Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 10, 2011

OWS: Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee

Not a day goes by without further proof that the specious comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are utterly bogus. You may recall that the Tea Partiers were blasted as a threat to democracy because activists used congressional town hall meetings to assail members of Congress about Obamacare, the stimulus and debt. But though some of these confrontations resulted in the politicians being subjected to some pretty rough criticism, at no point did the Tea Partiers ever seek to shut down the meetings or deny the object of their wrath the right to speak. But today in South Carolina, we got another taste of what free speech means to the occupy crowd.

At an event in Charleston, South Carolina, at the USS Yorktown museum where she was to give a foreign policy speech, Rep. Michele Bachmann was shouted down by a crowd of occupy demonstrators and was forced to leave the stage.

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Not a day goes by without further proof that the specious comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are utterly bogus. You may recall that the Tea Partiers were blasted as a threat to democracy because activists used congressional town hall meetings to assail members of Congress about Obamacare, the stimulus and debt. But though some of these confrontations resulted in the politicians being subjected to some pretty rough criticism, at no point did the Tea Partiers ever seek to shut down the meetings or deny the object of their wrath the right to speak. But today in South Carolina, we got another taste of what free speech means to the occupy crowd.

At an event in Charleston, South Carolina, at the USS Yorktown museum where she was to give a foreign policy speech, Rep. Michele Bachmann was shouted down by a crowd of occupy demonstrators and was forced to leave the stage.

Despite the sympathetic depiction of the occupiers in much of the mainstream press as an expression of ordinary Americans’ anger about Wall Street, the tone of these demonstrations is that of a radical leftist movement determined to silence all those who disagree with them. Such actions as the attack on Bachmann are not tangential to the spirit of the occupiers, as its apologists claim, but are the core expression of its anti-democratic spirit. Rather than a manifestation of grass roots America, the thuggery we have seen again and again at occupy events is reminiscent of the radical college protests of the 1960s.

Those who seek to shut down the voices of their opponents in this manner don’t represent 99 percent of America. Their credo is anarchism and nihilism, not democracy.

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Happy Valley Now the Heart of Darkness

A firestorm has engulfed what was once a great university — and in the process it has destroyed the reputation of a great coach.

It’s been less than a week since we learned that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with either sexually abusing or raping eight boys over a 15-year time period. In addition, Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business, were charged with perjury and failing to report to authorities what they knew about the allegations. And last night, the Board of Trustees fired Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, and Joe Paterno, the legendary coach of the Nittany Lions.

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A firestorm has engulfed what was once a great university — and in the process it has destroyed the reputation of a great coach.

It’s been less than a week since we learned that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with either sexually abusing or raping eight boys over a 15-year time period. In addition, Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business, were charged with perjury and failing to report to authorities what they knew about the allegations. And last night, the Board of Trustees fired Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, and Joe Paterno, the legendary coach of the Nittany Lions.

The firing of Paterno, who has more victories than any coach in major college football history, has caused outrage among students at Penn State.

For those whose sympathies fall mostly with Paterno, I would simply say to them: Read this. It is a sickening, 23-page Grand Jury report which documents, in clinically gruesome detail, the wicked acts of Sandusky, as well as the extraordinary irresponsibility of top officials at Penn State, including “Joe Pa.” It will transform one’s initial sense of deep sadness to one of burning rage.

The Grand Jury report shows Sandusky to be a man of depravity and malevolence. It is best that we do not delve into the fate he deserves.

As for Penn State: if the Grand Jury report is accurate, it is an institution whose leadership was utterly corrupt. Person after person knew what a monster Sandusky is, the terrible crimes he committed, and yet nothing was ever done to stop him. As a result, he stole the innocence and broke the lives of young children.

There is more. As Tom Boswell of the Washington Post points out in a profoundly insightful column, in 1998, university police did an extensive investigation of accusations against Sandusky, then Penn State’s defensive coordinator, involving his showering with children; two separate incidents, both with 11-year-olds. The mother of one child and a university policeman have testified that, when confronted by the mother, Sandusky said: “I understand I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.” Yet the case was eventually closed. As a result, Sandusky continued his reign of terror.

Why did so many people – including Paterno, a man who by all accounts has lived an honorable life – not intervene? No one was required to do heroic acts; all that was needed were individuals who understood their most basic moral (and legal) duties. And yet everyone involved failed the test. It’s impossible to know with certainty why they did; each individual case was undoubtedly influenced by different factors. But one cannot help but believe that the actors in this tragedy did not want to rock the boat. Football is iconic at Penn State; perhaps they thought they were protecting the institution many of them had come to love. Instead, they have brought to it disgrace. It’s not the first time people who thought they were defending a noble institution ended up dishonoring it.

For years, Penn State was referred to as Happy Valley. It turns out to have been the heart of darkness.

 

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Obama Punts Pipeline Decision to 2013

Environmental activists are claiming victory, but they shouldn’t crack out the champagne yet. Based on the timing and thin reasoning, President Obama clearly seems to have based this decision on election strategy as opposed to environmental interests. Now he can wink at the unions while telling the environmentalists that he hears their concerns, and keep both sides hanging on until after the presidential election.

That’s 20,000 jobs down the drain:

For months, the conventional wisdom had been that a presidential permit for Keystone XL was inevitable; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in October 2010 that she was “inclined” to approve it because it was better to get oil from Canada than from less-friendly nations. The State Department then released a final supplemental environmental assessment in August stating that TransCanada’s proposed route is the preferred option.

But the environmentalist protests led by 350.org activist Bill McKibben, as well as opposition in Republican-friendly Nebraska to the proposed route, seem to have led the administration to delay the decision.

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Environmental activists are claiming victory, but they shouldn’t crack out the champagne yet. Based on the timing and thin reasoning, President Obama clearly seems to have based this decision on election strategy as opposed to environmental interests. Now he can wink at the unions while telling the environmentalists that he hears their concerns, and keep both sides hanging on until after the presidential election.

That’s 20,000 jobs down the drain:

For months, the conventional wisdom had been that a presidential permit for Keystone XL was inevitable; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in October 2010 that she was “inclined” to approve it because it was better to get oil from Canada than from less-friendly nations. The State Department then released a final supplemental environmental assessment in August stating that TransCanada’s proposed route is the preferred option.

But the environmentalist protests led by 350.org activist Bill McKibben, as well as opposition in Republican-friendly Nebraska to the proposed route, seem to have led the administration to delay the decision.

