Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 23, 2011

The Soft Underbelly of Europe

On its surface, the European financial crisis is about money. And there is a lot to be said on that score: with Greek one-year bonds closing on Thursday at 135 percent interest–slightly off their high of a week ago of 149 percent – the markets clearly regard a Greek default as all but inevitable. The continued efforts of European leaders and lenders to kick the can down the road have failed, in large part because while loans can address a liquidity problem, they are no cure for a solvency one. Unfortunately, Greece has both problems.

The answer of the Europeans and the IMF to the solvency problem has been austerity, with the predictable result that Greece’s GDP contracted 7.3 percent in the second quarter of 2011. Cutting back the overblown state is certainly part of the answer, but it is no panacea, if only because austerity based largely on tax hikes will likely cause Greece’s GDP to fall faster than it can cut spending – for it is doubtful politically or even practically that Greece can reach its austerity targets through spending cuts alone. The result will be an increase in Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which not surprisingly makes the markets even more nervous about Greece’s ability to pay its debts.

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On its surface, the European financial crisis is about money. And there is a lot to be said on that score: with Greek one-year bonds closing on Thursday at 135 percent interest–slightly off their high of a week ago of 149 percent – the markets clearly regard a Greek default as all but inevitable. The continued efforts of European leaders and lenders to kick the can down the road have failed, in large part because while loans can address a liquidity problem, they are no cure for a solvency one. Unfortunately, Greece has both problems.

The answer of the Europeans and the IMF to the solvency problem has been austerity, with the predictable result that Greece’s GDP contracted 7.3 percent in the second quarter of 2011. Cutting back the overblown state is certainly part of the answer, but it is no panacea, if only because austerity based largely on tax hikes will likely cause Greece’s GDP to fall faster than it can cut spending – for it is doubtful politically or even practically that Greece can reach its austerity targets through spending cuts alone. The result will be an increase in Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which not surprisingly makes the markets even more nervous about Greece’s ability to pay its debts.

Moreover, because – as Desmond Lachman of AEI has pointed out – interest payments account for only a small share of the Mediterranean periphery’s budget deficits, even debt restructuring will not solve the problem. The whole thing reminds me of the Irish joke about the traveler who asks a man how to get to Dublin. The answer: “Don’t start here.” There is no way out of this trap that does not involve someone – probably quite a lot of people – either losing a lot of money, having a much lower standard of living, or both.

But the underlying problem in Europe is not financial. It is political. And not political just in the sense the Germans are unenthusiastic about writing the Greeks a check of infinite duration and incalculable size, or the sense the Greeks (and others) have long borrowed a standard of living they did not earn, or the sense more austerity, a Greek default, or the break-up of the Euro will have vast political consequences in Europe and the U.S. It is political in the sense the entire European project was based on a retreat from democratic politics.

As Milton Friedman and others pointed out when it was launched, the Eurozone was not an optimal currency area. The Euro was justified as an essential contribution to European political unity. Yet as a currency, it could only work if that unity already existed or was cobbled together soon thereafter. It thus relied on the very conditions for success it promised to create. As long as the economic going was good, that paradox could be papered over. But in more difficult times, the fundamental lack of European popular acceptance of the prerequisite conditions would expose the Euro for what it was: a top-down imposition with a price too few Europeans were actually willing to pay.

The invaluable Dan Hannan recently quoted a reply from a British official to a concerned Briton who wanted a referendum on British membership of the EU. As Hannan writes, it wins points for the honesty with which it expresses its contempt for the will of the people, if nothing else:

Like you, many British people feel disconnected with how the EU has developed and about the decisions that have been taken in their name. The Government believes that membership of the EU is in the national interest of the UK. . . . For this reason, there will not be a referendum on this issue.

That goes to a comment President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic made at the Heritage Foundation earlier this week, to the effect that being a European leader at a meeting of the European Council is very pleasant: there is lots of luxury, and because there are no voters, no opposition, and practically no media, there is no democracy. The European Parliament is not organized as an adversarial body, and – he might have noted – the European Court of Justice is required to always decide in favor of more integration. The EU is to democracy what Frankenstein was to his creator: all the parts look right, but none of them work right.

The underlying problem in Europe is not financial, or even economic. It is that we are no longer in the historical era of nation-making, and the entire raison d’etre of the EU is, indeed, to oppose nationalism. As former Europhile Max Hastings has recently confessed, that itself is a kind of narrow-mindedness. But it is madness to try to build an economic and political super-state on a base of contempt for the popular will and regular condemnations of nationalism, which historically is the force that has created unified body politics. Europe is not paying the price for too much borrowing; it is paying the price for too little democracy.

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The Bunker Busters and the Measure of Support for Israel

Today, Eli Lake reported in the Daily Beast that President Obama “has secretly authorized significant new aid to the Israeli military that includes the sale of 55 deep-penetrating bombs known as bunker busters.” The story, to be published in Newsweek on Monday, indicates that Obama released the bombs to Israel in 2009 after the Bush administration had at first denied the request and then delayed it.

This decision, taken at a time when the president was also applying brutal pressure on Israel to make concessions on territory and Jerusalem to the Palestinians, sums up the contradictions in the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

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Today, Eli Lake reported in the Daily Beast that President Obama “has secretly authorized significant new aid to the Israeli military that includes the sale of 55 deep-penetrating bombs known as bunker busters.” The story, to be published in Newsweek on Monday, indicates that Obama released the bombs to Israel in 2009 after the Bush administration had at first denied the request and then delayed it.

