Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 16, 2011

Bachmann’s Disgraceful Refusal to Apologize

In his column today, Michael Gerson makes a very strong case that Representative Michele Bachmann, who said earlier this week that the HPV vaccine might cause mental retardation, “seems prone to a serious condition: the compulsive desire to confirm every evangelical stereotype of censorious ignorance.” Ms. Bachmann, meanwhile, has dug in, insisting  she will not apologize for her remarks.

She should.

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In his column today, Michael Gerson makes a very strong case that Representative Michele Bachmann, who said earlier this week that the HPV vaccine might cause mental retardation, “seems prone to a serious condition: the compulsive desire to confirm every evangelical stereotype of censorious ignorance.” Ms. Bachmann, meanwhile, has dug in, insisting  she will not apologize for her remarks.

She should.

What Ms. Bachmann said in the aftermath of the GOP debate is beyond ignorant and beyond even stupid; it was downright harmful, raising concerns about a vaccine that are simply not true (we saw a similar thing happen with childhood vaccines and autism). By now Ms. Bachmann surely must know that — and so for her to continue to stand behind her comments is irresponsible and even disgraceful.

I suspect that she will, at some point, back away from what she said, simply because her comments were, literally, indefensible. But by then, the damage to her will be, and should be, massive.

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Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play?

This week Democrats lost two significant special elections that were referendums on the president, with Democrats sustaining an eight-point loss in a district (NY-9) they had controlled since the Harding presidency and getting blown out by 22 points in a swing district (NV-2) of a battleground state. Perhaps more ominously for Democrats, the “Mediscare” tactics Democrats have used against Republicans for decades was completely ineffective.

Americans are increasingly gloomy about the future, with a gauge of expectations falling to the lowest level since 1980, according to a new survey. The Census Bureau informed us that the poverty rate in 2010 rose for the third consecutive year, with 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. The report also indicated that median household income, adjusted for inflation, was lower last year than any year since in 1997.

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This week Democrats lost two significant special elections that were referendums on the president, with Democrats sustaining an eight-point loss in a district (NY-9) they had controlled since the Harding presidency and getting blown out by 22 points in a swing district (NV-2) of a battleground state. Perhaps more ominously for Democrats, the “Mediscare” tactics Democrats have used against Republicans for decades was completely ineffective.

Americans are increasingly gloomy about the future, with a gauge of expectations falling to the lowest level since 1980, according to a new survey. The Census Bureau informed us that the poverty rate in 2010 rose for the third consecutive year, with 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. The report also indicated that median household income, adjusted for inflation, was lower last year than any year since in 1997.

In addition, according to Politico, “It’s open season on President Barack Obama — and that’s just from members of his own party.” Democrats are also turning on the president’s jobs bill. Mr. Obama’s Gallup approval rating has dropped into the 30s again. In Virginia, a state he carried in 2008, Mr. Obama’s approval-disapproval rating is 40 v. 54, with more than half saying he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected. His support in blue states generally is ebbing.

James Carville, who earlier wrote that it was time for the White House to “panic,” now says that President Obama is not going to win re-election based on the course he’s on. And William Galston, a top aide to President Clinton, told  USA Today, “I’ve now gotten old enough so every new movie strikes me as a sequel, and this is beginning to feel a little like 1979 and 1980 to me.” At that time, “the American people were coming to the conclusion that they would like to replace Jimmy Carter, if the Republicans presented a reasonable alternative to him, and then that was what the general election was about.” Of Obama, Galston says, “His presidency is in peril.”

If that’s not enough, the four-star Air Force general who oversees Air Force Space Command, General William Shelton, reportedly told Congress that the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor. And Jon Stewart is going after the Obama administration on the Solyndra scandal, which seems to be growing by the day.

Other than that, it was another fine week for the president.

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Would Jews Be Welcome in “Palestine”?

Yesterday, Jonathan ably fisked a leftist attempt to dismiss the statement this week by the PLO’s ambassador to the United States that Jews would not be
allowed to live in a future state of Palestine.

