Commentary Magazine


Santorum and the Myths About 2012

If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

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If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

Almost everyone outside of his inner circle thought Santorum’s candidacy was pure folly heading into the 2012 cycle. But a combination of hard work beating the bushes in Iowa and the fact that he was the one true social conservative in the race enabled Santorum to emerge as the chief challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney. Though Romney’s ultimate victory was never in doubt, Santorum won a dozen primaries and caucuses and earned the right to call himself the second-place finisher. Though politics isn’t horseshoes, coming close did help Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Romney get the nomination the next time out after similar failures.

But this “rule” about runners up won’t apply this time. Unfortunately for Santorum, politics isn’t a quilt pattern. The prospective Republican field is very difference than it was four years ago, and that will dictate very different results.

First of all, there is no true front-runner as there usually is for GOP races. Indeed, the closest thing to a leading candidate once New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was laid low by Bridgegate is Senator Rand Paul. But renewed fears about terrorism mean that Paul is going to have a hard time expanding his appeal significantly beyond his libertarian base. No one, including Santorum, will be able to head into the first contests playing off the base’s resentment of the eventual candidate since no one will be in that role.

Second, though Republicans will have their share of outliers like Dr. Ben Carson, the lineup in their debates could include some genuine heavy hitters. A roster that could include the likes of Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Christie, Rick Perry (back for his own second go at the presidency), Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and maybe even Paul Ryan or Jeb Bush will leave less room for a dark horse like Santorum to squeeze through to the front of the pack.

Santorum does have on thing that his potential rivals don’t possess: The ability to play to working-class voters. Santorum was right when he criticized the 2012 Republican National Convention for its emphasis on small business owners with its attempt to counter President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe to the exclusion of those who work for them. But though Santorum brings plenty of substance to the table on economics, social issues, and foreign policy (raising the alarm about the Iranian nuclear threat was a key issue for him during his disastrous 2006 race for reelection to his Pennsylvania Senate seat), it’s far from clear the formula that worked for a time for him last time will do the trick against opponents who don’t fit as neatly into the establishment category as Romney or even New Gingrich did in 2012.

But the discussion of Santorum’s potential candidacy should also cause Republicans to rethink some other myths about their last go round.

One is the idea that Santorum’s challenge was somehow to blame for Romney’s defeat in November.

It is true that it would have been easier on Romney and saved him a great deal of money that he could have employed against Obama had Santorum quit in February rather than pushing on for another couple of months. But it should be recalled that although John McCain’s chief opponents (the most prominent of which was Romney himself) did him that favor in 2008, it didn’t help him win the general election. The same could be said of the 2012 GOP nominee. Even if his grass-roots critics had shut up about his shortcomings sooner and given him an easy glide to the nomination, he was never going to beat Obama. Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate and the enduring, if puzzling, popularity of Barack Obama beat him, not Santorum.

The other prominent 2012 myth among Republicans is the idea that the nomination of a relative moderate depressed the base so much that millions of conservatives stayed home in November ensuring a Democratic victory. That’s a theme that will be sounded by conservatives in the 2016 primaries but there’s little proof that “silent majorities” of right-wingers stayed home in the fall. But unless the GOP establishment coalesces behind a resurgent but still damaged Christie or Jeb Bush decides to run or, as some hope, Romney tries again, there will be little for the base to complain about in a race that will largely be a competition between conservatives.

Santorum’s 2012 achievements should mean that his ambitions deserve more respect from pundits than he’s currently getting. But he is, if anything, an even bigger underdog today than he was four years ago. The bottom line is that in politics there are no real precedents. Nor will rules seeking to end the race earlier than it did last time necessarily work or help the nominee win in November. The coming free-for-all will be played by a different cast and produce different results with the one exception being that it is unlikely to end in a Santorum triumph.

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Democrat Attack Themes Flop in Iowa

In a year in which control of the U.S. Senate is on the line, the race to fill the Iowa seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin is proving to be one of the keys to the national contest. But there is something else that is being illustrated by the battle between Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley. The Democrats’ belief that they can repeat their 2012 victories with assertions that the GOP is waging a war on women or is in the pocket of the Koch brothers may be a big mistake.

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In a year in which control of the U.S. Senate is on the line, the race to fill the Iowa seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin is proving to be one of the keys to the national contest. But there is something else that is being illustrated by the battle between Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley. The Democrats’ belief that they can repeat their 2012 victories with assertions that the GOP is waging a war on women or is in the pocket of the Koch brothers may be a big mistake.

Heading into 2014, most pundits thought the Democrats were in good position to hold the Iowa seat. But that expectation was based on the notion that Braley was a better candidate than he has proved to be as well as the belief that Republicans would nominate a bland conservative who could be bludgeoned with the Democrats’ favorite tactic: the accusation that Republicans are at war with women. Both assumptions proved to be mistaken.

Braley’s hot-tempered and condescending manner has cost him dearly. So, too, did his gaffe in which he warned a group of fellow trial lawyers that if the GOP won the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be led by an “Iowa farmer”—Chuck Grassley, the state’s respected senior senator. But his contempt for one of the staples of the state’s economy might not have been as big a deal had he not been opposed by State Senator Joni Ernst. The tough-talking conservative has not only undermined conventional wisdom about the race but also the Democrats’ confidence in their ability to exploit women’s fears to win elections.

Ernst’s easy win in the Republican primary was the first sign of trouble for Democrats. But they hoped that her surge—driven in part by a clever TV ad in which she spoke of her farm girl background and experience in castrating hogs as evidence of how she’ll make the Washington establishment squeal—would be followed by gaffes that would expose her as another Tea Party extremist who would sink in a general-election fight. But if Braley was underestimating his opponent, he soon learned she was more than equal to the test of a competitive statewide race. That was on display in last weekend’s first debate between the two in which Ernst took the Democrat apart in a textbook example of what happens when a well-prepared candidate comes up against one who is still laboring under the delusion that the seat is still his to lose.

That Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard who served in Iraq, is no pushover who could be easily labeled an extremist is something Braley still hasn’t quite come to terms with. Though he attacked her non-stop in the debate, she kept her cool, and counter-attacked effortlessly in a manner that left the congressman fuming. The race was already trending in her direction before the debate as a Des Moines Register poll showed her up by six points over Braley. The next surveys may bring even worse news for the Democrats.

But the point here is not just that Republicans may have lucked their way into finding exactly the right candidate to champion conservative economic positions in a state where liberal populists like Harkin have been popular. It’s that when employed against principled and credible female Republicans, the war on women tactic fails.

It is true that, as last week’s Des Moines Register poll shows, Braley has maintained a big edge among women voters leading Ernst by a 46-33 percent margin. But the gender gap factor hasn’t pushed the race into the Democratic column. Though she trails among women, Ernst leads Braley among male voters by an even more stunning 55-30 differential.

Just as important was the way one of the key moments in the debate undermined the notion that Democratic harping on the contributions of the libertarian Koch brothers will taint anyone they support. When Braley accused Ernst of being in their pocket, she tartly replied that he was dependent on the support of environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer. Moreover, while Ernst’s conservatism is not in question, Braley’s decision to flip-flop and oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline to win Steyer’s favor makes any talk about the Kochs’ influence so much hypocritical hot air.

Many Republicans believed their 2012 defeat in the presidential election and the disastrous impact of misogynist gaffes like that of Todd Akin on Senate races meant they had to change their positions on religious freedom, ObamaCare, and abortion to win elections. But Ernst’s strong run is once again illustrating the fact that what they needed were candidates who could articulate their principles without shooting themselves in the foot.

