Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 8, 2011

A Jobs Report That Defies Description

The political class has already exhausted the adjectives describing today’s bleak/horrible/awful/God-awful/dismal/terrible/absolutely flat out terrible jobs report. The new data showed, among other things, the unemployment rate increasing to 9.2 percent from 9.1 percent even as the labor force got smaller (by more than a quarter-of-a-million people). That is an amazing and alarming phenomenon, since it demonstrates that unemployment has gone up even as the pool of workers shrinks.

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The political class has already exhausted the adjectives describing today’s bleak/horrible/awful/God-awful/dismal/terrible/absolutely flat out terrible jobs report. The new data showed, among other things, the unemployment rate increasing to 9.2 percent from 9.1 percent even as the labor force got smaller (by more than a quarter-of-a-million people). That is an amazing and alarming phenomenon, since it demonstrates that unemployment has gone up even as the pool of workers shrinks.

The real unemployment rate increased as well, from 15.8 percent to 16.2 percent. There are now more than 14 million Americans out of work, with 6.3 million out of work for 27 weeks or longer. The unemployment rate has been above 8 percent during every month Obama has been president. Only 18,000 jobs were created in June. The government revised April and May’s payrolls downward by 44,000. Average hourly earnings went down while the average time it takes to find a job went up.

There was not a single bit of good news in the Bureau of Labor report. And watching President Obama this morning try to explain this mess and offer solutions to our predicament was painful. He was reduced to listing as one of his policy recommendations streamlining the patent process. That underscores just how intellectually exhausted the Obama presidency is. They have no more arrows left in their public policy quiver.

The president is in quite a bind, then, and today’s developments are a wicked political blow. We’ve now had 29 months of (more or less) dismal jobs reports during the Obama era; there are only 15 monthly jobs reports left between now and 2012. And there’s not only no sign that things will get significantly better; things are actually getting worse (unemployment was 8.8 percent in March). Austan Goolsbee, one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, believes that if things bounce just the right way, we’ll see an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent by the fourth quarter of 2012. That’s higher than when Obama took office and will hardly be a source of comfort to the public. And remember: No president since Franklin Roosevelt has won re-election with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent other than Ronald Reagan.

But of course the problem isn’t simply the anemic recovery and high unemployment; it is, as I’ve argued before, the broader belief that America is on a road toward decline and mediocrity, that our best days are behind us, and that our progeny face a less hopeful future than we did.

This is very corrosive stuff for an American president. And with every passing month, it seems, the news gets worse, our decline seems to accelerate, and the impotence and incompetence of the Obama presidency grows.

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Obama Stiffs the Dalai Lama Again

Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi greeted the Dalai Lama on Capitol Hill. The reception was entirely appropriate. The Dalai Lama is an important symbol not only of the struggle for political freedom against tyranny but also of the value of non-violent protest. But the Dalai Lama won’t be making a stop at the White House during his current 10-day stay in Washington. President Obama is apparently determined to do nothing to anger China and is refusing to give the Dalai Lama another meeting.

It is true Obama has already met with the Tibetan leader in exile once. But unlike the reception the Dalai Lama got during the presidency of George W. Bush, the visit with Obama was low-key, and only one photo of the two men together was permitted. From its earlier days in office, this administration has demonstrated little interest in human rights issues. But its penchant for “realist” policies have done nothing to advance American interests.

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Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi greeted the Dalai Lama on Capitol Hill. The reception was entirely appropriate. The Dalai Lama is an important symbol not only of the struggle for political freedom against tyranny but also of the value of non-violent protest. But the Dalai Lama won’t be making a stop at the White House during his current 10-day stay in Washington. President Obama is apparently determined to do nothing to anger China and is refusing to give the Dalai Lama another meeting.

It is true Obama has already met with the Tibetan leader in exile once. But unlike the reception the Dalai Lama got during the presidency of George W. Bush, the visit with Obama was low-key, and only one photo of the two men together was permitted. From its earlier days in office, this administration has demonstrated little interest in human rights issues. But its penchant for “realist” policies have done nothing to advance American interests.

