Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 5, 2011

The U.S. Is Downgraded, and Obama Will Be Too

This is a terrible day. For the first time, the creditworthiness of the United States has been called into question by an independent entity, Standard and Poor’s, which has downgraded the country’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. Its statement features this terrifying phrase: “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective,  and less predictable than what we previously believed.” S&P assigns blame to all players, and by seeing a “negative outlook” down the road, is saying it expects to downgrade to a simple AA within two years.

The Left will and is already blaming the Tea Party and Republicans. The Right will and is blaming the growth of the federal debt and the refusal to deal with the unsustainable path created by the entitlement programs. This is a grinding battle that will lead to an intellectual and ideological stalemate. There’s truth to the Leftist charge that the conservative Republican decision to use the debt ceiling fight as leverage to force a cut in the national debt at a particularly risky time was unsound. But that is nothing next to the liberal fantasy that the U.S. can stay on its current course—the most destructive notion in present-day politics.

But the ideological stalemate does not mean the political fallout will be evenly distributed. This is a colossal disaster for Barack Obama, and anybody who says otherwise is kidding himself or trying to spin you. We know that the election of 2012 is going to be fought on jobs, the economy, and the wisdom of health care. But now the GOP has an overarching theme that I predict will be at the core of a $500 million advertising campaign: “America needs its good name back.”

This is a terrible day. For the first time, the creditworthiness of the United States has been called into question by an independent entity, Standard and Poor’s, which has downgraded the country’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. Its statement features this terrifying phrase: “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective,  and less predictable than what we previously believed.” S&P assigns blame to all players, and by seeing a “negative outlook” down the road, is saying it expects to downgrade to a simple AA within two years.

The Left will and is already blaming the Tea Party and Republicans. The Right will and is blaming the growth of the federal debt and the refusal to deal with the unsustainable path created by the entitlement programs. This is a grinding battle that will lead to an intellectual and ideological stalemate. There’s truth to the Leftist charge that the conservative Republican decision to use the debt ceiling fight as leverage to force a cut in the national debt at a particularly risky time was unsound. But that is nothing next to the liberal fantasy that the U.S. can stay on its current course—the most destructive notion in present-day politics.

But the ideological stalemate does not mean the political fallout will be evenly distributed. This is a colossal disaster for Barack Obama, and anybody who says otherwise is kidding himself or trying to spin you. We know that the election of 2012 is going to be fought on jobs, the economy, and the wisdom of health care. But now the GOP has an overarching theme that I predict will be at the core of a $500 million advertising campaign: “America needs its good name back.”

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From Tea to Terror: The Roots of Demonization

In the aftermath of the debt ceiling debate, there has been a renewed push from the left to demonize the Tea Party movement. It has become commonplace for members of the movement to be labeled as “terrorists.” This increasingly bad image for the group is reinforced by a New York Times/CBS poll that claims more Americans have a negative view of the Tea Party than at any time since April 2010. The survey said 40 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party while 20 percent were favorable. In response to another question, 18 percent of respondents said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters.

According to the Times’ article on the poll, “The Tea Party may have benefited early on from people not really knowing exactly what it was.” But the paper claims the debt ceiling debate changed this, and now most Americans see the group as being “inflexible” at a time when they wanted Congress to compromise on spending. But any discussion of the group’s image must be tempered by the fact it has been subjected to a campaign of non-stop demonization by media outlets such as the Times.  The media have sought–since the inception of the Tea Party–to brand its adherents as extremists rather than as a genuine expression of popular opinion.

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In the aftermath of the debt ceiling debate, there has been a renewed push from the left to demonize the Tea Party movement. It has become commonplace for members of the movement to be labeled as “terrorists.” This increasingly bad image for the group is reinforced by a New York Times/CBS poll that claims more Americans have a negative view of the Tea Party than at any time since April 2010. The survey said 40 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party while 20 percent were favorable. In response to another question, 18 percent of respondents said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters.

According to the Times’ article on the poll, “The Tea Party may have benefited early on from people not really knowing exactly what it was.” But the paper claims the debt ceiling debate changed this, and now most Americans see the group as being “inflexible” at a time when they wanted Congress to compromise on spending. But any discussion of the group’s image must be tempered by the fact it has been subjected to a campaign of non-stop demonization by media outlets such as the Times.  The media have sought–since the inception of the Tea Party–to brand its adherents as extremists rather than as a genuine expression of popular opinion.

There is no doubt the dustup about the debt ceiling did little to help build more support for the movement. But the assault on the Tea Party didn’t begin with the stand taken by some in Congress during the last few weeks.

From its beginnings, liberal papers such as the Times slammed the Tea Party as a dangerous form of populism. It was smeared with unsubstantiated charges of racism on the false premise opposition to President Obama’s signature health care plan was a sign of prejudice. Though it was one of the most broad-based popular protest movements in modern American political history with a reach that extended across the country, it was still treated by most of the mainstream media as a slightly more respectable version of the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, when Tea Partiers vocally expressed their dismay to members of Congress and senators at town hall meetings, liberals reacted as if public dissent against politicians was the thin edge of the wedge of a new wave of fascism.

That line held until November 2010 when it turned out the only poll that counts — the ballot box — showed the Tea Party was a mainstream force in American politics. While the Republican victory put a damper on talk of Tea Party extremism, the theme was rediscovered this year as some members of Congress decided to act as if their campaign rhetoric about debt, spending and taxes wasn’t just hot air but a pledge of honor.