While most of the battleground contests in 2014 are in red states, the race in competitive Iowa is a truer test of the Democrats’ reliance on their standard tropes about women and big money. With five weeks to go it’s clear that their reliance on smearing Republicans on women’s issues and the Koch brothers won’t work against Joni Ernst. Instead of trolling the country for bland moderates as some GOP establishment types were recommending a year ago, Iowa demonstrates that what they really need are more tough-as-nails women like Joni Ernst.

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Dem Senate Candidates: Bombs Away!

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

As Politico recounts in a story today, Democratic Senate candidates are finding their inner hawks on the campaign trail, but none more noticeably than Shaheen, the New Hampshire incumbent trying to fend off a challenge from Scott Brown. Shaheen, on matters of war and peace, is a walking focus group:

When she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said at a debate: “I’ll stand with President Bush on national security, the war on terrorism and to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

In a 2008 rematch against then-Sen. John Sununu, after the war had gone south, Shaheen vowed to fight to bring the troops home.

“I would vote to authorize military action if the U.S. or any of its treaty partners are attacked militarily, and to prevent an imminent attack,” she said on a 2008 questionnaire. But “I oppose the Bush doctrine of preemption because it implies that the United States will use preemption as a first option, rather than a last resort.”

Setting aside her obvious ignorance of the Bush doctrine (an ignorance she shares with virtually everyone on the left), we should ask Shaheen: Which way are the winds blowing this time? Answer:

Republican candidate Scott Brown has been hammering Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for failing to understand “the nature of the threat,” as he put it in one commercial that began airing last week.

This has prompted the freshman Democrat to begin quietly running a response ad (her campaign has not released it to the news media), in which she says: “I support those airstrikes. I think it’s important for us to take the fight to ISIL.”

A narrator accuses Brown of playing politics and says, over patriotic music, that Shaheen “always works to keep America strong.”

Even her ads are a study in contradiction. It’s apparently “playing politics” for politicians to campaign on the issues, and yet Shaheen takes the bait and claims that she, too, enthusiastically wants to bomb some folks, as the president might say.

But Shaheen is just a product of a Democratic Party that has not had a coherent approach to national security in over a decade. During President Bush’s first term, Al Gore maniacally accused him of betraying the country. The Democrats then nominated John Kerry in 2004, to make crystal clear they didn’t have the energy to even pretend they cared about national security.

In 2008, Democrats nominated Barack Obama, whose antiwar speech in 2002, lauded by the left, was startlingly unintelligent and Ron Paul-esque in its wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Obama followed the usual fringe leftist critique of blaming Wolfowitz and Perle for manipulating the country into war. He also called them “weekend warriors,” showing he doesn’t know what “weekend warrior” means. He then accused Karl Rove of manufacturing the war to distract the country from the economy and to protect corporate evildoers from public opprobrium. The speech sounded like a raving fusion of Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones. So naturally the Democrats chose him to represent their party.

And then when he won, the script had to be flipped. The president was introduced to reality, and he embraced his power to expand America’s war in the Middle East and Central Asia. He had genuine successes, like the operation to take out Osama bin Laden, which he then made his campaign slogan to the extent that it was actually surprising his nominating convention speech didn’t feature him standing over bin Laden’s body while exclaiming to the audience “Are you not entertained?

Indeed they were entertained. The thousands of Democratic Party voters and activists cheered on targeted assassination. In his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, Obama taunted his challenger’s lack of appetite for the messy business of spilling bad-guy blood. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then stepped down and immediately spread the word that Obama was insufficiently hawkish for her, and that, as she rocketed to the top of 2016 Democratic polls, she would take the country further into battle. You only think you’re entertained now, Clinton’s message intimated; you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And that was all before Obama abandoned Iraq and watched ISIS rise, march on territory, and then start beheading Americans. The public may have been war weary, but they won’t stand for being targeted with impunity. Obama did the right thing and agreed to try and push back ISIS and protect the ethnic and religious minority groups whose existence ISIS was trying to extinguish. He also was informed of credible threats against America and acted accordingly.

And Democratic candidates are following suit. The idea of “antiwar liberals” was always something of a misnomer. They were, mostly, anti-Bush or anti-Republican liberals. What matters most to the left is not who is being bombed but who is ordering the bombing. It’s why Jim Webb is probably kidding himself if he believes an antiwar candidate poses a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. If he wants to know if there’s space on the left for a serious antiwar campaign, he’s going through entirely too much effort by traveling around the country and talking to prospective supporters. All he really needs to do is ask Jeanne Shaheen.

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Twenty-First Century Conservatism

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

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In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

While important details would need to be worked out, this proposal holds great promise both for what it can do to strengthen the economy and help families. (For more, see here and here.) But I want to focus on how Messrs. Lee and Rubio frame their proposal.

In describing the challenges facing middle class Americans, they identify some of the fundamental transformations we’re undergoing and write this:

Despite these dramatic changes, the policies and practices of Washington remain stuck in the 20th century, leaving too many Americans unable to access the enormous potential of this new era.

If we hope to realize a new American Century, many institutions and government programs will need to be updated, reformed or replaced. Both of us have spent a large portion of the year proposing such reforms.

Perhaps no function of the U.S. government is more antiquated and dysfunctional than its tax system, so we are joining together to propose a federal tax-reform plan that will remove obstacles to investment, innovation, growth and opportunity.

This way of thinking about things has long had resonance with me. It’s especially effective now, I think, because our public institutions and programs, in some cases designed before the middle part of the last century, are badly outdated and desperately in need of reform; because modern-day liberalism is sclerotic and reactionary, in the sense that “progressives” fiercely oppose adjustments to our entitlement programs, education system, tax code, energy policies, and much else; and because advocating reform allows conservatives to be agents of change, modern, responsive, and serious about governing.

We’re seeing a collapse of confidence in the federal government; Americans understand it’s not aligned with reality (including demographic trends, advances in technology, and globalization) or our contemporary needs. Which means conservatives have an opportunity to reconceive the role of government in the 21st century, to do so in bold (but not radical) ways, and do it in a way that is a little less theoretical and a lot more practical, by which I mean showing how conservative policies are going to improve, on a daily basis, the lives of middle-class Americans. (In the 2012 GOP primary we heard more about electrified fences than we did about the costs of higher education.)

This is what Senators Lee and Rubio are attempting to do, and Republicans would be wise to follow them.

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Hong Kong and the Dream of Chinese Democracy

Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

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Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by images of all the people who have been occupying the streets of central Hong Kong for three days now to demand direct election of their chief executive without limiting candidates to a list vetted and approved by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators on Sunday, but that did not disperse them. Now the security forces have backed off to ponder their next move.

From Beijing’s perspective this is a no-win situation. If they send the troops out to clear the streets by force, they will risk international opprobrium–and, perhaps more significant, delay for another generation any hope that Taiwan will agree to voluntarily become part of the People’s Republic of China. After all Beijing’s key selling point to Taipei is that it could enjoy the “one country, two systems” model implemented in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. If Chinese forces carry out a slaughter in the streets of Hong Kong that message will be exposed as hollow. If, on the other hand, the government caves in to the demonstrators’ demands it could expose Beijing to more demands for democracy from dissatisfied people on the mainland.

