Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2, 2008

Commentary of the Day

Seth Swirsky, on Peter Wehner:

“But for some of us, it is still conviction politicians who create the great appeal and great drama of American politics.”

It’s why Harry Truman is now considered a great president and why George W. Bush will be considered one: they had strong convictions, carried them forward and did not buckle in the face of overwhelming disapproval – all at the cost of their “legacy”, something modern Democrats are obsessed with (because, in the end, it’s all about THEM!).

It was all about Bill; It’s all about “Hillary”; It’s all about Barack. This is who Democrats are. It’s in their DNA. It’s why Obama is likely to fail and George W. succeeded. Liberals don’t like to do the heavy lifting: it requires not “being liked” which trumps “being right” to them. Again, in their DNA.

Seth Swirsky, on Peter Wehner:

“But for some of us, it is still conviction politicians who create the great appeal and great drama of American politics.”

It’s why Harry Truman is now considered a great president and why George W. Bush will be considered one: they had strong convictions, carried them forward and did not buckle in the face of overwhelming disapproval – all at the cost of their “legacy”, something modern Democrats are obsessed with (because, in the end, it’s all about THEM!).

It was all about Bill; It’s all about “Hillary”; It’s all about Barack. This is who Democrats are. It’s in their DNA. It’s why Obama is likely to fail and George W. succeeded. Liberals don’t like to do the heavy lifting: it requires not “being liked” which trumps “being right” to them. Again, in their DNA.

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Radical Sheik

Less than two weeks ago, I came across this AP report about Libya’s latest overtures to the U.S., which offers grounds for cautious optimism:

Libya would like to open a new chapter in relations with the United States by tapping into a major government fund to invest in American corporations and by sending thousands of students to study in the United States, a son of Libya’s leader said Friday.

In an interview, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, also outlined plans for Libya to move from the one-man rule of his father to a constitutional democracy as part of the country’s modernization process. . . .

Seif Qaddafi, who was a central figure in normalizing Libya’s relations with the United States, is on a private visit to the United States. But his trip included meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, other administration officials and many members of Congress.

But I just noticed that the New York Post ran this piece of gossip a few days after that story:

IF only folks could get along as well in the Mideast as they do in Greenwich Village, where a party was thrown Saturday night for Seif al-Islam Khadafy, son of Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy. The host was Nat Rothschild — son of British Lord Rothschild, a major donor to Jewish causes and Israel — at Nat’s townhouse on St. Luke’s Place.

Seif Qaddafi really is making the rounds.  Nat Rothschild seems to affiliate more with upper-crust playboys than Jews (he was, after all, a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford), but that he can party-hard with the dictator’s son is an additional sign that Libya truly intends to modernize, for better or worse.

Less than two weeks ago, I came across this AP report about Libya’s latest overtures to the U.S., which offers grounds for cautious optimism:

Libya would like to open a new chapter in relations with the United States by tapping into a major government fund to invest in American corporations and by sending thousands of students to study in the United States, a son of Libya’s leader said Friday.

In an interview, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, also outlined plans for Libya to move from the one-man rule of his father to a constitutional democracy as part of the country’s modernization process. . . .

Seif Qaddafi, who was a central figure in normalizing Libya’s relations with the United States, is on a private visit to the United States. But his trip included meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, other administration officials and many members of Congress.

But I just noticed that the New York Post ran this piece of gossip a few days after that story:

IF only folks could get along as well in the Mideast as they do in Greenwich Village, where a party was thrown Saturday night for Seif al-Islam Khadafy, son of Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy. The host was Nat Rothschild — son of British Lord Rothschild, a major donor to Jewish causes and Israel — at Nat’s townhouse on St. Luke’s Place.

Seif Qaddafi really is making the rounds.  Nat Rothschild seems to affiliate more with upper-crust playboys than Jews (he was, after all, a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford), but that he can party-hard with the dictator’s son is an additional sign that Libya truly intends to modernize, for better or worse.

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Let It Go, Gitlin

I think someone is still stuck in pre-election Obamamania:

Now, thanks to his deft use of the social-network applications of the Web, Obama retains the means for netroots operations, high-octane fund-raising, smear-fighting and get-out-the-vote operations.  His more than 3 million names-disproportionately young and energetic-remain a political force as long as he satisfies them that, once in office, he can deliver.   Roosevelt had radio; Obama has, in addition, both the Web and the stadium.  He can deploy his supporters to muscle reforms through.  He can fill arenas, get supporters to bombard Congress with phone calls to break filibusters, and otherwise stir them to action-to overcome Big Pharma’s obstruction of a new health insurance system, say, or the fossil fuel industry’s objections to cap-and-trade emissions-cutting policies.  He can pit them against the right-wing media who will surely pounce on his every mistake.  He needs to keep them pumped up to resist the default privatism of American life, the cynical inertia, passivity, even paralysis, of the public will. He must “fire up” his big battalions and regularly keep them “fired up” if he is to deliver results.

“Resist privatism”?

I think someone is still stuck in pre-election Obamamania:

Now, thanks to his deft use of the social-network applications of the Web, Obama retains the means for netroots operations, high-octane fund-raising, smear-fighting and get-out-the-vote operations.  His more than 3 million names-disproportionately young and energetic-remain a political force as long as he satisfies them that, once in office, he can deliver.   Roosevelt had radio; Obama has, in addition, both the Web and the stadium.  He can deploy his supporters to muscle reforms through.  He can fill arenas, get supporters to bombard Congress with phone calls to break filibusters, and otherwise stir them to action-to overcome Big Pharma’s obstruction of a new health insurance system, say, or the fossil fuel industry’s objections to cap-and-trade emissions-cutting policies.  He can pit them against the right-wing media who will surely pounce on his every mistake.  He needs to keep them pumped up to resist the default privatism of American life, the cynical inertia, passivity, even paralysis, of the public will. He must “fire up” his big battalions and regularly keep them “fired up” if he is to deliver results.

“Resist privatism”?

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The Birth of Environmental Eugenics?

Slate’s William Saletan provocatively comments on a recent report that parents are having their young children genetically tested to determine their innate athletic ability, so as to know what sports to steer them toward:

Eugenics was crude and brutal. It regulated survival and procreation. If the government decided you were unfit to breed, it could sterilize or kill you. The notion was that some families were better than others—and that these hereditary differences, not subsequent environmental factors, determined a child’s prospects.

The new mentality assumes the opposite: Good heredity isn’t enough. Without proper nurture, nature’s gifts will be wasted. We have to find the kids with the best genes and focus our resources on developing their talents. This isn’t regulation of heredity. It’s regulation of environments. I’d call it environmental eugenics, or envireugenics.

First of all, “environmental eugenics,” not to mention the ugly Greco-Latin hodgepodge “envireugenics,” is a misnomer, since eugenics (from the Greek for “well born”) involves selection for genes, not just selection of genes. The phenomenon Saletan is calling attention to is a form of “human husbandry” without selective breeding. Thus, a better term for the practice might be “genetic eupaideia” (from the Greek paideia, meaning “child-rearing”). Of course, the practice could in fact lead to selective breeding, whether or not as part of a government policy. Although Saletan doesn’t mention it, some have speculated that Chinese basketball star Yao Ming was the product of a eugenics experiment.

In any case, is this really a new mentality, as Saletan claims? Arguably, all societies have long been practicing genetic eupaideia—at least at the group level—without the need for genetic testing: perceiving innate average differences in ability between the sexes, they have simply encouraged males and females to go into different pursuits, and have provided different nurturing environments as a result. And, in some cases, they could do so with certainty approaching that of genetic testing. For example, if a tribe or nation had wanted to find and develop its best warrior talent for single combat, it would have been a waste of time for it to search among its female children.

Nonetheless, genetic eupaideia has so far tended to be far more probabilistic: males and females have long been seen as having different comparative advantages on average—that is, even if a woman can do everything a man can, in some cases a woman cannot do it as efficiently (whether in terms of physical, cognitive, or emotional energy). Think of the job of shoveling coal, for instance. Of course, the reverse is true as well: women can on average do all sorts of tasks more efficiently than men, such as reading emotions via facial expressions. The point is that, historically, taking biological sex into account has been used to reduce “search costs” for finding talent, at the expense of some talent never being discovered.

The looming challenge we face is a world in which genetic testing increasingly reduces such search costs enormously.

Slate’s William Saletan provocatively comments on a recent report that parents are having their young children genetically tested to determine their innate athletic ability, so as to know what sports to steer them toward:

Eugenics was crude and brutal. It regulated survival and procreation. If the government decided you were unfit to breed, it could sterilize or kill you. The notion was that some families were better than others—and that these hereditary differences, not subsequent environmental factors, determined a child’s prospects.

