Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 28, 2011

The Palestinian State Gets Anti-Air Missiles

Amid the clamor about the need for Israel to agree to a Palestinian state, the one that already exists is quietly boosting its military capabilities. Haaretz reported yesterday the Hamas state in-all-but-name in Gaza is the beneficiary of the chaos of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. The paper says that some of the late dictator’s arsenal of Russian-manufactured missiles have been successfully smuggled into Gaza and given Hamas forces a credible anti-aircraft capability. This means not only could the terrorist stronghold be better able to fend off Israeli efforts to deter terrorism, but the Islamist regime may now be equipped to threaten aviation over southern Israel and in particular the city of Eilat.

While Secretary of State Clinton has said the United States will aid the new Libyan government to keep track of their military hardware, the cow may be already out of the barn door on this issue. More to the point, the buildup in Gaza may not only have shredded Israel’s ability to defend its border but also undermined the current balance of power in the West Bank.

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Amid the clamor about the need for Israel to agree to a Palestinian state, the one that already exists is quietly boosting its military capabilities. Haaretz reported yesterday the Hamas state in-all-but-name in Gaza is the beneficiary of the chaos of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. The paper says that some of the late dictator’s arsenal of Russian-manufactured missiles have been successfully smuggled into Gaza and given Hamas forces a credible anti-aircraft capability. This means not only could the terrorist stronghold be better able to fend off Israeli efforts to deter terrorism, but the Islamist regime may now be equipped to threaten aviation over southern Israel and in particular the city of Eilat.

While Secretary of State Clinton has said the United States will aid the new Libyan government to keep track of their military hardware, the cow may be already out of the barn door on this issue. More to the point, the buildup in Gaza may not only have shredded Israel’s ability to defend its border but also undermined the current balance of power in the West Bank.

Those who advocate far-reaching Israeli concessions in order to entice the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank back to the negotiating table treat Hamas’s sovereignty over Gaza as a minor detail. But the weakness of the PA and its Fatah ruling faction vis-à-vis Hamas is not just a function of the terror group’s ability to extort Israel, as was seen in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal. Missiles were fired at Israel from Gaza this week for the first time since Shalit’s release. Israel responded, but in the future, that may not be as easy as it once was. The Islamist group’s ability not only to exercise functional sovereignty in Gaza but to project military force into Israel via missile fire constitutes greater leverage over Palestinian public opinion than whether or not Israelis are building houses in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Qaddafi’s missiles that are now pointed at Israel have made the notion of Hamas statehood more than theoretical. The main question that Israelis — and those Americans seeking to influence Israel’s government — may be facing in the future is not whether they want a Palestinian state but whether they are willing to let the one in Gaza expand its reach into the West Bank.

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Freezing Out Occupy Wall Street

This isn’t as blunt as Rudy Giuliani’s “streets are not for sleeping” rule, but apparently Mayor Bloomberg is finally taking a stand against the unwashed homeless hordes in Zuccotti Park. Sort of:

Anti-Wall Street protesters’ plans to camp in a New York park throughout the city’s harsh winter were dealt a blow on Friday when the fire department confiscated six generators and about a dozen cans of fuel. …

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This isn’t as blunt as Rudy Giuliani’s “streets are not for sleeping” rule, but apparently Mayor Bloomberg is finally taking a stand against the unwashed homeless hordes in Zuccotti Park. Sort of:

Anti-Wall Street protesters’ plans to camp in a New York park throughout the city’s harsh winter were dealt a blow on Friday when the fire department confiscated six generators and about a dozen cans of fuel. …

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the generators were confiscated because they were considered a safety hazard and it was not a bid to remove protesters.

“As long as they don’t take away anybody else’s rights to say what they want to say, or to not say anything, to go about their business safely … at the moment it will continue,” Bloomberg told local radio.

That means it’s going to be a long, cold weekend for the Occupiers. Tomorrow night, the city is bracing for its first snowfall of the season, with temperatures dropping to 32 degrees. Sunday won’t be much better, with a low of 34 and a high of 49.

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A Beautiful Story about Human Equality

Much has been written in recent years about how civic participation in America has declined. We are more selfish, more narcissistic, more individualistic and less bonded to one another, and to our communities, than we ever have been. There is something to this critique, though things are a good deal more nuanced and mixed than we sometimes imagine. In any event, here’s a terrifically encouraging story about the underlying strength of America.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that a 9-year-old boy, Robbie Wood Jr., vanished on a family outing Sunday in the north-central part of Virginia (Hanover County). Wood is severely autistic and has no verbal skills; Hanover County Sheriff David Hines said the youth has “absolutely no awareness of his personal safety concerns.” In response, we’ve seen a massive search effort, with more than 1,000 volunteers trained and dispatched into a 2,000-acre search area.
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Much has been written in recent years about how civic participation in America has declined. We are more selfish, more narcissistic, more individualistic and less bonded to one another, and to our communities, than we ever have been. There is something to this critique, though things are a good deal more nuanced and mixed than we sometimes imagine. In any event, here’s a terrifically encouraging story about the underlying strength of America.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that a 9-year-old boy, Robbie Wood Jr., vanished on a family outing Sunday in the north-central part of Virginia (Hanover County). Wood is severely autistic and has no verbal skills; Hanover County Sheriff David Hines said the youth has “absolutely no awareness of his personal safety concerns.” In response, we’ve seen a massive search effort, with more than 1,000 volunteers trained and dispatched into a 2,000-acre search area.

When word got out about the plight of Robbie, hundreds of people turned out at Kings Dominion to volunteer to help look for him, with the line of citizen-searchers snaking through the parking lot. By Thursday an estimated 1,500 volunteers showed up.

According to this account from ABC News, “carrying walking sticks and wearing yellow reflective jackets, the searchers began lining up before dawn to be taken to the forest where they were to look for Robert Wood, Jr. ‘I have an 11 year old, and if the situation were reversed, I would hope people would be out helping me look for her,’ said a man named Don who stood in line for hours in the parking lot of an amusement park to take part in the effort to find the boy.”

This is a tremendous tribute to the decency and compassion of the people living in north-central Virginia. These are precisely the qualities, the “habits in the heart,” in Americans that de Tocqueville found so impressive. For thousands of people to set aside huge chunks of their day and week to search for a child they have never known tells us something very good about these Americans and the country from which they come.