There is not much the U.S. can do to affect the situation one way or the other beyond showing clearly where our sympathies lie. There is no doubt a debate going on in the administration as I write this between the usual, predictable parties–the realists who say we have to accommodate ourselves to Beijing at any cost and the human-rights advocates who believe we have to stand up forcibly for the rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The Realpolitikers have a better case when they argue for overlooking human-rights violations among our allies–countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whose strategic support we need and where the alternative to an illiberal but pro-American monarchy could well be an Islamist dictatorship that is anti-American. But such considerations should not restrain us from pushing for democracy in countries such as Iran and China and Russia that are most decidedly not our allies–that are, in fact, either rivals or outright enemies.

China is in the midst of a massive defense buildup designed to dominate East Asia while pushing U.S. power out of the region. It is undertaking aggressive maneuvers with its navy against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. It is mounting nonstop cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks. It supports rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. And it works hand in glove with Russia to block international action in such countries as Syria. True, China also trades with the U.S. and holds a lot of our debt, but it is hardly our friend: At best it is a rival with whom we can do business but only warily.

In short, we should not be constrained by fears of alienating China from speaking out forcefully about its human-rights violations. The U.S. should champion the cause of Chinese democracy by every means available, much as we once worked by peaceful means to undermine the Soviet bloc. The Hong Kong demonstrations are a sign that Chinese people also want freedom–that even in the most prosperous city in China the people are not willing to trade away their “inalienable rights” for big cars and fancy apartments and the latest in high-tech electronics.

The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom. We should do what we can–and admittedly it’s not much–to stand with them.

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Our Lying President and His Lying Press Secretary

White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

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White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

I use the word lie advisedly but, I believe, correctly. Here’s why.

In an exchange yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Mr. Earnest continues to peddle the fiction that President Obama did not have ISIS/ISIL in mind when he referred to it in an interview in the New Yorker as a “jayvee team.” Several weeks ago I showed why that claim is false, and so have many others, including Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker for the Washington Post.

It’s simply not plausible to believe the White House press secretary is unwittingly mistaken on this matter. By now he has to know what the truth is. He has to know full well that Mr. Obama had ISIS in mind when he referred to it as a “jayvee team.” So, by the way, does Mr. Obama, who is also deceiving Americans about this matter.

I understand why the president and his press secretary would rather not admit to having mocked ISIS now that it is the largest, richest, most well armed, and most formidable terrorist group on the planet. But Mr. Obama did, and being duplicitous about the fact that he did isn’t going to help anyone. It will, in fact, further erode the president’s credibility.

It is bad enough for this administration to be so inept; it’s worse for them to be so obviously dishonest as well.

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Obama’s Mistakes Come Back to Haunt Him

President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

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President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

The headline-grabbing statement was the president blaming the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS and overestimating the capacity of the Iraqi army. And it’s true that Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, did recently tell David Ignatius, “We underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army” although he also said that “his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its ‘prowess and capability,’ as well as the ‘deficiencies’ of the Iraqi military.” So the president can take refuge in asserting that he was simply claiming Clapper’s own self-critique.

But I doubt that will seem very convincing to intelligence community personnel who will feel that the president is throwing them under the bus–hiding policy errors behind a front of supposed intelligence failures. Indeed, the New York Times today quotes one “senior American intelligence official” as saying: “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The reality is that it didn’t require any specialized intelligence apparatus to know that the threat from jihadists like ISIS would grow or that the capabilities of the Iraqi army would decline if we left Iraq and Syria alone, as we have largely done since 2011. I and many other analysts were noting at the time that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq was a “tragedy” that would leave Iraqis ill-prepared to defend themselves and that the U.S. failure to help the moderate Syrian opposition would cede ground to “Sunnis extremists such as al Qaeda.” That Obama chose to ignore such warnings was not the fault of his intelligence personnel; it was his own fault for believing what he wanted to believe–namely that the U.S. could retreat from the Middle East without increasing the danger of our enemies gaining ground.

Such a belief was fantastic enough in 2011; it became utterly preposterous when in January of this year Fallujah and Ramadi fell to ISIS. Yet even then Obama did nothing for another nine months. It took the fall of Mosul in June to shake him out of his complacency–although not to get him off the golf course–and at last try to come up with some strategy to stop ISIS. Again, this isn’t the intelligence community’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault, and he would enhance his own credibility if he would accept some of the blame for this failure.

Instead he is once again pointing fingers, not only at the intelligence agencies but also at former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course,” Obama said. “And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country.”

True enough, but this analysis ignores the important role of Obama’s own administration in helping Maliki to win a second term in 2010 when he actually won fewer parliamentary seats than Ayad Allawi. It is also ignores the fact that those of us who were in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (and that includes senior U.S. military commanders on the ground) believed it was essentially in no small part to allow the U.S. to continue exerting pressure on Maliki to stay non-sectarian. That Maliki would unleash his inner sectarian as soon as we left was also utterly predictable and cannot be blamed on any intelligence failure.

Of course Obama won’t accept responsibility for pulling out of Iraq either–he blames that too on the Iraqis for failing to agree to grant U.S. troops legal immunity in a status of forces agreed ratified by their parliament. Yet it turns out this was a bogus issue all along. How do I know? Because Obama has now sent 1,600, and counting, U.S. troops to Iraq without any legal immunity or any Status of Forces Agreement ratified by parliament. If he’s doing it now, why couldn’t he do it in 2012? Simply because he didn’t want to–Iraqi leaders almost certainly would have acceded if Obama had shown the will to remain past 2011.

Rather than accepting blame for his own misjudgments, Obama stubbornly continues to defend his mistakes such as failing to arm moderate Syrian fighters in 2011-2012 as most of his security cabinet was urging him to do. “For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But we also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria,” Obama said.

Yet Obama’s own officials, including Robert Ford, his former ambassador to Damascus, have said that the U.S. has had the information for years that it needs to figure out who’s who among the Syrian rebels. It’s just that Obama refused to act on that information precisely because he refused to accept a “more significant role inside of Syria” even if such a role could have stopped the growth of ISIS.

If Obama is going to rebuild shattered confidence in his foreign policy, he needs to accept blame for what he did wrong before and act to correct those mistakes now instead of scapegoating others and taking refuge in half-measures such as his current air strikes without boots on the ground, which he characterized on 60 Minutes as a “counterterrorism operation” rather than “the sort of occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghan war.”

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Oklahoma Beheading: Nothing to See Here

The beheading last week of a 54-year-old woman and the attempted beheading of a second by a radicalized Muslim convert in Oklahoma is certainly an outrage. But as so often happens with such cases, the event itself has quickly become obscured by a secondary outrage as the authorities display an almost compulsive need to push a farcical politically correct line about what really happened. The suspected killer’s background and the nature of the incident itself should be enough to convince anyone of the role that a particularly warped and extremist strain of Islam played in this murder. And yet, as we have seen on previous occasions, the powers that be will have none of it.

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The beheading last week of a 54-year-old woman and the attempted beheading of a second by a radicalized Muslim convert in Oklahoma is certainly an outrage. But as so often happens with such cases, the event itself has quickly become obscured by a secondary outrage as the authorities display an almost compulsive need to push a farcical politically correct line about what really happened. The suspected killer’s background and the nature of the incident itself should be enough to convince anyone of the role that a particularly warped and extremist strain of Islam played in this murder. And yet, as we have seen on previous occasions, the powers that be will have none of it.