The new mentality assumes the opposite: Good heredity isn’t enough. Without proper nurture, nature’s gifts will be wasted. We have to find the kids with the best genes and focus our resources on developing their talents. This isn’t regulation of heredity. It’s regulation of environments. I’d call it environmental eugenics, or envireugenics.

First of all, “environmental eugenics,” not to mention the ugly Greco-Latin hodgepodge “envireugenics,” is a misnomer, since eugenics (from the Greek for “well born”) involves selection for genes, not just selection of genes. The phenomenon Saletan is calling attention to is a form of “human husbandry” without selective breeding. Thus, a better term for the practice might be “genetic eupaideia” (from the Greek paideia, meaning “child-rearing”). Of course, the practice could in fact lead to selective breeding, whether or not as part of a government policy. Although Saletan doesn’t mention it, some have speculated that Chinese basketball star Yao Ming was the product of a eugenics experiment.

In any case, is this really a new mentality, as Saletan claims? Arguably, all societies have long been practicing genetic eupaideia—at least at the group level—without the need for genetic testing: perceiving innate average differences in ability between the sexes, they have simply encouraged males and females to go into different pursuits, and have provided different nurturing environments as a result. And, in some cases, they could do so with certainty approaching that of genetic testing. For example, if a tribe or nation had wanted to find and develop its best warrior talent for single combat, it would have been a waste of time for it to search among its female children.

Nonetheless, genetic eupaideia has so far tended to be far more probabilistic: males and females have long been seen as having different comparative advantages on average—that is, even if a woman can do everything a man can, in some cases a woman cannot do it as efficiently (whether in terms of physical, cognitive, or emotional energy). Think of the job of shoveling coal, for instance. Of course, the reverse is true as well: women can on average do all sorts of tasks more efficiently than men, such as reading emotions via facial expressions. The point is that, historically, taking biological sex into account has been used to reduce “search costs” for finding talent, at the expense of some talent never being discovered.

The looming challenge we face is a world in which genetic testing increasingly reduces such search costs enormously.

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“Unacceptable”

In a column entitled “Talk Tough with Tehran,” Dennis Ross calls for “smart statecraft,” which he describes as a combination of “smart sanctions” and “appetizing carrots.” As usual, the devil is in the adjectives.

His “smart sanctions” would target the broader Iranian economy, which he says could be effective if we get China to support them (thus addressing European fears that participation in sanctions would only throw business to the Chinese). The proposal reminds me of the old joke about the plan one expert pitched to another when they were trapped at the bottom of a well: “First, assume a rope . . .”

It is, of course, always best to use “appetizing” carrots, but Ross does not specify what he has in mind, or how it differs from the menu that has been repeatedly offered to Iran by the Europeans and the U.S. over the last two years.

Ross does relate something, however, that provides an insight into the fundamental test facing the next administration:

One Arab ambassador told me recently that the Iranians are reminding Arab leaders that America didn’t help Fuad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, or Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, when they got into trouble – that in fact Washington left them high and dry. Iran, by contrast, is close by and not going anywhere. If the Iranians are throwing their weight around now, imagine what will happen if they go nuclear.

What Ross describes as the Iranians “throwing their weight around now” consists of their simply pointing out what happened in Lebanon and Georgia. The Iranians’ “weight,” in other words, is currently not so much Iranian power as the perception of American weakness.

In one of his first statements as president-elect, Barack Obama called Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons “unacceptable.” His first — and perhaps defining — foreign policy test will be not the manufactured crisis his vice-president predicts, but rather the one already front and center: whether the perception of American weakness will not only be confirmed but supplemented by actual Iranian power.

In a column entitled “Talk Tough with Tehran,” Dennis Ross calls for “smart statecraft,” which he describes as a combination of “smart sanctions” and “appetizing carrots.” As usual, the devil is in the adjectives.

His “smart sanctions” would target the broader Iranian economy, which he says could be effective if we get China to support them (thus addressing European fears that participation in sanctions would only throw business to the Chinese). The proposal reminds me of the old joke about the plan one expert pitched to another when they were trapped at the bottom of a well: “First, assume a rope . . .”

It is, of course, always best to use “appetizing” carrots, but Ross does not specify what he has in mind, or how it differs from the menu that has been repeatedly offered to Iran by the Europeans and the U.S. over the last two years.

Ross does relate something, however, that provides an insight into the fundamental test facing the next administration:

One Arab ambassador told me recently that the Iranians are reminding Arab leaders that America didn’t help Fuad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, or Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, when they got into trouble – that in fact Washington left them high and dry. Iran, by contrast, is close by and not going anywhere. If the Iranians are throwing their weight around now, imagine what will happen if they go nuclear.

What Ross describes as the Iranians “throwing their weight around now” consists of their simply pointing out what happened in Lebanon and Georgia. The Iranians’ “weight,” in other words, is currently not so much Iranian power as the perception of American weakness.

In one of his first statements as president-elect, Barack Obama called Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons “unacceptable.” His first — and perhaps defining — foreign policy test will be not the manufactured crisis his vice-president predicts, but rather the one already front and center: whether the perception of American weakness will not only be confirmed but supplemented by actual Iranian power.

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Re: Placing Holder

A Princeton history professor makes an interesting point on Eric Holder and the Marc Rich affair:

Democrats need to bring up the issue. For many years now, Democrats have been criticizing the Bush administration for being aggressive, if not abusive, in the use of executive power. They have also been critical of Republicans for not being cautious when dealing with conflict-of-interest issues. If Democrats put the pardon issue aside to get the nominee through, they will start off on a wrong foot. This does not mean it should hold up the appointment, but Democrats have an obligation to take the issue seriously and find out exactly what his role was in the decision.

As any good attorney knows if you have a problematic witness you want to get out the “bad stuff” on direct examination, so it doesn’t appear as if the other side is scoring point in the cross-examination. It might therefore behoove the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee to ask some tough questions. They can start with today’s New York Times column, and ask about those fifteen contacts Holder had with Rich’s attorney. Then they might proceed to ask why Holder pled ignorance of the details of the situation when questioned by the House Committee in 2001.

That might be a savvy tactical move. As the professor suggests, it would give at least the appearance of concern that the Attorney General be — what’s the word the Democrats love — “independent.” Perhaps Chuck Schumer might do the honors. It was he, you recall, who focused on this very issue when another Attorney General was at issue:

[T]he Justice Department is different than any other department. In every other department, the chief cabinet officer is supposed to follow the president’s orders, request, without exception.

But the Justice Department has a higher responsibility: rule of law and the Constitution. And Attorney General Gonzales in his department has been even more political than his predecessor, Attorney General Ashcroft.

Attorney General Gonzales is a nice man. But he either doesn’t accept or doesn’t understand that he is no longer just the president’s lawyer, but has a higher obligation to the rule of law and the Constitution, even when the president should not want it to be so.

Well said, Senator.

A Princeton history professor makes an interesting point on Eric Holder and the Marc Rich affair:

Democrats need to bring up the issue. For many years now, Democrats have been criticizing the Bush administration for being aggressive, if not abusive, in the use of executive power. They have also been critical of Republicans for not being cautious when dealing with conflict-of-interest issues. If Democrats put the pardon issue aside to get the nominee through, they will start off on a wrong foot. This does not mean it should hold up the appointment, but Democrats have an obligation to take the issue seriously and find out exactly what his role was in the decision.

As any good attorney knows if you have a problematic witness you want to get out the “bad stuff” on direct examination, so it doesn’t appear as if the other side is scoring point in the cross-examination. It might therefore behoove the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee to ask some tough questions. They can start with today’s New York Times column, and ask about those fifteen contacts Holder had with Rich’s attorney. Then they might proceed to ask why Holder pled ignorance of the details of the situation when questioned by the House Committee in 2001.

That might be a savvy tactical move. As the professor suggests, it would give at least the appearance of concern that the Attorney General be — what’s the word the Democrats love — “independent.” Perhaps Chuck Schumer might do the honors. It was he, you recall, who focused on this very issue when another Attorney General was at issue:

[T]he Justice Department is different than any other department. In every other department, the chief cabinet officer is supposed to follow the president’s orders, request, without exception.

But the Justice Department has a higher responsibility: rule of law and the Constitution. And Attorney General Gonzales in his department has been even more political than his predecessor, Attorney General Ashcroft.

Attorney General Gonzales is a nice man. But he either doesn’t accept or doesn’t understand that he is no longer just the president’s lawyer, but has a higher obligation to the rule of law and the Constitution, even when the president should not want it to be so.

Well said, Senator.