But there is another important point to be made about the comments that ambassador and other Palestinian officials later made to try to clarify that he really didn’t mean what he had said. At least one American news outlet sees their words as sufficient cause to headline an article, “Jews Welcome.” Still, these newer comments demonstrate, perhaps even more clearly, that Palestinian officials remain incapable of the basic understanding and acknowledgement of the Zionist proposition a true peace will require.

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Yesterday, Jonathan ably fisked a leftist attempt to dismiss the statement this week by the PLO’s ambassador to the United States that Jews would not be
allowed to live in a future state of Palestine.

But there is another important point to be made about the comments that ambassador and other Palestinian officials later made to try to clarify that he really didn’t mean what he had said. At least one American news outlet sees their words as sufficient cause to headline an article, “Jews Welcome.” Still, these newer comments demonstrate, perhaps even more clearly, that Palestinian officials remain incapable of the basic understanding and acknowledgement of the Zionist proposition a true peace will require.

In particular, Mahmoud Habash, minister of religious affairs, said, “The future Palestinian state will be open to all its citizens, regardless of their religion,” while the PLO ambassador said, “We have never said this is a religious conflict.”

But of course, the Zionist idea has always been framed by the conviction, as I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Gavison, a professor at Hebrew University and 2011 winner of the Israel Prize for legal research, explain this past summer, that Jewishness is not “exhausted” by religion. From the devoutly secular pioneers of the Second Aliyah through, in their way, to the Tel Aviv hipsters of today and expressed most honorably by thinkers like Gavison herself, there have always been Zionists who view their Jewish identity in strictly secular terms. Even for religious Zionists, the national character of Jewish identity is similarly of equal importance to the religious. This is, of course, the basic nature of what it means to be Zionist: to believe the Jewish people are not a religious group only, comparable in basically equal terms to Muslims, Christians, or other confessional faiths, but a living people, a nation, with therefore the same natural right to self-determination as any other.

This can and should be taken a further step. The idea of a bifurcation between a religious and a national identity is itself one entirely foreign to traditional Jewish identity. The very notion of a “religious” self that can be bracketed out from the national one is relatively easily traced to 19th century Christian scholarship, which was then used, unsuccessfully, to define the Jews as well. Classic Reform attempts to make Judaism mimic the Christian distinction between faith and peoplehood notwithstanding, the idea a Jew can be talked about as a religious person only has little resonance in Jewish thought from any era. Indeed, Reform’s formal subscription to Zionism in 1937, to say nothing of the lived history of that movement, says much about the level of acceptance by Jews of this idea.

In short, it is not nearly good enough for Palestinians to claim, as they long have, Jews would be welcome in their state as a religious group. They must also accept that we are a living people, acknowledging our national as well as our religious identity, if the conflict between us is ever to come to a just and true conclusion.

 

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Waxman Uses Anti-Semitic Trope in Blast at GOP Jews

Lost in the avalanche of commentary about the shocking victory of a Republican in a heavily Jewish New York Congressional district this week was one inexcusable comment from a prominent Democrat about the prospect of just such a defeat for his party. Rather than defend his party on the issues, and echoing a well-established anti-Semitic cliché, Rep. Henry Waxman claimed the reason many Jews were trending Republican was only because they care about their money.

Here’s the complete quote in an article in The Hill published Tuesday:

“I think Jewish voters will be Democratic and be for Obama in 2012, especially if you get a Republican candidate like Gov. Perry. But there’s no question the Jewish community is much more bipartisan than it has been in previous years. There are Jews who are trending toward the Republican Party, some of it because of their misunderstanding of Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and some of it, quite frankly, for economic reasons. They feel they want to protect their wealth, which is why a lot of well-off voters vote for Republicans.”

This is odious.

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Lost in the avalanche of commentary about the shocking victory of a Republican in a heavily Jewish New York Congressional district this week was one inexcusable comment from a prominent Democrat about the prospect of just such a defeat for his party. Rather than defend his party on the issues, and echoing a well-established anti-Semitic cliché, Rep. Henry Waxman claimed the reason many Jews were trending Republican was only because they care about their money.

