stick and, as ever, corn dogs and candy apples on sticks.

It seems insane to me: Not the unhealthy food, mind you, which I wholeheartedly support, but arming thousands of children with sharp wooden sticks. Perhaps that’s just the usual handwringing from a parent of four little boys who hopes to see them all through to adulthood with two eyeballs apiece.

That is always part of it, of course, both attending the fair and raising children, this fear that harm will come to them. In that sense the fair is not only microcosm but metaphor. At least it is to me as I put my ten-, eight-, and five-year-olds on a whirling, spinning, lighted metal contraption, wave goodbye, and pray to God that the carnies weren’t drinking when they assembled it— all while restraining my three year-old, who is outraged that he can’t go with his brothers. We are always sending them away, one way or another, and hoping the way is safe.

Though it’s a metaphor, however, the fair is gentler than life, because within minutes they come back to us, hair tussled, cheeks aflame, eyes wide. And at the end of it all, long after the sun has set, we pack them into our minivan, where they fall asleep almost instantly. Then we drive home through the dark country night, thankful to have been part of something so exhausting, and hokey, and irrepressibly American.

Mr. Woodlief’s memoir on fatherhood and marriage, “Somewhere More Holy,” was published by Zondervan in May.


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The Obama Heyday Is Over

With so many Democrats running against the president’s agenda in the midterm, change will come in the next Congress, regardless of which party is in control.

Barack Obama hit the campaign trail this week to resurrect some of that hopey-changey stuff and to complain that his critics talk about him “like a dog.” Turns out the president wasn’t, in fact, referring to his own party.

Voters might be forgiven the confusion. It isn’t as if Democrats have been showing Mr. Obama much love. Quite the opposite. Seven weeks from Election Day, the vulnerable wing of the majority has finally found itself a campaign issue: blunt opposition to Mr. Obama and his agenda.

Has it only been 20 months? Candidate Obama swelled into office with an ambitiously liberal plan. He promised his party that his legislative items would be more than policy triumphs; they’d be political triumphs. Stick with me, he said, and we’ll get credit for leadership. Voters will come to love this stuff. Polls will improve. I’ll campaign in your district.

It was bunk, as many Democrats knew even back then. Witness the threats and bribes necessary to coax a bare majority for every vote. But enough went along. And now that the ambitious Obama experiment in liberal governance is going kaboom, his members—even those who voted with him—are running for cover.

Health care? A total of 279 House and Senate Democrats voted for ObamaCare. Not one is running an ad touting that vote. How can they, given headlines about Medicare cuts and premium hikes? You will, however, find a growing catalogue of ads such as this one from Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil: “As a career prosecutor, I made decisions on facts, not politics,” and that’s why “I voted against . . . the health-care bill.”

Not to be outdone, Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright’s ad explains he voted against “massive government health care.” South Dakota’s Stephanie Herseth Sandlin boasts she voted against the “trillion-dollar health-care plan.” But the prize goes to former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, vying to get his old job back: Not only is ObamaCare “financially devastating,” it is “the greatest failure, modern failure, of political leadership in my lifetime.”

Stimulus? Only a handful of Democrats can be found who will even utter the dreaded “s” word—and those are the ones bragging they voted against it. The rest have developed a curious code involving brief references to “roads” and “bridges.” Even the White House is running from the White House. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs crankily lectured the press corps this week that the latest $50 billion Mr. Obama wants to “spur” the economy is absolutely not a “stimulus.”

Cap and trade? “I voted against Nancy Pelosi’s energy tax on Hoosier families,” explains Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly in an ad, echoed by North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre and Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire. And the yes votes are rushing to argue that all they were really voting for was “renewable energy.”

Financial regulation? What’s that? Most of the country doesn’t know, and few Democrats are bothering to explain. They see more mileage in ads putting distance between themselves and the auto bailouts, the president’s budget, or the party’s cultural reputation. Roy Herron, running in Tennessee, ran an ad describing himself as a “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family loving country boy.” This is not a joke.

As for campaigning, Mr. Obama failed to warn Democrats that—thanks to the agenda he was asking them to pass—by September he’d be upside-down in his approval on most issues, and not much help. Instead of a president to help them, Democrats have found a president to run against. And it isn’t George W. Bush.

The White House is now letting it be known that it is miffed that more Democrats aren’t running to embrace its new “economic” plan. But as parents are fond of telling their five-year-olds, choices have consequences. This White House could have pivoted to the economy at any point—as many Democrats were begging it to do—but instead doggedly pushed ahead with an unpopular agenda. Many Democrats are no longer listening.

Will the anti-Obama strategy work? In this environment, running away from Mr. Obama certainly beats running to him. Then again, midterms are referendums on a president’s agenda, and the country is in a mood to punish Democrats en masse. For those anti-Obama Democrats who do survive, the political lesson will be that there is mileage in telling Mr. Obama no.

This is where today’s exodus will really be felt—after the election. The president still has a to-do list. Yet the more this election becomes about the toxicity of his “accomplishments,” the less ability Mr. Obama has to command a caucus. Republicans will be hunting for votes to block and reverse, and some liberated Democrats may feel happy to help.

Bill Clinton dealt with the 1994 massacre by moving right and triangulating. It is unclear whether the ideological Mr. Obama has the ability to follow suit. What is clear is that some big changes are now necessary. The Obama heyday is officially over.

Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal


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Your move, Mr. Abbas

The prospects are dim but the process is right. The Obama administration is to be commended for structuring the latest rounds of Middle East talks correctly. Finally, we’re leaving behind interim agreements, of which the most lamentable were the Oslo accords of 1993.

The logic then was that issues so complicated could only be addressed step by step in the expectation that things get easier over time. In fact, they got harder. Israel made concrete concessions — bringing in Yasser Arafat to run the West Bank and Gaza — in return for which Israel received growing threats, continuous incitement and finally a full-scale terror war that killed more than a thousand innocent Israelis.

Among the victims was the Israeli peace movement and its illusions about Palestinian acceptance of Israel. The Israeli left, mugged by reality, is now moribund. And the Israeli right is chastened. No serious player believes it can hang on forever to the West Bank.

This has created a unique phenomenon in Israel — a broad-based national consensus for giving nearly all the West Bank in return for peace. The moment is doubly unique because the only man who can deliver such a deal is Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — and he is prepared to do it.

Hence the wisdom of how the Obama administration has shaped the coming talks: No interim deals, no partial agreements. There are no mutual concessions that can be made separately within the great issues — territory, security, Jerusalem, the so-called right of return — to reach agreement. The concessions must be among these issues — thus if Israel gives up its dream of a united Jerusalem, for example, the Palestinians in return give up their dream of the right of return.

Most important is the directive issued by U.S. peace negotiator George Mitchell: What’s under discussion is a final settlement of the conflict. Meaning, no further claims. Conflict over.

What’s standing in the way? Israeli settlements? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s most nationalist politicians, lives in a settlement and has said openly that to achieve peace he and his family would abandon their home. What about the religious settlers? Might they not resist? Some tried that during the Gaza withdrawal, clinging to synagogue rooftops. What happened? Jewish soldiers pulled them down and took them away. If Israel is offered real peace, the soldiers will do that again.

The obstacle today, as always, is Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state. That has been the core issue of the conflict from 1947 through Camp David 2000, when Arafat rejected Israel’s extraordinarily generous peace offer, made no counteroffer and started a terror war (the Second Intifada) two months later.

A final peace was there to be had. It remains on the table today. Unfortunately, there’s no more sign today of a Palestinian desire for final peace than there was at Camp David. Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants such an agreement (doubtful but possible), he simply doesn’t have the authority. To accept a Jewish state, Abbas needs some kind of national consensus behind him. He doesn’t even have a partial consensus. Hamas, which exists to destroy Israel, controls part of Palestine (Gaza) and is a powerful rival to Abbas’s Fatah even in his home territory of the West Bank.

Indeed, this week Abbas flatly told al-Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper, “We won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” Nice way to get things off on the right foot.

What will Abbas do? Unable and/or unwilling to make peace, he will exploit President Obama’s tactical blunder, the settlement freeze imposed on Israel despite the fact that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had gone on without such a precondition for 16 years prior. Abbas will walk out if the freeze is not renewed on Sept. 26. You don’t need to be prescient to see that coming. Abbas has already announced that is what he’ll do.

That would solve all of Abbas’s problems. It would obviate signing on to a final settlement, fend off Hamas and make Israel the fall guy.

The trifecta. Why not walk out? The world, which already condemns Israel even for self-defense, will be only too eager to blame Israel for the negotiation breakdown. And there is growing pressure to create a Palestinian state even if the talks fail — i.e., even if the Palestinians make no concessions at all. So why make any?

The talks are well designed. Unfortunately, Abbas knows perfectly well how to undermine them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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As midterms loom, Obama has lost his rhetorical touch

Even Democrats who agree with President Obama’s ideology, respect his tenacity and admire his deliberative manner have begun to whisper: Maybe he isn’t a very good politician. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is genetically incapable of whispering, puts it bluntly: “Ironically, the best communicator I ever saw in a campaign has turned out to be not so good at getting out the message as president.”

It is a remarkable reversal. Obama’s rise from the Illinois legislature to the presidency in four years was a real-deal, honest-to-goodness political phenomenon. I spent some time on the campaign trail with Obama during the primaries, coming away impressed by his earnestness, his touch of formality, his rhetorical ambitions — here a little Kennedy, there a little King. He consistently met the highest objective of an orator, both capturing and shaping the public mood.

It is now difficult to remember much of what he said. Even my notes had mainly to do with his style. But his message had something to do with unity, healing and national purpose. The idiom was compelling. The agenda was, well, beside the point. This image emerged unsullied from a battle with the Clinton machine. Democrats were glad to be along for the ride on the gilded chariot of Obama’s destiny.

Compare this appeal to Obama’s Labor Day remarks in Milwaukee intended to kick off the midterm campaign. Obama was self-pitying: “They talk about me like a dog.” Self-absorbed: “I spent some time, as I often do, with our soldiers and our veterans.” Snappish: “If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.” Pedestrian: “Their slogan is ‘No we can’t.’ Nope, no, no, no.” Humorless. Negative. And determined to drive metaphors on and on until they expire from exhaustion. The economic car in the ditch gets pulled out while someone sips a Slurpee but it (the car, not the Slurpee) has dents and mud on it and special interests are somehow riding shotgun, and the transmission gets put in various positions, and if the other guys hits the gas pedal again, the car might go back into the ditch (unless, I suppose, it is in reverse), so we can’t give them the keys because they don’t know how to drive.

This criticism is a little (only a little) unfair. If unemployment were at 6 percent instead of 9.6 percent, the car metaphor would seem positively Lincolnian. Unfavorable events can make any communicator look bad.

But Obama’s problem is deeper than his economic challenges. His policies as president — particularly the creation of a health entitlement and his Rooseveltian emphasis on federal spending to create public-sector jobs — have reopened and widened the main partisan division in American political life. Every public issue has become a harsh, entirely predictable debate about the size and role of government. Obama’s initiatives, it turns out, could only be considered moderate on the skewed ideological scale of the Democratic Party. They are not only unpopular; they have made it impossible for him to maintain the pretense of being a unifying, healing, once-in-a-generation leader. It is the agenda that undermined the idiom.