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There’s Nothing To Explain

No one takes the environmentalist’s mantra “think globally, act locally” more to heart than the jihadi. With his eye on the future global caliphate, and his gun trained on the nearest infidel enclave, he is a patient servant to his cause. Westerners have a hard time understanding Islamic terrorists, in part, because we go about it the wrong way round. Rhetoric aside, good liberals think locally and act globally. That is, they take the supremacy of reason and humanity found in their immediate environs, and mistakenly apply it to death cultists on the other side of the world. Paul Berman calls this “rationalist naiveté.” But seven years after 9/11, the persistence of this mischaracterization feels like something more sinister than naiveté. The Left’s rush to explain the Mumbai attack in terms of Western antagonism, and not in terms of the doctrine of jihad, feels like simple collusion with monsters.

The musings of the average American accountant or traffic cop or lawyer are one thing, but are we really to believe the editors of Newsweek and Time suffer from “naiveté” in their understanding of global frictions. Yesterday, the New York Times furnished Pankaj Mishra with prime op-ed real estate, so that the following point on Mumbai could be reiterated:

In a separate phone call, another gunman invoked the oppression of Muslims by Hindu nationalists and the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Such calls were the only occasions on which the militants, whom initial reports have tied to the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, offered a likely motive for their indiscriminate slaughter. Their rhetoric seems all too familiar. Nevertheless, it shows how older political conflicts in South Asia have been rendered more noxious by the fallout from the “war on terror” and the rise of international jihadism.

Not only has fighting terrorism caused terrorism, but the war on terror is the functional equivalent of jihadism itself. Naiveté indeed. Mishra goes on to call for an end to the American military campaign in Afghanistan, as that, of course, lies at the heart of the terrorists motivation in Mumbai.

How, after 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Bali, and Chechnya, could pundits still scratch their heads in the wake of any single Islamist attack and wonder about particular motives or particular parties? The motive is always the same, because these are not discrete attacks, but successive pushes by different infantries in one long war. The parties are simply brothers in arms. From an intelligence and military point of view, of course nailing down specifics on cells and cooperating organizations is invaluable. But in the most important conceptual terms, we already know all there is to know about the perpetrators of every act of Islamic terror that will ever come to pass. The perpetrators are delusional fanatics who want to establish a global caliphate.

The motive of the liberal apologist is to clear his guilty conscience. He will certainly fail all on his own. But the defeat of his homicidal accomplice is hardly guaranteed.

No one takes the environmentalist’s mantra “think globally, act locally” more to heart than the jihadi. With his eye on the future global caliphate, and his gun trained on the nearest infidel enclave, he is a patient servant to his cause. Westerners have a hard time understanding Islamic terrorists, in part, because we go about it the wrong way round. Rhetoric aside, good liberals think locally and act globally. That is, they take the supremacy of reason and humanity found in their immediate environs, and mistakenly apply it to death cultists on the other side of the world. Paul Berman calls this “rationalist naiveté.” But seven years after 9/11, the persistence of this mischaracterization feels like something more sinister than naiveté. The Left’s rush to explain the Mumbai attack in terms of Western antagonism, and not in terms of the doctrine of jihad, feels like simple collusion with monsters.

The musings of the average American accountant or traffic cop or lawyer are one thing, but are we really to believe the editors of Newsweek and Time suffer from “naiveté” in their understanding of global frictions. Yesterday, the New York Times furnished Pankaj Mishra with prime op-ed real estate, so that the following point on Mumbai could be reiterated:

In a separate phone call, another gunman invoked the oppression of Muslims by Hindu nationalists and the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Such calls were the only occasions on which the militants, whom initial reports have tied to the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, offered a likely motive for their indiscriminate slaughter. Their rhetoric seems all too familiar. Nevertheless, it shows how older political conflicts in South Asia have been rendered more noxious by the fallout from the “war on terror” and the rise of international jihadism.

Not only has fighting terrorism caused terrorism, but the war on terror is the functional equivalent of jihadism itself. Naiveté indeed. Mishra goes on to call for an end to the American military campaign in Afghanistan, as that, of course, lies at the heart of the terrorists motivation in Mumbai.

How, after 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Bali, and Chechnya, could pundits still scratch their heads in the wake of any single Islamist attack and wonder about particular motives or particular parties? The motive is always the same, because these are not discrete attacks, but successive pushes by different infantries in one long war. The parties are simply brothers in arms. From an intelligence and military point of view, of course nailing down specifics on cells and cooperating organizations is invaluable. But in the most important conceptual terms, we already know all there is to know about the perpetrators of every act of Islamic terror that will ever come to pass. The perpetrators are delusional fanatics who want to establish a global caliphate.

The motive of the liberal apologist is to clear his guilty conscience. He will certainly fail all on his own. But the defeat of his homicidal accomplice is hardly guaranteed.

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Re: The Limits of Pragmatism

Apropos the piece I posted earlier about Obama as possibly the anti-Reagan, a president who wants to “be” rather than to “do,” a colleague sent me this excerpt from a New York Times Magazine story after the election:

[Axelrod] thought back on what he called the original why question, what got all this started, back in December 2006. Barack, Michelle and eight others were in Axelrod’s office in downtown Chicago. If Barack was going to run, he had to decide quickly, a point the group made by laying out primary schedules and game plans for fund-raising and building an organization. Insights were offered from around the room. It was Michelle, Axelrod remembers, who stopped the show. “You need to ask yourself, Why do you want to do this?” she said directly. “What are hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?” Obama sat quietly for a moment, and everyone waited. “This I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently,” he said. “And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.”

Presumably Mr. Axelrod considers this account to reflect favorably on Obama. I’m not so sure. It is striking that in response to the “why” question, Obama would not articulate a fundamental philosophy of government, enumerate a series of moral wrongs that need to be set right, or lay out a set of policies. Rather, his answer was that merely by electing him, the world would look at America differently and millions of children across America would look at themselves differently. Oddly, Obama, simply by his election and inauguration, may have fulfilled his main goal.

It appears that for Obama, everything centers on his self-conception, not what political philosophy he holds or the worldview he wants to advance. For Obama to hold this view of himself helps explain, I think, his preternatural calm and staggering self-confidence. But for a political figure to place his hopes and ambitions so completely in himself, rather than in a set of ideas and ideals, can be problematic. Barack Obama may be as good as he thinks he is. Or he may not. We’re about to find out.

Apropos the piece I posted earlier about Obama as possibly the anti-Reagan, a president who wants to “be” rather than to “do,” a colleague sent me this excerpt from a New York Times Magazine story after the election:

[Axelrod] thought back on what he called the original why question, what got all this started, back in December 2006. Barack, Michelle and eight others were in Axelrod’s office in downtown Chicago. If Barack was going to run, he had to decide quickly, a point the group made by laying out primary schedules and game plans for fund-raising and building an organization. Insights were offered from around the room. It was Michelle, Axelrod remembers, who stopped the show. “You need to ask yourself, Why do you want to do this?” she said directly. “What are hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?” Obama sat quietly for a moment, and everyone waited. “This I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently,” he said. “And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.”

Presumably Mr. Axelrod considers this account to reflect favorably on Obama. I’m not so sure. It is striking that in response to the “why” question, Obama would not articulate a fundamental philosophy of government, enumerate a series of moral wrongs that need to be set right, or lay out a set of policies. Rather, his answer was that merely by electing him, the world would look at America differently and millions of children across America would look at themselves differently. Oddly, Obama, simply by his election and inauguration, may have fulfilled his main goal.

It appears that for Obama, everything centers on his self-conception, not what political philosophy he holds or the worldview he wants to advance. For Obama to hold this view of himself helps explain, I think, his preternatural calm and staggering self-confidence. But for a political figure to place his hopes and ambitions so completely in himself, rather than in a set of ideas and ideals, can be problematic. Barack Obama may be as good as he thinks he is. Or he may not. We’re about to find out.

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Home For The Holidays

William McGurn calls on GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner to do the country some good by calling for healthcare reform–but not in the way the Obama team has in mind. Here’s what he suggests Wagoner do:

Mr. Wagoner, you could point to a better way forward, one that helps both companies and workers. Thanks to reforms pushed by this president, Americans can now own health savings accounts they can use to build savings and cover day-to-day expenses. Used in combination with a catastrophic health plan, they would also be protected from financial ruin.

For companies, such an arrangement would help shift the responsibility for health care from employers to employees. And because these plans give health-care consumers more control over spending decisions, they also help restore some price-discipline to the market.

. . .

For too long, much of Big Business and Big Labor seem to have shared the assumption that the “solution” to the health-care mess is to dump their problems on the American taxpayer. This in fact has long been the message of Lee Iaccoca, the business leader who was so successful in lining up Chrysler for an earlier bailout. So it will be interesting to review the fine print of any bailout to see how much American workers who have no health-care coverage at all will be taxed to fulfill the generous promises made to the UAW.