First, there has been the question of whether or not the Oklahoma attack was an act of terrorism. Governor Rick Perry has been particularly vocal about the need for the White House to come out and address the killing as what it “appears to many people that it is—and that is an act of violence that is associated with terrorism.” The word “associated” here is probably the most accurate one. The suspect, Alton Nolen, apparently carried out the murder shortly after having been fired, and indeed the victims he targeted were his co-workers at the Vaughan Foods Plant. So this does not appear to be a standard premeditated terror attack—although that is not to say that Nolen wasn’t planning to eventually carry out a beheading of this kind anyway; his postings on social media show that he was more than a little enamored with the subject.

The problem is that FBI investigators have outright rejected even an association with Islamist terrorism. As the Washington Post reported, having labelled Thursday’s attack as simply a standard incident of “workplace violence” an FBI official stuck to the line that “there was also no indication that Nolen was copying the beheadings of journalists in Syria by the Islamic State.” But that just isn’t at all credible. Not only is murdering one’s co-workers hardly the standard reaction to losing one’s job, but beheading is also far from the preferred method for most would-be killers in this country today. Besides, it’s not as if the FBI are unaware of Nolen’s extremist background and his armchair support for ISIS.

On Facebook, where Nolen goes by the name Jah’keem Yisrael, there is a trail of incriminating postings that glorify Islamist violence against America. Nolen uploaded photographs of Osama bin Laden and pictures of the World Trade Center in flames. He posted a picture of a woman receiving a Sharia-mandated flogging and added the caption “Islam will dominate the world. Freedom can go to hell.” In another post he simply wrote “Jihad. Jihad. Jihad.” But if all of this isn’t explicit enough for the FBI, still apparently convinced that Nolen was in no way seeking to imitate ISIS, then perhaps they might consider reviewing a picture that Nolen posted to his Facebook page back in March; it is none other than a picture showing an ISIS-style beheading. But then, the FBI has already confirmed that Nolen had been watching Islamist beheading videos online.

This macabre interest clearly derived from Nolen’s newly found Islamic extremism. Along with the image of the beheading uploaded by Nolen came the attempt to justify such acts with the inclusion of the Koranic quotation: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers; smite ye about their necks.” As Michael Rubin explained here recently, this verse has been seized upon by those Islamic extremists following a hardline Wahhabi literalism, and as such has come to be associated with the recent resurgence of beheadings among Islamists.

For the FBI to continue to insist that this was a standard act of workplace violence, with no terrorist association, is simply absurd. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked incredulously, “and who exactly are they afraid of offending? ISIS?” After all, as Scarborough alluded, to suggest that the Islam connection here must be hushed up for fear of offending moderate Muslims would be pretty appalling. Presumably any genuinely moderate Muslim would be as eager as the rest of us to have this kind of extremism exposed and stamped out.

Yet we’ve been here before. This is the same perverse attempt to distort reality that we witnessed following the 2009 Fort Hood massacre. There, when the base’s resident psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage, murdering 13, the PC line pushed by the liberal media was that the assailant had suffered from “compassion fatigue.” Apparently Nidal Hasan had been so moved by the heartrending war stories of his patients returning from Afghanistan that eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and ended up murdering the people he just felt too much compassion for.

The fact that Hasan carried a business card that declared his occupation as “Soldier of Allah” apparently had nothing to do with it. Just as the FBI would have us believe that Alton Nolen posting pictures of ISIS fighters and beheadings online has nothing to do with the events in Oklahoma on Thursday. As Scarborough so eloquently put it, “How stupid does the FBI really think we are?”

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What Israel Really Wants from Ties with China and India

Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

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Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

For instance, Miller makes much of the fact that China still votes against Israel on every conceivable issue at the UN. But you’d have to be an idiot–which most senior Israeli politicians aren’t–to expect it to do otherwise.

Flipping China into the pro-Israel camp might be possible if and when it democratizes, since it’s one of the few countries where public opinion actually leans pro-Israel. Indeed, as the Australian paper Business Spectator noted this month, China was among the few places worldwide where Israel was actually winning the social media war during the summer’s fighting in Gaza. And it certainly makes sense for Israel to cultivate this public support in preparation for the day when democratization occurs. But right now, China remains a Communist dictatorship that sees America as its chief foreign-policy rival. Thus as long as Washington (thankfully) remains Israel’s main patron at the UN, Beijing will naturally take the anti-Israel side–not because it cares so passionately about the Palestinian cause (which, unlike Miller, I don’t believe it does), but because it cares about the anti-American cause.

India, despite growing ties with Washington, also has a long tradition of anti-Americanism, as well as a large Muslim minority. Thus New Delhi was never a likely candidate for UN support, either.

And in fact, Miller doesn’t cite any Israeli politician who actually espoused such unrealistic expectations. He simply assumes, on the basis of vague bromides like Naftali Bennett’s “diplomacy can follow economy,” that they musthave held such expectations.

But in reality, Israel is seeking a very different foreign-policy benefit from its trade ties with India and China–one it has never spelled out explicitly, for very good reason: What it wants is an economic insurance policy against European countries that it still officially labels as allies.

The EU currently accounts for about one-third of Israel’s exports. This constitutes a dangerous vulnerability, because Europe is the one place worldwide where Israel faces a real danger of economic boycotts and sanctions. Granted, few European leaders actually want this; they consider the economic relationship with Israel mutually beneficial. But European leaders are generally far more pro-Israel than their publics, and since European countries are democracies, public opinion matters.

To date, the public’s anti-Israel sentiment has produced only marginal sanctions, like those on Israeli exports from the West Bank (a minuscule percentage of Israel’s total exports). But Israel can’t rule out the possibility that public pressure will eventually produce more stringent sanctions if Jerusalem continues refusing to capitulate to EU demands on the Palestinian issue that are antithetical to its security. In short, Israel could someday face a devastating choice between its economic needs and its security needs–unless it can diversify its trade enough to be able to weather EU sanctions if and when they occur.

And that’s precisely what Israel seeks from China and India, two countries with a history of not allowing policy disagreements to interfere with business: If it can build up its Asian trade enough to reduce its economic dependence on Europe, it will be better placed to withstand European pressure to adopt policies inimical to its survival.

Whether Israel will succeed in this goal remains to be seen. But if it does, that will be a diplomatic gain of unparalleled importance–even if it never wins Chinese or Indian support in a single UN vote.

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Who Will Show Leadership on Iran?

One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

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One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

Shutting down the debate about Iran is one of President Obama’s few political triumphs during his second term. Though the president pledged to shut down Iran’s nuclear program during his campaigne for reelection, his main focus after his victory was on appeasing Tehran and enticing the Islamist regime to sign an interim nuclear deal that undermined economic sanctions while doing nothing to end the threat. Having squandered immense political, economic, and military leverage over Iran in order to secure that agreement, he then branded critics of this travesty as warmongers. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was able to squelch efforts to increase sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed despite the support of majorities in the both Houses of Congress for a measure that would have strengthened his hand in talks with the ayatollahs.

Since the collapse of that effort, the issue has remained largely dormant in the U.S. as diplomacy with Iran has remained largely under the radar. And while conservatives can generally be counted on to attack virtually any Obama initiative, let alone one as misguided as his attempt at engagement with Iran, many on the right have been far more interested in following Senator Rand Paul’s lead in criticizing the president’s misuse of executive authority rather than sounding the alarms about Iran. Even if, in the wake of the new concerns about the rise of the ISIS terrorist movement, it appears that the isolationist moment in American politics may be fading, the president is probably right if he thinks he still has plenty of room to maneuver in negotiating a new Iran deal that may be even more dangerous than last year’s accord.

