Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 20, 2011

Pundits’ Defections Indicative of Erosion

To lose generally sympathetic pundits in the aftermath of a speech isn’t the end of the world. But it can tell you something.

Two moderate-to-conservative columnists, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, have been as favorable to President Obama as one could reasonably hope, given their political philosophies. That’s particularly true of David. So it’s worth noting that yesterday’s jobs-and-budget speech by Obama lost both men.

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To lose generally sympathetic pundits in the aftermath of a speech isn’t the end of the world. But it can tell you something.

Two moderate-to-conservative columnists, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, have been as favorable to President Obama as one could reasonably hope, given their political philosophies. That’s particularly true of David. So it’s worth noting that yesterday’s jobs-and-budget speech by Obama lost both men.

The president’s remarks, in fact, caused Douthat to withdraw his earlier assessment that the president’s goal in 2012 “would be to try to paint himself as the moderate bipartisan grownup, and dismiss the Republicans as extreme, intransigent, and hyper-ideological.” Ross now argues, “Between the size, scope and design of the tax increases and the skimpiness of the entitlement reforms (nothing on Social Security, minimal tinkering on Medicare), it seems the president will be running for re-election as Nancy Pelosi instead.”

As for Brooks, he reluctantly recounts the various ways he has believed in Obama since 2008, including “when [Obama] said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.”

Brooks no longer believes. Instead, he writes, “The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used. The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals.”

Brooks refers to himself as a “sap” throughout the column. In fact, both he and Douthat are first-rate writers and thinkers. They are also honest enough to admit (in their different ways) their faith in the president has been misplaced. It’s hard to know whether Obama cares. But he should. Defections like these are indicative of a broader erosion, one that seems to be accelerating by the day.

 

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Perry, Speechwriters and Israel

Rick Santorum’s inability to break out of the second tier of Republican presidential candidates despite some spirited performances in recent debates must be galling for the former senator from Pennsylvania. But though his frustration is understandable, some of his attacks on frontrunner Rick Perry are not. Santorum has lashed out at Perry at every opportunity lately, but his assault on the Texas governor for having the chutzpah to agree with him on the Middle East verges on satire.

According to Politico, Santorum was angry Perry gave a speech in New York this morning denouncing the Palestinians’ attempt to get the United Nations to recognize their independence without first making peace with Israel. Perry also rightly denounced the fecklessness of the Obama administration that had made this diplomatic debacle for U.S. foreign policy possible. But Santorum was having none of it, even though he agreed with more or less every word Perry said. “I’ve forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel. There he is, reading a speech, that I’m sure he didn’t write, and has never taken a position on any of this stuff before, and [the media is] taking this guy seriously.”

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Rick Santorum’s inability to break out of the second tier of Republican presidential candidates despite some spirited performances in recent debates must be galling for the former senator from Pennsylvania. But though his frustration is understandable, some of his attacks on frontrunner Rick Perry are not. Santorum has lashed out at Perry at every opportunity lately, but his assault on the Texas governor for having the chutzpah to agree with him on the Middle East verges on satire.

According to Politico, Santorum was angry Perry gave a speech in New York this morning denouncing the Palestinians’ attempt to get the United Nations to recognize their independence without first making peace with Israel. Perry also rightly denounced the fecklessness of the Obama administration that had made this diplomatic debacle for U.S. foreign policy possible. But Santorum was having none of it, even though he agreed with more or less every word Perry said. “I’ve forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel. There he is, reading a speech, that I’m sure he didn’t write, and has never taken a position on any of this stuff before, and [the media is] taking this guy seriously.”

First of all, if politicians had to write all their own speeches, that would be, more or less, an end to political speeches in this country. That might not be a bad thing. But for Santorum to attack another pol for reading a speech somebody else wrote is pretty silly.

Second, it’s not true Perry has never said anything about Israel before. While as a governor he has not had to speak out on these issues the way Santorum did during his 12 years in the Senate, he did lead a trade mission to the Jewish state and has, from to time, made statements that pleased the pro-Israel community–such as his call for the prosecution of any American who took part in attempts to brake the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. That doesn’t make Perry a foreign policy wonk, but it also doesn’t disqualify from speaking out passionately and persuasively — as he did this morning — on one of the most important issues of the day, especially if he’s going to say the right things. Nor does it mean, as Santorum also absurdly claimed, he has flip-flopped on Israel. He has never come out on the other side of the debate in the way that, say, Mitt Romney has on abortion or other issues.

