Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 10, 2010

Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, Meet Henry Graham

Both Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert last week bemoaned the decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to put the kibosh on a multi-billion-dollar project to build a second railroad tunnel under the Hudson River. The project, which was originally budgeted at $8.7 billion had crept up — in the time-honored way of government projects — to over $11 billion, and many thought it would reach $14 billion before all was said and done. New Jersey would have been responsible for much of the cost overruns, and Governor Christie thought the state, deeply mired in debt already, could not afford it. And so he killed the project.

The tunnel, to be sure, is no bridge to nowhere. The century-old tunnel now in place is very inadequate to handle the rapidly growing traffic between the country’s most densely populated state and its largest city. Krugman and Herbert both called the cancellation the end of the can-do American spirit, a failure of imagination, a disgrace. Krugman wrote:

It was a destructive and incredibly foolish decision on multiple levels. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

Herbert wrote:

This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us? The Chinese could build it. The Turks could build it. We can’t build it.

Krugman and Herbert remind me of the Walter Matthau character in a delightful if now long-forgotten movie called A New Leaf, written, directed, and co-starring Elaine May. Matthau’s character, Henry Graham, has been private-jet-and-yacht rich all his life but has, unknowingly, run through all his money. When he tries to cash a check at his bank and is told that there are insufficient funds to cover it, he is simply unable to process the information. Whenever he had wanted money before, he had simply written a check and taken the money. Now, suddenly, he can’t do that, and he is utterly befuddled.

When we began the Interstate Highway System, the national debt was about 60 percent of GDP and falling. We had run budget surpluses in seven of the previous 10 years. When we went to the moon, the national debt was 39 percent of GDP and falling. It is now over 90 percent and rising rapidly. And the move from 40 percent of GDP to 90 percent was not because of moon shots or Manhattan Projects. It was so no one in Washington (and many state capitals) ever had to say no to anyone, especially public-service unions. In effect, we spent the money on the political equivalent of wine, women, and song, just as Henry Graham had spent his.

And like Henry Graham, Krugman, Herbert, and the business-as-usual political establishment they speak for are unable to process the information that there is a limit to the debt burden even so fabulously rich a country as the United States can bear without disastrous consequences, and that we are getting perilously close to that limit.

The people of New Jersey had processed that information, and that’s why they elected Governor Christie. I suspect that people in the rest of the country have also processed it, and that’s why the political establishment is going to get clobbered in three weeks.

Both Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert last week bemoaned the decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to put the kibosh on a multi-billion-dollar project to build a second railroad tunnel under the Hudson River. The project, which was originally budgeted at $8.7 billion had crept up — in the time-honored way of government projects — to over $11 billion, and many thought it would reach $14 billion before all was said and done. New Jersey would have been responsible for much of the cost overruns, and Governor Christie thought the state, deeply mired in debt already, could not afford it. And so he killed the project.

The tunnel, to be sure, is no bridge to nowhere. The century-old tunnel now in place is very inadequate to handle the rapidly growing traffic between the country’s most densely populated state and its largest city. Krugman and Herbert both called the cancellation the end of the can-do American spirit, a failure of imagination, a disgrace. Krugman wrote:

It was a destructive and incredibly foolish decision on multiple levels. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

Herbert wrote:

This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us? The Chinese could build it. The Turks could build it. We can’t build it.

Krugman and Herbert remind me of the Walter Matthau character in a delightful if now long-forgotten movie called A New Leaf, written, directed, and co-starring Elaine May. Matthau’s character, Henry Graham, has been private-jet-and-yacht rich all his life but has, unknowingly, run through all his money. When he tries to cash a check at his bank and is told that there are insufficient funds to cover it, he is simply unable to process the information. Whenever he had wanted money before, he had simply written a check and taken the money. Now, suddenly, he can’t do that, and he is utterly befuddled.