It’s a lovely fantasy isn’t it? But, of course, Wagoner’s aim is to do a better job ingratiating himself this time around with the Democratic-controlled Congress and President-elect. And he’s not going to do that by suggesting their pie-in-the-sky nationalized healthcare scheme is exactly the wrong medicine. Indeed, it’s far more likely that Wagoner will flatter the Democrats and suggest that poor GM and the UAW are only in this fix because the government doesn’t provide healthcare to their workers.

Wagoner and the others will probably come up with some half-baked measures to revise product lines and a vague pledge to “work together” with the UAW — their partners in crime (the crime of mismanaging huge enterprises for decades and assuming customers would forever pick up the tab) — to cut costs. Then it will be up to Congress and the President-elect to decide if they want to encourage this ludicrous irresponsibility and dump billions from the taxpayers into losing propositions.

But there is little incentive to make meaningful adjustments so long as liberals dominate government. Indeed, there are many, like E.J. Dionne, who are egging on the UAW. Dionne declares, “If saving our auto industry means moving GM workers ever closer to Wal-Mart wages, the bailout isn’t worth doing.” This raises the question as to why taxpayers whose wages more closely approximate Wal-Mart workers should be subsidizing car workers whose salaries and benefits dwarf their own.

It seems this economics professor gets it right:

No matter how good the testimony and color charts presented in Congress tomorrow, the CEOs can’t change the fact that U.S. automakers, in order to buy labor peace over the years, have dug themselves into a hole where it’s nearly impossible for them to compete with their better-managed foreign rivals, even when those foreign firms are producing their BMWs and Hondas in U.S. plants with highly-paid American workers.

And if Congress and the President-elect have problems stiffening their resolve they should perhaps consider there is something far more appalling than CEO’s taking corporate jets to beg for bailouts:

The Big Three’s solution to downsizing and its never-ending job losses? For the past 24 years, all three U.S. automakers had tens of thousands of “workers” sitting in job banks, watching TV, playing cards and collecting 90 percent of their pay. Asks University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, “Why should a waitress in Indiana have her tax money sent to Detroit to subsidize that?”

So rather than have Wagoner opine on healthcare, I would settle for what many cash-strapped Americans must do for the holidays: just stay home.

William McGurn calls on GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner to do the country some good by calling for healthcare reform–but not in the way the Obama team has in mind. Here’s what he suggests Wagoner do:

Mr. Wagoner, you could point to a better way forward, one that helps both companies and workers. Thanks to reforms pushed by this president, Americans can now own health savings accounts they can use to build savings and cover day-to-day expenses. Used in combination with a catastrophic health plan, they would also be protected from financial ruin.

For companies, such an arrangement would help shift the responsibility for health care from employers to employees. And because these plans give health-care consumers more control over spending decisions, they also help restore some price-discipline to the market.

. . .

For too long, much of Big Business and Big Labor seem to have shared the assumption that the “solution” to the health-care mess is to dump their problems on the American taxpayer. This in fact has long been the message of Lee Iaccoca, the business leader who was so successful in lining up Chrysler for an earlier bailout. So it will be interesting to review the fine print of any bailout to see how much American workers who have no health-care coverage at all will be taxed to fulfill the generous promises made to the UAW.

It’s a lovely fantasy isn’t it? But, of course, Wagoner’s aim is to do a better job ingratiating himself this time around with the Democratic-controlled Congress and President-elect. And he’s not going to do that by suggesting their pie-in-the-sky nationalized healthcare scheme is exactly the wrong medicine. Indeed, it’s far more likely that Wagoner will flatter the Democrats and suggest that poor GM and the UAW are only in this fix because the government doesn’t provide healthcare to their workers.

Wagoner and the others will probably come up with some half-baked measures to revise product lines and a vague pledge to “work together” with the UAW — their partners in crime (the crime of mismanaging huge enterprises for decades and assuming customers would forever pick up the tab) — to cut costs. Then it will be up to Congress and the President-elect to decide if they want to encourage this ludicrous irresponsibility and dump billions from the taxpayers into losing propositions.

But there is little incentive to make meaningful adjustments so long as liberals dominate government. Indeed, there are many, like E.J. Dionne, who are egging on the UAW. Dionne declares, “If saving our auto industry means moving GM workers ever closer to Wal-Mart wages, the bailout isn’t worth doing.” This raises the question as to why taxpayers whose wages more closely approximate Wal-Mart workers should be subsidizing car workers whose salaries and benefits dwarf their own.

It seems this economics professor gets it right:

No matter how good the testimony and color charts presented in Congress tomorrow, the CEOs can’t change the fact that U.S. automakers, in order to buy labor peace over the years, have dug themselves into a hole where it’s nearly impossible for them to compete with their better-managed foreign rivals, even when those foreign firms are producing their BMWs and Hondas in U.S. plants with highly-paid American workers.

And if Congress and the President-elect have problems stiffening their resolve they should perhaps consider there is something far more appalling than CEO’s taking corporate jets to beg for bailouts:

The Big Three’s solution to downsizing and its never-ending job losses? For the past 24 years, all three U.S. automakers had tens of thousands of “workers” sitting in job banks, watching TV, playing cards and collecting 90 percent of their pay. Asks University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, “Why should a waitress in Indiana have her tax money sent to Detroit to subsidize that?”

So rather than have Wagoner opine on healthcare, I would settle for what many cash-strapped Americans must do for the holidays: just stay home.

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The Explainer

Republicans have been struggling to find their political bearings. The Democrats are about to embark on a Keynesian spending spree the likes of which we have never seen. How to respond? How can Republicans possibly oppose the political juggernaut coming their way? They could do much worse than to send this short film by Fred Thompson to every voter in America. As political theater, it is brilliant. As economic education, it is indispensable.

The film demonstrates that Thompson is head and shoulders above the current crop of party functionaries in the essential task of communicating and educating voters about our current predicament and the course which the Democrats are pursuing. As they contemplate their political predicament, the Republicans might think about finding Thompson some permanent role as Party Explainer.

Republicans have been struggling to find their political bearings. The Democrats are about to embark on a Keynesian spending spree the likes of which we have never seen. How to respond? How can Republicans possibly oppose the political juggernaut coming their way? They could do much worse than to send this short film by Fred Thompson to every voter in America. As political theater, it is brilliant. As economic education, it is indispensable.

The film demonstrates that Thompson is head and shoulders above the current crop of party functionaries in the essential task of communicating and educating voters about our current predicament and the course which the Democrats are pursuing. As they contemplate their political predicament, the Republicans might think about finding Thompson some permanent role as Party Explainer.

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Internationalizing Pakistan

Robert Kagan weighs in with a very scary thought: “all the warnings in the world may not be enough to forestall an Indian attack, especially given the Indian government’s political vulnerability, even if it risks another Indo-Pakistani war.”

And he provides a typically smart solution:

Rather than simply begging the Indians to show restraint, a better option could be to internationalize the response. Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security. Establish an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas. This would have the advantage of preventing a direct military confrontation between India and Pakistan. It might also save face for the Pakistani government, since the international community would be helping the central government reestablish its authority in areas where it has lost it. But whether or not Islamabad is happy, don’t the international community and the United States, at the end of the day, have some obligation to demonstrate to the Indian people that we take attacks on them as seriously as we take attacks on ourselves?

If ever there is a real-world test of the utility of Barack Obama’s global popularity, this is it. If this is really to be a new age of international cooperation, and if Obama wields such vital soft power, then let’s make things happen. So far, Obama’s Pakistan policy encompasses little more than a humanitarian aid boost. This is uninspired and historically ineffective. It should be junked in favor of a bold policy aimed at reversing the dangerous deterioration inside Pakistan.

The hitch here is Pakistan’s sovereignty. But as Kagan notes, sovereignty has to be earned. And after decades of exorbitant American aid being repaid with expansive state-supported jihad, it can be said that Pakistan has failed to make the grade. After the invasion of Iraq, the Left seemed to make a fetish of sovereignty for autocrats and tyrants. Let’s hope this is another area in which Barack Obama is poised to flip-flop. And let’s hope that he doesn’t believe popularity is its own reward.

Robert Kagan weighs in with a very scary thought: “all the warnings in the world may not be enough to forestall an Indian attack, especially given the Indian government’s political vulnerability, even if it risks another Indo-Pakistani war.”