Given the leaks about possible compromises—including the absurd one last week about an American proposal that Iran disconnect the pipes that link the centrifuges that enrich the uranium used for nuclear fuel—there is little doubt about the administration’s zeal for a deal. In response, Iran has stiffened its demands to the point where it is clear that any accord will leave their nuclear infrastructure in place and quickly eviscerate sanctions while making it impossible to re-impose them even if it quickly became clear that Tehran wasn’t keeping its promises.

But in the absence of serious debate about the issue or the willingness of GOP leaders to draw a line in the sand on the nuclear issue, it is possible to envisage a repeat of last year’s fiasco in which critics of Iran appeasement were routed by the administration.

That is why Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to stake out an extremely tough position on Iran is such an intriguing development.

Cruz has critics, including COMMENTARY bloggers, who rightly point out that his success in buffaloing congressional Republican leaders into supporting the confrontation that led to last year’s government shutdown was a huge mistake. So, too, is his continued unwillingness to concede that it was an error. But like it or not, the Texan has become an extremely influential figure in the GOP who is clearly interested in running for president in 2016. While Cruz goes into the next election cycle as a huge underdog who is probably not a viable Republican option to defeat Hillary Clinton, what is most interesting about his effort is the fact that this Tea Party hero seems to think foreign policy is where he can best differentiate himself from other conservatives or a libertarian like Rand Paul.

Where last year he rushed to the Senate floor to second Rand Paul’s dubious but wildly popular filibuster about the administration’s use of drones, in recent months he has been throwing down the gauntlet to the Kentucky senator. Though he claims he should not be confused with an all-out interventionist like John McCain, Cruz’s op-ed in Politico Magazine published yesterday seemed to indicate he is prepared to use opposition to the Obama drive for détente with Iran as a rallying point for his presidential hopes.

Cynics will say this is just about Cruz seeking an edge for 2016 and, as with his courageous stand against anti-Semitic critics of Israel among those protesting persecution of Christians in the Middle East, dismiss his statements as politics as usual rather than principle.

But at a time when the administration appears to be operating with a free hand on Iran, this is no time to questioning the bona fides of anyone on the national stage that is willing to prioritize this issue. Cruz’s insistence that justified concerns about ISIS should not allow the West to give Iran a pass on both its use of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions is exactly what we should be hearing from Republicans on Obama. But, for the most part, this point and others he made about Iran’s egregious human rights record haven’t been said loudly or often enough.

Even if we were willing to accept the premise that Cruz is doing this for political reasons—and his record on both Israel and Iran suggests that his foreign-policy views have been both consistent and sincere—that doesn’t change the fact that his effort to change the conversation about the issue is timely and much needed. If he steals a march on Paul or other 2016 contenders by pushing Republicans to speak up on Iran the way he did about the shutdown, then so much the better for him, his party, and the country.

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Will the Met Opera Silence the Jews?

Over the course of the last century, whenever Jews rose up to protest anti-Semitism, they were invariably told that they were doing more harm than good. Whether it was in pre-Holocaust Europe or even in the United States, Jewish leaders were often counseled by those in power that their complaints would provoke anti-Semitism rather than repress it. While the lessons of history should have consigned this sort of advice to the unhappy history of prejudice, it appears that it has been resurrected by the head of the Metropolitan Opera when confronted with criticisms of his decision to stage an opera that rationalizes both terrorism and Jew hatred. As such, it has raised the stakes in the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer and the specious claim that the opera’s critics are seeking to suppress freedom of expression.

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Over the course of the last century, whenever Jews rose up to protest anti-Semitism, they were invariably told that they were doing more harm than good. Whether it was in pre-Holocaust Europe or even in the United States, Jewish leaders were often counseled by those in power that their complaints would provoke anti-Semitism rather than repress it. While the lessons of history should have consigned this sort of advice to the unhappy history of prejudice, it appears that it has been resurrected by the head of the Metropolitan Opera when confronted with criticisms of his decision to stage an opera that rationalizes both terrorism and Jew hatred. As such, it has raised the stakes in the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer and the specious claim that the opera’s critics are seeking to suppress freedom of expression.

As I wrote last week, the controversy over the Met’s upcoming production of Klinghoffer heated up with the start of the 2014-15 opera season in New York. Armed with the support of the New York Times and an arts world that has closed ranks around the opera company, composer John Adams, and his controversial creation, Met General Manager Peter Gelb stood his ground on going forward with the new production of the opera that debuts on October 20. He agreed back in June not to include the piece on the roster of operas that will be broadcast to theaters around the world because of its possible role in fomenting anti-Semitism at a time when hatred for Jews is on the rise. But Gelb is unmovable about going ahead with the staging on the famed stage in New York. And in defending that stance in a private meeting with New York Jewish leaders, he not only displayed the arrogant stubbornness that has marked his tenure at the Met; Gelb also chose to lecture them about what was good for the Jews.

As the New York Jewish Week reports, a broad coalition of mainstream Jewish organizations sent leaders to meet with Gelb earlier this month prior to the opening of the opera season. While the demonstration at the opera’s Lincoln Center home that greeted those attending the Met’s opening night last week was the work of groups that are often considered right-wing, the meeting was very much a broad-based affair and included the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and the New York Board of Rabbis. But rather than demonstrate any sensitivity for the concerns of those who met with him, Gelb doubled down on his decision.

According to one of the participants, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the Board of Rabbis,

“He took the outrageous position that challenging this opera would increase anti-Semitism because it would appear that Jews were controlling the arts,” the rabbi recalled. “We said this opera is an affront not only to Jews but also to all decent people, especially those victimized by terrorists. Many 9/11 families have spoken against it. Given this mentality what’s next, an ISIS love story?”

Heretofore, Gelb’s position merely reflected the tone-deaf attitude of many in the arts world that views any protests against their work as evidence of Philistinism or a desire to censure artists and deny them the right to freely express themselves. As I have previously explained, this is an absurd distortion of the facts of the case since no one is trying to deny the Met’s right to stage anything it likes or to repress art. Rather, the protests are based, as I have written, on the recognition that there are always limits observed even in the world of the avant-garde. The Met would never dare stage an opera rationalizing, let alone glorifying in part the Ku Klux Klan or apartheid but somehow thinks there’s nothing wrong with one that treated the terrorist murder of an old man because he was a Jew as merely a debatable concept rather than something that is beyond the pale of civilized behavior.

However, Gelb’s comments escalate the argument here from one about a lack of sensitivity and double standards to something even more shocking. Instead of merely attempting to defend the indefensible, Gelb has apparently switched to offense and is seeking to shut the Jews up. But the opera executive, who has often provoked the anger of the Met’s employees and subscribers, should understand these sorts of comments would not make the debate go away.

It is true that anti-Semites believe Jews control the arts. They also think they control the media, Congress, and the government in general and are guilty of promoting both capitalism and socialism. The fact that none of this is true and that the smears are largely self-contradictory does not deter them. Nothing the Jews do or don’t do is responsible for any of these allegations since they reflect the conspiratorial mindset and delusions of Jew-haters rather than reality.

But that has also never stopped those who wish to pursue agendas that benefit anti-Semites from playing off these fears in order to silence criticism. That is exactly what Gelb is doing. Having committed himself to staging Klinghoffer at all costs, he is now ready to cross the line that ought to separate debate between civilized persons and hateful arguments aimed at suppressing criticism of prejudice.

The question now is whether New York elites—including many Jews who support the opera—are willing to cross it with him. It is now up to those philanthropists and agencies that support the Met—a rightly beloved institution that is a central pillar of the arts community in one of the musical capitals of the world—to step in and tell Gelb he has gone too far.