With that image stripped away, Americans found Obama to be a somber, thoughtful, touchy, professorial, conventionally liberal political figure. Some like the demythologized Obama; others do not. But this profile would not be exceptional or remarkable in any town boasting a university faculty lounge. And it does not make Obama a particularly compelling party leader in a difficult midterm election. One of the best communicators I also ever saw in a campaign became an ineffective messenger as president — precisely because the appeal that made him a phenomenon is no longer credible.

So all the president’s handlers try anything that might work. In Milwaukee, Obama was the feisty street fighter with a union card. But, without humor, his jabs seemed sour and mocking. In Cleveland, Obama personalized the economic argument by repeatedly attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner — as though Americans have any idea who this tanned and sinister figure might be. The president added some detail about his grandparents’ economic struggles. But few political figures look less comfortable with their heart on their sleeve. “At this point,” says Rendell, “there’s nothing to lose, so let it all roll.” But weeks before the November election, Obama the communicator seems lost.

His challenge reaches beyond rhetoric and beyond the midterm elections: finding not only a new agenda but a new persona.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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The Outlook Dims for Democrats

A summer of polling data suggest the GOP can take the House.

With the midterm election less than two months away, all signs point to a punishing defeat for Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Since July 1, there have been 111 polls released on U.S. House races in 79 districts. Some were commissioned by news organizations; others came from the campaigns themselves or political groups (a detailed list is posted at Ninety-seven polls were conducted in seats held by Democrats while 14 were in Republican districts.

They show that Democratic incumbents trail GOP challengers in 30 districts and are behind in seven of nine open Democratic seats. By comparison, GOP incumbents are ahead in seven of the eight contests polled and Republican hopefuls lead in four of the six races for GOP open seats. If Republicans prevailed in these fights, they would net 34 of the 39 seats they need to win the House.

It could get worse. Of the 36 polls in which Democratic incumbents led, Republican challengers were within three points in 12 contests and within five points in 18 others. By contrast, in the 55 polls in which the GOP leads, the Republican is ahead by more than five points in 36. And in all but two instances in which data are available, the Democrat incumbents are significantly better known than their GOP challengers. As these challengers become better known, they’re likely to rise in the polls.

Indiana’s second district is a good example. Republican State Rep. Jackie Walorski trails Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly by only 44% to 46%, according to an August American Action Forum poll. But Ms. Walorski is known by 78% of voters while Mr. Donnelly’s name ID is a near-saturation 97%. This is a very winnable seat for the GOP.

On the money front—and despite the Republican National Committee’s considerable fund-raising and spending difficulties—the Republican Governors Association has almost twice as much cash as the Democratic Governors Association. In addition, the GOP’s Senate campaign committee has achieved parity with its Democratic counterpart and, as Josh Kraushaar pointed out in a perceptive piece in Politico, the GOP’s Congressional Campaign Committee has outraised its Democratic competitor over the last four months and is spending more wisely. This led Speaker Nancy Pelosi to write Democratic congressmen who hadn’t contributed to their party’s election fund, telling them to call her within 72 hours to discuss their plans to give . . . or else.

The Democratic financial advantage is also offset by outside center-right groups. Some (including American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, organizations I’m helping) are raising impressive sums and, as importantly, are working together to expand the battlefield to the GOP’s advantage.

Republicans don’t necessarily need to match the Democrats’ money. Democrats, after all, were outspent in 2006 when they won control of the House. What matters is sufficiency—whether GOP challengers have adequate funds to get out their message.

Democrats are saddled with two signature initiatives—the stimulus package and health-care reform—that are manifestly unpopular. Opponents of these laws are energized while supporters are lethargic.

No Democratic incumbent has run a single ad this summer heralding health-care reform, while several have run ads emphasizing their opposition to it. Praise for the stimulus is rare even from the lips of Democratic candidates. Democrats have passed a lot of legislation but don’t want to claim public credit for it.

No wonder. Consider what voters call the election’s three most important issues. Republicans are leading Democrats on the economy by 11 points, jobs by five, and federal spending by 15, according to the Sept. 1 Gallup/USA Today survey.

This week, the president is trying to regain the initiative by championing $50 billion in new stimulus spending, temporary business tax breaks, and an R&D tax credit. It won’t matter. After Labor Day, voters tend to be highly suspicious, rightly seeing such new proposals as election eve shenanigans. While the surging party wins most of the toss-up contests in a year like this, some Democratic incumbents will survive by spending every dollar they have to make their Republican challengers appear radioactive.

It’s not too early to assess the damage done by America’s 44th president. He squandered his mandate and the public’s enormous good will. He alienated voters and dropped a heavy yoke on his party with useless spending and a shockingly unpopular health-care bill. With pressure mounting and a potentially epic loss looming, Mr. Obama has gone from a commanding, engaging candidate to an arrogant, self-pitying president. It is not pretty to witness.

The first people to pay the political price for Mr. Obama’s mistakes will be congressional Democrats, who likely will be swept out of their House majority this November.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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A President’s Class War

Where on the income scale does Mr. Obama divide the country between us and them?

Barack Obama may be the most embittered American president any of us has experienced. Read the text of that Labor Day speech he gave in Milwaukee.

“Anyone who thinks we can move this economy forward with a few doing well at the top, hoping it’ll trickle down to working folks running faster and faster just to keep up—they just haven’t studied our history.”

One may argue that Mr. Obama’s community-organizer attacks on the wealthy in front of a union crowd (delivered with the tone and syntax of bar-stool resentment) are meant to keep the party’s perpetually angry left-wing base agitated enough to vote in November. But since the earliest days of his presidency, starting with his first economic message, Mr. Obama has harped on the idea that “well-off and well-connected” economic factions in the U.S. have done something explicit to shaft the middle class. Yesterday’s Cleveland speech was more of the same.

One month it’s insurance companies, the next it’s the bankers, or merely “the special interests.” One wonders where exactly along the American income scale Mr. Obama divides the country between us and them? My guess is the castle walls begin with anyone living in the lower end of what qualifies as an upper-middle class suburb.

From Milwaukee: “To steal a line from our old friend, Ted Kennedy, what is it about working men and women that they [Republicans] find so offensive?” Barack Obama’s approval numbers are plummeting because a lot of people who rose from modest backgrounds, Republican and Democrat, find that remark offensive and gratuitous. Surely some of the people around Mr. Obama in the White House know how insulting this stuff is, but either they can’t do anything about the president’s compulsions or have signed on.

What’s odd (as always) in an Obama speech is that even as he is launching salvos at an overclass scheming to “cut working class folks like you loose to fend for yourselves,” his remarks touch some truths. He identifies exactly what his audience needs to climb out of their rut: “An education that’ll give our kids a better life than we had. These are simple ideas. American ideas.”

No idea in the literature of economics or social science the past 15 years has received more elevation than the relationship in a modern economy between educational attainment and income. Whose fault is it that public schools in blue-collar districts ill-prepare so many working-class “graduates” to get and hold modern jobs? Did Wall Street ruin the schools, too?

For years business leaders have begged the public sector to upgrade the skill sets coming out of the schools. Before the recession, I recall a piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a Great Lakes tugboat maker who said he couldn’t find people with the smarts to do the high-level welding his boats demanded. Our economy has been free-riding on corporate training programs for years and may discover post-recession that the real unemployment rate sticks at just below 9%, as in Europe.

In his Milwaukee speech, Mr. Obama conflates “the middle class” with “the working class.” They’re not the same anymore. In an important piece in the Journal last Friday, “The Generation That Can’t Move On Up,” Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox described how many working-class men and women are disconnecting from the basic values and moorings of middle-class life: “They’re becoming socially disengaged, floating away from the college-educated middle-class.” They marry less, go to church less, and lose interest in being part of civic life.

“These working-class couples still value marriage highly,” note Messrs. Cherlin and Wilcox, “but they don’t think they have what it takes to make a marriage work.” So they downshift to co-habitation, changing partners and dragging their confused children with them.

Messrs. Cherlin and Wilcox end with a good question: “Will their social disengagement leave them vulnerable to political appeals based on anger and fear?”

Barack Obama’s Labor Day speech in Milwaukee pumped out more angry, class-based political demagoguery than the nation needs now and more than this president’s independent supporters expected of him.

Aspects of Mr. Obama’s early agenda for education as the answer to the income gap were hopeful, but that is being backed out by his deeper class-justice obsessions. So much of what the president has done so far looks as if he believes the primary solution to the inexorable global economic pressures on the U.S. is to simply engineer a massive wealth transfer downward.

Even if you believed in this as justice, how can it possibly be sustained for the next 25 years absent a revolutionary overhaul of the education system? He’s essentially proposing a permanent blue-collar welfare plantation.

To be clear: The anxieties Mr. Obama is describing are real. But not everyone can spend 40 years pouring concrete or driving a city bus. Eventually, instead of a president ranting constantly about “greed and recklessness,” we’re going to need a national leader willing to spend his time in office getting everyone, from top to bottom, believing they are on the same national team.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Obama vs. Boehner

How worried are Democrats? V-E-R-Y.

Let’s take it from the top.

President Obama spent Labor Day reminding Americans that he’s the cool one, the “Yes, we can” one, the rolled-up-sleeves one. He never named Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner explicitly, but he clearly was aiming for the man who, if things go as they seem to be going, will be the next speaker of the House.

Speaking to Laborfest in Milwaukee, Obama referred to “the Republican who thinks he’s going to take over as speaker . . . I’m just saying, that’s his opinion.”

His shirt sleeves rolled up as workingman politicos always do, Obama all but said: “Pay no attention to the man with the fake tan.”

And, he said: “Somebody out here was yelling, ‘Yes, we can.’ Remember that was our slogan?” (Yes, we remember.) “Their slogan is ‘No, we can’t!’ Nope! No! No! No!”

Except, oh dear, yes they can. And “no” is a pretty sound position when the nation is careening off a cliff.

Obama’s Midwestern jobs push carries a hint of the little boy doing cartwheels to get attention. He has a playlist of favorite songs and he keeps hitting replay in hopes of resurrecting the old magic. It’s not working.

Next up: Cleveland, for an economic speech to counter the one Boehner gave last month in which he called on the president to fire his economic team. Even many Democrats share the view that Tim Geithner and Larry Summers should be enjoying a beach somewhere, but Obama apparently prefers to double down. By singling out Boehner, even going to the minority leader’s home state, suggests either churlish theater or desperation. The national mood would imply the latter.

As a theatergoer, however, one could hardly ask for better. The Obama emblem of hope and change vs. Boehner, the symbol of “no.”

So goes the script. But the men have some things in common. Both are smokers (Obama still sneaks a few) and both like to play golf. Both are cool cats. Why not sit back and enjoy the show?

No one is enjoying Obama’s attempt to demonize Boehner more than Boehner. Even this is a replay. The White House seems to relish playing target practice with an enemy du jour and, in the process, elevating its prey. When the administration singled out Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party, no one was more delighted than Limbaugh.

Boehner must be whistling a happy tune. Even though his critics say he’s prematurely measuring for new drapes in the speaker’s quarters, Boehner is hardly a household name beyond Washington and political parlors where the chattering class feasts on the latest polls. He’s not a lightning rod like Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay.