But there’s one other element to this story that needs to be said. If Robbie had been diagnosed with a severe disability while he was still in the womb, there would have been tremendous pressure on his parents to abort him. He would be seen, in the eyes of the world, as too imperfect, too flawed, too much of a drain on his family and society, and even without worth. And yet here we have thousands of people searching for a child who is so severely autistic that he has no verbal skills. They clearly believe Robbie Wood’s life has worth, that as a child of God he has inherent dignity, that even the weakest members of a community has value, and that even a severely autistic child can be deeply loved.

In his book, Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “I have never experienced so perfect a sense of human equality as with Mother Teresa among her poor. Her love for them, reflecting God’s love, makes them equal, as brothers and sisters within a family are equal, however widely they differ in intellectual and other attainments, in physical beauty and grace.”

That is a truth we’re seeing on display in Hanover County, Virginia.

An update: A tweet from CBS News reports, “A Virginia autistic boy has been found alive after going missing for six days.” What a lovely way to begin the weekend.

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Occupy’s Oakland “Martyr” Doesn’t Sanctify Demonstrator Violence

The outbreak of violence during an Occupy event in Oakland, California, illustrated the underlying threat always lurking beneath the surface of entitlement that characterized the wave of leftist demonstrations around the country. One person injured during the attempt to reclaim an area that had already been declared by the city to be off-limits has already changed the narrative to one of heroic martyrdom and alleged police brutality.

The fractured skull of Scott Olsen, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq, has become a rallying point by the Occupy movement as vigils are being held in his honor around the country. But Olsen’s injury is serving to obscure the fact that the Oakland crowd threw rocks at police in an attempt to have their way. Rather than being a symbol of a victim of “corporate greed” and the “war economy,” the behavior of Olsen and his fellow Occupiers illustrates the fundamentally undemocratic and brutish nature of the demonstrators that gives the lie to attempts by the liberal mainstream media to cast as them as a reasonable answer to the law-abiding and peaceful Tea Party.

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The outbreak of violence during an Occupy event in Oakland, California, illustrated the underlying threat always lurking beneath the surface of entitlement that characterized the wave of leftist demonstrations around the country. One person injured during the attempt to reclaim an area that had already been declared by the city to be off-limits has already changed the narrative to one of heroic martyrdom and alleged police brutality.

The fractured skull of Scott Olsen, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq, has become a rallying point by the Occupy movement as vigils are being held in his honor around the country. But Olsen’s injury is serving to obscure the fact that the Oakland crowd threw rocks at police in an attempt to have their way. Rather than being a symbol of a victim of “corporate greed” and the “war economy,” the behavior of Olsen and his fellow Occupiers illustrates the fundamentally undemocratic and brutish nature of the demonstrators that gives the lie to attempts by the liberal mainstream media to cast as them as a reasonable answer to the law-abiding and peaceful Tea Party.

It is a source of no small amount of frustration for conservatives that the Tea Party has been slandered by the media as racist and violent even though the movement is innocent of the former and guilty of nothing more than rude and abrasive remarks directed at members of Congress at town hall meetings. Yet the presence of extremists and offensive signs (including those that were anti-Semitic) at Occupy gatherings has been either ignored or rationalized while the squatters were lionized for their supposed idealism. The question now is whether outbreaks of violence will put an end to this double standard.

One would expect that many of the Democrats who have been cheering on a group of anti-capitalists seeking to undermine the system would start to run for cover once Occupiers started throwing rocks at cops in a town where the municipal government is openly sympathetic to their aims. But by exploiting Olsen as a martyr, leftists hope to gain even more sympathy.

Olsen’s injury may bring to mind for some the “Bonus Marchers” who set up a shanty town in Washington, D.C., when veterans demanding an early payout of a service-related cash outlay swarmed the capital in 1932, much to President Herbert Hoover’s discomfit. Their “Hooverville” was a symbol of the Depression, and when the U.S. Army (under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur) violently expelled the marchers and their families it was a public relations disaster for a Republican administration already on the ropes.

But few of the Occupiers are veterans down on their luck as were the members of the “Bonus Army.” Instead, they are merely discontented critics of America’s economic system. They talk about corporate greed, but their ideas mostly revolve around the notion taxpayers like the middle class members of the Tea Party should be forced to pay for expanding government’s role in virtually every aspect of American life.

The Occupiers would like to think America in 2011 is on the verge of collapse the way it seemed to be in 1932. They are as wrong about that as they are on their neo-socialist economics. The thuggish nature of this movement has become increasingly obvious to more Americans who respect the right to free assembly and protest but have no patience for the sense of entitlement that is at the heart of the Occupy mindset.

There is another problem with all of this that the memory of the Bonus March should also highlight. Unlike in 1932 when it was an unpopular conservative administration that could be blamed for the country’s economic straits, the current resident of the White House is a hyper-liberal who openly sympathizes with the Occupy thugs. There is a limit to how much traction a leftist street revolt can have when it is the party on their side that runs the country.

Shifting responsibility for the state of the nation from Barack Obama’s mismanagement of the economy to the business community has been the prime motivation for the support for the Occupiers in the liberal media. One martyred veteran, no matter how pitiable his story, can’t change the fact that this support will quickly evaporate in the face of further violence.

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The High Cost of Cheap Wars

John Ennis makes a good (and depressing) point:

It seems that al Qaeda is moving into Libya. Their flag is flying in Benghazi. With no American boots on the ground, they should have training camps set up by the end of the year. Part One of the Libyan War is over. Part Two: Attack of the Drones should be coming to theaters next spring!

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John Ennis makes a good (and depressing) point:

It seems that al Qaeda is moving into Libya. Their flag is flying in Benghazi. With no American boots on the ground, they should have training camps set up by the end of the year. Part One of the Libyan War is over. Part Two: Attack of the Drones should be coming to theaters next spring!

Obama fans have been talking up the Libya campaign as if the president had discovered the perpetual motion machine of warfare: low-cost regime change without risk or accountability. Add to the al-Qaeda develop the following report: “Hamas recently managed to smuggle relatively advanced Russian missiles, which were looted from Libyan military warehouses, into the Gaza Strip.”

Qaddafi needed to go and America needed to do the job. But wading into the shallow end with our water wings on wasn’t the way to get it done. There’s no such thing as a cheap victory.