The decision to stage Klinghoffer was egregious to start with and reflected the willingness of the arts world to accept the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews as legitimate fodder for art. But it must be understood that the stakes in this controversy have now been raised. This is no longer merely an argument about a despicable opera. It is now also about whether the Metropolitan Opera will be led by a man who, despite his Jewish origins, is prepared to use statements that are redolent of the rationalizations that were offered by those in the past who counseled Jews to be silent about a host of evils including the Holocaust. Even in the arts, this is unacceptable under any circumstances.

As Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor to the New York Times protesting its endorsement of Klinghoffer:

We might someday be able to forgive the Met for decriminalizing brutality, but we will never forgive it for poisoning our music, for turning our best violins and our iconic concert halls into megaphones for excusing evil.

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Tom Perez and the Trusted Few

The Obama administration’s active engagement with pop culture can sometimes backfire, as it seemed to last night. Valerie Jarrett apparently made a cameo on last night’s episode of The Good Wife, urging a main character to run for state’s attorney. But, lamented a New York Times arts critic, “The political functionaries can’t act — they’re a distraction, and they flatten every scene they’re in.” At least the role was believable.

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The Obama administration’s active engagement with pop culture can sometimes backfire, as it seemed to last night. Valerie Jarrett apparently made a cameo on last night’s episode of The Good Wife, urging a main character to run for state’s attorney. But, lamented a New York Times arts critic, “The political functionaries can’t act — they’re a distraction, and they flatten every scene they’re in.” At least the role was believable.

Jarrett made another cameo over the weekend, also backing a favored candidate. But this one was in the real world, in a Politico consideration of possible successors to Attorney General Eric Holder–and one in particular: Tom Perez.

Perez is already a member of President Obama’s Cabinet; he’s the labor secretary. But the administration is seeking to replace Holder at Justice, and some insiders, Jarrett among them, reportedly like the idea of shifting Perez over to Holder’s spot. It’s not that there aren’t any traditional candidates; Solicitor General Donald Verrilli is apparently on the list, as is outgoing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration.

Perez, in fact, isn’t even on some of the speculative lists circulating in the political press. But in this insular White House, there are few trusted by the president. Few enough, it appears, to have to shift them from Cabinet secretarial post to Cabinet secretarial post:

Perez has made more stops with the president than any other Cabinet secretary, events that are often followed by rides home and private meetings on Air Force One. And he’s often been out on his own, making over 40 appearances around the country since May where he’s pumped out the message of an economy that is actually recovering and has urged people not to see the president as having given up or disappeared.

Obama’s not the only one in the White House who’s come to rely on him. Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett’s been a Perez fan and promoter for years, going back to Perez’s time in the Civil Rights Division, and she and Holder continued to call on him for advice even as the violent protests overtook Ferguson last month. (Perez refers to that as “part of other duties as assigned.”) At Holder’s resignation announcement Thursday at the White House, Perez was right there in the front row, clearly emotional. And White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz has known Perez since they were both Hill staffers in the 1990s, and their relationship has expanded as they’ve collaborated over the past year and a half.

This is not to cast doubt on Perez’s qualifications–he’s already served as an assistant attorney general as well–nor to imply that there aren’t quite logical political reasons to nominate him to replace Holder. Chief among those reasons would be (as Politico also notes) the fact that as a Cabinet secretary, Perez has already been confirmed by the Senate. That takes some of the air out of Republican opposition, though his last confirmation vote was fairly close.

It does, however, reinforce a theme we’ve seen surface intermittently throughout the six years of the Obama presidency: insularity and a fortified inner circle. In differentiating the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq and Obama’s botched health-care reform, Dana Milbank nonetheless saw eerie similarities:

But the decision-making is disturbingly similar: In both cases, insular administrations, staffed by loyalists and obsessed with secrecy, participated in group-think and let the president hear only what they thought he wanted to hear.

In a damning account of the Obamacare implementation, my Post colleagues Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin described how Obama rejected pleas from outside experts and even some of his own advisers to bring in people with the expertise to handle the mammoth task; he instead left the project in the care of in-house loyalists.

MSNBC described the same phenomenon thus: “Obamacare burned by culture of secrecy.” Ron Fournier asked: “Will Insularity, Incompetence, and Lies Doom Obamacare?” Brent Budowsky said Obama “governs through a tightly controlled and highly centralized White House staff that is overloaded, dangerously insular, short on gravitas, and often hostile to outside advice even from friends and supporters.”

It was not a new concern. In 2010, the L.A. Times reported that Democrats worried about Obama’s insularity. He was replacing staffers and appointees with loyalists everywhere you turned, the paper noted, from the Council of Economic Advisors to his own chief of staff–and of course, always leaning on Valerie Jarrett:

Obama’s executive style relies heavily on a cordon of advisors who were with him at earlier points in his career. In nearly every instance, as senior advisors have resigned, Obama has filled the vacancies with trusted confidants who are closer to him than the people they replaced.

It should be noted that, as the above examples suggest, it is Democrats who are more worried about this than Republicans. Democrats are the ones getting shut out of the inner circle while the party’s congressional candidates have to suffer for Obama’s sins. And Democrats are the ones doomed to a mess of a bench thanks to the dried-up talent pool that, aside from a select few (Susan Rice, for example), leaves Democrats with a team of political hacks and yes-men staffing the White House. The atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust in this administration, on the other hand, would make a Clinton succession pretty seamless.

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Some Terrorists More Equal Than Others

Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

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Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

That Netanyahu wouldn’t persuade a UN General Assembly that has repeatedly voted to demonize Israeli acts of self-defense against Palestinian terrorism was a given. But the real tragedy is not the indifference of a world body that is tainted by the same virus of anti-Semitism that is gaining strength around the world. It is that those who are supposed to represent the Palestinians are still so cowed by the Islamists that they refuse to understand that the Islamists are as much if not a greater threat to them than they are to Israel. Though much of the Arab and Muslim world is belatedly coming to grips with the fact that ISIS must be destroyed (a task they hope will be largely accomplished by the United States with minimal aid from local forces), if they are to avoid being swept away by a sea of murderous fanaticism, so-called moderate Palestinians must understand that Hamas poses the same threat to their survival.

Instead, when PA leader Abbas had his turn last week at the UN podium, he devoted his remarks to some of the usual calumnies against Israel. He spoke of “war criminals” and genocidal crimes against the Palestinian people having been committed during the 50-day war launched by Hamas this past summer. The problem with this speech wasn’t just that, in stark contrast to Netanyahu who spoke repeatedly of his desire for peace and willingness to compromise to attain an agreement, Abbas talked only about conflict.

More to the point, Abbas refused to point out that the only party that committed war crimes against the Palestinian people was Hamas, his erstwhile partner in the PA government following the signing of a unity pact last spring. It was Hamas, as Netanyahu rightly pointed out, which used Palestinian civilians as human shields behind which it launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. It was Hamas that sought to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties so as to create more anti-Israel talking points, not a Jewish state that was reluctantly dragged into the conflict and did its best to minimize the impact its counter-attack hand on the people of Gaza.

Abbas has repeatedly demonstrated that he is willing neither to make peace with Israel nor to confront Hamas. Instead, he wishes only to avoid an agreement while continuing to milk the international community for aid that keeps his corrupt government and the soulless oligarchy that runs it afloat. This is a tragedy for the Palestinians who have been abused by their leaders and so-called allies in the Arab and Muslim world for the past 70 years.