After months of the president of the United States, the Democratic Party and much of the mainstream press piling on the Tea Party in an effort to make the GOP accept Obama’s demand for tax increases, it would be shocking if the group’s image had not taken a hit. Indeed, with the abuse escalating to a point where liberals now feel no shame about accusing Tea Partiers of being “terrorists” for sticking to their position on no new taxes, is there any wonder the movement’s negatives have gone up a bit?

All political movements ebb and flow. It may be a double dip recession will result in a greater appetite for more government in the coming year than concern about its growth. That is an issue that will be decided not by polls but by the next election, when we will see whether a Democratic appeal for higher taxes will prevail. Despite the opprobrium it has been subjected to, the Tea Party remains a valid outpouring of popular opinion about the growth of government and taxes. Far from being an assault upon democracy, as liberals have claimed, it is an expression of democracy.

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The Public’s Complicity in its Own Outrage

National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has written that independent voters are “expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress and the Washington system itself.” He goes on to say “this towering wave of alienation” presages more volatility for our political system. Each party is experiencing a hemorrhaging of public support. What we are witnessing is “a simultaneous vote of no confidence from the public in both the American economy and its national government.”

Brownstein points out this is only the latest wave of alienation that has hit our shores. It’s actually been going on, to one degree or another, for several decades now. And while such antipathy might be justified in any particular moment in time, it’s also the case the current level of public discontent toward our governing class and its institutions carries some dangers. The framers of the American Constitution sought to confer legitimacy on the new government (which replaced the much weaker Articles of Confederation) in part because they understood such legitimacy was important to a free society.

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National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has written that independent voters are “expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress and the Washington system itself.” He goes on to say “this towering wave of alienation” presages more volatility for our political system. Each party is experiencing a hemorrhaging of public support. What we are witnessing is “a simultaneous vote of no confidence from the public in both the American economy and its national government.”

Brownstein points out this is only the latest wave of alienation that has hit our shores. It’s actually been going on, to one degree or another, for several decades now. And while such antipathy might be justified in any particular moment in time, it’s also the case the current level of public discontent toward our governing class and its institutions carries some dangers. The framers of the American Constitution sought to confer legitimacy on the new government (which replaced the much weaker Articles of Confederation) in part because they understood such legitimacy was important to a free society.

I understand fierce criticism of our political class is sometimes in order. (I’ve even engaged in such criticism myself from time to time.) Often, and understandably, it’s driven by objective circumstances. And the American public is not inclined to deify its (living) politicians, which is a healthy thing.

But we need to recognize this as well: if the public’s animus for our system of government is unrelenting and unceasing, it eventually undermines self-government itself. A democracy relies on widespread respect for the authority of government and compliance with its laws, including (and even especially) from those who are on the losing end of elections. Beyond that, it’s difficult to maintain one’s love of country if one harbors, over a sustained period of time, utter disdain for its governing institutions, for its lawmakers and for its laws.

Then there is the matter of the public itself. America’s first President, in his Farewell Address, said, “This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed,… has a just claim to your confidence and your support.”

Note well the words of Washington: He wanted government to have a “just claim to [our] confidence and [our] support.” He understood, of course,
that government needed to act in ways that warranted public support. But Washington also understood that government was then, as it is now, the “offspring of our own choice.” And that is something that too many of us ignore or deny.

For the sake of the argument, accept an assumption with which I disagree. Grant for the moment our political class is a miserable and inept lot. So who exactly created this political class? Who voted our lawmakers into office? Why haven’t we produced more “proper guardians of the public weal,” in the elegant words of Madison?

I can’t do full justice to this matter here. But this much is clear: The responsibility, at least in part, rests with the American people. What we are seeing play itself out in Washington year after year are politicians who represent the different interests, demands and appetites of the American polity (let’s call them factions). And so voters get angry at politicians who can’t produce a balanced budget even as they get angry at politicians who want to reform entitlement programs that are causing our fiscal crisis. One can make a serious argument, in fact, that one of the problems with the public is it expects its elected representatives to respond to the shifting winds of public opinion.

Irving Kristol, as usual, put it as well as anyone. “I do indeed have faith in the common people,” he said, “only I don’t have very much faith in them. Nor is there anything snobbish or, as we now say, ‘elitist’ about such a statement. I include myself among those common people and, knowing myself as I do, I would say that anyone who constructed a political system based on unlimited faith in my good character was someone with a fondness for high-risk enterprises.”

It’s a comforting game many of us like to play, to insist the American people are the font of all wisdom and our politicians are nothing but knaves and fools. Perhaps they are; but if they are, it’s worth at least a moment’s self-reflection on the part of the public, which after all elects (and often re-elects) our public officials. We may not like the political jars of clay that have been produced. But in America, it is worth recalling that “we the people” are, in the end, the potters.

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UNICEF to Fund Syria While Assad Crushes Dissent

The United Nations Security Council issued another statement yesterday calling for an end to the violent repression of protests in Syria by government forces. Oddly enough, the Assad regime found itself in partial compliance with that request by the end of the day by virtue of the fact its army appeared to have completely wiped out all traces of opposition in the city of Hama. According to the New York Times, Syria’s state-run media broadcast footage of the ruins of the city in the aftermath of the armored assault on Hama that began last Sunday. Hundreds of civilians were apparently killed in the crackdown that reestablished the personal rule of the Assad clan and its Alawite-run regime in a town that was a wellspring of dissent.