This decision, taken at a time when the president was also applying brutal pressure on Israel to make concessions on territory and Jerusalem to the Palestinians, sums up the contradictions in the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

The strategic alliance between the United States and Israel transcends the differences between the two countries over the peace process and even the attempts of Obama to tilt the diplomatic playing field toward the Palestinians as he has repeatedly done during his time in office.

Obama has done more to undermine the Jewish claim on Jerusalem than any of his predecessors. He has also set out to distance the American position on the peace process from that of Israel, a foolish misjudgment that encouraged Palestinian intransigence and led to the diplomatic debacle on display this week at the United Nations. But to note this, as one must, doesn’t mean Obama is, as some of his most extreme critics assert, an open foe of the Jewish state.

Like many of his predecessors, Obama has hoped to encourage Israel to take risks for peace by measures that would enhance its sense of security. Such initiatives have a dual purpose in that they are intended to make Israel more defensible while also creating an atmosphere in which the leaders of the Jewish state will be more inclined to make concessions. Their impact on security is both necessary and laudable. Their effect on Israeli diplomacy is usually dubious.

The bunker busters gave Israel more confidence in its ability to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist targets. They might also be used against Iranian nuclear facilities, a fact that might lead some to think Obama had given a green light to an Israeli attack on Iran. If true, it would be highly ironic, because Obama was otherwise engaged in a foolish attempt to “engage” Iran in 2009. But it is highly unlikely this is the case. Given the U.S. command of the skies over the region through which Israeli planes would have to travel to get to Iran, the president probably believes he can still exercise a veto on such a strike.

The United States is Israel’s sole ally. Even if items such as the bunker busters may come with a hefty diplomatic price tag, it is not difficult to understand why the Israel Defense Forces think they are worth it.

Yet, let us be in no doubt as to the reason why news about the bunker buster sale was leaked now, more than two years after the fact, according to Lake’s reporting. At a time when Obama’s support in the Jewish community is dropping in part because of his abusive treatment of Netanyahu, it is vital he try to prove he is as good a friend to Israel as any of his predecessors.

Obama’s Democratic surrogates will, no doubt, cite this sale as well as other things the president has done to help bolster Israeli security. But judging Obama’s attitude toward Israel solely on the basis of whether or not he is willing to maintain normal security cooperation is to measure it by an extremely low standard.

We know Obama is not, or at least is not yet, another Jimmy Carter, a man who is actively seeking to undermine Israel’s existence, as stories such as this one about the bunker busters prove. But that doesn’t guarantee him Jewish support. His problem is rather than being compared to Carter, we can instead judge against the standard set by his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton or Bush, men who were ardent friends of Israel. By that measure, Obama still falls short, a salient fact that may lose him some Jewish votes next year on this issue.

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Obama No Better Than Bush?

Looks like Bush’s Worst President in History title didn’t last long. The majority of Americans now believe President Obama is worse or no different than President Bush, according to the latest from Gallup:

Asked to compare Barack Obama with George W. Bush, Americans are more inclined to say Obama has been a better (43 percent) rather than a worse (34 percent) president, with 22 percent seeing no difference between the two. Obama compares much less favorably to Bill Clinton, with half saying Obama has been worse than Clinton and 12 percent saying better.

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Looks like Bush’s Worst President in History title didn’t last long. The majority of Americans now believe President Obama is worse or no different than President Bush, according to the latest from Gallup:

Asked to compare Barack Obama with George W. Bush, Americans are more inclined to say Obama has been a better (43 percent) rather than a worse (34 percent) president, with 22 percent seeing no difference between the two. Obama compares much less favorably to Bill Clinton, with half saying Obama has been worse than Clinton and 12 percent saying better.

And independent voters give Obama even lower scores, saying that he’s worse than Bush, 38 percent to 33 percent. Another 29 percent said they’re “about the same.”

A lot of conservatives have said history would view Bush in a better light, but it’s noteworthy it took less than one term for his image to get to this point. Not that it’s a major accomplishment to rate better or equal to the Obama presidency, but remember, Obama was supposed to be the Lincoln/FDR/MLK reincarnate who would slow the rise of the oceans and bring eternal peace to earth. It’s not so much that Bush improved, but that Obama dropped significantly. So significantly he can’t even outperform his predecessor, who Democrats widely deride as the worst president of all time.

Speaking of performance, are we sure Obama’s approval ratings aren’t equal or lower than Bush’s at the moment? I know there was a poll last spring that showed Bush’s approval ratings had rebounded to 50 percent since the end of his presidency. And now Obama’s in the 40-and-below range. That would definitely be an interesting comparison.

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How Could the Flat Earth Society Do That?

Jeffrey Goldberg posted a question yesterday that he said was nagging at him, and asked if someone could “please provide a poor blogger some answers”:

How could the United Nations recognize Palestine, a state comprising of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, when the two territories are ruled separately, by factions that have actually gone to war with each other in the recent past, and which disagree about the most fundamental issue of all: the efficacy and morality of the two-state solution.

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Jeffrey Goldberg posted a question yesterday that he said was nagging at him, and asked if someone could “please provide a poor blogger some answers”:

How could the United Nations recognize Palestine, a state comprising of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, when the two territories are ruled separately, by factions that have actually gone to war with each other in the recent past, and which disagree about the most fundamental issue of all: the efficacy and morality of the two-state solution.

It is a good question. The two “factions” cannot live “side by side in peace and security”™ even with each other, much less Israel; they have signed two “reconciliation” agreements in four years: the first ended with one group throwing the other off the top of buildings; the second was initiated with great fanfare as the precursor to the UN petition but will never be implemented, because there is severe disagreement between the two groups as to whether Israel should be destroyed in one step or two.