As Elliot Abrams wrote earlier this week on his blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama is making a big mistake. The Chinese only respect strength and the administration’s determination to appease Beijing will pay no dividends for U.S. policy. The Chinese haven’t helped much on Iran or any other outstanding issue but that hasn’t stopped Obama from behaving in a cowardly manner when it comes to any issue that might discomfit the Communist leadership of the world’s largest tyranny. By taking a pass on another meeting with a truly inspirational world figure, all the president has done is to show once again how small a man he really is.

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Investing in the New Golden Fleece

David Brooks took a break today from being the Democrats’ “Man of the Hour” in the budget debate to go back to something he presumably really knows about: sociology. His column in today’s New York Times titled “The Examined Society,” is a paean to government-funded sociology research whose output the columnist assures is both cheap and useful and ought not to be lost in the orgy of spending cuts. The author of the classic Bobos in Paradise had me with him on this until he gave an example of the sort of program he favors. Brooks cited the fact that in the United States, you have to check a box if you want to opt into an organ donor program, but in countries like Poland or France, you have to check a box to opt out. The difference between the two is that while only 14 percent of Americans check the box, 90 percent of Poles and Frenchmen don’t. That means more organ donors are achieved by “one tiny and costless change in procedure.”

I’ve checked the organ donor box myself and think it would be great if more people did, too. But if the point of government funding for what Brooks calls “this golden age of behavioral research” is helping bureaucrats to come up with subtle ways of manipulating Americans to do things they might not choose to do on their own, then I have to ask why a “conservative” columnist would think this is a good thing? Is our faith in the uses of social science research so blind and our trust in Brooks’ beloved corps of sociologists so strong that it causes us to forget about the cost of the last century of government attempts at social engineering?

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David Brooks took a break today from being the Democrats’ “Man of the Hour” in the budget debate to go back to something he presumably really knows about: sociology. His column in today’s New York Times titled “The Examined Society,” is a paean to government-funded sociology research whose output the columnist assures is both cheap and useful and ought not to be lost in the orgy of spending cuts. The author of the classic Bobos in Paradise had me with him on this until he gave an example of the sort of program he favors. Brooks cited the fact that in the United States, you have to check a box if you want to opt into an organ donor program, but in countries like Poland or France, you have to check a box to opt out. The difference between the two is that while only 14 percent of Americans check the box, 90 percent of Poles and Frenchmen don’t. That means more organ donors are achieved by “one tiny and costless change in procedure.”

I’ve checked the organ donor box myself and think it would be great if more people did, too. But if the point of government funding for what Brooks calls “this golden age of behavioral research” is helping bureaucrats to come up with subtle ways of manipulating Americans to do things they might not choose to do on their own, then I have to ask why a “conservative” columnist would think this is a good thing? Is our faith in the uses of social science research so blind and our trust in Brooks’ beloved corps of sociologists so strong that it causes us to forget about the cost of the last century of government attempts at social engineering?

Brooks is old enough to remember the late Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards about goofy government spending.  Much of the government-funded research conducted by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences that Brooks lauds tends, like many of the objects of Proxmire’s scorn, to be about activity so mundane it provokes either guffaws or groans of frustration about wasteful spending from most Americans. Proxmire wasn’t always right about the targets of his barbs, but his mistakes tended to be about visionary technical research such as the first steps toward GPS systems, not the sort of sociological queries Brooks would have us fund (Proximire’s first Golden Fleece went to a federally subsidized study about why people fall in love).

Government-funded sociology may actually be quite important, but not in the way Brooks would have it. If the ultimate goal here is to discover devices that would enable the smart alecks in Washington to induce citizens to do things—even good things they haven’t freely chosen to do—then I find it hard to believe most of us would think this manipulation was either laudable or a proper use of scarce taxpayer money.

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Romney: Obama Should Fire Plouffe for “Jobs” Gaffe

It’s hard to believe a strategist as savvy as David Plouffe managed to come out with such an unfortunately-worded statement at the Bloomberg news breakfast yesterday:

“The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said. “People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’”

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It’s hard to believe a strategist as savvy as David Plouffe managed to come out with such an unfortunately-worded statement at the Bloomberg news breakfast yesterday:

“The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said. “People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’”

What Plouffe is basically saying is Americans should just be grateful Obama has good intentions, and not expect any meaningful way to measure his achievements. But obviously if the key to being a successful president was simply making well-meaning decisions, then we’d have a lot more successful presidents.