As many as 2,000 persons may have been killed in the last few months as Assad’s henchmen fought back against Arab Spring protests against the authoritarian government. But despite the lip service paid to the international condemnation of Syria by the UN, the world body has been preparing to help fund the “reforms” the regime has planned to help perpetuate its rule.

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The United Nations Security Council issued another statement yesterday calling for an end to the violent repression of protests in Syria by government forces. Oddly enough, the Assad regime found itself in partial compliance with that request by the end of the day by virtue of the fact its army appeared to have completely wiped out all traces of opposition in the city of Hama. According to the New York Times, Syria’s state-run media broadcast footage of the ruins of the city in the aftermath of the armored assault on Hama that began last Sunday. Hundreds of civilians were apparently killed in the crackdown that reestablished the personal rule of the Assad clan and its Alawite-run regime in a town that was a wellspring of dissent.

As many as 2,000 persons may have been killed in the last few months as Assad’s henchmen fought back against Arab Spring protests against the authoritarian government. But despite the lip service paid to the international condemnation of Syria by the UN, the world body has been preparing to help fund the “reforms” the regime has planned to help perpetuate its rule.

Fox News reports UNICEF, the UN agency that American children are still hectored into raising money for on Halloween, is planning on continuing its aid for Syrian government programs. According to a document that will be presented to the agency’s board next month, the head of UNICEF, former Clinton administration staffer Anthony Lake, has approved the extension of the aid scheme that buttresses the regime.

This hypocritical “dual-track” UN approach to Syria shows just how little the world body actually cares about human rights. While few believed a UN statement of opposition to Assad’s bloody repression would carry much weight, the fact UNICEF is going ahead with aid to support the dictator’s “reforms” while Syrians are being murdered by their government on the streets of Hama illustrates the fecklessness of the United Nations.

Just as troubling is another report  Turkey has seized an Iranian arms shipment intended for Damascus. Apparently, a convoy of trucks crammed with Iranian arms on its way to delivery to the Syrian government was seized in southeastern Turkey earlier this summer.

Even as UNICEF squanders charitable donations on programs designed to prop up the government in Damascus, the Iranians are making their own investment in the longevity of the Assad regime. While Secretary of State Clinton has recently found her voice on Syria and started to say what needed to be said about the violence and the need for Bashar Assad to vacate his office, the Iranians have been working to ensure their Syrian ally stays right where he is.

With the smoke clearing in the ruins of Hama, Iran as well as Assad both seem to have emerged from the fighting as victors. The Iranians have preserved their loyal ally who helps serve as a vital bridge between Tehran and its terrorist surrogates Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Obama administration has tended to treat the crisis in Syria as a minor human rights problem unworthy of much attention until recently. While stiff condemnations and threats of retaliation against Assad and his followers might have done some good months ago, the flurry of American statements in the last few weeks came just as the regime was flattening the opposition. The result is America’s prestige has been further diminished even as money raised in the United States in the guise of charitable donations finds its way to Assad’s tyrannical government.

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Americans Oppose “Trigger” Defense Cuts in Debt Deal

This is a bit unexpected, considering Americans are strongly in favor of spending cuts. But today’s Rasmussen poll found only 29 percent of voters support the automatic reductions (half of which will come from defense) that will go into effect if the congressional “super committee” fails to reach an agreement:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that 29 percent favor automatic spending cuts, including cuts from defense spending and Medicare, if Congress doesn’t reduce spending by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. Fifty-two percent oppose these automatic spending cuts. Another 19 percent are undecided.

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This is a bit unexpected, considering Americans are strongly in favor of spending cuts. But today’s Rasmussen poll found only 29 percent of voters support the automatic reductions (half of which will come from defense) that will go into effect if the congressional “super committee” fails to reach an agreement:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that 29 percent favor automatic spending cuts, including cuts from defense spending and Medicare, if Congress doesn’t reduce spending by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. Fifty-two percent oppose these automatic spending cuts. Another 19 percent are undecided.

Even more interesting: Republican (35 percent) and independent voters (32 percent) are actually more likely to support the automatic spending cuts than Democrats (20 percent).

There was initially concern the 2 percent cuts to Medicare included in the automatic reductions might not be substantial enough to scare Democrats into making a deal. That was partially because the Medicare cuts included in the trigger mechanism won’t impact beneficiaries, according to reports.

But if Democratic voters are already strongly opposed to the automatic cuts, then Democrats on the super committee will have more of an incentive to reach an agreement. And with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warning the automatic defense reductions would have devastating consequences for the Armed Services, Republican voters are clearly adamant their GOP representatives on the super committee don’t default on defense.

Voters want spending cuts. But they want Washington to make the tough choices, and they aren’t going to tolerate lawmakers passing on the responsibility to an automatic mechanism.

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Will Israelis Vote to Join Greece on the Bread Line?

While few saw it coming, many observers are now speaking of the staying power of Israel’s economic protest movement as a major threat to the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Though the demonstrators seem devoid of a coherent alternative policy and seemingly ignorant of the tremendous damage out-of-control government spending has done in Europe, there is no denying they have tapped into popular discontent with the current state of affairs.

The question is how serious a threat does it pose to Netanyahu in the short term and what impact will it have on the next election.

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While few saw it coming, many observers are now speaking of the staying power of Israel’s economic protest movement as a major threat to the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Though the demonstrators seem devoid of a coherent alternative policy and seemingly ignorant of the tremendous damage out-of-control government spending has done in Europe, there is no denying they have tapped into popular discontent with the current state of affairs.