Santorum does have a long record of support for Israel and, even more to the point, has a very good understanding of the threat to the region and the world from a nuclear Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries Hamas and Hezbollah. But Perry’s future as the frontrunner will be determined by his own ability to avoid mistakes, not by absurd attacks from a candidate with no hope of winning like Santorum. It is also one thing for Santorum to blast him on issues where they disagree such as immigration (where the Texan is actually in the right) or the HPV vaccine (where it is difficult to see how absurd attacks by either Michele Bachmann or Santorum will do Perry much damage) but quite another for him to lash out at Perry for agreeing with him on Israel. But maybe one thing Rick Santorum has forgotten is although he has spoken out consistently on foreign policy issues — especially in his disastrous re-election campaign in Pennsylvania when he lost in a landslide — that doesn’t make him the second coming of Bernard Lewis or even Henry Kissinger.

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Delegitimization (Parenthetically)

An article published yesterday in Foreign Affairs by the Palestinian-American anti-Israel writer Ali Abunimah is one more particularly telling road mark of the march of the idea that a Jewish state is morally illegitimate.

Ostensibly, Abuminah’s article is about grass roots Palestinian opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’ plan to seek statehood recognition at the UN this week. It should be noted that is most likely the reason why the editors at Foreign Affairs chose to run the thing: a contrarian point of view from a robustly credentialed Palestinian source. Abuminah, after all, is both a New York Times published “journalist” and the unapologetically anti-Israel founder of the blog Electronic Intifada.

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An article published yesterday in Foreign Affairs by the Palestinian-American anti-Israel writer Ali Abunimah is one more particularly telling road mark of the march of the idea that a Jewish state is morally illegitimate.

Ostensibly, Abuminah’s article is about grass roots Palestinian opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’ plan to seek statehood recognition at the UN this week. It should be noted that is most likely the reason why the editors at Foreign Affairs chose to run the thing: a contrarian point of view from a robustly credentialed Palestinian source. Abuminah, after all, is both a New York Times published “journalist” and the unapologetically anti-Israel founder of the blog Electronic Intifada.

That is the heart of the problem. For delegitimization’s march must be judged on the ability of the proponents of its central idea – that a Jewish state has no moral claim to existence – to convey it in an ever wider circle of prestigious mainstream publications, thereby convincing an ever wider circle of the readers of those publications the idea is a reasonable one. For the moment, at least, it remains somewhat fringey. But it is now a part of the American conversation, which is probably more than it could have said for itself even ten years ago.

The markers for how we have come here are not too hard to find. There was the late Tony Judt’s 2003 New York Review of Books article “Israel: The Alternative.”  There was the extended Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer imbroglio, which perhaps culminated in Mearsheimer’s “Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaners” speech in April 2010. (Hint: the righteous Jews are people like Norman Finkelstein and Judt himself.) All of it abetted by a far-left discourse that seems to exult in its widening freedom to bathe in the newborn anti-Jewish politics.

By now, Abuminah doesn’t even feel (nor presumably do his editors) his anti-Israel position even requires defense. You just put it in parentheses, as when he writes, “… (under Israel’s discriminatory Law of Return, Jews from anywhere in the world can settle virtually anywhere in Israel or the occupied territories, while native-born Palestinian refugees and their children are excluded”). It is language echoed not only by figures like the BDS leader (and Tel Aviv University graduate student) Omar Barghouti, but in the parentheses of the latest New York Times op-ed by Jimmy Carter, who felt that writing “…(about 25 percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish”) was sufficient to dismiss Israeli insistence on Palestinian recognition that it is a “Jewish state.” You can see it too in a summer article by a young American Jewish girl in The Nation, upset over the unapologetic Zionism of the free Birthright trip she was given and not feeling she need explain the nature of “the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy.”

We American Israel advocates fret over signs of weakening support for Israel on the political left. But while we weren’t watching, their vanguard’s conversation may have moved beyond the issue of Israel’s legitimacy and on to other questions.

 

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Rabbani’s Murder Shows Taliban Not Serious About Negotiations

It is hard to find an act more symbolic than the slaying of a man whose job it was to make peace. So it was with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, a former leader of both the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a leader of the Tajiks, and lately head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Apparently, Rabbani received a Taliban envoy or a former Taliban member in his home, and as a sign of trust, his bodyguards did not search the man, who then proceeded to repay Rabbani’s hospitality by blowing up his turban and killing himself and his host.

For those who may have had high and exaggerated expectations for talks with the Taliban, this is an unfortunate reminder that the “peace process” in Afghanistan is about as promising as the one in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. At least for the time being. The difference is that in Afghanistan, unlike in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is possible to imagine conditions that could lead to fruitful negotiations before long. That would be the imminent defeat of the Taliban—something that is within the power of international forces and their Afghan allies to bring about. Israel could also defeat Fatah, Hamas, etc., but refuses to do so because it doesn’t want to re-occupy Palestinian territory—not an issue in Afghanistan where it’s simply a matter of extending the authority of the lawfully constituted Afghan government.