“Palestine” meets none of the four legal requirements under international law for a state. It has completed none of the three Phases under the “Performance-Based Roadmap” the UN adopted as the basis for a state. It has agreed to neither of the two requirements Israel’s prime minister set forth (that a Palestinian state must recognize a Jewish one, and be demilitarized so it does not threaten its neighbor). It has not even been able to implement the one hallmark of a democratic state: hold an election.

So how, you ask, could the UN do it? The answer was effectively provided during the hearing held last week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to review U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. The following colloquy occurred between Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Elliott Abrams:

POE: I agree with Ambassador Dore Gold, Israel’s former UN ambassador, when he said if there was a resolution whose first clause was anti-Israel and whose second clause was that the Earth was flat, it would pass the United Nations … Of course Palestinians aren’t motivated to talk to Israel when they’ve got the UN on their side … Maybe they will put the Earth is flat in that resolution.

ABRAMS: It will still pass. They do have an automatic majority; that is true. As the Israelis say, anything the Palestinians put forward, they get the automatic vote of every Muslim state, and Israel gets the automatic support of every Jewish state.

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No Moral Equivalence Between Abbas and Netanyahu

The media is already treating the dueling speeches today at the United Nations General Assembly by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as morally equivalent. But such a view of these addresses would be dead wrong.

To put it bluntly, Abbas lied, and Netanyahu told the truth.

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The media is already treating the dueling speeches today at the United Nations General Assembly by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as morally equivalent. But such a view of these addresses would be dead wrong.

To put it bluntly, Abbas lied, and Netanyahu told the truth.

Abbas based his claim for the United Nations to allow him to bypass negotiations and to get a state without first making peace with Israel on the notion Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is “the last occupation.” That would be news to the Kurds and a host of other ethnic groups large and small throughout the globe who have suffered as much if not more than the Palestinians, but who have never been considered worthy of an independent state by the international community.

Assuming the mantle of victimhood that has been a staple of Arab diplomacy, Abbas claimed the Palestinians came to the United Nations asking for a state armed only with “hopes and dreams.” But to accept this you have to ignore the fact an independent Palestinian state already exists in Gaza, albeit ruled by Hamas terrorist groups. As Netanyahu later replied, the Palestinians had come with “Hopes, dreams — and 10,000 missiles and Grad rockets supplied by Iran.”

Some journalists commenting on the speeches immediately claimed there was no difference between Abbas’ baseless claims of Israeli racism and Netanyahu’s noting the Palestinians intend their state to be free of Jews. But these claims are not equal. Israel is a democracy in which its Arab minority can claim full rights of citizenship. Yet Abbas himself has said peace must mean every town and village in the West Bank as well as neighborhoods in Jerusalem where Jews live over the green line must be eradicated. That means Netanyahu’s claim Palestine would be “Judenrein” and his mentioning of the fact the Palestinians have laws prohibiting the sale of land to Jews (a crime punishable by death) are not slurs but accurate reflections of the Nazi-like hate that permeates the PA.

Abbas said the peace process had “shattered on the rock” of Israeli settlements, as if the presence of Jewish towns and villages in the West Bank in what is the heart of the historic homeland of the Jews is the cause of the conflict. But as Netanyahu later pointed out, Abbas, who has spoken in the past about “63 years” of Israel “occupying Palestinian land,” that ignores the fact the conflict between Jews and Arabs was raging for half a century before the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel came into the possession of the West Bank.

The Israeli cut to the heart of the problem when he concluded by asking why Abbas had spent the last three years doing his best to evade peace negotiations. If his true intent was merely to create a Palestinian state, he could have had one before Netanyahu took office in 2008. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, offered Abbas such a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. But Abbas walked away from that offer just as his predecessor Yasir Arafat walked away from the state he was offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001.

That is why this UN circus initiated by the Palestinian leader is nothing more than a charade intended to bolster his standing at home and to avoid the necessity of engaging in U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel. The Palestinians don’t want to negotiate; they want the world to impose a dictat on Israel that will not guarantee the security or the rights of the Jewish state or even to agree to finally end the conflict.

Abbas could have, as Netanyahu suggested, met with the Israeli today in New York if he wanted. But the Palestinian has no interest in such talks or in peace if it means he will have to give up the right of Arab refugees to swamp it. One needn’t be a partisan of Netanyahu’s to understand there is no moral equivalence between their respective positions. One man lied, and the other told the truth.

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On Television, Truth and Reality

In a column from earlier this month, David Zurawik, the media critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote about watching President Obama address the nation after the debt ceiling compromise. He said, “I couldn’t help thinking how diminished Obama looked and how thin his voice sounded. I wondered if there actually was something happening physically with him.” And so Zurawik went back to a DVD he had of Obama speaking on election night 2008 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

“Of course, I lost myself in a flood of memories as I watched,” Zurawik wrote. “I remembered how that TV moment sent thousands of college students and others into the streets of Baltimore celebrating. And it was the TV moment, not just the election victory. Young viewers watching him onscreen wanted to share that energy in a communal, physical sense with others. Viewing him now on TV in his promise-not-realized persona made me both sad for what might have been and angry for letting myself believe in the TV imagery of a night in Grant Park in November.”