Dave Weigel castigates Plouffe at Slate, writing that the blunder “is what we should call a Coakley Gaffe — a statement that reveals the subject is thinking about politics first, reality second.”

And it looks like the fallout for Plouffe might just be beginning. Mitt Romney quickly latched onto his comment, calling on Obama to fire him over it (and subsequently ensuring the gaffe gets even more media attention, as Ed Morrissey writes).

Plouffe’s optimism also couldn’t have been more poorly timed, coinciding with the release today of this month’s dismal job numbers:

The unemployment rate jumped unexpectedly higher in June as U.S. job growth was virtually non-existent.

Any hope that the economic recovery was temporarily scuffling seems to be crushed in lieu of a much more pessimistic view.

The U.S. added just 18,000 nonfarm jobs last month, according to Labor Department data released Friday. It was the worst labor report in nine months.

But let’s all take comfort in the knowledge Obama’s heart is in the right place.

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Obama’s Fear Makes Debt Deal Possible

The political world is still pondering yesterday’s news that secret talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had raised the possibility of a far-reaching accord on taxes, spending and entitlements that would not only solve the temporary debt ceiling problem but address the country’s long range deficit crisis. The immediate reaction to this was panic on both the left and the right with liberal Democrats screaming bloody murder about Obama’s possible consent to drastic cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security while Tea Partiers voiced fears the GOP leadership was about to sell them out again.

Pundits weighed in too, with Politico giving us five reasons (Obama’s desperation, GOP fear of being blamed for an economic collapse, flexibility on what is termed a tax increase, worries on Wall Street and the soothing effect of a congressional recess) why the deal may happen and the New Republic one reason (no majority for it in the House) why it won’t. Both points of view are defensible, but put me down as thinking there is one big reason why it is possible: Barack Obama wants to be re-elected, and the latest tragic unemployment statistics released today have to further concentrate his mind on the fact that unless he transforms the situation in some manner, the odds against his re-election will only increase in the coming months.

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The political world is still pondering yesterday’s news that secret talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had raised the possibility of a far-reaching accord on taxes, spending and entitlements that would not only solve the temporary debt ceiling problem but address the country’s long range deficit crisis. The immediate reaction to this was panic on both the left and the right with liberal Democrats screaming bloody murder about Obama’s possible consent to drastic cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security while Tea Partiers voiced fears the GOP leadership was about to sell them out again.

Pundits weighed in too, with Politico giving us five reasons (Obama’s desperation, GOP fear of being blamed for an economic collapse, flexibility on what is termed a tax increase, worries on Wall Street and the soothing effect of a congressional recess) why the deal may happen and the New Republic one reason (no majority for it in the House) why it won’t. Both points of view are defensible, but put me down as thinking there is one big reason why it is possible: Barack Obama wants to be re-elected, and the latest tragic unemployment statistics released today have to further concentrate his mind on the fact that unless he transforms the situation in some manner, the odds against his re-election will only increase in the coming months.

Hardliners in both parties would present an obstacle to a grand deal. I don’t think there’s any way Obama can persuade the Democratic caucus to both swallow deep cuts in spending on entitlements as well as abandon their Mediscare tactics they believe might bring them a new majority in the House next year. On the other hand, I believe if the Republicans do get Obama to agree to a simplification of the tax code that would close controversial loopholes accompanied by lower overall rates, there’s a good chance most of the House GOP members will be able to persuade themselves they won’t be raising taxes. Of course, some won’t go along no matter what happens. Michele Bachmann’s pledge that she won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances is a key marker in this debate and could encourage wavering Republicans to oppose a compromise. But if someone of the stature of Paul Ryan were to give his seal of approval, that might be enough to persuade Republicans to back it along with a minority of the Democratic caucus.

Which means the votes for a deal might be there. The question is, will Barack Obama defy his base and agree to it?