Here’s the complete quote in an article in The Hill published Tuesday:

“I think Jewish voters will be Democratic and be for Obama in 2012, especially if you get a Republican candidate like Gov. Perry. But there’s no question the Jewish community is much more bipartisan than it has been in previous years. There are Jews who are trending toward the Republican Party, some of it because of their misunderstanding of Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and some of it, quite frankly, for economic reasons. They feel they want to protect their wealth, which is why a lot of well-off voters vote for Republicans.”

This is odious.

Accusing Jews of being motivated only by economic factors, like “their wealth,” is the sort of thing we expect to hear from anti-Semites not liberal Congressmen from California.

While American Jews, like anyone else, can be said to have economic interests, the language that Waxman used here is loaded. The idea that Jews care only about “their wealth” has been a staple of anti-Semitic invective for centuries. It was part of the foundation of hate that paved the way for the dehumanization of Jews that led inevitably to the Holocaust.

But Waxman’s statement is not only deeply offensive; it is also a lie. Wealthy Jews are just as likely to be part of the majority of the community that identify as liberals and Democrats. The demographic slices of American Jewry that have shown the most promise for Republicans are the young, the Orthodox and immigrants, most of whom are less likely to have acquired much wealth to protect than other Jews.

Waxman’s goal here was not to debate those members of his own community that disagree with him on policy but to delegitimize them as selfish misers who care nothing for others, exactly the sort of anti-Semitic trope that can be found in the literature of hate. That he would parrot anti-Semitic rhetoric is highly ironic since, like many Jewish public figures, he has been subjected to such attacks in the past.

Waxman is well known as the sort of politician who is liable to use the most vicious rhetoric about his opponents. But the desperation and anger of liberals at the prospect of losing a portion of the Jewish vote seems to have unhinged him.

Contrary to his claim, Jews don’t “misunderstand” the Obama administration’s attitude toward Israel. In fact, they understand it all too well despite occasional acts of friendship from the president. But they also understand when they are being libeled. Waxman deserves to be censured by the Anti-Defamation League (we expect that were he not a prominent liberal Jew, the ADL would have already roasted him in public) and condemned by all decent members of the community whatever their political affiliation.

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Media Blasted for Obama Coverage

Gone are the days when all Obama had to do to charm the news media was don a pair of blue jeans. Now the Solyndra scandal has become a Jon Stewart punchline, news outlets are joining the mockery of the the AttackWatch campaign site, and even James Carville is advising the White House to panic.

David Axelrod, clearly longing for the good old days, is now blaming the media for hyping Obama’s bad month (in a memo he released to the media):

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Gone are the days when all Obama had to do to charm the news media was don a pair of blue jeans. Now the Solyndra scandal has become a Jon Stewart punchline, news outlets are joining the mockery of the the AttackWatch campaign site, and even James Carville is advising the White House to panic.

David Axelrod, clearly longing for the good old days, is now blaming the media for hyping Obama’s bad month (in a memo he released to the media):

Members of the media have focused on the president’s approval ratings as if they existed in a black box.  Following the intransigence of the Republicans during the debt debate, the approval rating of the GOP brand dropped to a historic low. …

Despite what you hear in elite commentary, the president’s support among base voters and in key demographic groups has stayed strong.

Let’s see. Obama’s approval ratings are crashing and burning, new scandals are popping up daily, and his jobs plan is being widely panned by members of his own party. All that, and Axelrod still expects flattering coverage?

More than anything, the memo is a sign the media culture is beginning to change. Obama still gets far better coverage than a Republican politician would. But the rise of right-leaning media outlets and the competition for web traffic has made it much harder for mainstream outlets to ignore legitimate stories that reflect poorly on Democrats. That’s not to say the coverage of Obama’s campaign will be as fair and balanced as it should be, but he’s not going to get as much of a free pass as he did in 2008.

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Perry Lays Down Pro-Israel Marker

The best indication an American politician was seriously considering a run for president used to be either a trip to Israel or lending their name to an effort to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Most of the candidates have already taken their trips, and hypocrisy on the embassy is a bit old-fashioned (especially since all of the candidates who pledged to move it never did so). But if you’re a presidential candidate who wants to lay down a pro-Israel marker, putting your name on an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post as a supporter of the Jewish state will do just as well.