The State Department already came to a decision on the issue, and opening up a re-review is simply a way to buy time. Politically, it will keep Obama’s base in line, and prevent more embarrassing “green” protests outside the White House. But it also opens the president up to attacks over his seriousness on job creation and his leadership ability. The pipeline extension has already been held in limbo for three years, which is more than enough time for the administration to make a decision. Speaker John Boehner took Obama to task on the delay in a statement this afternoon:

“More than 20,000 new American jobs have just been sacrificed in the name of political expediency. By punting on this project, the president has made clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions – at the expense of American jobs. The current project has already been deemed environmentally sound, and calling for a new route is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt to avoid upsetting the president’s political base before the election. It’s a failure of leadership.”

Obama’s decision is a signal that his campaign is more concerned about holding together his base at this point than with reaching out to independent voters. And the sharp contrast between the White House and Republicans on Keystone XL will undoubtedly be highlighted by the GOP candidates.

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Debt Crisis: From Greece to Italy

The markets yesterday panicked regarding the prospect that, now that the Greek debt crisis has eased slightly, we might be heading for an Italian crisis. The Dow was down 3.9 percent, following Asian and European markets, while interest rates on the 10-year Italian bond went over 7.25 percent. That’s not in Greek territory yet (Greek 10-year bonds were recently paying over 28 percent), but it is more than three times what Germany pays to borrow money.

Italy has basically the same problems Greece has. Its government has spent more than it has taken in for years, borrowed the difference, and cooked the books to hide the truth. Meanwhile, as in Greece, tax evasion is a national sport.

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The markets yesterday panicked regarding the prospect that, now that the Greek debt crisis has eased slightly, we might be heading for an Italian crisis. The Dow was down 3.9 percent, following Asian and European markets, while interest rates on the 10-year Italian bond went over 7.25 percent. That’s not in Greek territory yet (Greek 10-year bonds were recently paying over 28 percent), but it is more than three times what Germany pays to borrow money.

Italy has basically the same problems Greece has. Its government has spent more than it has taken in for years, borrowed the difference, and cooked the books to hide the truth. Meanwhile, as in Greece, tax evasion is a national sport.

Both Greece and Italy have debt-to-GDP ratios over 115 percent. Only Japan, among first-world countries, has a higher ratio. But Greece has a GDP of $305 billion. Italy’s GDP, at $2.055 trillion, is almost seven times as large. Indeed, it’s the 8th largest economy in the world, larger than the GDP of Canada, Brazil, or India. Germany doesn’t have the ability (let alone the inclination) to bail out Italy. Neither do the IMF or the European Central Bank. The alternative is for Italy to drop out of the Euro, reestablish the lira, effectively devaluing it in the process. If that happens, the Euro is unlikely to survive.

The panic eased a bit today, with Italian yields down a little and the Dow up by .96 percent. But I’m afraid we are in for some exciting—perhaps scary—times before this is resolved and markets move on.  As I wrote the other day, the global hangover from the debt binge of recent decades is going to be painful.

As Lord Byron wrote in Don Juan, “Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda water the day after.” Welcome to the day after.

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Carter 2.0 Proposal Won’t Moderate Iran

Reza Marashi, a former intern and then employee at the State Department (alas, not with the title he has since assumed, according to his former State Department colleagues) writes an op-ed in the New York Times today in which he says:

During my tenure at the State Department, we tried twice to push the idea of sending U.S. diplomats to Tehran. Both the Bush and Obama administrations decided against it.

Actually, the Iranians vetoed the proposal. In October 2008, Interior Minister Ali Kordan said he will “never issue authorization for opening of a U.S. interest section in Iran.” Only at the National Iranian American Council and at the New York Times would partisanship reach such a level as to reverse blame for the failure of that proposal.  Will The Grey Lady issue a correction? Don’t hold your breath.

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Reza Marashi, a former intern and then employee at the State Department (alas, not with the title he has since assumed, according to his former State Department colleagues) writes an op-ed in the New York Times today in which he says:

During my tenure at the State Department, we tried twice to push the idea of sending U.S. diplomats to Tehran. Both the Bush and Obama administrations decided against it.

Actually, the Iranians vetoed the proposal. In October 2008, Interior Minister Ali Kordan said he will “never issue authorization for opening of a U.S. interest section in Iran.” Only at the National Iranian American Council and at the New York Times would partisanship reach such a level as to reverse blame for the failure of that proposal.  Will The Grey Lady issue a correction? Don’t hold your breath.

Marashi also writes:

With the Iranian government operating an Interest Section in Washington, it would almost certainly have to reciprocate an American request to establish a similar diplomatic presence in Tehran — lest Iran’s leaders risk appearing even more obstinate. They do care about their international image, if only to avoid greater global consensus against them.

Let’s remember that the Carter administration kept the Iranian embassy in Washington open for about five months after the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy. That didn’t moderate Iran because, quite frankly, the Iranians bask in their revolutionary image; they are not embarrassed by it. As they say, if we don’t remember history, we are bound to repeat it.

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Romney: If You Want Peace With Iran, Prepare for War

In preparation for the Republican foreign policy debate later this month, Mitt Romney has been highlighting his plans for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On Tuesday he released an outline of his strategy, and he goes into more detail in a Wall Street Journal column today:

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

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In preparation for the Republican foreign policy debate later this month, Mitt Romney has been highlighting his plans for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On Tuesday he released an outline of his strategy, and he goes into more detail in a Wall Street Journal column today:

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Romney doesn’t pull any punches against Obama, blasting him for inaction on the Iranian bomb plot, the initial attempts at diplomacy, and the failure of sanctions. “Barack Obama has shredded his own credibility on Iran, conveyed an image of American weakness, and increased the prospect of a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the unstable Middle East,” he writes.

Romney’s positions on Iran are likely to resonate with voters. Americans support military action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, 50 percent to 44 percent, according to an Anti-Defamation League poll released today.

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After 20 Years of Failure, Dennis Ross Throws in the Towel

The departure of Dennis Ross removes one of the most experienced foreign policy hands and Middle East specialists from the ranks of the Obama administration. There will be those who will lament the fact that with Ross gone there will be no high-ranking figure in the State Department with his understanding of the issues and background on the conflict and conclude that Foggy Bottom will be the poorer for his absence. But they will be wrong.

Though Ross’ intentions may have been as pure as the driven snow, his was a unique record of failure. From his start as one of James Baker’s little helpers during his campaign of pressure on Israel in the administration of the elder George Bush, through his final days as one of the architects of Barack Obama’s attempted ambush of Benjamin Netanyahu last May, Ross’ career must be seen as inextricably tied to a peace process that promised much but delivered little but sorrow. After so many mistakes and missteps, the surprise is not so much that Ross is leaving the government but why a person linked to so many foreign policy disasters was allowed to hang around the corridors of power so long.