 

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Worry About the Nominee, Not the Field

There’s been a lot of commentary about how weak the GOP’s presidential field is, including by me.

And so I’d offer a qualifier to my own analysis: what matters in the end isn’t how strong the field is, but how strong the eventual nominee is. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the moment and worry third-tier candidates will discredit a political party. But the party is judged by the nominee it produces, not by the candidates who were defeated.

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There’s been a lot of commentary about how weak the GOP’s presidential field is, including by me.

And so I’d offer a qualifier to my own analysis: what matters in the end isn’t how strong the field is, but how strong the eventual nominee is. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the moment and worry third-tier candidates will discredit a political party. But the party is judged by the nominee it produces, not by the candidates who were defeated.

For example, in 1992 the Democratic field included Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Doug Wilder, and former Irvine, California, Mayor Larry Agran (you can look it up)–hardly imposing or impressive figures. Yet the person who eventually emerged, Bill Clinton, won the election (and re-election) by a comfortable margin.

That doesn’t mean those of us who comment on politics should offer, in real time, our views about the merits and demerits of the GOP candidates. It simply means all but one of them will (mostly) fade from our memory soon enough.

The key question is whether the person the Republican Party chooses to run against Barack Obama will acquit himself well. And that’s what the primary process is supposed to determine. We’ll see how well it does this time around.

 

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Brace Yourself for Super Committee Failure

The automatic defense and Medicare cuts that go into effect if a Super Committee deal isn’t reached are supposed to be enough of an incentive for both parties to get together and compromise. But it’s hard to be optimistic while reading stories like this:

With the panel facing a looming November 23 deadline, the plans unveiled by Republican members of the committee, and their Democratic counterparts on Tuesday, failed to narrow partisan differences over the contentious issue of taxes and appeared to do little to advance negotiations.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs over their competing plans. A Democratic aide called the Republican initiative a “joke,” while Republican aides called the Democratic offer “not serious.”

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The automatic defense and Medicare cuts that go into effect if a Super Committee deal isn’t reached are supposed to be enough of an incentive for both parties to get together and compromise. But it’s hard to be optimistic while reading stories like this:

With the panel facing a looming November 23 deadline, the plans unveiled by Republican members of the committee, and their Democratic counterparts on Tuesday, failed to narrow partisan differences over the contentious issue of taxes and appeared to do little to advance negotiations.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs over their competing plans. A Democratic aide called the Republican initiative a “joke,” while Republican aides called the Democratic offer “not serious.”

Predictably, the Democratic deal included too many tax hikes for the GOP to accept, and the Republican deal cut too much spending for the Democrats to agree to. But it seems impossible such a sharply divided committee could ever manage to reach a middle ground, much less in the next 31 days. For conservatives concerned about the crushing defense cut triggers, this is a disaster. But those who aren’t as worried about the impact on the DoD budget seem resigned to accept sequestration as the best feasible option. At Reason, Peter Suderman writes:

The ideal outcome from the Super Committee would be a deal to reduce spending even more than the sequestration process calls for. But with predictable gridlock between panel members over taxes and entitlements already setting in, that doesn’t seem likely. Sequestration may not be perfect, but, even with its limitations, it’s probably the best plausible result. So go ahead, Super Committee. Pull that trigger.

Obviously, there have always been conservatives who’ve embraced defense cuts. But if the Super Committee negotiations prove to be as frustrating as the debt-ceiling debacle, there’s always a chance the “just pull the trigger” sentiment could grow. And that would leave Republicans, and national defense, in a very precarious position.

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In Defense of Debates

I wanted to add a few thoughts to Jonathan’s fine post regarding debates.

My view is they have intrinsic limits but are certainly worthwhile — and good debating skills are crucial if one hopes to be elected.

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I wanted to add a few thoughts to Jonathan’s fine post regarding debates.

My view is they have intrinsic limits but are certainly worthwhile — and good debating skills are crucial if one hopes to be elected.

Let me take these observations in order.

I accept the fact that how well one debates doesn’t necessarily reflect how well a president will govern. But that is true of stump speeches, ads, and retail politics, too. Debates are simply one piece of a much larger puzzle — and they certainly tell us more about a candidate than an attack ad and stump speeches do.

Among other things, debates force a candidate to study briefing books and develop a mastery of the issues, which isn’t a bad thing (the forthcoming foreign policy debate, for example, has inspired Herman Cain to actually try to learn the basics of international affairs, something he has so far resisted). It can also reveal insights– sometimes limited and sometimes more than limited insights — into the personality and disposition of candidates.

In addition, debates put on display what is commonly referred to as one’s “communication skills” — skills that are vital to any successful presidency.

It’s also worth pointing out that some excellent presidents have also turned out to be excellent debaters, too. The most obvious example is Abraham Lincoln. But it’s worth mentioning Ronald Reagan as well. He was, in fact, a marvelous debater, especially in his younger years. For example, in a debate remembered only by a few these days, CBS News hosted a 1967 “Town Meeting of the World” in which Reagan debated Senator Robert Kennedy over the Vietnam war.  Reagan was simply masterful (a clip of the debate can be found here: and a transcript of it can be found here:). The late historian David Halberstam, no conservative, acknowledged that “the general consensus” was that “Reagan …destroyed Kennedy.”

Yet even if one believes debates are worthless in terms of what they pre-shadow about a person’s governing abilities, they are still crucial when it comes to winning votes.

Many people forget it now, but as late as 10 days before the 1980 election Jimmy Carter was still slightly ahead of Ronald Reagan in some polls (a CBS-New York Times poll had Carter ahead of Reagan 39 percent v. 38 percent, with the rest going to John Anderson). The public was certainly inclined to vote against Carter — but they had to be sold on Reagan, who had been savaged by the Carter campaign. And the place for the sale was a debate stage in Cleveland, where Reagan destroyed Carter and went on to win 44 states. If Reagan had done badly in the debates, it’s conceivable he would have lost the election.

All of which is to say I’m in favor of debates, the more the better. They don’t tell us everything we need to know about a candidate by any means; but they tell us more than we would otherwise know.