It is in this moderately cynical light that backers of Israel will read the piece published in the Post yesterday as well as the Wall Street Journal today) with Perry’s byline. Pro-Israel rhetoric is not wasted even in Republican primaries in which few Jews vote, as so many evangelical Christians also care about the issue. But though the text of the article is excellent, the main point is it is the beginning of Perry’s outreach to American Jews on the one issue on which he can appeal to them.

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The best indication an American politician was seriously considering a run for president used to be either a trip to Israel or lending their name to an effort to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Most of the candidates have already taken their trips, and hypocrisy on the embassy is a bit old-fashioned (especially since all of the candidates who pledged to move it never did so). But if you’re a presidential candidate who wants to lay down a pro-Israel marker, putting your name on an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post as a supporter of the Jewish state will do just as well.

It is in this moderately cynical light that backers of Israel will read the piece published in the Post yesterday as well as the Wall Street Journal today) with Perry’s byline. Pro-Israel rhetoric is not wasted even in Republican primaries in which few Jews vote, as so many evangelical Christians also care about the issue. But though the text of the article is excellent, the main point is it is the beginning of Perry’s outreach to American Jews on the one issue on which he can appeal to them.

Perry’s column is exemplary. It rightly blames the current sorry state of Middle East diplomacy on President Obama’s foolish insistence on distancing the United States from Israel early on in his presidency while seeking engagement with Iran and Syria. Without expressing explicit support for Israel’s position on Jerusalem, Perry says Obama’s call for a settlement freeze in the West Bank as well as the capital was a mistake that only encouraged the Palestinians to think the U.S. was abandoning Israel. He goes on to note, so long as the “right of return” is on the table, the Palestinians are signaling their intention remains Israel’s destruction. He pointedly warns the PA its unwillingness to negotiate may endanger their flow of U.S. aid.

To be fair to Perry, this is not his first pro-Israel statement, having once led a trade mission to the Jewish state where he compared Masada to the Alamo. But the timing of the piece shows Perry’s staff is already thinking ahead to next year when they will try and exploit President Obama’s sinking popularity among Jewish voters. To do so, Perry will have to show them he is not the fire-breathing evangelical most American Jews fear more than Islamist terrorists. But establishing his pro-Israel bona fides is a start.

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Anti-Israel Rally Flops in Jordan

With the sack of Israel’s embassy in Cairo last week fresh in everyone’s minds, the prospect of a repeat of that debacle caused Jerusalem to evacuate their diplomatic staff from Jordan prior to a scheduled rally in Amman. But as it turns out, worries about a proposed “million man march” were, to put it mildly, exaggerated. Only 200 Palestinians showed up outside the embassy yesterday, illustrating not only the impotence of their movement in a country that has peaceful relations with Israel.

The flop of the rally at a time when anti-Israel ferment in the Arab world is peeking shows the vast differences between the situation in Jordan and what is going on in Egypt.

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With the sack of Israel’s embassy in Cairo last week fresh in everyone’s minds, the prospect of a repeat of that debacle caused Jerusalem to evacuate their diplomatic staff from Jordan prior to a scheduled rally in Amman. But as it turns out, worries about a proposed “million man march” were, to put it mildly, exaggerated. Only 200 Palestinians showed up outside the embassy yesterday, illustrating not only the impotence of their movement in a country that has peaceful relations with Israel.

The flop of the rally at a time when anti-Israel ferment in the Arab world is peeking shows the vast differences between the situation in Jordan and what is going on in Egypt.

In Egypt, though the riot against Israel’s diplomatic presence in Cairo was, no doubt, fueled in no small measure by the drumbeat of anti-Semitic incitement that has infected Egyptian culture, anti-Zionism has also become yet another way to vent the mob’s frustration with the failure of the Arab Spring to do more than topple the Mubarak dictatorship. But in Jordan, as the New York Times coverage of the incident indicated, some regard the effort to break the treaty with Israel as an effort by the Palestinians to overthrow their government. King Abdullah’s father Hussein fought a short war in 1970 in which thousands of Palestinians were massacred. While Jordan has not been helpful to Israel during the current diplomatic crisis, Abdullah’s regime has no intention of being sucked into the violence that may ensue in the West Bank as a result of the Palestinian Authority’s campaign at the United Nations.