It is easy to understand why most of the world refuses to accept Netanyahu’s analogy between ISIS and Hamas. Though, as the prime minister pointed out, the two have common ultimate goals in terms of establishing Islamist rule over the region and the world as well as speaking a common language of terror and using many of the same tactics, the international community sees ISIS as threatening other Muslims and Westerners while clinging to the belief that all Hamas wants to do is to kill Jews. The former is rightly held to be unacceptable while the latter, when cloaked in the language of anti-Zionism, is somehow rendered palatable since denying Jews the same right to sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense that others are routinely granted is considered debatable if not completely reasonable.

But the Palestinians are the big losers here. So long as Abbas won’t fight Hamas, the Palestinian people will not be forced to choose between peace and coexistence with their Jewish neighbors and a never-ending war that Hamas and much of his own Fatah Party desires. It is the people of Gaza who live under the despotic Islamist rule of Hamas and the people of the West Bank who may well do the same if Israel does not continue to protect Abbas from a coup who suffer most from the pass Hamas gets from the international community. The same is true of those who live under the thumb of the other Islamist terrorist regime that Netanyahu mentioned in his speech: the people of Iran.

UN delegates may mock Netanyahu and his use of audio-visual aids during his UN speech (this year’s device was an enlarged photo of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields) or the American pop culture references in his speech (this year’s favorite was his contention that pretending that Iran didn’t employ terrorism was as crazy as saying Derek Jeter didn’t play shortstop). But the people of Israel sent him to New York to tell the truth about the calumnies hurled at the Jewish state. It is the Palestinians who lack a leader who is similarly interested in telling the truth. Until they do, they will continue to wait for a solution to the conflict and be forced to live with the prospect of being ruled by their own Islamist killers.

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China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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Remembering D.G. Myers

Last Friday, the world of literary criticism and the COMMENTARY community lost a major voice when D.G. Myers passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer. David taught English literature for more than two decades at Texas A&M and then later at the Ohio State University. He was the author of The Elephants Teach, a definitive history of creative writing as well as of A Commonplace Blog, where he shared his thoughts about books, politics, and culture. He also contributed to COMMENTARY from 1989 to 2012. His reviews, both in the print magazine and in his Literary Commentary blog that he wrote from 2011 to 2012, were consistently insightful and provided readers with a voice of sanity and support for the best in the Western tradition against those seeking to dumb down our culture.

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Last Friday, the world of literary criticism and the COMMENTARY community lost a major voice when D.G. Myers passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer. David taught English literature for more than two decades at Texas A&M and then later at the Ohio State University. He was the author of The Elephants Teach, a definitive history of creative writing as well as of A Commonplace Blog, where he shared his thoughts about books, politics, and culture. He also contributed to COMMENTARY from 1989 to 2012. His reviews, both in the print magazine and in his Literary Commentary blog that he wrote from 2011 to 2012, were consistently insightful and provided readers with a voice of sanity and support for the best in the Western tradition against those seeking to dumb down our culture.

David left behind his wife Naomi and children Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam as well as many colleagues and friends who will always think of his humor and brilliant insights on a host of topics with affection. Below are links to Literary Commentary and a few of his review essays that appeared in the magazine. May his memory be for a blessing.

Real Presences by George Steiner, February 1990

The Best American Poetry, January 1992

The Never-Ending Journey (books on Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Whittaker Chambers and anti-Communism), October 2009

The November Criminals, June 2010

Let Franzen Ring, December 2010

Don’t Eat That Lotus, February 2011

The Art of Being First, November 2011

Bearing Witness, December 2011

A Fitting Finale, November 2012

Literary Commentary, 2011-2012

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What Ashraf Ghani Needs from the U.S.

Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

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Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

In the end, nothing became Karzai better than the manner in which he left office–which is to say voluntarily. He did not try to hang on to power indefinitely as many feared he would. Nor did he try to install one of his brothers as his successor. On Monday he presided over the first peaceful transition of power from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan’s long history.

Now the problems that Karzai couldn’t handle are being handed to Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a very smart man who has a long history of being an effective governmental analyst and reformer, including his stint as Afghanistan’s finance minister. If anyone is qualified to tackle Afghanistan’s problems, he is–even though his problems are in many ways greater than Karzai’s already because, in addition to everything else, Ghani has to deal with his defeated challenger Abdullah Abdullah. As the price of giving up his fight to contest the election results, Abdullah was promised a vague and extra-constitutional role as “chief executive” of the new government. Simply getting along with Abdullah will be a Herculean challenge for Ghani, in addition to trying to make the government more effective and more honest.

It would greatly help Ghani if President Obama were to rethink his dangerous pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017. The Afghan security forces are simply not ready to go it alone against the still dangerous Taliban insurgency and they will not be ready by 2017 either. Simply removing the air cover that U.S. forces have provided to their Afghan allies–something that is scheduled to happen by the end of this year–will vastly increase the danger from the Taliban. Indeed just in recent days Afghan troops required “NATO air support” to retake a town in Ghazni province that had fallen into Taliban hands.

With a continuing U.S. troop presence, Ghani has a chance to manage Afghanistan’s problems. Without it, the outlook is hopelessly bleak.

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Obama, the Anti-Truman

There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

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There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

Then there is the classic Obama-is-disappointed-in-America-yet-again framing, which is not flattering to Obama but better than the truth. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post went this route. Here’s the Times: “President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group.” And the Post: “The United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said during an interview.”

If you’ve followed the events of the past year, you’ll notice that neither of those spin cycles is true and so there must be a third option. There is: the truth, which is that Barack Obama underestimated ISIS despite the intel community trying desperately to explain it to him since day one. And thus, tired of getting thrown under the bus, the intel community has pointed out to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast that what the president said is completely divorced from reality:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Is the president reading his intelligence reports? He must be. The more likely explanation of the two is that Obama knows exactly what happened–he messed up, royally–and is blaming others because it’s unpalatable for him to admit that six years into his presidency, he’s older but no wiser.

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

Right. Though “any misjudgment he may have made” actually refers to this particular misjudgment, which he’s blaming on others, that we know for sure he made.

Just as interesting is why he made that egregious mistake. Part of it, surely, is his utter lack of knowledge of world history and politics. But that’s not enough of a reason, especially considering the fact that the U.S. intel community has been trying to remedy that by laying it all out there for him. Knowledge has been accumulated and summarily dismissed by Obama as distinctly unimportant. What matters to him is his cloistered worldview and fealty to ideology.

Later in the interview, Obama said:

Now the good news is that the new [Iraqi] prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

One hopes the president isn’t holding his breath. Obama returns to this trope time and again: it’s a political solution that’s needed, not a military solution. But security, as always, must precede any political solution. And that doesn’t come about by telling the warring parties to “Think about what tolerance means.”

Here, for example, is the lede of the New York Times story on a truly momentous occasion out of Afghanistan: “Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat and prominent intellectual, on Monday became the first modern leader of Afghanistan to take office in a peaceful transfer of power.”

It was far from inevitable. The election Ghani won produced a bitter accusation of fraud and a threat to plunge the country into what would essentially be a new civil war. What made the difference? As our Max Boot has written, the crucial distinction between Afghanistan and other such conflicts in which the U.S. played a role is the fact that when John Kerry flew in to broker a solution to the crisis, there were tens of thousands of American troops in the country. “That,” Max wrote, “gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.”

President Obama doesn’t like to face up to the fact that his obsession with getting out of Iraq played a role in undermining the very “political solution” he hoped for. Now ISIS is collapsing borders and beheading Westerners, and they surely can’t be expected to “Think about what tolerance means.” The president made policy based on what he wanted to be true, in all likelihood knowing full well it wasn’t. He continues to be the anti-Truman, passing blame around when he deserves the lion’s share of it.