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It is hard to find an act more symbolic than the slaying of a man whose job it was to make peace. So it was with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, a former leader of both the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a leader of the Tajiks, and lately head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Apparently, Rabbani received a Taliban envoy or a former Taliban member in his home, and as a sign of trust, his bodyguards did not search the man, who then proceeded to repay Rabbani’s hospitality by blowing up his turban and killing himself and his host.

For those who may have had high and exaggerated expectations for talks with the Taliban, this is an unfortunate reminder that the “peace process” in Afghanistan is about as promising as the one in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. At least for the time being. The difference is that in Afghanistan, unlike in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is possible to imagine conditions that could lead to fruitful negotiations before long. That would be the imminent defeat of the Taliban—something that is within the power of international forces and their Afghan allies to bring about. Israel could also defeat Fatah, Hamas, etc., but refuses to do so because it doesn’t want to re-occupy Palestinian territory—not an issue in Afghanistan where it’s simply a matter of extending the authority of the lawfully constituted Afghan government.

But for that to be possible, NATO forces and Afghan security forces must inflict more defeats on the Taliban (and also improve the level of governance delivered by the national and provincial governments). So far, international forces have dealt the Taliban a significant setback in Helmand and Kandahar provinces but have not managed to extend those gains to other areas, such as Regional Command-East. President Obama’s premature decision to withdraw 30,000 surge troops—along with his apparent decision to cut funding for the Afghan Security Forces in half during the next three years–will make that job harder and give the Taliban a fresh lease on life. That makes the prospect of successful peace talks—or even the prospect of significant defections from the Taliban—more remote. Indeed, Rabbani’s killing suggests, more eloquently than any words, the Taliban are not serious about negotiations at the moment. Nor will they be unless conditions change on the ground.

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Obama’s Credibility Continues to Crumble

The Associated Press and the Washington Post have begun fact-checking President Obama’s speech yesterday. They essentially demolish the claims of the president.

According to the AP, for example:

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The Associated Press and the Washington Post have begun fact-checking President Obama’s speech yesterday. They essentially demolish the claims of the president.

According to the AP, for example:

President Barack Obama says he wants to make sure millionaires are taxed at higher rates than their secretaries. The data say they already are.

“Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. There is no justification for it,” Obama said as he announced his deficit-reduction plan this week. “It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million.”

On average, the wealthiest people in America pay a lot more taxes than the middle class or the poor, according to private and government data. They pay at a higher rate, and as a group, they contribute a much larger share of the overall taxes collected by the federal government.

The 10 percent of households with the highest incomes pay more than half of all federal taxes. They pay more than 70 percent of federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

And here’s the Post:

Independent budget experts said the blueprint that Obama unveiled Monday — which White House officials say would save more than $4 trillion when added to earlier budget deals this year — appears to fall short of his target. The plan also relies on an array of well-worn budget ploys that do little to advance the cause of bipartisan cooperation in taming the nation’s spiraling debt, the experts said… The latest Obama plan “doesn’t produce any more in realistic savings than the plan they offered in April,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “They’ve filled in details, repackaged it and replaced one gimmick with another. They don’t even stabilize the debt. This is just not enough.”

The most disheartening development, MacGuineas and others said, is Obama’s decision to count $1.1 trillion in savings from the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan toward his debt-reduction total. Because Obama has no intention of continuing war spending at last year’s elevated levels, that $1.1 trillion would never have been spent.

How inconvenient.

More fact-checking will follow. More false claims and distortions will be revealed. And the credibility of Obama will continue to crumble.

It’s difficult enough to run for president as a liberal committed to stoking the embers of class resentment. It’s doubly hard when the facts you cite are so obviously and transparently invented.

I’m not quite sure why David Axelrod and David Plouffe want Obama to run as a post-modern liberal whose claims can’t be trusted. I for one rather doubt America is turning its lonely eyes to Jacques Derrida. But maybe the Obama campaign thinks it has no other option.

 

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Issa to Launch LightSquared Investigation

As expected, it looks like Rep. Darrell Issa will launch an investigation into whether the Obama administration gave any improper political assistance to broadband company LightSquared, The Hill reports:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Tuesday that his committee plans to investigate government loan programs to private corporations in light of allegations of improper dealings between the White House and failed energy company Solyndra and wireless start-up LightSquared.