It is also interesting to note those Palestinians who did show up made it clear they had no interest in the independent state in the West Bank and Gaza along the 1967 lines the PA is asking the UN to recognize. They, like most Palestinians, have a different and more ambitious goal: the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state.

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The End of Palin Derangement Syndrome?

Joe McGinniss’s new book on Sarah Palin has had a surprisingly strong backlash from the left, as Politico reports this morning. Most of the focus has been on this unfavorable New York Times review by Janet Maslin, but even progressive activists have been jumping to Palin’s defense.

“If male political figures were subject to the cataloging of hookups and reverie from their young-and-single years as Sarah Palin apparently is in this book, these invasions of privacy and dignity would stop. I am no fan of her politics, but she doesn’t deserve this gossip,” wrote Adam Bonin, the chairman of Netroots Nation on Politico’s Arena yesterday.

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Joe McGinniss’s new book on Sarah Palin has had a surprisingly strong backlash from the left, as Politico reports this morning. Most of the focus has been on this unfavorable New York Times review by Janet Maslin, but even progressive activists have been jumping to Palin’s defense.

“If male political figures were subject to the cataloging of hookups and reverie from their young-and-single years as Sarah Palin apparently is in this book, these invasions of privacy and dignity would stop. I am no fan of her politics, but she doesn’t deserve this gossip,” wrote Adam Bonin, the chairman of Netroots Nation on Politico’s Arena yesterday.

Greg Dworkin, a contributing editor of the Daily Kos, a hotbed of anti-Palin conspiracy theories, was more succinct. “The book is as irrelevant as Palin is,” he wrote.

Is that perception of her irrelevancy part of the reason why the left now feels comfortable defending her? McGinniss’s book release was expected to coincide with the beginning of Palin’s presidential campaign. Would liberals be as quick to stand up for Palin if she had actually decided to run?

Based on the reviews, McGinniss’s book sounds like a compilation of poorly-sourced gossip. But there have been attacks on Palin that have been nearly as vicious – allegations she’s not Trig’s mother, for instance – that progressives let slide when Palin was more of a political threat. Now that the left has Rick Perry to worry about, is the blind hatred for Palin starting to fade? If so, that might explain why a New York Times columnist was recently so surprised to find Palin actually has “intelligent” and “wise” ideas.

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Harmful Defense Cuts and Wishful Thinking

Leon Panetta is rightly warning lawmakers if they continue to eviscerate defense spending there will be considerable cost not only to the nation’s defense
but to our economy as well. The defense secretary estimates trimming $1 trillion from the defense budget during the next decade–as could occur this fall–would add one percent to the unemployment rate. Given that unemployment is now at 9.1 percent, that’s a further hit that our economy simply can’t afford. That is in addition to what Panetta describes as the “devastating” consequences for the Department of Defense and U.S. power around the world if these cuts are implemented.

Against Panetta’s economic and strategic arguments–and they are coming, remember, from a noted fiscal hawk–what does the anti-defense side have to offer?  An unholy alliance of the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative group, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a left-wing group, have  issued recommendations for cutting more than $400 billion during the next decade. They are a combination of harmful cuts and wishful thinking.

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Leon Panetta is rightly warning lawmakers if they continue to eviscerate defense spending there will be considerable cost not only to the nation’s defense
but to our economy as well. The defense secretary estimates trimming $1 trillion from the defense budget during the next decade–as could occur this fall–would add one percent to the unemployment rate. Given that unemployment is now at 9.1 percent, that’s a further hit that our economy simply can’t afford. That is in addition to what Panetta describes as the “devastating” consequences for the Department of Defense and U.S. power around the world if these cuts are implemented.

Against Panetta’s economic and strategic arguments–and they are coming, remember, from a noted fiscal hawk–what does the anti-defense side have to offer?  An unholy alliance of the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative group, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a left-wing group, have  issued recommendations for cutting more than $400 billion during the next decade. They are a combination of harmful cuts and wishful thinking.