My answer is a qualified yes. The president has to know unless he does something revolutionary, the economy will doom his chances for re-election no matter whom the Republicans nominate to oppose him. He can’t hope to win next year blaming unemployment on George W. Bush or even John Boehner. It may not happen, but I think those who are saying it can’t haven’t reckoned with Obama’s fear of losing next November.

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The Impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most affecting and influential novel in American history. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novel’s author, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to her, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” One Southerner said the 1852 novel “had given birth to a horror against slavery in the Northern mind which all the politicians could never have created.”

David S. Reynolds’s new book  Mightier Than the Sword analyzes the enormous impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shows how it broadened and deepened the public’s revulsion at slavery. And toward that end, it makes a point applicable to our day and time.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most affecting and influential novel in American history. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novel’s author, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to her, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” One Southerner said the 1852 novel “had given birth to a horror against slavery in the Northern mind which all the politicians could never have created.”

David S. Reynolds’s new book  Mightier Than the Sword analyzes the enormous impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shows how it broadened and deepened the public’s revulsion at slavery. And toward that end, it makes a point applicable to our day and time.

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was known for his acidic rhetoric and denunciations of those whom he considered to be insufficiently anti-slavery. The Constitution, Garrison said, was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Harriet’s brother Henry believed Garrison was well-intentioned but lacking in “conciliation, good-natured benevolence, even a certain popular mirthfulness.” According to Henry, “Anti-slavery under [Garrison] was all teeth and claw…. It fought. It gained not one step by kindness…. It bombarded everything it met, and stormed every place which it won.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe took things in a different direction. According to Reynolds:

The novel’s relatively benign treatment of Southerners was deliberate. Because Stowe wanted the South to change its mind about slavery, she avoided the kind of wholesale demonization of slaveholders she feared might alienate all Southerners. She actually had two Southern characters, Emily Shelby and St. Clare, speak against slavery. By doing so, she felt she could challenge the South’s peculiar institution from within by having some slaveowners say that slavery was evil.

Reynolds adds, “In fact, her efforts to be compassionate made her seem far more dangerous than virulent abolitionists like Garrison, whose rancorous tone and calls for disunion made him easily dismissable in the South and unpopular even in the North.”

Stowe herself wrote a friend a year-and-a-half after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saying,

The effects of the book so far have been, I think, these: 1st. to soften and moderate the bitterness of feeling in extreme abolitionists. 2nd. to convert to abolitionist views many whom the same bitterness had repelled. 3rd. to inspire the free colored people with self-respect, hope, and confidence. 4th. to inspire universally through the country a kindlier feeling toward the negro race.

Stowe’s genius, then, wasn’t simply in the realm of imaginative literature; it was also in moving America in the direction of justice. She achieved that by appealing not to abstract appeals but to decency and compassion. She humanized slavery through vivid, memorable figures both heroic (Uncle Tom) and sadistic (Simon Legree). She understood the power of grace in the pursuit of a principled cause. And she knew that at its best and deepest level politics has to be understood as part of a great human drama. That is the way one shapes, in a lasting way, public sentiment and moral beliefs. And that is something only a very few political leaders grasp.

In all of this, Stowe found something of a soulmate inLincoln, “the brightest star in Stowe’s constellation of American heroes,” in the words of Reynolds.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “doing a magnificent work on the public mind,” one journalist said. “Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the little woman who (with others) made the great war. She is also the little woman who (with others) made this great nation.

 

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DSCC Hits Up “Evil” Koch Brothers for Cash

During the past year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has regularly demonized the Koch brothers in its fundraising appeals and emails to supporters, despite the fact it accepted $30,000 from the Kochs’ PAC during the 2010 election cycle. And now that the 2012 election cycle is rolling around, the DSCC had the audacity to try to solicit money from the Koch brothers yet again.

Philip Ellender, the president of government affairs at Koch Companies, replied to DSCC Chair Sen. Patty Murray’s request in a letter today:

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During the past year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has regularly demonized the Koch brothers in its fundraising appeals and emails to supporters, despite the fact it accepted $30,000 from the Kochs’ PAC during the 2010 election cycle. And now that the 2012 election cycle is rolling around, the DSCC had the audacity to try to solicit money from the Koch brothers yet again.