Effective immediately, Boehner is the un-Obama, and that is not a bad thing for Republicans. If the president were confident in his programs, some of which Republicans also support (research and development tax credits, for example), he wouldn’t need to challenge Boehner on his own turf. Successful leaders ignore the hecklers and noisemakers.

But Obama doesn’t even have the support of his own cast these days. Democratic incumbents are running against their own health-care law, de-emphasizing or failing to mention their vote. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has sought waivers for certain Obamacare rules, even though he voted for them. California’s Jerry Brown sounds like anti-big-government Ronald Reagan in one of his recent ads for governor.

Meanwhile, Obama’s approval rating is the lowest ever, with 52 percent of Americans disapproving, according to a recent Post-ABC News poll. More people say that Obama’s economic plan is making the economy worse (33 percent) than better (30 percent), with 36 percent saying it is having “no real effect.” The “Recovery Summer” didn’t happen.

The moral of this tale is that Obama is out of touch with the American people — and he still just doesn’t get it. They are sad and mad, and the disappointer in chief is banging pots at a bogeyman that doesn’t exist.

Someone must have thought it just a boffo idea to go to Cleveland and smack John Boehner around. You know, get mad, kick some [expletive], blast the party of no, remind people that, hey, we’re the yes-we-can band. But it’s too late to rally for another round. When the nation is punch-drunk with promises, and even the young — jobless and disenchanted — have been tilting right, change really is in the air.

Got hope? Nope.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post


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Salvation in Small Steps

With the collapse of various ideologies and totalizing nostrums, human rights became ever more important in world affairs. Brendan Simms reviews Mr. Moyn’s “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.”

In their classic essay collection, “The Invention of Tradition” (1983), the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger showed how many features of British society that seem to be rooted in time immemorial, such as public-school rituals and royal ceremonials, are actually of recent provenance. Similarly, in “The Last Utopia,” Samuel Moyn challenges the notion that something now so well-established as the idea of human rights—foundational rights that individuals possess against enslavement, religious oppression, political imprisonment and other brutalities of arbitrary governments—had its origins in the remote past. This “celebratory” approach, he charges, uses history to “confirm the inevitable rise” of human rights “rather than register the choices that were made and the accidents that happen.” The truth, Mr. Moyn shows, is that human rights, as we understand them today, are a “recent and contingent” development.

Mr. Moyn quickly disposes of the idea that human rights originated with the Greeks, who after all kept slaves, or even with the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century, whose “Rights of Man” led to the Terror. More controversially, Mr. Moyn denies that the experience of World War II and the Holocaust produced a decisive shift in our understanding of how to guard against systematic assaults on human life and dignity. Admittedly, the United Nations did issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but this document led only to a cul-de-sac; it had few practical effects. Nor did the concept come riding in on the back of the anticolonialism sweeping the world in the 1950s and 1960s, which was focused on self-determination, not individual rights.

The breakthrough, Mr. Moyn argues, came only in the 1970s. This decade saw the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, which tied U.S. trade with the Soviet Union to the right of Soviet citizens to emigrate. It was followed in 1975 by the Helsinki Accords, which required that the signatories, including the Soviet Union, respect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion [and] belief,” to quote the accord itself.

Such principles were soon used by Eastern European and Soviet dissidents to challenge the logic of the Soviet empire itself. The charisma of various figures—Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik—gave human rights the aspect of an international “cause,” and in 1977 Amnesty International—whose work on behalf of political prisoners epitomized the new focus on individual rights—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon after, the administration of Jimmy Carter made human rights an integral part of official American policy, insisting that they be respected not only by the hostile Soviet Union but also by allied powers such as South Korea, though Mr. Carter was much softer on the shah’s Iran. In this way, as Mr. Moyn puts it, “human rights were forced to move not only from morality to politics, but also from charisma to bureaucracy.”

The reasons for this shift were numerous. Human rights had always been a part of the West’s Cold War policies, but their force had been blunted by the continued existence of European empires and, later, by the U.S. presence in Vietnam, where the brutality of war made it hard for America to serve as a moral arbiter. After decolonization and the withdrawal from Indochina, however, the battle was rejoined to devastating effect. The Soviet Union, a virtual police state, had nowhere to hide. Meanwhile, the experience of a decade or more of African and Asian independence had hardly been an advertisement for the moral purity of newly “free” states, where rights could be newly violated. A political consensus began to form that crossed party divides. “We’ll be against the dictator’s you don’t like the most,” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan told a rival, “if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.”

Most important of all, however, was the intellectual and emotional effect of the collapse of alternative ideologies. Over the course of 70 years or so communism, anticolonialism and even the grandiose designs of the West’s expanded welfare states had failed to deliver on their bright promises. Human rights, Mr. Moyn claims, were thus “the last utopia.” Unlike the totalizing nostrums of the past, they offered salvation in small, manageable steps—”saving the world one individual at a time,” as one activist put it.

The arguments in “The Last Utopia” are persuasive, but the book is not without its problems. It is true that Mr. Moyn’s past rights-champions did not advocate the utopian program of the 1970s in every respect, but they were less far off than he concedes. The Cold Warriors behind the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, for example, were surely close to Mr. Carter in the late 1970s in their insistence on political and civil rights rather than the broad spectrum of so-called social and economic rights demanded by the political left.

Mr. Moyn exposes the political motivations behind much of human-rights history—the supporters of the “humanitarian” interventions of the 1990s, for instance, cited human rights as a pedigree for their preferred policies. But his own views occasionally surface. We are never told why it is “disturbing” that the Reagan era saw an “assimilation of human rights to the inadequately developed program of ‘democracy promotion’ “; after all, the administration’s support for dissident groups in Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s did much to undermine Soviet autocracy there. Nor is it obvious that neoconservative arguments about the universality of human rights have had “many tragic consequences.” No matter. The triumph of “The Last Utopia” is that it restores historical nuance, skepticism and context to a concept that, in the past 30 years, has played a large role in world affairs.

Mr. Simms, a professor of international relations at Cambridge University, is the author of “Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire.”


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Politics and the Cult of Sentimentality

Wilde said that sentimentality is the desire to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.

When, as in my case, you have identified what you think is a social trend—the increasing sentimentality of public discourse, which brings with it disastrous practical consequences—you begin to see examples of it everywhere.

On Thursday of last week, for example, I happened to be reading an article in Le Monde while waiting for a plane at Charles de Gaulle airport. The article took up a whole page and was titled “Las Vegas Inferno.” “Inferno” was written in letters an inch tall.

I hold no particular brief for Las Vegas. I would like to see it, but only in the sense that I wanted to see North Korea (and did): One should experience all that one can of the world, and Las Vegas is surely unique.

The inferno of the article was that of the homeless of the city, 300-500 of whom live in the concrete-and-steel tunnels built in the 1970s as drains for the torrential rains that often afflict Nevada. The article says of the people who live in them that they are “the poorest of the poor, poverty-stricken rejects in the entrails of the gilded city.”

Poverty-stricken rejects in the entrails of the gilded city: The words suggest a terrible and cruel injustice done to them. But who, exactly, has rejected them, and thereby forced them into the entrails? This way of putting it inevitably turns them into victims of a cruel world.

Three cases are mentioned—those of Craig, David and Medina. Craig has lived in the tunnels for five years, and his belongings have been washed away three times in the past few months. His food is paid for with food stamps; he gathers money left behind in the one-armed bandits in the casinos above-ground to buy cannabis—”my only drug,” he says. No further details are offered as to why he resorted to living in the tunnels in the first place.

David, who has a long scar on his face that is ravaged by alcohol, came to Las Vegas attracted by “the eldorado of greenbacks and the promise of endless job opportunities.” Then, in the words of the article, he knew “that slow decline when gambling debts become insurmountable and drugs replace friends.”

On this view of things, the gambling debts and the drugs that replaced friends had an existence independent of his behavior. They had agency in his life, unlike him. The debts came and took his money away and the drugs arrived and forced him to take them, contrary to the wishes of his friends. David is therefore a victim, and nothing but a victim.

Medina, aged 36, is an Indian woman, and she has recently escaped the tunnels. Her beauty has been destroyed by “abuse and maltreatment.” She has five children, whom she hardly knows. I hope I shall not be accused of cultural insensitivity when I write that she must nevertheless have known where they came from.

It was her lover, Manny, “who first dragged me down there into the tunnels.” She thought at first that he was going to kill her, but she went nonetheless, and they stayed there a year. New building works in the tunnels rendered their situation untenable (though previously in the article we have learned that there are 300 kilometers of such tunnels to choose from) and “then I believed that I wanted to see my children again.”

What is startling about all this is that the author of the article evinces no curiosity about how the three came to be in the situation he describes. Why not? The questions to ask are so obvious that one must wonder why he did not ask them.

Part of the problem is that he sees Las Vegas as a manifestation of “the American Dream,” though actually it is a perversion of that dream, and he wants to demonstrate the badness or cruelty of that dream. No doubt the authentic dream—that of individuals endlessly free to reinvent and advance themselves—also has a dark side, as American literature records. But the tunnels under Las Vegas are not it.

The main reason that the author does not ask the obvious questions is that to have done so would have been to reduce the sentimental reaction that he wanted to evoke in his readers. And a little reflection shows that this reaction depended on a rather cruel premise: that if people are to any considerable extent the authors of their own misfortunes, we should exclude them from our pity. Instead, we turn them into the passive victims of circumstance.

Does it matter that we do this? I think that it does. Sentimentality allows us to congratulate ourselves on our own warmth and generosity of heart. Oscar Wilde said that sentimentality is the desire to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it. It turns the people on whom it is bestowed into objects. It attempts, often successfully, to disguise from them their own part in their downfall. It suggests solutions to problems that do not, because they cannot, work. Sentimentality is the ally of ever-expanding bureaucracy, for the more a solution doesn’t work, the more of it is needed.

Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels. His latest book is “Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality” (Gibson Square, 2010).


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‘The Roma Are EU Citizens — Everywhere in the European Union’

The World from Berlin

Demostrators protest against the French government’s immigration policy in the western city of Nantes on September 4.

France’s expulsion of Roma people could be copied by other governments unless it is vigorously condemned by the European public, warn German media commentators. They argue that Brussels is right to voice its misgivings against a policy that flies in the face of the principles the French nation has stood for since the revolution.

Tens of thousands protested in France on Saturday against the government’s repatriation of Roma people to eastern Europe, chanting “stop repression” and “No to Sarkozy’s inhumane policies.”

The expulsions of Roma people this year is seen as an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy to revive his flagging popularity and detract from controversial reforms and spending cuts.

The French government has insisted it will push ahead with the expulsions after almost 1,000 people were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria since a government crackdown on crime and immigration at the end of July. Sarkozy is facing mounting opposition to the expulsions from rights groups, left-wing opponents and even some politicians from his own conservative camp. Under the French crackdown, Roma who agree to leave the country receive €300 euros ($387) and an additional €100 ($129) for each of their children.

Roma in Europe

Saturday’s protests also targeted the revocation of French citizenship for immigrants found guilty of attacking police officers.

According to media reports, the European Commission has doubts whether the dismantling of Roma camps and repatriations are legal, and is requesting clarification of the policy.