Under the category of wishful thinking, count their first recommendation: “The  Congressional Defense Acquisition Reform Panel developed comprehensive
recommendations for improved contract development, performance  incentives, and reforms to the Pentagon’s financial management system. Taken together, they could yield $135 billion in savings in the next ten years.” Would such substantial savings really result from the tweaks recommended by the Defense Acquisition Reform Panel? Count me as skeptical. The panel recommended such tiny steps as expanding the role of the Office of Performance Assessment and Root Cause Analysis (whatever that is), having Program Executive Office personnel “negotiate specific measurable goals with their senior acquisition executive,” and naming “the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to improve performance in the acquisition system across all requirements  that affect the acquisition system.” Only in Washington could someone believe all of this will allow us to magically purchase more for less.

The NTU and USPIRG seem to recognize this because they also include real cuts in their recommendations–e.g., eliminating the entire F-35 program. Keep in mind we have already stopped buying F-22s. F-15s and F-16s are on average a quarter century old and falling apart. Newer fighters–including China’s J-20 stealth fighter–are being developed around the world. If the U.S. has no fifth-generation fighter of its own, we will be conceding air supremacy for the first time since the early, dark days of World War II. That is an unacceptable risk.

Keep in mind, moreover, even if all the NTU/USPIRG recommendations are implemented, they would still account for less than half of the potential cuts that may be coming to the defense budget. In their own way, then, these groups are inadvertently making the case against the  massive cuts Congress is now contemplating.

 

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Compromise and the Constitution

Tomorrow is the 224th anniversary of when the delegates to the Federal Convention voted to approve a new Constitution.

One of the encouraging things we’re witnessing in our time is a renewed interest in the Constitution, most especially among Tea Party activists, many of whom consider themselves to be “Constitutional Conservatives.”

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Tomorrow is the 224th anniversary of when the delegates to the Federal Convention voted to approve a new Constitution.

One of the encouraging things we’re witnessing in our time is a renewed interest in the Constitution, most especially among Tea Party activists, many of whom consider themselves to be “Constitutional Conservatives.”

What’s notable is that some of those who profess genuine devotion to the Constitution are also fierce critics, almost in principle, of compromise, which is something of an oddity. I say that because the Constitution itself was the product of a whole series of compromises, including between those who favored adding a Bill of Rights and those who did not, between big states and small ones, and between northern and southern states.

Take just one example: slavery. In Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, slaves are referred to as “three-fifths” of a person. This was the result of a compromise with southern states, who wanted to count slaves as full person in order to have more representation. Referring to slaves as three-fifths of a person was the terrible, residual effect of America’s original sin. But bear this in mind as well: at the Constitutional Convention southern delegates threatened to withdraw from the new union if slavery was outlawed. A compromise was necessary because, as James Madison wrote, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”

Madison, like the other founders, believed the Constitution would put slavery on the path to eventual extinction. And Fredrick Douglass, who had been a harsh critic of the Constitution, came to consider it “a glorious liberty document” which he “found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” Any effort to use the Constitution to end slavery would have destroyed any chance for a new Constitution to emerge. That, in turn, would have been left in place the dangerously weak Articles of Confederation, which would have done nothing to eventually uproot slavery.

It’s been said that Madison, considered by many to be the “father” of the Constitution, resisted the seductive appeal of the absolute, that he did not make the political good the hostage of the best. That’s quite true, even as no one can question that Madison was a very principled individual, a man of deep, reasoned convictions.

My point here isn’t that compromise is always the right course. It obviously depends on facts and circumstances. In my experience, those who do not hold strong principles are drawn far too quickly and easily to political compromise, viewing it as an achievement for its own sake. And beyond that is the fact compromise is a tactical matter, not a substantive philosophical outlook. What spurs the human heart to action are causes like liberty, self-government, and the inalienable rights of man — not compromise.

That said, those who portray compromise as inherently at odds with conservatism are mistaken. Conservatives who revere the Constitution and despise compromise might take a second and third look at the events that took place during that hot summer in Philadelphia, including the individuals and dispositions that gave birth to a document that John Adams called, and history has confirmed as, “the greatest single effort of national deliberation the world has ever seen.”