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The departure of Dennis Ross removes one of the most experienced foreign policy hands and Middle East specialists from the ranks of the Obama administration. There will be those who will lament the fact that with Ross gone there will be no high-ranking figure in the State Department with his understanding of the issues and background on the conflict and conclude that Foggy Bottom will be the poorer for his absence. But they will be wrong.

Though Ross’ intentions may have been as pure as the driven snow, his was a unique record of failure. From his start as one of James Baker’s little helpers during his campaign of pressure on Israel in the administration of the elder George Bush, through his final days as one of the architects of Barack Obama’s attempted ambush of Benjamin Netanyahu last May, Ross’ career must be seen as inextricably tied to a peace process that promised much but delivered little but sorrow. After so many mistakes and missteps, the surprise is not so much that Ross is leaving the government but why a person linked to so many foreign policy disasters was allowed to hang around the corridors of power so long.

Though Ross was only a minor player in the drive by Baker to hammer the Jewish state into concessions, he hit his stride during the Clinton administration as Washington’s chief apologist for Oslo. Though he was not involved in the negotiations that created that blueprint, he spent much of the decade whitewashing Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority’s backtracking on terror and incitement in order to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Palestinians. As he later acknowledged, that was a crucial mistake, because it fed the false hopes that attached to Oslo and helped set up the bloody denouement of the second intifada.

Ross took a break from diplomacy after Clinton left office and was highly critical of George W. Bush’s decision to cut off relations with Yasir Arafat because of his involvement with terror and corruption.

After vouching for Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides to Jewish audiences during the 2008 election, Ross was rewarded with a job in his administration. Though many assumed him to be Israel’s best friend inside the current State Department, Ross deserves as much blame as anyone there for Obama’s decision to distance the U.S. from the Jewish state. This has resulted in Washington picking unnecessary and destructive fights with the Netanyahu government that did nothing to advance peace and encouraged the Palestinians to ditch the process altogether.

He was also given responsibility for directing America’s efforts to restrain and isolate Iran in the last two years following the embarrassing collapse of Obama’s attempt to “engage” Iran. There are those who wish to give Ross credit for heightening Iran’s isolation during this time. But even if we acknowledge the limited success of that campaign, it must be judged to have been totally inadequate to the challenge. The sum total of the U.S. effort was a package of weak sanctions that have done nothing to stop the Iranian nuclear program. As we have just seen, the accompanying push to appease Russia in a vain attempt to get them to back strong sanctions has backfired, with Moscow serving as Iran’s diplomatic protector.

During the 20 years of Ross-style peace processing, Israel was pushed to offer land for peace, but when it did so, all it got in return was terror and increasing isolation. Ross’ lengthy career is a tribute to the persistence of a failed concept that continues to do damage. Though it is not likely Obama will replace Ross with anyone better, it is also true that in terms of the results of his strategies, he couldn’t do much worse.

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With Russia’s Diplomatic Protection, Iran Feels Invulnerable

If there was already a growing consensus that most of the international community was prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, the publication of a new report this week from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailing Tehran’s progress toward a military application of nuclear power has done nothing to overturn it. Though the IAEA report has made it a bit more difficult for Iran apologists to argue that their pursuit of nukes is entirely peaceful, the prospects for multilateral action on the issue are perhaps even less likely than before.

Far from shaming Russia and China into backing off their opposition to serious sanctions on Iran, let alone the use of force, the report appears to have redoubled Moscow’s determination to thwart American policy on the issue. The Putin regime’s public rebuke of the report and U.S. efforts to use it to ramp up support for more sanctions has in effect pre-empted any diplomatic solution to the world’s Iranian nuclear dilemma. Iran’s truculent response to the IAEA report is more than just the usual bravado from the ayatollahs. Though the Obama administration has stated that it is determined to pursue tougher sanctions, the Iranians are laughing at this vow because they know that Russia’s backing gives them blanket immunity from any UN resolution.

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If there was already a growing consensus that most of the international community was prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, the publication of a new report this week from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailing Tehran’s progress toward a military application of nuclear power has done nothing to overturn it. Though the IAEA report has made it a bit more difficult for Iran apologists to argue that their pursuit of nukes is entirely peaceful, the prospects for multilateral action on the issue are perhaps even less likely than before.

Far from shaming Russia and China into backing off their opposition to serious sanctions on Iran, let alone the use of force, the report appears to have redoubled Moscow’s determination to thwart American policy on the issue. The Putin regime’s public rebuke of the report and U.S. efforts to use it to ramp up support for more sanctions has in effect pre-empted any diplomatic solution to the world’s Iranian nuclear dilemma. Iran’s truculent response to the IAEA report is more than just the usual bravado from the ayatollahs. Though the Obama administration has stated that it is determined to pursue tougher sanctions, the Iranians are laughing at this vow because they know that Russia’s backing gives them blanket immunity from any UN resolution.

The Russians had indicated prior to the report’s release that they would oppose any further sanctions on Iran but their dismissal of the substantive IAEA report and blunt refusal to revisit the question of sanctions has left President Obama with few options. Obama worked hard to please Russia on a number of issues including the placement of anti-missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland in order to gain their support on Iran. But, as is generally the case with appeasement, it failed. Russia has as much to fear from a nuclear Iran as anyone else, but Putin seems to think that the consequences of a successful U.S.-led sanctions effort that would bring Iran to its knees would be a greater blow to his desire to reassert Moscow’s influence than anything Iran could do.

Though we are continuing to hear noises out of Washington about a diplomatic campaign aimed at mobilizing international support for getting tough with Iran, the failure of such an effort is now a foregone conclusion. Since it is doubtful that anyone in Tehran agrees with Jeffrey Goldberg that Obama is likely to launch a military strike on Iran either with or without Israeli participation, one can only conclude that the ayatollahs now think their path to a bomb and regional hegemony is clearer than ever.

The consequences of this turn of events are serious for all concerned.

Rather than making war over Iran less likely, the Russian stonewall on sanctions has actually increased the chances of violence. That’s not just because Putin appears to have left both Obama and Israel little choice in the matter. The danger comes not only from the still remote possibility of either an American or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear targets. Russia’s move may also cause the Iranians to overestimate their strength. Though most observers dismiss Iran’s threats against the U.S., Israel and the West as just empty talk, wars are more often caused by a nation’s miscalculations about its strength than anything else. With terrorist proxies in place on both the Jewish state’s northern and southern borders, Iran may think it not only has the power to deter a pre-emptive strike from the Jewish state but feel emboldened to incite violence on its own in order to distract the Israelis.