German media commentators say the number of demonstrators on Saturday was surprisingly low given how heated the debate has been in recent weeks. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect tacit approval of Sarkozy’s policies. In fact, even many conservative voters object to the expulsions because it runs counter to French national ideals that they still cherish — the notion that France is defined not by blood but by common values, and that the country is a refuge from persecution and a haven for human rights.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux is pleased. Only a few tens of thousands of people turned up to demonstrations against the Roma expulsions. That isn’t very many if one considers how the debate has dominated France in recent weeks. But the modest attendance doesn’t mean the majority of citizens approves of the populist stance the Sarkozy government is taking. Even many conservative voters are turned off by the way the president is attacking weak minorities like the Roma without solving the real problem of social decay and rising crime in the suburbs.”

“France is a nation that defines itself not through blood but through common values. That gave the country tremendous attraction as a home for human rights and a refuge for the persecuted. Many French people cherish this France. They want to preserve it at a time when the integration of countless immigrants is going wrong, Islamists are preaching hate and some of the immigrant Romanis are causing problems for the police.”

“But why did so few citizens take to the streets to protest against a policy that pits the ‘real French’ against immigrants and thereby plays the race card? The answer lies in a growing fatigue with politics. But Sarkozy’s opponents are also saving their energy for Tuesday when they want to demonstrate in force against a rise in the retirement age — even though the president has the better arguments on this issue.”

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

“Officially it isn’t a crime yet in France to be a Roma from Romania or Bulgaria. But de facto the French government is no longer treating these European Union citizens as individuals with fundamental rights. They are being treated as enemies — as members of an ethnic group that, the government claims, arouses hostile prejudices in society and has thereby brought its problems upon itself.”

“The Roma are an easy target for a policy that is seaking cheap applause from worried citizens. Like the term ‘gypsies’ in the past, the word ‘Roma’ is being used by government propaganda as a synonym for thieves and troublesome beggars whose expulsion doesn’t require any further reason: their ethnic background suffices.”

“Who can seriously claim that these poor families who live on the fringes of society in their country of refuge and their country of origin pose a danger to France’s security?”

“This hunt for publicly branded scapegoats serves as a deterrence. The Roma are being made an example of for a policy that Nicolas Sarkozy was already considering when he was still interior minister talking about ‘selective immigration.'”

“This policy deliberately instrumentalizes existing prejudices. There is a big risk that this policy will spread from France and Italy to the rest of Europe if it isn’t rejected firmly enough by the European public.”

The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

“The Roma are EU citizens — everywhere in the European Union. That means that Roma who come from within the EU can move freely everywhere in the bloc. And it also means that the integration of the Roma, hard though it may be, is a task for all member states: their countries of origin which are mostly in the east, and their new host countries. Those include France, Italy and not least Germany.”

“The Roma have virtually no lobby. That is why Sarkozy until recently had no problem clearing the illegal camps — until church representatives, the opposition and members of his own party started voicing their objections. His brutish policy of expulsion has also prompted the European Commission to get involved. Commissioner Viviane Reding has indicated that she won’t let the president get away so easily with his law-and-order policies. Reding’s caution is understandable given that it is not easy to prove that the French president has broken EU rules. But it is good that Brussels has shown its colors, albeit after some hesitation. After all, most EU member states have a charter of basic rights. And the inhumane treatment of the Roma is hardly compatible with that.

“Sarkozy is by no means the only European leader to be tough with the Roma. Germany’s current repatriation of Roma refugees to Kosovo poses the question: are we really checking every individual case here too?”


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Paranoid About Paranoia

Last Wednesday, a man named James Lee entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel with explosives strapped to his body, took three hostages at gunpoint, and waited for his demands to be met.

A foe of population growth, Lee had apparently decided that shows like “Kate Plus Eight” and “19 Kids and Counting” were pushing the planet toward destruction. “All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants,” he decreed, before moving on to demand solutions for “global warming, automotive pollution, international trade … and the whole blasted human economy.”

By the end of the day, the hostages were safe, Lee had been killed by police, and TLC’s fall lineup was preserved. But the debate about the hostage-taker’s politics was just beginning.

Conservatives and libertarians dubbed Lee a “liberal eco-terrorist” inspired by a “green climate of hate.” They pointed out that he traced his political “awakening” to Al Gore’s apocalyptic rhetoric. They cited an F.B.I. statement calling eco-vigilantes America’s “No. 1 domestic terrorism threat.”

This was all a little ridiculous. But of course it was really an attempt to turn the tables on liberals, who have spent the last two years linking conservative rhetoric to hate crimes and antigovernment maniacs. (It’s a hard habit to break: the liberal site quickly suggested that James Lee was actually a right-wing extremist, because his hostility to “parasitic human infants” extended to the children of illegal immigrants.)

To some extent, partisans persist in these arguments — “your side encourages extremists!”; “no, your side encourages extremists!” — because America really is rife with wild and crazy sentiments. The belief that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim (apparently held by nearly 20 percent of the country) gets the headlines. But as the George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has noted, national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out or noxious-seeming notions.

There’s the 32 percent of Democrats who blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis. There’s the 25 percent of African-Americans who believe the AIDS virus was created in a government lab. There’s support for state secession, which may have been higher among liberals in the Bush era than among Republicans in the age of Obama. And there’s the theory that the Bush White House knew about 9/11 in advance, which a third of Democrats endorsed as recently as 2007.

So are we a nation of potential James Lees, teetering on the brink of paranoid violence? Not necessarily. As the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez has pointed out, it’s worth taking all these polling responses with a substantial grain of salt. For all but the hardest-core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls “symbolic beliefs.” These are “propositions you profess publicly” but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction.

Consider the apparently widespread notion that George W. Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. If true, it would suggest that Bush was not merely a bad man or a bad president, but an evil genius on a shocking scale. But as Sanchez notes, “you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.” Nobody planned an insurrection; few people fled to Canada. Instead, liberals organized for Democratic candidates, as though Bush were an ordinary opponent rather than a stone-cold killer.

The same is true of conservative conspiracy theorists today. Tuning in to Glenn Beck or joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions — an attention-grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American” — then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense.

Such beliefs can still be dangerous. The line between what’s symbolic and what’s real isn’t always clear, and a determined demagogue can exploit symbolic beliefs as well as real ones.

But obsessing about the paranoia of the masses is often a way for American elites to gloss over their own, entirely nonsymbolic failures. In the Bush era attacking the conspiracy theories of the “angry left” made it easier for conservatives to avert their eyes from the disaster the Iraq war had become. Today, establishment liberals would much rather fret about the insanity of the Republican base than reckon with the unpopularity of Barack Obama’s domestic program.

Some fretting is justified. (Just ask the Discovery Channel.) But over all, Americans still have more to fear from the folly of establishments than from the paranoia such follies summon up.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


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That ’70s Feeling

TODAY we celebrate the American labor force, but this year’s working-class celebrity hero made his debut almost a month ago. Steven Slater, a flight attendant for JetBlue, ended his career by cursing at his passengers over the intercom and grabbing a couple of beers before sliding down the emergency-evacuation chute — and into popular history.

The press immediately drew parallels between Mr. Slater’s outburst and two iconic moments of 1970s popular culture: Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from the 1976 film “Network” and Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 anthem of alienation, “Take This Job and Shove It.”

But these are more than just parallels: those late ’70s events are part of the cultural foundation of our own time. Less expressions of rebellion than frustration, they mark the final days of a time when the working class actually mattered.

The ’70s began on a remarkably hopeful — and militant — note. Working-class discontent was epidemic: 2.4 million people engaged in major strikes in 1970 alone, all struggling with what Fortune magazine called an “angry, aggressive and acquisitive” mood in the shops.

Most workers weren’t angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs. Pundits often called it “Lordstown syndrome,” after the General Motors plant in Ohio where a young, hip and interracial group of workers held a three-week strike in 1972. The workers weren’t concerned about better pay; instead, they wanted more control over what was then the fastest assembly line in the world.

Newsweek called the strike an “industrial Woodstock,” an upheaval in employment relations akin to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The “blue-collar blues” were so widespread that the Senate opened an investigation into worker “alienation.”

But what felt to some like radical change in the heartland was really the beginning of the end — not just of organized labor’s influence, but of the very presence of workers in national civic life.

When the economy soured in 1974, business executives dismissed workers’ complaints about the quality of their occupational life — and then went gunning for their paychecks and their unions as well, abetted by a conservative political climate and the offshoring of the nation’s industrial core. Inflation, not unemployment, became Public Enemy No. 1, and workers bore the political costs of the fight against it.

Though direct workplace confrontations quickly dropped off, the feelings that had fueled them did not. Analysts began talking of an “inner class war” — more psychological than material, more anxious than angry, more about self-worth than occupational justice.

“Something’s happening to people like me,” Dewey Burton, an assembly-line worker for Ford, told The Times in 1974. “More and more of us are sort of leaving our hopes outside in the rain and coming into the house and just locking the door — you know, just turning the key and ‘click,’ that’s it for what we always thought we could be.”

Johnny Paycheck, a country singer, understood. Throngs of working-class people may have gathered around jukeboxes to raise a glass and chant the famous chorus to his most famous song, but they knew that his urge to rebellion was really just a fantasy: “I’d give the shirt right off of my back / If I had the nerve to say / Take this job and shove it!”

Similarly, in “Network,” Howard Beale, a TV news anchor played by Peter Finch, became famous as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” But while he and his audiences may have been yelling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” the tag line was more a psychological release than a call to arms. After all, at the end of the film, Beale, already in suicidal despair, is murdered by his employer for meddling with the system.

The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

Occasionally a rebel shatters the silence. Like Steven Slater, though, they get more publicity than political traction. Many things about America have changed since the late ’70s, but the soundtrack of working-class life, sadly, remains the same.

Jefferson Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell, is the author of “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.”


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Superbroke, Superfrugal, Superpower?

In recent years, I have often said to European friends: So, you didn’t like a world of too much American power? See how you like a world of too little American power — because it is coming to a geopolitical theater near you. Yes, America has gone from being the supreme victor of World War II, with guns and butter for all, to one of two superpowers during the cold war, to the indispensable nation after winning the cold war, to “The Frugal Superpower” of today. Get used to it. That’s our new nickname. American pacifists need not worry any more about “wars of choice.” We’re not doing that again. We can’t afford to invade Grenada today.

Ever since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, it has been clear that the nature of being a leader — political or corporate — was changing in America. During most of the post-World War II era, being a leader meant, on balance, giving things away to people. Today, and for the next decade at least, being a leader in America will mean, on balance, taking things away from people.

And there is simply no way that America’s leaders, as they have to take more things away from their own voters, are not going to look to save money on foreign policy and foreign wars. Foreign and defense policy is a lagging indicator. A lot of other things get cut first. But the cuts are coming — you can already hear the warnings from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And a frugal American superpower is sure to have ripple effects around the globe.

“The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era” is actually the title of a very timely new book by my tutor and friend Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert. “In 2008,” Mandelbaum notes, “all forms of government-supplied pensions and health care (including Medicaid) constituted about 4 percent of total American output.” At present rates, and with the baby boomers soon starting to draw on Social Security and Medicare, by 2050 “they will account for a full 18 percent of everything the United States produces.”