When we began the Interstate Highway System, the national debt was about 60 percent of GDP and falling. We had run budget surpluses in seven of the previous 10 years. When we went to the moon, the national debt was 39 percent of GDP and falling. It is now over 90 percent and rising rapidly. And the move from 40 percent of GDP to 90 percent was not because of moon shots or Manhattan Projects. It was so no one in Washington (and many state capitals) ever had to say no to anyone, especially public-service unions. In effect, we spent the money on the political equivalent of wine, women, and song, just as Henry Graham had spent his.

And like Henry Graham, Krugman, Herbert, and the business-as-usual political establishment they speak for are unable to process the information that there is a limit to the debt burden even so fabulously rich a country as the United States can bear without disastrous consequences, and that we are getting perilously close to that limit.

The people of New Jersey had processed that information, and that’s why they elected Governor Christie. I suspect that people in the rest of the country have also processed it, and that’s why the political establishment is going to get clobbered in three weeks.

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Who Are Israel’s Friends?

On Friday, I looked at the results of a new poll surveying voters’ opinions on Israel and, more generally, the Middle East. While Americans remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel and are troubled by Obama’s approach to the Middle East, there are significant differences between sub-groups of Americans. In this post, I’ll focus on the cross-tabs that highlight the differences in attitudes toward Israel among religious groups and those self-described atheists. The full cross-tabs can be found here.

I’ll begin with a general observation: almost all the support for Israel statistically comes from non-Jews. This is simply a mathematical reality. The poll sampled 1,000 voters, only 1.6 percent of whom were Jewish (slightly below the commonly used 2 percent figure). Fifty-eight percent were Protestant, and 25 percent were Catholic. That means the overwhelming number of those who support Israel, as is the case in the general population, are non-Jews.

However, this doesn’t mean religion is irrelevant. Take the question as to whether voters favor Israel using military force against Iran if sanctions don’t derail its nuclear program. Overall, 58 percent would approve. That number is 72 percent for Jews but nearly as high for born again Christians (67 percent). Among atheists? It drops to 40 percent. This pattern repeats itself throughout the poll.

On the question of how concerned we should be about Israel’s security, 100 percent of Jews said “very” or “somewhat.” The lowest/worst response was 88 percent (still high) from atheists, and the second highest/best response again came from born again Christians, with 94 percent.

On Obama’s handling of our relations with Israel, 52 percent of Jews approve; only atheists, at 61 percent, have a higher approval. Protestants and Catholics rank him in the low 40s, and once again, born-again Christians give him the lowest marks (35 percent). All groups except atheists think by a strong plurality that Obama is harming Israel’s security. If Israel attacked Iran to prevent it from going nuclear, 66 percent of Jews said that would be a “defensive” move. The number for born again Christians is 71 percent.

This vividly illustrates a point that I and others have made for some time: Jews by themselves are a tiny percentage of the population who, on their own, could not sustain national support for Israel. It is by and large the support from the majority of Christians that nurtures the U.S.-Israel relationship. Protestants and Catholics demonstrate solid support for Israel, while born again Christians consistently are the most critical of Obama and the most supportive of Israel. Although the poll doesn’t ask why respondents believe as they do, it’s fair to conclude that a great number of the most resolute non-Jewish supporters (i.e., born again Christians) do so for religious reasons.

And what of the other Americans, religious or not? It’s reasonable to conclude that there is a large segment of Americans who, for reasons entirely distinct from religion and with no personal or ethnic tie to the Jewish state, nevertheless are strongly committed to its security and survival. That is remarkable, a tribute the innate decency and common sense of the American people. They have, despite a barrage of propaganda from Israel’s foes, figured out who are the “good guys” in the Middle East and which country shares our values and concerns.

This data is helpful in rebutting the Israel-haters’s rhetoric railing against the “influence of the Israel lobby.” Their beef is not with Jews (or only with Jews) who support Israel; it is with their countrymen of every faith. For religious reasons or not, the American public hasn’t been swayed by the delegitimizers and Israel-bashers, to the great frustration of those who blame Israel for the woes of the Middle East.