The question is how serious a threat does it pose to Netanyahu in the short term and what impact will it have on the next election.

As Herb Keinon writes in the Jerusalem Post, the high cost of living in Israel has had a terrible impact on middle class Israelis. Moreover, it is an issue that won’t be swept away even if the country finds itself embroiled in a new round of Arab violence in the aftermath of the United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian independence in September. That means the prime minister will be spending the coming months dealing with both the threat of a new intifada while also attempting to cope with a broad-based protest movement on the domestic front. These twin challenges will test Netanyahu’s political and diplomatic skills. But the expectation the protest movement will transform the country’s politics in the next year may be overblown.

The first problem with such a scenario is Netanyahu’s main competition is poorly placed to take advantage of the protests. Though Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni has been trying to capitalize on the discontent as part of her non-stop campaign to abuse Netanyahu, her party has been as much a part of the free market consensus of the last two decades as Netanyahu’s Likud. The notion this alliance of opportunists can morph into a social democratic liberal alternative to Likud will require more fancy footwork than even Livni can manage. As is the case on the Palestinian question, there is actually very little difference between the two parties on economics.

Though Kadima may not be the beneficiary of the protests, they have the affect of pumping some life into the seemingly moribund Labor Party that crashed and burned in the last decade along with public trust in the peace process. But even more likely is the protests will lead to the creation of a new party or two at the next election (which will probably take place sometime in late 2012 or early 2013) that will exploit public dissatisfaction better than any of the other existing leftist factions. That may be more problematic for Netanyahu because, unlike conservative parties in the West, Likud’s grass roots have always been among lower income Sephardic Jews who were not any more enamored of free market economics than kibbutzniks. As Netanyahu has admitted, the economic stance of Likud in the era of Menachem Begin was more Peronist than anything else. Though times have changed, the vulnerability of that constituency to the siren song of government handouts could prove a problem.

But as potent as the protest have been, the notion Israel will actually vote to go back to its socialist roots seems to be rooted more in the prevalent anti-Netanyahu sentiment among the country’s press than anything else. The idea most Israelis want to jettison its status as a first-world state in favor of the impoverished government-run economy that existed before both Labor and Likud adopted the cause of the free market gives the populace little credit. Israelis may not like the high cost of living, but the belief they will vote to become a second Greece seems far-fetched.

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Livni’s Latest Missed Opportunity

Tzipi Livni is a generally well-liked, respected and intelligent person. But she is one of the least talented politicians ever to lead a major party in Israel. Her latest missed opportunity was her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg and James Bennet, published on The Atlantic’s website today.

Her main failure in the interview stemmed from her empty warning to the Atlantic duo the meeting was not to be an “oy vey conversation.” Livni presumably was well aware The Atlantic would be much more interested in getting her to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu than anything else, and indeed the interview progressed in exactly that fashion, making Livni look weak and opportunistic. There are no new ideas advanced, so Livni continues to give the impression she has none to offer. And the interviewers didn’t do themselves any favors either, as evidenced by the following exchange:

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Tzipi Livni is a generally well-liked, respected and intelligent person. But she is one of the least talented politicians ever to lead a major party in Israel. Her latest missed opportunity was her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg and James Bennet, published on The Atlantic’s website today.

Her main failure in the interview stemmed from her empty warning to the Atlantic duo the meeting was not to be an “oy vey conversation.” Livni presumably was well aware The Atlantic would be much more interested in getting her to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu than anything else, and indeed the interview progressed in exactly that fashion, making Livni look weak and opportunistic. There are no new ideas advanced, so Livni continues to give the impression she has none to offer. And the interviewers didn’t do themselves any favors either, as evidenced by the following exchange:

TL: I know that they know we are strong enough. And our relations with the United States are part of this. This is one part of the answer. Whether some of them are thinking about stages? Maybe. But this is our responsibility to take this into consideration and put into an agreement all the parameters to ensure Israel’s security. But I think we already have built the iron wall, and I think Israel is being weakened now by the way Netanyahu speaks. The stronger he speaks, the weaker Israel is.

When Kadima left the government, the world was delegitimizing Hamas, Gaza was under siege, we were negotiating with the Palestinians, we were working with pragmatic Palestinians, our ability to act against terror came from our legitimacy. Now look what’s happened. In the flotilla incident, after two minutes the world was against us.

Q: So Netanyahu is delegitimizing Israel?

Excuse me? That’s the follow-up to such a whopper? Livni’s suggestion that things were good when Kadima was in charge is met with another question prodding her to say something nasty about Netanyahu?

A better follow-up might have asked Livni to recall the legitimacy of Israel’s governance and military performance were both at their lowest levels in memory when Netanyahu took over from her. Under Kadima’s leadership, Israel had so ineptly prosecuted the Second Lebanon War (and especially the public perception of the war) that a change in both civilian and military leadership was demanded by the public. The reputation of the mighty IDF was badly damaged. Ehud Olmert, under investigation for corruption, left office under a cloud of suspicion and resentment, much to the humiliation of the Jewish state and its allies.

To be sure, Livni is not Olmert, and shouldn’t be saddled with his burdens and his failures. But neither can she possibly suggest that “our ability to act against terror came from our legitimacy,” when her party’s leadership produced neither an ability to act against terror nor much legitimacy.