This — on top of all the costs of bailing ourselves out of this recession — “will fundamentally transform the public life of the United States and therefore the country’s foreign policy.” For the past seven decades, in both foreign affairs and domestic policy, our defining watchword was “more,” argues Mandelbaum. “The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond will be ‘less.’ ”

When the world’s only superpower gets weighed down with this much debt — to itself and other nations — everyone will feel it. How? Hard to predict. But all I know is that the most unique and important feature of U.S. foreign policy over the last century has been the degree to which America’s diplomats and naval, air and ground forces provided global public goods — from open seas to open trade and from containment to counterterrorism — that benefited many others besides us. U.S. power has been the key force maintaining global stability, and providing global governance, for the last 70 years. That role will not disappear, but it will almost certainly shrink.

Great powers have retrenched before: Britain for instance. But, as Mandelbaum notes, “When Britain could no longer provide global governance, the United States stepped in to replace it. No country now stands ready to replace the United States, so the loss to international peace and prosperity has the potential to be greater as America pulls back than when Britain did.”

After all, Europe is rich but wimpy. China is rich nationally but still dirt poor on a per capita basis and, therefore, will be compelled to remain focused inwardly and regionally. Russia, drunk on oil, can cause trouble but not project power. “Therefore, the world will be a more disorderly and dangerous place,” Mandelbaum predicts.

How to mitigate this trend? Mandelbaum argues for three things: First, we need to get ourselves back on a sustainable path to economic growth and reindustrialization, with whatever sacrifices, hard work and political consensus that requires. Second, we need to set priorities. We have enjoyed a century in which we could have, in foreign policy terms, both what is vital and what is desirable. For instance, I presume that with infinite men and money we can succeed in Afghanistan. But is it vital? I am sure it is desirable, but vital? Finally, we need to shore up our balance sheet and weaken that of our enemies, and the best way to do that in one move is with a much higher gasoline tax.

America is about to learn a very hard lesson: You can borrow your way to prosperity over the short run but not to geopolitical power over the long run. That requires a real and growing economic engine. And, for us, the short run is now over. There was a time when thinking seriously about American foreign policy did not require thinking seriously about economic policy. That time is also over.

An America in hock will have no hawks — or at least none that anyone will take seriously.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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How Do You Stop an Elephant Charging?

Democrats are running out of time to find an answer.

Eight weeks out and you don’t have to be a political professional to feel what’s in the air: The Republicans have a big win coming.

The question in the House races is: Will they get to 218? Will Republicans pick up the 39 seats they need to win control of the 435-member chamber?

Another way of asking: Is this 1994 again?

That year the Republicans swept the House races, picking up 52 seats and getting, for the first time in 40 years, a Republican majority and a Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich. Even then-Speaker Tom Foley (D., Wash.), lost his seat that year. (Speaker Nancy Pelosi is famously in no danger—she won her seat with 72 % of the vote in 2008—but it probably means something that she appears to have gone missing from the national scene. CBS, in March, had her at 11% approval among registered voters.)

A Gallup survey of registered voters this week had Republicans beating Democrats in a generic ballot by 10 points, 51% to 41%. In the 68-year history of that poll, the GOP had never led by more than five points. RealClearPolitics has Republicans ahead in 206 races and Democrats ahead in 194, with 35 too close to call. The Cook Political Report puts 68 Democratic House seats “at substantial risk,” while judging less than a dozen GOP seats to be in real trouble. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made news a few weeks ago by conceding the obvious: that the Republicans could take the House. Top Democrats have told the same to Politico.

The news is so good it’s prompting mutterings on the right: The liberal media are trumpeting the inevitable GOP triumph to make the base complacent and the party peak early. Anything but a Democratic debacle will be spun as proof that Obama’s support, while soft, endures. “The Republicans had a typical off-year chance to win back power and failed. The reason? Voters just don’t trust them.”

The Democrats are not without resources. The first is money, and the second is troops. The Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr. notes that in many of the closest races this year the Democrats have more cash on hand, and in 20 of those races “the Democrat has at least a four-to-one cash advantage over the Republican candidate.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it has nearly $17 million more to spend on key House races than its GOP counterpart. Then there are the unions: “The AFL-CIO says it will spend more than $40 million to back candidates and mobilize residents of union-member households to vote in November, overwhelmingly in support of Democrats.”

What’s going to happen? I put the question to one of the architects of the 1994 Republican win, the conservative activist Grover Norquist, a contributor to the Contract with America, member of the Gingrich kitchen cabinet, and founder, 25 years ago, of Americans for Tax Reform. In conversations over those years, I’ve found him to be among the most insightful political observers in Washington.

So, is this 1994 again?

“It could be, and it looks like it,” he said. He noted that Republicans in 1994 were not polling this well and this strongly this early.

There are parallels, he said, between ’94 and ’10. One is determination. The Republican Party establishment sets its mind specifically to winning back the House in ’94—”before that, it had seemed impossible”—and is doing so again. Both 1994 and 2010 were preceded by striking off-year GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia, which signaled a coming Republican wave. In 1994 the Republican theme “was not just ‘Vote against Clintonism,’ it was ‘Vote for the Contract with America.'” The Republicans are putting together a 2010 contract and plan to unveil it in late September, as they did in ’94. The first contract, says Mr. Norquist, was “not a campaign tool but a governing tool.” He remembered data that said before the ’94 election, less than 20% of voters had heard of it. But after the election the media made the contract famous. “It was a great gift to the Republicans,” he said, because it forced them into a semblance of unity by making them focus on a specific agenda.

But there are differences between 1994 and 2010. For one, this time around “the Democrats can see what’s coming.” They didn’t see the Republican wave rising in 1994 until it was too late. “When you see something coming a mile away, you can build a ditch to keep it away.” Democrats, he says, have put aside a lot of money for negative ads in the last days of the campaign. “For a year, Democratic strategists said ‘We’ll pass health care, they’ll love us.’ ‘Recovery summer, they’ll love us.’ ‘We’ll run against Wall Street, they’ll love us.'” These “narratives” failed. “The one thing they have left is: ‘We will put together a lot of cash and run a lot of negatives ads showing why it’s not policy that counts, it’s that the Republican candidate had a DUI 10 years ago.'”

Another difference between ’94 and ’10: “There wasn’t a Tea Party movement in ’94.” There was a Perot movement, which was “much less visible and organized.” Ross Perot backed the Republican House effort in 1994. “This time we have a thousand mini-Perots”—Tea Party leaders—”who are against the Democrats and for the Republicans.” Their rallies, Mr. Norquist says, are gaining strength.

Republicans, he argues, must determine to stay focused, and not become distracted by issues that are not central to the campaign. “There’s the danger of getting sidetracked by shiny things,” he says, citing Arizona’s immigration law, or “the mosque in Manhattan.” These issues do not win new votes, “they only please voters you already have.” Mr. Norquist says: “Harry Reid is stapled at the forehead and the hip to Obama, and it’s hurting him. But Gingrich says the most important issue of the day is the mosque, and Reid gets new life out of it: ‘I strongly differ with the president’s statement on the mosque!’ It gives Democrats the chance to say, ‘I’m not like Obama!'”

Another distraction: “All the time and effort turned into rehabilitating George W. Bush. His former aides are out there arguing about who should get credit for the surge. What? . . . For those who believe Bush was doing something useful and central to jam it into the middle of this election—we lost the past two elections because independents didn’t like Bush!” The rehabilitation effort loses potential votes, wins no new ones, and distracts from central themes. Mr. Norquist offers a prediction: “Watch CBS try to get Bush family and friends to do interviews to insert Bush back into the campaign the weekend before the election.”

What should Republicans focus on? “Spending per se is a palpable issue. The central question is not only taxes or the deficit, it’s spending, and you can see this in polls. . . . There is not a Democrat who can say, ‘I was not part of the spending explosion that threatens you and your country.’ It’s the one thing they can’t defend themselves against. They don’t want to stop spending.”

What about high spending by Republicans in the House, in the Senate, and in the White House? That’s true, he says, but big spenders have been getting “pre-purged” in the primaries. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski “said she’s bringing home the pork. Well, she lost.”

Mr. Norquist sums the matter up: “The big issue, and people know this, is the explosion of federal spending that is damaging our economy and threatening our future.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Our distracted commander in chief

Many have charged that President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan 10 months from now is hampering our war effort. But now it’s official. In a stunning statement last week, Marine Corps Commandant James Conway admitted that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.”

A remarkably bold charge for an active military officer. It stops just short of suggesting aiding and abetting the enemy. Yet the observation is obvious: It is surely harder to prevail in a war that hinges on the allegiance of the locals when they hear the U.S. president talk of beginning a withdrawal that will ultimately leave them to the mercies of the Taliban.

How did Obama come to this decision? “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” an Obama adviser told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

If this is true, then Obama’s military leadership can only be called scandalous. During the past week, 22 Americans were killed over a four-day period in Afghanistan. This is not a place about which decisions should be made in order to placate members of Congress, pass health care and thereby maintain a president’s political standing. This is a place about which a president should make decisions to best succeed in the military mission he himself has set out.

But Obama sees his wartime duties as a threat to his domestic agenda. These wars are a distraction, unwanted interference with his true vocation — transforming America.

Such an impression could only have been reinforced when, given the opportunity in his Oval Office address this week to dispel the widespread perception in Afghanistan that America is leaving, Obama doubled down on his ambivalence. After giving a nod to the pace of troop reductions being conditions-based, he declared with his characteristic “but make no mistake” that “this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

These are the words of a man who wants out. Most emphatically from Iraq, where Obama has long made clear that his objective is simply ending combat operations by an arbitrary deadline — despite the fact that a new government has not been formed and all our hard-won success hangs in the balance — in order to address the more paramount concern: keeping a campaign promise. Time to “turn the page” and turn America elsewhere.

At first you’d think that turning is to Afghanistan. But Obama added nothing to his previously stated Afghan policy while emphatically reiterating July 2011 as the beginning of the end, or more diplomatically, of the “transition.”

Well then, at least you’d expect some vision of his larger foreign policy. After all, this was his first Oval Office address on the subject. What is the meaning, if any, of the Iraq and Afghan wars? And what of the clouds that are forming beyond those theaters: the drone-war escalation in Pakistan, the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the danger of Somalia falling to al-Shabab, and the threat of renewed civil war in Islamist Sudan as a referendum on independence for southern Christians and animists approaches?

This was the stage for Obama to explain what follows the now-abolished Global War on Terror. Where does America stand on the spreading threats to stability, decency and U.S. interests from the Horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush?

On this, not a word. Instead, Obama made a strange and clumsy segue into a pep talk on the economy. Rebuilding it, he declared, “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.” This in a speech ostensibly about the two wars he is directing. He could not have made more clear where his priorities lie, and how much he sees foreign policy — war policy — as subordinate to his domestic ambitions.

Unfortunately, what for Obama is a distraction is life or death for U.S. troops now on patrol in Kandahar province. Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does. Obama needs to accept the role. It’s not just the U.S. military, as Baker reports, that is “worried he is not fully invested in the cause.” Our allies, too, are experiencing doubt. And our enemies are drawing sustenance.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Obama’s ‘Come Home America’ Speech

A dangerous world needs stronger U.S. leadership.