Philip Ellender, the president of government affairs at Koch Companies, replied to DSCC Chair Sen. Patty Murray’s request in a letter today:

Just recently, Senator Reid wrote in a DSCC fundraising letter that Republicans are trying to “force through their extreme agenda faster than you can say ‘Koch Brothers.’”

So you can imagine my chagrin when I got a letter from you on June 17 asking us to make five-figure contributions to the DSCC. …

I’m hoping you can help me understand the intent of your request because it’s hard not to conclude that DSCC politics have become so cynical that you actually expect people whom you routinely denounce to give DSCC money.

Making matters worse for Sen. Murray, she apparently went so far as to leave the Kochs a voicemail, suggesting if they contribute generously, they might have a chance to join prominent Democratic senators at an island retreat in the fall.

Just a refresher: this is the same DSCC that attacked Carly Fiorina last September by claiming she took money from “lawbreaking” and “polluting” Koch brothers:

Tea Party megadonor Koch Industries must have been impressed, because its leaders just hosted a Washington fundraiser for Fiorina. Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity said the Koch brothers “have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation and obfuscation,” and that “they are the Standard Oil of our times.” Koch Industries was named among the nation’s top 10 polluters and is funding Proposition 23, which would suspend California’s air pollution control laws.

This scenario leaves us with only three options: a). The DSCC is so money-hungry and morally corrupt it will even solicit money from donors that it describes as having “a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulations and obfuscation”; b.) The DSCC realizes the Koch brothers are perfectly upstanding people, but it continues to dishonestly smear them because these attacks galvanize its grassroots support base; or c.) The DSCC and Sen. Murray are so clueless they had no idea who they were hitting up for a major donation.

On a separate note, how much do you want to bet the rabid, Koch-hating left conveniently ignores this entire controversy?

 

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Weekend at the Peace Process

Jennifer Rubin writes that the peace process, like General Franco, is still dead. It will be dragged in like Bernie to Monday’s Quartet meeting, as everyone searches for a way to preclude the Palestinians from going to the UN for a declaration that will simply confirm the death.

The event to watch next week may be the hearing scheduled before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Promoting Peace? Re-Examining U.S. Aid to the Palestinian Authority,” coming after both the Senate and House have adopted resolutions warning the PA of a possible cut-off. The last time the Palestinians went to the UN, forcing a U.S. veto, they were reportedly warned there would be consequences. As they prepare to go again, perhaps it is time to raise a basic question: Why is it in the U.S. interest to continue to support an entity that has repeatedly refused offers of a state, failed to dismantle terrorist groups, clings to a deal-killing “right of return,” has for more than two years been unwilling to engage in peace negotiations without preconditions, and has become a money hole?

Jennifer Rubin writes that the peace process, like General Franco, is still dead. It will be dragged in like Bernie to Monday’s Quartet meeting, as everyone searches for a way to preclude the Palestinians from going to the UN for a declaration that will simply confirm the death.

The event to watch next week may be the hearing scheduled before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Promoting Peace? Re-Examining U.S. Aid to the Palestinian Authority,” coming after both the Senate and House have adopted resolutions warning the PA of a possible cut-off. The last time the Palestinians went to the UN, forcing a U.S. veto, they were reportedly warned there would be consequences. As they prepare to go again, perhaps it is time to raise a basic question: Why is it in the U.S. interest to continue to support an entity that has repeatedly refused offers of a state, failed to dismantle terrorist groups, clings to a deal-killing “right of return,” has for more than two years been unwilling to engage in peace negotiations without preconditions, and has become a money hole?

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U.S. Support Doesn’t Taint Syrian Protests

The United States diplomatic corps in the Arab world has generally been slow to recognize trends or to back away from brutal dictators who oppose the interests of both their own people and of America. The Obama administration has failed to speak out consistently and forcefully against the Assad regime’s despicable record of oppression and support for international terrorists. But for at least one day, Washington’s man in Damascus stepped up and did the right thing. As the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad closed in on protesters in the city of Hama, both the French and the American ambassadors to Syria journeyed to that tortured place to show solidarity with protesters.