Livni is a frustrating case, because she has potential. But her ability to get sucked into an interview with major American journalists that produced only partisan sniping and backbench bellyaching is a good reminder of why she is not leading the country.

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The Dwindling Constituency for Defense

As Max wrote last night, the growing chorus of pundits and politicians who think they can erase the federal deficit through defense cuts are not only wrong on fiscal terms but are doing the country a great disservice. As we look forward to a budgetary process in which across-the-board defense cuts will be on the table, it bears asking whether there is still a strong constituency for national defense in the current economic environment.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen held a press conference during which they urged Congress to spare the Pentagon from the ruinous cuts contemplated by the debt ceiling compromise. But the two sounded as if they were upholding the banner of a lost cause.

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As Max wrote last night, the growing chorus of pundits and politicians who think they can erase the federal deficit through defense cuts are not only wrong on fiscal terms but are doing the country a great disservice. As we look forward to a budgetary process in which across-the-board defense cuts will be on the table, it bears asking whether there is still a strong constituency for national defense in the current economic environment.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen held a press conference during which they urged Congress to spare the Pentagon from the ruinous cuts contemplated by the debt ceiling compromise. But the two sounded as if they were upholding the banner of a lost cause.

Panetta rightly noted the Pentagon had already been forced to accept $350 billion in cuts during the next decade. That’s bad enough, but to ask it to kick in more savings toward the $1.5 trillion the special committee mandated by the debt ceiling deal must find to cut will be ruinous for the national defense. However, when the secretary urged Congress to increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes) as well as to spend less on entitlements instead of cutting defense, it was clear his advice was more a matter of wishful thinking than anything else.

With Republicans rightly dug in to oppose tax increases and Democrats set to fight against any cuts in Social Security or Medicare, it’s not likely the next step in the great compromise reached this past weekend will actually work. But whatever comes out of that committee, it appears cutting defense might be the one thing both sides appear ready to do. While Democrats can be counted on to approve any defense cuts (except for those that affect particular states or constituencies), the question is whether the GOP, traditionally a bastion of support for a strong defense, will sacrifice the Pentagon in order to hold their ground on fiscal issues.

This trend has been reflected in the GOP presidential race, where foreign policy and defense have been put on the back burner by all of the candidates. Unless there is some radical alternation in the political climate that will re-focus our attention on foreign policy — a development made all the more unlikely by the recent disastrous economic news — it’s hard to see how a coalition to oppose defense cuts can be assembled.

The impact of further cuts on both technology and force readiness may be incalculable. The established pattern of American history has always shown most Americans to be indifferent to defense and hostile paying for it until a time of crisis. The widespread talk of more sacrifices to be made by the Defense Department makes it appear as if history may be repeating itself. That means the ayatollahs in Iran and their nuclear scientists may have more influence on the budget process in the next couple of years than anything said by Panetta or Mullen. But the problem with such an equation is if a nuclear Iran does wake up America to its need to fund defense, the cost of that wake-up call may be paid in blood, a commodity still more precious than budgetary allocations.

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The Altalena’s Enduring Power

The Forward reported today the Israeli government has set in motion plans to raise the Altalena, an armed Jewish ship sunk by Palmach troops in the early days of Israel’s independence. The incident has long been recalled as the moment of potential civil war for the new state, when a challenge to its authority by the independent-minded (and terrorist to boot) Irgun led by Menachem Begin was forcibly put down by David Ben-Gurion, who understood that to function properly a state must have a monopoly on arms.

The current fight, though, has less to do with the Altalena itself than the more potent battle over historical memory.

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The Forward reported today the Israeli government has set in motion plans to raise the Altalena, an armed Jewish ship sunk by Palmach troops in the early days of Israel’s independence. The incident has long been recalled as the moment of potential civil war for the new state, when a challenge to its authority by the independent-minded (and terrorist to boot) Irgun led by Menachem Begin was forcibly put down by David Ben-Gurion, who understood that to function properly a state must have a monopoly on arms.

The current fight, though, has less to do with the Altalena itself than the more potent battle over historical memory.

That may sound like a fight about the past, but it is really a fight about the future. In that Forward article, the Israeli left-wing writer Gershom Gorenberg is quoted comparing arguments Ben-Gurion (and not Begin) was to blame for the 19 deaths in the incident to attempts to cast the American Civil War as the South’s effort to preserve the Union. That’s really just his way of saying he doesn’t want the issue reopened, because the narrative that suits his politics has won the day. Any aspersions at hand (raising the wreck is a waste of money, the matter is settled and there’s nothing new to know) will do, for Gorenberg and those who think like him are dedicated most to defending their political camp’s continued monopoly over history.

Interestingly enough, something similar has been happening of late in the United States in the efforts of a school board in Texas to dramatically revise many sections of public school American history texts. As repeatedly reported by the New York Times, the board has particular weight because the size of Texas’ population means the textbook publishers generally use the edition they make for that state for the entire country. Just as the Israeli left will likely be upset by the effort to revisit “settled” history, so too has the American left become upset about the efforts of that Texas school board to inject into the text less secular interpretations of the ideas of the Founding Fathers and more sympathetic interpretations of conservative philosophers.

The truly interesting story then is–in America and elsewhere–the political right has in recent years woken up to the tremendous victory the left won in recent generations over education and history and come to understand the incredible power this has handed to their political opponents. Though the left today may still see itself as a revolutionary force, it really is mostly made up of partisans to the established order and its 80-year dominance over the assumptions of government and public debate.