 

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Dems Need to Speak Out Against Anti-Semitism at Occupy Protests

A British MP, John Mann, has tabled an early day motion in Parliament blasting “the anti-Semitic nature” of the Occupy protests in London, noting that signs referring to “Hitler’s Bankers” and “Google Jewish Billionaires” – which also are at Occupy Wall Street (see here and here) – “are offensive and have no place at such protests.”

Furthermore, the motion notes, “the verbal or physical abuse of Jews by demonstrators is unacceptable,” also a feature of Occupy Wall Street.

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A British MP, John Mann, has tabled an early day motion in Parliament blasting “the anti-Semitic nature” of the Occupy protests in London, noting that signs referring to “Hitler’s Bankers” and “Google Jewish Billionaires” – which also are at Occupy Wall Street (see here and here) – “are offensive and have no place at such protests.”

Furthermore, the motion notes, “the verbal or physical abuse of Jews by demonstrators is unacceptable,” also a feature of Occupy Wall Street.

Granted, John Mann, as the leader of the All-Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism and the recipient of the AJC’s 2009 Jan Karski award, keeps a closer eye than most on anti-Semitism in Britain and elsewhere. But he is also a Labour Party politician and a trade union man, and therefore a more likely sympathizer with the protests. If he is able, politics aside, to speak out against anti-Semitism at the Occupy protests, then why not Democratic leaders here, too?

 

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The Left’s Palestinian Halloween Trick

Who destroyed Israel? That’s the question a cartoon by Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist-in-residence, asks in a Halloween-themed fantasy in which he poses in a graphic cartoon which begins with the Olympic Games taking place in Tel Aviv, Palestine in 2052. Going backward, he tells us the demise of the Jewish state was the fault of settlers, Israeli right-wingers and their American friends who refused to accede to a two-state solution, leading inevitably to the United States abandoning an “apartheid” Jewish state. The graphic, titled “Never Miss an Opportunity,” attempts to turn Abba Eban’s famous line about the Palestinians “never missing an opportunity” to make peace on the Jews. But his false narrative is an absurd distortion of both recent history and the current situation.

The problem here is not just that it is the Palestinians who refused an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and have refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Netanyahu even during a settlement building freeze. Rather, it is that the Palestinians don’t really exist in the imagination of the Jewish left. Their actions, the reality of Hamas rule in Gaza, incitement, terrorism and inability to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders not only isn’t mentioned, it doesn’t even enter the debate. For Valley and other American Jewish leftists, peace is solely in the hands of the Jews; therefore the lack of an agreement is the fault of Israel and its enablers. In Valley’s vision, the true role of American Jewry should be in opposing Israeli policies and sending “reparations” to the Palestinians.

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Who destroyed Israel? That’s the question a cartoon by Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist-in-residence, asks in a Halloween-themed fantasy in which he poses in a graphic cartoon which begins with the Olympic Games taking place in Tel Aviv, Palestine in 2052. Going backward, he tells us the demise of the Jewish state was the fault of settlers, Israeli right-wingers and their American friends who refused to accede to a two-state solution, leading inevitably to the United States abandoning an “apartheid” Jewish state. The graphic, titled “Never Miss an Opportunity,” attempts to turn Abba Eban’s famous line about the Palestinians “never missing an opportunity” to make peace on the Jews. But his false narrative is an absurd distortion of both recent history and the current situation.

The problem here is not just that it is the Palestinians who refused an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and have refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Netanyahu even during a settlement building freeze. Rather, it is that the Palestinians don’t really exist in the imagination of the Jewish left. Their actions, the reality of Hamas rule in Gaza, incitement, terrorism and inability to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders not only isn’t mentioned, it doesn’t even enter the debate. For Valley and other American Jewish leftists, peace is solely in the hands of the Jews; therefore the lack of an agreement is the fault of Israel and its enablers. In Valley’s vision, the true role of American Jewry should be in opposing Israeli policies and sending “reparations” to the Palestinians.

This above all explains the radical disconnect between Israelis and American Jews these days. In Israel, the left, at least as far as war and peace and security issues, is a wreck with virtually no influence or support. That’s not because the majority love the settlers or have embraced the ethos of the right, but because they understand there is no Palestinian peace partner. Should the Palestinian ever finally say, “yes” to a two-state solution, no Israeli government, including the one led by Netanyahu, could stop it. But they haven’t and until they do, Israelis won’t be giving up any more land that will serve as missile firing bases for Hamas or any other terrorist movement.

But this hard-won knowledge hasn’t penetrated into the consciousness of the Jewish left here. So, like Valley, they continue to argue about the Middle East conflict in terms rendered obsolete by two decades of Israeli concessions that have been met with more Palestinian rejectionism.

Valley’s Halloween trick transforms Israel’s defenders into its callous destroyers who are motivated, as columnist J.J. Goldberg writes in a column in the same issue, solely by hatred for Arabs. This serves to both demonize Netanyahu and the mainstream pro-Israel community and to get the Palestinians off the hook for their own behavior and goals. That this appears in the same newspaper that has often published editorials calling for civil debate about the issues is an irony apparently lost on no one but the current staff of the Forward.

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Santorum’s Exploitive Focus on the Family

While many politicians intentionally shield their families from the public eye, presidential contender Rick Santorum has decided to put them center stage. During debates, Santorum often brings the conversation back to the importance of marriage and family values. While other candidates also mention their families (Michele Bachmann being the prime example), much of Santorum’s campaign has focused not on his record as a former senator from Pennsylvania, but instead on the trials and tribulations of his large family.

The latest ad from the Santorum campaign doesn’t focus on the economy, job creation, foreign policy, immigration or defense. The ad is instead a three and a half minute mini-documentary about his youngest daughter, Bella, who suffers from developmental disabilities. The purpose of the video is to highlight Santorum’s pro-life stance and family values platform, but it falls flat.

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While many politicians intentionally shield their families from the public eye, presidential contender Rick Santorum has decided to put them center stage. During debates, Santorum often brings the conversation back to the importance of marriage and family values. While other candidates also mention their families (Michele Bachmann being the prime example), much of Santorum’s campaign has focused not on his record as a former senator from Pennsylvania, but instead on the trials and tribulations of his large family.

The latest ad from the Santorum campaign doesn’t focus on the economy, job creation, foreign policy, immigration or defense. The ad is instead a three and a half minute mini-documentary about his youngest daughter, Bella, who suffers from developmental disabilities. The purpose of the video is to highlight Santorum’s pro-life stance and family values platform, but it falls flat.