In the next post on the poll, I will look at the politics of the Israel-supporters and -bashers. No surprise to readers of this blog: Democrats and liberals more generally aren’t the mainstay of support for the Jewish state.

On Friday, I looked at the results of a new poll surveying voters’ opinions on Israel and, more generally, the Middle East. While Americans remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel and are troubled by Obama’s approach to the Middle East, there are significant differences between sub-groups of Americans. In this post, I’ll focus on the cross-tabs that highlight the differences in attitudes toward Israel among religious groups and those self-described atheists. The full cross-tabs can be found here.

I’ll begin with a general observation: almost all the support for Israel statistically comes from non-Jews. This is simply a mathematical reality. The poll sampled 1,000 voters, only 1.6 percent of whom were Jewish (slightly below the commonly used 2 percent figure). Fifty-eight percent were Protestant, and 25 percent were Catholic. That means the overwhelming number of those who support Israel, as is the case in the general population, are non-Jews.

However, this doesn’t mean religion is irrelevant. Take the question as to whether voters favor Israel using military force against Iran if sanctions don’t derail its nuclear program. Overall, 58 percent would approve. That number is 72 percent for Jews but nearly as high for born again Christians (67 percent). Among atheists? It drops to 40 percent. This pattern repeats itself throughout the poll.

On the question of how concerned we should be about Israel’s security, 100 percent of Jews said “very” or “somewhat.” The lowest/worst response was 88 percent (still high) from atheists, and the second highest/best response again came from born again Christians, with 94 percent.

On Obama’s handling of our relations with Israel, 52 percent of Jews approve; only atheists, at 61 percent, have a higher approval. Protestants and Catholics rank him in the low 40s, and once again, born-again Christians give him the lowest marks (35 percent). All groups except atheists think by a strong plurality that Obama is harming Israel’s security. If Israel attacked Iran to prevent it from going nuclear, 66 percent of Jews said that would be a “defensive” move. The number for born again Christians is 71 percent.

This vividly illustrates a point that I and others have made for some time: Jews by themselves are a tiny percentage of the population who, on their own, could not sustain national support for Israel. It is by and large the support from the majority of Christians that nurtures the U.S.-Israel relationship. Protestants and Catholics demonstrate solid support for Israel, while born again Christians consistently are the most critical of Obama and the most supportive of Israel. Although the poll doesn’t ask why respondents believe as they do, it’s fair to conclude that a great number of the most resolute non-Jewish supporters (i.e., born again Christians) do so for religious reasons.

And what of the other Americans, religious or not? It’s reasonable to conclude that there is a large segment of Americans who, for reasons entirely distinct from religion and with no personal or ethnic tie to the Jewish state, nevertheless are strongly committed to its security and survival. That is remarkable, a tribute the innate decency and common sense of the American people. They have, despite a barrage of propaganda from Israel’s foes, figured out who are the “good guys” in the Middle East and which country shares our values and concerns.

This data is helpful in rebutting the Israel-haters’s rhetoric railing against the “influence of the Israel lobby.” Their beef is not with Jews (or only with Jews) who support Israel; it is with their countrymen of every faith. For religious reasons or not, the American public hasn’t been swayed by the delegitimizers and Israel-bashers, to the great frustration of those who blame Israel for the woes of the Middle East.

In the next post on the poll, I will look at the politics of the Israel-supporters and -bashers. No surprise to readers of this blog: Democrats and liberals more generally aren’t the mainstay of support for the Jewish state.

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NJ-12

The New Jersey 12th is a traditionally Democratic district. Only in a wave election would the GOP contender have a shot, but this is such a year. If Democratic old-guarders like Rep. John Dingell are at risk, no seat is safe. And, in fact, RealClearPolitics currently lists the seat as just “leans Democratic.”