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As expected, it looks like Rep. Darrell Issa will launch an investigation into whether the Obama administration gave any improper political assistance to broadband company LightSquared, The Hill reports:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Tuesday that his committee plans to investigate government loan programs to private corporations in light of allegations of improper dealings between the White House and failed energy company Solyndra and wireless start-up LightSquared.

“I want to see when the president and his cronies are picking winners and losers… it wasn’t because there were large contributions given to them,” the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee said Tuesday morning on C-SPAN.

Issa’s subpoena power will help shed light on the growing controversy, which first came under scrutiny after iWatch News reported LightSquared’s CEO contributed $30,400 to the Democratic Party on the same day the company requested meetings with administration officials.

Last week, Eli Lake reported the White House pressured a four-star general to change his congressional testimony to be more favorable to LightSquared during a hearing that involved the company. And now, a second administration witness says the White House asked him to change his testimony as well:

Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, told The Daily Beast he rejected “guidance” from the White House’s Office of Budget and Management suggesting he tell Congress that the government’s concerns about the project by the firm LightSquared could be resolved in 90 days, a timetable favorable to the company’s plans.

“They gave that to me and presumably the other witnesses,” Russo said. “There is one sentence I disagreed with, which said that I thought the testing could be resolved in 90 days. So I took it out.”

Four out of the five administration witnesses had virtually identical paragraphs in their testimonies:

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), the chairman of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, said he was troubled that four out of the five government witnesses before his Sept. 8 hearing had “identical language in their written testimony reflecting the administration’s view of the LightSquared project. The language diminished the otherwise blunt assessments the witnesses articulated during the hearing when pressed by committee members.”

What Issa will have to find out now is why the White House was so set on following a timeline favorable to LightSquared, and whether Obama’s close personal and financial ties to the company played a role in that decision.

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Obama’s Plan Is Filled With Budget Tricks

Obama’s budget plan calls for $13 in tax hikes $11 in tax hikes for every dollar in spending cuts when you account for all the budgetary gimmicks the White House included.

And as the Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee found, Obama’s plan is stuffed to the breaking point with budget tricks. If you thought some of the Democratic deficit plans during the debt ceiling debate were deceptive, you haven’t seen anything yet:

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Obama’s budget plan calls for $13 in tax hikes $11 in tax hikes for every dollar in spending cuts when you account for all the budgetary gimmicks the White House included.

And as the Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee found, Obama’s plan is stuffed to the breaking point with budget tricks. If you thought some of the Democratic deficit plans during the debt ceiling debate were deceptive, you haven’t seen anything yet:

The plan put forth by the president is made to look more heavily weighted to spending cuts through three gimmicks. First, the plan shows $1.1 trillion in savings from putting a cap on war costs, but those costs are going to decrease as the war effort unwinds whether or not the cap is in place. …

This is similar to one of Harry Reid’s favorite tricks during the debt ceiling negotiations. Despite the fact we’re already expecting the drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq to take place – along with the savings that come with it – the president included this in his plan as a supposed “spending cut.” But this reduction would have occurred regardless. It’s nothing new.

Second, the administration’s baseline assumes a Medicare “Doc Fix” (physician payment freeze), an increase in spending of $293 billion over ten years compared to a current law baseline. This trick counts the higher spending as a given rather than as a policy choice that needs to be offset.…

Finally, the president counts as savings the net interest effects of his proposed policy changes—even though interest costs are the secondary effect of legislative changes rather than a change that is voted on by the Congress.

The interest costs actually will go down with lower debt, but including them in here is seriously dishonest. They’re not new spending cuts, and they’re an after-effect of the legislation – not anything that can actually be proposed and voted on.

According to the Republicans on the budget committee, “the actual amount of net deficit reduction proposed by the president is $1.409 trillion, consisting of $146 billion in spending increases and $1.555 trillion in tax increases.”

And it’s not just Senate Republicans who are rolling their eyes over Obama’s plan. The Washington Post also reported on the astonishing number of budget gimmicks today:

The latest Obama plan “doesn’t produce any more in realistic savings than the plan they offered in April,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told the Washington Post. “They’ve filled in details, repackaged it and replaced one gimmick with another. They don’t even stabilize the debt. This is just not enough.”

It makes you wonder exactly how Obama thought this plan would be acceptable to the American public. Either the White House is more delusional than anyone imagined, or they’ve decided to give up.

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Aid Cutoff is the Only Answer to the UN

The two leading Republican presidential contenders weighed in today on the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations. Both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney urged the administration to threaten to cut off the flow of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority to persuade them to back off on their attempt to evade peace talks by trying to get the UN to unilaterally grant them statehood. In addition, both believe the United States must also re-evaluate funding of any U.N. agency or organization that recognizes Palestinian independence under these circumstances.