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In a column from earlier this month, David Zurawik, the media critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote about watching President Obama address the nation after the debt ceiling compromise. He said, “I couldn’t help thinking how diminished Obama looked and how thin his voice sounded. I wondered if there actually was something happening physically with him.” And so Zurawik went back to a DVD he had of Obama speaking on election night 2008 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

“Of course, I lost myself in a flood of memories as I watched,” Zurawik wrote. “I remembered how that TV moment sent thousands of college students and others into the streets of Baltimore celebrating. And it was the TV moment, not just the election victory. Young viewers watching him onscreen wanted to share that energy in a communal, physical sense with others. Viewing him now on TV in his promise-not-realized persona made me both sad for what might have been and angry for letting myself believe in the TV imagery of a night in Grant Park in November.”

In reading Zurawik’s comments, I was reminded of a series of lectures Malcolm Muggeridge delivered in 1976. (They were later turned into a book, Christ and the Media.) The thesis of his lectures is that “there is a gulf between reality … and the world of fantasy that the media projects, and that Western people are being enormously misled by being induced to regard things on the screen as real, when actually they are fantasy.”

Muggeridge cites four lines from the poet William Blake, which he argues were almost prophetic:

This Life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye

Muggeridge’s argument is that to see through the eye is to grasp the significance of what is seen, to see it in relation to the totality of
God’s creation (“All the world in a grain of sand,” to quote Blake again). To see through the eye involves the marvelous gift of imagination, which is the heart and source of all art and provides an image of truth; versus seeing with the eye, which involves fantasy, the creation of images and ideas which are not truth and which have no relation to truth.

What Zurawik fell prey to is precisely what concerned Muggeridge –believing in TV imagery and substituting it for reality.

Now, the relationship of television to reality is a complicated matter. Television, after all, isn’t simply about creating images and
impressions that are at odds with the truth. Most of us have witnessed moments on television that have served as a valuable window into a person’s disposition, his or her grace under pressure, and even character.

At the same time, television can create a false sense of intimacy. Think of movie stars, athletes and politicians who come across as kind, authentic, and charming on television – and then we learn about scandalous private lives. We think we know the people based on what we see on television –and then we find out we really didn’t know them at all.

But there is another danger that television presents, which is that it places a premium on feelings, emotions, and on performance rather than on ideas, reason and logic. Consider how often we judge the debate performances of politicians not by the rigor of their arguments but by “media moments” (“There you again,” “Where’s the beef?” and “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that memorable sound bites are evidence of a lack of intellectual candlepower. But neither are they synonymous.

Having served in three administrations, I would be the last person to argue the ability to do well on television is irrelevant to the duties of the modern presidency. For well or ill, it is the means by which presidents communicate, explain and inspire. The visual medium is enormously powerful, and all of us are reaching for interpretative tools when it comes to assessing public figures. At the same time, it’s not at all clear that prudence, justice, restraint and courage easily translate on television, which often rewards glibness above character and heat over light. I rather doubt James Madison would have done well on television.

The limitations of television, and its capacity to make us believe shadows are real, are what Muggeridge was warning us about. And that makes sense. In the beginning, after all, was the Word – not the camera.

 

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The Duty of Harsh Criticism

“[O]ur first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism,” Rebecca West wrote in the New Republic in 1914. “There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (h/t: Real Clear Books).

Change “England” to America and “the police” to parents (when the “piping note of appreciation” changes to indignant bullying), and you’ve got an excellent summary of the current state of criticism in this country.

What is the source of this flinching amiability? In West’s day it sprang from a “faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.”

These days it comes from a lukewarm suspicion of the intellect, a pseudo-democratic feeling that no one is really any more qualified than anyone else to pronounce verdicts on literature, and a heartfelt relativism which believes, to the tips of its fingers, that every judgment is a personal preference anyway. In an age when reading is (supposedly) in decline, it is widely held to be wrong to discourage anyone from sitting down with a book. The important thing is to read. What is read matters less.

Except that it does matter. A lot. The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. (That’s primarily why they are bad.) Take the execution of Troy Davis, for example. The conventional wisdom on the left is that Davis was “murdered” by the state (see here and here and here). The idea can be traced back to Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood, which if not inventing it gave it a wide distribution.

After the prosecution’s summation to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” (Capote himself, in all likelihood) criticizes the prosecutor for his brutality. Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:

     “He was just telling the truth. . . . The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

Thus the real meaning of Capote’s title, which refers not to the murder of the Clutter family but instead to the execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith five-and-a-half years later. Those who seek justice, Capote says, are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

The idea that Troy Davis was “murdered” by the state is difficult to refute because of the popularity, nearly the canonical status, of Capote’s book. If more critics had abused the book upon its original publication in 1966, if more of them had followed the lead of William Phillips, who argued in COMMENTARY that the book was a failure because Capote had failed to show how Hickock and Smith were acting out the “moral logic” of the ideas that had invaded their lives, then perhaps the central theme of In Cold Blood might not have become established like a first principle in much of American culture.

Most critics were less afraid of shirking their duty than of earning a reputation for harshness. Little has changed. A book like Amy Waldman’s 9/11 novel The Submission is praised as “nervy and absorbing” — Amazon recommends it as a Best Book of the Month, calling it “airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable” — but its message that the bitter American struggle over symbols masks a deep national dysfunction is either ignored or reduced to platitude (“public memorials [are] an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives,” or in other words, the true meaning of human experience lies in suffering).

When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought. Not that their dereliction of duty will win them any friends. People are even more uncomfortable around critics than they are around undertakers. They might as well be harsh.

“[O]ur first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism,” Rebecca West wrote in the New Republic in 1914. “There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (h/t: Real Clear Books).

Change “England” to America and “the police” to parents (when the “piping note of appreciation” changes to indignant bullying), and you’ve got an excellent summary of the current state of criticism in this country.