For Israel, it may all add up to only one more sign of the entrenchment of the right’s political dominance. It would be foolish, though, to believe the question of the rights and wrongs of the Altalena is an unimportant one.

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A Double Dip Recession?

This morning, the Labor Department reported payrolls rose by 117,000 workers in July after a 46,000 increase in June. The jobless rate also dropped from 9.2 percent to 9.1 percent – but that’s because more Americans left the labor force. Some 193,000 people left the labor force last month while the number of unemployed dropped by 156,000. (As a reference point, payrolls need to increase about 125,000 a month to keep the jobless rate steady and about 200,000 a month in order to bring the unemployment rate down a percentage point over a year.) And the so-called underemployment rate — which includes part-time workers who’d prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking — decreased to 16.1 percent from 16.2 percent. But here’s the most eye-catching data point of all: The share of the eligible population holding a job declined to 58.1 percent, the lowest since July 1983.

White House chief economist Austan Goolsbee said today’s figures are “encouraging news,” which shows you the degree to which we’re defining encouraging news these days. A more pessimistic, and perhaps a more realistic, appraisal comes to us courtesy of Floyd Norris, chief financial correspondent of the New York Times, who today writes, “Double dip may be back. It has been three decades since the United States suffered a recession that followed on the heels of the previous one. But it could be happening again. The unrelenting negative economic news of the past two weeks has painted a picture of a United States economy that fell further and recovered less than we had thought.”

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This morning, the Labor Department reported payrolls rose by 117,000 workers in July after a 46,000 increase in June. The jobless rate also dropped from 9.2 percent to 9.1 percent – but that’s because more Americans left the labor force. Some 193,000 people left the labor force last month while the number of unemployed dropped by 156,000. (As a reference point, payrolls need to increase about 125,000 a month to keep the jobless rate steady and about 200,000 a month in order to bring the unemployment rate down a percentage point over a year.) And the so-called underemployment rate — which includes part-time workers who’d prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking — decreased to 16.1 percent from 16.2 percent. But here’s the most eye-catching data point of all: The share of the eligible population holding a job declined to 58.1 percent, the lowest since July 1983.

White House chief economist Austan Goolsbee said today’s figures are “encouraging news,” which shows you the degree to which we’re defining encouraging news these days. A more pessimistic, and perhaps a more realistic, appraisal comes to us courtesy of Floyd Norris, chief financial correspondent of the New York Times, who today writes, “Double dip may be back. It has been three decades since the United States suffered a recession that followed on the heels of the previous one. But it could be happening again. The unrelenting negative economic news of the past two weeks has painted a picture of a United States economy that fell further and recovered less than we had thought.”

Heading into an election year, a Democratic president (or his party) doesn’t want to have the New York Times speculating about a double dip recession. But that’s where we are – and by the admission of his own top aides, this economy is one President Obama owns.

 

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The Media Myth of “Independents”

Last month, when Bethany Murphy wandered over to the “No Labels” rally in Washington, she found a sparse crowd unenthusiastic about their “cause”–centrism, civility, nonpartisanship, etc. But she also found something there that teaches an important lesson for presidential candidates as we head into the 2012 election.

One of the attendees at the rally asked another what their next step was; the reply was, there wasn’t one. Bethany wrote: “Those at No Labels have no next step, because they have no base from which to demand action.” This is a crystal clear distillation of one of the most often debunked myths of presidential elections: that “nonpartisan independents” are the key to victory. Republicans should keep this in mind as the media scolds them for “pandering” to their base while Democrats smartly and loudly complain President Obama should stop ignoring his own base.

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Last month, when Bethany Murphy wandered over to the “No Labels” rally in Washington, she found a sparse crowd unenthusiastic about their “cause”–centrism, civility, nonpartisanship, etc. But she also found something there that teaches an important lesson for presidential candidates as we head into the 2012 election.

One of the attendees at the rally asked another what their next step was; the reply was, there wasn’t one. Bethany wrote: “Those at No Labels have no next step, because they have no base from which to demand action.” This is a crystal clear distillation of one of the most often debunked myths of presidential elections: that “nonpartisan independents” are the key to victory. Republicans should keep this in mind as the media scolds them for “pandering” to their base while Democrats smartly and loudly complain President Obama should stop ignoring his own base.

For example, Reuters TV White House correspondent Jon Decker is quoted by the Wall Street Journal this morning holding up the campaign of Sharron Angle as indicative of how the GOP could lose to Obama in 2012:

Despite Nevada’s 14 percent unemployment rate; despite the highest bankruptcy rate in the country; despite the highest home foreclosure rate in the country; Harry Reid won another six years in the U.S. Senate (and by a comfortable 5.6 percent margin). The reason: Sharron Angle. The Tea Party-backed Republican made no effort to reach out to independent voters or disaffected Democrats. Similarly, if the 2012 Republican nominee is someone who is portrayed by the mainstream media as extreme or overly partisan, Team Obama will have won half the battle. Harry Reid beat the odds and won a fifth term in a state battered by a bad economy. He won because he made Angle the issue, not the economy. Should the GOP have such a flawed nominee as their standard-bearer in 2012, President Barack Obama will likely follow that same Reid blueprint to victory.

I will not argue there is no such thing as a truly flawed nominee. I don’t think the Republican party can nominate just anyone and win. But there are two declarations in this quote that merit more scrutiny. First, Decker writes, “if the 2012 Republican nominee is someone who is portrayed by the mainstream media as extreme or overly partisan, Team Obama will have won half the battle.” Let me remove the uncertainty for him: the 2012 GOP nominee will be portrayed by the media as extreme or partisan (but probably both). How do I know this? Because they will not nominate a Democrat for the Republican presidential nomination.