The administration seems to have no interest in such a tactic, and it is likely the statements of both Perry and Romney will be dismissed by the media as mere politicking that displays little insight about the intricacies of international diplomacy. But both the administration and the media will be wrong about that. After months of futile attempts at appeasing the Palestinians in order to get them to abandon their UN gambit, it is high time the United States exercises its not inconsiderable leverage over both the PA and the UN.

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The two leading Republican presidential contenders weighed in today on the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations. Both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney urged the administration to threaten to cut off the flow of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority to persuade them to back off on their attempt to evade peace talks by trying to get the UN to unilaterally grant them statehood. In addition, both believe the United States must also re-evaluate funding of any U.N. agency or organization that recognizes Palestinian independence under these circumstances.

The administration seems to have no interest in such a tactic, and it is likely the statements of both Perry and Romney will be dismissed by the media as mere politicking that displays little insight about the intricacies of international diplomacy. But both the administration and the media will be wrong about that. After months of futile attempts at appeasing the Palestinians in order to get them to abandon their UN gambit, it is high time the United States exercises its not inconsiderable leverage over both the PA and the UN.

The arguments against cutting of funding to the PA put forward by both the administration and even some in Israel are based on the idea an aid cutoff would lead to disaster on the ground in the West Bank. Without foreign money the corrupt and bankrupt PA will collapse, a turn of events that would only benefit Hamas, which is waiting patiently in the wings in their already independent state in Gaza for its Fatah rivals to lose power.

That may all be true, but the only reason PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has flouted U.S. interests by going to the UN in order to evade negotiations is he is convinced President Obama is too weak-willed and too besotted with a policy of appeasement to threaten the Palestinians. He actually expects to be allowed to spite U.S. interests, destroy the U.S.-sponsored peace process and undermine its influence and still get hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer aid to go on funding his corrupt government. UN agencies that are just as dependent on American largesse similarly believe Obama is too ideologically committed to the concept of multilateralism to do anything to diminish the world body–even when it seeks to harm America and its ally Israel.

The only way to stop the Palestinians from executing a plan aimed at gaining international recognition for their independence without first having made peace with Israel is to make it clear to them and their cheering section at the UN that to do so will mean an end to the U.S. gravy train that has amply funded their shenanigans in the past. Rather than an example of cowboy diplomacy, a credible threat would stop the Palestinians and the UN in their tracks, because it is not likely Abbas would be willing to commit political suicide merely in order to score some points at the expense of both the U.S. and Israel in New York this month.

But of course, Abbas has no such fear. He knows Obama is so afraid of rocking the international boat, there is nothing the Palestinians or the UN could do to interrupt the flow of American cash to their coffers. Nevertheless, Congress should exercise its power over the national purse to stop the flow of aid and pass House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s bill, which would do exactly that.

The problem here is not the prospect of a collapse of the PA or a shortfall for the United Nations. It is the ever more imminent collapse of American credibility on the international stage, so long as Barack Obama refuses to act to defend its interests.

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Why Perry’s Conservatism May Help in a General Election

Michael Gerson writes today he is confident GOP primary voters will nominate Mitt Romney over Rick Perry because Romney seems to be the “safe” candidate at a turbulent hour in American economic history. Gerson writes that Republicans prefer to elect known quantities and are wary of nationally-untested firebrands.

“None of these historical precedents make Romney a shoo-in,” Gerson writes. “But they indicate his prospects are better than his current polling.” That’s probably true, and some polls–especially state polls–indicate Romney is still in the game. But Romney’s “safety” isn’t the advantage Gerson thinks it is, and more importantly, many writers and pundits are probably underestimating the appeal of Perry’s unapologetic conservatism to general election voters as well as Republican primary voters.

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Michael Gerson writes today he is confident GOP primary voters will nominate Mitt Romney over Rick Perry because Romney seems to be the “safe” candidate at a turbulent hour in American economic history. Gerson writes that Republicans prefer to elect known quantities and are wary of nationally-untested firebrands.

“None of these historical precedents make Romney a shoo-in,” Gerson writes. “But they indicate his prospects are better than his current polling.” That’s probably true, and some polls–especially state polls–indicate Romney is still in the game. But Romney’s “safety” isn’t the advantage Gerson thinks it is, and more importantly, many writers and pundits are probably underestimating the appeal of Perry’s unapologetic conservatism to general election voters as well as Republican primary voters.

Perry does favor low taxes and is generally suspicious of heavy-handed regulation. But his record suggests he is not the absolutist he seems to be at first glance, and when he strays from such orthodoxy it is in favor of policies that are both more conservative and more palatable to the voting public.