At times Tuesday night, it sounded as if President Barack Obama didn’t know what kind of speech he wanted to give. Was it a foreign policy address aimed at assuring a world-wide audience of America’s resolve in the war against militant Islam? Or was it an election stump speech to confirm to voters that the economy is job No. 1 for this president and his party?

The speech’s best moments were those praising the commitment, courage and sacrifice of America’s military. The president powerfully said that “our troops are the steel in our ship of state,” and all who serve join “an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar.”

For someone who had been such a vocal war opponent, he was generous in acknowledging what our troops accomplished—defeating “a regime that had terrorized its people” and helping “Iraq seize the chance for a better future.” Because of our troops, he said, “Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”

As a foreign policy address, however, the speech missed the mark. While Mr. Obama did acknowledge that the U.S. “intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership” in the world, most foreign observers will probably remember the president’s tone of haste, withdrawal and even retreat. His phrase, “It is time to turn the page,” caught many an ear around the world—and not to America’s advantage.

Mr. Obama’s was not the confident voice of Harry S. Truman promising to protect Europe and Japan against “outright aggression and . . . the threat of further armed attack.” Nor did the president sound like the determined Dwight Eisenhower explaining America’s commitment to South Korea’s transition to democracy after the Korean War by saying, “We may not now relax our guard nor cease our quest.”

Instead, Mr. Obama’s address was more reminiscent of Sen. George McGovern’s plea in the 1972 presidential campaign to “Come home, America.” It sounded like he couldn’t head for the Iraq exit door quickly enough.

Imagine if after World War II, America had left Europe in the face of the aggressive Soviet threat. What would Asia look like now if, following the Korean War, the U.S. had set a quick date for withdrawal from the peninsula?

As much as he may wish, Mr. Obama cannot ignore Iraq or withdraw prematurely from Afghanistan. He has ownership of both wars; it’s part of his job description. He will share in the wars’ success or be blamed if they are lost. And he will have a better chance of succeeding if our friends and enemies sense resolve, rather than weariness.

The world needs a determined United States. It is in the security, diplomatic and economic interests of our nation to provide to Iraq and Afghanistan the same patient leadership we provided in Europe and Asia. We face new threats from Iran. China and Russia are both flexing their muscles. Telegraphing to the world that America is no longer a dependable ally is the worst possible message a president can send.

Tuesday might have been better spent visiting not just Fort Bliss but other military installations as well to honor all the services. Then Mr. Obama could have given an Oval Office address when the new Iraqi government is formed, pairing progress on security with political success.

Mr. Obama suggested that a trillion dollars had been squandered to no good purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Are removing murderous regimes that were threats to peace and stability, catalyzing change in the Arab Middle East by expanding democracy, dealing a brutal blow to al Qaeda, protecting the American homeland, and diminishing the threat of transnational terrorism really of so little value to the president?

Speaking of trillions, have we prospered because of the trillion dollars Mr. Obama is spending on stimulus? Are we more confident of our country’s future because Mr. Obama will lay out two-and-a-half trillion dollars in ObamaCare’s first decade of operation? Do back-to-back-to-back deficits under this president—each of more than a trillion dollars—give us comfort about his fiscal leadership?

All issues pale compared to the question of U.S. leadership. America can either shape the world’s agenda, or wait for direction from international organizations.

Suggesting that only by withdrawing from the world can a president “jump-start industries,” reform education, and make “tough decisions” about issues at home leaves the impression that Mr. Obama has little interest in being commander in chief, that his real passion is domestic issues and his goal to mold America into a European-style social democracy.

Presidents can simultaneously pursue international and domestic agendas. In dangerous times, it is vital that the president use America’s power to shape the world.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Time stands still in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Say what you will about the Arab world, it’s hard to earn its gratitude. President Obama went to Egypt and not Israel. He demanded that Israel cease adding new settlements in the West Bank. He treated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a chilling disdain. For all of that, though, Obama’s approval rating in Arab countries has sunk. Unlike almost a fifth of Americans, the Arab world clearly knows Obama is no Muslim.

The polls show some startling numbers. When this spring the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked residents of Islamic countries what they thought about Obama, he got good marks when it came to such matters as climate change. But when the question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the numbers not only declined in Indonesia and Turkey, they nearly went through the floor in the three Arab countries polled. In Jordan, 84 percent disapproved of the way Obama was handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Egypt, the figure was 88 percent and in Lebanon it was 90 percent.

For Obama, the figures must be disheartening. They strongly suggest that his attempt to woo the Arab world, to convince it that America can be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has dismally failed. In fact, the extent of this failure is most stark in Lebanon. There, 100 percent of Shiite respondents — in other words, Hezbollah and others — have no faith in Obama and his good intentions. This may be a setback for Obama, but it is paradoxically a success for American values.

What the Arab world seems to appreciate is that America will never agree to what the Arab world most wants — an Islamic state where a Jewish one now exists. This entirely reasonable conclusion is based on what has long been American policy — not what the State Department wanted but what the American people supported. America has always liked the idea of Israel. The Arab world, for totally understandable reasons, has always hated it. Nothing has changed.

A fundamental document in this area — a once-secret CIA analysis from 1947 — was unearthed (to my knowledge) by Thomas W. Lippman and reported in the winter 2007 issue of the Middle East Journal. The CIA strongly argued that the creation of Israel was not in America’s interests and that therefore Washington ought to be opposed. This was no different than what later diplomats and military men (most recently, David Petraeus) have argued and it is without a doubt correct. Supporting Israel hurts America in the Islamic — particularly the Arab — world and, given the crucial importance of Middle Eastern oil, makes no practical sense.

The CIA further argued that the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict would soon widen to become an Israeli-Islamic conflict — another bull’s-eye for what was then an infant intelligence service. That process was already underway, which is why some non-Arabs (Bosnian Muslims, for instance) fought the creation of Israel, and has only intensified as radical Islam, laced with healthy doses of anti-Semitism, has gotten even stronger.

But where the CIA went wrong — and not, alas, for the last time — was in predicting that the Arabs would defeat Israel and that the state would not survive. The CIA was pretty sure of the outcome, what a later CIA figure might have called a “slam dunk.”

What neither the CIA nor, for that matter, the anti-Israel State Department recognized in the late 1940s is that America’s interests are not always measurably pragmatic — metrics, in the jargon of our day. Sometimes, our interests reflect our national ethic, an affinity for other democracies, sympathy for the underdog. These, too, are in America’s interests and they may be modified, but not abandoned, for the sake of mere metrics.

This is why Obama’s overture to the Arab world, clumsily executed, was never going to succeed. America can please some Arab governments — Egypt and Jordan, for instance — but not the Arab people. What they want, and what they have been told repeatedly they deserve, is a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel and control over all of Jerusalem. These are both out of the question as far as Israel is concerned. It is not willing to give up its capital and, in a relatively short time, its Jewish majority.

This week, Palestinians and Israelis will once again talk peace in Washington. But until both sides, particularly the Arab peoples, give up on what they really want, the clock will remain where it has been. Those Pew polls show that’s around 1947.

Richard Cohen, Washington Post


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The Paula Abdul Theory of Foreign Policy

Self-esteem does not make for good policy (or singers).

Is it better to be a sucker?

Consider three examples where conventional wisdom tells us, in effect, that it is. Tomorrow, negotiations resume in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians. A fool’s gambit? Not at all, says U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who likes to say that, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, he had “700 days of failure and one day of success.”

Next is Iran. The Obama administration is fond of explaining that last year’s outreach to the Islamic Republic was a no-lose proposition, since it meant that either diplomacy would succeed in curbing the regime’s nuclear bids, or its failure would expose the regime’s duplicity and obstructionism, thereby facilitating tougher measures.

And then there is the Ground Zero mosque: Among its virtues, say supporters, is that it will advertise American tolerance and strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims in America and abroad.

To all this, one might say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But put the clichés aside: The deeper political idea at work here is that moral inputs are the essential ingredients to—and ultimately more important than—pragmatic outputs. Charitably speaking, this means leading by persuasion and example, always going the last mile for peace, giving others (or, “the other”) the benefit of the doubt and so on. The real-world benefits are supposed to flow naturally from there, but if they don’t, so what? Doing right is its own reward.

Uncharitably speaking, this is what might be called the Paula Abdul theory of foreign policy, after the famously forgiving former judge on American Idol. Never mind that you can’t sing, or that you’re letting yourself be played for a sucker: What counts is that you feel good about yourself, presumably because you’re doing something good. Another name for this kind of thinking is moral narcissism.

No wonder there’s something slightly frantic about all the testimonials—more often asserted than demonstrated—to the “moderation” of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the would-be imam of the Ground Zero mosque. In fact, the imam’s record of political and theological pronouncements is mixed, often slippery and sometimes disturbing, as when he urged last year that President Obama endorse the theocratic foundations of Iran’s government.

Paula Abdul

But none of that really matters much to Mr. Rauf’s supporters, not because they are his fellow travellers politically, but because supporting the mosque is an opportunity to flaunt their virtue by the simple means of making a political declaration. Question to mosque supporters: Has your check to Mr. Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative been mailed already? Or would you rather the Saudi government pick up the tab?

The Obama administration’s approach to Iran is another instance of moral narcissism in action. It took a peculiar political conceit to imagine that the Islamic Republic was a misunderstood creature, offended by Bush administration arrogance, that would yield to President Obama’s charm offensive.

Then again, President Obama’s approach wasn’t dictated by a long train of examples of the Islamic Republic rebuffing every diplomatic overture made to it, or by a sober assessment about the drift of its politics in recent years. Nor did the president seem much concerned about the consequences of Iran playing the U.S. for a fool while it again played for time for its nuclear programs.

But, again, none of this really matters, because the real point of the diplomatic outreach wasn’t pragmatic; it was about the administration and its supporters demonstrating that they were the good guys vis-a-vis Iran. I doubt even Glenn Beck needed proof of this.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian talks, whose chances of success may be safely predicted at nil. Yesterday, I spoke with Aaron David Miller, the former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to ask him what was wrong with the view that it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.

“That’s what Bill Clinton said to us,” he replied. “I was inspired; it’s quintessentially American. But it’s not a substitute for a serious foreign policy on the part of the world’s most consequential power.” The risk, he added, “is that when the small power says no to the great one without cost or consequence, whether that’s Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arabs or the Israelis, we lose street cred. Right now, we are neither feared nor respected nor admired to the extent we need to be consistent with our interests in the region.”

Mr. Miller is a liberal, but he’s also what Irving Kristol would have called a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. Part of that reality is that foreign policy is blood sport not beauty contest, and that those who suppose the latter will be defenseless when they discover it’s the former. Which is all to say, it sucks to be a sucker.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Defining the Afghan Deadline Down

The president’s advisers agree: We’re not leaving next July.

If you are among those who think Barack Obama gives too many speeches, you may not be tuning in this evening when the president takes to the airwaves to speak to the American people about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

If you do tune in, and you are hoping for some encouragement about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, you may go away more alarmed than reassured. For when it comes to war speeches, President Obama likes to combine his firm statements of purpose with even firmer statements about heading for the exits. In other words, expect the usual quotient of wince-inducing moments.