The Democratic incumbent is Rush Holt, a seven-termer who’s been on the defensive over his record on Israel. The Republican Scott Sipprelle, a venture-capital investor who’s never run for political office before, is campaigning as a full-throated fiscal conservative. But he made it clear that his differences with the administration and his opponent aren’t limited to domestic policy. I asked what he thought of the president’s approach to Iran. He replied: “The administration has succeeded neither in isolating Iran, slowing its nuclear ambitions, nor deflating its dangerous rhetoric. So I conclude that their approach has been a failure. Iran must understand that if it continues on this reckless path, the consequences will be unambiguously painful in terms of crippling economic sanctions and ‘effective isolation’ that will threaten the regime’s survival. America’s leadership is at stake on this issue.” And if Israel is forced to act unilaterally to prevent Iran from going nuclear? “The U.S. should stand with Israel,” he answers matter-of-factly.

Sipprelle didn’t mince words when it came to his opponent, who was a signatory on the Gaza 54 letter. “The enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Holt by J Street and his apparent desire to cling to their warm embrace and their money will be a factor that voters consider when casting their ballots in November.” But he added that his opponent’s questionable funders extend beyond the Soros Street crowd, saying that voters should also consider “Mr. Holt’s unwillingness to repudiate Charlie Rangel [or to] return his large campaign donations to Mr. Holt’s campaign.”

Sipprelle is a businessman, not a politician, who sees an opening for outsiders not immersed in Beltway squabbling. While he aggressively criticizes Obama’s policies (“We should start over [on ObamaCare],” he argues), he plainly is appealing to independent and Democratic voters who, he contends, are turned off by hyperpartisanship. At a recent fundraiser in his state, Obama asserted that a GOP-controlled House would bring on “hand to hand combat.” Sipprelle observes: “We need problem-solving in America, not rigid partisanship. I have criticized Mr. Holt for his blind party politics, voting with Nancy Pelosi 99 percent of the time, making him just a cog in the partisan machine that is tearing the country apart. He is not exercising wisdom, principle, or good judgment. And he is not putting his country first.”

In an ordinary year, the New Jersey 12th district would not be in play. But in this extraordinary election year, Holt not only has a rotten economic record to defend but the baggage of an increasingly unpopular president and a toxic J Street. We’ll see in a few weeks if, even in one of the Bluest states, that’s too big a handicap in 2010.

The New Jersey 12th is a traditionally Democratic district. Only in a wave election would the GOP contender have a shot, but this is such a year. If Democratic old-guarders like Rep. John Dingell are at risk, no seat is safe. And, in fact, RealClearPolitics currently lists the seat as just “leans Democratic.”

The Democratic incumbent is Rush Holt, a seven-termer who’s been on the defensive over his record on Israel. The Republican Scott Sipprelle, a venture-capital investor who’s never run for political office before, is campaigning as a full-throated fiscal conservative. But he made it clear that his differences with the administration and his opponent aren’t limited to domestic policy. I asked what he thought of the president’s approach to Iran. He replied: “The administration has succeeded neither in isolating Iran, slowing its nuclear ambitions, nor deflating its dangerous rhetoric. So I conclude that their approach has been a failure. Iran must understand that if it continues on this reckless path, the consequences will be unambiguously painful in terms of crippling economic sanctions and ‘effective isolation’ that will threaten the regime’s survival. America’s leadership is at stake on this issue.” And if Israel is forced to act unilaterally to prevent Iran from going nuclear? “The U.S. should stand with Israel,” he answers matter-of-factly.

Sipprelle didn’t mince words when it came to his opponent, who was a signatory on the Gaza 54 letter. “The enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Holt by J Street and his apparent desire to cling to their warm embrace and their money will be a factor that voters consider when casting their ballots in November.” But he added that his opponent’s questionable funders extend beyond the Soros Street crowd, saying that voters should also consider “Mr. Holt’s unwillingness to repudiate Charlie Rangel [or to] return his large campaign donations to Mr. Holt’s campaign.”

