Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 11, 2007

“My Fellow Americans”

Like a lot of other people this year, I have decided to run for President. True, I have no support, no money, and precious little energy. But I have one thing the other candidates lack: a modicum of respect for the English language. I am not referring to rules of grammar and usage, but rather to the belief that words have meanings and that when formed into sentences or paragraphs these should have meanings accessible to the naked mind. Words are more than notes of music to be strung together to make sweet sounds, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my opponents. Consider their declaration speeches:

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Like a lot of other people this year, I have decided to run for President. True, I have no support, no money, and precious little energy. But I have one thing the other candidates lack: a modicum of respect for the English language. I am not referring to rules of grammar and usage, but rather to the belief that words have meanings and that when formed into sentences or paragraphs these should have meanings accessible to the naked mind. Words are more than notes of music to be strung together to make sweet sounds, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my opponents. Consider their declaration speeches:

Mitt Romney: “It is time to build a new American dream for all of America’s families. . . . It is a time to do, as well as to dream.”

Dennis Kucinich: “My conscience calls me to action. . . . My campaign will be about the truth in action. It will be about the power of decisiveness, the power of compassion which comes from an understanding of the imperative of human unity.”

Hillary Clinton: “So let’s talk. Let’s chat. Let’s start a dialogue about your ideas and mine. . . . And while I can’t visit everyone’s living room, I can try.”

Barack Obama: “Join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense as I sense that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations.”

And the pièce de résistance, Joe Biden, tying himself into rhetorical knots: “The next century will be an American century. . . . I am running for President because I believe we can stem this tide.”

Can anyone make sense of this blather, grandiosity, and plain mystification?

My pronouncements, in contrast, will be easy to understand. I will speak truth to (acquire) power. So here is my declaration of candidacy:

Fellow Americans, why do I want to be President? Like everyone else seeking the position, I am a person of inordinate ambition. I yearn for the bright lights, for the sound of “Hail to the Chief.” (In a dream I once thought I caught a glimpse of my likeness on Mount Rushmore.) Why should you vote for me? I’m sure I can do as good a job as the next fella, and I will try hard, since I am awfully concerned about my place in history.

For further campaign bulletins, watch this space.

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News from the Continent: A “Pro-Israel” EU?

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has just accused the European Union of being too pro-Israel, despite the EU’s recent pledge of 264 million euros for Palestinian refugees. Abbas’s criticism is based on the fact that the EU, to its credit (and to the surprise of many observers), has stuck to its guns and refused to water down the three preconditions set by the Mideast Quartet for the resumption of direct aid to the Palestinians: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and respect for previous accords. Despite Russia’s active undermining of the Quartet’s position, the original consensus on these issues, formed in response to the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006, has lasted longer than even the most dedicated pro-Israel activist could have expected.

Indeed, since coming to power, Hamas has played a central role in maintaining the consensus. The Islamist party has wasted countless opportunities to break the aid embargo. All that Europe has needed in order to set aside the preconditions is a few magic words—cloaked in the usual mantle of ambiguity—and no real action. A literature about the supposed two “wings” of Hamas even began to flourish to prepare the way for such an accommodation. We were told about the tension between the “moderates” inside the PA and the ideologues abroad, the military faction and the political faction, the ones we can talk to and those who just won’t make nice. The point of it all: to encourage the West to engage and aid the PA.

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Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has just accused the European Union of being too pro-Israel, despite the EU’s recent pledge of 264 million euros for Palestinian refugees. Abbas’s criticism is based on the fact that the EU, to its credit (and to the surprise of many observers), has stuck to its guns and refused to water down the three preconditions set by the Mideast Quartet for the resumption of direct aid to the Palestinians: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and respect for previous accords. Despite Russia’s active undermining of the Quartet’s position, the original consensus on these issues, formed in response to the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006, has lasted longer than even the most dedicated pro-Israel activist could have expected.

Indeed, since coming to power, Hamas has played a central role in maintaining the consensus. The Islamist party has wasted countless opportunities to break the aid embargo. All that Europe has needed in order to set aside the preconditions is a few magic words—cloaked in the usual mantle of ambiguity—and no real action. A literature about the supposed two “wings” of Hamas even began to flourish to prepare the way for such an accommodation. We were told about the tension between the “moderates” inside the PA and the ideologues abroad, the military faction and the political faction, the ones we can talk to and those who just won’t make nice. The point of it all: to encourage the West to engage and aid the PA.