When Sarah Palin opened her family to the public eye, her disabled son was lampooned on the national stage. Many potential presidential candidates have since decided against running because of the damage that could be done to their families.

This is not the first time Santorum has used his family before a big election. Before his failed 2006 reelection campaign for Senate, Santorum sat down for an interview with the Washington Post devoted entirely to a son, Gabriel, who died hours after his birth. Santorum explained in detail his family’s response to the infant’s death:

Upon their son’s death, Rick and Karen Santorum opted not to bring his body to a funeral home. Instead, they bundled him in a blanket and drove him to Karen’s parents’ home in Pittsburgh. There, they spent several hours kissing and cuddling Gabriel with his three siblings, ages 6, 4 and 1 1/2.

While many social conservatives may gravitate towards Santorum’s pro-family persona, most voters will view the publicity Santorum generates for his family for what it is: exploitive.

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Limbaugh–I Mean Bill Daley–Crosses a Line

Rush Limbaugh has finally gone over the line.

In a hyperbolic, profanity-laced rant yesterday, during his opening monologue, Limbaugh twice referred to the (almost) three years of the Obama presidency as “ungodly.” He went on to say it’s been a “brutal” three years — a “very, very difficult three years.”

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Rush Limbaugh has finally gone over the line.

In a hyperbolic, profanity-laced rant yesterday, during his opening monologue, Limbaugh twice referred to the (almost) three years of the Obama presidency as “ungodly.” He went on to say it’s been a “brutal” three years — a “very, very difficult three years.”

It’s one thing to be critical of the Obama presidency; it’s quite another to use such extreme, divisive rhetoric. Has Limbaugh no shame?

Oh my; I seem to have been mistaken. It turns out those words weren’t said by Rush Limbaugh; they were said by William Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff, in an interview with Roger Simon of Politico.

I’m not kidding.

It is mind-boggling to me a president’s chief of staff would refer to his boss’s stewardship as “brutal” and “ungodly,” though I suppose I’m willing to give Daley credit for candor.

I’ve said before the easiest job in America would be to be an ad man for the eventual Republican nominee. That job just got a good deal easier.

 

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Warren Dubbed “Matriarch of Mayhem”

It was only a matter of time before attack ads started running about Elizabeth Warren taking credit for creating Occupy Wall Street’s “intellectual foundation.” Dave Weigel argues the ad is unfair, and it’s true that Warren has walked back her original comments a bit. But she handed the MassGOP a gift by linking herself to the movement, even just ideologically, and it would have been more of a surprise if her comments never made it to video:

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It was only a matter of time before attack ads started running about Elizabeth Warren taking credit for creating Occupy Wall Street’s “intellectual foundation.” Dave Weigel argues the ad is unfair, and it’s true that Warren has walked back her original comments a bit. But she handed the MassGOP a gift by linking herself to the movement, even just ideologically, and it would have been more of a surprise if her comments never made it to video:

But beyond whether the attack is fair, I wonder whether it’s actually effective. Warren’s camaraderie with OWS isn’t nearly as controversial in Massachusetts as it would be in a red state. Warren may be a far-left progressive, but the same can be said for a lot of Massachusetts voters – many of whom probably support OWS and admire Warren for standing up for the movement. Obviously that could change if the violence and mass arrests we’ve seen in Oakland and other cities moves to Boston. But for now, attack ads like this might not be persuasive in turning voters against Warren.

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George Will Vents His Romney Frustration

The excerpt of George Will’s forthcoming Sunday column released by Politico is getting some buzz. Here’s the paragraph that’s been making the rounds, taking aim at the central argument in favor of nominating Mitt Romney:

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable, he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate: Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming. Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” … Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?

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The excerpt of George Will’s forthcoming Sunday column released by Politico is getting some buzz. Here’s the paragraph that’s been making the rounds, taking aim at the central argument in favor of nominating Mitt Romney:

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable, he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate: Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming. Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” … Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?

Will is certainly not alone in his frustration with the GOP’s inability so far to offer up a possible nominee who appears to be both electable and ideologically conservative enough to carry the movement’s flag in 2012.

It will be interesting to read the full column, however, to see if Will proposes an alternative scenario that addresses the dilemma. Will wrote a fantastic column back in August about the conservative enthusiasm for a possible Chris Christie candidacy. But that’s clearly not on the table anymore. And, as Jonathan noted back in June, Will sometimes seems less in search of the conservatism that has “come so far” and more in search of a candidate who just wants to bring the troops home. Before he was on the Christie bandwagon, Will was on the bandwagon of Jon Huntsman, who has spent much of the campaign offering up saccharine slogans and mocking the Republican party.

But there’s a reason Will is writing a column about the likelihood of a Romney nomination. In Will’s own newspaper, Dan Balz has an article based on a focus group conducted among voters in Ohio. When the group was asked to raise their hands if they were comfortable with Herman Cain becoming president, “not a hand went up.” And the ABC News story today about a New Hampshire Republican rescinding his endorsement of Rick Perry isn’t major news, but it is a further indication of the skepticism with which even many of Perry’s supporters now view his candidacy.

So, while Romney is still far from a sure thing–it’s still too early to grant anyone “inevitability”–those opposed to Romney’s nomination have been steadily running out of options. Will knows this, and he may just be getting this off his chest. It may be too late for Romney’s conservative opponents, but this steady drumbeat of discontent will be a major general election obstacle should he win the nomination. He’ll get Republicans’ votes, but the grumbling and lack of enthusiasm will create the perception of a candidate no one really wants.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: David Brooks

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives issued warnings about the decline of American culture and American values. We learned in the ensuing years about the danger of these sorts of sweeping prognoses. Far from sliding to Gomorrah, America experienced a cultural renewal—lower crime rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less domestic violence, more community service, and on and on and on.

Many of those positive trends still hold. After the disruption of the 1960s, we are living in a period of social repair. But there is one problem, which emerged in those years, that is still with us, worse than ever.

It has to do with the enlargement of the self. The generation reared in the 1930s had a relatively small definition of self. They saw how great historic events could sweep up mere individuals. (“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”) They were raised with the vestiges of the Augustinian warnings about the sin of pride. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives issued warnings about the decline of American culture and American values. We learned in the ensuing years about the danger of these sorts of sweeping prognoses. Far from sliding to Gomorrah, America experienced a cultural renewal—lower crime rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less domestic violence, more community service, and on and on and on.