But even if rationality on this point prevails in Tehran, the stage is now set for Iran to proceed unhindered to nuclear status. If, as now seems inevitable, the IAEA report is the prelude to diplomatic paralysis rather than international action on Iran, we may be moving forward to the next stage of the crisis in which the ayatollah’s belief in Obama’s weakness will be put to the test.

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Why You Should Always Read the Fine Print

The Republican members of Congress frantically struggling to get released from Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge should save themselves the effort. Not only is it a fruitless battle, it only plays into the narrative that Norquist is some kind of puppet-master orchestrating the supercommittee gridlock:

The sheet of paper they signed years ago, the lawmakers say, is no longer valid.

“My driver’s license expires. The milk in my refrigerator expires. My gym membership expires, and I find the website to be a little deceptive,” LaTourette said.

Norquist immediately dismissed the claim, which was echoed by several other House Republicans.

“Does that even pass the laugh test?” Norquist told The Hill. “A promise not to do something doesn’t have a time limit.”

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The Republican members of Congress frantically struggling to get released from Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge should save themselves the effort. Not only is it a fruitless battle, it only plays into the narrative that Norquist is some kind of puppet-master orchestrating the supercommittee gridlock:

The sheet of paper they signed years ago, the lawmakers say, is no longer valid.

“My driver’s license expires. The milk in my refrigerator expires. My gym membership expires, and I find the website to be a little deceptive,” LaTourette said.

Norquist immediately dismissed the claim, which was echoed by several other House Republicans.

“Does that even pass the laugh test?” Norquist told The Hill. “A promise not to do something doesn’t have a time limit.”

It’s hard to feel sorry for these lawmakers. As far back as 1997, Americans for Tax Reform made it clear that the anti-tax pledge doesn’t expire:

Do I have to take the pledge every time I run for office?

No. A candidate only needs to take the pledge once. Candidates are always welcome to take the pledge each election cycle and show their continued support of taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the pledge hasn’t had the best track record over the years, at least in terms of deficit spending. There’s an argument to be made that the hard line on taxes has shielded Americans from feeling the strain of the out-of-control federal spending, giving them less personal incentive to oppose new programs. Conor Friedersdorf made this point well in a takedown of the pledge at The Atlantic over the summer:

What Norquist doesn’t understand or won’t admit is that deficit spending is worse than a tax increase, because you’ve got to pay for it eventually anyway, with interest. Meanwhile, you’ve created in the public mind the illusion that the level of government services they’re consuming is cheaper and less burdensome than is in fact the case. If you hold the line on taxes but not the deficit, you’re making big government more palatable.

So lawmakers may be stuck, but that doesn’t mean they have to honor the agreement. They can always break it and risk the consequences. And even if those who do object to tax increases have plenty of reasons to do so beyond Norquist’s pledge. But simply complaining after the fact that they didn’t know it was permanent is useless.

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Bleg: An Introduction to SF

In the middle of my journey through this literary life, I decided without warning or good reason to begin reading science fiction. What’s worse, I decided to write about my adventures, heedless of ridicule (even if I draw a long embarrassing blank and have to chirp “Oops!” publicly). The multiple universes of science fiction are vast and expanding. Only now am I beginning my explorations. Finding the best and most authoritative criticism is easy, but knowing what novels to choose is harder.

And so a bleg to readers of Literary Commentary. If you were compiling a reading list for an introductory survey course in SF, what would you include? In his address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention (reprinted in The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow), Cory Doctorow said that “Science fiction had its heyday as short stories in the 1930s and 1940s — the pulp days, when the magazines were paying one to two cents a word.” I’m looking for the most essential works of SF since then, I mean; since its heyday.

As part of its “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read” series two years ago, the Guardian strung together a back-breakingly unselective three-part list of over a hundred books, and then, for good measure, tacked on twelve more titles they’d “missed” on the first go ’round. Their list included everything from familiar masterpieces (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) to 18th-century Gothics, 19th-century ghost stories, 20th-century political dystopias, and “genre-bending” exercises by “literary” literati like Paul Auster and Michael Chabon. The list wasn’t very helpful: if Toni Morrison’s Beloved is science fiction then nothing is.

A decade ago, Martin Wisse drew up some “Notes toward a Literary Canon of Science Fiction.” Wisse proposed four criteria:

(1.) Popularity.
(2.) Longevity (by which he meant whether a book had stood the famous test of time).
(3.) Critical success.
(4.) Influence.

Fantasy is intentionally excluded from this canon. For our purposes, SF may be provisionally defined (as I quoted Andrew Fox the other day) as “extrapolations of theoretically possible developments in technology, the sciences, or society”; or as the great Robert A. Heinlein defined it: “[R]ealistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

My own first nominations might include these. (Readers’ recommendations are in red.)

• Brian W. Aldiss, Non-Stop (1958).
• —————, Greybeard (1964).
Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951).
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950).
• Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953).
—————, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
—————, Rendezvous with Rama (1972).
• Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 (1966).
• Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962).
• —————, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).
• —————, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
• Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration (1968).
• Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971).
• William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984).
• Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974).
• Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
• —————, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965). [Fails test of “theoretical possibility” — Amateur Reader]
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980).
• Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Stanisław Lem, Solaris [Polish, 1962], trans. (from a French translation) Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (1970).
—————, The Cyberiad [Polish, 1965], trans. Michael Kandel (1974).
• Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960).
• Larry Niven, Ringworld (1970).
• ————— and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye (1974).
Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953).
• Robert Silverberg, The Book of Skulls (1973).
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992).
Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun, 4 vols. (1980–1983).
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (1967).

What else?

In the middle of my journey through this literary life, I decided without warning or good reason to begin reading science fiction. What’s worse, I decided to write about my adventures, heedless of ridicule (even if I draw a long embarrassing blank and have to chirp “Oops!” publicly). The multiple universes of science fiction are vast and expanding. Only now am I beginning my explorations. Finding the best and most authoritative criticism is easy, but knowing what novels to choose is harder.

And so a bleg to readers of Literary Commentary. If you were compiling a reading list for an introductory survey course in SF, what would you include? In his address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention (reprinted in The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow), Cory Doctorow said that “Science fiction had its heyday as short stories in the 1930s and 1940s — the pulp days, when the magazines were paying one to two cents a word.” I’m looking for the most essential works of SF since then, I mean; since its heyday.

As part of its “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read” series two years ago, the Guardian strung together a back-breakingly unselective three-part list of over a hundred books, and then, for good measure, tacked on twelve more titles they’d “missed” on the first go ’round. Their list included everything from familiar masterpieces (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) to 18th-century Gothics, 19th-century ghost stories, 20th-century political dystopias, and “genre-bending” exercises by “literary” literati like Paul Auster and Michael Chabon. The list wasn’t very helpful: if Toni Morrison’s Beloved is science fiction then nothing is.