But even the “reasonable” wing of Hamas has refused to play along. Every time Europe’s political class might have been tempted to think that Israel’s nemesis had changed course, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza would obligingly remind them what the organization is really about. Renounce violence? Never. Recognize Israel? Not implicitly, tacitly, or otherwise. And why shouldn’t Hamas refuse? With Fatah in disarray, the Islamists might soon be the only game in town.

And it seems more and more possible that the recent period of relative quiet with respect to Israel might in itself suffice for Hamas to win a hearing in Europe. If money were to begin flowing again into government coffers in Gaza, the “moderates” can argue, it would strengthen their hold on the PA and make it possible, at long last, for the government to meet the Quartet’s three demands. Hamas would not even have to say this much, only to make the EU believe that this might happen at some point in the future. The EU’s readiness for a diplomatic fire sale is already evident, with France and the UK leading the push to set aside the Quartet’s three burdensome preconditions.

Even if the EU holds firm, Abbas can still count on more than a few friends in Europe. With German bishops comparing Israel’s defense barrier to the walls of the Warsaw ghetto and with self-proclaimed dissidents in Sweden calling Israel an apartheid regime, political statements from Brussels amount to little more than a minority view, increasingly at odds with the European vox populi. Then there are those “moderate” commentators eager to punish Israel should it continue to defend itself. Anatole Kaletsky of the Times of London has concluded that Israel should be sanctioned if it attacks Iran, and that sanctions also should be threatened if Israel insists on maintaining “the post-1967 status quo.”

In the face of all this, it is difficult to maintain any pretence that the EU is pro-Israel, let alone too pro-Israel. But who knows? If Hamas keeps up its stream of shrill, bloodthirsty propaganda, even the willfully blind governments of Europe may no longer be able to pretend that the Islamists in charge of the Palestinian territories have turned over a new, moderate leaf.

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Who Is a Conservative?

George Will has written a sensible column on why conservative carping about the ideological flaws of the leading GOP presidential candidates is unjustified. As he concludes, “Conservatism comes in many flavors.” This point is often overlooked these days as commentators try to gauge whether Romney, McCain, or Giuliani is fit to inherit Ronald Reagan’s mantle.

The truth is that the conservative movement, especially inside the Republican party, has been broadly defined for some time. Members of the mainstream media seem incapable of seeing a Republican as something other than a “conservative” or a “moderate,” as if those were the only two possibilities. But the GOP has been influenced by a range of thinkers, from Kirk and Hayek to Buckley, Kristol, and Gilder. That’s why asking whether a Republican candidate for President is a “true conservative” doesn’t yield that much information. Far more important is whether the candidate can articulate a set of ideas that will foster a new conservative coalition.

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George Will has written a sensible column on why conservative carping about the ideological flaws of the leading GOP presidential candidates is unjustified. As he concludes, “Conservatism comes in many flavors.” This point is often overlooked these days as commentators try to gauge whether Romney, McCain, or Giuliani is fit to inherit Ronald Reagan’s mantle.

The truth is that the conservative movement, especially inside the Republican party, has been broadly defined for some time. Members of the mainstream media seem incapable of seeing a Republican as something other than a “conservative” or a “moderate,” as if those were the only two possibilities. But the GOP has been influenced by a range of thinkers, from Kirk and Hayek to Buckley, Kristol, and Gilder. That’s why asking whether a Republican candidate for President is a “true conservative” doesn’t yield that much information. Far more important is whether the candidate can articulate a set of ideas that will foster a new conservative coalition.

What might such a coalition look like? Noemie Emery has an interesting take in The Weekly Standard. She argues persuasively that important litmus tests of past Republican campaigns—abortion, gay marriage, guns—are no longer so vital; everyone in the party agrees that these are issues that should be decided by legislatures, not courts. According to Emery, this allows the less traditionalist conservative candidates to “make deals” with the social-conservative base.

True enough. But Republican primaries of the past have been about more than brokering deals. Almost every intraparty contest of the past 30 years has been a battle among personalities who all subscribed to some set of conservative ideas: Bush v. McCain in 2000, the fights with Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, George H.W. Bush v. Dole in 1988. Even the Ford-Reagan contest in 1976 was not a “moderate v. conservative” battle. It was more a dispute between established Republican leadership and forces for change within the party (remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld were then on Ford’s side).

The 2008 primary will be not be different. The press will insist that it is a fight between the “socially liberal” Giuliani and the “conservative” McCain or Romney. In fact, this will be another battle of outsized personalities, each trying to place his brand of conservatism at the philosophical forefront of the Republican party.

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