Many of those positive trends still hold. After the disruption of the 1960s, we are living in a period of social repair. But there is one problem, which emerged in those years, that is still with us, worse than ever.

It has to do with the enlargement of the self. The generation reared in the 1930s had a relatively small definition of self. They saw how great historic events could sweep up mere individuals. (“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”) They were raised with the vestiges of the Augustinian warnings about the sin of pride.

But then came the psychologizing movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The big danger was not pride, but lack of self-love. That was amplified by the individualizing effects of the political and cultural shifts of the 1960s (morally) and the 1980s (economically). These narcissistic tendencies have been amplified further by Facebook and reality television—the rise of the instant fame culture.

The consequences are grim. They include a rising level of consumption (as people spend on themselves in a matter that befits their station); a rising tolerance of debt (which goes along with a greater confidence in people’s perceived ability to handle it); a greater level of political intolerance (as people lose the sense that they need their political opponents to correct the errors in their own thinking).

And so we wind up with a more consumption-oriented, short-term-oriented, and polarized nation. You can think that the overall culture is strong, but in this one way it is weak.

The question is whether this one tragic flaw undermines all the good things that are going on. I believe in the short term it will. We remain the crossroads of the world, the place where people from around the globe want to come to best magnify their talents. China will never match this. But in the medium term we are headed for a fiscal crackup that is the economic manifestation of a deeper moral shortcoming.

We will endure it, thanks to all the underlying strengths. But it will not be pretty.

_____________

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Social Animal (Random House).

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Is Honest Discussion of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Possible?

“Is Peace Possible?” is a new section inaugurated this week on The Atlantic’s website that aims to tackle the four “key barriers to peace in the Middle East.” If the first installment is any indication of the series’ contents, it will instead serve mostly as an illustration of the extent to which the basic assumptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict held by America’s chattering classes have hardened into views which are often derivative from core anti-Israelist propositions and misunderstand the conflict’s basic nature.

While there are other links, the core of the first presentation is a video on borders that, while purporting to be a fair treatment of the views of both sides, reveals its failure to appreciate the Zionist position – and basic history – from the beginning.

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“Is Peace Possible?” is a new section inaugurated this week on The Atlantic’s website that aims to tackle the four “key barriers to peace in the Middle East.” If the first installment is any indication of the series’ contents, it will instead serve mostly as an illustration of the extent to which the basic assumptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict held by America’s chattering classes have hardened into views which are often derivative from core anti-Israelist propositions and misunderstand the conflict’s basic nature.

While there are other links, the core of the first presentation is a video on borders that, while purporting to be a fair treatment of the views of both sides, reveals its failure to appreciate the Zionist position – and basic history – from the beginning.

We are first presented a map of the territory currently controlled by Israel, plus Gaza and minus the Golan, as historic Palestine. I suppose these days it’s considered very 20th century to think this way, but it’s worth noting the original “Palestine” mandate included this territory, plus all of the territory of the current state of Jordan. That matters, because the key trope of the video is that accepting a settlement along the 1967 lines would mean the Arabs get only “22 percent” of Palestine, a figure that of course only makes sense if the territory of Jordan is not included.

Other unhelpful assumptions follow. The Palestinians view the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean as their “historic homeland” while Israelis think they have a “legitimate claim” to that land. The issue of “defensible borders” is raised only to be quickly dismissed since, as we all know, Israel won the 1967 war. So that’s that.

In further graphics, we learn there is a section of Jerusalem that can neatly be called “East,” that the West Bank constitutes “Palestinian territory,” and, most helpfully, we see the juxtaposition of an Israeli “settlement” and a Palestinian “village,” the difference between which is kind of like the difference between a “homeland” and a “claim.”

Other problems abound. Without even getting into where The Atlantic got its maps from, it is noted that a 2008 offer from Olmert falls short of the “1:1” land swap ratio our video has defined as necessary for a deal, while not mentioning the same shortcoming in an imaginary 2009 Abbas offer.

Maybe worst though, we are told the Palestinian declaration of independence from 1988 demonstrates their acceptance of the 1967 lines. When read in any direction, it doesn’t even sort of make this claim. For that, you have to go to a “political resolution” promulgated by the Palestine National Council that same day which, in invoking UN Security Council Resolution 242 and calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, sort of implies an acceptance of the 1967 lines. If read in a certain light that also blinds you to the Palestinians’ publicly stated “stage” plan, in which they view the “liberation” of any territory held by Israel and the creation of a state and military there as a step toward Israel’s ultimate destruction. You also have to ignore the long Palestinian history of declaring they will never accept a Jewish state, including in as clear terms as you could ask for comments from Nabil Shaath this past July.

When wondering how we got to this state of affairs–where all these things are thought of as the basic “truths” of the conflict by people who see themselves as its mediators–Israel advocates need only look in the mirror. Too often, we don’t challenge these assumptions in order to get along. To win the future, we must do so.

 

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Will a Failed Policy of Engagement With Iran Be Given Another Chance?

There’s no better indicator of which direction conventional wisdom about foreign policy will take than Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, whose efforts are split between CNN, TIME magazine and the Washington Post, is the man to consult when you want to know what liberals and establishment types are thinking. So his column in the Post this week calling for another round of engagement with Iran is a worrisome signal the bi-partisan consensus behind a policy of isolating the Islamic Republic and forcing it to give up its nuclear ambitions is on its last legs.

The fact that Barack Obama already tried engagement and proved it a dismal failure doesn’t bother Zakaria, because he isn’t particularly interested in either replacing the Islamist tyranny or stopping them from gaining nuclear capability. But the point here isn’t so much the weak arguments that he and other Iranian apologists have been making for years about Iran’s promises not to build nukes or even the moderation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Coming as it does on the eve of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that will outline the worrisome progress Iran has made toward military applications of its nuclear program, the Zakaria article must be seen as the first volley in an effort to influence Washington to back off rather than to press for sterner sanctions. Even more to the point, it may be a warning sign of where a second Obama administration might be heading on the issue of Iran.