What is the source of this flinching amiability? In West’s day it sprang from a “faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.”

These days it comes from a lukewarm suspicion of the intellect, a pseudo-democratic feeling that no one is really any more qualified than anyone else to pronounce verdicts on literature, and a heartfelt relativism which believes, to the tips of its fingers, that every judgment is a personal preference anyway. In an age when reading is (supposedly) in decline, it is widely held to be wrong to discourage anyone from sitting down with a book. The important thing is to read. What is read matters less.

Except that it does matter. A lot. The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. (That’s primarily why they are bad.) Take the execution of Troy Davis, for example. The conventional wisdom on the left is that Davis was “murdered” by the state (see here and here and here). The idea can be traced back to Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood, which if not inventing it gave it a wide distribution.

After the prosecution’s summation to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” (Capote himself, in all likelihood) criticizes the prosecutor for his brutality. Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:

     “He was just telling the truth. . . . The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

Thus the real meaning of Capote’s title, which refers not to the murder of the Clutter family but instead to the execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith five-and-a-half years later. Those who seek justice, Capote says, are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

The idea that Troy Davis was “murdered” by the state is difficult to refute because of the popularity, nearly the canonical status, of Capote’s book. If more critics had abused the book upon its original publication in 1966, if more of them had followed the lead of William Phillips, who argued in COMMENTARY that the book was a failure because Capote had failed to show how Hickock and Smith were acting out the “moral logic” of the ideas that had invaded their lives, then perhaps the central theme of In Cold Blood might not have become established like a first principle in much of American culture.

Most critics were less afraid of shirking their duty than of earning a reputation for harshness. Little has changed. A book like Amy Waldman’s 9/11 novel The Submission is praised as “nervy and absorbing” — Amazon recommends it as a Best Book of the Month, calling it “airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable” — but its message that the bitter American struggle over symbols masks a deep national dysfunction is either ignored or reduced to platitude (“public memorials [are] an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives,” or in other words, the true meaning of human experience lies in suffering).

When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought. Not that their dereliction of duty will win them any friends. People are even more uncomfortable around critics than they are around undertakers. They might as well be harsh.

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Solyndra Execs Take the Fifth

As expected, Solyndra’s CEO and CFO both refused to answer questions during a House Energy and Commerce oversight inquiry today, invoking their Fifth Amendment right over 20 times:

Over and over again, Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison and chief financial officer W.G. Stover responded to questions with some formulation of the following statement: “On the advice of my counsel, I invoke the privilege afforded to me by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. I respectfully decline to answer questions.”

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As expected, Solyndra’s CEO and CFO both refused to answer questions during a House Energy and Commerce oversight inquiry today, invoking their Fifth Amendment right over 20 times:

Over and over again, Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison and chief financial officer W.G. Stover responded to questions with some formulation of the following statement: “On the advice of my counsel, I invoke the privilege afforded to me by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. I respectfully decline to answer questions.”

All of the questions came from Republicans on the committee, who pressed the executives on topics from whether their financial statements were accurate to whether they met with Obama officials.

They’re worried about incriminating themselves in the current FBI investigation into Solyndra, which is fine. But as much as the executives have the right to remain silent, everyone else has the right to point out doing so makes them look like they have a lot to hide. Republicans tried to hit this point home by repeatedly peppering the executives with questions they refused to answer. This soon wore out the nerves of top Democrat on the committee Rep. Henry Waxman:

The repeated questions drew an objection from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who slammed Republicans for persisting even after knowing that the executives would invoke their right to remain silent.

“I just want to take this moment to assert the fact that I think it’s unseemly and inappropriate for members to be asking questions that you know they will not answer,” Waxman said, saying the GOP questions were “sound bites” for the press.

It seems strange for Waxman to jump to Solyndra’s defense like this. Taking the Fifth during a Senate inquiry seems more “unseemly” than what the Republicans were doing, which was simply asking questions. And it’s not like they were without precedent on this. When Kenneth Lay invoked the Fifth Amendment during his Senate testimony on Enron, members of both parties spent hours raking him over the coals. I’d like to hear Waxman explain why that was appropriate, but the Republicans’ actions today weren’t.

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Curtains for the CLASS Act?

Remember this congressional working group report from last week, which showed administration staffers were privately raising alarm bells about what a train wreck the CLASS Act was before it passed? Well apparently it hit a nerve with the administration. According to reports, the head actuary of the CLASS Act’s Washington office was abruptly terminated today, and the entire program may be headed for an early grave:

Amid mounting concerns about its fiscal sustainability, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday said they may not go forward with the program. …

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Remember this congressional working group report from last week, which showed administration staffers were privately raising alarm bells about what a train wreck the CLASS Act was before it passed? Well apparently it hit a nerve with the administration. According to reports, the head actuary of the CLASS Act’s Washington office was abruptly terminated today, and the entire program may be headed for an early grave:

Amid mounting concerns about its fiscal sustainability, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday said they may not go forward with the program. …

The disclosure came after the office in charge of the initiative terminated its chief actuary, Bob Yee. In an interview, Mr. Yee said the office was being disbanded effective Friday.

The Health and Human Services Department denied the office was closing and said the analysis of the program would continue as planned. But that analysis has been going on for 17 months now, and so far it hasn’t produced reforms to make the program sustainable for the long-term. Where does it go from here, especially with a reduced staff?

Rep. Darrell Issa and a group of 12 Republicans in the House and Senate are trying to find out. They sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today, asking for details on the office closing and her own involvement with the program. Sebelius recently publicly acknowledged the sustainability problems with the CLASS Act, but the lawmakers want to know when she first became aware of this. Read the full letter here.