U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford and his French colleague Eric Chavallier arrived in Hama yesterday and stayed until Friday afternoon. The Syrian government reacted angrily, accusing the envoys of meeting with “saboteurs” and inciting protests. This will cause some to worry their association with Americans will taint Syrian dissidents, and the protests will now be seen as inspired by the West. But such arguments are absurd and are merely excuses for doing nothing while people are being slaughtered by a tyrant.

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The United States diplomatic corps in the Arab world has generally been slow to recognize trends or to back away from brutal dictators who oppose the interests of both their own people and of America. The Obama administration has failed to speak out consistently and forcefully against the Assad regime’s despicable record of oppression and support for international terrorists. But for at least one day, Washington’s man in Damascus stepped up and did the right thing. As the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad closed in on protesters in the city of Hama, both the French and the American ambassadors to Syria journeyed to that tortured place to show solidarity with protesters.

U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford and his French colleague Eric Chavallier arrived in Hama yesterday and stayed until Friday afternoon. The Syrian government reacted angrily, accusing the envoys of meeting with “saboteurs” and inciting protests. This will cause some to worry their association with Americans will taint Syrian dissidents, and the protests will now be seen as inspired by the West. But such arguments are absurd and are merely excuses for doing nothing while people are being slaughtered by a tyrant.

There are those, including not a few members of the Obama administration, who tend to see America’s role in the world as essentially malevolent. They believe any self-respecting freedom movement must disassociate itself from the West and the United States in particular if it wishes to succeed. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. While conspiracy theorists in the Arab and Muslim world focus their hate on the Great Satan in Washington, most ordinary people understand that America is a free country. Rather than standing aloof from their struggles for freedom, it is vital the United States associate itself with the people in the streets calling for an end to the brutal Assad regime and not line itself up with the dictators.

There are no guarantees the alternatives to the authoritarians in Syria or any other Arab country will be genuine liberals or believers in democracy. But the best way to influence such people to put away their hatred for the U.S. and its Israeli ally is to clearly align Americans with the forces fighting for freedom.

Though the Assad clan may try to taint protesters by painting them as pro-Americans or, even worse, Zionists, few in the streets of Hama or Damascus will believe it. They know for themselves just how bad their government really is. Let’s hope Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama is just the first of many that will both inhibit the regime from perpetrating further massacres and give hope to dissidents who will now know they are not alone.

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On Tortoises and Tax Cuts

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was once giving a lecture in which he stated the earth circled the sun, held in the grip of gravity. He was interrupted by an elderly woman in the audience who told him that was nonsense, and the earth rode on the back of a giant tortoise.

“What does the tortoise stand on?” Russell asked.

“Very clever, young man,” she retorted, “very clever indeed. But it’s turtles all the way down.”

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The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was once giving a lecture in which he stated the earth circled the sun, held in the grip of gravity. He was interrupted by an elderly woman in the audience who told him that was nonsense, and the earth rode on the back of a giant tortoise.

“What does the tortoise stand on?” Russell asked.

“Very clever, young man,” she retorted, “very clever indeed. But it’s turtles all the way down.”

 When it comes to explaining the current fiscal difficulties facing the country, for liberals and their principal mouthpiece, the New York Times editorial page, it’s the Bush tax cuts all the way down. Take this morning’s editorial on the negotiations over the debt ceiling, in which the Times writes, “It is already clear that the Republicans have succeeded spectacularly in their insistence that the agreement be mostly about spending cuts rather than building back the money lost from the Bush tax cuts that was the principal cause of the deficit.”

While I despair, as I’m sure Bertrand Russell did in dealing with the elderly woman, of  enlightening the Times with mere facts and logic, let us look at the numbers. In 2003, when the Bush tax cuts became fully operational, federal revenues were $1.782 trillion and the deficit was $377 billion. Unemployment was 6.1 percent. Four years later, federal revenues were $2.568 trillion, 44 percent higher than when the Bush tax cuts kicked in; the deficit was $162 billion, 59.3 percent lower than before the tax cuts; and the unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, 27 percent lower than four years earlier.

And that was not a one-off. Federal revenues increased by 50 percent following the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s as the economy boomed. They increased by 50 percent after the Kennedy tax cuts of the 1960s as the economy boomed.