And he provides a typically smart solution:

Rather than simply begging the Indians to show restraint, a better option could be to internationalize the response. Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security. Establish an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas. This would have the advantage of preventing a direct military confrontation between India and Pakistan. It might also save face for the Pakistani government, since the international community would be helping the central government reestablish its authority in areas where it has lost it. But whether or not Islamabad is happy, don’t the international community and the United States, at the end of the day, have some obligation to demonstrate to the Indian people that we take attacks on them as seriously as we take attacks on ourselves?

If ever there is a real-world test of the utility of Barack Obama’s global popularity, this is it. If this is really to be a new age of international cooperation, and if Obama wields such vital soft power, then let’s make things happen. So far, Obama’s Pakistan policy encompasses little more than a humanitarian aid boost. This is uninspired and historically ineffective. It should be junked in favor of a bold policy aimed at reversing the dangerous deterioration inside Pakistan.

The hitch here is Pakistan’s sovereignty. But as Kagan notes, sovereignty has to be earned. And after decades of exorbitant American aid being repaid with expansive state-supported jihad, it can be said that Pakistan has failed to make the grade. After the invasion of Iraq, the Left seemed to make a fetish of sovereignty for autocrats and tyrants. Let’s hope this is another area in which Barack Obama is poised to flip-flop. And let’s hope that he doesn’t believe popularity is its own reward.

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Placing Holder

In announcing his national security team on Monday, Barack Obama included his Attorney General pick Eric Holder. This is not altogether unusual. After all, counterterrorism and intelligence matters are central responsibilities of the AG. But the politics was also obvious–put Holder in a pack of nominees who are getting praise from far-flung quarters, make the day about “the big personalities” and the rapprochement with Hillary Clinton rather than about Holder. Holder’s statement was one of the briefest and most innocuous–intentionally so, I suspect. And in January the Obama team will certainly push for a hasty confirmation and loudly complain that any extended hearings would “impair national security.”

The Republicans shouldn’t fall for this routine. As I and others have discussed at length, there are multiple, serious issues requiring clear answers from Holder. It does not help matters that he and his supporters are still not coming clean on the extent of Holder’s misbehavior. Despite his subsequent Congressional testimony following the Rich pardon and his boosters’ present evasion, even the New York Times concedes the scope of Holder’s involvement in the matter:

Mr. Holder’s supporters portray him as having been a relatively uninvolved bystander caught in a Clinton-era controversy, the remarkable granting of a last-minute pardon by President Bill Clinton to a fugitive from justice. But interviews and an examination of Congressional records show that Mr. Holder, who at the time of the pardon was the deputy attorney general, was more deeply involved in the Rich pardon than his supporters acknowledge.

Mr. Holder had more than a half-dozen contacts with Mr. Rich’s lawyers over 15 months, including phone calls, e-mail and memorandums that helped keep alive Mr. Rich’s prospects for a legal resolution to his case. And Mr. Holder’s final opinion on the matter — a recommendation to the White House on the eve of the pardon that he was “neutral, leaning toward” favorable — helped ensure that Mr. Clinton signed the pardon despite objections from other senior staff members, participants said.

The latest critic to weigh in against Holder is Richard Cohen–no right winger–who explains that the Rich pardon alone should be a disqualifier:

Holder was not just an integral part of the pardon process, he provided the White House with cover by offering his go-ahead recommendation. No alarm seemed to sound for him. Not only had strings been pulled but it was rare to pardon a fugitive — someone who avoided possible conviction by avoiding the inconvenience of a trial. The U.S. attorney’s office in New York — which, Holder had told the White House, would oppose any pardon — was kept ignorant of what was going on. Afterward, it was furious.

But what about the “one mistake” rule? Cohen nails the response:

But the pardon cannot be excepted. It suggests that Holder, whatever his other qualifications, could not say no to power. The Rich pardon request had power written all over it — the patronage of important Democratic fundraisers, for instance.

. . .

As noted, any person is entitled to make a mistake. But no one is entitled to be attorney general. That’s a post that ought to be reserved for a lawyer who appreciates that while he reports to the president, he serves the people.

And Cohen reminds his friends on the Left that it was just this sort of “Yes sir, yes sir” routine that they despised when it came from Alberto Gonzales. He concludes:

Holder was involved, passively or not, in just the sort of inside-the-Beltway influence peddling that Barack Obama was elected to end. He is not one of Obama’s loathed lobbyists, he was merely their instrument — a good man, certainly, who just as certainly did a bad thing. Maybe he deserves an administration job, just not the one he’s getting.

To be blunt, there are compelling reasons for Senators from both sides of the aisle to oppose his nomination. (Rep. Lamar Smith agrees, but he doesn’t get a vote on this one.) And at that hearing, Hillary Clinton won’t be around to distract and mesmerize the media.

In announcing his national security team on Monday, Barack Obama included his Attorney General pick Eric Holder. This is not altogether unusual. After all, counterterrorism and intelligence matters are central responsibilities of the AG. But the politics was also obvious–put Holder in a pack of nominees who are getting praise from far-flung quarters, make the day about “the big personalities” and the rapprochement with Hillary Clinton rather than about Holder. Holder’s statement was one of the briefest and most innocuous–intentionally so, I suspect. And in January the Obama team will certainly push for a hasty confirmation and loudly complain that any extended hearings would “impair national security.”

The Republicans shouldn’t fall for this routine. As I and others have discussed at length, there are multiple, serious issues requiring clear answers from Holder. It does not help matters that he and his supporters are still not coming clean on the extent of Holder’s misbehavior. Despite his subsequent Congressional testimony following the Rich pardon and his boosters’ present evasion, even the New York Times concedes the scope of Holder’s involvement in the matter:

Mr. Holder’s supporters portray him as having been a relatively uninvolved bystander caught in a Clinton-era controversy, the remarkable granting of a last-minute pardon by President Bill Clinton to a fugitive from justice. But interviews and an examination of Congressional records show that Mr. Holder, who at the time of the pardon was the deputy attorney general, was more deeply involved in the Rich pardon than his supporters acknowledge.

Mr. Holder had more than a half-dozen contacts with Mr. Rich’s lawyers over 15 months, including phone calls, e-mail and memorandums that helped keep alive Mr. Rich’s prospects for a legal resolution to his case. And Mr. Holder’s final opinion on the matter — a recommendation to the White House on the eve of the pardon that he was “neutral, leaning toward” favorable — helped ensure that Mr. Clinton signed the pardon despite objections from other senior staff members, participants said.

The latest critic to weigh in against Holder is Richard Cohen–no right winger–who explains that the Rich pardon alone should be a disqualifier:

Holder was not just an integral part of the pardon process, he provided the White House with cover by offering his go-ahead recommendation. No alarm seemed to sound for him. Not only had strings been pulled but it was rare to pardon a fugitive — someone who avoided possible conviction by avoiding the inconvenience of a trial. The U.S. attorney’s office in New York — which, Holder had told the White House, would oppose any pardon — was kept ignorant of what was going on. Afterward, it was furious.

But what about the “one mistake” rule? Cohen nails the response:

But the pardon cannot be excepted. It suggests that Holder, whatever his other qualifications, could not say no to power. The Rich pardon request had power written all over it — the patronage of important Democratic fundraisers, for instance.

. . .

As noted, any person is entitled to make a mistake. But no one is entitled to be attorney general. That’s a post that ought to be reserved for a lawyer who appreciates that while he reports to the president, he serves the people.

And Cohen reminds his friends on the Left that it was just this sort of “Yes sir, yes sir” routine that they despised when it came from Alberto Gonzales. He concludes:

Holder was involved, passively or not, in just the sort of inside-the-Beltway influence peddling that Barack Obama was elected to end. He is not one of Obama’s loathed lobbyists, he was merely their instrument — a good man, certainly, who just as certainly did a bad thing. Maybe he deserves an administration job, just not the one he’s getting.

To be blunt, there are compelling reasons for Senators from both sides of the aisle to oppose his nomination. (Rep. Lamar Smith agrees, but he doesn’t get a vote on this one.) And at that hearing, Hillary Clinton won’t be around to distract and mesmerize the media.

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Fait Accompli Hillary

Rush Limbaugh, of all people, has praised Obama’s nominating Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. According to CNN:

[Limbaugh] said the move was a political master stroke, effectively ruling out a primary challenge in four years. “You know the old phrase, ‘You keep your friends close and your enemies closer?’ How can she run for president in 2012?” he asks. “She’d have to run against the incumbent and be critical of him — the one who made her Secretary of State.”