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National Book Award’s First Cut

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

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Time Spins for the Palestinians

Tony Karon, Time magazine’s anti-Zionist commentator on Israel, delivers a quality howler. Here’s his description of Mahmoud Abbas:

He had bet his entire political career on the expectation that jumping through whatever hoops the White House placed in front of him would eventually earn him the reward of statehood.

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Tony Karon, Time magazine’s anti-Zionist commentator on Israel, delivers a quality howler. Here’s his description of Mahmoud Abbas:

He had bet his entire political career on the expectation that jumping through whatever hoops the White House placed in front of him would eventually earn him the reward of statehood.

That’s strange, because Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post interviewed him in May 2009, right at the beginning of the process where Karon says Abbas expected to jump through all those White House hoops. Opening line of the instantly-famous piece: “Mahmoud Abbas says there is nothing for him to do.” It continues:

Abbas and his team…plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. “It will take a couple of years,” one official breezily predicted. Abbas rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession — such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees.

Instead, he says, he will remain passive. “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality.”

Karon’s piece appears in a section of Time called “Global Spin.” Very appropriate title.

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Smart Power Then and Now

More than half of yesterday’s State Department press conference was consumed by questions about the impending Palestinian petition to the UN next week. Spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, held meetings yesterday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, E.U. Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, having met the day before with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Hale and Ross are “consulting closely” with other Quartet envoys and will “remain in touch” with them today, Saturday, and again on Sunday in New York. Toner characterized all this as the U.S. being “engaged very intensively on the ground.”

Henry Kissinger shuttled between countries, separated armies, and arrived at armistice agreements with less frenetic effort than the U.S. is devoting to getting the Palestinians to adhere to multiple agreements they already signed – all of which expressly prohibit unilateral moves such as their current one. In Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation reminded the committee how the first Bush administration handled a similar situation:

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More than half of yesterday’s State Department press conference was consumed by questions about the impending Palestinian petition to the UN next week. Spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, held meetings yesterday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, E.U. Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, having met the day before with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Hale and Ross are “consulting closely” with other Quartet envoys and will “remain in touch” with them today, Saturday, and again on Sunday in New York. Toner characterized all this as the U.S. being “engaged very intensively on the ground.”

Henry Kissinger shuttled between countries, separated armies, and arrived at armistice agreements with less frenetic effort than the U.S. is devoting to getting the Palestinians to adhere to multiple agreements they already signed – all of which expressly prohibit unilateral moves such as their current one. In Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation reminded the committee how the first Bush administration handled a similar situation:

In 1988, after the PLO issued its first “declaration of statehood” and sought to gain membership in U.N. organizations, such as the World Health Organization, to bolster their claims of statehood, the first Bush Administration blocked this effort by threatening to withhold U.S. funding for the United Nations. Secretary of State James Baker publicly warned that the U.S. would cut funding to any international organization which made changes in the PLO’s status as an observer organization.

Phillips suggested the current situation should be handled by the U.S. in the same fashion: with a declaration that the U.S. will withhold voluntary or assessed funds to any UN organization that admits Palestine as a state or grants it nonmember state observer status.

The Palestinian gambit deserves such a response because the move is a blatant breach of the Oslo accords, multiple UN resolutions, and the Roadmap, all of which require that final status issues be negotiated between the parties, not determined by the UN. It would violate numerous principles for the UN to be — in Phillips’ words — “co-opted in a politicized effort to delegitimize Israel at the behest of an organization that is partnered with a terrorist group.” It could easily be stopped, as it was once before, if only the Obama administration knew how to use smart power.

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Perry is Obama’s Ace in the Hole for the Jewish Vote

Hot on the heels of the Democratic loss of the congressional seat in New York’s heavily Jewish 9th district, comes a new poll from Gallup showing President Obama’s approval rating heading south among American Jews. The poll shows 40 percent of Jews disapprove of Obama’s performance. That’s an eight percent increase since the last such survey taken in June. While that still leaves him with a 55 percent approval rating (down five points in the last four months), considering that historically, Jews are second only to African-Americans in loyalty to the Democrats, this is an earth-shaking result that may well portend disaster for both Obama and his party next year.