The second is Angle made no attempt to reach out to independents or Democrats. Republicans should not fall into the trap Decker is setting for them. Voters are dissatisfied with the incumbent president because his policies have failed. There is no “reaching out” to Democrats and independents (or Republicans for that matter), at least in the classic sense; there is only offering solutions.

This is mainly because independents don’t really exist–at least not in the way the media and pollsters continue to claim they do, against all available evidence. Last month, Alan Abramowitz wrote another full takedown of the obsession with independents–who usually vote for one party and are not an accurate indicator of the popular vote. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx sums it up perfectly: “most ‘independents’ aren’t independent. The ones who are care most about the economy, not displays of bipartisanship. And winning independents doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the popular vote.”

The truth is, firing up your party base is at least as important as appealing to independents, and usually more so. No matter what “No Labels” tells you.

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Dems Cave on Pork, Agree to Reopen FAA

After a failed attempt to portray Republicans as “hostage-takers,” Senate Democrats finally decided to sit down and compromise with the GOP to end the temporary Federal Aviation Administration shutdown yesterday. And by “compromise,” I mean Democrats realized eliminating thousands of FAA jobs because Sen. Harry Reid didn’t want to give up millions in pork to his district probably wasn’t good for their public image – so they caved and decided to support the Republican bill:

Under the arrangement, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Friday will pass by unanimous consent a bill the Republican-led House passed in July that temporarily allows the FAA to conduct its business and slashes $16 million from the budget for subsidies paid to rural airports. That would allow the FAA to recall its furloughed employees and get up and running again at full strength – at least until Sept. 16, when the temporary extension would expire.

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After a failed attempt to portray Republicans as “hostage-takers,” Senate Democrats finally decided to sit down and compromise with the GOP to end the temporary Federal Aviation Administration shutdown yesterday. And by “compromise,” I mean Democrats realized eliminating thousands of FAA jobs because Sen. Harry Reid didn’t want to give up millions in pork to his district probably wasn’t good for their public image – so they caved and decided to support the Republican bill:

Under the arrangement, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Friday will pass by unanimous consent a bill the Republican-led House passed in July that temporarily allows the FAA to conduct its business and slashes $16 million from the budget for subsidies paid to rural airports. That would allow the FAA to recall its furloughed employees and get up and running again at full strength – at least until Sept. 16, when the temporary extension would expire.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could then use his authority to grant waivers to any rural airports faced with losing the subsidy, which helps them entice air carriers to provide service. If the airport authorities make a convincing case, LaHood would allow them to keep receiving the money, a Transportation Department aide said.

By using the unanimous consent method to pass the bill, Senate Democrats may be able to dodge some responsibility for the legislation, because they didn’t technically “vote” for it – especially because many of them probably aren’t even in town today.

Also, if Ray LaHood does allow the rural airports to keep receiving subsidies – that’s the “pork” issue Democrats were blocking the FAA funding bill for – then the blame will fall squarely on the administration, instead of Senate Democrats. Either way, it’s not a bad outcome for Republicans, who are probably just as happy to pin responsibility on the White House as on Democrats in the Senate.

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A Passport and the White House’s Web Site

Two months after Menachem Zivotofsky was born in 2002 to American parents in West Jerusalem (at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, which has been in Jerusalem since 1902), his mother went to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to get a passport for him, asking it show his place of birth as “Jerusalem, Israel.”

The embassy entered “Jerusalem” on the passport, but refused to enter “Israel,” despite the fact Congress enacted a law in 2002 directing the State Department to enter “Israel” if a citizen so requested.  

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Two months after Menachem Zivotofsky was born in 2002 to American parents in West Jerusalem (at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, which has been in Jerusalem since 1902), his mother went to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to get a passport for him, asking it show his place of birth as “Jerusalem, Israel.”

The embassy entered “Jerusalem” on the passport, but refused to enter “Israel,” despite the fact Congress enacted a law in 2002 directing the State Department to enter “Israel” if a citizen so requested.  

Nine years later, the constitutionality of the law is curently before the U.S. Supreme Court in Zivotofsky v. Clinton. Zivotofsky’s brief was filed last Friday, and this week, One Jerusalem held an informative conference call with his lawyers to review the case.

At the New York Sun, I have set forth a particularly interesting portion of the call, and discuss the fact that while the administration has refused to put “Jerusalem, Israel” on Zivotofsky’s  passport (or even simply “Israel”), the White House website has a series of pictures from Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel last year — all of which have a caption identifying his location as “Jerusalem, Israel.”

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Russia Steps Up “Dirty Tricks” Campaign Against U.S. Diplomats

As if the CIA linking the Russian government to a recent American embassy bombing in Georgia last week wasn’t evidence enough the “reset” never got off the ground, Eli Lake reports Russian intelligence agencies have began stepping up their intimidation campaign against U.S. diplomats:

U.S. diplomats and officials have found their homes broken into and vandalized, or altered in ways as trivial as bathroom use; faced anonymous or veiled threats; and in some cases found themselves set up in compromising photos or videos that are later leaked to the local press and presented as a sex scandal. …

They have become worse in just the past year, some U.S. officials said. Also, their targets are broadening to include human rights workers and nongovernmental organizations as well as embassy staff.