Two of the most prominent examples of this are tort reform and Texas state housing regulations. To be sure, Perry does not get the credit for enacting one major piece of legislation, which limited mortgage borrowing to 80 percent or less of the borrower’s home value, preventing risky loans and shaky mortgages that contributed to the housing crisis. That legislation was passed under George W. Bush’s governorship. But Perry did, as Reason pointed out recently, resist the push to relax such laws around the country to make home ownership more available, especially to the poor. Many Republicans buckled under the pressure to expand ownership. Perry didn’t. Whose constituents fared better?

And as for tort reform, Perry has signed into law two pieces of legislation Republicans nationwide hoped–in vain–would be part of national health care reform efforts. In 2003, Texas passed a law limiting noneconomic damage payouts in medical malpractice cases, ensuring patients were still fully protected by the law while creating a more beneficial medical environment for both patients and doctors. And earlier this year, Texas passed a loser-pays law designed to limit frivolous lawsuits. As Ryan Brannan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation notes, the 2003 law has been a success, giving Texans high hopes for this year’s bill as well.

Both these reforms–limiting the lawsuit free-for-all that has been so damaging to health care nationally and the housing legislation that emphasizes personal responsibility and fiscal sanity–are undeniably conservative reforms. The argument Perry is “too conservative” for the electorate begins to crumble when you look at Perry’s record. His conservative ideology helped shield Texas from the post-bubble housing crisis and increased the availability of health care in his state without limiting personal freedom.

Gerson is right that Romney has a good resume–he’s been an executive in the public and private sectors with some impressive successes under his belt. But Romney’s lack of ideological consistency, while giving him credibility as a nimble and centrist problem-solver, faces a tough test when compared with Perry’s record. Conservatives have been making the case for stability and predictability in the tax code because people need to know what the likely result of their decisions will be. For the same reasons, Perry’s ideological consistency, buoyed by his state’s successful approach to housing policy and medical liability, will be reassuring to many voters.

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Delay at the UN Doesn’t Help the U.S.

CNN is reporting that despite the failure of American and European efforts to persuade the Palestinian Authority to back off on their plan to demand statehood from the United Nations, they have now fallen back to a last-ditch attempt to stall them. This would involve PA head Mahmoud Abbas delivering a letter to the UN Security Council while not seeking to force an immediate vote.

This would at least put off the moment when the United States is forced to veto the measure and allow more time for pressure to resume peace negotiations. One U.S. diplomat, speaking anonymously, told CNN: “It actually is a good idea because it is like a Damocles hanging over our heads. It creates an urgency to start negotiations.” But this just shows how badly the administration has misread the situation. Far from acting to jump-start the peace process, the delay will merely serve to further isolate Israel and the United States while allowing the Palestinians to preen on the international stage without conceding anything.

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CNN is reporting that despite the failure of American and European efforts to persuade the Palestinian Authority to back off on their plan to demand statehood from the United Nations, they have now fallen back to a last-ditch attempt to stall them. This would involve PA head Mahmoud Abbas delivering a letter to the UN Security Council while not seeking to force an immediate vote.

This would at least put off the moment when the United States is forced to veto the measure and allow more time for pressure to resume peace negotiations. One U.S. diplomat, speaking anonymously, told CNN: “It actually is a good idea because it is like a Damocles hanging over our heads. It creates an urgency to start negotiations.” But this just shows how badly the administration has misread the situation. Far from acting to jump-start the peace process, the delay will merely serve to further isolate Israel and the United States while allowing the Palestinians to preen on the international stage without conceding anything.

The pressure a delay will create won’t give the Palestinians an incentive to talk. The whole reason they have undertaken their UN gambit is to avoid negotiations. After all, had statehood been their primary objective, they could have had one when it was offered to them by the United States and Israel in 2000 and 2001 to Yasir Arafat and again in 2008, when it was Abbas who said no to an even better offer of independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Saying yes would have given them statehood but also obligated them to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and to end the conflict. But this is something they are not willing to do no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn.

Their goal at the UN is not the resumption of talks they have steadfastly refused to return to no matter how much the Obama administration has tilted the diplomatic playing field in their direction. The only statehood they want is one that is imposed on Israel and allows the PA to avoid making peace as a precondition. This is vital for Abbas’ survival, as Hamas’ rejection of such a move to recognize Israel would doom the Fatah-run PA.

Having spent months in futile attempts to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the United States seems ready to seize upon any delay tactic to avoid what will be a noisy confrontation in the Security Council. But it is a mistake.