Here’s the good news: The Obama policy is better than the Obama rhetoric.

Only three months ago, President Obama told us that Afghanistan today is “no less important than it was in those days after 9/11.” As a candidate who became a Democratic contender largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, however, Mr. Obama has used his speeches to shore up his left flank. He knows that the left doesn’t want to hear anything about Afghanistan unless it has to do with deadlines and departure dates.

That’s probably one reason he simply doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. If you want an eye-opening sign of administration priorities, go to the White House website and search in “speeches and remarks” for “health care.” You’ll find 400 items since he took office. Now plug in “Afghanistan” and you’ll find just 202.

The rhetorical detachment is provoking second thoughts among many who otherwise support the president’s surge in Afghanistan. Their logic is unassailable. If the president is not fully committed to victory, does it not become absurd, even immoral, to continue to send Americans there to die?

One answer is that his actions may be a better indicator than his words. Notwithstanding his uncertain oratorical trumpet, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy began with more troops. He has escalated the drone strikes against the enemy hiding in neighboring Pakistan. When the McChrystal flap put him in the position of relieving his top general in Afghanistan, he replaced him with an even stronger one: David Petraeus. As if to underscore the point, he put Gen. Jim Mattis—a Marine’s Marine—at Centcom. It’s hard to think of a better team.

It’s true that these good decisions have been undermined by his rhetorical aloofness, as well as by his announcement that we would begin withdrawing troops next July. Indeed, only a few days ago, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, said that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” Though this president is not likely ever to admit that setting this date was a mistake, he and his team have done the next best thing: defined the deadline down.

It’s not only Gen. Petraeus. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs (“conditions on the ground will determine the slope of that withdrawal”), Vice President Joe Biden (“conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership”), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“it’s a conditions-based withdrawal”), and Defense Secretary Bob Gates (“the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground”) have all made similar comments walking back the deadline.

The point is that there are withdrawals, and there are withdrawals. Back in 2007, when Gen. Petraeus famously testified before Congress about the progress in Iraq, we forget that the first, post-surge withdrawal of troops—2,200 Marines from Anbar—had already begun. Likewise next July marks only a beginning, and the administration can define that drawdown however it wants.

Gen. Petraeus says we can prevail in Afghanistan. Surely he has earned the chance to try, as well as the trust that he will speak up if he finds himself shortchanged on time or resources. Even Gen. Conway, who was so blunt about how talk of a withdrawal has emboldened the enemy, was quick to add that the Taliban is likely to be extremely disheartened when the date comes and goes and most of our forces are still there.

When it comes to war rhetoric, manifestly Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. Yet having arrived at the Oval Office, he appears to have discerned a truth that continues to elude other members of his administration: However weary Americans may be of long wars, they don’t like losing them. In the same vein, whether this president goes down as a new FDR or a new LBJ will likely be determined by how the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

On issue after issue, President Obama stands accused of a huge gap between word and deed. In the long run, this contradiction is not sustainable, especially for a war president. At least for the short term in Afghanistan, however, it’s our best case for hope.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal


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Social Security Bait and Switch

‘Harry, am I making this up?’ Yes, Mr. President, you are.

Democrats are trying to keep control of Congress by scaring the wig off grandma with a phantom GOP plot against Social Security. That is not news. Social Security scare tactics have been regular campaign themes since FDR. President Obama’s unique contribution is to do this even as he’s begging Republicans to help him reduce the deficit and reform entitlement spending.


On the one hand, Mr. Obama has charged his deficit commission with crafting a bipartisan plan to restrain entitlements. “Everything’s on the table. That’s how this thing’s going to work,” he said when he created the commission in February. “We now have to, in a gradual way, reduce spending, particularly on those big ticket items” like Social Security, he later added in Racine, Wisconsin. “That’s going to be our project for the next couple years.”

Yet even as Mr. Obama beseeches Republicans, he and his political allies are playing the Social Security card for all it’s worth in this campaign season. This has all the earmarks of a political bait and switch designed to ambush Republicans if they’re gullible enough to believe his bipartisan pleas.

Mr. Obama personally teed up the campaign theme earlier this month when he celebrated Social Security’s 75th anniversary by claiming that “privatizing Social Security” is “a key part” of the Republican “legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.” He went on to say that this plan, which does not in fact exist, is “wrong for America” and “I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street. Because you shouldn’t be worried that a sudden downturn in the stock market will put all you’ve worked so hard for—all you’ve earned—at risk.”

The President’s speechwriters missed an opportunity to invoke boll weevils and Tom Joad, though they did find room for a paean to partisan comity. In an echt-Obama touch, he added that “I’m committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security.”

Democratic House campaign chief Chris Van Hollen did it again last week at the National Press Club, discovering “a plan that would steer, by the way, billions and billions of dollars of American Social Security retirement savings to Wall Street.” Also by the way, this plan would “abolish Medicare in its current form” and “throw seniors to the whims of the uncontrolled costs of the private-insurance market.”

This Obama-Van Hollen line of attack is figuring in races across the country, and union groups are spending heavily to give it a political impact, the facts notwithstanding. Earlier this summer the Strengthen Social Security Coalition magically emerged, its backers a roll-call of the progressive left: the AFL-CIO, SEIU, American Federation of Teachers,, Campaign for America’s Future, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

In Nevada, Harry Reid & Co. are inundating the airwaves with claims that Republican challenger Sharon Angle favors cutting off Social Security checks. Mr. Obama showed up at a Las Vegas fund-raiser to chime in that “she wants to phase out and privatize Social Security and Medicare. Phase out and privatize them. . . . I’m not making this up. Harry, am I making this up?”

Cognitive dissonance evidently does not afflict this President. Not long after this Socratic dialogue with Harry, at a recent event in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Obama explained that “what we’ve done is we’ve created a fiscal commission of Democrats and Republicans to come up with what would be the best combination to help stabilize Social Security for not just this generation, but the next generation. I’m absolutely convinced it can be done.”

This campaign strategy won’t stop huge Democratic losses in a year when the economy is the dominant issue, but it surely will reinforce Republican fears that the deficit commission is nothing but a political trap. Mr. Obama wants the GOP to support entitlement reforms in exchange for tax increases, but when they do he’ll pocket the revenue and slam the GOP for the entitlement “cuts.”

The irony is that the fiscal condition of Social Security could be substantially improved simply by readjusting its actuarial formulas to slow the growth rate of benefits. But Republicans are unlikely to sign on even to that if they’re going to be demonized for such a modest “cut” anyway, much less endorse a reform like raising the future retirement age. Mr. Obama says he wants to cut a deal, but encouraging Democrats this year to box themselves in against any change will make serious reforms that much harder next year.


The President’s bad faith is all the more notable because Social Security is less a GOP reform priority than it should be. Republicans never even brought President Bush’s private account plan to the floor in 2005. To the extent these attacks have any basis in reality, they’re targeting Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap”—even as Mr. Obama praises him for being serious about the fiscal crisis and knows he’s a member of the deficit commission.

This Social Security ploy perfectly illustrates the Obama political method: Bipolar rhetoric that lurches between partisan distortion and bipartisan entreaties—all the while governing hard to the left with Democrats in Congress running the show.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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The World Trade Center Mosque and the Constitution

The plan to erect a mosque of major proportions in what would have been the shadow of the World Trade Center involves not just the indisputable constitutional rights that sanction it, but, providentially, others that may frustrate it.

Mosques have commemoratively been established upon the ruins or in the shells of the sacred buildings of other religions—most notably but not exclusively in Cordoba, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and India. When sited in this fashion they are monuments to victory, and the chief objection to this one is not to its existence but that it would be near the site of atrocities—not just one—closely associated with mosques because they were planned and at times celebrated in them.

Building close to Ground Zero disregards the passions, grief and preferences not only of most of the families of September 11th but, because we are all the families of September 11th, those of the American people as well, even if not the whole of the American people. If the project is to promote moderate Islam, why have its sponsors so relentlessly, without the slightest compromise, insisted upon such a sensitive and inflammatory setting? That is not moderate. It is aggressively militant.

Disregarding pleas to build it at a sufficient remove so as not to be linked to an abomination committed, widely praised, and throughout the world seldom condemned in the name of Islam, the militant proponents of the World Trade Center mosque are guilty of a poorly concealed provocation. They dare Americans to appear anti-Islamic and intolerant or just to roll over.

But the opposition to what they propose is no more anti-Islamic or intolerant than to protest a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor or Nanjing would be anti-Shinto or even anti-Japanese. How about a statue of Wagner at Auschwitz, a Russian war memorial in the Katyn Forest, or a monument to British and American air power at Dresden? The indecency of such things would be neither camouflaged nor burned away by the freedoms of expression and religion. And that is what the controversy is about, decency and indecency, not the freedom to worship, which no one denies.

Although there is of course no question of reciprocity—no question whatever of a church in Mecca or anything even vaguely like it—constitutionally and if local codes applied without bias allow, there is unquestionably a right to build. Reciprocity or not, we have principles that we value highly and will not abandon. The difficulty is that the principles of equal treatment and freedom of religion have, so to speak, been taken hostage by the provocation. As in many hostage situations, the choice seems to be between injuring what we hold dear or accepting defeat. This, anyway, is how it has played out so far.

The proponents of the mosque know that Americans will not and cannot betray our constitutional liberties. Knowing that we would not rip the foundation from the more than 200 years of our history that it underpins, they may imagine that they have achieved a kind of checkmate.

Their knowledge of the Constitution, however, does not penetrate very far, and perhaps they are not as clever as they think. The Constitution is a marvelous document, and a reasonable interpretation of it means as well that no American can be forced to pour concrete. No American can be forced to deliver materials. No American can be forced to bid on a contract, to run conduit, dig a foundation, or join steel.

And a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that the firemen’s, police, and restaurant workers’ unions, among others, and the families of the September 11th dead, and anyone who would protect, sympathize with and honor them, are free to assemble, protest and picket at the site of the mosque that under the Constitution is free to be built.

A reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that no American can be forced to cross a picket line in violation of conscience or even of mere preference. Who, in all decency, would cross a picket line manned by those whose kin were slaughtered—by the thousands—so terribly nearby? And who in all decency would cross such a line manned by the firemen, police and other emergency personnel who know every day that they may be called upon to give their lives in a second act?

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, says of those who with heartbreaking bravery went into the towers: “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

Mr. Mayor, the firemen, the police, the EMTs and the paramedics who rushed into those buildings, many of them knowing that they would die there, did not do so to protect constitutional rights. They went often knowingly to their deaths to protect what the Constitution itself protects: people, flesh and blood, men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Although you yourself may not know this, they did.

The choice is not between abandoning them or abandoning the Constitution, for although the liberties the Constitution guarantees sometimes put us at a disadvantage even of self-preservation, they also make it possible for 300 million Americans to prevail—reasonably, peacefully, and within the limits of the law—against provocations such as this.

They make it possible to prevent the construction of the mosque at this general location—with no objection whatsoever to, but rather warm encouragement of, its construction elsewhere—not by force or decree but by argument, persuasion, and peaceable assembly. These are rights that the Constitution guarantees as well, and clearly it is one’s constitutional right to oppose the mosque, not to participate in the building of it, and to convince others of the same.