A decade ago, Martin Wisse drew up some “Notes toward a Literary Canon of Science Fiction.” Wisse proposed four criteria:

(1.) Popularity.
(2.) Longevity (by which he meant whether a book had stood the famous test of time).
(3.) Critical success.
(4.) Influence.

Fantasy is intentionally excluded from this canon. For our purposes, SF may be provisionally defined (as I quoted Andrew Fox the other day) as “extrapolations of theoretically possible developments in technology, the sciences, or society”; or as the great Robert A. Heinlein defined it: “[R]ealistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

My own first nominations might include these. (Readers’ recommendations are in red.)

• Brian W. Aldiss, Non-Stop (1958).
• —————, Greybeard (1964).
Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951).
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950).
• Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953).
—————, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
—————, Rendezvous with Rama (1972).
• Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 (1966).
• Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962).
• —————, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).
• —————, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
• Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration (1968).
• Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971).
• William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984).
• Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974).
• Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
• —————, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965). [Fails test of “theoretical possibility” — Amateur Reader]
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980).
• Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Stanisław Lem, Solaris [Polish, 1962], trans. (from a French translation) Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (1970).
—————, The Cyberiad [Polish, 1965], trans. Michael Kandel (1974).
• Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960).
• Larry Niven, Ringworld (1970).
• ————— and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye (1974).
Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953).
• Robert Silverberg, The Book of Skulls (1973).
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992).
Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun, 4 vols. (1980–1983).
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (1967).

What else?

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Perry’s Brain Freeze

It happens to all of us: your train of thought suddenly evaporates, a name or a word just won’t bubble up to consciousness when you need it. A singer forgot the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” before a ball game last summer. Most of us just laugh it off and dismiss it as a “senior moment.”

But presidential candidates are held to different standards. Under intense scrutiny, their every word is weighed, their every reaction judged, their every gaffe endlessly discussed both in the media and in the court of public opinion. That’s why I always find it so irritating when someone calls a president stupid, as liberals invariably do when the president is a Republican (except Nixon: he wasn’t stupid, he was evil). No one remotely stupid could possibly survive the endless gauntlet of a presidential campaign, with thousands of reporters, photographers, and cameramen praying for them to commit a major gaffe, and laying traps to help them do so (such as asking who the prime minister of some obscure country is).

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It happens to all of us: your train of thought suddenly evaporates, a name or a word just won’t bubble up to consciousness when you need it. A singer forgot the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” before a ball game last summer. Most of us just laugh it off and dismiss it as a “senior moment.”

But presidential candidates are held to different standards. Under intense scrutiny, their every word is weighed, their every reaction judged, their every gaffe endlessly discussed both in the media and in the court of public opinion. That’s why I always find it so irritating when someone calls a president stupid, as liberals invariably do when the president is a Republican (except Nixon: he wasn’t stupid, he was evil). No one remotely stupid could possibly survive the endless gauntlet of a presidential campaign, with thousands of reporters, photographers, and cameramen praying for them to commit a major gaffe, and laying traps to help them do so (such as asking who the prime minister of some obscure country is).

Sometimes a candidate or a president can turn the mistake to their advantage. George W. Bush did exactly that with his occasional malapropisms. So did Fiorello H. LaGuardia with his famous confession that “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!” But sometimes a gaffe that really doesn’t seem all that important–and Perry’s memory lapse was hardly more than a slip of the tongue after all–can be almost instantly fatal, at least politically.

As he watched Perry squirm last night, I wonder if Mitt Romney was thinking of his father, George, who was a major contender for the 1968 Republican nomination until he admitted to having been “brainwashed” about Vietnam. In the blink of an eye, he was political toast. (Helping him over the cliff, of course, was Senator Eugene McCarthy, running for the Democratic nomination and known for his wit, who said he didn’t see why Romney needed to be brainwashed, “a light rinse would have done it.”)

The next few days will reveal whether this is a one-day story among the chattering classes or the effective end of the Perry campaign. That campaign has been going badly, so perhaps this relatively minor incident will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Or perhaps it will be forgotten.

 

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McCain Fights Looming Defense Cuts

The latest stream of reporting on the congressional “supercommittee” paints the picture of a bipartisan team simultaneously on the verge of major progress and total collapse. “They’re right at the edge of a cliff,” Republican Senator Lamar Alexander told the Wall Street Journal. “They can either ascend the mountain or fall off the cliff. We want them to ascend the mountain.”

The supercommittee was a way for the two parties to buy more time to reach a longer-term solution to the recurring debt ceiling impasse. But the committee’s mandate included a Thanksgiving deadline which, if reached without a deal, would trigger $600 billion in cuts to defense spending. Republicans have come up with two interesting ways to avoid those cuts this week:

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The latest stream of reporting on the congressional “supercommittee” paints the picture of a bipartisan team simultaneously on the verge of major progress and total collapse. “They’re right at the edge of a cliff,” Republican Senator Lamar Alexander told the Wall Street Journal. “They can either ascend the mountain or fall off the cliff. We want them to ascend the mountain.”

The supercommittee was a way for the two parties to buy more time to reach a longer-term solution to the recurring debt ceiling impasse. But the committee’s mandate included a Thanksgiving deadline which, if reached without a deal, would trigger $600 billion in cuts to defense spending. Republicans have come up with two interesting ways to avoid those cuts this week:

File this under cynical genius…. Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department’s comptroller and chief financial officer from 2001 to 2004 under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told The Cable today that the trigger is so drastic and unpalatable that those who are trying to protect the defense budget should actually welcome it, because Congress and the administration would surely find a way around it.

It’s true that such drastic cuts to defense spending would be a bit of a risk both for Congress and the president heading into an election year. But that doesn’t mean everyone is convinced they won’t be enforced if the clock runs out on a deal.

So John McCain and Lindsey Graham have proposed another way around it: legislate, retroactively, the supercommittee out of existence:

McCain said he would introduce and support a law to undo the Budget Control Act of 2011, which codified the deal to raise the debt ceiling.

“We’ll do everything we can to prevent [the trigger] being implemented,” McCain said. “You can’t bind future Congresses.”

As Josh Rogin notes in that second article, the trigger mechanism, which would also cut an equivalent amount in entitlement spending, was supposed to have this effect on members of Congress–but only so they would be forced to make a deal. The comments by both McCain and Zakheim suggest it may have been too clever by half; the cuts are so steep that Senate leaders are preparing to go one step beyond making a deal and nullifying the whole program.