“Accountability goes to the top. Lawmakers and the American people deserve to know when internal concerns over CLASS were first communicated to Secretary Sebelius and what, if any, actions she took to address them,” wrote Sen. Jeff Sessions, who signed onto the letter, in a statement.

There’s also a crucial reason why the administration might be hesitant to nix the CLASS Act, despite concerns over its sustainability. As Sarah Kliff reports, the program accounts for half of the “savings” the CBO said Obamacare would produce over the next decade (I put savings in quotes because the CBO’s math has been widely disputed here). The president argued we needed to institute health care reform in order to cut costs, but that line of reasoning is destroyed if $70 billion in these so-called savings go out the window along with the CLASS Act.

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Romney is Running Rings Around Perry

I hope Governor Rick Perry enjoyed his six-week run as the front runner of the GOP field, because it’s now over.

Perry has had three debates. His first was mediocre. His second debate performance was weaker than his first, and last night’s debate was worse than either of the first two. Whatever strengths the Texas governor has, debating is not one of them, for the reasons covered by my colleagues. He comes across as unprepared, sometimes, unsteady, and at times his answers border on being incoherent. And his stand on illegal immigration will hurt him with the GOP base much more than calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” The cumulative effect of these three debates on the Perry candidacy will be, I think, deeply damaging, in part because his support upon entering the race was shallow. A lot of conservatives rallied to Governor Perry based on what they assumed he was, having seen him hardly at all. Read More

I hope Governor Rick Perry enjoyed his six-week run as the front runner of the GOP field, because it’s now over.

Perry has had three debates. His first was mediocre. His second debate performance was weaker than his first, and last night’s debate was worse than either of the first two. Whatever strengths the Texas governor has, debating is not one of them, for the reasons covered by my colleagues. He comes across as unprepared, sometimes, unsteady, and at times his answers border on being incoherent. And his stand on illegal immigration will hurt him with the GOP base much more than calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” The cumulative effect of these three debates on the Perry candidacy will be, I think, deeply damaging, in part because his support upon entering the race was shallow. A lot of conservatives rallied to Governor Perry based on what they assumed he was, having seen him hardly at all.

It turns out Rick Perry not only isn’t Ronald Reagan; he might not even be Phil Crane. Now to be fair to Governor Perry, it’s very hard to run a strong campaign the first time out, especially when you’re a late entry, as Perry was. Ronald Reagan, one of the most skilled politicians of the 20th century, won the GOP nomination – but only on his third try. It’s much harder to  successfully run for president than most people imagine – and it helps a lot to have run before. Which brings us to Governor Mitt Romney.

He continues his string of very impressive debates. I will repeat what I’ve said before: his improvement as a candidate from 2008 to now is striking. He’s well-prepared, confident, and reassuring. He doesn’t make many unforced errors. And with each outing he’s winning new converts. If the election were held today, Romney would defeat President Obama, probably in something close to a landslide. And that matters a great deal to Republican primary voters.

The other candidates, especially Senator Rick Santorum, were also quite good. He may surprise people in Iowa, where his appeal to social conservatives is strong. My hunch is that Santorum’s fortunes will rise as Michele Bachmann’s continue to fall.

It’s trite to say there are a lot of twists and turns between now and when the first votes are cast next year. And it’s certainly true that national polls aren’t terribly meaningful at this stage. But political skills are. And right now, Mitt Romney is running rings around Rick Perry. That’s becoming increasingly, and almost undeniable, clear to more and more GOP voters.

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Asking the Wrong Questions About Drones

William Cohen’s Politico piece on the problems involved in the use of drones is interesting, though mostly for the wrong reasons. In that he politely questions the administration’s reliance on drones, it adds to the drip-drip of Clinton camp criticism of the Obama White House that Alana noted yesterday. What he does not do is connect the dots that he lays out.

Cohen begins with a tacit rejection of the administration’s pending shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism in Afghanistan, moves to the argument the “sheer necessity” of financial pressure may compel a strategic shift, and ends with the argument the decision to wage war is exceptionally grave, because war can never be made simple by applying technology. [German military theorist] Clausewitz would agree with that last point, and I accept it too, just as I agree we should support effective drone strikes as part of a larger strategy, not a substitute for it.

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William Cohen’s Politico piece on the problems involved in the use of drones is interesting, though mostly for the wrong reasons. In that he politely questions the administration’s reliance on drones, it adds to the drip-drip of Clinton camp criticism of the Obama White House that Alana noted yesterday. What he does not do is connect the dots that he lays out.

Cohen begins with a tacit rejection of the administration’s pending shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism in Afghanistan, moves to the argument the “sheer necessity” of financial pressure may compel a strategic shift, and ends with the argument the decision to wage war is exceptionally grave, because war can never be made simple by applying technology. [German military theorist] Clausewitz would agree with that last point, and I accept it too, just as I agree we should support effective drone strikes as part of a larger strategy, not a substitute for it.

And that is the problem. Counterterrorism is not an approach that accepts we are fighting a war in the first place. Adopting it is not an example of “strategic recalculation”: it is an effort to define the problem out of existence. It is all very well to warn against the illusion technology can make war simple, but the issue in this case is the illusion the war does not exist at all. Cohen’s article is premised on the argument that “Drones can’t change war,” but it comes to the conclusion the problems with drones are mostly about their affect on us, not about what reliance on them will have on our ability to understand or win the war we are actually in.