Well, there are all sorts of ways Hillary could have a serious chance at becoming president in 2012. There is no necessary reason Hillary would have to go down with the ship if Obama turns out to be a captain Ahab or merely a skipper asleep at the helm. Obama might be a disaster in domestic policy (by, for instance, plunging America into a depression comparable to that of the 1930′s) but a success in foreign policy, which would allow Hillary to get untainted glory. More prosaically, Obama could get caught up in a huge scandal in office. While the probabilities of these scenarios are low, Hillary, keeping her eye on the immense prize of the presidency, might still be holding out hope that her time will come. Thus my concern that her continuing political ambitions will cloud her judgment as Secretary of State. I hope I’m wrong, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if a Congressman would ask her during her confirmation hearings, “Do you ever intend to run for political office again?”

To be clear, I am not saying that Hillary is guaranteed to make a poor Secretary of State. Rather, my point is that Obama has taken an unwise, unnecessary risk in choosing her. A man who plays Russian roulette is a fool even if he wins.

Rush Limbaugh, of all people, has praised Obama’s nominating Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. According to CNN:

[Limbaugh] said the move was a political master stroke, effectively ruling out a primary challenge in four years. “You know the old phrase, ‘You keep your friends close and your enemies closer?’ How can she run for president in 2012?” he asks. “She’d have to run against the incumbent and be critical of him — the one who made her Secretary of State.”

Well, there are all sorts of ways Hillary could have a serious chance at becoming president in 2012. There is no necessary reason Hillary would have to go down with the ship if Obama turns out to be a captain Ahab or merely a skipper asleep at the helm. Obama might be a disaster in domestic policy (by, for instance, plunging America into a depression comparable to that of the 1930′s) but a success in foreign policy, which would allow Hillary to get untainted glory. More prosaically, Obama could get caught up in a huge scandal in office. While the probabilities of these scenarios are low, Hillary, keeping her eye on the immense prize of the presidency, might still be holding out hope that her time will come. Thus my concern that her continuing political ambitions will cloud her judgment as Secretary of State. I hope I’m wrong, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if a Congressman would ask her during her confirmation hearings, “Do you ever intend to run for political office again?”

To be clear, I am not saying that Hillary is guaranteed to make a poor Secretary of State. Rather, my point is that Obama has taken an unwise, unnecessary risk in choosing her. A man who plays Russian roulette is a fool even if he wins.

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Blogger Contest

Just a reminder for all of our CONTENTIONS readers — and for all your friends, colleagues, and relations who have an interest — the deadline for America’s Future Foundation 2009 College Blogger Contest is December 31. All the details (including information on your own lavish bailout the monetary prizes) can be found here. And, yes, I will be one of the judges. Any questions about the contest can be directed to sonny@americasfuture.org.

Just a reminder for all of our CONTENTIONS readers — and for all your friends, colleagues, and relations who have an interest — the deadline for America’s Future Foundation 2009 College Blogger Contest is December 31. All the details (including information on your own lavish bailout the monetary prizes) can be found here. And, yes, I will be one of the judges. Any questions about the contest can be directed to sonny@americasfuture.org.

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The Limits of Pragmatism

We live in an age in which pragmatism is hot and ideology is not.

Barack Obama is being praised for the centrists he is appointing to his Administration. It is said that the Obama team includes “the best and the brightest,” individuals driven by empirical evidence rather than political philosophy. “They [the American people] don’t want ideology,” according to Obama. “They want action and they want effectiveness.” Mr. Obama speaks about his appointments sharing his bent for “pragmatism.” Technocrats and Socratic dialogue are in, while conviction politicians and an adherence to political philosophy seem passé.

As it happens, I’m delighted that the (very early) indications are that President-elect Obama is exhibiting a centrism that was well-disguised during his days as an Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senator, when he amassed a very liberal voting record. His liberalism will undoubtedly reassert itself at various points along the way, and it can’t be stated often enough that we are only at the dawn of the Obama era. It may be that the man named by National Journal as the most liberal member of the Senate governs that way as President. Nevertheless, the selections Obama has made so far are an encouraging sign. In addition, Obama’s cautions about ideology are worth taking into account. It can indeed lead people to ignore facts that challenge their worldview (for example, denying progress of the so-called surge in Iraq long after it was clear it was succeeding).

At the same time, with pragmatism all the rage, it is worth considering its limitations.

When pragmatism–an approach to politics that is characterized by centrist, moderate, deal-cutting instincts rather than a commitment to core political principles–becomes a defining political identity, it often leads to ad hoc policies. Decisions are made discretely, in an unrelated fashion, and are not put within a larger philosophical framework. Pragmatism tends to be process-oriented, reactive, and crisis-driven. And it assumes politics is above all about management.

Politics is of course about the day-to-day management of affairs. But at its best it is about the pursuit of ideals like justice and liberty, partnership for the common good, and fostering the conditions that allow for human flourishing and excellence.

Competence is crucial in the implementation of policies, and success is impossible without it. Bad execution can discredit good ideas. But competence is not a sufficient end in itself. It needs to advance a larger human purpose.

In addition, competence is not courage. When gale-force political winds hit, pragmatists, because they do not have deep-seated convictions, rarely hold shape. Our finest politicians are those who withstand the pressure of the moment to pursue policies precisely because those policies are part of an overarching governing philosophy. A pragmatist avoids hard choices. A great leader makes them.

In the early years of his presidency, for example, Ronald Reagan pursued a tight monetary policy and provided unyielding support for Paul Volcker, then head of the Federal Reserve, despite a nasty recession which saw the unemployment rate exceed 10 percent, Reagan’s approval rating stuck in the mid-30s, and substantial mid-term election losses in 1982. But these policies were vital to wringing inflation out of the system, and they began what was then the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history. A politician less committed to a set of economic principles would have given up in the face of the ferocious criticism President Reagan received.

Mr. Obama’s victory has been compared to Reagan’s, but Obama may turn out to be the anti-Reagan. When he found himself in Hyde Park, he easily adjusted to his surroundings, and when he ran in the Democratic primary, Obama became the hope of the Left. But once he secured the nomination, he transformed himself into a centrist. That trend is continuing in the transition.

Obama’s victory, then, was based largely on his (appealing) personality and ethereal promises of “change,” not on a set of ideas. After having run for President for 21 months, and having been elected four weeks ago, no one can yet articulate what Obama-ism as a political philosophy is. He appears to believe he should be president because of who he is, rather than what he believes. Mr. Obama’s self-assurance seems to derive from his enormously high confidence in himself, rather than confidence anchored in a coherent worldview.

President-elect Obama’s apparent pragmatism is certainly preferable to liberalism; no worldview at all beats a misguided one. But we should bear in mind that a philosophical embrace of pragmatism has a cost as well. It inevitably robs politics of its higher, ennobling aims.

Those touting pragmatism as a balm and downplaying the role of political philosophy in our politics should also recall that the greatest figures in our history–including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reagan–believed in a fighting faith. They cared deeply about political ideas, and it was their fidelity to those (good) ideas, rather than an attachment to pragmatism or a captivating personality, which left a deep, lasting imprint on our nation.

Pragmatism surely has an important place in our politics. But for some of us, it is still conviction politicians who create the great appeal and great drama of American politics.

We live in an age in which pragmatism is hot and ideology is not.

Barack Obama is being praised for the centrists he is appointing to his Administration. It is said that the Obama team includes “the best and the brightest,” individuals driven by empirical evidence rather than political philosophy. “They [the American people] don’t want ideology,” according to Obama. “They want action and they want effectiveness.” Mr. Obama speaks about his appointments sharing his bent for “pragmatism.” Technocrats and Socratic dialogue are in, while conviction politicians and an adherence to political philosophy seem passé.

As it happens, I’m delighted that the (very early) indications are that President-elect Obama is exhibiting a centrism that was well-disguised during his days as an Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senator, when he amassed a very liberal voting record. His liberalism will undoubtedly reassert itself at various points along the way, and it can’t be stated often enough that we are only at the dawn of the Obama era. It may be that the man named by National Journal as the most liberal member of the Senate governs that way as President. Nevertheless, the selections Obama has made so far are an encouraging sign. In addition, Obama’s cautions about ideology are worth taking into account. It can indeed lead people to ignore facts that challenge their worldview (for example, denying progress of the so-called surge in Iraq long after it was clear it was succeeding).

At the same time, with pragmatism all the rage, it is worth considering its limitations.

When pragmatism–an approach to politics that is characterized by centrist, moderate, deal-cutting instincts rather than a commitment to core political principles–becomes a defining political identity, it often leads to ad hoc policies. Decisions are made discretely, in an unrelated fashion, and are not put within a larger philosophical framework. Pragmatism tends to be process-oriented, reactive, and crisis-driven. And it assumes politics is above all about management.

Politics is of course about the day-to-day management of affairs. But at its best it is about the pursuit of ideals like justice and liberty, partnership for the common good, and fostering the conditions that allow for human flourishing and excellence.