This will be music to President Obama’s ears as well, since he would get to paint Republicans as both intransigent and unwilling to abide by its own mandates while not having to endure the criticism that would surely accompany such steep defense spending reductions. For the first time in decades a Democratic presidential administration has real credibility on national defense, thanks to the successful program of targeted assassinations Obama has instituted. It is doubtful the president wants to risk giving up any ground to his Republican opponent in next year’s election.

That means the creation of the supercommittee, which was intended to kick the can six months down the road, may just result in… the can getting kicked farther down the road.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Peter Wehner

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?

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In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.

I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.

It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.

It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America. 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?

_____________

In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.

I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.

It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.

It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America.

This does not mean that success is preordained or that optimism is always warranted. And we shouldn’t for a moment downplay the challenges we face, which include reforming public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and insanely out of touch with the needs of our time. This has impeded economic growth, impaired the creation of human capital, and put us on the path toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a scale that right now seems nearly impossible to achieve.

It’s not. The necessary first step toward reform and renewal is a massive ballot-box repudiation of President Obama, his progressive agenda, and those who have supported it. That needs to be followed by the emergence of political leaders with concrete plans to replace the liberal welfare state and who possess the skill to rally the public to their cause. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

This is no easy task. Fundamental reforms, especially when it comes to entitlement programs, will require (carefully) changing settled ways and settled assumptions. On top of that, right now Americans are anxious, unnerved, and unusually pessimistic. A recession and a failed presidency will do that to a nation. But we also continue to possess enormous strengths, economic as well as military, and great resiliency. We can take some comfort in the fact that at every important moment in American history—our founding, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, the civil-rights struggle, the wreckage of the Carter years—America has produced political leaders who were up to the challenge. I’m betting it shall again.

_____________

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a managing director of e21.

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The Life of the Mind at Penn State

Reports of Joe Paterno’s lightning-quick fall from grace this week are dominating today’s news. Dramatic, and perhaps telling of the realities of big-time
college sports, it doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the modern American university writ large.

The response of Penn State students to the firing, however, speaks far louder.

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Reports of Joe Paterno’s lightning-quick fall from grace this week are dominating today’s news. Dramatic, and perhaps telling of the realities of big-time
college sports, it doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the modern American university writ large.

The response of Penn State students to the firing, however, speaks far louder.

In what has been described as a “riot” by numerous news sources, hundreds of students took to Beaver Avenue in State College last night to vent their grievance at the decision of the university’s board of trustees to fire the famous and long-tenured football coach. Most famously to this point, a group collectively vandalized and then flipped the van of a television crew on site to report on the events. More infamously, a reporter was hit by a thrown rock.

To see this as a sign of student anger largely misses the point. It seems clear from the many photographed smiles of students on Beaver Avenue that anger was not their governing principle. Joy at the prospect of unstoppable group violence seems to have been a far stronger motivating factor.

A riot of this kind at a major American university, where a large group of students gather to destroy things, preferably something large, is not very unusual. Indeed, breaking things in celebration of your school’s attainment of a national championship in the top league for either basketball or football seems to be taken as a rite of passage by a large percentage of students, as this fellow from a picture taken during riots following the University of Connecticut’s victory in the 2004 men’s basketball national championship seemed to believe. They generally don’t appear to be the kinds of riots that are dangerous to anything living, but celebrations of violence and destruction for its own sake they certainly are.

In that sense, the events last night at Penn State are probably best seen as less-serious than the riots that gripped London this past summer. Far more violent, widespread, and frightening, two girls who participated famously explained to the BBC that those events were “all in good fun.”

Something has happened in the West in the last generation that has cracked widespread taboos on partaking in a bit of violence for its own sake. All that seems to be required is an excuse sufficiently grand to collect the requisite number of people into the street to put the participants beyond police control. Then fun can be had by all.

American universities have gradually become places where the fun of violence is taken for granted by large sections of their student populations. No doubt this has at least something to do with the youth of the student body. But it would be remiss not to also acknowledge that there is something in university culture itself that does not seem able to convey to enough of its students that this kind of activity  is simply beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.

It’s worth considering when academics tout the sanctity of intellectual life on campus. For many, if not most of their students, thinking is precisely what college is not about.

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“Princess Nancy” – Was it Sexist?

Herman Cain lucked out during last night’s debate, after his remark about “Princess Nancy” was overshadowed by Rick Perry’s blockbuster implosion. But Cain’s nickname for Nancy Pelosi is getting some press this morning, and some see traces of sexism in it:

Then he said it: “Princess Nancy,” a comment directed at former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not “Queen Nancy.” But “Princess Nancy.”

There’s something about the dismissiveness of it that seemed to strike women the wrong way. Consider the instant Twitter reaction of Dana Perino, the former spokeswoman for George W. Bush and a conservative in good standing: “Ay yi yi, former Speaker Pelosi called a princess in the debate? Not fair. We may disagree on policy, but she earned the Speaker title.”

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Herman Cain lucked out during last night’s debate, after his remark about “Princess Nancy” was overshadowed by Rick Perry’s blockbuster implosion. But Cain’s nickname for Nancy Pelosi is getting some press this morning, and some see traces of sexism in it:

Then he said it: “Princess Nancy,” a comment directed at former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not “Queen Nancy.” But “Princess Nancy.”

There’s something about the dismissiveness of it that seemed to strike women the wrong way. Consider the instant Twitter reaction of Dana Perino, the former spokeswoman for George W. Bush and a conservative in good standing: “Ay yi yi, former Speaker Pelosi called a princess in the debate? Not fair. We may disagree on policy, but she earned the Speaker title.”

This was a sloppy move on Cain’s part. Any Republican who called Pelosi “princess” would have immediately been blasted as a sexist, and that’s the last thing Cain needs right now with the ongoing sexual harassment controversy.

As for the actual nickname, calling the former Speaker of the House a “princess” might be nasty and in poor taste, but saying it’s sexist is an overreaction. This is exactly the type of insult that will get eaten up by Cain’s support base, and probably says more about his opinion of Pelosi than about his opinion on women in general. Considering the current allegations against Cain, he was probably smart to apologize immediately after the debate. But it makes you wonder whether he’s fully aware of how serious the charges against him are if he felt this was an appropriate thing to say at the moment.

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To Stop Iran, Lean on China?

As the Obama administration seeks to pressure Iran without undertaking any measures which might disrupt the international oil market, antagonize European commercial interests, or disrupt diplomacy, the latest idea is to work through Beijing to pressure Tehran. Ilan Berman outlined this option well in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

The problem is that the idea of leveraging China against Iran is not new, not fresh, and has been tried before without success. During the latter half of the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides actively sought to work through China, which has economic leverage in Iran, to affect Iranian behavior. It did not work. Dennis Ross, President Obama’s point man on the issue, embraced the same idea as his own and has tried to implement it over the past three years, again without success. Certainly, we can keep trying to encourage China to use its leverage against Iran, but we’re grasping at straws if we make a tired, ineffective strategy our next great hope.