This small and symbolic crisis is not a test of constitutional liberties, for in regard to the question at hand the Constitution allows discretion. It is rather a test of how far America can be pushed, and America is not at all as powerless as it has been portrayed.

That is because the street in front of the mosque that the Constitution says can be built can be filled with people who can effectively protest it because the Constitution says that they are free. Those who do not fear to do so need only go there and stand upon their convictions, their beliefs, their reason, their laws, their history, and what is in their hearts.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt), “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt) and, most recently, “Digital Barbarism” (HarperCollins).


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Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang

Back to the same old North Korean games.

The first time Jimmy Carter travelled to North Korea, in 1994 to negotiate a nuclear deal, we wrote that “every demarche from Pyongyang will be entertained by other governments in light of the fear that North Korea wields a nuclear threat.” Fast forward 16 years to the second Carter visit, and we may be at the beginning of another such cycle.

Mr. Carter and Obama Administration officials were quick to call last week’s trip to rescue 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes, a prisoner of the North Korean regime since January, a “private” humanitarian visit. The U.S. had legitimate concerns about his health, given the North’s infamous prisons.

But Mr. Carter wouldn’t have been able to travel to North Korea without official permission, and he stuck around for an extra day in the hopes of seeing Kim Jong Il, who was travelling in China with his third son, his presumed heir. Kim snubbed Mr. Carter, yet his number two told the former President the North wants to resume the six-party talks. China’s nuclear envoy carried the same message to Seoul, and U.S. doves like former State Department official Joel Wit echoed that call in the New York Times.

Aijalon Gomes and former President Jimmy Carter

This sudden outbreak of diplomatic fervor isn’t a coincidence; the North and its allies are good at preaching the virtues of negotiation when Pyongyang is at its most vulnerable. The Clinton Administration was preparing sanctions on the North when Mr. Carter negotiated what became the 1994 Agreed Framework. In that deal, the U.S. gave the North financing for two light-water nuclear reactors, security guarantees and energy. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program.

In 2006, when Bush Administration financial sanctions started to bite, North Korea tested a nuclear device, and the U.S. again caved, agreeing to return the dirty money in exchange for more talks. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program. See a pattern here?

Returning to the six-party talks now would again reward bad behavior. Unlike the U.S., the North has shown no willingness to keep its promises. Since talks stalled the North has conducted another nuclear test; launched missiles near Japan; sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; seized political prisoners; expropriated South Korean assets and threatened a nuclear attack.

This is a sign of vulnerability, not strength. On the economic front, a botched currency reform last year created hyperinflation and resulted in rare public protests. Floods this month have devastated agriculture. On the political front, Kim is reportedly getting ready to transfer power to his son at next month’s rare party conference, even though Kim Jong Eun is seen as young, inexperienced and possibly unable to control the military.

All of this raises questions about what diplomacy might achieve. The six-party talks benefit the North by giving Pyongyang global legitimacy and a sanctions reprieve, and they benefit China by giving Beijing free diplomatic leverage in a process in which it is the North’s main enabler. Do the U.S. and its allies really want another Agreed Framework?

Rather than entertain fantasies about the North’s intentions, the better strategy is to keep the sanctions pressure on with the goal of hastening the regime’s demise and, as South Korea is already doing, preparing for the collapse.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Kirchner’s Assault on the Press

This week’s target: Argentina’s two most influential daily newspapers.

“This begins the very clear dictatorial phase because one of the pillars of the republic is freedom of expression and the right of the people to be informed.”  

Elisa Carrió,
Argentine opposition leader, Aug. 23

For almost a decade, loyalists to the Argentine republic have warned that the nation is headed for a return to authoritarian rule. Last week President Cristina Kirchner strengthened their case by moving to strip the two largest newspapers in the country of their ownership in the largest domestic supplier of newsprint.

Ms. Carrió, herself a center-left politician, echoed the fears of millions of Argentines when she warned that such steps are designed to silence government critics and, if left unchecked, will usher in a new era of repression.

Yet it is far too early to sound the death knell for Argentine liberty. Only a day after Mrs. Kirchner alleged that the newspapers Clarín and La Nación had secured their ownership in the newsprint company Papel Prensa by using torture and coercion—provided by the 1976 military government—a key witness surfaced to discredit the charges.

President Cristina Kirchner announces a government investigation Clarin and La Nación.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Mrs. Kirchner’s ambition or that of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner. But civil society remains vibrant, and as Mrs. Kirchner found out when she tried to force a confiscatory tax increase on farmers in 2008, Argentines still understand that they have rights.

Press criticism for some time has been met with vengeful government responses. According to Clarín, Kirchner supporters have used physical intimidation in front of the company’s headquarters in Buenos Aires, and the government has harassed the company through its tax and regulatory agencies.

After Mrs. Kirchner lost control of Congress in the June 2009 elections, she used the lame duck session that followed to push through a media law that gives the government the power to deny licenses to long-established television stations. The law also expands the government’s share of the market. Clarín, which is in the television business, will be hurt by this. In recent weeks the government also revoked Clarín’s license to operate as an Internet service provider.

But print media, particularly Clarín and La Nación, remain a threat to Mrs. Kirchner. And this is why she is going after Papel Prensa. She aims to control the supply of newsprint and imprison principals of both companies.

Papel Prensa was owned by David Graiver in August 1976 when he died in a plane crash in Mexico. To pay the debts of two struggling banks that had to be liquidated upon his death, Papel Prensa was sold in November 1976. Mrs. Kirchner’s case against the two newspapers rests largely on her claim that Gravier’s widow was detained by the military government, pressured to sell the company to the newspapers, and then temporarily released in order to execute the transaction.

It may have seemed like an open-and-shut case to onlookers Tuesday at Casa Rosada, where Mrs. Kirchner had gathered politicians, ambassadors and members of the business community to watch her drop the human-rights bomb on the newspapers. The widow, Lidia Papaleo de Graiver, had already told a local newspaper that she has “expectations of a historic compensation after 34 years” and raved about how “a woman president will settle this debt with the whole of Argentine society.”

But the next day notarized testimony from Isidoro Graiver, David’s brother, appeared in La Nación contradicting her claims. Mr. Graiver, who handled the disposition of Papel Prensa for the family, detailed the events surrounding the sale in November 1976. He wrote that the family had been under pressure to sell the company for economic reasons and because David had been acting as the banker for the guerrilla group known as the “Montoneros.” The group was pressuring him with death threats against the family if their money—some $17 million from kidnapping—was not returned.

It was not until March of the following year—long after the sale supposedly forced by the military—that the family was arrested by the military government for links to the Montoneros, who had killed, maimed and kidnapped thousands of Argentines. This may explain why Graiver’s widow went before a federal judge on Thursday to say that she had never been released from prison to execute the sale as Mrs. Kirchner claims.

The president likes to cite transgressions by the long-gone military government to make herself a champion of human rights. Yet while she has locked up scores of members of the military, she hasn’t brought one Montonero to justice. On the contrary, a number of the former terrorists have held posts in her cabinet.

Now she is using the same game to try to crush press freedom. Or as Ms. Carrió says, to begin the “dictatorial phase.” La Nación’s publication of Isidoro Gravier’s memo shows that the press isn’t giving up without a fight.

Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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The 1.6% Recovery

The results of the Obama economic experiment are coming in.

To no one’s surprise except perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s, second quarter economic growth was revised down yesterday to 1.6% from the prior estimate of 2.4%, which was down from first quarter growth of 3.7%, which was down from the 2009 fourth quarter’s 5%. Economic recoveries are supposed to go in the other direction.


The downward revision was anticipated given the poor early economic reports for the third quarter, including a plunge in new home sales, mediocre manufacturing data, volatile jobless claims and even (after a healthy period) weaker corporate profits. Many economists fear that third quarter growth could be negative. Even if the economy avoids a double-dip recession, the current pace of growth is too sluggish to create many new jobs or improve middle-class living standards.

As recently as August 3, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner took to our competitor’s pages to declare that this couldn’t happen. “Welcome to the Recovery,” he wrote, describing how the $862 billion government stimulus was still rolling out, business investment was booming, and the economy was poised for sustainable growth.

We all make mistakes, but the problem for the American people is that Mr. Geithner’s blunder is conceptual. He and President Obama and their economic coterie really believe that government spending can stimulate growth by triggering private “demand,” that tax rates are irrelevant to investment decisions, that waves of new regulation can be absorbed by business with little impact on costs or hiring, and that politicians can assail capitalists without having any effect on the movement of capital.

This has been the great Washington policy experiment of the last three years, and it isn’t turning out too well. If prosperity were a function of government stimulus, our economy should be booming. The Fed has kept interest rates at near-zero for nearly two years, while Congress has flooded the economy with trillions of dollars in spending, loan guarantees, $8,000 tax credits for housing, “cash for clunkers,” and so much more. Never before has government tried to do so much and achieved so little.

Now that the failure is becoming obvious, the liberal explanation is that things would have been worse without all of this government care and feeding. The same economists who recommended the stimulus are now producing studies, based on their Keynesian demand models, claiming that it “saved or created” millions of jobs, even as the overall economy has lost millions of jobs. The counterfactual is impossible to disprove, but the American people can see the reality with their own eyes.

The nearby table compares growth in the current recovery with the recovery following the recession of 1981-82, the last time the jobless rate exceeded 10%. The contrast is stark.

Then after three quarters the recovery was in high gear. Now it is decelerating. Then tax rates were falling, interest rates were coming down and the regulatory state was in retreat. Now taxes are poised to rise sharply, interest rates can’t get any lower, and federal agencies are hassling business at every turn. Then business investment was exploding. Now companies are sitting on something like $2 trillion, reluctant to take risks when they don’t know what new costs government might next impose on them.

To borrow a phrase, maybe it’s time for a change.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Special Forces Ratchet Up Fight Against Taliban

Aggressive Tactics in Afghanistan

US Army Special Operations Forces: Progress reported in fight against Taliban

Through nighttime attacks and drone strikes, special forces led by the United States have massively ratcheted up their hunt for Taliban. In the past three months alone, the highly secretive forces have eliminated 365 insurgent commanders.

The international troops in Afghanistan this year, under the command of the United States, have massively stepped up the hunt for top Taliban by special forces. The units, which operate secretly and are kept apart from the normal troops, have conducted hundreds of operations in recent months in an intensity not seen before in an effort to breakdown the Taliban’s resistance, weaken its leadership ranks and to eliminate networks of bomb planters.

Insiders have long known about the increased deployment of the special forces, but for the first time in the history of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, concrete figures about the deployments — which neither NATO nor the US military speaks about publicly — have been named. During the second week of August, leaders of the NATO troops under ISAF Commander David Petraeus were given a classified briefing on the massive anti-Taliban offensive, which began at the end of 2009, and progress that has been made.

SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned from reliable sources that the four-star general and his staff informed diplomats and top military officials that in the past three months alone, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders have been killed — mostly through targeted operations by the special forces, comprised of heavily armed elite soldiers from all branches of the US military. In addition, 1,395 people, including many Taliban foot soldiers, have been arrested.

The briefing on the latest progress in the war, which covered the period between May 8 and August 8, provides a rare glimpse into an aspect of the Afghanistan war that up until know has only been known by