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The New Year, Israel, and Two Powerful Sermons

As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

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As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

Elliot Cosgrove holds the pulpit at Park Avenue Synagogue—the largest conservative shul in the city (with a storied history that includes the tenure of Milton Steinberg, the novelist and community leader who was the model mid-century American rabbi). His beautiful, wrenching sermon can be found here in its entirety. He begins with the story of his British cousins, set upon violently as children 20 years in the city of Manchester by anti-Semitic thugs who shouted “kill the Jews” as local residents shut their doors and refused to help. All four eventually moved to Israel; two fought in the war this summer:

I wondered if Rafi, uniform on and rifle in hand, called on to defend his nation, was remembering the day when he–a yiddische boy in his school blazer–banged in vain on a neighborhood door crying for help. Never again would he allow his safety and the safety of his brothers to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. And I wondered if Benji, now in his third tour of duty, was recalling that day when he froze in horror, believing that somehow his enemy would play by the same moral standards as he did. Never again would a naïve belief in the goodness of humanity lead him to hesitate in fulfilling his obligation to defend himself as his attackers prepared their assault. It would be his decision–his and his country’s alone–to choose the moment and manner by which his destiny would be shaped and his safety secured. I wondered if, twenty years later, my cousins could see the accordion-like nature of their personal history playing out in the events of their lives.

Like I said, you can read the whole thing here.

The other was Ammiel Hirsch, whose pulpit is at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue near Lincoln Center—one of the key progressive shuls in American history and the first to employ a female rabbi in the 1970s. The text is not online, though there is video of it here. An excerpt from his powerful talk:

There is a human tendency to assume that our times are unique; that we can break away from history. We have not suddenly appeared on this earth free of all the social vices of the past. Europe was always infected with anti-Semitism: Not all Europeans were anti-Semitic, but enough of them were, so as to make life difficult for our ancestors, at best, and at worst, it led to mass murder – even in the most enlightened and cultured societies…When people introduce the Holocaust against Israel, something deeper is going on. When leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan compare the Nazis with the Israeli government, and the Nazis come out looking better – you know that something deeper is going on. It does not excuse any Israeli wrongdoing, but at some point, even the most enlightened of us cannot suppress the terrible feeling welling up inside that the monster is stirring again, and that this beast is irrational, inexplicable and impossible to eradicate. It is not something that people have reasoned themselves into, and hence it cannot be reasoned out of them… I would say this to Jewish critics of Israel: If you feel compelled to speak, you must speak. If you feel compelled to act, you must act. You must be guided by your own moral compass. But you may want to ask yourselves whether you are contributing to the increasing efforts to weaken, isolate and delegitimize Israel. If that is your intention, so be it; we will never see eye-to-eye. But if that is not your intention, it is not wrong to assess the ramifications of your words and deeds.

To both rabbis, I say what you say in shul when someone performs admirably: Yasher koach. May your strength be increased.

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The Government Shutdown A Year Later

The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

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The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

The Republican Party’s reputation declined sharply after the 2013 government shutdown. But in politics, as in many other walks of life, memories are short.

Over the summer, Democrats tried to rekindle fears that Republicans would again fail to fund the government, but Congress left Washington earlier this month without a major hiccup. With its one-year anniversary right around the corner, the shutdown doesn’t register as a top advertising theme in House and Senate races this year… The GOP is still disliked more than liked, polls show, but that is true of the Democrats, too, and for the Republicans the gap has narrowed by 20 percentage points since the shutdown.

“The Republican Party image may not be stellar, but, boy, it is a lot better than it’s been,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll with Democrat Fred Yang.

 The story goes on to report the following:

The latest Journal poll this month found negative views of the GOP outweighing positive views among registered voters by 10 percentage points—41% to 31%. That is a major improvement from last October, in the wake of the shutdown, when negative views outweighed positive views by 31 points, or 53% to 22%. The uptick also means the parties are now viewed roughly equally. Negative views of the Democratic Party outweighed positive ones by 6 points. Views of the GOP have become more positive among several sectors of the population, including Latinos, independents and self-identified Republicans.

I highlight this story for several reasons, beginning with the fact that some people who advocated the approach that led to the shutdown–most especially Senator Ted Cruz–are still defending their role in that disaster. Worse, at the time Cruz and other key figures were charging that conservatives who didn’t support their gambit were supporters of Obamacare. They were part of the “surrender caucus.”

This assertion was always untrue, and Cruz & Company had to know it was untrue. Yet they continued to make the assertion, presumably in order to appeal to Tea Party members by portraying themselves as intrepid and anti-establishment, as the William Wallaces of modern-day politics.

This whole thing was ludicrous from beginning to end; many of us predicted in advance how badly it would turn out. It has taken the GOP the better part of a year to undo the damage caused by the shutdown.

This is yet another reminder that conservatives should invest their hopes in politicians who are both principled and prudent. Who are more serious about governing than in mindless symbolism. And who have enough self-control to keep their personal ambitions from injuring their party and conservatism.

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Mr. Holder, You’re No Bobby Kennedy

A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

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A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

The attorney general is what President Obama correctly called “America’s lawyer, the people’s lawyer.” His principal functions are to uphold the Constitution of the United States and enforce the laws duly enacted by the elected representatives of the people. At least, that’s his job in theory. In practice, Holder has behaved more like the President’s hired gun than the people’s lawyer. This was underscored by a slip of the tongue as Holder spoke yesterday: “Over the last six years,” he remarked, “our administration”–and then, correcting himself–“your administration, has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents[.]” Honest mistake or Freudian slip, there was truth in Holder’s faux pas: this attorney general has faithfully pushed the president’s political agenda, even at the expense of the rule of law.

In his six years as attorney general, Holder has become more notable for not enforcing federal law than for enforcing it–and this should be troubling to all Americans. If we are truly to live in a government of laws and not of men, all people must be afforded equal treatment under generally applicable laws. The attorney general is in a singular position to ensure this through his prosecutorial and enforcement powers. But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, when the president has been unable to reform existing laws through the political process, Holder has effectively nullified them by refusing to defend or enforce the statutes in question. This was the case when the DOJ refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act from judicial challenge, and it remains the case now that the DOJ refuses to enforce provisions of federal immigration and drug-control law.

All this suggests a baldfaced contempt for the role of Congress in the lawmaking process and a deep distrust of the judiciary as the proper arbiter of constitutional disputes. Under Holder’s leadership, the Department of Justice provided the executive with a way of bypassing constitutionally ordained processes, creating law and policy by executive fiat. And this subverts the very spirit of the Constitution that Holder is sworn to defend, replacing the majesty of the law with a kind of leering cynicism for political and judicial processes.

This cynicism made it all the more jarring when both Obama and Holder attempted to don the mantle of Robert F. Kennedy through repeated appeals to his legacy in yesterday’s statements. In May 1961, only a few months after the University of Georgia campus exploded with violence in response to a court’s desegregation order, Bobby Kennedy spoke to the university’s law students about Brown v. Board of Education. “I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right,” he said. “But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. And we both respect the law. By facing this problem honorably you have shown to all the world that we Americans are moving forward together, solving this problem under the rule of law.”

If the rule of law is to mean anything in this nation, it must command the respect of those sworn to uphold and defend it. Attorney General Holder’s successor, whoever that may be, would do well to remember that.

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