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As the Obama administration seeks to pressure Iran without undertaking any measures which might disrupt the international oil market, antagonize European commercial interests, or disrupt diplomacy, the latest idea is to work through Beijing to pressure Tehran. Ilan Berman outlined this option well in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

The problem is that the idea of leveraging China against Iran is not new, not fresh, and has been tried before without success. During the latter half of the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides actively sought to work through China, which has economic leverage in Iran, to affect Iranian behavior. It did not work. Dennis Ross, President Obama’s point man on the issue, embraced the same idea as his own and has tried to implement it over the past three years, again without success. Certainly, we can keep trying to encourage China to use its leverage against Iran, but we’re grasping at straws if we make a tired, ineffective strategy our next great hope.

The Obama administration lacks credibility on Iran among the audience that matters most: the Iranian government. Hossein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps joint staff, yesterday declared that “unprecedented and rare events in the United States are a sign of the global arrogance being on the verge of collapse.”

The problem is that there is no magic diplomatic formula that has yet to be tried. Any comprehensive and coherent strategy will include a diplomatic component, an informational strategy, true biting sanctions, and preparations for a military eventuality that hopefully will never be needed should the Iranian leadership recognize that the costs of pursuing their nuclear ambitions are too high.

The idea that the White House faces a choice between a robust strategy and steady oil prices is nonsense, because it assumes that Iran stays placid and pre-nuclear. The fact of the matter is that if Iran is able to continue its nuclear drive or attain a nuclear weapons capability, the impact on the oil markets could be as great–but longer lasting.

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Romney Remains Fortune’s Favorite

It is said when considering whether to promote an officer, Napoleon always asked whether the man had luck. The French emperor believed luck to be a personal attribute and not just a matter of pure chance. Whether or not he was right, luck seems to be the main reason why Mitt Romney finds himself in a strong position this morning as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney’s record on health care and a host of other issues where he has made compromises over the years is too moderate to please most Republicans. Considering that the party is now more conservative than ever, Romneycare alone should have been enough of a burden to sink his presidential hopes. But as his more conservative rivals have, one by one, had their candidacies exploded by gaffes, poor performances and even poorer judgment, Romney’s path to the nomination appears to have been assured by circumstances that can only be considered a matter of good luck rather than the product of his own virtue or talent. As we watch Herman Cain be crippled by sexual harassment allegations and his reaction to them and Rick Perry’s latest debate “oops,” it’s time to acknowledge that despite his shortcomings, Romney has the luck that Napoleon considered essential to success.

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It is said when considering whether to promote an officer, Napoleon always asked whether the man had luck. The French emperor believed luck to be a personal attribute and not just a matter of pure chance. Whether or not he was right, luck seems to be the main reason why Mitt Romney finds himself in a strong position this morning as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney’s record on health care and a host of other issues where he has made compromises over the years is too moderate to please most Republicans. Considering that the party is now more conservative than ever, Romneycare alone should have been enough of a burden to sink his presidential hopes. But as his more conservative rivals have, one by one, had their candidacies exploded by gaffes, poor performances and even poorer judgment, Romney’s path to the nomination appears to have been assured by circumstances that can only be considered a matter of good luck rather than the product of his own virtue or talent. As we watch Herman Cain be crippled by sexual harassment allegations and his reaction to them and Rick Perry’s latest debate “oops,” it’s time to acknowledge that despite his shortcomings, Romney has the luck that Napoleon considered essential to success.

There are still many conservatives who swear they will never vote for Romney either in the primaries or in the general election. But given the fact that the conservative field is still divided between several non-viable candidates who will continue to make it difficult if not impossible for one to emerge as a true frontrunner, it is likely that his detractors are going to find themselves forced to pick between Romney and Barack Obama. Though Romney’s poll figures remain stuck in the mid-20s, no one else is in position to surpass him.

Up until ten days ago, the most likely candidate to do so had seemed to be Herman Cain, whose charm and likeability canceled out his inability to grasp complex policy questions for many on the right. It may be, as William Kristol said on Fox News the other day, that Cain “was never going to be the nominee,” but his surge in the polls was real even if it was hard to explain. But then came the sexual harassment allegations that have become the biggest story in politics in the last week.

It appears that a majority of conservatives are so suspicious about the media that they refuse to believe what are now multiple accusations. As was evident in last night’s debate, a lot of Republicans believe Cain’s absolute denials. But he has to understand that the allegations are too detailed to be dismissed so easily. Though he had 10 days warning before the original Politico article on the subject was published, Cain still couldn’t keep his story straight. His campaign’s reaction was amateurish and did more to fuel suspicion than to defuse it. Now, his lawyer is threatening any future accusers with harsh scrutiny, a thuggish warning confirmed by the all-out attack being launched against those women who have already stepped forward.

Even if one thinks Cain innocent, as Timothy Carney wrote in the Washington Examiner, Cain lacks prudence. This sort of discourse is unseemly for a future president, not to mention one who aspires to represent conservative values. The more his allies seek to besmirch the women in question, the worse it will get for him and the less likely it will be that he can put this behind him. Though his poll numbers are holding steady for the most part, this issue makes his nomination unthinkable. As he showed again last night, Cain has great talent as a debate performer, but his luck has deserted him.

Rick Perry, Romney’s other major rival, had hoped to parlay improved debate performances and a formidable campaign war chest into a comeback. But last night’s debate disaster has finished him. Had his previous debate performances not already convinced most Republicans that he wasn’t presidential timber, Perry might have survived his extended brain-freeze last night when he couldn’t remember which government agencies he wanted to shut down. But his awful gaffe, which has already become a YouTube sensation, confirms what we already knew about him. He simply isn’t ready for the national stage. No one who is the subject of this much well-earned ridicule can be elected president. Perry might have won the nomination in a year when debates weren’t the focus of the campaign. Put it down to bad luck.

That leaves Romney chugging along gamely defending his record but without a serious challenger. Anyone who thinks a newly resurgent Newt Gingrich can stand up to the scrutiny that would come if he were once again considered a possible president is dreaming. That means Romney is set to win by default even if many—if not most—conservatives still find him hard to like. Perhaps Napoleon was right.

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Give Perry a Break

Yes, Rick Perry seriously hastened the demise of his campaign last night. Yes, it was one of the most uncomfortable TV moments since Tom Cruise assaulted Oprah’s couch, and definitely the worst debate fumble in recent memory. But some commentators have been unfair about the cause of Perry’s gaffe.