Competence is crucial in the implementation of policies, and success is impossible without it. Bad execution can discredit good ideas. But competence is not a sufficient end in itself. It needs to advance a larger human purpose.

In addition, competence is not courage. When gale-force political winds hit, pragmatists, because they do not have deep-seated convictions, rarely hold shape. Our finest politicians are those who withstand the pressure of the moment to pursue policies precisely because those policies are part of an overarching governing philosophy. A pragmatist avoids hard choices. A great leader makes them.

In the early years of his presidency, for example, Ronald Reagan pursued a tight monetary policy and provided unyielding support for Paul Volcker, then head of the Federal Reserve, despite a nasty recession which saw the unemployment rate exceed 10 percent, Reagan’s approval rating stuck in the mid-30s, and substantial mid-term election losses in 1982. But these policies were vital to wringing inflation out of the system, and they began what was then the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history. A politician less committed to a set of economic principles would have given up in the face of the ferocious criticism President Reagan received.

Mr. Obama’s victory has been compared to Reagan’s, but Obama may turn out to be the anti-Reagan. When he found himself in Hyde Park, he easily adjusted to his surroundings, and when he ran in the Democratic primary, Obama became the hope of the Left. But once he secured the nomination, he transformed himself into a centrist. That trend is continuing in the transition.

Obama’s victory, then, was based largely on his (appealing) personality and ethereal promises of “change,” not on a set of ideas. After having run for President for 21 months, and having been elected four weeks ago, no one can yet articulate what Obama-ism as a political philosophy is. He appears to believe he should be president because of who he is, rather than what he believes. Mr. Obama’s self-assurance seems to derive from his enormously high confidence in himself, rather than confidence anchored in a coherent worldview.

President-elect Obama’s apparent pragmatism is certainly preferable to liberalism; no worldview at all beats a misguided one. But we should bear in mind that a philosophical embrace of pragmatism has a cost as well. It inevitably robs politics of its higher, ennobling aims.

Those touting pragmatism as a balm and downplaying the role of political philosophy in our politics should also recall that the greatest figures in our history–including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reagan–believed in a fighting faith. They cared deeply about political ideas, and it was their fidelity to those (good) ideas, rather than an attachment to pragmatism or a captivating personality, which left a deep, lasting imprint on our nation.

Pragmatism surely has an important place in our politics. But for some of us, it is still conviction politicians who create the great appeal and great drama of American politics.

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He Means It This Time?

The Washington Post editors observed the Obama national security team roll-out yesterday:

Mr. Gates, Ms. Clinton and Gen. Jones have also all questioned Mr. Obama’s 16-month timetable for withdrawing from Iraq and underlined the need to end the war without touching off a surge of violence in the country. Mr. Obama appears to be tacking toward their position: While he reaffirmed his 16-month timeline yesterday, he also said his “number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.” While it’s possible those priorities could be upheld during a 16-month withdrawal, most likely Mr. Obama’s own team will press him for greater flexibility.

The president-elect said yesterday that he favors “strong personalities and strong opinions” around him in part because this prevents “groupthink.” But groupthink may still be a danger on this team. Eager to correct the perceived errors of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and his appointees are heavily invested in the notion that better diplomacy can answer Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon, ease the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and maybe even solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We hope they are right. If they are wrong, particularly about Iran, someone in this group will need to speak up.

Yes, as I and many others noted yesterday, it is one thing to throw out tidbits to the Left during the campaign and quite another to govern and be held accountable for the security of America and its allies. So yesterday was encouraging — if we believe the President-elect was finally showing his hand on his approach to national security.

Granted, it is always difficult to decipher when Barack Obama is serious and when he is playing to the crowd. Did he mean it when he promised immediate withdrawal from Iraq during the primary? Did he mean it when he told interviewers on his summer trip overseas that, even in retrospect, he would not have favored the surge? Or does he mean it now, when he provides himself ample wiggle room on withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and assembles a national security team that might have been nominated by John McCain (and which frustrates the Left)?

A cynic might say that he has no beliefs –opposed to the surge when the going is tough and the netroots hold sway, but against fixed deadlines when he is broadening his base and preventing international chaos, which might disrupt his domestic agenda. That’s not very comforting for those who believe that resoluteness and fixed principles make for great presidents. But for now, inveighing against terrorists and surrounding himself with experienced and sober voices who have no illusions about the indispensability of American military power aren’t a bad way to start. We’ll see if he means it this time.

The Washington Post editors observed the Obama national security team roll-out yesterday:

Mr. Gates, Ms. Clinton and Gen. Jones have also all questioned Mr. Obama’s 16-month timetable for withdrawing from Iraq and underlined the need to end the war without touching off a surge of violence in the country. Mr. Obama appears to be tacking toward their position: While he reaffirmed his 16-month timeline yesterday, he also said his “number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.” While it’s possible those priorities could be upheld during a 16-month withdrawal, most likely Mr. Obama’s own team will press him for greater flexibility.

The president-elect said yesterday that he favors “strong personalities and strong opinions” around him in part because this prevents “groupthink.” But groupthink may still be a danger on this team. Eager to correct the perceived errors of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and his appointees are heavily invested in the notion that better diplomacy can answer Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon, ease the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and maybe even solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We hope they are right. If they are wrong, particularly about Iran, someone in this group will need to speak up.

Yes, as I and many others noted yesterday, it is one thing to throw out tidbits to the Left during the campaign and quite another to govern and be held accountable for the security of America and its allies. So yesterday was encouraging — if we believe the President-elect was finally showing his hand on his approach to national security.

Granted, it is always difficult to decipher when Barack Obama is serious and when he is playing to the crowd. Did he mean it when he promised immediate withdrawal from Iraq during the primary? Did he mean it when he told interviewers on his summer trip overseas that, even in retrospect, he would not have favored the surge? Or does he mean it now, when he provides himself ample wiggle room on withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and assembles a national security team that might have been nominated by John McCain (and which frustrates the Left)?

A cynic might say that he has no beliefs –opposed to the surge when the going is tough and the netroots hold sway, but against fixed deadlines when he is broadening his base and preventing international chaos, which might disrupt his domestic agenda. That’s not very comforting for those who believe that resoluteness and fixed principles make for great presidents. But for now, inveighing against terrorists and surrounding himself with experienced and sober voices who have no illusions about the indispensability of American military power aren’t a bad way to start. We’ll see if he means it this time.

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Two Kinds of Hate

After every horrific terror attack, the question arises: When is it okay to hate? Are we supposed to love our enemies, even those who indiscriminately murder unarmed and defenseless civilians? Are there times when hate is not just permissible, but absolutely necessary in order to maintain our own moral compass, to muster the strength and resolve necessary to fight evil?

Two different pieces appeared online this week, offering two different glimpses of hate. One is humane and moral, the other loathsome.

The first is a column in the Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who offers the following view of the Mumbai attackers:

I know how uncomfortable people feel about hatred. It smacks of revenge. It poisons the heart of those who hate. But this is true only if we hate the good, the innocent or the neutral. Hating monsters, however, motivates us to fight them. Only if an act like this repulses us to our core will we summon the will to fight these devils so that they can never murder again. . . .

As for my Christian brethren who regularly quote to me Jesus’ famous saying, “Love your enemies,” my response is that our enemies and God’s enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road, or swindle you in a business deal. But to love those who indiscriminately murder God’s children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

For Boteach, it is right to hate people according to their wickedness — wickedness defined by what they do to others. Although the emotion may be irrational, its origins are in reason, judgment, and moral sensibility. Hatred is a reflection of our own moral standards: Without disgust and antipathy, how can we really say we care?

A second option of hatred appears this week in the Jpost as well: An interview with Syrian actress Amal Arafa about the possibilities of peace with Israel (translation courtesy MEMRI). When asked how she would feel if there were peace with Israel, this was her response:

Policies may change, but there is something that is already in my genes. We’ve been brought up to hate Israel. It’s in our genes. If Arab countries make political decisions, and there is peace, and so on and so forth–First of all, who would be against peace? I am not against peace. Of course not. But as far as I am concerned, Israel will continue to be a black, dark, and murky spot in my memory, in my genes, and in my blood. Even though I am Syrian, and not Palestinian, the Syrian upbringing we received, and by which we lived, we’ve suckled it with the milk of our mothers. There is no playing around with this, it’s in our genes, and we will pass this down for many more generations.

No two hates could be further in their nature from these: In one case, hatred is in the service of a moral standard, it is a reflection of the depth of our human response to evil; in the other, it is completely disconnected from any moral standard, in fact it appears as inherited, as an unalterable fate, in other words a repudiation of moral standards in general.