One wonders how many times this country needs to cut marginal tax rates and have the economy–and thus federal revenues–subsequently boom before the Times and the choir to which it preaches acknowledge a causal relationship. I suspect the number is infinite. As far as the Times editorial board is concerned, it’s turtles all the way down.

 

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Are Pawlenty Obits Premature?

With six months to go before any votes are cast, it seems frightfully premature for any of the candidates to be written off. Yet that is exactly what is happening to Tim Pawlenty. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times weigh in today with pieces that frankly state if the former Minnesota governor doesn’t make a good showing in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, he’s finished. Can they be right? The answer unfortunately for backers of Pawlenty is yes.

Pawlenty’s dilemma was produced by a combination of factors that were his own fault as well as ones beyond his control. The candidate’s lackluster campaigning style hasn’t caught on with voters or party activists. Even worse, his embarrassing decision to back away from direct criticism of Mitt Romney on health care at the GOP debate in New Hampshire caused many Republicans to doubt whether he had the right stuff to win. On top of that, the emergence of Michele Bachmann as a serious contender threw a monkey wrench into Pawlenty’s plan to use Iowa as a launching pad for his run to the White House. Pawlenty is now busy telling Iowans that her inexperience as an administrator is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s thin resume. But the problem for Pawlenty is he is so far down in the polls that others, such as Rick Perry, might benefit from that argument.

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With six months to go before any votes are cast, it seems frightfully premature for any of the candidates to be written off. Yet that is exactly what is happening to Tim Pawlenty. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times weigh in today with pieces that frankly state if the former Minnesota governor doesn’t make a good showing in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, he’s finished. Can they be right? The answer unfortunately for backers of Pawlenty is yes.

Pawlenty’s dilemma was produced by a combination of factors that were his own fault as well as ones beyond his control. The candidate’s lackluster campaigning style hasn’t caught on with voters or party activists. Even worse, his embarrassing decision to back away from direct criticism of Mitt Romney on health care at the GOP debate in New Hampshire caused many Republicans to doubt whether he had the right stuff to win. On top of that, the emergence of Michele Bachmann as a serious contender threw a monkey wrench into Pawlenty’s plan to use Iowa as a launching pad for his run to the White House. Pawlenty is now busy telling Iowans that her inexperience as an administrator is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s thin resume. But the problem for Pawlenty is he is so far down in the polls that others, such as Rick Perry, might benefit from that argument.

Pawlenty wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate with a strong record, well thought out positions and seemingly good prospects to flame out in the year before the election. The question now is whether it is possible for him to salvage his campaign before he is completely written off.

Pawlenty’s first task is not to get slaughtered at the Ames Straw Poll next month. He’s facing stiff competition, but let’s remember straw polls are not the same thing as real elections. They are more of a measure of a candidate’s organizational strength than his appeal to the general public. While Pawlenty is lagging behind Mitt Romney in fundraising, he still has enough money to compete at Ames. And compete he must. A poor showing there will result in more than just bad press clippings. His money will dry up and that will compromise, perhaps fatally, his ability to mount a representative campaign in Iowa this fall. And let’s be frank about the stakes in the January caucuses for Pawlenty. He doesn’t have to finish first, but he must run ahead of Bachmann there to survive. If Bachmann, a candidate who seems to have a stronger ability to connect with the party’s grass roots, wins the Iowa caucuses, even a strong second place showing for Pawlenty will effectively kill his hopes of winning the nomination.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Though a poor showing at Ames could mark the end of his run, a good outcome is probably his best, and only, chance to change the narrative about his candidacy. Though he has to be concerned about all of the obits being written about his campaign, they also have the effect of lowering expectations. That means it’s possible Pawlenty could spin a second place showing into a new story line where he plays the comeback kid.

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Israel Finally Reasserts Willingness to Defend its Borders

In his takedown of the UN report on Israel’s handling of a mass infiltration attempt from Lebanon on Nakba Day (May 15), Max correctly argued that Israel’s priority should be reestablishing deterrence. But in that regard, Israel’s handling of this incident marked a milestone – not only in the narrow sense of being effective (the Lebanese border stayed quiet on Naksa Day three weeks later), but in a far more important sense: For the first time in years, Israel openly declared its willingness to defend its borders.