“Ultimately, Rick Perry is going to be remembered as the man too stupid to win this Republican nomination,” wrote Jonathan Chait last night.

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Yes, Rick Perry seriously hastened the demise of his campaign last night. Yes, it was one of the most uncomfortable TV moments since Tom Cruise assaulted Oprah’s couch, and definitely the worst debate fumble in recent memory. But some commentators have been unfair about the cause of Perry’s gaffe.

“Ultimately, Rick Perry is going to be remembered as the man too stupid to win this Republican nomination,” wrote Jonathan Chait last night.

Maybe. But stupidity wasn’t responsible for Perry’s blunder. There are more stupid politicians out there than Perry (some may have even shared the stage with him last night) who would have never made his error. The problem was how he handled himself under pressure when his mind went blank. Here’s the transcript, via the Playbook:

RON PAUL, at podium on Perry’s left: “You need five.”

PERRY: “Oh, five, OK. So Commerce, Education, and , uh, the, um, uh, uh …”

RON PAUL: “EPA?”

PERRY: “EPA, there you go.” (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE)

CO-MODERATOR JOHN HARWOOD: “Seriously, is the EPA the one you were talking about?”

PERRY: “No sir, no sir. We were talking about the agencies of government — the EPA needs to be rebuilt. There’s no doubt about that.”

HARWOOD: “But you can’t — but you can’t name the third one?”

PERRY: “The third agency of government I would — I would do away with, the Education, uh, the uh…”

SOMEONE THROWS A LIFELINE: “Commerce.”

PERRY: “Commerce and, let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

A presidential contender forgetting the name of an agency he wants to cut is pretty awful, but momentary memory lapses happen. But as you can see, there were so many escape hatches that other politicians – smoother communicators – would have taken. Perry should have dropped the issue when Paul gave him a chance, moved on, changed the subject and tried to recover. Instead, he stood onstage for almost a full, excruciating minute, fumbling for an answer that never came to him.

If all Perry lacked was substance, he might still be polling in the double digits right now. Look at Herman Cain. Perry’s big problem is that he also lacks style. And in today’s media and political culture, that’s unforgivable.

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Revolutionary Guard Commander Killed in Iraq

Those who have embraced President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq have repeatedly assured us that Iraq is strong enough to stand on its own, and that we need not fear that Iran will fill the vacuum.

While the news seems only to be in Farsi at this point, perhaps they might want to consider this story from Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency. It seems that Hedayat Darvishvand, the commander of a unit of Revolutionary Guards, has been killed in an explosion in Samarra, Iraq. Let’s not worry too much about what an IRGC commander is doing in an area from which the United States has pulled back. Perhaps he was just shopping for candy with which to celebrate the Eid?

Those who have embraced President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq have repeatedly assured us that Iraq is strong enough to stand on its own, and that we need not fear that Iran will fill the vacuum.

While the news seems only to be in Farsi at this point, perhaps they might want to consider this story from Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency. It seems that Hedayat Darvishvand, the commander of a unit of Revolutionary Guards, has been killed in an explosion in Samarra, Iraq. Let’s not worry too much about what an IRGC commander is doing in an area from which the United States has pulled back. Perhaps he was just shopping for candy with which to celebrate the Eid?

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Chief of Staff Retains Title, But That’s All

The Wall Street Journal reported that William Daley, hired 10 months ago as White House chief of staff, would see a shift in his “core responsibilities.” On Monday, Daley turned over day-to-day management of the West Wing to Pete Rouse, a veteran aide to President Obama. “It is unusual for a White House chief of staff to relinquish part of the job,” according to the Journal.

Indeed. But the Obama White House insists it wasn’t much of a change at all. “Bill’s still going to be the sort of global presence there, and I don’t really think a whole lot has changed,” a senior White House advisor told Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post.

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The Wall Street Journal reported that William Daley, hired 10 months ago as White House chief of staff, would see a shift in his “core responsibilities.” On Monday, Daley turned over day-to-day management of the West Wing to Pete Rouse, a veteran aide to President Obama. “It is unusual for a White House chief of staff to relinquish part of the job,” according to the Journal.

Indeed. But the Obama White House insists it wasn’t much of a change at all. “Bill’s still going to be the sort of global presence there, and I don’t really think a whole lot has changed,” a senior White House advisor told Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post.

If so, Dailey was never a genuine chief of staff to begin with.

I have worked in three administrations, including the Bush White House for almost seven years. And while the personalities of chiefs of staff differ markedly – James Baker and Joshua Bolten were very different individuals than Donald Regan and John Sununu – there are certain basic duties that go with the job. The whole point of a chief of staff is to manage the daily affairs of the White House. He rations and allocates the president’s time, hires and fires key personnel, and sets the tone and expectations for the staff.

The chief of staff often is the key figure in terms of deciding which issues are important enough to merit the president’s attention and which are not. He needs to be sure there is an orderly process in place, that decisions are reached on time, and the decisions themselves are followed up on. And he establishes routines that are supposed to make the president’s life both easier and more effective, from staffing process to briefing times to who attends which meeting. Jack Watson, who was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, once said his role was to protect against “damn fool decisions.”

To turn the chief of staff into an “ambassador” to outside groups – which is the role Daley will now play – is to cut him off at the knees, to drain him of his power, respect and influence. Bill Daley retains the title of chief of staff, but that is all.

It seems clear to me Daley is a victim of a wider problem: a dysfunctional White House that is characterized by infighting and palace intrigue (we see that in quotes from unnamed current and former White House aides that heavily criticize Daley). When Obama became president, he had no executive experience, and it shows. “No Drama Obama” has had plenty of drama to contend with during the course of his presidency.

Oh, and one other thing: the power in the White House now clearly rests with Obama’s immediate political circle. They have no interest in governing, which I suppose is understandable, given how inept they are at it. They simply want to re-elect the president – and for this particular president, this means a White House that is hyper-partisan, in constant attack mode. Bill Daley, a former Clinton Cabinet member and a decent human being, is cut from a different cloth. Obama has an election to win, a nation to divide, and (eventually) an opponent to destroy. That is his only path to victory. And so he has decided to turn to the two Davids – Plouffe and Axelrod – to do his dirty work. (In Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote, “Axelrod was a master of the dark arts of negative campaigning. The first major profile of him, 20 years earlier in Chicago Magazine, was titled ‘Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod.’”)

The Politics of Public Slander is the option the president has clearly chosen; in the World According to Obama, Republicans desire dirty air and dirty water; want the elderly, autistic children, and Down Syndrome children to fend for themselves; and always place party above country. Given all that, I suppose one could argue the president has picked the right (hatchet) men.

 

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