Thus, while Cohen poses seven questions about drones that raise “significant issues,” six of them have to do with command, control, intelligence, alliance relations, and congressional oversight. These are important issues, to be sure. But all of them are relevant to any U.S. use of military power. The only question that applies solely to drones is his sixth, which asks if the use of drones, coupled with a reduced ground presence, will “undermine the confidence of the locals that we are willing to assume shared risks?”

The answer to that is obviously that it will. But the larger problem is not that using drones undermines the confidence of our allies in uniform. It is that drones vastly reduce our ability to fight a counterinsurgency campaign by protecting local populations and collecting intelligence that allows us to prosecute the war more effectively. Moreover, drones, by incinerating combatants and their cell phones from above, reduce our ability to gain through interrogations and analysis the intelligence we need to conduct counterinsurgency as well as counter-terrorism, and police operations. The problem with drones is not that they make us think war will be easy, but that they are being used to deny the realities of the war we are fighting.

The administration has actually gone a good way toward answering at least some of Cohen’s questions. I am hardly one to offer easy praise to State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh, but his address to the American Society of International Law in 2010 on the legality of drone warfare was measured and thoughtful. What I find much more troubling than the Administration’s stance on this issue is Cohen’s easy acceptance of the argument that “sheer necessity” will compel an Afghan withdrawal.

Nonsense: it is not necessity. It is a choice, and it deserves to be acknowledged, discussed, defended, and criticized as such. The fact we have spent more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan over 10 years is insignificant when compared to the almost $1 trillion we voted in a single stimulus bill in 2009. The argument from necessity is precisely what the administration relies on to smooth over the slightly awkward questions Cohen uninsistently asks.  By using it himself, Cohen gives the game away.

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Stop Blaming Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for Region’s Turbulence

With President Barack  Obama so far saying and doing all the right things at the UN this week, it’s depressing to realize his basic worldview hasn’t changed: He still sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root of all regional troubles. As he said in a conference call with American rabbis yesterday, “The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the  Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in  Egypt … That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel’s.”

Let’s start with Turkey. During the last few weeks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send warships to the Mediterranean to challenge Cyprus’s plans to drill for undersea gas. He threatened to suspend ties with the European Union if Cyprus takes up the EU’s rotating presidency as scheduled next year. He has repeatedly bombed Kurdish areas of Iraq,  and threatened to cooperate with Iran in a larger-scale operation in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. And despite his much-ballyhooed peace initiative with Armenia, he not only still refuses to apologize for the Armenian genocide Turkey perpetrated in the 20th century, but is now demanding Armenia apologize to Turkey.

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With President Barack  Obama so far saying and doing all the right things at the UN this week, it’s depressing to realize his basic worldview hasn’t changed: He still sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root of all regional troubles. As he said in a conference call with American rabbis yesterday, “The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the  Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in  Egypt … That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel’s.”

Let’s start with Turkey. During the last few weeks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send warships to the Mediterranean to challenge Cyprus’s plans to drill for undersea gas. He threatened to suspend ties with the European Union if Cyprus takes up the EU’s rotating presidency as scheduled next year. He has repeatedly bombed Kurdish areas of Iraq,  and threatened to cooperate with Iran in a larger-scale operation in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. And despite his much-ballyhooed peace initiative with Armenia, he not only still refuses to apologize for the Armenian genocide Turkey perpetrated in the 20th century, but is now demanding Armenia apologize to Turkey.

So are Turkey’s increasingly violent and threatening relations with Cyprus, Iraq, Armenia and the EU also due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or is it just possible that the problem – in relations with Israel as well – is Erdogan’s megalomania and short fuse, which are rapidly turning Turkey’s vaunted policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors into one of “problems with all its neighbors”?

As for Egypt, consider one revealing recent report: Cairo has just banned the export of palm fronds – a vital component of the lulav, a ritual object used in the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot – not only to Israel, but to Jewish communities worldwide. In previous years, Egypt has supplied up to 40 percent of the global demand for lulavim.

Egypt’s economic situation is dire. According to a recent report by its central bank, the country had a $9.2 billion balance of payments deficit for the fiscal year ending in June; income from tourism is down almost 50 percent; foreign investors are fleeing; and the Egyptian pound has lost 12 percent against the dollar since the revolution began in January. So you’d think Egypt would welcome a chance to earn some much-needed foreign currency.

Instead, it has banned palm frond exports to Jewish communities worldwide. So is that, too, due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or it just possible that the problem – in relations with Israel as well – is the rabid anti-Semitism Egyptian politicians and the media have inculcated in the public for years? (See here  and here for some examples.)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one factor among many in the region’s turbulence, and rarely is it the most important one. But it seems no amount of evidence will ever convince your average Western liberal of that.

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Obama’s Next Step: Push Israel to the Brink

The circus at the United Nations this week has been frustrating for the Obama administration. As the president indicated in his speech to the world body, peace between the Arabs and the Israelis has been his top foreign policy priority since the day he took office. Yet his decision to distance the U.S. from Israel and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians wasn’t enough to convince the latter to return to the table. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to evade negotiations by asking the UN to give him a state without recognizing Israel is forcing Obama to use his veto to preserve what is left of the U.S.-sponsored peace process. That Obama will earn the jeers of international public opinion by acting in defense of American interests far more than those of Israel is no consolation to a man who came into office convinced the world would fall at his feet.

But the veto will only be the first page of the next chapter of American Middle East diplomacy. What follows will undoubtedly be a new campaign of U.S. pressure on Israel that may eclipse the squabbles that has defined the relationship between the two countries during Obama’s time in the White House.