Under two successive prime ministers in the last decade,Israel effectively gave up on defending its borders. First came Ehud Barak’s refusal to respond to Hezbollah’s cross-border kidnapping of three soldiers in October 2000, just five months afterIsrael’s UN-certified unilateral withdrawal from every inch of Lebanon.  Granted, the second intifada had erupted a week earlier, so the army had its hands full. Nevertheless, this sent a dangerous message: Israelwas either so scared of Hezbollah, or so tired of war, that having left Lebanon with its tail between its legs, it now wouldn’t even defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn.

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In his takedown of the UN report on Israel’s handling of a mass infiltration attempt from Lebanon on Nakba Day (May 15), Max correctly argued that Israel’s priority should be reestablishing deterrence. But in that regard, Israel’s handling of this incident marked a milestone – not only in the narrow sense of being effective (the Lebanese border stayed quiet on Naksa Day three weeks later), but in a far more important sense: For the first time in years, Israel openly declared its willingness to defend its borders.

Under two successive prime ministers in the last decade,Israel effectively gave up on defending its borders. First came Ehud Barak’s refusal to respond to Hezbollah’s cross-border kidnapping of three soldiers in October 2000, just five months afterIsrael’s UN-certified unilateral withdrawal from every inch of Lebanon.  Granted, the second intifada had erupted a week earlier, so the army had its hands full. Nevertheless, this sent a dangerous message: Israelwas either so scared of Hezbollah, or so tired of war, that having left Lebanon with its tail between its legs, it now wouldn’t even defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn.

Far worse, however, was Ariel Sharon’s repeat of this behavior following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from every inch of Gaza in 2005. By then, the intifada was largely under control, so military action was certainly feasible. Thus as Dan Kurtzer, then America’s ambassador to Israel, told  the Jerusalem Post last month, he expected “a very serious Israeli response to the first act of violence” from Gaza and told Washington to “be ready to support it,” since the pullout had removed the justification for cross-border violence. Yet Sharon never responded to the ensuing rocket fire from Gaza, and Kurtzer, despite being a vocal dove, was “very surprised” – because this sent a dangerous message:

“All of a sudden people got acclimated to the idea that there can be rocket fire,” he said. “From there it was just a matter of degree: from one rocket a week, to one a day; from one a day, to one and hour – so it escalated.”

Once again, Israel had effectively proclaimed that it was so scared of Hamas, or so tired of war, that it wouldn’t even defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn.

Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, finally started reversing this trend: He responded to a cross-border raid in 2006 by launching the Second Lebanon War. But even then, as Britain’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks perceptively noted last month, Israel’s PR focused on the three soldiers Hezbollah had kidnapped rather than “the battle for the country’s existence” – i.e. the need to defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn. Israel still felt uncomfortable asserting its right to defend its borders.

But on Nakba Day, Israel finally said openly it was ready to defend its borders by force – and proceeded to do so. And it thereby took an important step on the road to restoring its deterrence.

 

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Two Trivia Questions

Trivia question #1: When do you say, “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers. People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’”

Answer: When you’re David Plouffe, senior adviser to the president; when the unemployment rate in America is 9.2 percent; and when no president since FDR other than Ronald Reagan won re-election when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent in the second term. (Unemployment under Reagan was 7.2 percent and dropping, and the economy was surging, when he was re-elected.)

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Trivia question #1: When do you say, “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers. People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’”

Answer: When you’re David Plouffe, senior adviser to the president; when the unemployment rate in America is 9.2 percent; and when no president since FDR other than Ronald Reagan won re-election when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent in the second term. (Unemployment under Reagan was 7.2 percent and dropping, and the economy was surging, when he was re-elected.)

Trivia question #2: When do you say, “Numbers are going to go up and they’re going to go down. It’s a marathon for us?”

Answer: When you’re Mark Rosenthal, CEO of Current TV, and the person you’ve paid boatloads of money to, Keith Olbermann, has seen his show’s ratings shrink by nearly a third after its inaugural week (during the week of June 27, Olbermann’s show averaged only 93,000 viewers in the key 25-54 demographic).

 

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