The Palestinians need to be put on notice the United States will not allow them to circumvent the peace process. What the PA wants is for Israel to be forced by the United States and Europe to give in on the entire substance of possible negotiations before any talks begin. They hope to use a delay to try to further chip away at European support for negotiations and to ramp up the pressure on the United States to hand them Israel’s security and rights on a silver platter.

Playing along with this game won’t enhance America’s standing in the region or the world. It is Obama’s weakness and his mistaken belief that creating greater distance between the U.S. and Israel which has led the Palestinians to believe they can flout American interests with impunity by going to the UN. Buying more time until the inevitable moment when a unilateral statehood declaration must be vetoed will only further weaken American interests. It is time for Obama to put his foot down. Any more delay will only undermine the dwindling hope of avoiding another outbreak of bloodshed inspired by the PA’s proposal.

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Concerns Remain About Unguarded Weapons Depots in Libya

So far, revolutionary Libya appears to be doing fairly well. It has not seen a breakdown of law and order as occurred in post-Baathist Iraq. So it would appear the concerns of those of us who called for the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force were exaggerated. Or were they? It’s too soon to say, but reading articles like this one in the Washington Post certainly raises one’s level of concern:

Less than a month after rebels captured Tripoli and forced longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi to flee, revolutionary militia groups are sweeping up any weapons they can find, often from huge unguarded weapons dumps left behind by Qaddafi’s forces.

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So far, revolutionary Libya appears to be doing fairly well. It has not seen a breakdown of law and order as occurred in post-Baathist Iraq. So it would appear the concerns of those of us who called for the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force were exaggerated. Or were they? It’s too soon to say, but reading articles like this one in the Washington Post certainly raises one’s level of concern:

Less than a month after rebels captured Tripoli and forced longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi to flee, revolutionary militia groups are sweeping up any weapons they can find, often from huge unguarded weapons dumps left behind by Qaddafi’s forces.

Some of the groups barely recognize the authority of the new civilian government, and rivalries are already surfacing — developments that are worrying officials, civilians and human rights groups.

This is good cause for worry. Portable surface-to-air missiles could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda, while massive quantities of explosives and small arms could be used to start an insurgency. The latter worry is particularly acute since Qaddafi still has not been caught, and he is believed to have access to vast piles of wealth.

Safeguarding weapons depots would have been one of the primary missions for an international force. But no such force has materialized, so all we can do is sit back and hope for the best. That’s not a very satisfying policy, to put it mildly.

 

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Obama Speech was “Obama Unplugged”

In re-reading yesterday’s speech by President Obama, several things stand out.

The first is its crass distortions. In his remarks in the Rose Garden, the president said, “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit … then the logic, the math says everybody else has to do a whole lot more: We’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.” As others have pointed out, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes and the richest one percent pay more than 30 percent of their income to the federal government, while the average worker pays less than 14 percent. In addition, almost half of the public do not pay any income taxes at all. This is known as a progressive tax system. Now, one may argue the wealthy should pay even more than they do in taxes – but to pretend not embracing Obama’s plan would place the “entire” burden on the middle class and the poor isn’t “math”; it’s a massive distortion.

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In re-reading yesterday’s speech by President Obama, several things stand out.

The first is its crass distortions. In his remarks in the Rose Garden, the president said, “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit … then the logic, the math says everybody else has to do a whole lot more: We’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.” As others have pointed out, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes and the richest one percent pay more than 30 percent of their income to the federal government, while the average worker pays less than 14 percent. In addition, almost half of the public do not pay any income taxes at all. This is known as a progressive tax system. Now, one may argue the wealthy should pay even more than they do in taxes – but to pretend not embracing Obama’s plan would place the “entire” burden on the middle class and the poor isn’t “math”; it’s a massive distortion.

The second notable thing about Obama’s speech is its insight into the president’s state of mind. Obama has a deep, almost desperate, need to portray himself as the opposite of what he is. This appears to involve more than simple political considerations. Obama has an unusual capacity to conceive of himself in a way that is at odds with reality. And so the most profligate spender in history warns the rest of us about profligacy and not placing a debt burden “on our children’s shoulders.” The man on whose watch America amassed more than $4 trillion in debt says, “Washington has to live within its means.”  The president whose stimulus package was among the most wasteful and ineffective in history insists we have to “go through the budget line-by-line looking for waste.” The same individual who ridiculed Speaker Boehner for his “my way or the highway” approach then threatened, in the very same speech, to issue a veto unless he got his way. And the man who professes solidarity with the poor has seen poverty increase each year of his presidency, with a record number of people (46 million) now living in poverty. If that weren’t enough, Obama also wants to reduce the tax benefit for charitable giving.