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The circus at the United Nations this week has been frustrating for the Obama administration. As the president indicated in his speech to the world body, peace between the Arabs and the Israelis has been his top foreign policy priority since the day he took office. Yet his decision to distance the U.S. from Israel and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians wasn’t enough to convince the latter to return to the table. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to evade negotiations by asking the UN to give him a state without recognizing Israel is forcing Obama to use his veto to preserve what is left of the U.S.-sponsored peace process. That Obama will earn the jeers of international public opinion by acting in defense of American interests far more than those of Israel is no consolation to a man who came into office convinced the world would fall at his feet.

But the veto will only be the first page of the next chapter of American Middle East diplomacy. What follows will undoubtedly be a new campaign of U.S. pressure on Israel that may eclipse the squabbles that has defined the relationship between the two countries during Obama’s time in the White House.

Despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, the president is still convinced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving all of America’s problems in the Middle East. And, though his own bitter experiences with Abbas should have taught him the PA is still unwilling to make the necessary historic compromises to make peace, Obama may answer his international critics with a new effort to re-launch the negotiations that will center on brutal American pressure on Israel.

Having earned the applause of Israelis for his speech at the UN and the prospect of a veto of the Palestinian resolution, the president will likely present a bill for services rendered to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming days and weeks. It will come in the form of further demands for Israel to make unilateral concessions in order to entice Abbas to return to negotiations. Netanyahu’s offer of talks without preconditions will be ignored. Instead, we will again hear of the need for Israel to accept the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations and for it to freeze building not only in the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. As in his May speech, it is doubtful these demands will be accompanied by an American call for the Palestinians to give up the right of return and to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

Given the potentially grievous political consequences for Obama, many believe he is unlikely to go to battle with Netanyahu again in advance of next year’s elections. But that overestimates Obama’s interest in pleasing pro-Israel voters and underestimates his desire to earn international applause. Besides, this time the rationale for a new campaign of pressure will not be just the imperative of peace but to save Mahmoud Abbas, whose hold on the West Bank will be endangered by the unrest his UN gambit will unleash.

The danger for Israel with such a policy is clear. For Israel to concede the question of territory and borders in advance of negotiations would make such talks a sham. Given the unlikelihood Abbas will ever agree to negotiate even on such advantageous terms, it might be argued this presents no great danger to Israel. But whether Abbas returns to the table or not, the spectacle of the United States once again pushing Israel’s government to abandon Jewish rights and to compromise its security will serve to further isolate Jerusalem in the coming months.

Netanyahu may attempt to meet the president halfway with another West Bank freeze, but he is not going to concede the right of Jews to live and build in all of Jerusalem. It is on this point where he is sure of domestic support that the Israeli will make his stand against a U.S. dictat.

As in the past two and half years, the outcome of this tussle will be decided by two factors Obama can’t control. One is the inability of Abbas to make peace. The other is the unwillingness of the American people and the Congress, including many Democrats, to further downgrade the alliance with Israel. The former means Obama’s pressure will be in vain. The latter will serve, as it has in the past, as a brake on the president’s willingness to push Israel to the brink.

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Can Perry Compete at This Level?

This was only Perry’s third debate, but how much longer until his “inexperience” no longer cuts it as an excuse? The issue isn’t just that his performance was weak last night; it’s that he hasn’t shown improvement since his first time on stage. The Reagan debate should have been a massive wakeup call that he needed to buckle down. And after CNN/Tea Party Express, he should have dropped everything and made debate prep his #1 priority.

Either he hasn’t, which would indicate that he has some major issues with prioritizing or self-reflection. Or he has devoted the necessary time to improving, but just doesn’t have it in him. If the latter is true, it doesn’t mean he can’t still win the nomination. Being a poor debater isn’t necessarily politically lethal, as President George W. Bush proved. But if the former is true, it speaks to a deeper character flaw that isn’t surmountable.

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This was only Perry’s third debate, but how much longer until his “inexperience” no longer cuts it as an excuse? The issue isn’t just that his performance was weak last night; it’s that he hasn’t shown improvement since his first time on stage. The Reagan debate should have been a massive wakeup call that he needed to buckle down. And after CNN/Tea Party Express, he should have dropped everything and made debate prep his #1 priority.

Either he hasn’t, which would indicate that he has some major issues with prioritizing or self-reflection. Or he has devoted the necessary time to improving, but just doesn’t have it in him. If the latter is true, it doesn’t mean he can’t still win the nomination. Being a poor debater isn’t necessarily politically lethal, as President George W. Bush proved. But if the former is true, it speaks to a deeper character flaw that isn’t surmountable.

Either way, it has to be distressing for his campaign and his supporters. Perry came into the race with a strong lead on Romney and a ton of momentum. Republicans want to like him. But he’s not making it easy for them.

That’s not to say Perry bombed the entire night. His best line was his touching Gardasil story about a young cancer victim who lobbied him on the vaccine. He also improved his response on Social Security, and gave a compelling argument on allowing illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state costs. The worst part of the night for him was when he fumbled through an attack on Romney as a “flip-flopper.” It was the same attack Romney made against Perry earlier in the night – only Romney had done it better. Perry’s listlessness was also apparent. As the debate wore on, he seemed to grow tired and lose focus. He looked like he would have rather been anywhere but there. It was a sharp contrast with Romney, who was quick on his feet, witty and relaxed.

Perry may still be leading in the polls, but Romney came out of the debate looking like the frontrunner. And unless Perry is able to find his stride, Romney will soon start closing the gap in the polls as well.

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