After every horrific terror attack, the question arises: When is it okay to hate? Are we supposed to love our enemies, even those who indiscriminately murder unarmed and defenseless civilians? Are there times when hate is not just permissible, but absolutely necessary in order to maintain our own moral compass, to muster the strength and resolve necessary to fight evil?

Two different pieces appeared online this week, offering two different glimpses of hate. One is humane and moral, the other loathsome.

The first is a column in the Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who offers the following view of the Mumbai attackers:

I know how uncomfortable people feel about hatred. It smacks of revenge. It poisons the heart of those who hate. But this is true only if we hate the good, the innocent or the neutral. Hating monsters, however, motivates us to fight them. Only if an act like this repulses us to our core will we summon the will to fight these devils so that they can never murder again. . . .

As for my Christian brethren who regularly quote to me Jesus’ famous saying, “Love your enemies,” my response is that our enemies and God’s enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road, or swindle you in a business deal. But to love those who indiscriminately murder God’s children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

For Boteach, it is right to hate people according to their wickedness — wickedness defined by what they do to others. Although the emotion may be irrational, its origins are in reason, judgment, and moral sensibility. Hatred is a reflection of our own moral standards: Without disgust and antipathy, how can we really say we care?

A second option of hatred appears this week in the Jpost as well: An interview with Syrian actress Amal Arafa about the possibilities of peace with Israel (translation courtesy MEMRI). When asked how she would feel if there were peace with Israel, this was her response:

Policies may change, but there is something that is already in my genes. We’ve been brought up to hate Israel. It’s in our genes. If Arab countries make political decisions, and there is peace, and so on and so forth–First of all, who would be against peace? I am not against peace. Of course not. But as far as I am concerned, Israel will continue to be a black, dark, and murky spot in my memory, in my genes, and in my blood. Even though I am Syrian, and not Palestinian, the Syrian upbringing we received, and by which we lived, we’ve suckled it with the milk of our mothers. There is no playing around with this, it’s in our genes, and we will pass this down for many more generations.

No two hates could be further in their nature from these: In one case, hatred is in the service of a moral standard, it is a reflection of the depth of our human response to evil; in the other, it is completely disconnected from any moral standard, in fact it appears as inherited, as an unalterable fate, in other words a repudiation of moral standards in general.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

One take on Susan Rice going to the U.N.: “If one believes that the United Nations is a hopelessly ineffective institution and wants to make sure it stays that way, then perhaps Obama has chosen an appropriate emissary: a woman who prefers to ponder the political implications of inaction — they’re going to love her at Turtle Bay.” I think it’s possibly a match made in heaven. Susan, knock yourself out getting China, Russia, and the rest to go along with sanctions on Zimbabwe and effective action on Darfur! (Claudia Rosett thinks the best Rice could do would be to go down in flames trying.)

Now it’s nation building and “continuity we can believe in”? David Brooks thinks so.

Phil Singer, former Hillary Clinton spokesman, says Chris Matthews shouldn’t be on the air so long as he’s considering a Senate run. Well, for that and other reasons — including the fact that Matthews has confused his role as a pseudo-journalist with being a flack for the Obama administration.

In the scary world in which we live, Jeffrey Goldberg gives some tips for staying alive in hotels. Could he tell us about malls, airports, and other public places? It would be nice if the government (ours) helped inform citizens about how to survive.

Is media swooning not helpful to Bobby Jindal? We should consult President-elect Obama on whether adulation from the press was a hardship. But the real issue: media swooning soon turns to skewering when a conservative becomes viable.

The Washington Post editors go out on a limb: “This is not to say that the attacks in Mumbai were Mr. Bush’s fault.” Don’t they know that it is always Bush’s fault? I can’t imagine what the MSM will do without him.

Uh oh. What if the Chinese economy slows and they stop financing our trillion dollar debt? I’m not sure the mega-Keynesian planners thought this through. Larry Kudlow’s conclusion seems inescapable, especially since we might not be able to get someone else to finance the huge stimulus: “Once again, I repeat, government cannot spend our way into prosperity. However, strengthening incentive rewards would boost the animal spirits of investors and businesses to put risk money back to work. This would produce economic recovery.”

Minority Leader Boehner agrees. If China isn’t going to pay for our massive federal spending, our choices are to raise taxes or try to raise revenues by growing the economy. The Republicans, if they are smart, will push for the latter and explain what they are doing. (Hint: think JFK and Ronald Reagan.)

Like watching a car wreck in slow motion: the RNC might elect as chairman a perfectly amiable and competent fellow who belonged to an all-white country club for twelve years. Yeah, that’s the ticket, guys.

The media is miffed about Obama “razzing” them for asking pointed questions about Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Who’d have thought that between the two of the them — the media fan club and the President-elect — that the former would have the thinner skin?

Obama-guru David Freddoso never bought the picture of Obama as a reformer or even much of a radical. He now has further evidence for his theory: “He will keep President Bush’s defense secretary and appoint a vocal booster of the Iraq war as his secretary of state. Journalists friendly to Obama are already presenting the theme that he will not be able to cut the federal budget after all. He is appointing the architect of Bush’s Wall Street bailouts as his treasury secretary, and he has promised to expand Bush’s policy of bailing out failed businesses in the financial industry to the auto industry, as well. Even the tax increases that he promised during the election appear to be off the table for now.”

President-elect Obama got the rhetoric right yesterday on Mumbai. But did he learn the lessons? Surveillance, detention, and interrogation — there is simply no getting around the need for all three to keep our citizens safe. And oh, yes–military action when needed.

One take on Susan Rice going to the U.N.: “If one believes that the United Nations is a hopelessly ineffective institution and wants to make sure it stays that way, then perhaps Obama has chosen an appropriate emissary: a woman who prefers to ponder the political implications of inaction — they’re going to love her at Turtle Bay.” I think it’s possibly a match made in heaven. Susan, knock yourself out getting China, Russia, and the rest to go along with sanctions on Zimbabwe and effective action on Darfur! (Claudia Rosett thinks the best Rice could do would be to go down in flames trying.)

Now it’s nation building and “continuity we can believe in”? David Brooks thinks so.

Phil Singer, former Hillary Clinton spokesman, says Chris Matthews shouldn’t be on the air so long as he’s considering a Senate run. Well, for that and other reasons — including the fact that Matthews has confused his role as a pseudo-journalist with being a flack for the Obama administration.

In the scary world in which we live, Jeffrey Goldberg gives some tips for staying alive in hotels. Could he tell us about malls, airports, and other public places? It would be nice if the government (ours) helped inform citizens about how to survive.

Is media swooning not helpful to Bobby Jindal? We should consult President-elect Obama on whether adulation from the press was a hardship. But the real issue: media swooning soon turns to skewering when a conservative becomes viable.

The Washington Post editors go out on a limb: “This is not to say that the attacks in Mumbai were Mr. Bush’s fault.” Don’t they know that it is always Bush’s fault? I can’t imagine what the MSM will do without him.

Uh oh. What if the Chinese economy slows and they stop financing our trillion dollar debt? I’m not sure the mega-Keynesian planners thought this through. Larry Kudlow’s conclusion seems inescapable, especially since we might not be able to get someone else to finance the huge stimulus: “Once again, I repeat, government cannot spend our way into prosperity. However, strengthening incentive rewards would boost the animal spirits of investors and businesses to put risk money back to work. This would produce economic recovery.”

Minority Leader Boehner agrees. If China isn’t going to pay for our massive federal spending, our choices are to raise taxes or try to raise revenues by growing the economy. The Republicans, if they are smart, will push for the latter and explain what they are doing. (Hint: think JFK and Ronald Reagan.)

Like watching a car wreck in slow motion: the RNC might elect as chairman a perfectly amiable and competent fellow who belonged to an all-white country club for twelve years. Yeah, that’s the ticket, guys.

The media is miffed about Obama “razzing” them for asking pointed questions about Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Who’d have thought that between the two of the them — the media fan club and the President-elect — that the former would have the thinner skin?

Obama-guru David Freddoso never bought the picture of Obama as a reformer or even much of a radical. He now has further evidence for his theory: “He will keep President Bush’s defense secretary and appoint a vocal booster of the Iraq war as his secretary of state. Journalists friendly to Obama are already presenting the theme that he will not be able to cut the federal budget after all. He is appointing the architect of Bush’s Wall Street bailouts as his treasury secretary, and he has promised to expand Bush’s policy of bailing out failed businesses in the financial industry to the auto industry, as well. Even the tax increases that he promised during the election appear to be off the table for now.”

President-elect Obama got the rhetoric right yesterday on Mumbai. But did he learn the lessons? Surveillance, detention, and interrogation — there is simply no getting around the need for all three to keep our citizens safe. And oh, yes–military action when needed.

Read Less




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