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As if the CIA linking the Russian government to a recent American embassy bombing in Georgia last week wasn’t evidence enough the “reset” never got off the ground, Eli Lake reports Russian intelligence agencies have began stepping up their intimidation campaign against U.S. diplomats:

U.S. diplomats and officials have found their homes broken into and vandalized, or altered in ways as trivial as bathroom use; faced anonymous or veiled threats; and in some cases found themselves set up in compromising photos or videos that are later leaked to the local press and presented as a sex scandal. …

They have become worse in just the past year, some U.S. officials said. Also, their targets are broadening to include human rights workers and nongovernmental organizations as well as embassy staff.

One U.S. official from the Moscow-based National Democratic Institute allegedly had a photo of him doctored to make it look like he was laying down next to an underage girl. The photo appeared in the Russian media, along with accusations from a Russian woman that the official had raped her 9-year-old daughter.

And yet, according to intelligence officials, the Obama administration has not seemed to take these incidents seriously.

“We are concerned about the acts of intimidation as well as their record on previous agreements and other activities,” former Sen. Kit Bond, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee until 2010, told the Times. “It’s a real concern, I’ve raised it. It’s not the intelligence committee that fails to understand the problem. It’s the Obama administration.”

It’s as if the Obama administration is intentionally trying to play ignorant in order to maintain the façade the reset has been successful, no matter how bad the situation actually is. Just last week, Obama praised President Medvedev and the “enormous progress” of the reset strategy, in an interview with Russia’s official state news agency:

“Well, first of all, I think it’s important for us to look back over the last two years and see the enormous progress we’ve made. I started talking about reset when I was still a candidate for president, and immediately reached out to President Medvedev as soon as I was elected. And we have been, I think, extraordinarily successful partners in moving towards reset,” Obama said.

It’s interesting Obama continues to focus on his relationship with Medvedev, as opposed to with the actual leader in Russia. I’m sure Obama gets along great with the Russian president, but clearly it’s not going to have any impact as long as Prime Minister Putin – a former FSB official – is really running the show.

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Double Dip Disaster Challenges Both Parties

Coming on the heels of yesterday’s dramatic stock market plunge, today’s job numbers report may help steady the nation’s nerves for a while. The Department of Labor reported a better than expected total of new jobs created with the unemployment rate dropping just a bit to 9.1 percent in July. But reassurance for markets, businesses and consumers may be in short supply in the coming months. All the signs seem to be pointing toward the nation slipping into a double dip recession, which means we may well look back on this month as the calm before the storm hit with worse to follow. There’s little doubt the much-ballyhooed Obama recovery from the collapse of 2008 is officially over. The Obama recession is upon us.

Where this leaves the president and a divided Congress in the coming weeks is something of a puzzle. Obama responded to the last recession with mammoth expenditures in a failed billion-dollar stimulus and a vast expansion of entitlement spending via his health care bill and would probably like to try more of the same. The Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 2010 election ensured this experiment wouldn’t be repeated, leaving the president with no options but to spend the next 15 months ranting about the need for more taxes and blaming the Republican Congress for all that has gone wrong. Obama can’t evade his ownership for the economy, and unless there is a miraculous recovery in the next year, this will doom his re-election hopes. But he isn’t the only one with problems.

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Coming on the heels of yesterday’s dramatic stock market plunge, today’s job numbers report may help steady the nation’s nerves for a while. The Department of Labor reported a better than expected total of new jobs created with the unemployment rate dropping just a bit to 9.1 percent in July. But reassurance for markets, businesses and consumers may be in short supply in the coming months. All the signs seem to be pointing toward the nation slipping into a double dip recession, which means we may well look back on this month as the calm before the storm hit with worse to follow. There’s little doubt the much-ballyhooed Obama recovery from the collapse of 2008 is officially over. The Obama recession is upon us.

Where this leaves the president and a divided Congress in the coming weeks is something of a puzzle. Obama responded to the last recession with mammoth expenditures in a failed billion-dollar stimulus and a vast expansion of entitlement spending via his health care bill and would probably like to try more of the same. The Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 2010 election ensured this experiment wouldn’t be repeated, leaving the president with no options but to spend the next 15 months ranting about the need for more taxes and blaming the Republican Congress for all that has gone wrong. Obama can’t evade his ownership for the economy, and unless there is a miraculous recovery in the next year, this will doom his re-election hopes. But he isn’t the only one with problems.

Focused as they are on defeating the president, Republicans have done their best to ignore the fact Congress’ own popularity ratings are at a record low. House Speaker John Boehner deserves praise for his steady leadership during the debt ceiling crisis. But we can expect Democrats to try to shift the blame for the latest economic meltdown on the GOP’s decision to make a stand on cutting spending before agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. That means 2012 could turn out to be very different from 2010 when the Tea Party revolt against the governmental spending binge during Obama’s first two years in office created a disaster for Democrats. Next year, virtually all incumbents may be at risk, making the final result harder to predict than anyone thought.

Though Obama and the Democrats are clueless as to how to fix the broken economy, the Republicans will have to come up with a more coherent critique of the administration than the attack on big government that worked last year. In 2012, the Republicans will need to be led by someone with a firm grasp of economics and a clear alternative to the president’s liberal patent nostrums. That will require a response that is more than merely a lecture about cutting spending and not raising taxes even if those are worthy ideas. As much as Obama may be in trouble, Republicans will also need to respond to the double dip crisis with something more than stale ideology.

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