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There’s no better indicator of which direction conventional wisdom about foreign policy will take than Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, whose efforts are split between CNN, TIME magazine and the Washington Post, is the man to consult when you want to know what liberals and establishment types are thinking. So his column in the Post this week calling for another round of engagement with Iran is a worrisome signal the bi-partisan consensus behind a policy of isolating the Islamic Republic and forcing it to give up its nuclear ambitions is on its last legs.

The fact that Barack Obama already tried engagement and proved it a dismal failure doesn’t bother Zakaria, because he isn’t particularly interested in either replacing the Islamist tyranny or stopping them from gaining nuclear capability. But the point here isn’t so much the weak arguments that he and other Iranian apologists have been making for years about Iran’s promises not to build nukes or even the moderation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Coming as it does on the eve of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that will outline the worrisome progress Iran has made toward military applications of its nuclear program, the Zakaria article must be seen as the first volley in an effort to influence Washington to back off rather than to press for sterner sanctions. Even more to the point, it may be a warning sign of where a second Obama administration might be heading on the issue of Iran.

It is difficult to see how any rational person could possibly still think engagement with Iran would work. As even Zakaria admits, it was precisely this idea of reaching out that characterized the first year of the Obama administration’s policy on Iran. But, contrary to the expectations of the president, the magical power of his personality didn’t melt the hearts of the ayatollahs. They played Obama and his foreign policy team for patsies, stringing them along the same way they had done previously with the French and German emissaries who George W. Bush had sent on the same fool’s errand.

The result was so obvious that even Obama recognized he had been wrong. He then reversed course and opted to try and build an international coalition for sanctions on Iran. That half-hearted campaign has left Iran weakened economically, but because it is still protected from draconian sanctions that could alter the equation by Russia and China, it is still busily working with the time Obama has gifted them to get closer to their nuclear goal.

Zakaria seems to blame it all on the democracy activists who took to the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009 after a stolen election. He thinks the spectacle of the regime’s thugs slaughtering people in the street distracted Obama who, though he failed to support the dissidents, then lapsed into a policy of pressure rather than doubling down on appeasement.

But like all bad ideas floated by liberals, support for engagement with Iran won’t die a natural death. Iranian nukes would make both that tyranny and its Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist allies an even greater threat to the region. But unlike the diplomacy that has failed to bring them to reason, a serious set of sanctions that would down trade with Iran has never been tried or implemented. The only way to avoid a confrontation that will make the use of force unavoidable is to do so now, though it may already be too late.

It has long been apparent there is more support for Zakaria’s plan for appeasement in Washington than the tough talk we sometimes hear from the president or Secretary of State Clinton. This administration has already shown it hasn’t the heart or the resolve to get tough with Iran. It’s not likely that Obama will return to “engagement” while he’s running for re-election, but a second term might prove a different story.

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Obama Takes Money from Lobbyist-Linked Bundlers, Despite Pledge

Add this to the mini-controversy over Obama hiring a former lobbyist with links to the Keystone XL pipeline, and you can imagine the left isn’t too pleased with him on ethics issues right now:

Despite a pledge not to take money from lobbyists, President Obama has relied on prominent supporters who are active in the lobbying industry to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid.

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Add this to the mini-controversy over Obama hiring a former lobbyist with links to the Keystone XL pipeline, and you can imagine the left isn’t too pleased with him on ethics issues right now:

Despite a pledge not to take money from lobbyists, President Obama has relied on prominent supporters who are active in the lobbying industry to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid.

At least 15 of Obama’s “bundlers” — supporters who contribute their own money to his campaign and solicit it from others — are involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies. They have raised more than $5 million so far for the campaign.

Because the bundlers are not registered as lobbyists with the Senate, the Obama campaign has managed to avoid running afoul of its self-imposed ban on taking money from lobbyists.

On the scale of the most universally hated professions, lobbyists fall somewhere in the area of lawyers and used car dealers. But as the above New York Times piece illustrates, it’s incredibly difficult to raise campaign money – in fact, to do a lot of things in Washington – without getting near a lobbyist.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lobbying is a natural and healthy part of the democratic system. And lobbyists bring a lot to the table: they’re extremely knowledgeable about their issues, they have tons of contacts in their specific fields. And they’re definitely enthusiastic about raising money for politicians.

The problems come up when the money isn’t being given transparently. While Obama’s publicly telling supporters he doesn’t take contributions from lobbyists, he’s obviously taking it from people who do the exact same thing but just aren’t registered. Unlike the Republican candidates, Obama has released a list of his campaign bundlers, which is the only reason outlets like the Times are able to go back and debunk his claims. He should be commended for being open about his bundlers, but it would be nice to hear a little more honesty from him on the subject of lobbyist contributions.

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Perry Can’t Get Away With Ducking Debates

Rick Perry has good reason to dislike the series of debates that have become the most important factor determining the course of the Republican presidential race up until now. It was his dismal showing in them that led to his transformation from a frontrunner with a double-digit lead into an also-ran stuck in the pack far behind Mitt Romney and the surprising Herman Cain. As Perry told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News on Tuesday, “These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates. So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing” them. But can Perry get away with skipping them altogether as his campaign has hinted this week?

In his defense, the proliferation of the debates during the next three months is a bit excessive. There are 12 planned in that time period, with three in one week in November and another three over a 10-day span in December. And there’s a Saturday night/Sunday morning combo set up for one weekend in January. But if there is one candidate who can’t afford to be seen as ducking them it is Rick Perry.

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Rick Perry has good reason to dislike the series of debates that have become the most important factor determining the course of the Republican presidential race up until now. It was his dismal showing in them that led to his transformation from a frontrunner with a double-digit lead into an also-ran stuck in the pack far behind Mitt Romney and the surprising Herman Cain. As Perry told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News on Tuesday, “These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates. So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing” them. But can Perry get away with skipping them altogether as his campaign has hinted this week?

In his defense, the proliferation of the debates during the next three months is a bit excessive. There are 12 planned in that time period, with three in one week in November and another three over a 10-day span in December. And there’s a Saturday night/Sunday morning combo set up for one weekend in January. But if there is one candidate who can’t afford to be seen as ducking them it is Rick Perry.

Any debate in which the other major contenders show up facing an empty chair with Perry’s name on it will be a disaster for the Texas governor. The mockery he will endure will match the agony of his flustered and unfocused appearances when he did show. While he may have gotten away with dodging debates when running for re-election in Texas, that’s a stunt he can’t afford to pull now.