Sipprelle is a businessman, not a politician, who sees an opening for outsiders not immersed in Beltway squabbling. While he aggressively criticizes Obama’s policies (“We should start over [on ObamaCare],” he argues), he plainly is appealing to independent and Democratic voters who, he contends, are turned off by hyperpartisanship. At a recent fundraiser in his state, Obama asserted that a GOP-controlled House would bring on “hand to hand combat.” Sipprelle observes: “We need problem-solving in America, not rigid partisanship. I have criticized Mr. Holt for his blind party politics, voting with Nancy Pelosi 99 percent of the time, making him just a cog in the partisan machine that is tearing the country apart. He is not exercising wisdom, principle, or good judgment. And he is not putting his country first.”

In an ordinary year, the New Jersey 12th district would not be in play. But in this extraordinary election year, Holt not only has a rotten economic record to defend but the baggage of an increasingly unpopular president and a toxic J Street. We’ll see in a few weeks if, even in one of the Bluest states, that’s too big a handicap in 2010.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Quicker than we imagined: “By 47 to 45 percent, Americans say Obama is a better president than George W. Bush. But that two point margin is down from a 23 point advantage one year ago. ‘Democrats may want to think twice about bringing up former President George W. Bush’s name while campaigning this year,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.’”

Sooner than either imagined: “Embattled Democrats are increasingly turning to former President Bill Clinton to prop up their campaigns in the final weeks before November’s midterm elections. The former president is far and away the biggest draw for the party less than a month out, hitting races in states where Democrats would rather President Obama stay away.”

A White House departure didn’t come fast enough for some. Peter Feaver: “The only thing surprising about Jim Jones’s departure is he survived this long.” His buffoonery was his defining characteristic.

About time that someone started debunking the president’s accusations about “foreign money.” The Gray Lady: “[A] closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the [Chamber of Commerce] does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents. In fact, the controversy over the Chamber of Commerce financing may say more about the Washington spin cycle — where an Internet blog posting can be quickly picked up by like-minded groups and become political fodder for the president himself — than it does about the vagaries of campaign finance.” Actually, it says more about the president’s penchant for telling untruths.

Belatedly, we learn that Jewish-American leaders had serious concerns all along about Obama’s Middle East policy. How brave of them to go public only when Obama’s political standing is in decline.

Democrats finally run out of patience with Jerry Brown and demand that he apologize for a campaign associate who called Meg Whitman a “whore.” Yes, there goes the Golden State. Again.

Much too late, Obama gets around to publicly calling for the release of Chinese dissident and now Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

No rush — the Arab League stalls, hoping the Obami might up the bribes incentives for Bibi to extend the settlement moratorium. “Arab countries will give the US one month to find a compromise which can save peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians after negotiations stalled over the issue of Israeli building in West Bank settlements, AFP reported a diplomat at the Arab League meeting in Libya as saying on Friday. The unnamed diplomat said that a resolution to be approved later Friday by the Arab League Follow-up Committee on the peace process calls for the US administration to be given ‘a one month chance to seek the resumption of negotiations, including a halt to settlement [building].’”

Suddenly, David Broder discovers Rob Portman: “Now 54 and a fitness fanatic, Portman has achieved his status by being smart, disciplined and a team player. Business people know he does his homework, and Democrats find him approachable. Except for [Mitch] Daniels, there are few Republicans who have delved as deeply into fiscal and budgetary policy, trade and health care as has Portman, who notably expanded the Office of Management and Budget’s focus on Medicare and Medicaid, even when Bush showed little interest in the issue.”