Then there’s the fellow who lectured us yesterday about fighting for the middle class “as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations.” This admonition comes from the same fellow who presides over a White House that inappropriately pressured the Office of Management and Budget to approve half-billion dollars to a company, Solyndra, which wasn’t deserving of the money and has now gone belly up. The reason the money was fast-tracked and funneled to Solyndra was because its chief investor, George Kaiser, is a significant fundraiser for Obama. Kaiser, by the way, is a billionaire.

What Obama is acting out is similar to a phenomenon we sometimes see among ministers. It isn’t simply that they avoid sermonizing about areas they themselves are failing in. They actually portray themselves to their congregations as mastering the very sins that beset them. Cynicism and hypocrisy are obviously at play in these circumstances — but often something more complicated is at work. These people have a compulsive need to cover up their vices by trumpeting an imaginary set of virtues. At some point this habit – to view oneself in a way that is utterly divorced from, and even the opposite of, reality – can become unsettling.

A third thing that stands out in Obama’s speech was its undiluted, rank appeal to class envy. The president is clearly hoping to win re-election by running hard against millionaires and billionaires, which is a (silly) political strategy. But that political strategy is anchored in a political philosophy, one that views wealth creators as people for whom the rest of us should have animus. More than that, they deserve to be punished because they are successful. People may do well –but the job of the federal government is to make sure they don’t do too well. That is a near constant sub-text of the entire Obama presidency. Rather than encouraging wealth creation, Obama has attempted to make it a badge of dishonor (except for rich people who support his campaign, in which case they are given a pass). None of this is surprising, given the intellectual milieu in which Obama spent his formative years.

One senses yesterday’s speech was Obama Unplugged, the real deal, the man in his essence. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t impressive. But it was authentic.

 

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“One Novel a Decade Isn’t Going to Cut It”

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

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What Incentive Does Netanyahu Have to Make More Concessions?

Yesterday, I asked why Israel should keep signing agreements with the Palestinians if the world won’t enforce previous ones? This question has an important corollary: Why should Israel keep making concessions if it gets no credit for previous ones?

A recent New York Times editorial demonstrates the problem in microcosm. While various parties share blame for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, it opined, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has been the most intractable, building settlements and blaming his inability to be more forthcoming on his conservative coalition.”

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Yesterday, I asked why Israel should keep signing agreements with the Palestinians if the world won’t enforce previous ones? This question has an important corollary: Why should Israel keep making concessions if it gets no credit for previous ones?

A recent New York Times editorial demonstrates the problem in microcosm. While various parties share blame for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, it opined, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has been the most intractable, building settlements and blaming his inability to be more forthcoming on his conservative coalition.”

In reality, Netanyahu is the only prime minister in Israel’s history to impose a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, a move even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared “unprecedented.” Indeed, there has been less construction in the West Bank – and East Jerusalem – during his term than under his predecessors. But he gets no credit for this; instead, he’s the premier who obstructs peace by “building settlements.” So what incentive would he have to make further such gestures?

As for being insufficiently “forthcoming,” Netanyahu, like all his predecessors, has repeatedly expressed willingness to cede most of the West Bank; what he’s refused to do is cede the entire territory in advance. By contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t yet agreed to cede anything Israel wants (settlement blocs, the “right of return,” recognition as a Jewish state, etc.), but the Times omits him entirely from its list of parties who share the blame. So Netanyahu, who has already ceded most of the West Bank, is “intractable,” but Abbas, who has ceded nothing, is blame-free. Given this, what incentive does Netanyahu have to make further concessions?

The problem, of course, is that on this issue, the Times accurately reflects the international consensus – not merely on Netanyahu, but on Israel as a whole. For the last 18 years, Israel has offered nonstop concessions. It evacuated territory and uprooted settlements; it repeatedly offered a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and parts of East Jerusalem; it even offered to cede Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount. Throughout this period, Palestinians haven’t offered one single reciprocal concession – not the settlement blocs, not the “right of return,” not recognition of a Jewish state; they won’t even acknowledge the Jews’ historical connection to this land. Yet still, the world deems Israel the “intransigent” party, the one that must concede even more. Hence most of the Quartet (comprising the U.S., EU, UN and Russia) thinks the appropriate recipe for restarting talks is to demand yet another new concession of Israel –accepting the 1967 lines upfront – while still demanding nothing of the Palestinians.

The consequence of this behavior is that fully 77 percent of Israeli Jews have concluded “it makes no difference what Israel does and how far it may go on the Palestinian issue; the world will continue to be very critical of it.” And if there’s no quid pro quo for concessions in the form of increased international support, there’s obviously no point in continuing to make them.

The only surprising thing is, the world still seems to find this reaction surprising.

 

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