Leftist scribblers such as Eric Alterman are still trying to dismiss the NY-9 result as well as claiming that Jews are, despite all the evidence, quite happy with President Obama’s generally hostile attitude toward Israel. He’s kidding himself about that because, although Obama hasn’t destroyed the alliance altogether, most Americans  — Jews and non-Jews alike — agree with most Israelis who consider the president to be the most unfriendly American leader to their country in a generation. Combined with the general dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama’s weak governing style, the stage is set for a historic repudiation of the Democrat by one of the party’s strongest constituencies. But though Alterman’s daffy optimism about the Jewish vote may be unfounded, it does have one solid leg to stand on: Rick Perry.

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Hot on the heels of the Democratic loss of the congressional seat in New York’s heavily Jewish 9th district, comes a new poll from Gallup showing President Obama’s approval rating heading south among American Jews. The poll shows 40 percent of Jews disapprove of Obama’s performance. That’s an eight percent increase since the last such survey taken in June. While that still leaves him with a 55 percent approval rating (down five points in the last four months), considering that historically, Jews are second only to African-Americans in loyalty to the Democrats, this is an earth-shaking result that may well portend disaster for both Obama and his party next year.

Leftist scribblers such as Eric Alterman are still trying to dismiss the NY-9 result as well as claiming that Jews are, despite all the evidence, quite happy with President Obama’s generally hostile attitude toward Israel. He’s kidding himself about that because, although Obama hasn’t destroyed the alliance altogether, most Americans  — Jews and non-Jews alike — agree with most Israelis who consider the president to be the most unfriendly American leader to their country in a generation. Combined with the general dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama’s weak governing style, the stage is set for a historic repudiation of the Democrat by one of the party’s strongest constituencies. But though Alterman’s daffy optimism about the Jewish vote may be unfounded, it does have one solid leg to stand on: Rick Perry.

Liberals are right that Jews are not one-issue voters on Israel. But all but the most hard-core partisan Democrats and left-wingers would think twice before voting for a presidential candidate they believed to be unfriendly to the Jewish state. Republicans have searched for decades to find a candidate who could match Ronald Reagan in terms of his pro-Israel appeal, but what they needed was a Democratic opponent who could be portrayed as a new Jimmy Carter. They may have one in Barack Obama, whose determination to pick fights with Israel throughout his first three years in office is starting to lose votes and campaign contributions for the Democrats. All things being equal, Obama is setting himself up to do as poorly as Carter among Jewish voters. That doesn’t mean he won’t win something close to a majority, but if the GOP candidate can equal Reagan’s record 40 percent, that will not only be a historic rejection of the Democrats but could also make the difference in Florida or Pennsylvania.

But there is a catch to this dream scenario for the GOP. It is the fact most American Jews fear evangelicals more than Hamas or Hezbollah. The one thing that could send the vast majority of Jews fleeing back to the Democrats, Israel notwithstanding, is the presence of a fire-breathing conservative Christian at the top of the GOP ticket. It is the canard the GOP is out to destroy the separation of church and state that keeps most Jews loyal to the Democrats. If the Republicans nominate someone who will come across as challenging the rights of religious minorities, that would trump Obama’s problems with Israel.

That’s the dilemma Rick Perry poses for those anticipating a love affair between the Republicans and the Jews. If Democrats can paint Perry as a threat to religious liberty, you can forget about a 40 percent or even a 30 percent Jewish vote for the GOP.

That doesn’t mean if Perry is the nominee he won’t have a chance to convince them he is no threat as well as remind them of his own hard line support for Israel. So, too, can Barack Obama hope to win back Jewish support during his fourth year in office. More actions like his recent help for Israel during the attack on its embassy in Cairo as well as steadfast backing at the United Nations and a more resolute policy toward Iran might convince wavering Democrats to come home.

But Obama’s main hope for retaining the Jewish vote is not based on spin or even a more pro-Israel demeanor in the coming months. A strong Democratic majority in 2012 rests firmly on the Jewish phobia for evangelicals.

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