Nobody I know predicted the crucial role these debates have played in the race. In addition to nearly destroying Perry’s candidacy, one of the earliest of the debates did kill Tim Pawlenty’s hopes after his timorous refusal to attack Mitt Romney on healthcare face-to-face. The debates boosted and then crashed the hopes of Michele Bachmann while giving the heretofore little-known Herman Cain a platform that he used to elevate himself into the top tier of contenders.

In most election races the scheduling of the debates is agreed upon by the various campaigns. But in the GOP presidential race, they have become a free-for-all in which the networks have named the tune rather than the candidates. The Republican National Committee’s offer to supervise the process was rejected back in the spring by the then-candidates, so there’s no point now blaming television for the schedule.

Some believed the sheer number of these events would blunt their impact. But just the opposite has happened. They have become a popular television reality show (albeit one that bounces from network to network) as an unanticipated large viewership tunes in to see who of the would-be presidents is up and who is down. Most have been dull and uninspired, but some have been good television. The Pawlenty-Bachmann and Perry-Romney feuds haven’t shed much light on the issues, but they have been entertaining. Last week’s fireworks in Las Vegas was especially riveting as the field set upon Herman Cain and then Mitt Romney.

Being a good debater isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for the presidency. But the debates have provided voters with insight into the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Being glib wouldn’t help a commander-in-chief understand a difficult foreign policy dilemma (yes, I mean you Herman Cain) but the deer-in-the-headlights look on Rick Perry’s face too much of the time while millions were watching the first four debates didn’t give voters much confidence in his ability to lead or make a decision.

Though Perry could be right that agreeing to have so many debates might have been a mistake, it’s too late to change the format now. Like his opponents, he’s stuck with them.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Paul Cantor

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

I am not a professional futurologist and am, in fact, profoundly skeptical about attempts to predict something as complicated as the future of America. The problem with predicting the future is that we generally assume that it will be created by people just like us, only living in the future. But the future is going to be the future precisely because it will be created by people who are different from us in ways that we cannot anticipate. We normally ask older people to predict the future, because they have had the time to become experts of one kind or another. We should instead be asking five-year olds. Short of that, I will say something about 18-year olds. As a college professor, I do have some knowledge of America’s youth.

Here I have every reason to be pessimistic, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Despite my grave doubts about the direction higher education is taking in the United States, I cannot help being impressed by individual students I encounter, both at my own university and at other campuses I visit. And what surprises me is not so much their schooling as their character. I still see students who are freedom-loving, self-reliant, resourceful, willing to take responsibility and risks, and open to genuine challenges—in short, Americans at their best. This is all the more remarkable when, from what I can tell, our whole world, and especially our educational institutions, are working to make young people weak and dependent. Maybe formal schooling is not as important as we academics would like to think. A look at history suggests that Americans have often achieved great things in spite of their formal education rather than because of it. Among nations, America can pride itself on being the land where high school and college dropouts can not only survive but also sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams—and ours.

In looking for factors that are still building character in American youth, I think of several traditional explanations. It really helps when a student comes from a two-parent family, in which both take an active interest in his or her development. Athletics builds character and helps toughen up young men and women. Provided that they do not become in effect professional athletes in high school or college, they can experience in sports one of the few remaining areas where objective achievement is still measured—and demanded. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

I am not a professional futurologist and am, in fact, profoundly skeptical about attempts to predict something as complicated as the future of America. The problem with predicting the future is that we generally assume that it will be created by people just like us, only living in the future. But the future is going to be the future precisely because it will be created by people who are different from us in ways that we cannot anticipate. We normally ask older people to predict the future, because they have had the time to become experts of one kind or another. We should instead be asking five-year olds. Short of that, I will say something about 18-year olds. As a college professor, I do have some knowledge of America’s youth.

Here I have every reason to be pessimistic, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Despite my grave doubts about the direction higher education is taking in the United States, I cannot help being impressed by individual students I encounter, both at my own university and at other campuses I visit. And what surprises me is not so much their schooling as their character. I still see students who are freedom-loving, self-reliant, resourceful, willing to take responsibility and risks, and open to genuine challenges—in short, Americans at their best. This is all the more remarkable when, from what I can tell, our whole world, and especially our educational institutions, are working to make young people weak and dependent. Maybe formal schooling is not as important as we academics would like to think. A look at history suggests that Americans have often achieved great things in spite of their formal education rather than because of it. Among nations, America can pride itself on being the land where high school and college dropouts can not only survive but also sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams—and ours.

In looking for factors that are still building character in American youth, I think of several traditional explanations. It really helps when a student comes from a two-parent family, in which both take an active interest in his or her development. Athletics builds character and helps toughen up young men and women. Provided that they do not become in effect professional athletes in high school or college, they can experience in sports one of the few remaining areas where objective achievement is still measured—and demanded.

But there are some new forces working to inspire independence in today’s youth: the Internet and social media. These are often accused of corrupting youth, and to the extent that they appeal to a virtual herd instinct, they are creating new forms of dependence. But cyberspace is also the new frontier for the most ambitious and audacious of our youth, and it’s teaching them anew the value of freedom. They resent attempts to censor and otherwise regulate their freedom of expression. They have learned to appreciate new forms of freedom of exchange, and a new generation of cyber entrepreneurs is being born before our eyes.

I am sure to be bombarded with statistics that show how poorly today’s young Americans do on tests and how low they rank compared with students in, say, Finland. To such criticism—aside from asking, “What has Finland done for us lately, besides the newest Rautavaara symphony and some Nokia phones?”—I would reply that standardized exams do not test character, and all they offer are statistical aggregates and averages. I am not talking about the average youth of today or tomorrow. America has never depended on the achievement of average people. What has made America great is that, by and large, it has given the most talented and spirited among its youth a chance to show their stuff. If I am pessimistic, the reason is that this American tradition is being eroded by all sorts of factors, most of them emanating from Washington, D.C. But if I nevertheless remain optimistic, it’s because I still see exceptional young people in my classes and I can feel them straining to do something exceptional with their lives. If only we would get out of their way.

_____________

Paul Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His most recent book, coedited with Stephen Cox, is Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute).

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