An overnight sensation: Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Ron Johnson. “In this year of political surprises, Mr. Johnson inhabits a niche all his own. He emerged from the tea party without being fully of it. … Mr. Johnson says he employs 120 people at a single plant that makes specialized plastics. ‘I’m not some big corporation. I run the type of business [that] is the backbone of our economy, the engine of job creation.’ America’s prosperity stems from its ‘freedoms, the free market,’ Mr. Johnson says. ‘I think people get that.’”

Eventually, we come full circle. Bush administration critic Jack Goldsmith argues we shouldn’t have military tribunals or civil trials. Just lock ‘em up. Sounds good to me.

It took long enough. Jeffrey Goldberg confirms that Matthew Yglesias is an ignoramus when it comes to Israel.

Quicker than we imagined: “By 47 to 45 percent, Americans say Obama is a better president than George W. Bush. But that two point margin is down from a 23 point advantage one year ago. ‘Democrats may want to think twice about bringing up former President George W. Bush’s name while campaigning this year,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.’”

Sooner than either imagined: “Embattled Democrats are increasingly turning to former President Bill Clinton to prop up their campaigns in the final weeks before November’s midterm elections. The former president is far and away the biggest draw for the party less than a month out, hitting races in states where Democrats would rather President Obama stay away.”

A White House departure didn’t come fast enough for some. Peter Feaver: “The only thing surprising about Jim Jones’s departure is he survived this long.” His buffoonery was his defining characteristic.

About time that someone started debunking the president’s accusations about “foreign money.” The Gray Lady: “[A] closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the [Chamber of Commerce] does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents. In fact, the controversy over the Chamber of Commerce financing may say more about the Washington spin cycle — where an Internet blog posting can be quickly picked up by like-minded groups and become political fodder for the president himself — than it does about the vagaries of campaign finance.” Actually, it says more about the president’s penchant for telling untruths.

Belatedly, we learn that Jewish-American leaders had serious concerns all along about Obama’s Middle East policy. How brave of them to go public only when Obama’s political standing is in decline.

Democrats finally run out of patience with Jerry Brown and demand that he apologize for a campaign associate who called Meg Whitman a “whore.” Yes, there goes the Golden State. Again.

Much too late, Obama gets around to publicly calling for the release of Chinese dissident and now Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

No rush — the Arab League stalls, hoping the Obami might up the bribes incentives for Bibi to extend the settlement moratorium. “Arab countries will give the US one month to find a compromise which can save peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians after negotiations stalled over the issue of Israeli building in West Bank settlements, AFP reported a diplomat at the Arab League meeting in Libya as saying on Friday. The unnamed diplomat said that a resolution to be approved later Friday by the Arab League Follow-up Committee on the peace process calls for the US administration to be given ‘a one month chance to seek the resumption of negotiations, including a halt to settlement [building].’”

Suddenly, David Broder discovers Rob Portman: “Now 54 and a fitness fanatic, Portman has achieved his status by being smart, disciplined and a team player. Business people know he does his homework, and Democrats find him approachable. Except for [Mitch] Daniels, there are few Republicans who have delved as deeply into fiscal and budgetary policy, trade and health care as has Portman, who notably expanded the Office of Management and Budget’s focus on Medicare and Medicaid, even when Bush showed little interest in the issue.”

An overnight sensation: Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Ron Johnson. “In this year of political surprises, Mr. Johnson inhabits a niche all his own. He emerged from the tea party without being fully of it. … Mr. Johnson says he employs 120 people at a single plant that makes specialized plastics. ‘I’m not some big corporation. I run the type of business [that] is the backbone of our economy, the engine of job creation.’ America’s prosperity stems from its ‘freedoms, the free market,’ Mr. Johnson says. ‘I think people get that.’”

Eventually, we come full circle. Bush administration critic Jack Goldsmith argues we shouldn’t have military tribunals or civil trials. Just lock ‘em up. Sounds good to me.

It took long enough. Jeffrey Goldberg confirms that Matthew Yglesias is an ignoramus when it comes to Israel.

Read Less